Archive for April, 2013

The Review: 42

April 30, 2013

As I noted in my last post about Jason Collins, now is a particularly prescient moment to see this film with your kids.  I’ll get to that more in a bit, but let’s talk about the movie itself.

42 Movie PosterThe Movie
42, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
No. Though there are numerous books at all reading levels about Jackie Robinson. I’ll get to that below.

Genre
Historical drama

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  While I think this movie might be a little slow for younger kids, the key thing you’d need to decide is whether extremely racist language is appropriate for your child.  I think the power and shock value of hearing how easily racist language and mentalities dripped from Americans in the late 1940s is of tremendous educational value, but you might differ on that.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes, yes, yes.  This film has a very “old-timey” feel to it that anyone who has watched a vintage movie might enjoy, even though sometimes is plays a little cheesy.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Well, the “N-word” is dropped numerous times in this film.  Particularly in the scene when Jackie’s Dodgers play the Phillies under uber-racist skipper Ben Chapman, he is forced to endure a profanity and vulgarity-laced screed replete with sexual innuendo that earns this film its PG-13 rating.  Prepping your younger kids for that scene can help make it a learning experience.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has decided the time has come for the color barrier of America’s pastime to be broken.  We follow the process of his choice– USC graduate and army veteran Jackie Robinson–breaking through this great wall, starting as a minor leaguer in Montreal through is first season in Brooklyn.

My Review
I saw this movie with my 11-year-old and his buddy, both avid baseball fans.  And as a teaching tool about civil rights, prejudice, and the bravery of the path of nonviolence, it is hard to imagine a better film for that audience.

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

I have to say going in I was a little worried about the choice of newcomer Chadwick Boseman, as from the previews I had not seen the cerebral, almost nerdy Jackie Robinson that I had seen in old films, including The Jackie Robinson Story where Jackie plays himself (it used to be streaming on Netflix, but is no longer…interesting).  Instead, it looked like they had turned him instead into a contemporized and stereotypical “angry black man.”  I have to say that was one concern that was alleviated by a solid scripting of the character and a convincing performance by Boseman.

"You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!"

“You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!”

I was also delighted to see Harrison Ford actually act in a film for the first time in at least a decade, rather than just say lines and collect a check.  While his performance was slightly schmaltzy, again for a younger crowd it worked very well.  Of course, the kids were in complete disbelief that, “That was Indiana Jones!”

Actually, schmaltzy is a great word for this entire movie.  From the score to the script, the film felt not sappy, but larded through a lens of baseball mythology.  From the little boy putting his ear to the track carrying Jackie’s train to the big leagues screaming, “I can HEAR it!” to the slow-motion trot around the bases to the shouts of trumpets and angels, the film itself sometimes felt like a glorified movie-of-the-week. But that glorification actually made it work, mostly because this really is American myth.

This story is so seminal that it can stand up to being put on a pedestal and not crash under its own weight.  I actually compare this to John Goodman’s The Babe which in many ways had a similar feel, but despite the realistic depictions of ballparks and Goodman being one of my very favorite actors, it just felt like an over-the-top beatification of the Babe.  But here, perhaps because this was such a huge issue, one that transcended baseball, it works.

Didn't realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in.  Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

Didn’t realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in. Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

And speaking of realistic depictions of the ballparks—wow.  My parents practically lived at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds growing up.  Of course, I’ve seen the parks on film.  But the painstaking CGI recreations of these parks, for the first time, made me feel like I could actually go and visit those long gone baseball cathedrals.  I found the CGI of the ball’s flight when pitched or hit a little distracting and unrealistic sometimes, but that’s a small nerdy quibble for getting closer than I ever thought I could get to experiencing those fields of dreams.  If that’s something of interest to you, I highly recommend you going to see this in the theater.  It will lose some of its grandeur even on your big screen TV at home.

Now THAT'S a slow-motion home run trot!

Now THAT’S a slow-motion home run trot!

Speaking of grandeur, I think what was missing for me in this film was a lack of grandeur, actually.  We skipped from one seminal moment to another, and I almost felt like I was watching a historical highlight reel rather than a cohesive story.  In order to be a great film, I felt like the story needed a little more connective tissue.  One of the great baseball films of all time that has a similar mythological feel, The Natural, is replete with small moments, from talking about how good the food is at a restaurant to batting practice conversation.  It brought a personal feel to a grand film that I really didn’t find much in 42.  Even the personal moments were vital, as if every second of the man’s life was filled with huge importance.  That separation from a regular Joe like me was missing, and, I think, kept 42 from truly competing with movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams (my favorite movie of all time), Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham and even Major League (just the first one) as iconic baseball films.

That said, it does more than enough to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Having Gus quote me Branch Rickey’s line “I’m looking for a man with the guts not to fight back!” made it worth the price of admission right there.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
I will once again recommend that, whether before or after you see 42, you and your kids read the excellent piece Jason Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated as he joins Robinson as a civil rights pioneer through sports.  For more on Jackie Robinson for kids, I’m a big fan of the “Who Was?” series and there is a very good one on Jackie Robinson that we own.  And, to continue the story, one of the all-time classic baseball books Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is recommended for absolutely anyone.

But, however, you do it, please bring Jackie Robinson into your children’s life.  I truly believe his story is a gateway to a cornucopia of fantastic life lessons.

The baseball is just a fringe benefit.

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Jason Collins: The New 42

April 29, 2013

jason-collins-cover-single-image-cutHe’s not a fresh faced California kid with soft hands and cleats with wings. He’s a journeyman center who has probably played with half the players in the NBA.

But our kids need to understand that this is their Jackie Robinson moment.

I went to see 42 on Saturday and will have my review of it soon (a very good film overall), but I just wanted to urge each and every one of you out there to have your sons and daughters read and live through our very own 42 moment.

Jason Collins has become the first active player in professional team sports to declare openly that he is gay. This moment opens up endless opportunities to discuss differences, prejudice, and understanding with your kids. As Jackie Robinson’s journey showed the importance that sports had on the concept of race, I believe we are seeing something of equal importance here. As unlike the overwhelming horror of Syria, for example, something like this gives us a space that is easier to access with our kids as it is right where we live, both literally and figuratively.

And, luckily, Collins himself has written a fantastic piece for Sports Illustrated talking about who he is and why he is coming out now. He parallels with the civil rights movement with passages like this:

My maternal grandmother was apprehensive about my plans to come out. She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest aspects of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn’t have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s.

The hardest part of this is the realization that my entire family will be affected. But my relatives have told me repeatedly that as long as I’m happy, they’re there for me. I watch as my brother and friends from college start their own families. Changing diapers is a lot of work, but children bring so much joy. I’m crazy about my nieces and nephew, and I can’t wait to start a family of my own.

The fact that Collins has a long career already is, in some ways, an advantage. He doesn’t need to prove that he can play and coexist with straight men—he’s already done it. The fact that he has a straight twin brother who also plays in the NBA helps to dispel the myths that “it’s just at choice.”

Thank you for your bravery, Jason. Now please read, share, teach, and learn, and let’s all make the most out of this piece of living social history.

“Hi Mom!”

April 29, 2013

It was majestic.  A towering shot to dead left field that cleared the fence by a good 15 feet.  It was my big fella’s first ever over-the-fence home run, and it came at a moment that might have been even more important an nerve-wracking than in a game.  He did it at tryouts for the county all-star team (a team he had tried out for the past two years, made the first cut, but didn’t quite get all the way there).

The coach boomed “Going, Going…Gone!” as the ball sailed into the brush behind the wall.  My wife, a bit perplexed as to the social dynamics of the moment, inquired to our friends as to whether she was allowed to cheer at a tryout.  I believe one of my old co-coaches said something like “Damn straight!” as he popped off the stands to chase down the ball (which now sits proudly on Gus’s bookshelf).

Indeed, there was only one small fissure in this perfect gem of a moment.

I wasn’t there.

Thousands upon thousands of pitches thrown.  Countless hours in the yard, at the field.  I have been there for almost every single baseball moment in this boy’s life since he first toddled his way toward a plate with a big foam BlastBall! bat.  And yet here’s how this moment of triumph looked from my perspective:

Home Run Text

When I saw the text, after the flash of fatherly pride gave way to sullen selfishness, I immediately remembered that this moment had already been masterfully captured:

Well, sometimes you just gotta laugh. Hopefully it’s the first of many.

My Other Son

April 26, 2013

After birthing him from just an inkling of passion, it’s finally time to send him out into the world.

You’ve poured your soul into his development.  You remember arranging the playdates, a tinge of nervousness over whether he’d be liked, but still tucked away in the safety of your own control.  Even when he wasn’t quite right, it was always up to you to help fix it—to be his gentle guide toward completion.

IndyParty Skull Gus IIBut now you and are simultaneously so very proud and so absolutely terrified when it’s finally time to send him off, beyond the tentacles of your adoring care, into the arms of those charged with helping him become part of the larger world.  They can’t love him like you do.  See him like you do.  He’s so much a part of you that any issues, any hiccups, any failures can’t help but feel like a stain directly on your soul.

And yet, with that flutter in the belly that whisks your myriad insecurities with the intoxicating liquor of hope, you let go…

…and press the send button.

It’s funny that, even though I’ve sent more pitch letters to agents than I’d care to admit, it was only with today’s effort that I recognized the incredible emotional similarities between writing and parenting.

As checked my letter for the umpteen millionth time, the image of my doing that disgusting thing that all parents do—licking my fingers to get that smudge off my son’s face before school—darted through my mind.  As I noted the positive reaction that my “beta testing” group of 9 to 15-year-olds had to my manuscript, I was awash in memories of the G-men toddling with preschool friends while the parents passive-aggressively compared developmental statistics.

And the groaning strain in the pit of my stomach that leapt forth as soon as I clicked send?  Well, I have that same feeling just about each and every time Gus or Gunnar step to the plate.  Each ball that whirs toward them, each time they step gently forward and coil their hands in preparation to swing, the countless pitches I have thrown to them in the back yard circle around my gut like a whirlwind of abject fear and impossible optimism.

mightydoveThe biggest difference in sending AJ, the hero of The Adventures of…MightyDove!, off as compared to my other two boys (other than his non-living status, that is) is the fact that that Gus and Gunnar went off to a wonderful public school system where the experts are paid to help make the most out of their skills.  My other son doesn’t live in that socialist wonderland.  Instead, he faces the harsh reality of the marketplace.  No agent is compelled to take AJ in and help him grow up.  The boy of my brain has to earn his way into school even before trying to earn the grades to make him a success in life.

Dear Mr. Nathanson,

Thank you for your query. I’m sorry, but I have to pass on this one. While I appreciate the opportunity to consider your work, I don’t feel I connected enough with the material here to be the right agent for it. Please keep in mind that this business often comes down to personal taste, and another agent may feel differently about your project.

Again, thanks for thinking of me for this. I wish you the best of luck finding the right representation.

So that’s the latest one.  The nice thing is that AJ seems okay with it.  His Dad, however, is a bit more put out.  But then the faint sound of metal plinking soundly upon leather reverberates in my mind.  A ball struck solidly into the outfield, my boy making his triumphant turn toward second base.  I’ve thrown a million pitches and I’ll throw a million more to Gus and Gunnar in order to hear that sound…to have that feeling…once again.

And so I take a deep breath, reach back, and ready myself for another pitch.  After all, once you put the ball in the air, you never know what might happen.

Win Every Inning

April 25, 2013

14-3.

That was the final score of my little guy’s game this past weekend.

Joey really did have a good game.

Joey really did have a good game.

And we weren’t the 14.

And yet despite the blowout, if you had looked out at the two teams at the end of the game, you would have thought that it was my Blue Wahoos that had won the day.  Actually, in a sense I think we did.

The Wahoos are “playing up” this year as my kids had shown both enough interest and aptitude for pitching to move to the first year kid pitch division.  Most of my kids are in 2nd grade and we’re playing against teams of almost all 3rd graders—and that extra year makes a BIG difference in size, strength, and coordination.

After competing well the first couple of games, we finally came up against the big, bad Riverdogs.  In the first inning, a boy the height of my 11-year-old son launched a towering drive 20 feet beyond my outfielders.  It probably would have been a little less than that, but all three of them just stood in place to watch the majestic drive, one of them yelling “WOAH!” as it sailed over his head.  After getting a good look, my center fielder decided he’d go ahead and run after it.  At that point, all semblance of baseball order was lost.  Four other players ran after him, leaping in the air and yelling “Throw it here!” and subsequently, “No, here!” The runners trotted home as my outfielder decided whether to throw to door #1-4, and I began to hear Toreador playing in my head.

I think I'll stick with post-game juice boxes.

I think I’ll stick with post-game juice boxes.

After they reached their five run max, our little guys got shut down quickly by their flamethrower.  Ian, one of my always questioning players looked up at me, his freckled little face swollen with dejected blue eyes, and asked me the score.  “Zero-zero,” I responded promptly.  “Are you nuts, Coach?” his continued gaze clearly implied.  “It’s a new inning, isn’t it?” I replied.  He nodded.  “Then the score is zero-zero.  Let’s go win this inning.”  He grabbed his glove and immediately trotted out to second base.

Now, Ian didn’t just “get it.”  What I told him was based on a philosophy that I began to impart to my kids since my big boy started playing games where we actually kept score.  The motto is simple:

Win Every Inning

I had first heard this from the ringer (aka the Methodist firefighter) on our synagogue softball team about a decade ago.  The underlying philosophy was that to win a game, you have to be relentless.  You never settle for holding onto your lead.  Instead, look to dominate each and every opportunity.

Of course, ole’ Coach Hippie began preaching this philosophy to my players for a very different reason.  Back when Gus was in his first season of kid pitch, we started out horribly.  Lots of errors, lots of strikeouts, and even a mercy rule or two.  In order to keep the kids (and parents) positive, I pivoted on Win Every Inning by not looking at victory, but at loss.  Oh, did I mention we ended up winning a championship that year?

Our championship year.

Our championship year.

The beauty of baseball is that it is not played in large blocks, but in the most discrete segments of any major team sport: the inning.  Even at the lowest competitive level, you’re talking five innings, more segments than soccer, basketball, football or hockey.  So, more than any other sport, the notion of looking at each inning as its own independent segment allows coaches to help instill short memories into their players.

And so I began to preach the fact that, no matter whether we were up 10 or down 10, the score at the beginning of each inning is 0-0.  Each inning is a new chance to improve on what you did, and to score a victory in the game within the game.

Now, that might sound good in theory, but when you’re down 14-1 going into the last inning, you might be thinking my little mantra might be played out.  But, actually, that’s when it works best.  I gathered the team before we took the field.  Pointed out the great plays we did make during the game, and simply said, “Let’s make our last inning our best inning.”  And when our pitcher struck out the “Tall Guy” with runners at 2nd and 3rd to complete a shutout top of the 5th, we had our first chance to win an inning.  And I can still hear the Wahoos wailing in joy as that “winning run” came in to score.

After some concerted effort at Sunday’s practice to curb our Monty Hall cutoff plays, we were back out there on Tuesday.  This time, we managed to be on the other side of the score, and entered the last inning up 10-6.  As we went to bat, I asked the team what the score was.  In unison, they cried:

“Zero-Zero!”

Not a bad way to think about baseball.

Or life, come to think of it.

Read It Then See It: Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies

April 23, 2013

Now that the Rise of the Guardians movie is out on DVD, I thought it well past time to post my review of the third in the Guardians of Childhood series.  Here are my reviews of the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund, and my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

ToothianaThe Book
Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, by William Joyce.  Published in 2012 by Atheneum Books

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation.  Now available on DVD.

Genre
Fantasy/Fairytale

Age Appropriate
6 and up.  You’ll note that I’m bumping this up a year from the first two.  While you could probably still get away with it at 5, the third installment takes on a bit of a darker tone.  Not in a Harry Potter way, but in introducing more tragic elements that, while brilliant, are a bit more troubling than the first two.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Oh my, YES. 

Book Availability
I have the hard copy, but this is now available on iTunes for $10.00.  I downloaded the sample and have to say that in this case, the wonderful illustrations lose a little something off the page.  There is something very classic and tactile about Joyce’s illustrations.  The book feels like some old treasure recently unearthed.  I’d go for the hard copy myself, though maybe I’m just showing my age.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
The evil Pitch’s defeat at the Earth’s Core has led the Guardians and the people of Santoff Clausen something close to a new Golden Age.  But while the children are free to plunge into the depths of their collective imagination, and the Guardians Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, and Ombric the wise deepen their friendships and skills, our heroine Katherine feels uneasy.  Caught between the world of children and her very adult responsibilities as a Guardian, she cannot shake the feeling that while Pitch may not be seen, he is not gone forever.  Indeed, her dark dreams seem somehow to confirm it.

Joyce captures Katherine's emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

Joyce captures Katherine’s emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

And in the world of dreams, one woman reigns supreme.  Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairies, born of the joy of love and the tragedy of loss, raised by fairies to save the memories and joys of childhood stored in the teeth of children.  And when Katherine loses her very last baby tooth, Toothiana comes to collect this great prize.  But she is not the only one hoping to collect the tooth, or Katherine herself.

Flying monkeys!  Flying elephants!  The return of Pitch!  Yet, amidst all the action comes a connection that Katherine cannot deny—a seeming bond between her and the villain she fears the most.  And that bond may take more than just her life, but her very soul.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I tried to keep my summary to a mere tease, because you really NEED to read this book.  It is, without hyperbole, the Empire Strikes Back of this series.

Katherine’s more somber tone, one of a girl becoming a woman under the most unusual and difficult of circumstances, is absolutely brilliant.  Joyce mixes the confusion of youth with Katherine’s inherently good soul in a way that does have some similarities to Luke Skywalker’s coming of age (but with far less whining).  Her friend Night Light’s confusion and ultimate dismay over her transformation, and her dreams mimics how friends often feel when they see their friends change as adolescence sets in.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

Toothiana herself was a real revelation.  Her tragic backstory was simply mythic, bringing in a more Oriental tone hitherto not seen in this series.  I also loved the notion, different than the film, that the tooth fairy armies are all actually her.  I don’t want to give away any more than that.

Also, a new force from our imagination emerges as a more neutral arbiter on affairs.  I won’t say who it is as the reveal I thought was brilliant.  What is so fabulous about this ethereal character is that it forces the Guardians to admit their own shortcomings—embracing the want to destroy the enemy over saving the good.  Only Katherine, even after everything, refuses to give in to hate.  But her refusal may well be her downfall.

Other than the fact that I feel like Nicholas St. North was being pushed more to the background here, which I didn’t love, there is simply nothing I can find in this book that isn’t absolutely remarkable, including one heck of a cliffhanger at the end.  It is a rich and very complex tale that brings an added depth to this storyline that, frankly I didn’t expect.  The fact that Joyce can continue to surprise is a testament to the depth of his imagination and talent.

Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Joyce’s tale opens up a plethora of conversations to have with your children.  Here are a few I thought of, but this series is so thick with ideas you’ll need to brush them away from your face.

The Loneliness of Tweendom:  Katherine has entered that most difficult of phases of development, as she begins to say goodbye to childish things.  Her membership as a Guardian brings this plight into sharp focus, and it is a wonderful way to introduce this feeling of not fitting in, and the difficulty that can come with feeling “special” in circumstances that, while here have their root in age, can evolve into any number of directions.

The Road to Hell… Good intentions—that’s what the Guardians are filled with.  Defending the innocent.  Fighting evil.  But, in a very interesting reversal of the Batman Begins mantra, “It’s now who I am inside, it’s what I do that defines me,” this book really challenges not just actions, but the feelings that motivate the actions.  What an amazing gateway to discuss the importance of feelings and the paths that feeling “justified” can take us.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch's evil look makes a great "Book/Cover" discussion.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch’s evil look makes a great “Book/Cover” discussion.

The Bad Guy, Reconsidered:  The first two books begin to set up Pitch as a tragic character, but this one brings this plotline to a new level, connecting him and Katherine in a very interesting way.  So what at first is a very stark line between the light and dark becomes more blurred, but not in a “no one is really good or evil” kind of way.  Instead, Joyce is speaking more to the paths in both intention and action that lead us down the road to good and evil.  This is a wonderful way to bring in a reconsideration of the nature and how we should treat the person we consider “The Bad Guy.”  Katherine’s actions contrast with the rest of the Guardians very starkly, setting up a heck of a cliffhanger and a heck of a discussion.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

Looking forward to meeting the "real" Jack Frost soon.

Looking forward to meeting the “real” Jack Frost soon.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you can read my review of the film here.  I found it disappointing, and it seems I’m not the only one as it seems the flop cost a lot of DreamWorks employees their jobs.  Of course, I liked John Carter, and that was even more of a flop, so box office isn’t always the best barometer of quality.

That said, most of my friends whose kids enjoyed the movie said that they had seen that first, then immediately jumped into the books.  Now that the DVD is out, that might be another solid pathway to getting your kids interested in reading this modern day classic.  But do note that, with the 3rd book, there seems now to be a more definite rift between what is in the books and what the movie was all about.  Especially because we’re going to get a look at Joyce’s version of Jack Frost in the next one.  I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Update: Halo Baseball Hat Insert

April 17, 2013

So occasionally I’m as good as my word.  As you know my big fella sustained a rather severe concussion a couple of months back, and I was looking for some additional head protection when he played baseball, especially out in the field.

I gave this new Halo hat insert a decidedly mixed initial review because of the fact that it simply sat too high on the head for a normal baseball hat and fell off the head way too easily.  A protective insert only works if the hat is on the head, not the ground.

At first, I thought if we got a fitted hat that was too large for him, say a 7 5/8, we could mitigate that problem.  But no matter how large the hat was, it still sat too high.  I realized at that point that it wasn’t the circumference that was the problem, it was the depth of the hat.

That's a regular adult size on the right, for comparison.

That’s a regular adult size on the right, for comparison.

So I let my fingers do the walking and Googled “extra deep baseball hat” and lo-and-behold up came the Big Head Caps website, complete with MLB replica adjustable hats for all 30 teams.  My son’s team is the Indians this year, and they are using the standard “Chief Wahoo” hat (no comment on the relative political correctness of the team or the hat).  They are made by Twins Enterprises and are the size XXXL hats and are noted to be “Extra Deep.”

The hats themselves are a bit larger, but not so much so as to be horribly noticeable once placed on the head.  It took a while, but after some trial and error, we found that if you put the insert in the hat with the back of it in line with the bottom back of the hat, it actually fits quite nicely and stays on the head.

Gus has been wearing it for the past few weeks and while he doesn’t find it as comfortable as playing with a regular soft cap, has had no issues with the hat in the field or while pitching.  A few kids have noticed the backing of the Halo visible in the back strap area, but it’s been seen more as a novelty.  Gus doesn’t look like he’s playing on the field with a giant boulder strapped underneath his hat as I showed in the earlier pictures.

Note the front panel needed to slide a little higher than bill level in order to fit correctly on the head.

Note the front panel needed to slide a little higher than bill level in order to fit correctly on the head.

One thing to note is that our doctor at the SCORE concussion clinic noted that devices from the Halo to normal batting helmets are designed to mitigate against the physical aspects of a blow to the head, namely skull fracture.  He stressed that they were NOT designed to protect against concussions.  So while I’m glad Gus has the extra protection, I realize that this is not a super-duper energy shield around my kid’s head.  After discussing it with Gus, we decided that he would bring both hats to practices and games, and wear the Halo hat while pitching and his regular hat while playing other positions.  Given the Halo was developed with pitcher protection in mind, this seemed a more than reasonable solution.

So, there you go.  If you’re looking for a little added security and the Halo sounds attractive, this is the path you need to take to make sure you can get it to stay on your kid’s head.  This is something to think about especially if your team is ordering specialty hats, you may want to see if your team can order an extra XXXL hat in order to have this option available to you.

That said, I’m going to keep my overall grade of B- just the same here.  For while I figured out how to make it work, it took a lot of searching and an extra $40.00 for the hat.  Given the $70.00 product + shipping charge for the Halo itself, that’s a pretty hefty price for the additional peace of mind.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #3-4

April 12, 2013

So, here’s my take on the conclusion of the lead-up series to the summer blockbuster.  Here are my reviews of the first and second issues.

Star Trek Into Darkness 4The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #3-4.  Story by Roberto Orci and Mike Johnson, art by David Messina

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

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  I’ll keep it here because of the first two, but the final two issues are actually far more violence-free than the first two and would probably be okay for even younger kids, more in the 8 and up range.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not for anyone, actually.  I guess I’m giving away my review a bit, but from plot to artwork, I found these final two issues a waste of time and money.  Actually, more than that, but I’ll get to that below.

Book Availability
I downloaded these from iTunes for $3.99 each.  But if you really want to read them, the whole compilation is now available for $3.99.  That’s far more reasonable for this product.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (spoilers, but no spoilers regarding the film)
We pick up issue 3 with Sulu and his doomed colleague in the red shirt held hostage in the camp of the Shadows.  Sulu, always with the penchant for having a blade, pulls a hidden knife out of his shoe and unties them, just as Spock is running headlong to their rescue.

The Bajoran nose ridges on Mudd were admittedly a nice little Trek nerd touch

The Bajoran nose ridges on Mudd were admittedly a nice little Trek nerd touch

Meanwhile, Kirk and April continue their debate over whether the Prime Directive should be broken to save the Phadians, and what to do about Spock going all renegade.  Uhura comes down with a woman named Mudd (seems the daughter of TOS’s Harry Mudd) who is running guns for April.  Together, they all fly the shuttlecraft at the Shadows and manage to save all the humanoids and take them back to the Enterprise.

Back aboard the ship, April reveals that he knows it was the Klingons who are arming the Shadows, using them as a proxy rather than conquering the planet and draining the empire’s resources.  Kirk and Spock have it out regarding Spock’s near suicidal tendencies to rush into dangerous situations these days with a disregard for chain of command.  Spock says he’s sorry.

But while Kirk and Spock are having their moment, April and Mudd are hatching their scheme.  It seems that April’s Enterprise had a hidden program that only he could activate to keep all command and control under his authorization.  And somehow that program made it aboard this Enterprise.  He clears the bridge and locks out all other commands.  The Enterprise is his to do what he will, including starting a war with the Klingons.

In issue 4 we begin on the Klingon homeworld.  April is bargaining with them to turn over the Enterprise in return for being made governor of Phadeus under Klingon control.  He sees this as the only way to save his people from the shadows.

Kirk and Spock attempt unsuccessfully to get back to the bridge through the ducts, but just as a Klingon ship shows up to take April up on his offer, Scotty does the ole’ CTRL-ALT-DEL on the warp core and reboots everything.  Spock and Kirk break into the bridge and stun Mudd and April, and high-tail it out of there, leaving the Klingons in control of Phadeus.

Kirk expresses frustration with the Prime Directive and sympathy for Aprils ends, if not his means.  He then has a testy conversation with Admiral Pike about wanting to get to the bottom of why that computer program was still on the Enterprise.  Pike tells him that it’s for Starfleet Intelligence to work out, and he’s got to remember who his real enemies are.  Just at that moment, in London, a man named John Harrison is granted access to the Starfleet Data Archive.

To be continued May 17…

Quickie Review (more minor spoilers)
After being SO impressed with the second issue, I cannot tell you how much in pained me to read the sloppy, incomprehensible drivel that the final two issues brought forth.  Unlike Star Trek: Countdown, the preview series to the 2009 movie, where I felt excited and enriched, at the end of this series I felt like I had just been ripped off. Spock’s very interesting motivation for violating Kirk’s wishes and running off at the Shadows was whitewashed into a very thin “I have to save people” rather than have him being a more forceful advocate against genocide.  His logic seems not only confused, but almost entirely absent.

Kirk and Spock’s relationship is tense and uninteresting, hardy seeming to have grown at all since the events of the first film.  The method for April to take control of the Enterprise is ridiculous, as is the use of their being absolutely no discernible chain of command on the Enterprise to offer comic relief. McCoy’s small role painted him some kind of power-thirsty goofball that also seemed entirely out of character.  Only Uhura and Scotty’s roles seemed on point here.

If they were going to rip off TOS, they could at least have given us some classic Mugato action.

If they were going to rip off TOS, they could at least have given us some classic Mugato action.

The plot itself devolved into a poor man’s version of the TOS episode A Private Little War, where Kirk is forced to match technologies with what the Klingons are offering to create a stalemate on a contested planet.  It was far more expertly put together than this was, as April’s offer to turn the Enterprise over to the Klingons—the very people who armed the Shadows—seemed so far afield that it made a very interesting premise laughable.  Given his disgust over what had happened, and his control of a Starship that could have obliterated the Shadows from orbit, this concept was asinine beyond words.

And the end, essentially ceding the genocide and the planet to the Klingons to avoid a wider war was just the kind of “morally neutral” concepts that I was most afraid of.  Star Trek is about finding that right path, about finding solutions to problems.  The crews were not always successful, but their heart was in the right place.  This book was all about the “there is no right” and the infinite shades of gray in the spectrum of wrong.  If well told, stories like that can be interesting.  But it isn’t Star Trek, even if you call the pirate Mudd and the Klingon Kor.  This was both poorly told, and not Star Trek.

I hope the one in the movie looks better, that's for sure.

I hope the one in the movie looks better, that’s for sure.

On top of the poor plot and writing, I was similarly unimpressed with the artwork in these two issues. It almost felt like they were in a hurry to get these done and so the overall quality of everything slipped.  Gus and I joked that in one scene, Kirk looks like a six-year-old throwing a temper tantrum.  And the look of the new Klingon cruiser, looks like something Gunnar might have made out of a loose set of Legos.

Overall Read Score: 0.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
“Wow, how bad was that?”

Overall Family Discussion Score: 0 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Great, Star Trek is borrowing from thoughtful classics like GI Joe: Retaliation now

Great, Star Trek is borrowing from thoughtful classics like GI Joe: Retaliation now

I wish I could slingshot myself around the sun and go back in time to keep myself from pushing “buy” on my iPad.  Because I am now more convinced than ever that if this teases the tone of the upcoming film, my Star Trek is dead.  In its place is nothing but the familiar uniforms and names to cover a story that will unravel what Gene Roddenberry set to create half-a-century ago.  The vision of a better earth, a better us will be nothing more than a platform for telling a shoot-‘em-up thriller resplendent with moral relativism.

I am now genuinely worried that Star Trek: Into Darkness will be boldly going nowhere.  Instead of being a beacon we need of a brighter future and using the challenges and complexities of dealing with strange new worlds as allegory for our own struggles, it will instead smash that beacon and pull us down into the blackness of the human soul, telling us that no matter how advanced our technology gets, deep down we’re the same old flawed and bloodthirsty humans that we always were.

I’m not sure if that’s a trek worth taking.

The Eternal Spring, and Autumn, of a Coach’s Life

April 11, 2013
Rookie coach hadn't quite figured out his style, or the directions to the gym...

My rookie season in ’06. Hadn’t quite found my style, or the directions to the gym…

Opening Day 2013 is coming this weekend for the Arlington Babe Ruth youth baseball league, and we’ve been hard at work getting the kids’ arms, bats, and voices ready (for as I tell my kids, the most important thing about being a baseball player is supporting and respecting your teammates).

This is actually the first year since Gus was four that I’m not the head coach of his team.  Indeed, I had made my farewells last year as now that he’s entered the highest level of his league, I thought that would be a good time to admit that I’ve reached the level of my own incompetence.

I actually wrote a piece for a local magazine last year that they liked and wanted to run, but their spring edition had already gone to press.  They asked if they could hang onto it until this spring, but they’ve decided not to use it.  Well, so much for local celebrity…

I still think it’s a nice piece, and very much encapsulates both my feelings at the time, but, more than that, my feelings about how special it is to be a coach.  So to all my fellow coaches out there, be it baseball, soccer, chess, or, well, just life (that’s pretty much what parenting is, right?), I hope you enjoy and…Play Ball!

One More Trip Around the Bases
An Arlington Babe Ruth coach starts a last season with his boys

A dust cloud that Pig Pen of Peanuts fame would be proud of erupted from the trunk of my ancient Saturn station wagon.  Out from a season of hibernation came the menagerie of baseballs, whiffle balls, tennis balls, bats, helmets, tees, and plenty of instant ice packs that comprise the youth baseball coach’s toolkit.

As I lugged my myriad wares up the small but steep hill separating Quincy Park #3 (that’s the field on the other side of the tennis courts from the library) from the street, I fumbled with a new toy that I learned about from the good folks at the Virginia Baseball Club out in Merrifield.  “The Spatula” as they call it is a specially designed bat that helps players keep their hands in the right place as they make contact with the ball.  But as I twirled this sophisticated piece of baseball technology in my hand, so eager to put it into use, I couldn’t help but recall the first piece of coaching equipment I used a half-a-dozen years ago—an orange hand puppet called “The Tickle Monster.”

Some seven seasons ago, my elder son Gus began his first season playing the game he was genetically designed to love (my wife and I had our engagement pictures taken at Shea Stadium, to clue you in).  As soon as the Arlington Babe Ruth baseball league age rules permitted, we signed him up to play BlastBall!—a rudimentary form of tee ball with a base that honks like a clown nose when a player jumps on it.  As I filled out the paperwork, I arrived at the inevitable check box asking, “Would you like to help coach a team?”  My answer was swift and definitive—No [insert inappropriate expletive of your choice here] Way!

I love baseball, but the thought of trying to teach it to a dozen wide-eyed kindergarteners the nuances of baseball—a game not exactly designed for short attention spans—was beyond what this rookie Dad could even imagine.  I had enough trouble just teaching one child to poop in the potty (like Father, like Son, so my mother tells me).  But then I saw the way Coach Brown handled the boys and organized the chaos.  He grabbed parents as he needed to coach bases, handle drills, and pull kids off each other with the inevitable scrum caused by grounders.  It wasn’t quite baseball yet, but it was pure joy.

So next year when I arrived at the check box, I thought about it a bit more.  I certainly wasn’t ready to coach a team on my own, not with a toddler running around and a full-time job.  But I did enjoy it when Coach called upon me to help, and so my mouse traveled toward the check box, and, click, I was now happily committed to helping out.

A month later, I stood in front of twelve squirming five- and six-year-olds…alone. It seemed very few other parents had checked that magic box.  And so with a tattered bag of balls, a tee, a honking base, and absolutely no clue, I was now Coach Scott.

I knew I was out of my depth immediately as blank stares met me when I explained why I loved baseball so much (Note: telling Kindergarteners how exciting the anticipation of action is in baseball is not a good coaching tip).  And when I lined them up to hit and run, most of the kids either chased after the ball when they hit it, or ran straight to their parents for a hug.  Baseball was nowhere to be seen, as gloves became excavation equipment filled with the irresistible object of the rock-laden infield.  When a couple of boys came staggering up to the plate like drunken sailors, I looked up to find the cause of their wobbles came not from a stray beer vendor, but from the nearby hillside where they were escaping to roll down.

There was no control in this chaos, and Coach Scott’s career seemed destined to last all of one practice.  I reached into my practice bag desperately looking for another ball as one of my last ones went rolling into the sewer.  And out came one of Gus’s favorite toys that I had shoved in there for the trip home—a furry, orange five-fingered hand puppet called the “Tickle Monster.”  “What is that?” said William, suddenly disinterested in rubbing dirt in Russell’s hair.  The other kids saw it, too, and flew to the felted flame.

Holy crap, I actually had their attention!  “Why, this…This is the Tickle Monster!” I said.  The kids laughed.  “He’s here because he’s very hungry, and he eats by tickling players who don’t know how to run to first base!” Nothing but wide open mouths and laser-focus.  “Should we play a game with him?”  These kids who not three minutes ago seemed like a walking advertisement for Ritalin all yelled “YEAH!” in unison, as a team.  I had each step to the plate, and take a swing.  They would then run to the base, with me and Tickle Monster would be right behind them making crazy yummy noises.  If they got to the base before ole TM could get them, they were safe.  If not, it was a tickle feast for the monster.  By snack time, the kids sucked lustily at their juice boxes as they had worked up a powerful thirst cheering for their teammates to escape their orange nemesis.

And that was when I realized what coaching was all about.  Not talking about your love for a sport.  Not imparting your knowledge of the game.  Coaching is all about channeling joy through a particular prism—in this case, pairing baseball with uncontrollable laughter.  And so from the Tickle Monster was born the Crab and Gator drill (fielding), the Riddler Run (base running), the Solar System Swing (hitting), and many more.

For my big guys, the Tickle Monster is now a distant memory.  And soon, I will be, too.  Next year, they’ll move to a higher level where there will be a player draft, and coaches who know the game far better than I.  Indeed, one of my older players “graduated” this year.  His mother left me this note:

“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.” 

So while my motto has been all about the fun, 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.

As I unpacked the equipment for this last first practice, a deep, warbling voice came up from behind, saying “Coach, what time is practice over?”  I turn around and see Neil, one of my Tickle Monster victims, his boyish smile now framed with a peach-fuzz moustache.  Now, in this final season, they’ll coach me in a skill I’ll certainly need for the rest of my life—how to let go as your kids grow up.  But not just yet…there’s still time for one more trip around the bases.  And I’ll savor every last step.

The Book Review: The Dangerous Days of Daniel X

April 10, 2013

I’ve mentioned that I have written a manuscript for a novel about a Super Hero who finds out that he can’t use his powers violently, The Adventures of…MightyDove! (If you know of any good agents out there, let me know!).  As part of my process, I have been reading other books in the Super Hero novel genre.  I’ve been focusing on the “non-comic book” variety, so no Superman, Spider-Man, etc.  Given I’m reading ‘em anyway, I thought I might as well double my pleasure and blog about them too.  So here it goes…

Daniel X CoverThe Book
The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge.  First in the Daniel X series (of which there are currently five books).

Genre
Science Fiction/Super Hero

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  Daniel himself is a teenager, but the story feels much more middle-grade to me.  The bad guys are super-nasty irredeemably evil, and we get a fairly intense scene in the beginning detailing his parents’ demise at the hands of one of the baddies.  Language and intensity probably a bit much for the younger elementary school set, but I would say by 3rd or 4th grade, this will work just fine.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Not Really.  I’ll get to this more in my review, but I felt that this story was very “by the numbers.”  Very little about it felt fresh or original other than the core concept of Daniel’s power.  It moves along just fine and I can see how younger readers who haven’t experienced stories like this before might enjoy it.  But for adults, I can’t say I’d recommend this one on its own.

Book Availability
I got mine on iTunes for $6.99.  But because this is the ubiquitous James Patterson, you can find these books pretty much everywhere.  I’ve seen them at Target and Costco, among other places.  There is also graphic novel and manga versions of the story, for those who like pictures to go along with their Super Heroes.  Oh, and there’s a Nintendo DS game in case you just wanted to dispense with words altogether.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
15-year-old Daniel doesn’t have a last name.  His parents were killed when he was just three.  And did I mention he is a super-genius with super powers?  And he’s not from this planet?

Yes, Daniel’s parents were sent to Earth to protect the planet from other aliens who might seek to enslave humanity.  But their demise left their young son alone, and in charge of the list of evil otherworlders whom he must somehow defeat.

His solitude is somewhat ameliorated by his greatest ability: the power to create.  With only his mind, he can bring into existence anything he can imagine, from his parents and sister to a group of friends.  As long as he’s focused, they are as alive and independent as you and me.  But, while they are more than figments of his imagination, they are fated to eventually leave him alone once again.

Baddies have a kind of MIB feel, but without the tongue-in-cheek fun.

Baddies have a kind of MIB feel, but without the tongue-in-cheek fun.

His projected parents are not happy when he decides to jump to the No. 6 rated villain on the list, telling him he’s not ready for such a battle.  But Daniel’s heard that this Ergent Seth has an imminent plan for worldwide domination.  He has no choice to leap into the fray.

But Daniel doesn’t realize that loneliness is his Kryptonite, and Seth uses it to entrap and enslave our hero.  There he learns that he is just the latest victim of the villain’s campaign to exterminate his entire race.  Daniel must now find a way out of his seemingly hopeless predicament, or see both of his worlds exterminated.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I think that if you have a child who loves video games, but isn’t as into reading, this may very well , as that’s really what it reads like.  From the two-dimensional banter between Daniel and the various baddies, to their boss-monster battles complete with discussion of “power levels”—it all feels pretty much like a video game in words.

Frankly, that doesn’t do too much for me.

Had my teenage self created a girlfriend, I believe she would have looked like this.

Had my teenage self created a girlfriend, I believe she would have looked like this. How ’bout you?

The central facet of the book is an interesting one.  The main power that Daniel has is this power of creation.  And the fact that he creates his friends, and even a love interest, is a clever device.  Unfortunately, the internal battle he faces with this power are dealt with in a very cursory manner, while Patterson and Ledwidge instead decide to focus more on the cool ways he can use his power to get out of particular situations.  Perhaps a deeper exploration into what it means to have the power (and the danger) of being able to create anything out one’s mind will come in later books.  But here it is kept at a very surface level.  I would say “juvenile” but frankly I think most juveniles are ready for a richer experience than what Daniel X has to offer.

One of the biggest issues I had with the book had to do with Daniel himself.  I understand that a major part of YA books is the search for understanding who you are through the difficulties of adolescence.  But the super-genius, four star chef, alien hunter seemed divorced from that struggle.  When we is forced into a high school environment, the relationship he developed seemed unreal, and when that relationship goes terribly awry, it does so in a way not only contrived, but further separating Daniel from a struggle we can in any way relate to.   Once Daniel goes off-planet, the plot drowns in a derivative cascade of Sci-Fi archetypes from The Matrix to Star Wars.  The adorable scamp, the wise sage, the people on the edge of destruction, the final battle—you name it, it’s there without a single toy surprise in the pack.  The only word that comes to mind to describe the story is lazy.

Overall Read Score: 2 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Frankly, I didn’t find this book worthy of a lot of discussion.  I think there are a number of other books that deal with the basic themes here of being an outsider, the hero’s journey, and overcoming evil that would be far more worth your time.

As I noted, however, the one somewhat original concept that emerges in this book is Daniel’s power of creation.  But rather than spend the time and money on this book to have that discussion, I’d instead recommend you recommend that you fire up the Netflix streaming and…

(Don’t) Read It (and Instead) See It

While I cannot find any evidence online, it seems to me that the “X” in Daniel X might be an homage to another teen with the power of creation seen back in the 1960s.  That “X” would be Charlie X, of Star Trek the original series.

When the crew of the Enterprise receive the teenage Charlie after he was orphaned on a desolate planet, they take him back and reintroduce him to human civilization.  What they don’t realize is that he has developed incredible telekinetic powers that, in the hands of a petulant teenager, endangers the Enterprise, and perhaps the Federation itself.

She won't be smiling much longer.

She won’t be smiling much longer.

60’s kitschy effects aside, I think this is a great episode of TOS to watch with your child, especially if you have a boy.  Charlie is an antagonist, but not an evil enemy.  He is to be pitied and feared, not hated.  And it is highly likely that your boy, especially if he is on the cusp of adolescence himself, may well relate to Charlie’s feelings and impulsive decisions.  It also has funny moments, like Charlie slapping Janice Rand (Kirk’s on-ship squeeze) in the keester, thinking it’s just the way grown-ups say “See ya.”

So while Charlie X rarely makes it to the top of many people’s A-list of TOS episodes, it is actually a fantastic show for this particular demographic, and, to me, an infinitely superior way of addressing the only intriguing idea that comes from The Dangerous Days of Daniel X.  If you want to go more modern the movie Chronicle goes in a similar direction with a darker, more angsty feel (and it sounds like there’s a sequel on the way).

So as any good parent would say, put the book down, turn on that TV, and go learn something!