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Monday, July 30, 2012

Victim of Viral Marketing Genius

Miss Taggart would be ashamed. My spinsterly high school English teacher taught me better. I can still picture her cold eyes glaring out at our petrified American Literature class through thick black plastic 1950’s style cat’s eye shaped glasses. She had gray brillo pad looking hair. She smiled like a shark, rarely, and only right before devouring some unsuspecting high school junior’s soul. She could smell unpreparedness. Connected parents got their children transferred out of her classes. She was in her mid sixties, had never married, and lived with her mother who was in her late eighties. She would fail students, even if they showed up to all their classes. She was the teacher you did not want.

She gave reading quizzes every day. Every single quiz counted. There was no extra credit. The second semester of my junior year she randomly assigned everyone to groups. My group had five members. The other four were already planning on summer school. Our assignment was to make a presentation about Transcendentalism.  Miss Taggart announced that there would be no group switching. There would be a group grade, and she did not want to hear about anything being unfair. My group decided we should all do nothing, a kind of suburban non-violent resistance. This was decided on a vote of four to one. I was the lone dissenter. I was not a particularly diligent student. I just couldn’t fail on purpose. Plus, I had plans for the summer.

I learned about a transparent eyeball[1] and Walden Pond[2]. Emerson and Thoreau penetrated my soul. I discovered words and ideas could be beautiful, not just drivers of a narrative. I gave a presentation about Transcendentalism by myself. I did not complain about my group, but I did not allow them take part in the presentation they had done no work on. Miss Taggart gave me a "B". She told me she thought I could do better.

I didn’t need any English credits my senior year, but I voluntarily took two semesters of Advanced Composition from Miss Taggart. I don’t remember what grades I ended up with, but I do remember that both semesters were spent critiquing and analyzing various media forms. One of the most powerful was about advertising. I never forgot realizing powerful professionals were targeting me for influence. I have (over)analyzed every consumer decision I have made since high school. My immunity to advertising chicanery has been a part of my core identity.

Miss Taggart retired a few years after I graduated. She passed away shortly after retiring. I am sure today she is glaring at me from heaven. English teachers do go to heaven right? Disney got me. My children have taken an increasing interest in iPad gaming. I wanted to get them some content and skill level appropriate games. I searched for Disney and Pixar. I found a game called, “Fix-It Felix Jr.”. It looked like the old eight bit games. It played like a Donkey Kong clone. I wondered why is Disney putting this out? Did they acquire the rights to some obscure 1980’s arcade flop in one of their many corporate mergers and decided to just port it into an app? The game is fun to play. It’s no “Angry Birds”, but it makes the wait at the doctor’s office go by quicker.

Tonight I realized I had been taken. I saw a commercial for the new Disney movie, “Wrek-It-Ralph”. Ralph is the nemesis of Fix-It Felix. The movie looks great. The free game was an interactive commercial. I had let in a Trojan horse. I never saw it coming. I heard the siren song of free apps and I perished on the rocks of viral marketing. Well played Disney, well played.

Miss Taggart warned our Advanced Composition class that corporations and drug dealers exist to make money. If either one wants to give you something for free it is for one of two reasons. They are betting you will be hooked and will come back for more, or they want to use you to bring others to them. I bet my kids would love “Wrek-It-Ralph”.

We live in a world where escapism is easier than ever. We can carry thousands of songs, hundreds of books, and scores of movies with us on our phones. We can be alone and never solitary thanks to orbiting satellites that ensure we never miss a cousin’s cute cat video, or a brother’s daily physical training triumph. Emerson said[3]:

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.

All of these conveniences come to us cheaply. We do not pay full retail for our phones or our content, at least not in cash. The real currency we pay is eyeballs. Advertisers pay content providers for our eyeballs. The first one is free, or ninety-nine cents, after that there’s a cost.

I am not immune to the omnipresent advertising. I am as much of a junkie as anyone else. Maybe I just need some solitude instead of all of this alone time. I think I will head outside and look at the stars. Their rays are ancient and free. No download required.

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Please Keep Eyes in the Direction of Travel at all Times

Lately, I feel like a traffic cop. I am constantly trying to get my five year-old daughter to hurry up, my almost three year old son to slow down, and all four of my children to look where they are going. My main goal as a parent, how I will largely judge my success or failure, is my ability to convey one skill to my children.  Please keep your eyes in the direction of travel at all times. During my last quarterly self-evaluation I received a “fail to meet expectations”.

My oldest, my seven and half year old, will do great for a while and then walk into the corner of a bookcase while looking back at me to gage my reaction to her clever taunt.  (We tease in our family, it’s kind of our thing).  My youngest I understand, she is not quite a year and a half (that’s almost eighteen months to you baby age purists) and stumbles around.  However, the consequences are awful.  Such as: forehead to the corner of the table, forehead to the wall, forehead to the pillar, forehead to her brother’s sternum.  It’s not pretty.   

The worst are my primes. (That’s children number 2 and 3, and no, 1 is not a prime number, look it up:  I also call them my middles.  I call the other two my bookends.  I also group my children as odds and evens, but the seven year old strongly objects to the connotations of odd).  My five year old daughter has two speeds, pokey and “I dare you to try and make me hurry, no really try it old man”.  We will be walking across the street and she will stop to look a pinecone, or a blade of grass, or a rock, or a divot in the blacktop.  She is always looking at everything, except where she is going.  My almost three-year old son has four speeds, run, run fast, “you can’t catch me because I am fast and nimble”, and “forget it”. He doesn’t stop to look at anything.  He spends most of the time looking backwards grinning at others eating his dust. 

The primes collide, often. Second will be examining the carpet fibers instead of getting her shoes on like I asked and Third will turn the corner at “you can’t catch me because I am fast and nimble” while grinning with his head turned completely around, and smash! Third tumbles over Second, head over wheels and lands on his back screaming.  Second tumbles sideways and screams like she just got hit by a mortar, which, in her defense she kind of did.  This scene plays itself out at least twice an hour.

Due to my complete failure to teach this one lesson to my children, I have taken to alternative strategies.  I have reduced my calls of “watch where you’re going!” or “look out!” or “turn your head around there’s a wall!”, and replaced them with wincing and trying to normalize the prime’s speeds.  The biggest factor in collision damage is speed differential.  If I can get Second to speed up and Third to slow down, collisions will at least be less dangerous.  The side benefits, if successful, are we can reduce the amount of time Second takes to get out of the house, or across the street, and we won’t have to spend as much time catching Third so we get his shoes or pajamas on him.
Lately, I have been questioning the unintended consequences of my speed normalization strategy. Two separate incidents have sown doubt in my mind.

Our family went on a hike to local state park with spectacular waterfalls. The plan was to meet up with extended family for barbecue and fireworks. I was pushing Second to hurry up so we could start the hike when we had the following dialog:

Second:           Daddy how do you say waterfall in Chinese?
Me:                  Pu bu
Second:           Oh
Me:                  Come on let’s hurry up sweetie so we can go see the waterfall.
Second:           Daddy, why do people speak Chinese?
Me:                  (with furrowed brow) Why do people speak Chinese?
Second:           I don’t know, why?
Me:                  Because their mom and dad spoke Chinese (mentally patting myself)
Second:           No, why do people speak Chinese or Spanish?
Me:                  Do you mean why to people speak different languages?
Second:           Yes, (with a sigh that seems to communicate her impatience with being surrounded by idiots).
Me:                  Well . . .

The dialog continued with several more ways as I gave her answers that were part biblical, part anthropological, part wild speculation, and part philosophical.  The rest of the day she looked at many trees, roots, blades of grass, and bugs. I didn’t tell her to hurry up again. I even told everyone we needed to slow down because the food and fireworks would still be there whether we got there at 4:00. 4:30 or even 5:30. I tried to make sure I listened to and answered all her other questions. How could I rush a mind that was so curious and processed so much complexity? Forcing her to hurry might brake something fundamental to her being. She really is absorbing the world around her. What was I missing?

Just when I was becoming converted to like at pokey speed, along comes Third to further upset my apple cart. He and I were at home with Fourth, my not quite year and a half old daughter. Fourth was involved in looking at her animal alphabet book (I love the book because it has xenops and xenopus). Third comes around the corner at “forget it” speed and bursts through the door into his room like Seal Team 6. I yell for him to slow down. I hear him grab two of his race cars that rev up when shaken, and he calls back, “I have to race, my baby is coming”. Sure enough Fourth walks by and gently pushes the door that had swung back to almost shut after her brother’s assault, like she is trying to sneak into a movie and grabs a car and laughs in triumph.

I expected Third to yell in protest and take it back, as often happens. Instead, he says “it’s okay baby sister, I raced it”. Then he comes out of the room at merely run fast and starts playing with one of his trains in the hall.  Almost immediately Fourth is on his heels again, and once again he willingly forfeited the toy without incident and moved on to something else. Third moves so fast because he knows the windows of opportunity to enjoy his toys are small and constantly collapsing. He has to move faster than life to experience as many things as he can. Do I want to tell him to slow down? What if he does and he misses something not replicable? Many opportunities in life are fleeting, who doesn’t want to move faster than the speed of light? Slowing him down seems to interfere with his being.

Watching these two amazing philosophers I had an epiphany. I am somehow too fast and too slow. I overlook the details by rushing through life and miss the opportunities because I linger at the wrong spots. I also realized these children came to me with their own personalities. My job is not to stymie those budding personalities, but to help them flourish. Sometimes you just have to finish eating in under an hour and sometimes you have to walk instead of run across the street or you could get hurt. But, day-to-day, what is better, savoring every possible detail one at a time or careening from one great experience to another with joyful abandon?

Here I am stalled at the intersection of pokey and run fast. While I decide what speed to merge at, I will try not to suppress my young fellow travelers. I will remind them to please keep their eyes in the direction of travel at all times. They won’t, but maybe they learn more from the collisions than from the travel. I sure do.

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Movie Super Crocodiles are Awesome, but not as Awesome as Godzilla

Movie Super Crocodiles are Awesome, but not as Awesome as Godzilla

Recently, we had to take our youngest daughter to the Emergency Room.  Of course we went in the middle of the night.  Our children never fall critically or dangerously ill during business hours.  We checked in and went to triage.  The nurse treated us like idiots and sent us to the waiting room.

We sat down next to two moonshine-still accident victims in front of the brand new, larger than necessary, flat screen television.  The channel was tuned to the SyFy channel.  I guess the hospital thought new waiting room accoutrements were a better investment than emergency room efficiency.  As soon as we sat down we saw the John Schneider ominously warn a hapless deputy to be careful right before a super crocodile bite the deputy’s arm off and fake blood went squirting everywhere. 

You read that last sentence correctly, the John Schneider.  That is Bo Duke to those of a certain vintage, or Superman’s television father to those of a newer vintage, or the now deceased father with a secret love child in Africa from one of his doctor’s without borders forays of Grace Belmont from Secret Life of an American Teenager, for those of a still newer vintage.  (Don’t judge me for my knowledge of . . .Secret Life plot lines, I can explain .) 

Naturally my wife decided we needed to move to another location.  Naturally, I agreed.  Naturally, I was now hooked on this mysterious show and secretly wanted to watch it. Fortunately, we chose a spot still in ear–shot.  While we waited I learned that there were three (3!) super crocodiles and that Sherriff John Schneider’s (I never did het his character’s name) son was in harm’s way.  I heard a lot of people die and get mangled by super crocodiles.  I heard poorly written dialogue, and I heard two (2!) super crocodiles get killed.  I don’t know how the movie ends because we got to go back and wait for a doctor in a room before the grand finale.  Thanks to the wonders of IMDB and the world wide web, I later found this emergency room classis was none other than Lake Placid 2, which, according to the world wide web, is not nearly as good as the first one.  (They never are.  They never are.) 

I figured my foray into late night-early morning super crocodile movies was over after that.  I am not a late night movie watcher.  I am a late night children calmer/wrangler.  A few days after the emergency room visit, I fled from my bed once two children decided to sleep there.  I went out to the couch and started flipping channels.  What to my wondering eyes should appear on the SyFy channel?  Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, appeared on the guide screen!  I clicked with out hesitation and was immediately greeted by a fight between the titular reptiles.  The python and Gatoroid fought to a draw and threatened the lives of some bystanders.  One of the bystanders was played by Debbie (or is Deborah?) Gibson in electric middle age as a beyond extreme animal rights activist.  A few scenes later I realize one of the park rangers hunting the super reptiles is Tiffany.

The movie lost me soon after that because there was too much arguing between Debbie Gibson’s and Tiffany’s characters, and too little reptile mayhem.  I was hoping for an omage to Mothra vs. Godzilla, and instead got something more like Battle of the 80’s Pop Teen Stars, with Giant Reptiles.  One of the reviews I read on the world wide web reassures me I made the right choice.

That was when I realized how vapid our culture has become.  We can’t even do trash right.  Japanese monster movies of the 50’s and 60’s, including Mothra vs. Godzilla, Invasion of Astro Monster, and Rodan are brilliant in their awfulness.  Why are they so charming and incredibly rewatchable, while Lake Placid 2 and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid  are not even watchable all the way through once?  Why do I think about such things?  With the improvements in quality and affordability of special effects, shouldn’t these B movies be getting better?

I think there are two main reasons for the lack of improvement.  The first reason is the acting, or more specifically the actors.  The old Japanese monster movies were not full of familiar faces, even to movie patrons of the time.  They were largely filled with unknowns or aspiring talents.  They played their roles straight and did the best they could because they were resume building.  As Ken Tucker mentions in the above review, we need to think the actors are taking the production seriously to get joy out of the film.  John Schneider, Debbie Gibson, and Tiffany have talent as performers.  However, their parts in these modern monster movies reeks too much of desperation for a pay-check or to reclaim 80’s pop culture glory.  They suck the joy out of watching the movie because they have no joy in acting in the movie.

The second reason B-movies are not getting better is because of the improvements in quality of special effects and they reduced price.  Filmmakers do not have to get creative with how portray a scene that may have been too expensive or impractical to shoot, as they once did.  There are no breaks on the thought process, no one asks, “how can I do this effect?” or “how can I convince the audience that _____ just happened?’, they just hook up the computer and make it happen.  Movies at their best are magic.  Magic is misdirection and illusion.  Modern B-movie auteurs do not have to misdirect us, they just show us everything, and it leaves us feeling hollow. 

I do not believe everything older is better.  However, give me a Night of the Lepus movie over Mega Python vs. Gatoroid any late night.  While I wait for my next chance to see a great monster movie, I will continue working on my unified theory of B-movie awesomeness.  What are your favorite B-movies and why?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012



I hate balloons.  I do not fear balloons.  I hate them.  My feelings for balloons are in no way related to how uncomfortable I feel around clowns.  (You know what they call people who intentionally disguise their faces and act out in socially inappropriate ways?  Felons.  Bank Robbers.  Comic-Con Patrons.  It’s not a coincidence.)  My problems with balloons began when I had children.

Babies and balloons are a variation on the moth and flame.  Babies can’t resist the bright colors and the strange physics of balloon movement.  Babies must also put everything in their mouths.  Balloons are fragile and do not respond well to mouths.  They tend to pop.  Balloons also interact poorly with fingernails, corners, textured ceilings, textured walls, feet, and heating vents.  The pop of a fallen balloon makes babies cry, but worse than the pop, is the balloon splinters.  The pieces of an exploded balloon travel farther then you expect, and are harder to see than you can imagine.  Small pieces of polyurethane or mylar are choking hazards.  However, this threat can be controlled with vigilance and diligence.  The worst part of balloons is what they do to older children

Balloons have strange and poorly understood properties.  Balloons instantly become the best friends of toddlers and preschoolers.  The bond is instant and permanent, at least for the life of the balloon.  (Balloons are fragile, please see above).  Stephanie Myers’ got the idea for werewolf imprinting from the way children attach themselves to balloons.[1] 

A balloon’s short but intense life means that if a balloon suddenly lifts out of the child’s reach, the child immediately goes to DEFCON 2 and screams as if they have just lost a toe to a carnivorous rodent.  If the balloon floats away between a restaurant and a car, the child will scream all the way home.  However, if the balloon escape is inside, once an adult brings the fugitive back to its bonded pair, not only does the screaming stop, but the world stops to cherish the moment.  Balloons are troublesome when only a single child is involved.  When multiple children and any number of balloons comingle, it is apocalyptic. 

The strange balloon bonding turns even normally good sharers into evil greed gut monsters.   Normally good-natured children say things like:
 “Sarah looked at my balloon , she’s going to touch it!”
“Help! He licked my balloon!  Now it’s ruined!”

Younger brothers torture older sisters by grabbing their balloons and running hurly burly through the house, careening off the walls, and somehow miraculously tangling the balloon ribbon throughout multiple fragile home décor objects.  This happens even when each child has their own balloon.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is believed by scholars to date back to a Mesopotamian squabble over an early forerunner of the balloon between Ismael and his twin brother Jacob.[2]  Soft-spoken children scream at each other at volumes otherwise unknown to humans.  Rival children’s balloons each have their own territory and accessories.   The balloons are turned into imaginary dogs.  Once the “dogs” brush by each other, the “owners” voice their mutual outrage at the same time in escalating volumes.  If a boy child is involved in any balloon scuffle, chances of physical reprisals dramatically increase.

Children try to bring their bonded balloons everywhere.  Pleas of “Mom, can I bring my balloon to the store?”  and “Dad, tie my balloon to my chair while I eat” and “I really want to take a bath with my balloon, it’s a mermaid!” bombard parents in attempts to break their will.  Eventually, the balloons start to sag, and that is when they are vulnerable.   Children loose track of their balloons on the floor.[3]  The first time a child fails to take the balloon into their room at night to wait by the bedside for morning playtime, I strike.  I euthanize the balloons, usually with scissors, but keys work in a pinch, and throw all the pieces away in the outside garbage. 

How do my archenemies continue to find their way into my domain?  I am weak.  Various public places offer free balloons to children.  They rarely ask the parent if it’s oaky until after they have proffered their Trojan horse of discord to the children.  When one of my children look up at me with big hope filled eyes, a coy smile, and ask in their nicest voice, and with manners that would make Emily Post beam with pride “Daddy can I please have a balloon?”  I cave.  “Sure sweety.”  I say.  “Let me tie it around your wrist so it doesn’t fly away” I add.  In the end my hatred for balloons is only exceeded by my love for my children.  The five minutes between the store or restaurant and the car when that balloon bond is forming, my children are truly happy, and all the world stops to cherish the moment.

[1] I just made that up.
[2] I am the only scholar that holds this theory.  I am not a scholar.
[3] The floor is somehow camouflaged to children, food and toys are seemingly invisible to them once on the floor.
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