How Elmo and Michael Caine Cleaned Up My Yard

This past weekend I saw two movies that couldn’t be more unlike each other and yet are equally as good: 1966’s Gambit (starring Michael Caine and Shirly Maclaine) and 2011’s Being Elmo (starring Elmo and all the cooler-than-you humans who make the Muppets come alive). Both movies got me thinking in substantial ways about creativity and storytelling and how important it is to always ask more of our entertainment.

I think of my mind space as precious real estate. I don’t want your Saw movies and gorefests and pornos coming in and junking up the place with trash and rotted out couches. I want to put things on my mind’s front yard that are pleasing, things of worth and value. Call me old-fashioned, but art is not intrinsically valuable to me. I think art’s greatest value is both in how well it is done and how much it improves life.

Let’s take Being Elmo first. Elmo is after my time. I always found him annoying and kick-in-the-faceable. But the little dude works. Kids love him and, with time, I’ve come to appreciate the character as well. Being Elmo is the story of Elmo’s puppeteer, Kevin Clash–a 53-year old black man who grew up in Baltimore. Yeah, I was surprised too.

Kevin inspires me. From an early age he knew what he wanted to do with his life and he’s done it. That’s amazing. How many get to say that? With Elmo, he’s found the purest expression of his art, and through that art he has found the purest expression of the purest, finest emotion: love. Elmo is love. That’s Kevin’s guiding principle: Elmo is love.

And Kevin is brilliant. It’s a magic trick, what he does. Even when Elmo is hugging sick children who want to meet Elmo as a last wish, there’s Kevin. The kids can see him, but their attention is on Elmo. They don’t care about Kevin. That’s magic. So his art is the whole package: it is very good and it is very valuable.

Gambit is an underseen gem of a film with enough twists and turns to rank it among the very best of heist films, but its biggest surprise is that its biggest twist occurs in the first half hour. And it’s genius. Flat out. It’s genius.

The original poster for the film even featured the tagline, “Go ahead and tell the end, but please don’t tell the beginning!” And they meant that. The beginning blew me away. Jaw dropping moment that I won’t ruin here but whose implications reverberate all the way through to the end of the movie when the sweet message at the core of the film becomes obvious.

That’s the kind of creativity I want–so good that it astonishes. Elmo, who I once derided, now astonishes me. Michael Caine and Shirley Maclaine and the writers of Gambit astonish me. And I thank them for that. This past weekend, I was shown new horizons of what it is possible to achieve creatively and there’s nothing more inspiring than that.

Both Gambit and Being Elmo are currently available on Netflix Streaming, though Gambit expires on 2/29/12. Hurry. 

Because I Said So, THAT’S WHY!

This movie has nothing to do with this post.

“‎Because I said so” is frustration given veto power. It’s dismissive and unfair. Parents should never say it. Agree or disagree?

That’s what I posted on Facebook yesterday. As you can imagine, it generated more than a few comments. Parenting issues–especially one as universal as the dreaded Because I said so–are popular topics among my Facebook friends. Mostly because my FB friends are my age and aren’t looking to max out their chill at DJ Teddy RXpin’s mad rave this weekend and don’t roll so much with the homies. (Does anybody really roll with homies anymore?  Probably not. We have an underground nation of sad, lonely homies out there, don’t we? Poor, poor homies.)

Even friends without kids felt the need to opine. It seems just about everybody has either said “Because I said so” or been on the receiving end of it. But why?

Probably the best point made in the favor of Because I said so was that if you’ve got a kid with the pester gene, sometimes that’s the only answer they’ll accept. Makes sense to me.

I think, ultimately, you need to give your kids the respect of an explanation. That’s how they learn. “Why?” is often an annoying question, but it’s a good one. It’s a question that deserves taking some time to answer (so long as it’s asked in sincerity and not repetitively and disrespectfully).  But there are times when military-like obedience is required and, to me, that’s what Because I said so represents.

For example, running around in the kitchen when the oven is open. If my child seeks an explanation first before stopping, she might very well end up with some serious burns at best, or end up as dinner at worst (only if my second cousins, The Cannibals, are over, but you never know when they’re gonna drop by). But if my child understands that, until she’s an adult, she must obey me regardless of reason, then she’ll stop immediately “because I said so.” The explanations can come second.

I think the trick is building up the faith and understanding enough so that when you say Because I said so it really means something and it’s not just a last resort. If my child knows I care about her and that answers will always be forthcoming at some point, then I think she’d be more likely to take my word as law and never, ever be so totally incorrigible that I’ll be tempted to utter the words Because I said so in total frustration.

Also, I’m pretty sure Pollyanna is totally a true story.

What do you think? Is there every a time when Because I said so is appropriate? Or do you try to ban the phrase from your vocabulary?

…Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Jar Jar in 3D

Jar Jar Binks is a terrible character. Let’s get that out of the way first. From the way he talks to his appearance (which, even if we’re speaking just in terms of technical advances, has not aged well) to his ability to suck the life out of any given scene with his “comedy,” he makes it hard to sit through Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace as an adult. So, I use my kids as an excuse.

I recently appeared on a podcast in which much of the discussion centered around the (then) imminent release of Episode I in 3D. Memories of the original release were shared and finally, thirteen years after the fact, I was able to articulate accurately my reaction to seeing the movie for the first time after being, quite literally, a Star Wars fan my entire life (I was born the same year the original Star Wars was released): I didn’t know I was disappointed.

Only those of us who stood in line for six hours for tickets (this was before Fandango) can even begin to understand how it’s possible to be so completely out of touch with your own feelings that you return to the cinema six more times over a six month period to try to figure them out (yes, I did that). Trying to wrap my head around my own disappointment with the film was like trying to comprehend a slow leak when I desperately needed water. I didn’t want to believe what my eyes were seeing because I was so thirsty and the bowl looked full enough that I fooled myself into believing the levels weren’t really going down. But Star Wars was going down. The magic just wasn’t there in the same way anymore.

Did you see that? I didn’t say “the magic wasn’t there.” I said, “the magic wasn’t there in the same way.” Big difference. One my daughter would insist upon. She digs The Phantom Menace. Even though we already own the movie and she’d seen it several times, she wanted to see it again, in 3D.

Blame–and thank–Jar Jar. She thinks he’s hilarious. He says “doo doo” and she laughs. She’s smart–might be smarter than me one day–but she’s 9. This is how she rolls. And can I fault her for that? Of course not. When I was a kid, I coerced my dad into taking me to see the Garbage Pail Kids Movie. I deserve whatever fresh hell my kids can drag me into.

But (and this is between you and me), I didn’t completely dislike Episode One yesterday. It was kind of cool seeing the pod race on the big screen again. And that lightsaber fight at the end? Man, you can’t beat it.

The 3D was well done, I can’t deny that. It didn’t have View Masteritis like the John Carter trailer that ran before it. It looked more like the 3D in the trailer for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man–slick, rounded and consistent. Time and care was put the conversion and whatever E1 may lack in charm, I can’t deny that it’s a visual splendor and the 3D added to the experience.

Am I blinded by time and age? No, if anything I’m blinded by my kids. Seeing things fresh again through their eyes is one of the great treats of parenthood. They soften my cynicism and my criticisms. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I’d rather enjoy things than not, on whatever level.

The McDonald’s Song

Most times, when I drive by a McDonald’s, I think of hookers.

Let me explain. My father was big on car games. One of his favorites was to predict when the traffic lights would change from red to green. It was a magic trick. He’d say “1… 2… 3… lights change!” and then they would. Every time, without fail. Whenever I or my brothers would try it, nine times out of ten we’d get it wrong. It helped that Dad was playing against 8-year-olds. We didn’t understand until years later that he was just watching the traffic lights of the cross traffic to make his “predictions.”

Another game was spotting McDonald’s restaurants. Now, I’ve seen the documentary Super Size Me and I don’t really like to eat there, but there was a time when seeing a McDonald’s was exciting. The trick was to be the first to see it, however far away it was. If you did and you sang the song, you won.

McDonald’s… McDonald’s…

Duh da da duh duh duh

Duh da da duh duh duh

This, of course, was a game we could play multiple times during even the shortest of car rides. So America’s struggle with obesity does have its perks.

Dad’s absolute most favorite game was one only he played because it wasn’t really a game. It was torture. Dad liked to pick out random, ugly women walking the street and tell my brothers that they were my girlfriend.

When you’re pre-adolescent, the worst thing in the world is girls. You know you’re gonna have to date and marry one eventually, but the thought of it makes you want to vomit and stick bugs up your nose. You hope, at the very least, that she’ll be pretty. That will at least make it somewhat tolerable.

“Look guys, there she is!” Dad would say with fantastic delight. “It’s Brock’s girlfriend! Look, it’s BROCK’S GIRLFRIEND!” And then he’d making loud kissing noises. And then he’d laugh. And so would my brothers.

I’d protest, but the more I did the worse the taunting got. Dad never chose women in other cars or attractive ones on billboards, so invariably I’d end up “attached” to bag ladies and, yes, hookers. This is how I learned who was pretty and who was not. And I became deathly afraid of liking a girl who wasn’t pretty. I didn’t want to be made fun of.

Memory confuses things and puts things together that don’t necessarily go together. When I’m driving through town and I see a prostitute walking the street, I think about about those car games. I think about traffic lights and McDonald’s. Conversely, when I see a McDonald’s, I think of hookers.

Huh. Maybe that’s why I don’t like to eat there.

The Killed Darling

There’s a maxim all good writers know, attributed to William Faulkner, that goes a little something like this: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”

A darling is that piece of writing–a passage, a turn of phrase, a scene–the writer has fallen in love with. The thinking goes that if a writer loves  a piece of writing so much, he may be blind to the fact that the darling does not make the point the author thinks it does. The darling’s actual worth to the story is often disproportionate to the author’s love for it. Thus, it must be deleted. It must be killed.

The early drafts of my memoir, Raised By a Dead Man, included the following passage. No trace of it remains in the current draft. I’ll explain why afterwards. Enjoy.

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

“No, man, don’t kill ‘im. C’mon, let’s just take the money and get out of here.”

“Naw, man. He seen us. Let’s kill ‘im.”

Sometimes I’ll watch movies—bad ones, admittedly—and I’ll think to myself: No way. There’s no way that criminals are or sound that stupid. But you know what? That’s how Dad told the story and I believed him.

It was during his college days, at Fresno State. He was walking home at night and the two desperate muggers pulled him into an alleyway at the point of a gun. They moved Dad towards the darkness and the garbage and told him to hand over his wallet. Dad obliged them, having no movie camera over his shoulder and no cape under his coat. He expected a simple transaction to take place, the sum of his wallet in exchange for his life. But math hard.

“I don’t think we should kill ‘im. All we wanted was the money. We don’t want any more trouble than we got already.”

“I say we kill ‘im and no one will ever know it were us.”

“I say no.”

“I say yes.”

My father, his sense of self-preservation overwhelming his curiosity at the outcome of this intense debate, turned tail and ran for the back of the dark alley and the promise of safety. It took a moment for the muggers to realize what was happening. One of them—presumably the more homicidal of the two—raised his gun and fired. The shot rang in Dad’s ear and his heart skipped a beat. Just as he was turning the corner to make it safely out of sight, the bullet nicked the nearby building, barely missing him. He was home and wallet-free.

I wish I could say it was an atypical day for him.

And that’s how, at one time, my book began. No foolin’. You just read what was once the very first–albeit short–chapter.

There are some things that now make me cringe. And you never start a story with disembodied dialogue. It’s off-putting and confusing. But, reading it back now, there are some turns of phrase I really love and that are quite clever. And I do still love the story.

So, why did I kill it? Well, the only real point being made is that Dad faced down danger a lot. That’s not terribly deep. Sure, there’s a bit of sly meta commentary on the nature of storytelling and memory that serves as a primer for what a memoir is and does, but that’s weak sauce for the beginning of a book. No one but my writer friends would care, if they noticed it at all.

Dad did face down danger a lot, but that’s a bone cold fact, nothing more. The meat on those bones is how he faced it down (without fear) and why (with faith). That’s in the rest of the book, but not here. So I cut it. I killed my darling–the very first thing I wrote and what launched the whole book–and I let it go.

And how do I know I made the right choice? The book is better. As a whole it is better and that, at the end of the day, is all that matters.

What do you think about what Faulkner said? Are YOU a killer?

Making the Rounds on the Web (and Why)

Hey everybody, I’ve been poppin’ up in some spots you may have missed and I wanted to give you all a heads up!

First off, I recorded a podcast last week with my good friends, Tom Racine and artist Marc Lapierre. The ‘cast was mostly about the online comic Marc and I do together, The SuperFogeys, but we also talk a bit about my memoir and, of all things, Star Wars 3D. In any case, it’s a chance for you to make fun of my voice. You can listen to it right now.

Second, just yesterday one of my blogs from a couple weeks back, What is a Memoir? (And Why I Wrote One) has been passed along to many a person, and Wayne Groner just went ahead and reposted it to his site in full (with my permission, of course–Wayne’s an upstanding guy).

Lastly, power blogger Angie Mizzell invited me to do a guest blog for her as she gets ready for the birth of her third child and I was only too happy to oblige. That guest blog, which went live today, is entitled Cami and is a rewrite and update of a piece I wrote up years ago about my special needs daughter and the awkward conversations I sometimes have about her. I’m particularly proud of this one.

Why is this all happening?

One of the purposes of this website is to try to get myself out there a little more and to be more, well, known. When my book comes out I’d like it to see some success (imagine that) and the only way to do that these days isn’t just to have a great book that’s well-written and well represented by a terrific agent (though I have both of those things and they’re very, very important), it’s to have PRESENCE. Or, if you’d prefer I didn’t use my own word to describe a known thing, a platform.

To that end, I’d like to put it out there that I’m available for guest blogging, podcast shows, link exchanges, etc. Hit me up in the comments or contact me directly and we’ll see what’s shakin’.