Archive for May, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2: I fell asleep

You’d think it’d be hard to do in an action movie loaded with fireworks, sword-clanging battles, and kung-pow fighting(we opted out of 3D). It all blended into a sweet somnambulant soundtrack.

Like most sequels, the story goes backward to move forward, the typical origin sequel, as if the writers found themselves asking, well, how did we get here.

This is not their beautiful house. Po the Panda questions why his father is a goose. He is fitter and fumbling, though not so funny. He protects the village from a voracious invader intent on looting all the villagers’ metals. In the most interesting part of the  movie, both visually and historically, the art of kung fu is threatened by the stuff of fireworks: gunpowder. It just so happens that Chen the peacock, who wants to dominate all of China with his gunpowder, has something to do with Po’s orphanism.

Let’s subtitle all sequels “the identity crisis”. Even in the best case, Toy Story’s Woody discovers he was the star of a TV show with TV buddies and must choose fame or friends. In sequels, the original characters are now familiar, so the humor and pathos that comes with character development are exchanged for higher stakes e.g. a villain more villainous, the battles more epic, the action more explosive. Giving the main character a fully realized backstory is supposed to be more humanizing, and make the current mission that much more dramatic, but it lacks the charm and newness of the original. That’s why PIXAR is the gold standard of animated kids movies–each story is original(see exception below).*

The problem with sequels extends beyond kids’ movies though it’s much more commonplace in kids flix–even crap movies are replicated (Alvin and the Chipmunks, Open Season, I’m sure Yogi Bear will join the exhaustive crap heap) because kids recognize the brand and parents don’t mind two hours of meditative mindlessness.

Did the kids like KFPoo2? My daughter(3) wanted out midway through—she’s the one that woke me—and my son(5), who becomes a stone before any buzzing screen, was restless. Afterwards, when asked what they liked, they responded “the fireworks and the big fat chubby bear.”

Despite my complaints, we’re excited for Cars 2*.

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Unemployed single parent

The other day my three-year-old girl exploded out of the house, saying “Beautiful Daaaay!” while sprinting to her bike. She was greeting the day. I wasn’t. My summer class was cancelled, two freelance contracts dried up, I had a birthday, Wife was going home for a week to help with a family illness, my son finished preschool, and I was mired in the insecurity of being an adjunct and a freelancer. Instead of being infected by her exuberance I was jealous. It sucked. I sucked.

Wife left at 4:30 this morning, kids are getting over hacking-cough colds, and I’m deviating from the weekly Sunday column because for the first time I am a fully unemployed single parent. An experiment worth noting.

Why share it? I don’t know. There may be ugly motivations that could be pegged as attention-seeking behavior, or the validation that comes from people responding to what you’re doing, or the inflated self-importance of mining the minutiae for some thread of connection, however one-sided. That’s not the essence of the impulse, I hope. And it’s not for posterity for Wife and Kids: we keep books for them (the weekly entries have thinned to monthlies) and she’ll be too busy to be checking a computer. Maybe it’s an attempt to put a block on the bulldozer of time, to slow it down to enjoy it now instead of in hindsight.

Photo credit: Marialynn Duffer

I’m using the screen of language to keep people from looking in but maybe that’s what the impulse is all about, to have a conversation. In that hour reprieve between their bedtime and mine, to share the bits that make the bigger picture a whole lot clearer. In an essay on perspective, my teenage nephew got over the grudge against his mother’s chicken pot pie by looking at it fresh, trying it as if for the first time, without all his predisposed baggage. That’s why I’m writing this, for perspective, to make peace with my ugly pot pie. To curb the anxiety over money, career impotence, middle age, and other pot-pie-ish preoccupations that keep me from rushing headlong into the day.

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Roller derby dodge ball

When you think of fishnet stockings and tight tank tops you might not picture them with roller skates.

League-leading The Fury vs. Manic Attackers (photo Hello Chicago)

But roller skates moreso than sex appeal are what the latest incarnation of women’s competitive roller derby is all about.

I took my wife to the Windy City Rollers May bout for her birthday. She’s a former Division III athlete and current marathoner whose eye had the twinkle of competitive fire—lit with wine—watching last night’s bout.

There are two bouts each night at the UIC Pavillion and each bout has two thirty-minute halves split by entertainment. Two teams field five players in two-minute jams, including their fastest, deftest skater, called a jammer. The jammer for each team is the one who scores the points and must eclipse the pack of blockers and booty-bumpers to essentially skate circles around the other team. A point is awarded for each opponent that is lapped. Everyone else either protects their jammer or tries to block opposing jammers. There’s strategy and penalty boxes and a leisure-suited emcee, but that’s the gist of it.

Manic Attacker fans

We were both disappointed that there wasn’t more ass-kicking. It is not the glorified sexed-up spectacle of the Derby’s 60s and 70s heydey, when it was sister—or at least cousin—to the WWF. What remains from that era are the outfits and the player names, with puns such as Terriyaki and Mis DaMeaner, or crowd-favorite chants like BorkBorkBork.

While we both respected the speed and agility of the jammers, there was something missing from the object of the game, the going around in circles not enough to sustain interest for very long. Then again, I think baseball should be capped at two hours. And I don’t roller skate. I proposed adding a dodge ball to the roller derby mix. What if there were one dodge ball that could be hurled at jammers’ skates to knock them on their ass when they weren’t in the pack. Then there’d be a scrum to get the ball, which would be kept in play with the help of the crowd or the six referees. My wife dismissed my idea as my general preoccupation with balls.

Like many sports, the fans are the ones creating the spectacle. And the fans pictured here, supporting the Manic Attackers, are clearly devoted to the grass-roots league.

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Lawn jobs

I’m self-conscious of dandelions. As a lawn owner, I think I’m supposed to be embarrassed by the presence of these brightly blighters.

Not so brightly blighters

I have yet to mow the lawn this season and I’m in no rush. We had it aerated and seeded to make the patchy spots grow but the three-story-high red maples that dwarf the house create so much shade as to keep grass out. In the back, the grass is patchy because it’s our small park to play baseball, tag and shoot water guns. Overall it’s a soft green space to play on when there’s no time for the park.

What is the obsession with the perfectly manicured lawn? A nice lawn gives homes what realtors call “curbside appeal”. It makes a property more appealing but why?

One look down the block of my neighborhood and you can tell which neighbors are eclipsing the upper reaches of the middle class by the presence of their lawn care specialists. One in five houses if not more.

It’s a big industry. A Harris Survey in 2002 put the number at $28.9 billion, or $1200/yr per household. There are 32 million acres of lawns nationally, making it the largest irrigated crop, according to this NASA-study on Wikipedia. The shift from an agrarian society to a suburban one is complete, perhaps.

It’s good for the economy and going back to the earlier part about curbsides, I suppose it’s good for the hood. I don’t see many tweens walking around with their lawnmowers. That was my first job, as it was for many boys, much like babysitting for girls, and at its best it instilled the initiative necessary for the entrepreneurial spirit, and the hustle to make a buck. Certainly the customer is getting a better job with the professional teams sweeping in and out with their machines, cropping like Photoshop, in under an hour. Sweating over a neighbor’s lawn instilled some respect, though, and averted the penchant for deviant teen acts such as lawn jobs. Now it creates jobs.

What happened to the wild ideal I envisioned as a young man, a home that sprouted out of its natural environment, for what is a weed but a matter of perception? The lawn growing into the forest would’ve suited that ideal if I lived next to a forest. Is the allure of the well-manicured lawn a triumph of man over nature, control of one’s environment, or an aesthetic representation on the outside what the home looks like on the inside?

I suppose I want our house to look good as a point of pride. To feel, on our little postage stamp on the world, some harmony between intent and control. I don’t mind the mowing, though I do mind the obligation, the tacit conformity of it. But the alternative—letting it go—might end up being more work.

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Mom

Marianne Marguerite Gianninni

1943-1997

Who taught me to appreciate mothers everywhere

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An argument for golf

A handful of snowmen, three water balls, a couple four-putts, a new slice, and a whole lotta flubs rang in the opening of golf season. And it was beautiful. For those of you who don’t know a “duffer” is a bad golfer. In Olde English, it means a stupid foolish person. All of the above applied today.

It doesn’t matter. That is the beauty of the permanent tee time I’ve had with my brother, dad and step mom on Sunday mornings for over ten years: even when you suck it’s time well spent with the family.

We tee off at 6am at our local course, a small and narrow par 68 with water on 15 out of 18 holes that was once a military base with missile solos. It’s the same place my brother and I worked when we were teens, a job I held seasonally for nearly ten years, perhaps because my first job, which lasted a month, was as a bag boy at Jewel. Being a cart boy was so much better.

I didn’t golf then, thought it was stupid and boring, to putz around trying to get a small ball in a small hole in quarter-mile increments. And you’re out there for so long. But what doesn’t appeal to a teenager’s sense of excitement can for the same reason appeal to an adult’s sense of contentment. You play against yourself, each shot is a different opportunity and, for the pensive, golf is a versatile metaphor maker.

We tee off early and play quick so we’re done in four hours, but that’s four hours of good company. Every week we catch up on events, make plans, give each other crap and share anecdotes that we might not in more congested family events. Or not; there’s few other family gatherings where you can be together and not feel like you have to talk to each other for an hour at a time.

It’s a game of skill and mental focus more than one of athletic prowess, and it is therefore one of the few games that can be played by multiple generations. Some weekends it’s three generations in a foursome, my dad, my brother and his eldest son. What other events—without a boat—offer such quality time equally enjoyed across three generations?

Golf is the game of choice for company outings, sales meetings, bachelor parties, and annual gatherings because anyone can play regardless of coordination or fitness, and you can network and schmooze or drink beer and gamble while you’re doing it, if so inclined.

It’s not as expensive as it seems, either. It costs us $30 a round but the typical round of golf is five hours, so that’s $6 an hour plus about a buck a ball.

So even if you hack it up with say, a score of 100—which one should never admit—it’s time well spent.

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