Archive for March, 2012

Read It Then See It: Dorothy of Oz

March 30, 2012

I must admit it, I never read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child, though I saw the film many times.  I zipped through this free version on iBooks before reading this sequel.  So I’ll make some mention of the original, but just for full disclosure, I have not read any of the other Oz books, so that’s my prism going in.

The Book
Dorothy of Oz, By Roger S. Baum.  Originally published in 1989.

The Movie
Dorothy of Oz, Summertime Entertainment. Release Date, Aug. 3

Fairy Tale

Age Appropriate
3-8.  There are situations where the heroes are in peril, but not in any way that feels overly scary.  It is a simple story of well-mannered heroes and villains.  The language is actually a little more complex than Frank Baum’s original, so I would say it’s a “read to” book until around 5, where it can start to evolve into a “read with.”  As I’ll note a bit more later, after a 4th grade reading level, the very simple storytelling style might bore somewhat older readers.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not independently.  It’s a fairly well told children’s book, but lacks the nuance and allegory that the best of the children’s books have.  And if you are expecting some of the wry wit from the original Wizard of Oz film, that’s really not present here, either.

Book Availability
Available on iBooks for $2.99.  Widely available in print.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Some years later after returning from her adventures in Oz, Glinda the Good Witch of the North speaks to Dorothy (back in Kansas) through a giant rainbow.  Seems trouble’s a brewin’ once again back in Oz, and her friends the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and the Lion formerly known as Cowardly are in big trouble.  Toto brings Dorothy back the long-lost magic silver slippers, and, woosh, back to Oz they go.

Some new troubles over the rainbow

After helping the Giant Royal Marshmallow of Candy County solve his problems through a form of bizarre cannibalism, Dorothy and Toto make their way to the fabled castle of Gayelette and Quelala.  There a Jester possessed by the evil of the Wicked Witch of the West’s magic wand turns Toto into a porcelain doll, and reveals he has done the same to many in Oz, including her trio of old friends.

Dorothy narrowly escapes a similar fate, but convinces the Jester to release Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, and Lion so they might go and entice Glenda back to the castle to add to his collection.  He agrees, and the four set out on a new adventure, joined by new friends the porcelain princess and the talking boat Tug, to reach Glenda and figure out how to overcome the Jester.

The gang meet a number of old friends and new dangers as they finally gets to Glenda, but she informs them that her magic would only make the Witch’s want that much more powerful.  Together, they put together a plan to hoodwink the Jester and break the wand’s spell.  Do they succeed?  Well, that would be telling.  But there are a number of sequels, so safe to say it’s a happily ever after.

Jack not exactly using textbook conflict partnership skills

Quickie Review
L. Frank Baum set out to create a new generation of fairy tales akin to Grimm that, while fantastic, were stripped of the violence and scary parts that made the more ancient tales frightening to children.  It is interesting to note that while he did so to a greater extent, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz still contains a number of surprisingly violent scenes, with The Tin Woodsman chopping up some nefarious creatures, and he himself being dismembered as part of his origin story.  Yet, in that book, despite the more graphic violence, what is really stripped is any sense of real danger for the main characters.  In the attempt to make the story feel safe, I think Baum actually went overboard and made the story feel a bit too staid.

While his grandson Roger Baum makes his book feel like a direct sequel to the original story, inclusive of the vintage “Once upon a time…” linguistic feel, I do think he succeeds in actually reducing the violence while pumping up the suspense.  In scenes with the Jester, a later encounter with Dragons, and a quest to repair the Yellow Brick Road, the characters do seem in far more peril and the story moves along a bit more quickly in this version.

That said, this is a simple story, simply told.  None of the characters are anything except for earnest in their good or evil intent, except the Jester in the very beginning.  The descriptions are quite basic, there is really no texture to the language painting clear and evocative pictures of the settings.  It feels very “get in, say what happens, get out” in its telling.

I would say that if you and/or your kids enjoyed the original book (again, I cannot speak for the others in the original Oz series), I would expect you would enjoy this one.  Note that this does stay consistent with the book, so if you only go into this having seen the original movie, there will be a number of things that don’t quite add up.  I’d suggest starting with the original before reading this one.

Overall Read Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a story is just a story.  That’s how I feel about Dorothy of Oz.  But while not particularly deep or allegorical, there are a few really salient and interesting points that come out of the book you could talk about with your kids.


Alright...Arrest society, then!

“I blame society!”: Our antagonist in this book, The Jester, is quickly shown not to be himself evil, but under the spell of the Wicked Witch’s wand.  This goes back to my post about how fantasy can use magic to teach a valuable lesson about the impermanence of evil, and that you shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover.

I found that it was actually a very interesting juxtaposition to the “Careers” in the Hunger Games, where I had a chat with Gus about how the book painted the killer kids from District 1 with a “bad guy” brush, not even thinking about how the society might have influenced them to be the way they are.  In Dorothy, The Jester gets the opposite treatment, as he is seen as not culpable at all for his actions—it’s all the wand’s fault.

This can set up a very interesting discussion between outside influence and responsibility for your actions.  For kids, this can be quite analogous to the peer pressure they may feel to do things that aren’t right.  Sure, the Jester is under the magic spell, but what was he doing with the wand in the first place?  Is he entirely blameless? Understanding how to resolve a conflict involves seeing the faults not only in others, but in yourself, too.  Playing the blame game, either way, is rarely a good way out.

Appeal to the higher angels: [SPOILERS] When the trick on The Jester ends up failing, Dorothy looks like she’s done for sure.  But unlike in the original book, she does not melt or scorch or in any other way attempt to destroy her enemy.  Instead, she decides to talk to him.  To make him remember the good person he was, and how the things he is doing are not really him.  Instead of looking to defeat him, she instead looks to the good in him, and brings him back from the Witch’s evil spell.

I think this is a lovely life lesson that shows how seeing the good in people, and looking to find a common path rather than simply trying to defeat them is a path where problems can be solved and everyone wins.  It does not shy away from the notion that there is evil in the world, as the spirit of the Witch lives on to trouble everyone, but even where the great Glinda’s complicated plan to defeat the Jester failed, Dorothy’s attempt to bring the Jester back was successful.  That’s a very nice life lesson to impart, especially as juxtaposed to the violent death of the Wicked Witch in the original. [END SPOILERS]

Friendship, Manners, and Loyalty: As with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this book is filled with friends always looking to help each other.  Dorothy uses impeccable manners throughout the book, something that I really strive to teach my kids.  Dorothy is a great role model (though at times a somewhat saccharine one) of a person who keeps her word, looks toward the best in people, and places faith in her friends.  Her friends, both new and old, are unflinching in their support.  While I find it a bit two dimensional, it certainly drives those points home.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Dorthy of Oz will be a CGI animated tale, and it’s not being done by one of the major studios like Fox or Pixar.  That’s a bit of a question mark for movies like these as I’ve found most of the second tier CGI films such as Igor, Everyone’s Hero, and Space Chimps to be a very mixed bag.

They have gotten themselves some excellent voice talent with Leah Michelle from Glee fame to play Dorothy, and others such as Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, Kelsey Grammer, and Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart.  With Michelle in the lead, I’m assuming we’re getting a musical here.  I’ll be curious to see how much they tweak this story to be more of a direct sequel to the original film version of The Wizard of Oz—something that would make sense given many more people will have seen that movie than have read the book.

I’m actually pretty optimistic in this movie in a number of respects, as I think the animation can make up for the fairly thin descriptive language of the book, and the presence of so many comic actors makes me suspect that they’ll try and go in a more comedic direction just like the original film did.  If the writers and animators do their job, we just may have a worthy (though I cannot imagine equal) successor to the 1939 classic.

Next in this series: The name is Claus, Santa Claus.

Spring Break Happy Family Game Time!

March 28, 2012

Couldn’t resist that post title as it sounds like a Japanese game show.

Spring Break is just around the corner for most of us.  While for many this means trips to the beach or visits to grandparents (at least it does for our crew), it also means having a LOT more time together than our busy schedules usually allow.

This one is actually surprisingly clever.

For the Nathanson household, this almost always means breaking out the board games.  We tend to stick with the classics, with Monopoly, Sorry, Go to the Head of the Class, and more recently, The Game of Life being among top picks.  Every once an a while, I’ll let my seven-year-old trounce me in chess just to mix things up a bit.

One thing you might notice is that all of these games are exclusively competitive in nature.  Indeed, in giving it some thought, I do not think I played a game that had a cooperative element in it until I got hooked on Dungeons and Dragons when I was in 6th grade.  From Candy Land right through Othello, the world of board games was always dog-eat-dog.

Stupid Bird

The first chink in this armor I had ever seen was the revised version of Hi-Ho-Cherry-O, which included an ingenious puzzle game so both players would need to clear the fruit off their tree before the bird puzzle was put together.

It seems now that the “Cooperative Game” movement has been progressing, and there are a number of options for exciting games for kids of all ages.  But rather than opining with limited expertise, allow me to introduce you Beth Helie at the Chicago-based Cat and Mouse Game Store.  This is a great video that introduces the concept of Cooperating Gaming, and gives you a sense of what some of their top choices are for different age ranges.  I’ll put in some links after the video to help you find out more about the games.

Fighting Orcs and teaching cooperative values? I’m in.

I’m headed out tomorrow to get Castle Panic.  As an old-time D&D nerd, this seems like a fantastic introduction to the world of fantasy gaming—one that really reinforces teamwork and cooperation.  I like the fact that it is flexible enough to allow for some interpersonal competition by having an option for one player to be declared “Master Slayer” but ensuring that if one person loses the game—everyone does.

Here are links to find out more about the games mentioned:

Forbidden Island
Castle Panic
Peaceable Kingdom Games
Snail’s Pace Race
Richard Scarry’s Busytown
Enchanted Forest

Of course, you can find them all at Cat and Mouse Games as well.  If you’re thinking of getting a few, I see they offer free shipping for orders over $100.

Happy gaming and safe travels!

The Review: The Hunger Games

March 26, 2012

Another family movie outing this weekend as Gus, his aunt Mellie, and I craned our necks from the second row of a sold-out theater to see this one on Saturday.  You can find my Read It Then See It post on the Hunger Games book here.

The Movie
The Hunger Games, Lion’s Gate.

The Book
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.  Originally published in 2008.

Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
Just like the book, I would say 10 and up.  While the violence is not gratuitous, it is quite a stark depiction that does not attempt to glamorize. Blood dripping from weapons, and children dying.  The violence is far more real and immediate than in the more cartoon shoot-‘em-ups.  The more sexual nature of the book, which has a number of allusions to nudity, are not present at all in the film. Mild language.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes. Though children take center stage, this is a well-acted and very grown-up story.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
This is not like John Carter or Revenge of the Sith in that it’s a popcorn flick that has a couple of scary scenes.  Especially once the Hunger Games competition gets going, it’s a very gritty and realistic-feeling story about the inhumanity of war, so I really wouldn’t suggest it for younger kids unless she or he had read the book first.

That being said, here are the areas where if you’re taking a younger child there might be some cause for a startle or nightmare.  I hope the sheer length of this list can convince you to hold off on this for younger or more sensitive kids.  It’s not light fare.

  • As the competition opens, a melee begins that is quite bloody.  A number of the younger and weaker children are killed in this scene, so be prepared for it.
  • Katniss, is badly burned by fire.  The wound on her leg is pretty nasty to look at.
  • Katniss uses a wasp’s nest to her advantage.  The CG effects for the wasps are very realistic and could be disturbing once they are set loose.
  • Shortly after Katniss destroys the Career alliance’s supplies, the Alpha Male Cato goes ballistic and breaks the neck of a boy.
  • Shortly thereafter the young girl Pru meets her demise with a spear in the belly.  The scene, while quite sad and well done, would very likely be disturbing for a younger child.
  • Katniss searches for Peeta after learning that they can both survive.  Along the river bed she is startled when he comes out of nowhere being very well camouflaged in the ground.  Could startle a youngin’ as well
  • After Katniss finds a bunch of picked poison berries, she finds the dead body of a girl who ate them.  It’s one of those full eyes-open dead body shots that could be disturbing
  • When Cato finally meets his fate, Katniss shoots him with an arrow to put him out of his misery.  The combination of what is happening to him plus the arrow could be a little disturbing.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
For those of you who already read my post on the book, this won’t be too much different, as the movie stays quite faithful to the plot of the novel. Welcome to Panem.  An authoritarian nation created from the ashes of America, dominated by the cosmopolitan Capitol (post-apocalyptic Denver).

Gale just a little too GQ for my liking.

The story begins in District 12, a mining area of obvious poverty and deprivation.  We meet our teen-age heroine, Katniss Everdeen, stealing away from her tattered house to go hunting for food, something obviously not legal.  There she meets up with the hunky Gale who suggests they run away together rather than face “The Reaping.”

We quickly learn exactly what that means.  As punishment for the past insurrection, all children from the age of 12-18 in each district are forced into a lottery, with the “winner” forced as Tribute to compete in The Hunger Games.  This is a battle to the death, with every moment televised for the pleasure of the national audience.  When Kantiss’s little sister Primrose is chosen, she immediately volunteers to take her place, and Kat and a baker’s boy Peeta, are taken to the Capitol for training with their mentor Haymitch, an absolute sot and the only District 12 person to have every survived.

Twilight, eat your heart out.

After being given a taste of the opulence of the Capitol, and discovering Peeta may or may not have real feelings for her, Kantiss is dumped into the arena to fight for her life.

Using her hunting and survival skills, she is able to survive through injury and tragedy despite the best efforts of President Snow who grows increasingly concerned that the spark of hope Kantiss’s success creates may ignite the flame of rebellion, Katniss and Peeta are able to beat the masters at their own game. Their ultimate triumph brings them together, but Katniss is unsure whether she truly loves Peeta, and what fate may await them having embarrassed the powers of the Capitol, as they return as champions to their home.

My Review
Suzanne Collins said that fans of her book would be happy with the movie—she’s right.  A well scripted, wonderfully acted (with one exception in my opinion) and very faithful adaptation of the first book, it actually was pretty much exactly what I expected.

And what exactly did I expect?  Here’s what I said at the end of my book review:

I am now going in expecting to have a reverse experience to the book, as I’m guessing that I’ll find less to love in the set-up, but because of the budget and emphasis on action to draw in a large audience, I’d expect the Hunger Games themselves will be something to see.

District 12 could have looked more like this.

And that’s pretty much how I felt coming out.  While director Gary Ross did throw in a montage of the deprivation of District 12, I really didn’t get a sense of the depth of poverty and desperation.  I actually think they could have done more not with additional scenes, but with color and language.  The Cohen Brothers used a wonderful technique in O Brother, Where Art Thou? where they digitally unsaturated the color from the film, giving it a more stark quality without being black and white.  I think that’s exactly what the District 12 scenes could have used, making even the forest that Katniss hunted in seem stark and bereft of hope.

I also felt that using a rural Appalachian accent (one we know that actress Jennifer Lawrence can do quite well from her turn in Winter’s Bone) would have make a huge difference in the feeling of this area feeling more detached from the “urban elite.”  Instead it looked too lush, sounded too generic, and the dreamy Liam Hemsworth as Gale seemed too well-fed, too clean, and rather wooden acting really took away from what was in all a very good setup.

Tucci's good, but there's only one Dawson (credit Everett Collection)

Once Katniss and Peeta get on the train, however, the film really takes off.  The mentor Haymitch always felt a little over-the-top to me in the book, but Woody Harrelson pulled off the role beautifully, as did Lenny Kravitz as the image consultant Cinna. But the character that I thought stole the show was President Snow, who’s role is exapanded as we get more time away from Katniss than we did in the book.  Donald Sutherland plays the evil dictator with a very deft touch—always sinister but ever-thoughtful.  And while he’s no Richard Dawson, Stanley Tucci’s host Caesar is that over-the-top smarm/charm creepy combination that chews scenery.

The whole cast of kids who played the tributes in the games were wonderful, and really brought a sense of the fear that might come with children being forced into war that I think Collins was only partially successful in capturing in her book.  Most notably, Amandla Stenberg as Rue was fantastic.  I was actually sorry they did not give her a little more time to really let us get to know her better as they did in the book (which also gave us a little more taste of how other districts lived, something I would have liked a bit more of as well).  Indeed, if Collins intended her book to be about the impact of war on children, I actually think the film did a better job at painting that particular picture.

The only scene in the film that I felt went “Hollywood” was an added scene when a district rioted over the death of one of the children.  Collins was much more subtle in her depiction of how the districts were showing their smoldering dissent.  I felt this scene was unneeded and felt force-fed.  I was also a little disappointed that the film played down the sci-fi part of the book, as the ability of this society to use biogenetics to craft both helpful and deadly creatures was treated as an afterthought.

But those are really minor quibbles in what was really gripping science fiction drama well acted and well told.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

See it Then Read It
All the themes in the book are present in the movie, and the differences I noted between the way the introduction and the action are integrated make this a case where I feel that one can go either way with this story.  Much like watching the Harry Potter movies inspired both my boys to want to read the books, I think this film can inspire kids to want to read the series.  And if that happens, I do not think they’ll be disappointed.  I for one am looking forward to reading Catching Fire once I leave the Land of Oz (more on that either this week or next depending on how fast I read).

Is Facebook the Path to Middle East Peace?

March 23, 2012

Way back when, I was a Middle East History major at college.  As a Jew, the area was of particular interest, but the amazing diversity of peoples, cultures, and discoveries all-to-often overlooked by the Euro-centric vision of civilization is what really pulled me in.

It really felt possible. I still think it is.

Of course, the Middle East of today is markedly different than the one I studied in the 1990s.  In some ways it’s been for the worse, as when I studied for a semester in Jerusalem, it was in the midst of the Oslo agreement and there was a palpable feel that a real, lasting peace with the Palestinian people was within reach.  In some ways, it has been for the better, as the Arab Spring has, although with mixed and bloody results, shown cracks in the authoritarian rule that has dominated the region.

Some things, however, like the hostility between the Israeli and Iranian governments, remains the same.  I say “governments” and not simply the nations themselves because I think that the two are often confused, and shouldn’t be.  One creative couple, Ronny Edry and Michal Tamir of Tel Aviv, seem to believe the same thing.  And they are taking a page from the Arab Spring and turning to social media to prove it.

Their Facebook page, Israel Loves Iran,  is an effort to connect people to people, pushing aside the political posturings of their governments.  And while Facebook is officially banned in Iran, a byproduct of the “Twitter Revolution” in 2010, a number of Iranians are getting word back that, you know what?  Many Iranians feel the same way about Israelis.  While this is certainly not the first effort of its kind, the burgeoning power of social media to create a global village of ideas could well push efforts to talk to people, not just governments, the kind of boost it needs to make a real difference.

Of course it’s not just Israel that stands on the brink with Iran, it’s America as well.  And if we Americans were to speak directly to Iranians, rather than the governments just barking at each other, the first thing we should say is…sorry.

Reads like a good novel

As you might know, I’m a big fan of apologizing, unconditionally and sincerely, as a pathway to a better dialogue between people. And the United States government has owed the people of Iran an apology for 60 years now. People tend to forget that Iran actually stood right along with Israel as the post-World War II model of multi-party democracy in the region until the United States decided in its great hypocrisy that a supportive dictator (the Shah) was better than the messy dealings that come when the people of a nation are actually entitled to run their government.  There can be no question that our nation was responsible for creating the conditions that led to the current, hostile government of Iran today.  If you want more than my word for it, I highly recommend All The Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzler, a gripping account of the American-led coup that brought the Shah to power.

Indeed I was genuinely hoping that the Obama Administration might very well take that tact during the Twitter Revolution in Iran, helping to bolster the case for democracy there by admitting that it was we who stamped it down in the first place. In doing that, Obama could have connected directly with the Iranian people, while casting the current theocratic government in Tehran with the same brush as the corrupt U.S.-backed government it replaced.

While that didn’t happen in 2010, let me use my own social media to say, American to Iranians, that I am sorry that our government tore from you the very thing our nation holds most dear, democracy, in what amounted to a naked grab for oil slathered with an icing of Cold War paranoia. For while Facebook, Twitter, and even little blogs like mine may not create world peace overnight, I do see the ability of people being able to speak directly to each other more directly on a global basis as a positive force for understanding—something our governments are often sorely lacking (especially in an election year).

The R-Rated Film Every Kid Should See

March 22, 2012

To quote one of my favorite movies, it would be Inconceivable! for a blog like mine to not put the word out about the upcoming film Bully, and the fantastic petition campaign that Michigan high-schooler Katy Butler has put together to keep the film from getting an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

I try not to use the word “important” about movies, even documentaries, because it often overestimates the impact it can have on a practical level.  But I think the universality of the issue of bullying in schools and the power that kids, parents, and teachers can all have to eradicate it is perfect fodder for a film that can truly help change the world.  The preview itself is goosebumps-worthy.

I can’t wait to go with Gus to see it.

The MPAA seems to be playing the “letter of the law” game, saying that in a vacuum, the swearing in the film would merit an R rating.  If they want a PG-13, why not simply bleep out the language?

Of course, that is patently ridiculous. This film is all about the power of language—how it can be used like a club to batter children that are “different” and that the old “boys will be boys” is simply an unacceptable cop out for parents, schools, or society as a whole.  If you mute the language, you mute the power. The practical effect of the R rating will be to not only keep many kids from seeing this film, but, far worse, to keep it from being used as an educational tool in schools.

The whole purpose of the rating system is to protect children from things they should not see.  If a 16-year-old wants to go see a documentary that explicitly depicts the terror that kids havoc on other kids with language, and propose solutions, is it protecting children to keep her from seeing that film?  Come on.

So Kudos to Katy and the staff for following through on this.  Their target is 500,000 signatures and they’re less than 50k away from that the last I checked.  I strongly urge you to add your signature and tell your friends.  And, if for some reason the MPAA does not come to its senses, make it the first R-rated film you take your kid to see.

Spring Training Thoughts: Why Coaches Matter

March 21, 2012

“I wanted you to know that we had a meeting with his teachers…  When asked if there was anyone other than his family that he felt comfortable with and trusted and he listed you and only one other person as those people.  Thank you so much for being a person that [he] trusts. You are a wonderful role model for all those boys.”  – Mother of one of the boys I’ve coached.

Happy Spring everyone! For the past half-decade, starting when the trees bud in March and to the leaves falling in October, I have run around like a chicken with my head cut off coaching both my boys’ baseball teams.  I’ve brought everything from hand-puppets to golden snitches to broad swords (fake, don’t worry) to help keep kids interested in learning the nuances of baseball, and to help them focus on the concept of teamwork in what is arguably the most individual of the team sports.

This was awesome...

A couple of years ago, my big fella’s team won the league championship.  That was an absolute thrill for the kids and me.  But for ole’ CoachN, there is nothing more thrilling than getting a message like the one above from a parent.  Once I cleared the avocado-sized lump in my throat, this note really got me thinking about coaching and why it matters.  The concept of trust really never occurred to me, as I always focused in on the fun.  “Have them love it enough to want to come back next year,” has been my motto ever since my first go round.

But, especially in the light of the horrible events that transpired at Penn. State this past year, I see now how much power and responsibility a coach can have on a child’s life.  Even though we may only see them a couple of times a week, a few months out of the year, a coach is a teacher of choice. For while school teachers can be and often are the very best of role models outside the family, with coaches, the child is choosing to take on another responsibility and is actually seeking out guidance.

Another distinction with coaching is that it is a venture in which for most kids, “failure” – for lack of a better word – will be the norm.  Only a small percentage of the kids who play youth sports will end up playing that sport for their school, and only a fraction of those will play in college.  So eventually, 99 percent of the little league players will never reach that ultimate plane of success.

...but this was even better.

This lack of success goes double for baseball, where making an out 70 percent of the time is actually pretty darned good.  I believe the greatest gift we can give these kids as coaches is the ability to not simply “handle failure” but redefine what success means.  Now, before you start going down that, “Oh, let’s just give everyone trying trophies and hold hands” path, that’s not where I’m headed.

I’ve done a number of posts about my personal coaching style and coaching tips if you’re interested in looking at them.  But getting a child to trust you enough to want to play a game regardless of her or his skill level is more philosophy than it is specific tips.  And while just about every coach has her or his own philosophy, here is mine.

Relentless Optimism: My friends over at the Virginia Baseball Club have the philosophy that there should be 5 complements of what a player does right for every one criticism of what they do wrong, and I agree.  As a coach, it is a very easy default to focus on what a player is doing wrong—I still do it quite a bit—as a major part of the job description is to help the player get better.  But improvement only comes where there is self-confidence, and even if little Suzy is playing with the dirt instead of looking at the ball, chances are she’s got her glove to the ground, so there’s something to complement in pretty much any situation.  So where you find an area to criticize, always look to condition it with praise.  A spoonful of sugar, as they say…

courtesy TJ Arrowsmith

Now, I didn’t just say “optimism.”  I think the relentless part is equally important, especially with younger players.  You are the teacher, you set the tone.  Not everyone needs to be a goof ball like me, but keeping the kids focused on the team, on their responsibilities, and having fun through playing the game is important.  Once the kids get a little older, you can stand back a little more and just let them play (well, you can—I seem to be a bit too much of a control freak).  For things like cheering for their teammates (which gets them focused on teamwork and paying attention even when it’s not their turn) I simply do not let up.  Every batter is cheered for, every runner who scores gets high-fives from each teammate.  Always optimistic, always focused on “we” not “I.”

Team Competition is Good: Kids LOVE to compete, even when there is no real prize on the line. A key way to keep practices moving and kids focused is to break them up into smaller groups and have them compete in drills.  Just about any sports drill can be made into come kind of competition, and having tallies be based on the team accomplishment rather than the individual reinforces the need to support your teammates.

I think it’s important, however, to ensure that the teams you choose are mixed up as often as possible.  For instance, in a throwing drill I did with my team yesterday, not only were they broken up into two teams, but as they were competing to see how many balls they could catch throwing in pairs, I would stop them after a few minutes and have them rotate so they would continue to have new throwing partners to adjust to and work with.  Learning to adjust yourself to your teammate and finding the best way to work together is a heck of a life lesson that sports can teach in a very direct and visceral way.

Honesty is the Best Policy, But Focus on the Future: Kids aren’t blind.  They know that some of their teammates are better than they are, and can do things they can’t.  It can be frustrating for some players to struggle where they see others succeeding.

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

Do those players a favor and be positive, but honest.  If they’re way off, saying “oh, you almost got it!” doesn’t help them.  I like to acknowledge their struggle, but frame it as a challenge.  Yes, you’re having trouble making consistent contact with the ball, but by the end of the season, we’re going to have you hitting a pitched ball almost every time up!  The vast majority of kids improve at least a bit just through repetitions, so you’re almost guaranteed to have at least something positive for them to walk away with at the end of the season, and more likely, they’ll really have improved a lot.

This turns a bit against the “team first” ethos, but in sports, kids are in different places at different times.  Ignoring that and teaching each one the same doesn’t help the kids or the team.  As importantly, being honest helps to really build trust between you and that player.  They see that you are really seeing them as an individual, not just as “just another player.”

Test Knowledge, Not Just Skill: Because sports are physical, we coaches tend to get caught up in the physical aspects of the sport.  A great way of keeping kids feeling motivated even if they may not be the best player on the team is to test knowledge.  When you give them tips on any aspect of the game, come back time after time and quiz them on those tips.

Not only does that help reinforce what you are trying to teach them, you are able to pick players who may not be your best and get answers that make them feel validated.  This also helps them learn an appreciation for the game that they can carry with them for a lifetime, regardless of their personal future as an athlete.  Most importantly as a coach through these quizzes, you reinforce the importance of listening, which certainly transcends sports as a useful tool.

So, there you have it.  Whether you’re coaching your kid(s), helping out, or just playing with them in the back yard, I hope you might find some use in these tips that I have learned (often by trial and many errors), and that you and your children have a safe and fantastic Spring in whatever sport or game they like to play (although it really should be baseball).

A Carnivore’s Guide to Vegetarianism

March 16, 2012


As some of you may remember from one of my early posts, I am a vegetarian (no meat of any sort, but I do eggs and dairy).  For me, it’s an entirely personal choice with some admitted hypocrisies (he says as he kicks back in his leather shoes).  My wife calls me a “non-judgmental” vegetarian, and I do try to be that way.  That includes being willing to cook meat for the rest of the family, and I’m quite proud that my Aunt Libby and I make a super-juicy Turkey that gets kudos every Thanksgiving.

I’d like to think that my inclusive attitude comes from my loving and generous nature, but frankly, I think it’s because, deep down, I love meat.  While other vegetarians I know shudder at the idea of the chewy consistency of flesh, it never ceases to make my mouth water.  If I were to ever “fall off the wagon” you’d likely find me face-first in a bucket at KFC.

My choice to stop eating meat was a purely personal one as I just didn’t feel right about eating animals anymore.  It’s evolved to be somewhat more environmental, as after seeing Diet for a New America on PBS, I found myself thinking that for those of us inclined, it’s just better for us to stay away from meat.

But it comes to vegetarianism, I am not a militant proselytizer.  Yet I do find it highly ironic when I see the kinds of posts like this Fresh Pressed one from The Blurred Line that gets on vegetarians for their blanket statements against meat, yet starts out saying “I just hate tofu, lentils and anything made of soya that is supposed to taste like meat.”  Militancy seems to love company.

Okay, maybe not the cover shot for Vegetarian Times

I mention this now because I think the best article I’ve seen for folks who might consider taking some meat out of their diet was written from an unlikely source, New York times food columnist Mark Bittman.  His column A Chicken Without Guilt goes into the environmental and ethical dilemmas of meat production, that’s not what the article is really all about.

What the article is really getting into is the fact that food producers are getting much, much better at making vegetable-based products that have the look, texture, and taste of meat, especially for those kinds of dishes where meat is a component in a larger recipe. For while I think only stem-cell meat holds the promise for an ethical steak or piece of fried chicken, for stir frys, sandwiches, meat sauce, and other dishes where meat is complementary, fake meats have come a long way, baby—and it’s getting better.

So while the fully all-natural meat substitute that that Bittman is talking about isn’t here yet, I thought it might be helpful for me to list off some of my favorite of the current fakes for different products available around me.  I’d be curious to hear from others about good fakin’ products as well.  Here’s my list:

Cold Cuts

  • Tofurkey Smoked Turkey: Very nice consistency and flavor (best of all their turkey varieties, IMO), a real smoky flavor and good chew.  While good cold, best preparation is to peel the slices you want, put them in a soup plate and pour a little vegetable broth over it, then microwave for 15-20 seconds.  Warm, juicy, and flavorful!
  • Tofurkey Bologna: Given how processed bologna is already, this is a perfect kind of meat for a faux.  I actually prefer the Tofurkey to regular bologna as it captures the taste without having that ultra-fatty feel of regular bologna.  Best right out of the box.
  • Tofurkey Roast Beef: This one was a little big of a surprise, but it really has a nice deep flavor and meaty chew.  Like the Smoked Turkey, this is best when the slices are peeled and microwaved warm with faux beef bullion or vege broth.  One can also slice or shred and fry up in olive oil with onions for a nice cheese-steak base.
  • Smart Deli Roast Turkey: A little on the dry side, but the best turkey taste I’ve had.  Best cold on a sandwich with Mayo (rather than mustard, as the extra fat really helps).

Ground Beef

  • Morningstar Farm Grillers Recipe Crumbles: Yes, some people call Morningstar farm “McVege” but to me this still is the best meatless ground beef there is.  The taste and texture is spot on.  Note that these crumbles do NOT form themselves into patties, so this is for where you want broken up ground beef, for sauces, chilli, sloppy joes, etc.  Best if you fry it up before hand with some olive oil rather than drop it directly into whatever you’re cooking.  If you want a more “sausage” taste, I suggest just throwing in some fennel seeds as that really helps bring in that flavor.
  • Smart Ground (original): A solid (and vegan) alternative.  My only issue with this is that it breaks up a bit too small, giving it more of a grainy consistency than the MF crumbles.  Because it’s refrigerated, it does work a little better just dropping into a recipe, though a little oil to give it some of the fat missing from meat does help the taste.


  • Quorn Meatballs: Really great consistency, and with just a little oil these fry up very nicely.  Soy free for those who care about that as well.  These also work pretty well in the microwave, keeping texture and flavor.  I’d microwave or fry before inserting into a sauce (or pouring the sauce into cooked meatballs), rather than having the sauce heat them up.
  • Gimme Lean Beef and Sausage: These are the “pattyable” ground beef and sausage alternatives.  Used together, these make some very good meatballs.  I would refrain from using any breadcrumbs here, as it makes it harder for the meatballs to stay together.  And the key here is that they HAVE to be eaten warm.  The lose their meat-like texture when cool and turn to mush.  Reheating brings back the consistency.

Breakfast Sausage

  • Boca Breakfast Links: My favorite variety, as it has a tender and juicy consistency.  Good fried but actually keeps its consistency better out of the microwave.
  • Morningstar Farms Vege Sausage Links: My boys love these, though I find them a little dry.  A solid backup to Boca.  Thse are actually a little better pan fried with some oil as they dry out a bit in the microwave.


  • Morningstar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips: I find most vege bacon to be too dry, even when fried in oil.  While the MF strips are walking salt sticks, when fried up they mimic bacon better than any of the other alternatives I’ve had, giving that crisp-yet-tender rather than dry and brittle.

Hot Dog/Sausage

  • Yves Good Dog: While there are a number of “goo enough” hot dog alternatives, this is the only one that I actually find has real flavor.  Pan fry with a bit of olive oil until the outside becomes golden brown, and you get that “snap” that mimics a hot dog casing.  I just replaced the organic chicken hot dogs with these for my kids’ franks and beans, and they were just as happy (and I could eat the leftovers).  These dry out on the grill, so I’d coat them in oil before throwing them on, and keep them there for a minute or two, max.
  • Tofurkey Beer Brats: While the other sausage varieties are pretty good (Italian, Kielbasa), I find their brats to be the most tasty and tender.  This is solid for grilling, but better when pan fried, as having some oil in the pan really helps to create a crisp outside and seal in the juices rather than letting it dry out the way it can on the grill.  Using an oil spray on the grill (but be careful!) can help with dryness.
  • Field Roast Chipotle Sausage: Like with Tofurkey, their other varieties are good (Italian, Smoked Apple) their Chipotle is by far the best.  They do tend to break apart more easily, so careful getting them out of the casings.  Also, the chipotle isn’t kidding around, quite spicy.  Same directions on prep apply to this as they do to the Tofurkey.

Chicken Nuggets

  • Quorn Chik’n Nuggets: Quorn does the best job on the chicken getting the consistency out of it while still giving some juicyness, as most vege varieties are too dry. Microwaves quite well and outside crisps up nicely in the oven, but beware over cooking in the oven as they can become dry.  And their Chik’n Tenders are the best of the chicken substitutes for stir-frys and the like.


  • Quorn Classic Burgers: My new favorite.  Just fry up with a little olive oil (also okay in microwave).  I just did my own version of a KFC double-down using two burgers as the bun with tomato, avodado, pickles and some wasabi mustard—delish!
  • Morningstar Farms Grillers Prime Probably the most beef-like texture of the bunch.  Actually best out of the microwave as for whatever reason it actually gets a bit of a crispy outside while still being chewy when out of the microwave, but dries out on the stove or grill.
  • Boca All American Flame Grilled: While I’d love to recommend the vegan, I find this variety far tastier and more burger-like. Also microwaves quite well (either microwave in its own plastic case, or if you don’t want that, do put it in something sealed to keep the juices in.  Perfect prep is to microwave for about a minute, then throw it on a slightly oiled pan for 15 seconds a side.


  • Gardein BBQ Skewers: The closest thing to real beef I’ve had in a LONG time.  Tasty sauce that keeps its juiciness wonderfully.  Best prepared in the microwave to keep from drying out.  Warm in microwave for at least :30 before adding to anything else or cutting it up in order to help it keep its consistency.


  • Tofurkey Peperoni: The best spiced of the bunch.  If you’re throwing it on a pizza, use some olive oil spray on top and they’ll crisp up very nicely.

I hope this list is helpful too you, but if I see you at Wendy’s, don’t feel you need to hide the burger.  I’m cool with it.

Read It Then See It: Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Last Straw & Dog Days

March 15, 2012

My boys are both huge fans of this series, but despite having seen both DoWK films multiple times (heloooo, summer car trips!), this was my first dive into the books.

The Book(s)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, by Jeff Kinney.  Originally published in 2009.

The Movie
Diary of Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Fox. Release Date, Aug. 3

Realistic Fiction/Comedy

Age Appropriate
7 and up. Be ready for bad behavior and the typical scatological predilections of your average middle-school boy.  Some very mild “boy-girl” stuff, as the erstwhile hero begins to try his hand at relationships in spectacularly disastrous fashion.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Hmm.  How do I say this? Do you remember those old Saturday Night Live skits like Chris Farley’s “Living in a van down by the river!” guy?  Not particularly funny, but somehow it stuck in your head and you found yourself repeating it?  That’s how I feel about these books.

Book Availability
No electronic versions of the books are available.  However, you can read a “blog” version of the first three books (through Last Straw) on Kinney’s Fun Brain site. The series is available pretty much everywhere you can buy a book.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Funny as it might seem, it’s actually a little difficult to give a quick plot synopsis here, because the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is, to me, pretty much sketch comedy done in the style of an illustrated diary.  Wikipedia has some slightly longer synopses for Last Straw and Dog Days that might be helpful if you want more details, but here are my thumbnails.

Gregg "helping" his parents right from the start

The Last Straw begins New Year’s Day, as 7th grader Greg Heffley, a selfish and lazy kid with delusions of grandeur deals with the constant annoyances and unfairness of life that come in the form of his Mother, Father, big and little brother, teachers, and friends.

His parents constantly frustrated at his lack of responsibility and interest in anything other than TV and Video Games, as well as total aversion to physical activity, Greg hatches scheme after scheme to find shortcuts to the fame and fortune he feels he so richly deserves.  Enlisting (often reluctantly) his best friend Rowley in his misadventures, he attempts to do things such as put money in time capsules in order to have it pay off when future people come back to pay him interest (only to steal that money, which was Rowley’s, to get a sugar fix) and escape his big brother Rodrick’s clever April Fool’s jokes (a punch in the arm).

A main running theme is that Greg’s father wants to try to “toughen him up” and becomes so frustrated with his complete lack of interest or ability that he threatens to send him to a military academy, starting that summer.  Only when Greg accidentally humiliates himself at a neighbor’s baby’s birthday party, saving his father from having to make a fool out himself, is he able to escape that fate.  The other major recurring theme is his courtship of Holly Hills, which takes a disastrous turn as she ends up seeming to like his friend Rowley better.

Greg's favorite summer hangout (I know, glass houses...)

We pick up with summer break in Dog Days, and Greg is back up to his old tricks.  First, he looks a gift horse squarely in the mouth as he abuses the privileges at Rowley’s country club to such an extent that he’s asked not to return.  And the family’s financial struggles give him precious little else to do other than play video games.

But the country club problems compound when he finds out all the drinks and food they ordered there weren’t free, and he and Rowley were expected to pay for them.  He shows some “initiative” but trying to start up a lawn service with Rowley, but his idea of the partnership was that he would “manage” while Rowley did all the work.  This disaster placed a new strain on their friendship.

Things between Rowley and Greg get even worse when his mother arranges him to get invited to their beach house, and his quest to ride the “Cranium Shaker” plus some misadventures with rubber bands gets him sent home early.  Once there, he decides the public pool isn’t so bad after all as he sets his sights on Holly Hills’ older sister, with predictable results.

The family’s big addition is a new dog, Sweetie, that causes nothing but consternation to everyone except Greg’s mom, and is eventually given away to Greg’s grandma.  He looks back at his mother’s gleeful summer album and realizes that history is told by the victors.

Quickie Review

You heard the man!

What is Ploopy, you say?  Well, it’s a term that Greg’s little brother Manny comes up with as a quasi-insult, and it sticks around for most of The Last Straw, ending in embarrassment at church as Gregg uses it on his little brother, causing a complete meltdown.

It wasn’t that funny, but Ploopy is now a term that is used around our house all the time.  See what I mean about the whole “Van down by the river” thing?

Frankly, I am just not sure what to say about the DoWK series.  Perhaps the best thing would say that it makes me feel old.  I just find it very hard to get through a “story” – and it’s really not a story, it’s a series of short comedic incidents thinly strung together (which is kind of like life sometimes, no?) – where the main character is unlikeable, and shows absolutely no evidence of growth.

It’s the latter part that really bothers me, as I remember being a stupid middle schooler myself, and I have a kid about to jump into the 6th grade jungle dealing with a lot of the same issues.  But in both these cases I see some change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.  Here Greg is so static, so unwilling to even find a chip in his world view, that I find myself rooting against him despite the fact that he’s only a (wimpy) kid.

Actually a little more three-dimensional (pun intended)

I must not be completely alone in this, as the DoWK movies, especially the second one, makes significant changes that add a whole arc for Greg ending up in him deciding to make a significant sacrifice to help out his brother.  The closest thing of this sort in the books is Greg’s inadvertent saving of his Dad from having to make a fool of himself, which was really a “I pulled one over on Dad!” moment rather than any true act of kindness.

I will grant you that Kinney creates a number of funny situations that are readily appealing to his target market, and his simple but very evocative illustrations really help drive the jokes home.  Maybe it’s because I’m more of a “laugh with” rather than “laugh at” kind of guy, I just found that the storyline becomes too much one-trick pony.

For the most part, I equate the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series for the 7-12 set akin to my view of the Game of Thrones series for adults—a guilty pleasure with little to no redeeming value other than the fact that it gets kids to read.

Overall Read Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
When I first finished the books, I thought I would leave this section entirely blank.  In a series predicated upon a selfish kid who sees everything as unfair and scoffs at any unselfish action, it felt like the anti-SHYB book.

Then I realized that because Kinney doesn’t celebrate Greg’s attitude, but really lampoons it, DoWK is actually a pretty decent cautionary tale that does have some potential for discussion.  Here’s what I got out of it:

Do you like Greg?: I first asked both my kids why they liked the book, and they said, as you might expect “Because it’s funny.”  So that really didn’t give me much to go on.  But when I asked them about Greg, we got into a very interesting discussion.  Both of them realized his faults, and neither of them had any interest in being Greg’s friend because he’s too selfish.  Time and time again his best laid plans ends up turning against him because he only wants to do things his way.  So the lessons of what it means to be a real friend, to be kind to others, and to actually work hard are all here in the inverse.

Yes, I did just bring an ancient Roman poet into the discussion of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Someone kick sand in my face.

Be yourself: Much like Cattulus filling his poetry with profanity just to highlight his small bit of beauty, Kinney has an interesting comeuppance for Greg near the end of The Last Straw when Holly Hills gives him a tepid response in his yearbook despite all his work to show her how funny he is.  For Rowley, however, she has nothing but complements and well-wishes.  My boys and I chatted about this one, and I asked him why they thought that happened.  Both of them got the fact that Greg was doing whatever he could to “con” Holly while Rowley just focused on being himself.

That’s a tough lesson for pretty much anyone, and especially for the 10-18 set. The desperate need to be liked, to fit in, to find approval, often at the expense of others, is on full display in Kinney’s work.  Much of the book goes on to show how poor Greg is even when he attempts to do so, and how angry and embarrassed that makes everyone around him.  But in this instance, we get a great lesson about the fact that if you just focus on being who you are, there will always be people who see the good in you.

When is it time to nix the “trying trophy?”: In Dog Days, there’s a scene where we see how unconditionally supportive Rowley’s parents are, and how Greg sees their coddling of him as being a disservice.  It relates back to Greg’s being so poor at swimming, that he is put in a meet where everyone gets a first place ribbon.  His victory bubble is quickly burst by Rodrick, who lets him on the “everyone wins” secret.

I asked my boys what they thought about the “trying trophy” and they said that they both liked it.  My older one added, “But you really don’t learn how to compete with those.  Once you get older, you need to know how you’re really doing.”

It’s an interesting point, as there’s that fine line as a parent, a teacher, or a coach between being supportive and being realistic.  It reminded me of this great blog from Rochester Supporting Advanced and Gifted Education (SAGE) about the importance of failure for our kids.  As a supporter of “win-win” scenarios and conflict partnership, it was an important reminder for me as a parent, and a great discussion to have with my kid about being their biggest fan, but wanting to be honest with them about what I see and continuing to push them to be better.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, I can say that I really disliked the first one, but found the second a marked improvement.  It toned-down the sometimes mean-spirited tone of the books, and gave Greg a real story arc while I believe staying true enough to the feel of the book.

My understanding is that the third one is going to borrow heavily from both The Last Straw and Dog Days, even though it is using the latter title for the film.  It would be hard for me to believe that Greg’s character isn’t going to regress at least a bit, which would not be uncommon for anyone, as one selfless moment does not necessarily lead to a complete life change.

That said, in the second movie, he “got the girl” by being kind, selfless, and willing to take a risk and make a fool out of himself.  I’m curious to see how much if at all they’ll be willing to carry that over.  I can see from the casting that Holly’s big sister will be a part of the movie, and there are a number of directions they can take that relationship.

The second movie also borrowed a number of bits from both the Last Straw and Dog Days books, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if director David Bowers draws from the new books The Ugly Truth and Cabin Fever to help round out the plot.

Overall I thought the casting and acting was quite good for these films, taking them for what they are.  I am a big fan of Steve Zahn, who plays Greg’s Dad.  He’s made a lot of crap over the years, but I still think he’s an exceptional comic actor when given good material.

Given the improvement from the first to the second film, I’m (very) cautiously optimistic that this one will at least be tolerable, which is pretty much all I’m asking for out of it.  If it actually leads to an interesting discussion as well, I’ll take that as a bonus.

Next in this series: I’m off to see the Wizard

Kony 2012: Should You Watch it With Your Kid?

March 13, 2012

The new Internet viral sensation isn’t mutant Zu Zu Pets dancing with Justin Bieber, and it sure as heck ain’t John Carter (though I stand my my review).  Instead, it’s a half-hour documentary on YouTube about a Ugandan warlord that’s been turning children into sex slaves and murders for the past 30 years.


With over 70 million views and counting, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign has brought the world’s #1 criminal according to the International Criminal Court to the global spotlight.  I personally got my first taste of Mr. Kony back in the ’90s when I helped author a report on barriers to democratic development in Africa.  While there are a good number of bad men in the world, Kony is undoubtedly among the worst, and I’m pleased for the campaign’s surprising success.

My effort--informative, but a wee bit verbose for viral

As an organizer, I give great kudos to Jason Williams and his team for putting together a long(ish) story, but so direct and compellingly told that it would want to get others to listen.  Moreover, the celebrity targeting, and their “action kit” were very well conceived.  Most of all, he used the “actions work best with a deadline” tactic beautifully, converging their campaign goal with the Presidential election season.

I thought this article in the Guardian was a fantastic one to get a sense of what our growingly interconnected world had in store for the likes of social change movements.  I also found the Daily Show’s lampooning of the TV media’s snit over the fact that a non-profit group succeeded in getting the world out essentially without their help hilariously reinforced a very positive trend—the world of social media has created an interconnected, immediate global community with real power—and that power only stands to grow as online technology and the online economy grows.

E Tu, Stewart?

However, I was a little less impressed with Stewart’s poking at a scene in the video where Williams decides he wants to explain what he does to his five-year-old son.  Stewart calls it “weird” and goes on to satirize with other horrible truths we insulate our children from such as tsunamis and terrorism.

Now, I get that there’s some “WTF?” with trying to explain an international war criminal to a Kindergartener.  But in the video, the boy made an immediate connection between Kony and, wait for it…Star Wars!

This took me immediately to a personal memory, the “Chanukkah Wars” play my sons and I do every year for the Kindergarteners and First Graders at his school.  Casting the Greeks and Selucids as “The Evil Empire” and the Macabees as the Rebellion, we tell the story complete with Darth Vader masks and evil hooded robes (and, of course, my patented horrible English accent).

While on our adult level, the immediacy of Kony’s crimes and the two millennia old Macabee rebellion feel entirely different.  But kids have a different sense of time, and I believe, as Williams’s son showed, by using the “Helm’s Deep” technique, as I’ll coin it, they can take thinks like Kony and put them in perspective.

A great opportunity to bring just the meaning to the movie that Collins intended

When I showed the Kony 2012 video to my 10-year-old Gus, he immediately referred again to Lord of the Rings’ Battle of Helm’s Deep when he saw how many children had been made into solders (I found it interesting that he didn’t really ask much about the “sex slave” part—I think that one went, thankfully for now, over his head).  He noted that this was much worse, not because Helm’s Deep was fiction, but because the children were not forced to fight evil, but forced to become evil.  That actually turned into a talk we had about The Hunger Games the way I did in my Read It Then See It review, and whether kids forced into combat were actually themselves evil, or whether it was those that were forcing them to become so that were.

Gus came out of the viewing wanting to “do something” and has decided that he will switch his last persuasive essay, one he was going to write on The Hunger Games, to writing about Kony.  I asked him why, with everything that his happening in the world and in our country like poverty, cancer, and global warming we should focus our attention on this issue.  He responded that it was because these were kids like him, and all children need to be protected (pretty awesome answer, I’d say).  I also showed some parts to my younger one, but there are some graphic images of facial mutilation that were far beyond what I would feel comfortable showing a first-grader.

Personally, I would highly recommend your watching Kony 2012, and then, if you think your child is ready for it, watch it again with them.  For an American parent, it is helpful that this issue, while prescient, is distant enough not to overhwelm a child (“Could Kony come to get me?!?”).  So while people have a number of problems with whether Invisible Children have all their facts right, or whether pressing for U.S. intervention is the right goal, as a lesson in empathy, solidarity, and the power that comes with our calling out evil in our world, I think this is a fabulous tool, and a fantastic teachable moment for our kids.

The Review: John Carter

March 9, 2012

It was a popcorn lunch today as I hung out with 5 other people at the local theater to take in the matinee.  You can check out my Read It Then See it look at the book A Princess of Mars here.

The Movie
John Carter, Disney.  Release date March 9

The Book
A Princess of Mars (first in the “John Carter of Mars” series), by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Yep, he’s the Tarzan guy).  Originally published in serial form in 1912 in All Story Magazine, and as a full book in 1917.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Ten years old and up.  I would for the most part reduce that to 8-9, as while there is a lot of fighting, it’s very comic book.  The more graphic fights with monsters feels very unreal.  I’d say the violence is pretty much on Star Wars level for the most part. But, there are far more realistic allusions to John Carter’s loss during the Civil War, including the loss of a child.  That merits a PG-13 rating and makes it a little more dicey for the single-digit crowd.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  A fun, well scripted sci-fi action flick.  Well paced and really more of a “children of all ages” kind of movie.

This gets a little gory, but in a cartoonish way

Spoilers for Younger Kids
As I alluded to, John Carter loses his family in the Civil War.  In the desert of Mars, Carter sends his new love away and tries to save her against an army of green men.  At that point, it toggles back-and-forth between scenes of his fighting them and burying his family back on earth.  That’s probably the most scary scene.

The scene in the Thark arena that shortly follows is probably the most graphic, as two giant white beasts come to kill Tars Tarkas and Carter.  Carter’s triumph includes impaling the creature and climbing out, blue blood-covered, from his belly.  He then challenges the “bad Thark” and quickly beheads him in a way extremely similar to Mace Windu’s dispatching of Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (Light spoilers ahead)
A young Edgar Rice Boroughs is brought to his Uncle John Carter’s estate upon his sudden death, and along with his entire fortune is given his journal.

We are quickly taken into Carter’s story, starting in 1868 as he prospects for gold.  The former Confederate cavalryman is taken prisoner by Union soldiers as they try to force him to join up to fight the Apaches.  Wanting no part of it, he ends up escaping to a fabled “spider cave” where he encounters a white man in white robes who immediately attacks him.  In their struggle, Carter gains hold of a mysterious device, and poof, to Mars (Barsoom) he goes.

There he is taken prisoner by the warlike, seemingly unfeeling big green Thark race, though their leader, Tars Tarkas, seems to have wisdom the others don’t.  The ligther gravity gives Carter superhuman strength and leaping ability, and earns him the respect of the Tharks.

Meanwhile, the humanoid “red people” have two fighting factions, and one has been given superior firepower by a seemingly-god like race, the Thurls.  The “good guys” of Helium are forced to accept that their princess must marry the bad guy in a devil’s bargain to save what is left of their dying world.

Ain't they purdy?

Princess Deja Thoris escapes before marriage, and ends up in the hands of the Tharks and Carter.  There, the two of them escape, find out the secret of the Thurls, and work to unite Tharks and Helium to foil their plot.  Of course, they also fall in love.

Big battles, timely rescues ensue, but just as all seems well, Carter is transported back to earth.  Never to return?  Don’t bet on it (especially if it makes some box office dough…).

My Review
In terms of pure enjoyment, absolutely superior than the first book.  A fun, tightly scripted ride where character motivations made sense (pretty much) and the plot never felt forced.

The changes that the writing team did to the original all improved upon the book.  John Carter has a real arc—He’s essentially the Outlaw Josey Wales gone to Mars.  This is actually the place where I think they actually went a little too far, but I’ll get to that later.

Well, if you're going to rip-off a classic Western character, you could do much worse.

The biggest change is the addition of a top layer villains, which is taken from the second novel Gods of Mars.  The pseudo-god Therns, acting as puppet masters leading to the downfall of Barsoom gives what was in the first book a pretty redundant and simple “fish out of water” story and gives it a larger, more sinister edge.  I had thought that they were going to make a big “You have to do something, becaue Earth is next!” play, but they held back on that and stayed true to the story of Carter becoming John Carter of Mars, not defender of Earth.  Kudos for not taking the easy way out there.

Deja Thoris, who seemed a more simple “Princess of Ultimate Beauty” story in the book is given the Scarecrow treatment, as she becomes the leading scientist who has discovered how she may be able to save her world—something the Therms want to prevent.  Much of the tribal infighting that slows down the book is alluded to in the film, but kept as it should be to the sidelines.

I didn’t love Taylor Kitsch in the lead role, but I liked him well enough.  Lynn Collins does a very competant job as Deja Thoris, though given they stay true to the amount of skin the Barsoomians show, I must admit that the fact that she was absolutely stunning throughout perhaps makes me not the best judge of her overall acting talent.

All the voice acting for the Tharks, Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, and Thomas Haden Church principally among them were excellent, as was the animation that gave them real character throughout as their facial expressions really seemed to play off the human actors.  I was sorry that they didn’t include James Purefoy more, as his character had a larger role in the book, and I felt, much like his turn as Marc Anthony in the HBO Series Rome, he stole every scene he was in.  I found the score to be a little too over-the-top and schmaltzy, but that’s just picking at a nit.

My non-SHYB rating of this would probably be 4 or 4.5 stars, as it’s just a fun, well paced big-screen romp.  But let me give you my one big gripe, which comes back to the titular character.  As I noted in my Read It Then See It on the book, the John Carter movie team all felt that their least favorite part of the book was John Carter himself.  The conceited, judgmental “Gentleman of Virginia” made him hard to like.  Instead, they decided to do a Josey Wales ripoff, which was a fine choice.  Good guy forced from his family into the horror of war.  Loses family and faith in anything until finally a new love and cause gives his life meaning again.  Nice, nice.  Not thrilling, but nice.

Keeping Carter's heritage out robbed the movie of meaning

But it could have been SO much better to me, and very consistent with the spirit of the book was to start by giving him feet of clay.  With the exception of him having some manners, they essentially took the Confederate out of the character, along with all his biases.  In that, they totally missed the fantastic allegory that could have been there (and was there somewhat in the book) as Carter faced his own biases toward those not like him.

Indeed, the Thral plotline would have been fantastic had Carter’s antipathy toward them and their plot been thrown back in his face, as you could absolutely draw parallels between the way the Thrals were treating the rest of the Barsoomian race, and the way the Confederates were treating their slaves.  His arc could have gone from a proud defender of the Confederate way, a bigot who felt that treating people as property was okay, to a hero who saw the error of that way of thinking, and his final redemption would be in joining the fight for all Barsoomians to be free.

So, for that missed opportunity to give some real depth and added historic dimension to John Carter, I say:

Overall Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

See it Then Read It
Given the movie is so much fun, and the book is a challenging read for kids, I think this is actually better as a “The movie sounds GREAT.  If you read the book, I’ll totally take you” kind of incentive.  The movie moves so much better than A Princess of Mars does, I would be a little afraid that kids will get bored with the book if they start reading it after seeing the movie.