Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pursuing Perfection... and Hats

It's probably not even true, but they say that everyone gets jitters on opening night. And, oh yeah, I definitely had been nervous before the show had started. But now, as the curtain fell for the final time and I heard the muffled applause through its tattered layers, I was filled with a totally different sensation. I was furious. I could feel the anger coursing through my veins as the rest of the cast ambled off into the darkness. Picking the chintzy fedora off my head, I threw it - literally threw my hat across the stage. And then, because I was only thirteen years old and didn't know what else to do, I walked over, picked it up and threw it across the stage again, as if to really drive home to that hat just how irate I really was.

It wasn't the hat's fault, of course. In fact, in all likelihood, it was actually my fault, although I'm getting ahead of myself. The hat I really liked, and on a better opening night, I would certainly have treated it better. That plastic-and-felt fedora represented not only that I had been granted a part in the all-school play, but that the role was even pretty cool. I was a hardboiled 1930's detective, complete with trench coat, candy cigarettes, and that all-important fedora. Maybe not as hardboiled, or as significant a detective as my best friend, who played the lead, but I was excited nonetheless. I'd grown up watching old movies on PBS with my Dad, and my middle school English/drama teacher was inexplicably a fan of 30's murder-mystery-comedies. It was a perfect match.

Throw in the fact that this was the second middle school play I'd tried out for, and the first in which I had gotten a part. I distinctly recall my first audition, standing alone onstage and being so impressed with the acoustics of the auditorium, how I didn't really need to speak any louder than usual to be heard. After that ended predictably well, with my name nowhere to be found on the posted cast list, I had vowed to do better next time. By the time Any Body for Tea auditions rolled around, I projected my lines with the gusto of a tween Kenneth Brannagh (In my own mind anyway), and was rewarded by being cast in the probably expendable supporting role of police detective Kramer. I was determined to do well.

Weeks of auditions followed, until opening night finally arrived. Draped in ill-fitting costumes from the school's collection, faces gaudily caked with excessive amounts of makeup, and nervous tension flowing, nine middle school students huddled offstage, waiting for the curtain to go up and the magic to begin. And for a while it really seemed magical. We had rehearsed so much, run through lines over and over, perfected the blocking (and in my case, had a small enough part), that things became effortless. I didn't need to think about what my next line was or where I needed to stand; it just flowed. The conniving old ladies staged murder after murder while Detective O'Finn investigated, and the sardonic Kramer rolled his eyes and quipped wittily. We were in the zone.

Until the script required Kramer to spot a pair of binoculars on an end table, hand them to O'Finn, and lead them both to realize that the view from the ladies' window opens directly toward O'Finn's apartment. It's about as significant scene as a play like this can have, but it really sort of hinges on physically having binoculars. You can then imagine how I felt when I turned, mid-scene, with all the stage lights shining down on me, to the end table where the binoculars should have been, only to find bare wood. My heart racing, my pulse pounding in my ears, I did the only thing I could think of - pantomimed the binoculars like we had done in rehearsals before we added all the props. The results... weren't pretty.

"Maybe they used these binoculars." [Holds out empty hand]

"Where, Kramer?"

"Uh, I don't know."

We somehow got through the scene with some terrible ad-libbing, but the damage was done. The play, which had been going so well, was now surely a disaster. The play ended without encountering any further mistakes, but I couldn't stop thinking of that one glaring screwup as I chased my hat around the darkened backstage. I sheepishly went to go find my Dad afterward and tell him how bad I felt about the play. He responded with a question asking what part had gone wrong. Could this be true? Had he witnessed the depth of our failure and not even realize we had gone off-script? Now, in retrospect, I realize this means either A) he wasn't really paying that close attention to our otherwise dazzling performance, or B) he did notice it but decided not to say anything to spare my feelings. I wouldn't blame him for A (middle school play, everybody), and give lots of kudos for B if true. Either way, at the time, it was just what I needed. I knew, probably better than anyone, that the play hadn't been perfect. But I realized that it didn't need to be perfect to be just right. We went home and had ice cream, and totally rocked the performance the next day.

96) ST Voyager: Lineage. If anyone needs the lesson that perfection isn't necessary, it's B'Elanna Torres in this episode of Voyager. She finds out that she is pregnant, and becomes positively obsessed with removing any "flaws" she can find through in utero genetic modification. Some of these are good/necessary, like correcting an spinal defect that occurs in Klingon/Human hybrids. But others go a little further, and highlight Torres' own inner conflicts between her two races. And we see in flashbacks why that is, although it seems a bit stilted and unrealistic. I guess I'm fortunate that I haven't lived through childhood strife like her character has, but I just wouldn't think an adult would make the assumptions she does about the situation, particularly the Chief Engineer, who one assumes would think more logically. Had the flashbacks been more nuanced and less after-school special, this would probably have been better. 6/10

95) ST Next Generation: The Most Toys. Here we have a guy consumed with accumulating the perfect collection of rare items when really any one of his "toys" should be enough to satisfy him. And what better item to add to a collection, than a walking, talking humanoid, the only known android in existence? As you can imagine, Data and this collector, Kivas Fajo, have philosophical differences about Data being added to the collection, and a struggle of wits ensues as Data tries to find a way to escape. There's a lot good here, including Data's repartee with Fajo, and his empathy in trying to help Fajo's assistant. And the B-story is quite good as well, showing crew members dealing with Data's (faked) death, and working to uncover the truth. My sole gripe with this episode would entail a major spoiler, so let me just say that I have a hard time accepting Data's actions at the end. 7/10.

94) ST Enterprise: Disaster. Now this episode is exactly why I wanted to write about things not needing to be perfect to be just right. By any objective measure, this should not be a great episode. It only rates a 7.8 average on IMDB. But this episode of TNG, despite its imperfections, is still absolutely great, Sure, the plotline sounds recycled, with some space anomaly knocking out power on the ship and putting all members of the crew in unpleasant/dangerous situations. But it's so great! Picard is stuck in a turbolift with kids! And he hates kids! Worf is stuck in Ten-Forward when Keiko goes into labor, so he becomes a midwife! Troi is the ranking officer on the bridge! And don't get me started with how Data gets through the plasma discharge thingy in the Jeffries tubes. If you can't have fun seeing all your favorite characters dealing with these bizarre and unfamiliar situations, this might not be the show for you. Maybe the overriding theme of achieving things while out of your element isn't as deep or philosophical as some other episodes get, but it's something. And with all the other zaniness going on, that's good enough for me. 10/10, believe it or not.

Speaking of zaniness, I mentioned earlier that the Any Body for Tea fiasco may have actually been my own fault. I swear to this day that I don't know for sure, but it may have been my responsibility to get the binoculars from offstage and put them on the table during the scene change immediately before we used them.As a small production, we had a single crew person, who had control of the curtain and the four main light levers. Everything else was divided up between the cast. So there were definitely items that I had to put in place at various points in the play, and the binoculars sure could have been one of them. If so, nearly 20 years later, I can take the blame for that one. I'm sure my hat would appreciate me taking it out on someone else.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Under Winning's Spell

Do you know how to spell lacerate? You can bet your ass that I do. Some nice guy sitting at a table spelled it aloud to me while I was standing on a stage in a school library. That word, lacerate, landed me 4th place in the regional spelling bee, and knocked me solidly out of the remainder of the competition. A win would have gotten me into the state competition, where I could compete for a chance at the national Bee. The one you can watch on ABC, the one where you see a 5 second clip on every news show once a year of a tiny kid spelling a word few adults have any business knowing how to spell. In other words, glory. So, did a misspelled lacerate cut me like a knife (terrible pun intended)? No. I simply listened, nodded, smiled at my Dad in the audience and took my seat.

Flash back three years, and it was a different story. My elementary school gymnasium, the mild din of parents moving about to find their children, the bursts of laughter and conversation from school kids returning to their classrooms. And the combination of bright lights and tear-streaked eyes blurring the scene as my parents approached me and told me they were proud. I numbly hear their words as they tell me I'd added an extra "r" to the word I was to spell, which seemed an impossibility to me. How had it gone wrong? I knew that word. How could I have possibly misspelled it? How had I lost?

To understand the whole story, we have to go back one year further, when I was in second grade, and told that I was now eligible for the school spelling bee. This was the primary grades bee, which meant that the winner couldn't move on to the regional competition, but there was still a trophy for the winner. A trophy. I hadn't seen it yet, but I knew this was something I wanted. I knew kids who did organized sports, who did martial arts, who had trophies for all kinds of activities that I wasn't involved in, but here was something I could win. I recall an easy written spelling test, and then I was sent home with a list of words from which the spelling bee would pull.

Now, there are a few things to understand here. When you watch the National Spelling Bee on ABC (which I know you do), you see kids hearing unfamiliar words and working through etymologies to try to deduce the spelling. That works and likely is truly necessary at the higher levels of the spelling bee. At the local level, there was simply a list from which words would be randomly chosen for each participant's turn. It's a long list, but it's finite. If you have a good base to begin with, a decent memory, and are willing to put in the time, you can simply learn the entire list. That's item 1. The other thing to know is that my Mom wanted each of us to be successful as we could in all things, but particularly academics. A report card with a B on it meant we were in trouble. We read voraciously. We took trips to educational places, and watched Nature and NOVA on TV. And, lest you get the wrong idea, we also played sports with the neighborhood kids, went to amusement parks, and watched Star Trek on TV, too. But that report card had still better be all A's.

Put those two things together, and my Mom pragmatically decided that the best way to go would be for me to memorize the entire list of spelling words. I had a good vocabulary from reading all the time, so I already knew a significant fraction of the words on the list anyway. From that point it was just a matter of practicing until I had the other words ingrained in my head. So we sat down on the couch, every day after school, she would read a word, and I would spell it. She knew I wanted to win, and looking back, I'm pretty sure she wanted me to win, too. We did this every day from the date the list came home until the day of my first spelling bee. That day was a bit of a nervous blur, but I remember my confidence in every word I received until I was the last one standing. I spelled skiing, and I was handed the most beautiful trophy I'd ever seen. A glimmering golden angel stood atop an ornate pedestal, arms upholding a disc with a bee on it. I had never been prouder of myself.

And every year, that was what we did. We'd get the list, I'd practice every day with my Mom, and eventually we'd get to the spelling bee. When I was older, I'd do my paper route and come home to practice spelling. Some days I'd whine and complain that I didn't want to practice, but my Mom would make me. She believed I could do it, and knew beneath my lazy veneer that I believed it too. In five years, I won three times, lost twice, and made it to regionals once, where, arguably, I also lost. So what was the difference between ending the contest in a blur of tears, and an accepting smile?

In third grade, I don't know what word I misspelled, but I distinctly remember that I knew it when I heard it. If I added an "r," as historians will claim, it was a mistake, a slip. I knew I could have done better, could have gotten it right, could have won. Lacerate, though? Didn't know it. We either hadn't gone over it, or the memorization hadn't stuck. I heard it, realized I didn't know it, and tried my best. I had done all I was capable of and it wasn't enough. Even though it meant I lost, I could accept it.

The real key, of course, is that my Mom was proud of me either way. To her, that huge difference between the two losses simply didn't exist. She didn't care that one time I made a simple mistake and the other time I just didn't know the word. She had seen the work I had put in and my excitement at a contest I could be competitive in, and she had encouraged me. To her, all of it was me doing my best, not whether or not I hoisted the trophy at the end of the day. It took me some time to see that, but I'm glad I experienced it all: the wins, the devastating losses, and the acceptance. You can do your best and sometimes it will go your way, and sometimes it won't. That's easy to understand. But knowing not to beat yourself up for a little error that kept you from the glory, and knowing that that is still giving your best? That's a valuable lesson.

And it might have been a good lesson for Malik and Arik Soong, the main antagonists for this week's batch of Star Trek episodes. In this case, #99 on the list was a three-parter, so I'll be talking about those. In this trilogy of episodes we have another parent who wants the best for his kids, but in this case he gets things kind of mixed up about what that all really means.That message gets majorly warped when his son misunderstands the concept, and things just go from bad to worse. But I'm probably getting ahead of myself.

97) ST Enterprise: Borderland. ZOMG, it's Brent Spiner! I believe that's the proper response on seeing the first few scenes of this episode. This time playing Arik Soong, great-great-grandfather or so to Dr. Noonien Soong, inventor of Data. He seems a little more ill-tempered than his descendants, and this time he's all about genetic engineering, making superhumans. Of course, that's illegal, but some of his "prior work" has escaped and is gallivanting around the galaxy stealing Klingon Birds of Prey. Whew! What a setup! Throw in a trip to the Orion planet (scantily-clad green women), lots of action sequences, and a bit of moralizing about genetic engineering, and this is an action-packed episode. I liked it. It sets the stage well for what might be to come while being exciting enough to keep your interest. I could see how Soong thinks of the "augments" as his children, and I could believe his somewhat rash behavior as a dad who just wants to corral his kids before they get into trouble. Dang kids. 8/10.

97 again) ST Enterprise: Cold Station 12. Now here's where things start to get really interesting, where Soong realizes his kids may have gone a little off-message with his experiments to make them superior to everyone else. You see, if they buy into that a bit too much, they might start to find non-augmented people disposable, which certainly doesn't seem to have been Soong's intent. In this episode we visit Cold Station 12, where many more genetically modified embryos are being kept. Through tracking efforts that almost strain credulity, the Enterprise manages to follow, and an intense standoff ensues. Here's where Dr. Soong starts to see just how twisted Malik's ideas have gotten after a lifetime of being told he's superior to everyone else, and you can start to see doubts creep in. And when he learns the truth about the one augment whose modifications didn't really take, you see him less as the villain and more as someone who might be about to realize he's inadvertently created a monster. Spiner does a great job expressing those feelings while his character tries to keep on a veneer of control and smug superiority, which is right in character with the Soong we've seen so far. Oh, and the ending of this episode/start of the next is just awesome. 8/10.

97 once more) ST Enterprise: The Augments. Ok, so without giving any details away, the first sequence of this episode was incredible. After that, things slowly unravel and the start of an awesome trilogy peters out in a fairly predictable way. Where the prior episode hinted at some level of nuance and character evolution, the finale decides to split everything into black-and-white, have people make uncharacteristically stupid decisions, and finally end the episode with foreshadowing that has all the subtlety of a photon torpedo to the head. In short, the bad guys get badder, and the most interesting character (Soong) goes from a conflicted father to a 1-dimensional dictator who is constantly snapping out orders and ultimatums. It's not at all how I would have ended this trilogy, but the first few scenes and a few good moments here and there save it from a lower rating. Trying to avoid spoilers, that's probably about all I can say about this ep. 6/10.

Dr. Soong wanted his kids to be the best, not just the best they could be, but literally the best humans that ever existed. Unfortunately he seems to have focused on the physical and ignored the emotional and empathetic. I don't think he would have accepted one of his augments misspelling a word they definitely knew by heart. And just like I misconstrued what was an acceptable outcome at the spelling bee, Malik way misconstrued what his being genetically enhanced allowed him to do in life. That's a recipe for trouble, and for a pretty good group of Enterprise episodes. Because as intense as spelling bees can get, it does appear that the consequences of misunderstandings are higher in interstellar conflict than they are in spelling. Who knew?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cathedrals of Memory

I can close my eyes, and it's like I'm right there. Like Santa's Village never shut down and decayed away for years into chipping, fading paint and crumbling pads where rides once sat. No, in my mind, the cloying scents of funnel cake batter and cotton candy mix with the oily aroma of sunblock, and the tinny carnival music can fill the air if I only stop to remember it. The icy chill of the "North Pole" on even the most sweltering summer's day, the brightly painted concrete of the ponds and fountains, and the numerous Alpine buildings that housed gamerooms, gift shops, or restaurants. And the rides.

Oh, yes, the rides. So many beloved memories, like treasured friends from long ago. Here's the convoy, gleaming in the sun, the newest ride a cacophony of bulb horns ringing out. There's the 15 seconds of whiplash from a ride on the dragon coaster. And down the hill toward Coney Island are a pair of favorites: the antique cars and the dodge-em. The antique cars click along their prescribed track with a measured cadence, lanternesque headlights glowing as they drive through "tunnels" and a small boy carefully steers along with every turn. Just down the path the bumper cars crash together under jangly rock n roll songs and the crisp smell of burning electricity.

I could keep going, talking about the clanking chains of the yo-yo, the terror of weightlessness at the top of the galleon's arc, but I'll stop with one last ride. The fire truck. This was an actual truck, towing a trailer that for all intents and purposes was a set of bleachers on wheels, driving along the paths in one corner of the park. It stops at a small metal house, through the windows of which burns an actual fire. As the truck lurches to a halt, the small hose ends in front of each kid spring to life with streams of water that always seem to fall just short of the burning house. Clutching the hose, aiming with marksman precision, and gritting my teeth, willing the water to spray just a little further, I finally get the water to reach the flame. After (what seems like a predetermined amount of) time, the flame extinguishes, and the truck returns to the boarding area, victorious and triumphant.

Now, of course, I know that the fire was a simple gas flame that was turned on and off. Similarly, the rides I cherished were simple carnival amusements, the buildings cheap flimsy constructions, and the brightly painted Christmas trees were clumsy hunks of fiberglass. If I'd been an adult back then, what would I have thought of Santa's Village? Would I see all those imperfections, or would I be able to feel the magic I now recall? Or how would I feel about other places from my childhood? The Piano Factory, an outlet mall that probably should have been structurally condemned, is a place whose uneven stairs, dim hallways, and collections of weird mismatched shops I remember so fondly. The rough wood and scalding aluminum slides of the now-defunct playground equipment at my old school was a kid's palace. Or even something as simple as the McDonald's where my Mom used to bring me for a chocolate milk while we waited to pick up my brother from school. It's since been completely renovated, but I can remember every corner of how it used to be from those trips. To anyone else, just a burger joint, but to me a sacred cathedral of memory.

That's the funny thing about nostalgia. You never know what seemingly insignificant item or place will insinuate itself indelibly onto your memory while remaining totally meaningless to someone else. And that's really the main connection between the first three episodes of's list of the top 100 Star Trek episodes (link). What, you didn't think that's where I was going with all this? Well, regardless of the rambling way I got here, io9 has provided me with a list, a "complete-them-all" opportunity, and it's all about Star Trek. In my usual way, I'm going to start (and likely never finish) watching all of the episodes. Here are the first three:

100) ST Voyager - Bride of Chaotica! Here's where  nostalgia can differ so much from person to person. This episode is your typical "trapped in the Holodeck" scenario as we've seen repeatedly since these things first came to be on The Next Generation. And it seems each series needs to find its own Holodeck niche. For example, TNG had Data as Sherlock Holmes and Picard as the 1940's detective Dixon Hill, both of which were lots of fun. DS9 continued the trend with Sisko's baseball obsession (slightly less fun) and Bashir's 007-esque exploits (fun again). So by the time Voyager got to play with a Holodeck, most of the best ideas were already taken. Rather than repeating one of these, they decided to go with Tom Paris being a connoisseur of old Sci-Fi serials like Buck Rogers or Lost in Space. And they did a wonderful job recreating that kind of world: black and white photography, cheesy sets, overacting everywhere. But the problem is that's all they did. The main story was so bland, the baddie was defeated in a (very non-Star Trek) unintelligent way, and so many plot holes were left totally unaddressed. What about even trying to communicate with the aliens trapped in the Holodeck? Eh, leave that part out, let's just have more death ray. I'm too young to feel nostalgic for old campy Sci-Fi serials, and without that, this episode is pretty skippable. 5/10.

99) ST Original Series - Day of the Dove. Again, if you grew up with something, you are more likely to appreciate it than someone approaching it later on. That applies for me to essentially the entire original Star Trek series, which I credit more for spawning great shows later on than for any merits of its own. Cuz let's face it, original Star Trek was pretty bad at times. Day of the Dove wasn't one of the worst offenders, but it wasn't great either. This episode had a pretty good idea and really poor execution. The main gist is there's an alien that feeds on hatred and is encouraging humans and Klingons to fight for its amusement/nourishment. Great, except that is made abundantly clear to the viewer in the first 10 minutes of the show, then we spend more than half an hour watching Kirk and co. flail around trying to figure out what we already know, all for a 5 minute conclusion that is almost embarrassing. I wanted to like this much more, but the plot was so poorly written that I was actually bored watching it. The most interesting part was seeing Spock overcome by the alien and his almost bigoted comments to Scotty (in response to Scott's outright racism), as well as the overall theme about why we fight. That said, not being a child of the Kirk/Spock era made this one harder for me to get into. 5/10.

98) ST Deep Space Nine - Paradise. Fair warning, I probably rated this episode lower than I ought to have because I felt a slight personal affront from it. Here, Sisko and O'Brien decide to visit a planet that they subsequently discover renders technology of any sort unusable. The colonists seem to relish their old-fashioned ways despite the Starfleet folks' protestations that technology is totally better, right? The leader of the colonists is smug and self-righteous, a perfect love-to-hate style antagonist. As she becomes more and more Dolores Umbridge, Sisko and O'Brien fight back more and more, and the tension eventually comes to a fairly unexpected climax. Good episode, with my gripe that the conflict between self-sufficiency and technology was presented in a total technology-good, old ways-bad kind of view. As someone who grows his own food, cans and preserves the harvest, whose wife knits clothes and hats, etc., this is kind of insulting. Sure, technology can grow more food than I can, and preserve it quicker, but there are costs to that, too, and there is satisfaction in doing something yourself. Painting the people who look back fondly on low-tech ways as simpletons or manipulated is kind of irksome. But for the oh-so-nasty antagonist and her standoff with Sisko, I can overlook some of that and rate this 6/10.

So whether it's nostalgia for old TV shows (serials or the original Star Trek), or just for days without so much technology in our lives, each of these episodes ties in somewhat to the theme of remembering the past in a positive light. Perhaps the only oddity is that for someone who admittedly pines for the good old days of shows like Star Trek, I sure didn't rate these three very highly. I would expect that to change as we get further into the countdown, and particularly once we spend some time with my favorite crew, the members of NCC-1701-D. Until then, it was at least interesting to see some episodes I had somehow missed in my years of watching the various Star Trek series. And given the tendency of memory toward the nostalgic, maybe one day I'll look back at this blog and tell myself these episodes weren't that bad, and wish for the days where I'd wake up early to watch some Star Trek before heading to work. I think I have room in my memory for a few more "good old days," and those could definitely fit the bill.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chariots of marginally warm, slightly smoldering ashes

For as far back as I can recall running being a thing you just did as opposed to a part of an actual game or something fun, I've had a love-hate relationship with it. Well, maybe that's more of a tolerate-hate relationship. In the twenty-plus years I've been running for some purpose or another, I don't think I've ever captured the mystical "runner's high," or finished a run feeling happy and better for having done it. But, that said, aside from the times where I've thought that running is the worst thing ever, it isn't the worst thing ever.

My first memory of running just to run was in middle school, because of the bear. One time a bear attacked my middle school and we all had to run away from it. No, totally kidding, although that would be a good means of motivation. I probably would have run a whole lot faster if it had been a real bear. The bear I'm referring to, letdown though it may be, was simply the vernacular for having to run around the schoolyard during gym class. As in, "that was a bear of a run." Or at least that's how I imagine it came about. According to Google Earth, that run was somewhere just north of half a mile, but everyone dreaded it when we had to run one. I can't recall enjoying it, but I did better than the kids who just strolled along talking to one another. I'd run the straights, walk the corners, and finish solidly midpack. From that point on, it was clear I was a born runner.

Fast-forward to high school, when one day during lunch a friend showed up with a mysterious blue sheet of paper. What was this paper? How could I get one? How many hours of physical activity would I be signing up for if I filled one out? These were the questions that should have raced through my head as I quickly filled one out so I could be cool, too, and I ended up on the track team. Now, track wasn't all bad for me. Everyone knows the ladies love athletes, and this was a sport I could actually do (since Scholastic Bowl allegedly didn't count as a sport). Not that I could particularly do it well, mind you, but I was part of an actual team. I had a smelly old uniform and everything.

Only one problem. They expected you to practice, which meant staying after school and running, like, every day. Fortunately for me, the long-distance coach was an incredible pushover, and I had a clever mind eager to think up excuse after excuse for how I couldn't practice that particular day. It was great. Particularly fond memories include discovering at my first meet that no, track runners don't take walking breaks during their races, and the time my coach, trying to decide what event to enter me in, imparted these words of inspiration: "Greg, you don't run fast, but you can run at the same pace for a long time. How about the mile?" Just to show him, I did go out there and run at a slow, steady pace. And unlike that damn tortoise, I didn't win anything. But it built character, and that's more important than anything... except those cool medals the real winners got.

I know what you're thinking. "Yes, Greg. Running sucks. But why do you need to tell us?" Well, I'm telling you because I'm going to try to start running. It's the twist ending for today's post. You see, this weekend I was in Chicago moving my sister in to college, when suddenly everyone just up and sailed away (literally) and I had three hours to kill. I decided to walk. It was a sunny Saturday in the mid-eighties, so I set off along the Lakefront Trail. And you know what? I wasn't alone. There were scads of people, outside, walking, running or cycling along the beautiful lakefront. Most of these people probably even had TVs at home, too, yet here they were running along the lake for no apparent reason. The more I walked amongst them, the more I yearned to understand them, and to even become one of them.

I will readily admit that some of the appeal may have been the environment, along one of the most gorgeous shores of waterfront in the country. Or it could have been sunstroke. But either way, it was far more appealing than jogging around the sterile McMansions my condo seems to be surrounded by. Could a grand setting truly make such a difference in how I view exercise? I aim to find out. It is true that in college, I always thought I studied better in the opulent surrounds of the library rotunda than I did in my drab dorm room. So, for a while anyway, I'm going to try running in some of the prettier parts of Des Moines and see how I like it.

Of course, hands down, the most scenic part of Des Moines has to be Grays Lake Park, and I certainly aim to use its tidy paths and sweeping bridge beneath the downtown skyline as I try this new program. There's also a nice trail running behind the Des Moines Art Center which should be an option. For today, though, I think I'll give the path around Blue Heron Lake at Raccoon River Park a shot. While it is nowhere near as scenic as downtown, it is significantly closer to home, and it fulfills my Chicago-born desire to run near the water. Depending on how that goes, I'll upgrade my surroundings and maybe even make it a regular occurrence. And maybe one day someone will be walking along Grays Lake, wondering how on earth I could be fool enough to run and actually enjoy it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

GGF - North By Northwest (1959)

Have you ever been mistaken for someone you're not? I can't recall a specific time that I have, though I do have vague memories of times I've thought a total stranger was someone I knew. It would start with a wave or a hello, returned by a look of puzzled consternation, all culminating in a me giving a muttered apology and quickly walking away in embarrassment. Since I naturally tend to over-analyze myself, those occasions have probably given me more grief in the short term than they should have, but they certainly could have been worse. What if a simple case of mistaken identity lasted longer than that awkward moment; if the stranger wouldn't accept your actual identity; and worst of all, was convinced that you were a super spy he wanted to snuff out? That one accidental interaction could change the course of your entire life, just as it does for Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, one of my favorite movies.

Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a dapper advertising executive in New York City, kind of a Don Draper before there was one. His case of mistaken identity occurs at a lunch with clients, when he inadvertently insinuates that he is one George Kaplan, just as a couple of goons working for the bad guy du jour are watching. In a matter of moments, the clients and the lunch are forgotten, as Thornhill is swept up into an elaborate cat-and-mouse game as he tries to figure out just who George Kaplan is, and the other guys try to kill him off for being Kaplan. I won't give too much away here, but suffice it to say that they have increasingly unusual ways of trying to go after him, including one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Even if you don't like mysteries or action movies or Cary Grant, you simply have to see this film for the plane chase.

I love this movie for the action and the convoluted plot - you have to keep on your toes a bit to know what's happening. I also enjoy Cary Grant as the protagonist. In a way, he's the everyman, just a regular guy thrown into the deep end of international espionage. But unlike the average man, he reacts to these ever-changing situations with wit and charm that few of us would be able to muster under the circumstances. The script is full of snappy exchanges, his suit stays immaculate through myriad explouts, and (of course) he gets the girl. This all helps keep the movie from getting too dark, and it remains a fun adventure throughout. A great example being Thornhill recognizing he is surrounded by the bad guys at an art auction, and the ingenious way he finds to save himself. You can't help but smile, even though he's sure his life is in serious jeopardy. I won't say what it is: you'll just have to watch the movie to find out.

On a lesser note, this movie is fun in that it really brings out the romance of rail travel. I've always wanted to take a trip by train: eating in the dining car, spending the night in a sleeper car, and I think a lot of it has to do with this film. Now, there is some literal romance to the rail travel, in that Thornhill meets the female lead (Eva Marie Saint) on the train, and things go rather, ahem, quickly. But I also just like the feel of sophistication, of something a little more special than driving or flying that you feel from the train in this movie. Granted, some of that may be due to the time period, but it still holds some allure for me. This has to be my favorite rail travel movie: on board the train is the one time Thornhill kind of "gets away" from the chase. And who wouldn't want to be incognito, hiding away in a sleeper compartment while the countryside rushes by?

At its heart, though, North by Northwest isn't a train movie - it's a thriller, and it ends in spectacular fashion. I won't give away the ending here, but I'll just say that for some reason the chase ends up in South Dakota. Perhaps you can imagine how a grandiose finale would go down in that state? And if everybody there has houses like the bad guy does in Rapid City, I don't know why we all don't live in South Dakota.

North by Northwest is a great film because of the action, the plot twists and turns, the debonair protagonist, and the great ambiance/feel of it all. This is one that I've seen so many times, but if I spot it on TV, I have to keep watching. It might not be Casablanca, and it doesn't have a ton of deeper meaning, but it's a lot of fun. And at 50 years old, it sure looks good for its age.

AFI notes: 40th best movie of all time (dropped to 55th in the 10 year version of the top 100), 4th best thriller, nominated movie hero, nominated film score, 7th best mystery.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Greg's Great Films

I read a fascinating blog post the other day, and I truly think it changed my life. I may try to write more on it later, but the way in which it pertained to my movie project is this: it is impossible to see every incredible, meaningful film in a lifetime. Try as I might, as dutifully as I work down lists from AFI, Oscar winners and nominees, all of IMDB's top 250, I'll simply never see them all. In my spreadsheet for AFI movies alone there are 1,951 movies nominated or awarded for some category. That would take me 5 and a half years of viewing, if I watched a movie every single day. If, instead I watch one or two a week, as is my typical pace, it ends up being between 18 and 37 years. And then what? By time I'm 65, when I finally check off the last movie off my list, will it be with a sense of accomplishment that I've spent 310,000 minutes (estimated) watching a screen?

Not that I'm trying to say there's anything wrong with watching movies - far from it, as I do enjoy it. But doing so simply to "check a box" as we like to say here at work isn't worth it. Why, just sitting here with the spreadsheet open, I can see that Madagascar is on the list, as a nominee for one of the best animated movies. I don't want to have to watch Madagascar. So I'm once again discovering what a normal person would do in this situation, and trying to adapt my strange self to accept it. I'm going to (gasp!) watch movies that I like, and similar ones that sound interesting. Now, I've certainly enjoyed several of the movies on the AFI lists and plan to mostly choose from their ranks, but recognizing that more of my favorites fell between the 1930's and 1950's I'll tend to focus on that era. If Casablanca is my favorite film of all time, that's a good starting point to look for similarities - in year, actors, writers, director, etc.

The other thing I want to do is try to be more present when I watch these movies. With a list of movies that I'm "working" on, I'd try to rush through things so I'd get one more check mark, sometimes missing out on truly enjoying the movie experience. I'd also tend to break things up, watching movies in 20 minute or so increments whenever I caught a little spare time. From now on, if it's a movie I really want to watch, I'm going to treat it like it is - make it more of a real movie night. That can mean popcorn and dim light, or not, but at a minimum I had better keep off Facebook, like I've been known to browse during a movie. If it can't hold my attention sufficiently to keep me from seeing what my high school friends are up to, it's probably not worth watching. Last week, I watched two classic movies, but I was really there for both of them. One was phenomenal - one of my all-time favorites. The other, not as good, but I chose it for a reason and gave it an honest shot.

I think this should make things more fun for me to blog about. Not trying to cram five films into one entry, not needing to rate movies I hated - should make the posts more positive overall. And although there is some benefit in warning people away from bad movies (M*A*S*H, anyone?), I'd rather focus on recommending ones that are truly great. Let's give it a whirl and see what happens.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Life Lessons from Wisconsin

Photos intended and should be coming soon

Four weeks ago this morning, I was in a car headed Northeast out of Madison, Wisconsin. With a full tank of gas, a stomach full of "breakfast" courtesy of the AmericInn, and my wonderful wife beside me, we were on our way to the beaches, boutiques and orchards of Door County. In terms of impressive sights and far-flung destinations, it certainly wasn't going to compare with prior vacations to Washington, D.C. or California's Sonoma Valley, but it was a beautiful respite from an otherwise busy schedule and the source of an important lesson for me.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was like an addict suffering the symptoms of withdrawal. No, not from any exotic substances, nor do I mean any sort of wanderlust from lack of travel (though it certainly had been a long time). Instead, I was struggling with my overwhelming desire to plan things out. I've noted on here my desire for preplanning, and touted its virtues when I talked about our trip to DC. And maybe it is a good thing in a big city like that, where you have one week to see countless memorials and world-class museums, many of which require prior reservations. But I'd noticed this need to control events sneaking into my life in general, and it was starting to cause me some anxiety in making sure everything did go to plan. The perfect antidote, it seemed, was a trip to a resort on the shore.

This was easier said than done, though. My usual routine in planning a trip was to go to (a fabulous site, incidentally), and scour through all the categories - hotels, restaurants, activities, putting them into a spreadsheet that I'd gradually winnow down into a rough itinerary for the vacation. Cross-checking that info with stuff from the visitor's bureau, reviews on and pictures on the web added up to a monumental task to be sure we'd have the best possible vacation. It's what I've done on nearly every prior vacation I've planned. This time, though, I wanted to do things differently.

I will admit, on the hotel, I caved to my inner self and made my spreadsheet, pored over things and chose what seemed to me to be the very best. But all the while I kept telling myself I needed to keep things under control. I started lists of restaurants, but made myself delete them so I wouldn't overanalyze them. The weeks leading up to the trip were agonizing in some ways, as I wanted to do more research, but I forced myself to just go with it. Finally we hit the road, with a snazzy resort room booked, the Door County visitor's guide brochure and my mental notes on what had looked nice/sketchy/etc, and nothing else. No Excel sheets, no printouts of itineraries, nothing. Trust me, that was a big step.

We arrived in the county on a simply magnificent summer day, temperature around 80 beneath a sunny sky and with a gentle but cool breeze blowing inland from Green Bay (the body of water, not the city). We wanted to pick cherries, so I consulted the guide. They listed six options, not one like my itinerary would have. We asked our GPS, Beyonce, which one was closest, I thought back to a few things I'd seen online, and... we took a chance and tried one. And it was incredible. Friendly people, abundant delicious cherries, gorgeous orchards - I doubt I could have picked a better one had I tried. We picked cherries until our cooler was full. Counting another visit to the same orchard later that week, we ended up with 35 pounds of cherries!

After all that effort, we were pretty hungry so we needed to find a restaurant. Again, another place where my itinerary would have guided us had I actually made one. But operating without, Stacia leafed through the visitors guide once more and tossed out ideas. I commented on how nice a water view would be, and before I knew it we were sitting down at a restaurant I hadn't even seen online. As we gazed out onto Green Bay, sipping Spotted Cow beer and munching on cheese curds, I finally started to really relax. Was this place the best restaurant in all of Door County? Probably not - it was like a typical bar-and-grill, but with a Wisconsin flair. But who cares? In that moment it was perfect for us. After that point, I was ready to just chill out and take the vacation as it came.

So we spent the week doing whatever happened to strike our fancy at the moment. We went to the beach, we visited various shops, we visited (and quickly left) a mediocre winery. We discovered a delicious wood-fired pizza place and a groovy dinner restaurant, both of which featured local and sustainable ingredients. We lounged in the hot tub or at the pool, and even played shuffleboard at the resort! (more fun than you might guess) We ate ice cream from a local dairy nearly every single day. I can't imagine an itinerary that I'd crafted in advance featuring all of that, but it was so great I doubt I would change a thing.

Rereading some of this, I can see how you might wonder if I'm some sort of an alien. Who needs to learn that a vacation is about relaxing? Me, apparently. I always used to say I was innately a planner, and that making spreadsheets and charting out itineraries was just the way I am. But with one successful trip in the books without that level of detail, I'm now all about trying to just live in the moment. It's difficult, but I'm making progress. I think the main takeaway for me can be summed up in this quote from Dwight Eisenhower:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

He makes a finer distinction between plans and planning than I do, but the idea is the same. In Door County I needed a small base level of knowledge of the area - what some of the more interesting attractions and dining options were, but I didn't need, and truthfully didn't want a master plan dictating which of those items needed to be done at any given time. Everything turned out well without it, and I was a lot less anxious about keeping our schedule and seeing what we "had to" see. I still think it was probably good to preplan Washington D.C., but life in general can be a lot more random and that may well be a good thing.

I'm heading back to Chicago this coming weekend, and I know for at least part of the time my brother and I will be in the city with a few hours to kill. The old me might have decided in advance how we should try to spend that time, but I think we'll just wing it this time.