Monday, February 22, 2010

At Pool's Edge

While I was staring at the pool this morning before my swim class started, I was admiring the simplicity of this hole in the ground. It is a rectangle with varying depths of four to fourteen feet. It isn’t big by any means. It isn’t Olympic-sized. It isn’t ten lanes wide. It isn’t many things, but what it is, is enough to build a season on.

Sixty swimmers dove into this pool in September and they’ve been diving in every day since. This is where they put in the hours. Their sweat washed off by a wave. Their puke sucked down by the gutter. All of them accomplished swims in this hole in the ground that they never thought were possible. That becomes routine after a while. Doing The Impossible, a new class, meets Monday thru Saturday at the pool for two hours. The prerequisites are too long to list. When you complete a season, you will know you have them.

We have many swimmers that have those prerequisites and tomorrow we are taking the best of them to Chicago for the Horizon League Swimming and Diving Championships. For six months we presented them with the impossible in order for them to believe anything is possible this week.

Swimmers, take your mark.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Avatar’s greatest achievement is not its innovative use of 3D, the art direction, or the special effects. It is the fact that as I returned home after seeing the movie, which is, in terms of story and plot, nothing more than a hybrid of Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, I asked my wife if she thought Avatar could win the Oscar for best picture and I was able to do so with a straight face.

Visually, the world that James Cameron and his crew created is stunningly original. You want to be there, you want to domesticate a Banshee and fly around Pandora weaving in and out of floating mountains. But before I go on praising some aspects of the film I need to talk about what I didn’t like.

In the love scenes and the battle scenes I was concerned about the soundtrack detracting from the story, as is the case with many blockbusters. The best example I can think of is Air Force One. Not that there was much to detract from, but that movie has the most over-the-top score of any film I can think of. It is absolutely miserable. I encourage you to watch a few minutes of the movie just so you know what I’m talking about.

Increasingly as time elapsed in the theater, I wanted to see more of Pandora than I wanted to be interrupted by the completely unoriginal story with dialogue that Jar Jar Binks could have written. The lines given to Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) are especially painful. His lines reek of American pomposity and we have heard them a million times before, like this one, “You are not in Kansas anymore” or “Shut your pie hole” or, a favorite conclusion of many Americans, “Diplomacy has failed.” This is code for time to blow shit up.

It is worth mentioning that I am aware of Cameron’s work. Aware of it, but also a fan of some of it. So I knew his writing comes across as mannered when it isn’t delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger to give it that extra dose of insincerity. And by that point, one is so amused by Arnold’s accent that it doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It just sounds so damn cool because Arnold is saying it. This is to say, I went in with the lowest possible expectations. I knew the dialogue would be bad. I knew the score might be overreaching and obvious. I knew the story had been told a million times. I foresaw myself leaving the theater pissed off and disappointed that I spent any amount of money to see the movie, but near raging because I spent $12.50 to see Avatar in 3D. When these are your expectations, it leaves a lot of wiggle room. And believe me, there was a lot of wiggling.

For me, the world of Pandora, with all its color and biological unity, was good enough to offset that wiggling, like Neytiri and Jake bonding while training in archery or doing whatever the Na’vi do to do it under a tree with drooping, neon-like foliage. As a viewer, besides the aforementioned scenes, I wanted to be in the movie, perhaps permanently. Life on Pandora is pleasingly simple, but with added risk. Yes, you could get thrown from a cliff and die when fighting your Banshee, but that goes with the territory. There are greater risks on Pandora, but there is greater reward, the peaceful environment with symbiotic coexistence, a scenario we can’t replicate here on Earth even between humans.

Like many movies before it, Avatar presents an alternative to the world we live in. Humans arrive on Pandora with high-tech war toys to only make a dollar. We are presented with a the culture of the Na’vi, a deeply spiritual, loving people who respect all forms of life and believe in communicating with Eywa, which is conveniently similar in name to YHWH, for Yahweh the God in the Hebrew Bible.

The movie is a retelling of history; specifically what happened in the western half of the United States. Only the ending in Avatar is different. The corporation that is there to make an extra buck is defeated and turned away and Jake and two others (all human) choose to stay on Pandora. At the end of the film, I understood why Jake decides to be made into one of the Na’vi. It just makes sense. Most of humanity, represented here by the corporation, is greedy and careless when it comes to preserving all forms of life. Avatar makes you ponder the choice between living in the human world or the Na’vi world. It is an accomplishment of the filmmakers that others and I end up choosing the Na’vi over the humans. And, it is an easy choice. To make that an easy choice, is where Avatar displays its strength. There is some measurable depth in this movie and that is more than other blockbusters have and much more than I expected. Couple that depth with the unbeatable beauty of Pandora and Avatar, despite no originality in story, has an outside shot at winning the Oscar. I don’t think it will, nor do I want it to, but to have it in the mix is a feat.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Giving It Up

No, not writing. At least not yet. I decided months ago that I was going to go give up TV for lent. It may seem like a trivial thing, but watching TV is serious business and actions need to be taken because of a feeling I always get when I have watched a lot of TV and it is this: it is the easy thing to do. And, oftentimes, the easy thing to do is the least enriching thing. I never come away from a session on the couch feeling like I have added to my life. Unless it is a great movie, the sum of my life is lessened by the beast in my living room.
I like addition, adding things to my life. TV won't be subtracting from it for at least the next forty days. This decision also aligns well with one of the main points in Donald Miller's book A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, which I finally got around to reading and finishing this week, and that is, do the hard thing. It sounds simpler than it is and it is a rule I don't often live by. I am changing that.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ghostbusters and the L.A. Library

According to this website, Ghostbusters only used exterior shots of the New York Public Library. The interior shots are from the Los Angeles Central Library. So, no, I wasn't following in the footsteps of Peter, Ray, Egon, or Winston, at least not after I entered the building.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

NYC - Day 5

Now, nearly six months after the trip, I have uploaded some pictures from each day Kate and I spent in New York in September.

The last day...
We had to spend some more time in Central Park on our last day. We walked from our hotel and tried to spend more time in the middle of the park visiting the highlighted spots on our maps, one of them being this obelisk, which is called Cleopatra's Needle. We took a picture of the inscription near the base that I am reading in the picture below.

The inscription reads, "This obelisk was erected first at Heliopolis, Egypt in 1600 B.C. It was removed to Alexandria in 12 B.C. by the Romans. Presented by the Khedive of Egypt to the City of New York. It was erected here on February 22, 1881 through the generosity of William H. Vanderbilt."

Standing there at the base of that massive piece of stone, or in a world renowned museum full of artifacts from thousands of years ago, it is easy for me to become anesthetized to the significance and age of these artifacts. But occasionally I read a date on a plaque, like the one at the base of Cleopatra's Needle, and the year makes me pause. 1600 B.C. I don't know about you, but I like visualizing the hands that toiled to make the obelisk. They were likely the hands of slaves and that makes me sad, but then I think of the other hands that touched this work of art. Hands of thieves, soldiers, conquerers, and curators and that makes me sad too and confused about the so-called ownership of art. Maybe someone eons ago died in conflict over this obelisk. Maybe someone prayed at the base of it. And now it is in Central Park, a gift from Egypt to one of the greatest cities in the world. Where will it be 3000 years from now?

Walking back to our hotel we ran into barricades set up for the POTUS. Yes, Obama was cruising through NYC unannounced. We found out later that he and former President Bill Clinton were on their way to a memorial at the Lincoln Center for Walter Cronkite. I actually took a video of the presidential motorcade as it passed. It isn't a very good video, but we figured out later on that we must have seen Clinton and Obama in the back of the limo. Clinton's flash of white hair shone easily through the heavily tinted windows of the limo. My favorite part were the SUVs ahead of and behind the limos with SWAT team members hanging off the side with their automatics at the ready. It was a weird sensation standing at that fence knowing that if I jumped over it and took a step toward the motorcade I would be shot dead without any warning.

You know we had to make another stop at the Shake Shack. There is no beating it and there is no beating a five minute wait. We couldn't believe it.

We will return, Shake Shack.

A friendly scavenger hanging out near the Shake Shack patrons.

We were cramming in a lot of stops this morning before we flew out. Here is Kate at Washington Arch and the nearby fountains, right next to NYU. I love this picture.

The arch. Essentially, a mini version of the Arc de Triomphe, and not nearly as impressive.

The reading room in the New York Public Library. I just wanted to stop ogling the place and sit down and read a book. To me, this room was the most beautiful room I saw on the entire trip. More magnificent than anything in the Met or St. Patrick's Cathedral. It became more attractive once I heard the silence. You can hear it in a room like this.

Our parting shot of the trip.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Same Old Snow

We haven’t really had snow this winter in Milwaukee and today it is supposed to snow 6 to 7 inches with another 7 tomorrow.

I’m always sort of annoyed by big snowstorms on the east coast. I know those storms affect more people, but it is always the end of the world if they get anything more than ten inches. Our snow total over the next two days will likely be 14 inches in some areas of Milwaukee, but I suspect you won’t here a word about it on the nightly news unless they decide to focus on Chicago, which may or may not be getting this storm. The worst though is the story that makes an annual appearance in television broadcasts and newspapers across the country. It is always about a huge snowstorm hitting the mid-Atlantic states. The snowfall total varies, but you’ll have a couple paragraphs about each of the following:

The snow paralyzed the city and made commutes horrible. Sue left for work this morning an hour earlier than normal.

People have been so willing to help out. A man towed Sue’s car out of a ditch this morning. Or Cathy, who already had the day off, devoted it to shoveling snow off neighbor’s sidewalks. Snowstorms always bring out the best in people.

The grocery stores were raided a day ahead of the snowstorm. Now, the trouble is keeping them stalked.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled. (This is probably the most painful part of the stories for me.) There will be interviews of stranded travelers complaining about how many hours they’ve been waiting, or been on hold. Blah, blah, blah.

I could save an article about this storm and place it next to an article next year about the next big snowstorm and the wording would be the same. The formula will be the same. But it is sort of a catch 22. There is a need to report on these big storms, but there is no need for overly sentimental tie-ins. Just give me a list of closures, the road conditions, and the weather report. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Oh, How I Did Miss You Sullivan

I had to take a break from the political blogs for a long time. Again, blame it on my attempt to get into grad school. Anyway, I stopped by the Daily Dish today and it was worth my time to see Sullivan still going off (deservedly so) on Palin:
While I'm at it, does anyone actually believe that Palin's name for the child of miraculous provenance was found by her deep knowledge of ancient Norse as she claims in her magical-realism novel, "Going Rogue"? I mean, seriously. She knows about as much ancient Norse as she does English grammar. It's as credible as the idea that she gave a speech while having contractions, several hours after going into labor, as she claims in her novel. It's as credible as her amazing journey in labor with a special needs child on a plane where the flight attendants, according to theAnchorage Daily News, did not even notice she was pregnant. It's as credible as any number of indisputable self-serving, unbalanced lies that she has told in the public record for years.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Worst Christmas Card Joke

I love reading through Christmas card letters. It is interesting to see how people try to put an original spin on a completely unoriginal tradition of arbitrary updates and pictures. Anyway, we received one this year that had something in it that made my jaw drop. First, a little background information. The person who sent the letter was dealing with an ailment and had to have surgery to fix it. They wrote that this ailment is "a genetic thing inherited by northern Europeans." They followed this with, "Here I thought the Germans were the superior race."

What to take away from this?

Nothing quite says, "Now here is a great opportunity to make a joke about Aryan superiority," like a Christmas card.