Saturday, January 21, 2017

MLB Hall of Fame Inductees – Is The Steroid Era Slowly Being Forgotten and Forgiven?


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Like so many other baseball fans at the time, I enjoyed what some people called “the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa” – the battle to see who would be home run king and break the all-time single season record was a crowd pleaser. In 1999 the fallout that came after the longest baseball strike in Major League Baseball history (August 1994-April 1995) still haunted the fans and affected ticket sales and TV ratings; this slugging contest seemed to be just what the doctor (or was it then commissioner Bud Selig?) ordered.

Yet there were those of us even then who wondered about McGwire and Sosa’s bulging arms and their moonshot homers. These were guys who went from looking like tall string beans to Arnold Schwarzenegger. While we might have wanted to think the ball was juiced (as some claimed), it was far more likely that they were, but even people who may have thought it seemed not to care. This contest ended with Sosa hitting 63 dingers and McGwire swatting 65. Records were broken, baseball was back, but what price had been paid for all the glory?

hall-2Flash forward to 2017 and the announcements of this year’s selections for the MLB Hall of Fame. It is baseball’s most exclusive club, and being a member guarantees a player’s legacy for future generations. The choices this year may leave some people like myself scratching their heads and thinking about where we are heading in what is now (or is it?) the post Steroid Era in baseball.

Like McGwire and Sosa, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez used to be a string bean who was a decent catcher and had little or no pop. Suddenly “Pudge” became the Incredible Hulk and was swatting lots of long flies. So what happened? Did he do a Popeye and suck down cans of spinach? Did he hit the gym every day and just blossom? Or was it something else?

hall-1Rodriguez’s co-inductee is Jeff Bagwell, the former Houston Astros slugger who hit 449 homers with arms the size of Mount Rushmore. Questions always seemed to arise about his morphing into this power hitter overnight, but there never has been any definitive proof that he used PEDs, yet we who saw Bagwell play know he hit those rockets just like Sosa and McGwire before him, and if that ball was juiced then why wasn’t everyone hitting all those homers?

While Rodriguez has denied PED use, former swollen homer god Jose Canseco implicated Rodriguez in his book Juiced, claiming that he actually injected drugs into the catcher during their time playing for the Texas Rangers. Of course, this is not concrete proof but just adds another log to the fire of suspicions.

At this point it seems the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is starting to either forget or even forgive players from the so-called Steroid Era as they are coming up for nomination. Rodgriguez makes it on his first year on the ballot, while Bagwell had to go through seven ballots before getting selected.

Some critics have noted that the turning point may have been last year when former New York Mets and LA Dodger catcher Mike Piazza was elected despite years of rumors about his use of PEDs. Piazza, like Bagwell and Rodriguez, has always denied usage, and the salient things that connect Piazza to these guys are his bulging muscles and homers sent into orbit.
The obvious issue is that two guys for whom real evidence of PED use exists – Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – got a little closer on the ballot this year. If guys with rumors of PED use are getting in, how long before they do as well?

In the past I have argued for the sport to be pure because there are many players who work hard and play the game the true way. They work out, they practice, they stay human, and give 100%. Those guys have always been the true baseball heroes, even though they will most times not be recognized because their numbers are ordinary and they have not distinguished themselves.

Rumors are what they are and evidence is what it is. Bonds and Clemens put up extraordinary numbers, and all the other stuff does not negate their records (even with all the talk of using asterisks), and it would seem the BWAA is moving away from the practice of turning away from these guys and recognizing statistical greatness regardless of rumors or proof.

So Rodriguez and Bagwell say they did not use PEDS, and we can either accept that or call them liars. Either way they will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It has also been said that statistics don’t lie, and if the BWAA embraces that, it seems clear that Bonds and Clemens will be inducted sometime before their opportunities expire.

I don’t know what this means to all the fans, but I recall how kids had McGwire and Sosa posters tacked up on their walls during that wild slugging contest. They have all grown up now and perhaps are forgetting or forgiving (and maybe some of them are members of the BWWA) those sluggers for their use of steroids.

It is today’s children who are also watching and getting mixed messages. We tell them in school and at home about the dangers of drugs, but they discover that former baseball players are getting rewarded for their past use of them. How do we explain it in a way to make sense? I am not sure that we can.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

TV Review: Season One of Westworld – To Murder and Create



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There will be time to murder and create.
-T.S. Eliot

Finding the time to actually watch TV shows is difficult these days, but most especially around the holiday season. I have been waiting to watch the last five episodes of HBO’s Westworld and, thanks to the handy DVR and a big snowstorm, I finally got to binge-watching the truly indelible first season. As to not ruin anything for those of you who may be in the midst of watching or have yet to get to it, this review will avoid spoilers.

Westworld is based on the film written and directed by Michael Crichton, which depicted a futuristic Old West tourist theme park where animated robotic characters interacted with human guests. James Brolin and Richard Benjamin play guests who are wannabee cowboys, and most memorably Yul Brynner is the robotic Man in Black (reprising in some ways his iconic character from The Magnificent Seven) who malfunctions and tries to gun them down.

In the TV series the haunting title sequence sets the tone from the very beginning – we get flashes of western and sci-fi motifs and even a glimpse of a half-robot/half-human looking like da Vinci’s Virtruvian Man – all set to the haunting piano first played by robotic hands and then morphing into a player piano straight from some dusty saloon. It is a fitting start to the proceedings to follow.

west9With J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan as executive producers, we are right to expect big (and unusual things). The first episode (directed by Nolan) establishes the scenario differently than the film by giving us a glimpse of the robotic characters called “hosts” (in a weird twist on Disney’s Cast Members at their parks) as having distinct feelings and personalities. We get a glimpse of the romantic pair Dolores (an outstanding Evan Rachel Wood) and Teddy (James Marsden) before they are attacked by the human Man in Black (Ed Harris) who is in search of a “maze” that will figure symbolically in the story line.

There are problems with the hosts behaving strangely and the guests behaving badly from the start, and the entire premise of the series revolves around these issues – should the hosts do anything but function as programmed and serve accordingly? Why is it not okay for guests (who have paid an exorbitant amount of money to be there) to do whatever they please? There are many other questions that the series poses, of course, most salient among them is what happens when you play God? The answer could be that you get to murder and create as you please, but since you are only playing a god and not really one there are consequences.

west11At the center of the story is the exquisite Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Robert Ford, the seeming lord and master of Westworld (though he has the Delos board of directors to whom he must answer) who has an agenda and then some. His programming of the hosts becomes a question for other humans working closely with him, including his partner Arnold (a terrific Jeffrey Wright) and Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), whose sympathies bend toward the board.

Ford has given the hosts backstories, but when there are behavioral issues their memories are erased, yet the procedure doesn’t seem to work very well. Why give the hosts such deep memories in the first place and how is that part of Ford’s greater but secret plan for the theme park? Hopkins plays Ford as benevolent dictator, his face a road map of the horrors he has conceived and allowed to flourish, a Dr. Frankenstein-type figure who has not only stolen fire from the gods but has mastered it for his own seemingly twisted needs.

When hosts are brought into the clinic for service and re-programming, they are usually sitting naked on a shelf. This objectifies them as just robotic chattel, and we even see a case of one lab technician abusing a host. The series is clearly pushing the boundaries of what it is to be human and to act humanely, as well as the concepts of artificial intelligence and the sentience associated with it and what rights such sentience would seem to grant an AI.
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One host brought in for service is Maeve (a powerful performance by Thandie Newton), a madam in the saloon who continues to have memories of a lost daughter despite having her memory wiped. This is an ongoing extended metaphor that plagues Dolores as well, and the notion that the hosts believe that they have had these memories based on real experiences (as opposed to Ford implanting them to give them backstories) is haunting and effective.

Ethical questions abound as we see Dolores, Teddy, and Maeve have flashbacks – and what sometimes amounts to fast forwards – and we believe that they believe they have lived these lives even though we know they could not possibly have done so, unless when the timeline is altered (and multiple timelines give hints that these robots have assumed different identities over the course of 30 or more years). We wonder which hosts may have once been human (or at least harbor real human memories) and which humans may be unknowingly hosts, and the implications are that the difference may not matter all that much in the long run in terms of treating all beings with the respect they deserve.

When human William (Jimmi Simpson) comes to Westworld to have a blast with his friend Logan (Ben Barnes), he does not seem to be ready to fully embrace the bacchanalia at hand. Logan has no such issues, but after William encounters Dolores, he falls in love with her and accompanies her on a journey of discovery that Logan cannot condone or understand.

Is William meant to be sort of a witness to the human depravity and also perhaps a conduit to bring sanity into the equation? It seems that he is the only “good” human in the theme park – except perhaps for lab technician Felix (Leonardo Lam); however, others like The Man in Black and Ford make it clear that humans should hold no illusions and want the robots to serve their purpose – to be used and abused – and nothing more.

It is hard to go further without revealing too many things that would ruin the pleasures off what comes next, but there are moments of foreshadowing early on that get more obvious as we move forward that the bots are simmering with anger. Some humans like Arnold and Charlotte are raging against the machine as well, with Arnold wanting more autonomy for the hosts and Charlotte hoping to remove Ford from his position before the damage cannot be undone.

Then there is that maze – the one the Man in Black is trying to find – that could be symbolic of the trap set for everyone caught up in Westworld – it’s not just a theme park but an established society that turns out to be a labyrinth that perhaps no one (robot or human) can escape.

Let it suffice to say that by the time we get through the tenth episode that the season finale satisfies our desire to resolve some of our many questions but leaves enough of them tantalizingly unanswered. We also get a brief glimpse of Samurai World and wonder if there is going to be interaction with it in season two. And just how many more of these “worlds” are also out there?

As it stands the first season of Westworld gives us ten episodes that are like the opening chapters of a great novel that compels us to keep reading; the problem is we are left in a position to be unable to turn the page at this point and are kept waiting (until 2018 – yikes!). Leaving us wanting more certainly applies here, and HBO seems happy to have done that and also to have another big hit on its plate that fans are ready to devour.

west2The acting in the series is superb, and if Hopkins doesn’t get nominated for an Emmy (sadly no Golden Globe nomination) then there is something wrong indeed. Wright, Newton, Harris and others all give memorable and impressive performances. Wood (nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama) especially shines in her powerful turn as Dolores, and she is giving Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) a run for the money as TV’s most radiantly beautiful female star.

The series is glorious to behold with wide-open vistas that are apropos to the Wild West, yet also features the sterile and claustrophobic labs and Ford’s lair complete with player piano (and robotic piano player) and host faces on the wall that are stark and foreboding. The look of the characters is stunningly conceived as well in their elaborate western costumes or stiff rubber lab coats and business suits. This dichotomy is deliberate and sets for juxtaposition of the two opposing worlds – not just the modern facility and the fictitious western locales, but also the lives of the hosts and the human guests.

The cinematography, art direction, and set production are all stellar, and the haunting musical direction of Ramin Dwjadi sets the tone for the proceedings. Makeup and sets are all first caliber, and there is a general feeling that this TV series is bigger than its britches, a story told on such a grand scale that it is just busting at the seams and waiting to explode onto a movie screen, yet what is being done here cannot be done in films because the novelization of a story works best on the small screen.

As the narrative unfolds we continually find ourselves rooting for the hosts to be free of suppression and abuse and to ultimately find their true selves, even if that means coming to the realization they are not who they have always believed themselves to be. The problem is freedom always comes with a price tag, and there is a distinct possibility that the hosts will discover that even their desire to be free has been scripted for them.

west8As for the humans, we are left wondering who among them is actually free since the narratives seem to have been written for them as well. Rising above all the detritus of human versus host controversies, Ford embraces the dark side with fervor and yet gives some reasonable enough explanations for why he has done everything; however, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, Ford should know that when you play with fire eventually you are going to get burned.

Season one of Westworld is worth your time to watch, enjoy, and ponder. Going back over each episode gives one a chance to not only savor its many delights, but to contemplate all the possibilities of what the second season will bring. Move over Game of Thrones, there’s a new sheriff in HBO town.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Saying Good-bye and Good Riddance to 2016

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Let me start by saying that I have always hated New Year’s Eve. Of all the potentially depressing nights of the year, it rises above the rest as the cream of the crop. When I was younger I went to parties on this night with my family and then as I got older with friends, but it just seemed like insanity to me to wait until that ball dropped in Times Square (and no matter where I have been over all these years someone always manages to have a TV on with coverage of the ball dropping) and then scream, shout, and sing the song “Auld Lang Syne” for which I know not the words or the meaning of them.

I have never understood the reason why everyone was celebrating the fact that we all got a year older; however, since 2016 has been such a depressing year for everyone, I might spin a noisemaker or toot a horn just to get 2016 out the door because in my lifetime I have never wanted a year to end more than this one.

The losses of famous people this year have been staggering – sometimes it seemed like one after the other like dominoes. These deaths have affected people in different ways, but mostly it is the sense of our inability to process how so many icons could be lost in such a short time span. However, an interesting CNN report breaks down the 2016 losses in categories like sports, music, acting, etc. and shows how there have been some worse years for losses than 2016.

Since we lived through this year most recently and are dealing with emotions here, these facts don’t seem to matter that much. The losses of 2016 have taken a toll on our collective consciousness, and it is difficult to see how we can be assuaged with thoughts of other years being worse. The reason why the loss of these very public figures hurts so much is because each of us sees their passing away in a deeply personal way.

newyears7The year kicked off badly for me with Wayne Rogers passing away. He played Trapper John on the TV series M*A*S*H for the first three seasons of its run, and I felt this one especially since I had been a fan of the show and of Rogers particularly. Even though the series would go on eight more seasons without him, I always enjoyed the episodes that he appeared in the most.

I suppose that the loss of Rogers was a foreshadowing of the losses to follow. I could put a list here of all the people who passed away since January 1, but there are many of these lists available online that give details about each person lost, and this makes it easier for people to search for those lost who mattered most to them.

In a year with so many people lost, the accumulated heft of their passing weighs on our minds. We realize mortality is for everyone – even those we hold in such high regard. Some of these losses hit me harder than others, so here is my very subjective list of losses that affected me the most:

Acting

new-year1Kenny Baker: played R2-D2 in Star Wars films
Carrie Fisher: played Princess Leia in Stars Wars films
Anton Yelchin: Chekhov in recent Star Trek films, gone way too soon
Gene Wilder: star of one of my all-time favorite films Young Frankenstein
Alan Rickman: Snape in the Harry Potter films and Hans in Die Hard
Florence Henderson: played everyone’s favorite Mom – Mrs. Brady

new-year-5Music

George Martin: more the “5th Beatle” than anyone else
Glenn Frey: creative force behind The Eagles
David Bowie: iconic and innovative singer
Paul Kanter: of Jefferson Airplane and Starship
Prince: the one and only

newyear2Sports

Jose Fernandez: Marlins’ pitcher gone way too soon
Muhammad Ali: truly the “Greatest” boxer of all time
Arnold Palmer: indeed the master of the golfing world
Tray Walker: NFL player – another gone way too soon

newyear3Writers

Harper Lee: her To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books.
W.P. Kinsella: his book inspired one of my favorite films Field of Dreams.
Elie Wiesel: Holocaust survivor and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
Edward Albee: legendary playwright

newyear6Public Figures

John Glenn: astronaut and U.S. Senator
Gwen Ifill: newscaster
John MacLaughlin: newscaster
Morely Safer: legendary 60 Minutes reporter


I know that we lost many more people this year, but these were the ones that stopped me cold each time I heard the news of their passing away. Some of them I looked up to as a kid or admired as an adult. In some cases the things they accomplished in life impressed me or left an impression on me, and some of their work changed me or touched me forever.

Now that they are gone the world is a darker place. Besides losing so many amazing people, we had the acrimonious presidential campaign, the post- election rancor, the ongoing horror in Syria, the continuing battle against ISIS, and plenty of assorted other matters to worry about. In short, 2016 really sucked.

Tonight at midnight I will say nothing like a fond farewell to 2016; instead, I will kick its ass out the door, while welcoming the little infant 2017 with all the warmth I can muster. Here’s hoping that 2017 is an infinitely better year for one and all.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Flash Fiction: A Sword Shall Pierce Your Heart

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The old woman sits inside her stone house built on top of a mountain; she is lost in thoughts about the past, and says a prayer not for herself but for those she remembers who are gone but she still loves.
Sometimes it seems her father Joaquin is in the room with her, staring down as he once did at her in their old home in Nazareth. Her mother Anne appears too, not old as she remembers her, but young as when she was a child.

Now she is so far away from there out of necessity, and although she wishes to return she knows that she is too frail for the journey. A knock comes to the door, and she struggles to stand and answer it.

Once she pulls back the door, she is happy to see John, who quickly removes the hood of his robe. “Mother Mary,” he says, “it’s so good to see you.”

Mary takes his hand and he helps her back inside; she drops onto her chair and leans on the table. John puts down his pack and takes the pitcher of water and pours some into a cup. He sits across from her and she sees the sweat on his brow.

“Dear John,” she says softly, “you always come back to me.”

“Yes, Mother, as I always promise each time I leave.”

“Your work is important,” she says. “No one knows that more than I do.”

He grabs her hand and squeezes it gently. “Yes, I know.”

“Do you bring news of home?” she asks hopefully.

John’s expression alerts her to what he will say. “Things are not good now. I was there briefly, but always had to be extremely careful. It is worse than when we left so long ago. The Romans are making life difficult for everyone.”

Mary shivers when she thinks of the Romans and what they did to her son. She recalls kneeling on the dusty rocks on Skull Hill and looking up at Jesus’s broken body on the cross, her heart almost exploding with the pain.

And then she remembers the old man in the temple and looks up at John. “I must tell you a story.”

John sips his water and smiles, “I always love to hear your stories, Mother.”

sword3“Well, this one is about an old man named Simeon. When Joseph and I brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for presentation, this man was there. After the circumcision we heard him shouting, ‘Where is he?’ The old man then came up to us and within seconds he had taken the baby from my arms and held him up high.”

“You did not know this man, Mother?”

“No, John, we had never seen him before, but he was one with the Lord because he said that the baby’s coming had been foretold to him. He said that he could die contented now. Simeon called him ‘a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to your people Israel.’ Many people in the temple, especially the priests, all looked at him as if he was mad, but Joseph and I glanced at one another knowingly.”

“The Lord revealed these things to him and he was happy,” John says.

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“Yes, but he knew even more.” Mary puts a hand on her chest. “He gave the baby back to me and stared at me with tears in his eyes. He said, ‘And a sword shall pierce your heart.’ At the time I did not understand, and for all these years I had forgotten, but now I know how much Simeon knew. Oh, how he knew!”

Tears fall down her cheeks and John squeezes her hand. “Oh, Mother, you know the greatest of pain but also the greatest of joys.”

Mary stares at him and sees him looking at her so lovingly, as he has since the day Jesus hung on the cross and declared John to be her son and for her to be his mother. “I still ache, John; I still feel such sadness, and now I remember how it was foretold.”

“I’m sorry for your pain.”

“When he was a little boy, I did everything to care for him, to protect him. If he came back from playing with the other boys with a bump or bruise, or came home with scrapped knees or a splinter, I cried as I cleaned his wounds. I wanted to keep him safe always, never knowing God’s full plan.”

“The Lord knew you were a good mother, and how could he reveal this to you and expect you to go on?”

Mary struggles to stand and breathe as she says, “He asked me to have his child and I faced all the fear I thought I would ever have. If I had known that my child would suffer so, would….”

John stands and embraces her. “Mother, you would not have it any other way.”

Mary looks up at his face and finds strength in his eyes. “Yes, you are right, of course, John.”

He kisses her forehead. “I must go now to meet Paul down in Ephesus, but I will be back to see you tomorrow.”

“Please be careful.”

“I always am, Mother.”

She watches him leave; she has watched them all come and go – her son’s closest friends 
who now continue to do his work. She knows they’re all in danger, which is why John brought her to this secluded place.
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Mary pushes herself to walk outside. Her house is surrounded by sentinels of lush trees, but as she goes to the path a view down the mountain reveals rolling hills, the road to Ephesus, and the bright blue sea in the distance.

She watches John walking briskly down the road that if taken in the other direction leads to Jerusalem – a place to which she can never return. She prays to her son to keep him and the others safe, hoping that no swords will pierce her heart ever again.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Christmas Dilemma: To Give or Not to Give Gift Receipts


Christmas means different things to people all over the world. Some see it as one of the holiest days because it is Jesus Christ’s birthday, for which we are told three kings (or wise men if you prefer) brought gifts to honor him. Others see it as a day when Santa Claus comes to give children gifts. Adults also exchange gifts as a sign of love and caring for one another, so the concept of gift giving is inextricably linked to the holiday.

One element of gift giving that has become increasingly disturbing and a bit annoying in recent years is the aspect known as the gift receipt. This concept immediately signifies that a gift is returnable, which means the giver of the gift is not certain you will like it. Now, perhaps, that is not the gift giver’s real intention, but it sort of feels that way, and knowing that the receiver of the gift desires that gift receipt also changes the dynamic of buying the gift in the first place.

santa-w-toysHow have we come to this place in giving of gifts is uncertain for me. Can you imagine Santa coming down the chimney with his big bag of gifts and toys worrying about having a gift receipt for each? No, the Jolly Old Elf would find it unacceptable that toys made at the North Pole could be returned, nor that too small sweater or the handbag that in no way matches your personality or taste. Santa expects us to suck it up, say “How lovely,” and move on to the next present.

Many years ago when I worked in a department store, we set up a special return desk for the day after Christmas. The only requirements for customers were the items had to still have tags and the gift boxes or store bags. The returns were processed and the customers were given an exchange or store credit. In this way the giver of the gift never had to know that the receiver was unhappy with it – an old fashioned process that was infinitely more civilized and easier on both parties.

Unfortunately, we have moved beyond the gentility of giving and receiving gifts gracefully. Now we have the mentality that matches our throwaway culture – gifts are expendables and so you better have given a gift receipt! It puts the giver in a bind way before the gift is ever wrapped and presented.

Shopping this year made me extremely nervous and was quite stressful. It is bad enough that before Christmas the department stores are mad houses filled with people with eyes bulging out of their heads as they roam the aisles like zombies from The Walking Dead looking for the last scraps of flesh in the form of items on the shelves. As I held a potential gift in my hand and considered the possibilities of giving it to someone, an old lady nudged me with her elbow and asked, “Are you gonna buy that or not?” Yes, it was the last one on the shelf, and my indecision and her query came together to make the choice easier – I just handed it to her and went on my way.

Of course, after braving the wilds of the aisles in each store, the next indignity is waiting on the long lines to get to a cashier. If you are in a store that does not provide shopping carts like Walmart or Target, you are forced to hold all your items in your arms, making the passing of time by looking at your cell impossible.

As I stood there with my arms brimming over with gifts on an interminably long line, I kept thinking that I should avoid this ordeal and buy everything online as so many people do; however, I am still of the mindset of being able to touch an item before purchase, to feel its heft, and to examine its quality. This is impossible online no matter how many images are available. Then, when I finally get to the counter with purchases, I get asked the most pressing question – “Do you need gift receipts?” This year, despite my trepidation about the concept, I said a resounding “Yes” and got gift receipts for everything I purchased, even if something for me was mixed in with everything else.

After all that shopping warfare was over, then it was time to come home and wrap the gifts. I am not a good wrapper of presents to be sure. I recall watching my mother and aunt wrap Christmas presents with the precision of surgeons – the cutting, folding, and taping of gift paper all seemed perfect every time. For me it is sort of like making a bed, and even after I have tried to measure, cut, and tape, the present looks as if someone is still sleeping in it.

Nevertheless, before doing this I faced what felt like a moral dilemma – should I put the gift receipt inside the box or not? One possibility I considered was just keeping all gift receipts separately for each person and handing them over after opening gifts had been accomplished; however, I decided that idea was even more awkward. So, yes, despite my trepidation, I did put the gift receipt into each box under the internal tissue paper and item, almost as if I didn’t want it to be discovered by the recipient.

During the frenzy of opening presents with so many people in the room, other people kept saying, “The gift receipt is in the box.” Thus I developed a plan – I would I refrain from making this statement as I watched people opening my gifts, waiting for a reaction – elation would be met with silence, but vacant stares or troubled expressions would be followed with, “There’s a gift receipt in there.” Of course, this plan was thwarted by everyone seemingly opening boxes at once; therefore, I had to start opening my own gifts and could not concentrate on what anyone else was doing.

gift-recIn the end I got gift receipts for all my received presents, and I was relieved to have one for a hoodie I would never wear, but I still felt bad about it because I am sure that the person who bought it really thought I would be happy to have it. Then again, is the inclusion of a gift receipt just a fail-safe mechanism or is it a coded message that the giver thinks the recipient will not like the gift?

Perhaps I am overthinking the whole process, but I still go back to the reason for giving gifts – we are showing that we love and care for people. That equation is one of magnanimity and certainly should not be treated with disdain but rather gratitude. I am not sure if giving a gift receipt is worse than expecting it or not, but I sure as hell wish we could get back to a time when we didn’t have to give a gift receipt, which is like announcing that giver believes the gift may not be right for you.

3-kings-with-giftsThis whole Christmas gift giving tradition started with those three kings/wise men giving Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Ostensibly, these were truly birthday gifts given with honor, respect, and love. The concept of Santa Claus giving gifts derives from this event, and in that way parents all over the world become imbued with Santa’s spirit and give their children presents. We adults have joined in on the practice, and it should be noted that the old “it is better to give than to receive” is still an adage that feels damned good to follow.

I wish we could get back to a time when gift giving itself was simple and less tenuous – when a gift given in love would be cherished rather than returned, but I doubt we can go back now. Of course, there is also the long tried and true tradition of re-gifting that is still in full vigor (I know because I got one present this year that had the old name tag taped on the box underneath the new wrapping paper), but that is a whole other story.

For now we live in a world where giving and receiving gifts with gift receipts is a reality, and no matter how much I detest it, I have to live with it. Now, where is that ugly hoodie? I’m taking that back right away!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Flash Fiction: A Phantom Menace – Santa and the Attack of the Drones

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Santa Claus stared at the large computer screen over the shoulder of Head Elf Flick, with Cookie, his wife of almost 1000 years, standing by his side. They watched a video showing a drone dropping off packages on house doorsteps.

Cookie rubbed his belly and said, “Nick, dear, don’t let this upset you.”

Flick giggled, “Yeah, Santa, so they can deliver packages faster than us. Who cares?”

Santa lifted a hand, raised Flick from the chair, and slammed him against the wall without touching the elf. Flick fell to the floor moaning as Santa said, “Don’t test my patience again.”

“Yes, Santa,” Flick moaned.

“Oh, Nick, you never used your powers to hurt anyone before,” Cookie said.

Santa staggered until he fell onto his red velvet throne. “I am sorry, Flick. I just lost it.”
Flick stood up, brushed himself off, and adjusted his pointy hat. “I understand, Santa. I should know this isn’t funny.”

Cookie said, “Dear, you’ve known about this drone thing for years.”

“Yes, of course, I’ve encountered them, but it was nothing like this.”

Flick sat down in front of the computer again. “Many companies are using delivery drones, but the one giving us the most competition is The Kringle Express.”

“They dare use the word ‘Kringle’ in their name?” Santa roared as he leapt off the throne and stomped over to Flick. He saw the image of the box with the hat that looked very similar to his own. “And they dare to appropriate my hat as their logo?” Santa’s cheeks became enflamed but he controlled his temper. “Who is the head of this company?”

“I guess you want to put him on the Naughty List,” Flick giggled.

Santa stroked his beard. “Uh, you can say that.”

Flick did a quick search and said, “Seems the CEO is very cloak and dagger. He keeps his head and body covered in long robes and wears dark sunglasses in public. The name is Lucas Winter.”

“Hmm, I don’t recall ever delivering toys to him as a boy.”

Cookie started toward the kitchen and said, “I’m going to make your favorite Christmas Eve snack before you depart, Nick.”

Santa sighed and Flick asked, “What’s wrong, Santa?”

“Usually I love Cookie’s midnight soup, but not this Christmas Eve!”

Flick pushed a button and, after a series of beeps, handed Santa his iPhone 7 plus. “Your itinerary is plotted for tonight, Santa; please try to have a good journey.”

Santa put a firm hand on Flick’s shoulder. “I’m going to leave a little early this year.” He glanced at the kitchen door. “Let Cookie know I had to take care of some business.”

“That Winter guy?” Flick asked clapping his hands. Santa put a finger to his lips and took the elevator to go down to the reindeer paddock.

*

Along the journey to the northern California home of Lucas Winter, Santa encountered several of The Kringle Express drones. Using his newly installed Laser Cannon 360, he quickly incinerated each one. “So much for them!” Santa chuckled.

The reindeer quietly pranced onto the roof of the palatial home set on 25 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Santa pressed a blue button, and the sleigh landed silently.

As Santa headed toward the chimney, lead reindeer Dasher asked, “Santa, why don’t you have your bag?”

Santa said, “This kid is on the Naughty List.” He descended the chimney, extinguishing the fire until he stepped away from the mantel. He heard someone clapping and turned to see a cloaked figure in the corner.

“I’ve been expecting you,” the familiar voice said.

Santa twisted his fingers and the lights came on in the dark room. “I know you were; I was counting on it.”

“I see you still have a few parlor tricks, Nicholas of Myra.” The figure removed its cloak and revealed a jewel-encrusted image.  “But then, so do I.”

“You’ve tried to ruin Christmas for centuries.” Santa said.

The creature walked toward Santa on long legs with cloven feet. “Why should I endure a huge birthday party for my chief adversary?”

“Lucifer, you‘ve always failed because Christmas spirit is stronger than your hatred.”

“Not this year,” Lucifer said, moving toward the window and opening the black curtains with flurry of long, scaly fingers. “Behold, the way I’ll defeat you this year – millions of Kringle Express drones ready to take away your thunder!”

In the last rays of light from the sunset, Santa saw the drones loaded with packages spread across the acres of the property. He turned to Lucifer and howled, “You cannot do this!’

Lucifer chuckled, “But I am doing it. Soon the air will be flooded with my drones, and the children of the world will forget Santa Claus.”

Santa stroked his long white beard. “You have miscalculated as usual.”

“We’ll see about that,” Lucifer snapped.

Santa walked toward the fireplace, turned, and took something out of his pocket. “Almost forgot your present.” He threw a lump of coal toward Lucifer who caught it in his webbed hand.

santa-2Santa ascended the chimney and got in the sleigh. Soon he and the reindeer were aloft, and they observed the millions of drones rising into the sky like a flock of buzzing locusts.

Santa glanced at his laser cannon, but instead stood, raised his arms, and invoked the power given to him centuries ago – a gift from the One far greater than Lucifer, a fact that the cursed one had yet to grasp after countless millennia.

The power shot out from Santa’s white-gloved hands, causing all of the drones to waver in flight. As he brought his hands together in one thunderous clap, the drones all battered and rammed one another, every one of them exploding before plummeting to the ground.

santa-3Santa saw the moon rise over the ocean, sat down, and grabbed the reins. “We have work to do, lads – so dash away all!” Santa steered the sleigh across the sky to begin the journey that would take them all night.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – A Slice Empire Pie with a Dollop of Some Hope

rogue6
 Since this film is considered part of the Star Wars canon with it also being dubbed a standalone story, viewers must consider the ramifications of what is learned as well as the implications of what is not. I am not going to go into spoiler territory here, but there are some surprises along the way despite there being one glorious problem – we already know the ending of the story. With the box office exploding this first weekend the film is in theaters, it doesn’t seem to be presenting any problems for Disney thus far.

People have gone to see movies before when they already knew the ending – everyone knew the Titanic was going to sink, but that didn’t stop anyone from going to see Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the film because the story surrounding the sinking mattered more than the ship actually hitting that iceberg. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has the quest to steal the Death Star plans as its central story; we already know from Star Wars IV that this deed is accomplished, but the characters (led by a tenacious Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso) are compelling enough for us to go along for the ride.

All the while watching the film with my seven year old son (a more avid Star Wars fan than I it seems at times), he kept asking when we were going to see Darth Vader (again voiced by the incomparable James Earl Jones) and then when he does finally show up, instead of a menacing visage we get an answer to a question I long wanted answered – how does old Darth take a shower?

rogue-3That said Vader does then appear in a much more frightening moment, confronting Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn as the new villain in this film). Krennic’s obvious competition with a recognizable Star Wars face in the form Grand Moff Tarkin (more about him later) spells trouble for him as Vader gives Krennic the invisible force chokehold as a convincer to get his act together.

Felicity Jones does a great job as the leader of a rag-tag group who take it on themselves to steal the Death Star plans after the rebel council declines to pursue the dangerous mission. This group includes Captain Cassian Andor (a solid Diego Luna), former Imperial pilot Bodhi (a terrific Riz Ahmed), droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk as a wise-cracking but action hero alternative to the stolid C-P30), and super duo Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus (Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang). Along with some of Andor’s ready to rumble rebel buddies, they steal an impounded Imperial ship and as they fly off on their mission Bodhi christens it Rogue One.

rogue-5That these totally new characters can capture our attention and bring us along on their journey with interest is a credit to director Gareth Edwards and writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. While there are many nods to the Star Wars fans throughout (and even a couple of surprise cameos of old favorites), the central focus remains on the new characters and their dogged efforts to get those Death Star plans. Since most of the film’s action takes place a few days before the events of A New Hope, we get a good idea about how dark and evil a place the galaxy has become in the years since Revenge of the Sith.

There are many great action sequences throughout, and this is the first Star Wars film to really emphasize the “war” factor of the title – we get lots of combat and casualties on both sides. Against more than staggering odds Jyn, Cassian, and company push forward with individual motivations. Jyn’s back story adds complexity to the mix – her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was a scientist who had a hand in creating the Death Star. Scenes of her as a little girl are reminiscent of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and make us wonder why all our heroes in this galaxy are either orphans or from fractured families.

As is expected in any Star Wars film, the battle scenes, space sequences, and vistas of numerous alien worlds are exceptionally realized, this time by cinematographer Greig Fraser, and the stirring music by Michael Giacchino swells and flows appropriately to accompany the many visual delights. It goes without saying that some of John Williams’s iconic score comes into play in the Darth Vader scenes, and it’s difficult not to feel that same unsettled but welcome feeling as he stomps into a scene.

Now to get to the eerie inclusion of Grand Moff Tarkin (so memorably played by the late Peter Cushing in A New Hope), the computer effects are such that he is inserted into the film almost flawlessly, except for the fact that Cushing died in 1994 kept gnawing away at me. Audiences know it can be done now and seem to accept the use of a deceased actor in this manner, and my son had no clue that Cushing was dead until I told him later on, yet there is something disturbing about it even though Tarkin has to be there on the Death Star at that moment because it would not make sense otherwise.

rogue-4Besides the Tarkin issue, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a fine addition to the growing Star Wars canon. We know that Disney has plans for many more of these lucrative adventures, including a film about a young Han Solo. Since the appetite for Star Wars related projects seems insatiable (my son and I devour the TV series Star Wars Rebels as proof of that hunger), there will be no end in sight for tales from a long time ago in a galaxy quite far way. All I can say to Disney about that is “May the force be with you.”