Monday, March 19, 2018

Let’s Face It – We Cannot Survive Without Our Smartphones

I lost my smartphone the other day, and I almost lost my mind along with it. When I initially discovered that it was missing – from that sacred space in my back pants pocket where I keep it and a folded handkerchief – I went absolutely bonkers. I, who once could not understand a man whom I had overheard crying and complaining to a cashier in a department store about losing his phone, now completely understood the look of terror visible on his face and the fear that must have been in his heart.

I don’t know if that poor fellow ever found his phone, but I do remember the last words I heard him saying as I walked onto the elevator – “Please, you have to help me; my whole world is on that phone!” Those words inspired a little smirk to myself in the elevator mirror, but now I realized that my lack of empathy for that guy came from not having yet crossed over to the dark side of cellular phones.

Alas, that was then and this was hell. I had taken a walk in the park and sat and watched the geese in the pond. I then went into the drugstore to get a few things. My usual procedure in the car is to keep the phone in my pocket because I can answer it hands-free, and this is, of course, the safest way to drive. When I put the bags containing my purchases into the trunk, two iced tea bottles fell out of the bag onto the ground, with one rolling under my car. I got down on my knees in the parking lot, squeezed under the car, and managed to retrieve the bottle.

When I got home and was putting my purchases away, the landline in the living room began to ring. By the time I got to it the answering machine had picked up, and I realized that it was yet another robocall. I went back into the kitchen after this distraction to finish putting things away, and I reached for the phone in my back pocket to check my messages only to find it flat and empty – the phone was gone. I tried not to get excited at first, immediately looking around the kitchen and asking myself, “Did I put it down somewhere?”

After futilely checking the shopping bags, my other pants pockets, and my coat pockets, I thought about when I last used the phone – sitting in the park to take a picture of the geese. I surmised that my beloved communication device could be anywhere between there, the store, and my front door.

I took several deep breaths to try to calm myself, slipped on my coat, and went out the front door. I looked on the ground along the path to the driveway and saw nothing. Inside the car I checked the seat, under the seat, and on the floor and did not find the phone.

The drive to the store is approximately five minutes, and during this time I started thinking about everything stored in my phone. Indeed, just as that distraught fellow in the department store noted years before, my whole world was on that phone – all my contacts’ phone numbers, emails, and street addresses as well as all my text messages and favorite apps. Most of all there were the photos – probably in the thousands at this point – that I was always meaning to save to a flash drive and print but never got around to it.

Stopping at a red light I felt my hands sweating as I gripped the steering wheel and looked at myself in the rear view thinking, “Where’s the snarky little smirk now, dumbass?”

I parked my car outside the store in a spot that was next to the one where I had parked before, now occupied by an enormous flatbed truck. If my phone had been on the ground there it would have been a goner, but I still looked around and under the truck to no avail. I tracked my steps back inside the store, walked up and down the aisles, and found nothing. I went up to the busy cashier and asked if anyone had found a phone, and she shook her head and said, “Sorry!”

I went back outside, got into the car, and drove to the park. It was an overcast day with a little mist in the air, so the park was relatively empty. I traced my steps up and down the pathways and made my way to the bench where I had been sitting. I kept seeing the phone falling out of my pocket onto the pathway somewhere, but there were no signs of it anywhere.

I sat on the bench thoroughly exhausted – not from the searching but from the emotional upheaval I was experiencing. Oh, the lost photos on that phone were too much to bear – France, Italy, Niagara Falls, Rhode Island, two weddings, and worst of all my son’s first communion and my daughter’s sweet sixteen. All were gone now into some void, some vast gulf separating real life from the virtual one that we have all now have tacitly accepted, just like sheep herding into an electronic meadow of doom.

Sitting there on that bench I understood that we are all responsible for this situation. We bought into the need for these smartphones because everyone wanted to have one, and then social media came along to reinforce that life without their sites was empty and vacuous and lonely, and we accepted the notion that we didn’t have to just keep up with the Kardashians but every other household on the planet.

The magic little device in our fingers dazzled our eyes and rushed electronic moonbeams through our arms up into our souls. We had become quantified and qualified by the type of device we wielded, like warriors being known by a signature weapon. There were no downsides because it was all upsides – proving Marshall McLuhan right – the medium is the message, and in this world of ours now it is all about reaching everyone and knowing everything, like even our exact location on social media maps where there is no longer privacy and just an illusion of inter-connectivity. We are never alone and yet more lonely than ever, and how far we have come that we can be found but also forever lost?

I got up and started a slow walk back to the car. Nothing seemed to matter now. I would have to report my lost phone to all the necessary people, make the sad trip to the store to purchase a new one, and face the fact that everything on that phone was lost to me now.

When I walked into the house my kids were laughing, and I asked, “What’s so funny?”

My daughter handed my phone and handkerchief to me and said, “You left these in the refrigerator, Dad.”

I stared at that phone in her hand, wanting to be giddy as a school boy on the last day of the semester, but I feared I was more like a man lost in a desert, staring a mirage of an oasis. I blurted out, “My phone!” grabbing it from her and feeling the cold lingering on its surface from its refrigerator entombment.

Closing my eyes, I remembered what had happened – the dropped iced tea bottles had been dirty from falling on the ground. I had reached into my back pocket to remove my phone and the handkerchief that shares that space with it, intending to clean off the bottles before placing them in the fridge. When the landline rang, I must have put my phone down on the refrigerator shelf as I rushed to the living room, not realizing I had left the phone inside when I shut the door.

I went upstairs immediately and began the process of saving my photos to a flash drive. As I sat there and watched precious images flowing across the screen into safe keeping, I wanted to believe that I had turned a corner. I was no longer going to depend on this little device to be my keeper. It was too in control of my behavior – everything from communication, finance, and precious memories was housed on it.

After spending a few hours transferring all my photos, I took a break and went to the window. I felt a buzz in my pocket and looked at my phone to see a message from my wife about dinner being ready. I saw my reflection in the glass and that snarky little smirk had returned again.

“Who am I kidding?” I thought. The use of these phones is now so ingrained in our lives that they are like an exterior organ, essential to our vitality and existence. I have forgotten all phone numbers because of this phone, and I would be hard pressed to find a physical phone book in my house because there isn’t one. In short, the phone is indispensable in my life and controls many aspects of it, all of my own volition.

Being dependent on my smartphone feels right despite my knowing it is wrong, and I am certain most people know it is wrong but they do not care. The fear of missing out on anything and everything – all of which is at the touch of our fingertips through a marvelous little device – is greater than our losing anything else, so losing my phone even for that brief time made me feel like the walking dead and, truthfully, I was like a zombie during that half an hour, having only one purpose – to find that phone and devour its contents again.

As I went downstairs for dinner I saw my family sitting around the table, looking at two phones and an iPad. This is what it has come to, and we are all okay with it. My wife will say something about putting down the devices during dinner, and there will be compliance for a few minutes, but the irresistible urge to see who just texted is undeniable.

We have to face the despicable fact that we have been conquered by electronic devices and are powerless to stop using them. Now is the time to face that truth no matter how bitter it is to accept, and we all need to look in the mirror because we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

TV Review: Star Wars Rebels Series Finale – The Jedi Strike Back

*There are spoilers in this review.

After four terrific seasons, Star Wars Rebels ended with a 90-minute series finale that lived up to all expectations. There are the space battles, firefights on the ground, and exotic and strange creatures (in this case the Loth Wolves and the space whales) that we have come to expect, but series creator Dave Filoni and his team also gave us complex characters that we cared about and wanted to see make it through the finale.

The mistake people have made about Disney XD’s animated series Star Wars Rebels – as some did with its precursor Star Wars: The Clone Wars – is to dismiss it as a children’s series rather than give it the respect it deserves. That is unfortunate because both series are definitive parts of the Star Wars Canon, meaning that they both have deep connections to the all the films and help fill in the blanks for gaps in time between them that fans greatly appreciate.

The nine films (counting Rogue One which is considered part of the canon) in the series each give us a limited point in time with the characters and we get to know them based on that moment in the saga. We fans do understand that time elapses between the films, and these characters have lived during those times and we don’t see what happens in that period.

The Clone Wars and Rebels have given us a deeper look into that galaxy far, far away and the characters we know and love who inhabit it. These series also introduced new characters like Captain Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) and Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) who have become beloved as much as any characters from the films.   

The biggest question that bothered my son and me as we watched these four seasons of Rebels was the obvious problem with this series – these characters are (like those from Rogue One) moving into the same time frame of the film A New Hope – Episode IV. As we saw in Rogue One, that meant all of the characters (good and bad) had to perish, except for ones we knew continued on in A New Hope.

My young son and I have watched every episode of the series together, and we were both excitedly anticipating the finale as well as dreading it. Not only did we not want the series to end, but we were both afraid that we were going to have a similar ending as Rogue One. I am happy to report that this was not what happened.

We had every reason to think this way because Kanan Jarrus/Caleb Dume (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) died when he sacrificed himself to save the team in the midseason premiere a few weeks ago. Kanan, being a Jedi knight, was logically on the hit list because he would have to go in order for Luke Skywalker to truly be the last Jedi.

We had justifiable fears that the remaining Ghost crew of Ezra Bridger (Taylor Gray), Hera Syndulla (Vanessa Marshall), Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar),  Zeb Orrelios (Steve Blum) and droid Chopper (Dave Filoni) were in danger and, while they all found themselves in life and death situations, they do survive, though in Ezra’s case there is a big question mark.

In a bold move devised by Ezra with the help of the Loth wolves, the team defeats the imperial forces on Ezra’s home planet Lothal, takes Governor Pryce (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) prisoner, and all seems right until Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen) and his fleet arrive and threaten the team and the citizens of the planet. Since Ezra’s whole plan was to save the people of his planet, he feels obligated to do something and agrees to surrender himself to Thrawn.

In this selfless act Ezra proves that he is worthy of the Jedi training he received from Kanan, and when Thrawn turns Ezra over to the Emperor (voiced by the great Ian McDiarmid) via a hologram video, it is hard to escape the feeling that Ezra is walking down the same path as Luke does in Return of the Jedi.

The Emperor does not appear as his battle ravaged self but rather as the more benevolent-looking Palpatine, and as always is the case with this character, there are ulterior motives. The Emperor pretends to give Ezra a tour of the Jedi temple, but his goal is for Ezra to access the World Between Worlds as Palpatine knows that Ezra has entered it before. If the Emperor can enter this realm – where there is access to the past and the future – his power would be invincible.

The Emperor tempts Ezra with the possibility of an alternate life where his dead parents can be alive again. Despite Ezra’s misgivings, he looks at a gauzy wall (reminiscent of Rey’s experience looking for her parents through a smoky wall in Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and wants to go through it and be with his parents again. As the wall becomes more transparent and the images of his parents become clearer, Ezra has a profound Jedi moment when he understands it is a false hope and runs away.

Seeing that his ruse did not work, the Emperor morphs into his current disfigured shape and tries to attack Ezra, but Ezra uses his considerable powers in the Force to bring down the walls of the temple. Surprisingly, even though the Emperor is only a hologram, he is unable to restrain Ezra who escapes and goes to confront Thrawn. This tantalizing scene is a way to not only connect Rebels directly to the Original Trilogy but also foreshadows the Emperor’s plans for Luke, a boy approximately the same age as Ezra.

When Ezra confronts Thrawn on the bridge of the ship, it seems as if Ezra may be killed until the arrival of the Purrgils (space whales) that crash through the windows and envelope Thrawn in their tentacles. Ezra had anticipated Thrawn’s attack on Lothal and had summoned the Purrgils to help defeat Thrawn’s fleet.

Just as Kanan sacrificed himself to save the team, Ezra also gives himself up to allow the Ghost and its crew to escape. The Purrgils take the ship and Thrawn and Ezra along with it and jump into hyperspace, so we can say Ezra survives but his whereabouts are very much unknown.

At the end of the episode we get an epilogue in the form of Sabine’s voice-over, and she tells us the crew survives until the Emperor and his forces are defeated at the Battle of Endor, taking us right to the end of The Return of the Jedi. We also learn that Hera and Kanan did indeed consummate their relationship, and the proof is her young son Jacen, about whom Sabine tells us, “Born to fly just like his mother, and well, we all know what his father was like.”

Filoni teases us with a final scene of Sabine meeting up with Ahsoka, who looks older and much wiser than when we first meet her as Anakin’s young apprentice in The Clone Wars. Now we learn that Sabine and Ahsoka are going to team up and search the galaxy in order to find Ezra. The possibilities are tantalizing as we contemplate that duo joining forces.

There are many unanswered questions such as: Will Jacen be Force sensitive and grow up to be a Jedi like his father? Will Sabine and Ahsoka find Ezra and bring him home? Will Ezra then train Jacen as his father Kanan trained Ezra? The exciting possible answers may come in a new series, hopefully with Filoni back at the helm.

For now, my son and I are extremely pleased with the finale. Star Wars Rebels ends well and with an understanding that we are left right at that place between The Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, which certainly leaves room for another series to fill in that large gap of 30 years, with characters like Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa all in the mix for possible guest appearances. Here is hoping that Filoni will get that on the air sooner rather than later.

Until that time comes, may the Force be with you all!

Monday, March 5, 2018

The 90th Academy Awards – Time to Make a Long Story Short

Returning host Jimmy Kimmel talked about past Academy Awards ceremonies and referred to the first one as occurring across the street way back in 1929. He said that the whole thing took about 15 minutes and, after watching last night’s seemingly never-ending broadcast, it made me long for those days.

As a rule, I do not watch awards shows because they are usually a bloated conglomeration of all things I do not like. Just think about it – you have a combination of dolled up celebrities, many awards for things I never saw or heard, presenters reading corny shtick off a teleprompter, and a typically annoying host attempting to fill in the gaps in the broadcast like the little Dutch boy trying to stop a flood by sticking his chubby little fingers into holes in the dyke.

Kimmel gave it his best shot, but the Price is Right gimmick with the water ski seemed pretty lame – even with the great Helen Mirren being involved – and the offer to win it was made to the award winner who gave the shortest acceptance speech. The problem is that most of these celebrities cannot stop themselves from blabbing on and on, even though some did seem to rush through their moment of glory (whether it was for the prize or not I can’t be sure).

The problem with all awards shows – and the Oscars in particular – is that there seems to be so much filler, so many unnecessary moments, that the run time never seems justified. Maybe they had the right idea back in 1929, but because of so many more categories the behemoth we have today could never be squeezed in 15 minutes, but I think it could get compressed into an hour and be way less tedious.

It is not just the Oscars that are boring for me – the Emmys, Grammys, Tonys, and Golden Globes are too. It seems all these broadcasts follow the same pattern, and no matter who is hosting appears to be on the same script. I could never sit through the entire showing of any of them, so the Oscar ceremony is in good (or is that bad?) company.

People tune into any awards show for one reason – to see their favorite performers receive their awards. All the other stuff – from the oddly thrown together presenters awkwardly attempting to banter to Kimmel sending stars out of the auditorium to deliver snacks to people in a nearby theater – is just bloating an already obese broadcast.

Last night there were some stellar moments during acceptance speeches and from presenters. Lupita Nyong’o and Frances McDormand both spoke passionately, but the wait in between such moments is unbearable. The performance of “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman by Keala Settle was a
highlight of the broadcast and proves that good things can happen at the Oscars; however, it is cruel to make us suffer through three hours of meat scraps to get to one hour of filet mignon.

It is time for people behind these awards shows to give them an extreme makeover. They need to streamline the experience for those celebrities in the audience and those of us at home, or they are going to continue to lose viewers. Hollywood, are you listening?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Movie Review: Wonder – A Lesson in Love and Understanding for Kids and Their Parents

In these weeks before the Academy Awards, I always find myself binge watching nominated films either in the theater, streaming them online, or getting the DVD. Thus, after viewing films like Get Out, Dunkirk, Phantom Thread, Lady Bird and more, I got hooked on Wonder – nominated only in the category of Makeup and Hairstyling – thanks to my young son’s desire to see it.

The film Wonder, based on the New York Times bestselling children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, is not just a story for kids – it sends a powerful message to people of all ages about the importance of treating everyone with respect. It also features strong performances by Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Mandy Patinkin, and young Jacob Tremblay (so memorable as Jack in Room) in the role of Auggie, a young boy suffering from Treacher Collins syndrome that causes him to have facial deformity that has required 27 surgeries.

Directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Wonder deftly tackles the difficult story of a boy who has been home schooled by his mother (Roberts) because of his appearance. Auggie’s visage is at first jarring – we see him walking around in a NASA space helmet that obscures his face. When he takes it off his ears are like globs of flesh, his eyes seem a bit askew, his cheeks pulled down and scarred, and there is a feeling that he has been in a car accident or fire and had plastic surgery.

Tremblay overcomes this with a powerful and earnest performance, imbuing Auggie with such depth of heart and soul and love, and we get that all he wants is to have the world accept him as he is, but his parents recognize that middle school doesn’t always work that way. Mom Isabel has put everything into Auggie’s life and education, but she makes a stand about him going to school in hopes that he will be able to have a semblance of a normal life despite the objections of her husband Nate (Wilson).

The first day of school, not easy for most kids to begin with, does not go very well. The things that make Auggie a regular kid – he loves Star Wars movies, Minecraft, outer space, playing with his X-Box, and likes sports – matter little to the other ten-year-old kids that are in his class at Beecher Prep, especially Julian (Bryce Gheisar) who picks on Auggie and makes fun of his braided ponytail, which Auggie wears to be like a Padawan in the Star Wars films. 

After suffering all day with Julian's bullying, Auggie goes home and storms into his sister Via’s (Izabela Vidovic) room, grabs her scissors, and cuts off the ponytail, symbolically severing his protected childhood in a warm, loving home, from what he now must face out in the totally cruel real world.

Despite his difficult first day, his parents convince him to go back to school. Auggie accepts that he will have to endure the taunts of Julian and his buddies but Jack (Noah Jupe), one of the boys in Julian’s group, decides to sit with Auggie at lunch one day. They begin to form a friendship, with Auggie even bringing him home after school much to the delight of Isabel.

Things seem to be going well, and although still bothered by the other boys, Auggie likes school because of Jack. Halloween comes – Auggie’s favorite time of year because he gets to wear a mask – and he is ready to go to school dressed as Boba Fett from Star Wars, but his dog throws up on the costume. Auggie goes to school dressed as Ghost Face (from the Scream movies), but Jack is expecting him to be Fett. When Auggie goes into the classroom Jack notices Auggie but doesn’t know it is he (a clever plot device reminding me of Shakespeare’s use of characters in disguise) so, when prodded by Julian, Jack says negative things about Auggie causing him to run out of class and asks the nurse to tell his mother that he is sick.

Thus Halloween, Auggie’s favorite holiday, is destroyed and so are his spirits. Once home he is unaware that he has ruined a mother-daughter day Isabel and Via have planned. Via, a complex character in her own right, has been feeling neglected because her parents’ world seems to revolve around Auggie, but she deeply loves her brother and decides to forget her own plans and puts on a costume to try to salvage Auggie’s Halloween.

Now we reach the point where we ask the salient questions: can Auggie ever get the kids in the school to treat him like any other kid? Will Via, who has become estranged from her own best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), be able to join the drama club and find new friends, and will Isabel and Nate reconsider their decision and go back to having Isabel home school their son again?

The answer to these questions is spoiler territory, but the way Chobsky gets you to the end is worth not knowing because it is an incredibly enjoyable trip. One of the key things that makes this film so successful is that Chobsky makes a movie about a child with facial deformities not just a movie about a child with facial deformities. Using a chapter-like format, he lets the audience get to know
Auggie, Via, Jack, and Miranda more deeply, enriching their characters and broadening the scope of the film to reflect everyone’s journey and how it is affected by events triggered by Auggie’s going to Beecher Prep. 

Chobsky’s other amazing accomplishment is that he has made a Julia Roberts movie that is not a Julia Roberts movie. Julia always shines in films (as she does here), but her innate spark is tempered, and she slides into Isabel’s shoes in a way that is convincing and necessary. She also works well with Wilson – whom we expect usually to be engaging in shenanigans of some kind – who is thoroughly believable as the dad who will play video games and bang plastic toy Star Wars lightsabers all day long, but also adds nuances as the concerned father who wants to do what is best for his kids.

The rest of the cast seems perfectly suited for each role, with Mandy Patinkin’s Principal Tushman a comic gem. The setting mostly takes place in the warmth of the Pullman family brownstone and the children’s schools, and there is a sense of those places importance in the overall story. While the film will definitely entertain its target tween audience, it has been crafted in a way as to appeal to all ages.

After watching the movie together, I realized it had a profound effect on my son. He identified with Auggie’s situation and could relate to his appreciation of all things Star Wars, but the main takeaway he had was that the film was truthful – kids can be mean, but they have to be shown and taught the importance of kindness.

In essence that is what the film is all about – kids, teachers, and parents doing the right thing and treating people well. It is something Auggie learns from his parents but, as we see in the film, even some parents need a lesson too, and thus watching this movie provides numerous teachable moments.

Wonder, as the titles implies, is wonderful, and a great film to watch with the whole family and is highly recommended.                                                                                  

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Olympic Games in South Korea – Let’s Give Peace a Chance

The 23rd Olympic Winter Games in South Korea provide approximately 3000 athletes from across the globe an opportunity to perform on a world stage. These competitors come together in a manner that overcomes borders, defies current and old conflicts, and provides a chance for the best of 92 nations to compete. The Olympic games offer a unique opportunity for humanity to dare to hope that we could all operate like this more frequently than for two weeks every four years.

It has often been said that sporting events transcend political and economic concerns, and it is true that sports such as skiing, skating, and ice hockey do not belong to any country. Anyone can play them anywhere in the world, and that is their inherent beauty. This is how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and American basketball player Dennis Rodman forged a friendship – through their mutual love of the game.

Time and again we see proof of how sporting events can do much more to bring us together than to tear us apart; however, the games in South Korea have had the element of conflict and the pressure of world affairs hovering over them from the start. Now this is nothing new – think about the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin or more recently the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo – but the stakes in the current situation seem much higher. The specter of a nuclear armed North Korea not that far away from Pyeongchang in the south cannot help but intrude on the pageantry and sports of this competition.

The fact that Kim Yo Jung, sister of Kim Jong Un, came to Pyeongchang and attended the Opening Ceremony of these games was historic and significant. With all the turmoil and fear surrounding her brother’s saber rattling over the years, this moment was decidedly peaceful and meaningful. Sports can bring people from all sides together to appreciate the achievement and beauty of athletes whose training helps them to soar to new heights, and perhaps Jo Yung’s presence is a necessary step toward an even larger accomplishment – moving forward on a road to peace between the Koreas.

You would never know that from the negativity surrounding her visit. Some members of Congress have used this as an opportunity to criticize her and the delegation of North Korean officials. While it is understandable that there can be disdain for a regime that has been accused of atrocities, there must also be a desire to avoid war. This is not a case of appeasement or a payout to a brutal dictatorship, but rather a chance for both sides to forget the rhetoric of disagreement and to start slowly building a relationship that will take these countries – and the world – away from the brink of war.

Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the Opening Ceremony and sat near Ms. Yo Jung in the dignitaries’ section, refused to even acknowledge her presence. That seems a rather odd response at a time when perhaps a greeting of some warmth and decency might have carried some weight when she returned home and let her brother know that the Vice President of the United States treated her respectfully. Our dealings with other rogue countries and repressive nations are proof that we are willing to shake hands with despots when it suits our purposes.

During the Opening Ceremony the two Koreas marched into the arena together carrying a unification flag depicting one Korea. It was an emotional and moving moment, however dramatic and staged, for it represented not only a possibility of a peaceful course for the relationship between the Koreas but also hope for the future of our planet.

The United States should have a unique prospective when viewing what has happened in Korea in the 73 years since World War II. Having had our own experience of being a nation divided between North and South during the Civil War, Americans know what it is like to have a country torn apart, families separated by a disputed border, and a future clouded by the specter of war.

The United States luckily survived the Civil War, reunified, and became stronger even though the conflict proved costly and affected the nation deeply for generations. North and South Korea have not been so fortunate – they remain in a state of war with a demilitarized zone separating the two countries. The South has become a beacon of democracy and has a bustling economy, while the North has risen to be a nuclear power and remains a communist country with many poor citizens and an authoritarian leader.

The United States could have had something similar happen to it if the Civil War had not been decided by a clear victory. Imagine if the war ended in a stalemate, with the South and the North creating a militarized border across the Mason-Dixon line and beyond. The Southern states would have remained a different country and our nation would have been forever torn apart. Our country and the world would be a decidedly different place, with the outcome of two world wars and many other historical events in question.

It is understandable to be concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program, its grim human rights record, and the treatment of foreigners like the horrific case of Otto Warmbier who was held for over a year and tortured before being sent home to his parents in America to die. Despite knowing North Korea’s abysmal track record, the unprecedented cooperation between the Koreas is also a reality negotiated by them. This thaw in frigid relations should not be discounted, for the possibility of a peaceful resolution is always more desirable than the alternative.

The games will be over after next week, but the reverberations of the visit of Kim Jo Yung and the North Korea delegation, along with the participation of North Korean athletes and cheerleaders in the games, will remain a memorable and defining moment of this Olympics. This is not something that should be taken lightly but rather utilized as the first step toward ending the hostilities between North and South Korea.

It is clear that in sending his sister, other high-ranking officials, and North Korean athletes to South Korea, Kim Jong Un is extending an olive branch. South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to recognize the importance of not taking this for granted, and he may in the months ahead embark on a journey to the North to participate in talks with Kim Jong Un.

The world wants and needs a peaceful resolution for Korea. No one, including the government of the United States, should do anything to impede that possibility. If talks between the two nations can bring peace and stability, that will be a thrill of victory that overshadows the glories of winning Olympic medals. If that happens, this Olympics in South Korea will long be remembered as making peace possible, so why can’t the rest of us be willing to give it a chance.   

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Another Collusion Story – Why Are So Many MLB Free Agents Still Available?

Another Collusion Story – Why Are So Many MLB Free Agents Still Available?

Spring training, the stuff that baseball fans’ dreams are made of, starts next week, and there are still so many Major League Baseball free agents languishing without teams. Word that the Chicago Cubs had signed pitcher Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million dollar contract makes me wonder not only what took so long but how this signing will affect all the others still in limbo.

The answer may be a case of nefarious collusion – no, nothing to do with politics – by the MLB owners and its commissioner who could be pushing back at Scott Boras, whose clients include J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric HosmerMike Moustakas, Greg Holland, and others who are some of the best of more than 25 free agents still waiting for a date for the prom.

Anyone who follows baseball knows Boras for what he does well – getting the absolutely best deal for his clients and standing firm until he gets that deal. That reputation has made ballplayers gravitate to him because he does produce results; however, the process is not always a smooth ride.

The MLB owners, some of whom may be content to let the free agent market stew and look to rebuild their teams, have no doubt had enough of Boras controlling the market like he had a monopoly. Others perhaps are hoping that anxious players looking to join a team will be willing to sign a contract that will be a bargain for them.

The problem is that players without a team have no place to go to work out and train – that is ostensibly the purpose of spring training. Of course, you are probably thinking that the players can find gyms and try to keep in shape, but that pales in comparison to joining players in a camp and being under the watchful eyes of coaches. It also prevents them from becoming part of their new team.

MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark announced that MLBPA will open a spring training camp for all the unsigned free agents – hey, there’s enough of them to start their own team – and Clark pointed a finger directly at MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (long considered to be in the owners’ corner) and accusing MLB for this excruciatingly long free agent market that Clark says “threatens the integrity of the game.”

This move does give the players a place to go, but they are all men without a country thrown into the same boat hoping to find a port. Perhaps they can bond over the circumstances and get into shape for what lies ahead, but what if the phone never rings and they have no team on Opening Day?

Is it collusion? Well, could it be that MLB and the owners got together to decide to slow the market to a veritable crawl in order to not only give Boras the middle finger but also to pave the way for almost desperate players to make concessions and sign smaller contracts? Tony Clark may be on to something here.

Maybe collusion is too harsh of a word, but what else could it be when so many free agents are still men without a team? Boras stands on one side of the battlefield with his many conditions and demands for each of his clients, and the MLB owners are on the other side refusing to open their wallets. We have to wonder – who is going to blink first?

I have trouble with both sides for different reasons. The owners have plenty of money and, if they are indeed conspiring to avoid signing these players, they are setting up a season where numerous teams will not be good as they could and should be. Quality players are being left out in the cold, so Clark is correct about the game’s integrity and then some. If the owners want fans to continue to pay high ticket prices, they need to field teams that are worth seeing.

As for the players, I admire that they are union members, but some of them are very wealthy in their own right. Hitching their carts to Battling Boras is something they do of their own volition, so if they continue on without a deal maybe they can look into the mirror to see someone to blame.

I am usually extremely excited when spring training starts – and as a Mets fan I feel my team has already made the right moves this year – but it is disappointing to see so many players still unsigned and, if this is stalemate is extended into the season, their absence will compromise the quality of the game. That will be sad for them, their fellow players, and the fans who may think twice about going to games.

The owners, Boras, and the players themselves need to figure out what kind of season they want 2018 to be. If this drags on, maybe half empty ballparks will send a clear message to everyone involved in this debacle, but by then it may be too late to save the season or perhaps even the game itself. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

No Ands or Buts About It

I have a pet peeve – I get very annoyed when people start a sentence with a conjunction. In a world filled with many serious issues and pressing problems, conjunctions may not seem to matter, but they have important functions in sentences. They are meant to join words, clauses, or sentences but should never be used to start a sentence.

Teaching introductory English classes at the college level, I have seen the many different ways people can mangle our language over the years. Sometimes it is carelessness to the point of absurdity; other times it is obvious that they have had insufficient preparation in their previous twelve years of schooling, and it breaks my heart. No matter the reason why a student commits this sacrilege of misusing the language, I have been more or less lenient in taking off points for this transgression; furthermore, I have faced the grim task of trying undo what has or hasn't been done with these students: no easy task I can assure you.

In my current role as an editor at Blogcritics Magazine, I have found great pleasure in being exposed to some fantastic articles by writers in many different genres. I am so fortunate to have this opportunity because I am reading about so many things on so many levels that I would never have been able to do before. Over all, this has been an extraordinarily positive experience.

I do notice one thing lately that is bothersome. A number of writers are starting sentences with conjunctions. "But" and "And" are the most often used, and it is happening with such frequency that I am wondering why. I did encounter this once a number of years ago in a freshman class, and upon researching things, I discovered that many of the students had the same English teacher in high school. The perpetrator had been found in that case, but what is happening here and now?

While I have seen this done even in print and online magazines, it still bothers me a great deal. I guess I can't accept the idea of starting a sentence with a conjunction  because it is a "conjunction" that is supposed to connect something. The good sisters of no grammar mercy in my Catholic school really hammered home many lessons, and this is one of them: You never start a sentence with a conjunction!

I know technically that it is not improper to start a sentence with one of the seven: and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so. Still, every time I see it done, it drives me bonkers.

And I will feel better if I just let this go. Or maybe I never will. Yet now I think I understand. For I know it's a far, far better thing not to worry about. Nor should I care anymore. But I know that I do. So there, I said it!