Operation Star-Wars-make-saga-more-good

Soon after the release of Star Wars: Episode III: Attack of: The Phantom Sith Clones, or whatever the hell it was called, when the Star Wars “saga” was finally all wrapped up, my sister Suzanne e-mailed me to say she was “relieved” to have enjoyed it. (The prior two films were total disasters, of course.)

I disagreed with her and wrote:

So I guess it didn’t bother you that

  • None of the characters had any chemistry;
  • All of the action scenes were jerkily edited and hard to follow;
  • Threepio’s memory is cavalierly erased for no good reason other than that the story’s continuity required it, though wiping out a main character’s personality is an act of unspeakable violence — and Artoo’s memory isn’t wiped, nor does Artoo grieve for the impending loss of his friend;
  • Anakin’s turn to the dark side is completely unmotivated;
  • Padme does nothing during the whole movie except look worried and then inexplicably die;
  • Yoda pointlessly mentions to Obi-Wan that he’ll be able to “commune” with Qui-Gon;
  • The Jedi were so easily hoodwinked;
  • Obi-Wan never conveys Padme’s dying utterance to Luke or Leia;
  • Palpatine dispatches three Jedi masters in under a minute;
  • Obi-Wan walks away from Anakin when he’s dying in agony;
  • Anakin and Obi-Wan had a pat reconciliation just before it all turns to shit;
  • The Death Star takes about twenty years to construct (long enough for Luke to grow up and destroy it soon after it becomes operational), but the Death Star II comes together in no time at all;
  • Yoda, battling Palpatine, knowing the stakes, and holding his own, turns tail and runs from the one good shot at him he’s ever likely to get;
  • We still don’t know what the heck midichlorians are or why Anakin’s got so many of them;
  • By an amazing coincidence, of the millions of Wookiees on Kashyyk, one of Yoda’s liaisons there was Chewbacca;
  • Obi-Wan “hides” the infant Luke in the one place in the whole galaxy Darth Vader is most likely to look for him;
  • But Vader doesn’t!; and
  • The prophecy is never explained.

It wasn’t all bad. Here are the things that were good:

  • The glimpse of Farscape‘s Wayne Pygram (“Scorpius”) as a young Tarkin helping to oversee the construction of the Death Star (but why no dialogue??);
  • The suitably operatic irony (artlessly executed) that Anakin’s desire to protect Padme is what killed her;
  • Fragments of the philosophy-of-the-Force scenes with Palpatine;
  • The tug-of-war for Anakin’s loyalties (again, artlessly executed);
  • General Grievous: the coughing, wheezing ‘droid who’s a tiny fraction organic.

In a later message I sent her my prescription for how the saga might have been improved.

  • Lose the midichlorians, for gosh sakes.
  • Lose Anakin’s mother. Anakin’s an orphan of uncertain provenance.
  • Lose Qui-Gon. Obi-Wan is the one who discovers Anakin and takes him under his wing.
  • Leia’s not Luke’s sister. What’s the point? Furthermore, it destroys the tension of the Luke-Leia-Han triangle.
  • Keep the prophecy, but explain it better and make it more mysterious. The prophecy describes a prodigy in the Force who will destroy the Sith. The prophecy seems to point to Anakin but no one can be really sure. Yet Obi-Wan believes fervently (just as Morpheus believes in Neo in The Matrix). Obi-Wan’s pride at discovering and training this special boy is part of both men’s downfall.
  • Lose the sullen brooding angsty teen angle. It does not suffice to explain Anakin’s turn to the dark side anyway, and is just annoying.
  • Do make an issue of the prophecy, and what Anakin’s knowledge of it does to him. It places unusual pressure on him, and somehow or another this is what leads him to the dark side. This can become the through-line of the whole saga: knowing the future and trying to change it is a sure way to fuck it up. Just look at what happens to Padme.
  • Make the Jedi less gabby and more heraldic, along the lines of the Knights of the Round Table. Give them a charismatic king- like leader to whom they can be loyal. Lose the Galactic Senate and the Republic’s so-called democracy.
  • Make Anakin become the favorite of this king-like leader. The Jedi are mindful of the danger that Anakin poses, but the king’s love blinds him and he blocks the precautions the Jedi wish to take. In the end, when the Jedi are betrayed, they’re not taken by surprise; they know it’s coming. But their loyalty to the king prevents them from doing anything about it, even when it means their own annihilation.
  • For a touch of operatic cliche, make Palpatine the jealous younger brother of the king. He recognizes the opportunity presented by the king’s love for Anakin, and corrupts Anakin.
  • Palpatine interprets Anakin’s premonitions of Padme’s death and cultivates his fear. Meanwhile, he also plays on Anakin’s sense of inadequacy that is the result of the prophecy. Anakin doesn’t feel like the super Jedi he’s supposed to be and worries that he won’t measure up when push comes to shove. This makes Palpatine’s corrupt teachings more attractive to him; he believes it’ll give him the edge he needs to live up to the prophecy.
  • There needs to be many more Jedi, including more who survive the betrayal. By surviving, they’ve lost their honor and have become ronin. After the fall of the Republic, these ronin don’t merely hide; they work behind the scenes to subvert the Empire and are connected with the formation of the Rebellion.
  • The ronin consider Luke valuable mainly for symbolic purposes, and intend to use him politically in some way when he comes of age. To everyone’s surprise, though, Luke is as much a prodigy in the Force as his father was, and forges his own destiny in defiance of the ronins’ plans.
  • More should be made of Darth Vader’s ever-present desire to overthrow the Emperor. This desire is endlessly frustrated or delayed. Of course the Emperor knows all about Vader’s ambitions and is a skilled-enough manipulator to always turn Vader’s plans against him. In the end, Vader is something of a whipped dog, and this contributes to his betrayal of the Emperor (which destroys the Sith and fulfills the prophecy).
  • Vader’s redemption requires more than just watching Luke suffer at the Emperor’s hands. Instead, it requires Vader recognizing in Luke a parallel with his own fall (as he’s now come to regard his turn to the dark side). As Luke is about to make a similar disastrous mistake to one that Vader himself once made, a paternal instinct takes over. Vader is not strong enough to defeat the Emperor by himself, even with the element of surprise; but he and Luke fighting side-by-side bring about the Emperor’s death. It probably requires Vader sacrificing himself to make the final kill.
  • After Luke’s triumph, the ronin pledge their fealty to him and proclaim him the new king. But (in a parallel with George Washington) Luke refuses the title and places Leia in charge of something new: a truly democratic government.

All of this is orthogonal to my desire to remake the original Star Wars. And none of it is as good as Keith Martin’s reinterpretation.

By now my claims of being a “recovering” Star Wars nerd may be starting to ring a little hollow. But the messages I quoted above were written in 2005, when the pain of the prequels was still raw. That faded into irrelevancy in no time. And although it seems I keep coming back to Star Wars, in fact I was just browsing through my old mail to look for something interesting to put on the blog today because I didn’t have the time to write something new.

Prescription from the happy hippie family

As a fundraising gimmick, Jonah’s preschool sells bricks that you can have inscribed with a brief sentiment, your family’s name, etc., and that are then set into the pavement in front of the school. Like good soldiers we bought a brick a couple of weeks ago with the names of both kids (Archer will be attending this preschool in the fall), but as the deadline for buying bricks drew near, we realized, why not be great soldiers and buy an additional brick?

Having dispensed with our need for familial self-memorialization (say that ten times fast!) we were free to consider witty or inspirational inscriptions. I liked Andrea’s first suggestion: “SMILE,” which had the virtues of extreme simplicity and near-infallibility (i.e., it would make people smile). She liked my suggestion that we use our family motto, “Always do everything” (Latin: Semper fac omnia — thanks, Vicky). We also considered the phrase, “Know the what / Understand the why,” which popped into my head the other day as a kind of update of Benjamin Franklin’s saying, “What signifies knowing the names if you know not the nature of things?”

In the end we chose “Make someone smile” as a more broadly prescriptive variant of Andrea’s original idea — it should make the reader smile and make the reader make someone else smile too.

What’s the problem?

In Open Water, a young couple is accidentally stranded afloat in the middle of the ocean when their diving-tour boat fails to account for their return and leaves the dive site without them. There is nothing in sight but water from horizon to horizon. After a while, night falls. The sharks begin circling. What will they do? What would you do?

Though opinions are divided, I thought the film was outstanding — deeply unsettling and very real. The stranded couple tried everything I thought of to try and cycled through every emotion I imagined it was possible to have. It has a thought-provoking ending that is guaranteed to stay with you — it affected my mood for days. It was based on a true story. And they used real sharks — take that, Steven Spielberg!

In 2003, Open Water was the breakout success story of various indie film festivals. It was inevitable that someone would try to cash in by making a sequel, and now Open Water 2: Adrift has been released direct to video (in the US). In this one, also based on a true story, all the passengers on a pleasure yacht jump into the water — and none of them has thought to lower the dive ladder. It proves impossible to climb back aboard the boat. No one is wearing flotation gear. And a helpless baby is still aboard the yacht! What will they do? What would you do?

Easy. Everyone strips off their swimwear, knotting it all together to make a rope. Someone throws it across a narrow part of the yacht’s prow, holding on to one end; everyone else catches it on the other side; and then they all hoist the first person up on board to lower the dive ladder. Rope’s not long enough to pass clear across the yacht? (Swimwear can be pretty skimpy in horror movies.) It should still be possible for someone to hook one end onto one of the yacht’s cleats with a lucky toss and pull him or herself up. What’s the problem?

Yes, they’d end up all back aboard the yacht naked and embarrassed. I’m guessing that’s not what happens in the film. Doesn’t make much of a horror movie, I suppose. …Unless they are so embarrassed that they make a pact never to speak of the day’s events to anyone — until someone starts hunting them down and slaughtering them one by one in gruesome ways that recall the secret they’re keeping. I’d call it I Know What You Stupidly Forgot To Do Last Summer.

Defeat by praise

The next time you are getting beaten at a game of skill such as golf or pool or bowling, observe your opponent lining up a shot as if in admiration; then after he or she is done, remark on a minute but odd detail you observed (or merely claim to have observed). For instance, “I noticed that every time you are about to take a swing, your nostrils flare twice.” That will be the end of your opponent’s good game.

This technique was used against me many years ago by my mother during a game of shuffleboard. I couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. It was me and my dad versus her and my sister, and we were creaming them — mainly because of my totally unexpected deadly accuracy. Then came the point where she told me, “I noticed that when you’re lining up a shot, your eyes click back and forth along the shuffleboard court in discrete little steps, like a robot.” And that was it for my deadly accuracy. I was completely self-conscious for the rest of that and every subsequent shuffleboard game. Not necessarily because I cared how my eyes looked when I was playing, but because I began actively trying to replicate the proper eye motion that had yielded such good results. Of course it couldn’t be replicated consciously, and trying to do so only made me sure I was doing it wrong, which wrecked my confidence and hence my ability (since confidence is 90% of ability). And of course trying not to do it consciously was hopeless. (“Don’t think of a pink elephant!”)

The effect of my mom’s comment was so immediate and so apparent that she quickly apologized and has re-apologized several times over the decades. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe that it really was unintended. But if she really had meant to negate our team advantage and even the odds, she could not have been more surgically precise about it.

Aboriginal self-abnegation

In the months preceding my Bar Mitzvah I became determined that, when the day arrived, my skin should be absolutely clear and blemish-free, despite then being in the throes of pubescent acne. To achieve this goal I swore off chocolate and deep-fried food cold-turkey. For something like two or three months I upheld this prohibition (except for one time when I thoughtlessly accepted a few proffered potato chips, then agonized over them for the next several days). The result: it worked! On the day of my Bar Mitzvah my skin positively glowed.

That was the first of a handful of occasions on which I have rigorously denied something to myself pending the attainment of some goal. Another memorable instance was “No sushi until my startup makes some money.” (That one was a collective vow by all the founders of Zanshin. We broke the vow after the first couple of years for the occasion of our first important business meeting with a prospective partner. Man, that sushi tasted good.) The success of these efforts has hinged on my making a public declaration of them.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. My weight-loss program has stalled despite having added some exercise into the mix. I am oscillating around the 173-pound mark, but my daily goal is now almost down to 168. To get back on track, I am now publicly declaring that I will eat no more pasta until I break 170. (Why pasta? Well, I eat a lot of it. And subjectively speaking, the worst backsliding on my weight graph always seems to occur the morning after a pasta meal.)

Let’s give that a few days and see if it produces any results. If it doesn’t, I’ll add more foods to the prohibited list.

Tom Swifties

For several years, my friend Steve and I have been making one another groan with our “Tom Swifties,” puns with a distinctive form that I won’t bother to explain; you’ll get the drift pretty quickly from the numerous examples below.

Most of these are from our most fertile period during the mid- to late-nineties. I no longer remember which ones I wrote and which ones he wrote. Occasionally one or the other of us will still come up with a new one and mail it to the other under the subject heading, “Do not read.”

  • “A thousand dollars!” Tom said grandly.
  • “I’ll make coffee,” Tom said perkily.
  • “I’m going to the bathroom,” Tom said peevishly.
  • “Where’s my dog?” Tom said uncannily.
  • “I just came back from Kansas,” Tom explained.
  • “I’m a plumber,” Tom piped in.
  • “Give me another hit off that roach,” Tom said dubiously.
  • “You turkeys,” Tom groused.
  • “This thesis begins well,” Tom said abstractly.
  • “I almost got the bronze,” Tom held forth.
  • “I’m a metal worker specializing in phrenology,” Tom forged ahead.
  • “With with with with,” Tom said forthwith.
  • “Turn right,” Tom said adroitly.
  • “Don’t erase it this time,” Tom remarked.
  • “I lost them in the war,” Tom said defeatedly.
  • “And over here is the tomb of Elmer Fudd,” Tom quipped.
  • “It was the year that I almost won the election,” Tom recounted.
  • “Here!” Tom said presently.
  • “I’m celibate,” Tom said inscrutably.
  • “That dragon almost got me,” Tom said under his breath.
  • “‘Ere, I done the bleedin’ lawn,” Tom emoted.
  • “I belong,” Tom said at length.
  • “I’m done cooking,” Tom fired off.
  • “I’ll not stand for it!” Tom lied.
  • “This is my hotel,” Tom intended to say.
  • “I’m the keystone of this operation,” Tom said archly.
  • “Have more wine,” Tom replied.
  • “I’m getting another lawyer,” Tom retorted.
  • “All right, I was a prostitute,” Tom exhorted.
  • “How gauche,” Tom said, and left.
  • “You have to use caulk. Caulk!” Tom crowed.
  • “I can’t stop this horse,” Tom said woefully.
  • “I am too,” Tom said evenly.
  • “I sprained my ankle during the race,” Tom finished lamely.
  • “But let me tell you about myself,” Tom resumed.
  • “I love shaving insects,” Tom blathered.
  • “You look good in mink,” Tom inferred.
  • “This hive’s empty,” Tom believed.
  • “A-yup, that’s a donkey alright,” Tom assured.
  • “Draw,” Tom drawled.
  • “I better walk in front,” Tom decided.
  • “I think it’s in the closet,” Tom came out with gaily.
  • “He stopped breathing,” Tom said, exasperated.
  • “It’s either a big puddle or a small lake,” Tom said ponderously.
  • “You thieving knave,” Tom said tartly.
  • “Goodness!” Tom said graciously.
  • “The power went out!” said Tom, delighted.
  • “22/7 is close enough,” Tom rationalized.
  • “Boy, it sure is hot these days,” Tom summarized.
  • “Crooked, off-center, and inclined,” Tom listed.
  • “Thar she blows!” Tom wailed.
  • “You call it,” Tom said flippantly.
  • “I didn’t want to be in their rotten club anyway,” Tom said, dismembered.
  • “Does your society really consist of soldiers, workers, and a queen?” Tom said askance.
  • “It’s exactly twelve ounces of soda,” Tom fantasized.
  • “Boy, that tree’s bent in a complete circle,” Tom opined.
  • “I enjoyed that French bread,” Tom said painfully.
  • “Where’s the cat box?” Tom said literally.
  • “Again,” Tom said again.
  • “It’s somewhere in South America,” Tom perused.
  • “Nice hair,” Tom brayed.
  • “This is mine,” Tom disclaimed.
  • “No, not San Francisco, I meant that other city down south,” Tom lamented.
  • “A booby-trap!” Tom tittered.
  • “Look at all those politicians,” Tom said by convention.
  • “Dammit,” Tom stonewalled.
  • “You fellas are all expert shots,” Tom said with acumen.
  • “I am a nun,” Tom said out of habit.
  • “Nice slacks,” Tom panted.
  • “I work in bog repair,” Tom repeated.
  • “Get ready to go really fast!” Tom presumed.
  • “I have to unfreeze this steak,” Tom thought.
  • “Him,” Tom pronounced.
  • “I can see up your skirt,” Tom misunderstood.
  • “Get lost,” Tom pointed out.
  • “There’s my street,” Tom said ruefully.
  • “I’m moved,” Tom translated.
  • “I think I’m developing cataracts,” Tom said with denial.
  • “Who let the fire go out!” Tom bellowed.

And then there’s this very dated one:

  • “I approve of our new vice president,” Tom said allegorically.

(Maybe soon we can rewrite it to say “I approve of our new president.”)

To Andrea

A love poem for my wife, in Shakespearean sonnet form.

An anniversary comes once a year
But we prefer to celebrate our love
More often than those other days appear
It’s menseversaries that I speak of

One menseversary each year bestrides
A day already all about sweethearts
It’s Valentine’s and monthly fête besides
And so we need a name that has both parts

So: “Valentersary”? No, that’s no good
For where’s the “mense” in that made-up word?
And “mensevalentine,” it’s understood
Omits the “versary,” which must be heard

But “mensevalentersariney” has
Precision and colloquial pizzazz

OK, so it’s long on cleverness and short on romance. But she knew what she was getting into when she married me.

Hershey bar(f)

[Continuing an unintended run of anecdotes from the 90’s.]

In the spring of 1992, Alex the dog (who was then just four years old) and I were newly transplanted to California, where I’d moved for my first real job in the private-sector, writing software at an e-mail startup called Z-Code. Andrea had not yet followed us from Pittsburgh. To help us get settled, Z-Code’s founder, Dan, let me and Alex live with him for a couple of months.

One afternoon I came home to find the shredded remains of a Hershey’s “Big Block” chocolate bar wrapper on the floor. It had been on a table and Alex had obviously reached up and devoured it.

I knew that chocolate is poison to dogs. I grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked up the local veterinary emergency number. They told me that I needed to induce vomiting. To do so, I needed a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a plastic syringe to squirt the stuff into Alex’s mouth a bit at a time.

A big drug store was three long blocks away. I ran. The day was quite hot, and by the time I got back to Dan’s house, panting, gasping, and sweating, I was ready to vomit.

There was Alex, looking perfectly happy, completely unsuspecting of what was about to happen to her. I took her onto the back deck with the peroxide and the syringe, sat her down, and squirted some into her mouth. She obviously hated it. When I came near her for another squirt she tried to slink away and I had to grab her in a headlock. Then again. And again. She seemed no nearer vomiting (or dying from chocolate, for that matter), but she was increasingly unhappy about the situation. For my part, I was completely miserable: torturing my sweet pup under the blazing sun, already wiped out from my dash to and from the store, sweat pouring off me, cursing because Alex won’t stay put. I took a break from feeding peroxide to Alex and we retreated to opposite corners like prize fighters. I waited for any signs of imminent vomiting but there were none, so I picked up the syringe again and resumed.

Twenty long, hot minutes later Alex’s face finally began screwing up in the familiar grimace that signals an upcoming barf — but she was still not quite there yet. I didn’t have the heart to keep pouring that stuff down her throat — I hadn’t for a long time by this point — but I forced myself to continue on the purely intellectual knowledge that responsible dog ownership required me to. (Any emotional sense of alarm I initially felt was long gone.)

Finally Alex backed away from me; her sides heaved a few times; she pointed her mouth at the ground; and out it came. Not much, and I saw no sign of chocolate in it, but I had no idea whether I should. I didn’t know if more vomiting was to follow, so we had to wait outside, the late-morning heat making everything worse. One thing was certain, I decided: whether or not Alex threw up more, I was done with the peroxide. I went inside for a big glass of water, brought it out, and drizzled it over Alex. She seemed grateful.

After a while she recovered. We both went back inside and cooled off. I hung out with her and made sure she knew I still loved her. That afternoon, by way of an apology, I took her for her first-ever visit to a dog park, the then-brand-new, trailblazing Remington Dog Park in Sausalito.