Friday, April 28, 2006

A Dose of Reality?

The film, "United 93" opens today and the big question on everyone's mind is whether it is too early for such a film to be released. Going on nearly five years since the tragedy of September 11th, this is one of the first films to dramatize the events of what happened aboard United Airlines Flight 93, the flight where the passengers reportedly rallied together and fought the terrorists, thus preventing the plane from being crashed into another target in Washington D.C.

Many of the test audiences so far have given the film very positive reviews stating that the film has portrayed the plight of the passengers in a realistic but not overly dramatized light. Rather than creating a Hollywoodized version of the film with superhero style actions and rescues, the film is supposed to show the situation in a way that borders on reality. Using handheld camera and jerky camera movements, it gives the audience a sense of actually being aboard the flight and taking part in the action and the tragedy. Is that a good thing? Well, I suppose it depends.

Back when "Saving Private Ryan" opened in theaters, there was public outcry regarding the realistic depiction of the landing at Omaha Beach. Groups protested saying that it was overly done and too gory for audiences. There were fears that veterans would have relapses and suffer breakdowns in seeing such violence depicted again. But surprisingly, the majority of veterans who saw the film and took part in the actual invasion applauded the filmmakers for showing audiences what the horrors of war were really like. Was there someone like Tom Hanks on the beaches of Normandy? Quite possibly. Is it a realistic depiction of the action. Definitely. Is it historically accurate?

Well... that's a separate issue. The actual battle on Omaha beach lasted for hours and was just as difficult as shown in the film, however, no studio would have allowed a film to be done in real-time which showed the horrors of war for that long. The bottom line in movies is money and it's important that the film do well enough to make money. What do you do then? Condense, combine, and dramatize.

Movies based on actual events are rarely spot on depictions of a situation. Screenwriters will take known incidents and events and often combine them to heighten the action or speed up the timeline. Events are sometimes shown out of order as well. This is not done to detract from the reality of the situation, but to give the audience a quick snapshot of the event in question.

How realistic or accurate is "United 93"? From all accounts, the screenwriters have used as much information as they were able to access to ensure that the depiction of the characters was as grounded in reality as possible. They interviewed families of the victims and reviewed the tapes of phone conversations that were made before the flight lost contact. A lot of what happened on the flight can only be speculated and inferred. Whether the actions shown in the movie are actually what happened or not is something we may never know, but as filmmakers, it is their job to depict events in the way they feel best conveys the story.

Is it too soon to see something like this? I personally don't believe that it is. After Pearl Harbor there were films that came out that rallied the American people around the war effort and encouraged them to remain vigilant and do their part for their country. Will this film have the same effect? Who knows. It could reaffirm the support for the war on terrorism that continues in Asia and the Middle East. It could also raise more questions in the minds of Americans as to how this tragedy could have happened.

Whatever the film does, I don't think it's doing it to make money off of a tragic event in our nation's history. Movies, at the best of times, can make us aware of things we only have a passing knowledge of. They make us see things we may not have want to have seen or experience. It's important to never forget the people who died on that day. It's equally important that when we remember them in a way that doesn't show them in an unrealistic light.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Starbucks and Gas: The New Guns and Butter

One of the lead stories on virtually any news broadcast these days is the rising cost of fuel across the United States. With the average across the nation for a gallon of regular unleaded touching $3 a gallon; it is fast becoming a costly visit everytime we go to the pump. All the news stories cover the average joe who is complaining about the rising costs and how it is adversely affecting their lives. And why not? It's true. When I started driving about 15 years ago, I could fill up my tank every week for $10. These days I'll be lucky to get about 3 gallons.

While I know gas prices in Europe and parts of Asia are much higher, one can't help but complain. And why not? It's in human nature to complain about things. We must make it known that we're not happy about something otherwise how can we affect change? Had the colonials not complained we would still be a British colony. Had civil rights activists not complained, segregation would still be running relatively rampant. And had Star Wars fans not complained, Jar Jar Binks would have played an extremely prominent role in Episodes II and III. Gas prices are rising but what can we do?

There are many articles that discuss how young people can get ahead financially by cutting costs or spending wisely. One of the things that is often brought up is how you can save money by cutting out everyday expenses that are more of luxuries than necessities. Cut down on smoking and you suddenly are saving $30 per week. There's one tank of gas. Choose Spaghetti-O's as opposed to Spaghetti and you'll save on buying pasta and pasta sauce separately. There's another half tank of gas. One of the major culprits who always gets a finger pointed to is Starbucks. If you cut down on your $4 Latte everyday there's another $28 per week. Yet another tank of gas.

But now consider. These are options we were once considering cutting in order to save money for a more successful financial future. Now we're cutting them so that we can get from work to our jobs so that we can continue to earn money? Now if we're stuck staying up late trying to balance our checkbooks and figure out how to make the next rent or mortgage check then we'll obviously be sleepy the next morning Not all offices have coffee machines so then how are we supposed to stay awake at work? We lose our jobs and then what?

Conspiracy theorists out there have come to the conclusion that this whole deal is a collusion between the coffee companies and oil companies to keep parity with one another because they know that we Americans can't go without one or the other so then these companies continue to raise prices knowing that they can ask whatever they want because we will keep feeding them. But think about the little guy.... aw heck... think about the big guy as well. When we go out on dates with our girlfriends now we have to consider, "We can drive around or we can sit and have coffee, but with things as they are, we may not be able to do both."

Add dinner and a movie to the mix and oh brother do you have a situation! It's not all that bad and soon enough we'll either get bumps in pay that help balance the equation or we'll all start investing in the Segway people mover. Hmmm... there's a new conspiracy for you. The Segway company is colluding with oil and coffee companies to drive prices up so that in the end we will consider the Segway an alternative to driving. I hear they even have models with cup holders now.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Truth in Advertising

Picture the scene... you've seen it before and will see it again ad naseum. It's a cold winter morning. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and there is twenty feet of snow on the ground. Suddenly, from behind a snow drift bursts a massive SUV chugging along the road at well above the speed limit taking the kids to school, moving the groceries back to the house or ferrying a frozen caveman back to civilization. It seems that every fall and winter we are bombarded with these commercials and almost as inevitably, far too many people take these images to be the truth.

Take this past winter for example. By all accounts it was relatively mild here in Washington. Sure we had a couple of big storms that dumped snow on us but if I was able to get to and from work in my car, a rear wheel drive sports car, then it couldn't have been that bad right? Still, there were a record number of accidents, mostly because people don't adjust to the driving conditions and try to mimic everything they see in commercials. Now I grant you, there is a certain amount of 'power' and prestige associated with an SUV. They are large, powerful, and quite manly. When you see them in commercials there is almost nothing they can't handle.

Need to tow a couple of California Redwoods? Just dig out the clothesline and tie it off on the tie-downs that are located next to the grocery nets. Want to hike the entire Grand Canyon without having to actually walk? Drive your SUV straight down the side of the canyon gorge and hike to your heart's content. Want to do some snorkeling but can't stand having goggles over your eyes? No problem, drive your car into the ocean, drive around the ocean bottom and then drive out when you're done. These are all ads for SUVs that have come out at one time or another. And despite that in the bottom left hand corner, in colors that match the backgrounds, shown at speeds that match the fastest racecars, the statement is made that these ads are not real, people still tend to believe them.

I can't tell you the number of times I've been piddling along in the wet or in the snow and have been passed by an SUV going 15 miles over the speed limit. In the snow it's a must. Under normal weather conditions everyone can go 10 miles over the limit but in the snow, 15 is the minimum that one must exceed by. Anything faster is smiled upon. You can see these drivers, both men and women (I don't discriminate) driving like the devil and seemingly without a care. You also see them just as often, stuck in a ditch or flipped over in a snow bank looking bewlidered at this odd chain of events. How could this have happened?

Simple answer? Your vehicles are top heavy and unbalanced. At low speeds in trecherous conditions you can probably wipe the floor of any normal vehicle but at high speeds in bad weather, ice and snow, it doesn't matter if your vehicle is front wheel or rear wheel drive, two-wheel, four-wheel, or twenty-wheel drive, when you lose traction you have lost it and there's very little you can do to recover it.

So do yourself a favor. Before you go out and spend tons of money on an SUV thinking that you'll be able to survive the apocalypse with nothing more than your SUV and a pack of oreos, go take an SUV out for a spin, drive it to its limits of speed, corner it like the dickens, and throw everything you can at it. If you don't flip, crash, or otherwise crack up, I believe that you'll have a certified winner on your hands and I will be the first to say that either you're an ace behind the wheel or the vehicle is very well put together. Otherwise, in this age of rising gas prices and variable fuel efficiency, you'll get to know your local tow truck driver quite well. ;-)

Friday, April 21, 2006

Are you a Violent Man?

I have been studying the martial art known as Haedong Gumdo for close to three years. Prior to that I had studied Tang Soo Do for over five. I was one belt shy of earning my black belt in Tang Soo Do and I earned my black belt in Gumdo last November. In that time I have been asked many questions about the art. And I truly consider it to be an art in that not only do we learn defensive and offensive uses of the sword but we also use formalized forms to present the various techniques in a standardized format so that we may be judged on our control of the sword and on ourselves. It can take a day to learn but a lifetime to master. Though I am a black belt now, I know that I have much more to learn.

The sword art of Gumdo is relatively new in this country with only a few hundred black belts nationwide and a few thousand students overall. Naturally there is curiousity about how we practice it. With empty handed forms of martial arts such as Tang Soo Do or Tae Kwan Do, you use basic hand and foot techniques. Everyone knows that. But when you add a sword into the mix, people get different ideas. I had been speaking with a girl once when she asked about the art. I told her what it was and what all we learned. In the entire conversation I never once mentioned anything remotely linked to violence; yet the first question from her was whether I was a "violent man."

I've been called many things but I don't think I have ever been considered violent by any stretch of the imagination. I didn't know how to respond but I had known this girl for some time and I was a little surprised that she would ask. I told her that I wasn't but it got me thinking and I brought the topic up with my fellow high-belts in class the next class. We got to talking and realized that the martial arts often get a bum rap. When you see movies starring guys like Bruce Lee or Steven Segal, you automatically link them to violence. But the benefits of truly understanding and embracing the arts is that you find an inner peace. I have found that in the time I have been doing Gumdo, my blood pressure has gone down, my resting heart rate has decreased and my overall attitude has been improving as well. My classmates expressed similar feelings.

It's easy to stereotype martial arts, especially something like Gumdo, as being violent. After all, we do use swords and we do practice using them in potentially deadly techniques. But the way our program is geared, as are most Gumdo schools and martial arts schools in general, is that a new student starts out slowly and progresses to more difficult levels as time progresses. This serves a dual purpose. It grounds a student's foundations and basic techniques but it also weeds out those who are there for the art and those who are there for the aggression.

I've worked with several students in my school whose sole interest was in sparring or cutting paper or flailing about with the sword in an attempt to look cool. There are times when even I wish I could twirl my sword like the masters of Korea and Japan but I know I have a ways to go before then. During this early period is when a lot of students who are on the aggressive path get frustrated and bored and turn away from the art. From a business perspective it's probably a bad thing since that's lost revenue, but in the long run, in terms of relations to the art and it's public image, nothing could be better for it.

Am I a violent man? No... and I use a sword to prove that point!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Gentlemen... We Have the Technology....

There was an article in the British newspaper The Times regarding how drivers have come to rely so completely on their GPS systems that they have literally been up a creek with it. In this case, in a small shire in England, drivers apparently have been routinely following routes that lead them into fords that are far too deep for the average car to cross. Apparently the only one making out on this problem is the local towing company who is constantly fishing out these hapless drivers who end up driving in and swimming out.

The most common response from these drivers is that, "this is the route the sat-nav told me to take". Now GPS and satellite navigation are wonderful tools, that provide you with routes around town rather than constantly bugging pedestrians or gas station attendants. For the male ego it does wonders as well because we can constantly refuse to use it but secretly listen in to the directions when our wives or girlfriends punch in the destination for us. But even with such a device, common sense shouldn't be chucked out the window like a firey cigarette butt. I'm reminded of that sagely piece of advice every young person hears at least once in their lives, "If your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it?" In this case, if the GPS told you to slam into a wall because that's the shortest distance to your destination, would you do it?

Common sense says that if the route you are being instructed to follow is blocked, fine, move on to the next street and the system will adjust. Sometimes there are signs that we humans aren't as smart as the machines we program. (Cue the music from either the Matrix or the Terminator). I'm happy to report that my mom and dad are aware of this facet and whenever they use their GPS they have no problems adjusting their route; neither does the GPS system.

Okay, so you must be thinking that sat-nav's and GPS are just one thing. Let's further test the example. What's your girlfriend's number? Good. What's your home number? Okay, not bad. What's Uncle Morty's number? Ah ha... there you go scrolling through your cell phone directory again. We have difficult times remembering things like this. On the radio one of the guys was commenting the other day about how he was arrested and couldn't remember the number of his family or friends since the police took his phone. Finally he remembered the number of a friend and ended up calling them asking them to call his parents. Sad isn't it?

But why go modern? VCR's! For those of you younger readers, VCRs are Video Cassette Recorders. They are what people used to watch movies on before DVDs. Amazing isn't it? But I digress; VCRs have almost always had clocks in them, but how many times have you walked into someone's house only to see that clock blinking 12:00 constantly? They even have VCRs programmed to set their own clocks but even that appears to be complicated for some people!

We live in a modern age where almost every day some new invention or the other will help to further improve our lives. I'm just waiting for the day when we invent a machine that will help us get dressed in coordinated clothes and will not specifically tell you to wear pants. How much do you want to bet you'll see hundreds out there without pants walking around saying, "But the Robo-Valet didn't tell me to put the pants on!"

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

More to a Man than his Car....

I was checking my e-mail the other day when a news article link caught my eye. It was to an article on MSN regarding signs that a guy would exhibit were he ready to get married. Intrigued, I clicked over to the link and began to read the story. I was surprised to see much of what was being described was a fairly close description of me and where I am at this point in my life. I felt a little better that my search for the right girl was at least partially going in the right direction. However, towards the latter half of the article, they included some details on how to tell if a guy wasn't ready for marriage. Further intrigued I continued through to the end. Thankfully none of those applied to me save one. One of the items on the list was "He buys a Porsche: nothing says he's unready for commitment more than spending money on a sports car."

I couldn't believe what I was reading! Making a blanket statement about what car a guy drives is an instant reflection on his status in life or his level of commitment to a relationship? I think not.

A bit of background. When I was much younger, my dad and I were talking about cars and at that point he told me that I would one day own a Porsche. I don't know how our conversation ended up at that point, but that statement he made stayed with me. Years later, I was driving my practical Civic when it started giving me some problems with the rev limiter and other minor issues here and there. I decided to look about trading it in for something else. A Porsche was always on my mind but after doing the analysis and taking a look at my expenses, I realized that the Boxster was not out of my realm of affordability.

I have been a commuter since I started driving. I drove to campus the entire time I was at the University of Maryland. I commuted from Maryland all the way to Virginia through the dreaded Mixing Bowl of Springfield for close to two years and I continue to commute to my current job in Chantilly. Needless to say I spend a lot of time in the car and as such I came to realize that I wanted to drive something I would enjoy spending time driving. After a test drive I was convinced that the Boxster was that car. A year onward, I still agree with that statement.

There's a stigma attached to pretty much anyone who owns a sports car, and that too, an exotic. Guys who own them are often considered snobby and pretentious and otherwise all-around jerks. Girls who own them are often considered snobby and pretentious and otherwise an all-around 'Daddy's girl' who got the car to impress her friends. We owners, because I myself am one, are often seen as being rich and beyond mingling with mere mortals, we are assumed to have an air of superiority around us. That may be true to some extent in a small bunch of people, but not with every one of us.

I bought my car because I enjoy driving it. I love driving and I love having a fast responsive car in which to drive. In this age of rising gas prices could I have gone in for a more economical gas-electric hybrid? Sure I could have! Would I have enjoyed it as much? Probably not! Make no mistake, I could care less if people see me as a snob, I know in my heart that I'm not and I'm comfortable enough to realize that I'm good guy. I have never considered myself to be superior to anyone based solely on what car they drive versus what I drive.

Making blanket statements about people, that too about guys and their cars, as signs that they are unreliable, untrustworthy, or are not financially sound are not accurate at all. Want to know if a guy is any of those things based on what car he drives? If the guy has nothing more in his car other than CDs, sunglasses and a few peripherals for his phone or other equipment then he obviously has a home. If you see excess clothes stuffed into any and all nooks and crannies in the car, razors, toothbrushes and the occasional single sock, that probably means the guy has spent all his savings on his car and every paycheck now goes to paying his de facto mortgage... i.e. the car!

By the way... in case any of you are wondering... I own my own home! ;-)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Can't Make a Monkey Outta Me.... Or Can They?

So I finally sat down and watched all of Peter Jackson's version of "King Kong" this past weekend. At three hours it is much longer than the original 1933 version. It is chock full of references to the earlier work which is why I know exactly how much affection Peter Jackson has for it. Anyone who is a fan of moviedom will pick up on the little references here and there that recall an era when movies were not just remakes, but new forays into new worlds. But I digress.

One aspect of the original story that was given more screen time in this one (part of the reason for the longer running time) was the love story between Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and Kong (Andy Serkis digitally captured and 'aped' out). Now I know some of you are probably thinking, "Love story? Get outta here!" But it's true! As in the original, Kong is shown to fall in love with Ann because she is unique in his eyes.

Their relationship begins the way most of Kong's relationships start and that is with the girl being a sacrifice. But just before he is about to 'break' the relationship off, Ann escapes. This little difference from all of Kong's other 'girlfriends' is what leads him to take a closer look at Ann. Through a series of adventures with bugs, giant lizards, dinosaurs, bats, lions and tigers and bears, oh my! (I had to throw that last bit in); the two come to an understanding with one another and Ann realizes that Kong truly cares about her and even she becomes protective of him.

Unlike in the original, when Kong is brought to civilization and makes his inevitable escape, Ann does not go into hiding, rather, she goes to him to calm him and to be with him. And it was at this point that I realized that more than any other male character in the film, Kong is portrayed to be the ideal man and perhaps this is why Ann weeps so much for him rather than Jack (Adrien Brody). Perhaps this is Peter Jackson's way of telling all of us guys out here that we should take a page out of Kong's book. I mean really! Kong didn't have to say a word, heck, all he did was bellow and roar and beat his chest, but he was able to show more love and express it much more vividly than Jack could.

Like all classic heroes in non-Kong movies, Kong puts his life in peril for his girl, fighting off dinosaurs, dodging fighter planes and contending with New York traffic. Nothing says 'I love you' quite like that. And the fact that Ann reciprocates that love is what made me realize that we could all learn a lesson from that ape. She loves him not because of how he looks, what he drives, or how much he earns but because he cares for her deeply.

One key point which women always make against men is that we never listen. I think more often than not that's the truth. We don't always listen. But look at Kong! On Skull Island, Ann makes a sign to indicate that the sunset they are seeing (awww... how classically romantic) is beautiful. When the pair are in New York watching a similarly hued sunrise, Kong repeats the sign. Ann just seems to melt. Finally, a man who listens!

They also make one another laugh; a key ingredient to any healthy relationship. Sure Kong's humor is a bit simplistic, he enjoys watching Ann do pratfalls. But hey, Ann reciprocates when she tries not to laugh when during his tantrum, Kong causes a landslide causing a boulder to hit him in the head. Sure it's a bit violent, but physical comedy has always been the quickest road to humor. I got to thinking, these are life lessons that I should keep in mind.

As odd as it sounds, being a monkey... er... ape in some ways would possibly make me a better man. Perhaps if I take a page from Kong's book and make some small changes, I can become a better ape... er man and win the heart of some fair maiden. We should all strive to be the best monkey.... ape... man. Whatever.


Monday, April 17, 2006

The Job is Henchmen... Villainous Henchmen

I was watching a James Bond movie on TV last night. I've seen them all numerous times so I can tell you which one I'm watching after a few seconds of seeing a scene. Last night happened to be "Tomorrow Never Dies". This was Pierce Brosnan's second foray into the role of James Bond and this time he seemed a bit more comfortable in the role he was playing. Since I have seen that one enough number of times, I started paying more attention to the things going on in the background; the curious features of every Bond film that never cease to draw my curiousity. In this case, it has to do with the hundreds of faceless minions who seem to work for every super villain to populate a Bond film.

My first question was how these guys get these jobs. I mean I can understand how one joins the mafia or the mob. This has more or less been documented quite well in movies such as "GoodFellas" or "The Godfather". One starts out doing odd jobs and minor tasks, fetching cannolli, rubbing out hitmen from rival families and over time, you rise to the ranks to become someone. But is it possible for a James Bond henchmen to get somewhere? I was watching "Tomorrow Never Dies" and there's a scene where James Bond and Wai Lin (portrayed by Michelle Yeoh) are fighting in the engine room of the villain's stealth boat.

The engine room is filled with crewmen who are running the boat, doing the maintenance and I would assume, earning a paycheck. Now an ordinary crewman on a ship requires some training, some sort of degree (I would imagine) or at least some sort of qualification. How did they get these jobs? Did they have their resumes posted on Monster? Did human resources over at the headquarters start looking up qualified marine engineers with a bit of a mean streak in them?

"So Clyde, you are a qualified ship's engineer."

"That's correct."

"I see. So let's do a hypothetical situation; you are confronted by a child with a candy bar in his hand. What would you do?"

"Take the chocolate and eat it of course."

"Anything else?"

"Well, I would also laugh maniacially."

"Wonderful! You're hired!"

I could see how this could be part of the process. But I mean it makes me wonder if there truly are that many people out there who are evil enough to want to join a super villain and be among the faceless cronies who have nothing better to do other than to provide fodder for James Bond or any other hero for that matter, to kill, maim or knock unconscious. I wouldn't think it's an appealing position seeing as how these world domination schemes never seem to work. I mean were one to do a bit of research they would quickly realize that the trend has been that these plots fail, and generally when you realize that James Bond is on the case, it's a good bet that you should have your resignation letter ready to go and submitted before the inevitable occurs.

Still, maybe the appeal is that they have a good retirement plan... I guess we may never know.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

Halo or Hot Date?

I am not ashamed to admit that I'm a gamer. Now I'm not one of those hardcore gamers who will plant themselves in front of the TV and veg out. I consider myself to be a healthy gamer. What constitutes the difference between a healthy gamer and a veg? Simple, I play to maintain my sanity. As odd as that sounds, I play games to escape from the reality of life for a short duration, live out an alternate life and then have a few hours of fun before returning to the normalcy of life.

Now vegging out in front of the TV with a game is just one way in which gamers can get a bad rap. Another is when they take gaming to a new level and make it an alternate lifestyle. For example, my cousin met up with a young man and they got to talking. He seemed like an interesting sort and over the course of conversation she began to think that maybe he would be a nice guy to date. As the conversation progressed farther, she asked what he liked to do on the weekends. His simple reply was, "Oh, I like to kick back, relax and play on the Xbox." To this my cousin asked what else he like to do. His even simpler reply was, "Um... nothing really."

My cousin took that as her cue and quickly ended all proceedings and hints at dating the guy. Granted, my cousin is not a gamer even in passing, but dude! Seriously! If a girl is showing even the least bit of interest in you why would you even sabotage things that way? I mean okay, if you're meeting a girl like this at the local Electronics Boutique or other such place, that's a totally honest response, but if that is the sole purpose in your life, you have some issues and it's time to re-examine your priorities. If you're over the age of 20, it's even more of a requirement.

I am obviously over 20, but my response to such a question would bring up a variety of things I do for fun. Gaming would be one, but it's not the end all be all of my existance. Not that there's anything wrong with playing games. I own a fast car, but I can't race it around all the time. Well, I can, but my insurance would undoubtedly go up and if I get into a shunt (that means crash to you non-Formula 1 fans -- editor) then the cost of repairs would be tremendous. I grew up wanting to be like Luke Skywalker, now I can be. All I have to do is pop in the appropriate disk and I can go to a galaxy far far away and battle the evil Galactic Empire.

I was among those gamers out there who went nuts at the release of Halo 2, I was out there waiting for the game to go on sale and once it was, I was among the first to snap it up. The day I bought it, I also happened to meet up with a girl I was interested in. We ended up agreeing to meet sometime soon, when she suggested that we go out that evening for some coffee, I faced a momentary dillemma well known to all gamers. To date or to play the new game. I chose the path which made more sense to me and had an evening of simulating conversation and hot lattes. I know of a few friends who went the opposite route. Needless to say, they were on the sofa for a few nights afterwards and not just to play the games they got.

I play on the Xbox because it's an outlet for frustrations and a way to unwind without losing my mind. But again, it's not the only thing I do to unwind. My Xbox is tucked away underneath the TV in my house, ready to be broken out at the appropriate time. But only at the appropriate times and never in lieu of a potentially meaningful meeting with a member of the opposite sex.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Oh the Pain... The Pain of It All....

Doctor Smith from "Lost in Space" could not have put it more eloquently. We are now two days away from the bane of many a worker's existence, Tax Day. Now granted, because April 15th falls on a Saturday, all states have allowed people until the 17th to have their returns postmarked and in Massachusetts (I think) they are giving you one day more since it's a state holiday on the 17th. Still, with a thing like taxes, I freak and try to get it in well before the due date. I kept April 15 circled on my calendar so that I wouldn't forget. Nevermind that I have an extra day or two this year, why delay the inevitable?

I have been filling out tax forms for close to fifteen years. I started working when I was 14 and have held some sort of job since then. The nice thing was that early on, because I was earning so little (hey... they were summer jobs!) and I was a dependent, I got almost all of my tax money back. Smartly, albeit reluctantly at times, I put a lot of it away and that was what helped me build up my savings. That came in handy when I decided to buy my home. That's when everything changed and the once simple process of filing a tax return became a test of patience.

Having studied economics, I understand the importance of taxes and why we need to pay them. But still, does it have to be so confusing?

As you run the veritable gamut of forms things seem to get more and more confusing. Annual gross income, adjusted gross income, single, single claimed dependent, single but recently separated, single but seeking, married, married but filing separately, married but in name only, dead. Federal income tax, state income tax, earned income credit and on and on and on. When you first get those forms it's an extremely daunting. I could never understand why they used to provide you two copies of the form when you get the 1040 packet... it's so that you can pencil in everything and erase and then try again until you are satisfied that you have some semblence of a return.

That's how it used to be, that was the easy version. Now I have so many deductions that I must itemize. That term used to have some mystic meaning to me but now it's yet another form to be filled out which is even more confusing! I had quite a few deductions this year since I have interest, mortgages and property. To think... all that saving for a home and indeed it does come back to save me. But ugh! What a pain to fill out. I have my favorite calculator (the one I used to at the SATs back in high school) and a mechanical pencil and a strong cup of coffee.... although it is kept as far from the forms as possible. No spilling allowed.

Remember to read the directions on how to staple your W-2's. If you owe taxes, don't forget to fill out the pay voucher addition. Include these with the return but do not staple the form or the payment to the return. If you're getting a refund... darn you! Just kidding. For those of you who (like me) have completed your returns... congrats! For those of you just getting started, good luck! And for those of you who are scratching your head saying, "What taxes?" look out... the Tax Man will come for you!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

What's in a name?

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin recently had their second child who they promptly named Moses. Their first child was named Apple. Now I'm all for parents naming their children whatever they like but I just wonder sometimes if parents realize just what they're getting their kids into when they give them such complex or unusual names. I can understand some of the motivation if it's based on the times we live in. I mean I can probably have a good guess as to Frank Zappa's frame of mind when he named his daughter Moon Unit.

It probably wouldn't be a bad thing if Apple and Moses' parents remain famous celebrities until the time that they themselves are old enough to establish themselves. But what if that's not the case? Supposing the kids end up going to public schools where younger kids could care less who your parents are. Can you imagine the jokes and teasing that these kids would undergo? Kids can be cruel and it isn't fair to give fodder for them to feed off of. Now Apple and Moses are not extremely weird but I am just waiting for the day when we hear about Stix or Elbow being born to some celebrity couple.

The thing is that these names do have some deeper meaning for the parents as all child names do. Some parents name their kids after family members, or a combination of the mom and dad's names. Some names are based on the lunar calender or where the child was conceived. Some names are based on where the mother was when the child first kicked in the womb. And some are just chosen to be unique.

Again... there's nothing inherently wrong with naming your child Apple, Moses, Windex or Starbuck but just remember one thing. Eventually these kids are going to have careers. Do you think an HR manager is going to think more than ten seconds about someone with the name IHOP? Similarly... for the sake of arguement, supposing these kids end up following their parents into celebrityhood; given the often superficial nature of the entertainment world, can you imagine James Bond, twenty years from now, being played by Dweeb Johnson? I think not.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Never a Dull Aisle....

A weekly or semi-weekly chore of mine is my trip to the grocery store. I have a couple of local chains that I hit on a regular basis simply depending on what day I decide to go and load up. I am typically to be found at Giant or Wegmans since they carry a lot of my staple foods. I've gotten to the point now that I can be in and out of the grocery store within half an hour (depending on how many people are in line). My time in the store also depends on the number of people in the store at the same time. It seems that at time there are melodramas being played out in every aisle of the store. It starts from the time you enter the parking lot.

As you search for a place to park you try to find a spot not too close to the shopping cart return but not too far to walk. Still, walking is good for you, especially if it means reduced risk of dings to your car. Upon entering the store you make the fateful choice; basket or cart. If it's a basket then that means you're going for the basics, if it's a cart, then you're off to load up for a week or two. Invariably, you'll see someone struggling to pull the cart out of the group. And almost as invariably, once they do manage to get one out, it's either got a squeaky wheel or the one slightly out of alignment that causes it to pull to the left a bit.

And so we're ready to begin our journey around the store. First stop is the produce aisle. Here you'll find an abundance of ladies. Now I'm not being sexist but unfortunately you will rarely, if ever see guys in this aisle/area. And if they are there, they will be staring long and hard into a small list trying to figure out what onion to pick. I mean we've got red onions, yellow onions and white onions! I once saw a guy walk out of the area triumphantly only to break down and begin weeping after he realized there were also spring onions to consider. Guys will typically avoid this area unless they are a hardcore dieter in which case they will be loading up on the veggies with confidence.

The deli is sort of a mixed bag. You have everyone here loading up on luncheon meats. You can tell who has kids and who is shopping for themselves based on the quantity they order. Anything over a pound of meat and it's for the kids, anything over two pounds and it's for a boy. Anything over three pounds and it's for two boys. The quantities increase exponentially from there. Moving on we then hit the regular aisles. Here you run into every walk of life and every lifestyle imaginable.

In the chip and snack aisle you'll find the kids and bachelors loading up for their daily sustinence for TV viewing. I try to grab some healthy options in this aisle but it's so hard to resist temptation. The bread aisle is where you find the folks from the deli, they'll be searching for the natural homes for lunch meats. We guys don't generally go for the healthy options here unless we're looking to score some points with a significant other. Donuts and sweet muffins can be found here. Yet another temptation.

Moving on to the veggies and pasta aisles you'll usually find another mixed crowd. Pasta seems to be the staple dish that anyone can make. I mean it's kinda hard to mess up. Boil water, throw in pasta, heat sauce, drain pasta, mix sauce and pasta, dinner is served. That's the bare bones basic method that many follow. It's fairly nutricious and simple and filling so what's not to like? Veggies on the other hand are inexplicable. I sometimes pick them up if I'm going to be making some vegetable dish. But even people who don't use canned food, they will always have at least a can of corn or green beans somwhere in the cupboard. It's one of nature's natural wonders. Check out your own cupboard, I bet there is a can or two hiding in there.

Cookies and crackers. The comfort food of so many. Again there are so many options that it can be overwhelming. This is another aisle where you run into kids. There are occasionally temper tantrums being thrown. Especially when a kid (or kids) doesn't get the cookie of choice. The resultant cries and whining can often be heard from any point in the store. I could once hear a kid crying from outside the store. Living on my own now, I have control of my cookie choice. It's mean but sometimes I like to pick up a box of cookies that kids are crying over just to see if there is any further reaction. Hey... don't judge... I'm sure you've thought of doing that too.

The juice and cereal aisles are the same way. We get more crying and more tantrums and sometimes carryovers from previous aisles. This area is usually the noisiest because of all this tantruming. Still, I am nostalgic for my youth so I never mind going through the aisles and remembering those days when I was the one on the floor bawling.

Cleaning and laundry supplies are again usually filled with ladies. Guys occasionally enter this area when we realize it's been four years since we washed the floors or cleaned. We can also be seen picking up toilet paper. A must! Frozen food is where you separate the singles from the couples. Single people will be seen loading up on frozen pizza and Lean Cuisine. A devout bachelor (or bacherlorette) will usually load up with armfuls of their favorite dish. There is no getting tired of Spicy Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes. Couples are usually a little more disciplined. They will pick up pairs of a variety of dishes that they will share once or twice a week. It's like having a meal together without too much hassle. A logical option.

Finally time to checkout. To self-checkout or not. If you've got a buddy, the self checkout is the way to go. You can usually do things much faster and make the bags as light or as heavy as you want without the judgemental looks you sometimes get from the cashiers. "Coke? Are you kidding me? We've got a special on Pepsi and you're going with Coke? Rich boy!" And I love the look of power some cashiers get when they have to card you if you happen to be buying beer or wine. They have this momentary vision of being a bouncer at a club. I'm sure they will love to see the day when they actually deny someone the right to purchase alcohol.

Lastly... we're back out to the parking lot. You make your way back to the car only to find that somehow, shopping carts have been left around your car or in close proximity. Even if you are parked on top of an incline with no other cars close by. Also, if you're parking far away to avoid parking next to vehicles with a likelihood of causing dings, you will always return to find your car surrounded. Another one of nature's phenomena. Oh well... at least one can't say that grocery shopping isn't exciting!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Topless Except for an Umbrella

In the world of convertibles, you can consider me to be a relative newbie. I have owned one for just about a year and there are subtle things that I am getting used to. Now that the weather in DC is beginning to take a turn for the warmer, I am able to put the top down and go 'topless' more and more frequently. In a city known for it's extremes when it comes to weather, convertible owners are no different. When there is a mention of snow in DC, the town goes into panic. Bread, toilet paper and milk are sold out within hours and people stand outside their doors with shovels, ready to move snow off as soon as it hits the ground. Conversely, at the tail end of winter, when the temperature breaks the 45 degree mark, you'll see many convertible owners out in force with the top down.

This winter I decided to join in the fun and be a part of the crowd so that I could say that at least I have experienced the sensation. My drive into work is about 20 minutes down the Dulles Toll Road. So I decided to give it a whirl one morning with the temperatures at about 50 degrees. I was doing fine as I pulled out of the parking lot and as I hit the toll road, I realized why so many drivers have a smiling expression on their faces even in the dead of winter. See, these are folks who put the top down on their cars and were smiling at being kings of the convertibles, then as they continued to zoom down the highway, their expressions were frozen in place. I ended up freezing my nose looking like Rudolph and I couldn't touch my ears for a few hours in fear of having them snap off in my fingers. That was the last time for a long time where I drove with the top down.

A few weeks ago, the temperatures warmed up again so I decided to give it another go. The temperatures during the day were about 70 degrees and the sun had been shining all day so the temperatures were fairly high. I put the top down, and was cruising down 66 feeling rather content. As I took the exit for Tysons Corner, I came zooming around the off-ramp feeling quite content at how the car handles the corners.

Now one thing I didn't know which I know now and which I will pass on to you happy readers is that the grassy areas around Tysons Corner have automatic sprinklers which keep the grass green and fresh year round. Now if some miscreant is feeling sneaky, they can turn these sprinkler heads to face the road.... which is exactly what happened to me. I came around the corner and low and behold, there is a waterfall directly ahead. Too late to do anything about it, I drive straight through. At that speed, the soaking is very quick and not that extensive but as I brush the droplets of water from my eye I realize that there is much more to driving with a convertible than meets the eye.

Another danger is the dearth of smokers out there. I get to work quite early and as such, there are often times when I leave before the sun has broken the horizon so in the semi-twilight of the mornings, many smokers enjoy flicking their butts out the window and seeing the rain of sparks as the ash comes flying off. It's a wonderous site at times. It's not so wonderous when the butt isn't aimed low enough and it nearly flies into your car at 60+ miles per hour! I can't tell you the number of times I have sped up to avoid butts flying into the cockpit of my car.

I am determined to keep my top down as the weather permits, but I'm also starting to think that perhaps I should have an umbrella handy. Just in case.

Friday, April 07, 2006

View from a Cube

I have been working in corporate America since I was 13 (shhhh... don't tell anyone!) doing summer jobs as an office assistant. Eventually by my final years in college, I was a full fledged member of a team. I loved the fact that I was always in an office and that experience helped me get my foot in the door when I finished my bachelors. The only thing was that I was spoiled. I had always had an office, for a couple of summers I had an office all to myself. There is a certain power that comes to having your own office. People have to knock to enter, you can shut the door for privacy, you can decorate (more or less) in styles that you like. Then I came to the real world and for the past five years I have worked in....a cubicle.

Having never worked in one before it took some getting used to. Your back is almost always to the 'door', you have limited room and limited space for your photos and such, and you get little or no privacy. Working for the government in a cubicle environment was even more constraining. When I began my first government contracting job, I had a cubicle to myself; it was smaller than my walk-in closet at home. Still I managed to make it my own.

After a couple of months, I began to realize some of the problems associated with working in one besides the obvious. Chief among these was the phone. Egads, how could such a useful device turn into torture? One of my first cube neighbors was a guy who often took teleconferences. But he didn't have a headset or a love of keeping the phone cradled in his shoulder. Instead, this 'gentleman' would turn up the speakerphone and listen to it on mute. All the while he's busy reading the paper or surfing the web. I think the funniest incident was when he missed a question and didn't realize they were talking to him until I snapped him out of his day dream.

Another cube neighbor I had was a rather nerdy looking fellow but apparently a suave enough guy to have a girlfriend. How do I know, because he would call her every day, every hour. The one nice thing was that they took bathroom breaks where they would hang up the phone. In those six months that we were neighbors, I lived through every lovey-dovey good morning conversation, listening to details of how she was brewing a cup of coffee, deciding what to wear, listening as he described what he thought of as she brushed her teeth. I even had to endure some of their arguements. As bad as it sounds, one day when it seemed they broke up, I said a silent cheer for myself. The Simon and Garfunkle song, "The Sound of Silence" started ringing in my mind. The sad thing was that they did eventually get back together and that's when the phone began again.

Towards the tail end of my stint there, some management type folks in the government decided that it was time to get back at contractors for earning tons of money and doing their jobs in half the time so they shuffled two contractors into cubicles made for one; or four contractors in cubes made for two. We were being stuffed and the term sardine came to mind. It's funny seeing full grown adults get into arguements regarding elbow room and who is on someone else's side of the table. There were no name calling or hairpulling scenes but we got close a couple of times. Thankfully before I went nuts, I took up a new job and moved on.

I'm still in a cube but at least the environment is better. I'm closer to a window so I can see outside. Previously I was buried in a cube so deep inside the building that one morning I didn't realize we had snow on the ground until I came out to get some coffee. Since this is a company cube and not a contractor cube, my domain is relatively safe. Sure we have the occasional rubber band shooting war, but it beats coming to blows over who drank from my coffee cup.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Going to the Gym.... Part 2

After yet another productive evening spent at the gym I observed some other personalities that seem to be prevelant in all gyms.

Spring Chickens: No this is not a commentary on the physique of these individuals nor is it a commentary on their bravery (or lack thereof). No, these are folks who come into the gym at certain times every year. Key dates for sighting Spring Chickens are: the day after Thanksgiving, for the two weeks after New Years, a week prior to spring break, and a week prior to Memorial Day. Outside the gym, these Spring Chickens can often be spotted running on the first warm day of the year only to pull a muscle and stop running for the remainder of the year. They are typically seen overdoing their lifts, running too hard on the treadmills or bikes, and doing a lifetime of sit-ups in the span of ten minutes.

Executives: These are not necessarily office managers or captains of industry but named such simply because they love to wear dress socks and/or shoes while working out. Their gym bag is usually filled with the right combination of clothes except for the shoes and you can often see them walking about feeling a bit conscious of the fact that they are the only ones not wearing sneakers.

Sweaters: Sweaters are just that, they sweat. Hey, we all do, especially when working out, but sweaters are people who seem to release torrents of water at the least sign of physical exertion. Most are conscious of the fact that they may sweat even more and will make efforts to contain or clean up any resultant messes. However, some love to use the equipment and leave little pools for us to occupy when we take over the machine in question.

Killjoys: Killjoys are the people who come to the gym either out of tremendous pressure from friends and/or loved ones or because they sub-consciously want to work out. They are called killjoys because every little activity is accompanied by complaining and whining about any number of things. Common complaints from Killjoys include: "That's too hard." "I don't wanna do that any more!" "No sane person would ever do this!" and the ever popular, "What's the point in all this if all I'm going to do is put the weight back on after eating one hamburger?"

Remora: Remora are the little fish that swim along underneath sharks in the ocean and nibble on whatever a shark kills. The remora at the gym are the people who don't want to pay a trainer or make an appointment with one and will 'stretch' or pretend to wait for a machine while a trainer is working with a paying client in order to pick up pointers and ideas.

Buds: Buds are named after the young stage of flowers. They are the folks who are new to the world of the gym and as such don't really fall into any other category. They have the potential to turn into any of the above categories or remain, like the majority of us...

Normals: Normals are folks who go to the gym on a regular basis in order to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. We use our machines and move on. We clean up after ourselves. We don't strut around the locker rooms in the nude. We don't grunt like bears when lifting weights. We acknowledge our fellow Normals with a smile and a nod. Basically, we act normal! ;-)

Now that you have a better idea of what to look for when going to the gym, please take time to observe these characters for yourself. Your time at the gym will pass by much more pleasently as a result! I guarentee it!


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Going to the Gym.... Part 1

I have been a regular attendee at the gym for about six years now. I started off going to the awesome gym we had at the University of Maryland, College Park to the one at the Defense Logistics Agency before finally landing up at LifeTime Fitness in Centreville. I have been going to LifeTime for a while now and I must say it is probably one of the better gyms I have been to in terms of equipment, services and facilities.

Being such a frequent visitor to the gym I have taken time to notice some of the behavioral patterns that seem to emerge either by design or by nature in almost every gym I have been to. Yesterday evening as I trotted away on the elliptical machines overlooking the pool area, I had time to ponder some of these archetypes. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

Super-Men and Super-Women: These are the folks who are quite simply built as if chiseled from stone. They have rock hard abs, extremely large biceps and pecs. They are also often the ones you see walking around with a weight belt and a small notebook to note down how many reps of what weight they lifted. They often have a penchant for lifting the equivalent weight of a baby elephant for one rep while grunting and growling either to attact attention or mask the sounds of their muscles tearing. To hear their conversations, they will speak on such important topics as what protein shakes are good and how many raw eggs they consumed.

Groupies: Who said rock stars are the only ones with groupies? These are the folks, most often young ladies, who enjoy hanging out with Super-Men either to admire their muscles or to towel them dry after their one rep. When asked to join in the lifting, they will often demure and protest in sweet voices while acting helpless and 'scared' before lifting a tenth of the weight of the Super-Men companions. Their dress can generally be termed as scanty. An interesting phenomenon associated with groupies, they will be in the gym for upwards of three hours. Actual workout time will be five minutes.

Speeders: Speeders are the ones you see darting from machine to machine or station to station with the determination of Pavarotti at an All-You-Can-Eat Italian Buffet. They typically pride themselves on the fact that they can complete a full workout in ten minutes. If you make the mistake of occupying a machine in their routine for more than five seconds you will experience the hemming and hawing as they attempt to lay a guilt trip on you in order to get you off the machine. Attempts to 'work in together' are often met with sighs of resignation and reluctant acceptance.

Cardio-Freaks: Cardio-Freaks generally occupy the area of the gym where the treadmills, ellipticals and bikes are. They generally can be differentiated from the general population by the fact that they are moving about a hundred times faster than the average person. In a never-ending quest to be in the upper echelon's of cardio fitness, these folks are most often to blame for machines that are out of order due to the fact that they, peddle, run or .... ellipitate... faster than even a machine can go.

Socialists: These aren't politcal socialists but rather a group of friends that typically come to the gym together to workout but the body part getting the strongest workout is the mouth. Socialists tend to travel in packs of about three or more and will migrate from machine to machine occupying it for extended periods of time. You can often see Speeders hanging around them sighing loudly. As with Groupies, Socialists tend to state actual time in the gym as opposed to actual workout time. It is a requirement for non-Socialists to stand in awe when they state that they go to the gym for four hours daily but never lose weight.

There are many more... details to be released in Part 2!


Monday, April 03, 2006

Stagecraft: From Script to Stage - Volume 1

This will be a continuing series of blogs that will cover the development of the play I am working on. Inspired by the Production Diaries and Behind-the-Scenes videos on newer DVDs, I have decided to showcase some of the drama behind the dramas that are put up on stage.

Even though this first blog on the play is labeled volume 1, it is actually more like volume 50. But seeing as how I only started blogging about two weeks ago, I suppose this numbering scheme will work. So then, where to begin? Well... with any play, the first key thing you need is a script! In 1990, my dad and mom put together a team to perform the play, "Double Game" in Marathi. It was a fun five months where I had my first experience working on the production team. I worked in the sound booth. However, because the Marathi audience in Washington is not extremely large, we could only do one show.

Flash-forward 15 years and lots of things have changed. The local Hindi theatre scene is thriving and we have numerous projects going on. One key thing that varies from show to show now is audience and so the ultimate aim becomes creating something that will appeal to a wider audience. Language is a major decider in what amount of participation you will get from an audience and seeing as how English is the universal language, I decided to look into doing a play in English. I wanted to do something I was familiar with but also that could translate well into English but that would also retain some of it's Indian origins. "Double Game" struck me as that play.

Not being able to read Marathi was a challenge, so I took the old video we had filmed of the play in 1990 and used that to help translate the play. I sat down for about a month or two spending my evenings with my laptop and TV and translated and adapted the script. Once I was ready, I gave it to my family and some friends to review and got their input on it. Now that the new committee of Natya Bharati is in place, I figured it was time to approach them with the project. Pulling together a speculative budget, some possible backdrop and production considerations as well as getting some friends and family to help me in reading the script to the committee, I was able to put together a good presentation.

The committee had some feedback which I have incorporated into the script and now, as Spring rolls into the picture, so does the next step in the process..... casting!