Monday, July 25, 2016

Toaster's Adventures in Florida (Part 2)

The Adventures of Toaster in Florida (Part 2)

The Busch Gardens Death March

Wow, I was intending to put this up right away. However, things get in the way such as life, apathy and various projects. Yes, I am borrowing that from comedian John Pinette as it's not only hilarious but just as apt as his "Epcot Death March" in that it was insanely hot. It was in the mid-90's with humidity so bad it felt like you were wading in the air outside!

Before we left the hotel for Busch Gardens, I found the Lithium station on the Sirius XM radio in the rental car. It basically just plays 90's alternative, though it does branch out slightly (for instance it played Nine Inch Nail's "The Hand That Feeds" which came out in 2004 I think). I figure I would listen to that channel a lot if I had satellite radio.

Anyways, we entrusted Google Maps to give us directions to Busch Gardens and it succeeded... in getting us to the employee entrance. Seriously? Outside of an occasional delivery or a new employee, the vast majority of Google Maps users trying to get to Busch Gardens are going to attend the park! what the hell Google Maps? (Note: this would not be the last time I said this during the trip.)

So we eventually found the real entrance and paid for parking. I really hate paying for parking. It is such a rip-off; a cheap-ass excuse for someone to make extra money to pad profits by for providing virtually nothing in return. Worse yet, none of them are willing to take responsibility if anything bad happens to your vehicle (such as vandalism or break-ins) which is just wrong. If a concert venue or amusement park or comic book convention are going to force me to pay additional money just for the privilege of being able to park my only means to get to their destination, that should make said venue responsible for the well being of my vehicle while it's in their "care." It's irresponsible to create a situation where hundreds of people are paying to put their cars in one place and then do nothing to prevent criminals from harming those vehicles.

Having gotten that rant out of the way, I can get back on topic. We paid a bit extra to park closer to the park so we didn't have to walk a mile or cram into a tram to get to that lot. Then we had to stand in line for tickets for a ridiculously long time, in the ungodly heat. Well, most of the time it was TivoGirl standing in line while I tried to placate Little Toaster... which wasn't easy. They didn't have any gift shops by the ticket area, so we were mostly limited to standing and sweating. I was pretty much soaked in sweat before we even got into Busch Gardens. Humidity and I do not get along.

We found the kangaroo feeding area, one of TivoGirl's favorite parts of our trip to Busch Gardens in 2011 before Little Toaster had been built from leftover parts (I can only assume that's how he came about). When we got to the entrance we were asked how old Little Toaster was. Finding out he was four, they informed us that only children ages 5 and up could feed the kangaroos. Now to their credit, they were nice enough to give Little Toaster some free food to feed the ducks that were also in the exhibit, which he enjoyed. However, it seems kind of dumb to me. I don't see what is so dangerous for animal or child in a scenario where you hold out your hand and the kangaroo (or wallaby), a vegetarian creature, eats out of your palm. It's not like everyone was unsupervised during feedings! We didn't bother to buy any food for the kangaroos because it was the end of their feeding time and most were already full. Instead, TivoGirl decided we should return for their 5:30 feeding.

After that, we found the little kid area which had a Sesame Street theme. Little Toaster enjoyed himself there, especially a Count themed ride where he got in a car and rode in it on a set track. At that point the heat was really starting to get to me. Many years ago at Cedar Point, a different amusement park in Ohio, I got heat exhaustion. Since then I am much more prone to getting sick from hot weather. I bought a $13 refillable souvenir cup that had unlimited refills of fountain drinks or frozen slush drinks all day, but even unlimited ICEEs weren't helping. Eventually I had to backtrack to a rather nice gift shop we had passed that had air conditioning. I stayed in there probably a half hour, looking at their selections of fancy stones and handmade drums. That did the trick. Once we were able to pry Little Toaster away from Sesame Street land we continued touring the park, seeing such sights as Tigers asleep in the heat, a chimpanzee peeing into a waterfall and a gorilla carrying it's baby around, which was pretty cute.

Then there was the train. We got on a steam locomotive that takes a trip around the Busch Gardens Serengeti area before letting you off somewhere else in a park. We got on and went for about three minutes. The train then stopped. It stayed there for probably 45 minutes in the 90 something degree super humid heat of the day. We weren't allowed to get off the train. We weren't even allowed to stand. The conductor, whom we could hear via a speaker wired to each car, had been explaining various sights for the few minutes we were moving. During our unscheduled stop, he spent much of the next 45 minutes alternating between telling people to sit down and assuring us that we would be moving soon. It was when he announced that park employees were going to be bringing us all water that I knew we weren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Needless to say, it was miserable on that train, especially given the knowledge that everyone could have walked back along the rails to where we got on many times over instead of cook. Poor Little Toaster had gotten a bead of sweat mixed with sunscreen in his eye and was understandably distraught from the pain. I spent much of the time texting a friend, continuing to debate him that Drogon from Game of Thrones would totally kick Charizard's ass! (Come on, the fight would be over with one bite!) They finally brought us all our waters, chilled bottles of Dasani. It was a nice gesture, though I assume it was less to be accommodating and more to prevent possible lawsuits. Still, they sell those bottles for around $4 a piece. I generally don't drink Dasani as, like Aquafina, it's just glorified tap water. If I'm paying for bottled water, I prefer that it comes from a spring or glacier. I joked that if the park were really sorry for the train delay they'd give me some Fiji water!

Eventually the train got moving again. They never told us the reason for the delay, but my guess is that some large animals, like zebras or giraffes, were standing on the tracks and wouldn't budge. It didn't seem like a mechanical problem. So, we saw the plains animals eating and walking around. When the next stop came, we immediately got off the train. I was definitely done with the train.

We went back to the Kangaroo feeding area just after 5:30, in plenty of time to give them lunch or dinner or whatever meal they were having. This time they didn't ask about Little Toaster's age, but in the end he didn't care about feeding anything but the ducks anyway. TivoGirl and I fed several kangaroos and I fed a wallaby. That was pretty cool.

I was pissed to find that my favorite thing from our 2011 trip, an exhibit of sea otters, had been replaced by penguins! Penguins are fine, but otters are way more fun to watch. I could watch otters swimming and playing for hours. Penguins... not so much.

There's not much more to tell of the Busch Gardens trip.  I watched Little Toaster while TivoGirl rode some sort of water ride, possibly one involving logs. In the meantime, Little Toaster and I perused a huge gift shop near the exit of the park. I find it annoying how many souvenirs are made in China. It makes it hard for me to believe this thing I buy is a real keepsake if it doesn't really even come from the area I'm buying it from. Regardless, Little Toaster got a big eyed stuffed monkey toy, which I named Fernando.

Eventually left Busch Gardens and drove about an hour to Bradenton and then to Anna Maria Island, where we would be staying.

Next time: Tropical Storm Colin

Friday, June 17, 2016

Toaster's Adventures in Florida! (Part 1)

Every year the Toaster family takes a trip and stays at some new locale in a time-share condo from a membership owned by TivoGirl’s grandmother. This year it was Anna Maria Island in Florida. For those who don’t know, Anna Maria Island is a very thin strip of an island on the Gulf coast between Tampa and Sarasota. The idea was to spend a week hanging out at the beach with some a few random destinations scattered throughout, such as museums or local shopping. It turned into an interesting trip filled with lots of good and a few negatives.

I’ll begin with the Detroit airport. I’m unsure of how this came about, but the Detroit airport is primarily a hub of airline giant Delta. In fact, there are two terminals. Usually when we fly, we go for the most cost effective way imaginable (which TivoGirl has down to a science of balancing various credit cards for rewards and airline miles). This means we fly Spirit a lot. A Spirit flight is about as barebones as you can get save hanging out in a cargo hold. No perks, no frills, just a cheaper flight.

This means we usually end up in the regular terminal from which most of the airlines fly. It’s a dreary old building with a smattering of fast food, coffee and those convenience store places happy to sell you the items you wanted to bring but weren’t allowed to take through security, at insane prices. It is clear to me that certain companies have used the tragedy of 9/11 and other random terrorist attempts as an excuse to make a serious profit. Case in point: bottled water. It’s so easy to verify that a drink is water. Vodka can be identified with little trouble, not that you can do much harm with that. If that’s an issue, allow only sealed bottled water through. But no, it’s easier just to force passengers to purchase a $3.75 bottle of water. Cashing in off tragedy… it’s the American way.

Getting back on topic, the regular terminal sucks. It’s a lot like LaGuardia in New York City. It’s old, drab and sad. However, we were flying Delta on the way down, so we were going to McNamara terminal. It was like fucking Shangri-la! After getting through security (super quickly I might add, though that might have more to do with Little Toaster; apparently plotting to blow yourself and a plane full of innocent people up is stressful enough without having a four-year-old in tow!) we were taken to an amazing place full of high end businesses. There was a bar with calming piano music playing, I shit you not! There was a Brooks Brothers and a Brookstone side by side! There was a Plum Market (a upscale organic and alternative grocery store) and a sushi bar! There was a tram! I didn’t even know there was a tram as Detroit airport! Most impressive, to me at least, McNamara has the only Chik-Fil-A that I know of in Michigan, beyond one on the campus of Oakland University. Needless to say, I took Chik-Fil-A on the flight with me.

The luxury didn’t end there, though! We were treated to free beverages and free snacks, something that I thought was extinct on flights. I got two bags of peanuts and a few cookies, the attendants didn’t care how many I took. Best of all, we got to pick from a number of recent movie releases to watch during the flight. I got to watch Deadpool. How cool is that?

We arrived in Tampa sometime after nine. We got a Volkswagen Jetta for our rental with Sirius radio added for free. I tuned it to Simply Sinatra. That plan was to stay the night in Tampa, go to Busch Gardens the next day and then head to the condo. So after picking up a few supplies at a Walmart, we got our hotel room for the night. It was nice, except it smelled of mold. Glad we only stayed there for the night.

Next Time: The Busch Gardens Death March

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Why making Captain America an agent of Hydra is a really bad idea

What the hell, Marvel?! Captain America is secretly an agent of Hydra? Seriously? You take your greatest symbol of America, of freedom and bravery, of fighting for good against all odds and decide to have him work for evil? Oh, and not just evil… an organization created by Nazis that felt that Hitler wasn’t extreme enough… an organization that Steve “Captain America” Rogers has been fighting since World War II!

You know, at least when DC made Superman a Soviet it was in an alternate reality. This is one of those situations where writers, desperate to shake things up for ratings or sales, make an outlandish twist that they end up not being able to reconcile without resorting to idiotic clichés to return the status quo.  

Remember the first Civil War storyline when Peter Parker decided to show his commitment to the “Pro-Registration” movement by revealing that he was Spider-Man to the world? Yeah, it’s that kind of thing. So a guy that had previously done everything in his power to protect his loved ones from his enemies decides to say, ‘Oh, what the hell?’ and yank of his mask before cameras? Then amazingly (pun somewhat intended) his enemies start targeting his loved ones! Uh oh! How do the writers get Spider-Man out of this jam? Oh, I know! He makes a deal with the friggin’ devil! Problem solved!

This is that same situation… not exactly of course, but in essence. Marvel isn’t going to keep Captain America a bad guy forever. For note, they may try to spin it that he’s not necessarily bad, but if you are knowingly working for an organization that advocates mass genocide like Hydra does, you are at the very least guilty by association and therefore one of the bad guys.

So, how is he going to get out of this one? Was he brainwashed? Is he a clone or robot or some other imposter? Is he being mind controlled? After all, Red Skull does have those psychic powers now. Therein lies the problem here. Those are all clichés… lame clichés at that. I really want to give Marvel the benefit of the doubt on this, but I don’t see how this story arc can resolve without resorting to some lame cliché or something even more ridiculous. I don’t want to shit all over the book without having read it or seen it through, but this just feels like a really bad idea.

Let’s step back from the continuity issues with this plot twist for a moment. Let us consider the storytelling aspect of this situation. My understanding is that we are being presented with the reveal that Captain America is a Hydra agent but know nothing of his motivations. It is very hard to tell a story through the perspective of a character that is deliberately hiding information from the reader. That is why such plot twists are usually reserved for side characters. How would the show Homeland have worked if instead of the main character being Carrie Matheson it was Sgt. Nicholas Brody? How could they have maintained the intrigue of his many secrets and mysteries surrounding his character if he was the focal point?

There is a such thing as an unreliable narrator, but there’s also a limit! When the protagonist purposefully holds back information vital to understanding his or her character, it’s hard for the reader to give a shit. It’s more interesting for a protagonist to uncover the truth about another character. It’s why Sherlock Holmes is the detective, not the case.

Can it be done? Yes, but it is very difficult to make it work and I really don’t think the writers of Captain America have the time, commitment and possibly even the talent to truly pull it off. Instead this will likely just turn into another black stain on Marvel’s continuity, joining other ill-conceived plot twists that came before such as Xorn being Magneto all along or Peter Parker being a clone or Gwen Stacy had had an affair with Norman Osborn and had two children in secret or Tony Stark is a teenager now and so on…

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Top 5 Reasons for TNA (Impact) Wrestling's Failure

Last week a friend texted me with the message “Eric Young is on NXT. TNA is officially dead.” In a way I have to agree. I mean, no, TNA or Impact Wrestling is still going, but it seems like a wounded animal not long for this world. Eric Young seemed like the Tommy Dreamer of TNA; a loyal mid-carder and beloved underdog. Him jumping ship makes me hope the remaining roster have life-jackets!

Most of the big names from the promotion, those synonymous with the very brand itself have left. Jeff Jarrett, the founder of TNA, left years ago to start yet another promotion. The aforementioned Eric Young, Robert Roode, Austin Aries, and former heavyweight champions Samoa Joe and AJ Styles (whom I might add had been with TNA since the very beginning) are all in WWE.

I want to make clear that I am not an insider in the professional wrestling business. I am a fan and casual viewer.  This list is compiled based on what I, as a viewer, observed. While that may not seem like anything substantial and it is likely that I don't have all the facts necessary to paint a truly accurate picture of what happened in the company, I think the perspective of a viewer is important. The show is, after all, for us the viewers. At one point I was a fan of TNA Wrestling and now I don't watch. These are the problems as I see them and help explain why this viewer stopped watching.

Too much reliance on WWE's (or WCW’s) scraps - Okay, so just because Vince McMahon doesn't want you anymore doesn't mean that you can't be successful elsewhere. What I am talking about are the wrestlers who are past their prime or never popular with fans or in some cases had a bad history that ended with termination.

I'm not talking about Christian, who chose to sign with TNA as Christian Cage. I'm not talking about Jeff Hardy (at least his first run in TNA) who was still a big name. I'm not even talking about Kurt Angle, who while having been let go over drug dependency problems, still had enough gas in his tank to be a big star.

What I am talking about is Kevin Nash and Scott Hall showing up with gray hair and beer guts and instantly being in the main event. I am talking about bringing out Sean “Val Venus” Morley in his old "porn star" gimmick. I am talking about making Bobby Lashley a main event star after he never really got over in WWE. Hell, their first champion was Ken Shamrock at age 38!  From the start they built their company around a past his prime glorified mid-carder! (No disrespect to Ken Shamrock, a true MMA legend.) I'm just saying compare that to Lucha Underground, whose first champion was Prince Puma, a younger guy whose name and talent they established to help build their company around.

At some point TNA starting looking like an 80’s and 90’s wrestling reunion convention. Beyond Hall and Nash, they had Booker T, Scott Steiner, Sting (still using his “Crow” gimmick), Ric Flair, Macho Man Randy Savage and (of course) Hulk Hogan! A lot of those guys shared the spotlight together, taking a lot of valuable screen time from young up and comers. That is a problem.

Look, I mean no disrespect to these wrestling legends; their contributions to the industry have been huge. The problem is their time had ended. These weren’t one time appearances (like a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble). These weren’t just on air personalities like commentators or even managers (yes, I know Nash acted as a manager, but that was later). At a time when TNA needed to establish new names to set themselves apart and create buzz, they instead relied on past their prime talent to be their main eventers and primary draws. That is a huge problem. You can’t hope to beat Vince McMahon by hiring his cast-offs.

Lack of home grown talent - I am not an expert on this, it's more of a suspicion really. My understanding is that most of TNA's talent came from Ring of Honor, Border City Wrestling, WCW or ECW wrestlers that Vince McMahon didn't sign and released WWF wrestlers. Outside of working with Ohio Valley Wrestling from 2011-2013, TNA didn't really have their own developmental territory. (I could be wrong, but I found nothing about it online.) The most TNA seemed to do was sign another wrestler, which more or less means they are pushing what was already established by the wrestler or previous organization. What I am getting at is that TNA needed to do a better job establishing their own talent to make a name for themselves.

I'm not saying that TNA didn't contribute to some wrestlers becoming big names. If not for their time in TNA I doubt AJ Styles and Samoa Joe would have WWE contracts right now. But they were signed from big name independent companies like Ring of Honor. WCW's "Power Plant" saw many big names emerge including Goldberg, Diamond Dallas Page and The Giant (known in WWE as Big Show). WWE has had lots of luck in the developmental department, generating stars that literally became the future of their company such as Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar and John Cena. The most TNA seemed to have going for them was rebranding certain talent that signed with them long term, such as Eric Young, Abyss and Jeff Hardy.

This isn't a damning problem for TNA. Obviously not every wrestling promotion can have a developmental territory. However, after existing for a decade, having a television deal, a toy line and being the closest contender to WWE in the United States, I expected some level of talent production, names to replace the old guard. TNA has no future in that regard. Since they never really had enough money to buy everyone's big name talent like Ted Turner did in the mid-90’s, they needed to make their own and overall, they haven't.

Weak main event roster - There were times when I genuinely thought that Jeff Jarrett started TNA so that he could be the face of the company that he could never be in the WWF. He always felt to me like a glorified mid-card wrestler. I didn't dislike him based on his great skills at being a heel, I just really didn't want to see him every damn week on my TV! He wasn't terrible as a main event wrestler, but had nowhere near the talent and presence of bigger main event heels of that era such as HHH, Randy Orton or even JBL... and his matches were as good as taking Ambien!

This was only the start of my issues with the main event scene in TNA. The initial problem as far as I could see was that their X-Division was so good, it made their main events look boring by comparison. Not being able to buy WWE's big names like WCW did back in the halcyon days of the Monday Night Wars, TNA was left with scraps and has-beens (which I have already brought up).

If it hadn't been for their early use of the NWA heavyweight title and Jeff Jarrett's involvement, I would honestly have suggested that TNA had treated their X-Division title as their heavyweight championship. Think about it, the X-Division matches were far and away the most popular and exciting. The X-Division stars not only became some of the biggest names in TNA but also were some of the most respected wrestlers from independent companies like Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate; names like AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Low Ki and Austin Aries.

For the first few years of TNA's partnership with NWA, allowing them to use the NWA Heavyweight Championship, the only champions were Ken Shamrock, Jeff Jarrett, Ron Killings and AJ Styles. Yes, there were other challengers that never won such as Malice and Curt Hennig but those four were the only ones considered as viable for the championship (based on possible factors as popularity and length of contract). That's a pretty narrow field for the first 4 years of a wrestling promotion's main event scene. Compare that to the holders of the X-Division championship during that time: AJ Styles, Low Ki, Syxx Pac, Jerry Lynn, Kid Kash, Sonny Siaki, Michael Shane, Amazing Red, Chris Sabin, Kazarian and Petey Williams.

I looked up something very telling of TNA’s main event situation that also plays into my preceding reasons for the company’s issues. I found that out of the 26 wrestlers that held their heavyweight championship (both NWA and TNA) only 9 were not previously established in WCW, ECW or WWE. They were AJ Styles, Abyss, Samoa Joe, James Storm, Robert Roode, Austin Aries, Chris Sabin, Magnus and Eric Young. The majority of them held the title in only the last five years! You can make an argument that Ethan Carter III should count as number 10 as his character seems to be different than his persona in NXT/WWE. Even with him added, that’s a measly 38%! For a company in existence for almost fifteen years, that is terrible!

Trying to become WCW - I didn't feel like this started until Kevin Nash and Scott Hall showed up and instantly inserted themselves into the main event picture with (surprise!) Jeff Jarrett by forming the Kings of Wrestling. An influx of veteran, often over the hill, former champions from WCW and WWE continued to show up and that eventually became the Main Event Mafia, another 3 letter acronym group that took over the spotlight much like the New World Order. I also think it's worth mentioning that while many had left WWE, only Kurt Angle was purely from that promotion. Kevin Nash, Scott Steiner, Booker T, Sting and Jarrett all made their biggest names for themselves in WCW with only Nash first winning the heavyweight championship in WWF as Diesel.

Then came the big change, the point where the people behind TNA Wrestling were sure they would finally be able to go head to head with Vince McMahon. They hired Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan to run their creative department. Suddenly Hogan became an on-air personality as well as part time wrestler. He got rid of the six-sided ring, one of the most iconic aspects of TNA Wrestling that helped set that promotion apart from its rivals. They brought back Nash and Hall along with Sean "Syxx-Pac" Waltman. They brought in Sean Morley. They even brought in the recently "retired" Ric Flair.

The obvious problem here, beyond what I’ve already covered, is that you can’t hope to build a skyscraper using blueprints for one that collapsed. If Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan really had such amazing ideas, then WCW would still exist or at the very least Hogan and Bischoff would have made their own successful wrestling promotion.

Samoa Joe destroys the X-Division - I am conflicted as to whether or not this should be number one, but in the end I feel like this was the beginning of the end for me as a fan of TNA. I'll start by saying that I think Samoa Joe is overrated. I can see why TNA wanted to push him. He has a unique look; he’s quick, agile and can do some good high risk moves for a guy his size. However, I also think he is deliberately stiff and very sloppy with his moves. My friend and I had predicted that at some point Samoa Joe would either paralyze or kill an opponent by being so careless. That very nearly happened in WWE against Tyson Kidd, who suffered a possibly career ending broken neck and is lucky to be walking let alone breathing. (Note: This apparently was an isolated incident and Samoa Joe appears to have a decent track record when it comes to safety in matches.)

Let me back up a second and say that this, while likely not intentional, was also taking a page from the WCW playbook. The powers that be in TNA probably felt like they were building Samoa Joe the same way WCW did Goldberg, by having him wreck a long succession of opponents to create "The Streak." But that isn't the page of the playbook I am talking about. Samoa Joe running through the X-Division absolutely had shades of Kevin Nash steamrolling their cruiserweight division back in the day.

It was a bad idea for WCW but a far worse idea for TNA. While it was a massive waste of amazing talent, WCW didn't need their cruiserweight division as they had a lot of big name talent for their mid cards and main events. TNA didn't have those big names. In fact, for a long time all TNA really had as a draw was their X-Division. Back before they had a TV deal, when all they had were weekly ten dollar pay-per-views, what got people talking was the X-Division. What got people paying for those pay-per-views every week was the X-Division.

To feed all that talent to a guy to build him as a main eventer was foolish and disastrous. The X-division was always billed as being “not about weight limits, but about no limits.” By being so entertaining, the X-division didn’t feel like a mid-card; it felt more like one of the rings in a three ring circus, a co-headliner that often outdid what was supposed to be the main event. By having Samoa Joe crush each and every wrestler, going undefeated the entire time, it made the X-division look weak. It debased them to mid-card status and lessened the value of the belt. It took much of the thrill out of watching. Honestly, it killed TNA for me. I kept watching for a little bit. Angle losing clean to Austin Aries helped restore some of the X-division’s clout, but the damage had already been done.

Maybe you agree with this, maybe you don’t. Like I said, I don’t know all the facts. I am speaking purely from the perspective of a former fan and the problems that I saw with the product.