Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Problem With: "The Karate Kid" Trilogy

I've never identified with a fictional character more than I have with Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio in three Karate Kid movies.

As a child, I could relate to Daniel on so many levels. I was a dark-haired skinny boy from the Northeast. I hated to wax floors and paint fences. And I was bullied by teens trained by a merciless Vietnam War vet. The John Kreese character was very real in the 1980s, believe me.

Daniel, to his credit, had the courage to stand up to his tormentors in the most sensible and admirable way possible: by submitting himself completely to an aging handyman he'd just met.

After I watched The Karate Kid for the first time, it sparked an interest in me to learn karate. My parents took me to the local dojo, which, much to my chagrin, was run by a middle-aged white man. He asked me if I was ready to train in the martial arts. The following conversation ensued:

"Not with you, I'm not. Do you have any Japanese-born senseis here? Preferably one who finds joy in fixing cars, raising bonsai trees and catching flies with chopsticks?"

"We don't, but I assure you I'm highly qualified to teach you all of the skills you need to master the art of kah-rah-tay."

"Nice try, but I know you don't really say 'karate' that way. Let me ask you this: Have you ever visited Okinawa?"

"No, I haven't."

"Mom, Dad, let's go. This guy is wasting our time."

Oh, there was one more similarity between Daniel and myself, by the time I was a teenager: We both failed at relationships. Repeatedly. 

In The Karate Kid, he was romantically involved with Ali, an ex-girlfriend of his nemesis Johnny. She took Daniel's side in his feud with the Cobra Kai, supported him in the All-Valley Karate Tournament, and helpfully popped the clutch when his mom's station wagon wouldn't start on their first date. I assumed their love would last forever.

But no! We learned at the beginning of The Karate Kid, Part II that Ali dumped him for a college football player at UCLA. Daniel, apparently, let her go without a fight. That was a mistake. He was a karate champion; he couldn't have challenged the football player and taken him out with a crane kick? Seems like the obvious move to me.

Quick sidebar: If you were a fictional male UCLA student in the mid- to late 1980s or early '90s, chances are you were a jerk who would steal someone's girlfriend without giving it a second thought. Just ask Zack Morris.

Daniel was on the rebound when he flew with Mr. Miyagi to Okinawa in The Karate Kid, Part II. There, he fell for Kumiko; she was held hostage by an incredibly insecure bad guy, Chozen, but Daniel vanquished him in a high-stakes battle in front of her entire village. Now that's true love.

At least I thought so. Not Kumiko. Rather than follow Daniel to California at the start of the third movie, she decided to accept a job with a dance company in Tokyo. Good luck finding another man who will duel to the death for you, Kumiko.

A half-hour or so into The Karate Kid, Part III, it became clear that Daniel was not meant to have a steady girlfriend. He met a pottery store employee, Jessica -- he was set up by Mr. Miyagi, because at this point in his life he couldn't do anything right without Mr. Miyagi's help -- but it turned out she had a boyfriend back in Ohio and wanted to work things out with him. I didn't believe her story. I thought she made it up. She likely recognized there was no future in a lovelorn loser who tossed away his college tuition twice in less than a year -- first on a roundtrip ticket to Japan, and then on a bonsai tree shop.

I'm not sure there has been a movie hero who was more lonely than Daniel. He concluded his trilogy with one old friend and more than a dozen enemies and exes, including John Kreese and his Cobra Kai students, Ali, Chozen, Kumiko, Terry Silver and Mike Barnes. And Freddy.

Freddy really set the tone for how much disappointment Daniel would suffer during the three Karate Kid movies. To refresh your memory, Freddy lived in the same apartment complex with Daniel, and they hit it off immediately. Freddy invited him to join him at the beach, and it was there that Daniel met Ali for the first time, was attacked by Johnny for the first time, and hung out with Freddy for the last time. A disgusted Freddy left a physically and mentally defeated Daniel lying in the sand. He walked away as one of his pals wondered, "Where'd you find this guy?"

Daniel made and lost a friend in the span of, what, 48 hours? That's Daniel LaRusso in a nutshell.

Freddy did make a brief appearance at the end of The Karate Kid, cheering Daniel's victory in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. Too little, too late, Freddy. Daniel no longer requires your friendship. He has Mr. Miyagi and an oversized trophy now.

Freddy was a phony, a despicable character, in my view -- so despicable that I still think he would have made an excellent foil for Daniel in the third movie. It would have brought the story full circle, you know?

What if, at the start of The Karate Kid, Part III, Freddy fell into a vat of Terry Silver's toxic waste and transformed into some sort of super-villain? And now he was a twisted soul who suffered terrible flashbacks to that day, one year earlier, when Daniel embarrassed him in front of his friends at the beach? And he vowed to make Daniel miserable for the rest of his life unless he agreed to defend his title against him in the All-Valley Karate Tournament?

And what if Freddy was a student at UCLA? He would have been the ultimate Karate Kid villain.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Three Times I Blew It With Girls In Central Park

After an especially harsh winter here in New York, the city has enjoyed mild temperatures (by March standards) during the past week. I've taken advantage of the nice weather by spending quite a bit of time outdoors in one of my favorite spots in the city: Central Park.

The other day, as I walked past the Great Lawn, I thought of the fond memories I have of the park. Frisbee tossing with friends. Watching talented musicians perform for passersby. Tanning in the bright city sun. Turning down, inadvertently, a group of girls who were flirting with me.

Wait, what? It happened a year ago, but it had only just dawned on me how poorly I'd handled the situation. I smiled to myself. I'd never told that story to anyone before, but that night I shared it with five friends, all of whom had a good laugh at my expense.

It was then that I realized I needed to post it on this blog, for posterity. Not just that story, but two other anecdotes, also set in Central Park, that demonstrate how inept I can be with the opposite sex.

So, here are three times when I blew it with girls in Central Park:

I. July 2014: "Why Are They Pressuring Me With Their Poultry And Baked Desserts?"

I was lying on a blanket on a hill near the Conservatory Water area, which is known for its model boat pond and Alice in Wonderland statue. This is my favorite section of Central Park; it's scenic and peaceful, the ideal spot to lose myself in a good book for a few hours.

On this particular day, I was engaged in a lengthy but fascinating biography of Abraham Lincoln. As Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter, signaling the start of the Civil War, I was interrupted by a pretty brunette, likely early 30s. She waved her smartphone in the air and asked, "Would you mind taking our picture?"

I looked away from my book and lifted my head from the blanket. I turned left and observed several of her friends having a picnic no more than 20 feet away for me. I hadn't noticed they were there, so engrossed was I in the fate of the U.S. in the 1860s.

"Sure," I replied. I arose from my blanket, accepted the phone from her hand, and walked over to her group. "Hi ladies, how are you?" I asked politely. "Great!" was their response.

"Ready? One, two, three!" I said loudly, snapping their picture before handing the phone back to its owner. 

"Thank you!" they cheerily said. "Would you like some of our food?"

"That's very generous of you, thank you, but I'll pass."

"Are you sure? We have chicken, pasta salad, mashed potatoes, homemade chocolate chip cookies, walnut brownies...." 

"No, really, I ate a little while ago and I'm full now. But thank you. You're very kind."

"We insist! Try something! Anything!"

I was a little annoyed by this point. Had they not listened to a word I'd said? I was not hungry. My stomach lacked the capacity for more food. Why were they pressuring me with their poultry and baked desserts?

Once more, I declined their offer, and excused myself so I could return to my blanket. The Civil War awaited, and I couldn't wait to find out how it ended.

The most unfortunate aspect of this story is not that I didn't eat their food and use the opportunity to flirt with them. No. The most unfortunate aspect of this story is that months passed before I realized I'd made a terrible mistake.

II. May 2013: "We Don't Need To Do This"

I'm sure that to a non-New Yorker a date in Central Park sounds romantic. The trees, the lakes, the rowboats, the chirping birds, the sketch artists, the street performers...the park is very charming. How can someone not fall in love there?

Having had several dates in Central Park in recent years, I have a different perspective. The park has many trails and many entrances/exits. It allows an easy escape if you're on a date that isn't going well.

I've experienced this firsthand. Prior to my most recent date, the girl and I planned to stroll through the park for an entire afternoon. Maybe 45 minutes into a four-hour walk, we took a detour through Strawberry Fields, an area honoring John Lennon conveniently located near Central Park West and a subway station. Neither of us had suggested we do so.

I believe that, subconsciously, we decided we weren't compatible and we should cut short the date at the nearest exit. So, we went our separate ways in Strawberry Fields. It was nothing to get hung about.

It wasn't the first time this had happened to me. There was a similar moment in May 2013, though I took a different tack at the end of that date.

I'm a firm believer that a man and a woman should be honest with one another on a date. If she does not want to see him again, she should say so, and vice versa. I find it rude when a woman tells me she'd like another date, only to ignore my phone calls and texts later. I want to live in a society where we treat others with respect and dignity, and can freely state how disinterested we are in them.

That's what I had in mind on the May 2013 date, as we left the park earlier than anticipated. I tried to be diplomatic by asking her, "How do you think this went?" She answered, with much hesitation in her voice, "I had fun." 

I took a deep breath, then gave her a dose of truth: "I enjoyed our conversation, but I didn't feel a connection. This probably isn't going to work out."

I flashed a smile out of relief. I was so proud of myself for opening up to her! She, on the other hand, flashed me a look of pure bewilderment. The only words she could manage were, "We don't need to do this."

"I know, but I felt the need to be honest with you. See, I want to live in a society where we treat others...."

She didn't give me the opportunity to describe my philosophy on breakups. Instead, she walked away, never to be seen by me again.

Since then, I've refrained from making such comments at the end of dates, though I will always maintain that honesty is the best policy.

III. July 2008: "Hey Charlie Brown!"

I have an extensive collection of T-shirts referencing pop culture and my favorite sports teams. Each one of them makes for a great conversation starter.

For example, I once attended a Radiohead concert at Madison Square Garden wearing a Syracuse Orange basketball T-shirt. A recent Syracuse grad -- she reminded me of a young Lucy Liu -- was sitting next to me. She noticed my shirt and shared memories of her time in Central New York. We had a few laughs. I then asked for her number. Just kidding; I turned away and focused on the stage because the opening act had launched into its first song.

I could expand on what I wrote in the previous paragraph, but it's a story for another day -- perhaps for a blog entry titled "Three Times I Blew It With Girls In Madison Square Garden."

In the summer of 2008 I won tickets to a Bon Jovi concert in Central Park. I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of theirs. I'm not a fan of any artist from the metropolitan area, really. Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel...I appreciate their talent, but you can't avoid them on the radio around here. I shouldn't be forced to listen to them on a virtual loop simply because they are local success stories. Lindsay Lohan was raised on Long Island, but I wouldn't watch Freaky Friday on DVD every day because of it.

Still, the Bon Jovi concert was free, so the price was right. And, hey, maybe I'd meet a few cute fans there.

On the morning of the concert, I removed from my drawer the T-shirt I'd wear to the show. It was a T-shirt I'd ignored for months, but the time felt right to dust it off. It was an official Charlie Brown T-shirt: a yellow T-shirt with the black zigzag.

I thought it was the perfect choice. What girl doesn't like Charlie Brown? Aside from Lucy. And Violet. And every other girl in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The T-shirt elicited a strong reaction from several girls at the concert. Unfortunately, it was not the kind of strong reaction I'd been hoping for: each one yelled "Hey Charlie Brown!" as she pointed in my direction. The surrounding fans would hear this, then take a good look at my shirt before shouting out as many Peanuts references as came to their minds. "Charlie Brown!" "Nice shirt, blockhead!" "I can tell you what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!"

Good grief.

After the concert, I told my friend who attended the show with me how disappointed I was in the girls' reaction to my shirt. He asked, "What did you expect? You had to have known the shirt would draw attention to yourself."

I replied, "Of course I knew the shirt would draw attention to myself. That's why I wore it. But I wanted people to say, 'Nice shirt,' not compare me to the world's biggest preadolescent loser."

I learned my lesson. I haven't worn the Charlie Brown T-shirt to a rock concert since. I've only worn it to jazz concerts featuring the music of Vince Guaraldi.