Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another Top 10 Christmas Specials Special

It's happened again: I've scrounged together enough Christmas specials for another year. Enjoy, and happy holidays!

Futurama, "The Futurama Holiday Spectacular"

Last year's list included the original Xmas episode of Futurama, plus an honorable mention for an episode where Bender tries to replace Santa as a good toy-delivering robot. That would seem the logical choice for this list, but this seemed to be a better choice. It was a late offering from the newly resurrected season on Comedy Central, which as a whole has been rather weaker than the golden years but still scores higher than the slump that The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park have all fallen into (one episode in particular, "The Late Philip J. Fry," is outstanding).

The main reason to include this one: as far as I know, it's the only Christmas special to incorporate Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa themes in one fell swoop. Granted, it's not the most warm and cuddly holiday special; the Planet Express crew dies in every segment, and humanity as a whole is obliterated in two. I'm definitely taking a corrupt Oscar judge stance, then, since "A Tale of Two Santas" is clearly funnier. Though "The Futurama Holiday Special" does have a few gems, namely the guard at the Norwegian seed vault and Kwanzaabot losing interest in his own holiday midway through the explanation of what it's about.

Hermes' Kwanzaa Party
Funny JokesIt's Always Sunny in PhiladelphiaUgly Americans

9. Family Guy, "A Very Special Family Guy Freakin' Christmas"

This episode aired back in the first run of Family Guy, when it was one of the more controversial shows on TV thanks to some risque jokes and baby Stewie's persistent desire to kill his mother. The show follows a somewhat traditional Christmas special model, as the family has to deal with a few challenges such as Peter accidentally giving away the family's gifts to charity. There's also a lengthy sequence where Lois takes out her rage on several beloved holiday classics, torching Frosty the Snowman with a makeshift flamethrower and shoving George Bailey off the bridge he's contemplating suicide on.

It's more than a bit of a subversion on holiday specials, of course, what with one of the big surprises in the end involving Stewie getting plutonium on Christmas Day. However, it still has Christmas message as the town tries to convince Lois that the Christmas spirit is a good thing. Even if it does so with Peter explaining that Christmas is a time when we sing carols to lure Zombie Jesus back to sleep. As was explained soon after, sometimes you've just got to have a sense of humor.

Oh, and there's also the special within the special about KISS saving Santa.

8. The X-Files, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas"

Mulder wants to investigate a supposedly haunted house. Scully thinks there are better ways to spend Christmas Eve. And so we get a Christmas special as only The X-Files can deliver it.

The past X-Files Christmas episode was a two-parter about an orphaned child who turned out to be part Scully DNA and part alien. And though that was nicely acted by Gillian Anderson, this episode gives both actors a chance to shine (and includes Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin to boot). It's one of the few specials that's able to effectively combine something of a horror theme with Christmas, as the two agents try to avoid the clutches of a couple who died in a lover's pact several decades before. It's a little twisted, but the ending of the couple being happy to be together and Mulder and Scully exchanging gifts is pretty nice.

7. The Office, "Christmas Party"

Though I've been enjoying the recent episodes of the American version of The Office, most of the strongest emotional moments were from the first few seasons as it explored the romance between Jim and Pam: a direct take on the romantic tension between Tim and Dawn in the original British version, which chose to end their run with these two characters finally getting together. Jim and Pam have tapered off into the background, but at first their relationship was on par with the original show.

This episode does a good job of exploring all of the characters, while also rolling out a plot that almost feels like an O'Henry story. It involves a Secret Santa office party in which Jim, having picked Pam, gets her a sentimental gift nicely attuned to their friendship. Everything goes awry when the office manager, Michael, gets upset when he gets a handmade oven mitt after exceeding the spending limit by buying an iPod and turns the party into a Yankee Swap to try to get what he feels is a better present. It's funny and heartwarming to see Jim's efforts to get Pam's gift back into her hands, especially when it ends up with arch-nemesis Dwight and when Pam finally chooses to trade the iPod for Jim's gift.

6. The Angry Video Game Nerd and Nostalgia Critic Reviews (tie)

I don't get too many visitors in this corner of the Internet, but I thought it would be best to put these two on equal footing considering their rivalry led to a brutal no-holds beatdown and the destruction of Chicago at the hands of a mutant Donkey Kong-esque Jesus and a super mechanized Jesus. Their revulsion for one another is an act, of course, but there's no need to risk massive Christ devastation.

James Rolfe, aka The Angry Video Game Nerd, has been producing scathing attacks on sub-par video games from the 80s and 90s, while Doug Walker is the Nostalgia Critic, producing weekly reviews of crappy old movies and TV shows. Both are clever, hilarious, and great physical and vocal comedians. Rolfe updates more infrequently then Walker, who got a significant boost from the faux feud with Rolfe and makes a living managing several Internet series at Channel Awesome, but he faithfully puts out a Christmas review each year. The best one might be a take on A Christmas Carol, in which Rolfe tours incarnations of his present, past (home videos of Rolfe getting aggravated at Mario), and future (an elderly Rolfe bitching about a bad Wii game).

Rolfe stays in grouchy character reviewing Christmas-based games, while Walker gets extremely excited about the holiday in what seems to be only partially an act. His keystone is almost exactly what I'm doing, though he had the idea first and I'm just trying to beat him to the punch: reviewing 11 Christmas specials (he likes "to go one step beyond") and saying why he likes them. He did one in 2008, and another one in 2009 taking in the specials that were requested by fans. This year, he's scheduled to do another one mopping up even more specials that fell by the wayside. I put in a request for the "Refrigerator Day" episode of Dinosaurs, because the Polar Express movie, Doug? Seriously?

He's also done other specials, one of which introduced us to the glory that is Santa Christ:

5. Bad Santa

In one of those examples of people complaining about something before they actually saw it, this movie got a little bit of bad press before it was released because people thought it was going to be going out of its way to disparage the holiday as much as it could. If anything, it goes out of its way to inject a bit of a Christmas theme into the story and winds up targeting the culture of malls and consumerism rather than religion.

The plot involves Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic con man Willie who, along with a dwarf partner (Tony Cox), pulls off a heist each year by playing a mall Santa and elf in the leadup to Christmas and looting the safe and stores after hours on Christmas Eve. Things go awry when Willie gets mixed up with a lonely kid (Brett Kelly) and finds himself reluctantly being some semblance of a role model for him. Of course, a lot of humor comes from the fact that Willie is rude, lascivious, profane, and altogether unfit to work with children. The script is nicely done, though, focusing on some rather well-constructed jokes rather than cheap gags.

4. Lost, "The Constant"

It's a Christmas show...in February! What? OK, this isn't a Christmas special, per se. It just has a slight Christmas theme, and aired on February 28 of 2008. It's also considered to be one of the best episodes of Lost.

The show didn't exactly offer itself up for a Christmas special, and the fans would have rightfully cried bloody murder if there had been anything even approaching a happy break from the action in which the Others and the smoke monster and Oceanic Flight 815 survivors all got together to hang stockings in the Swan hatch. Still, until the fifth season stomped space and time in the face, the show followed a meticulous count of days from the plane crash in September of 2004 (on the same date as the show's premiere). That meant that by the time this early fourth season episode rolled around, it had reached Christmas Eve.

The story focuses on Desmond, always one of the stronger characters, as he finds his consciousness whipped about between the past and present day. It instills a real sense of danger, as a radio operator on board the freighter Desmond travels to suffers the same malady and it winds up killing him. The interaction between Desmond and the past self of an Oxford physics professor who is now on the island nicely adds to the layers of sci-fi, but the thing that brings this into Christmas territory is Desmond's desperate attempt to patch things up with Penny, the love of his life and ex-girlfriend at the time he keeps flashing back to. The fact that Penny is his "constant," a way of stopping his warps through time, makes her something much more as well: a way to save his life. All of this comes to a head as Desmond uses some hastily repaired and oh-so-briefly functioning communications equipment to call Penny on Christmas Eve, as he promised he would do eight years before.

Embedding is disabled, so enjoy the clip here.

3. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, "Mail Order Bride"

Once again, Aqua Teen Hunger Force proves that Christmas episodes don't have to be heartwarming but can just choose to be inappropriate and hilarious. So don't go and pick out this 11-minute episode to show to young children just because it's a cartoon, but if you want a non-traditional quick viewing option.

The basic plot has Master Shake and Carl sharing the cost to buy a Russian mail order bride as a Christmas gift to themselves. This split brings up obvious problems, and the woman immediately locks herself in Carl's house in terror after realizing she has been purchased by a slovenly pervert and a giant milkshake. We also get Meatwad's finicky wish list, his earnest efforts to make high-end gifts for Frylock out of sticks, and his mistaking some thumping on the roof for Santa getting an early start due to overpopulation.

2. Mystery Science Theater 3000, "Santa Claus"

One of only two Christmas specials done in the 10 years of MST3K, this one takes on a truly bizarre movie. It appears that Santa lives in a palatial ice castle in space, keeps a coterie of international children at his beck and call to help him (creepy...), flies about in mechanized reindeer, and does battle with Satan. Yes, Kris Kringle delivering gifts is something that the Lord of Darkness doesn't really like. It's a bounty that's almost more than the boys on the Satellite of Love could hope for.

1. Moral Orel, "Honor"

About half of Moral Orel was a ripping take on holier-than-thou religious types, with episodes typically revolving around the title character's naivete as he misinterpreted lessons from the Bible or other advice and generally wreaked havoc without trying. However, there were a few pretty dark themes underlying the show, namely Orel's closeted, alcoholic father. The ending of the first season (a Christmas episode that, oddly enough, was aired as a sneak peek for the rest of the season) had a rather depressing ending, but it was nothing compared to the third season. Having seen what a horrible person his father really is during a hunting trip, Orel's whole world is turned upside down and the carefree plots of the show were gone, replaced by episodes exploring the repressed nature of Moralton's residents and the slow disintegration of Orel's family.

Naturally, with all of this coming to an end in the series finale, it didn't seem like things were going to end too happily. It was painful to the audience, because Orel's earnest and friendly attitude made him one of the few genuinely likable characters. There's still a heart-wrenching scene in which Orel's father confronts Coach Stopframe in anger over how he has become a role model to his son in a matter of days and, in front of his wife, admits that he loves Stopframe...who rejects him. But a final shot shows Orel regaining what he lost when he realized his father's true nature: a happy family life, as a well-adjusted adult married to his childhood sweetheart with a couple of kids to boot.

Part of the reason for this being a personal favorite is just the way I saw it. The episode aired a week before Christmas in 2008, and I was visiting my parents on my Christmas vacation. Seeing it end on a high note, spending a happy week off with my family, was just a huge boost to my mood.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Double Feature Review: Fast Food Nation and Joyeux Noel

Fast Food Nation

Synopsis: A critique of the fast food industry presented through the loosely interconnected stories of a marketing executive, a teenage counter girl, and a group of undocumented workers in a meatpacking plant.

The bad news first:
The movie is based on the book of the same name by Eric Schlosser, an investigative journalist who wrote a very well-received account of the cost you actually pay for getting a burger and fries in under five minutes. By transferring it to the screen as a fictional story, however, the whole premise is kind of cheapened. A few of the actors are rather well-known, and Burger King and McDonald's are clearly mentioned while the story focuses on a third, fictional major burger chain (a lame knockoff of McDonald's called Mickey's); it creates more than a bit of a disconnect, which serves to blunt the message of the film.

As a whole, the movie is really only able to focus on a few issues: the exploitation of illegal immigrants in dangerous working conditions, the problems of ensuring the quality of beef, and the challenges facing working youth. Other issues related to the industry, such as environmental effects in South America, are never brought up. The focus on the meatpacking plant workers works pretty well, but it suffers from the same problem as the other storylines: the fact that none of these issues can really be blamed on fast food. Aren't there a lot of industries that exploit undocumented workers? Is getting a steak at a nice restaurant any better or worse than getting a burger that was also churned out of a slaughterhouse? Don't all teens hate their jobs?

Promising hints show up here and there, including a few kitchen workers contemplating whether they'll be the latest in a recent series of holdups and determining that maybe they should rob the restaurant. That would have been a great story to follow...and it never materializes. Several other meandering stories or premises also fall apart before reaching a satisfying conclusion.

Finally, it can be a little wordy (or didactic, as the New York Times nicely puts it). The problem here is that there are plenty of instances when you're well aware of how long people are blathering on about some hot-topic issue. It's well-written and realistic enough, but there are times when it starts to grate. Especially in the bullshit sessions of a college common room, whose scenes are made doubly annoying because some casting director thought Avril Lavigne could act.

The good stuff:
As has been mentioned, the story featuring the illegal Mexican immigrants and their experience in the meatpacking industry is the strongest of the bunch. I'm sure I could go onto a message board right now and find someone screaming right-winger about how illegal immigrants don't deserve sympathy, and some left-winger screaming right back at him, but the movie itself never gets tangled up in the numerous issues surrounding this topic. It just shows what can happen behind closed doors.

For the most part, the actors do a good job. Some scenes are also quite enjoyable to watch, such as the discussions between the girl and her mother and especially the later conversations between the girl and her uncle. And the last scene showing real footage of cows being killed and butchered, though again having the effect of making you question eating meat rather than eating fast food, is about as visceral and effective as it can be.

Here's an idea for when you adapt a book by an investigative journalist: make it a friggin' documentary instead of a fictional movie that tries to be one. It's a little tougher to find an audience, but if you do a good enough job they will come. Consider Super Size Me, an excellent documentary that lambasted fast food in general and McDonald's in particular for contributing to American obesity. It made $30 million. Fast Food Nation made one-fifteenth of that.

Joyeux Noel

Synopsis: Scottish, French, and German soldiers hold an impromptu truce on Christmas Day in 1914.

The bad news first:
There's...really not a whole lot. The Christmas Day truces actually happened, with varying degrees of intensity in the fraternization between soldiers. One negative review I came across whined that the movie should have made it clearer that this happened all alone the Western Front, not just in this one unit; another more positive one said it would seem hokey if it weren't for the fact that it actually happened. If those are the only complaints you can come up with, I'd say you just watched a pretty good movie.

The good stuff:
This is one of the more inspiring stories from World War I, and the movie does it justice. The scene in which the opposing soldiers slowly but surely make friendly gestures across no man's land and finally walk out among the debris and bodies to have a few moments of peace is especially heartwarming. It's equally as painful to watch as they slowly restart the conflict, despite the obvious comradery they form in the short time they spend together.

World War I was one of the most pointless fights in history, if not the most pointless one given the much more malignant bloodshed that followed in Europe 21 years after the armistice. The movie drops a few anvils in pointing out this fact, including an opening showing schoolchildren from the three countries reciting hateful speeches against their enemies and a priest reluctantly giving a sermon about how it's God's will that the Scots soldiers kill the Germans. Even if it's heavy-handed at times, it's a point well worth making. There are also some more subtle moments, such as a German soldier saying he enjoyed the brief peace even though he doesn't celebrate Christmas since he's Jewish. We know that even if he survives the fight to return to Germany, it will only be a matter of years before he's persecuted as an enemy of the state.

You should definitely see it. It even works as a non-traditional sort of Christmas movie.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Greatest Thing of Anything: Planet Earth (the series, though the planet's pretty cool too)

If I lie on the ground, I probably take up about six square feet of space. The planet, meanwhile, takes up some 5.5 quadrillion square feet by the measurement I found. So I'm taking up maybe one 1.1 quadrillionth of the planet's surface area when I sunbathe, and a lot less when I'm on my feet. And this figure seems to be based more on the square footage if Earth were smooth and flat like a globe, not pitted with mountains and hills and caves and crevasses like it actually is. In short, Earth is friggin' big.

And there are four planets much bigger than Earth. The Universe is frickin' HUGE

In terms of globetrotting, I'm sure I haven't whittled down that percentage too much in the places I've been. I've got a few tracks over the United States and Europe, but that's only two continents of six and it excludes the North Pole as well (to the extent that the North Pole continues to exist). Even the most avid travelers have probably only seen a fraction of the planet. Though in some areas, I'm sure you can go to one place and be satisfied that you don't need to visit all that other square footage you can see.


I'd certainly like to travel more. I did a semester abroad in England, and before I went my aunt gave me a couple of guidebooks for London and Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) as a whole. Most places in the British Isles sound pretty amazing, but even zeroing in on this little slice of the planet and experiencing all it has to offer would seem to take a minimum of a full lifetime and a massive amount of cash. And then there are all those rainforests, caves, mountains, seas...what is one to do?

Why, get Planet Earth, of course.

Planet Earth is a 2006 BBC documentary, apparently the first documentary filmed in high definition and the most expensive one ever filmed. It's made up of 11 50-minute episodes, each focusing on a specific environment. Deep oceans, shallow seas, mountains, caves...it's really quite amazing the range they decided to take their cameramen. Each episode typically features numerous locations which each common theme, with a focus on both the amazing landscapes and the incredible animals who make them their home. So yes, it's not a full representation of the planet, but I think we can do without a swooping aerial shots of the Los Angeles freeways. There are plenty of criminals and TV helicopters that give us ample opportunity to see them anyway.

Ahhhhh...the wonders of Earth

The footage is so seamless and well-done that you rarely stop to think how they got these majestic shots. The DVD takes care of that by appending every episode with a mini documentary within the documentary, showing just what devotion the teams had. Quite often it seems like they're staking out areas for weeks to get what in the end amounts to only minutes of footage. This includes a guy stalking a bird-of-paradise locale, a team racing to get terrifyingly beautiful shots of leaping sharks, a scuba diver quietly picking up footage of a piranha meal, and an amusing account of a pair of cameramen and their hot-air balloon's attraction for trees.

You've also got the classy, precise narration of David Attenborough. At the time the documentary came out, he'd been working for the BBC for 56 years. His work there has included quite a range of nature documentaries, so Planet Earth is right up his alley. His devotion to the world is apparent, though ironically he's been criticized by some environmentalists for focusing on the idyllic parts of the planet without giving any time to pollution and other problems (for the record, the DVD includes an extra disc of interviews devoted to this subject). As if that weren't enough, the same year the series came out a poll named him Britain's most trusted celebrity. For some reason, the Discovery Channel likes to switch narrators when things come across the pond and had Sigourney Weaver do the narration. I have nothing but respect for Sigourney Weaver, but I thought her expertise was more in the flora and fauna of other worlds.

And finally, footage from the series goes really well with MGMT.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Double Feature Review: Role Models and Toy Story 3

Role Models

Two irresponsible men are forced to volunteer as mentors to complete a term of community service.

The bad news first:
The overall direction of the movie is pretty predictable. You mean two selfish kids are paired up with a couple of children who they don't really care for? Gee, I wonder if they'll grow to admire and respect each other in a heartwarming way. The storyline itself does this in a reasonably fun and engaging way, though.

A few of the double entendre jokes are a little flat, which is unfortunate considering Jane Lynch gets a good deal of them. Luckily, the dialogue related to her questionable past more than makes up for it.

The good stuff:
It goes along at a pretty good clip and the humor generally keeps pace. The story hangs on differing personalities, and there are plenty of those to go around. The relationship between the near-opposite characters of Paul Rudd's world-weary Danny and Christopher Mintz-Plasse's fantasy-driven Augie gets the best results. The pair-up of Seann William Scott's Wheeler and Bobb'e J. Johnson's Ronnie relies more on raunchy jokes, though most of them are pretty good.

When the movie leans more on the dramatic side, it's surprisingly effective. There's nary a chuckle to be found in the dinner between Danny, Augie, and Augie's mother and stepfather, but it's well-written and believable. The live action roleplaying scenes are also hilarious and impressively choreographed, and while many of the jokes related to them fall along the same general lines it's clear that everyone is having a good time.

Worth a visit.

Toy Story 3

Synopsis: Amid uncertainty over their future as 17-year-old Andy prepares for college, the toys are mistakenly donated to a daycare center.

The bad news first:
Pixar's last few films have been children's films with some pretty serious, more adult-oriented story lines. I've seen some question over whether the studio has taken this too far, allowing their films to slide too much into darker, heartrending themes. They definitely have gone a little more somber in recent years; WALL-E and Up were both more than a little symbolic and dealt with heavier issues than earlier movies. By now, everyone probably knows that they're going to go into a Pixar movie and have tears in their eyes at some point.

Toy Story 3 may have gone a little too dramatic in some areas. There's one scene that I won't spoil, which everyone who has seen the movie will be able to point out, that is incredibly dark for what is ostensibly a children's movie but works amazingly well. By contrast, a shot in which three forgotten toys are standing in a field under a sepia-toned, cloud-scudded sky seems to be trying a little too hard to bring the audience down.

The good stuff:
Toy Story 2 focused mostly on Woody's dilemma between being admired forever by children as a museum piece or staying with Andy but running the risk that his owner will outgrow and abandon him. Though Woody opts to stay with Andy, it's a little bittersweet since he acknowledges that he's just going to have to enjoy the time he has left. Sure enough, Toy Story 3 picks up with Woody and Buzz and all the rest buried in the toy chest. The 11-year gap between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 is quite a jump, and Pixar adjusts accordingly. Even the youngest viewers who saw the first sequel when it came out would be in their early teens now, no doubt thinning out or exiling their own ranks of playthings.

The early trailers seemed to suggest that Andy would simply be punted off in favor of some prolonged silliness at a daycare center. Once it became clear that it was going to delve deeper into the themes of Toy Story 2, my confidence was restored. Despite the underlying serious themes, there's quite a bit to keep you laughing. In particular, the narrative of Andy's playtime at the beginning and Buzz Lightyear accidentally reprogrammed in Spanish are hilarious. The story, as always, keeps you caring about each and every one of the characters from the start to the finish. It yanks your heartstrings pretty hard, but it's not like Disney has never done that before and it's extremely fitting given the plot.

Another winner from Pixar. What did you expect?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Whatever Happened To: The Cast from The Adventures of Pete and Pete

For a sizable portion of my age group, wrapping up the day meant sitting in front of the TV and enjoying some Nickelodeon. Now don't go criticizing me and my generation for being a bunch of lazy couch potatoes. Sure we played some Nintendo and watched some cookie cutter PG movies, but we also went sledding and played tag and such. But Nickelodeon had a run of shows that seem to resonate with us. The Nostalgia Critic took a look back and basically tore apart almost the entire set of them. The one show he left standing was The Adventures of Pete and Pete.

Man that's a good song, and it never fails to bring you back. It was like a physical blow of nostalgia when I saw the opening again for the first time in something like 15 years. But anyway, on to the show. It's endearingly bizarre, I guess you could put it. You kind of expect that when the credits include an 11-year-old's apparently permanent tattoo and the metal plate in Mom's head. Among the things I can remember off the top of my head, there was the family discovering an operational station wagon buried in the sand at the beach (causing Big Pete to recount the trip to Ellen with a nonchalant "Dad found a car"), a bully named Papercut who made origami weapons, and Little Pete and Artie trying to beat up the ocean.

Like most actors from the Nickelodeon days of yore, the cast has disappeared into obscurity. The Adventures of Pete and Pete may have had one of the few exceptions, with later addition Michelle Trachtenberg becoming somewhat well-known. So what happened to the rest of the people in the credits?

The Band (Polaris)

The band that performs the opening song also appeared in an episode where Little Pete sees them on the way to school, then forms his own band to keep their song alive after the group disappears and leaves no trace but a stray guitar pick. The song, which has been stuck in my head for 48 hours or more, really can't help but put you in a good mood. It even has a bit of a mystery to it, with fans apparently debating the lyrics for a long time until one of the band members revealed all but the third line (which is most likely "Would you settle to shoot me." Still a happy song, I say).

Polaris, a one-off project formed from the New Haven band Miracle Legion, was pretty closely attached to the show, to the point that their only album (released in 1999) was entitled "Music From The Adventures of Pete and Pete." According to the website of the band's record label, the two were inseparable enough that the cancellation of the show meant the cancellation of Polaris. "Polaris never wrote another song," the profile concludes. "Too bad." The front man, Mark Mulcahy, went solo and has released a few albums. He even got a tribute album in 2009. The other two members, Scott Boutier and Dave McCaffrey, are now with a band called Frank Black and the Catholics.

Mom (Judy Grafe)

I don't remember too much about the character of Mom, or Joyce Wrigley as it were, aside from the fact that she had a metal plate in her head which allows her to hear radio transmissions and such. That's about all the Wikipedia page has, too. I do remember one heartwarming scene where she helps Little Pete stay awake for one last game of flashlight tag during his effort to break the world record for hours without sleep.

This looks like the best-known role for Judy Grafe, who has only been in a handful of films and TV series. Her last role was in some show entitled Untold Stories of the ER in 2005. She's still available for hire, and has a rather interesting resume. In addition to her Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and acting experience from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, her resume notes that she's a volunteer firefighter in New York, volunteers in the ER (perhaps the source of her last role) and is licensed to sell real estate.

Dad (Hardy Rawls)

The Petes' father, or Don Wrigley, was about as quirky as the other characters in the series. I seem to remember a few major battles of will between him and an assortment of others (Ellen's father, that "King of Road" guy, Little Pete...) that often went to ridiculous lengths. And he also apparently met his wife when his metal detector found her head plate, so there's that.

The actor, who has a seriously cool name, will turn 58 next month. Like his on-screen wife, he snagged a few minor TV roles but hasn't had anything on the screen since 2005. Well, credited anyway. He's apparently made appearances on a few other shows, and spent four years (ending in 2007) as the Maytag repairman in that company's commercials. It seems he's kept on acting in theater roles as well.

Ellen (Alison Fanelli)

Big Pete's best and closest friend, I seem to remember Ellen as being intellectual with a nice sheen of weirdness. One of the shorts that preceded the introduction of the show as a regular half-hour program had her teaching out-of-water aquarobics or something similar. The later romantic developments between Big Pete and Ellen would have seemed a bit cliche, were it not for the fact that every boy watching the show probably had a crush on Ellen. It would have seemed wrong if it didn't happen.

Turns out the actress is pretty smart as well. Alison Fanelli, now 31, has the Pete and Pete credit and nothing else on her IMDB page. Once the show ended, she made a beeline into medicine, graduating from Goucher College with a pre-med degree in 2001 and Dartmouth College with a master's in health care improvement sometime later. She now works as a physician's assistant at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Artie! The Strongest Man...in the World (Toby Huss)

It wouldn't take much searching to find a webpage about how Artie, Little Pete's possibly mentally challenged hero and erstwhile companion, could destroy Chuck Norris just by thinking about it. His superhero's outfit of red pants, striped shirt, and giant glasses will probably never make it into DC or Marvel, but there's no doubt that his powers exist. He moved a house an inch to the side, for crying out loud. Sure, that doesn't sound like much, but he was tired. Besides, you try it. He left the series most of the way through the second of three seasons after realizing that Little Pete could stand up for himself and didn't need a superhero's protection anymore. A good deal of the show's quirkiness went with him, though it was still a good watch.

If Toby Huss can really perform that hanging maneuver, that's pretty impressive. At any rate, he followed up his role as Artie with another long-running success, voicing Cotton Hill and Khan Souphanousinphone on the long-running show King of the Hill. Perhaps one of the oddest mental images you can conjure up? Artie voicing a bitter old Texan who had his shins shot off in World War II. Now 43, he continues to find work in a variety of (mostly comedy) movies and looks a lot less Artie-ish.

Plus Rescue Dawn is apparently a good movie, so an old Nickelodeon show just indirectly influenced my Netflix queue.

Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli)

Little Pete Wrigley tended to either a) do his best to fight authority figures and bullies to preserve everything that is weird and good or b) do something weird. No wonder he and Artie were such good friends. Plus he had tattoos. Perhaps my favorite Little Pete moment involves his attempt to escape a grounding by hightailing it for Canada on a riding mower, only to be caught by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I'd have to watch the show again, but I'm pretty sure Big Pete and Little Pete were usually in their own separate worlds. They weren't at each others throats like a lot of siblings, but they teamed up only when there was a missing ice cream man to be found or something like that.

Danny Tamberelli, like a few of his older co-stars, has made a bit of an effort to stay in the entertainment business. Most of his roles were clustered around his time on Pete and Pete, with notable movie credits including The Mighty Ducks and Igby Goes Down. He's also part of a sketch comedy group. His last official appearance, excluding an All That reunion show, was in 2002, but he has also done some commercials including a Wendy's ad that came out in 2006. I didn't recognize him when that appeared, though in a lot of photos he looks quite a bit like his younger self.

Tamberelli's character was a big music geek, even running his own radio station using Mom's metal plate to boost the signal. Apparently that's true of Tamberelli himself, too, since he graduated from Hampshire College after studying music. Now 28, he sings and plays guitar for the band Jounce, which has released a couple of albums, and plays bass for another band called Every Good Boy. He's also still popular enough that his personal Facebook page overloaded on friends.

Big Pete (Mike Maronna)

Big Pete Wrigley was about the closest thing to a voice of reason on the show, and mostly seemed to be trying to get through life without ruffling too many feathers. Which doesn't mean he was put off in any way by his strange surroundings, and in fact seemed nicely adapted to them. It just means that his oddities were more the type you could expect to see in real life, such as when he had the marching band he was part of play "Love Rollercoaster."

Oddly enough, Mike Maronna looks a lot like my sophomore roommate and also shares my birthday (he's six years older, celebrating his 33rd last year). His first role was in Home Alone as one of Macaulay Culkin's older and somehow redheaded brothers and he had a few more roles after Pete and Pete (Slackers and 40 Days and 40 Nights stand out, for recognizable titles if not for quality). His acting list ends ominously with the movie Men Without Jobs in 2004, though he did show up in a few music videos including a Nada Surf tune where he got to show off some bicycling skills.

Turns out Mike Maronna wasn't going to Macalester College with me undercover, but rather attending Purchase College and/or the State University of New York to study filmmaking. Even while acting in a smattering of music videos, commercials (in an apparently popular series of Ameritrade ads as bumbling broker Stuart), and TV shows or movies, he's been putting more time into working behind the scenes. He's had electrician credits from 1997 to the present on 20 films. Beyond that, he might have a MySpace page that's extremely heavy on the Pete and Pete and light on the friends, but something just seems off about that.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Top 5 Most (and Least) Loved States

A few months ago...wait, June? Really, that long? Wow, time is stupidly fast now. Anyway, a few months ago I completed a list of the most and least hated states in the United States, based on the number of Google hits returned for the phrase "I hate [state]." Turns out people aren't too fond of Arizona, New York, Kentucky, North Carolina, and especially Nevada for some reason. The hatred is less severe for Washington, New Mexico, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Rhode Island.

But where's the love? It was the 70th anniversary of John Lennon's birth recently, and for some reason there's a lot of press today about how he would have been a septuagenarian today if he hadn't been shot by a deranged security guard with a thing for Holden Caulfield...look for a repeat of this every decade for the next 30 years, maybe. So I guess it's time to do this list, considering how Lennon knew that "All You Need is Love."

Love is all you need...

So will the positives outweigh the negatives for any, some, or all of the states? Considering New York City has pretty much made a slogan out of it, I'm sure they'll be a lead contender in the "I love [state]" tally...even if they were one of the top five in the most hated list. But I'm willing to bet that more people enjoy where they live than despise it. After all, if you dislike the place so much, there's a reason moving companies are around.

So without further ado, let's get started!

5. California (1,180,000 hits)

Well, you've got the ocean, forests, mountains, and nifty bridges. Plenty of the results have qualifiers (beaches, girls, homes, Republicans...), so the list seems to go on. I've got a few relatives and friends there, so it's good to see it in one of the top spots.

4. Texas (1,170,000 hits)

What, another one where the GOP is part of the reason? Well, probably not in Austin (pictured above). And a few country singers probably jack up the results with some easy lyrics. And someone linked it with Texas skiers, for some reason. I think it's also been noted that there's something in the Texas water that consistently results in the creation of gorgeous brunettes.

She looks this good IN A POLAROID

3. Iowa (1,210,000 hits)

Iowa! America's quilt.

Judging by the search results, this tally is so high for the same reason that Maine's hate count probably shot up after 2009: Iowa legalizing gay marriage on a bit of a fluke. Aside from that, the people are apparently pretty nice. Oh, and football.

2. New Jersey (1,320,000 hits)

Spoiler alert: New York doesn't make it. New York comes in 22nd place. So why does its commuter neighbor get second place, especially since New York put a copyright on the phrase itself? Well, it's tough to say. One result is a "defend your state" portion for the website ihatenewjersey.com. A few others are those brave souls who admit that they like to watch upper-class harpies scream at each other. Having gone through some of the less sprawly parts of the state, though, I can definitely say the state gets a bit of a bad rap. There are a lot of nice neighborhoods where the nature has escaped the megalopolis.

1. Michigan (1,530,000 hits)

A portrait of every resident of the state of Michigan

Well, the count is apparently down since I checked this on October 10, but I'm still going with those numbers and it's still a respectable 1,030,000 when I checked it out today. Wait, so the state suffering from chronic unemployment and a city that needs robotic policemen to keep crime levels on par with the rest of the nation also gets the highest dose of Google love? Perhaps the communities are closely knit; perhaps there's a thriving arts scene; maybe the recreational activities are boundless.

Or football. It might just be football.

"That's what you get for messing with the mighty Glove and Scarf State!"

And who are those poor states that have only a few scattered tens of thousands of admirers?

5. Vermont (37,800 hits)

Because idyllic country landscapes are as unremarkable as it gets

Full disclosure: I'm a little biased here. In fact, I'll boost the count with another "I love Vermont" added in. I lived in Vermont for a little while, and this was a little unexpected given that most people who live there seem to adore the place. There's plenty of skiing and friendly folk, maple syrup and foliage, and it's politically stable enough that it can have a socialist Senator without imploding in Tea Party rage. I think I'll say it's akin to Dramarama's take on why the dead don't come back: they're having too much fun, too much fun in heaven.

4. Kentucky: (28,300 hits)

Kentucky kind of gets the short end of the stick here. Not only is it one of the least loved, but it's also one of the most hated (thanks mostly to a self-hating sports rivalry). Apparently more people hate the school then love it. As for those who like it, there's KFC. And horses. And then your thrilling weekend is over.

3. Mississippi: (22,400 hits)

For those who like it, it's because of football. It's a lot of football. Again. Except for 1960s governor Ross Barnett who gave a quick speech (at a football game) to declare,
"I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs. I love and respect our heritage." The customs and heritage that Governor Barnett loved so much included keeping the races separate.

2. North Dakota: (17,100 hits)

"Wait a minute...I can see that other list from here!"

North Dakota was one of the states with the least number of people to angrily declare that they hated the state. It's also one of the states where people don't care enough to say they love the state. North Dakotans must look upon their state with a resounding "Eh, good enough. I guess."

1. Wyoming: (15,800 hits)

"I really don't love this place, honey..."

Someone started a Facebook group boasting that Wyoming could get to a million fans before any other state...it's got 28,512 fans, about 2.9 percent of that lofty goal. A more general Wyoming site has about 1,300 more admirers. In terms of reasons why people wouldn't love the state, there was that whole Matthew Shepard vicious hate crime thing (ironically, the play based on this incident, coupled with Brokeback Mountain, generally associate the pop culture contributions of one of the most conservative states in the country with homosexuality). But two murderers shouldn't malign the entire state, and Wyoming has plenty of gorgeous landscapes and, well, maybe nice people and such. The low count may just be a reflection of the low population, since most of these posts seem to come from residents and Wyoming is the most sparsely peopled state in the country.

Results by state:

Michigan: 1,530,000
New Jersey: 1,320,000
Iowa: 1,210,000
Texas: 1,170,000
California: 1,180,000
Virginia: 1,090,000
Connecticut: 1,060,000
North Carolina: 1,060,000
Illinois: 1,050,000
Pennsylvania: 1,020,000
Wisconsin: 990,000
Maryland: 989,000
Nevada: 977,000
Arizona: 954,000
Indiana: 940,000
New Hampshire: 933,000
New Mexico: 933,000
Georgia: 930,000
Massachusetts: 930,000
Florida: 928,000
Missouri: 915,000
New York: 899,000
West Virginia: 897,000
Louisiana: 881,000
Oklahoma: 878,000
Tennessee: 854,000
Idaho: 849,000
Ohio: 834,000
Maine: 816,000
South Carolina: 803,000
Delaware: 732,000
Alabama: 700,000
Nebraska: 685,000
Washington: 648,000
Minnesota: 627,000
Colorado: 621,000
Kansas: 609,000
South Dakota: 429,000
Montana: 341,000
Rhode Island: 248,000
Arkansas: 223,000
Hawaii: 196,000
Utah: 94,300
Oregon: 49,300
Alaska: 48,500
Vermont: 37,800
Kentucky: 28,300
Mississippi: 22,400

North Dakota: 17,100
Wyoming: 15,800

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Because I feel like posting something...

...that means I will, but something tells me it's not going to be that substantial. I'd like to keep the blog updated more, but in general it comes pretty low on my list of priorities behind (in no particular order) work, spending time with friends, reading, watching movies or TV, sleeping, exercising, writing about political scandals, and so on. It certainly doesn't help that my interest on a particular topic can vary, leaving half-assembled posts in the draft stage. At some point, I'll probably have my perspective ready on the Angry Video Game Nerd's "The Dragon in My Dreams," a third entry in "I Make Fun of State Quarters," and something on how the lamprey is a horrible creature.

For now, the big news is simply that I've got a new job with these fellas:

That is, I'm no longer a reporter with the Sun Journal's office in Norway, Maine and that's another thing I'll have to update in these blogs. After three-and-a-half years covering everything from local political spats to what it's like to jump out of a plane, I've moved on to Patch.com to run a community news site for New London, Connecticut. At some point, I may reflect on the varying ups and downs of the move. In general, I've already been pleased with the attractions of New London (despite the omnipresent whinging about the city in various forums, because if you believe the Internet everything and everywhere and everyone is the most awful aspect of life you'll ever come across). However, I've been especially saddened to leave behind friends. I've already had shifts in who I pal around with between high school and college and college and my first job, but I have a feeling I'll miss the Maine friends and attractions quite a bit.

Aside from that, well...I'm steadily cutting down on the list of movies I want to see and might have it completed by spring. Any recommendations are welcome.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Apex of Crazy: Terry Jones and the Quran of Fire

There is blood on Pastor Terry Jones' hands.

The last time I did an Apex of Crazy post was also about book burning, and of the Bible no less, so it seems only right to weigh in on this while it's still a current topic. I'm not even sure whether I can give Jones credit for canceling his planned event, to burn copies of the Quran at his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida on September 11. He's been weaseling around on the issue in recent days, calling it off when he claimed that he'd brokered a deal to stop the proposed Park51 Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City. He's now waffled because the imam he spoke with said he doesn't have the authority to make such a deal, and merely offered to open a channel of communication on that issue. Jones, of course, has whined that he was lied to, but who is more believable: the man who said he single-handedly resolved one of the most controversial issues of the day or the Florida imam who said he can't influence New York politics?

So now the event is merely "suspended," with the less principled half of Jones' church (you know, the one that hasn't deserted him over this issue) apparently waiting on his e-mail to say whether it's a go or not.

Even if the event does not occur, the uproar over the planned burning of the Islamic holy book has resulted in at least one death. A riot broke out in Afghanistan today on the eve of the planned burning, and one man was shot as protesters burned an American flag and hurled rocks at a NATO base. Word of Jones' idea spread from the local area to the region to the nation to the world. His church has become a world outreach center all right, but it has resulted only in condemnation and hatred from all quarters of the globe. It would be improper to say the rioters had no responsibility in the casualties that occurred in Afghanistan, but Jones' threat was the root cause of their actions.

The issue has a number of different nuances. People have complained of a double standard, not just in this matter but in general, regarding jokes and swipes that can be taken at Christianity but not at Islam. There's the argument that it's an issue of free speech, and that Jones has the right to burn the Quran, or the Bible or Harry Potter or any book he sees fit to torch. Despite the fact that I thoroughly denounce Jones and disagree with him wholly, I also find it rather malicious that he's been made the subject of a rumor suggesting that he was arrested for child pornography. Several media reports have been defensive in light of accusations that coverage of the pastor is fanning the flames of hatred, saying social media is a key factor in the story's spread; indeed, word would likely get out even if every news agency decided not to report the story, and the old cliche about not shooting the messenger certainly applies to the media here. I can only hope that a proposal this rash will dull the anti-Muslim sentiment in this country and blunt its frightening increase in intensity.

In the end, Jones is just a full-blown hypocrite. He's an opponent of the Ground Zero community center, but he wants to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001 by an act of hatred rather than remembrance. Any act of book burning is an attempt to strangle free speech, so he can hardly argue that point. And finally, he doesn't even have a permit to stage the burning, so it becomes a legal rather than a constitutional issue if it proceeds.

One wonders if Jones, about 13 years younger and sprightlier than hatemonger Fred Phelps, is simply looking to usurp the title of King Douche.

"If chance may have me king, why chance may crown me. Er, I mean, God hates you! Fag!"

Let's imagine what might have happened if Jones hadn't staged this whole charade. He wouldn't have gotten his 15 minutes of fame, but he would at least have his whole flock. And a man in Afghanistan would still be alive.

He may have respectfully asked people to remember 9/11, the people who died, and given a little spiritual guidance on the events of that day and what people can do to make the world a better place. That, in the end, is what religion is all about. It is people like Jones, like Phelps, like the men who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, like anyone who squeezes the words of any religious text and makes poison drip out, that turn religion from a guide into a weapon.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Double Feature Review: The Road and Rampage

I originally meant to do The Road alongside Thunderball, the James Bond movie I saw immediately after it, but I never got around to it. So I'm already bending the rules on this blog feature on my second offering, but I feel putting together two movies which have some similarity is another good way to do things. Rampage and The Road are quite different in their story and the level of appreciation I have for them, but both try to work with relatively simple plots.

The Road

Teaser: A father and son journey through a post-apocalyptic America, struggling to survive in a slowly dying world.

The bad news first: One of the few scenes which I thought didn't work involved the father and son seeing a couple of people getting chased by a group of cannibals in the near distance. In their efforts to get away, they end up having to worry more about several dead trees which choose that moment to topple over, nearly crushing them. I never saw The Happening, one of M. Night Shyamalan's largely panned offerings, but one of the major complaints involved characters fleeing from the wind. The danger of the completely decimated trees falling had already been shown, but when it's inserted as the primary fear over machete-wielding savages it comes off as kind of silly.

A little bit of a nitpick, I know, as is my next minor disappointment. There's something of a running theme in the book where the son is fretting over a little boy they encounter on the road whom the father refuses to take along to protect. It's a pretty important part in the book, and in the movie it's relegated to a single brief scene. The overall theme of the father's general distrust of the world around him and the son's penchant for charity is still apparent, but the scene where he sees the little boy is truncated enough that it seems out of place, perhaps even for viewers who haven't read the book.

The good stuff: Success isn't a done deal when you adapt a Pulitzer Prize winning novel to the screen, but there's a pretty good chance of it. The movie is pretty much a spot-on transfer from one medium to the other, hitting upon just about every emotion and image that Cormac McCarthy originally put to the page.

Stylistically, the film presents what may well be the most terrifying images of a post-apocalyptic world ever imagined. The wider shots of decaying cities have a distinct computer-generated residue on them, but the more intimate shots of abandoned malls and freeways are very well-done. A pall of smoke or stormy clouds hang over every scene, and the images are hammered home once one realizes that movie was mostly filmed at scenes of actual environmental disasters or amid urban blight. The most horrific descriptions in the book are omitted, probably in the interests of limiting the rating to R, but there's still plenty there to show that this isn't your happy-humans-binding kind of apocalypse.

The acting in the film is terrific. The film was shot on the cheap, and the characters are sparse enough that highly respected actors like Robert Redford and Charlize Theron are used for what are fairly minor roles. Most of the story rests of the shoulders of Viggo Mortenson and young actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, and both do a superb job. There are plenty of moments where the helplessness seems to overwhelm the two, and it's heartbreaking to watch. Yet it is balanced out, and more often than not exceeded, by the idea that the human spirit is a tough nut to crack.

Verdict: Best watched when you can have someone to comfort you, but definitely one to check out.


Teaser: A sick-of-it-all youth goes on a massive killing spree.

The bad news first: The director of this movie, Uwe Boll, has been widely panned as a hack who can't make a film to save his life. The Nostalgia Critic says it better, of course, in the beginning of his (and Spoony and Linkara's) review of Alone in the Dark. In general, his movies exist more as a target of MST3K style snark, even if Boll himself may consider them to be great works of art. That said, I checked out Rampage because reviewers generally said how surprised they were to like it in spite of the Boll credit.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in the movie is that there is virtually no reason to sympathize with the main character, shooter Bill Williamson. Rampage bears some similarity to Falling Down, which features a jaded ex-military contractor storming through Los Angeles and unconventionally airing his anger toward convenience store price gouging, construction delays, overpaid plastic surgeons, and a variety of other targets. He destroys a lot of property, but he limits the casualties to the self-defense killing of one neo-Nazi shopkeeper. The audience has plenty of sympathy for him, since he's taking on the multifarious annoyances in society without becoming a truly horrible person, so the line at the end where he's stunned to find out he's "the bad guy" has some resonance with the viewer as well.

By contrast, I can't really see any mentally sound person going ra-ra for Williamson. His friend posts a few YouTube rants about overpopulation and all of the problems it's causing, but Williamson himself doesn't seem to subscribe to this view. He's undoubtedly stressed to the breaking point over an unsatisfactory job and pressure from his parents to move out, but he seems just as motivated to kill dozens of people because the restaurants in the area have rude servers. So while I came away from Falling Down sympathizing to a certain degree with the semi-antagonist and still able to be amused by his rampage, I came away from Rampage thinking, "This guy is a monster" and "Cry me a river, Klebold."

I've never really subscribed to the idea that violence in movies, video games, and so on is a direct cause of massacres like the Columbine High School shooting. Still, the soundtrack and other parts of the movie seem to be playing up Williamson's actions rather than condemning them. Any person in their right mind would be repulsed by the rampage, but it's just a little disconcerting to watch a movie consisting mostly of mass murder and realize that it might well be a favorite in the DVD collection of the next deranged gunman to make the news.

The good stuff: Since Uwe Boll's reputation is failing everything related to movies forever, Rampage is at least properly assembled. Most of the actors do a good job, and the dialogue comes off naturally as well. In terms of eliciting a strong reaction, you can't get a much stronger reaction than the loathing Williamson elicits. The ending is also rather unexpected.

Verdict: It's odd that in his slow improvement, Boll has gone from making easily panned movies to more imperfect but not altogether atrocious movies. There are much more palatable films if you're looking for a straight action flick, however, and rather more humane dramas such as Elephant if you want something specifically related to a shooting spree.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Top 5 Things I Wish I Could Do More

As I've said before, I probably spend too much time in front of the TV (even if a good portion of my former list has wrapped up in one way or another). Then there's the time I spend playing video games, or surfing the Internet, or writing blog entries like this, or researching political scandals...it leaves a bit of endangered time for reading, cooking, chores, and so on.

In general, my work schedule is enough to keep me busy but leaves enough free time that I'm not burned out. Of course, I'm not far off from the glory days of college when between a few hours of classes, a couple hours of practicing for a sports team, and some more time for studying, the vast majority of the day was still mine. So this list is just a few things I would try to do if the Earth's rotation slowed enough to grant everyone a few more hours each day. It's all within my capability, though...otherwise I'd clearly advocate such things as "Win the lottery" and "End all problems on Earth."

5. Listen to and watch public broadcasting

A proclamation and...I don't know, some kind of sea anemone?

"Wait a minute, you idiot!" the few people who might actually be reading this are saying. "Weren't you just complaining about how you spend too much time in front of the TV and would try to do different things if you had more time?" Well, yes. So this falls more on the radio end. There are plenty of shows on public radio which I love, and I generally only catch snippets of them while I'm on the road during the afternoon. I'm still able to catch good portions of Wait Wait Don't Tell Me and Prairie Home Companion, but to some degree it's the experience of listening to them that I miss. Instead of streaming online, it's nice to hear it live with friends or family and an evening drink. Of course, many Saturdays I'm spending with friends, so that's nice too.

I also have the nagging thought that I should watch more highbrow public television instead of the still somewhat highbrow network and cable stuff. I always liked Nova, which airs on Tuesday when I'm enjoying a regularly scheduled hangout with friends. And then there's the Red Green Show and Monty Python, both of which sadly disappeared from MPBN but may have returned...including Red Green on Tuesday, again.

This is still a really low priority in general. I do get a healthy dosage of public broadcasting, and there's always Nova on Hulu if I really want to get serious about the TV aspect.

4. Cook

The Maine-Sweden War.

Every now and then I put my mind to cooking a meal and I whip up something really nice. It's about that time of year when I can finally make a decent batch of corn chowder, and I've been known to make a few chicken dishes, stir fry, baked ziti, and other things that actually take time and effort but give a bountiful reward in taste and leftovers.

These are generally the only things I make when I cook, though. I've gotten away from the frozen dinners I got as a stopgap in my later college days, but my dinners still involve a good deal of Hamburger (or Chicken) Helper and frozen pizza.

Part of this probably has something to do with the split days I usually work a couple of times per week. It might be a little hard to prepare and devour all those balsamic drippings when I need to leave to attend a selectmen's meeting.

3. Give to charity

"It's so many, asking so much. After awhile, you just tune them out."

I do manage to get some contributions out. I'll weather the once-every-several-months calls from my alma mater and send some cash their way once I get an extra biweekly paycheck. I give to food pantries once in awhile, or attend events that benefit charitable organizations. There are plenty of good causes, from the Red Cross on down to the the Girl Scouts. I just have to take another look at my finances and plan a few things out, I guess.

2. Athletic activity and adventurous outings

This looks like fun, right?

During high school and college, I usually had a couple of hours dedicated to either cross-country running, cross-country skiing, or track and field. It's more difficult to do that with a full-time job. Oh, and because some bum stole my bike in the middle of a snowstorm earlier this year. And because my cross-country ski activities were formerly subsidized by the schools, who were nice enough to provide the wax and other materials to keep the skis in tip-top shape.

I'm right smack in the middle of my recommended BMI, so I'm still doing OK. I get out semi-regularly for a run or decent hike. Ideally, I guess I'd be living a pleasant retired life at the foot of a mountain with great hiking trails and on a road with wide bike lanes, all within an easy distance of a renowned cross-country ski area. That will have to wait another few decades, though, since I didn't go into a grossly overpaid sport that allows me to possibly retire in my 20s.

1. Creative expression

Guess who?

While my job is about writing, and sometimes involves a good deal of creativity, it's often within a rigid set of guidelines to ensure accuracy and prevent bias. So while I can have a lot of free reign when doing articles on a skydiving experience or other odd things, the account of a local municipal meeting doesn't exactly count as creative writing. I haven't written a fictional piece in a good long time, and this blog basically allows a bit of an outlet on a lot of random topics. The political scandal blog is also fact-based, but I have a lot of fun writing it. That involves a ton of research, so I suppose more time and money and such would be nice to allow more in-depth research in archives, historic sites, etc.

The Summer Glau drawing above is something I did one night last year, and it was the first piece of artwork in years. It helped me to start sketching again, but in general I do it in bits and pieces when I get some spare time. Plus I always do them from photos, and I have a bunch of art supplies which have been untouched since a college art course. So it would be nice to get back into that side of things.

At any rate, the Bachelorette (a high school friend) endorsed one of my drawings before she was the Bachelorette, so that's cool.