Friday, September 28, 2012

Red Sox and Silver Linings

As the 2012 Red Sox go gently (or maybe “limp shamefully”?) into that good night, fans are left trying to salvage something positive out of this season.  It’s not easy.   In fact, I had to rely on Aristotle to do it. 
Here goes: the 2012 season is part of a larger story.  It’s a low and humbling and soul-crushing part of the story, sure… but it’s also an essential part.

To get what I mean, we have to go back eight years ago, to the waning minutes of October 17, 2004.  Red Sox vs. Yankees. Game Four of the seven-game American League Championship. The team that wins this series goes on to the World Series.  And it looks like that team's going to be the Yankees.
They just needed three more outs.

The Red Sox had entered ALCS five days before, on October 12, full of swagger and fire. But they ended up losing Games One and Two. Then came Game Three, on October 16th, which they didn't just lose; they got decimated, 19-8.

Former Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein called it a "colossal defeat." The Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy said that in Game Three the Yankees "stripped the Red Sox of all dignity." Every reporter covering the series made it a point to remind Red Sox Nation that no team in baseball history had ever been down 3-0 in a postseason series and came back to win.

For a Sox fan, Game Three was the pits. And that’s not a colloquialism; I mean it was like being in a pit— a deep, dark, seemingly inescapable pit. The rockiest of rock bottoms. A nadir. The belly of the whale.

Then came the next night, October 17th. It's Game Four, bottom of the ninth, and the Sox are trailing 4-3. They have only one half-inning to keep the series alive. If they don’t, they go home.
But then Kevin Millar draws a walk off Mariano Rivera—and everything changes.  Pinch-runner Dave Roberts steals second; a Bill Mueller single gets Roberts home to tie the game; and two hours later, at 1:30 am, David Ortiz clobbers a walk-off homerun in the twelfth. Final score: 6-4, Sox.

That was just a start, of course.  But a start that lead to a Sox victory in Game Five.  And Game Six.  And Game Seven. And so, the Red Sox, after being down 3-0, won the ALCS and headed to the World Series—where they reversed an eighty-six-year “curse” by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in four games.

So what does this have to do with the 2012 Red Sox?  Simple: it’s all about the story.  You see, to me, the story of the Red Sox 2004 postseason is not just about a team clawing its way out of a pit; it’s about the pit itself.

Say if the Red Sox weren’t down those first three games? Say if they didn’t suffer the “colossal defeat” of Game Three, the one they lost by eleven runs?  Would the Game Four victory, and the three wins that came after it, be as sweet?

Sure, “a win’s a win.”  But a win snatched from certain defeat, right from the hands of your most hated rival—that’s a WIN.
Here’s where Aristotle comes in. The concept of the "dialectic" says that you can’t fully understand something unless you also know its opposite. You know good by knowing evil. You need darkness to see light. You need to comprehend defeat before you can truly appreciate victory.

Compare the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees to the 2004 World Series against the Cardinals, who went down in four straight games. No pit, no adversity, no whale belly, no seemingly unconquerable obstacle... and consequently, no compelling story.

Sox fans have endless stream of words to describe the feeling of finally winning a World Series after eighty-six years: unforgettable, historic, redemptive. But when describing the actual 2004 World Series itself, one term keeps coming up: "anti-climactic."

Or how about their next visit to the World Series? Let’s face it: the Red Sox's 2007 season and postseason didn't have anywhere near the drama of 2004. For most of the season, they were in first place. Hard to get a story out of that, you know?

Once again, what does this have to do with 2012?  Basically, the 2012 season, taken as a whole, is like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, with innings 1-8 of Game Four thrown in. In other words, it was the pits. 
We landed in the pit at the end of 2011, when the Red Sox flitted away their comfortable lead in the standings and failed to make the play-offs, and never left.  The 2012 season introduced us to a much-maligned new manager. On his watch, old friends left, and then new friends left—to the point that the team currently crawling to the finish line hardly resembles at all the one that took the field in April.  And for the first time in fifteen years, the Red Sox will end the season with a losing record.

The season that started out with all the “Fenway Turns 100” hoopla didn’t live up to the hype. Not by a long shot.  Instead, we had an entire season in the belly of the whale.   
But this is just part of the story.  A heart-breaking but necessary part.

If this season looks like Game Three of the 2004 ALCS, then we have to remember that from the “colossal defeat” of Game Three came the miraculous, one-for-the-ages Game Four.  And we will have another Game Four. Maybe it will be next year, maybe it will be the year after.  But it will come.  Boston will surge back, someday, and when it does we’ll appreciate the accomplishment all the more.
Since we didn’t have too many walk-off victories this season, Sox fans may have forgotten how those games make for great stories.  But you can’t have the “come-from-behind” victory unless you were first behind.  You have to have eight lousy innings before you can have a redemptive ninth.  You have to lose all hope before you can get it back.

The story of the Red Sox isn’t finished.  Yeah, they’re still in the pit, but they’ll crawl out.  And when they do, we’ll love them all the more because of it.  Aristotle, after all, said so… and I’m pretty sure he was a Sox fan.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Talk Like a Pirate Day" Turns 10!!

Avast, me hearties: what follows may just be the most philosophical treatise ever on “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

Now, for those of you who have been marooned on a deserted island for the past decade, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” is an annual event which has been celebrated internationally every September 19th since 2002. And I was going to commemorate the historic tenth-anniversary of this great tradition by writing a piece filled with pirate puns and a whole lotta "blimeys" and "salty dogs" and "cats-o-nine-tails."
But you know what? Everyone's going to be doing that.

So I decided to do something a little different: I'm going to celebrate ten years’ worth of pirate-parlance by NOT talking like a pirate.

Now before you accuse me of being a poop-deck party pooper, let me assure the masses: I'm not trying to take the fun out of "Talk Like a Pirate Day," because that would be impossible. Talking like a pirate, after all, is one of the simple pleasures of life.

Think about it: the one day out of the whole year when the letter R gets its due, when everyone's your matey, when you can pick up the phone and actually say "Ahoy!"-- what's not to love?

(Incidentally, according to Internet scuttlebutt, Alexander Graham Bell wanted "Ahoy!" to be the greeting for the telephone back in 1876, until Thomas Edison swept in and suggested the bland-by-comparison "Hello." Who knew Edison was such a pirate-hater? )

And the jokes! My family and I have spent whole meals telling nothing but pirate jokes. ("Who's a pirate's favorite baseball player?" "Nomarrrrrrrr Garrrrrrrrciaparrrrrrrrra." "Where do all the Spanish-speaking pirates hail from?" "Arrrrrrrrrgentina.")

Here's a new one: What’s a pirate’s favorite Carly Rae Jepsen song? “Call Me Matey,” of course.

Finally, in terms of sheer entertainment value, “Talk Like a Pirate Day” absolutely eclipses almost all of its brethren in the “Talk Like a–” genre, including “Talk Like a Klingon Day,” “Talk Like Beaker Day,” and “Talk Like a Charlie Brown Teacher Day.” (Only “Talk Like Sean Connery Day” even comes remotely close.)

And yet, when you strip away the glitz, glamour and gutturalness of “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” you end up with a pretty inspiring story about the power of the written word.

I’m sure the TLAPD Faithful know the story, but for the newly-initiated, it bears repeating: many years ago, two friends, John Baur and Mark Summers were playing racquetball and, as they were wont to do, talking like pirates. They were having a jolly-roger old time—so jolly, in fact, that they wanted everyone to have the opportunity to talk like pirates.

And just like that, "Talk Like a Pirate Day" was born. But, like a tattered treasure map, that only tells you half the story.

Indeed, the legend only truly took off in 2002, after one of the two co-conspirators wrote a letter outlining the "Talk Like a Pirate Day" concept to syndicated columnist Dave Barry. Sufficiently hooked by the idea, Barry penned a seminal column, explaining "Talk Like a Pirate Day" to the land-lubbing masses.

So if we were chart the route of "Talk Like a Pirate Day": two guys come up with an idea in a racquetball court; they tell the idea to a columnist, who writes about it in a newspaper; that column sparks a revolution that spreads across the seven seas.

But you couldn’t have the revolution without the column. For as ingenious as Baur and Summers’ idea was, if it weren’t for Barry’s newspaper column, you and I wouldn’t be celebrating the tenth-anniversary of "Talk Like a Pirate Day" this September 19th.

Ultimately, the history of "Talk Like a Pirate Day" reminds us that just having a great idea isn’t enough. How many great ideas, after all, get stashed away in our own private Davy Jones’ lockers, never seeing the light of day? You need to share your idea. You need to write it down and then send it out to the world, like one of those famed messages in a bottle.

And that’s perhaps the lasting lesson of "Talk Like a Pirate Day": that the pen really is mightier than the sword.

Or should I say: mightiarrrrrrrrr!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Summer School Teacher Looks Back at "Summer School"

In case you missed it: twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1987, the vastly underrated Mark Harmon comedy Summer School made its theatrical debut.
For those of you who have (inexplicably) never seen it, the film recounts the wacky misadventure of Freddy Shoop (Harmon), an uninspired teacher with a crop of equally uninspired summer school students.  Shoop's been given an ultimatum:  get these slouches to pass English… or lose his job.  Along the way, Shoop also has to foil an Evil Vice-Principal (a requirement for 80s movies) and win the heart of the teacher next door, the prim, by-the-book Robin Bishop (played by Kirstie Alley). 

Watching it again a quarter-century later, I have to say the film is quite remarkable—and not just because it allows one to chart how far its leads have come: Mark Harmon, after all, has evolved from playing goofy, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing playboys like Shoop to raking in $500,000 per episode as the super-serious Special Agent Gibbs on the top-rated NCIS;  and Kirstie Alley is… well, she’s slated to repriese her role as "Self-Parodying Hasbeen" on the upcoming Dancing with the Stars: All-Stars.
No, what really makes this movie stand out is how sweet it is.  Not only does film have a lot more heart than it ought to, given its premise, it’s also nowhere near as raunchy as other flicks that came out in the Porky’s-fueled 80s. (Clearly, though, the film’s marketing folks don’t want you to know that: the DVD cover shows Mark Harmon, margarita in hand, poking out from behind a sign that says “Bikini Xing.”) 

Granted, the film doesn’t get everything right.  As someone who has taught in the summer school trenches for twelve years, I have a few quibbles with the movie’s depiction of the venerable post-vernal (or pre-autumnal) educational institution.  For example...

* Mr. Shoop is basically blackmailed into teaching summer school by aforementioned Evil Vice-President, after the real teacher wins the lottery and bails.  In real life, teachers choose to teach summer school; believe it or not, we even get paid to do it.  
* Shoop is a physical education teacher but he’s forced to teach English—a switcheroo that tends not to happen in the real world, due to this pesky thing called Teacher Certification. 

* Finally, Mr. Shoop’s job is dependent on whether or not his students pass a test at the end of the summer.  Now, come on: judging a teacher on how well the students do on an exam?  That would never, ever happen in real life.  (Uh… hmmmmm…)

Moreover, as a teacher myself, I’m a little uneasy about how close Shoop gets with the kids.  A majorplot point has Shoop agreeing to give the students incentives to get them to study for the final exam.  Good idea… except one of the “incentives” involves allowing the kids to throw a party at his house.  Not cool, Shoop. 

Even less cool:  he lets a fetching female student named Pam move in with him.   Nothing happens between them, of course, but still… that's some fire with which single male teachers should be playing.  (Bonus points if you recognized a young Courtney Thorne-Smith playing the part of Pam.)

All those quibbles notwithstanding, the film does an admirable job portraying its teens in a genuinely positive light.  No, the students are not the most studious lot. And no one will ever accuse them of being role models: one moonlights as a male stripper, while two others almost get arrested for underage drinking. (Luckily, Mr. Shoop intervenes… and then gets arrested himself!)

Still, the teenagers in Summer School do have some redeeming qualities.  When Evil Vice-President tries to replace Shoop, they drive out the new teacher by re-enacting scenes from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  And when they realize Shoop’s job depends on their grades, they try their darnedest to step it up.  In short, they care about poor Mr. Shoop.

And Shoop cares about them, too—which is another thing that makes Summer School stand out among other 80s teen-flicks: it shows adults actually having some redeeming qualities of their own.  And given the shellacking adults took in 80s cinema, this is a revolutionary concept indeed.

Take, for instance, the grown-ups in Ferris Bueller’s Day Office:  Mr. Rooney is a vengeful, monomaniacal doofus; Cameron’s dad loves car more than his son; even Mr. and Mrs. Bueller, despite their obvious love for Ferris, are completely clueless and ineffective. 

There's more: The minister in Footlose who outlaws dancing.  The parents in Sixteen Candles who forgot Molly Ringwald's birthday.  The dad in Say Anything who's been siphoning money off his elderly clients for years.  And, really, isn't Impending Adulthood is the main antagonist of St. Elmo's Fire? 

Ultimately, all these depictions just reinforce what Ally Sheedy says in The Breakfast Club: “When you grow up, your heart dies.”

Well, Freddy Shoop’s heart is alive and kicking, thanks. Yeah, he shouldn’t have taken the kids on that field trip to the peting zoo.  And he really shouldn't have let the kids party at his house.  But he does lecture them about how drinking kills brain cells.  And he goes out of his way to help the students—serving as the driving teacher for one student and the Lamaze coach for another.

And he somehow inspires them: they all do OK on their final exam.  No, only a few of the kids 
technically pass; in fact, the kid who gets the highest grade excused himself to go the bathroom on the first day and never came back.  Still, they show enough improvement that Reasonable Principal, overriding Evil Vice-Principal, allows Shoop to keep his job. 

In the end, despite all its low-brow humor and general goofiness, the film teaches some pretty good lessons:

(1) Working hard pays off. 
(2) Good things happen when adults and teens share a common goal.
(3) Shoop says at the end,"There's more going on here than test scores and grades"-- a truth that someone should communicate to the folks in Washington.  After all, a grade on an exam rarely reflects all the things going on in a classroom.  
(4) And, finally, as the student who spent the entire six weeks in the bathroom reminds us... some kids improve by not coming to class.   (Sadly, I'm probably not joking there...)

Bottom line: if you haven’t seen Summer School at any point in the past twenty-five years, check it out. Even if you have seen it, check it out again.  Either way, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  Like Mark Harmon himself, the movie has aged pretty well.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pitch for Pitchapalooza 2012

Why not us?

Back in 2004, pitcher Curt Schilling asked this question during the Red Sox's historic, curse-breaking quest to become World Series champs. Now, my wife and I-- pitchers of a completely different groove-- are going to borrow this question for our campaign to win Pitchapalooza.

"Say whaaa?" asks ye who happened to stumble on this page accidentally, while Googling a recipe for dates-wrapped-in-bacon. (Delicious, by the way.) To the uninitiated: Pitchapalooza is an online contest for aspiring writers. Think "American Idol" for wanna-be novelists: twenty-five "pitches" for novels are posted, and the masses vote on which "pitch" has the most potential. The winner gets a one-hour meeting with the "Book Doctors," Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, who will advise you on how to get your book published.

Some necessary back-tracking: about a year-and-a-half ago now, my wife Sheri and I finished writing a young adult novel. That, we realize, was the easy part. Now we have to convince someone to get behind the darn thing.

As part of our seemingly endless task of generating interest, we entered the Pitchapalooza contest. They picked us at random, and now as of right now--

We're in first place! Woo-Hoo!

To everyone who has voted, thank you, thank you, thank you. We appreciate your support more than you know.

But it's not over yet. The Book Doctors won't name a victor until March 15. So we will not rest. We're going to keep campaigning, trying to put as much distance as possible between us and our competition. So if you're interested in doing us a solid, do the following:

Now, if you want to see what our novel is about before voting (and good on you for being such a smart shopper), read our pitch, reprinted from the contest page:

Mythology High

Mac is an epic punk. No wonder: after his dad went off to fight in the Trojan War and never came back, Mac spent his childhood evading his mom’s scumbag suitors—all one hundred-and-eight of them. Of course, he turned out this way—a moody, friendless sixteen-year-old who pulls pranks, blows off work, and alienates everyone at school.

But when he trains a flock of birds to defecate on the headmaster, Mac (short for Telemachus) takes his misanthropy to new lows. The administrators give him an ultimatum: prove that he’s truly the son of Odysseus by doing something heroic—or get out.

And so begins Mythology High, a high school drama that just so happens to take place 3,000 years ago. Gloriously anachronistic, the story recounts Mac’s three-month odyssey as he encounters fantastic beasts, seeks legendary artifacts, and does the two things he never thought possible: meet a girl and make friends.

More than simply a companion piece to Homer’s epic, Mythology High is a novel about friendship and transformation, regret and redemption, with all the adventure, romance, suspense, and heart that both high school teachers and their students can enjoy.

Still not convinced? Then consider these Six Reasons Why You Should Vote For Sheri and Mark's Novel:

  1. We're a husband-and-wife writing duo. Come on: how adorable is that?

  2. In our very first chapter, our hero trains a flock of birds to defecate all over the administrators on the first day of school. You hear that? Defecating birds! Is that a hook, or what?

  3. If we our book is eventually published, we will try to get the surviving members of the Monkees to write a song for the eventual musical.

  4. If we win Pitchapalooza, it will be like one of those great Sylvester Stallone movies, in which the hero comes from nothing and defies all odds to come out on top. (And I'm talking, of course, about Stallone's 1987 arm-wrestling drama Over the Top.)

  5. Our book includes a Minotaur, which may conjure up happy memories of Minotaurs you had when you were children.

  6. Did we mention the defecating birds?

And if you're stll not convinced... let me just say this: look, we believe in this book and think it's a jolly fun ride. We have oracles and suitors, bandits and blind prophets, underground labyrinths and magical two-headed flutes. We have Homer himself. Yep: Homer's a character, as a geeky teenager, with a limp and a crazy obsession for heroes.

But, most of all, if you strip away all the adventure and ancient mythological trappings, we have regular old teens, facing regular old teen problems. The five teens at the core of our story seek approval from their parents, make friends, fall in love. Only our teens are wearing tunics.

So, one more time (in case you don't want to scroll up), here's how you vote for Mythology High:

Thanks for your help. And remember that three-word Pitchapalooza mantra: Yes we can.

Uh... I mean.. why not us?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On The Phantom Menace Re-Release: Now, If They Could Only 3D the Plot...

Note: With Star Wars: The Phantom Menace getting the 3D upgrade, I thought I would re-post this piece, about the disappointment I felt when I first saw the film back in 1999. It's really a loss of innocence piece-- or, more accurately, a "Jar-Jar-Binks-abruptly-and-single-handedly-assassinated-my-protracted-childhood" piece. Enjoy, and may the Force be with you... except for you, Mr. Binks! You can rot in Mustafar for all I care!

* * * * * * * * * *

I was twenty-eight going on ten.

Thirteen years ago, in May 1999, I was caught up in the same cultural phenomenon that was sweeping the nation, but for me, it was something more.

You have to understand: when I was a boy, the Star Wars Saga was my life. I bought the figures, play sets, cards, books, comics, soundtracks, puppets, posters, candy—you name it, except for maybe the Underoos.

As a ten-year-old boy, I considered The Empire Strikes Back the single greatest movie I had ever seen. (And, thirty-one years later, I may not have wavered in that opinion.) The summer Empire came out, I must have seen it in the theater seven times. Same with Return of the Jedi, three years later. We didn’t have VCR’s back then, so I would actually sneak a tape recorder into the movies, so I could at least listen to them. In the end, I knew all three movies by heart-- line by line, Jawa-grunt by Jawa-grunt.

In my young and oh-so-innocent estimation, George Lucas, the lord of all things Star Wars, was an unqualified genius—and a kind and generous one at that: after the saga seemed to conclude with the death of Darth Vader in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, George promised “prequels”—three more movies, three more adventures filled with great stuff like the Ice Planet of Hoth, the Millennium Falcon, and (my personal favorite) Boba Fett the bounty hunter.

So a year went by, then five, then ten. Finally, in May 1999, sixteen years after the last Star Wars movie, George Lucas offered his legions of fans the dream come true: Star Wars—Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I bought my tickets a week before and took the day off from work on opening day. And when the lights went out, and those familiar trumpets blared John Williams’ iconic score, and the words Star Wars, in big, yellow letters, filled the screen, it didn’t matter that I was twenty-eight, married, and remarkably charged with teaching the nation’s youth. No, at that point, I was a ten-year-old kid again, feeling the Force flowing through him.

Then a terrible thing happened: I actually watched the movie.

Was it the worst movie I ever saw? No. But it was nothing I had expected or even could have settled for. It seemed George Lucas and Co. were so wrapped up in their new-fangled, computer-generated special effects that they forgot to, you know, write an interesting story.

Instead, they reduced the once and future Dark Lord of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker, to an annoying kid.

They offered up a mind-numbingly elongated desert chase sequence, complete with a goofy, two-headed sports announcer.

They created a potentially cool new bad-guy, Darth Maul, and then they (literally) took the legs out from under him.

Worst of all, they subjected fans to… I can hardly bring myself to say it… the loathsome, unforgivable Jar Jar Binks.

A computer generated idiot-alien, Jar Jar almost single-handedly brought down the entire franchise. (And considering this franchise also includes the Ewoks, that’s saying something.)

Jar Jar talked like a four-year-old, which I guess was supposed to be cute. It wasn’t. He was kind of clumsy, too, and I guess watching him trip all over the place when fighting bad guys was supposed to make us laugh. It didn’t. In fact, it was all I could to keep from crying.

I waited sixteen years for the movie event of a lifetime… and I got Jar Jar Binks?

I suppose it was my own fault. Because I had built it up and built it up to such a degree, the movie could never have exceeded my expectations. But how was it possible that it wasn’t even in the same galaxy as my expectations?

I’ve actually come to appreciate, over the past ten years, the irony associated with Phantom Menace and the other two prequels. At their core, the first three episodes— the plot-challenged Phantom Menace, the inconsequential Attack of the Clones, and the overstuffed Revenge of the Sith—warn against the danger of unchecked power. And, in a bizarre way, that’s the story of George Lucas as well; he became such a powerful force in Hollywood, no one had the guts to tell him that his ideas were getting increasingly lamer. As a result, the all-powerful Emperor Lucas, much like his fallen angel Anakin Skywalker, was seduced by the dark side of his own hype and the power of his technology.

"Don't be too proud of this technological terror you constructed," Darth Vader warns an associate in the first Star Wars. I wonder what would have happened if any of George's underlings, seeing how enchanted he had become with his computer-generated effects, had the guts to say that to him.

Looking back thirteen years later, I can see that Phantom Menace truly marked the abrupt end of my rather prolonged childhood. It was the day I realized that maybe the people you once thought were geniuses were just schmucks who got lucky. Few experiences could have topped the high I felt sitting in that theater on the opening day of Phantom Menace back in May 1999. And few could match the disappointment I felt, two hours later, when the movie was over, and my childhood, I realize, was too—irretrievably lost, in that galaxy far, far away.