Sunday, April 29, 2007

How NetFlix is killing my soul.

The place in Greenfield, Video To Go, which had the 7 movies for 7 days for 7 dollars deal I’ve gone on and on about here is going out of business, I found out yesterday. I’d done my level best to support them, but the word is that the market penetration of NetFlix is such that it’s shot their business down by 40%, and they can’t stay afloat. It’s so sad.

So, having just found out yesterday that they are going out of business today, I took advantage of their deal to rent any and all movies for just $1 each, overnight. I rented Superman Returns, which I hadn’t seen yet due to negative reviews, but knew I would see one day. I rented The Devil Wears Prada, and Art School Confidential, another movie based on the comic by Daniel Clowes (and which I anticipated finding more interesting as I bleive it's tangenetially about my art school which Clowes attended) and some computer animated kids faves (the flavor of the day for animated fare) like Flushed Away and Everybody’s Hero. Some of these we watched last night. Some of these we watched today. But since it was nice out, and I had no intention of staying in all day in front of the tube, some of them were unwatched when I had to return them this evening.

The atmosphere at the store was a bit somber, as was to be expected. It was like some great failed experiment, except that for me it was a success. What’s more troubling is that I’ve recently begun noticing this as a trend. Mom and Pop video stores are going the way of all things, even though they offer great resources for browsing and access to movies that you otherwise wouldn’t see on a NetFlix or certainly not at a Blockbuster. I mean, I miss being able to browse through an entire section of old black and white movies, or zero in on some film noir titles, or see a good romantic comedy from the seventies, or sixties. Looking through a vast list of titles on a shelf by alphabetical order is an adventure, and you find treasure that way. Stuff you’d find no other way. I mean, big box store paranoia is one thing-I think there’s room for price competition, and feel when people can pay less and they choose to, that is a free market at work. But this is marketing to the sedentary. These stores are going out of business because people can’t be bothered to interact with a human being to rent a movie, and can't get a video back into the store in the week alotted, for a measley buck. We pay more, to do less. And that’s just sad.

Maybe I’m not giving NetFlix a chance. I checked it out about five years ago, and signed up for an account, and had fun rating a lot of different movies I’d seen. I was aware that I was building a preference list in some hi-tech algorithm that I hoped that might help them to help me find titles I liked, that I didn't even know—kind of like what Amazon does. Then, on the trial, I ordered the first part of the first season of The Sopranos. And it promptly never came. The problem came when they started charging me, and I informed them that I had no intention to pay when, for the trial period, I’d received nothing to try. They zeroed me out, and I wrote them off.

So today I went onto the website again, and went looking for my five-year-old account, that I'd spent all that time indicating preferences for. And found it non-existent. And found no clear section to search for film noir titles, or films by Director, or staff picks, or any of the other intuitive (for me) ways that I’d go treasure hunting at my local store. Maybe I’m not giving them a chance. Likely I’m not, in fact. But they’re starting this relationship with two strikes against them, and the signs are not encouraging.

Video stores are becoming the new dinosaurs, the next Mom and Pops to go out of business, and I wouldn't care if it weren't for the fact that they're not offering something more, just something far less, that's just easier. And easier is killing what's fun for those of us that enjoy getting off our @$$ to hunt for something interesting to watch when we're sitting on our @$$. And that's not easy.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Making up for it

I’ve been lax. I’ve been lazy. I’ve been distracted. Mostly, I’ve been elsewhere. And I am making up for it.

I’ve been involved in life for the past couple of months, and life demands. It demands a lot. And when you have nothing left to give to life, when it leaves you exhausted in a heap in the corner, wondering what day it is and how the hell all your hair all got shaved off, it’s time to take a break and get back to what makes you happy. So I’m taking that time. One of the things that made me happy is communicating, and blogging what’s going on. I’ve missed it. But I’m missing a lot of things lately.

Anyway, due to recent events, I’m trying to make a conscious effort to be where I am, at least for a while, and get back to those things I consider important. As part of that effort, I’m making the commitment to blog every day for a week. Some of that week will be weak, and meek, and with little of which to speak. But it will be something I’ve committed to, as Pharoah said in the epic The Ten Commandments, “So shall it be written, so shall it be done.” It’ll be written, anyway. There's something freeing about self-imposed constraints, calming about meeting your own imposed guidelines and expectations. It's like saying, "I don't know what else life will throw at me, but I can do this. I can make sure this is done."

A while ago, when I first started getting into this, my friend Steve wrote that one way to get people to respond to your blog was to be consistent, and post a lot. So I tried to do that, and was pretty successful. At that time, and for a while following, I had a lot to say. I mean, I always have a lot to say, and since I’d reached a stage of my life where I no longer say it, I subsequently had more to write. These days I write a lot more than I talk, though I don’t know how that’s happened. It just has. But, truth to be told, blogging is a valid means of communication, albeit one-way, There’s something terrifying, and a little sad, about sending messages out into the ether in a digital bottle that may or may not wash up on friendly beaches, and may just as easily shatter against some foreign reef, words lost to the silence of the endless deep. But I think they will reach their intended shores, nonetheless. I know they do. So at the same time, there is something freeing. If you can hear me talking to you, then they have reached their destination. These are but the first words of many, the first bottles of a legion of empties. What will these words be? I can’t be sure until I’ve written them, and read them, and finally, not erased them and begun again, as is so often the case.

All of which is to say, there’s lots I can talk about which is around and subordinate to what’s really going on in life that I can’t talk about. But I am talking. And will continue to, for the next seven days. Now, six.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Movie Night

“Friday night is movie night,” Little T announced with enthusiasm.

It was something he learned from cable advertising, a pitch to encourage purchase of pay-per-view fare that was aimed at families on Friday nights. Apparently successfully. But not entirely. I turned the ploy around, as I had rented seven kid-friendly movies a week ago for Big T’s birthday sleep-over, which the kids then all unanimously opted not to participate in. The local video store has a seven movies for seven nights for seven dollars deal, and being cheap, I mean, frugal, I was determined to watch these movies rather than return them early. So, I agreed, yes, Friday night was family movie night. Pizza for dinner, microwave popcorn for optional dessert, kids all showered and pajama-ed early, we were set for Friday night family movie night.

Both Big T and Little T are on this kick about pie. It’s apparently something they saw on a cartoon on Cartoon Network, where a brainless character wanders around a cartoon muttering “I like pie” as a non-sequiter that they find irresistible and unstoppably hilarious. As a result, they’ve been muttering “I like pie” whenever they don’t want to answer a question, alternately funny and infuriating. So, what movie do they want to see first? “I like pie.”

We’d already seen Brother Bear 2, the latest in Disney’s ill-conceived factory-movie mentality assembly line offering. I became aware while I talked to a friend who worked at Disney a decade ago that this was their plan. They had the talent and the expertise on staff after years of developing each feature film offering. And they utilized the same expertise in terms of drawing. Backgrounds, color and voice for a follow up to each successful feature film. Never mind that the story wasn’t there. The story is what Disney spends years, sometimes decades developing before it comes to ink and cell reality, for each multi-million dollar feature. It’s number one for that market. But it seems more like number three for each direct-to-video sequel. Seems a shame to follow up a steak dinner with a hamburger sundae, but in their infinite (or increasingly, seemingly limited) wisdom, Disney has done so with Lion King 2, Lion King 1-1/2, Tarzan 2, Atlantis 2, and now Brother Bear 2. Ugh.

More successful offering was Sinbad. This DreamWorks special was remarkable for a pretty cool story featuring Sinbad as a cool anti-hero. I’m a big fan of anti-heroes, guys with failings as large as their features, just as likely to disappoint as amaze and enthrall, yet somehow manage to tip the scales toward heroism at the nth hour. The only failing of this film was the voice of Brad Pitt as Sinbad. In this, I finally figured out what my big prejudice against Bad Pitt is. I’ve had a brief discussion on this, with a woman who told me why she though Brad Pitt was hot. But he doesn’t do it for me, and it’s not just because I’m not gay. Really. It’s that he doesn’t have a hero's voice-he has a punk's voice. Brad Pitt is the perfect voice for the Artful Dodger in an animated Oliver Twist, or even Peter Pan or Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. But as Sinbad, he left something to be desired. He carried the right cavalier attitude, but didn’t have the strength of bravado to make me believe he could scale the mizzenmast and hoist the mainsail and avast ye hardies and all that. Sosueme.

Finally, and as a topper, was a movie with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning in a horserace epic, Dreamer. The tagline boasts “Inspired by a True Story,” which is shorthand for “This basic idea is from something that happened, which was absolutely nothing like what you’re about to see.” It think it’s frankly hard to make an exciting movie about horseracing, as horse races are about five minutes long, and as exciting as marbles IMHO, and very difficult to sustain over an hour-long period. You need a lot of fluff over the course of an hour to make you care about that last five minutes. The fluff here was a lot of father daughter stuff, which tugs at my heartstrings as I never had and always wanted a daughter. So I snuggled up with my boys, one under each arm until the youngest abandoned me for Mom, and hugged them, and enjoyed being their Dad. I hardly get enough of that. In fact, I never do.

At the end of the movie, I quizzed Little T about what the movie was about. I mean, he was awake for most of it, right? And it had in-depth themes of family and belief in the impossible, of dreaming and achieving amid loss and tumult. Something of significance may have filtered through. But before he could answer, Big T blurted out “I like pie!,” which, of course was then all his little brother could say. So maybe I’ll never know what he really thought. I covered Big T’s mouth and tried to prod Little T further, to get a hint of what he might have said otherwise. Meanwhile Big T shouted muffled cries against my hand. Finally surrendering on getting nothing more from Little T, I released my hold on Big T, to see what gem of wisdom I’d been squelching. It may be something significant, something properly penitant, something reasonably insightful, right?

“I like pickles on pie,” he said.

Pickles on pie. Yum.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Town meeting

Last night we attended town meeting. Town meeting is always a trip, and one of the unique pleasures of small town life. Once a year, around April, we get a town warrant in the mail, filled with reports and budget items for the year ahead. It’s the kind of thing that, in larger cities, town council or city council would address. But in small towns, the townspeople gather for a town meeting with the selectmen, to vote for things like the school budget, and whether or not we should buy a new snowplow, and whether curbs on development should be instituted as law.

I missed the first one when I moved to town, about ten years ago. But the second one I attended, out of curiousity, and a growing sense of wanting to be part of the community. Mostly I attended due to the hot-button topic of the day (of which there always seems to be at least one). See, the local high school had it’s football team named the Redskins, and a local Native American group had requested they change it. Being part Native American myself, I was curious about the debate, and though I saw both sides of the argument, I definitely had an opinion. I wanted the name changed too. Growing up as one of the few black kids bussed out to an all white school, I was aware of all the ways kids can be made to feel different. Before a kid gets the internal strength to embrace those differences, a key element of maturing, it’s easy to have those differences become sources of embarrassment. And having a team name that’s essentially, though subtly, about denegrating one of those differences is wrong. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about kid’s self esteem.

The town meeting is run by parliamentary procedure, with a lively moderator who keeps things moving and jokes and quips often. It’s a form of entertainment, really, a live show that also happens to be a form of government. We get past the housekeeping stuff, and the school budget approval, etc. And then we get to the juice. The school in question was shared by three local towns, in budget and responsibility. So, all three towns would need to vote for the change, for it to happen. But my town was the first to have its annual town meeting, so what we decided would likely set the tone for the others (“They didn’t vote to change, so there’s no point in our debating it…”). Several older townspeople stood up and made stands for tradition, and made arguments for how the name was an honorific, and indicative of the history of the area. Others made the case for the overabundance of political correctness, and how outsiders to the community were the ones who were asking for the change, when it didn’t even affect them. Still others spoke simply of the cost-of uniforms and banners that would have to be redone at significant expense.

The final speaker of note was one of the people who had requested the change. I can’t remember his name, but his bearing struck me. He was a large Native American man with long black hair and a western hat. He’s hung out at the back of the room for the entire meeting. As a point of order, someone in town had to recognize him, and ask the chair for him to be allowed to speak. He spoke for a very short time, telling of how he was raised off reservation in schools that didn’t teach him about his native American heritage, and raised in a world that called him a redskin as a way of putting him down, at the same time as they plastered the name across their favorite football teams. He made his case effectively, and the vote that followed elected to change the name.

At the end of the vote, an older woman, clearly a towny from way back, shouted out to the crowd in anger, that we were “changing everything. I hope you’re happy now.” I felt like saying, "Yes, I am. Thanks for asking." But I was silent. It seemed an odd end to an emotional, but until then quite civilized discussion. Weeks later, the two other towns followed suit.

So, I was hooked, and haven’t missed a town meeting since. They’ve not all been as controversial, or even internesting. But they’ve all been about how things are changing. Everything changes.

And once in a while, it’s for the better.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

In Search of the Golden Egg

Today we trekked to Grandma's house for Easter lunch (or, as Big T would call it, Linner) and a big Easter Egg hunt outside. Okay, the Easter Egg hunt was a surprise that I wasn't expecting. We'd already had one of those yesterday, in our town, provided annually by an incredibly generous local family and families (including ours) who volunteered boiled eggs for other (older) local kids to color and hide. It's a big community effort, and one which the whole town enjoys, and costs no individual a penny, beyond the time and effort and the cost of boiled eggs. The event this morning had as it's goal the discovery of two golden eggs, which were essentially regular eggs wrapped in gold foil. Though no different than any other egg in essence, the key is that they are percieved as different. And that made them so.

The climax yesterday came when all the eggs had been found, except for one of the golden eggs. The adult in charge pointed in a general direction, and all the kids, baskets in hand full of just-counted eggs, took off in search of that final elusive prize. I took off with Lil T in tow, to his sad lament that he wouldn't be the one to find it. That made me a little sad. I know we've all been there—wanting the thing that seemed just out of reach, and, fearing the wanting too much, telling ourselves in advance that we wouldn't get it, before we're even out of the gate. It's a safety mechanism, a self-preservational tool to avoid disappointment. But it's also a trap for low expectations, and a too-easy pattern to fall into.

I pushed him a bit, trying to imagine the ego boost he'd get from finding it. "You can do it," I said,pulling his hand along, trying to transfer excitement, "You can be the one to find it as easily as anyone else. Don't give up. It's not over until it's over." He was boosted by this, and energized to run faster, look harder, and believe, just for a few minutes, that maybe he really could find it.

Until he didn't. When the cheer came up just four yards from us that a little toddler had found the egg, Lil T was deflated, but also, as disconcerting to me, justified in his own mind. He said, almost proudly, "I told you I wouldn't find it." He wasn't sad about it, just confirmed in his initial assumption, and I think that shook me a bit more than if he had been sad. I let it go at that point, planning on talking to him later about it, after the rush of the initial hunt. I mean, there were all the eggs that he did find to count and appreciate, and the significance of that was beginning to dawn on him. I didn't feel it was exactly the right time for a teaching moment, and the moment, like all important moments, passed too quickly.

Fast forward to today, this afternoon, after a fun morning and breakfast on the road to Grandma's. And a second hunt. Here, there were only three kids in the hunt, Big T, Lil T and their cousin J, but also, unfortunately, only one golden egg. When Grandma announced this, I was a little concerned. I mean, typically, when there are three grandkids, the grandparents provide three prizes. Not my rule, or even my choice, just something my wifes parent's have adopted. This can be annoying sometimes, as I'd sometimes prefer the two boys to share the same toy, rather than having them engage in parallel play constantly, and subsequently either have to deal with tracking two sets or waiting for one to break so we could get more awkwardly to the point of sharing that we should have been at in the first place. There's something bonding in taking turns.

But in this instance, three golden eggs, with a rule that you can only find one, would have been preferable. But that wasn't the plan, and it wasn't my house. And also, part of me was harkening back to yesterday, and the missed teaching opportunity—something like, "sometimes you get the golden egg, and sometimes you get the golden shaft"—came to mind. I laid back to see where it went. Maybe Lil T would find it, this time. Ah, vainglorious hope.

Again, he approached the game disarmingly, saying he certainly wouldn't find the golden egg. I've said before to him and his big brother-if you think you won't succeed at something, you'll be right 100% of the time. If you think you will, you'll be right more like 50% of the time, and increase your odds as you go along. You always have a chance to give up, but don't do it at the start. You've got to give yourself a chance. And the game started off great, with the kids scrambling for the eggs in equal measure. And then Big T found the egg. And Lil T literally fell to his knees, heartbroken.

Scooping him up amid sobs of "I never find the golden egg," I found my opportunity. We scrambled around it a bit, but I think I imparted the three bits I had sorted out for him.:
1) That sometimes you don't get what you want, but it's always important—no, more, essential—to try.
2) That sometimes you will get the golden egg, and when you did, it will feel great, but it doesn't have to feel proportionally bad not to get it. It's just this time. You just didn't get it this time. And
3) That he should look at all that he had—a bag full of eggs, a fun day at Grandma's, the love of his family surrounding him—all topped off with his Dad holding him in his arms and carrying him back to the house out of the cold afternoon. What he had was worth so much more than what he didn't. All of this was his golden egg, and, again, it's about noticing what you have not focussing on what you lack.

By the time we were back inside, the tears were dried, and he was remarking with smiles on how, after he cried, his skin felt all crinkly where the tears had been, and isn't that interesting. The sadness had evaporated with the tears, and in seconds he was excited about the eggs he had found again.

So, this all left me thinking about the golden eggs we all search for, in life. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes we just miss it. And sometimes, we see it, just a second too late, just before it's snatched up by another. Maybe, we think, we'll never find that egg. Maybe we'll always be just a little too late, a little too slow, a little too unlucky or unskilled, or unprepared. Maybe we ought to just settle for teh otehr colored eggs that life provides, and stop trying so hard for that special something. That's we've got to have that faith that it will be our turn one day, that there is a golden egg out there for us, or a turn to find it in our future. We have to believe that in order to continue, and more, in order to make that prediction truth. And it must be truth.

For A mans reach should exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for?

Happy Easter.