Archive for February, 2013

Ain’t that a chair in the head

February 28, 2013

It’s always hard when he cries.  It has been ever since he was a baby.  It’s because of those eyes.  So huge…so blue.  Oceans of glistening sorrow designed to drown a parent’s heart.

But this time was different.  And it was all over one little 6th Grade reading assignment called a “Blog Prompt.”  He was supposed to take any quote he liked from a book he’s been reading and write up a short statement about why he liked it and how it moved the conflict of the story forward.

Thanks for making my son cry, fellas.

Thanks for making my son cry, fellas.

He chose a quote from The Hobbit, with Gandalf giving Bilbo a hard time over a simple “Good Morning.”  It’s a funny scene that is used in the film as well.  He and I briefly discussed how that seemingly small aside speaks to the larger plot and relationship between the two characters.  I didn’t feel I needed to say much, as it was a yawningly easy assignment by his straight-A standards.  So I went upstairs and left him with pencil and paper to take care of business.

When I came back down a half-hour later to get dinner ready, I found an ocean roiling at the table.  He had been able to write down Gandalf’s pithy jibes, but that is where his assignment ended.  “I can’t do it!” he cried out in frustration.  “I try to think about it, but nothing comes out!  It’s all jumbled up in my head.”

He looked defeated.



Yes, broken.  For that’s truly what he was. Two days earlier as he quietly sat and read, a heavy school chair came tumbling down on his head as his buddy behind him lost control trying to take it down from his desk.

Welcome to the world of parenting a child with head trauma.

A hero in life and art

A hero in life and art

As I was collecting the shards of my heart off the floor, my mind turned instantly to, what else, pop-culture.  I remembered an interview with Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana.  After the accident that left Superman a quadriplegic, she soothed his misery by saying, “Yes, your body is broken, but it’s still you.”  His mind was intact, and in his remaining time, he went on to be a forceful advocate for spinal injury research, act and direct in a very interesting version of Rear Window, and even return to the world of Superman by taking on a recurring role in Smallville.

But this bright, funny, introspective kid of mine simply wasn’t him.  Parts of him were there, but both emotionally and intellectually, a significant part of who he is was veiled behind scrambled neurotransmitters and the fog of chemicals that release with the onset of a brain injury.  As the doctor at the SCORE concussion center at Children’s Hospital explained to me, Gus, like other kids with significant concussions, have what amounts to a “software problem.”  It’s not inflammation or a typical bruise.  A concussion is more akin to a computer getting caught in a bad loop, only, as my wife cleverly put it, there is no CTRL-ALT-DEL to reset the system.

Instead, it is the maddening process of waiting, worrying, and, for me, attempting to keep the ghosts of my past at bay.  Until he starts to improve, Gus is really not supposed to do anything to intellectually stressful.  This makes avoiding boredom a real challenge, especially when TV is supposed to be doled out in very limited doses.  So when Gus brought out a deck of cards, I thought that was a great way to pass a little time.


He knew Blackjack, but he had never played Poker before and was curious to learn after seeing the crew of the Enterprise-D ante up on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  So I sat there teaching him the rules, and we spilled out popcorn kernels to serve as chips.  The look of delight on his face when he successfully bluffed me for the first time was priceless—mostly because it was an expression that looked like my Gus—a glimpse of what he used to be, and, yes, I know intellectually, what he will be again.

But that intellectual awareness couldn’t stop the memory of the last time I sat at a kitchen table and taught someone Poker.  I was a few years younger than Gus is now as I sat with my Grandpa Nat, who had come to stay with us after suffering a debilitating stroke.  I slowly explained the cards, and we played most hands face-up so I could give him strategy pointers.  He seemed to enjoy it, but all I could think of was that I was teaching this game to the man—the icon—who had taught it to me.

Shut up.

Shut up.

So as my boy slowly and bravely reboots, I have been made painfully aware that in terms of the sheer power of the emotion, concern trumps pride, anger, and, yes, even love.  Or as I think about it, maybe worry is more like a “force multiplier” if you’ll forgive the military terminology; enhancing all of those baseline emotions with an almost uncontrollable ferocity.

And it is why as I take this hopefully short stroll in the shoes of those parents with special needs kids, my already sincere respect turns to wonder and admiration.  Two weeks of this has been positively exhausting.  And while I understand the enormous strength and scar tissue a parent can generate when caring to the needs of a child, the mere concept of having this level of anxiety as a constant partner is close to unfathomable to me at the moment.

Ah, as I’m writing this, Gus just finished that darned blog prompt on his second try (City of Ember quote this time—he listened to the audiobook).  Small headache afterwards, but no problems and no tears.  So as a return to school is looking more imminent, I guess I have only one other job to do; choose the brand of bubble wrap I will be encasing him in for the rest of his life.  I wonder if they have Nationals’ colors.  He’ll like that, I’m sure.

The Review: Beautiful Creatures

February 27, 2013

Well, I have a bit of a blogging backlog as for the past two weeks we’ve been dealing with the impact of a pretty severe concussion my big boy suffered. Indeed, I was about 20 minutes into the movie as I went to see it on the first day when I got the call from the school that he needed to be picked up.

Well, Gus, still not able to get back to school, went with me this afternoon and we finished what I started. I’ll post more about my poor big fella later, but frankly I’m a bit talked out when it comes to that. So a little escapism first both for you and for me.

You can find my Read It and See It review of the Beautiful Creatures book here.

Beautiful-Creatures-Movie-PosterThe Movie
Beautiful Creatures, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
Yes. Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Originally published in 2009. First of four in the Beautiful Creatures series.

Paranormal Teen Romance

Age Appropriate
11 and up. I said 10 and up for the book, but there’s a little more sexual innuendo and some aggressive necking in this version in what felt like an attempt to be more “Twilight like.” So I’d bump it up a bit.

Good for Grown Ups?
No. Pretty muddled and insipid throughout, this movie seems far more directly geared toward a teen audience without any real attempt to make it into more than that.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
The effects of the movie were, as my son said, “cheesy” so there’s really nothing there to surprise or shock. This is a romance-heavy plot, so you’re just going to bore the living bejesus out of young kids if you take them, so do yourself and them a favor and see what’s streaming on Netflix.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Much like the book, we start with high school junior Ethan Wate stuck in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. His mother recently died and his father has cracked under the strain of the tragedy. Only Amma, the housekeeper who has been like a second mother to him, is keeping things together. But he longs to leave the pain of the past and the small-minded pursuits of Gatlin society behind him.

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

Mean Girls can be beautiful creatures, too

But when Lena Duchannes comes to school, Ethan’s entire world will be turned upside-down. It starts just by defending her against the taunting of the bigoted “mean girls”, who ostracize her as a devil-worshiper because she is living at the old Ravenwood estate with the town shut-in, Macon. But as they get to know each other more, a bond forms between them, cemented by a curious broach that gives them a vision of two lovers separated by tragedy in the Civil War.

As their friendship turns to romance, Lena opens her secret world to him. She is a Caster, a magical creature from a long line of such, and is fated due to a curse brought on by those lovers to be chosen for a light or dark path on her 16th birthday. As the mysterious world of Casters opens, so too does the dark side of Lena’s family, who see her as a portal to bring their kind out of the shadows and into control of the world. Her fate, and their love, will determine the fate of us all.

My Review
When I had to leave this movie the first time, I told Gus that I felt pretty good about it. I was very pleasantly surprised by Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan. First, I liked the southern drawl he used even though the book clearly said that his mother taught it out of him. It lent some grounding to the setting that was really needed. I found his confused, depressed, and funny attitude to really work in the roll. Further, he seemed to have some real chemistry with his buddy Link, played by Thomas Mann.

Had I never come back, I would have been better off. I assume the pull to be Twilight was just too great, as the humor quickly drains from the story and shifts quickly to teen melodrama. Link and the funny buddy relationship quickly become an unfortunate afterthought. What I assume were budget constraints made the supernatural settings and effects feel entirely unbelievable, and in an attempt to keep focused on the protagonists, the rich world of the book is sliced so much that it becomes entirely unrelatable and uninteresting.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I do hope they restocked the bourbon in my trailer.

I felt the good performances also ended with Ehrenreich. Alice Englert does generally fine as Lena, but I couldn’t get over the thought that they were just looking for the new Kristen Stewart. Jeremy Irons felt like he was sleepwalking, complete with an accent that seemed to flitter in and out at any time. Viola Davis also screamed “Show me the check!” Emma Thompson at least looked like she was trying, but her role was so poorly written, especially with the new and asinine plotline of Casters taking over the world (why hadn’t they already?) she ended up feeling more like a caricature in both her rolls.

And what was a fairly thin plot in a very long book is rendered completely incomprehensible here. Both Gus and I looked at each other, and felt the whole thing made no sense. Indeed, it felt like that so much import was put on the scenes with Ethan and Lena fighting for their love, that everything else became unimportant. So what was left was a lot of teenage whining and something about magic people needing to do some magical stuff because, well…it’s magic.

The only plus over the book that this has is that there is a little more sexual substance between Ethan and Lena. That felt needed and realistic given the intensity of their feelings, and the fact they’re horny teenagers. But in the book, physical contact between the two of them actually hurt Ethan, a fantastic little detail about how their love was forbidden. Leaving out some of those easy details robbed this film of any of the creative charm of the book.

In other words…yuck.

Overall Score: 1.5 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
As I noted in my review of the book, it has its moments. But if you look and say “I don’t want to spend the time on a 600 page book, so I’ll just see the movie instead,” don’t waste your time. Either read the book or don’t read the book. But don’t go looking for the book in the movie, because it’s just not there.

Love in the Age of Cooties

February 13, 2013
The one day I wasn't wearing a Starfleet t-shirt

The one day I wasn’t wearing a Starfleet t-shirt

The man perhaps most responsible for my marriage passed away 19 years ago today. No, not my buddy Ted who introduced me to my future bride and encouraged me to keep the faith even though she had a boyfriend. Ted’s alive and well and his little fella is about to turn 1 (happy birthday, Leo!). For while I may have never met Kir without Ted, I wouldn’t have had a shot in the world at wooing her without my Uncle John.

John Sisti was on the surface an intimidating, hard-scrabble Brooklyn boy. He was a black belt in Judo, and was determined when I came to visit to toughen-up his skinny, nerdy nephew with some rather painful throws, as well as trips to the clay pits to shoot the hell out of some tin cans.

But while I have to admit that I enjoyed the manly-man stuff more than I expected, it was in another area that my Uncle John and I truly bonded: women. That bond was formed out of a simple truth. He knew what he was doing with women, and I had absolutely, positively no clue. My Aunt Libby still likes to tell the tale of our walking their dog Ali as the sun set on their Vermont home. John had one hand on Ali’s leash, and the other firmly on my shoulder. He was teaching me the finer points of learning how to make your move on a girl without being too forward. He groped, we laughed, and he told me that it was all about confidence.

It was later that I really understood what John was really trying to do. He saw a smart, kind, sensitive boy that was so uncomfortable in his own skin that it made his heart break. He wasn’t trying to toughen me up or make me into a ladies man. He was trying to get me to love myself a thousandth as much as he loved me. Without him, I’m not sure I would have found enough self-worth to “make my move” when the right opportunity finally rolled around. For that, I will always be thankful.

Tragically, cancer claimed my Uncle before he had a chance to meet my boys. More unfortunate still because they could really use someone better at this whole “girls” thing than their Dad is. Because every time I think to give them advice, the 13-yearl-old in his room listening to the LP of the Star Trek II soundtrack pops up and says, “Uh, you’re giving them advice about girls?” I tend to get a little quiet after that guy shows up.

Even Chuck had more game than I did.

Even Chuck had more game than I did.

And so I look on in wonder as my big guy, the smart, baseball-loving kid who starts each morning watching an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine calmly tells me that he asked a girl to the Valentine’s dance…and she said yes! And the very next day, I pick up my little guy at school, this guy who plays in chess tournaments and is as happy diving into his math workbook as he is a pool. Suddenly, a little red-headed girl straight out of Peanuts scuttled up purposefully, looked my fella right in the eye, and said, “Gunnar, why do you have a crush on me?” He flashed those teeth so desperate for braces, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “You’re nice, so I just do!”

I’m still a bit befuddled by the fact that my two boys have already had more success with women than I had in my first 20 years of life. But, as I’ve thought about it, the one major difference that I’ve found between these two guys and me at their age is that, at no time, do they seem to hide who they are. They may not always be satisfied, and sometimes it exposes them to painful ridicule, but both these guys are who they are, and they’re okay with what they see in the mirror. And so as others shy away from the risk of rejection or ridicule, my guys are willing to put themselves out there.

It’s not confidence. I’ve seen the kids that kind of breeze through life and feel like they can do no wrong. It’s not even an inner conceit; that inner sense of self. It’s something different, something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s an understanding of who they are, and a willingness to be that—openly, unreservedly—and let the chips fall where they may.

I know the toughest stretch—the teenage years—are still ahead. And perhaps this sense of self will crack under the relentless peer pressure of adolescence. But as my boys get ready for this Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but marvel at how right my Uncle John was about how an ounce of self-worth can make all the difference in the world.

And, most importantly, the girls dig it.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #1

February 11, 2013

Okay, I know I said I was doing magic next, but I just realized that the comic book series that leads up to the new Star Trek movie just started.  I was very impressed with the Star Trek: Countdown series that predicated the 2009 film, as it really helped to ground this new iteration within Star Trek lore and give the whole plot and villain a little more depth.  So now that we’re firmly planted in this new JJ Abramsverse (at least until he leaves for a galaxy far, far away) I thought it would be interesting to see how they’re teeing up this summer sci-fi tent pole.

star-trek-countdown-to-darkness-1(Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #1.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

The Movie
Star Trek: Into Darkness, Paramount. Release Date, May 17, 2013.

Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
8 and up.  While things go boom, even what might be considered scary is bloodless and tame.  It is not a dialogue-heavy comic, but Mr. Spock does like to use those big ole’ science-y words.  If bug-like aliens will freak your little guy or gal out, this may also not be your best bet, though we’re talking more ant-like than giant killer spider, here.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  A light read, but some good warm-up action for the movie and a solid first issue.

Book Availability
I just downloaded it from iBooks for $3.99.  Frankly, it felt a little pricey to me for a 22 page comic book that was a little light on dialogue.  Oh, for the large turning racks of 25 cent comic books at the local drug store of yesteryear…  The physical comic book was not available at my local Barnes and Noble, though I’d guess the full compilation will be available wherever you can get graphic novels when the series is completed.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Several months after the events of Star Trek (2009), Captain Kirk and the Enterprise have been on numerous missions exploring strange new worlds, but this isn’t your father’s Trek.

Better than the dream where you have to repeat high school geometry, though.

Better than the dream where you have to repeat high school geometry, though.

The trauma of Nero’s genocide on Vulcan haunts Spock, and the brash young Captain Kirk chafes from the solitude and unexpected restraints of command.  Their internal battles seem to have an impact on their relationship, as the strain between Spock’s caution and Kirk’s impulsiveness are clearly evident as they arrive at the planet Phadeus.

Kirk is desperate to “stretch his legs” and take a peek at this pre-industrial civilization, but Spock is absolutely adamant that the Prime Directive—that the Federation make no contact with a civilization until it has achieved faster-than-light space travel—be strictly adhered to.

Just when Kirk is about to defer to Spock, an energy pulse from the planet disrupts the Enterprise’s communications and transporter capabilities.  Kirk notes that the Prime Directive no longer applies, as an energy pulse of that sort could not come from a pre-industrial civilization.  Someone has been tampering on Phadeus.

Kirk, Spock, and Sulu take a shuttlecraft down to the planet, and quickly learn how right Kirk was…the hard way.  And when they discover who has been at work down on the planet, they find it comes in the form of a very familiar face (at least to Star Trek nerds like me).

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
As I noted, I wouldn’t put this comic in the “Best Value” bin, but it’s a fun little read.  I have not been following the ongoing comic book series created by publisher IDW that has continued the new voyages of the starship Enterprise, but this one does a nice job helping to keep from falling into the “well, they’re together now, so they’re just like they were in the original series.”

The key dynamic that’s different here is Kirk and Spock.  While there is an undercurrent of respect between the two of them, the implicit trust and friendship we are used to with these characters is not there.  Where in TOS, Kirk spent time balancing Spock’s logic and McCoy’s humanity, here Kirk seems more comfortable making decisions based on his own instinct and Spock is attempting to reel him in.

When old school Kirk broke the Prime Directive, he did it with style.

When old school Kirk broke the Prime Directive, he did it with style.

The other fun part of this issue is its focus on the Prime Directive.  This is a Star Trek cornerstone: Thou Shalt Not Muck With Developing Civilizations.  This is territory that has been very well covered in pretty much every iteration of Trek, but not so much with the prism of a post-9/11 society.  A core question raised here is how much in the wake of the Trek equivalent of 9/11—the Narada attack on the Federation—has the Federation itself changed.  Are the ideals of a society that has conquered its own biases, that seeks out new civilizations peacefully and in a spirit of cooperation, still what rule the day?  Or have the scars from Nero changed this Federation into something different—something darker.  The appearance of an old character at the very end of the issue—one with a personal connection to the Enterprise—begs this very question.

But, while I understand this is a comic book, and only the first of the four issue set, I felt like it was fairly thin.  I would have enjoyed seeing more of the dynamic between Kirk and Spock work its way out, or perhaps some dialogue between some of the secondary characters giving insight into how the ship is running in this new reality.  Given we have so many assumptions coming in based on the crew we knew from the 1960s, I felt that I wanted another 4-5 pages of “catch-up” to feel comfortable when they jump into the meat of the story.

The artwork was solid, though at times I found the characters alternatively looking very much like their live-action counterparts in one panel then virtually nothing like them in the next.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Some nerdy and actually not-so-nerdy opportunities crop up in this issue.  Let me turn to my strength and go nerd first.

The Prime Directive: In the 1960s, The Prime Directive was an analogy to colonization or developed nations muscling developing countries into their particular political/economic/development track.  It was a great Cold War device to use to discuss perceptions of power relationships and what “civilized” society would do.  In the age of global terrorism and uneven, but nearly ubiquitous technological dissemination, the Prime Directive may mean something very different now.  Is the Prime Directive a vestige of a time when developed nations felt “paternal” to less developed ones?  And when those lesser developed nations can become a harbor for those that would mean to do us harm, should it still apply?

Losing a planet sucks, but losing a friend...

Losing a planet sucks, but losing a friend…

The Power of Personal Tragedy: Spock’s ongoing difficulty in handling what happened in the first Star Trek film hits front-and-center here.  And while, yes, the destruction of his planet that was most obviously traumatic, it was his failure to save his mother that he simply can’t seem to get over.  Why in a world that has so much loss does some get raised over others?  The immensity of the tragedy in Syria puts what happened in Newtown to shame, yet America seems changed forever by that tragedy and is seemingly unfazed by the civil war in that far-off nation.  What kind of tragedy overwhelms us in grief?  What kind motivates us to action?  What makes us push the tragedy away from us?  What does that say about us as individuals?  As humans?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness Poster 2Well, golly, I’m just not sure.  I must admit that I’m a little more concerned about this one than I was the last.  Both the “Into Darkness” title and the fact that the secret bad guy being played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch is reported to be a terrorist is making me feel a bit worried that Abrams is going all Battlestar Galactica with this film.

What made me enjoy the first film so much was that under the big action was a message that felt very Trek to me.  The old Spock’s failure to stop Romulus from being destroyed represented the failure of the 60’s generation to create the better world of Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry envisioned.  But that core of hope, that we can better ourselves and get past our own hate and weakness, the core that is Star Trek, is still very valid.  And so a new generation is handed that sacred trust to attempt to boldly go where no one has gone before.

If they instead make this into more of a straight “Old Star Trek was the 1960s, this is 2013” then we’ll get yet another gritty space drama where the line between good and evil are hopelessly muddled.  While there’s nothing wrong with that kind of complexity, that to me robs Star Trek of what makes it special.  Star Trek, even at its most dark, has been about our never-ending struggle, and ultimate triumph, to be better than we are today.  While from the Borg to the Dominion, different writers have found clever ways to implant doubt and challenge whether a better humanity is truly suited for the stars, the underlying promise of a hopeful future was never in question.  As I watch and hear what they have in store, I worry if that central premise might be lost in the effort to tell a more “contemporary” tale.

I hope I’m wrong, because, frankly, there’s already more than enough darkness to go around these days.

Read It and See It: Ender’s Game

February 8, 2013

As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan.  I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other.  So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.

Enders GameThe Book
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.

The Movie
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.

Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children.  Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them.  While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child.  On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids.  So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups.  I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book.  Serious nerd cred right there.

Book Availability
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well.  If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist.  On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of.  But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”

Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic.  The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader.  And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two.  After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for.  Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago.  In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him.  His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.

Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul.  And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him.  That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style.  At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted.  It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.

As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access.  In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.

Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book.  Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position.  I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had.  The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.

The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me.  I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward.  Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.

And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war.  Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.

Don't do it, Steven!  Just fade to back!

Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!

My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.”  For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation.  This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.

I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that.  He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure.  If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine.  But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist.  This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.

So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids.  Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:

The Curse of the Special Child:  Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that?  What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood?  How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?

The Needs of the Many…  Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems).  At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line.  This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.

And do the Ends Justify the Means?  This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book.  The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour.  But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion.  It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.

Can't go wrong with a Horta!

Can’t go wrong with a Horta!

Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy.  It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark.  While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.

Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence.  Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do?  What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?

Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games.  Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities?  Does it desensitize?  How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

Looks like they're aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay.  Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.

The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think.  And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.

I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:

In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.

The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective).  I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact.  Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.

Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.

Guns in America: Redefining Responsibility

February 7, 2013
I mean, THIS is the guy you want to hear about gun control?

I mean, THIS is the guy you want to hear about gun control?

And so before I turn back to my pop-culture strength (don’t think I haven’t noticed far more likes for my latest Read It and See It than for my gun control rants…), let me polish off my little suggestion on this important debate.

And so The Nerdy Blogger Dad Solutions to Gun Violence Act of 2013, as I’m sure the bill will come to be known, began with the ambitious proposal of mandating state or local police forces around the nation place two officers in every public school in the country.

Remember, it was the NRA itself that opened the door to this major initiative, and I’d have a hard time seeing even Wayne LaPierre arguing that there are any better “good guys with guns” than our own police.  But unless there’s a gun fairy that I am unaware of, we were going to need to pay these new cops.  To make this program an unfunded mandate would be unpalatable to liberals and conservatives alike.

But when we are filling these new police positions, what is it that we are paying them for?  To guard against the kind of horror we saw at Newtown, right?  Where a disturbed individual gained access to horribly destructive weapons that were legally in his mother’s collection.  If that is the case, then what we are paying for is the responsibility we have as a society for our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

There's no Effing guarantee.  Come on, sing it with me!

There’s no Effing guarantee. Come on, sing it with me!

Freedom, my friends, isn’t free.

And that’s the potentially uncomfortable new prism of responsibility that I think those who support and participate in our armed society need to wrap their heads around.  The responsibilities of a gun owner don’t stop at keeping their weapons under lock-and-key.  They extend to the dangers as a whole that an armed society present as a whole.  The “legal” vs. “illegal” guns is a moot point, as virtually all the weapons in our society were produced legally and then over time through insufficient registration and background checks filtered into the black market.  It is simply yet another price we pay for our right to bear arms.

And so in order to pay for this program, I go back to the brilliant idea that my wife proposed: treat guns like we do another dangerous but legal commodity—cigarettes. For much like the smoker who may never fall ill still has to pay the taxes that go to help ameliorate the damage cigarettes do to society as a whole, so too would responsible gun owners be contributing to mitigate the larger costs of gun violence.

But guns are a different animal insofar as the fact that once a cigarette is smoked, it no longer poses a continued danger to society.  I therefore suggest not a sales tax on guns, but an annual fee on all guns owned, tiered by that weapon’s destructive capacity.  So if you want the right to have that AR-15 in your collection, you need to pay for the heavy price society has to pay when weapons of that type fall into the wrong hands.

Of course, the stickers will need to be a little smaller.

Of course, the stickers will need to be a little smaller.

This would, of course, mean, that all gun sales and transfers, whether they be at gun shows, between brothers—you name it—would have to be reported and registered, as you need to know who has the gun to know who gets the bill.  And so I have little doubt that there are some gun owners out there that would be uncomfortable with having to tell the government which guns it has (though there really is no reasonable argument that it would be unconstitutional).  But if we have to register our cars, tell me why again we shouldn’t have to do the same for our guns?  Back to that public sentiment thing, a recent poll suggested that more than three quarters of Americans thought that gun registration was a good idea (and this one was even taken before Newtown).

Of course, this system could get gamed, but it would provide some financial disincentive for just trading guns around like playing cards, and progressively so for the most dangerous weapons available.  It would also make guns something that isn’t a “one-and-done” purchase.  Every year there would be a chance for a family to weigh to the costs and benefits of having a gun or guns in their home.

I admit that many demons will gnaw their way forth with details.  But for those who would chafe at a police mandate, I wouldn’t mind if states or localities are granted opt-out power to use the funds that would go for police instead be spent on other gun violence reduction initiatives from buy-back programs to rebates for smart gun purchases to education campaigns for gun safety. And for those who don’t like the fact that their guns are being taxed when they don’t pose a danger, I could see deductions for storing weapons at secure facilities rather than in the home.

Maybe it can work both ways.

Maybe it can work both ways.

I also admit this is NOT the ultimate solution to gun violence in America. But what we have seen with cigarettes is that by taxing them and using that money to help highlight their danger, it has provided a societal counterbalance to the “smoking is cool” notion that prevailed in previous generations.  This in turn has led to progress in curbing smoking despite the fact there are no intentions on making it illegal.

So instead this proposal is a way to reframe the conversation we are having about guns.  There are no convincing statistics that say that an increasingly armed society is increasingly safe.  Indeed, most convincing statistics say just the opposite. But if we put more cops in schools, and redefine responsible gun ownership as not just an individual responsibility, but a societal one that honesty portrays the burdens of these weapons alongside the rights, perhaps we can push past this rhetorical impasse and pull together reasonable people toward common sense solutions.

And that, to me, is the conversation worth having.

Read It and See It: Beautiful Creatures

February 4, 2013

Alright, less guns!  More books!  So a quick break from my ramblings on gun control.  The movie is coming out Valentine’s Day, so you better get cracking!

Note: You can now find my review of the Beautiful Creatures movie here.

Beautiful Creatures Book CoverThe Book
Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl. Originally published in 2009.  First of four in the Beautiful Creatures series.

The Movie
Beautiful Creatures, Warner Brothers. Release Date, February 14

Paranormal Teen Romance (yes, there is such a genre)

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book is definitely geared to the high school set, there really isn’t much in this book that wouldn’t be appropriate for the middle school set.  While there is a bit more sexual allusion (the heroine’s cousin is quite the siren—literally), it’s quite tame and, frankly, I was surprised about how little there was considering this is the story about a 15-year-old boy and his first true girlfriend.  The violence is also far tamer than say, The Hunger Games series, with the most vivid depictment being a Civil War flashback.  I would say a thoroughly PG affair.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Did you like Twilight?  I didn’t read Twilight, but if you did and liked it, I would guess you’d like this.

Book Availability
Available in pretty much every electronic medium imaginable as well as paperback.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Ethan Wate is a teenager stuck in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina.  His mother recently died and his father has cracked under the strain of the tragedy.  Only Amma, the housekeeper who has been like a second mother to him, is keeping things together.  But he longs to leave the pain of the past and the small-minded pursuits of Gatlin society behind him.

Great idea for a haunted house, or haunted society.

Great idea for a haunted house, or haunted society.

But when Lena Duchannes comes to school, Ethan’s entire world will be turned upside-down.  It starts just by defending her against the taunting of the school bullies, who ostracize her because she is living at the old Ravenwood estate with the town shut-in, Macon.  But as they get to know each other more, they find out that they are connected in ways Ethan could not have imagined, even being able to hear each other’s thoughts.

As their friendship turns to romance, Lena opens her secret world to him.  She is a Caster, a magical creature from a long line of such, and is here to fulfill her destiny to be chosen for a light or dark path on her 16th birthday.  Due to a curse brought on during the civil war, one where a love affair between Lena’s and Ethan’s ancestors sealed the Duchannes family’s fate, Lena will have no choice as to her destiny.  And if she goes dark, she will lose everything about her that Ethan has come to love.

The couple search desperately for a way to solve the issue, and tunnel deep into the hidden magical world veiled behind the veneer of Gatlin’s faded southern gentility.  Ethan discovers why his parents, most particularly his brilliant mother, never chose to leave this seemingly small and backward town.  But with time running out, another thought to be dead mother returns with a devil’s bargain for Lena—a way to be with Ethan forever, something that seemed impossible, in exchange for the lives of everyone else she loves.

Quickie Review
Okay, I’ll admit right up front that teen paranormal romance isn’t my cup of tea.  I didn’t read Twilight so I don’t really have a modern base for comparison here.  But I have to say what I had a hard time with in this book was my suspension of disbelief.

Perhaps the main reason I had an issue with the story was its choice of first person, and the fact that Ethan was telling the story (though it does transfer to Lena for a small section).  I myself was a former somewhat nerdy teen in a southern city, who was good at sports, never really fit in, and longed to escape.  So I felt I had good standing to connect with this character.  But, to me, this simply isn’t how a 15-year-old boy thinks.  It felt very idealized—frankly the way a 15-year-old girl might want a 15-yearl-old boy to think.  Maybe that’s the point of paranormal teen romance, but it left me a little cold.  Especially because of the sex, or lack thereof.

I know, I know, it’s a teen romance novel, and the girls don’t want to read about horny boys.  But if you’re writing a romance book in the voice of a red-blooded American adolescent male, it’s patently ridiculous if it’s not there at all.  Ethan and Lena end up in a torrid romance that includes the “L-word” and, even during all the scenes where they are making out, Ethan doesn’t mention sex once?  I was a nice guy teenager desperately looking for a Lena Duchannes, and I’ll tell you that if this happened to me, while I might never have acted ungentlemanly, it certainly would have been on my mind.  A lot.  A whole lot.  I think having that struggle on top of everything else would have made Ethan feel much more human, and the story feel more real and less Harlequin given this story is in his voice.

No wands this time, but similar magical destiny

No wands this time, but similar magical destiny

The magical world itself was pretty interesting. Very Harry Potter, with the things-that-go-bump-in-the night being real, but slightly different than we assumed, from witches (Casters) to vampires (Incubi).  The presence of voodoo and the role of some mortals as impartial guides through this realm was well thought out.  The big issue I have with both this and other hidden magical world books like this is that I really didn’t get any explanation as to why the magical world, one which is clearly much, much stronger than the human world and feels infinitely superior to it, chooses to hide itself rather than rule.  I felt the same way about the Potterverse.  I’m willing to be convinced, but when you just ignore that 800 lb. gorilla, it makes it much harder for me to suspend my disbelief.

This book also took itself VERY seriously, and I totally understand that.  It’s supposed to be a teen drama.  But they had Ethan’s best friend Link ideally situated for that very needed relief role, but I don’t think Garcia and Stohl really showed a deft comic touch.  Something needed to take a little starch out of the proceedings, and nothing really ever did.  The closest was probably the sexy siren and dark caster Ridley, Lena’s cousin.  Her character was probably the most enjoyable of the lot as because of her selfishness, impish attitude, and anger, she felt the most real.

The story’s big reveal at the end felt a little forced to me, but not unacceptably so.  And the small town southern life felt a little thick, but again not horribly so (though the idea of using live ammunition at a Civil War reenactment seemed a very odd contrivance).

So while I know that I am not the target audience for this story, I can’t help but think about The Hunger Games ability to pull me into its world despite the fact that I’m not a teen.  So while this book may be the rage with its demographic, I have to say there was little here to make that similar leap.

Overall Read Score: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
This is a story all about not fitting in and finding the power within yourself to stand up to bullies that berate you for being different or adults that think that they know what’s better for you.  It’s a pretty classic tale of adolescent rebellion that turns pages, but, unless I’m missing something, doesn’t have a whole lot else to say and really wasn’t trying to.

Lots of stars and bars in this one.

Lots of stars and bars in this one.

That said, the rural southern background, while pretty stereotypical, could certainly be used as a leaping off point to talk about the prejudices that still exist in our society, and how some of them are deeply rooted in our past.  The social bullying of Ethan and Lena is a universal story and could be a portal to discussion of whether there are things happening like that at your child’s school (though with significantly less magic, I’d guess).

So while I don’t think this book in itself raised any really interesting questions, there’s enough here in what is supposed to be a fun page-turner to perhaps engage in some serious discussion about the trials and tribulations of growing up.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 2 out of 5 stars.

BeautifulCreaturesMoviePoster1What to Expect from the Movie
Well, Warner Brothers certainly seems to think they have a winner on their hands given the heavy-weight actors they have supporting the teen-age leads.  Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis will all play pivotal roles in the film and hopefully give what felt like somewhat two-dimensional characters on the page some new life.

I also think the script could help the movie out, perhaps just taking a little bit of the stuffing out of the story.  I understand this is supposed to be a drama, but I think a more humorous Link, for example, might help the film stay a bit more grounded than the book.  With my wife out of town for Valentine’s Day, I’m going to give her the most sincere demonstration of my love that I can think of, as I’ll go see the movie without her.

Next in this series: The games children play to save humanity.

Guns in America—An Uncomfortable Proposal

February 1, 2013
Always comfortable cooking with my wise and beautiful Aunt.

Always comfortable cooking with my wise and beautiful Aunt.

A good three decades ago, my Aunt Libby was having a conversation with her teenage stepson who had anger management issues.  She told him that while he may not feel good being angry, he felt “comfortable” there.  It didn’t help him.  Indeed it hurt him.  But it was the place he felt familiar and safe.  So being angry was his default switch.  Unlike some people, he had to actually work, to move outside a place he felt comfortable, to be happy.

If we as a nation genuinely want progress on gun violence, I believe we have to get uncomfortable, too.  For those of us who are advocates of gun control, it’s very easy to sit down and watch John Stewart make mincemeat out of the rampant hypocrisy of political gun advocates.  It makes us feel right, justified, and like the other side is just a bunch of deluded idiots for opposing some common-sense measures to curb gun violence.  It makes us feel comfortable.

Hilarious, but helpful?

Hilarious, but helpful?

And for reactionaries like Wayne LaPierre (and note I do NOT put most gun owners in this category, but LaPierre is the public voice of the gun lobby pushing on policy), it is comfortable to fall back on the comforts of “an armed society is a polite society” and fire copies of the 2nd Amendment out of AR-15 rifles.  It’s the old, comfy sweater of the gun violence debate.

And, having been in on this debate when it flared in the 1990s, I’m having a hard time seeing how this is going to play out any differently if we all stay in our comfort zones.  For, as I said in my Newtown post, let’s face it, we who dislike guns have neither the right, nor the numbers, to impress our vision of a gun-free America on our nation. But the same holds true for those who believe an armed society is a polite society. But as long as that’s the argument we’re having, all that will happen is nothing. And nothing simply isn’t good enough.

And so, Mr. LaPierre, let’s talk about armed guards in schools.

Not exactly my idea of an inviting learning environment.

Not exactly my idea of an inviting learning environment.

Well, I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of that particular idea.  The notion of hiring some private security to stand guard over the school sounds militaristic.  A school is the microcosm of a community, not a place of business.  Our kids are young people wanting to feel safe, not money in the bank to be shielded by intimidating guys with assault rifles.  But, wait, isn’t there some kind of community service that provides the public protection?  Oh, yeah, right.  The police.

Those police were right out in front of my little guy’s elementary school the Monday after Newtown.  I had told both my fellas about what had happened, so Gunnar understood why the police were there.  How did he feel about it?  He thought they were “cool.”  The officer was giving all the kids high-fives and exchanging pleasant hellos with parents.  It didn’t feel like overkill to me.  It felt like a community coming together to protect its kids.

And my big guy had a similar experience with the police officer that’s assigned to his middle school.  One day in the hall, he and a friend witnessed one of the school bullies attack another student.  The kid pushed the victim against a locker, where he slammed his head and fell, apparently unconscious.  They were both a little scared to tell anyone, but bucked up the courage because there was a person whose sole purpose was to protect the kids, and one who had the legal authority to do it—the school police officer.  According to my son, the officer reacted quickly, apprehending the attacker, assessing the victim, and clearing the hallway.  Frankly, with all of the work that teachers and administrators have to do in order to keep a school running, I find it heartening and helpful that the police have resources like this committed to our kids.

Yeah, a little idyllic, but definitely better than the other guy.

Yeah, a little idyllic, but definitely better than the other guy.

And so, I propose that we mandate that each public school around the country have not one, but two police officers patrolling it at all times there are children present (this includes afterschool activities and if the school is being used for evening youth activities as well).  I say two, not just one, as given we are reacting specifically to the Newtown incident, two officers in separate portions of the school would be far more difficult for an assailant to neutralize quickly than just one might be.

From my experience, a police presence at school is something that can not only benefit the students, but the police as well.  It gives officers more of a visible and positive link with the community.  It reinforces their role as trusted protectors rather than those people who hide in the bushes and give us speeding tickets.  And given there has been historically more police presence in schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods around the nation, universalization could give the practice a little less of a stigma (and a little less fiscal pressure).

“But Scott,” you might be asking, “Even if you’re right and police in schools provide kids with more protection, how in the world is it going to solve the problem of gun violence?  Isn’t this just giving the NRA what they want—more guns?”  That’s a great point, and if the proposal ended there, I’d probably be among the first in line to protest it.  More than that, it seems entirely counter-intuitive, entirely uncomfortable to cede power to the NRA at a time when, at the moment, the forces for gun control appear to be winning the national argument.

Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press

Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press

But in Conflict Partnership terms, sometimes you need to give up power in order to get power in return.  Because whether it is armed guards or more cops in schools, such a proposal comes with a hefty price tag.  And it’s not like building a fence or installing an alarm—this is an ongoing and significant expense.  And so the NRA, normally a “don’t tread on me” kind of gang, is calling for a pretty massive new program that, in some way or form, the government needs to be involved, as it’s providing a public service.  And in a fiscal environment where states and localities are struggling to pay even for current services, asking for such a major new commitment isn’t realistic…unless you find a way to find new money to pay for the responsibilities of our right to bear arms.

And that’s where the conversation may get a little uncomfortable for the NRA.

Next: The payment plan that puts new perspective on guns.