Archive for May 2013
I laced up my running shoes 17 years ago after having been away from running for five years. I needed to do it–I had put on considerable weight my first year teaching, and I needed some kind of physical activity that was inexpensive and that I enjoyed doing. Why not run again? I’d gotten a lot out of it in high school. It builds mental and physical resilience, I can do it by myself, and it’s not expensive aside from the shoes.
What I’d lost in the down time, though, was stamina and strength. My goal was to run for 20 minutes without stopping. It took most of the summer of 1996 to get there. The summer was little more than a running tour of the neighborhoods of Kenosha, WI with a stopwatch around my neck. My calves ached so bad that more often than not they were the reason I stopped running. But I made it. By the middle of August, I could bust out a few miles. Over the course of the next two years, I settled on 3 miles, which was equivalent to a 5K. I had a routine: run Wednesday night and Friday night, and once on the weekends. It fit my teaching schedule well enough and kept me in shape.
I never strayed from the 5K form. It was ideal to keep me in shape, it didn’t take too long, and I frequently busted one out in the morning before school, even in the dead of winter. I’ve literally run a 5K almost 2000 times. But I got to thinking last summer while in despair about running (a funk from which I eventually emerged) that maybe it was time for me to go further and do it slower, despite my physical limitations and how longer runs would impact my schedule. Besides, I should probably get my mind off of trying to get faster–it wasn’t doing me much good, especially considering that I’ve never been fast. Why not give longer distances a go and see where it goes?
So I did. I kicked up to a 10K. My first attempt was in late afternoon 10 days ago, and it lasted until I got to mile 5, by which time I was plain pooped. Only slightly daunted at my first setback, I set out last Thursday in the cold and dim light of early morning well before school started and thought I’d see what would happen. I merged two 5K courses I have around my neighborhood, thinking that it would be easy enough to drop off and return home quickly if I got tired. I have of course been running much slower since attacking 6.2 miles at my 3.1 mile pace would probably kill me. Nonetheless, when I finished the first half, a not unfamiliar feeling of dread coursed through my veins as I realized that I still had a long way to go.
I was heartened by recalling the words of friends who have told me they don’t run 5K anymore because it only feels like a warm-up; they don’t feel like they do their best running until the 4th or 5th or 6th mile (or the 10th mile if you’re Bo Ledman or Jason Rush). What was less than heartening, though, was the rain that started to pelt me around mile four. By mile five, my wristbands were wiping far more rain than sweat from my forehead, and my t-shirt was plastered to my chest. There was cold wetness from my waist to my shoulders that was far from comfortable. Puddles had formed along my route, and I was sloshing through them until I finally made it back home.
I felt okay, though. Runner’s High hit me faster than the aforementioned dread, and as such I felt euphoric and my cognitive processes jumped into a zone that is more common to me after I’ve been writing intensely. I got to thinking that if I were writing the story of what had just happened, I would have used the rainstorm as a symbolic baptism for my character to enter into a new life. And then I smashed the wall between writer and runner in my mind and decided that I just experienced a baptism into a new life.
I cranked out another 10K yesterday morning and felt just as good as I had last week. My best optimism is guarded optimism, though, so I know it’s early and I’m getting older. My calves throb after three miles, there is a dull ache in my knees after four miles, and my back is stiff after five miles. Part of what is keeping me going, though, is the grittiness of surviving this new distance. It’s the same grittiness and drive I was experiencing back in 1996 when I was plodding out a mere twenty minutes.
But I know, too, that a lot of these aches and pains have to do with re-seasoning myself to cover this new distance, so my body might soon adjust. Or maybe not so soon–it’s been 23 years since I ran this far. But I’m monitoring my recovery to see if this is viable for me. I certainly feel like I’m almost 43 years old when I finish, and my legs are wet spaghetti, but otherwise I’m bouncing back as quickly as can be expected.
So maybe I’m a 10K-er and don’t know it. I have a lot of time to find out this summer.
I got an email from an editor at The New Yorker two weeks ago telling me that I was a finalist for their popular Cartoon Caption Contest. It’s something they’ve run since 2005; they are nearing 400 contests in toto; they’ve even published a book full of contest winners. It’s a simple setup: They post an uncaptioned cartoon each week, and leave it up to readers to submit possible captions. Three finalists are selected, and readers vote for a winner who is announced a few weeks later. The New Yorker estimates that 5000 entries are made each week among its million or so subscribers.
I notified a small number of people about my status as a finalist and encouraged them to vote for me. It turns out my entry is the winner for contest #377:
What I didn’t reckon was how dedicated some people are to winning the contest. None other than Roger Ebert was addicted to the contest, and it was on his bucket list to win it. He finally did in 2011 after 107 attempts (he tried 93 times subsequent to that, to no avail). Given his recent death, The New Yorker posted the best of his entries, including his winner.
I started to poke around as a curious writer is wont to do, and found an article in Slate from a few years back posted by a winner who makes recommendations about how to win. His bent is to use a “theory of mind” caption that forces readers to project intents or beliefs into characters in the tableau. Spark the right intent or belief given the circumstances of the cartoon, keep your fingers crossed that enough other people share a sense of irony that is as individual to you as your fingerprints, and you might have some good laughs on your hands. By his calculus, 94% of winning entries operate on the “theory of mind.” The other 6%? Pretty much clever puns. I guess my caption fits into “theory of mind,” though I’d really have to think more about it. I guess I’m surprised since I spend an absurd amount of time in my daily life creating horrible puns (which is why my friends are constantly punching me).
Time ran an article online in which a 3-time winner is interviewed. One of his recommendations is to try to incorporate everything that is happening in the cartoon. That would explain some of the other entries for contest #377. One of the other finalists quipped, “Did you just order a hundred cheese pizzas?” There were plenty of other rejects that riffed on that–“Just entertain him, I’m going to try to figure out how to place a call to Hamelin!”, “Pest control? I’m calling in a SWAT team.”, and “Mr. Giganto Rat, you have a call.” [seriously… WTF?]–all of which in some way incorporate the phone the woman is holding. I would caution people not to over-think things–I didn’t even see the phone until I started to read the rejected punchlines and got to wondering why so many of them made phone references.
Here’s how it unfolded for me. I’ve only entered 6 times, and not at all for a year, because if something doesn’t hit me in the moment when I first view the cartoon, I give up. If something hits me, which for the most part has happened when I’m lying in bed reading the magazine before I go to sleep, I’ll scratch out the line in a tiny journal I keep on my nightstand. Then I’ll try to refine the line within the next day–I want to make it as short as possible because, after all, brevity is the soul of wit. Maybe the drafting process will help me uncover or create a pun, or something higher up on the hierarchy of humor, but maybe not. When I flipped right to the caption contest a few weeks ago, a thought flashed in my mind. I immediately thought about how I’d just bought a brand-new bedside journal (don’t ask… my journal habits are freakish), so why not scratch something out in that new journal so I’ve at least used the dang thing? My first crack was an inference about the rat race; my second was a further attempt at the same. I can’t remember how I got to my third line, which reads: “I think we need to upgrade…” But then it hit me. There’s an excellent line from the film Jaws: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Bingo! I had what I thought to be a clever riff on a classic movie quote.
I didn’t even have to get out of bed. I flipped over to the internet on my Nook, got on The New Yorker website, typed my entry, and went to sleep.
So what do I get besides my fifteen minutes of fame? A framed copy of the cartoon, signed by the author. It’s billed as a prize worth about $250. I also get to live with this thought: Of all the ways in which I’ve struggled to publish the tens of thousands of words I’ve written over the last decade, it only took six words to reach the biggest audience I’ve ever had.
I’ll take that.
Note: Adam Vollmers is a long-time friend and one of the original followers of The Seeker. When I check blog stats, his name is always near the top of those who frequently comment. Today, he takes another turn at generating content as it relates to film and one of his favorite past times–comic books.
It was almost a year ago that I blasted Marvel’s The Avengers on these pages. Adam was quick to jump to defending the film and has since engaged me in several conversations about the Marvel universe. His encyclopedic knowledge of all things Marvel, and comics in general, make him a trusted authority. My dislike of The Avengers is so intense that it has put me off superhero movies for at least the foreseeable future. Now, a day into the Iron Man 3 release, is a good time to post what Adam wrote to me a few weeks back regarding what he sees as the future of the Marvel film franchise. It will take an extraordinary set of circumstances for me to see Iron Man 3, or any future Marvel film, but in that film is a frequent topic of discussion herein, it’s worth time time and effort to post Adam’s thoughts.
Not coincidentally, Cracked.com posted an article last week about how superhero movies are a bubble that will soon burst. They bring up some excellent points, and the article is probably worth the time to fans of superhero movies and anybody who is interested in following Hollywood trends (especially the trends that show how Hollywood continually reaps its own destruction because of rampant greed, too much money, and over-inflated egos). Nonetheless, here’s Adam’s conjecture about the next few years in the Marvel universe of films. ~ Jeff
Iron Man 3 is kicking off the next round of Marvel movies. Regardless of your feelings on the movie itself, what Disney is attempting to do should prove interesting. Marvel, as a comic book company, is in the business of writing serial stories. They’re not writing novels, they’re not writing masterpieces of fiction that will stand the test of time, although there are exceptions. They are writing soap operas–largely for the young, male audience, but soap operas nonetheless. It doesn’t matter if the story is largely the same, it doesn’t matter if the villain is largely the same, what matters is continuing to do the things that work to keep their audience happy.
As someone who grew up reading comic books, particularly Marvel, one of my biggest issues with movies such as the original Batman (1989) was that they were designed to be one-offs. They were written with a more realistic tone where the secret identity is truly difficult to keep from the villain, which led to the natural conclusion that if the hero and family / companions were going to survive, the villain must be dispatched. In each of the movies, the villain died. It made for decent movies by providing more drama, but it eliminated the possibility of the serial nature of reusing the villain or building up a narrative.
Flash forward to the current Disney / Marvel properties, starting with Iron Man, wherein they started an overriding story arc. Each character–Iron Man, the rebooted Hulk, Thor, and Captain America–had his own “adventure;” however, each is also being presented as part of a larger system. Each movie contained hints as well as an ending that pushed the arc towards its next step, culminating in The Avengers. Iron Man 3 restarts that arc. As has been widely covered, Thor 2 and Captain America 2 are also slated to come out, obviously continuing this second arc.
What has been far less widely reported is the additional story lines that will feed into the arc. Maybe the information simply isn’t being picked up by reporters who aren’t aware of the back story. While many liberties have been taken to make the characters and situations work in the movie format and bring viewers who are not familiar with the characters into the loop quickly, the backgrounds have remained consistent with the original backgrounds of the characters. The villains are the correct villains for the heroes, the motivations are correct, the interactions, serious as well as amusing, have been captured in a way that reflects the source material. It was clear to me when I saw The Avengers that director Joss Whedon is a fan of comic books. The movie had the correct “feel” for the source material. This was a concern from the fans, and most of us were not disappointed.
The point is that at the end of The Avengers, there was a cameo by the next major villain: Thanos. Thanos was originally seen in the Iron Man comic book series with additional appearances in a number of comics, but he is not considered an Iron Man villain. Personally, I was wondering how they were going to introduce him, as I felt they would have to introduce him much like they introduced Loki, which means through Thor and the cosmic cube through Captain America. Have you heard of The Guardians of the Galaxy? If not, you will. They are fairly minor characters, and to be honest, I was stunned that a movie is going to be made with them. However, they re really just serving as a vehicle to introduce Thanos. The movie may be decent, it may be terrible, but at the end its purpose is to advance the arc. And that’s what’s interesting to me. Disney has the money and the ability to plan a long-range movie serial project, and that’s what they appear to be doing. Don’t get me wrong–movie studios are a business, and they have every intention of making money, but unlike many businesses, they have the luxury of being able to survive a bad quarter. They can afford to invest in what is essentially story infrastructure, as well as being aware that a movie that does poorly domestically may still make money internationally, through DVD sales, and licensing. How many people are going to be watching the first two Iron Man movies as a warm-up to the new release? That’s the long game that they are able to play. The problem they are likely to have is saturation, which appears to be solved in case of the Marvel properties by rotating them instead of doing them all in a row.
Along with The Guardians of the Galaxy, another movie has been confirmed: Ant-Man. Far moreso than the Guardians, the character of Henry Pym (Ant-Man) is strongly tied to The Avengers. He and his wife were part of the original Avengers, not Captain America, Hawkeye, or The Black Widow. Like the Guardians, he is still a fairly minor character to most people, and more importantly for the sake of the movie, he’s not a very interesting character (until he goes insane as Yellow Jacket, a completely unrelated point). What the character is known for is introducing two other major characters: The Wasp (Ant-Man’s wife), and Ultron, a robot Pym creates that ultimately becomes one of The Avengers’ greatest foes. And that, I believe, is the purpose of the movie. For the record, I believe the villain for Avengers 3 will be Ultron. It’s the long game that Disney is playing. It’s going to be interesting watching it unfold.
Let’s hope Adam is spot-on with his predictions. Some troublesome questions remain: If the Cracked article is correct in its prediction about what they see as the inevitable demise of superhero movies, can Disney crank out all of these films before the market bottoms out? Or will Disney cause the market to falter?