Sunday, January 28, 2018

To Watch Or Not To Watch...


A week from today I have a very important life decision to make. Do I miss the “Big Game” for the first time in my entire life because it features two teams that I do NOT want to win, or do I watch it anyway, simply for the cultural significance? (Note: By “Big Game” I actually mean “Super Bowl,” but I’ve noticed that apparently nobody is legally allowed to refer to it as the Super Bowl except for the NFL, so every advertiser, radio station, supermarket, and car wash refers to it as the “Big Game,” so as not to risk the wrath of Roger Goodell and his legal hounds of hell. Of course, I already mentioned the phrase “Super Bowl” twice in the last sentence, so I guess the cat’s out of the bag and I’ll keep on referring to it that way for the rest of this blog post, despite the fact that my arrest is now imminent.)

There have been occasions when I have rooted for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the past, but those days are long gone. At this point I have grown sick of him and his winning ways, and his smug smile, and his Hollywood good looks, and his avocado ice cream. Fine, I’ll admit that he’s the GOAT, but I want that GOAT sacrificed already! I have no interest in seeing him and his merry band of Patriots win yet another Super Bowl.

Then there’s their opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, who at first glance might seem like the obvious choice to root for, as they are big underdogs with their backup quarterback, Nick Foles, having to make the start for the injured Carson Wentz. But here’s the problem—I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan and thus the sworn enemy of the Philadelphia Eagles and the other teams in the NFC East Division that do not have a star on their helmets. I have been conditioned since birth to despise the Eagles with every fiber of my being, and at times have even borrowed fibers from other people’s beings so I can hate them some more. There is simply no way I can root for them to win.

Yet watching the Super Bowl is a tradition for me and the idea of completely missing it for the first time feels just plain wrong.  So what am I to do? Do I just watch the commercials and turn it off during the actual game? Do I slide in a video of Super Bowl XXX, when the Cowboys gloriously beat the Steelers 27-17 and watch that instead? Do I watch the game anyway, despite despising both teams, and root for the Goodyear Blimp to crash onto the field and end the game early? Or do I just watch a Three Stooges marathon instead, so I get to see an entirely different brand of violence for four straight hours?

These are the options I will be pondering for the next seven days. In the meantime, I’ll start stocking up on junk food just to play it safe.


Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Cool MAD Moment


Like most dads, I want my sons to think I’m cool. And like most dads, my sons think I’m about as cool as a convection oven. When I try to act cool in their presence, they mostly think I’m goofy and embarrassing. But I’ve never minded this, because I have always had an ace up my sleeve that I was waiting to play. Finally, after eleven years of fatherhood, I was able to play that ace.

From age 20 to 25, I worked on the editorial staff at MAD Magazine, and for about fifteen years after that, I continued to write for them on a freelance basis. (To read a previous blog entry about the incredibly true tales of my time at MAD, click this link here: this link here.) Very few people are impressed by this information—nor do I try to use it to impress folks—but the majority of those who are impressed are the ones who read the magazine faithfully many years ago and have fond memories of secretly flipping through its pages under their bed covers when they were supposed to be asleep. These folks usually ask me if I ever met Al Jaffee (yes) or Don Martin (no) and wax nostalgic about the magazine.

But every once in a while I have had occasion to meet a preteen who is an active reader of the magazine. These are generally children of friends who I meet at a social gathering. The parent usually introduces me to their child with this line: “This is my friend, Andrew. He used to write for MAD Magazine.” The kid inevitably reacts like they were just introduced to a rock star—their jaw drops, they swoon, and they get tongue-tied. The parent then bales them out and tells them to go play in their room. These brief episodes, awkward as they are, inevitably give me an ego boost. Being reacted to like you’re a rock star (even when you’re the furthest thing from one) tends to do that.

My association with MAD is something that I have never gone out of my way to mention to my own kids. It is not exactly something that they would have cared about when they were younger, and with all of the MAD books and magazines on our shelves, I figured they would eventually discover this information on their own, anyway. Secretly, I looked forward to the day that my kids would look at me the same way that my friends’ kids did, and for a brief moment they might think, “Holy cow, dad is a rock star!”

About a month ago, my long range plan finally came to fruition.

My sons, who are now 11 and 8, are both voracious readers. Chapter books, graphic novels, young adult fiction, and the occasional non-fiction books on topics of interest are all in their wheelhouse. The challenge is, our house can only fit so many books. They have hundreds of paperbacks on their shelves and are often in possession of library books, but even so, there are times when they have simply run out of reading material and start wandering around the house looking for new words to read. On one such occasion my 11-year-old found himself looking up at a high shelf on our bookcase in the den that was loaded with MAD paperbacks.

“Could I read one of those?” he asked, pointing to the MADs.

“Hmmm. I guess so,” I said, looking at the titles.

I wondered how to start him off on this journey. The books he was pointing to were mostly from the 60s and 70s and I knew that the vast majority of references, to things like Watergate and flower power, would go completely over his head. I saw a “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” book and figured those gags were pretty timeless. I pulled it off the shelf and handed it to him. Back he went to his room.

A couple of hours later he came out and asked if he could have another one.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was pretty funny,” he said; so I grabbed another off the shelf and away he went.

In short order my older son was devouring the MAD paperbacks and sharing them with his younger brother. Soon, they had gone through all of the paperbacks (Nixon references and all) and asked about the magazines. Again, I decided to be strategic about how to start them out.

For a short period of time (2005 – 2009) MAD produced another magazine called MAD Kids, which was geared toward a slightly younger audience. I figured that showing them those magazines first would be a good way to segue them into the parent publication. I gave them each an issue of the mag and sent them on their way. They read them. They exchanged them. They enjoyed them.

What they didn’t know about the magazines I had handed them was that they each contained an article I had written. I was waiting to see if either of them would stumble across this fact on their own, but alas, they never seemed to pay attention to the bylines. Apparently I would have to nudge them in the right direction.

I sat myself down near my younger son as he read one of the magazines. After a few minutes he got to the article I had written in that issue. He read through it (sadly, with no particular reaction) and was about to turn the page when I asked, “Did you notice who wrote that article?”

He started looking around for the byline (they put it in really tiny print) and eventually said, “Bob Staake.”

“Well, that’s the artist,” I said. “The writer’s name is next to it.”

My son looked at the name next to it and his eyes practically bulged out of his head. He looked up at me with a gigantic grin plastered on his face, then looked back down at the mag and proceeded to reread the article—this time laughing at all the gags. When his older brother walked into the room moments later he ran over to him and said, “Look, look! Dad wrote this!” pointing frantically to the byline.

My older son looked quizzically at the magazine for a moment before he could focus on what his little brother was showing him. Once he focused on the byline his reaction was almost identical to that of his brother’s—eyes bulging, grin taking over his face and a quick double take, as he looked from the magazine, to me, and back at the magazine. He also reread the article, but then went on to something else.

And that was pretty much it. There was no extended adulation, no makeshift parades and no asking for my autograph. But what there was, were a few moments when both my sons thought I was cool. Fleeting, yes—but worth the eleven year wait.



Monday, November 27, 2017

Why Did The Chicken Crossy The Road?



While proofreaders everywhere are cringing at the title of this month’s blog post, the truth is that seemingly erroneous letter “y” was quite intentional. In recent weeks my boys and I have begun playing a video game called Crossy Road, and it may mark a seminal moment in my relationship with my sons.

As reported in this blog back in April, the video games that my two sons play are not ones that I am very good at, or particularly enjoy. (Click here if you’re interested in reading that blog post.) (Click here if you would rather see an image of a chimpanzee holding three balloons.) I will play their PS4 games every once in a rare while, but it usually doesn’t take very long before my ineptitude frustrates both me and them and I abandon the game to instead play a rowdy Scrabble match against my computer. When it comes to the gaming world, my sons and I have not found common ground.

But then, a little over a week ago, Crossy Road entered our lives. I came home from work one night to my sons excitedly wanting to tell me about a game they both downloaded to their Kindles. This game, they told me, featured a chicken trying to cross a road without getting hit by cars and leaping over logs to cross a river without drowning.

“Oh. So it’s basically Frogger with a chicken instead of a frog,” I said.

“I guess,” my older son said.

“Show me the game,” I said, quite intrigued, since I was a huge Frogger enthusiast as a youth.

So my son started playing the game and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Everything old does become new again. This was, indeed, Frogger with a chicken; but whereas the frog in Frogger had to cross 12 lanes of road and river before landing in a box, the road in Crossy Road goes on forever. There is no box at the end of the road—you just keep on traveling until you get squashed. Also, while the main character is a chicken, you can accrue points to earn new characters like a fox, a cat, a penguin, or dozens more. My favorite is a character named Crazy ‘Ol Ben, which is a guy with a white beard and a cane, who makes “old codger” type sounds as he crosses the road. But, all those features aside, the game is essentially Frogger.

I wanted in.

I quickly went into my room and grabbed my Kindle. I have had this device for about two years, but really only use it for Scrabble and Wikipedia. Indeed, I download apps onto it so infrequently that it took me a few minutes to remember how to do it; but after fumbling around for a bit, I was the proud new owner of Crossy Road.

I walked into my older son’s room, where both he and his younger brother were playing the new game. I sat down with them and started playing, as well—each of us on our own device. Even though it was a totally different interface and I hadn’t played Frogger in decades, the skills I had acquired all those years ago quickly came back to me and I was soon dodging traffic like a champ. Stunningly, in less than 30 minutes I had surpassed both my kids’ high scores. Equally as stunning was the fact that neither of them seemed to mind that I bested them—they just seemed stoked that I was eagerly playing a video game with them. And I was equally as stoked that we finally found common video game ground.

So, to answer the original question…


Why did the chicken crossy the road? To help a dad bondy with his sons.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

One Single Bill


I am writing this blog entry after having what I consider to be the oddest interaction with a cashier that I can ever remember. And I’ve been interacting with cashiers for the better part of 40 years, so that’s saying something.

I went to my local Fry’s to purchase two staples of the Schwartzberg household—ranch dressing and waffles. And no, we don’t use them in the same meal…usually. In any event, with my two items in hand I went to the express checkout line and waited behind a guy buying hot dogs and chili, thankful that I wouldn’t be having dinner with him tonight.

When it was my turn in line I swiped my debit card and requested $40 cash back. I said to the guy behind the counter—a young man in his early twenties—“Could I get 20 of the 40 back in smaller bills—like a ten, a five and five singles?”

“Okay,” he said. Then he looked into his cash drawer and seemed flummoxed. Apparently he was out of twenties, so he slowly gave me two tens, but then he didn’t seem sure what to do next.

“Just a ten, a five and five singles is fine,” I said, hoping this would spur him into action. He then counted out four fives and put them on top of the two tens. I could see in his cash drawer he had plenty of singles, so I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

“Could I get five singles as part of this?” I asked. He then took two of the fives, put them next to him and looked sort of helplessly into his drawer. I reached over the counter, took one of the fives back and said, “Can I get five singles now?”

“What are singles?” He asked. Now I was the one who was flummoxed.

“Singles…um, you know…ones,” I said. I spoke these words slowly and haltingly, and looked around as I did so, because I wasn’t sure if I was perhaps on some sort of hidden camera show that would end up on YouTube later on today.

“Oh, okay,” the guy said and started counting out five ones.

“Have you not heard the term ‘singles’ before?” I asked him, because I just had to know.

“No, I never have. Next time call them ones,” he said.

“Uh, okay. I sure will,” I said taking my money and my grocery bag and walking away.

I wasn’t sure what had just transpired. My first thought was, how can a guy working as a cashier in a grocery store not know that singles are ones? (Let’s forget for a second the fact that even if he had never heard the term before, you would think given the context and the fact that I was asking for five of them, he could have figured it out on his own.) My next thought was that maybe this is one of those regional things and is only common on the East Coast. Sort of like how I refer to soda as soda, but people from other parts of the country ridiculously refer to it as pop.

But the truth is, I’ve lived in Arizona for 22 years and have always said, “Can I have a ten, a five, and five singles,” when getting cash back and not once has it stopped any cashier at any store from giving me the correct breakdown of bills.

Perhaps “singles” is an antiquated term. I’m easily more than twice the age of the cashier and maybe the term “singles” referring to one dollar bills is simply not one his generation uses. Sort of like when I told one of the Millennials I work with, “I thrice tried on the dungarees, but it made me look like a nincompoop, so I told the shopkeep I’d return in a fortnight,” and they looked at me with a blank expression.

So now I appeal to the people of the internet to explain what happened to me this afternoon. Do YOU use the word “singles” when referring to one dollar bills? Am I crazy? Was the cashier? Or was this simply a YouTube prank that’s going to go viral in the next 48 hours?


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Streaming Leave: A Benefit for All

I am not quite sure if this is a thing yet, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before HR departments at major companies across the nation start offering Streaming Leave. Even better, perhaps the government can require that companies offer it; as long as you fill out the proper paperwork you can qualify for the Streaming Television Leave Act, or STLA. This would allow for up to 12 weeks of paid leave, so you can catch up on the television series you are woefully behind on.

I would be the poster child for this benefit. Currently I am a season behind on Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, as well as Sneaky Pete, three seasons behind on Parks and Recreation, five seasons behind on Veep and Portlandia, and, since I finally got around to watching it and am only a few episodes in, essentially six seasons behind on The Sopranos.

And then, of course, there is the frightful dilemma that I have gotten myself into with the Marvel series that are only available on Netflix streaming. About a year ago I stumbled across the fact Krysten Ritter, who I liked so much on Breaking Bad, had her own series on Netflix called Jessica Jones. I watched an episode and got hooked, so I watched the rest of the series, which was relatively easy since there were only 13 episodes. Not long after I finished, a spinoff series called Luke Cage cropped up, so I watched that, too.

For a long time I forgot about the Marvel Universe, but recently a new show called The Defenders cropped up featuring both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, so I decided to start watching that. But wait, this show featured two other characters, as well—Daredevil and Iron Fist—and I never watched those series at all. Crap! I was WAY behind! So I decided not to watch The Defenders until I watched all of Daredevil (two seasons) and Iron Fist (one season), which is no small task.

Using basic math (with the aid of a small calculator) I figured out that if I just watched the shows I still need to see to complete the series mentioned above (and factoring in no new episodes of any of the shows listed that are still current, or any other shows that I currently watch, like The Walking Dead or Brooklyn 99) it would take me 171 hours and 40 minutes to get caught up. At eight hours per work day, that is over 21 solid days of television viewing.

Clearly, the STLA is something I (and I would imagine many others, in this golden age of television) would greatly benefit from. Of course an easier solution would just be to install Netflix and Amazon Prime on all work computers, but I think that’s probably asking for a bit too much. I’ll see if I can get something started on Change.org—but first I have to watch an episode of The Sopranos.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tales of a Scorpion Hunter


This essay is not for the faint of heart; or the squeamish; or anyone who might be repulsed by vivid descriptions of battles between humans and predatory arachnids. So if you think you may be grossed out by what you are about to read, I would suggest clicking away from this blog now. And if you opt not to heed my warning and end up losing your lunch on your lap, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I never encountered a scorpion—cockroaches, rats, and wise guys with bats, sure—but scorpions, never. In fact, my only exposure to scorpions in my youth was through James Bond movies, which gave me the distinct impression that all scorpions were the size of salamis and their stings would kill you instantly. But I never much concerned myself about these creatures, because I never thought I would be in a location exotic enough to encounter them.

Not long after I moved to Arizona in 1995, I finally came face to face with a scorpion, but it was dead and encased in glass in a souvenir shop in downtown Scottsdale, so it posed no threat to me (unless another patron picked up the container and smashed me in the head with it, but I didn’t consider that a real possibility.)  Indeed, I actually found them kind of cool looking and decided to buy some for my three oldest nephews who were nine, eight and six at the time. When I went back to New York a few months later and presented the souvenirs to them as “real live scorpions” (even though they were clearly not alive) they were all very excited. At the same time, I gave their younger brother, who was two, a stuffed animal and he started sobbing, “But I want a real live scorpion,” making me feel like an awful uncle. Clearly, though, the scorpions were a hit.

The souvenir scorpions seemed like a hokey reminder that I lived near the desert. But where I lived there were sidewalks and pavement and buildings, so really, the desert, and any critters that might live there, seemed a world away. It never occurred to me that desert creatures might happily wander into the urban landscape, so encountering a scorpion that was not under glass never crossed my mind. And for eight years I lived in this utopian fantasy.

In February of 2003 my wife and I bought a house in Chandler. Previous to that we lived in apartments in Tempe and Mesa, but now we were homeowners and were quite excited about it. Everything seemed perfect until one night a couple of months after we moved in…

We were settling down for the night. My wife was brushing her teeth and I was heading to my side of the bed to go to sleep. As I approached, something on the floor near my nightstand caught my eye. I focused on the small, orange-brown object scurrying about and my brain, at first, could not register what I was looking at, seeing as how it wasn’t dead and under glass and all. Then I suddenly realized that what I beheld was a deadly, venomous creature, which should only exist in spy films and tourist shops, yet was somehow waltzing around on my floor. It was about one-inch long. I stood there, petrified.

When my wife came out of the bathroom and took one look at my face from ten feet away, she said, “What is it? Scorpion?” How she came to that conclusion so quickly, I’ll never know, since we had never seen a scorpion before and didn’t really sit around talking about them. I guess my facial expression just screamed “Scorpion!” Whatever the case, her talking to me snapped me out of my trance and I quickly picked up the small plastic trashcan nearby and whacked the scorpion with the bottom of the can. The scorpion, for its part, appeared amused by this gesture, and I think it gave me the finger before attempting to scurry away. I then flipped the can over and trapped the scorpion, while my wife and I had a fevered conversation about what to do.

“You have to kill it with a hammer,” she said.

“I do?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes. It’s the only thing that will crush the exoskeleton.”

“Oh.” What a strangely scientific response that seemed to be. “Okay, grab me a hammer,” I said while I sat on the trashcan, half expecting the scorpion to gnaw its way through the plastic. My wife went running to the garage and came back seconds later with the hammer. I took it, slowly stood up, and removed the can. There was the scorpion.

Do you remember the scene in Home Alone when Joe Pesci is lying on the ground with the tarantula on his body and Daniel Stern is standing above him, wild-eyed, holding a crowbar high over his head, trying to summon the nerve to crush the dread creature below? That was pretty much how I felt as I held the hammer aloft. I took a few deep breaths and then brought down the tool with all the fire and fury I could muster.

SQUASH. The scorpion was no more and I was emotionally exhausted.

My wife and I hoped that this incident would be a one-time anomaly, but sadly, that was not the case. From this point forward we would start seeing these critters several times per month. We hired an exterminator, which helped only marginally, but mostly we left a hammer lying around on the kitchen counter for on-the-spot executions.

Each scorpion sighting became less stressful than the one before. Whereas the first sighting brought the reaction of, “Oh my god, we’re all going to die!” by the time we got to our 20th sighting the reaction was more along the lines of, “Oh great, another one.” I knew that I took these creatures completely for granted when I had this exchange with my brother, Mark, who was calling from New Jersey:

Mark: (Probably talking about Oscar predictions.)

Me: Oh, hold on a second. Just need to do something real quick. (Puts down phone, picks up hammer, bashes scorpion crawling on wall in den, picks phone back up.) Hey, sorry about that. What were you saying?

Mark: What was that noise?

Me: Just had to kill a scorpion.

Mark: I’m sorry, what???

Me: There was a scorpion on the wall. Just had to kill it real quick with a hammer.

Mark: There was a &%!#$ scorpion on your wall! How are you so %*&@# casual about this???

Me: Oh, it’s no big deal, we get them all the time. They don’t actually kill you. If you get stung, it’s about the same as a bee sting.

Mark: Why the &*%%^& are you living in Arizona?!?

And such was our casual lives with scorpions in Chandler. But about three years after we moved into our house my wife became pregnant with our first child and it suddenly occurred to us that maybe it wasn’t the greatest thing to have several scorpions per month scurrying around the house with a baby scurrying around the house beside them. So we got aggressive.

We had our house fogged.

We got a new roof, because we were told they could be getting in through the shingles.

I spent an entire day putting caulking along every baseboard, every vent, every window, every crack, and every crevice in our house.

We hired an exterminator that specialized in scorpions.

We bought a second hammer.

And lo and behold, the scorpion sightings became much less frequent. Instead of several times per month, it became once or twice per year. But, because the frequency went down, the anxiety upon seeing a scorpion went back up. Whenever one was spotted (often by our cats who consider them exotic toys) the whole household would go into crisis mode. Like the time, three years ago, when I was sitting in the bathroom doing my business when my then 7-year-old son came running into my room and started banging on the bathroom door, shouting, “There’s a scorpion in the kitchen!” I came out as quickly as possible and headed to the kitchen area where I found my sons standing on the dining room chairs with my wife shielding them as though she were warding off a knife-wielding intruder. In the kitchen our cat, Dobby, was looking intently at something in front of the oven. You can guess what it was.

I grabbed my trusty hammer and strode toward my foe in battle posture. As soon as I approached, it ran under the oven. An evasive maneuver I was not expecting. So I got a yardstick to reach under the oven and coax it out slowly. But as soon as I stuck the stick under the oven the thing came charging out at me at a speed I didn’t think possible by such a diminutive creature. Startled, I fell onto my butt and dropped the yardstick as my family screamed in unison. I quickly recovered and viciously thwacked it with my hammer as though I were Thor defending Asgard from the Frost Giants. But I hit the thing so hard it flipped into the air and hit me in the arm causing my entire family to scream in unison again, this time with me joining in. The creature was dead, though, so it caused me no bodily harm—just some minor psychological damage.

This incident marked the most bizarre encounter I’ve had with a scorpion up until about a week ago. It had been a long time since we had seen a scorpion in our house; probably well over a year. I was sitting at my computer and my wife was sitting at hers when suddenly I heard her say a bad word. My wife rarely says bad words, so it caught my attention.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, and as I did, I looked over at her. She sat there looking up at the ceiling with a very pained expression on her face. I followed her gaze to the ceiling and then I said a bad word, too. There, about five feet from where I sat was the largest scorpion I had ever seen in our house. The thing was like a foot long…give or take nine inches.

I ran off to get the hammer and a stepstool. I came back, positioned the stepstool just so and started mentally psyching myself up for the battle.

Okay, I should pause here and give you one last chance to abandon this blog entry before it gets real ugly. Truly, I debated whether or not to even write about this incident, lest I give my readers the heebie-jeebies for life. Maybe do a crossword puzzle instead, because we are about to enter Stephen King territory, here. Okay, for those few who are still with me, here we go…

I got up on the stepstool and was now about ten inches away from this massive arachnid. I’ve killed scorpions on ceilings before, but it’s never easy. The angle is always awkward. Once, about six years earlier, I didn’t hit one on the ceiling quite right and it ended up falling down behind my desk in a spot that was unreachable and unseeable. I never saw that one again and it had me looking over my shoulder for months.

The key to killing a scorpion on the ceiling is hitting it firmly and squarely and not pulling the head of the hammer away too quickly, lest it fall to the ground and run off to get reinforcements. So, I took a few deep breaths and then—POW—smacked the beast hard, right in the middle. It wriggled for a second or two and then stopped, which is when I felt comfortable about pulling the hammer off the ceiling. But then—and no, I’m not exaggerating for macabre comic effect here—the head of the scorpion started running across the ceiling. To be clear, the creature was now in three separate pieces—the tail was attached to the ceiling, the body was attached to the hammer, but the head just took off on its own. I jumped off the stepstool, stunned and looked at my wife—a rictus of disbelief and horror was transfixed on both of our faces. After a few seconds I realized the only logical thing was to destroy the head, as though I were in some sort of scorpion-zombie flick. As I started up the stepstool my wife said in anguish, “Don’t go back up there!” as though she were in the same flick. I’m not quite sure what she thought might happen to me if I went back up there, but I decided to take my chances. After all, I had a hammer and the scorpion only had a running head. Terrifying as that concept was, I didn’t see how it could do much to me. So I got to the top of the stool and—BAM—crushed the mutant head. This time it wasn’t going anywhere—foe dispatched. I cleaned off the ceiling and my hammer and curled up into the fetal position for a while.

So goes my life as an Arizona scorpion hunter. It’s a thankless job, and at times horrifying, but I’ve gotten good at it and I wield my hammer like a pro. Next time I see one on the ceiling though, I might just call Thor.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

For the Love of Apes


There are many people who feel compelled to see the latest blockbuster movie the weekend it opens up. There are even some who wait on line the night before, so they can be the very first person into the theater. There are still fewer who have been known to camp out in front of a movie theater for weeks prior to the opening of a highly anticipated film, because apparently their lives have evolved in such a way that they have no commitments to family, friends, employers, or general hygiene, and are thus able to put their lives on pause for a large chunk of time, so they can get the seat they want, as opposed to the one right next to it. I am not one of those people.

I prefer to see a film when it has been out for the past 14 weeks and it’s a Tuesday morning and there’s maybe three other people in the theater. Less crowds, less noise, less distractions, less hassle. Besides, while I love movies, I never feel like I have to see them as soon as they come out. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Ape movies.

I was raised on Ape movies. My brothers—especially my oldest brother, Steve—loved the Ape movies and, as an impressionable young lad, this fervor seeped into my veins. While I was born a year after the original Planet of the Apes came out and thus, did not see it in the theaters, I watched it and its four sequels—Beneath, Escape, Conquest, and Battle multiple times on television as a kid. And, speaking of television, I was about five when the Planet of the Apes TV series came out and I faithfully watched all 14 episodes. I had action figures, I had a t-shirt, I had a coloring book. Yes, I went ape for the apes.

That unadulterated passion for a movie franchise never translated to any other film series. When Star Wars came out, I saw it and thought, “It’s okay, but it’s no Planet of the Apes.” While all my friends were suddenly walking around with a light saber in their hands saying “Use the force,” I was still clutching my plastic Cornelius, while groveling on the floor yelling, “You maniacs! You blew it up!”

Yet, in the ensuing years, while Star Wars-mania seemed to grow and grow, Planet of the Apes culture seemed to fade into the woodwork. While my inner love for the Ape movies never died, over the years there was less and less reason to engage with the franchise. That is, of course, until 2011, when the series underwent an incredible reboot. (Side note: I was one of about eight people in the world who actually enjoyed the Tim Burton version made in 2001, but I won’t get into that right now.) The 2011 film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, presented a completely new—and seemingly, almost plausible—vision of the origins of an ape-controlled planet. When I saw it, I felt like a kid again—albeit one with a substantial amount of grey hair. The next film, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, continued where Rise left off and strengthened the franchise’s mythology.

I was becoming obsessed again. And that is why this weekend I broke my long-standing policy and decided to see a movie on its opening weekend. (Not opening night, though, because despite my ape-love, that’s just ridiculous.)

War for the Planet of the Apes was a film I had been anticipating pretty much since the credits rolled on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Given that the word “war” is in the title, you had to figure there would be even more talking apes fighting against even more crazed humans and from that perspective, the film did not disappoint. Woody Harrelson played the main crazed human in this installment and he did a commendable job, despite the fact that I’ve never been able to fully buy him in his various tough guy roles after years of playing a lovable simpleton in Cheers. Andy Serkis as lead ape, Caesar, was brilliant yet again. The character is tough, tender, intelligent, just, and dare I say…human. He’s an ape you’d want to have a beer with.

Overall, War for the Planet of the Apes was a solid film, though not quite on the same level as the first two in the new series. Nonetheless, it sated my thirst for simian cinema and, even though I saw the film on opening weekend, the 60 or so people in the theater were surprisingly quiet. I was too, although inside I was going ape the entire time.