Sunday, November 16, 2014

Trailer Play by Play: Saving Christmas

Let's see how this new possibly recurring segment goes. I decided to give it a shot after seeing the bizarre trailer for Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas. The plot centers around Cameron's efforts to cheer up his brother-in-law, who is down in the dumps and apparently committed to no longer enjoying the Christmas because the holiday has gotten too commercialized and because it has some connections to non-Christian things.

Before I start, I figure I should link to a few other posts. One is at Timblerig's Ark, a blog that had this comment on the trailer and this post about how Christian films fall flat because they are pretty much required to be safe and predictable while only appealing to people who already agree with their message. The other post is the ever-amusing Onion A.V. Club, which had this hilarious article on the trailer.

All right, let's begin.

Over cheery seasonal music and the opening studio information, the narrator (Kirk Cameron of CamFam Studios, of course), asks just as cheerily, "Do you ever feel like Christmas has been hijacked?"

Um, that's kind of a jarring question, Kirk. But since you bring it up, there do seem to be some people who want to make the holiday about an imagined "War on Christmas" and reserve the holiday only for Christians, ignoring the fact that its larger recognition encourages charity and togetherness and such, no matter how you choose to celebrate it. But that's just me.

Hey, this family seems to be having a good time. Their decorations are maybe a little secular for some people's tastes, like the giant candy canes and nutcrackers and such. But oh no! A woman tells Kirk that a character named Christian, because symbolism, is "just not into Christmas this year."

This is Christian, but he will hereafter be referred to as Holiday Hipster. He picks at his face for awhile while Kirk elaborates that the people who are really forcing Christmas to fly to Cuba at gunpoint are those who over-commercialize it and "want to replace 'Merry Christmas' with 'Happy Holidays' or 'Season's Greetings,' whatever that means." 

Doesn't it mean that you're wishing your fellow man, Christian or non-Christian, good blessings and cheer? And isn't it commercializing the holiday just a wee bit to release a Christmas film on November 14 and ask people to buy tickets to it?

Kirk and Holiday Hipster have moved things to a parked car. Kirk asks Holiday Hipster if he's OK. " not...what Christmas is all about," he replies. Are you referring to heavy-handed CamFam Studios movies?

Hold onto that thought, Holiday Hipster; Kirk's not done yet. He further elaborates that the holiday hijackers want to "pull down every manger scene" and tell Christians why their holiday traditions are wrong. The ensuing montage is of holiday decorations and does not include a manger scene. Oh no! Did the atheists make Kirk take down a manger scene? In his own home? Those holiday secularists are just the worst. I'll bet they don't even have an Advent wreath.

OK, now it's Holiday Hipster's turn to rant. He complains about how Jesus wasn't born on December 25 and how some Christmas symbols apparently have their roots in paganism, whining that "it's like a carjacking, but like, of our religion." What is it with you people and the forceful takeover of ground or aerial vehicles? 

Holiday Hipster apparently can't decide whether he is more concerned about the non-Christian aspects of Christmas or about commercialism and secular symbols. He thinks Santa Claus was the perpetrator of this particular carjacking, throwing Jesus out of the Chevy Impala that symbolizes religion and peeling off while singing the opening theme to Rawhide.

"Isn't it time somebody spoke up?" Kirk asks.

Then the trailer cuts to that image. Yeah, let's get that guy to speak up! The one who stole Jesus's car!

No wait, I guess Kirk is going to do the speaking, like he has for this entire trailer. He tells Holiday Hipster that everything you can see inside his house is all about Jesus. Are you surprised?

A montage of Jesus-y images follows, including Mary and the manger and one of the wise men. Just one? And why does he look like he's on his way to Too Many Cooks to kill everyone? 

Kirk knows that Holiday Hipster loves Christmas and "wants it to be about what it's all about." What rousing oratory, what finesse! Or at least Holiday Hipster thinks so, since the next scene is of him dashing back into the house with a giant grin on his face. I think Kirk may have just given up trying to convince his mopey brother-in-law to love Christmas and snuck a bit of crystal meth into his eggnog instead. Kirk smiles in angelic light in the doorway, because he is nothing if not humble.

Kirk invites us to "dive headfirst" into all of the Christmas celebrations. Without a hint of irony, he pairs "imagination" and "traditions" together in the list. It's all to "glorify the true reason for the season," so if you're celebrating Christmas without a giant manger scene in your house you can just leave this party right now.

And because that Kirk is such a cutup, the diving invitation is accompanied by an interrupted shot of Holiday Hipster celebrating his renewed faith by, for some reason, jumping onto the floor and sliding headfirst into the presents. I think he's attacking commercialism with his face. Either that or, you know, the meth.

The party grinds to a halt, because some maniac just dove into all of the commercialism. Kirk Cameron's Black Friend takes charge. For some reason, he doesn't ask, "Are you all right" or shout, "You idiot, you just destroyed my son's Playstation 4!" Instead, he puts on his best priest voice, says something about workin' on the spirit and scales falling off. He also demands an amen from party-goers who thought this was going to be more about feasting and dancing.

And then Kirk flat-out orders you to go see his movie and "put Christ back into Christmas." Personally, I'd recommend something like It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. They're classics, they're spiritual, and I'm sure they have a better than 10 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes

Monday, November 3, 2014

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Delaware

I feel a little bad making fun of Delaware. I mean, isn't the poor state a punchline already?

Yes. Yes it is.

Still, I must persevere.

It's not like there's any reason to dislike Delaware. I'm sure it's full of wonderful people and quaint little downtown areas and affable grinning Vice Presidents. But it just seems so...plain. Something tells me there aren't too many newlyweds saying, "Hey honey, lets get away to scenic Delaware and climb to the Ebright Azimuth. We'll be higher up than anyone in the entire state!"

And when Mom and Pop load up the station wagon for a family vacation, are they really going to say to the kids, "Come on, children! We're going to visit Felton. We can see the Thomas B. Coursey House. He got the right to stock a mill pond with bass carp in 1883 and tell other people they couldn't fish there. They call their townships "hundreds," and Felton is in South Murderkill Hundred. Doesn't that sound nice??"

Behold, majestic Felton. (Source)

It's almost too much to handle, all these sights and sounds. How can one simple state quarter hold all the excitement that Delaware has to offer?

Well, that does pack it in pretty well. Everyone loves a horsey.

Wondering why Delaware was the place that kicked off the state quarter program instead of one of the states that sits at the cool table, like Massachusetts or California? It's because it was the first of the original 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution, giving it the honor of being the first state in the Union. Thus the big "First State" label on it like some 14-year-old's YouTube comment. There were other colonies established before Delaware, of course, but it still gets to brag about how it was a state before the United States existed.

So now is the time to tell the story of Yankee Doodle, riding through a quarter on a pony. No wait, that isn't it. It's Paul Revere, right? He's heading off to say that the British are coming. Except that was in Boston, not in Delaware. Um...who is this guy again?

Ah yes, Caesar Rodney. Delaware chooses a truly interesting fellow known for being a sheriff, register of wills, recorder of deeds, clerk of the Orphan's Court, and justice of the peace. He's held more public offices than anyone else in Delaware. Hooray for competent county-level politicians?

Actually, Rodney is best known for riding 80 miles through a thunderstorm while ill to get from Dover to Philadelphia. This was in July of 1776, and he made the trip after finding out that Delaware was split on whether or not to go along with the Declaration of Independence. Although his constituents were chiefly Loyalist, Rodney cast the deciding vote in favor of independence.

Delaware might want to forget that his constituency rewarded this patriot for his bravery by throwing him out on his ass. Once it became clear that had supported the Declaration of Independence, voters in Kent County opted not to include him in the state's constitutional convention or general assembly. They did come around again in 1778, electing Rodney to a position that somehow manages to sound both impressive and embarrassing: "President of Delaware."

It also helps that the quarter's design keeps Rodney's face tiny enough that you can't really make out any detail. No one painted a portrait of Rodney when he was alive, since his face was ravaged by cancer. John Adams described him as having a face "not much bigger than a large apple," perhaps because Adams didn't realize that Rodney wore a facial covering to hide the disfigurement.

Pictured: Caesar Rodney (Source)

All things considered, Rodney is a good choice for the quarter design. He put country before self, and he achieved greatness despite his young age and physical ailments. Maybe some people were disappointed that the quarter didn't have the Delaware Memorial Bridge or something, but it never hurt anyone to pick up a book or do a bit of Googling and learn an interesting story.

Besides, it's certainly better than the alternate designs. Like this one:

That would be Lady Liberty blazing a torch into the future and boldly proclaiming, "Behold! A new nation is born, and the first member of this glorious country shall be this odd misshapen lump of a state!" And then Lady Liberty would presumably pause for a few seconds and say, "Um...Aubrey Plaza is going to be born here in another 200 years and change. That's something, right?"

And even that's preferable to this finalist:

That design recognizes the fact that Delaware has a chicken breed named after it. Had the Mint gone with this design, we'd all have to sarcastically thank Delaware for starting out the state quarter series by showing us their cock.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Elbow, Live in Concert

Some time ago, I mentioned how the band Elbow has never really caught on in the United States despite the quality of their music, their popularity in their native England, and the use of one of their most popular singles ("Grounds for Divorce") in a variety of American commercials, movie trailers, and video games.

So imagine my surprise when I finally heard Guy Garvey on my beloved WEQX. Elbow had just released a new album, "The Takeoff and Landing of Everything," with a single entitled "New York Morning." And with the new album, they were doing a new tour through the United States. What better time to catch them in concert? So I took a mini-vacation with my fiance to Philadelphia in May to take advantage of the opportunity. 

They were probably the best live performers I've ever seen.

OK, maybe they didn't play as much from "Leaders of the Free World" as I hoped for. But it was still an awesome experience, thanks in part to the Philadelphia atmosphere itself. From the Penn's View Hotel to the delicious meal at the Cuba Libre restaurant to the historic significance of strolling past Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin's grave, there was never an unpleasant moment.

The concert took place in The Electric Factory, a warehouse turned concert venue a few blocks away from Market Street. I was worried at first that the small cluster of fans that showed up in time for the opening act by John Grant would be the only people who attended, but the venue slowly but surely filled up. Whether they were die-hard fans or people who were curious to check out a show, whether they came from around the corner or hundreds of miles away, the concertgoers made it a full house.

When Elbow took the stage, they did so in a swelling hurricane of instrumental music. When you see a group live for the first time, it's always hard to tell if the band you paid to see is going to prove why they got a record contract in the first place or if they're going to disappoint you by revealing that the real talent behind the band is whoever digitally removes the suck in post. The opening left no doubt that Elbow knows their way around their instruments, and when the stage lights revealed a pair of violinists to complement the tune you could practically feel the awe in the entire assembled body.

Credit has to be given to The Electric Factory, which either has an Elbow fan among its event coordinators or does plenty of research ahead of time in order to add a little extra flavor to the show. The simple but powerful notes of "The Bones of You" were enhanced by perfectly timed strobe flashes from the stage lights. Later, with a bit of a wink, the lights were toned down to little more than a sparkling disco ball for a performance of "Mirrorball."

No concert by Elbow would be complete without a performance of "Grounds for Divorce," and Garvey took delight in teasing the crowd by saying how well the prior cities in the tour had done in participating in the song, goading Philadelphia to try to do better. The Philly crowd performed exceptionally, I have to say. The first line of the song was followed by an absolutely pitch perfect "WHOA-OH-OH-OH-OH-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-OH" response. Later in the song, the band even kept the audience going for a few extra choruses before Pete Turner dropped the appropriately lung-piercing bass line.

I was surprised to learn that Elbow has been together since 1997; since 1990 if you go back to how Garvey and Turner met when they were teenagers and the band grew from there. It was even more amazing to find out that no band members have departed since the full group assembled. Though Garvey might be considered the face of the band, he doesn't let it go to his head. At the Philly show, he recognized each member as well as the guest violinists. This article in the New York Times delves a bit more into how the band has stayed together as a unit for so long.

The crowd wasn't going to let Elbow go without an encore. A sustained applause brought them out again to play "Lippy Kids" and "One Day Like This." After hearing some of the band's more melancholy songs, like "The Night Will Always Win" and "My Sad Captains," it was nice of them to send us out on a more upbeat note. The finale of "One Day Like This" was especially moving, as the band again made use of numerous pairs of willing lungs to assist with the chorus and make everyone feel all right.

I hope to see you again someday, Elbow, so I might raise a glass to you. Especially if I wind up in England, because I can raise you a glass of your own honest to God beer.

Don't miss a few other great reviews of this show at The Electric Factory: this one from That Music Mag and this other one from The Swollen Fox.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Defining Moments of Breaking Bad (Final Episodes)

My girlfriend fiance started watching Breaking Bad last year, so I was watching the earlier episodes again with her while also getting ahead on the final episodes of the series. I held off on doing a last "Defining Moments" entry to avoid ruining a plot point or two (not that she didn't accidentally get spoiled by going on the Internet at the time the series was ending) but now that we've wrapped it up I figure I can wrap this up. So here we go (check out the first two segments here and here):

White House Down

Breaking Bad does the occasional call-forwards, and these occurred quite frequently in the second season as a teaser for that season's finale. So it was pretty obvious that the first scene in the premiere of the last season was a sneak peek at how everything would end, but that glimpse was all we got until the show came back from its mid-season break for the last run of episodes.

This opener, like many in the series, relies on imagery more than dialogue. It offers a few more tantalizing hints of the show's endgame, as Walter White arrives at his house to find it abandoned, overgrown, and fenced off. He sneaks in to retrieve a vial of ricin, bringing back a plot element that had been hidden away for a season. The shock of his neighbor upon seeing him back in Albuquerque is the final confirmation that the secret is out on Walt's drug empire.

"Tread lightly"

It's a line that went as viral as "I am the one who knocks" almost immediately after it aired. Rather than following Hank's development of suspicions against Walt, in a manner similar to what he did to investigate Gus, Hank accuses Walt of being Heisenberg before the first episode is over. Walt tries to appeal for mercy, refusing to admit guilt and saying that his cancer would doom him before the DEA could convict him. Hank doesn't seem too willing to consider it, which leads to this scene:

Even though Walt's threatening advice for Hank to "tread lightly" is more bluster than anything (subsequent episodes confirm that Walt still thinks of Hank as family, and will never consider killing him to save his own skin) there's enough uncertainty over what Walt will do to make it an unnerving scene.

Walt's confession

With Hank and Marie against him and the lung cancer back in the picture, Walt almost seems ready to throw in the towel. Though his meth-making business has become a power trip over the series, the return of the disease seemingly brings his focus back to safeguarding his family's future. He knows this won't be possible if the DEA arrests him and confiscates his money.

Walt's tape puts together a not altogether unbelievable narrative, implicating Hank as the person behind his entire empire and suggesting that his brother-in-law forced him to cook meth for him. Marie is confident that it's ridiculous enough that no one will buy it, at least until Hank realizes that she unwittingly accepted drug money to pay for his recovery after he was nearly killed in the third season. It's a non-lethal way for Walt to buy enough time to escape any consequences for his actions. It's also incredibly repugnant, showing just how little Walt will regard his moral compass anymore.

Jesse's realization

The entire last run of episodes is a pretty bad time for Jesse Pinkman. He's gotten millions of dollars from his partnership with Walt, whose retirement has given him the chance he'd recently been looking for to get out of the whole business. His conscience soon gets the better of him, though, and Jesse starts trying to give away his ill-gotten gains to the people most affected by his actions, then to less meth-rich people in general. When Walt tries to convince him to leave town and start a new life instead, Jesse knows that he's trying to save his own skin more than he's looking out for his former partner. But he sees that it's still a decent way to escape his troubled past.

Another dialogue-free scene invites viewers to track Jesse's train of thought as he waits for the person who will give him a new identity. Through a few simple clues, namely his realization about the pickpocketing skills of Saul's security guard, Jesse understands that Walt was responsible for Brock's poisoning. It's the final break in Walt and Jesse's often tumultuous relationship, and Jesse is bent on revenge from this point on.

A simple misunderstanding

When Jesse finally decides to start working with Hank to give evidence against Walt, he's rightfully concerned about his safety. He's seen Walt concoct assassination schemes based around "poison from beans" and explosive-rigged wheelchairs, after all. He's not even sure if he can really trust Hank (again rightfully, given the relatively recent time that Hank beat the shit out of him and Hank's complete disdain for his witness).

So when Walt offers to meet with Jesse face to face in the middle of the day in a very public plaza, Hank and Gomez see it as a perfect opportunity to get something on Walt. Jesse simply thinks that Walt will probably try to get him out of the picture, somehow, despite how visible such a hit would be. When he sees a beefy guy hanging out near Walt, it seems like his fears are confirmed. It even looks like Walt is walking over to meet the guy after Jesse calls off the meeting...until it's revealed that this was just a random person visiting the plaza with his daughter. A simple snafu, just enough to convince Walt that Jesse really does need to die and kick off all the chaos in the remaining episodes.

Walt's arrest

Throughout the series, Jesse has grown from a gangster wannabe thug to a fairly intelligent and highly sympathetic character. He's got street smarts in the early seasons, which evolve into a thorough understanding of Walt's meth recipe in later seasons. By the final season, he's even been able to come up with inventive solutions to destroy evidence in a police locker and steal methylamine from a freight train, essentially putting his intellect on par with Walt's.

By managing to convince Walt that he's found his hidden stash of $80 million, Jesse is able to taunt Walt into making a few incriminating statements over the phone and lead Hank and Gomez to the burial site. Walt's arrest almost seems surreal, so long have we been following his exploits. Walt is so shocked to realize that he's been outwitted that he gives up without a fight, even calling off Todd's uncle Jack and his neo-Nazi gang to make sure Hank isn't caught up in the hit he's ordered on Jesse. A quiet end for a kingpin, if it had only ended so easily.

Hank and Gomez

In a decision that left every fan wishing for a time machine to fast forward a week, the episode where Walt is arrested ends in the midst of an intense shootout between Hank, Gomez, and the neo-Nazi gang. It offers the viewer a last, fleeting hope that Hank will somehow manage to get out of the situation alive. He's even still breathing when the episode "Ozymandias" starts, although Gomez has been killed.

The hope that Hank will be able to survive continues as Walt tries desperately to bargain for Hank's life, offering his entire fortune to the neo-Nazis if they'll let his brother-in-law go. It's enough to earn him a modicum of respect from Hank, but not enough to save him. It's a sudden but dignified end to one of the series' toughest, most respected characters. And as the neo-Nazis steal Walt's massive cash cache and leave him scrambling from the law, it sets into motion the final events of the series.

Knife fight

In what is easily one of Breaking Bad's most intense scenes, the White family disintegrates in minutes as a panicked Walt tries to get his family to agree to go on the run following Hank's death. A simple shot of Skyler approaching the kitchen counter, where a phone and knife rack are sitting side by side, lets us know that she is going to confront Walt by either calling the police or threatening him. She chooses the latter, not hesitating to slash Walt when he doesn't take her seriously.

The ensuing fight between Skyler and Walt is enough to leave any viewer on edge. With Walter Jr. trying to stop the confrontation and baby Holly screaming in the background, you're expecting any one of them to suffer a fatal wound at any moment.

Walt's phone call

Yes, three from the same episode. It's a really good one.

Having lost his family, his empire, and his money, Walt just flat out kidnaps Holly as the only part of his old life he's able to salvage. Once he realizes that taking an infant on the run is hardly the most responsible thing to do, Walt leaves Holly at a fire station...but not before dialing up Skyler and chewing her out in a brutal rant.

It's really quite shocking to hear Walt talk to Skyler the way he does in this scene. For all their ups and downs throughout the series, Walt has never before gone so far as call her a bitch or threaten her. It seems pretty out of character to have him attacking her with language that could practically be coming from the Skyler haters on countless Breaking Bad boards, and to some extent it's clear that he really is venting some built-up anger toward his wife. It's only when he stresses that the meth empire was his work alone that you realize his much stronger underlying motive: he knows the call is being recorded, and he knows the least he can do for Skyler is try to keep the pressure off of her.

Andrea's death

When Jesse is taken into captivity by the neo-Nazi gang after Hank and Gomez's deaths and forced to cook meth, a single picture serves as a warning to him not to try anything. It's a snapshot of Andrea and Brock, and the clear implication is that one or both of them will be harmed if Jesse steps out of line.

It's not like this is something that slips our attention. Jesse even uses a paper clip from the photo in order to MacGyver his way out of his handcuffs. But we can't help but root for him as he makes a break for it, and even cheer him on when he tells off the neo-Nazis and refuses to do any more cooking. Their subsequent execution of Andrea is nothing more than what they promised to do, but it still comes as a shocking moment. In a single sharp scene, all of Jesse's efforts to help Andrea out and protect her from harm come to grief.

"Why are you still alive?"

The character of Walter Jr. has gotten plenty of mockery over the course of the series, not so much for his disability as for his abiding love for breakfast and the general sense that he has little purpose in the narrative when compared to any other character. There were still plenty of scenes where he played an important role, though his last speaking scene is clearly the most impressive.

Throughout the series, Walt Jr. has clearly favored his father over his mother. He mostly treats his mother with scorn and looks up to Walt and Hank as his heroes, little realizing how much it annoys Walt to have to compete with his brother-in-law for his son's affection. So it's quite fitting that it takes something as extreme as Hank's death, which Walt Jr. blames on Walt, before he turns against his father. Walt Jr. is willing to talk with his father when calls from exile in New Hampshire, but as soon as Walt tries to solve yet another problem with money his son is ready to cut ties.

Baby Blue

What better way to wrap up this series' defining series than the final scene of the final episode?

To some, this was the guns a-blazing ending that Walt deserved. For others, it was a bit too much a case of Walt going out on his own terms and getting (almost) exactly what he wanted. He threatens his former colleagues Gretchen and Elliot into getting his money to his family, getting revenge for their perceived profiteering off his work, by threatening that they might be gunned down by hit men at any time if they disobey his instructions. He poisons Lydia, mows down the neo-Nazis who killed Hank, rescues Jesse, and dies on his own terms rather than in a prison cell or sickbed. Jesse just gets his freedom...and the opportunity to kill that psychopath Todd, thankfully.

In truth, it's far from a happy ending. The final episode before the mid-season break, in the scene before Hank's discovery of Walt's alter ego, comes close to offering one of these; Walt is happy and healthy and retired, never having to worry about his family or money again. Even Jesse is doing all right, free of Walt's influence and the owner of a hefty share of meth proceeds.

In the finale, everything has already collapsed into chaos. Walt knows that reconciliation with his son is impossible, that he can take more of the heat off Skyler but that she'll probably still be punished in some way, that most of his money is lost and gone forever. In one pivotal scene in the middle of the episode, a weary and disheveled Walt admits that at some point his drug business stopped being about supporting the family and started being about his own desire for money and power. Jesse drives off to live another day, but it's not like he's doing that great after several months in forced slavery and the murder of his girlfriend; plus the neo-Nazi compound might still have those videos where he admits to being part of a massive meth enterprise and murdering a few people. Who knows what his future holds?

If nothing else, the final scene of the police discovering Walt's body in a meth lab as Badfinger's "Baby Blue" plays in the background was one that left most viewers deeply satisfied. Consider that Breaking Bad was airing some of its best episodes at the same time that Dexter was careening down its precipitous slide to a dismal final scene featuring the main character as a friggin' lumberjack. There are plenty of shows with finales so disappointing that people kick themselves for even starting them; it's no small accomplishment that Breaking Bad left you wanting to start watching the entire series all over again.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Whatever Happened To: The Cast of Clarissa Explains It All

Running for five seasons between 1991 and 1994, Clarissa Explains It All is one of those shows that anyone who watched Nickelodeon back in the day will be familiar with. Following the lives of the Darling family, who managed to be completely bizarre and yet somehow lead a relatively traditional life, the neon clothing and DOS-style computer games practically make it a time capsule of the early 90s. It included some guest stars who went on to be fairly well-known actors, including James Van Der Beek, Wayne Brady, and Michelle Trachtenberg. You might recognize Suzanne Collins, writer of two episodes, as the woman who went on to write the Hunger Games trilogy.

So what happened to the main cast of this show?

Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Darling)

Clarissa deals with the typical issues facing a teenage girl as well as a number of atypical problems, often breaking the fourth wall to confide in the audience. She tends to blow her problems out of proportion, creating computer games and other unique methods to try to help her through them. Clarissa is also a big fan of a number of alternative rock bands.

Melissa Joan Hart's work on Clarissa Explains It All was enough to net her a starring role in another children's/young adult show, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. Starting in 1996, two years after the end of Clarissa, the series went on until 2003 and included a TV movie and spin-off animated series. Hart, now 38, apparently limited herself to smaller roles after Sabrina, since she married Course of Nature musician Mark Wilkerson after the series ended and had three children; she also opened up a short-lived candy store in California called SweetHarts. Hart has since returned to ABC on the show Melissa & Joey, which premiered in 2010.

Jason Zimbler (Ferguson Darling)

Ferguson, Clarissa's nerdy younger brother, is usually bent on annoying his sister. He's also a Young Republican and wannabe entrepreneur, trying out a few unsuccessful schemes to bring in money. Clarissa and Ferguson occasionally work together, and Clarissa also defends him from bullies at times.

Zimbler never had another broadcast role after graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 1998, though he got a degree in theater directing as well as business administration. He's stayed active in theater performances, directing a few performances in New York City and co-founding The Re-Theatre Instrument in Portland, Oregon. Zimbler, now 36, also works as a software designer for HBO.

Joe O'Connor (Marshall Darling)

A quirky architect who tends to model his buildings after everyday objects, Clarissa's father seems to have as much of a zany streak as his daughter. Marshall usually calls Clarissa by the nickname "sport" and is happy to give her advice, though he sometimes struggles to provide practical help.

O'Connor, whose age is unavailable, has continued to appear in a number of small television and movie roles since the end of Clarissa Explains It All. These include Tom Vogel in Mad Men as well as roles on popular shows like How I Met Your MotherNCISThe West Wing, and ER.

Elizabeth Hess (Janet Darling)

Marshall and Clarissa's mother are both former hippies, though Janet has retained more of these characteristics in the type of advice she gives to her daughter. She works at a museum and is a prominent environmentalist. She is also an enthusiast for organic and healthy meals, a taste not shared by the rest of the Darling family.

Hess, now 60, has generally stayed away from other television or movie roles; she had a few bit parts on Law and Order and was last credited in the 2009 movie Handsome Harry. However, Hess has been very active in theater productions. She also teaches acting through an organization known as the Hess Collective and holds instructing positions at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and New York Theater Intensives.

Sean O'Neal (Sam Anders)

Sam is Clarissa's best friend and usually visits her by climbing a ladder to her bedroom. He is more of a voice of reason to Clarissa's stress, enjoys skateboarding, and lives with his father (who is a bit of an odd fellow, sleeping while standing up in a closet).

O'Neal, now 38, did not act again after Clarissa Explains It All until lending his voice to the English versions of the anime series Noir and RahXephon. He also appeared as a protester in the series Development Hell and has a role in a forthcoming film called Penumbra. According to his partially completed website, O'Neal turned down the chance to be the lead singer in a boy band; his "present day" bio is still under construction.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Connecticut

All right, back on track after that alphabetical snafu.

A long, long time from now, whenever I get up to the N states in the alphabet, I'm going to have to make fun of New Hampshire for choosing a state symbol that unexpectedly disappeared three years after the state's quarter was issued. For now, I'll have to content myself with making fun of Connecticut for selecting a symbol that vanished 143 years before the state quarter came into being.

Behold, a tree! It's about as exciting as Connecticut gets.

All right, full disclosure: I live in Connecticut, and I have for three-and-a-half years. Its politics are ridiculous, its mountains are hills, and of all the New England states it's the one with the most obvious identity crisis. Half the state roots for the New York Yankees, for God's sake. But I've still met some wonderful people here, there actually are quite a few lovely attractions, and I can't help but marvel at how devoted people are to local history.

So it's no surprise that Connecticut opted for the historic angle in choosing the Charter Oak for its state symbol. Though there's no denying that the fellow who designed the Connecticut quarter, one T. James Ferrell, did a bit of airbrushing when he etched out this portrayal of the Hartford tree. Take a look at the sexy flowing branches of the final design, then compare them to this alternate proposal:

Yeesh. Looks like the Charter Oak was grown from a scion of the Ugly Tree and replicated every branch on the way up.

Most portrayals of the oak show it as a scraggly runt, so apparently the above design is closer to the truth. But it's nothing that will win any beauty contests. They would run off more than a billion of these coins, so clearly they couldn't make it some gnarled old maid. They needed to make it the Summer Glau of trees.

Welcome back to my blog references, Ms. Glau! (Source)

So what's the story with the Charter Oak, anyway? Well, according to the lore, the 1662 charter granted to Connecticut by Charles II allowed it a great deal of autonomy within the British empire. When James II took over the throne, he looked to put an end to such tomfoolery and sent an emissary to demand the surrender of Connecticut's charter. Everyone sat together at the table when lo, the candles were snuffed! Captain James Wadsworth spirited the charter away to hide in a nook in the one tree on a nearby Hartford hill. Somehow, the British failed to find it.

So there you have it. Connecticut's greatest accomplishment wasn't Mark Twain, it was a magic vanishing act. Granted, the Charter Oak is a more interesting story than the one that led to the "Constitution State" nickname, namely that the Fundamental Orders of 1638-39 might be considered the first constitution in the American continent. There's also the "Nutmeg State" nickname, but Connecticut can't really be too proud of the idea that its citizens of yore were clever enough to sell counterfeit wooden nutmegs to gullible bumpkins.

I've learned a fair amount about New London history in my time here, namely that the city was burned down by both Benedict Arnold and a hurricane and that a harebrained scheme to steal a submarine included the possibility of obliterating the place with a nuclear weapon. If I'd arrived here way back before the quarter design was finalized, I might have argued for it to portray the story of how an early Revolutionary War mission raided a British armory in the Bahamas to obtain gunpowder and munitions for the colonials before taking the booty to New London. It's pretty awesome that part of the city's history is pretty much the same as one portion of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica.

Exactly like this, but in Nassau. (Source)

It would be nice if the Charter Oak was still standing but alas, it was blown over in an 1856 storm and survives only in a few pieces of furniture in the state legislature. But both the storm and the power outage of the original Charter Oak heist are still commemorated to this day. Whenever a storm is powerful enough to knock out electricity, Connecticut Light and Power takes a symbolic two weeks to restore it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Greatest Thing of Anything: Cafe Nomad

I credit - or blame - my love of coffee entirely on a corner shop in rural Maine.

Somehow, I made it through my late teens and early 20s without developing much of a taste for the stuff. I never needed it to get through a college all-nighter or hangover, or as a morning pick-me-up. It wasn't until Cafe Nomad opened its doors that I really got to appreciate a good brew and, perhaps more importantly, the coffeehouse atmosphere.

Part of the reason the cafe appealed to me so much was, quite simply, the lack of businesses in Norway, Maine, that really had any appeal. It's not to denigrate Books N Things, the excellent bookstore across the street from where I lived for three-and-a-half years, or the Maine Bookhouse, which was packed with used and rare volumes. But they were about it for local attractions at the time. The rest of the main drag seemed to be an odd mix of rooming houses, lawyers, accountants, and "baubles 'n crap" type thrift stores.

When I first moved to Maine, I lived a short walk away from a brightly colored corner building where Cafe Nomad would soon be located. Signs in the large picture windows fronting Main Street announced the imminent arrival of the business, though the predecessor in my job warned that the promise had been up for months. She warned me not to get my hopes up.

But as it turned out, the promise was genuine and the cafe would open its doors not long after. The owners had been taking a cautious approach, buying the building and taking their time to renovate the interior. By the time it was complete, it boasted a central kitchen space, a brightly lit sitting area overlooking a small stream, and a library of titles belying owner Scott Berk's adventurous and globetrotting lifestyle. It was well worth the wait.

Cafe Nomad soon became a regular Saturday destination for me, typically in the bitterly cold winters but occasionally in summer as well. I would bring along a good book, or take my laptop to be the typical (or, for rural Maine, atypical) coffeehouse writer. I wasn't the only one who found the cafe to be a welcoming spot. Business took off right away, and in its first year the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce gave them an award for a valuable newcomer business. And indeed, it was a tried and true model in a new market; before Cafe Nomad, the nearest place to get a coffee and relax was 25 miles away.

They have enormous mugs, and if you were sitting in you got one free refill. They get their joe from Carrabassett Coffee, which is based in northern Maine, and most of the blends are pretty strong. I joked that you needed to add cream and sugar to make it black.

And the food is pretty amazing, too. Soft, fluffy pancakes are a weekend treat that comes with real maple syrup. The chef always seemed to be experimenting with new sandwich specials, so there was usually some delicious option to tempt you.

A couple of years ago, I took a vacation to see some old friends in Maine. They're scattered in a few different places, but I spent the longest time in the Oxford Hills. Going back to Cafe Nomad was a sweet reunion. Quite literally. I got a maple oat scone with breakfast one day, and it was one of the best things I've ever tasted.

Cafe Nomad was starting to host a regular wine tasting by the time I left Maine, and it looks like the place has been successful enough to add more hours and a dinner menu. It deserves all the recognition it gets. The business provided a warm, inviting spot for visitors and locals alike. In some way, I think it helped kick off a wider transformation of Main Street in Norway. Other start-ups never caught on (I could never understand why someone would think their particular Baubles 'N Crap would take off when so many others had failed before) but the Cafe Nomad was followed with more innovative places like a bike and ski shop, games store, and fiber studio.

New London has three coffee houses and a few more cafes with delicious food and bottomless cups of coffee. But I'll always remember Cafe Nomad fondly, and they can count on a customer whenever I pay a visit to western Maine.