Friday, April 29, 2011

Suicide in Las Vegas

While I agree with the existentialists (and the novelist John Barth) that the question of suicide is the first question that a truly wise & self-aware mind must confront, I have known too many suicides to ever treat the subject glibly. No two suicides are the same, and the pain they cause to survivors is too great to reduce to a philosophical syllogism.

Now comes the latest Freakonomics podcast (entitled "Gambling With Your Life") which looks at the suicide rates in Las Vegas and asks some very interesting questions.

How does the suicide rate in Sin City compare with the rest of the country? Is this difference significant? And is Las Vegas a place that CAUSES suicides or is it merely a place that ATTRACTS the suicidal?

Unfortunately, the data does not offer a complete explanation of this phenomenon, but the sociologist Matt Wray from Temple University offers some provocative interpretations of the numbers. And I'm interested in what these interpretations say about my hometown.

Needless to say, I urge you to listen to the podcast and then contact me with your own reactions.

hosted by Stephen Dubner and featuring sociologist Matt Wray

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Re-post: The 1st 4 Chapters of Bloodsucking Vegas

(Warning: There's R-rated content below.)

Here are the first 4 chapters of Bloodsucking Vegas: a vampire noir.

The novel itself is available from Amazon.

Chapter 1:

   Just before he dies, Elmore says to me, "You need to go to Las Vegas."
   We're on a deserted beach somewhere north of La Paz when he tells me this, him in a lounge chair, bundled in a poncho and his old Dodgers cap, and me squatting next to him and both of us staring out at the Gulf of California. It's just before dawn.
   "Why do you say that?" I ask.
   "This," he says and holds out a key.
   "Aren't you full of surprises," I say. "What's this to?"
   "My house."
   I like Elmore, and he seems at peace. But this really is a surprise.
   "Why would I want to go there?" I ask.
   "It's paid for," he says. "Be a good place to crash for a while. Plus, in the gun safe in my bedroom closet is some money. And you could renew the plates on the camper. Give yourself another year with it."
   It takes him forever to say all that, and he spends the next few moments catching his breath. But his hand is still out held out to me.
   I take the key from him.
   "The combination for the safe is in my wallet," Elmore says.
   "I'll think about it," I say.
   Elmore adds, "The girls would love it there."
   Neither of us says anything for a while. To the east, over the ocean, the sky is lightening up, already past gray, but the moon still hangs in the sky directly overhead, bright and mute. There's almost no wind, but, underneath his poncho, Elmore is shivering.
   "Tell them thanks," he says. His voice is low and hoarse. He doesn't have long.
   "I will."
   "They were so sweet."
   "They like you, too," I tell him, which raises a chuckle from him that sounds like a cough. If I concentrate, I can hear the girls snoring in the camper where it's parked just off the highway.
   "Can I ask you something?" Elmore says.
   "Why me?" he asks.
   I get this question a lot.
   "You were in the right place at the right time," I say.
   "Come on."
   "Okay. It's because I can tell about people, just by looking at them. And I could tell you were someone I could trust."
   "Yeah, I could tell you were someone at the end of the line, but you were also someone I could count on."
   "Before I even told you the story of my wife."
   "The story of your life?"
   "Same thing," Elmore says with another chuckle that turns into a cough.
   "Like I said, it's something I can tell just by looking."
   "Well, it's nice to be appreciated," he says.
   Another few moments pass. Then he takes in a deep breath and says, "Do you mind staying with me till I can see the sun come up?"
   "Sure," I say.
   Elmore knows what he's asking, but the camper is only about thirty yards away. It's a straight shot over unbroken ground. Even in full daylight, I could make that with my eyes closed.
   "How long have I been down here with you?" he asks.
   "I don't know," I say. "Six months."
   "Eight," he says. "I just wondered if you knew. If you kept track."
   I know what he's asking.
   "I don't, really," I tell him.
   Elmore pulls out a flask and takes a sip. His hands are slow and shaky. I smell wood smoke and turpentine mixed with a syrupy sweetness, so strong I can taste it on my tongue. Jack Daniels sour mash whiskey. He offers the flask to me. I shake my head.
   "How old are you?" he asks.
   "Older than you," I say. It's the answer I always give him.
   Elmore takes another sip, a long one. Then he starts to hack. I put my hand on his back between his shoulder blades. His coughing calms down.
   "What's the longest?" he asks, his voice now a whisper.
   "Anyone's been with you. Is it me?"
   "I think so," I say. "Seems like it."
   "Well," he says. "It's been a good ride. Better than I deserve."
   I move my hand from his back to his shoulder and give it a squeeze.
   "I wasn't a good man," he says. "It took my wife getting sick to turn me around. How messed up is that?"
   "You're a good man," I tell him.
   He chuckles, which sets off more coughing.
   "Is that why I ended up here?" he whispers between hacks.
   His fit settles to rhythmic, soft coughs roughly in step with his heartbeat. The sky is now a kind of pink, bright enough to make me squint, though the sun has yet to come over the horizon.
   Elmore had been sitting up but now he slumps forward, and I kneel and look at him. His eyes are closed and his breathing is so slow and shallow I can barely sense it.
   I strike and quickly drain him. There isn't much left.

Chapter 2:

   The next day, Marcella curses in Spanish, and the bed I'm in sways as she swerves the camper around something. She's wearing sunglasses that look like welder's goggles. Elmore's fishing glasses.
   "I hate driving," she says. "I wish Elmore were here."
   From the passenger seat, Zoey says, "Elmore's gone, baby."
   "Yeah," Marcella says. "At least we did him right before he died."
   Next to me, Alice has stopped snoring. In the dinette booth, Yesenia is drowsily humming a tune as she rests her chin on her hands. She's thinking of food. She always gets hungry after I feed on her.
   I hear Zoey get up and make her way towards the back of the camper.
   "It's dark," she says, but that's not all she's saying. I sit up.
   "It's my turn now," she adds, and I nod, nudging Alice, who whimpers but scoots over, making room between us.
   Zoey pulls her t-shirt off and crawls into bed next to me. She is smiling. With one hand, she guides my head down towards her left breast. With her other hand, she offers up a scarred nipple.
   "Here," she says. "Please."
   I'm already sated from Alice and Yesenia, but I oblige her. She sighs, and her head lolls back against Alice's as I sink in my fangs. Zoey quivers as I drink, and her hips push and push against me.
   At the other end of the camper, in the driver's seat, Marcella gives a moan only I can hear while she scans the road and waits her turn.
   Later, once Alice takes over driving, Marcella lies next to me and says, "I miss Elmore."
   "Me, too," says Zoey.
   I lie between them, having just fed on Marcella. Since she is the largest of my girls, she is also the quickest to recover. Like Yesenia, she does not fall asleep afterwards, at least not right away. Instead, she gets talkative.
   "Who's going to pick out my outfits?" Marcella asks. "Elmore had such great taste."
   "It helps that you fit into his clothes," Zoey says. Marcella reaches across me to pinch her.
   "I do it," says Yesenia, yelling from the camper's kitchen where she is frying bacon. "I know what you like."
   "Not everyone wears tank tops and short shorts all the time." Zoey says. "Some of us have a little fashion sense."
   "I look bad?" Yesenia asks.
   "You know you don't." Alice chimes in. "Us hoochies got to show what we got."
   "Elmore knew how to cook, too," Marcella says. "Not just bacon all the time."
   "Bacon is bad?" Yesenia asks.
   "No, sweetie," Zoey says. "Marcie, baby, you know bacon's all she can cook. But at least she's cooking."
   "What I wouldn't give for some of Elmore's enchiladas," says Marcella. "Or his chili."
   Zoey laughs a little and reaches across to pat Marcella's shoulder.
   "We'll make some soon. I remember his recipe," she says.
   To me, Zoey whispers, "Think we can do some shopping soon?"
   "I think so," I say.
   Zoey's other hand is in my crotch, an impulse she hasn't lost, even though with Elmore gone, she's now my oldest. I let her undo my pants and stroke me. My cock is as useless as gills, but I make it rigid for her. She pulls my jeans a little farther down and then straddles me, guiding me into her. Then, as she rocks her hips back and forth on top of me, she leans over and starts kissing Marcella.
   I just lay there and let them do their thing and wonder about replacing Elmore.

Chapter 3:

   Just north of Santa Rosalia, we stop at a Pemex station for gas. Here, the Transpeninsular is a winding, two-lane road that runs along the rocky beach, and the Gulf of California is a rippled sheet of blue glass.
   Since it's just after sunset, I decide to go with the girls into the tienda, leaving Zoey to fill the camper. Alice and Marcella descend on the racks of candy, pulling off little bags of treats, while Yesenia asks the clerk for a giant styrofoam cup of horchata.
   When the clerk sees me walk up behind Yesenia, he takes a step back from the counter and stares at me, sucking his teeth. He's a long-haired, middle-aged man with tiny, wire-rimmed glasses. He's tall, but I'm taller.
   "Do we have a problem, friend?" I ask him in Spanish.
   "No. No, we do not," he says.
   "She would like her drink." I say.
   The clerk fills the cup, puts a top on it, and hands it to Yesenia, who thanks him and stabs a straw into it. Then Alice and Marcella walk up and drop their pile onto the counter, but the clerk never takes his eyes off mine. I nod.
   The girls are playfully arguing in English about whose turn it is to pick the music when they get back to the camper. They pause when they notice the clerk just standing there.
   "How much?" I ask. He shakes his head and quickly scans all the snacks and stammers out the total. Marcella pays him.
   As we walk back to the camper, Marcella tosses a pack of gum to Zoey, who catches it just as Yesenia holds out her cup. Zoey takes a sip from the straw.
   "Ooh, that's good," she says, and Yesenia giggles.
   "I'll be right back," I say as the girls file back into the camper.
   In the tienda, the clerk is still standing behind the counter but now he is holding a cellphone to his head. He stiffens as I come through the door and walk towards him. He closes the phone and lays it on the counter.
   "You remember me," I say.
   "Yes, I do," he says.
   "What do you remember?"
   At first he doesn't say anything. He just stands there, swallowing his own spit, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. So I ask him again.
   "It's been a year," he says. "But I remember that something lived in the hills, and that children who went out past dark vanished. Then you came. You walked in here from down the beach and asked me how far it was to Cabo San Lucas. But that was not what you were truly asking."
   "What was I asking?"
   "You were taking the measure of me."
   "What else do you remember?"
   "I remember feeling, that if you asked, I would have followed you into hell."
   "You believe in hell?"
   "More than I do in heaven."
   "But I never asked you for anything but directions."
   "You found me wanting," the clerk says. "For which I am grateful."
   "You only saw me once, and then only for a moment."
   "Yes, but after you left, the thing in the hills disappeared. Our children stopped vanishing."
   I pick up his cellphone and hold it out to him.
   "What did your wife tell you?" I ask.
   "She asked me if I thanked you. She teased me for being frightened of you."
   "Only a fool fears what he can do nothing about."
   He nods.
   "You've taken my measure," he says. "You know I'm a fool."
   "Yet you have good eyes."
   "I was taught to see by my mother. And my wife is also gifted."
   I turn and begin walking towards the door.
   "I am headed north now," I say. "Assure your wife I won't be back."
   "Wait," the clerk says.
   I stop and turn back around. The clerk pulls out his wallet. It's thick with money, which he takes and holds out to me.
   "I just got paid," he says. "Take it."
   I step up and take the sheaf of bills from him.
   "My mother had a saying," the clerk tells me. "When the devil works for you, pay him as quick as you can."
   When I get back to the camper, Alice is waiting for me inside the door.
   "He's not coming with us?" she asks.
   "He seemed nice," Marcella says as she turns the ignition key. She begins steering us away from the station.
   "I thought you were going to bring more horchata," Zoey says from the passenger seat, to which Yesenia begins making loud sucking noises through her straw. Her cup is empty.
   "What did you do to him?" Alice asks.
   I pull the money from my pocket and hand it to her.
   "I let him give me this," I say.

Chapter 4:

   About 15 miles south of Mexicali, I tell Marcella to pull over. She and Alice are up front. Yesenia and Zoey are in the dinette booth, watching a movie on Elmore's portable player. "52 Pick-Up" with Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret.
   It's been dark for an hour now, and traffic is light. I take Yesenia by the hand, saying, "You're coming with me."
   As we step from the camper, I tell Zoey to call me once they've made it into El Centro.
   "How long will it take you?" she asks.
   "Couple of hours. Just call me when you get there. Now go."
   "Hasta luego, Yessy," Alice calls from the passenger side window.
   Yesenia doesn't say anything. She just gives a little wave as the camper pulls away.
   We're surrounded by farms. I lead Yesenia away from the highway, over a small stone wall and into an orchard of fan palms. In the bright blue light of the stars, I can see the colors of everything, but Yesenia is blind without daylight. Dogs are barking, but, except for them, some wildlife, and the passing traffic, we're alone for half-a-mile in every direction.
   Once we've walked about fifty yards, I stop and kneel in front of her. Her eyes are wide and unblinking, and her pursed lips quiver. But her chin is set, and her other hand is balled into a fist at her side. She's terrified, but brave. A delicious combination.
   "Why do you think I took you with me?" I ask her.
   She replies in Spanish.
   "No papers."
   "That's right," I tell her. "But I also picked you because you're easy to carry."
   I wait while this sinks in.
   "You will carry me?" she asks.
   I nod.
   "But first," I say. "I need to feed."
   "I understand," Yesenia says. She tilts her head and I strike her neck. She sighs and shivers and collapses while I drink. I catch her and stand, releasing her neck. I'm not really thirsty, but I enjoy the taste of her seasoned with fear. And she's easier to handle if she's sleeping it off.
   I sling the girl over my shoulder and begin to run, circling first east and then north.
   Two hours later, after stopping at an ATM machine, I'm standing outside a McDonald's while Yesenia sits at a picnic table, finishing her second cheeseburger. I am wondering whether to use Elmore's cellphone when it buzzes in my pocket.
   I flip it open and hold it against my ear.
   "Where are you?" I say.
   "Traffic was a bitch," says Zoey. "But they just waved us through. Go figure."
   "Good," I say. "We're at a McDonald's on 4th Street. Can you find it?"
   "Uh, yeah," she says. "But there's a problem."
   "What is it?"
   "It's Alice. She took off."

Read chapter 5 here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

How Did I Get Here?

I keep a journal. I always have. It's not that I think that my life is all that remarkable, and it's not that I think I should create a record of my existence for posterity. It's just something I've always done.

When I was younger, I rationalized my journal-keeping as practice. Writing in my diary helped me develop some chops as a writer. Later, I realized that my journal was also a coping mechanism, a way to organize my thoughts, memories, and reactions into some sort of recognizable shape.

Given my family history and my own emotional tendencies, I honestly think that my journal has, over the years, kept me sane.

Only recently have I started going back through my journals. See, I've hit middle-age, and I've realized that I have no idea who I am.

Well, that's not entirely true. I know who I am, and I think I have a fairly accurate idea of my place in the world. It's just that I don't really have any idea how I got here.

Like anyone, I can draw, in broad strokes, the major chapters of my life -- where I grew up, where I was educated, where I worked, and who was around me during the first 4 decades of my life.

What I'm missing is any sense of the process by which I became, cell by cell and memory by memory, the man I am today. I know I'm not alone in getting that startled feeling every time I look in the mirror, because my own sense of myself doesn't match up with what I see. I still feel like the confused kid I was on the first day of class at a new school, not knowing anyone and bewildered about my place in this new milieu.

This is why "Once In A Lifetime" by The Talking Heads is a kind of personal theme song of mine:

In my most recent foray into my own diary, I've made some mildly interesting revelations about myself.

Here are a few:

1. I have never successfully seduced a woman. Not even once. Having said that, I've still had my fair share of romantic & sexual entanglements. It's just that every single one of them has occurred because a female (with decidedly questionable taste in men) has seduced me, usually right after I got shot down by someone else. Find an ex-girlfriend of mine and you'll find it's true: they made the first move, and I, stung by a recent rejection, was all-too-willing to make the best of my own dumb luck.

2. When I was a teenager, I was something of a scrapper. But I never won a fight. At best, I dodged and clenched my way to a draw. Given my lack of size and strength, I have to wonder why I felt compelled to put myself into so many confrontational situations, usually against some jock whose girlfriend I had unwisely approached. (Apparently, my unbroken record of failure didn't make a dent in my confidence when it came to the fairer sex.) Luckily, by the time I was seventeen, this inexplicable compulsion to scrap had left me, though I still bear a couple of scars from that period of my life.

3. People have been telling me that I'm smart for as long as I can remember, which has always confused me, because I have given them precious little evidence of any kind of real intelligence. I figure I get the compliments because I read a lot and like to talk. But people with lesser educations and worse vocabularies have consistently outperformed me on the important stuff, like building a career and achieving things. But, hey, I've got my health and the love of a good woman, so I really have nothing to complain about.

So, I'm a middle-aged man who is just now starting to figure himself out. I'm just now starting to develop the kind of honest & forthright self-awareness that most people have by the time they exit their twenties, which makes me about a decade behind in terms of emotional development.

It's either that, or I'm in the midst of the same existential crisis that just about every person who hits middle-age finds themselves in. I can't imagine a more trite turn of events, and I have to apologize to anyone who has read this far into this post.

Honesty may be a virtue, but I think I've just proved that it's not necessarily an interesting one. Perhaps the next time I dive into my old diaries, I'll just share the dirty bits.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Karen Russell is a bonafide literary darling. Her first book, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, got her noticed for her highly imaginative storytelling and her beautiful way with words. Since then, critics have embraced her as one of the most promising literary talents in America by putting her on list after list of the top young wordsmiths in the country.

(Karen Russell, literary darling)

Now comes Swamplandia!, her first novel, a book that has been met with high expectations and, by and large, meets or exceeds them.

Swamplandia! tells the story the Bigtree family, who live on a small island in south Florida, running an alligator-wrestling show for tourists. The book opens with the family's signature act, in which the matriarch, Hilola, dives from an elevated platform into a dark pool filled with gators (or "Seths," as the family calls them). She then deftly and bravely swims across the pool and safely exits, to the delightedly terrified gasps of the gathered crowd.

Or, at least, that's what's supposed to happen. Of course, catastrophe soon strikes the Bigtree clan, along various fronts. Their bread-and-butter act goes asunder, their small nucleus loses a core component, and corporate competition crops up in the form of a rival theme park, so the Bigtrees are forced to cope with the aftermath, often in ways that change their little family irrevocably, as the father, "Chief" Bigtree, soon takes off for the mainland on a mysterious quest, leaving his children behind to fend for themselves.

My little summation above makes it sound as if Swamplandia! is an unrelenting veil of tears. Nothing could be further from the truth. The book is actually filled with moments of real beauty and humor, though the laughs are often deeply sarcastic and the beauty always comes tinged with physical threat.

Most of Swamplandia! is narrated by Ava, the youngest Bigtree, who has spent her life training to be her mother's successor. She is brave & smart but confused in the way all of us were when we were on the edge of adolescence. Other chapters concern the struggles of her older brother, Kiwi, a bookish & idealistic teenager with deep resentments. Both embark on quixotic & occasionally dangerous adventures, seeking to restore Swamplandia! to its putative glory days. The middle sister, Ossie, embarks on a wholly different quest, though hers is even less conventional. Indeed, it's other-worldly.

Every group, especially a family, relies on a kind of world-view to maintain cohesion. These world-views incorporate history, as well as clearly-defined roles for each member, so that everyone knows their place, at least emotionally. (For the Bigtrees, this involves acting like they're an indigenous indian tribe, though they're actually transplanted midwesterners.) Often, these world-views take on the sheen of myth and folklore, incorporating as much fiction as fact. Things get dramatic when the myth of a given family disagrees too much with the facts, or when members of a family start to resist their given roles. Russell takes this theme of how the myths & lore of a family can affect its members, and she fashions a wondrous & pungent tale of how a generation of Bigtrees comes of age.

This is ancient stuff, gloriously recast. A son seeks to usurp his father. A daughter seeks to replace her mother. And another daughter seeks the love of her life by traveling through a dark and dangerous land. This raises the question: what mythic plotlines does your own family history contain? And can you recount them in ways that are both entertaining and cathartic? Karen Russell can and does.

Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect work of art, and even a low-watt hack like me can find things to nitpick in Swamplandia!, including Russell's insistently metaphorical turns of phrase, some of which are brilliant, while others get a little precious. But her style is in keeping with her theme, which includes the ways in which a family's history gets redefined and remade with each generation. It's a theme Faulkner would appreciate: he knew not only that the past defines us, but also that it never really leaves us.

And, sure, some of the plot of Swamplandia! can come off as overly-contrived, but what adventure doesn't have its share of unlikely coincidences and near-escapes? What family history isn't chock-full of nearly-didn't-happens? As implausible as some of the book can seem, Russell's rock-solid characterization of Ava anchors every flight of fancy. Hers is the insistently vibrant voice that recounts how young Ava lives and breathes and copes. Hers is also the measured and wise voice, talking to us from some future remove, recounting the picaresques of Kiwi as he negotiates his burgeoning manhood.

And it isn't all g-rated scrapes with alligators, though our protagonists do prevail. While Ava's encounters with the characters of the Bird Man & Mama Weeds are nothing short of traumatic, she joins a pantheon of precocious, plucky heroines who, through effort & persistence & devotion, transcend their trials. Meanwhile, Kiwi enters the World of Darkness, the land of Swamplandia!'s rivals, where he inadvertently stumbles from one triumph to another, getting himself quite beaten up in the process. As for Ossie, her ghost-hunting leads her to the very precipice of annihilation. Perhaps it's best that her story is the most spectral, in that she gets no chapters of her own.

In the end, I give nothing away by revealing that the surviving Bigtrees move on from Swamplandia!, each of them possessed of a slice of hard-won wisdom gained from measuring their personal mythologies against the cold, hard facts of their circumstances. (And isn't that what we all do as we grow up?) Their trials have scarred them, but they remain a resolute & loyal family, which, to me, counts as a happy ending.

by Karen Russell

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Crazy Neighbor's Quest For Peaches

So, a few days ago, one of our neighbors came up to our house and said that her cockatoo, "Peaches," had escaped. This neighbor was an older woman, slightly built, wearing a jogging suit, and she had long, gray hair bunched under a baseball cap & a deeply serious look in her eye.

She didn't seem crazy, at least at first.

So Brother Juan let her into our backyard so that she could scout out the surrounding trees for Peaches. This was unsuccessful, however, and the neighbor soon went on her way.

That evening, though, we could hear her, yelling from her back porch, "Peaches! Peeeaches!"

She did this every 10 seconds or so, for hours, well past sunset.

And she's done it now for 4 days straight.

This is annoying enough, but, the day before yesterday, I came out of the garage to find her car blocking my next-door neighbor's driveway, with its driver-side door hanging open as this woman was jogging away down the middle of my street, once again yelling, "Peaches! Peeeaches!"

Apparently, she'd heard her bird somewhere nearby.

Meanwhile, my next-door neighbor was trying to back out of her driveway in order to go to work.

Peaches' owner had to be corralled back to her abandoned car so my next-door neighbor could be on her way, while a man who appeared to be her son apologized to all of us before they both drove off. The man's mother seemed perturbed that we didn't appreciate the seriousness of the situation, having forced her to give up her middle-of-the-street foot-chase to come back for her car.

(This is the kind of Peaches I'm talking about...)

Now, today, Brother Juan tells me that this morning, while he was showering, he noticed something peculiar. See, his bathroom window looks out over our backyard, and while we've all kind of gotten used to the constant call of "Peaches, Peeeaches!", none of us has taken this as a sign of how deeply committed this woman is to finding her errant pet.

What Brother Juan saw: my crazy neighbor lady, shimmying sideways along the top of the cinderblock wall that borders our backyard, all the while yelling, "Peaches! Peeeaches!"

Fearing for her safety, Brother Juan quickly dressed and ran outside. Grabbing a stepstool, he helped our neighbor down off the wall while she muttered about how worried she was about her bird. Brother Juan then led her back out onto our street and wished her luck.

Here's the thing: her yard doesn't share a wall with ours, which means she'd been shimmying along over a block's worth of wall or she climbed up there from the sidewalk. And I've already mentioned her age and size, right?

I've gotta give her points for perserverance, though. She must really love that bird.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Joining the AFAN AIDS Walk 2011

(You can skip my personal sales pitch and just make your donation here.)

Last year, at the last minute, Brother Juan & I decided to participate in the AFAN AIDS Walk. Here's my recap of that fun & fulfilling event. (I really had a good time.)

This year, Brother Juan & I will again be participating in the AFAN AIDS Walk; only this time, we'll be doing it as the Grouchy Johns team.

The theme this year is "What's your color?" and AFAN plans to issue different color t-shirts to each participating team, based on each team's donation level. We hope to raise over $1,000.00 in donations between now and April 17th (which would get us the coveted "grand green" shirts). I know, it's a little ambitious of us, but, hey, it's for a great cause, right?

But we can't do it without your help & support. (Just click on any of the links in the next paragraph.)

If you can make a donation, that would be great. If you can join our team and participate in the event with us, that would be great, too. And if you can do both, well, you must be family. Or a saint. Either way, you'll be more than welcome, and we will shower you with our undying, caffeinated affection.

In other words, people who join our team will get a FREE drink from us at the event. I recommend a Grouchy Johns Latte (which is made with white chocolate & amaretto) or a Peppermint Iced Coffee (which is a great way to get a cool, refreshing jolt on a hot day).

Come on! It'll be fun!

April 17th, 2011
Starting at the World Trade Center (at Bonneville & Grand Central Parkway)
Opening Ceremony at 9:30am.
Walk commences at 10:30am. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

I just saw the movie Battle:Los Angeles, and all I really have to say about it is it's like a roller-coaster ride. It's mindless, sensational fun that you're not supposed to think about.

In fact, as in riding a roller-coaster, thinking about Battle: Los Angeles ruins the experience. You're just supposed to surrender to your sensations, or you drain away all the fun.

And the fun in this movie boils down to watching a group of Marines fight off waves of invading aliens in firefight after firefight filled with flying tracers, explosions, and extremely loud sound-effects.

But Battle: Los Angeles lasts longer than any roller-coaster ride, and therein lies its major weakness. As a movie, it's the standard 2-hour length, even though its premise and plot are rickety constructions that would never pass inspection by whatever government entity is in charge of roller-coaster safety.

(Aaron Eckhart wonders why he enlisted for this particular tour of duty.)

It isn't the implausability of the story that bothered me. After all, I am a great lover of implausible movies. But Battle: Los Angeles  also has a tone of jingoistic earnestness that is antithetical to any campy embrace of fantasy, no matter how realistic the special-effects are. Look at a great alien-invasion movie like, say, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, or even Independence Day, and you'll see what I mean.

Plus, its by-the-numbers plot goes stale even before the credits stop rolling. Case in point: I knew which members of the cast were doomed within seconds of them appearing on-screen, just by how their characters interacted with each other. (SPOILER ALERT!) And you're going to tell me that an invading army of interstellar aliens can be shut down just by blowing up their hotspot?!

Perhaps it's the tight focus on a squad of plucky Marines that gives this movies its Saving Private Ryan-meets-Armageddon bombast, but I can't help feeling there are better ways to dramatically highlight the heroism of American jarheads -- like watching the amazing documentary Restrepo, which, shot-for-shot, is more exciting and affecting than any single second of Battle: Los Angeles.

Yeah, so my capsule-review of Battle: Los Angeles comes down to this: Go watch Restrepo.

directed by Jonathan Liebesman