Archive for the ‘Gen. Pop-Culture’ Category

Batting With Your Brain: Spider-Sense

October 20, 2014

My pack of 9-year-old Arlington Aces, the summer B-Team, were going up against the Vienna Muckdogs in our first tournament game. For most of them, it was their first game ever outside the cozy confines of rec league and in the wild world of summer travel ball.

Trying to keep kids focused when pizza and pool beckons--the life of the travel team coach...

Trying to keep kids focused when pizza and pool beckons–the life of the travel team coach…

They were excited.

They thought they were ready.

I hoped they were ready.

They weren’t.

Now, to my fellas’ defense, we had only been together for 3 practices before it was time to hit the field, where the Vienna team had been together all spring long. That said, the 19-0 drubbing was well beyond what anyone had expected. But, counter to what you might think, it was not the 19 that was the major concern.

The Muckdogs hit fairly well, and we were still getting to know our players on the mound and in the field. There were some jitters, some errors, and a whopping 12 walks in 4 innings. But all of those were predictable under the circumstances.

The fact that these kids, all among the top hitters in their spring league, managed one hit and only three other balls put in play for outs was another issue altogether. The Muckdogs had one flame thrower after another, and we were completely unprepared for the new pace of the game.

Yes, we weren’t the big, bad Arlington Storm (our league’s “A” team), but, still, over 40 players actually tried out for the Aces, so the kids who made it felt like they were still among the best the county had to offer.

What I realized in watching these kids against elite-level pitching (and, I have to say, what that team was doing in the B-level of this particular tournament is a bit of a question mark, but I digress…) was that most of these kids relied on the old “See The Ball, Hit the Ball” philosophy that works really well for talented athletes at the rec level. This means you see the pitch, recognize its speed and location, then react with a step-and-swing.

This is one of the very hardest things for coaches and players alike to recognize and change, because that is the natural way to hit. But there comes a point where kids throw hard enough, and then even start to change speeds on purpose where that kind of reactive hitting simply doesn’t work anymore. That game against the Muckdogs was our Exhibit A.

As we dragged ourselves to the next field hoping for better, I struggled to find a way to quickly explain to 9-year-old kids how to think differently not just about the mechanics of hitting, but the mentality.

Almost hard to tell if she's going to pitch overhand or underhand here.

Almost hard to tell if she’s going to pitch overhand or underhand here.

What came to mind at first was this amazing Sports Illustrated article, an excerpt from the book The Sports Gene. It explains why the most elite hitters in Major League Baseball, including all-time home run king (place an asterisk there if you’d like) Barry Bonds could hardly manage a foul ball off of softball superstar pitcher Jennie Finch.

As it turns out, the way great hitters are able to adjust so well to great pitching is that they have developed a sort of “precognition.” They begin their approach to the ball before it is ever released, having developed a sense of release point and angle of attack so that they “pre-act” to the pitch, then adjust based on what is delivered. Fascinating I know, but a little complicated to get kids to think about in the 5 minutes of warmup swings before a game.

And that’s where being a baseball nerd came in very handy.

When the word “precognition” came up, it immediately made me think of its use in Sam Rami’s first Spider-Man movie. As I’ve noted in my castigation of the reboot, Spider-Man is my absolute favorite Super Hero.  So it was a natch to remember that this was was the term the scientist in the lab used to describe reaction time so fast it bordered on seeing things before they happened. “A… spider-sense,” she concluded.

So when my kids came running out for pre-game BP, I told them to put their bats down. We needed to talk before we hit.

“Who here has ever heard of Spider-Man?” I asked.

As expected, first a confused pause, then all hands raced into the air.

“Great.  Now, what super-power does Spider-Man have that might have to do with the way you hit fast pitching?”

A much larger pause. Then a couple of cautious hands crept upward.

“Well, uh, he can climb walls, and stuff,” said John.

“Well, yes,” I replied, “but are we going to climb the backstop in order to hit fast pitching?”

A head shake.

“Well, he’s super strong,” Brian chimed in.

“True, but there are some very, very strong people out there who can’t hit, right?”

A nod.

At that point, they were all done guessing.

Spider Sense“So, has anyone heard of Spider-Sense?” I queried.

I was met with only the blank stares of ignorance. Poor children, I thought. Being denied an essential education in the classics.

“Spider-Man’s most important power (as proven when he took on Venom, a creature with the power to dampen that power, but I digress…), is his ability to actually sense danger before it actually happens. By knowing something is coming, he is able to be prepared to react to what he sees even before he sees it.”

“Oh yeah,” responded Jack.  “That’s sweet.”

“Yep,” I continued, “but do you know what’s sweeter? The fact that the very best hitters in baseball use Spider-Sense.”

The stares of anticipation after that comment told me that I had them. I went on to explain the Sports Illustrated article, and that the only way to hit good pitching is not to react, but pre-act. The process of the swing must begin before the ball ever left the pitcher’s hand, seeing the strike first, then adjusting to what actually came out of the pitcher’s hand.

Now, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we got whupped 14-2 by the Northwest Reds in the next game. But “Spider-Sense” and “See the Strike” became the team hitting mantra and philosophy throughout the season. As the lesson sunk in, I saw player and player begin to lift that front foot before the pitcher ever release the ball. And these kids who had their bats crossing the plate well after the catcher caught the ball started to find their elite-level timing.

While we never faced that Muckdogs team again, we did get another shot at the Northwest Reds in our last tournament of the season.

The result? We scored 13 runs, and became the first B Team in tournament history to win our bracket with a perfect record.

Not bad for a bunch of web-heads, eh?

The (Book) Review: Sidekicked

September 4, 2013

As I bone up on what I hope to be “the competition” – a.k.a. Super Hero novels targeting the tween/young adult demographic – I thought I’d share my impressions of what I’ve read.  I’ve actually been simul-reading several novels, but here are my thoughts on the first one I finished.

Sidekicked-198x300The Book
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, published June 2013

Genre
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero

Age Appropriate
7 and up.  Think Harry Potter for the Super Hero set.  Funny with mild, cartoonish violence and a focus more on how a real-life middle schooler would deal with the trials and tribulations of being something more (or perhaps less) than normal.  Romance plays its role, but in entirely the innocent sense of the word.  A little sprinkling of crude (though not foul) language and potty humor, but one couldn’t imagine anything else from a red-blooded American 12-year-old boy.  That said book reads a bit younger than the Harry Potter stories, so I am not sure it would have as much appeal to teen readers unless they are specifically Super Hero fans.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  While Anderson strives to capture the sensibilities and voice of a middle schooler, he doesn’t avoid some wonderfully descriptive language and puts together a very solid plot.  In many ways, he brings a sense of realism to the genre, moral conundrums and all, without falling victim to the “Dark Knight Disease” I mentioned in my previous post.

Book Availability
Widely available in hardback (it was just released this summer) and e-book in any number of forms.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew Bean is an excellent middle school student, but as a Super Hero, he kind of sucks. His alter-ego, The Sensationalist, doesn’t have the incredible strength and speed of his friend Jenna, a.k.a. the Silver Fox, and he can’t turn his body into a lump of impenetrable rock like the new kid in class, who incidentally seems to be making a play for Jenna.

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

Instead, he’s stuck with the power to feel, see, smell and taste absolutely everything.  So while his fellow sidekicks in training are leaping all over the secret sidekick training center in the basement of their school, he gets to sit at a desk and sniff into test tubes to hone his “skills.”  And did I mention the rock guy with the chiseled abs is making a play for the one girl who actually seems to like him?

And if being the least super Super wasn’t bad enough, Drew managed to get paired with about the worst Hero you could imagine.  The Titan, his personal idol and once the city of Justica’s greatest champion, now had more battles with barstools than bad guys.  But Drew signed off on the sidekick’s code, and was determined to figure out how to prove his worth to worth to the world…and to Jenna. And when the most notorious band of baddies return, the very same gang that sent Titan into his unexplained tailspin, everything Drew thought he knew about his friends, his family, and even about being a hero itself, is called into question.

My Review (minor spoilers)

I’m a sucker for a good sidekick story.  It’s one of the reasons one of my all-time favorite Super Hero incarnations is The Tick.  In all its incarnations, while the big blue idiot may be the title character, the story is really about Arthur, the average guy trying to keep up in a super-powered world.  It’s his story that grounds the ridiculous world of Supers that makes the whole thing work so well. Anderson seems to be of that same school, and comes up with a wonderful way to bring that same sensibility and sense of humor to the middle grade market.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Drew is our Arthur, seeming the worst of the best; possessed of powers that are seemingly not very super at all.  Indeed, Drew’s abilities provide fertile ground for great description and very funny moments (who knew you could fart in a test tube?). Drew’s story is told first person, and I think Anderson does a very nice job capturing the voice of a brainy, nerdy, extremely self-conscious 12-year-old.  If I were to nit-pick, I think some of the descriptive language he uses feels like it goes beyond his narrator, which I think is the issue from time-to-time in choosing first person with a child’s voice.  That said, it never feels so overboard that I lost the feeling that I was hearing things from Drew himself.

For the first three quarters of the book, I thought Anderson did a brilliant job making all of the “super” problems Drew encountered into essentially the same problems just about any middle school kid has, only pumped up on steroids.  The handsome other boy with an eye on the girl he is into isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome and he can turn himself into living rock.  The feeling of anxiety about keeping secrets from parents, in this case super powers and being a sidekick to the greatest Super Hero in history (or, some semblance of him) is a powerful metaphor for that increased feeling of alienation that so many pre-teens start to feel as they change.  Now throw in the fact that his Super Hero idol is a shell of his former self, and Drew gives readers a surprisingly deep-dive into the way kids begin to emerge from the cocoon of childhood into the oft harsh realities of life.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

Anderson also does an excellent job playing with some of the core messages behind the Super Hero convention.  What makes a bad guy bad?  What are the ethics of being a hero?  Is “Thou shalt not kill” an essential part of a hero’s code?  How do the non-supers feel in a world filled with “freaks?”  All those are covered in a way that in no way feels preachy, as the middle school prism helps make these questions feel fresh and resonant.

As taken as I was by the setup, I have to say that the finish was not quite what I had hoped for.  It was still good, but it felt fairly conventional.  I felt like I was going from reading something entirely original to a solid copy of many stories I had read before.  The villain’s final reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but I was okay with that.  The rationale for the villain’s behavior, however, felt a bit staid.  But, as a discussion point, the blurred line between good and evil is an excellent one.  Better yet because it is NOT told in the “shades of gray” way that so many Super Hero stories today are told.  It is a real moral dilemma, not simply another ode to nihilism like we see in so many of today’s Super Hero stories.

In all, Sidekicked is a welcome addition to the genre and antidote to the growingly grim path Super Heroes have been taking.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

Opportunities for Discussion
I’ve already noted a number of questions that the book takes in my review.  On top of that, Anderson himself has done parents and teachers alike a favor with a nice little discussion guide you can find on his website (.pdf).  As I noted, the book does a nice job of keeping the humor going through the book so that the very interesting and serious points being made about power never feel like an after school special.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

The Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

May 17, 2013

Despite some reservations based on the Countdown to Darkness comics, resistance was futile.  My Trek-loving big fella and I lounged at the luxury theater this afternoon, flipped on the 3D glasses, and beheld the new Trek.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster 4The Movie
Star Trek Into Darkness, Paramount

Based on a  Book?
Nope.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While Iron Man 3 (sorry, haven’t had time to write it up) is also PG-13, I wouldn’t take my young guy to see that one.  I would this.  I would say the violence is actually more Star Wars-like than the 2009 Trek, with only one real scene worthy of note (see spoilers below).

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  Grab the popcorn.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
When Benedict Cumberbatch’s bad guy gets to the bridge of the other ship, he pulls the old squeeze the skull ‘till it cracks trick on one of the crew.  The crack is offscreen, but it might be considered too intense for younger viewers.  The Enterprise gets pummeled and, just like in the first, we see people sucked into space.  Screams, but bloodless and not all that traumatic in the greater scheme of things (unless you’re that crewman, of course).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (Light Spoilers)
On a survey mission of a primitive planet, Kirk and Spock both knowingly break the Prime Directive to save an indigenous people—and Spock himself—from a planet killing volcano.  They are greeted back at Starfleet with scorn.  Kirk is demoted, Spock is transferred, and team Enterprise seem destined to be broken apart.

Behold JesuSpock!

Behold JesuSpock!

But a mysterious figure engineers series of terrorist events, starting in London and then tearing at the heart of Starfleet Command itself that leaves no choice but to put Kirk back in command as they hunt down the mysterious John Harrison.

The manhunt takes them to Qo’noS (Pronounced “Kronos”), the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison inexplicably and single-handedly saves the landing party from attack, and then surrenders himself.  We find out that Harrison is not his real name, and that he may well not end up being the true, or at least only, villain in this affair.  Indeed, the greatest threat may lie within…

My Review (Heavier Spoilers, but I’ll let you know when)
I’ve been pretty clear I had reservations about this movie, but I felt I went into it at the end pretty open.  I saw the high fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, saw a number of good reviews, and remembered that a lot of people really missed the “Star Trek” within the 2009 film.  JJ and company gave me a good ride a few years back.  I was ready to strap in again.

There were a number of things to like about this film.  Most notably and centrally, this was a story about the coming together of Kirk and Spock.  As a Trek Nerd, I was disappointed that McCoy was once again relegated to a supporting role as they have obviously decided that it is Kirk and Spock that is most important.  Zachary Quinto does a wonderful job as Spock, and while Pine’s Kirk is very different from Shatner’s, I found myself not minding the change.

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn't

It was going to be hard to top the Narada, and they didn’t

That’s big and carries this film.  But, frankly, most of the rest of this movie doesn’t work very well.  In 2009, JJ and company had the challenge of trying to reboot Trek while staying true to Trek cannon.  I think that actually challenged them to write a cohesive story that, while not perfect (uh, the 2nd lightning storm in space never should have happened) did have a resonant and understandable beginning, middle, and end.  The whiz-bang special effects seemed to be in service of the story.

On the other hand, this film absolutely felt like the plot was servicing the action.  Motivations were glossed over to hurry to the next fight.  The intrigue felt rushed because they wanted to make sure things were moving along.  And other than Kirk and Spock with a bit of a mix of Uhura, the interrelations among the characters, both friends and enemies, felt cold.  The jokes of this film felt like a thin retread of what they did in the first.

The plot itself also lacked punch, and was a huge mistake.  Last time ‘round, we had a massive, nasty looking ship from the future tearing through entire fleets, planets, and almost destroying Earth itself.  From the bad guy’s ship to the aims of the bad guys, everything here felt smaller. Indeed, it really worked against itself because having bigger effects for a smaller story really took away from making their larger scale more impressive.

[HERE COME THE SPOILERS] But, if I’m to say where this movie truly went wrong, it was in trying to borrow from the best of all the original films, Wrath of Khan.  As most of you might know by now, John Harrison is actually Khan, and the eventual showdown between Khan’s ship and the Enterprise forces Kirk to sacrifice himself in almost the exact way Spock does in Trek II (don’t worry, they bring him back, completing the parallel).

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Sorry Bennie, no dice.

Well, if you’re going to decide to tell in some ways a parallel tale to the best of all the Trek movies, you damned well better deliver.  And in this, Into Darkness failed on pretty much all counts.  I will grant you that Benedict Cumberbatch is a superior overall actor to Ricardo Montalbán, but give me the latter’s Khan any day.  Indeed, given this is supposed to be one-in-the-same, I had a very hard time buying that even with the changes to the timeline, this could be the same person.  And Montalbán’s delicious, charismatic evil was incredibly engaging, while this Khan was nothing but a distant, calculating killing machine.  You never really felt his motivation or his pain.  He was cool, but left me cold.  To me, it was an absolute waste of a brilliant actor.  It would have been much smarter had his character been someone else, as there really wasn’t a need for the Khan connection.  As with everything else in this plot, it felt as forced as the 2009 felt organic.

The Trek II connection also brought out the gaping holes in Into Darkness’ story.  While Wrath of Khan beautifully integrated the Genesis device, a moral challenge of galactic consequences into a more simple story of revenge, all of the “Trekisms” of this film feel tacked on.  Just because you have a terrorist attack, for example, that doesn’t really make it a commentary on terrorism unless you make it connect to something resonant in our lives.  Into Darkness really doesn’t even really try to do that.  Instead it gives you a few throw-away lines and a convoluted connection to attacking the Klingons that seems utterly divorced from modern events.  At the end of the day, this is Wrath of Khan with a lobotomy. [END SPOILERS]

There’s enough to like here to be worth the Trek, but there could have been so much more.  I’m delighted this film will be successful, and even more so because JJ is headed over to Star Wars.  For they now have Trek set up to boldly go where this film should have gone in the first place.

Overall Score: A soft 3 out of 5 stars

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.

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.

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.

Of Boy Scouts and Superman

March 18, 2013
The wife?  Gorgeous.  The rest?  Meh.

The wife? Gorgeous. The rest? Meh.

I hate nature.

Not that I want to destroy it or anything; I spent the better part of two decades as a lobbyist and organizer trying to save it.  But in terms of enjoying it, let me just say this.  You see a picturesque ocean, I see an endless stretch of something that I can neither stand on nor breathe in.  Hell, I can’t even drink the stuff.  I’m still not sure what’s so beautiful about that.  With our annual trip to the Keys coming up soon, trust me, I’m going for the pie.

I was noting this particular out of my myriad peculiarities this past Friday, which happed to be “Scout Day” at our synagogue.  A number of boys, girls, men, and women including several of Gus’s classmates got up on the bimah and spoke of the connection between scouting and Judaism, most notably the emphasis on doing good deeds (mitzvot).

Whenever I see those Boy Scout uniforms, they burn like a scarlet letter on my parenting soul.

Ahoy!  I be Homerrrr!

Ahoy! I be Homerrrr!

You see, my big boy has in the past expressed some interest in joining the Boy Scouts.  And it probably would have been good for him, too, given my wife is not a huge fan of “roughing it” and my idea of communing with the land is a lovely stretch of well-manicured savannah abruptly enclosed by a semicircular fence bracketed by two garish yellow foul poles.  The pangs of guilt in not adequately preparing him to survive the zombie apocalypse are amplified by the social deprivation he’s expressed at not being part.  It’s the classic “all the cool kids are doing it” argument he expressed to me once again as we drove home.

But even with the young men proudly speaking of all the mitzvot they have done as Boy Scouts, perhaps in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday, this Pharaoh’s heart hardened and once again said, “No, no, no.  To Boy Scouts you cannot go.”

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

Indeed, I saw more than a certain sad irony in a mention of Scouting Day at a synagogue.  Jews have historically been a people on the outside looking in.  On Passover, we are instructed to remember our time as slaves thousands of years ago as if it were happening to us right now.  “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  We are commanded not to ignore injustice both by deity and by tradition—something I find bonds me to Judaism despite my rather militant agnosticism (I don’t know, and neither do you).

But, of course, as we sat there hearing these young men speaking of the environmental and social ethics of Scouting, we heard nothing of the great white elephant—the national BSA’s continued singling out and exclusion of any gay or lesbian children or parents from being a part of the organization.  I understand why this was excluded from the program—I’m not quite that obtuse.  There was no reason to cast a pall on these kids who got so much out of this experience with this inconvenient truth.  But I don’t think I’m the only one in the sanctuary who could feel it ghosting the proceedings.

I tend to prefer the "warts and all" philosophy

I tend to prefer the “warts and all” philosophy, however

What surprised me a bit as Gus and I discussed this issue once again was the discovery that when he talked with his friends who were in the Boy Scouts, each and every one of them vehemently denied that the BSA had this policy.  Now, I don’t think that their parents have been lying to them.  Indeed, I just had a discussion with a couple of our good friends who have their son in the Boy Scouts.  When they decided to do it, the issue of the national policy was absolutely part of their discussion.  But knowing that in this liberal haven of Arlington that the issue would have little-to-no impact on their particular troop made them feel the on-the-ground positives outweighed the rhetorical negatives.

That seems quite reasonable to me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Gus’s friends have no idea about the BSA’s anti-LGBT policy is not a concerted effort on their parents part.  They joined the Scouts at a very early age, when this issue would have frankly been too complex to explain to them.  Given in a liberal place like Arlington this issue just simply isn’t an issue for their troops, it’s simply never come up.  And because in so many other ways the Boy Scouts is about respecting and helping others, it just seems antithetical to any child participating that it would also have such an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Can't hate this guy

Can’t hate this guy

As I continue to mull this decision, I always remind myself that my own moral compass is certainly far from true north.  For instance, I always loved the (should be in the) Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and even though I was taken aback when he called Rush Limbaugh “American Royalty” back in 2005, I decided that I would divorce the catcher from the man, and continue to be a fan of the player.  Why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the Boy Scouts?

It is actually a somewhat similar issue happening right now in the nerd world that gave me a bit more clarity. As you might remember, I rather enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which will be coming out as a motion picture in November.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued to hear that DC comics is giving him his own Superman series to play with.  But then, I was hit with the news that Card is anti-gay marriage and has made some statements over the years that could be considered quite homophobic.  Here’s a very thorough article from Hollywood.com that traces the saga, and the publicity problem that both DC and Summit Entertainment have on their hands.

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

I’m far more iffy now as to whether I’m going to complete my Read It Then See It on Ender’s Game, as not only does Card personally believe in something I find terribly discriminatory, not only does he belong to what I believe to be a discriminatory organization (the National Organization for Marriage), but he is a member of their board of directors.  He is therefore actively using his celebrity to empower an organization that’s entire purpose—unlike the Boy Scouts—is to discriminate against the LGBT community.

There seems to be a difference in my mind between personal differences and institutionalized discrimination.  And while BSA is a private institution, it is still an institution.  So this is why I will still put Piazza’s #31 on my back, but Card’s Superman comics will remain on the shelves and I will continue to deprive my children of the unquestionable benefits of the Boy Scouts on this principle.

I admit fully that the line from disagreement over objectionable personal belief to institutionalized discrimination can sometimes be a murky one.  But it is that institutionalization of bias that, as a former slave in the land of Egypt, I simply cannot abide.

ew.

So this is the slightly wavering, yet deeply-etched line that I draw in the sand, and what I am committed to teaching my children.  If the BSA lifts its policy (something that doesn’t seem likely in the near future), however, I would be happy to allow my sons to take part.  Heck, I’ll even go on a camping trip with them.

Just don’t expect me to like it.

Golem: The Hero Project

March 6, 2013

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location.

Last year's fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

Last year’s fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

I guess I should have been excited about being given one of the prime spots at my little guy’s elementary school’s Multicultural Night.  We were right at the top of the stairs, impossible to miss—Israel front-and-center.  After brushing away the urge to suddenly discover my Slovenian heritage, I began setup for my second year representing the Jewish State.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love the fact that the biggest school event of the year is one that celebrates the diverse cultural backgrounds of the school students, parents, and teachers.  The kids are given passports, and run around the school to different tables representing different countries.  When they have stopped in and participated in whatever that country has to offer, they get the requisite stamp on their passport.

I think the twist would have given me away

I think the twist might have given me away

It’s just that I was absolutely exhausted by the worry and work of tending to my big guy’s concussion recovery (he’s doing much better now, by the way).  Just putting things together and manning the table was somewhat daunting at the moment.  Now add to that a location that guaranteed the deluge of smart, inquisitive, and energetic K-5 kids and I was hitting myself for not bringing along that bottle of Plymouth to go along with the Play-Doh.

I remember being really spent after my maiden voyage at the Israel table.  Last year’s theme was holidays, and, as you might remember, we took advantage of the proximity to Purim to do Haman Hangman and teach kids about the “Hebrew Halloween.”  Trying to manage that again, but this time at the center of the storm, was positively daunting.

Great moment, but not much competition for Hansel and Gretel

This year, the theme was folklore and fairytales.  This is something that gave me and the other Israel table parents some consternation.  Israel itself is a young country, so the amount of folklore developed since 1948 is fairly small.  One could point to the bible itself as Israeli folklore (and, some might argue, fairytales), but that seemed out-of-sync with the vibe of what they were looking for.

Finally, we decided that there was such a rich folklore tradition within the Jewish diaspora experience that it was just too good to pass up.  It also gave the opportunity to teach kids about the concept of a people without a nation.  And, as a nerd, there was really only one story choice:

Golem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s my excerpt from the activity sheet I put together.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Legend has it that in 16th-century Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Israelites were being threatened because a lie was spread that Jews were kidnapping Christian children. As a mob gathered to attack the Jews, the head Rabbi of Prague turned to a passage in the Torah that referred to an “unformed substance” or Golem (GOH-ləm).  Through a mastery of Jewish mysticism, the Rabbi formed a mound of clay into a large human-like shape.  Finally he inserted a parchment with the most sacred Jewish prayer, the Shema, and the Golem came to life.

Unharmed by human weapons, and growing larger and more powerful by drawing strength from the earth itself, Golem was a determined protector of the Children of Israel.  But Golem became so powerful that even the Jews themselves started to become fearful.  Eventually, the Rabbi would use his powers to return Golem to the earth, even though he came to treasure his life as much as any human being did.

Golem SwampThingCan you see why a geeky guy like me loves this story so much?  It’s essentially Frankenstein meets Superman.  Indeed, Golem has been featured in comic books from Swamp Thing to The Hulk, and in pop-culture hotspots from The Simpsons to the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Resistance was futile.

Given Golem was formed from a mound of clay, it leant to a great activity for the kids—Build Your Own Golem.  Armed with a rainbow of Play-Doh tubs and paper plates, the kids molded their own heroes and brought them to me for me to mark with their name and their Golem’s name in Hebrew (or the best approximation my 6th grade Hebrew School training could approximate).  As the first little girl brought me her fire-breathing butterfly, I found that I needed to kneel down to more comfortably write on her plate.  I did not get up again for two-and-a-half hours.

Location, location, location.

knee_padsAnd while my hamstrings are still recovering some two weeks later, I have to say I am so very glad I didn’t let my fatigue (and self-pity) get in the way.  I wish we had been a little less crazed, as we weren’t actually able to do the photos and videos of the kids as I had hoped.  But both their creations and their answers to my questions were absolutely fascinating.

As you might expect, there were plenty of the “boys will be boys” crowd that just wanted to talk about the cool ways that their Golem could destroy things.  When I noted the fact that those powers could be used just as easily for evil as for good, most responded, “Well they just use it to kill the bad guys!”  When I challenged them to think about one way they could use their power to do something other than to destroy, I got a lot of quizzical looks and “Can you just give me my stamp now, please?” But I also got a lot of good thinking.  Lightning bolts that could light lightbulbs and controlled storms that could spin wind turbines, to name a couple.

And then there were the “outside the box” notions of heroism.  A winged Pegasus that spread friendship with a flap.  A tree of life that provided food for the hungry.  My favorite was a little girl with a pretty pink Golem.  When I asked what powers her hero had, she shrugged her shoulders shyly.  Her Dad wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders and urged her to answer.  “Is your Daddy your hero?” I asked.  She grinned and nodded her head, looking up at him for approval.  “And what makes him your hero?” I continued.  She pondered for a moment, and squeaked, “He loves me.”  This time, it was my turn to grin.  “Love, my grandmother always said, is the greatest power of them all.”  We named her Golem Ahav—love in Hebrew.

folding chairWhether you go with Golem or just a “build your own Super Hero” project, I cannot recommend this activity enough.  I would have loved to have done this in a classroom environment where the kids get to build, discuss, and share their designs, and more importantly, their thoughts on heroism with each other.

Just make sure you’ve got a chair.

Read It Then See It: Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2

March 1, 2013

Well, Gus is having his first day back in school (crossed-fingers).  So of course, I spend my first hours alone doing what?  Reading a comic book, of course!  Oh, and for continuity, here is my review on the first issue of this series.

Star-Trek_Countdown-to-Darkness_2The (Comic) Book
Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness #2.  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 added a year on here as there is a particular scene where (SPOILER) one of the Phadians are pretty savagely beheaded (END SPOILER).  Frankly, I didn’t feel that particular image was needed to make the point, but it’s there and so it may not be appropriate for younger children.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  Far more interesting and tight storytelling than the first issue.  Good action, but far more importantly, a very interesting dilemma put to Captain Kirk.

Book Availability
Once again, I downloaded this from iTunes for $3.99.  Again no sign of the comics at my local bookstores, though I’d guess the compilation will be there once it comes out.  BUT, I did note that once the NEXT issue of the comic comes out, the price of the previous issue DROPS to $1.99.  So if you’re willing to wait a bit, you’ll get yourself a bargain (relatively speaking).  Issue 3 is supposed to come out on March 13.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers—more than minor if you haven’t read issue #1)
And so we pick up with Kirk and Spock surrounded by light blue Phadians (I’m assuming that’s what they’d be called, as they’re actually not aliens.  In this case, the humans are the aliens) and a former Captain of a starship Enterprise, Robert April.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren't green, scantily clad women.

Kirk seems skeptical, but probably because the aliens aren’t green, scantily clad women.

We find out that some two decades ago, April, in command of the previous Enterprise, discovered that the blue Phadians were being exterminated by an aggressive subsect of their kind called the Shadows.  It was a classic and brutal case of genocide.  April decided that, in this case, he could not let the Prime Directive stand in the way of saving an entire race.  So he “went native” and his First Officer and friend covered his tracks.

Before Kirk and Spock can get back to their shuttle and crew, the Shadows attack and drive them and April deep into the catacombs where the last of the blue Phadians reside.  It seems that once April introduced advanced technology to this war, someone else jumped in quickly to assist the Shadows.  Their forces were now poised for a final offensive to complete the genocide that they started.

As April, Kirk, and Spock debate the morality of the Prime Directive, one of them slip off, and head, fully armed, toward the Shadow army.  Who it is, however, might come as a bit of a surprise.

Quickie Review (same spoiler level as above)
I liked the first one just fine, but I felt at 22 pages it was a bit thin.  It’s funny, because even though this one is also 22 pages, it felt like SO much more.

The plot itself was very rich, as it really tackled the moral ambiguity that goes along with the Prime Directive.  This issue speaks volumes to current issues, as the technologically sophisticated United States has the ability, as we did in Libya, to play a decisive role in deciding a civil war.  Yet, in cases such a Rwanda in the 1990s, we did nothing and allowed a genocide to happen.  When is it right to interfere in the affairs of other nations?  That, on a planetary scale, is what’s being debated here.

Spock's messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

Spock’s messed up, but does that mean that the Spock we knew is entirely gone?

A couple more fun things happen here, as we continue to get a different feel for this Spock.  I’m not sure I like it, as the more I see, the more different he becomes from the Spock I grew up with an idolized.  In some ways, it definitely makes for an interesting juxtaposition, but I’m afraid that the scars of Vulcan’s destruction might actually serve to limit the character’s growth as everything seems to revolve around that now.

It was also fun to see Uhura in command of the Enterprise, as this new generation of our intrepid crew break from the shackles of the glass ceilings of the ‘60s.  However, I really did not like the way McCoy was written, as his interaction with Uhura made him seem power-hungry and scheming, which is completely against type.

I also found it unfortunate that the art of the old Enterprise wasn’t more “old school.”  My understanding is that their original idea for opening the movie in 2009 was to have the Enterprise under April’s command, looking just like it did in the original series, come into contact with the Narada.  I think that would have been amazing, and they could have nodded to that here by drawing his Enterprise more like the one from TOS.

That said, there was a nice drawing of an old-school looking tricorder, and both a race and a name from Star Trek of old that was fun to see.  In all, a very strong issue both for the Trek novice and nerds like me.

Overall Read Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As you might expect, this issue really expands upon the last one.  So what I noted in issue #1 definitely still applies here.  But there is one very large new issue that’s a doozy of a discussion point:

An amazing and haunting book on Rwanda–well worth a read

Genocide: Perhaps one of the most difficult issues for humanity, as we have yet to overcome as a species the drive to exterminate entire peoples simply for what they are.  In this issue of the comic, we have the Shadows painted as nothing but bad guys.  I’ll be curious if they stick there in that “comfortable dilemma” of whether good guys should go in and get the bad guys even if it doesn’t seem to be their business, or whether they’ll open up the Shadows a bit more.  As, of course, the “We were just following orders” is also one of the great debates over what to do in the face of, and the aftermath of, genocide.

As difficult as this issue can be, however, it can also be used as more of a personal allegory to cases of racism, bigotry, and bullying.  Is it always the right thing to do to get yourself involved when you see someone else doing something wrong?  If you see injustice, is it better to involve yourself as an advocate for the one being abused, or an arbiter to help diffuse the situation?  April leaped in as a defender, not doing anything to even try to see if he could change the situation without taking sides.  Was that the right thing for him to do?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But it sure is interesting to talk about.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

What to Expect from the Movie

Eh, go play with your Death Star

Oh, go play with your Death Star already

I wish I could say that issue #2 made me feel a little less nervous about what to expect from the movie, but it didn’t.  I think the issue itself is great Trek, but I remember in the Star Trek: Countdown series before the 2009 film, there were wonderful, Trek-like allusions and discussions, but because the film was intended for an audience that had no familiarity with Star Trek, little-to-none of that was included in the picture itself.

I have to say that perhaps a little bit of more worry comes from feeling 2nd best now that JJ Abrams has taken on Star Wars.  It’s not that he’s doing the new movies—that’s fine by me.  It’s that when he agreed to take it on, he said, “I can just say what I want to do: I want to do the fans proud.”  Given his quote while making Trek 2009 was “I’m not making this for the fans,” I still continue to be concerned that while he enjoys the Star Trek characters, he does not seem to really enjoy the core of Roddenberry’s vision.

Yes, yes.  I’ll try to remove the Tauntaun-sized chip from my shoulder before I see the movie in May…