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Monthly Archives: July 2010

Before I begin, let me apologize for my absence.  I know the Jungle Gym has been strangely quiet for the last week and a half or so.  An eerie silence and tumbleweeds have been frolicking on the slides and monkey bars and there has not been a Penguin in sight.  I sensed myself going back down the road of angst, and no one wants to read that.

So, on to more amusing matters…

I’m a true, red-blooded, American football fan.  The NFL is one of my true passions, something that was passed down to me by my father and grandfather.  One of the few things that can keep a true student of the NFL going during the off-season is the movement of players and coaches around the league.  We all pore over statistics and scour our memories of great games to try and figure out who exactly wins and loses the annual game of musical chairs in pro football.

This past off-season I have been giggly with amusement that one of the apparent losers was the inimitable Terrell Owens.

T.O. has been a poison pretty much everywhere he has gone in the NFL.  To call him ego-centric and self-aggrandizing is to insult the ego-centric and self-aggrandizing.  They’re not as bad as T.O.  He is virtually the epitome of the “me first” athlete.  He knows he is the best player on the field, and it doesn’t matter what anyone says.  Add to that his showboating ways that include everything from dancing on the star at midfield in Dallas after scoring to hiding cell phones and Sharpies in the goalposts as props for his antics, and you have a truly irritating individual.

But, then again, he’s a wide receiver and they need to have some bluster and ego to do what they do.  Yes, he goes overboard, but that could be forgiven.  Right?

If you say so.  And, I could almost agree with you if that’s where it stopped.  But it never does.  He routinely goes after teammates in the press.  He told Playboy in an interview that he believed then-49er quarterback Jeff Garcia was gay.  He accused Donovan McNabb of laying down in the Super Bowl.  He was absolute venom in the veins of the Cowboys locker room.  The Bills gave him a chance and he never truly came through.

My problems with Owens extend to the field as well.  In his early years in San Francisco he did make some incredible plays.  And he is still capable of doing just that.  My problem is that T.O. seems to gauge his catches for their ability to make something happen.  I have often watched him miff what should have been a certain catch when the defenders would likely have leveled him without giving him a chance for more yards.  Is he talented?  Yes.  Is he as great as he, and his supporters, claim?  No way.

But, in the off-season Buffalo jettisoned him.  And he sat….and sat….and sat.  No one was knocking on his door.  Each week that went by without him getting signed made me chuckle a little more.  The idea of a season without T.O. was beginning to take shape as a real possibility.

Then Cincinnati signed him yesterday.

At first, I was disappointed.  I was all set for a season where T.O. had to keep his antics off the field.  Granted, he would step up the stunts like dragging his workout equipment into his driveway for the benefit of the paparazzi, but he would not be on the sidelines.  That thought gave me warm fuzzies.  But, as the cold reality set in I remembered something.  Cincinnati is already home to a wide receiver problem child almost as big as Owens.

So, watch yourselves Bengals fans, Chad Ochocinco has a new playmate.  It should be an interesting year in Bengal country.

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I’ve never really been a social butterfly, to put it mildly.  I don’t make friends easily and so I treasure the ones I have.  I always thought that my tendencies toward being socially awkward and, at times, mildly antisocial would make any situation I ended up in that included long stretches of time on my own appealing.

I’m finding out I was wrong.

I find that I miss the interactions with people on a daily basis, and that’s something I never expected.  I will often zone into whatever it is that I am working on and be nearly unaware of the others around me.  But, despite that, I am finding that not even having a sense of other human beings around is a disillusioning place.

Isolation, I’m learning, is a scary thing.

The biggest problem I have is that in the silence that surrounds me in these empty rooms my mind has far too much time to conjure up the shames of past, present, and future.  It is much easier to feel the weight of your failures than the buoyancy of your successes.  Especially when you’re alone.

And so, I sit here each day and plug away, hoping to find the doorway out of here.  But, the problem is that the skills necessary for finding new employment and dealing with unemployment, too often fly in the face of what we are taught growing up.

As a child I was taught not to be a braggart.  I was taught to have pride in my accomplishments, but to let it be a quiet pride.  No one, after all, like someone who brags about themselves.  Now I am being told to market myself.  I am being told to brag and point to every little success I have had so that no one misses that it happened.  It goes against my very nature.

As a child I was taught to earn what I received.  An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.  I was taught that no one is entitled to anything, and that you have to work to get what you need and what you want.  Now, I hear about people riding out their unemployment as long as they can without even looking for work.  Meanwhile, I feel a gnawing sense of shame for having gone to the government with my hand out.

All I really want at this point is a chance to earn my keep.  A chance to be a productive part of society again.  A chance to get out of the isolation.

We, as a species, are certainly shrewd negotiators.  Amongst ourselves we are gifted.  It never ceases to amaze me how often we hear stories of one person or group managing to bilk hundreds or even thousands of people out of their personal fortunes, no matter how small.  It just goes to show that no matter how removed from the rest of the animal kingdom we are (whether you believe that to be evolutionary or intelligent design), we are still the most ruthless and brutal predators in the world.  I mean, how often do you see other predators preying on their own kind?

But, as good as we are in wheeling and dealing with one another nothing compares to two deals that we made so far back that we don’t even remember the times when they weren’t in place.  Somewhere in the dark swirls of our collective history we managed to configure two other species, two other species known for their unquestioning loyalty, to give us their undying loyalty and affection.  No matter what.

I speak, of course, or dogs and horses.

We made the greatest deals ever when we signed these two up.  And yet, despite their loyalty, service, and love we still treat them as objects.  We still are so cruel to them that we need organizations doing the job of “Rescue” for these animals.

I have endured, and commented on at times, the cruelty visited upon these creatures.  I have helped where I can, but so much more is needed than I can provide.  I have felt the rage of the revelations surrounding Michael Vick.  I have read stories in local papers about horse found so emaciated you wondered how they continued to stand.  I have wept.  I have prayed.  I have given what I am able to the causes helping these cast-off companions who simply wanted a kind hand to pat them on the head or stroke their mane.

Then, this morning, I ran across another tale of woe in the tapestry of man’s cruelty to canine.  A dumping ground outside of Houston, TX where people dump unwanted and abused animals.  A place where these creatures scrap with one another for a bit of sustenance because the humans who took them in, and took responsibility for them, failed to live up to their promises.

One advocate and rescue worker calls the place the “Corridor of Cruelty.”

I call it a disgusting indictment of man’s penchant for predatory behavior against those, human and otherwise, who offer undying loyalty and unquestioning love.

I try not to get political here at the Jungle Gym.  Politics and religion, as they say, are two  topics sure to end in hurt feelings and anger.  But, I would ask that everyone who reads my blog think about the cast-off animals in your community.  Do what you can to help.  They deserve our attention, too.  I would also encourage everyone to visit The Animal Rescue Site.  With one click each day you can help, if you have an iPhone consider the TouchToGive App which gives you access to The Animal Rescue Site, as well as others, even more conveniently.

These animals have no voices of their own.  If they did, in their loyalty they would probably remain silent.  Speak for them.  Please.

Well, here we are, MovieDruid time again already.

We’ve made it through approximately half of the summer months now, and still have some of the big guns slated to come out  between now and Labor Day.  One of the more anticipated films of the summer hits this week to start off the second half of the season with a bang.  Check out the Pick of the Week to see what I’m talking about.

But, I have wasted enough of your time.  On to the movies…

“Standing Ovation”

Trailer

Synopsis: Five junior high school friends form a singing group called “The 5 Ovations” to compete in a national music video contest for a cash prize of one million dollars. With limited funds and resources, these street smart kids use their wits, courage and passion to create spectacular song and dance numbers that compete with their arch rivals “The Wiggies,” five rich, talented and unscrupulous sisters who along with their parents, will stop at nothing to win the competition.

MovieDruid’s Comments: Rarely does a nationally released film manage to fly so far under the radar that I’ve never heard of it.  As often as I attend the cinema and read movie sites it is hard to hide from me.  This one managed to do it.  So, I took a peek at the trailer online.  I don’t even know how to react to this.  I know that the dance movies are all the rage at this point, and many of them are extremely well done.  But, does the world really need a pre-teen version?  I honestly don’t see where the market is for this, especially with so little publicity that the film is entering theaters virtually unknown.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

Trailer

Synopsis: Balthazar Blake is a master sorcerer in modern-day Manhattan trying to defend the city from his arch-nemesis, Maxim Horvath. Balthazar can’t do it alone, so he recruits Dave Stutler, a seemingly average guy who demonstrates hidden potential, as his reluctant protégé. The sorcerer gives his unwilling accomplice a crash course in the art and science of magic, and together, these unlikely partners work to stop the forces of darkness. It’ll take all the courage Dave can muster to survive his training, save the city and get the girl as he becomes “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

MovieDruid’s Comments: Early trailers for this film had me shaking my head.  The film just looked ridiculous.  I loved the concept, but the execution just appeared completely off.  The more recent trailers have sparked my interest a little bit, and I hope they are a better showcase for what the filmmakers have actually accomplished.  John Turteltaub (“Instinct” & “National Treasure”) has proven to be a skilled director in the past.  I still am up in the air about Nicolas Cage (“Face/Off” & “Leaving Las Vegas”) in the role of the Sorcerer.  He just doesn’t seem to fit from what I have seen.  I do like Jay Baruchel (“How To Train Your Dragon” & “Tropic Thunder”) in the titular role, and one can’t go wrong casting Alfred Molina (“Luther” & “Spider-Man 2”) in a film.  I’m hesitantly optimistic about this one, and, thus, approach it with an open mind.  Still, I’d definitely hit it at matinée or second run, just in case.

“Inception” – MovieDruid Pick of the Week

Trailer

Synopsis: Dom Cobb is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now, Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back, but only if he can accomplish the impossible — inception.

MovieDruid’s Comments: They had me with this one when they said directed by Christopher Nolan.  If you don’t know who that is I have three films for you to watch: “Memento,” “The Prestige,” and “The Dark Knight.”  Nolan is very quickly becoming one of my favorite directors, and he always seems to take on challenging projects.  With those challenging projects comes a bevy of talent to work with.  In this case Leonardo DiCaprio (“Shutter Island” & “Gangs of New York”), Ken Watanabe (“Letters From Iwo Jima” & “Memoirs of a Geisha”), Ellen Page (“Juno” & “Whip It”), Tom Berenger (“Sniper” & “Training Day”), and Michael Caine (“Children of Men” & “The Quiet American”) among others.  Everything about this movie is oozing with potential and talent.  This should be one of the great films of this year, let alone the summer.  And, for those interested, it is also being released in IMAX.

Over the course of my life I have found that there is a basic human need for self-expression.  Everyone, somewhere deep in the twisted passages of their souls, has a gnawing desire to express themselves and make a mark, no matter how small or temporary, on the world around them.  And, as a consequence of the basic human yearning, I truly believe that everyone has art within them.

I understand that some people out there are probably laughing or shaking their heads right now.  Society has trained us to believe that art takes a talent that is rare in our species.  We are led to believe that only those with a particular gift are able to create art.  I would argue this is not so.  Art is nothing more than the soul’s way of expressing itself to the world around it.  A way for us to cry out in that primal voice that we hear with the small part of us that hasn’t lost that primacy.

There is a reason that the art of others can generate such emotion within us.  We hear that spirit crying out and our soul aches for the sympathy we feel for the joy, sorrow, or whatever other emotion is expressed.  Emotions are some of the most defining parts of our beings, but so many people try to bury them beneath the layers of culturally enforced politeness that we are all indoctrinated with as we grow up.  Yes, it is important to be able to rein your emotions in when they threaten to run roughshod over your intellect.  But, by the same token, we need to be able to let the leash slip from time to time and truly experience what we feel.

That is what it is to be human.

And, one of the best ways to do this is to find what your art is and revel in the primal screams it allows you to create.  When I was younger, I was convinced I had talent for drawing.  I was convinced that my path was to lead me straight to the doors of Disney Studios where I would have a successful career as an animator.  I wanted it so badly that I failed to listen to my personal Muse as it tried to drag me kicking and screaming away from visual art.

Now I have learned to take up pen (or keyboard, as the case may be) to practice my art with the written word.  Is this the true nature of my art?  I don’t know for sure, but I know that I enjoy it and the expression it gives me fulfills that need rolling around the cockles of my soul.  Others tell me I have talent.  I’m not so sure, but it gives me an outlet.  It is that outlet that is the important thing.  I have a place where I can vent all the emotional tides that can sometimes threaten to overwhelm me.  I have learned to use my writing as a panacea at times.

So, reach down into yourself.  Find your art.  Find the spigot that, when opened, allows the emotions to take over just long enough to cleanse you.  It can be as simple as dancing around your living room while belting out your favorite song off-key or as involved as painting detailed landscapes or writing the great American novel.

Whatever it is, your art is yours.  And no one can take that away from you once you have found your Muse.

Baseball has lost a giant today.  Whether he was a giant in terms of greatness or a giant pain in the ass is completely in the eye of the beholder.  But, regardless of your opinion of George Steinbrenner, you can’t deny his impact on the game of baseball.

Every sport has its controversial figures, but Steinbrenner was one of the most polarizing out there.  Many people consider him the epitome of what has gone wrong with the game.  He was brash, explosive, outspoken, and meddling as an owner.  But, he was also a shrewd businessman.  He recognized, as most owners do, that the thing that sells tickets and merchandise is championships.  And he set out to get the Yankees back to their winning ways.

By any means necessary.

His detractors will say he bought his World Series wins.  That he used the resources and power of the largest sports market in the country and the legend of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports to bid for players in stratospheric levels of salary that few other teams could hope to match.

In many ways they have a point.

But, any study of sports history will show that it really is impossible to buy championships.  It has been tried time and again, and never truly works.  Did Steinbrenner go after marquee players ruthlessly and in a way that made it close to impossible for others to compete?  I would say that could be seen as an accurate statement.  But, he was shrewd enough to target players who had enough of a “team” mentality that clubhouse chemistry didn’t take a nose dive.  Yes, the Yankees have plenty of prima donnas on their roster, but they still function well as a unit.

I have never been a big fan of Steinbrenner.  I think he has more than once played dirty pool when negotiating contracts and the like.  Hell, he was banned for life from the game for a time over what he did in that respect.  That, of course, was later overturned and Kind George rode back into Yankee Stadium like a conquering hero.  There are others like him in nearly every major professional league, but what made George so loved, and so hated, was his ability to turn what should have been disaster into pure gold.

Goodbye, George Steinbrenner.  I doubt we will see your like again.  I’ll let the readers decide whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

Adversity is one of the great forces for revelation in the universe.  It’s easy to maintain whatever facade we have erected while times are good.  During good times we barely have to do maintenance. Just a patch here and a little spot paint there, and the image we want the world to see is intact on a day-to-day basis.  In fact, it becomes so easy that we don’t even realize that those walls we build to keep the world at whatever distance defines our comfort zone extend inward.  The mask isn’t just an outward face, we maintain those same pantomimed movements when dealing with our own psyches.

That’s all just being part of being human.  We need to have defined boundaries for the outside world to protect the small zones where we keep the fears and rages that are as much a part of use as anything else.  And, sometimes we need to duck behind those walls ourselves and pretend that those things aren’t really there.

But, I have found that when the stability that we count on starts to be slowly pulled out from beneath us, those walls and masks become ever harder to keep intact.  Fear, anger, and sorrow can flood out from behind carefully built and maintained levees to leave us adrift in a river that we didn’t even know was within us.

I have been struggling in those dark waters for almost two weeks now.  The emotions rush unchecked at times and I ebb and flow between rage at what has happened and tears brought on by fear of what is to come.  Luckily, I have a wonderful partner who has held out a hand and steadied me.  The waters still swirl around me, but I don’t feel like they are going to sweep me away anymore.

One of many things I have learned as I have navigated these straits is the importance of pride.

I’m not talking about the pride that is more akin to arrogance or hubris and is named as one of the seven deadly sins.  No, I speak of a sense of pride that keeps you from allowing the adversity to drown you.  A sense of self that drives you to find solutions to the problems rather than depending on others to take care of you.  The strength of character that makes you feel something bordering on shame when you must lean on the kindness of strangers to keep yourself going.  It is this sense of pride that helps separate those who pull themselves from that raging river of adversity from those who simply let it carry them away.

And, thus, I was faced with a decision.  Am I a man who has pride in his soul or am I willing to be one of the faceless masses that simply accept and depend on everyone else to keep them afloat?  The decision for me is simple.  I will do what I have to do to claw my way out.  I will accept what help is offered, but only for as long and far as necessary.

I hold pride in my soul, and I will find a way to triumph in the face of this adversity.

Well, here we are again.  Summer has begun its relentless assault on south central Pennsylvania.  The heat is killer and can sap your energy quick.

What better time to be in an air-conditioned movie theater.  That is, if you can find one.  It seems like everywhere I go these days, including the movies, they are trying to save money by toning down the A/C.

Sweating through the latest film is not fun.  My advice?  If your favorite theater leaves you in the heat, say something to the management about the uncomfortable conditions before your film starts.  If they’re unresponsive, find a new theater that is more accommodating.  Part of the experience of going to the movies in the theater is a comfortable space to watch.  I can sweat through a film at home.

This week brings a pair of interesting films to the cinema.  Let’s take a looksie…

“Despicable Me”

Trailer

Synopsis: In a happy suburban neighborhood surrounded by white picket fences with flowering rose bushes, sits a black house with a dead lawn. Unbeknownst to the neighbors, hidden beneath this home is a vast secret hideout. Surrounded by a small army of minions, we discover Gru, planning the biggest heist in the history of the world. He is going to steal the moon! Gru delights in all things wicked; he vanquishes all who stand in his way. Until the day he encounters the immense will of three little orphaned girls who look at him and see something that no one else has ever seen: a potential Dad.

MovieDuid’s Comments: This sort of family fare is something I would normally consider fodder only for families with kids.  Granted, that is the target demographic , so well done.  But, a family film done correctly has wider appeal and attracts viewers of all demographics.  I can’t put my finger on why, but this one looks to have that wider appeal.  Its star. Steve Carrell (“The 40 Year Old Virgin” & “Date Night”), is certainly an attraction as one of the more talented comedic actors to come to light in recent years.  The directors have little to no resume to judge them upon, though.  Something about the film simply fascinates me, and I can’t really put my finger on what.  For those interested keep in mind it is being released in 2D and 3D flavors.  (I think the 3D fad is getting a bit overused, personally, but whatever.)  Also, apparently there is a downloadable app for most smart phones that will translate what the minions are actually saying during the end credits, if you go in for that sort of thing.

“Predators” – MovieDruid Pick of the Week

Trailer

Synopsis: Royce, a mercenary, reluctantly leads a group of elite warriors who come to realize they’ve been brought together on an alien planet… as prey. With the exception of a disgraced physician, they are all cold-blooded killers — mercenaries, Yakuza, convicts, death squad members — human “predators” that are now being systemically hunted and eliminated by a new breed of alien Predators.

MovieDruid’s Comments: I will admit that I am a huge fan of both of the original Predator movies.  I personally think the original “Predator” is Schwarzenegger’s best work short of maybe the original “Terminator.”  And the complete change of setting and characters for “Predator 2” made for an interesting follow-up, and the film had one of the greatest endings in sci-fi/action history.  Now, 20 years after the release of “Predator 2.” we get the another film without the Predators having to share the spotlight with the H.R. Giger designed Aliens.  And it looks pretty solid.  But, with Robert Rodriguez producing I would expect as much.  And, of course, they’ve brought a solid cast including Adrien Brody (“The Jacket” & “King Kong”), Alice Braga (“Repo Men” & “I Am Legend”), Topher Grace (“Spider-Man 3” & “Traffic”), and Laurence Fishburne (“The Matrix” & “Just Cause”).  The pedigree here is solid, let’s hope it lives up to the franchise.

I would like to talk to all of my readers for a moment about a pet peeve of mine.   It is an issue that you encounter in nearly every bookstore, video rental store, or large retail outlet in America.

I speak of course of the Science Fiction/Fantasy issue.

Now, many of you may be saying to yourselves: what science fiction/fantasy issue?  There’s an issue?  But, I assure you that an issue does in fact exist.  It is an issue that will make many a geek grind their teeth in frustration, but too often gets simply overlooked.

Simply stated, for those unaware, Science Fiction is not Fantasy or vice-versa.  The two genres are entirely unique.

But, somehow, somewhere in the ivory towers of corporate America, it has been decided that the two genres are undeserving of their own unique space.  The two are simply lumped together and tossed into a disused area of the store, often in a darkened back corner.

Now, I an understand the mistake to a point.  The two share a common fan base in many cases.  They even at times cross over in ways that make certain works difficult to place in one or the other.  But, this does not mean they are not deserving of proper respect!  And, we, as the fans of both are tied of being pushed off into a disused area of the store.  Is our patronage really that embarrassing to you?  Well, then perhaps our money should be as well!

Anyone initiated into either genre understands that Tanis, Half-Elven and Frodo of the Shire come from a vastly different place than Ender Wiggin and Lazarus Long.  To have them standing side-by-side on the shelves seems like putting apples and oranges in the same display in the produce department.  I shouldn’t have to sort through the apples to find an orange just as I shouldn’t have to sort through tales of intergalactic war to find the Battle of Helm’s Deep.  We, as consumers and fans of these products, should demand a certain level of respect, even admiration, from our retailers.

And, don’t get me started on Horror with Stephen King in the Fiction section while Laurel K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris (among others) mixed in with the Science Fiction/Fantasy debacle.

I love the Fourth of July.  As someone who loves history, it is a holiday rife with importance historically.  As a patriotic American, I love the opportunity to celebrate the nation that I love so much.  And, of course, there’s the smell of grilling meat that is like ambrosia to the manly part of my soul.

And the fireworks.

Fireworks have always been my favorite part of the Fourth of July.  Whether it was sparklers, fountains, and red paper-wrapped Black Cat firecrackers or the professional shows that seem to take place in every town in America these days, I just love fireworks.  I sit in amazement that some simple paper or cardboard, a bit of wire or string, and some powder can create such beauty when combined with fire.  I am in awe of the professionals that design the shows we sit and gaze in wonder upon every year.  But, I think the more amazing thing is how long fireworks have been around.

Those seventh-century Chinese were really on to something.

This year as we considered our fireworks viewing strategy, my wife and remembered something about our photographic gear.  You see, our love of travel has strongly reinforced my wife’s love of photography.  We have been endeavoring to learn how to take better and more beautiful pictures.  To that end, my wife received for her birthday last year a Canon Digital SLR camera.  This was a quantum leap for us past the simple pint-and-shoots we were accustomed to, and as we learned about the camera and its capabilities our eyes were opened to new photographic opportunities.

I have also upgraded my camera to a more advanced digital point-and-shoot and have begun applying the concepts we have learned in training sessions on the SLR to my point-and-shoot where I can.  The Fourth of July offered us a unique opportunity to try something out on my camera that we had been looking to experiment with.

The Fireworks setting.

Yes, my camera has a setting designed to photograph fireworks.  I had seen the images some people had managed with this setting, shots that captured in a single still image the fullness of the bloom of a fireworks burst.  Start to finish.  The full experience frozen in time, its beauty there for you to enjoy whenever yo wish.

This, I decided, I had to do.

I learned something on the Fourth of July.  This is much harder than it seems.  The camera does its job.  It keeps its aperture open for a longer period to capture every instant of the burst start to finish.  It takes into account that you are shooting in the dark, but also realizes you are shooting something in the sky that is, in itself, light and leaves the flash off.  It is truly amazing.

The failure I found was entirely in the monkey holding the camera.  Trying to time these images is a skill that I need to read up on and practice.  I got a few shots I would deem as “interesting,” but nothing like the beautiful bursts I was shown when this setting was revealed to me.

I have some work to do before I try this again.  But, as most who know me will attest, I don’t like letting something beat me.  My failure to get what I wanted out of this first attempt has done nothing but steel my resolve to get that perfect image that I see in my head.  I will read, I will practice, and I will succeed.

Pursuit of knowledge is, after all, the greatest of life’s pursuits.

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