The Hess Report


Thursday, April 29, 2004

Nothing big or crucially important in the Hess House tonight, except that I just finished reading Stephen Den Beste's latest essay. It baffles me how great writers like Den Beste, James Lileks, and "Wretchard" at Belmont Club are giving it away for free, while the hacks who write copy for the news feeds and the bigger, supposedly more reputable news and analysis sources are getting paid to basically crap into their keyboards.

Read Lileks' Bleat when he's on fire, like when he was lambasting Salaam Pax, the Iraqi writing superstar who, once he got his sorry ass out of Baghdad, went on to whine about the very people who made it possible for him to extract said ass and safely write in the first place. Why does this man not have a column in national syndication, or at least in a major daily, when there are so many horrible hacky hacks cranking out word-poo week in and week out?

Read Belmont Club's analysis and interesting speculation about the current situation in Falujah. Start with The Ceasefire Begins, then scroll up to read Thrust and Parry, and again to read Nightfall. The anonymous writer may be correct, or he may be badly mistaken. But isn't this the kind of thing you would think intelligent investigative journalists would be doing? Piecing things together and trying to figure out what is happening, even though it is obscured from our direct view? Does this not make any analysis in Newsweek, Time, CNN, FoxNews, etc. look like the pathetic lip service to serious thought that it is?

And read anything by Stephen Den Beste, except for his anime reviews. I sometimes wonder if Rumsfeld gets his talking points from Den Beste. A lot of what he writes is obvious stuff, but he seems to have a knack for deconstructing (at length) a lot of the concepts and situations that most other writers take for granted, and by doing so, comes across as amazingly persuasive. Whenever he gets to talking about European decline, it gets particularly good. In fact, it was this essay of his that prompted me to write this.

Okay - maybe I do understand it. They're doing this because they love it, and because they are good it. The guys and gals in the press - they're just there to get that next promotion - to move into that next market - to sell 5,000 more copies of their upcoming book. And that's fine. A system in which everyone's looking for a break means that things cannot be easily covered up. Every single one of them, from cub reporter to seasoned vet dreams at night about breaking that next, incredible unbelievable story that will set their star ablaze. In fact, it's what I tell people when they start talking about conspiracies and secret nefarious government plans. So, like, what do the guys in the black helicopters do about all those freshman journalists who would just loooove to get themselves a Pulitzer by outing the scheme of the day? They usually don't have too much of an answer to that.

If the newspapers had this kind of writing, I'd read them. But they don't, so I won't.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Spontaneous Organization

I've noticed that in smaller audience groups (say 200 or fewer), applause can spontaneously organize into a discernible pattern. As I've been attending Joy's group's concerts over the last season, and they mostly perform in small venues, I've heard a lot of it. When the applause starts to phase together, it bothers me.

I'm concerned that the audible organization will remind the performers of the small size of the audience. It also puts more dead space in the sound, making the applause sound thinner.

I mentioned it to my MathCrazy!Dad at the Camerata's very cool concert in the Carnegie Museum of Art's Hall of Architecture, and we both agreed that we would henceforth attempt to counter the emerging patterns with deliberately off-beat and strangely percussive clapping. The trick is to make it random enough that it fills the dead space without drawing undue attention to yourself as a rogue clapper.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Canada Revisited

I've had enough comments about my essay on our Canadian vacation last year that I felt obliged to post a follow up. If you've not been reading that long, or you just want to refresh your memory, you can find the original post here.

One Canadian citizen commented via the proxy of one of my friends. Didn't even have the balls to respond for himself (or maybe he just didn't care enough). It went along the lines of "ignorant Americans" and blah blah blah and change my diaper and tell it to John F. Kerry, because I think he actually cares.

Another comment was from Memory!Joy who, when the subject of Canada and vacations came up, stated that "Oh my gosh. You ripped it apart in your blog. You hated it." To that, I can only say, "Did not," and a reread confirms it. While I did have some problems with the trip, there was a disclaimer at the end, and plenty of positive stuff throughout. I will admit, though, that before rereading it, I did kind of have that same impression. So, here's an unqualified statement. Canada can be a nice place to take a vacation. It has some beautiful, incredible country. The people in the tourist areas we visited were uniformly friendly and helpful to a fault. Things were cheap there. Let it not be said that I think it's a bad place to go.

Would I want to live there? No way. I much prefer our system of government. I prefer the warmer climate. But others do not, and I know that millions of people, both native-born and transplants, wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

And finally, what prompted me to write this, was a comment from someone who speaks at least twice as many languages as I do. In my original post, I took a jab at the French for naming the penninsula in Erie "Presque Isle", as it is almost, but not quite, an island. Stupid French people, I said. It turns out that Presque Isle literally means "almost an island." So it seems that at least two people who speak French, both the person who good-naturedly pointed this out to me and the person who named Presque Isle, have a sense of humor. So, duh for me for not speaking French.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

That Robot Sure Can Dance

Last night, I took Lucy to her first birthday party. She'd been to Maddie's parties in previous years, and to little birthday gatherings at the homes of playdate friends. One of the girls in her Sunday school class was having a birthday party and wanted to invite Lucy. And this was a real kids' party, evidenced by the location: Chuck E Cheez.

I know that CEC has a horrible reputation among parents today, and I can see why. It's over the top in a way that certain poor, stricken adults think that kids like. Too loud. Too many flashing lights. Cloying covers of recent pop "classics". Lucy didn't care too much about all of that, though. From the second we set foot in the place, she was mesmerized by the animatronic Chuck whose mouth moved roughly in time to the lyrics of the songs.

"That is so cool!" she said. "Can we go look at him?"

We went up to the stage.

"Chuck E. (though I'm sure that if she could spell, it would be Chucky to her) is sooo cool!"

Not wanting her to be completely taken in by their crappy razzle-dazzle, I asked: "Do you think he's alive?"

Lucy gave me a dismissive glance. "No, Dad. He's a robot."

And indeed he was. So, we did the CEC thing for the next hour and a half: played lame games like "shoot the balls in the frogs mouth," rode a carousel that turned for almost thirty seconds per token, ate pizza, etc. Well, I won't say that we did those things. Lucy did. I stood by and watched.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the incident several years ago in the national news in which a kindergarten boy was suspended from school because his halloween fireman's costume plastic axe violated the school districts no-tolerance weapons policy? He was there, as he is the birthday girls' older brother, and his parents were the generous party-throwers. They're a nice family, and he's a nice kid who was more than happy to give me enthusiastic advice on how to get the most tickets out of the CEC games for our cup of tokens.

Annnnnnnyyywaaaay... at cake time, they closed the stage curtains and brought out someone dressed in the Chuck E. costume. The Chuck E. theme song came blaring along, and Chuck E.'s assistant encourage all the kids to get up and dance with Chuck! Yeah! None of the kids did. The birthday girl was, I believe, a bit overwhelmed by Chuck E. charismatic presence. I gave Lucy a "Psssssst!" She looked around and saw me.

"You want to get up and dance with him?" I said.

Excited nod. She abandoned the rest of her pizza and run up beside Mr. Cheez. She was game and tried to do all the moves that Chuck E. was managing in his/her bulky costume. She danced the whole time. She was in to it. Very cute.

After that, it was candles and cake, then presents. We had to be home soon, so we picked up Lucy's treat bag, which was the Extra Big Treat Bag, generously provided by our birthday hosts, and headed to the car. Lucy wanted to say goodbye to Chuck E., first, so she made her way to the stage, and I watched her wave and talk from across the room. When she returned she smiled and said, "I think he's a little shy, because he didn't say goodbye to me, but that's okay." Both of us out to the van, then, where Lucy began to dig through the treat bag, jabbering non-stop about Chuck E.

With each item she pulled from the bag, she would exclaim "Dad! Chuck E. is soooo nice! Look! He gave me a pack of Sweet-Tarts!" or "Dad! I can't believe how nice of a mouse he is! He gave me a Chuck E. bobble head so I can remember him!" Later, she even commented that Chuck E.'s generosity, vis a vis the loot from the treat bag, had almost reached springtime religious proportions, and that he should take the place of the Easter Bunny and be called the Easter Mouse. I'd note that I'm paraphrasing, but you probably already knew that.

Once she was finished rooting through her treat bag, I asked her what her favorite part of the party was.

"All of it. But I really liked dancing with Chuck E."

"Yeah," I said. "It looked like fun."

"Dad, that robot Chuck E. sure can dance."

Those devious bastards. I thought I had inoculated her against the wondrous ills of the place when she acknowledged that the singing, jerky Chuck E. was a robot. In reality, I had only set myself up for something worse: Lucy now thinks not only that autonomous, realistically moving robots exist, but that of all the possible uses there could be for such a thing, Chuck E. Cheez has one, and she danced with it. I could have told her it was a guy in a suit, as I usually don't like my kids running around believing crazy crap like that. But I didn't. I must have a soft spot for robots, like some parents have a soft spot for Santa Clause. One of the more common phrases heard in my area at work is: "Are you talking about giant robots again?" Seriously. And if my kid wants to think that there are furry, baseball cap-wearing robots in the world who can dance like a mofo, who am I to ruin her fun?

The Animal Unleashed

Several months ago, Maddie impressed upon us the fact that wanted to play soccer. Neither Joy nor I had illustrious careers in sports, at any age, and hadn't seen anything in Maddie's behavior up to this point to make us think that she would perform differently. In fact, several of her less stellar qualities (a willingness to give up if things even look like the might get tough, low frustration threshold, timidity in the face of minor physical intimidations, etc.) Of course, sports might help with that. Then again, a bad sports experience now could kill the whole thing for her. But we told her she could play, and kept our skepticism to ourselves.

At her first practice, she was a squirrel, and spent more time giving us winks and thumbs up signs than paying attention on the field. Of course, a lot of the other kids seemed to be lost in space, too. But the kids all had fun.

For the next two weeks, both practices and games were rained out. And, as it rained pretty much continuously during that time, I could only get her outside to "practice" twice. Both times, kicking the ball around and running was just too much work. I did manage to help her with her strange, inefficient running form.

When running, she looks like the intro cartoons to the live-action 60's dreck Batman series: tight fists, teeth clenched and elbows flying wide to the sides. She has always thought she was fast, because running with such determination and expenditure of energy must certainly have felt fast. But in that first soccer practice, she was one of the slowest kids. So, I told her to keep her elbows in to her sides and to let her hands hang loose, then did a couple of demonstration runs for her. It seemed to work, though I couldn't be sure. She certainly looked better while running, but was it appreciably faster? Tough to tell when she's racing against only my memory of her speed on a short backyard course. We'd find out for sure at the next game.

Discouragingly, both practice sessions I had with her included tears. Once, because the ball hit her in the arm, and it stung. I informed her that she might get hit with the ball during a game, or fall in the mud, or be kicked or pushed rather vigorously, and that she should decide right now how she wanted to react on the field. That stopped the crying that time. She broke down during the other session because... well, I'm still not sure why. I was trying my best to have a no pressure atmosphere, but in sports that's really almost impossible. Oh well.

The night before her first game, after I tucked her into bed, I told her this (and I did it specifically the night before and not right before the game, as I wanted it to sink in while she slept): "You have your first game tomorrow. Remember all that stuff we worked on outside?"

"Yeah."

"All of that stuff is just to help you learn the game better. Don't even think about any of it when you're playing."

"Oh."

"There's only three things you need to do out there tomorrow: Pay attention to the ball. Pay attention to your coach. And have fun."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

The next day, we loaded up the van and the whole family trucked over to the soccer field. They have four games going on simultaneously, each on a quarter of a full field with their own little goals. The teams in her age group play 3 on 3, without a goalie.

Maddie was excited, and I asked her if she remember what she was supposed to do. She said:

"Have fun. Watch the ball. Listen to the coach."

Close enough. It sunk in.

I'm going to recap the game, but will summarize with this: I was blown away. She was right on the ball the whole time. Her running form was loose and a couple of times she actually poured on some speed to outrun the pack and steal the ball from the other team. Even in a big group, she jostled around, got to the ball, moved it when she could. Every time the coach yelled "I need someone over here!" she was the first one to respond.

And she loved it. They kept rotating the kids to keep them fresh. She was always ready to go back in for a double shift if some other kid didn't want to sub. She was bummed when she had to sit out. She knew when she had done well, and when something had gotten by her. She asked what she could do better and asked if we could work on more stuff this week. Absolutely.

While I was not completely surprised by her excellent performance, neither would I have been surprised by an utter disaster. In the end, I'm glad that the side of me that hoped that Maddie had a good, competitive spirit somewhere inside won out over the part of me that hadn't seen it yet, and didn't quite believe it was there. Now if I could just get over the loud-mouthed parents who, even with their kids at this young age, feel the need to shred their vocal folds yelling non-stop instructions to their little ones on the field.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Movies I've Seen Recently, and What I Thought About Them, Like You Care

So, do you really care what I think of some movies that I've seen in the last couple of months? Probably not. In fact, I'd say almost definitely not. So skip this, chalk it up to the diary function, and wait for me to write something funny next time.

The Return of the King: Great. If you know me at all, you probably could have guessed this one. Joy was bored her second time through it. I found myself wondering where the cuts were made and anticipating what the super-extended version will be like. Although it gets an insanely high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's not for everyone. Favorite part: the cavalry charge through the enemy lines. I've always read how cavalry was much feared in medials days, and how a hundred mounted men with spears could scatter a force ten times their size. Hard to picture. Not anymore. I think I could watch that scene all day and not get bored.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: Terrible. Who gave Robert Rodriguez the money to make this movie and why? Oh that's right - he buds with the other overrated hack Quentin Tarrentino. The shots and directing are amateurish, like something a twelve year old kid would come up with. The action scenes were horrible – no suspense, no sense of threat from the enemy, not nearly enough irony in the ineptitude of the stormtroopers and the incredibility of the hero. Maybe that played so many years ago in Desperado, but these days it's just lame. Johnny Depp with the fake arm, Mexican v. Mexican't, and Mikey Rourke hiding his chihuahua made me laugh, but that was it. Was this supposed to be a “wild ride” kind of movie? Crap.

Lost in Translation: WTF? Maybe if you've never suffered through an Ivy League round table workshop with young fiction writers this movie will seem like something new and interesting to you. That in mind, I've seen it something like forty different times. Thin drek, often referred to as a mood piece (i.e. no plot to speak of), showing nothing more than the author's current fascination with a particular chic item of the day, which in this case is fish-out-of-water Americans submerged in Japanese pop culture. Maybe it's because I hate Japan and Japanese pop culture, or maybe it's because I hate pretentious people who think their mildest musings pass for high art, but I hated this movie. Even if I think a movie sucks (See OUATIM, above) I'll watch the whole thing before I pass judgment. But Joy and I were heckling this movie by the halfway point. Just terrible.

School of Rock: Yeah, baby! This movie was interesting, because Jack Black's character, which seems to be pretty much just Jack Black, is really despicable, and the things he does and the reasons he does them are almost too painful to watch. Maybe it's because I'm a parent and have kids in school. A couple of times in the first 2/3, I actually considered not watching anymore. But the movie pays off, big time. I hate kids in movies. I wasn't even a big fan of the kid in About a Boy, which was good, and everyone else loved him. But these kids are just incredible. Especially the guitar-playing kid. If Jack's not your thing, this movie will drive you insane. But me, Joy and a bottle of Columbia Crest Merlot-Cab, it was great.

The Lion King 1 1/2: If you've watched the Lion King with your kids as many times as we have, this movie is absolutely hilarious. It really is. It's a Disney-produced direct to DVD second sequel, and that should condemn it to some dust bin in Hell. I don't know how many of the gags/references the little ones got, but there were plenty of fart jokes to keep them happy. At one point, Timone and Pumba start singing “Sunrise/Sunset” as Simba grows up. It's funny for them to throw it in there, but then, just when think it's going to end, a Disney chorus picks it up, with full orchestral backing, and you're wondering just how insane the writers of this movie are.

Peter Pan: I'm heavy on the kid's movies, aren't I? I took Maddie to see this, despite warnings that Hook was really a rat bastard and (on screen) shoots a couple of his lackeys. She loved it, and I thought it was great, too. P.J. Hogan wrote and directed this adaptation of the stage play, with much reference to the original book, and it shows. All the themes are there, and even earned it some criticism from certain sources about displaying verge-of-adolescence sexuality. Whatever to those losers, as they were probably born and raised in a monastery.

I found this movie actually affected me. Seeing a bunch of kids chanting “Old, Alone and Done For!” to diminish Hook's flying abilities until he basically commits suicide by giving up whilst hovering above the giant croc – it was scary. Obviously, Hook is the stand-in for the worst things about adulthood, and he bites it big-time, and even at 33, you can see that ending if things don't go right for you. The ending got me, too. I'm not familiar with the story. I didn't know if Pan was going to stay in the real world with the Darling family or head back to the now-deserted Neverland. I was rooting for him to stay. Later, Maddie told me she was glad he went back. It caught me off guard, and I found it effectively sad. Call it a tribute to the original text and the skill of the screenplay adaptation in translating the very pertinent themes about adulthood v. childhood. I'm not sure how this would have played for me without a kid in the room, so your mileage may vary.

That's it, and even though I haven't watched it in a while, Finding Nemo is a work of genius on just about every level. I don't think there's a second I would change in that movie, from the big things like the script, directing, casting, animation, and effects to the touches like the one-second flashback at the end that's so smooth and fast you don't even really notice it until after it's gone and you're wondering why silly animated fish have you feeling it as much as you are. It's absolute genius. As big of a fan as I am of ROTK, I would have to say that Finding Nemo should have taken best picture at the Academy Awards this year. Oh well. They'll both be watched for years to come, unlike Lost in Translation, which should really have been titled Crap instead.