When ‘Friends’ go on a ‘Star Trek’

This fall, two space-faring shows debuted. One of them arrived to much fanfare and buzz as it was the next iteration of the famed Star Trek legacy.

The other one, while hyped, premiered after an NFL game on Fox to much less confetti and pizzazz.

It would be easy to write about the technical advancements of Star Trek: Discovery, the beautiful filming, the early focus on the Klingons rather than the Federation or the bold move to debut the show on traditional television and then move it to streaming video in an effort to be on the new wave of entertainment consumption.

But, despite all the hoopla, I wasn’t that impressed, and it’s not because I’m a fair-weather friend of the franchise. While too young to view the original series on TV when it debuted, I’ve watched all the movies (even the bad ones) and sampled each of the TV shows.

The problem is that the new series is too much like the movies, which are fun to be sure, but best in small doses. The first episode seemed to me more enamored with the technology than with the characters. And, with my lack of desire to sign-up for yet another streaming service, the move simply signed its fate in my book.

On the other hand, The Orville, which is created to be a strange brew of science fiction and comedy (an updated TV version of Galaxy Quest), shouldn’t work at all. Science fiction aficionados (OK, nerds or geeks is probably more appropriate here. I use these terms lovingly, as my sci-fi Nerd Card is completely up to date) don’t want to laugh, unless this joke has something to do with a pun about warp signatures, and those who like comedies don’t care about the technology being accurate, just funny (Spaceballs anyone?).

Yet, the thing is that Seth MacFarlane makes it work somehow. The secret of his success is that while he knows funny, he clearly appreciates the science fiction genre as well. Bringing on people like executive producer Brandon Braga and directors like Jon Cassar and Jonathan Frakes, shows MacFarlane is serious about giving the show some street cred.

For better or worse, the show checks off the requisite boxes:

Uplifting Theme Music — Check

Smooth Tech Design — Check

Juvenile Humor — Double Check

Yet for every sophomoric reference to fooling around or going to the bathroom, you have a flip side of the narrative coin in which characters chart the murky waters of themes such as gender empowerment and identity, the battle of religion over science, animal cruelty, time travel and whether killing a few to save many is a justifiable sacrifice or makes you someone without a conscience.

Even some of the smaller elements show an attention to detail. The green Kermit the Frog on Capt. Mercer’s desk gets all the focus, but if you look closely, you will see the wooden model of the Wright Brothers’ biplane, an obvious homage to the ship’s namesake.

The best part of the is one most of us don’t think about. For decades, we have always revered the characters in science fiction tales because they are much better people than we would ever be. They are brave and composed in the face of situations that would make us lose our lunch or wet our pants.

Imagine, however, if instead of pulling your candidates for space exploration not from the ranks of NASA, but the chairs and couches of “Central Perk.” If you think about it, the goofy humor and silly antics sprinkled through each episode make it more like an episode of Friends than a Shakespearean cast with grown-up onesies and phasers (again, I loved ST:TNG as a kid).

The anachronistic jokes and references might seem a bit contrived, but those in the Star Trek timeline always like to make a pit stop in whatever generation the show/film was written (using the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” as “classical music” in Star Trek Beyond is just the latest example).

Sure Malloy and LaMarr act at times like irrepressible teenagers on the bridge and Mercer and Grayson are the adults whose own fractured relationship is the source of joking and scuttlebutt, but Bortus and Issac provide logic in times of peril and Kitan is this generation’s Wesley Crusher, filled with youthful energy, but unsure of her own ability to lead.

With supporting actors like Larry Joe Campbell and Penny Johnson Jerald (no stranger to the Star Trek world herself), you’ve got a good crew running the ship. And MacFarlane and Co. has been smart enough to engineer a few guest appearances make the show even more fun.

The Orville has no illusions about what it is — a weekly science fiction serial that’s determined to explore the universe even if it slips on a banana peel along the way.

In a TV and film universe where our space travelers are heroes who stare down danger with a steely glare before setting phasers to kill, The Orville is, simply put, science fiction for the rest of us.

Advertisements

My Quasi-Healthy Obsession

When you tell people you’re a writer
They look at you as if you’ve accomplished something noble,
Like scaling Everest with one hand tied behind your back.

Little do they know,
Little do they know,
That writing is not the fun, hip,
Slightly nerdy, but cool nerdy thing they think it to be.

Writing is an obsession.
No not the obsession you think of.
The one in movies
Where we pensively sit for 30 seconds
Before the brilliance of Bronte, Doyle, Tolkien, Lewis,
Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hosseini and Grisham
Jump into a blender and hit frappe.

The kind of writing I’m talking about is obsessive.
Not sappy pop princess, don’t-call-me-I’ll-call-you-maybe obsessive.
Not similes as cute as a button and 19-words-for-snow obsessive.

I’m talking the kind of obsession that tries to convince you
To write for 43 hours straight,
No Sleep,
No Food,
Just water and a laptop with good Wi-Fi.

I’m not saying this is sane,
Not saying that at all.
But it makes sense to me
In a twisted sort of way.

When I write I enter another world,
A land where I see the twists and turns of an imaginary highway,
An interstate that stretches in my mind for miles and miles.
Gas, Food, Lodging. What are these things?
My characters have places to go
And people’s lives to mess with
(usually their own).

So when you talk about writing
The Great American Novel
Like it’s something to be checked off one’s bucket list
Or some great achievement to be applauded,
I’m grateful for the kind words
But I’m not sure you realize what is needed to make words
Leap off a page, clutch your shoulders and drag you into their world.

What does that take?
An ability to write no matter what
Snow, sleet, hail, zombie apocalypse,
Anything.

And once you’ve composed your magnum opus,
The height of your brilliance, and then read you words again
And realize they are so bad they lessen the value
of the penny-a-page paper they are printed on.

And you put aside that world,
Wallow in the anguish of your suspected failure
Before throwing it all away
Or realizing it’s not as bad as you feared.

This is the only job I’ve ever had where I fear
Abject failure and total success with the same vigor.

It makes no sense, I know.
But if it made sense we would not talk about it
Like an addiction to an illicit substance.

This is an addiction we endorse, support and defend.
No one says with pride, I’ve got a friend, she’s a dope fiend, you know.
But your friend, the writer, that’s a horse of a different color.

So yes, I’m obsessed with words,
Deeply, madly, passionately, wholly obsessed with words.

My fellow wordsmiths are with me
Running this particular asylum.
But there’s always room for a few more.

His Final Battle

This entry also was posted at another blog I edit, but I wanted to share it here as well. I have removed the student’s name to preserve his privacy.

I had this young man in my classroom as a freshman and then again as a junior. During his sophomore year, he was diagnosed with Leukemia, which was treated and went into remission. In his junior year, he relapsed, but had found a bone marrow match. While waiting to get healthy enough for a transplant, he passed away just a few days before the end of the school year and three weeks shy of his 17th birthday.

While he was in his second round of treatment during the spring semester, I asked him to write a dairy about his experiences. I have done some editing here and there and gave the last entry a title, but the rest were his words. Here is what he had to say about fighting the biggest, and final, battle of his life.

Giving Cancer the Finger

My body is covered in those bumps now. Nobody can figure out what they are. I saw 3 oncologists, 3 dermatologists, 2 pediatricians, Infectious Disease and an ICU doctor. I had 3 biopsies (besides all of the pre-radiation and pre-transplant tests). All of my test results are good and nobody knows what’s on me. They’ve had about 8 different guesses. That means they treat me for every possible diagnosis they came up with, and hope one works.

It hurts if you touch them, and now they’re on the bottom of my feet. If I try to walk, it feels like I’m walking on glass. I have a big one on my middle finger. My nurses laugh when I show it to them.

Last Day at City

I had to get a radiation machine that put a mask over my face. I couldn’t handle it. It’s like a cage that clamps around your neck. I had to make them stop. It felt like my heart was speeding and stopping at the same time. I don’t know if I can do this. The tattooed me for the laser points for radiation.

I got a bone marrow biopsy I’m getting bumps on my arms and legs. I can’t wait to leave this place. I’ve smiled once since I got here, when they told me I should be back at Kaiser by Friday. I never knew I’d miss Kaiser so much. God knew, because right before I left I took a bunch of pictures. My mom can tell you, I don’t like taking pictures, but for some reason I did on my last day at Kaiser.

City of Hope

We have to meet with all these doctors and specials who have to tell us every little thing that can go wrong for the rest of my life. I’m thinking “Why would I want to go through this if you’re saying I’ll most likely fight cancer again and again for the rest of my life.”

Unsuccessful

Today we had the last round of Chemo was also unsuccessful.

What was my reaction? Surprised. I was not expecting that. What was I feeling? I can’t process this. I was not expecting this. We have to take an unconventional route because conventional has failed.

My doctor and I talked about what to do next.

“Do you want us to arrange for you to go home for a couple of days?”

“I don’t care where I’m at, as long as we’re keeping treatment going.”

I leave for City of Hope this week.

Holidays in the Hospital

Last year I spent my birthday in the hospital. I turned 16 in here. The day started at 12:01 a.m., with my nurses singing Happy Birthday to me. All the Hematology and Oncology Night Nurses were there. They were loud. They brought me a card and decorated my room. It was a long day, with a lot of different family coming over. I had visitors from morning until night time.

Last month I spent my second St. Patrick’s Day in the hospital. Today is Good Friday. My grandpa preaches at a local Christian college on Good Friday. Last year he wrote Leukemia on a red piece of paper and nailed it to a big wooden cross at the end of his sermon. This year, he did it again. My grandma and sister nailed it (Leukemia) to the cross, too. Easter is this Sunday. I appreciate the fact that there are organizations and different volunteers who try to cheer up the patients here, by bringing us Easter baskets and little goodies. They do it because they know the patients have to celebrate holidays in the hospital. And it sucks to be here. I’m just glad I was home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Keeping in Touch

I keep in touch with my friends through social media and texting. We mostly use Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. We talk with each other because we have been friends for so long. I talk to them just like I would if I was still at school. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they try to comfort me. They ask how I am doing, how I feel and what’s going on. They want to know what the doctors and nurses are doing to me and what kind of medications I am on.

I don’t get to see them very often because I don’t have an immune system. Chemotherapy kills all my cells in my bone marrow. That’s where your cells are made. When you don’t have an immune system, you can’t get a cold, you can’t get any germs. There is nothing for my body to fight even little germs. I wish that I could see my friends regularly. But when I do get to see them, when they come to visit, it is my favorite time out of all my time in the hospital. Geoffrey, Govon, Cody, and Elijah have been my friends since I was 6 and that’s who has come to see me one or two times. Seth is my best friend, and he comes when ever my cell counts go up.

Writing the Next Chapter

One of the dreams I have is to give the commencement address at a major college or university. I couldn’t care less about the attention or honors that typically accompany such an address. My main goal is one of self-preservation. Considering all my years in college and as a teacher, I’ve heard enough carbon-copy speeches about all the great lessons you learned in high school and how wonderful life will be beyond the hallowed halls of said institution to bore me almost senseless. And, if I’m bored, you can only imagine what the graduates are thinking. With that in mind, I would like to give an address that might have a lasting impact on people. It would be well-written, but it would not be coddling and rose-colored, as so much of what is shared each May and June is. It might sound something like this:

As I look out upon the rows and rows of caps and gowns, I am honored to be in the midst of a sea of such great potential. The people sitting next to you have begun an educational journey that may lead to a cure for the diseases that ravage our world today or creating a habitat explorers will use they colonize Mars. Perhaps someone in your row will start a company that will revolutionize our daily live. Maybe another person will decide to dedicate his or her life fighting human sex trafficking or providing clean water to a rural village you’ve never heard of. You could even have a future senator or president sitting nearby.

While these are all lofty goals, and I wish you all the best as you strive for whatever passion will provide success for you and those around you, that’s not the purpose of my comments today. The reason I mentioned the great jobs people in your seats always fantasize about is because I know that’s what you expect to hear at events like this. And, if you were listening instead of being glued to your social media right now (or is there another reason you are looking down at your lap with such intensity? If so, please keep it to yourself), you would expect me to tell you how to reach for those dreams.

So, let’s take a couple minutes away from the totally awesome affects you are adding to your mug that you’re about to share with 500 of your closest friends to be honest with each other. Don’t worry. You’ll get a chance to add that cute animal nose and tongue to your goofy smile soon enough.

Your classmates might be here because they plan to take over the world, but some of you made it out of bed today because Mom and Dad have mortgaged the house grew up in so you could achieve the dream of a better life they have for you. Your grades were OK, but nothing to brag about. You spent more time partying than studying and the sunglasses you’re wearing are not there to block out the sunlight, just to make the hangover from last night’s festivities just a little less painful. College was fun all right, but you’re not sure whether the degree you’re about to earn will help you in any way other than to get you a job you don’t like to pay for bills you didn’t want. You care about the degree you will receive about as much as a hamburger wrapper. It won’t make you happy inside or fill you with a sense of purpose for the next 50 years.

You have a whole host of reasons why things are so bad and you filled to the brim with angst, pain and suffering. And, while those things are important to you, the rest of the world really doesn’t care to hear you bellyache about how you have it so bad. If most of the world lives on less money each day than you spend on your favorite iced coffee, then the only real message of value I have for you is pretty much as follows:

Suck it up, buttercup.

What, I didn’t stroke that precious ego of your or tell you how special you were? No, I did not. Neither will the world. If you believe you are owed something, then you are in for a rather rude awakening, because the world around you does not share your sense of entitlement.

If you look a couple rows in front of you, maybe you can see a young woman you had in a couple of your classes. She’s the daughter of immigrants who is the first in her family to go to college in America. Her parents gave up important jobs in their home country to chase the American Dream and she works in her family’s restaurant every night to help pay the bills to go to this institution of higher learning. You live on campus, but she takes two buses to get here and the only reason she misses class is when one of those mass transit vehicles breaks down. She’s going to be a pediatric nurse because she remembers how caring and compassionate one was when her younger brother was diagnosed with cancer.

You might accuse me of concocting clichéd generalizations engineered to make you feel bad. Well, I’ve been teaching, and living, long enough to know, that in any graduating class, there are more stories that would blow your mind than you can possibly imagine. People working jobs all hours of the day and night just to make a life that will have some meaning.

Now, others would tell you to go out and change the world, but I’m not going to do that, because I know most of you won’t. Most of us don’t cure cancer or lead the free world. Most of us have jobs nobody would ever talk about on the news. Most of us get by making our difference, not on the whole world, but on our portion of it. We work hard, love our friends and family and help the next generation be better than the one before. That’s what it means to be human.

That’s not to say that you won’t change the world. That’s the best part about starting a new chapter of your life. You have the chance to write your own future. As a writer, I can tell you how easy it is to tell a story where the hero slays the dragon and saves the girl, but if you don’t hit a couple of obstacles along the way, nobody will want to read your story because it lacks reality. Victories are all the sweeter when they have been tarnished by struggle and strife.

Now, while the alumni office might not be so keen about the idea, I have no problem if you find yourself in a decade working as an assistant manager at a big-box store, so long as you have a good reason for it. Maybe you discovered that you want to work your way up the corporate ladder because you believe in the vision of the company. Maybe you’re working a job you don’t love to help put a spouse through school or pay the medical bills of a parent.

But, so help me, if you’re in a job you don’t like and you start to whine about how life is unfair and that you had so much potential, but that the world has it out for you, so help me I’ll ball up my fist and… do absolutely nothing about it. Why, first off because I’d rather not be arrested for assault and battery. I’m short, sarcastic and haven’t been in a fight since 4th grade. I wouldn’t last long in prison.

But seriously, the main reason why I wouldn’t resort to violence is because that’s not what I want the next chapter of my life to be about. I want to make people laugh while they learn, tell a story or two and love the people who have been placed in my life.

You have the opportunity, starting today, to have the best life imaginable, to have one filled with self-absorption and misery or something between.

The beauty of this life is that while you don’t always get to control what happens, you can control how you respond to it. That’s the part of the tale you get to compose.

The question remains: for the next chapter of your life, what kind of story will you write?

I am quite sure I would be banished from said campus for life, but it would be so worth it.

Focusing on the Other 98%

I remember when I was in junior high or early high school that the youth pastor at our church thought it would be a great group activity to toilet paper a tree outside our senior pastor’s home.

Not too sure about the night’s nefarious activities, I held back as the others engaged in what most would consider an act of relatively innocent hooliganism.

A couple decades later, I have become personally acquainted with what it’s like to be on receiving end of such behavior. Although, in the ensuing decades, things have ratcheted up a bit.

Unlike most teachers, I happen to live in the community where I work. This isn’t much of a problem when I am out shopping, as a quick conversation tends to brighten the day of both student at teacher. But, when some get a more specific bead on my home address, things aren’t always as pleasant.

At this juncture, I feel it is necessary to explain I live in a relatively crime-free neighborhood and work at a good school. No one would look at either and expect trouble. And for the most part they would be right.

But not always.

A while back, for example, someone decided that they had too many eggs in their home refrigerator, so they choose to deliver some to my house one evening. Thankfully their aim was as bad as their intentions, as they missed the walls and windows completely and hit my roof, where it looks like it a bit of fall snow is clinging in small clumps.

Well, sort of. If you take off your glasses or pop out your contacts, I suppose. And if we lived in place that sees snows more than once every decade or two.

This is not the first time I have had late-night visitors to my humble abode. I’ve probably had a half-dozen such offerings over the years. Typically, it’s eggs or the odd super-sized drink thrown way up on my lawn. The most creative was the large truck tires stacked in front of my door hampering my ability to leave my own home. Breaking out of your own home is an interesting way to start your day.

Through these experiences, I have come to realize that while such pranks seem funny to the teenager, there is a totally different perspective from the point of view of the adult. The activity that leaves teenagers in stitches of laughter leaves me with questions.

What happens when the egg whites peal the paint and I have to pay to repaint my home? Should I purchase a pricey home surveillance system to monitor against future attacks when they only happen every year or two? What if someone raises the ante and throws a rock through the window like happened to a friend of mine? Does my family need to be concerned every time there is a car driving through my neighborhood late at night?

When I signed on to be a teacher, this wasn’t in the fine print. I agreed to the grading and lesson planning on the weekend, and perhaps coaching a sport or advising a campus club, but all the other hassles at work I expect to leave at work. There is a reason police officers don’t reside in the communities they serve.

And, while my family does not live with the ever-present sense of caution that my friends who put on the uniform every day do, we never thought we would have to worry about anything of the sort. I hate the idea that I, as a school teacher, am forced to consider an expensive move or the need to change the route and timing of my daily commute in an attempt to reclaim my anonymity and relative safety. I am a teacher, not a CIA field agent.

Maybe you’re thinking it’s just a prank that I should lighten up about. Well, aside from the possible property damage, I would contend that those who engage in such behavior are being, in my humble opinion, bullies. If you think I am exaggerating, look at it this way: if he or she threw these items at a person rather than at their house, what would you say?

Exactly.

Having said all this, I need to remember those who would engage in such acts are perhaps 1-2% of the entire student body. The vast majority of students in my classes each day may grumble from time to time, but would never do anything like this. They are, for the most part, relatively good teenagers with the same struggles we all had at that age.

Rather than worry about the small collection of troublemakers, I should be thankful for the good ones – the Other 98%.

But I’m still checking outside my house every day for evidence of any late-night surprises.

In this case, ignorance may be bliss, but it’s also foolish.

One Fine Day

I recently had a day where about half of my students were taking a test, so I created an assignment where they were tasked with writing about one day that stood out to them as special and explaining why that was the case.

Some of them had ideas already in mind, whether it was a great trip to an amusement park or far-away land or getting a special pet. Others, however, were looking for something a little closer to home. With that in mind, I shared the following story:

The previous Friday, my wife was watching our niece like she always does. Now, we might admittedly be biased, but we firmly believe this girl is about the cutest and smartest two-year-old there is. I arrived home at the end of my day just before her mother would pick her up. Like I normally do, I got down on the floor and we began the important task of playing with her block farmhouse. Being the general contractor on this build, she would hand the pieces and I would dutifully place them as instructed.

But the best part of the day was when my sister-in-law and wife were talking and the aforementioned niece thought it would be delightful to take her plush balls, throw them in my direction and giggle uncontrollably when they would bounce off my noggin and I made a corresponding silly face. Known as her “Crazy Uncle” (well, that’s how I introduced myself to her on the day she was born), such behavior is not uncommon for me.

Like for most toddlers, my goofy response needed to be repeated to be truly appreciated. So, over and over again for the next 20 minutes, balls were thrown and retrieved, while the peals of laughter ensued from both parties.

There are two reasons this moment is so significant to me. The first is that it was a moment of pure, unadulterated joy for this young girl. There was no taint of worry, fear, mistrust, caution, anxiety or any of the other emotional maladies that tend to plague us as we age. She was filled with happiness at such a simple and silly activity.

Second, since my wife and I can’t have children, this is our chance to make an impact in the life of a child. I had a childless relative who did the same for me growing up and I am committed to pass along the same level of devotion as best I can.

This may not have been an earth-shattering moment of self-discovery, but it was, without a doubt, one fine day.

I’m hoping for many more to come.

Different Kinds of Smart

In the movie, i, Robot, Dr. Susan Calvin says to Chicago Police Det. Del Spooner that he is the “dumbest, smart person” she has ever met.

With apologies to Isaac Asimov and Will Smith, who played Spooner, I think I have a shot at that dubious title.

Ever since I was a kid I did pretty well in school. I read voraciously, and still do, and tried out new words all the time (sometimes with hilarious results). My math skills have never been all that hot, but I held my own, and even excelled at times, in the humanities.

Today I am going to reach for the metaphorical summit of my knowledge by taking an IQ that could allow me admission into a group of really smart folks. I took a pre-test for fun a few weeks ago and it said I have a strong possibility of passing the full-length exam. A friend of mine already in the group seems to agree. We’ll see.

The thing is, while I collect trivia like furniture gathers dust, my vocabulary is fairly strong and I have decent reasoning skills, there are some things at which I am dumber than a box of rocks.

My mind tends to run at one speed, the same pace at which I talk: supersonic. I typically will answer the question I think you’re asking whether or not it’s the one to which you actually are seeking an answer. I edit my writing a lot, and often have others do the same, because words travelling from my head don’t always make it to the screen or page. It’s like I’m doing 90 on the freeway and miss my exit because I didn’t see the off-ramp sign.

In school I was always more a geometry guy than an algebra one. My arguments about politics and religion might be logical, but, like my math, it always comes back to the concrete.

I need visual examples and words to fully get a concept. If instructions aren’t thorough enough, problems may very well ensue. I’ve gotten enough bruises from assembling Swedish furniture to prove this point. And if something breaks around my house, I am more than likely calling a professional for the repair, so that in my attempt to fix it I don’t make the problem worse.

My wife, who’s brilliant herself, has acquired the patience of Job dealing with how many times I’ve been distracted from my appointed rounds. I am the walking definition of an absent-minded professor who has actually bumped into things while reading.

So no matter how well, or poorly, I do today, I know the test I am taking is one yardstick of intelligence and I am reminded every day there is so much I don’t know. I’m just thankful there are people who much more proficient in their “street smarts” and mechanical skills to keep book nerds like me from walking off proverbial, and, at times, literal, cliffs.