Monday, September 26, 2011

Taking A 58-Year-Old And 4-Year-Old To Football Games

I've spent the past two Saturday nights at Arizona Stadium watching the Wildcats get the snot smacked out of them by far superior teams. In the first outing, I took my dad, who was on the verge of his 59th birthday. The week after, I brought my 4-year-old son, Luke, to his first football game.

There were similarities and differences in the outings.

SIMILARITY -- Everlasting nostalgic moments. When I was growing up, my dad took me to games regularly, always buying me a game program because he knew how much I loved to read through the rosters, coach bios and statistics. I still have all of them, stacked in boxes in my closet. Now they no longer sell programs, and just give them away for free. As we walked into the stadium, I spotted a box of the programs, scooped a pair out and handed one to my dad.

Befitting his name, Luke is a huge Star Wars fan, and he adored the band's questionable practice of playing Darth Vader's theme when the other team has the ball. (Should the band really admit via music that the enemy's possession of the ball is a sign of certain doom). Whenever the band started to play, he asked me, hope bubbling out his little eyes, whether it was going to be the Star Wars song again. He was crushed when it was a different jingle, and elated when his dream came true. When the band was silent, he spent most of the time humming his own, metal-and-beatbox-infused version of the tune. Now I will never be able to hear those notes again without thinking of Luke at this age.

SIMILARITY -- Endurance. Both the old and young man lasted until the final whistle. And both, like me, were disappointed when the drubbing was over and it was finally time to go home.

DIFFERENCE -- Calorie consumption. Neither my dad nor I saw the need to visit the concession stand during the game. But for Luke, the wonders of popcorn, cotton candy, soda and lemonade were 150 percent of the fun the event had to offer. In practice, the $15 I spent on refreshments largely went to waste. Meaning, I had to eat it after Luke got tired of it.

The salted giant pretzel looked good at the outset, but he struggled to devour half of it. He needed popcorn later on because he loves popcorn at the movie theater, but there wasn't as much butter as he remembered, and white cheddar seasoning wasn't an option as it is at Harkins. So he only ate a few bites. As for the cotton candy, he ripped off a glob from the bag and munched on it for half an hour, pausing to proudly display his purple and green beards, then abandoned ship and left the other half of the bag to rot. I excuse his finicky eating because of the double Whopper he wolfed down before the game, proclaiming it "the best sandwich I've ever had."

DIFFERENCE -- Football acumen. My dad and I exchanged a calm, reasoned patter of in-game analysis with the detachment of grizzled sportscasters. We've both had our hearts trampled too much by the game, and this team, to allow ourselves to get too jubilant or depressed.

Luke had a little trouble getting the chants down. When the crowd chanted "U of A," Luke interpreted it as a call to display his patriotism, shouting "USA!" When it was time to yell "Defense," Luke yelled "Depends!" Whenever the public address announcer revealed that a team took a timeout, Luke was sure that meant the players would have to go to their rooms until they calmed down. Also, he had trouble remembering that the team that we were rooting for was the Wildcats, whom he kept calling the Cardinals -- a result of my nearly half-decade long brainwashing campaign. It's lucky that I hadn't taken Luke the week before, when Arizona played the Stanford Cardinal. His brain might have exploded.

As the game ended, Luke was sure the Wildcats -- or Cardinals -- had won. He was angry when the final seconds ticked away and I told him that we had to leave. In his oblivious-to-the-final-score mind, it had been a perfect night, and it was a tragedy that it had to end.

He was right that in the grander scheme, the score didn't matter at all, and the evening had indeed been perfect. Both those Saturday nights were.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Moneyball

Baseball has always been far more interesting in movie form than in real life. Moneyball puts the romance, suspense and nostalgia of the game to the ultimate test, attempting to make front-office number crunching into compelling drama.

Other than the assumption that baseball is movie magic, there’s no reason Moneyball should be remotely watchable, let alone freaking amazing, which it surely is. Some Brad Pitt fans have no doubt declared that he’s such a magnetic personality that he could make a two-hour reading of the phone book interesting. This is the movie in which Pitt tries out the theory, only switching out phone numbers for on-base percentages.

Pitt plays Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who, judging from an early-film montage, was the worst baseball player in the history of mankind before tossing his hands up and trying to make it as a suit. According to the montage, Beane struck out in every at-bat, and never once was able to maneuver himself close to a ball that was hit to him. You know, pretty much like every Kansas City Royal in the last 25 years.

But one thing Beane can do is patch together a team of rag-tag misfits who make less than Taco Bell employees and turn them into a marauding machine that’s nearly as dominant as the Bad News Bears were at the end of their movies. Clearly possessing that which Genesis once referred to as “That invisible touch, yeah,” With a boy wonder, Yale economist sidekick (Jonah Hill) on his hip, Beane picks through the garbage heap of Major League baseball, uses crazy inventions called “math” and “spreadsheets” to identify winning qualities that other teams overlook, then gives them pep talks that make them want to get out onto that field and take as many walks as possible.

In layman’s terms, Beane takes a team and spins it off into a separate entity called Wynsterz, nodding in that cocky, I’m-Brad-Pitt-And-You’re-Not fashion as all the naysayers call him an idiot, then chuckling as the Wynsterz wins the AL West by 100 games while also getting users to pay double the price for cracked DVDs.

While there is some stirring on-field action to spice things up, most of this film is dialogue, meaning the screenwriters are every bit as much the stars of the film as Pitt. The writing sings because it’s so witty and clever, managing to talk about poignant life stuff such as family, loyalty and determination while pretending to reference fielding percentages and signing bonuses.

Director Bennett Miller handles the impossible film with the skill of his protagonist. He’s clearly a filmmaker who relishes a challenge, which is why I expect him to do just as well with his next project, IRS Tax Code: The Animated Musical.

Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright. Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on a Stan Chervin story, which in turn was based on a Michael Lewis book. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated PG-13. 133 minutes.

My novel, Stormin' Mormon, is available as a Kindle book for $1.

Monday, September 19, 2011


After I switch over to Qwikster, I admit I will be just a little disappointed every time I open a red envelope and find a DVD in there instead of strawberry-flavored powder.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How To Trick Others Into Thinking You're A Good Employee

Hating your job is no excuse to mope. No matter how miserable you are when you're on the clock, you'll only better your prospects by making the best of your situation.

Budgets Are Sexy offers some tips on how to be a better employee, or at least fake your way to appearing to be adequate:

*Smile. People drift toward pleasant folk. Being cheery can give you an extra edge that keeps you around amid layoffs or boosts your chances of a promotion.

*Don't run out the door at the first opportunity. Sticking around 5 or 10 minutes after the workday ends can go far in making you appear to be a dedicated worker.

*Hand out compliments, not criticism. Avoid vague, blanket brown-nosing and pinpoint specific, genuine things you can praise people for. When negative thoughts surface, send them back where they came from. Strategic gossip can build a rapport, but also places you at risk of being perceived as a malcontent back-stabber.

10 Tips to Be a Better Employee [Budgets Are Sexy]

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lies That People Repeat And Believe In

"Everything happens for a reason." I guess this is technically true, if the reason is defined as "because people felt like making that happen." The belief that everything that occurs is to contribute to some positive ending is ridiculous. It's easier to believe that everything happens for an eventual negative reason.

"God never gives you more than you can handle." I think people who get run over and killed by trucks get more than they can handle.

"Karma will take care of it." The belief that you don't need to do anything to stop bad things from continuing to happen because a Final Destination-type invisible force will do it for you is just lazy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Questions About Aquatic Medicine

I wonder how far along the field of underwater surgery has come. If a fish gets a spinal tumor, is he screwed or is there a chance to save him? Do they stand still to have their blood pressure checked? Can they get gill asthma? And if so, how do they take their inhalers?

Can dol-fins (my nicknames for dolphins' fins) be placed in cast? Is it considered poor form for octopi to squirt ink on them in playful attempts at signing them?

Sharks lose a lot of teeth, but how many is too many? If they forget to floss can they get cavities? Do they need to use mouthwash or does just swimming around with their mouths open all scary-like do the job?

Monday, September 12, 2011

I Just Wanted To Let You Know

The Cardinals are undefeated, the Cardinals are undefeated, the Cardinals are undefeated and the Cardinals are undefeated. Lastly, lest I forget to mention it, the Cardinals are undefeated. Life is grand. I only wonder if the Cardinals themselves take such pleasure in my successes.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Three Things I Am Enraged About At The Moment

1. Sending important emails that go unreturned.

2. Publishers who take weeks and weeks to evaluate a book proposal.

3. Scamtastic charities that name themselves something similar to other organizations and spend 90 percent of their donations in legal battles with the reputable charity.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A literary analysis of "Stormin' Mormon"

Reader Peter Yates-Hodshon was kind and thoughtful enough to pen this review of my book, which is available as a $1 download on Kindle and Nook:

Although Phil Villarreal has not just penned the Great American Novel, Stormin’ Mormon, his debut, stands on its own as a must read. As film and video game reviewer for the Arizona Daily Star, Villarreal’s insightful, incisive, sometimes gritty critiques commenting upon our currently undulatingly “haunted” electronified culture give us pause; his analyses engage us, enrage us, entertain and entreat us. He is not solely a journalist; he is a keen observer (and commentator), not one to back down after stating his case.

The same can be said of Stormin’ Mormon…to an extent.

With some truly brilliant narratives (that are more the norm in his novel than the exception) and some downright authentic dialogue between his two protagonists, Villarreal paints a very graphic and – at times – comic portrait of our culture’s current incarnation. Through Villarreal’s storytelling, we confront our swirling reflections: we are inexorably chained to our battery-powered existence, umbilically hooked to the larger-than-life media leading us around by the hog ring of illusion, hopping from one bar or restaurant to another looking for “home.” We find ourselves vicariously “button-mashing through FIFA ’08 Soccer on the Xbox 360”; “[m]oving in with random karaoke guys”; ruminating about “Miami Vice,” Jim Rome, Maxim, The Rules of Attraction, 60 Minutes, Matrix, Cary Elwes, “World Series Thunderstix,” and Channel 13; and dining at “’Nico’s’…that makes the best steak, egg and cheese breakfast burrito mankind has ever known.”

Oh by the way, this all takes place right here in Tucson, Arizona…under the watchful eyes of Lute Olson and Wilbur the Wildcat.

Amiably and definitely without malevolence (because he might be describing the bulk of our shared consciousness), Villarreal depicts his two “heroes” as non-malicious, conniving near-losers standing at the brink of life. Saul Cruz, a not quite surly U of A graduate and wisecracking almost cowardly twenty-something Jim Rome wannabe, schleps as a sports shock jock for a local AM radio station. Jerusha Rockwell, the perfect counterpart to Saul, is a nearly 24-year-old, intelligent yet poorly motivated, foulmouthed undergraduate who lives by her wits, luck, looks, and financial dependence upon a clinging and demonized mother. Saul is a confused agnostic; Jerusha is a jack Mormon because “I, uh, have sex.” They almost seem like twins separated at birth.

Here’s the premise: Because his two protagonists, Saul and Jerusha, ravenously desire each other not so much because of an honest attraction but more because they have fallen out of love with their respective “soul mates,” they devise a ruse to chase away their lovers, to become devote Mormons. Comedically, this almost works as the vehicle for Villarreal’s two lusting heroes. The wind-up, the action which takes place before the ruse is put into effect, builds nicely; in fact, his portrayal of each character’s floundering relationship can be considered downright agonizing. This is a good thing: Not only do we strongly wish for Saul and Jerusha to make the carnal connection, we literally root for the ruse to work without a hitch (pun intended).

Ugly scenes of Jerusha and Jared (her current “bemused live-in boyfriend of three months”) locked in mortal combat instead of an embrace greet us at the outset. Similarly, we witness Saul bemoan the fact that spending time with his Baptist girlfriend Shannon has become a burdensome “requirement,” even though it was he who lamented her “dismissive initial response” to any type of cohabitation. The ugliness is excruciatingly palpable. All the characters, supporting and main, swear like sailors, eat like Huns, and have sex like pigeons. A reader’s head virtually swims in a more-than-graphic-Harold-Robbins tale of sexual-realm-of-the-senses angst.

Then the ruse.

Villarreal pulls this off neatly, but not so lightly. We do not find ourselves laughing so much as grimacing and shuddering. Was this not supposed to be a comedy? Is this actually becoming a tragedy…or a morality tale? And if this is a lesson, what are we to glean from Villarreal’s words? This is the drawback to his freshman outing: where is Villarreal’s voice?

As a polished cultural critic, Phil Villarreal guides us through the vagaries of our American miasma with aplomb. His work with the Star, more than bears this out: he tips us off to clunkers, brilliance, misses and hits. He nearly accomplishes the same with Stormin’ Mormon. Narratives that spring to life with little effort (the scene at McKale Center’s “press row,” a sordid and depressing depiction of a college bar, and radio station high jinx) provide Villarreal with amazingly astute vehicles for critique: we can sense a redundant, recurring cultural déjà vu. Have we progressed as a people? Comparably, he creates piercing encounters between characters that almost verge on the dialectic, especially when characters engage in heated arguments about mores and norms. Yes, the dialogue is that good, especially between Saul and Jerusha. The author speaks to us directly and without shame and demands that we listen carefully to what his characters posit. Here, within the meat of the book, deep into the narrative and neck high in dialogue do we find Villarreal’s strength as a writer: his realism is razor-sharp…and this is impressive for a first time author. We chafe and laugh and shudder simultaneously.
Yet, what is he telling us?

Reread Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Boyer’s Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker, and you get a sense of voice, of revelation…direct or nuanced. As readers, we do not have to guess that Jim is already a free man, that Holden senses that post-WWII America is already culturally bankrupt, and that David’s desire to drive a cab smacks back at a society demanding complacency of its members. Also, we know that each author, as social critic and keen cultural observer, demands our commitment as readers to read not just scrupulously but to accomplish something in our own lives, to adjust and readjust our zeitgeist in order to (maybe) just save our own hides and (maybe) a few hides of friends and foes.

Villarreal, however, as sharp an observer as he is, seems content only to grasp at a literary brass ring, offering religion as our salvation. While maintaining a spiritual life is a road to transcendence, most assuredly in many cases, the avenues taken by his characters seem less than intelligently taken, done more out of distress (and societal duress) than out of conscientious free will.

Herein lays the rub.

Does Villarreal give up at the end of this first attempt to make a satisfactory and pointed statement about our fragile and less than robust collective national spiritual inclination; or is he heartily and honestly recommending humdrum organized religion as our one and only hope for realigning our (through his eyes) squeamish, skewed civilization…in a way, disturbingly condemning women to lives of abject servility? Does he use the evolution of his characters, supporting and main, to ostracize us, condemn us for not easily accepting what is readily available in the way of suitable and customary religious pursuits? Or, and this may be the case, does Villarreal purposely use Stormin’ Mormon to describe our feverish grasping at two-dimensional spirituality as a panacea, in order to make plain our tendency towards intellectual incompetence, to make plain our desire for taking the easy way out? If we read and consider and contemplate the quotations (from Jane Austen to Tupac Shakur) introducing each paragraph, we find ourselves sweating out this conundrum. Also importantly, Saul’s ultimate though open-ended development as a character appreciatively marks the crux of this possibly unintentional dilemma in voice. We need to ask: What is Villarreal serving up with Stormin’ Mormon?

Because this novel causes intellectual stress, it is a must read. Because his narratives and dialogue are gifted, this novel requires a pair of keen eyes. Because Villarreal has so much more to offer, pour over this book. It is a peek at what is to come because in time Villarreal’s voice will ring more clearly; his talent strongly suggests this. We need to have patience; the payoff will be his next work.