Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on Paris

Hoping to See a Few Old BuildingsAs an American, I am used to tourist spots that have a cluster of 1-12 old buildings somewhere that have passed the 100 year mark. You make your way to the parking lot, stand inside or in front of the building, maybe take a tour and then buy a postcard with that building on it. You marvel at how well the building matches the styling of its time. Naturally, travelling to Paris, I was hoping to see some old buildings. A figured I would get a couple dozen, here or there, to look at. I knew they would be older, and I knew there would be more.
What I didn't know is that every single building across almost the entire downtown area of Paris was going to be old. Everywhere, as far as I could see, everything thing was hundreds of years old. We started off in the Marais district (French for "Swamp" because that is what it was before one of the Louis's decided to build a palace there and had it drained). Up until a couple of decades a go it was apparently a bit seedy and low rent, but it has had an artsy SOHO transition and is quite an up and coming place. Further east, toward where the Bastille used to be located is where Louis placed his house, so all the other aristocrats decided that they were going to move there as well. Around that block specifically are aparently some insanely nice houses, although it is difficult to tell from the outside because for blocks in every direction the exteriors are using mostly the same motifs on the upper floors. The building we were staying in was probably six or seven blocks away in the progressively lower rent area, but when it was built several hundred years ago it was apparently quite the place to be. Looking out the window of the apartment I could see a great big puzzle set of stacks and rows of ancient French roofs.
The rows and rows of old apartment buildings, though, are nothing compared to the major architectural works, some of which date back to the 1100's. The Hotel De Ville (city administration office, where the Mayor resides) was built in 1357, and its inside was burned out completely post revolution during the public Commune riots (stone exterior remained intact), before being rebuilt. Notre Dame cathedral construction started in 1163. The Louvre had been the palace of various lords and kings since the 12th century. The Concierge (where Marie Antionette was imprisoned prior to her beheading) was one of the earliest palace of the Kings of France as early as the 10th century.

Fancy StuffI remember watching the first couple seasons of The Apprentice. One episode they filmed inside Donald Trump's Manhattan apartment. I am sure Donald thought it looked "very classy" (a phrase he uses a lot - when you have to tell people over and over that something is classy you know you are compensating for something that secretly you worry might not be). I thought it looked like a Greek whorehouse. Mirrors and glass and gold and pillars and statues everywhere. It appears that with all of Donald's money, all he really was capable of in terms of style was making tacky look very expensive. I couldn't understand what he thought he was trying to achieve. What could he possibly have been aspiring to that he thought would make other people believe he was "classy"?
Paris answered that question for me. Just looking at the major structures that adorn the exteriors of buildings like the Louvre or Hotel De Ville - or ten miles down the road in Versailles, or public squares I suddenly realized why Donald Trump thought he was accomplishing something by dumping tons of gaudy crap into his own apartment. It is because in his nouveau riche aspirations to be some sort of immortal icon of western culture, he is looking - like most of western culture has for centuries - to France as the model of what power and wealth looks like when manifest as conspicuous opulence. The problem is, Paris has somehow managed to do over the top, gaudy, audacious displays of ridiculous wealth and make it look good - impressive. The massive gold (I assumed it was gold...) fence bordering the front of Versaille, with all its filigrees and curls and details looks amazing. The gold statues that stand in the midst of Paris impress as they are meant to. The tangled mass of statues occupying the entire enormous front facade of Notre Dame make one marvel at the work and the time spent into creating it.
There is a ton of tacky that comes into play, even when the work amazes. In the Louvre, there is an entire massive room displaying about a dozen HUGE paintings commissioned by Maria Medici from Peter Paul Rubens to celebrate her marriage to King Louis of France. Every single one of the paintings allegorically depicts madame Medici at some point in her social and political life, using motifs of Greek gods and mythology. The theme, as best I could summarize it, is meant to be "Hey, this Medici woman is just the best dang thing that happened since clean water and sliced bread, and aren't we all just so much the better for having decided to be here with us?" On the one hand, that sort of self-aggrandizement just turns the stomach, but on the other hand, you have to wonder at Rubens' delivery of it and say... "Yeah, but just LOOK at it!"
I am wondering if maybe it requires one to be the "Ruler of just about everything that really matters right now for all the world that we know about, thank you very much" to pull off that kind of opulence. Maybe there is an extra necessary over the top boost in terms of expense and indifference to cost that can only come from the freedom of oppressing millions of starving surfs and peasants necessary to make such displays truly impressive and at the right scale. Maybe scale is all there is to it. Maybe tacky turns into "Oh My Dear God, will you look at that" when it dwarfs you. I don't know, but Paris sure does impress when it comes to fancy.

In Paris you EatMy only other trip to Europe was a three day work trip to Germany. Put simply, you do not go to Germany to experience the wonders of Bavarian food.
Paris, on the other hand, appears to be about eating as much as anything. There are multiple places to eat on every single block. The food seemed to be good almost everywhere we ate. The plates were pretty straightforward - steak and fries seemed to be one of the most pervasive offerings there. Salmon was very common as well - and served much better than I expected. Every corner had a cafe, every block has a deli (brasserie), a bakery (boulangerie), usually a butcher (trucaterie), or desert store (patisserie), periodically a cheese store (fromagerie). I discuss later this density of services, but as far as food goes, there was always a lot available.
Food prices are a bit deceptive. On the one hand, the equivalent meal in a typical restaurant in the United States would be twice as much or more. For example, a steak in even a medium range restaurant in the United states is going to run you 23+, and in a more expensive restaurant easily 35+. In a typical Paris cafe, the steak was about 15 euros - which comes to just under 20 dollars. And it is not as if the steak was bad - it was good. They don't do much with their steak. I noticed that at least in the cafes we ate, the food was prepared in a pretty minimalist fashion, and as far as I could tell the steak tasted as if they had just cooked it up with little or nothing on it. But it tasted really good anyway. Same went for the salmon. The plate cost about 15 euros, and was always very good.
At the same time, it was pretty difficult in a typical cafe in Paris to do dinner with five people without a bill of about 100 euros. While the price for the SAME THING in the United States would have been much more expensive, the menu options in the cafe were such that it was hard to spend less than about 15 euros for the plate. Add on that drinks, and... well, it is Paris... so the desserts, and you are right up at 100 euro territory. So, my take was, better value for what you get, but not as much option to go for less than what you are getting - in the cafes, anyway. The brasseries, with their walk-in, walk-out hot sandwich and pastry offerings were the far more economical choice - and also quite good.

No, I Will not be DrivingOne of the most frightening things to watch is the cyclists in Paris trying to negotiate their way through traffic. I am not certain, do they teach Newton's laws of physics in French schools? Are they aware of the relationship between mass, force and what happens to a human body when several tons of a fast moving metal omnibus squish a cyclist between it and the garbage disposal truck that the cyclist is trying to zoom in between? Everybody in Paris is threading a needle at high speeds. Perhaps this is seizing the moment, but I consider it seizing your LAST moment much earlier than it needed to come, if you get my point.
I have seen more aggressive driving elsewhere. Los Angeles does higher speeds. New York is all about casual indifference to actual lane markers or the actual meaning of traffic signals. Paris felt like something approaching New York. The drivers were all very opportunistic and extremely comfortable with tight spaces. There seemed to be only a casual relationship between a "Walk" signal being red or green and what pedestrians were doing. In a similar fashion, there was also a casual relationship between whether or not cars paid any attention to a walk signal being green - a pedestrian in the cross, with the green light on, seemed to have no impact on whether or not a car changed direction or speed. It wasn't exactly like New York - where as far as I could tell cars went at full speed with perfect timing toward the gap in the crowd of people jaywalking, nobody flinching as the careemed by inches from people's bodies. Instead, Paris seemed like the responsibility was on the pedestrian to mind the cars, who seemed to have no intent at all to accomodate.

The Street GameThe first person we met as we headed to Paris was on the train from Charles DeGaulle airport. The doors opened, and he looked out, saw us, and asked "Paris?", then nodded his head yes and ushered us to the doors. He stood in the door of the train, and helped load our bags. He was dressed casually, and I started scanning him for a uniform, or maybe a piece of equipment. Naively I thought that he might have been a transit employee... which seemed odd for a public train, but hotel shuttle drivers help people load their bags, so I was not sure. He appeared to be in his upper 30's, low 40's. Very strapping, healthy looking man.
Soon after everyone was on, this man went walking down the aisle of the train placing small cards on the bags. The text of the card was in French on one side, and English on the other. The card started off. "I am homeless..." and went on from there. After completing his distribution of cards, this man made his way back aggressively shaking has palm under people's faces. When someone didn't pay, he would challenge them - with a smile, but persistently. He picked up all his cards and got off at the next station. I presume he got the next train back to CDG and started all over.
There is a lot of this going on in Paris. At one point, I saw an old woman, bundled up heavily in clothes like some babushka, with a heavy scarf over her head. She was standing, leaned over perpendicular to her waist. She was leaning all her weight on a cane. She was holding a cup out from her hand, shaking it over and over. You could not see her face. She was so iconic old-world Europe looking in her clothes and appearance she could have been a cartoon. I found it interesting how such a character could have such a distinctive look. However, after two weeks in Paris, I saw that same "character" multiple times. Same type of clothing, exact same posture, exact same move with the cup. As sad and cynical as this conclusion was, I realized that this was a costume. It probably doesn't take away from the reality of the person's need for money, but the person is not wearing their actual every day clothing. You are not seeing a picture of their world as it really is. You are seeing their stage costume. Their work uniform.
A more charming version of this are the musical street buskers, who seem to do their work mostly in the subway. I will start by saying that the Parisian street buskers are very, very good. I am used to Seattle street buskers who have a very good, raw sound, but are technically weak and undisciplined. The Parisian musicians were much different. Their musical chops were very well honed. Some of them just put up shop in the hallways, hat or instrument case open for money, and played. But I also noticed that on the touristy legs of the subways (e.g. first one or two stations near Versaille, the leg from the Tracadero to Eiffel Tower, and the RER stop between Chatelet and the first station stop on the route to Disneyland) musician buskers would work the actual cars. They plan one, maybe two songs, and then just like the luggage loader at CDG they walk up and down the aisles with a hat or bag and shake it under people's faces.
I saw street con games play out several times. All the ones I saw were the shell game - one with little boxes, one with large round tiles (I am still trying to figure out the mechanism of how they cheat the switch on that) and of course 3 card monte. I got a chance, while waiting for a bus, to see the full game played out - even getting to observe the shills in action, accomplices of the performer pretending to win to sucker in the victim that promptly loses.

Parks and GardensParks and gardens in Paris are plentiful, quiet, formally trimmed, and just plain comfortable and relaxing. I get it. You go there as often as possible and you just sit. And sit. And then maybe sit some more.

Using EnglishUsing English in Paris is not much of a problem at all. I encountered a few places where people got impatient or frustrated, but for the most part people in Paris were very good at understanding and speaking English. I did observe something that seemed to indicate a predictor of how likely it was the person you were dealing with would speak English well. First were the places where the employer probably required fluent English anyway (museum staff, etc.) - in those places, speaking English with the staff was like speaking English at home. Next were places where the job required a bit of an intellectual challenge and entrepreneurism - like working in or operating a bakery, cafe or pharamacy. In these places, the people could at least understand the English you were speaking and use enough English to get by. Then there were places where the intellectual demands were not as high - taxi driver, metro ticket booth employee, etc. - in these cases, the chance the person would know any English seemed like a coin toss. Still, if you could point at a map, or write something down, or use a few words in French you can probably make it work.
I tried to use French words where needed. Everybody I met professionally always started the conversation with "Bon Jour", or "Bon Soir" (if evening), and closed with "Merci". So I would do likewise... but inevitably once they heard me say "Bon Jour", they immediately switch the the English equivalent as best they could. My accent and pronunciation gave me away immediately... and despite their reputation, the French to me seemed very politely accomodating.

Service is Politely... Not ServiceI exaggerate for humor sake, and truthfully the TRUE honor for lack of service probably goes to the Germans. What I noticed with French service is the following:
- formalities of "good day", "please", and "thank you" are always there
- the French want the transaction to happen as quickly as possible
- the French seem to want to appear as unsolicitous as possible... from an American sense of service this seems distant, but somehow I think I see how the French see it as more polite
- if you ask them for help, they will try very hard to help... but they will try to get you to help yourself first if it seems possible
For example, in America, if you need something from a waiter, you motion to them and they will usually visually make a very demonstative acknowlegement and then come right away to see what you want. I noticed that hosts in Paris would instead give you a quick, short head nod or glance - but they were ALWAYS in the middle of doing something else that they were going to finish first. However, they also ALWAYS came to check see what you needed. This is different than in America. In America, if that waiter doesn't come to you right away but does something else first, there is a high chance they are going to forget that you called them over. And the overt acknowlegement in America seems to be needed to establish some sort of friendly protocol - whereas in Paris, it is kind of a "yes, I saw you".
Another example... metro ticket booth employees. They want you to use the vending machines to buy tickets. If you go to the counter, they will point you to the machine. If you say what you want, they will tell you they cannot get it for you and point you to the machine. HOWEVER - if you try the machine and cannot figure it out, they will leave their booth and operate the machine for you. This is different in America because for America, service is kind of a binary state. Once a booth operator has told you they cannot help you, they just are not going to help you. If an American booth operator is going to help you, chances are on the first encounter they have already started gushing all over you - but when an American presents indifference, dammit, we mean it. The French presentation of indifference instead seems like a thin shell - make your case, and they seem pretty accomodating.

Big City, Little CityEvery block in Paris is a tiny little town. I never expected this because I have never lived in the urban center of a city before. When I first saw our apartment, I could not figure out with such a small refrigerator, and such little storage how one could keep around the various daily necessities. But after my first one minute walk down the stairs (almost all of Paris is six stories high or shorter) to the grocery store, bakery or pharmacy I suddenly realized that the only reason I need such a large refrigerator at home, with a large pantry, is because a trip to the grocery store is multiple hour ordeal. In our apartments in Paris, if we needed something, it was less than five minutes to walk downstairs and buy it.
I noticed that other than the small number of large streets (Rue du Rivoli - for example, runs the length of Paris and has all the big stores) every block face had the following: 1 bakery, 1 delicatessan, 1 pharamacy, 1 cafe, 1 grocery store, 1 produce store. Add to that the frequent other restaurants, cheese stores, fish stores, butchers, dessert stores and occassional clothing stores and you suddenly have a small town every 300 feet. Add to this that the business offices occupy the same buildings as residential apartments. Lawyers, doctors, dentitsts all work from the same buildings that people eat, sleep and watch TV in. We visited a doctor - we walked down the street two short blocks, and rang the bell on at a non-descript door. We were buzzed into a tiny hallway in an old building, and found ourselves sitting in a waiting room that must have been about 8 by 12 feet at the most... and it was stuffed with tons of personal affects. I suspect the facility served as both office and home to this doctor.
It was after a week of this that I realized living in an apartment in Paris presented more of the small town conveniences than a small town. These businesses service the same small group of people at the same times every day. They know each other. Everything they need for daily life is less than a 30 second walk away. Yet, in less than a minute, they can be on the Metro or a bus and be at the other end of town in ten minutes. Paris is built of thousands of tiny little towns, one street front at a time. It is modular.

Seattle Weather... Paris WeatherIf you are from Seattle, the weather in Paris is going to feel very, very, very familiar.

The Metro, oh Dear Lord The Metro
I am not going to romanticize the Metro, or subway system, in Paris. It is filthy and bustled and busy.
But it is also unbelievably convenient. Get a ticket, go anywhere in Paris. The stations open everywhere. There is a city under the city of tunnels, shops, conveyor belts, escalators - all for getting people on and off the trains that traverse underground Paris. The trains are fast and frequent. At first the maps are bewildering and confusing, but if you learn a few simple rules, you can get from anywhere to anywhere:
1. the trains are named based on where they start and end, and the labelling on signs use this to indicate direction
2. stops on the map with an open circle on them are junctions, and the map indicates which lines have stops at the junction
3. signs and arrows all through the underground direct you toward you train - signs with just a number mean you get to both directions by following it, signs with a number and an endpoint means following the arrow takes you to a train going a specific direction
4. you have 3 seconds after the beep before the doors close - this is a firm rule
5. keep your ticket until you get to the street - you need to use it when Metro lines cross areas that juncture with RER lines - there will be booths that require the ticket for you to get through

What the hell is this, Oliver Twist? Really? Pickpockets? I mean, is Faggen really somewhere in the alley coaching a group of filthy urchins to watch the Artful Dodger pinch the wallet off some rich bloke (I apologize for mixing metaphors... wrong city and country, I know... but I couldn't recall any pickpockets from French literature)? Everywhere you go, there are warning signs to beware of pickpockets. Rick Steve's travel store employees in Washington state will preach you into a puddle if you leave the store without purchasing a money belt. Really?
Yep. We were on the Metro. The train was the type of crowded where you really cannot move because everybody is pressing in so close. While we were there, Tanya felt vibrations coming from her purse - the some sort that the zipper makes when it is moved. She was so pinched in that she couldn't move, wheel about or reach out. Instead, she just clutched her shoulders and arms in tighter, bringing the purse closer to her body. She managed to check the purse, and someone had it halfway open.
We think we escaped unharmed... but I don't know. Everything is expensive enough in Paris that the Euros seem to disappear faster than you expected. It is just as likely a 20 or two got unknowingly pinched from our pockets while on a train or looking at a statue or something.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thoughts about Disneyland Paris

We visited Disneyland while in Paris. Here are some thoughts regarding that experience.

Getting There from Paris is Convenient... But Comes With a Few Tricks Required!Paris' underground train system - the Metro - is so conveniently planned you can find a nearby Metro system from nearly every possible location in Paris. The city system is called the Metro, and the suburban system is called the RER. Both connect easily  at various terminals throughout the city. The best strategy is to find your way via Metro to the massive junction at Chatelet (in the center of Paris, right by Forum Des Halles - apparently the largest subway station in the world) and get on the RER that runs east to Disneyland. The train stops right at the entry to the park, so once you are on the correct train you having nothing to do but wait. The ride takes about half an hour.
There are two tricky parts.
The first is purchasing the correct tickets. You can use a Metro ticket to get onto the Disneyland train, but you will find that the turnstyles at the Disneyland station will refuse to let you out. That is because the exit styles only accept the RER tickets. We were among many baffled passengers who relentlessly tried feeding their tickets into the machines, only to have them rejected before we forced our bodies through the gap in the gate.
The second is getting on the correct trains. The train that heads to Disneyland forks, one heading northest to Disneyland, the other heading southeast to.. well, NOT Disneyland. You have to read the boards carefully by the track. A sign at the station states all destinations for the next train coming, with a light next to the ones the next train serves. If the light for "Disneyland parc" is not illuminated, then the next train is the WRONG train.

The Entry to Disneyland Paris is Much CoolerThe Disneyland hotel sits right on top of the ticket gates to Disneyland. You have to walk through - er, under - the hotel to get in. The building is gorgeous, and really makes walking into the park a lot more fun than at Disneyland California.

The Castle is Better in Disneyland ParisThe castle exterior is much more stylized, much more fantasy looking than in California Disneyland. There are more in and outs getting around or through it to Fantasyland. The "Sleeping Beauty" storybook walkthrough on the second story is a very large, open space that is far more comfortable than the claustrophobic, overly hot narrow passageway in the California castle. But, best of all, the castle has a full sized dragon in the dungeon. The dungeon is kind of fun, as there are entries into it from the back of one of the stores, as well as from the exterior front and back of the castle. And this is no small, what is that thing over there kind of dragon. The dragon is big, very animated, and close up to the viewing walkway. Definitely a big plus.

Phantom Manor Has Plusses and MinusesThe exterior of the Haunted Mansion - or rather, Phantom Manor - is victorian, and looks almost identical to the house from the movie Psycho. It sits on a crest pretty high above Frontierland. This contrasts greatly with the house in California, whose exterior is antebellum (which makes it fit in with New Orleans Square - post civil war mansions had more roman pillars and such), or with the Haunted Mansion in Florida, whose exterior is gothic. The exterior of Phantom Manor is much more worn and dilapidated, making it feel really creepy. It fits in well with the Frontierland theme, and is meant to be part of a story involving the Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. The inside of the first part of the ride is almost identical with the California ride. The interiors of both are Victorian, with mostly the same illusions and gags. However, these gags have a story more solidly woven into them with the Paris park, involving a ghostly bride, and a phantom character that appear consistently throughout. In spite of that, those parts of both rides feel like essentially the same thing with minor adjustments.
The end of the Paris ride is completely different than the California ride. In California, you descend out the back window of the mansion and into the graveyard, where ghosts dance and sing around the tombstones. The effect is largely comical and light hearted. In Paris, you descend into the grave and underground, where you wind up in a "Boot Hill" nightmare land below ground. There is mockup western ghost town with ghouls and spooks all over. The effect is not nearly as whimsical. It is downright creepy. It fits the western theme really well, but I wouldn't say it has the same charm as the California ride. It is fun, but it is also most certainly different.

Alice in Wonderland is a Hedge MazeIn a park like Disneyland, you would think a hedge maze would get so little room that it couldn't possibly be entertaining or amusing. I was very pleasantly surprised with the Alice in Wonderland hedge maze. It was marvellous. It felt like we were walking through it forever, and the various little gimmicks and such were fun to see. The castle of the Queen of Hearts in the middle was fun to climb up, and you get a really good view of Fantasyland from up there. The view was good enough that I spotted the storybook canal boats in a location I didn't even know was available.

Pirates Uses its Space More EfficientlyThe California version of the ride has a lot of dead air time while the boats float through the caves. The Paris version of the ride has pretty much the same gags and gimmicks (in different order), but packed more closely together. It is a pretty good ride. What it does not have is the bayou entry point, which has always been one of my most favorite immersive experiences at the California park. I always felt that the "you are in a swamp" illusion there was so complete that by the time you had entered the remainder of the ride all disbelief had been tossed overboard and dumped in Davy Jones locker.

Critter Country and New Orleans Square are Gone...The space for these two lands is added to Frontierland and Adventureland, both of which are much larger than their California counterparts. Adventureland is very large, making for a better walking and getting around experience. The "Tom Sawyer Island" (which I think now in California is "Pirate Island" or something) idea has been turned into a much larger space and pretty much 50% of the navigation through Adventureland requires traversing various mountains, going through caves or crossing suspension bridges. I think this was a brilliant idea, because stuck on the island as they are in California the really are only accessible to those willing to get on the keel boats to get there. Given how dry and hot that island gets, it becomes pretty undesirable for most adults, and the island shuts down at night for Fantasmic. In Paris, the Island is where Thunder Mountain Railroad is. That was a brilliant swap.

Spaceplanning in Disneyland Paris is Mostly Much BetterI am not sure if it would be capable of accomodating the same sized crowds that California Disneyland has on a regular basis (Disneyland Paris feels smaller... not sure if it is), but something about the way the laid out the streets, walkways, rides and thoroughfares seems much, much smarter. For example, running parallel to Main Street, on the interior, is a long wide hallway that runs completely uninterrupted from the start of Main Street to the circle at its end in front of the castle. The hallway is decorated in 1900 styling, with artwork and display cabinets all up and down - so the theming remains strong, consistent with Main Street overall and still attractive. There are wide doors on the side toward Main Street which open up to interior facades that back the stores and cafes along the street. This results in a fast, high capacity way to exit or enter the park without having to deal with congestion on Main Street itself (crowds, parades, fireworks).
In general it felt as if there were fewer impassable chokepoints in the park. That horrendous train wreck of space planning that happens in Adventureland in California just doesn't exist.

Space Mountain SurprisesSpace Mountain is all cyberpunk and Jules Verne. The external theming is gorgeous. The ride interior theming could be stronger (I think they lost some great opportunities for decoration and ornamentation). The ride cars have rivets and bolts on them. They look like they were constructed in 1900, not 2300. The ride has a giant gun on the exterior of Space Mountain from which the riders are launched up to the top and down into the mountain. This is reminiscent of Jules Verne's "From Earth to Moon", as well as George Melies' movie of the same title, where the first manned moon vehicle is essentially a giant shell launched from a massive gun.
The ride itself surprises, especially if you have ridden its California counterpart. In California, the cars descend slowly up the hill, and slowly pick up speed as the come around the first corner, and then commit to going faster as the begin steeper descent. In Paris, the cars are launched from the bottom at high speed, just like being shot out of a gun. The inside has more visual effects in terms of planets and celestial objects and such. The car feels faster (and more shaky, so if you have neck issues I would avoid the ride). But, above all, the biggest surprise was the loop. A loop is a very bizarre thing to encounter in the dark on a roller coaster when you don't expect it. Your only awareness of it is the sudden change in G forces. To add to that, soon after the loop, the ride does a corkscrew, which, again, your only hint is the sideways turn and inversion. The ride was a blast, but I was walking sideways by the time I was done.

There is a Lot More FoodIt felt like Disneyland Paris has many more food service facilities than Disneyland California. Then again, it seems like Paris in general has many more food service facilities per square meter than anywhere else I have ever been, so maybe that is just a requirement of doing business in France.

People Don't Wear as Much MerchTanya noticed this. In California, every other child is wearing Micky ears. The guests are all adorned and decked out in Disney themed merchandise. We didn't seem the same thing in Paris. There were a lot of little girls in princess dress costumes, but otherwise, we just didn't see the people walking around with Disney product swinging from their bodies and perched on their heads.

Disney StudiosWe didn't really get what we should have out of Disney Studios. There was a Toy Story themed area that was pretty cute. There was a flying carpet ride (think Dumbo ride, but with carpets). There was an inside roller coaster with a "Finding Nemo" theme (spinning cars, on a roller coaster, in the dark - I got slightly nauseous). But overall, there didn't seem to be that much of interest as rides went. The facades were also all mostly flat painted building structures, and they did a poor job giving the guests a preview of exactly what the ride or attraction actually had to offer. That said, Tower of Terror is located there, as is an Aerosmith themed roller coaster, which both serve as a pretty big draw.

Noteworthy Disappointment - Backlot Tram RideI normally don't harsh on rides for being less than expected, but this one in particular had to be the most miserable, dreadful waste of park space, and my own time, that I have ever seen. The ride is presented much like the Universal Studios tram ride, but doesn't even come close to comparing. You get driven past a couple of props, which, as far as I can tell, all came from the following movies: 1> Dinotopia, 2> Pearl Harbor (the one with Ben Affleck...), 3> 101 Dalmations. I had to explain to my children what the movie Dinotopia even was. The tram cars had a video on them with an actress I did not recognize and Jeremy Irons delivering what I believe was meant to be humorous and ironic commentary on the ride's offerings. "Phoning it in" would have been a un-deserved complement to Jeremy Iron's performance on this video. A better term might have been "Self-loathing, depressed, bitterness filled daze". There are two special effects sequences on this tram ride. One is "calamity canyon", which I would summarize as "fake canyon, some fire, and then a lot of water". The
next sequence went something like this "And now we are travelling into London, but not any London YOU MAY HAVE SEEN, but instead a London as if it were ATTACKED BY DRAGONS". Okay, so this was an outdoor set of a crumbling London street scene, as if it had been hit with an earthquake. The tram curves through the set, and then pauses by a big circular structure. Steam starts coming out of the circular structure. I think "Oh... cool... dragons! They are going to have a dragon!!! A big, cool looking mechanical dragon". I turn to my kids and smile and I can see they think the same thing. I turn back to the circular structure, because, you know, where else do you hide a giant hydraulically powered robotic dragon? The steam increases, a loud rumbling sound starts, you feel the heat building. Flame starts coming out of the structure, and you just know
the dragon is going to pop out any second. Then the tram starts up and leaves and goes back to the start of the ride where, dizzy from the earth-shattering disappointment of NOT getting to see a dragon, you get off.

Is it Worth It?I have a hard time answering this in a way that I think might appeal to most people. For myself and my family, we have visited Disneyland so often that we are very sensitive to small changes and differences. We can tell when something in the California park has been moved, altered or painted differently. Just looking for differences from visit to visit is fun for us. So in a lot of ways what I really wanted to see was how different the Paris version of the park was. I have heard people say "Disneyland Paris is the same as Disneyland California, except that Mickey speaks French". To that, I think this is someone who really just doesn't LIKE Disneyland all that much. So if you are the sort of person whose plans for someday going to Disneyland are "Let's spend half a day, put the kid on Dumbo, and then leave", then I guess Disneyland Paris is not for you. But if you are the type of person who has the words to "Grim Grinning Ghosts" memorized, and taps the person next to you in your Doom Buggy on the shoulder and says "Hey, check it out! The Grave Digger's dog is missing!!!", then Disneyland Paris is going to seem as if it has hundreds of differences. So, if you are in the "Disney indifferent" crowd, and don't have little kids, I would say skip Disneyland Paris. If, however, you are a Disneyland fan, and you wind up in Paris with at least a day or two available, I say jump on the subway and take the relatively pain free ride out to the park. I wouldn't even bother with booking one of the hotels near the park - the train ride back really is easy enough to do if you have a place in Paris close to a Metro station.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Economy in rhyme

One of my Facebook friends posted a "Dr. Suess 2011" status. I am not sure if they wrote it, or if it was rolling around the viral-sphere. It was pretty funny. It was right-wing slanted, but that did not diminish from how funny it was, and in this climate, well, everyone has a point.

From my perspective, though, it was too difficult to read that poem and not react. To me it was a challenge. Frame the current economic debate in rhyme. The result is below. My own liberal bias shows through a bit, despite my attempt to play both sides as being the problem. Still, I think it is more about the meter and rhyme than being fair-minded...

by Wayne Roseberry

The budget was monstrous
the deficit growing
taxes were low and
spending was flowing

the economy was stuck
way down in the gutter
jobs in the toilet
no bucks to buy butter

when congressmen
senators all gathered and fought
to put the blame on each
what all of them wrought

With axes to taxes
the Republicans sought
to cut spending on those
who really had nought

They protected the rich
who had money galore
"To make us more jobs
the rich will need more!"

with eyes on the poor
the Democrats moaned
"What will they all do,
with their entitlements gone?"

"The poor are all whiners,"
Republicans snorted
"They're much better off
with taxes aborted!"

The Democrats shrieked
and uttered a cry
"My mother's on welfare,
she's going to die!!"

"Meanwhile the fatcats,
are sitting on cashes,
instead of making us jobs
they're fattening their asses!"

"The whole game is rigged
to keep rich growing richer
while the poor grow much poorer
and keep getting sicker."

when off on the side
of this mud slinging fest
the banks all chuckled
and put their feet up to rest

"We screwed them coming in
We'll screw them coming out
They're both far too stupid
To know what its about"

"We've got them convinced
we're absolutely essential
to keep feeding us money
so we can foreclose on your rental"

Meanwhile in the sands
of a far distant war
they kept burning up money
and who knows what for?

"Enemies surround us!"
They shouted and and roared
Dropping bombs on enemies
until they made more

The problem of course
is to difficult for any one side
to be all right or all wrong
we have to agree to decide

But instead of aggreeing
in a compromising way
the Republicans held hostage
the debt ceiling that day

"Give us all that we asked,
and nothing you wish.
Or we the blow this whole thing up
Won't that be de-lish?"

And the Democrats rather
than admit that the cuts
might just be needed
all went crazy and nuts.

"Tax on the rich!
Hang those old geezers!
Its righteous and right!
Use their money to make cheeses!"

The problem is teams
whose in yours and whose not
While seeking to win
Everyone forgot

That politicians have
a job to be done
Far more important than which side
is elected and won

So I say vote them all out
Let's wipe the slate fresh
Find folks that can compromise
And not make such a mess

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Now that the second book is out...

I published my second novel, "Millicent Marbleroller and the Bear Monster Army" back in October. The story is a sequel to the first book, and picks up the action right where the last book ended.

It took quite a lot longer to publish the book than I anticipated. That is ironic, given that I self-publish and the schedule is completely under my control. However, I got stuck on some creative choices for a while. I also made the original version of the book far too long and had to spend a lot of time trimming the story back. Story trimming is somewhat like changing software. Sometimes you remove parts that other parts were dependent on, and you never notice it until you try to make everything work together. The cutting was necessary, though, as there was way too much action that had very little to do with the plot and rather than add excitement and interest it really just slowed things down and made them less interesting.

The other part of the process that took a long time was editing and review. With the first book, I most relied just on myself, with a little bit of a review by family. The result was some rather scathing comments from readers of the book regarding need for proofreading. So, this time I decided to have somebody proof-read it beforehand. I found a friend, Jen Kinard, who had done proof reading professionally before.

The book really benefited from the review. I actually had her do both the first book and the new book (I re-released the first book with illustrations, a popular request). In addition to correct my horrific abuse of commas, Jen also found lots of inconsistencies in the story. There were also scenes that I had put in arbitrarily to do nothing other than initiate conversations that allowed for character development, and Jen was much better at pointing out to me how pointless and flat the action seemed. I had become attached to the character development, and in doing that had ignored the "what is she doing THAT for?" moments the reader was experiencing when reading the story. I had to let go of my attachments and cut some very awkward material. The book was much better for it.

But commiting myself to review of the book before publishing really pushed out the publishing timeline. I am not a patient person, but in the end I believe the patience was necessary.

So, the book has been getting slow sales since its October 26th, 2010 release. That doesn't bother me so much, as the first book had slow sales as well, especially during the first year. I am hoping the Christmas season sees an increase during the first two or three weeks of December. Last year was particularly good for the first book.

I have a box of the books on order so I can take them to book signings. My sister-in-law Theresa manages a Border's down in Tukwila, so I plan on getting there around the middle of December. I am preparing a bunch of bookmarks to give away. I learned that trick from another author who I was sitting next to the last time I was at Theresa's store. She would say "would you like a free bookmark?" and stick it in people's hands as they walked by the front of the store. That was the ice breaker for talking about the book. It worked amazingly well. Much better than my own "Sit at the table and let the book self itself" strategy ;-)

You aren't supposed to say these things until you are done (says who? I think it's some crap I picked up off a Wayne Dwyer show that was polluting the channels as I was flipping around the TV dial one night - some crazy junk about "releasing the energy and losing it"), but I have started the third book. If anybody has finished the second book yet you know by now that a third book is necessary. The first book ended with a nice clean conclusion and only hinted at more possibilities, but the second book ends on a cliffhanger, literally, there's an honest to goodness  cliff involved. I was obligated to get started on the third book. One of the things I want to avoid is letting the original audience get so old they wouldn't want to finish the series, so I am trying to get this third one out as soon as I can.

My problem is I don't exactly know what happens in the third book yet. I have the ending figured out, and certainly the beginning, but the middle right now is pretty much "stuff happens until they get to the ending". If you were to ask me right now how it all ends, I would say "well, the ending is obvious, don't you think?", but I have the advantage of controlling the ending, so that statement might not be fair. Still, I have a suspicion that once the book is done and people read it they are going to agree that, of course, the book had to end that way.

There is an over-arching theme in Millicent Marbleroller that should be apparent even from the first book. It has to do with realizing things about yourself and how you approach life. It's not a big heavy handed moral ethic of any sort, but there is a lesson that Millicent is learning. I didn't realize the lesson was there until I was nearly done with the first book. Millicent struggles with certain inner conflicts, and how she resolves those conflicts are key to the lesson of the story. The second book takes this same theme even farther. Like the first book, I did not realize that I was introducing psychological symbols into the stories until after I had written them. The bear monsters, in their misshapen form and uncontrollable behavior, are a physical manifestation of Millicent's inner struggle with herself. The robot box and the black vans are symbolic of pressures and expectations that Millicent hasn't figured out how to confront. These themes of struggle, learning and growth will continue into the final book.

Of course, if I think about stuff like THAT while I write I am probably going to kill the story, so now is the time for me to shove it all into the back of my skull where the ghosts of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell lurk. The real thing to do is see to it that the story moves along, the action is fun and the jokes funnier.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sorry Avatar... you were fun, but not Oscar stuff

I have a rule for stories that teach a moral. Base the moral on principals that actually match the situation, not some fantasy concoction that is contrived to appeal to people's emotions. It is my contention that if the moral's point is really important enough to push that it will stand on its own merits.

Some examples of such morals:

Fatal Attraction: moral - don't have extramarital affairs
Why - movie reason: because the person you have an affair with might be a psychopath and might try to kill yiou
Why - real reason: because you are married, you dumb-ass!

Happy Feet: moral - we should preserve habitat of species like penguins
Why - movie reason: because maybe they do something cool like tap dance
Why - real reason: numerous, but for starters because the ecosystem is complex and if we ruin it so much penguins cannot live in it, who knows what it will do to us

Avatar: moral - we should not destroy nature and should respect the homelands of people we meet
Why - movie reason: because those people might just have a super cool biological ethernet with persisted storage shoved away inside all those trees and plants
Why - real reason: let's start at injustice and then make our way through the same list I used for Happy Feet

Don't get me wrong. I loved the biological neural network, persisted memory concept. That was one of the better science fiction ideas I have seen in a long time. I just hated how contrived the morality of it all was. The storyline of Avatar was incredibly contrived. The writing layered so many "and then..." conitions necessary to carry off the script (I resist saying plot) that it felt very deus ex in the end. All we are waiting for is the mighty power of the word processor to declare victory for our heroes.

Plop this all on top of an incredibly obvious re-hashing of very heavy handed cliche's. The noble savage. The greedy corporation. Hudson's Bay Company meets Jungle Planet X in search of unobtanium!!! The symbolism is layered thicker than cheese on a Godfather's Pizza, so thick that Cameron didn't even bother to give unobtainium a name (FWIW: as per wikipedia, unobtainium is a word used by chemists, physicists and their ilk to refer to something that has properties necessary to accomplish some goal, which might POSSIBLY exist, which we have not established exists, but which we are pretending exists for sake of argument). I refuse to give someone credit for writing a script when they don't even replace the boilerplate text.

I thoroughly enjoyed Avatar (once I got over the motion sickness), and would recommend it as a good way to enjoy an afternoon. The science fiction concepts were cool, the characters were fun, the visuals were astounding and the action was exciting. All that said, though, I just don't feel as if something that contrived, obvious and heavy handed really deserves an Oscar.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On Presidents and the Rapture

Is it morally correct for a person who believes that the end of the world is at hand, who believes in the apocalypse, who believes in armageddon, who believes in the rapture, and more importantly, believes they will be called up to Heaven during the rapture, to run for President?

Think about that. Makes you really want to cruise through the chain of command and assess the first unwashed heathen that person chose.  Here is the official list of the chain of Presidential succession:
  1. Vice President
  2. Speaker of the House
  3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  4. Secretary of State
  5. Secretary of the Treasury
  6. Secretary of Defense
  7. Attorney General
  8. Secretary of the Interior
  9. Secretary of Agriculture
  10. Secretary of Commerce
  11. Secretary of Labor
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  14. Secretary of Transportation
  15. Secretary of Energy
  16. Secretary of Education
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  18. Secretary of Homeland Security
I am predicting someone on the evangelical far right is going to lock up buddies of salvation all the way to "Secretary of Health and Human Services". After that, there are too many "good things done by government", and I am sure all the folks there your typical righty would be happy to see perish leading the faithless in a battle against the forces of darkness during Armageddon.

Isn't that just the height of responsibility? What if, two seconds after "So help me God." the newly elected is sucked to heaven, leaving the rest of us to cope with a thousand years of hellfire and warfare?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The website that flipped my brain

I personally believe that most people never really change their minds about how the world works. This became an apparent phenomenon in communication and rhetorical theory when supposed "silver bullet" theories of persuasion were demonstrated ineffective when they bounced off the walls of people's disposition and existing beliefs.

Which is why it is always surprising to find something that changes your mind on a topic completely in ways you never expected. It is also surprising when changing your mind forces you to admit things you did not want to admit about what you used to believe. Sometimes these admissions make you feel guilty.

The following website did this to me a few years ago: I was led to this website by the following video:

Okay, so here is the mind flip. Previous to watching this video, and then following to the website, my belief system was as follows:
  • people who are so impaired that they uncontrollably moan and hand flap (or other behaviors we would consider odd) are so impaired that their intellect is also impaired
  • likewise, people who are so impaired that even though they can hear and can vocalize but they still cannot talk are also intellectually impaired
  • the level of intellectual impairment is strong enough that they really don't have the level of self-awareness to appreciate what is happening around them
  • as sad as their existence seems, it is not as if they are really missing anything - as if life is kind of a blur to them - almost a sub-intelligent madness of sorts

So, I see this video (you have to watch it to see what I mean), and then I follow to the website. In just a few minutes, the entire belief construct had to come tumbling down. This isn't something that comes crashing down without pain - because you have to admit that you are participating in a belief construct that has led to cruel isolation, institutionalization, ridicule, patronization, etc. for a group of people that are just as intellectually capable of perceiving the world around them as anybody.

The crash came from reading the writings of the website author. She is the individual in the video - she cannot speak. She flaps her hands uncontrollably. She emits a humming "language" that is a sensory interaction between herself and the elements in her environment (the water from the faucet, etc.). Every single bit of behavior in the video appears odd, strange. Most people (myself included) would have looked at her and just thought she was an invalid - incapable of formulating real thought.

But contrast that, then, to her writing on the website. As she explains in some of her posts, the writing comes with extreme effort. It is taxing for her to do it. But she forces herself to because she is an activist. The quality of the material, of the arguments and the writing is incredibly high - and not high in a "oh, how cute... the cripple is saying something" way you might get on some sort of Oprah show. This is high quality as in "Geezus, I wish the folks at Newsweek wrote this well once in a while". This is hard hitting, unapologetic, unsentimental hyper-opinionated stuff with lots of edge and incredibly well constructed arguments.

So, my reaction. Frankly - horror. The best analogy I could think of was premature burial, maybe waking up in surgery. I suddenly thought to myself - "Oh my god, what must it be like to be tossed away in institutions, or to be treated as badly as these people have been, and to be fully aware and awake and able to fully feel all the pain and emotions?" I imagined what it would be like if I were suddenly stripped of all ability to communicate, and then had some weird movement quirks tossed on top, but otherwise still the same... and then to be handed over to a bunch of people who didn't know there was a "me" inside. I suddenly realized that for hundreds - thousands - of years, this is what we had been doing to autistic people.

I excused myself from the guilt. I blamed it on ignorance, product of my times and all that. Fact is, though, I still feel bad. I also have to wonder if I ever would have bothered to watch the video if my own son were not autistic, or if my oldest daughter had not had so many developmental issues growing up. There is a part of me that wants to call me a hypocrite for letting my mind be changed... "You wouldn't if it wasn't impacting you directly." - that's what the little voice says.

But I guess the only important question is, what do you do with the information?

For me, it has meant a lot to how I interact with my son, Ethan. My gut reaction is to assume that if he isn't behaving the same way I expect that he isn't "getting it" - frankly, my gut reaction is to give him about as much credit as I might give a dog. I have to fight this gut reaction, though, and force myself to act as if he "gets it" just as much as all the other kids. It is so difficult, because all the cues for getting it (looking in the eye, acknowledging with the correct verbal response, etc. - its hard to describe the gap) are missing and are replaced with every indication that the kid is just somewhere else. But still, I pretend I am not seeing it and talk to him like I would talk to a kid that isn't acting autistic.

What I find is that he actually does get it. As far as I can tell, he gets things on a level consistent with other kids his age - he just has all these autistic issues that get in the way. I can say something to him like "Ethan, go find the remote control" and he will go around the house looking for the remote control. If I ask him "Ethan, where is the remote control", however, I will get a nonsense response like "Ethan not remote control"... if I get a response at all.

He even makes jokes. Almost all our conversations are scripted. For example, he might ask "Daddy, do you want to eat an apple?", and then "Daddy, do you want to eat waffle?" and then back to apple, and then waffle. He does this because he has the script for it memorized - these are not extemporaneously composed sentences. But then, in the middle of it, he looks at me and said "Daddy, do you want to eat Chewbacca?", and he gets this big snarky grin on his face and starts laughing his ass off.

So, now, pretend I had never suppressed my gut instinct. Suppose I never commited to communicating with him like he knows what I am saying. Suppose that his therapists never believed that he was capable of this level of understanding.

When he was younger, he made zero eye contact. He wouldn't turn his head if you called his name. If he wanted something, he would grab your hand, and put it on the thing he wanted - he saw you, and your hand, as a tool - not as a human being. We had to put weeks and weeks of training in to teach him to say "Daddy, I want ". It was incredibly difficult.

The fact is, he would far more easily just sit and play by himself and never interact with another human at all. In lots of ways, it really was easier to treat him like a dog. It would have been so much easier to leave him that way, and just assume that is all there really was with him. That is what society has been doing with autistic people all along. At some point, though, they get too big and too old to just let sit around - their desires and needs get more sophisticated - and they become physically strong enough that their actions can hurt themselves or the people around them. At that point, this person who nobody has learned how to talk to, and that has not been taught how to talk to other people, is put away somewhere. Maybe they are left on the street, maybe they are locked in the basement, maybe they are put in an institution. Society rejects them.

But I realize now that Ethan just needs help. How much help is hard to forsee, but he is a fully intelligent, thinking, feeling individual that is capable of realizing what is going on around him. The possibility exists that the amount of help he needs may someday exceed our capacities as parents (there are gut-wrenching horror stories out there) - but knowing that being autistic, even when the symptoms are very overt and seemingly disabling, does not equate to some sort of below-conscious state has been an important tool in my belt as a parent.

That is the most important way the website and video affected me. Not many things do that to me.

There are other ways I was affected - more mildly. I was impressed, for example, that a person could be so eloquent when they had spent so much of their life unable to talk to other people. Most people I know have a very difficult time writing anything coherently. I was impressed, even more so, by the viewpoints and arguments in the blog postings, all of which were so novel and new to me. It is rare that you get to hear a totally new idea tossed about, and BallastExistenz has plenty of them.