Sparks Archive

March 2008 -

Hey there, readers,

Notice what I called you there? I called you readers, because no matter how else you may identify yourself, if you can recognize these little squiggly shapes on the screen as representative of words, speech, and ideas, you are a reader.

Some of you (probably a good deal of you) do a lot of reading in your daily life. You read for work, to gain information, and for entertainment. In fact, it's probably safe to say you spend a good percentage of every day reading.

Now, let me ask you this: Do you remember a time when you couldn't read? Chances are you don't, not really. I mean, you probably remember a time, in your childhood, when your favorite book was something simple and clearly for early readers, like Hop on Pop or Danny and the Dinosaur. But you probably don't remember looking at a sign and having no idea that it meant something.

That's because we, as a society, are readers. Ever since the invention of movable type made printing cheap and writing affordable to even the poorest we have deemed reading a necessity. A country's illiteracy rate is used as a measure of its status in the world. A rate above a few percent is a cause for alarm; in the double digits, an international disgrace.

Even in this country, there are many children at risk of becoming illiterate adults. These are the children of poverty and neglect, children whose parents are poorly educated themselves. And as the world becomes ever more invested in information, those who cannot keep up through reading will be condemned to a lower quality of life.

RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) was founded in 1966 to attack illiteracy in a very basic way, through distribution of books to those children at highest risk. Seems simple, doesn't it. Give a child a book of his or her very own, let them learn to love it and by extension, grow up to become readers. Through the RIF program at my grammar school, I received and loved the above-mentioned Danny and the Dinosaur, Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe stories, and, ironically, Fahrenheit 451.

I say "ironically" because earlier this month, President George W. Bush, in his submitted national budget, ELIMINATED FUNDING FOR RIF. That's right, he's cutting that $25 million out of the $3.1 TRILLION budget. I don't want to say $25 million is a drop in the bucket, but considering some of the stuff the government throws cash at, I'd say it's money well spent. And this at a time when the United Stares is losing jobs overseas at an alarming rate. (His wife's a librarian, too. I wonder what she thinks.)

RIF is the Patient Creatures' charity of choice, but that is only one of many reasons I URGE you to write to your congressperson and implore them to continue funding this excellent and ESSENTIAL program. You have a book you love, a book that changed your life and made you the person you are today. I know you do. For that book's sake, and for the sake of every child who may someday read it, write, fax, phone, or email your representative. Do it several times. Do it now.

And send me your comments at the address below. I'll run them in a future column.

Read RIF's statement at their website:
Want to find out how to contact your Senator or Representative? Visit this site:


December 2007 -

The War on Christmas: A dissenting view

One of my favorite episodes of Rumiko Takahashi's wildly funny Ranma ½ is the Christmas episode, primarily for one line. Ranma and the girls are running around, shopping for gifts and planning their various activities, and the two fathers look at each other in disgust. "Didn't everyone in Japan used to be Buddhist?" one asks.

I was put in mind of this episode recently while reading the latest article about "The War on Christmas." This "War," for those of you not up on your talk radio, is apparently the feeling Christians have that their beloved holiday is under siege. To which us non-participants, who spend the last two months of the every year overwhelmed by trees, carols, TV specials, and gift sales, say, "Whaaaa..?"

I mean, don't get me wrong. I understand that Christmas is a big deal in many ways, and I would never think of begrudging anyone their traditions and beliefs. But COME ON! Saying "Happy Holidays" is not in any way a slant against Christmas. Having a "Holiday Sale" instead of a "Christmas Sale," is not some sneaky attempt to do away with Christmas altogether.

For starters, I doubt such a thing could ever be done, and yes, I know there are court challenges to public religious displays, but for every baby Jesus removed from a courthouse lawn, there are 50 billboards erected to remind us that "JESUS is the reason blah blah blah." There are Salvation Army members ringing bells on every corner, and Toys for Tots boxes in every WalMart (and trust me, those new, unwrapped gifts aren't going to good little atheist children.)

And every night of December some TV show trots out its Christmas episode, filled with sentimentality, and each story making clear that anyone who doesn't have a tree, gifts, and a houseful of relatives on Christmas day is a Scrooge of the highest order. Oh, and everyone learns a valuable lesson about life.

And it's not just on TV, either. In America everyone just assumes you're Christian, with all the holiday merriment that implies, until told otherwise. If not Christian, then they jump immediately to Jewish (the other inclusion in "Happy Holidays.") And even then, if you specifically tell them you don't celebrate Christmas, you still get a frown and a slightly hurt look, and a question along the lines of, "but you still have a tree, right?"

Okay, okay, I realize I kind of am coming off like a Scrooge, but the truth is one of the things I love about this country is that it is so pluralistic. For the most part my ethnic heritage, my religion (or lack thereof,) and my country of origin are treated with respect, even a little open curiosity.

So please, Christmas lovers: Enjoy your holiday. Share your traditions with your non-Christian friends, and we'll share ours with you.

October 2007 -

Ah, October. The 31-day ramp-up to the largest national cosplay event, Halloween. In celebration of this holiday, I decided to examine some of the costuming trends I've been noticing lately. More specifically, the growing emphasis on adult costumes. And by that, I don't just mean costumes that come in adult sizes, I mean costumes that are, shall we say, aimed at an adult audience.

Okay, don't get me wrong, I enjoy a pirate wench or French maid outfit as much as the next guy (and I would even say I enjoy a Faye Valentine outfit much more than the next guy.) But the problem I'm seeing, and which is starting to make the protective older brother in me freak out, is that these outfits don't seem to be restricted to adult women in adult settings anymore.

A quick glance through a popular costume catalog features various "Bratz" outfits, a low-cut gun moll, "delinquent devil" which is reminiscent of Britney Spears's sexy schoolgirl uniform, and Goth-inspired witches, zombies, and fairies replete with fishnet stockings. And the one that really got me: "Major Flirt," a military-inspired mini-skirted outfit of shiny pink camo.

And before you shake your heads and tell me I'm turning into my dad, let me point out that these are costumes for girls. And I don't mean 19-year-old girls, or even 16-year-old girls. I mean 8-year-old girls. And younger. The "Major Flirt" costume comes in size 4. FOUR!!

Never mind asking what kind of company would sell outfits like this. What kind of parent would dress a little girl like this? I mean I understand that Halloween is a time for kids to dress like adults, but that means fireman, doctors, and ballerinas. Not miniature versions of Lindsay Lohan.

But this is really just the natural progression in a decades-long appropriation of the holiday by adults. Halloween (the modern version, that is) started as a holiday for children, and up until the 70s or so, it was. Kids dressed up, went trick-or-treating, had parties, and collected pennies for Unicef. Then college-aged events started cropping up. Bars held costume contests. Elvira started shilling for a beer company.

Fairly quickly, Halloween joined the ranks of most of the "lesser" holidays (Valentines Day, St. Patrick's Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day) as a reason to have a party, drink a lot of beer, and try to hook up. But enough already. Adult parties are fine, but can we keep them separate from the children's part of Halloween? Let the kids dress up in age-appropriate costumes, go door-to-door, bob for apples or whatever it is they do at those parties. Then the adults can put on their own age-appropriate outfits and head for adults-only venues.

Kids are forced to grow up fast enough as it is, and Halloween is their one chance a year to try out different roles. The one chance to test out an answer to the question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" It's our job as adults to steer them towards something that makes them feel brave and strong, like a superhero, or to temporarily assume the identity of something that scares them, like a monster, and thus make it less frightening.

Incidentally, I'm planning to dress this year as Leonidas, Spartan king from the movie 300 and the historical battle of Thermopylae. I'll be waiting for a Queen Gorgo at the Martini Room after 9 pm. Look for the red toga.

April 2007 -

By now you've probably heard of the movie 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller ("Sin City") and directed by Zack Snyder (2005's "Dawn of the Dead.") It's a fictionalized and highly-stylized account of the Battle of Thermopylae, a battle that took place in 480 B.C. between 300 Spartan warriors and over a million Persians.

The film opened to generally positive reviews and an opening-weekend box office in excess of $60 million dollars, making it the surprise hit of the spring. And, of course, when anything makes a lot of money, the press feels the need to analyze it. Why is it so successful? What about it has tapped into the national zeitgeist?

Since 9/11, any movie or TV show that features a war of some kind has been viewed through the prism of the U.S.'s conflicts in the Middle East. They did it with Lord of the Rings, they did it with the Star Wars movies, they do it with Battlestar: Galactica, and now they're doing it with 300.

What statement is the director making about Iraq? Are the Spartans representative of the U.S. forces, outmanned and overwhelmed but fighting bravely on? Or are they represented by the Persians, thugs intent only on conquest? Is Bush noble Leonidas, or power-mad Xerxes?

Then, Iranian officials entered the debate. Why Iranian officials? Well, because they objected to the portrayal of the Persians as an uncivilized hoard. And why does this upset them? Apparently, it seems there was an actual Persian empire, which over time became… Iran. No, seriously. It was news to me, too. Anyway, the Iranian press has been reporting that 300 was made with the specific intention of inciting anti-Persian feelings among the U.S. and increasing support for declaring war on Iran.

Okay, where to begin. How about with the basic, possibly sad, fact that the average movie-goer who's going to see 300 (i.e. guys under 25) has NO IDEA that Persians became Iranians. In fact, I can imagine a conversation something like this taking place:

ANGRY IRANIAN (AI): This movie is a deliberate intent to incite anti-Iranian sentiment!

AVERAGE AMERICAN MOVIE-GOER (AAMG): Whoa, dude, how do you figure?

AI: Because it portrays the Persians as the villains!

AAMG: Yeah?

AI: Don't you see? The PERSIANS are portrayed as evil!

AAMG: …And?

AI: So this movie will stir up anti-Persian feeling!

AAMG: What does that have to do with Iran?

AI: Persia is Iran!

AAMG: Whoa, seriously?

AI: Yes!

AAMG: Wait, wait, wait. Let me follow this. Persia… and Iran… are the same country?

AI: Essentially , yes.

AAMG: Seriously?

AI: Yes!

AAMG: Dude, I did not know that. I'm gonna have to remember that in case it comes up in a pub quiz…

AI: So you agree that 300 is intended to stir up anti-Iranian sentiment?

AAMG: Are you still talking about that movie? Dude, that was, like, three weeks ago. I'm trying to get into a preview of Grindhouse this weekend. It's gonna be sweet….

So, not to be unsympathetic to Iranian fears of a U.S. invasion (which are not entirely unfounded, I'll admit) but just because a movie has a war in it doesn't mean it's necessarily a comment on the current war.

And go see 300, dudes. It's sweet.

March 2007 -

Not that long ago, I was ready to give up on TV. Well, not entirely, of course. I'd still watch sports, and probably catch the occassional show on one of the documentary channels. And I can't imagine not seeing what [adult swim] was offering up on Cartoon Network, but that's less of an active watching and more of a letting the hallucinatory visuals wash over you.

The traditional type show, with 22 episodes in a season, held less and less appeal.

Sit-coms, I freely admit, had dropped out of my TV diet long ago. Too formula, too filled with cute, young, urban white people telling the same lame jokes. And I never really liked the cop dramas, hospital dramas, or family dramas.

Sci-fi, fantasy, and horror still interested me, but after Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and to a lesser extent, Angel, the spinoff) set that bar so high, the weak substitutes that followed no longer satisfied. I have good friends who are into Supernatural, Battlestar: Galactica, and Lost, and while I watch all of those casually, I find Supernatural too silly, Battlestar: Galactica too convoluted, and Lost too frustrating. Will Lost ever answer the questions they've asked satisfactorily? I doubt it, because at this point every possible reveal has been speculated on and picked apart endlessly on the internet.

Perhaps that's part of the problem. In the past several years, my TV experience has been about a lot more than just watching the show and maybe discussing it with like-minded friends. Now, I go online to read the latest news, discuss the show with fellow fans, and analyze everything.

With Buffy, this was great fun, because at it's heart, the show was a nice metaphor for growing up, and hey, we all know what that's like. With other shows, like Battlestar, the metaphors become more complicated. Is the Cylon/Colonial conflict a metaphorical mirror for the war in Iraq? If so, who is the United States? The Colonials are more sympathetic, but what about their suicide bombers? And then the message boards just devolve into political name-calling, and that's no fun for anyone who isn't a complete jerk.

So, I had pretty much resigned myself, when a most unexpected thing happened. I got hooked on a new show. It runs on one of the big-four networks, has a continuing story arc. It probably doesn't hurt that episodes are downloadable on the internet, the cast is geek-friendly, and thematically it smacks me right in the forehead.

It's Heroes.

I know, I'm surprised, too. But the show is successful in following the comic-book formula it is intentionally aping, what with its various storylines, interrelated characters, and bold visual action. I'm not as devoted to it as I've been to shows in the past, but I suspect that is more a symptom of getting older and having what is referred to as a real life to contend with.

But let me describe a few moments in the past few episodes that have made my geek heart beat a little faster: Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) as a man who can turn invisible. A Japanese character who is able to move through time named "Hiro." George Takei (Sulu on the original Star Trek) as his morally ambiguous father. Takei riding around in a limo with the license plate "NCC-1701." A blonde cheerleader who is indestructable, birth-child of a firestarter and a man who can fly, but raised by an adoptive father who is part of a shadowy outfit dedicated to seeking out and neutralizing people with powers. Man, just typing that last sentence made me want to go download a couple of episodes again!

But I'm not here to be a panting fanboy. I'm really just glad that TV can still surprise, entertain, and involve me. Maybe there's hope for it yet.

February 2007 -

There was a time, not too long ago, when I knew all of the original Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation episode titles, in order, and about 80% of the writers for each episode.

This is usually the point at which the writer of an essay like this says something like, "I'm not proud of this fact." But I'm not going to do that. I mean, I have perspective; I don't equate my ability to memorize a list with the ability to do molecular biology or even the ability to cook a decent risotto. I know it's something that was only important to me, and a small group of fanatically devoted fans.

But I'm not ashamed of it, either.

I'm not going to blush and apologize for being a big Star Trek fan. Star Trek was a damn good show, and so was Star Trek: The Next Generation (or NextGen, or ST:NG, as long as I'm being open about my geekiness.) I also enjoy Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar: Galactica (both versions.) I read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I go to Science Fiction conventions and collect comic books. You don't even want to know how much bootleg anime I have.

And for this, the popular media thinks I should be all coy and apologetic. That I'm part of this misfit brotherhood who can't function in normal society. I can't count the number of reviews of the last Star Wars movie that felt the need in the opening paragraph to insult the devoted fans, to mention that they wore Darth Vader pajamas, lived in their mother's basements, and had never kissed a girl. Never mind that all six Star Wars films were the number one movies of the year the year each was released, and they've made a combined gross of over $4.3 BILLION. Clearly, their appeal is not limited to a few drooling fanboys.

What I'm asking is, why this perception? Why does the media persist in this stereotype that there is a separate "geek market" that's small and marginalized, when clearly it's the dominant cultural market. Want more examples?

In 2006, sales of home video games in the U.S. rose 18 percent to $13.5 billion. That's more than people spent on movies, which was $9.1 billion.

The top ten movies of 2006 were:
1- Pirates of Caribbean 2
2- Cars
3- X-Men 3: The Last Stand
4- Night at the Museum
5- The Da Vinci Code
6- Superman Returns
7- Ice Age 2
8- Happy Feet
9- Casino Royale
10- Over the Hedge

Let's see... that's four cartoons, two comic-book movies, a James Bond flick, a movie about museum exhibits coming to life, and a movie based on a theme-park ride. Oh, and the one based on a best-selling novel that involves a huge international conspiracy. Seriously, what here could NOT be construed as geeky?

TV, still not entirely geeky. Although Lost and Heroes are doing well, and Battlestar: Galactica is getting a lot of play being known as the best show on television, reality shows like American Idol, Survivor, and Dancing with the Stars are getting the highest ratings. So, while TV may be lame, it's not very geeky.

Which brings me to my final point. Why has the media decided one thing is marginalized, geeky, and a waste of time, like knowing all the Star Trek episode titles, and another thing, using exactly the same set of skills, is manly and worthwhile? Say, memorizing the stats for players in the NFL.

Own every episode of The Prisoner on DVD? You're a geek. Own every episode of The Sopranos? You clearly appreciate quality television.

Spend $60 on high-quality bootlegs of Torchwood (*Cough* not that I would ever do that *cough*)? You've wasted your money. Spend $700 on a rare bottle of wine? A man of culture!

Help your girlfriend make a Rukia Kuchiki costume for the next Otacon? (She looked smokin' hot, too, Justin.) You're a weirdo. Strip to the waist and paint yourself with your team colors in hope of a few seconds of air time on the game coverage? Okay, you're probably still a weirdo, but people buy you beers anyway.

This summer the biggest media events will be the new Harry Potter book, the new Harry Potter movie, and Spiderman 3. Geek money is as green as anyone's, corporate controllers. Don't let the media insult your fans.


December 2006 -

So, if you're even the least bit geeky, you've heard the news.

New Line, the studio that produced the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which made $2.9 BILLION dollars worldwide and won huge critical acclaim, including a best picture Oscar for Return of the King is going to make a movie from the "prequel," The Hobbit. But, because the director of the first three films had the AUDACITY to complain New Line didn't hold up their end of the contract when they paid him (I mean, really, the nerve...) they've cut him out of the deal, and are looking for a new director.

As fans all over the world cringe at the thought of some cheap hack taking the series in a clumsy hand, Saul Zaentz, who owns the underlying rights to the Tolkien titles, has been quoted as backing Jackson's return to direct The Hobbit. Why is Zaentz speaking out against his studio overlords? I don't know... maybe he likes money.

Actually, almost everyone involved with the original project except for the keepers of the purse strings over at New Line seem to think that replacing Jackson would spell disaster. So why do they want to do it?

I think the problem starts with the difficulty in making a successful motion picture. The odds are against it, really. It's so expensive to make and market movies that unless a film is a big hit it doesn't make much profit. And when a film is huge international blockbuster, as the Lord of the Rings trilogy was, everyone wants to figure out what the secret was.

But the truth is, it isn't just one factor that makes a movie a hit. Lord of the Rings had several things going for it: The books, of course, are modern classics and have a huge following. Jackson, though he hadn't had a huge hit before, was a respected director with a strong commitment to the project. The cast was hugely talented, and at least two members of the cast, Ian McKellan and Elijah Wood, were outspoken devotees of Tolkien's novels. The cinematographers and effects people were top-of-the-line.

But that alone isn't always enough. What this release also had was good timing. The original novels reached the height of their popularity during the 60s. Popular wisdom holds that this is because the drugged-out hippies liked the elves and wizards, but if one actually read the books (ahem...) one could easily imagine how the themes of the insanity of war and the dehumanization of the industrial age resonated with the generation that was being drafted to fight in Vietnam and was the first to acknowledge the damage we were doing to the environment.

Then the films had the... well, I don't want to call it luck... to come out right after 9/11, and there was that theme of the insanity of war again, just... resonating. I mean, there's a reason the troops adopted the movie's closing theme as their unofficial anthem, and it wasn't because marines love the haunting vocals of Enya.

Unfortunately, every time a movie is even moderately successful, there's a mad rush to figure out why, to identify and isolate the single factor that created this success. Because of the high risk involved, the industry has a vested interest in finding an element for success that easy to control, something that can be simply quantified.

This is why there are certain trends in film: They're released in a cluster around major holidays, because people go to the movies more at that time. Action films come out in the summer, dramas in the winter, and family films at Christmastime. Certain stars are paid exorbitant amounts of money because it is believed a Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz can "open" a film.

That a film's success is usually attributed to a less concrete factor, to something difficult to isolate and perhaps impossible to reproduce, it is not in the industry's best interest to identify that as the reason. Sometimes the cosmos simply align, and no amount of money can create the perfect conditions that produce a billion-dollar movie. You can't buy the public's mood to coincide with your picture.

But when a film is hugely successful, the people who put the most money into it want to believe the success has something to do with them. Their decisions, their marketing strategy, their ideas. And then they can convince themselves that the ingredients that went into Lord of the Rings will gel in just the same way, even without a gifted, beloved, dedicated director at the helm.

And maybe they're right. Maybe The Hobbit, if it goes forward without Jackson, can still be an artistic success and a critical hit.

But I wouldn't bet my money on it.

October 2006 -

Ahhh, October.

There's a chill in the air, leaves are changing and fall to crackle underfoot, and the winter constellations begin to appear. But as the geese are winging their way south, another strange species, only seen at this time of the year, is starting to poke out its ugly head.

Yes, it's the crazy nutjobs who are trying to ban Halloween.

A quick google search of "Halloween is Evil" turned up about four thousand hits. Perusal of some of these sites shows that there is a definite movement among the religious right to do away with the holiday altogether, but their reasoning is a little dubious.

Most point to Halloween's "pagan" origins. While it is true that Halloween falls around one of the seasonal festivals celebrated by the pre-Christian people of the British Isles and parts of western Europe, it's unclear just what the original beliefs surrounding the holiday were. Some sites say it celebrated "Samhain" (spelled various ways) the Druid Lord of the Dead. Some say this date was commemorated with human sacrifice and other occult ritual. Some sites say that Halloween is the Devil's birthday, and throw around stupid, made up words like "Occultic." The truth? Samhain is a Celtic word that simply means "end of summer." And because the ancient tribes, not just Druids but Celts and others, were an agrarian people, the end of summer meant the harvest and a rare time of plenty before the lean winter months ahead. No wonder they celebrated, as did any farming people anywhere in the world.

Tradition holds that these same ancient people believed that the boundary between the living and the dead became more permeable in that night, and that special rituals were performed to honor relatives that had passed on or protect oneself from spirits intent on mischief. Again, the origins are extremely muddled, but some speculate that leaving tokens or special "soul cakes" by the door for the spirits became trick-or-treating and protective bonfires dwindled down to Jack-o-lanterns. And dressing in costume seems to come from an English tradition called "mumming," which also continues to this day in Mardi Gras celebrations and England's Christmas "pantomimes."

But all this is beside the point. I mean, do you know anyone who spends the 31st of October making ritual sacrifice or even baking soul cakes for their late Aunt Esther? No, of course not. Because Halloween vanished into the obscure mists of time until the late-18th century, when Irish immigrants to America melded with the Victorian-era love of a good theme party, and women's magazines of the day promoted the holiday as a great excuse (although it hardly seemed one was needed) to have a fancy dress party, hang decorations, send cards, and prepare special treats. (Read the great book "Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History" by Lesley Pratt Bannatyne for more about Halloween's origins.)

Whatever Halloween's history, the important thing is what it's about now. Just because you're not an ancient Druid, it doesn't mean you can't dress as a cowboy and trick-or-treat, or dress as a scary monster and go to a friend's party, or dress as a sexy pirate wench and meet me at the Martini Room (depending on your age and level of hotness.) So lighten up, and have a Happy Halloween.

September 2006 -

I went to Horrorfind Weekend this year, mostly to watch weird movies (I can recommend Happy Tree Friends, but only for those with a sick sense of humor) and buy videos (no one had The Devil's Backbone. Again.) but also to take in the sights. There is always a fairly eclectic mix of folks: The old guys picking up original one sheets of the horror films they loved as kids, the costumers with their elaborate outfits, the young teen fanboys in search of the occasional glimpse of nudity among the R-rated thrills, the rock-star wannabes, the extremely-low-budget filmmakers who will do just about anything to get you to buy a tape, the amateur artists and writers, and, of course, the improbably hot, bored girlfriends of the rock-star wannabes, low-budget filmmakers, and amateur artists and writers. There are many more even smaller sub-species, each with their specialized niche.

This year, I became aware of a new microculture. I guess I'd seen the odd one here and there, but I'd always regarded them as a curiosity. This year, I saw a lot of merchendise catering to their particular tastes, and I felt what I like to think of as my broad mind start to close.

I'm talking about the young men (and they are all men) whose interest in real-life serial killers has become a little… obsessive. Unhealthy, even. They buy t-shirts and posters with pictures of Charles Manson and Ed Gein. They make tasteless jokes about the victims of John Wayne Gacy. One young man "re-enacted" an attack by Jeffrey Dahmer during the costume contest and seemed genuinely surprised when it was met with boos and hisses from the audience.

I began to observe this group more closely, trying to understand their preferences, and I found them a singularly jaded group. They complained that the horror films they saw no longer had the power to frighten them. They just weren't gory enough, they argued. And I suspect that their identification with these films just wasn't shocking the public at large, anymore, either.

You see, young men of a certain age need to find a way to be different, to become their own person, to push away from the older generation. This is why each generation's slang becomes more incomprehensible, their music less accessible, their clothes and hair, well, you remember what your parents said.

But these kids' parents grew up in the 70s and 80s. They watched The Hills Have Eyes uncut on video in their living rooms. They were the first generation to make heroes out of fictional serial killers: Freddie, Jason, and Michael Myers. So how do you shock horror-fan parents? You step up to the next level, and celebrate real death and real murder. You make heroes out of real-life monsters.

I suppose from that standpoint it worked. I was shocked, I was disgusted, and I pushed this sub-culture away as something foreign and repulsive to me. And I know this is exactly what they want me to feel.

So, is this harmless? Will they grow out of it eventually? Probably, if only because the number of girls who will tolerate this level of interest in torture and murder is microscopically small. They'll grow out of it the same way boys grow out of most things girls find disgusting, or they'll at least learn to hide it better.

But I can't help thinking, and I wonder if they've thought, too… What will their children identify with to shock their parents? The possibilities are the sort of thing that keeps me up nights.


August 2006 -

A few weeks ago, a friend came to visit and took me to a glassblowing studio. She has recently become interested in the art of Dale Chihuly, a glass-blower who has created enormous glass installations throughout the northwest, so before the visit, she researched my area and found a studio nearby. We made plans to visit.

The day, like most of this summer, was unbearably hot and humid, and as we neared the area, a sudden, violent thunderstorm, also not uncommon this season, began to pour down on us. We hurried into the studio, and were met by a blast of heat from the four furnaces used to melt the glass. We were soon to learn they ranged in temperature from 1800 to 2200 degrees, but as my friend pointed out, it was a dry heat, and so not unbearable.

Two younger guys were in the process of working the glass. One blew a blob of dark blue glass first into a bubble, and then, making an opening on the end, shaped it into a wide-mouthed cylinder, about the size and shape of a large beer glass. During the shaping, he frequently returned the glass to the furnace for a few seconds to make it soft. Meanwhile, the other guy (who went by the unlikely name of "skitch,") shaped a blob of clear glass into a solid cylinder that would fit inside the blue beer glass. Then the entire piece was placed in the furnace for another quick softening up, and the two artisans took it out the back door to a covered alley where they each took hold of one end and stretched it into a long, thin "cane."

They explained that they were making blue and green canes, and when they were cool, they would be cut into short pieces, placed in alternating rows in a square mold, and then blown to create a striped bubble to make a teapot-shaped Christmas ornament.

Throughout the shop were other examples of the glassmakers art: bowls and glasses, ornaments and pieces of art. Shortly we were joined by an older artisan who explained some of the technical aspects of the form. The colors were created by adding different types of minerals to the glass, he told us. He also described how different types of glass were given different numbers that described how likely it was to break during the cooling process. Pyrex, for example, is 37. The glass they use is between 90 and 100, and therefore very fragile.

As I listened to this older man, a master craftsman, talk about his work, it occurred to me that these artisans were part of a great tradition. At one time most of the things a person owned would have been created either by himself or by a craftsman such as this. Carpenters, potters, metalsmiths, and seamstresses would have made everything a person needed, usually within a few miles of his home.

It's only in the past century or so that mass production has changed the way things are made. Now a person can buy a machine-stamped glass at a discount store for less than a dollar. Most basic goods are inexpensive and widely available, but also mass-produced, usually in a far-off country.

Are we better off now, when so many things are widely available? Or were we better off when we knew the person who made our dishes or our clothes? Have we lost something now that our things aren't made for us, alone, anymore, but are the same as millions of other items all over the world?

Is the world a poorer place because artisans like those we met at a little glass studio in a less fashionable section of town are becoming more rare every year, a kind of curiosity left over from another age?

Honestly, I don't know. As someone without a particularly large income, I can't say for sure whether I'm better off with a few well-made, hand-crafted glasses or a shelf full of cheap glassware I can easily replace if it's broken. But when I meet people who put such care and passion into making, not art, to be locked away in a glass case or hung on a wall, to be admired and never touched, but instead into objects that are intended for everyday use, I can't help but think that we have moved onto a less civilized time. A time when individuality itself is a curiosity.

Take a trip to a glassmaker, or a potter, or a furniture maker, breathe in the scent of red-hot glass, or wet clay, or sawdust, talk to an artisan, and you'll see what I mean.

July 2006 -

Hey, there.

If you live in the U.S. and pay attention to the news at all, you've probably heard a lot about the "immigration debate." I want to talk a little bit about that. I'm not going to get too political, because frankly, it's complicated, and I'm probably not the most unbiased commentator. Plus, lots of people could explain the pros and cons better than I. But I do want to address one of the adjacent, fringe issues.

No, not the wall. Other than to say it's a stupid idea.

No, I want to talk about the idea that raises its xenophobic head in certain knuckle-dragging circles every couple of voting cycles: the push to make English the country's official language.

Allow me to repeat, with a bit of paraphrasing, a conversation I overheard recently at a lunch counter I frequent. Two of the shop's employees, both middle-aged Hispanic women, were having a conversation behind the counter in Spanish. Two middle-aged white men sitting at the counter drinking coffee had the following exchange.

Man 1: I don't understand why these people don't learn to speak English.
Man 2: I agree. Even if they don't speak well, they should at least make the effort.
Man 1: You know, there are places right here in town where none of the employees speak English. What kind of way is that to do business?
Man 2: It's not like that in other countries. If I went to Europe, I'd be expected to learn French or German or whatever.

Let me take this bundle of mean assumptions on one at a time.

Part A: I don't understand why these people don't learn to speak English.

For starters, this may just be plain wrong. This guy has no idea whether the shop employees spoke English or not. In fact, they may speak English quite well. What he's annoyed about is that they choose to speak their native language to one another in a private conversation that just happens to take place in his presence.

Part B: Even if they don't speak well, they should at least make the effort.

Now, not to impugn this particular gentleman, who may very well be fairly patient and understanding, but I've dealt with quite a few folks who, well, let's be blunt… aren't. But in fact, we may refer back to point A, where people having a private conversation are under no obligation to speak in a language easily understood by eavesdroppers.

Part C: You know, there are places right here in town where none of the employees speak English. What kind of way is that to do business?

First of all, I doubt this is true. Even if a shop is owned by someone and is mainly staffed by employees for whom English is not a native language, think for a second… sooner or later, they have to deal with people who speak only English. There are landlords, contractors, suppliers, truck drivers, not to mention the occasional English-only customers. Chances are this guy is speaking of a shop with non-native staff that serves primarily non-native customers. Say, a Chinese apothecary. So, say this guy wanders into his friendly neighborhood Chinese apothecary to pick up some powdered ginseng and a half-gram of ground rhinoceros horn (never mind why.) Near the counter, the apothecary and his elderly Chinese customer are discoursing in Mandarin. At this point, he reaches the above conclusion. Naturally, it doesn't occur to him that both apothecary and customer may have just chosen to speak their native language, and in fact speak English perfectly. They look Chinese, they're speaking Chinese, they're conducting business in a Chinese section of town and all of the items for sale are strange and exotic goods used in traditional Chinese medicine. How could the apothecary possibly speak English? But of course, he doesn't realize that desperate Anglos come by for a bit of rhinoceros horn every day of the week.

And anyway, if he ever does go into a shop where no one speaks English, he's perfectly welcome to take his business elsewhere.

Part D: It's not like that in other countries. If I went to Europe, I'd be expected to learn French or German or whatever.

Basically, this isn't true. There are lots of Americans living and working is countries all over the world who speak very little of the native language. How about all those independent contractors rebuilding Iraq? Do you think they speak Arabic? (Answer: No.) Japanese television often features American and British actors and pop stars doing commercials, in English, for Japanese products. And you don't see them getting all bent out of shape about it. And Continental Europe and Indonesia both have a long history of English and American "ex-pats" settling into communities and never going home.

So here's my point. Unless and until the day arrives when most job applications, income tax forms, driver's license tests, product labels and so on come in Spanish (or Chinese, or Farsi) only, an "official language" law is a pointless exercise fueled by paranoia and xenophobia. English has managed to survive two centuries of non-English-speaking immigration, and this same conversation has gone on, with little change, whenever native-born Americans have overheard German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Puerto Rican immigrants having private conversations in their presence.

So, if you ever find yourself saying or thinking something like the gentlemen mentioned above were saying, here's some reassurance. If two middle-aged women working at a lunch counter are having a private conversation, trust me, it's not about you. It's about how to make a BLT, or when the coffee needs to be refreshed. Those Mexican cleaning women? They're talking about cleaning. Or their kids. Or when the last bus comes. The Chinese apothecary? He's talking herbs. And even if they're not… it's none of your business.

June 2006 -

Confession #1- I like to eat. This isn't really a secret confession, as anyone who has ever seen me at the Golden Phoenix Chinese Buffet could attest. However, it's very rare that you hear a person make such a confession. Instead people will talk about their "relationship" with food, will go on and on about what they're eating, and why, and how this diet is going to improve their lives in some way.

I realize I'm in the minority here, but around the time some doctor somewhere decided that a plateful of bacon would help you lose weight, I made the decision to shut up about what I'm eating and why. But I notice that everyone around me seems to spend as much time talking about what they're eating as they do eating.

They discuss the fat and calorie content, the "carbs," the fiber, and what it's probably doing to their bodies. If you just listened to what people said, you'd think we were all eating like fashion models and Olympic gymnasts. If people ate like they said they were eating, most fast food joints would be out of business.

Confession #2- I watch a lot of late-night cable television. This is not by choice. I just can't always sleep at night. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm an insomniac, but a couple nights a week, I just can't sleep, so I turn on the tube. Usually 20 minutes of the Weather Channel does the trick, but sometimes I end up flipping around.

One of my favorite late-night shows is "No Reservations," on the Travel Channel. On this show, famous chef Anthony Bourdain travels the globe and partakes of local cuisine. I'm always pleased when I catch this show, not least of all because Bourdain seems to be a night-owl, too, and also because he will try just about anything.

There are a few food principles that recur on "No Reservations." A: I've learned if I ever find myself in an unfamiliar culture, I can get a decent meal by watching what food stands the locals are lining up at, because they know best what's good and reasonably priced. B: I've learned that home-cooked meals are always better than restaurant food. And C: it seems that no matter where you are the food you buy after the bars close is inevitably disgusting in the harsh, sober light of day.

I submit as an example of principle C, the episode that went to Sweden. Now, reflect on the Swedish national character for a moment. Tall, athletic blondes who all do cross-country skiing. If they eat at all, it probably involves a tiny fish fillet and a handful of lingonberries. But when Bourdain and his Swedish friends rolled out of the bar onto the snowy streets at 3 am, looking for something with a lot of grease, they get the junkiest of Scandinavian junk food.

Let me describe this snack. First, take a pancake and cover it with a couple scoops of mashed potatoes. Add a fried sausage, and then generous amounts of onions, relish, mustard, and other things that are bad for you to taste. Roll the whole thing into a cone and eat it with one hand.

Seriously. This is what Swedes eat between drinking and passing out.

This episode came back to me this past week when I saw an advertisement for the latest offering at KFC (formerly known as "Kentucky Fried Chicken" until it was determined that "Fried" suggested an unhealthy menu. Oh yeah, that name change made all the difference…): the "mashed potato bowl." This consists of a bowl with a layer of mashed potatoes, then a layer of buttered corn, then a layer of fried chicken bits, topped with gravy and "a three cheese blend." Yeah, that's right. Fried chicken bits with gravy just doesn't have quite enough grease. We're gonna add three kinds of cheese, just so you don't get bored.

So what does this tell me about the American character? It tells me that a large national food chain has created and is selling a dish that you can only get Swedes to eat while totally hammered, and then only in the dead of night. And believe me, they wouldn't sell it if they didn't know we'd be lining up to buy it.

So yeah, talk about you low-whatever diet to your friends. The Colonel knows what you're really eating. Or be like me; eat it or don't, but talk about something else, okay?

I'll meet you by the almond ding.

May 2006 -

Going-Out-of-Business sales are very strange. Statistically, most new businesses fail, but if a shop is actually organizing a sale to advertise the fact, and to sell off its merchandise as completely as possible, then chances are that is a business that has been around a while, that has probably spent most of its existence being very successful. It's a business that we're at least familiar with, and may have spent a lot of time in.

At one time, Sam Goody (and its sister video retailer, Suncoast) was the place to buy records. Music ads on the TV or radio ended their pitches with "available at all Sam Goody stores." Kids hung out there on Saturday afternoons, leafing through the discs. By the time you read this, there probably won't be a Sam Goody anymore.

Undoubtedly, it was the twin pressures of Wal-Mart (lower prices) and Amazon (more selection) that finally pushed it under, as they have done to most smaller shops. Don't get me wrong, I'm not feeling sentimental. Sam Goody was as much a corporate giant as either of those, plus their clerks were notorious for being pretentious jerks. But it is the end of an era, and another spasm in the long death-throes of American mall culture. The cool kids are hanging out on myspace, now.

I wasn't even aware of the sale, myself, not having been to the mall since before Christmas, but a friend tipped me off, saying they'd brought in merchandise from other stores, including a lot of anime soundtracks. (For those of you who don't know, these generally run about 30 bucks, although they are very heavily bootlegged.) Prices were now 80-90% off. I told another friend and we headed over.

The store was a shell of its former self. The lights were turned up bright, and the wall displays were gone. The selection had been gone over pretty well, and the videos were stacked haphazardly in the shelves. About half the CD racks had been removed, but they were still bringing in remaining stock from the warehouses, so those that remained were jammed tight. Some were on the floor in boxes. There was a rudimentary attempt to separate them by genre, but other than that, they were just squeezed in. My friend started to go through the anime soundtracks methodically, but I have no patience for that, so I wandered the rest of the store.

I found it interesting to see what was left. Cheapy exploitation videos, with titles like "Terror Twins," or deservedly-forgotten movies like "Slaves of New York" and "The Truth About Cats and Dogs." Videos put out by the specialty cable channels, with appeal so narrow as to be practically non-existent, like "Vegetarian French Cooking" or "Tying the Knot: Wedding on Long Island." Episodes 19-22 of some obscure TV series. Several copies of "Matrix: Reloaded," which I guess wasn't quite the DVD hit the first one was (sorry, Keanu.) On the wall rack were still the novelty guitar straps, a few "Spawn" action figures, and plushies from an anime I never heard of. Signs invited anyone interested in purchasing the store fixtures to talk to the floor manager.

I did grab a few things: a Dolly Parton CD for a relative whose birthday is coming up. Great Big Sea's latest release, which is probably a bit too obscure for the mall crowd. Sheet music of the Carter Family's greatest hits for another relative, because the introduction was written by Johnny Cash, who she loves, and it was only one dollar. A horror movie theme collection for Kuzibah, what she calls "funhouse music," again because it was only a dollar, plus it came in a coffin-shaped case. A CD to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina, just because it seemed a little pathetic for that to be marked down to 70 cents and still have no takers.

My friend had more luck. He noted that the section had already been gone over by people who knew what they were doing. He also said it was clear that the reps who sold the store their anime knew what they were doing, but the ones who ordered it probably didn't. He had seven discs, including two by Yoko Kanno, a composer we both love. He'd also found a DVD of "Mermaid Forest" which we suspected had been hidden under something else before we found it. We got in the line, which was fairly long, paid, and left.

It occurs to me now, a few days later, that I'll probably never do that again, go into a record/video store and browse. I do my browsing on-line these days, or grab a video at Wal-Mart and throw it into the basket with some Cap'n Crunch and a pack of underwear. Is my life significantly diminished because of this? I wouldn't go that far, but it is a change, and there isn't any going back.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I heard about this new song I have to download…

April 2006 -

Sparks Film School, lesson one

(Warning: Spoilers for the Harry Potter movies ahead.)

The most recent Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was recently released on home video. Most of the fans seem to agree that this is the best of the batch so far (not me, though. I still prefer the time-travel shifts in Prisoner of Azkaban.) Even kids who aren't what you'd call sophisticated movie-goers are of the opinion that the third and fourth movies are better than the first and second. Rewatching Goblet of Fire reminded me why.

The truth is that the director of the first two movies, Chris Columbus, is, in short, a hack. Not to say that he is an awful director, he's competent enough, and the first two Harry Potter movies are certainly watchable, but I think this is due more to the universal appeal of the story and the skills of the actors than to any of Columbus's talents. Watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. The camera shots are, for the most part, static. If someone speaks, the camera has them framed in the center of the picture. Not bad, necessarily, but not particularly interesting either.

Compare this to the scene in Prisoner of Azkaban (directed by Alfonso Cuarón) where Professor Snape enters the classroom and waves his wand to slam the windows closed. The camera follows his movement, making a dramatic and dynamic moment that reveals much about Snape and his mood. And Mike Newell, director of Goblet of Fire, takes the interesting direction of frequently showing characters reacting to the action rather than the action itself.

Take for example, the scene in which Professor McGonigal teaches Ron to dance for the holiday ball. Newell trusts his audience to understand that Ron is embarrassed and clumsy, so he instead shifts the focus to Harry and Ron's twin brothers, who are having a good laugh at Ron's expense. These reaction shots are throughout the film, and tell us just as much about what is happening as a focus on the action.

But back to Chris Columbus. I have to admit, I have a soft spot for his directorial debut, Adventures on Babysitting, although I think that also owes a lot to the script and actors, but I think his turning point was Home Alone. Against all expectations, this movie was a huge hit. If you're under 30, you've probably seen it. If you're over 20, you probably would rather watch almost anything else, but something about that movie made money, made it a hit. And I think that affected Columbus. I think it affects a lot of directors, and not for the better. Because the entertainment industry lives by the idea that if something works, something sells, they will produce a lot more of it. And Columbus, early in his career, got away from making good movies and into making hits.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, because it had a pre-made audience, was already destined to be a hit, but the book's author, J.K. Rowling, battled constantly with the producers, who kept wanting to make changes to maximize their profit. They wanted to re-set the story in the U.S. and cast American actors. Rowling refused. Steven Spielberg wanted to direct, but only if he could cast Haley Joel Osment (an American) as Harry. Rowling again refused and Spielberg pulled out. Pre-production dragged on. When Columbus took the helm, it must have come as a relief to the producers that he wasn't going to take any chances.

Luckily for us, after the first two films were enormous international hits, the producers loosened up sufficiently to bring in unusual choices for the follow-ups. Cuarón was tapped because of his work with children in A Little Princess (1995), although he was better known at the time for the sexually-charged coming of age film, Y tu mamá también. And Mike Newell was best known for the romantic-comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. I suspect he was hired because of his reputation of being a distinctly British director, although he did do good work with the American mob story Donnie Brasco.

So, what does the future hold for everyone's favorite boy wizard? David Yates, a relatively unknown director, has been signed on for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, scheduled for release in 2007. Is this a sign that the producers want someone they have more control over, or are they looking for a more distinctive voice? For now, only time will tell.


Like Harry Potter movies? Try renting these: A Little Princess (1995, directed by Alfonso Cuarón); Y tu mamá también (2001, also directed by Alfonso Cuarón, but only for our readers over 17); Into the West, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral (all directed by Mike Newell); David Copperfield (1999 made-for-TV version, starring Daniel Radcliffe.)

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(c) The Patient Creatures (East) - 2006