48

I’m a few days late posting this, but it’s taken me awhile to conjure up some words to reflect my latest orbit around the sun. Partly it’s because I thought of myself as 48 a few months back. Still, I think it’s good to take my mental/emotional temperature to see how I’m doing and sort things out in literary form. Enjoy (or not) as you see fit. Continue reading “48”

Losing Your Voice

So here’s the problem with paranoia about your fellow human beings: you end up losing your voice. First you learn not to be an jerk—probably a good idea, especially if you become aware that a lot of what you’re saying offends or hurts people. Then you start worrying about giving offense of any kind. You start refraining from giving your honest opinions about the important matters of the day because you are only too well aware that you are in a minority or that some of your opinions are unpopular with a large chunk of your associates. You can’t be seen as too much of a partisan one way or the other or you risk getting kicked in the wallet when someone decides you’re “too controversial.”

If you’re an introvert, you dislike being the center of attention, and almost nothing in the current hot-house petri dish of politics gets you put in the media crosshairs quite like an unpopular opinion.

And let’s say you were bullied as a kid, so you’re quite aware of how human beings act if they dislike you or want to get you to shut up. Thugs appear, sometimes one on one, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in mobs. They come with fists and weapons and voices raised in hostility. They leave nasty or threatening messages or make crank calls that threaten the safety of yourself or people you care about. They follow you home and to places where you are known to frequent so that you never feel safe. On the worst occasions, they take action and beat the snot out of you, preferably in front of an audience so you are seen to be humiliated and beaten down by others.

That is becoming the real nature of human beings engaged in “political discourse.” And if you wonder why the “voices of reason” are silent or ignored, it’s often because they’ve decided the exercise of freedom is not worth attracting the attention of the mob. So, congratulations, Humanity: the best in us is often destroyed by the worst in us because no one enjoys being alone in the face of the mob.

Maybe any thoughts you have aren’t the best that humanity has to offer; but they’re still yours. The “obvious price of expressing your opinion” need not be violence. Disagreement, certainly. Criticism, of course. But disagreement and criticism are not enough anymore. Any opinion that doesn’t ring true with the prevailing cultural orthodoxy must be shouted down; the characters of those speaking them must be impugned; their livelihoods must be cut off; their words must be suppressed with force. That is not what I was brought up to believe, but that’s where we are heading, and the gentle-souled introvert has obvious reason for concern just as much as the outspoken firebrand. How did it come to this?

Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement

If you tried to follow every piece of meme-based “wisdom” on Facebook, you’d soon find yourself in an utter dither about what to do with yourself. “Out of sight, out of mind” wars with “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” “Continuous improvement” dukes it out in your head with “Be kind to yourself and accept yourself as you are.” I’ll take some time today to untangle that second knot. Your approach could vary, but then that’s part of reality, isn’t it?

Continue reading “Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement”

Movie Review: Rogue One

I will try to keep this review spoiler-free. No, really. 

If you’re a fan of Star Wars, you’re going to see this film. You know it and I know it. What you might be worried about is will you like the film? Rest assured, fanboys (and gals), you will come out of theater happy with what you see.

The setup

Many Star Wars fans–I am among them–have memorized the opening crawl text from the first film, now titled Episode IV: A New Hope:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.

Rogue One, as shown in the trailers, is the dramatization of that prologue. The MacGuffin moving the story forward is, as in Episode IV, the Death Star plans.

This is a fun film. The title: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story covers it nicely. It weaves in and out of Episode IV here and there while concentrating on a new batch of characters, both members of the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Many of the elements are familiar: the Death Star, the force, Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, X-wings, Tie Fighters, Imperial Stardestroyers, etc.

As is typical of a Star Wars story, the story also takes its characters and us, the audience, to a variety of exotic planets. Unusual aliens greet us, as do a new set of spacecraft–some sleek, some ugly and dented–all part of the “lived in” universe George Lucas did so much to bring to life (yikes) 39 years ago.

Why I liked it

This will be tricky without spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Geek that I am, I always like to see what new stuff the folks at Lucasfilm will add to the galaxy far, far away, and I was not disappointed. They’re running out of new landscapes to film on Earth, but through careful hunting around our diverse planet and some judicious matte painting or digital effects, the filmmakers still manage to give us (if I may cross genres for a moment) strange, new worlds.

I liked the new characters, who manage to carry on the snarky interactions and uncertain-friendship dynamics of the original trilogy while still being likable. Over the course of two hours and some-odd minutes, I managed to care about how they fare. That’s no easy thing, as we learned, painfully, from Episodes I-III.

I suppose what impressed me the most about this film was the production design. Everything from helmets to tools to clothing to architecture to spacecraft looked believable. Again, that “lived in” feeling of the environment was meticulously crafted. And, more to the point, much of it was crafted to look functional, worn, and used, as everyday objects are in our real lives. There are also some other special effects tricks in the film that I can’t describe without spoiling things for the fans, but suffice to say you will be impressed.

The plot I described above. Director Gareth Edwards deftly handles the script and all of the moving parts necessary to make a good Star Wars story. The pacing is good. The dialogue is mostly “business” (moving the plot forward) with just enough character moments to remind you that these are supposed to be people we’re rooting for, not action figures. The space and planetary battles moved by at a rapid clip, as expected, almost a shade too fast to follow at points, but nothing glaring.

I suppose the best compliment I can pay to the film is that I want to see it again. And really, isn’t that what we want out of a good movie?

A couple thoughts for non-Star Wars fans

I know you’re out there: people who are not Star Wars fans or who for your own reasons have never seen any part of the franchise. Yet now your spouse or significant other has told you that you’re going, and you’re wondering if you’re going to care at all. If you like adventure stories, yes, you should like this. There’s some “heart” to be found as well.

The best piece of advice I could give to the uninitiated would be to at least watch the first Star Wars, the one for which this story serves as a prologue. It will introduce you to the Star Wars universe and provide the background for what’s going on. You don’t need to watch the entire series. Episode IV will also provide you with some timeline connections that will help you see how this episode fits in with that one while telling its own story.

Okay, I’ve blathered on long enough. Go see the movie. You know you want to.

The Curse of Charlie Brown and My Possession by Sportball

We’ll see if I get through writing this without getting misty eyes. Odds are nil. I am a Chicago Cubs fan, and today in Chicago the city will be celebrating, commemorating, and even in some curiously mourning the longest dry spell in professional sports. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Cubs finally, after yes, 108 years, won the World Series. Why get misty-eyed over a baseball game? I guess you had to be there.

In the beginning…

I grew up in the Western Suburbs of the Chicagoland area (yes, we call it that). I spent one season in little league, lacking skills and playing for the worst team in my division–the sort of team the very forgiving, patient, and understanding coach seemed to enjoy coaching. It probably comprised the kids from all over the district who were picked last for any team sport. We played badly, ending the season something like 4-10, 4-16, something awful like that, and two of those wins were due to the other team not even bothering to show up. I was the kid they put in right field on the worst team in the little league, but I played, I tried, and I learned what I could about the sport of baseball.

I also learned about being an uncoordinated kid among kids who could play sports. I learned that being incompetent at sports was a bad thing for a boy to be. You get called names for that. You get laughed at. You get zero sympathy for getting hit by a pitch right in the elbow and crying because, well, you got hit by a fast ball right in the elbow. You learn years later that the boys from across the district who saw what a physically incompetent weakling you are in baseball will find you in junior high and high school and pick on you because you’re an easy target. And if you’re on the worst team in the little league, you learn how to lose graciously. Kind of like the Chicago Cubs.

If you’re a weak kid who’s not good at baseball, you learn to identify with Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character who managed a bad baseball team and always seemed to get the short end of the stick, either through external circumstances or his own bad attitudes. “Just wait ’til next year!” was his despairing declaration at the end of each losing season. Again, kind of like the Cubs.

charlie-brown-baseball-aaugh

Baseball is just something a boy was simply expected to do. Grandpa Leahy and my dad took me to Wrigley Field to see a Cubs game. I went to a Cubs game with my work buddies and we drank beer in the bleachers and engaged in a healthy game of taunting “Left field sucks!” to the people in the other bleachers. Got one of the worst sunburns in my life, got hit on by a cross-dresser on the L, and came home drunker than my mother would have preferred. The Cubs lost. It was still a great time. I admired the 1984 Cubs (the Ryne Sandberg/Jody Davis era), who got as far as the National League Championship Series before being eliminated by the San Diego Padres. They came close, but they lost. Choked. Whatever. Losing was just something the Cubs did, and yet if anyone asked about baseball, I was always a Cubs fan.

Sportball

So I went off to college and started to return much of the resentment and contempt toward people of athletic ability that they had shown me once upon a time. I went to one football game in college, lasted maybe half the game, and spent most of the time drinking beer and talking to girls. I took golf and bowling pass/fail so that a) I wouldn’t irritate anyone in team sports with my incompetence and b) it wouldn’t affect my grade point average.

I spent my 20s with very little attachment to sports, though I never forgot the Cubs. I watched as their 2003 National League Championship dreams collapsed after a more dedicated fan in the stands reached for a ball at the same time as a Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. That poor guy got death threats, for gosh sakes, over a baseball game! I never forgot that, either. Maybe Chicago will finally forgive Steve Bartman. I hope so.

Today my past attitude  would be expressed with disdain by non-athletic hipsters about televised sports and sports fans thusly: “I don’t know anything about ‘sportball.’ All I hear when I watch an interview with a professional football player is, ‘Well, we didn’t sport very well in the first half so we have to sport better than the other guys so we can sport and win in the second half’.” I was never quite that bad, but there were years when I was very definitely not a sports fan.

Becoming a “born again” sports fan

Sometime in my 30s I moved to the Washington, DC, area. I didn’t fit in, I wasn’t a political guy, and I had no interest in being so. I missed my family. So I started going to the bars to watch football. When I realized I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for the Washington Redskins, I became a Chicago Bears fan for the first time in my life. It was a way of being different from the locals without being terribly off-putting (I was also a conservative, and DC is not a conservative town). So I found things to talk about with the locals and with my family.

I’ve been screaming at my TV since then, and “Da Bears” have as sketchy a record as the Cubs some years, though they had been to a Super Bowl, and I remember that being a whole lot of fun…and within my lifetime. But while the Bulls, Blackhawks, and even that other baseball team in the city, the White Sox, managed to win their respective league championships, the Cubs continued to disappoint. Losing was just something the Cubs did.

The change on the North Side

And then last year, I started hearing curious things about the Cubs. Their front office was different, their manager was different, the players were young and talented. They reached the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. Perhaps I ought to try watching them again. So I watched the Cubs in October, which is usually not something one does.

They won the Wild Card Game. They won the National League Division Series against a very tough St. Louis Cardinals team in four games. Then came the Championship Series and the New York Mets. The Cubs weren’t as “hot” as they had been in St. Louis, and after four games, bam! Back to Chicago and “Better luck next year!”The Cubs got better this year, though, and if I came across one of their games while channel surfing, the odds were better that I’d stop and watch the game. They really were good. And the wins kept coming. They had the best record in baseball that year. Could this really be it? Could the drought, the curse, the perpetual losing actual end? It’s easy to be cynical about such things.

I missed the first half of the playoffs because the games were on networks my cable package didn’t carry, but they kept winning. They finally got to the NLCS and a network I could watch. The world was stressful and weary, and I needed something else besides to watch besides politics and the news of the world. I dedicated myself to watching the Cubs games, every single one, from start to finish. And I was seeing something I’d never seen before–or something I’d not seen in a long time: the team fought back from deficits. They refused to get dispirited in the face of adversity. And they were really, really fun to watch.

What this World Series has meant to me

I needed to tell all that to get to the actual Series because, like many Chicagoans (or Chicago suburbanites), my relationship with baseball and the Cubs has been long and complicated. What other team than the Cubs could teach three generations of Leahys among others the virtues of persistence, hope, and optimism in the face of and failure? Not all the kids of my generation played football, but nearly all of us played or watched baseball or at least softball. Not all of those memories are great, but they are part of who we are, and many of my peers from that time grew up as Cubs fans.

So the Good Lord saw fit to put the Cubs up against the team with the second-longest World Series drought in Major League Baseball and scores of their own to settle. We got maximum drama: the Cleveland Indians went up three games to one, and many of us felt, oh great, we’re doomed again. Curses or superstitions were invoked. Some fans couldn’t watch, the whole thing being too painful or stressful to watch. I determined to keep watching. And they won a game to get themselves out of the hole. And another. They tied the frickin’ series–unheard of! The Cubs and the Indians in Game 7 of the World Series? Surely the Apocalypse was upon us.

We had a close game in Game 7. Early lead. Tie scores. Rain delay. Extra inning. And then this happened:

And so all that experience comes back to you–whatever it is: the wins, the losses, the long experience with supporting a team that has not been taken seriously, the family members who lived their entire lives without seeing a Cubs pennant win or World Series win. It’s like having an ancient prophecy to come true during your lifetime. It’s like laying a beloved relative to rest or nostalgia for those who have left us believing in something without ever seeing it come to pass. It’s like seeing your childhood struggles redeemed. So yes, grown men cheered and cried at that moment.

Did millions (and yes, it’s millions) of Chicago Cubs fans do anything particularly different November 3, 2016? No. We sat and watched or listened or monitored our Twitter feeds for news about nine men playing a game of sport. We had so many voiced and unvoiced expectations, and for the first time in 108 years, something magical happened, and the team we expected to lose emerged victorious. However, it will be a while before some of us come to terms with a new relationship with the world because to define yourself as a Cubs fan for nearly a century has been to define yourself as a fan of the underdog or a lover of a lost cause. But that’s not true anymore. We aren’t perpetual losers, we can win. We aren’t cursed, we aren’t doomed. We can win. Anything is possible!

The Introvert’s Guide to Orlando V: Disney Springs

I’ll get off of Disney property, I promise. Today, however, is not that day.

Disney Springs is one of three places I walk around for exercise regularly. This is because it’s got a circle route with a few optional branches I can take for extra distance or extra quiet. Said walk starts by parking in the back corner of the Cirque du Soleil parking lot (what the street signs in the Disney Springs area now call “Surface Parking”). From there, I can walk in one of two directions on the path that borders the south side of the parking lot: along the Sassagoula River toward Cirque, House of Blues, DisneyQuest, and the rest of the West Side.

Usually, however, I head in the other direction, toward the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course.

Golfing

Speaking of which, do you golf? If not, consider it. Disney has three very nice courses: the Palm, Magnolia, and Lake Buena Vista Golf Courses. Don’t do it just for the physical activity–I personally know very few people who actually enjoy golf–but because you’re guaranteed three hours or so of relative quiet, walking or driving a cart over grassy hills, wooded fairways, and unpopulated scenery. If you want to golf or go to the driving range and just smack the heck out of a bucket of balls, the clubhouse for the LBV course is across the bridge on the other side of the Sassagoula River. If you have your own clubs, you’re better off parking at Saratoga Springs Resort.

Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and Other Walks

If you’re not into golfing, you can still cross that bridge to Saratoga Springs. From there you have a couple of options. If you’ve got a lot of time and strong legs, you can walk around the Saratoga Springs Resort campus, which is quite extensive (grab a map from the front desk, or consult one of the many public kiosks they have spread around to help the clueless tourist).

My personal favorite walk is along the water, so I’ll walk along the perimeter of the golf course parking lot or through the Saratoga Springs commercial buildings until I get to Golf Drive. From Golf Drive I walk to Broadway, hang a right, and cross a bridge before making my next right and keeping the water in sight. This takes me around the Congress Park lodge buildings and onto the other side of the Sassagoula River. Saratoga Springs has a nice paved walkway that runs all the way to a pedestrian bridge that takes you to east side of Disney Springs (still called the Marketplace, for those of us old enough to remember when the whole area was called Disney Village Marketplace).

Saratoga Springs’ walkway has plenty of benches and a nice view of Disney Springs across the water. (They used to have some rocking chairs on a nice stone terrace that features a fountain, but those seem to have vanished. Why??? Curses!) What I like best about it, however, is that unlike Disney Springs, there is no background music. I’m not precisely certain why commercial entities like Disney insist on having music everywhere in public spaces. Perhaps it’s for theming. Personally, I believe it’s because they know that background music subliminally annoys people, and so they get up and start walking, talking, or shopping just to get away from it. So, fair warning: there aren’t a lot of actual quiet places in Disney Springs, just places with fewer people in them.

Disney Springs Marketplace

There are some sidewalks that go between the stores and what used to be the bus depot. There aren’t any entrances on that side, but there’s less traffic.

The first relatively quiet place you might find is the Lava Lounge, which is attached to and slightly below the Rainforest Cafe. I say “relatively” because it’s a saloon, and those places can get crowded when afternoon thunderstorms or dinnertime arrive.

From there, you can check out the performance stage in the Marketplace. There’s plenty of seating if they don’t have a band or choir performing. My introverted mother also likes the planter in front of World of Disney, looking toward the stage. “Great for people watching” was her exact quote.

Detours

Before I get too far afield, I should mention another option when you reach the LBV Golf Course. Instead of crossing the bridge to Saratoga Springs, you can continue on the path that follows the Sassagoula River all the way up to Disney’s Old Key West Resort, which is the first Disney Vacation Club property. Again, depending on how vigorous you’re feeling, you can also walk around Old Key West, understanding that while it is more or less circular in its layout, finding the paths that get you all the way around the circle can be hard to find. If you’re looking for a quick/quiet beverage, the Gurgling Suitcase at OKW is worth a stop.

Another detour you can take away from the crowds at Disney Springs is up Hotel Plaza Boulevard. Disney recently installed some very nice pedestrian bridges with stairs and elevators on each side of the road. I’ve walked up to the TraveLodge, crossed the street, and come back.

An additional detour is to keep walking on the sidewalk across from Disney Springs along Buena Vista Drive. You’ll pass the SunTrust Bank, the Walt Disney World Casting building, and a gas station before you come to Team Disney, the WDW administrative building. There’s a pedestrian bridge there that will take you to the Disney Springs Landing and West Side.

The Landing

There’s a stage area between the Boathouse Restaurant and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, which is an Indiana Jones-themed saloon (“There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!” “Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie!” “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ’em!” “Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?”). I don’t see that seating area used very often and there isn’t a lot of shade, but there are some benches for resting and getting out of the traffic flow.

Jock Lindsey’s and Paradiso 37 both have nice outside seating areas and they’re usually pretty quiet between noon and 4:30 (or until the afternoon thunderstorms start).

There’s a walkway behind Raglan Road and Morimoto Asia that’s not as high-traffic–at least it is now, until they open a new restaurant there soon.

Town Center

This is the new section of Disney Springs, which is chock-full of air-conditioned upscale shops. Not a bookstore to be found. However, they do have a Tommy Bahama and a Sprinkles cupcake place where you can get cupcakes out of an ATM. A lot of the stores you see there you could find at your closest upscale mall at home. It is relatively quiet before 10:30 or 11 a.m. and does have one “street” that is roofed over and seems to be air conditioned.

One fun thing I like in the middle of the Town Center is an Archimedean screw that you can turn yourself to bring up water from a water to a higher-level reservoir to keep the waterfall going.

West Side

If you can’t stand the crowds anymore, there is an AMC Theater at West Side. One side has a dine-in theater, with waiters, much more personal space per seat, and a fairly diverse menu. Catch a matinee. My biggest gripe with the place is the smell of the carpet, which has probably seen plenty of hard messes over the years.

The courtyard (“Exposition Park”) between Starbucks and Bongos Cuban Cafe has Disney food trucks stationed there. It’s usually not too crowded mid-afternoon. From there you can reach the walkway that leads along the Sassagoula River and behind most of the restaurants.

Do you like open-air heights? Do you want to get above the crowds? They have a massive balloon at West Side that’ll help you get above it all. The “Characters in Flight” balloon will take you up to 400 feet for sightseeing, weather permitting. Good luck with that.

Several of the saloons on the West Side can be reasonably crowd-free between noon and 4:30: Bongos Cuban Cafe, the upper-floor patio at Splitsville, and the sushi bar inside the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe.

If you just need somewhere to sit and get clear of the traffic, the outside seating area by House of Blues is good and reasonably well shaded. It is somewhat less convenient when there is a concert about to happen or when the afternoon thunderstorms pop up. You have been warned.

The last places I’ve identified for resting are the benches on the west side of House of Blues and the south side of Cirque du Soleil. From there, you can find the pathway to (and around) the surface parking…and your car, if you’ve parked it in the back corner.

Awhile back, someone asked me, “How can you deal with all those crowds on your walks?” My answer was simple: “I’m just walking. I’m not talking to them.”

Until next time…