Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Utah Movie-Going Experience: Pleasantly Orderly or Strangely Authoritarian?

Last week the family went on our annual summer vacation. We went to Utah, which served a dual purpose— 1) my wife was going to a work conference in Salt Lake City, and 2) much of my wife’s family lives there, so we got to see many of her kinfolk who we haven’t seen in a few years. (I know I could have said “relatives,” but “kinfolk” is one of those rare words that both starts and ends with a “K,” making it particularly fun to say and write.)

While my wife attended her three-day conference, I took my two sons on a variety of outings. We went to the aquarium (for some reason my older son seemed to find the shrimp brine more interesting than the penguins); we went on a hike (which lasted all of about 10 minutes before my younger son got sight of a very tiny red beetle, jumped into my arms and wouldn’t stop screaming); and we went to the planetarium (where we found out that collectively, the thee of us would weigh 6,037 pounds on the sun.)

But of the various outings that we went on, the one that has lingered with me the most since returning to Arizona was our excursion to the movies. On the evening of Thursday, June 19, 2014, I took my boys to see “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The movie itself was good to very good (I laughed, I cried, I wondered why all the adults in the film had various European accents, but all the youth had standard American accents) but that is not what has been lingering in my mind for the past week. No, the thing that I simply can’t get out of my mind about my movie-going experience that night was that we had assigned seating. The concept has been swirling around in my brain ever since and I’m torn between loving and hating it.

That’s right, when we went to the Megaplex (and that was the actual name of the theater, not a generic term I’m applying here) and asked for one adult and two kids for the movie, the cashier turned her computer screen toward me and said, “Pick your seats.” My eloquent response was, “Uhhhhh…what?” She showed me a seating chart of the movie theater and told me to touch the screen to indicate the three seats that I wanted. I started nervously laughing and looking around, thinking that I might be on an episode of Candid Camera. (I know I just dated myself horribly with that reference.) I stared at the screen dumbly and said, “Sorry, I’m from Arizona. I’m not used to this.” I sensed the people in line behind me getting restless, so I finally took a shaky index finger to the screen and picked seats F5, F6, and F7.

We went inside and found our seats. The theater was relatively empty—maybe 40 people in an auditorium that looked like it could comfortably fit 250; and it remained that way throughout the entire film. As the movie played I wondered what would happen if I took my boys and sat in three different seats. Would an alarm sound? Would we be forcibly ejected from the theater? I decided not to risk it.

After the movie ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about the assigned seats. On the one hand it appealed to my sense of order. It really made no difference in a relatively empty theater, but if one were to go on a night that is almost sold out, how nice it would be to know you have definite seats waiting for you. On the other hand, I bristled at this authoritarian approach to movie seating, in which you can’t just walk into the theater and decide where to sit at the spur of the moment, based upon the cell phone usage and/or odor of the other patrons in the theater. I was torn.

I also wondered if the theater we went to was an anomaly in assigning seats, or if this was standard practice in Utah. The next night I got my answer. After my wife’s conference sessions were over we went out to dessert with my brother-in-law and his wife. I told them about our movie-going experience and asked if picking seats ahead of time was normal. My brother-in-law looked at me like I was some sort of barbarian.

“You mean they don’t have assigned seats in Arizona?” he asked, incredulously. He seemed somewhere between bemused and disgusted that we would just walk into a theater and have to find our own seats, and implied that Arizona was living in the stone age.

For days afterward I wondered if he was right about our state being woefully behind the times. I decided to do some research (that’s right, this blog contains real research!) and sent messages to friends from 20 different states asking if they have assigned seating in movie theaters, and got responses from 18 of them. As it turns out, if Arizona is behind the times in assigning seats, so is almost every other state in the union.

Most of the responses I got were along the lines of, “Assigned seats? That’s just weird. We sit wherever we want.” The best response I got was from a friend in Massachusetts, who said, “It’s open seating here. This being the birthplace of freedom, and all that.”

Indeed, of the 18 responses I got, 13 were definitive in that there was no assigned seating in the movie theaters where they lived. Those responses were from Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and Tennessee. My sources in Ohio and Texas both told me the answer was “No” accept for some “dine-in” movie theaters, which were the exception. My source in New York said, “No” accept for home high-end theaters, which she doesn’t frequent. (Being from New York myself, I certainly never came across assigned seating, but then again, I haven’t seen a movie there since 1998, so I was thankful to get current information.)

The information I got from New Jersey was a tad ambiguous. My source there said, “I like to purchase my tickets in advance and pick the seats ... however, it doesn't always work out that way. Inevitably someone is ALWAYS sitting in our seats.” So it seems that there they have assigned seating, but people don’t actually pay attention to the seat numbers. (Is it coming as a shock to anyone that in Utah the movie patrons are following the rules, but in New Jersey they’re not?)

And finally, there’s California. I actually asked three different people from “The Golden State” about this and got the same response from all of them—basically, “It depends.” The nicer theaters seem to have assigned seating and the crappier ones, not so much.

So what does all this in-depth journalism tell us? Well, it seems that Utah is on the cutting edge of the movie-going experience…or perhaps, they’re just WAY too organized compared to other states. In either case, I’m just going to stick to Netflix for a while, as I’m still not sure now how I fell about my state’s ancient movie seating methods.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father's Day Blog

My dad passed away in 1986, a little over a month before I turned 17.  It was sudden—no long illness—just a massive heart attack in his sleep and he was gone.  We were all shocked and devastated.  But it’s not my intent to write a depressing blog about that time in my life; it’s my intent to write about what came before.

The two words that always come to mind when I think of my dad are intelligent and funny.  Just saying those words on their own, though, doesn’t seem to do him justice.  It’s more like “fiercely intelligent” and “ridiculously funny”.

It seemed like my dad had an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything.  He was an optometrist, so, as one might expect, he knew a lot about the sciences, but his knowledge of science went way beyond the biology and physics that were necessary for his career.  He had a deep love for meteorology and it was clear from the conversations he often had with the television screen that he knew significantly more about the topic than the weather guy on the local news.

But my dad’s knowledge was not limited to science; he seemed equally comfortable discussing history, geography, politics, and literature.  He would freely quote the works of William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe.  There were times when we thought that he was randomly spouting gibberish, but we figured out years later that he was reciting passages from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Cantebury Tales off the top of his head.  This sort of amazes me to this day, because I was an English Literature major in college, and even when I was actively studying The Cantebury Tales I couldn’t quote it off the top of my head.

My dad did “voices.”  When he told a story about real events from his past he gave every character a unique voice.  But the interesting part is that rather than attempt to imitate the person’s actual voice, he would give them a voice that better fit their personality and/or the circumstances within the story.  This made for much more entertaining reminiscences, as his friends often sounded like Peter Lorre and Cary Grant.  (For more thoughts on my dad’s story telling skills click here.)

Another frequent source of amusement from my dad was his spontaneous, topical song parodies.  For example, during the 1976 presidential election cycle my dad was depressed by the choice between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, as he thought they were both clueless.  One night (possibly after a televised debate—but I can’t swear to that) he started singing his own version of the Fiddler on the Roof song “Far From the Home I Love.”  He changed the lyric that was originally “Oh, what a melancholy choice this is/Wanting home, wanting him,” to “Oh, what a melancholy choice this is/An idiot, an imbecile.”  It was moments like these peppered throughout my childhood, that likely prepared me to work at MAD magazine when I graduated from college.

These days I think of my dad most often when I attempt to wake up my oldest son in the mornings.  My son does not wake up easily and when I was a young boy, neither did I.  This was a major source of contention between my dad and I, and it used to enrage me that he was so perky in the mornings while I desperately wanted to stay in bed.  He used a variety of techniques to wake me up—which I now employ on my own son—including singing, tickling, and anthropomorphizing stuffed animals.  The method that used to irritate me the most was when he flicked my earlobes.  Because I remember despising that technique so much, I almost never employ it myself.  But this morning, in honor of Father’s Day, I decided to try it myself.  I went into my son’s room, told him to wake up, and when he didn’t respond, I flicked his right earlobe.  He swatted me away and turned over, so I flicked his left earlobe.  He swatted me away and turned over again.  I chuckled to myself and walked out of the room.  I didn’t actually need to wake my son up—I just wanted to honor my dad.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Feeding Ducks in Heat

A little over a mile from our house is a man-made lake…or pond…or moat. Really, I’m not quite sure what the body of water is considered to be, but I am relatively certain it is man-made.  Every few months we take the kids to this watery spot—a bag of old bread in hand—to feed the ducks that reside there.  It’s a cheap, fun activity to do with our boys and the ducks can’t seem to get enough of our stale bread and crackers.

This past weekend, after noticing that half a baguette that had been purchased earlier in the week had gone uneaten, I decided it was high time to pay the local water fowl a visit. I mentioned the idea to my boys on Friday night and they were quite excited, but the next day my 7-year-old had lost interest.

“It’s too hot out to feed the ducks,” he said, even though he hadn’t been outside or heard a weather report.  Of course, we live in Chandler, Arizona and it was May 31st, so I suppose he took an educated guess that the heat would be oppressive.  Turns out he was right.

Leaving my older son behind to construct functional aircrafts out of Legos under his mother’s watchful eye, I took my 5-year-old to the lake-pond-moat. As we walked along the banks there was nary a duck to be found. Clearly, the 104-degree heat was not something they wanted to be swimming about in.  Perhaps they had more sense than us.

Eventually, as we walked I spotted a lone duck on the opposite shore about 80 yards away.  I pointed it out to my son.

“That duck is just taunting us,” he said.

(I’m going to pause here to point out that when it comes to my son’s vocabulary I am a boorish, braggart dad.  Some dads are this way about their kids’ athletic abilities or artistic skills, but for me it’s all about the ease with which my boy—who is first entering kindergarten in two months—navigates the English language. All of the quotes I’ve attributed to him in this article are verbatim and none were the result of paternal prodding.)

I suggested that we just start throwing bread in the general direction of the duck to see if he would take notice.  My son surveyed the situation and his brow furrowed.

“I think those rocks are too close to the surface,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He went on to explain that he thought the water was too shallow where we were standing and the duck what have a tough time getting around the rocks to get to the food.  He was genuinely concerned, so we walked about 25 feet due north to a spot where the water was deeper.  As we walked, the duck started swimming toward us even though we hadn’t thrown any bread yet.

Once we stopped and started hurling bits of baguette into the water the duck picked up his pace and began eating our feast.  The fact that this duck was all by his lonesome, without any of his brethren in sight, was pretty unique.  Usually we feed dozens at a time.

“This duck must be pretty happy he gets all of this bread to himself,” I said.

“Yeah, maybe he’s thinking ‘this is my lifelong dream,’” my son laughed.

After a few minutes the duck’s lifelong dream ended, however, when two other ducks took notice and swam over.  A minute or so later a couple more came over. And then…

“Look, a whole swarm is coming,” my son said, pointing.

Soon about 15 ducks were nibbling on the bread that was originally meant to go with our pasta dinner the previous Tuesday.  Considering the small amount of bread and large amount of ducks, the competition to get the eats was pretty fierce.

“I’m voting for the mallard team,” my son said.

“Uh…what?” I asked.

“I’m voting for the mallard team,” he repeated.  After staring at my son dumbly for several seconds, he said, “The ones with the green heads.”

“Ohhhh. I see. You think the mallards will get most of the bread,” I said, feeling a bit out of my depth talking about specific duck species.

“Yeah,” he laughed, tossing some more bread into the water.

It was only then, while proudly looking at my ridiculously well-spoken son, that I noticed the amount of sweat pouring down his face could best be measured in liters.

“Hey, you look really hot. What do you say we stop feeding the ducks and go get a drink?” I offered.

“Okay,” he said. And just like that it was bye-bye mallards and hello orange juice.

I’ll probably wait until October to take my son to feed the ducks again.  Not only will it cool off by then, but it will also give me time to study up on water fowl taxonomy.