Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rationalizing My Irrational Hatred of Panera

I remember exactly when I first heard of Panera Bread. It was summer 2007, during my most recent residency in San Antonio, and I was splitting my working hours between a map shop called Mapsco and the McNay Art Museum. Once the buzz from the Spurs' fourth championship died down, all anyone on the Northside could talk about was the impending arrival of "Panera" to the Lincoln Heights shopping center on the corner of Basse and Broadway. If you're not from there, you have to understand that S.A. is a city of unremarkable economic indicators located near the bottom of the country, and we were used to getting things that the rest of America - and even the rest of Texas - had enjoyed for years. Which meant that, in addition to the chain itself being ill-defined (Did Panera just sell bread? Was it a bakery? A deli?), getting one meant us South Texans would once again be snacking on others' sloppy seconds.

This alone, however, did not predispose me to hating Panera.

Even in the wake of my first Paneradventure, I'm not really sure what got the hate ball rolling. Maybe it was the fact that their NW Barry Road location in Kansas City always gets my order wrong - one time they left out the meat from a turkey club, and one time they left out the sandwich altogether. More generally, it may be the bread, which, y'know, is kind of important to get right for a chain which started life as the "St. Louis Bread Company." In fact, their logo seems to be a woman clutching a loaf of bread like it's an infant which has just been rescued from the bottom of a well. Their website is crammed full of pages entitled "Craftsmanship" and "Lifestyle" and "History of the Bagel" which you must contend with even if all you want to know is the price of a half soup and sandwich. Cumulatively, this corporate enthusiasm has the effect of promising you the moon, baked at 325 degrees and sprinkled with love and asiago.

When it comes to the bread at Panera, I find that it ranges from nothing special (French bread) to tragically disappointing (anything baked with cheese) to nearly inedible due to being harder than Portland cement (the ciabatta). Maybe it's all the yuppie cred infused into each bite, or maybe the cibatta doubles as the router for the free wifi, which I'm pretty sure is responsible for at least 65% of Panera's purported popularity. Seriously, observe the crowd next time you're in there. Look past the over-the-hill scarf-wearers who fancy themselves environmental activists but who basically just drink organic tea and retweet stuff from Mother Jones occasionally, and the navel-gazing poetry clubs, and the housewives who drive Lexus hybrids and shop at Forever 21 with their daughters and own every Coach bag ever made, and you'll see them, the true bearers of the Panera banner: College students.

Like Panera, college students walk around with an unearned sense of superiority, take themselves far too seriously, and mostly rely on others to clean up their messes. What do I mean by that last one? Well, in case you hadn't noticed, Panera takes your hard-earned grownup cash in a very sincere and professional manner, invites you to sup in a very beige and staid environment, often with poor sightlines to promote something of a hushed, secluded, library-like environment for pensively consuming your baked potato soup or term paper research, then makes you, uh, bus your own table.

"So what, Oldmanshirt?" you say through mouthfuls of Steel-Cut Oatmeal or bread-sandwich and breadbowl soup with a side of frickin' bread, "Chipotle makes you bus your own table, and you love Chipotle." Yes, they do. And yes, I do. But Chipotle is resolutely fast food. They don't really pretend to be anything more than a higher-quality, Tex-Mex alternative to In n' Out Burger or something. Sure, Chipotle prints stuff about recycling and antibiotic-free beef on the napkins and stuff, but all that is kept below eye level psychologically if all you really want is just a big ol' burrito and a side of chips (extra guac and hold the lifestyle adjustment, please.) The restaurants themselves are sparse, blank-canvas, the perfect setting for projecting your own views on life, politics, or carnitas.

Panera is different. They give you glassware and softly-padded booths and indirect lighting. There's that big pasty counter near the door (the bagels are pretty good, I must admit.) So they want you to think they're a restaurant, even if the overall concept is a really just that of an overpriced, fancy short-order diner. Of course, even the cheapest diner doesn't make you stick your hands into a vat of everyone else's dirty dishes. But there's more to the story. By which I mean less. Know what else is missing at Panera? Waiters. "Big whoop," you say. "Everyone sees through the veneer. Panera is still fast food. In fact, it's a prime exemplar of the fast-casual concept of dining. Who would expect a waiter to be part of the deal?"

Hey, I wouldn't. Having a waiter means you're either in Waffle House or you're paying twelve bucks for mac n' cheese and at least another three for a smile. But here's the deviousness of Panera. They haven't truly done away with waiters, they've just saved a lot of money by substituting someone else: you. That's right, at Panera you are the waitstaff and the busstaff, but they cleverly disguise the whole operation to make you think you're paying fast-casual prices for a restaurant experience. There's that slightly-elevated counter behind which the cooks/artisans/GED-hopefuls do their thing prior to condescendingly calling out orders. You're even given the little buzzer thing which real restaurants use to alert you that a table is ready. But Panera uses it to alert you that your food is ready and that you need to drag your skinny-jean and wallet chain-clad posterior up there to get it.

Which leads me to the most rational part of my irrational dislike of Panera. Objectively, the dining experience is a horrible value. This is made most clear when I break my bread somewhere else, like Jason's Deli, which offers just as many, if not more, tasty sandwich and soup options, has a killer salad bar, comps you unlimited frozen yogurt, doesn't pretend to be some sort of coffee bar/utopia for undergrad students double-majoring in Liberal Arts and Bagel History, is competitively priced and - this is significant - both brings you your food and cleans up your disgusting artifacts when you're done filling your food hole.

For those not in a hurry, there's also decently-priced sitdown places like Cheddar's, which offer full service, an environment that's more visually engaging without being distracting, and a much more diverse, though still high-quality, menu. And before you say those places probably cost a lot more, take four people to Panera and then four people to Cheddar's (not on the same night, please) and compare your bills. I think you'll be mildly shocked.

If this were Pyongyang and Panera was the only place to eat, I could probably live. Their panini and soup selections are okay, and the pastries are a nice indulgence. This isn't Pyongyang, though, and Panera isn't the only place to eat, though I swear they act like they are. Food isn't supposed to be complicated, but somehow Panera claims an ability to turn a pile of flour into a tower of accomplishment. What you eat may say something about who you are, but I wish Panera would shut up about who they are, and that they would get rid of whichever thumbsucking Creative Director devotes their time to penning online essays such as "Hummus: How do we love thee?" and get down to the business of hiring some bus boys and remembering the turkey on my turkey club.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

6 skills my daughter learned frighteningly fast

I'm not going to say it. I'm not going to say my daughter is a genius. I won't be one of those parents. My daughter is not a genius. Even if she were, I wouldn't say it. I'd just get a DNA test. She's cute, and charming, and she says the darnedest things. But "genius" is a bridge too far. Still, the Heiress picked up a few things awfully quick. With Kid B now on the way, I'm starting to wonder which of these skills may turn out to be actual outliers, and which are simply a product of my perception based the narrow breadth of my child-rearing experience:

Learning colors must be deceptively hard. You have your three primaries, but everything else is just a variation or combination of something else. There's purple, then there's "purplish," then there's fuchsia and burgundy and eggplant and so on. There are nearly endless shades of everything along the whole spectrum of visible light. We're talking infinite digressions and deviations, advanced mathematics and physics blended with high art. Too bad adults tend to make things more complicated than they really need to be. Not this 3 year old, though. To her, red is red, until it's orange. Blue is blue, until you introduce enough yellow to turn it green. See, it's indecision about that color-change horizon that has led to many a falling out between two otherwise sane and grown-up parties.

I can't even tell if my pants are black or blue. I have no idea. But the Heiress picks out colors with a success rate somewhere between 90-98%. Not only that, she says it with conviction. "Blue!" "Yellow!" "Purple!" "No, honey, that's eggplant..." "No! It's. Purple." "You know what? You're right, it's purple." The other 3-10% of the time? I'm pretty sure she guesses wrong because she's just not paying attention. One time I tried to blow her mind by telling her that when there's no light, colors cease to exist. She looked at me with the face of someone who figured out peek-a-boo two years ago. How do kids make you feel stupid even when you're right?

Parts of the Body
Mrs. OMS and I started working on this while changing diapers and putting on pajamas. No songs were involved, no flash cards, no anatomical charts, just pointing at things an naming them. So the Heiress just listened and processed - before she could even really walk or say her own name - that the hand is connected to the arm is connected to the "bel-bow", and that the head contains eyes, nose, mouth, ears, chin, cheeks, teeth, tongue, and forehead. She learned where her shoulders are, and, and her chest, and tummy, and her belly button. That last one she couldn't say without giggling. She also learned about daddy's beard, which he uses to tickle the bottoms of her feet.

Basic body part identification led to other amazements, like learning left and right (she's since regressed on that one, sadly), and then preliminary counting and digit identification via "Five Little Monkeys", "This little Piggy" and "Where is Thumbkin?" And yet, what has she done with all this knowledge, which could seemingly come in handy when she injures herself and has to tell us which booboo to kiss? Nothing. In the aftermath of a trip or bump, there's no calm assessment of the situation. When she bangs her foot or knee or belbow or hand on something, she doesn't say "It hurts here, on my third metacarpal. Please kiss it." She just yells "Ouchy! Ouchy!" and thrashes all over the floor. After a few minutes, I may get her to thrust out a limb, if I'm lucky.

This one actually didn't start out so well. Despite my best efforts at fall prevention - putting up an airport's worth of gates and checkpoints all around our split level house - falls happened with alarming frequency. But, in time, she figured out she could turn around and slide down the stairs on her stomach. Then, seemingly overnight, she was inching up and down them upright.

She terrified me one day when she was about 14 months old. We had been in the downstairs playing, and I went from the living room to the upstairs to quickly grab something. I got to the bedroom and, five seconds later, she walks in behind me! I probably looked at her like I thought she had a demon. (Luckily, she didn't seem to notice. Once she's in mommy and daddy's room, she just has to grab as many things as she can as quickly as she can, like she's in an episode of Supermarket Sweep.)

Before becoming a parent, I was so preoccupied with the perceived need to teach my kid how to do things like crawl, walk, talk, read, ride a bike, build a block tower, operate a front-end loader, etc, that it never occurred to me the need to teach straw usage. Turns out it's just something you pick up. How is that? The principles at work in creating a vacuum with your lips into which liquid flows through the straw into your mouth aren't something I'd expect to be innate in a 12 month old. I certainly don't remember how I figured out straws, but surely it took weeks - if not months - of practice, akin to learning how to snap fingers or tie shoelaces. But nope, somehow she just figured it out, making for a seamless transition between sippy cup and "Big Girl Cup."

Admittedly, there's kind of a catch to this one. What has taken awhile is the understanding that the bottom of the straw has to be immersed in liquid for anything to happen. So there have been spills, which has led my half-brilliant admonishment to "Sip, not tip." (Didn't take.) One of these days it will dawn on her exactly how the chocolate milk travels up the straw to her lips, and she'll appreciate my science lectures about forming vacuums (and, hopefully, the one about the light waves, or surface tension in the bathtub, or how turbochargers work.) For now, though, I remain impressed, and she keeps polishing off juice boxes like somebody's paying her in cookies to do it, which means everyone is happy. I don't mess with happy.

When it comes to visual identification, the Heiress is better at numbers than letters. However, it never seemed much trouble for her to rattle off A to Z and top it all off with a narcissistic-but-totally-adorable "Mommy, aren't you proud of me?" (Luckily, she prefers the more egalitarian coda "Next time won't you sing with me?") Okay, so she might thrown in an extra Q here and there, and Ss sometimes become Xs, but by and large she's done her foundation for literacy with a T-square and a plumb line. Other than introducing her to the song, I honestly don't feel like I can even take much credit for it.

I'd love to conclude this with a gushing paragraph or two describing the Heiress' ever-expanding vocabulary, or her successful mastery of potty training. To be honest, though, there's a much more profound representation of her place on the development curve, which is the way she's uses speech and potty training for the purposes of manipulation.

Bedtime is a prime example. After potty training commenced, it only took a few days of seeing her mother and I treat every "I need to go potty" like a nuclear event before the kid began to insist every night before we left her room or just after we left that she that she needed to go. Spoiler: She didn't. But here's where things get really devious: Once we started calling her out on her phantom emergencies, she quickly employed a different tactic.

First, little bit of background. Whenever the Heiress has to, say, spend an a little bit of extra princess time in the restroom, she always wants us to close the door and give her some privacy (I'm talking about when she has to poop, in case it wasn't clear.) Don't get me wrong, this is a completely reasonable request. But it's also something she uses to her advantage in order to keep us out of the bathroom at bedtime while she sits there, singing and unrolling toilet paper. When mom and I finally walk in, see no pees or poops and ask her where they went, she points to the toilet and insists it's right in there. Then she'll say, with the toothy grin of a used RV salesman, "Who are you gonna believe, Mom and Dad? Me, or your lying old-person eyes?"

As I said, not a genius. But frighteningly good.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robert J. remembers Robin W. through his favorite films

This post originally appeared at Jonesing.

Sad news broke earlier today that legendary actor, comedian and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital spokesman Robin Williams died at age 63 of an apparent suicide.

How tragically ironic that one of the funniest men alive struggled with severe depression, according to a statement made by his family shortly after the news came out. Not only was Williams a great comedian but he was an accomplished dramatic actor too.

He earned Oscar nominations for his roles in Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King and won an Oscar (best supporting actor) for his part in 1997’s Good Will Hunting. He was a massively versatile actor who showed up in the strangest movies playing the most bizarre characters.

As a bit of a tribute, I’d like to share my favorite Robin Williams movies of all time − though I must confess, I haven’t see as many as I’d like.

Patch Adams (1998)
I didn’t agree with all the social commentary, but I can’t deny this movie simultaneously made be laugh like a madman and cry like a baby. Williams plays the titular Patch, who treats his patients with laughter.

Jumanji (1995)
This movie about a magical board game played by two kids and Williams that releases a host of jungle creatures on small-town New England in the roaring 90s was a staple of my childhood. It’s cheesy premise never would’ve worked without Williams.

Hamlet (1996)
He only has a small cameo in Kenneth Branagh’s word-for-word retelling, but it’s so well done and so unexpected it’s worth the wait and wading through the very heavy source material.

Man of the Year (2006)
I don’t like politics, which is probably why I like this highly underrated comedy where Williams plays a comedian talk-show host (a la John Stewart) who runs for president.

Hook (1991)
One of my favorite movies of all time. As grown-up Peter Pan in Stephen Spielberg’s take on the classic children’s tale, Williams and the lost boys (Rufiooooooo) battle Dustin Hoffman (Captain Hook) for Neverland and Pan’s kids.

So many of Robin Williams’ movies hold up after several decades because of his unique style and uncanny ability to draw a wide range emotions out of audiences with his characters.
RIP, Mr. Williams.

Questions I got tired of asking myself: What is the Ad Council?

Fear not, kind and faithful reader. GwOMS is alive and well, despite my recent dalliance with the roundball aficionados over at Pounding the Rock. But this blog will always be my first child (even though it's technically my third.) In fact, I'm using today to introduce a new series called "Questions I Got Tired of Asking Myself." I expect this series to be fertile ground for answers to deep and abiding questions which plague us all, and ... what do you mean, I never finish what I start? What do you call this? What? Oh, right, there is that. And that (sort of.) And that (trust me, nobody was reading those anyway.) Oh yeah, and that (not dead, just on European vacation. The kind that Europeans take, not the Chevy Chase movie.)

Anyway, shut up so we can get started. Here's one big question I got tired of asking myself, plus a bonus question (that's really more 'food for thought'):

What is the Ad Council?

This one was the genesis of Questions I Got Tired of Asking Myself. I've been asking myself this question ever since I first saw my brain compared to a shattered chicken embryo in a hot skillet. (Oh wait, that wasn't the Ad Council. Um, hold on. No, Deep Six, I didn't mean you. Thanks for reminding me not to swim during a thunderstorm, though. No, not you, George Clooney on "The More You Know." What's with all the pacing, anyway? Did you have to go to the bathroom or something?)

Right, here we go: I've been asking myself this question ever since I learned that Only I Can Prevent Forest Fires, and that investing in U.S. Savings Bonds is "Investing in the newest game in town" (5:05 of same video), and that I can help "Take a Bite Outta Crime." LOL, you're so cute 1980s, with your elderly people on giant cellphones and your pinball machines and your white kids with bad attitudes and temporary tattoos.

Anyway, something about the name Ad Council seems really obvious and yet so general as to be almost completely meaningless. Is there really a council? Do they meet in a big war room like the one in Dr. Strangelove? Do they wear masks or have secret handshakes like the Masons?

So that we can hear it from the horse's mouth, I'll let these guys describe themselves in the video below, which can also be found here. (By the way, don't stick your ear in a horse's mouth. "Brought to you by the U.S. League of Equestrians and the Ad Council.")

Did you watch it? No, don't read any further. Watch it again. Feel that warm goo running down your  cortex? Mmm. That's not your brain on drugs, that's just the work of some master propagandists. No wonder, since the Ad Council was originally known as the War Advertising Council and has been changings minds and habits since your great-grandparents were changing diapers.

But apart from the spiffy videos and Smokey the Bears, what is it that the Ad Council really does? Reading through the chocolate icing and sprinkles of their meta-PSA ad copy (ok, I actually ate through it), my impression is that the Ad Council takes the airtime networks are mandated to devote to public service announcements, and acts as a sort of consignment operation by getting the space filled by corporate outreach efforts.

One site describes the Ad Council's efforts as "mobilizing over $2 billion of advertising time and space (yearly)." Wow. You know, I always figured the biggest problem with having $2 billion wouldn't just be how many wheelbarrows I would need to move all that cash, but getting enough friends together to help me move it. So what are the odds that some of that $2 billion gets, uh, mobilized into some CEO's pockets? Pretty good, in fact!

But hey, what price can you put on preventing forest fires or keeping Indian chiefs tear-free, anyway?

Turns out there is an actual Council, which is actually a board of directors, which is actually not quite as white and nerdy as you'd expect. Well, it may be nerdy, since officers from Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook are among the board members. So if there is a secret handshake it's probably less Masonic than it is Troy and Abed-ic:

Hey, speaking of Facebook...

BONUS QUESTION (which is really more of a 'food for thought'): If I have Twitter and LinkedIn, do I really need Facebook?

Having multiple social media options is like having an arsenal at your disposal. Over here you have your rapier (Twitter), over there your ax (LinkedIn), and then there's the good ol' fashioned broadsword (Facebook). If you've got the first two, what need is there for the third? You can attack precisely with one and use blunt force with the other. One is great for rapid-fire jabs and the other for displays of power and fortitude. Facebook, on the other hand, is tiresome to use, shouty, and ultimately only good for making a mess of things.

If you subscribe to the notion of weapon as tool, however, things take on a slightly different character. And Facebook, as it turns out, in addition to providing its users with the subtle perfume of superiority as they scroll disinterestedly through its pages, is a great tool for sharing pictures of the Heiress with the grandparents. And so the broadsword stays, used really only on special occasions like knighting ceremonies and trips to the aquarium.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

6 Reasons Why Green Eggs and Ham is the greatest children's book ever written

I have a lot of respect for writers of children's books (except you, Margaret and H.A. Rey). In many ways, I think writing a book for the pre-literate (my daughter) and semi-literate is much harder than writing for an audience of people on your own level. Kids can only grasp so much in the way of nuance, theme, foreshadowing, character arc, conflict, and denouement. That said, it's a fool who underestimates the intelligence of a child, and few children's authors paid children more respect through their writing than Dr. Seuss.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Nobody needs to defend Dr. Seuss. Everybody loves that guy. I've written before about the superior qualities of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And everybody knows and loves the book Green Eggs and Ham. Scholastic named it the seventh best children's book of all time.

But here's my case for why it should actually be #1.

It's the Best Dr. Seuss Book
It's hard to argue that Theodor Geisel should be anywhere but at the top when it comes to the most influential and accomplished children's book writers. He wrote over 60 books and authored 16 of the top 100 best-selling children's books of all time. Before he was an author, he was a political cartoonist. Even with his early stuff, you can look at a drawing of his and identify it as "Suessian." His rhymes are legendary. He was the first children's author to include a character with flatulence. In my opinion, few writers of any genre better integrate morals and politics into otherwise fantastical stories (this is probably because, as Seuss claimed in a 1959 LIFE magazine feature, he never set out to send a message.)

I won't profess to have read all of Seuss' books, but I've read most them, and from every period of his career and every pen name he ever wrote under. Cat in the Hat is obviously memorable for introducing the Seuss mascot, though it leaves a bad Deux ex machina taste in my mouth. To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Hop on Pop, and One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish start straightforwardly enough before degenerating into random craziness. Fox in Socks is easily the most fun to read aloud. Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hears a Who, and The Lorax deal more bluntly with moral, political, and environmental issues.

But in terms of clear and linear storytelling that's both understandable and entertaining for all ages, Green Eggs and Ham is the best book from the best children's writer ever.

The Central Conflict
No, I don't mean the protagonist (who I'll call "Mike") and Sam-I-am. The central conflict underlying GE&H was a bet between Seuss and his publisher. Cat and the Hat (which, along with One Fish Two Fish, might be the only Seuss book more famous today than GE&H) was published three years earlier in 1957, and intentionally contained a vocabulary of basic, key English words. As a follow up, Seuss' publisher Bennett Cerf challenged Theo to write another book containing a fifth as many distinct words. Seuss accepted, and came up with a story using only these:
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you
By the way, did you know Geisel himself never had children and didn't even really like them that much? How on earth could such a person make a good children's writer? Maybe it's because he had no preconceptions about child psychology, and didn't feel the need to pander or talk down to his intended readers. On the flip side, with no kids, he had no built-in focus group turning his ideas to incoherent mush. Do these reasons alone make GE&H, or any other Seuss work, a great children's book? Not necessarily. But, whether you're talking Seuss or Fitzgerald, a good personal backstory is almost always a key ingredient in exceptional storytelling.

The Story
Mike is sitting in his chair, reading the paper, not eating green eggs and ham. Sam-I-am thinks he should be. Mike, due to his apparent pre-existing dislike of Sam-I-am himself or to the disturbingly verdant hue of his wares, refuses to partake. The more he refuses, the more fervently Sam-I-am insists that he try it. At one point, the jaw of Sam-I-am falls very much agape at the mere possibility that Mike might not enjoy the taste of this green breakfast with no greens (" not like green eggs and ham?") before he gets right back to pestering his poor target. Finally, after adventures by foot, car, rail, and boat, culminating in a shipwreck of both the boat and Mike's entire afternoon, Mike relents, only to find... Well, we'll get to that.

The Setting
It takes multiple readings to fully appreciate, but it's great fun to see the progression from Mike sitting in his chair to him storming away on foot to Sam-I-am essentially running him over in a car which then lands on a passenger train which then lands on a steamboat. No, this isn't Clifford the Big Red Dog expeditiously stumbling into traffic jams or structure fires or other situations where his bigness just happens to be an asset rather than an occasion to call the National Guard. In GE&H, there's an organic movement from location to location which only subtly calls attention to itself, even as the implausibility mounts.

Throughout the journey, there's plenty of signature Seuss touches like goats in cars and fox boxes hanging from trees and train tracks propped up on long broomsticks, all of it drawn by a hand which refuses to go a single nanometer in a straight line. Aside from the brilliant simplicity of the premise, the multiple tiers of visual and geographic zaniness which build throughout the book are easily the most Seussian thing about GE&H, and make some other classic Seuss stories like Cat seem quite housebroken in comparison.

The Stories within the Story
It's amazing that such a simple story leaves so many unanswered questions. This intentional vagueness is something that's common in the best movies and books, but rare in children's stories. For example, in Alexander and the Terrible Day, et al, I never really cared what happened the day before or the day after. There are no lingering questions because every relevant aspect of the story is covered explicitly. I guess most authors assume kids can't handle the uncertainty.

But with GE&H, I'm always left wondering: What is the history between Mike and Sam-I-am? Is Mike constantly having strange foods foisted on him? What was it the day before, purple lasagna? Pink chicken and waffles? Is today's huevos verdes con jamón tomorrow's perros caliente azul con Ruffles? Mike's subsequent protestations clearly emanate from a damaged psyche that's travelled down this path of culinary harassment before, and Sam-I-am pounces on his frustration with the vigor of a monkey who just needs to bash the nut on the rock one more time before it finally splits open. Why does he do it? I can't say, but he's definitely come prepared, since he employs a whole herd of animals in his pursuit, including a fox, a mouse, and a goat (not a pig, though, because that would be awkward [/gaffiganvoice]).

Then there's the people on the train, who sit in utter contentment as a full-size automobile crash lands on top of their carriage car. How is it that they're so calm when so much madcap drama is happening above them? Their expressions, and the conductor's, never change, not even when the train plunges off a cliff into the ocean. In fact, the only time they break character is to add that little bit of intrigue during the deciding moment, when Mike spears one of those slippery green eggs and cracks a great big smile:

The "Happy Face"
Goodnight Moon is simultaneously too physically restrictive and too whimsical. As a kid, The Giving Tree was always too stark and sad for me to want to make application of it. With Green Eggs and Ham, though, the take-home is simple: New things are fun! If you stick to the same ol' same ol', you'll probably miss out on something you like.

"Happy Face!" is the Heiress's term for what happens when Mike finally relents and tries the green eggs and ham. Her reaction comes from the story having the exact intended effect upon the exact intended audience, and it warms my belly in a way that's just like eating a satisfying breakfast. Of course, the real challenge is the theme that's central to the whole book: Will reading Green Eggs and Ham help convince the Heiress to try something new when it's put on her plate, even - or especially - if it's a different color or presentation than what she's used to? So far, so good. For breakfast one morning, Mrs. Oldmanshirt got her to try actual green eggs and ham. Since then, the Heiress has mastered potty training and started learning to ride a bike.

But I bought a goat anyway, just in case.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jonesing at the Movies: Transformers: Age of Extinction

SynopsisAge of Extinction follows the story of a bumbling, not-at-all relatable man-child protagonist who discovers a giant alien robot, brings him home and teams up with other good robots to help thwart evil robots and their plot to take over the world. Sound familiar?
Rating: PG-13 for head-pounding, intelligence-insulting sci-fi action that would bore a five-year-old. Obligatory F-bomb is as pointless and ill-concieved as the rest of the film.
Review: I should have known better than to go see this film, if it can even be called a film at all. Because essentially what we have here with Extinction is a 2 hour 37-minute commercial for every major brand with money left over from their Super Bowl budgets. It's product placement with all the subtlety of a Cadillac Escalade.
Director Michael Bay and Paramount basically said, "forget plot, characters, dialog and that stuff called acting, we're just going to put all $180 million in advertising revenue into special effects and make the story up as we go." I seriously doubt there was ever a written script for the actors to follow; they probably just showed up each day and Bay would come up with something he thought might be funny.
"And you actually thought I know what I'm doing."
"And you actually thought I was qualified to make movies." 

Extinction trades in Shia Labouf for Mark Walberg, but this is by no means an improvement. Honestly, the problem with these movies has never been the acting, since each of the previous films included names like John Turturro, Francis McDormand, Kelsey Grammar, Stanley Tucci, and the voice talents of Leonard Nemoy, John Goodman and Ken Watanabe. However, even these accomplished thespians can't work with the drivel Bay dreams up.
Luckily, no one expected this latest installment in the worst movie franchise since Spy Kids to be any good. Bay has been making bad movies his entire career, but these Transformers movies, inspired as they are by a retro toy line, are especially terrible.
It all started with the first, 2007's Transformers, which let every fan of the toys and TV show down hard when they saw it was nothing more than a childish director's wet dream.
Michael Jackson died the day after 2009's Revenge of the Fallen was released, so we can only assume it was responsible for killing the King of Pop.

2011's Dark of the Moon (noticing a pattern?) is essentially the same as the first two, only Shia Labouf's character ditches Megan Fox for Victoria's Secret model #425, further blowing the mind of every guy who's ever been rejected.
Much like the first three, Extinction has large helpings of eye-rolling macho posturing, racial stereotypes (black people say things like, "oh no you didn't!" and every Chinese person knows martial arts) and overt sexism that treats every female character (orange, thin, hair extensions) like nothing more than another exotic super car. But what do you expect from a "filmmaker" with all the maturity of a 13-year-old boy?
"Nope, this one's too ugly. Bring me that girl that only weighs 74 lbs."
"Nope, this one's ugly. Bring me that hot one."

Ultimately, the success of these films and the fact they continue to be made is not Michael Bay's fault. When a child says something wildly inappropriate and embarrassing in a public place, you don't blame the kid; you blame the grown adults who laugh at such stupidity and even pay to see it.
negative four stars

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why You Should Always Bet on Silver and Black

Back through the mists of time, as though in a dream, I find him. He's sitting in his car outside the Kansas City apartment complex where he lives, head down, a glower marring the lines of his face. Though he has fewer hairs on his face than I do, and more atop his head, the resemblance is like looking in a mirror. Even so, the face I see is not mine. Mine is jubilant. My beloved San Antonio Spurs have finally prevailed. After seven long years, they've won their fifth championship. His Spurs, on the other hand, have just been beaten in the 2008 Western Conference Finals by the hated Lakers, and have failed for the fourth time to defend a championship.

I open the passenger door and step into the vehicle, a tan Maxima with pacman dice on the rearview mirror and a Spurs decal on the trunk lid.

"Do I know you?" He demands. "Get out of my car."

"You don't know me yet," I reply. "But I'm a Spurs fan, too. I'm here to restore your confidence. Right now you feel like your team will never win again, like you're incapable of beating Kobe at full strength, that the journey to the top is too difficult to repeat."

He glares at me, but his silence confirms what I already know from experience.

I put my hand on his arm - it's slenderer than mine, though he has slightly more paunch around his midsection, thanks to late nights of studying and stress eating. "Beating Kobe doesn't matter," I assure him. "The Spurs will win another title when Kobe's old and irrelevant. What's more, when they face his team again in the playoffs, it will be a complete annihilation. A year after that, he'll be out of the playoffs entirely and the Spurs will be champions."

"So you're saying we'll keep alternating titles every year?"

"I didn't say that," I reply. "I'm just imploring you to have confidence."

"We've got to accept that 2007 was probably our last one," he shrugs dejectedly. "The Lakers are getting stronger while we get weaker. Manu got injured again, Tim is slowing down, Tony has peaked. Michael Finley and Robert Horry are mummies. We were reduced to a Brent Barry desperation shot at the buzzer on our own court in game 4. It took Manu playing out of his mind just to win a single game in this series. For crying out loud, it took us seven games to beat the Hornets! I'm telling you, we're finished as champions."

I slap him, hard, across the face. Before he can process the injury, I instruct him to start the car. When he asks, I tell him we're going to someone's house.

Almost instantly, we arrive in front of a cream split-level with black shutters. It's a warm, late spring evening. We park in the driveway and enter the house. The young man stands, mouth agape, as he sees himself sitting at the bottom of the stairs, watching on the television as his Spurs' season slips away yet again, this time with a sweep at the hands of Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns.

"This is why you tell me to have confidence?" He shouts at me. "The one team we never lost to sweeps us out of the playoffs?!"

His counterpart looks up from his mourning. "Who are you two?"

"I'm you, from the past" the young man answers harshly. "I don't know who this bearded clown is, but he claims the Spurs will win another championship."

The one sitting on the stairs laughs darkly. "Fat chance! Are you watching this? Nash is beating us with one eye. Goran Dragic, a guy we drafted, is killing us. Pop is out of answers. Our post defense is a one-legged Duncan, Matt Bonner, and 75-year old Antonio McDyess! Manu just shot 2-11 in an elimination game. This run is over. It probably should've been blown up last year, when Manu was out and Drew Gooden was the only thing keeping us from getting swept by Dallas in the first round. Tony is nearly 30 now, and we need to start thinking about trading him while he still has value. Maybe we even need to think about trading Tim."

My hand flies from the crook of my arm and strikes hard him across the face. "Go out to the garage!" I shout. "I'm going to teach you a little faith."

In the garage, we find another young man. Sitting in a black Mazda hatchback with those same pacman dice and a Spurs license plate, head down, fingers sliding through thinning hair, he listens to AM 1200 out of San Antonio as Spurs play-by-play man Bill Schoening describes a last-ditch attempt by the West's number one seed to fight off a horrible collapse against Zach Randolph and the #8 Memphis Grizzlies.

With the 2011 season in its death-throes, I climb into the seat next to the young man. "Who are you?" he sneers bitterly. "And who are those two?"

"They're you from the past," I reply. "And I'm just a Spurs fan like you, here to assure you that Tim Duncan will win another championship."

He slams the steering wheel disgustedly. "Tim is finished. It's all finished. Our core is done, we can't sink any lower than this. First the Lakers in '08, then Dallas in '09, then a sweep - a sweep! - by Phoenix last year. It all came back to haunt us, all the teams we beat in the past, during our championship days. And now this. We have no roster flexibility. We're relying on George Hill and Richard Jefferson and Gary Neal to save our season. We lost six straight in April. It's done. Tim is almost certainly retiring, Manu probably should retire, and I sure don't see any savior on the horizon."

"I do," I reply, calmly examining my fingernails. "A #15 draft pick from San Diego State. He's going to be Finals MVP in a few years."

"We haven't had a draft pick that high since 1997." The young man stares at me in disbelief. Then, with a dawning realization, he says "So that means we'll be in the lottery next year."

"No. Listen, you got the number one seed this year," I remind him. "You were a seven seed last year. Things are looking up, not down."

He glares at me with tear-stained eyes. They'll soon begin moistening the front of his Ginobili jersey. "If only we'd been number seven again his year," he moans. "All that number one seed did was make the loss that much more humiliating!"

"Get used to it," I say.

"Yeah," he says bitterly, as the other two stand outside the car, nodding. "I guess I'll have to."

"I don't mean the losing. I mean being a high seed. Having home-court advantage again. We'll need it in order to clinch the title in San Antonio."

"Are you crazy?" he roars. "We're not going deep in the playoffs again! We probably won't even make the playoffs next year!"

The crack of my hand on his face echoes through the garage. Then, before the young man in the driver's seat can react, we're back in the living room of the house. The scene is different than before. A fourth man sits on the couch, head between his knees. He's watching a Spurs team which had just won 20 straight games get swept out of the 2012 Western Conference Finals by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"Ohh! So this why you told me to have confidence!" the first young man shouts mockingly.

"And faith!" scolds the second.

"Exactly what good did home-court advantage do us against the Thunder?" adds the third.

The fourth gets up off the couch. Like me, he has facial hair, though only on his chin. His grey Spurs t-shirt has a spot of vomit on the shoulder, a gift from his 9 month old daughter. "What's this all about?" He demands.

"This joker says Duncan and the Spurs are going to win another championship!" Answers the first.

"Is that true?" He turns his swollen red eyes to me. "Will they win another one?"

"Cross my heart," I say with a smile. "Just keep believing."

"No..." he shakes his head. "I can't. This was it. This was their shot, up 2-0 on an inexperienced Thunder team. Don't you understand? They can't keep up with Durant and Westbrook and Harden, let alone LeBron. Maybe Kawhi will become a nice defensive player someday, but he gave up that huge three to Harden. They're outmatched. They won twenty straight and couldn't even get to the Finals!"

"You don't need to win twenty straight to get to the Finals," I say calmly. "But we will win nineteen straight. And our young talent is as good as anyone else's. They just need a couple of years to jell, and the trophy will be ours."

The man grabs me roughly by the shoulders. I can feel the other three closing in around me.

"IT'S DONE!" they all shout at me. "These Spurs are finished! Tim, Manu, and Tony are done! The league, the championship, it all belongs to someone else now! ACCEPT IT!"

I reach out and take each of them roughly by the collar, dragging them toward the door.

"Where are we going?" they all protest.

"To Chicago."

In a room on the third floor of a Hampton Inn, we find another man. He looks almost identical to me. He's on vacation to the Windy City during the NBA Finals, but at this moment, he's sitting on a hotel bed next to his in-laws, with an expression of horror upon his bearded face. 5 minutes and 28 seconds ago, his team was on the verge of winning a championship. Number five had seemed so real that he'd even texted his brother in Texas late in the fourth quarter: "It's happening." But it hadn't happened, it wouldn't happen. The Spurs' last, best chance, had evaporated.

He looks up at the five of us in the room. The family seems not to notice. "Who are you?" he whispers, as though his entire face has gone numb.

"It looks like you were wrong!" Sneers the fourth young man, ignoring the one sitting on the hotel bed. "They didn't win, after all!"

"Your 'savior' couldn't get it done!" Claims the third. "That #15 pick from San Diego State is a rich man's Bruce Bowen. And he has cornrows."

The first and second, the young men, adopt cooler tones. "This was impressive," the first says softly. "We made it back."

"But for what?" Says the second. "We lost again, only this time in the cruelest way imaginable."

I silence them all and look at the man on the bed. "Don't get down," I tell him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "They'll be back here in the Finals, back facing Miami and LeBron. Only, next time, there won't even be a game 6 to lose. They'll destroy the Heat by the largest margin in Finals history."

"And, not only will they win," I continue, turning slowly back towards the others, "they will have avenged each of their past losses."

I look at the first young man, then at the fifth. "You saw them, this year, in 2013, not only defeat the Lakers, but sweep them out of the playoffs."

I look at the second young man. "Before they take down Miami, you'll see them defeat Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks."

To the third: "Before getting to the 2013 Finals, you saw them sweep Memphis in the Conference Finals. Zach Randolph averaged 11 points per game in that series."

And finally, at the fourth, the one with vomit on his Spurs t-shirt: "And they will rout the Thunder, clinching the Conference Finals in Oklahoma City and leaving no doubt as to which team is the Best in the West."

"Can you hear yourself?" The fifth man says quietly from the bed. "Don't you realize what incredible luck it took just to get back to the Finals? The Lakers imploded, Westbrook got injured on a freak play. We had to come from 16 down in the last four minutes against Golden State. Then, just to get to this cursed game 6, Tony had to make an incredible shot in the series opener. Danny Green set a Finals record for three pointers!"

"Who??" say the first three in unison.

"Exactly. It was like seeing a basketball unicorn, and we still came up short. As a Spurs fan, you should know that every championship takes luck, and we won't get that lucky again."

Each of them recoils as my hand flies once again. My voice reverberates against the walls of the hotel.

"You cowards!" I shout. "You've all watched this team since elementary school! You saw David Robinson and Avery Johnson win a championship after years of being called failures and soft! You've watched the Big 3 overcome every obstacle, and you've watched a nobody division III coach who everyone, including you, wanted fired after his first season outlast Stockton and Malone, Kobe and Shaq, Dirk and Nash, Larry Brown's Pistons, D'Antoni's Suns, Kobe and Gasol, and now, even after they've refused to quit, you're all dying to quit on them! Be men, you cowards! BE MEN!!"

I sweep the five of them back to Kansas City, to the same living room where we saw the Thunder dismantle the 2012 Spurs. And then they see me, dancing in front of the television with my daughter on my shoulders, celebrating a fifth Championship, the joy on my face outshone only by those who have waited so long to lay hands once again upon that golden trophy.

I turn to the five, enjoying their looks of shock.

"He doubted, too," I tell them gently, gesturing to the reveler. "When OKC ended the nineteen game winning streak, just like they had the twenty game streak, he doubted. When Dallas took a 2-1 lead in the first round, he doubted. When Serge Ibaka was injured and then returned, and the Spurs dropped two straight games to the Thunder, he doubted. ('It's 2012 all over again!' he said in his heart.) Even when Miami took game 2 after the Spurs' offense faltered, he too faltered in his faith."

"But ultimately, his faith was rewarded," answered the second young man.

"He learned never to doubt," said the third.

"Now we can win a sixth!" exclaims the fourth. "Timmy can tie Jordan!"

The first young man pumps his fist. "Another chance to repeat as Champions!"

"Tim and Manu are still under contract," the fifth nods excitedly. "All we need to do is lock up Patty Mills and Boris Diaw, and we can bring back the whole team! Let's do it! Go Spurs Go!"

My confident expression fades at talk of winning another championship, at going to the Finals for a third straight year. The usual excuses come boiling to the surface. I put out my hands, as if to suppress the excitement. My lips begin to say "Not so fast..."

And then, out of nowhere, I feel a hand strike my face. In a daze, I look around the room for the source of the blow. But I see no one. I'm standing there in my living room, with my daughter on my shoulders, watching my team with their trophy.

And that stinging cheek reminds me, once and for all: Never doubt the San Antonio Spurs.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Grumbling at the Movies: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Given its themes of overcoming prejudice and learning to co-exist, Dean DeBlois' How to Train Your Dragon 2, and its predecessor, should really be called How Your Dragon Trains You. The film opens in the Viking mountain village of Berk, where the town's residents live peacefully with their fully domesticated dragons. Well, when I say peacefully, I mean it in the sense that a circus isn't the same as a battlefield. There's still a raucous atmosphere, and the dragons and their handlers still find a way to get in plenty of mischief. Literal flights of fancy are multitude, most notably the one which finds Berk's heir to the chieftainship, Hiccup, and his mount, Toothless, performing mostly businesslike aerial surveys of what I assume is the North Sea. Upon finding a new spit of land, Hiccup pulls out a map and traces out the contours. Exploration is more than just a hobby to Hiccup, though, and the call to succeed his father Stoick the Vast as leader of Berk has him doubting his true potential. It's in this context that Hiccup and Toothless come across an icy shipwreck, where they discover a scheme by the mysterious Drago to bring all dragons under his control and, using them, conquer all free lands. Or something to that effect. He'll also chance upon a long-lost relative, who will help him solidify his commitment to family and to Berk.

Even for an animated film (back in my day, kids, we called them cartoons), H2TYD2 is frustratingly half-realized. The mythology is wonky, the dialogue indifferent, and the supporting characters are reduced almost to single conduits of thought. Given that Jeffery Katzenberg and DreamWorks Studios insist on differentiating themselves from arch-rival Pixar in part by using and promoting a crush of celebrity voice talent to power even tertiary roles (here, they've got Kate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig, and Djimon Huston, among others), it seems kind of a waste to see those characters - I'm thinking in particular of the two lovestruck romantic rivals who star in the movie's most annoying subplot - display all the depth and movement of a blinking LED on a sleeping television set.

Drago is a problem, too. As a dragon hunter and general sleezeball, he's the latest in a long line of one-dimensional DreamWorks antagonists. Like the banker in Despicable Me or the suburbanite HOA president in Over the Hedge, he's spitefully evil because, well, all ambitious dragon hunters are spitefully evil! And because Drago's purpose is only to be dastardly, his comeuppance garners no pathos like Sid Phillips in Toy Story or Syndrome in The Incredibles. Perhaps in a token attempt at depth, the story portrays Drago as something of a dark mirror for Hiccup. Both are missing limbs thanks to dragons, and both have an uncanny knack for communication with them. Luckily, you can easily tell which of them is the bad guy, since one of them has a scar-covered face and dreadlocks, and the other looks like a cross between Luke Wilson and Brent Barry. But Drago is someone who's only physically threatening, and there's never any fear that he's actually the Darth Vader to Hiccup's Luke Skywalker. That's because Hiccup is far too anodyne and incorruptible to even possess a faint spark of inner evil.

Actually, Hiccup and Drago don't really even have a hand to hand encounter that I can recall. Instead, their fight is Jaegar-ed through two monstrosities called "bewilderbeasts" or "Alphas", ice-spewing dragons who somehow have the means to control other dragons through telekinesis. These Alphas, too, aren't rendered with thought to anything other than how to make them as immense as possible. Whereas the other dragons in How To...2 have particular animalistic traits which make them relatable to the average pet owner (some act like birds, others act like dogs), the Alphas move like Godzilla clones but have the dramatic range of a surly Keanu Reeves. In fact, of the dozens of dragons in this movie, only Toothless, who looks and moves like a winged ferret with a scaly cat face, is featured in anything which might be considered a contributing role. As his counterparts amount mostly to fanged taxis or plot devices, he's the only non-human upon which the plot truly turns, and, when it does turn, in the scene where Toothless becomes the center of the film's emotional stakes, the transition, and the gut punch which results, is a bit jarring. 

(Warning: Spoiler coming four sentences ahead!)

Getting back to Drago; what's really troublesome about him and his menagerie is how unnecessary they are. Yes, from a narrative standpoint, there needs to be a conflict. From a kid's standpoint, there needs to be someone for the dragons and the Vikings to beat, and it helps a lot if he wears black and looks ugly. And yes, I know this film, like its predecessor, is based on a book series (isn't everything these days?) But would it have been such a terrible thing for the movie to devote less time to scorching the earth and more time to Hiccup and Stoick, reunited after twenty years with mother/wife, Valka? Her introductory scene - which, granted, only comes about because Hiccup is looking for Drago - is absolutely breathtaking. The subsequent fifteen minutes which follow, during which Toothless and Valka's dragon stir up clouds by beating their wings like Cessna-sized hummingbirds, is the most impressive animated sequence I've ever seen. But once the human trio takes a moment to sit down, and Hiccup assesses the impact of a lifetime of absentee parentage, there's no hint of conflict or even tension. Just smiles and more talk about beating Drago. It doesn't ring true, even from a child's perspective, and so it's disappointing when the audience is supposed to find intrigue the real intrigue in this non-starter of a battle between a twenty year-old kid and an off-the-shelf megalomaniac. Heck, I'd take 90 minutes of nothing but Hiccup steering through the clouds on Toothless over one-liners sneered hollowly from the back of an invincible flying cow fortress.

If I judge it as the movie I saw, rather than the movie I wish it were, I can say How to Train Your Dragon 2 will likely be everything kids expect. To be sure, adults will also be entertained, but if any of you leaves the theater with a vague sense of unfulfillment, just know that I too wish for a world where quality visuals and a fully-realized story can thrive and co-exist. Now that I think of it, maybe it's time for someone to pitch How to Train Your Katzenberg.