Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Review Of My Lackluster Year

We are hours away from the start of the New Year. I could not be less excited. I have no desire to party, to watch a ball drop, to blow on a party horn, or to watch a marathon of The Twilight Zone. I haven't celebrated New Year's Eve in years.

I will be upfront with you and admit that one of the reasons is that I haven't had a girlfriend on New Year's Eve in years. I learned a long time ago that it's kind of awkward to stay awake until midnight just to stand around and observe your friends kiss their partners. It's frustrating, because I want what they have. But since I've failed in that regard, I instead want them to experience the same misery I feel when the countdown ends.

New Year's Eve reminds me of Valentine's Day, which follows six weeks later. I'm almost always single on both holidays, which are manufactured, in my opinion. Valentine's Day is a vehicle for greeting card companies, chocolate makers and florists to boost sales. And New Year's Eve exists for the sole purpose of selling Dilbert calendars.

New Year's Eve 2013 is especially bothersome to me because I've realized I've accomplished very little in the past 12 months. It feels like a wasted year. I had this epiphany when Facebook added a "Year In Review" box to my profile. It was the first time I had ever seen this feature, so it piqued my curiosity. It allowed me to, in the words of Facebook, "look back at [my] 20 biggest moments from the past year."

I clicked on the box. What resulted was a slideshow of the photos I've uploaded in 2013, plus a rundown of my status updates, in chronological order. Sadly, nearly half of the updates were links to my blog entries: my problem with Back to the Future; my problem with The Wonder Years; my struggles with Sudoku; and so on.

(I feel badly that I linked back to my own site three times in the previous paragraph. It wasn't my intention to turn this post into the blogger's version of a clip show, I swear.)

It was hard not to notice that I didn't update my relationship status on Facebook in 2013. I entered the year single, and I ended the year single. This obviously becomes more of a concern as I grow older. As I've detailed before, I subscribe to an online dating website, so it's not as if I'm not making an effort. Yet would you believe I did not meet one woman this year through the Internet? Not one. Were it not for Google's image gallery of Jennifer Lawrence, I would have felt totally let down by the World Wide Web this year.

I went on a grand total of one date this year. It was a blind date, set up by a friend. She was really nice, very cool and friendly. I enjoyed our conversation. But please don't ask if she was attractive. I have no idea. I'm sure she was, but she wore sunglasses throughout the date, and so I never saw her entire face. I thought this was unusual.

It literally was a blind date; I spent hours with a woman whose physical appearance was completely unknown to me. I was waiting for that moment when she would remove her sunglasses and reveal her true beauty, Rachael Leigh Cook style, and it never came. I was disappointed and perplexed at the same time. How could we establish whether we had a connection if I had no idea what she looked like? The only acceptable explanation for her not removing her sunglasses would be if her eyes were to shrink to Milhouse-size proportions if she did so.

Needless to say, we parted ways after that date. I'm not bitter, and I don't harbor any resentment toward her. I wish her all the best. She deserves to spend this New Year's Eve with a wonderful man. I can picture her with her arms wrapped tightly around him right now, wearing oversized 2014 glasses. I can only hope she likes him enough to take them off at midnight.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Quick Scan Of My Health

I just scheduled an appointment with my doctor. And I am excited. I am! I haven't seen him in three years. I am long overdue for a visit.

We have a lot of catching up to do. So much has happened since the last time I saw him. I battled the flu for several days in the winter of 2012. I discovered a mole on the side of my neck last January. My blood pressure may or may not have reached dangerous levels. And I watched a commercial for Nexium, and I can't stop wondering whether it's right for me.

I have a very special relationship with my doctor. I've known him for most of my life, and he's treated me very well. I feel very comfortable sharing whatever concerns I may have with him. And if he feels the need to stick a tongue depressor in my mouth or strike my knee with a hammer while I'm sharing my concerns with him, so be it. I would prefer he gave me his full attention rather than pretend he's Dr. Thor, but he's earned my trust.

The reason for my upcoming visit is a simple physical examination, which typically begins with a measurement of my height and weight. That's handled by my doctor's assistant. I can tell she doesn't have a high opinion of me.

She'll ask me, "How often do you check your height?" I'll reply, "Other than when I'm here? Never." And she'll shake her head in disapproval. "The doctor recommends you check your height at least once per year."

I'm certain that's not true, but since I'm not one to ruffle feathers, I'll sheepishly apologize to the assistant as I let her record my height on a doctor's scale. She tends to exaggerate the results. "Oh, you're 5'6" and a half now. Did you grow a half-inch since your last visit?" Nice try, but no, I didn't grow a half-inch. I haven't grown a half-inch in years. I was watching new episodes of California Dreams the last time I experienced a growth spurt. If I'm growing in any direction at this point in my life, it's down, not up.

I do grow paranoid on the scale when she measures my height. Especially as she lowers the height rod to the top of my head. I worry that my head will stick to the rod, like the construction worker who glued his helmet to a steel beam in the old Krazy Glue commercial. I wouldn't put it past her to pull a Krazy Glue prank on me one day.

I'm uneasy with the idea of the assistant measuring my weight, too. Not because I'm embarrassed by how much I weigh -- I'm not -- but because most individuals, including myself, prefer to measure their weight in private. It's why we keep scales in the bathroom. The assistant should understand this. I'm not some piece of fruit you can stuff into a clear plastic bag and purchase by the pound, you know.

My suggestion is to put the doctor's scale in the lavatory. Allow me to weigh myself while I'm providing a urine sample. Kill two birds with one stone. In fact, I'll measure my height in there, too. I'm confident I can pee, weigh myself and check my height all at once. I'm reasonably sure of it.

Since we're on the subject of urine tests, let me share with you one small concern I have. I can't hold it in any longer. The concern, not the urine.

It takes far too long to process the results of a urine test -- sometimes several days. I can't wait that long. I demand instant analysis. I'm a very competitive person. I've been that way since I was a student. I need to know whether I performed better than the other patients I sat with in the waiting room -- the man with the thick glasses, the woman chatting on her cell phone, the kid reading Highlights magazine.

I know we have the technology to make this happen. I saw it at work in high school, when I took countless multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble tests that were graded electronically. In a matter of seconds, a machine would process and grade a test. I could then compare results with classmates I knew I was smarter than. It was great.

I remember the machine would register a loud tick every time it detected a wrong answer. If I performed poorly on a test, I'd hear a long series of ticks. Now that was an awful feeling, but at least I could experience it right away.

So I ask: Why can't urine tests be graded electronically? Let's make it happen. Just pour the urine into a machine and let it work its magic. Tick, tick, tick, tick.... "Hmmm, it appears you have acid reflux disease. Please wait one moment while the machine prints a prescription for Nexium for you."

When I visit my doctor, I'll ask him for his opinion on whether urine tests should be electronically graded, and whether that would be right for him.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Struggles With Sudoku

I was a natural at math when I was a student. I consistently earned A's in my math classes throughout high school and college. I never felt challenged. And I had enrolled in advanced classes: Linear Algebra, Calculus I, Calculus II, Calculus III. (Not surprisingly, the Calculus sequels did not live up to the original.)

I knew my way around numbers. They could be small. They could be large. They could be rational. They could be irrational. They could even be imaginary. It didn't matter. I handled them all with ease. As hard as they tried, they just could not stump me.

I'm telling you this because I have an embarrassing admission to make: I have never completed a Sudoku puzzle. Not even ones that were marked "easy." I have no explanation for this; why am I able to solve complex equations but unable to master a simple game involving the most basic of numbers?

What makes this especially frustrating is that each and every one of my closest friends has successfully completed a Sudoku puzzle. And I take pride in surrounding myself with people who are not as intelligent as I am. You can imagine why my struggles with Sudoku would nag at me, then.

So it was with an extra sense of purpose that I removed the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of me during a recent plane trip. What better way to kill four hours on a plane than to tackle the airline's Sudoku puzzle and overcome one of my greatest shortcomings?

If you're wondering what the other shortcomings are, they are, in no particular order, my lack of cooking skills, my addiction to Sour Patch Kids, and my Cal Ripken Jr.-esque streak of consecutive days without a date.

I flipped to the page in the magazine on which the Sudoku puzzle was located, and would you believe that some of the boxes were already filled in? In ink? Boy, was I mad, mad at how inconsiderate the previous occupant of my seat had been.

It's my personal belief that a passenger should leave behind the in-flight magazine in the same condition he or she found it. Do not crease, bend, or change the shape of the magazine. Do not tear out any of the articles. And do not ruin the Sudoku puzzle for future passengers. Don't ruin my chance to finally subdue Sudoku.

Fortunately, I found another productive way to occupy my time on the plane. I turned the page to the listings of the in-flight movies that were offered by the airline. I already knew what one of them would be -- I did my research on the airline's website a few days beforehand. I always do that before a trip. I want to know what to expect.

There's always an initial sense of excitement --  "Wow, they're going to show Man of Steel!" -- before it sinks in that only the customers who are flying internationally will have the privilege of watching a popular film like Man of Steel. Inevitably, that excitement turns to bitter disappointment when I scan the listings for domestic flights. "Ah, come on, R.I.P.D.? I'm not watching that!" Of course, I probably will watch at least part of R.I.P.D., but I won't have to like it.

It turns out that this particular flight offered an on-demand entertainment system on the back of each seat, offering more than 25 movies and several TV shows. A much wider selection than the website led me to believe. This was a pleasant surprise. And -- this was even more unexpected -- it was free! Amazing!

My priorities shifted. If I couldn't work on the Sudoku puzzle, I was going to work on watching as much programming as possible on the little TV screen in front of me before the plane landed. I immediately launched the airline's version of Iron Man 3, which was different from the theatrical release in that the airline's name was plastered on the screen every 10 minutes.

That wasn't as annoying as the constant interruptions from the pilot, who would literally pause the movie whenever he had something on his mind. It was as if he truly wanted to replicate the moviegoing experience for me with his chatter. "Hello, just wanted to let you know that we're at cruising altitude, we'll be passing Atlanta in just a little bit. Clear skies ahead...."

Fine. Now can I get back to the movie, please? If I was interested in the condition of the skies, I'd watch the skies through the window. But as it happens, I'm watching Iron Man 3 on my screen. The Mandarin is destroying Robert Downey Jr.'s home. Please silence your P.A. system now.

Once Iron Man 3 ended, I quickly searched through the other options. It was only then that I discovered that HBO shows were available to me. I can't overstate how exciting this was, since I don't subscribe to HBO at home. Now I could watch it for free. I mean, it was free after the hundreds of dollars I spent on the flight, plus the additional airline fees. It was a nice little bonus, all the same.

I tuned into Louis C.K.'s latest comedy special, but my eyes frequently wandered to the neighboring screens, because I'm nosy and I wanted to judge the passengers seated next to me based solely on their viewing habits. One man was locked in on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I couldn't believe it. I nearly tapped him on the leg and said, "Excuse me, I just wanted to let you know that there's free HBO on this plane. You don't have to watch Guy Fieri if you don't want to."

I was surrounded by many others whose screen was set to the flight map. I had no desire to interact with them, because I'm sure the only thought on their minds was, "Are we there yet?" So whiny. Pass.

After Louis C.K.'s set was done, I switched to The Wire. I have been told many, many times that this is one of the best dramas of my lifetime. But again, I'm not an HBO subscriber, so I've never seen it. I resolved to binge-watch as much Wire as I could before the plane landed. Unfortunately, I'd lost track of time, and 5 minutes into the first episode, the pilot took control of the P.A. system: "We've started our descent. We will be arriving at our final destination in 30 minutes."

I was so disappointed. I called over a flight attendant and made a simple request. "I know this sounds odd, but...can the pilot circle the airport for about a half-hour? Maybe he can fly the plane to Detroit and then fly back? Please, this is my first time watching The Wire." 

For the next several minutes, I continuously glanced over to a nearby flight map, and the plane kept crawling toward the airport. Dang it. So much for catching up on The Wire.

So now I have two goals for my next flight: conquer Sudoku and watch more of The Wire. I should be able to do both, if my math is right.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Problem With: "Family Matters"

I have a soft spot in my heart for Family Matters, which aired from 1989-1998. It had all of the hallmarks of a memorable '90s teen sitcom: characters with at least one catchphrase that entered the pop culture lexicon; a nerd with an unrequited crush; the occasional episode that tackled a serious topic....

....And a theme song whose lyrics fans can recite to this very day. Last year, an American Idol contestant had the audacity to perform the Family Matters theme, "As Days Go By," for his audition. And he passed. I argue that this is the best reality TV audition we will ever see, unless someone musters up the courage to reenact the open to Blossom.

Family Matters also holds a small place in television history as the linchpin of ABC's Friday-night comedy lineup in the '90s, which was promoted as TGIF. Yes, it was the home to other classic sitcoms such as Full House, Boy Meets World, Perfect Strangers, and Step by Step, but, as best as I can tell, Family Matters remained in that programming block for the longest period of time. (Family Matters aired on CBS its final season.)

Back to the Family Matters theme for a moment. Did you know the show's original theme was Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World"? Watch and listen to the first minute and a half of the video below.

What an odd choice. In any event, the theme was changed to "As Days Go By" after five episodes.

Skip ahead to the 6:20 mark of the clip. That's essentially the Family Matters intro we all love and remember. The opening lines of the song bring back a flood of memories: "It's a rare condition, this day and age, reading the good news on the newspaper page."

Coincidentally or not, those lyrics are followed by a shot of Mother Winslow holding an issue of Rolling Stone with U2 on the cover. The cover promotes Rolling Stone's "1987 Readers And Critics Poll," and refers to U2 as "The Band That Beat The Boss."

It's a rare condition, this day and age, reading the good news on the newspaper page. U2 beats The Boss. Lots of bad news out there. U2 beats The Boss.

The underlying message is, the theme's songwriters hated U2, considered Bruce Springsteen losing to U2 in an unscientific Rolling Stone poll to be bad news "on the newspaper page," and decided to take a jab at the group, years after the issue was released. I've never held a grudge for that long against U2.

This is not the problem I have with Family Matters, by the way. And I will not pick apart some of the absurd story lines on the show, especially toward the end of its run. Namely, the complicated love triangle between Steve Urkel, his more suave alter ego Stefan Urquelle, and Laura Winslow.

If you had the patience to watch the entire video above, you may already know where I'm headed with this. Beginning with the fifth season, the actress who played Judy is conspiciously absent from the show's intro. That's because her character was eliminated. Judy was kicked out of the Winslow home, without warning.

This was not entirely unusual for a TGIF comedy; Step by Step, for example, also phased out one of its youngest stars, the one who filled the role of Brendan. Here's the difference between the two shows:  Brendan's father was a construction worker who was prone to mental lapses. Judy's father, Carl, was a cop. A cop! A well-respected cop, at that. And he never once noticed that his youngest child, all of a sudden, was missing from the kitchen table at dinnertime? And he didn't realize her absence whenever her birthday would roll around? And he never asked for an update on Judy from his wife? "Hey honey, I haven't seen our precious daughter Judy in a few years. Whatever happened to her?" That question never crossed his mind?

As the seasons went by, I waited for the episode when Carl Winslow would launch an official investigation into where Judy went. It never came. I was very disappointed. Carl let me down, and he let his family down.

Family matters? Not all family.

In case you missed it:

The Problem With: "Back To The Future"
The Problem With: "The Wonder Years"

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Search For The Steakhouse Accent

Have you ever watched an Outback Steakhouse commercial? I mean, truly watched an Outback Steakhouse commercial? And listened to it? I fall into a "Desperado"-like trance whenever I'm watching TV and an ad for the restaurant airs. Here, watch and listen:

My fascination has little to do with the food, though I don't doubt that the Mac n Cheese with Lobster and Bacon is tasty and is authentic Aussie cuisine. But the voice...is it an accurate representation of the accent one would hear in the Land Down Under?

I wonder. Hugh Jackman didn't have such an exaggerated accent in the X-Men trilogy, or in the several interviews with him that I've seen. Try as I might, I can't imagine Wolverine serving my table at a restaurant in Sydney and attempting to sell me on a meal that costs as low as "twelve noinety-noine."

Paul Hogan, the Hemsworth brothers, that Gotye song...they are my only other strong reference points, off the top of my head, and their accents are dissimilar to the one featured in the Outback Steakhouse commercials, too.

The more I've watched Outback Steakhouse ads in the past year, the more curious I've become. I really want to know whether the accent is genuine. Recently, I did what any inquisitive person in my position would do: I traveled to Australia, on a fact-finding mission.

Here's one fact I uncovered: there aren't many Outback Steakhouse locations in Australia. There are six in the entire country -- just one more than in the state of Idaho, the Australia of North America. Seems the Mac n Cheese with Lobster and Bacon hasn't caught on there yet.

I wish I had known before my trip how rare the Steakhouse is in Australia. I had simply assumed that I could throw a boomerang in any direction on the streets of Sydney and hit an Outback restaurant. Was it so unfair of me to expect to see a popular Australian-themed restaurant in Australia? When I'm in Australia, I want to eat a six-ounce sirloin with a "soide."

Oh, none of the Australians I spoke with had that type of accent. But none of them had ever voiced an Outback Steakhouse commercial, either. And I never came close to spotting an Outback restaurant. What I'm trying to tell you is, I accomplished little on this trip and it was an epic bust.

No, I shouldn't say that. There was one highlight: I pet a koala bear, a requirement of all tourists in Australia.  I have the obligatory picture to prove it.

Koala bears are as cute and cuddly as advertised. They are friendly, too, though not exceptionally friendly. When I snapped this picture, it was 10 in the morning, and I'd estimate that these koalas had already met with 15 giddy Americans that day. The experience wasn't nearly as thrilling for them as it was for the tourists. 

I suspect that the only thought running through the minds of the koalas was, "You can take as many pictures with me as you want, and you can touch me, but I'm still going to eat these leaves. They're far too tasty to stop now."

I also spent time with kangaroos, and they took a similar approach with myself and other visitors. They were accepting of our presence as long as they could eat, hop around freely, and poop as they please wherever they wanted. Reminded me of my next-door neighbor's dog.

The koalas and the kangaroos certainly did not act as if their lives had been enriched by the fact that so many people flew so many miles to see them. Do you have a group of friends who irritate you, who show up to your home unannounced, who caress your fur without permission? That's probably what we are to the koalas and the kangaroos.

While they will tolerate us, they're not going to engage with us. If you've ever been to a zoo, you understand that most wild animals are not going to put on a performance for you. You may simply watch them as they continue to live their lives as they see fit -- as they eat, sleep and hide for long stretches of time. If you're entertained by the bears walking around aimlessly and taking a dip in the pool every now and then, great. If not, they won't lose six months' sleep over it.

I have a theory for why the animals behave this way. I believe zoo-bound animals have preferences for where they would like to be placed. That, somehow, they understand that the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, and a few others around the world are more popular and more highly regarded than the rest. So each animal lists said zoos as their top choices, and applies to a couple of safety zoos, too. But since there is such fierce competition, most animals are shipped off to their fifth or sixth choice, where the food isn't as great and the other animals aren't as nice, and they fall into a deep depression and stay in their cave all day long, ignoring all visitors. (I came up with this theory during my freshman year of college, by the way.)

It also doesn't help that zoos are blatantly racist. It's true. I don't have hard evidence to suggest that it bothers the animals, but I know it would upset me if I were in their paws. "White bear," "black bear," "brown bear"...c'mon. It's the year 2013. We should be past this by now. Who cares what color they are? What does it matter? All bears are equal. They're all part of the bear family. They're all the same on the inside. I don't care what the plaques in front of the exhibits say.

In any event, when I look at the koala bears in the picture above, I can't help but wonder whether some of their friends have been sent to zoos far away, and, if that's the case, how those friends are holding up now. And whether they're as confused as I am when they see and hear an Outback Steakhouse commercial.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Warning For The Present From The Past

Earlier today, I made an alarming discovery in the pocket of an old coat. It was an envelope marked, "DO NOT OPEN UNTIL 2010."

What's the meaning of this, I wondered. What could be inside this envelope? Should I open it and find out?

What if it contains important information about my recent past? Or my future? The consequences of that could be disastrous. Is that a risk I'd be willing to take? What if my life depended on it?

No! I refuse to accept the responsibility!

Minutes later, I changed my mind and tore open the envelope. I figured, What the hell?

Inside was a yellowed, well-worn, handwritten letter. Clearly, many years had passed since it was composed by its author. It was written in a Hollywood cafe, if the letterhead is any indication. Who would write me a letter from a Hollywood cafe? I had no guesses.

Rather than paraphrase the letter for you, I'll type out its contents in full:

Dear Shane,

For five years leading up to the events of my film "Back to the Future Part II," you may potentially be misled by countless doctored photos of the DeLorean's time circuit, displaying an inaccurate date when my character, Marty McFly, arrived in the future.

Please take whatever precautions are necessary to protect yourself from this terrible disaster.

Your friend,

Great Scott, he was right! And right again! And right once more! In fact, the hoax was revived just a few weeks ago. This is heavy.

So here I am to echo Michael's warning. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself from this terrible disaster. In Back to the Future Part II, Marty, who lives in the year 1985, time-travels 30 years into the future: October 21, 2015, to be precise. It's not an easy date to remember, I know. Just watch this clip every so often to remind yourself:

Even better, bookmark this real-time countdown to October 21, 2015.

Since I've addressed one falsehood about Back to the Future Part II, allow me to set the record straight on a few others:

-- Back to the Future Part II did not predict a real-life sweep by the Chicago Cubs of a team based in Miami in the World Series. That possibility does not exist because Chicago and Miami -- a city that did not have a franchise at the time of the movie's release -- both play in the National League. However, the film did accurately predict that Miami would trade its best players after the 1997, 2005, 2007, and 2012 seasons.

-- There is no such thing as a hoverboard. It has not been invented yet. Stop complaining about it. On the bright side, we have had the ice cream of the future for many years. I have tasted it at my local amusement park. It is delicious.

-- You may have noticed that in Back to the Future Part II, no one used the Internet in the year 2015. (Marty and Doc Brown got their news from something called a "newspaper.") The DeLorean, which could travel through time and, by this point in the trilogy, could also fly, wasn't even equipped with WiFi. That is because there will be no Internet in the year 2015. The movie got that part right. Sorry, folks, but this is what happens when you spread false memes about the Back to the Future films.

(For more on Back to the Future, click here.)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

How I Met Your Mother (Online)

How I Met Your Mother has been renewed for a ninth and final season. So, in the next year, we'll finally learn who the "mother" is.

I've only seen a handful of episodes of How I Met Your Mother, though I did find the show to be funny. I am, however, looking forward to the big reveal. In case you're unfamiliar with the premise of the show, the main character, Ted, recounts to his kids in the year 2030 how he met their mother. Each episode is a flashback narrated by Ted, whose voice is provided by Bob Saget.

If I were a writer for the show -- and again, I'm not an avid viewer -- I would steer this story line in one of two directions:

-- We learn in the finale that the mother -- it doesn't matter who it is -- is deceased. To help raise Ted's (Bob Saget's) kids, his brother-in-law and his best friend move into his home, setting up a reboot of Full House.  A new Uncle Jesse. A new Uncle Joey. A new Full House. Full circle for Bob Saget.

-- The mother is Suri Cruise.

What I like about either scenario is that it would reward the viewer with an unexpected but memorable payoff to the story line. If you're a fan who believes my ideas are too far-fetched, well, you've already invested eight years of your life in a show that wants us to believe it takes a father that long to tell his kids how he met their mother. Remember, it only took a 30-second theme song to explain how a man, a woman, and six kids all became the Brady Bunch.

I will say that after all these years on the air, How I Met Your Mother has made me realize I will, in all likelihood, never have a great "how I met your mother" story for my future children. I've never once had a relationship begin because I struck up a conversation with a stranger on the subway, or because I was introduced to an interesting woman at a party. Pretty much every romance I've experienced in my life evolved in a very organic, and boring, way. Certainly not in a way that could be retold in primetime.

Nearly every date I've had in the last three years was arranged through a website. If I marry in the not-so-distant future, it would likely be to a woman whom I've yet to discover on Match.com. Not that that would be a problem for me, but it wouldn't exactly inspire a captivating tale for my children.

"Kids, I met your mom on the Internet. Her username was CutieGal1982. Hers was the 3,592nd profile I clicked on. I winked at her, she winked back, we got hitched. The end."

That story could only be stretched out on TV for two seasons, three seasons tops. And only with guest appearances from John Stamos or Suri Cruise.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sorry Mario, But Your Dignity Is In Another Castle

Sixty-nine days have elapsed since the start of the new year. My most notable accomplishment of 2013 thus far: completing the original Super Mario Bros. trilogy.  My eight-year-old self would be incredibly proud of me.

I played all three games last month on my Wii. You know the theory that suggests that when you learn a new fact, it replaces an old one stored in your brain? It is not applicable to Nintendo knowledge. I remembered the location of every 1-Up mushroom, every warp zone, every whistle in the Super Mario games. It's my hope that I'll retain these sort of video game secrets the rest of my life. One day, I'd like to have the opportunity to pass down the Konami code to my future grandchildren.

The premise of the first Super Mario Bros. game is simple: a plumber named Mario travels through the Mushroom Kingdom in an attempt to rescue Princess Peach from the evil Bowser, the leader of the turtle-like Koopa race. The story is loosely based on real-life events that occurred in Japan in the early 1980s.

Bowser is a complex character. He is virtually indestructible, as evidenced by the fact that he's been resurrected in Super Mario games for nearly 30 years. Fell into a lava pit? No problem. Fell into a lava pit again? Who cares? Fell into a lava pit for a third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth time? Big deal.

But Bowser obviously has his flaws. For example, he has an unhealthy obsession with lava pit rooms. The easiest way to avoid falling into a pit of lava is to not own a pit of lava.

Oh, and Bowser, perhaps it's time for you to have those question blocks removed from your castles. There's not much sense in letting Mario power up with mushrooms and earn 1-Ups in your own home, with the Princess' freedom on the line. How many castles with lava pit rooms and question blocks do you need, anyway? I know you are the king of Koopas, but one well-designed, booby-trapped castle should suffice.

More on the Super Mario Bros. series. The plot of the original game is recycled in Super Mario Bros. 3: the Princess is captured by Bowser, and Mario comes to her aid.

In Super Mario World, the fourth Super Mario game and the first for Super Nintendo, Bowser kidnaps the Princess, and Mario is forced to save her.

Notice a trend here? The Princess is abducted in Nintendo 64's Mario 64, the Wii's Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and countless other Nintendo-produced games along the way.

(I omitted Super Mario Bros. 2 for Nintendo because in that game the Princess is not in peril -- she's a playable character. But you eventually find out that Mario had dreamed the events of the game. He'd fantasized that the Princess is a strong, independent woman who can take care of herself. So you can see how much her personal problems have weighed on his mind.)

What is Mario's incentive to risk his lives for the Princess as often as he does? Well, the answer is pretty obvious, isn't it: He's in love. Isn't that why all men do really dumb things? Would Mario ever have another reason to run past fireballs, duck underneath bullets, and transform into a raccoon? He desperately wants to impress the Princess.

This feels like a slow-building romance that you've watched unfold on countless sitcoms. Except Mario is not Jim Halpert and the Princess is not Pam Beesly. Mario is more comparable to Skippy, and the Princess to Mallory Keaton.

The Princess doesn't let Mario get too close to her, doesn't show much gratitude for his bravery. She simply keeps her conversation with Mario to a minimum. Remember what she said to him at the end of Super Mario Bros.? "Thank you Mario! Your quest is over. We present you a new quest."

What a letdown for Mario. If I were him at that moment, I'd be crestfallen. I'd wonder to myself, "Really? I just conquered a fire-breathing monster for you and all you have to say to me is, 'We present you with a new quest'? What the...?! Alright fine, I'll accept your stupid new quest, but before I go, can I get a hug, or a friendly punch on the shoulder?"

This is the power that women have over men. If they want you to put your lives on the line for them, not once, but twice, you have no choice but to suck it up and hope you win some brownie points with them.

By the conclusion of Super Mario Bros. 3, the Princess can't even stand to be in the same room with Mario. She tells him, "Thank you. But our Princess is in another castle!...Just kidding! Ha ha ha! Bye bye." Good one, Princess. Bye bye to you too, you ingrate.

To be fair, her heart softens a little bit in the later games; she gives him a peck on the head in Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U. But does she send any signals that she's willing to take her relationship with Mario to the next levels? No.

The Princess is nothing but a tease. She toys with Mario's emotions, strings him along just enough to ensure that he'll be there for her the next time she's captured by Bowser. Mario needs to come to grips with the fact that she's using him. And his brother, Luigi, for that matter. She's essentially pit the two against one another. Her story could be the basis of a Jerry Springer episode:  "I'm Juggling Two Plumbers -- And They're Bros.!"

I'm a longtime fan of the Super Mario games, but I'm pulling for Mario to break out of his cycle of rescue-rejection-repeat. I want to see him leave the Princess behind, once and for all, and maintain some shred of dignity.

There are many other princesses out there who would appreciate an adventurous but smallish hero. In fact, Mario may want to put in a call to Link; he knows a woman who is Mario's type.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Life Of Qi

A year ago, I signed up for Words With Friends. I did so with one goal in mind: Win Against Friends.  Defeat them. Annihilate them. Decimate them. Demolish them. Obliterate them. Outmaneuver them. Prevail over them. Vanquish them.*

* Synonyms for the word "defeat" courtesy of Thesaurus.com.

Full of confidence and equipped with an extensive vocabulary, I assumed I would learn the nuances of Words With Friends rather quickly and then engage in a series of one-sided games with my closest pals. And the games have been one-sided, though, unexpectedly, not in my favor.

I have played approximately 50 games of Words With Friends in the past year. I've won 10 of them, if that. My winning percentage, at best, is .200. Unacceptable. Mediocre. Inadequate, even. (Exit, stage left!)

I've examined every one of my losses, and there's a common thread among virtually all of them. There was a particular moment midway through the vast majority of these games in which the tide turned and I fell into a deficit I could not possibly overcome. It's a moment that can be summed up with just two letters: "Q" and "I."

As in "Qi," a word I am convinced was created for the sole purpose of allowing my friends to tally an illogically high points total against me in Words With Friends. I never recover from the momentum swing caused by a well-placed "Qi." Just as I'm keeping pace with the other player on the scoreboard, BAM, he or she drops the "Qi" bomb on me: a "Q" on the "TL" tile (a triple letter score) and, if he or she is especially lucky, the "I" on a "DW" (double word score) or "TW" (triple word score) tile.

Seriously, what the heck is a "Qi"? I can guarantee you my opponents don't know. I propose that if an opponent cannot recite the definition of the word before play begins, he or she may not use it during the game.

I haven't the slightest clue what "Qi" means, but I can offer you my own personal definition: a "BS" word that should be banned from the Words With Friends dictionary. I would add a couple of "Qi" synonyms from Thesaurus.com here, but none are listed on the site, which further proves my point that it's a bogus word. Really, "BS" should be a playable combination; I use those two letters together in conversation way more than "Q" and "I."

After my opponent plays the "Qi" card, I wrack my brain in the hopes that I can come up with a word that's equally impressive and equally valuable in the game. Always, I fail. So I then attempt to mish-mash whichever letters I have. Maybe I can string together a bunch of letters, place one of them on a "DW" or "TW" tile and make up some ground that way?

One word I often try -- and I have no explanation for this -- is "Snooki." Yes, the nickname of Jersey Shore star Nicole Polizzi. Words With Friends does not accept "Snooki" as a valid word. I beg to differ. It is a valid word. Look at the cover of any magazine at the supermarket checkout line; it's absolutely valid.

Perhaps if I were to spell the word as "SnooQI," Words With Friends would be more accepting of it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

An Important Message For Presidents Day Weekend

Presidents Day weekend is here, a time to celebrate the birthdays of two of our greatest presidents, George Washington and Oscar nominee Abraham Lincoln.  Be sure to take a moment to reflect on their bravery, their leadership during tumultuous times, their willingness to make difficult decisions in the face of adversity, and the sacrifices they made for our great nation.

You may spend the rest of the weekend shopping for discounted clothes and furniture at your local department store.

I began my holiday weekend today by spending 20 minutes searching Google for the correct spelling of "Presidents Day." I can now confirm that no apostrophe is needed.

As it turns out, "Presidents Day" is something of a misnomer. Under federal law, the holiday is designated as "Washington's Birthday." But informally, U.S. citizens have been forcing the Father Of Our Country to share his special day with Lincoln for years. Sorry, George, but the Revolutionary War was soooooo 1775-1783.

On this Presidents Day weekend, I suggest we pause to acknowledge not only Washington and Lincoln, but the 41 presidents and the 47 vice presidents whose birthdays have been ignored throughout history. So, to Presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes, and Vice Presidents John C. Breckinridge and Schuyler Colfax and Dan Quayle, and all the rest, happy birthday.

Whenever that is.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Valentine's Day Tips From A Single Man

Today is February 1, the start of the most romantic month of the year. You know what's coming. You can't ignore it. It's almost here. The holiday of love.

Groundhog Day. It's tomorrow! Who doesn't love Punxsutawney Phil?

Have you found a date yet for Groundhog Day? If you have, I'd like to recommend the perfect movie for the occasion: the 2010 comedy Valentine's Day. It stars a pre-Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper, a pre-married-to-Justin-Timberlake Jessica Biel, a pre-I-break-up-with-someone-new-every-two-months Taylor Swift, and many other celebrities. Essentially, it was the Movie 43 of its time.

If you do not have a date for Groundhog Day, you'll have a chance to redeem yourself in two weeks. Valentine's Day, as you know, is February 14. It's highly recommended by Hallmark, Hershey's, Kay Jewelers and every drugstore in your neighborhood that you share this special day with a special someone.

Your concern shouldn't be finding a valentine, even if time is not on your side. You have many options available to you, such as Match.com. Did you know its customers are three times more likely to enter into a relationship than those who don't use the site? It's true, according to its commercials. If nothing else, using Match is a great opportunity to earn TV time once it incorporates the awkward conversations from your first date into its ads.

So, let's assume you score a date sometime in the next two weeks. What will you give her? Where will you take her? And most of all, how can you save as much money as possible?

Allow me to answer all of those questions at once, as a single man who has many years of experience with organizing inexpensive dates at the last minute. Here are a few simple ways you can create a memorable Valentine's Day for you and yours:

Buy Flowers. As counterintuitive as this sounds, do not buy flowers from a florist. Flower shops can charge as much as $80 for a dozen roses. What a rip-off. Pick up some roses from your local deli instead for about $15. It's true, deli roses will probably die in one or two days, but your date won't know that, and in my experience, the relationship dies before then anyway.

Buy Candy, Too. But not just any candy. Imported candy. I'm not referring to fancy shmancy chocolates from a fancy shmancy country like France. I'm thinking more along the lines of, say, Kit Kat.

Did you know that there are several flavors of Kit Kat not available in the U.S.? In Japan alone, you can find green tea, cinnamon cookie, blueberry cheesecake, and sweet bean jelly favors of Kit Kat. Order these online, and your date will be extremely flattered that you went through all that trouble to gift her such rare treats. As the old saying goes, the quickest way to a woman's heart is chocolate with unrecognizable foreign letters printed on the package.

Take In A Movie. "Dinner and a movie" is cliched, but that combo is still effective, in my opinion. Four movies are opening on Valentine's Day. Coincidentally, one of them is a Nicholas Sparks movie, Safe Haven. With any luck, your date will be a Bruce Willis fan who'd rather see A Good Day to Die Hard.

Or, if you'd rather share a good laugh with her, rent a film. I can recommend the perfect movie: Groundhog Day.

Good luck!

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Problem With: "The Wonder Years"

Last week, I introduced a new series on my blog titled "The Problem With," in which I will analyze the inconsistencies I observe in TV shows and movies that I watch. Back to the Future was the subject of the first entry, which you can read here.

I should warn you that I've been on a bit of an '80s kick lately. Back to the Future is an obvious classic from that decade. The Karate Kid is another. I've watched The Karate Kid on cable, without exaggeration, at least seven times in the past three months. I just have an odd fascination with any mid- to late-1980s film in which Elisabeth Shue plays the girlfriend of the main character.

The Hub has become one of my favorite channels, because its lineup is brimming with '80s sitcoms: Family Ties, The Facts of Life, ALF. And until recently, it aired one of my personal favorites, The Wonder Years.

I was a fan of The Wonder Years during its original run from 1988 to 1993. I didn't know it at the time, but many of the story lines would parallel what I would soon experience in my teen years: the connections I made with my family, the bonds I shared with close friends, the loves I won and lost.

Boy, I wish I could have Daniel Stern repeat that last line to me. "I didn't know it at the time" is a quintessential Wonder Years phrase, isn't it? I'm fairly certain the narrator, the adult Kevin Arnold -- voiced by Stern -- used it at least five times over the course of the series.

There was another popular phrase that the older Kevin Arnold would say whenever he recalled a life-changing moment: "And then...it happened." You knew the show had a compelling or entertaining twist in store for you whenever the narrator said that.

The Wonder Years had a great theme. I didn't know it at the time, but it's Joe Cocker's version of The Beatles song "With a Little Help from My Friends." The accompanying intro was fun, too -- it was "home video" of Kevin, his family, and his friends, playing, arguing, fighting, and generally being in one another's company. To this day, when I hear "With a Little Help from My Friends" -- the Joe Cocker version -- I have flashbacks to family barbecues, neighborhood football games and the time Jason Hervey punched me on the lawn. (No, that last part didn't happen.)

I watched The Wonder Years quite a bit when it was on The Hub. I remember one night in particular I tuned in to the network and caught the beginning of the show's intro. And then...it happened.

I noticed a person I'd never seen on The Wonder Years before. Jump to the 44-second mark of the video above. Kevin accepts a football from a bespectacled Winnie. They're both smiling. It's a very cute moment.

But...who is that sitting on the curb next to Winnie? I haven't the slighest clue. I have no recollection of this person from any of the episodes. Obviously, this is someone who played a role in Kevin's life, someone who is at least an acquaintance of Winnie's and somehow managed to sneak onto the Arnold family home video collection.

How come older Kevin, the narrator, never addressed this? He had to have remembered this person 20 years later. He could easily describe every friend he ever had, every girlfriend, every teacher, every vacation, every game of one-on-one basketball he played with Paul. I can name you two of my high school teachers and maybe three or four other students who were in my graduating class. Kevin's memory was flawless.

And adult Kevin told so many stories. Six seasons' worth, as a matter of fact. And not one of them addressed the mystery person in the intro. This is a glaring oversight on his part.

Who is this person? Daniel Stern, help me out here.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Problem With: "Back To The Future"

What? How?

I'm a curious man. I like to ask questions, and I do not relent until I feel I have received a satisfactory answer. I cannot accept ambiguity in my life.

You wouldn't want to watch a TV show or a movie with me. I'm constantly picking apart plot holes, character inconsistencies...whatever seems flawed, in my opinion. Whatever seems wrong.

Allow me to offer two examples off of the top of my head. I followed the 1980s sitcom Small Wonder as a kid. If you're not familiar with the show, you can brush up on it by watching this trailer for the season-one DVD release. I can raise all sorts of questions based on the trailer alone.

The patriarch of that family is called a "genius engineer." What? How? Listen closely to how his robot, Vicki, speaks. Is that really the work of a "genius"? And while I do enjoy the show for its kitsch factor, I am confident it was not a "classic beacon of '80s culture."

The second example: the George Clooney movie The Descendants. When I left a screening of the film last year, my first thought was not, That was an Oscar-worthy performance by Clooney. (He was nominated but didn't win.) I was more concerned with the fact that his character's wife was stolen from him by Matthew Lillard. What? How?

With all due respect to Lillard, who is a fine actor and I'm sure a fine human being, he has little chance of having an affair with a girl romanced by a two-time People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive" winner. A woman choosing Shaggy over Clooney? I don't think so.

There's a reason why I'm mentioning all of this. I'm starting an occasional series of posts titled "The Problem With," in which I'll write about the inconsistencies I observe in the TV shows and movies, past and present, that I watch.

I promise not to bore you with arguments you've heard many times before. So there will be no discussion of Saved by the Bell, whose track record of unresolved story lines and haphazard character development is unmatched.

With that disclaimer out of the way, it's time to address "The Problem With: Back to the Future," my all-time favorite movie. The time-traveling aspects of the entire trilogy make sense to me; it's clear the producers put a lot of thought into making sure there were no glaring flaws. If you feel differently, the DVD collection has a wonderful FAQ that will probably answer your questions.

What puzzles me about the Back to the Future series is Marty McFly's first encounter with the 1955 version of his mother, Lorraine. This is right after he is struck by his grandfather's -- his mother's father's -- car.

You may recall that it was Marty's father, George, who was meant to be hit by the car. George had fallen from a tree while watching a woman in a state of undress using binoculars. After realizing what his dad was up to, a disgusted Marty referred to him as a "peeping Tom." But he was nice enough to push George out of harm's way anyway.

Cut to a bedroom in Lorraine's house, where Marty wakes up after having been knocked out from the accident. She's there, watching him in the dark. OK, that's a little creepy, but whatever. She informs him that he's "safe and sound now, back in good old 1955." Marty is startled not only by the fact that he's 30 years in the past, but also by the fact that he has no pants on. He asks her where his pants are, like any logical man would in that situation. Her only response: "Over there, on my hope chest." What?

See, at this point, if I were Marty, I would've asked, "Why did you take off my pants?" It's a reasonable question, I feel. How would taking off his pants aid in his recovery? I'm no Doc Brown, but I don't think it would.

I've never heard a doctor say, "In the event that a friend or a loved one blacks out, you must assist them first by removing their clothes. Please don't be shy, it's all medical procedure." Had Marty known there would be even the slightest chance that he might suffer a concussion one day, I highly doubt he would've ever worn purple underwear.

Say what you will about your old man, Marty, but your mom was out of control as a teenager.