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Friday, August 1, 2008

Silence of the Olden

I remember back when Wife and I were younger, how terrible we thought it was when we saw older couples sitting wordlessly in a restaurant. "I can't believe he's reading a newspaper," I would say. "We'll never be like that when we're older," Wife would affirm.

We said these things because we were stupid. I came home from Atlanta last night, and to celebrate we all went to Red Robin. Wife and I are eternal optimists, it seems, because no matter how hectic the last dining experience proved to be, we manage to tell ourselves that this time it will be pleasant.

Do you want to know why older couples go to restaurants and sit without talking? Because they've had twenty-odd years of this:

"Dad, I want to invent a hamburger!"

"Good. Isaac, get off the table."

"Dad, can I sit in your lap?"

"No. Eat your food."

"Isaac, get out from under the table."

"Why is this baby squawking? Did you bring something he'll eat?"

[Insert deadly glare from Wife here.]

"Dad, I'm going to tell them to put the burger on a Kroger bun. It will be a Kroger burger."

"That won't work."

"Yes it will."

"Kroger is just a grocery store. We buy Kroger buns from the grocery store. There's nothing special about Kroger buns."

"Isaac, stop kicking the table."

"No Dad, Kroger is a special food company."

"Fine. Do what you want."

"Isaac, get off your brother."

"Dad, can I put my head in your lap?"

"No. Honey, the baby is still squawking."

"Do you really think I can't hear it?"


"Isaac, sit up."

"Maybe I'll invent a macaroni and cheese burger."

"Dad, will you rub my back?"

Sigh. "Yes. I can just eat with the one hand."

Only to really get the feel, you should make all those sentences collide, and layer that cacophony with the noise of a baby who wants to be held by his father because he senses an opportunity to get food all over his father's shirt, lay hold of his father's silverware and toss it to the floor, and otherwise give his father indigestion.

Eventually Baby Isaiah discovered a table of pretty girls nearby, and commenced to flirting. He grinned and made baby noises, and when they looked over he dropped his chin to his chest and practically batted his eyelashes at them. Soon they were all waving and cooing at him. So he tried to crawl away from us to sit with the pretty ladies. His mother had to drag him back to our table. He is going to be trouble, this boy.

Then Isaac and Caleb got in on the act. They are going to be trouble as well. Eli stayed close to me, but with those eyelashes and freckles that boy isn't going to have to work at it. He is going to be the most trouble of all, mark my words.

(Note to self: keep them on the farm once they hit puberty, at least until each of them knows a profitable trade. They're going to need to be able to support my grandchildren.)

The point is, Wife and I understand now why older couples are quiet in restaurants. It's because they are all talked out. Just watch them. They don't even speak to the waitress; they just point to what they want on the menu. I imagine once the last boy is out of the house we may go for a good solid year without saying a word. And it will be blissful. Then we'll spend the rest of our days wondering why they don't come visit more often.

But that's okay, because we'll visit them. Mostly because we love them. But also to watch them eat with their own children. Heh heh heh.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

I'll have you know that my expert webslinger is currently working on major top-secret, behind-the-scenes changes to SitG. Soon we'll be on a new system, with comments that work properly, RSS feeds that actually feed, and all sorts of Interweb-type thingies designed to make SitG even more viral. In the good way. Not like when somebody sneezes on you. So stay tuned.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Headline from yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the top front-page story in their print edition):

Voucher Group Targets State

The secondary headline explains that Georgia may be "the next battleground in fight over using public money for private schools."

And yet I promise you, the people who concocted these headlines are convinced that they are neutral observers practicing "public-interest journalism." At least when you read Coulter or Krugman you know they aren't insulting you by pretending they haven't axes to grind.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I'm proud to report that I am the number one Internet resource, according to Google, for people searching for more information on naughty parts in the Canterbury Tales.

I'm not sure what to say. I want to thank all the little people who had a hand in this. And for all you seventh-graders clicking through to my site, I'm sorry you won't find what you're looking for.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Virtual Soldier Boys

Yesterday's WSJ tells how the U.S. Army is using video games to sell military service to kids. You might have noticed these at your local state fair or other amusement venues; children are invited to pick up a gun and shoot at targets on a screen.

The last time we were near one of these machines my sons pestered me to let them use it. I told them No. It's not because I want to discourage them from military service, or from owning guns. Heck, their mother and I are well-armed ourselves. What I don't like is that these games simulate killing without its full effect. The splatter of blood. The smell of someone who has just died. The obscene sprawl of a body that has had life taken from it.

A father interviewed for the WSJ piece explains that he let his 13 year-old use the Army device because "he wanted his son to gain an appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the Army."

But it's precisely the opposite that results. You don't appreciate anything, after toying with one of these games, other than the false sense of power that comes from being invulnerable while luxuriating in the killing of artificial strangers who have no mothers to miss them. It is designed to produce a thrill without the concomitant fear and remorse. I think we've done enough to desensitize our children without doing it deliberately, in the name of patriotism, no less.

So my boys can have their toy guns, which they use on imaginary bad guys and animals. When the time comes I will teach them how to handle real weapons. I'll let them run their fingers over the jagged hole a shell leaves in a can filled with sand. I'll help them understand what that same shell does when it rips through human flesh.

I hope they never have to kill anyone, but I won't leave them unprepared to do so. At the same time, I hope I'll leave them aware of what it costs, the taking of another person's life. Because it isn't just a game, not for the person who pulls the trigger, and certainly not for the person who breathes his last as a result.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Let Them Eat Cake

I'm hard-pressed to think of a time when otherwise decent, sensible people have argued for something as wicked as what is advocated by The Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins today. Jenkins joins forces with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, among other voices calling for the demolition of housing in order to mitigate falling home prices.

Both men try to dress this up as a safety measure (the elimination of substandard housing) but their words betray the fact that they also see it as a way to reduce the housing supply. Reduced supply, of course, would serve the immediate interests of many homeowners and banks.

It will be a shameful day when this country destroys homes, in the face of homelessness, in order to prop up the bank accounts of the relatively well off. Not surprising, I'm afraid, but shameful nonetheless.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Monday, July 28, 2008

Redbox Review: Half-Cocked

I don't know what film-school genius is teaching his students to use handheld cameras in lieu of stationary shots, but once the dizziness fades I'm going to track him down and beat him to death with his seldom-used tripod. The litany of errors that ultimately makes Hancock a disappointment includes the apparent employment of someone's drunken cousin as cameraman, but this proves to be a relatively small sin. I suppose this fact doesn't mitigate in the movie's favor.

Perhaps the reason I am so hostile to this film is that, once I popped an extra Claritin and vomited into my popcorn container, I was able to see past the shaky-Jake filming to enjoy the characters. This wanted to be a modern all-American story. For the first hour, in fact, it was exactly that. Here we have the likeable Will Smith playing a sullen, misunderstood, reluctant superhero. Antics ensue. He crosses paths with a likeable, sweet-faced Jason Bateman, in the role of an idealistic P.R. specialist. (This is fiction, remember. One suspends disbelief upon entering the theater. More on that in a moment.)

Bateman has a lovely wife, played by Charlize Theron, and an adorable son. You know where this is going. Our reluctant superhero, with help from his kind-hearted sidekick, is going to overcome his demons, discover the Inner Hero that we all want to believe is inside us, and save the day. Some Lex Luthor figure will emerge to challenge our hero, perhaps possessing knowledge of his secret weakness. We know that our hero will triumph nonetheless, no doubt with some unlikely, fully expected bravery from his loveable sidekick.

This is the story we expect when we plunk down our money and willfully suspend disbelief in people who can fly. Yes, it is as old as apple pie, but you know what? People like apple pie. This isn't to say that you can't experiment with some rhubarb pie, perhaps even a chocolate-lemon mousse cake. But don't serve your customer a warm slice of apple pie with vanilla ice cream on the side, and then yank it away from him in mid-bite and replace it with some kind of funky low-carb mango-coconut bubble tea.

This is what the writers of Hancock have done. To be clear, I have no problem with twists in a movie. Norman Bates keeps his mommy in the basement. Darth is Luke's father. Soylent Green is made from people. The Crying Game changed the calculus of dating forever. And since we've invoked Christopher Reeve's greatest work, who can forget his surprising, albeit creepily enthusiastic, kiss with Michael Caine in Deathtrap?

The problem with Hancock's writers is not that they introduce a game-changing shift halfway through the movie. The problem is that they forget a fundamental rule of fiction, which is that while we viewers are willing to suspend our disbelief, most of us in possession of it are not able to suspend our common sense. Thus when a circumstance emerges to eliminate Hancock's superpowers we accept it, until we see that a moment later his powers have inexplicable returned. Suspension of disbelief can't help one make sense of this movie's ending, one needs a suspension of observational powers as well. Perhaps that's the reason for all the camera-yanking. Bullets can suddenly penetrate our hero's skin, and lay him on a deathbed, except when he needs to get up and be a superhero again. Only he is a weak superhero, so he is vulnerable to bullets. Yet he still has superstrength. But not really. Except for when he does.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we invest our imagination in characters only to watch the active become passive, the loyal and loving become alien, and the idiotic suddenly acquire brains without visiting the Wizard. We need compelling reasons to abandon the work we have put into forming attachments to these characters, which Hancock's writers don't provide. This is a Hollywood movie, they must have been thinking. Jerk that camera around some more and our woozy audience will take whatever we dish out. Let's just remember to blow up a lot of stuff at the end.

The net result is that as we approach the final scene, Jason Bateman and his son have become emotionally non-existent, Will Smith has regressed in humanity, and Charlize Theron has gone from beautiful to just plain irritating. It takes a lot of explosions to make up for that sort of destruction. Pile on top of it the nonsensical fluctuation in Hancock's superpowers, and you've got yourself rice pudding when you thought you were paying for apple pie. And that's plain un-American.

I know it's not available at the McDonald's Redbox yet, but I'm going to give Hancock a nugget rating nonetheless, because I think it will serve better as rental entertainment, plus you are less likely to get brain damage watching the herky-jerky camera movement on a little screen. I'm giving this film three nuggets, all of which should be eaten in the first half.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments