July 31, 2008

July 30, 2008

Welcome To America! Now, A Few Things...

I'm probably going to come off as kind of a dick in this post, but I'll take that moniker on for this one. These things just have to be said, I'm sorry.

Whilst living in New York, quite often you tend to forget that you actually still live in America. This is because everywhere you go, you come across people who seem to hail from any nation other than the good ol' USA, and (loudly) speak every god-damned language under the sun other than the Queen's English (except in the richer parts of Manhattan, of course, where only frosty white people are allowed to tread).

Now, I'm no Lou Dobbs. I'm not one of those, "If you can't speak my language, you can GIT OUT!"-type people. I'm a tolerant, liberal-minded guy; I think my previous blog posts, at least, make that clear. It just so happens that in my four months or so of living in this fine city, I've noticed a few traits that just so happen to be shared by groups of people who just so happen to not originally hail from this country. That's all.

For the most part, the cultural diversity is great. I've been able to discover new foods, learn some interesting facts, and just experience a type of life, in general, that I never would've been exposed to in Ohio. But, as with anything else experienced en masse, there are also drawbacks.

They could be easily addressed, I think. Just an addendum to what I'm sure are loads of documents given to them by the Department of Immigration after they're declared legal citizens of the United States:




#277 -- Cell phones do not need to be shouted into.
Society has progressed quite a bit since the days of tying two tin cans together with a length of string and talking about the day with your buddy next door. Today's cell phones have remarkable clarity, and are able to transmit conversations from literally one half of the globe to the other. Unlike the rotary phone or said cans-with-string that you may be used to, it is not necessary to further amplify your voice in order for it to reach the other party, even if the distance between you is very far. Here's a handy tip: While talking, close your eyes and make-believe that the person is standing right next to you. That way, your obviously exciting and fascinating conversation will not have to be shared with every other person in the store/subway car.

#278 -- Children are not normally still out playing past midnight.

The rigors of a full day of school can be trying for the still-developing mind of a small child. In addition to combating long division, social hierarchy, proper kickball technique, and the ever-present distractions of ADD, kids often have trouble adapting to the process of waking up early and participating for hours on end. This is why it's important for your child to get a full night's rest, and not be riding his/her scooter or kicking a soccer ball in the street while the rest of the world slumbers in preparation for the day ahead. Even in summer vacation months, it is crucial that your child stay in somewhat of a school-year routine of sleep. In your homeland, it may have been vital that your child stay up late to tend to the early-rising flock, or fight off hordes of marauding invaders and/or gypsies, but you will probably find that such activities are not very commonplace in urban America.

#279 -- Shoving is not a socially accepted form of communication.

Through the rigorous documentary study of institutions such as National Geographic and Sally Struthers, we here in America have learned that not all cultures communicate with each other verbally. Interpretive dance, sign language, and other non-spoken forms of correspondence effectively let people of other nations express what they need to say. But while it may be OK there to wordlessly shove someone to let them know that they are inhabiting a space you want to pass through/stand in, it is definitely a faux pas here in America. For your reference, in these situations, it will be useful to practice and employ the following phrases:
  • "Excuse me."
  • "Pardon me."
  • "Beg your pardon."
  • "Sorry."
  • "Heads up."
  • "Hey, get the fuck out of my way."
Any of these phrases, even if considered rude, would be preferred to pushing someone in a crowded space and speedily shuffling away while pretending not to have seen the person.

#280 -- Children DO outgrow strollers.

We understand that it can be difficult to accept the fact that your little baby is growing up. The pains of future empty-nest syndrome hang over all parents in this country as well. But while the concept of arrested development is generally accepted and oftentimes the subject of many popular comedic films in America, this idea generally does not apply to the prolonged use of baby strollers. If a child has progressed to the level of walking, he/she should be encouraged to continue this mode of transportation during every short trip. If a child's legs have grown to the point where they are dragging along the ground under the stroller, this should be taken as a sign that stroller days have passed you by. At least for this child in your possibly extensive collection of children.

#280b -- Multiple strollers are not meant to be pushed in a wide phalanx on the sidewalk.
A short addition to suggestion #280: Sidewalks in America are not very wide, in comparison to, say, a street. Accordingly, if you wish to travel to the grocery store, laundromat, or other location that for some reason requires you to bring along multiple female friends and/or family members and their large number of children, you should keep the strollers in a line down the length of the sidewalk, to allow for people traveling in the opposite direction to pass by. It is not acceptable in any situation to walk with three or more strollers aligned parallel to each other, thus taking up every inch of the width of the sidewalk. Also, if you do choose to do this, it it certainly not acceptable to give a dirty look to and/or yell at an attempted passerby who bumps into one of you or your strollers, especially in a language unfamiliar to he/she. That's just mean.

And so on. Hopefully I didn't come off as too Dobbs-ish there. Just a few things that had to be pointed out. To cap how I really feel, though, I had to throw in this great comic from the usually pretty funny, sometimes mathematical, always interesting web-comic, xkcd:

The Montauk Monster Will Destroy Us All! ... If It Wasn't Dead, That Is

This wonderful little sprite of a creature has been popping up all over New York news sites lately:

Dubbed the "Montauk Monster," for the uber-rich section of east Long Island (near the Hamptons) that it washed up on, this little (or big? I haven't read anything about its size, yet) guy has started a great Real or Fake debate today. It's been an especially hot topic over on the comment board of the story about it on Gawker, which featured one of the greatest lines ever (funnier if you're a South Park fan):

PunnyMcGee: "TURTLEPIGRAT!!!! It IS real! I thought my gramma was just making it up to get me to eat my greens!"

Hilarious. The logical side of me is screaming that this is some sort of viral marketing thing, as they tend to be incredibly over the top in the NY area. And the photo was tipped by a PR company. And reports are already coming out that it's there to promote a new Cartoon Network show called Cryptids Are Real or possibly for JJ Abrams' new show Fringe (he has been shown to be a fan of the viral marketing in the past), and even more reports are coming out that it's just a dog that drowned in the ocean and has a very odd cranial structure, or a sea turtle missing its shell (?).

But wouldn't it be great if we had some weird, mutant dog/pig/amphibian hybrid steadily assembling an army ready to strike the shores of rich New Yorkers' beach houses? Maybe I've just watched Cloverfield too many times...

July 24, 2008

Get Away From My Restaurant, Old Man!!!

I died inside a little today when Vicky showed me a story on the Huffington Post about John McCain doing a little traveling to my old hood, to a part of south Columbus known as German Village, and made an appearance at what was my favorite C-bus restaurant, Schmidts, the best damned sausage haus this side of the Atlantic.

Anyways, it's been posited that McCain took this little trip in response to Obama's recent trek around the world, which included a stop in Germany, where he met with German leaders and was basically welcomed like some conquering hero and drew huge crowds. The fact that this could be an official GOP strategic move just tickles me. As Vicky pointed out, it was great to think that while Obama spoke to crowds of more than 200,000 (!!!) in Berlin, McCain drew a whopping 17 at Schmidts. "Maybe he thought he was in Germany," she added. Priceless.

I was sort of uneasy about Obama's chances at first, but now that everything's starting to play out, I can see that this isn't going to be nearly as close as I would've thought. I'll say it now. This election's going to be a landslide. Like a Bartlett-over-Richie landslide, for all you "West Wing" fans.

Exactly what I predicted in one of my McCain-related posts a few weeks back is already starting to happen. I wrote that he wouldn't be able to handle the rigors of a national presidential campaign, that he wouldn't be able to overcome the massive anti-GOP sentiment that's been built up by Bush these last 8 years, and that he'd just been coasting outside of the Obama-Hillary spotlight for months. He's consistently making blunders while speaking that appear to nearly everyone watching to be the slip-ups of a man whose mind is simply much too old to be voted into office. And more importantly than that, he's losing the pop culture battle to Obama.

The vast majority of people who are deemed "undecided voters" aren't really undecided; they're simply apathetic. They couldn't care less, really, about voting for a candidate because they don't see how their vote will A) matter and B) make an active impact on their lives. So while they may generally follow what's going on in the campaign, they're not really going one way or another towards voting for either man. Most of these apathetic potential voters, sadly, are younger Americans, and have historically had pretty terrible turnouts in elections, but they also encompass large portions of everyday Americans, people who have enough to worry about between going to work and getting the kids to school everyday to be actively involved in politics.

Obama, however, has done everything he can do to put himself in the forefront of the minds of these people. He and Michelle are on the covers of People, GQ, and Rolling Stone magazines, are staples on shows as varied as The View, Meet the Press and The Daily Show. He's polling incredibly high in the young-voter demographic. For a lot of people, he's a household name without them even knowing much of anything about his policies; they know he represents change, and that's enough for just about anybody who's had to endure the bullshit of George W. Bush.

Come November, when all of these things have mixed together to create the perfect voting bloc for Obama, I can see those people who would normally stay home come out and put down their mark for Obama, and I'm not just talking about a resurgence in the youth and black vote. He's drawing huge crowds in other countries for a reason. Whether he's truly something more than most politicians, whether he really is another Robert Kennedy come to bring us hope, remains to be seen. But he's done enough now to make enough people think that he could be, and in these cynical times, that's just about all you need to be a runaway winner in American politics.

July 21, 2008

I'm Too Tired and Sick to Deal With This Bullshit Today, Republicans

A few years back, when the sting of President Bush's seemingly out-of-nowhere toppling of John Kerry was still fresh, I used to wonder what the atmosphere of Bush's last year in office would be, in terms of the (at that time) incredibly cantankerous relationship between Democrats and Republicans/liberals and conservatives.

In a rare moment of untethered optimism and patriotic hope, I imagined that after 8 years of revilement and bitterness, we'd all find a way to sort of come together and look toward a better future; sort of like the survivors in the last scene of a disaster film. I'd hoped that we'd finally realize that we don't all agree, and we never will, but that it doesn't matter in a country as large and diverse as America. I didn't expect us to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya," but maybe we'd stop with the extreme measures that sadly defined the fighting between the two sides during the Bush era.

Christ, was I wrong...

Two big, "what the hell?" stories popped up last week that made me lose a little more faith in humanity, and made me wonder if we'll ever bridge that ever-widening gap between liberals and conservatives in this country.

The first was a Reuters story about a leaked Bush administration memo that indicated not only that medical providers who refused to offer several widely used contraceptive methods would be protected, but that the use of these birth-control methods were being defined as abortion.

Now, I don't want to harp on this too much, because the whole abortion debate has been held way too many times, and I've been on the liberal side of that debate basically since day 1, so I don't really have to elaborate. What bothers me about this, though, is the beyond-the-limit adherence to archaic, proven-wrong methods of thought that these people have. This goes beyond their idiotic adherence to practices that have been proven not to work; like abstinence-only education, where they assumed you could fight teenage hormones, an element so powerful, it should be researched as an alternative-energy source.

This is a situation where they're trying to vilify birth control itself, by making stupid people think that its actually abortion, instead of something that prevents pregnancy, thus making the practice of abortion (later on down the line) necessary at all. In an incredible twist of logic, they've actually found a way to state that life begins before conception. I've had a hard enough time dealing with people screaming "Life begins at conception!" prior to this. Please don't make me have to deal with something that makes that look like a more intelligent option.

But I digress...

The second story just made me sick. It concerns the sudden appearance of these billboards in parts of Florida:

Hold on, just in case you scrolled by too quickly, here it is again:

Yep, that's right. Don't vote for a Democrat, or else 9/11 will happen all over again. I really, really thought that we'd wised up as a population and gotten past this kind of rhetoric, but good to see it's still thriving in the deep south.

The billboards were put up by a yokel by the name of Mike Meehan. To get a better sense of Mr. Meehan, here's the photo taken from his website, promoting his smash hit, "The Republican Song (Please Don't Vote For A Democrat)":

Now, you can tell Mr. Meehan is a true American, for the followign reasons: 1) His button-down shirt looks like an American flag. He doesn't just love America, he wears that shit, son. 2) He's sporting the Opryland/southern-style sort-of cowboy hat, which matches his rather dashing blazer (both blue and red, also very American), which proves that not only is he down-home country, but he's classy, and meant to be taken seriously. 3) The rest of his ensemble is completed with good ol', non-intentionally-ripped, probably-Wrangler-brand blue jeans. None of that tight pants, khaki, commie shit for this born and bred American. 4) His guitar is featured prominently in his picture, ready to rock out some Toby Keith or Johnny Cash at a moment's notice. Pay special attention to the fact that it's leaning back, kind of saying, "Yeah, man, I'm a serious musician, but I also like to party." And 5) he's leaning against a rusted-as-all-hell model-T Ford truck, my man. Sure, it serves no actual purpose, and has probably been inoperable for at least 40 years or so, but that's the way we do it down here. I guarantee that thing's probably sitting on his front lawn, along with a broken washing machine and a whole mess of also-broken kids toys.

The song is... I mean, I don't really know how to describe it. It doesn't make sense, really. It's just a mash-up of every bad, 40-years-old and counting, redneck argument against Democrats, railing against "taking money from a hard-workin' man and givin' it to people who don't give a damn."

It's the music video, though, that really deserves national acclaim. The opening 10 seconds prominently features a tractor, a NASCAR hat (But is that Jeff Gordon's hat? I thought you all hated that guy for bein' all clean-shaven and well-spoken and shit...), a USA t-shirt, and lovingly gazing at an American flag flapping in the breeze. I mean, wow...

I don't give a shit if you want to keep putting things like this out; I'm sure it'll get all kinds of airtime in Southern country radio stations. But why in the name of christ would you ever consider putting up those billboards? It's American to make an allusion that 9/11 happened because of Democrats? It's American to foster fear-mongering that we've (FINALLY) sort of gotten past over the last year or so? It's American to exploit an attack on our soil that killed thousands of people and left a huge hole in lower Manhattan, an attack that left sons and daughters without parents, and inspired more fear and anger than anything else in the history of our society?

I just wish, if only for a day, that I could hop inside this hayseed's head and be there for the thought process that went into making this billboard a reality:

Creative Portion of Redneck's Mind: Alright, we need somethin' to grab people's attention to promote this song. Like a kick-ass TV commercial, or a really bad-ass ad played over the speakers at a monster truck rally or somethin'. We need, like, a biiiiig sign to proclaim our message to the masses. What do people see all the time that we can put our website on?

Self-Reflective Portion of Redneck's Mind: How about the cloud of shame that shrouds the ugly reflection you see in the mirror every day?

Creative Portion of Redneck's Mind: Quiet, you! I'll get back to suppressin' you with whiskey in a minute. Now, message... message... I got it! We'll make a billboard! Tall as the sky itself! It'll be awesome! We'll have that there website address up, and put somethin' really smart and funny on it, too, like... 'Don't Vote for a Demeecrat', yeah, that's awesome! But we'll make sure to get on their good sides, so we'll say 'Please', too. It's gotta be somethin' more, though, people won't like it if it's just a buncha words. It'll be like a book if it's just a buncha words! And I ain't promotin' that pussy hippie shit! So we gotta have somethin' else, too, like a picture or somethin'. Somethin' that makes 'em think reeeeally hard about what I'm sayin'. Let's see, what could I put up there to make 'em even MORE scared to vote for the Demeecrats?

Hateful, Racist Portion of Redneck's Mind: How 'bout one of them Black and Mexican interracial gay couples them Demeecrats like so much? All huggin' and kissin' and lovin' on each other... eww, man, that's gross!

Creative Portion of Redneck's Mind: I like the way you're thinkin' there, Tex, but it's gotta be even worse than that.

Hateful, Racist Portion of Redneck's Mind: Even worse than THAT?

Creative Portion of Redneck's Mind: You betcha, buddy. We gotta go big or go home, man. ... I GOT IT! We're gonna put up a picture of them twin towers that those Iraqi motherfuckers crashed planes into on 9/11! Hoo-boy, that'll get 'em to the website! They'll see them buildin's burnin', and they'll be reminded of how it was all the Demeecrats' fault, and how that Demeecrat president just sat and let it all happen. Man, we're gonna be rich! I'm gonna buy me a pontoon boat!

Self-Reflective Portion of Redneck's Mind: You don't think that maybe this is a bad idea? That invoking 9/11 to cheaply promote your little Internet song might rub a lot of people the wrong way?

Creative Portion of Redneck's Mind: No way, man, it's gonna be awesome!

And... scene.

I'm sure this stupid fuck doesn't care much for such high-falootin' concepts as karma, but this shit's going to come back around on this idiot. I hope to god it comes sooner rather than later. When it does, I'll be ready with my gee-tar, my rusty model-T, and my American flag shirt to make my own song: "Don't Be a Stupid Fucking Redneck." Grammys, here I come...

July 17, 2008

Billy Joel Is A Superhuman

Since I made the move to NYC back in March, I've had the good fortune to be able to do a handful of great "New York things."

I've passed random celebrities on the street and been diverted on a walk because of a block being shut down for a movie shoot. I've been to Yankees and Mets games. I joined in long lines of people booing passing Patriots fans at the NFL Draft. I've spent long, lazy Sundays stuffing my face and getting drunk during picnics in Central Park, and sang Beatles songs with the musicians gathered at John Lennon's memorial in Strawberry Fields. I've paid ridiculous amounts of money for food that wasn't really worth it in the first place.

Last night, though, I was lucky enough to experience something that topped all the rest. Through the never-ending charity of Vicky's sister, Annie, we were given tickets to go see Billy Joel perform at Shea Stadium (home of the Mets) for what was billed as "The Last Play at Shea," the last concert to be held before Shea is torn down after this year's baseball season. (Although it was changed to part one of "The Last Double Play at Shea," since they added another show this weekend to compensate for the fact that this show sold out in an hour after scalpers and sites like StubHub bought out all the tickets, thus depriving the masses of seeing the show, unless they wanted to pay insanely high service charges. Would've been nice to go to THE last show at Shea, but I can't complain one bit. And yet I digress...)

I've long been a big Billy Joel fan, mainly due to the influence of my mom, who always would throw on a Billy Joel album in between endless plays of Garth Brooks and Jay Giles during long summer days by the pool back in Toledo. And I can't count how many times I've sang along with dozens of other drunks as "Piano Man" played from a barroom jukebox. So getting the chance to see the man play live, in New York, along with about 50,000 others was, in a word, a treat.

We had seats about 20 rows off the field, along the first-base line, right at the back edge of the infield, with the stage being set up at the center field fence, and rows and rows of seats filling the rest of the outfield. So, needless to say, we had a great view of what turned out to be a nearly 3 hour concert that far exceeded my expectations.

He played pretty much every hit song he's ever recorded, with the exception of "Uptown Girl," which I think he imposed a personal ban on due to its relation to Christie Brinkley. But all the rest, "Allentown," "We Didn't Start the Fire" (which was awesome live), "My Life," "New York State of Mind," "Always a Woman," and on and on. And for someone who's been accused of just sort of riding the crest of his past fame for the last 15 years or so, the man put an incredible amount of passion and energy into each song. What really made the night stand out, though, were the guests he brought out.

After the crowd went nuts at hearing the first few bars of "New York State of Mind," an old man in a white suit comes out on stage, and no one can really tell what's going on, when all of a sudden, Tony Bennett's face comes on the screen, and the place loses it as they sing the song together. Incredible. He follows that up by bringing John Mayer out to play guitar on "These Are The Times" a few songs later. Later on, after he talks about the Mets a bit (one of his many crowd-pandering moments), he has Don Henley come out with his guitar and play "Boys of Summer." Finally, he brings out John Mellencamp near the end of his first set to sing "Pink Houses." Mom would've loved this concert...

The best for me, though was at the end of his four-song encore (which included "Only The Good Die Young" and another of a night full of Beatles' songs - "She Loves You" this time), when he brought out the harmonica and played "Piano Man."

I know you're supposed to be cynical of such mass-popular things in New York; if you're a music fan here, you have to talk about some obscure band that only recently started playing in some out of the way bar in Brooklyn, not how you're excited about a Billy Joel show. But being in the stadium, near midnight, singing the chorus to "Piano Man" along with 50,000 other happy, mostly drunk people... Man. It doesn't get much better than that.

July 11, 2008

Congratulations, You're... Kind Of A Whore

I try hard to stay away from the whole celebrity-obsessed portion of American culture. I think that it's pretty much not worth it being a celebrity if you have to endure what some of these people go through (Britney Spears used to be sane, right?) on a daily basis. I also think the paparazzi horde that's spawned from our national obsession is disgusting, and should be curbed with a federal law. And I also, also think that the celebration of a 17-year old girl giving birth, just weeks after damning to hell teenagers in Massachusetts who did the same thing (not to mention pretty much every other teen mother in America), reeks of the hypocrisy that's become so commonplace in this country.

But it's hard not to take notice of the celeb comings and goings if you're a student of American pop culture. It pervades almost every medium. Trying to not notice what's going on with Angelina's twins, or who John Mayer happens to be doing this week, is difficult stuff. That said, this whole brouhaha over the deal brokered to publish the first photo of Jamie Lynn Spears' baby is just sad. Hang your head in shame, America.

Every news-related website I happened to stroll across the day Jamie Lynn's little brood fell into the world carried the story. And not just entertainment news sites like IMDB or Entertainment Weekly or what-have-you, but sites like CNN, MSNBC, Slate, etc. For a short period of time, CNN even ran it as the main story, complete with a picture of a smiling new teenage mom, somehow impervious to the normal cries of "Whore!" and "Irresponsible!" that rain down upon every other knocked up teen in this country.

It wouldn't bother me at all, really, if the country didn't have a collective conniption fit over the story of the teenage girls in Massachusetts who apparently made a "pregnancy pact" and got their preggers on at the same time. If you haven't heard the story, basically, 17 high-school girls in the fishing town of Gloucester banded together and made a pact to all get pregnant within the year, supposedly in support of one of their friends who first had a bun shot into her oven earlier this month. They were apparently uber-enthusiastic over the idea, throwing parties and celebrating the seeds (pun intended) of their efforts, some even going so far as to have allegedly slept with older and/or homeless men to find fertilization. That's just wholesome, right there.

When the story broke, America, inevitably, exploded. It hit the rounds of the morning news programs and all the usual talking-heads shows, with the consensus being that these girls were fucking retards. I believe that was the phrase used by Larry King, at least. And I don't disagree with them. Kids who think it's a super-cool idea to have a baby before they even have a chance to graduate high school and go on to get knocked up in college are just wasting golden years of their lives.

What I couldn't stand, though, was the backlash (that I saw coming from miles away) against movies like Juno and Knocked Up, which parent groups and other giant asshole organizations blamed for "glorifying teen pregnancy" and painting a skewed picture of what it's like to be pregnant whilst being unprepared for it. It's the same sort of uproar and lunacy that springs up against "violent" music, movies and video games following a school shooting; the most egregious being the country-wide blaming of Marilyn Manson for the Columbine shootings. Short and simple, it's not the fault of either of those movies, or any movie, game, TV show or anything like that. It's the fault of stupid kids who are too affected by their peers and parents who didn't seem to be able to instill such a basic system of values as to make this idea an instant "no" in their kids' minds.

And yet, after all that hoopla, here we are, fawning over the little bastard spawn of Britney Spears' little sister. If this doesn't speak to the absolute idiocy of the fake celebrity obsession that we have in America, nothing does. We love making celebs out of people who have done nothing to deserve the status. Whether you're talking about fame given to a partying, rich, spoiled whore like Paris Hilton, or internet/YouTube giants like the cry who cried about "leaving Britney alone!", or people who embarrass themselves on reality TV shows, it's all the same. In America, you don't even need to have talent to lend to the populace to have them prop you up on their star-loving shoulders.

In Jamie Lynn's case, it proves that you don't even need to have done anything yourself; you just need to be related to someone famous, and it spills over for you. She's the Don Swayze for a new generation. We'll see how much she's loving it, though, when the adoration goes away, the TV show has to be canceled because of public backlash and the needs of a child actually become reality, and she's left as just another young girl too stupid to know what's good for her.

July 10, 2008

L.F. Eason III, American Hero

Just wanted to post this story about a long-time North Carolina state employee who chose to retire rather than lower a flag to half-staff in honor of the late Senator Jesse Helms, because it's the very definition of awesomeness.

Jesse Helms, for those of you lucky enough to know nothing about the man, was basically the premiere evil, Southern racist to ever grace the halls of Congress. His highlights, among many others, include filibustering the overwhelmingly supported effort to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday; opposing domestic AIDS treatment because, in his mind, it would be helpful to gays; and vehemently opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and pretty much any other piece of legislation that went against his bigoted, backward, redneck ways.

So, naturally, when Helms passed a few days ago, not many tears were shed across the country, except maybe below the Mason-Dixon line. Even so, NC's governor still ordered that all U.S. and state flags be flown at half-staff, a show of honor and respect given to all recently passed members of Congress, no matter how undeserving.

But L.F. Eason III, a director of a state highway standards laboratory, told his staff to ignore the governor's directive, stating later that Helms had a "doctrine of negativity, hate and prejudice," which is true. When ordered by his supervisors to lower the flag, Eason, a 29-year veteran of the state's workforce, chose instead to retire.

So here's to you, L.F. Eason III. You're an inspiration to us all, sir.

R.I.H. Jesse Helms, Southern bigot and possible vampire (1921-2008)

July 8, 2008

Leave It To A Semi-Mute Robot To Say So Much About Humanity

So here, in the the first of what will hopefully/probably be many mini-movie reviews, I just wanted to say a few words about Pixar's latest release, Wall-E.

In a word: wow.

It's gotten to the point over the last decade or so where one needn't really harp on the brilliance and ever-growing accomplishments of Pixar. It's bible. It's known fact. In a cynical world, you keep waiting for them to slip up, to make that flop that inevitably happens. It's ingrained in you that people can't keep making hit after hit. This film, I'm happy to say, breaks that train of thought. It might not be the best Pixar film I've seen (The Incredibles and maybe Monsters Inc. gave us better stories, I think.), but it's certainly the best in terms of visuals, and Wall-E himself (Can a robot be a he? I'm going with it.) is probably the company's most enjoyable and likeable character, if not the most fleshed out, no pun intended.

Spoilers ahead, I suppose, so fair warning...

The basic gist of the story of Wall-E is simple: 700 years in the future, the Earth is an empty, barren wasteland of sorts, humans having jetted off into the cosmos after the planet became inhabitable because of our massive pollution and ignorance. What's left then, by mega-company Buy n' Large (sort of a much, much bigger and more powerful Wal-Mart), are robots put in charge of what's supposed to be a clean-up effort. Wall-E (his name is some sort of acronym, Waste something something, sorry, I forgot...) is the sole survivor of these robots, and goes about his trash-compacting duties dutifully every day, making small squares of garbage that he uses to build massive, skyscraper-esque towers. He keeps this up, basically completely unaware of his terribly lonely existence (save for an indestructible cockroach that serves as his pet), until one day, a spacecraft (launched by the humans -- sort of -- on a massive ark galaxies away) lands and drops off a probe droid, Eve, whose purpose is to scan the planet for any signs of returned life -- plants, basically -- to see if Earth might be again habitable. After a shaky courtship, Wall-E eventually follows Eve back up into space in a hilarious turn of events, and sets off a reawakening for all of mankind to not only their current, pathetic way of life, but to what they must do to retain their old one.

Some people have complained that the environmental message of the film is too heavy-handed, an idea that's been force-fed to us far too often in recent years. Ever since Al Gore's brilliant An Inconvenient Truth, environmentalism has become a very chic, Hollywood go-to device, and hasn't really been used subtly or effectively enough to not induce groans from the movie-going public. For the most part, I agree, but this film doesn't rely on that for substance; it's merely a plot device, giving the story something to move towards as it progresses.

Some controversy has also been stirred over the depiction of the humans in the movie. Basically, everybody is fat. Really fat. Like Louie Anderson ate pre-Subway diet Jared and then somehow merged, osmosis-like, with a wad of bacon grease fat. It's the result of a society, living aboard the pleasure dome-esque space ark, the Axiom, and having robots exist to take care of everything, whilst they spend the day lounging on floating recliners, processed food-in-a-cup in hand and staring at nothing but computer screens all day. It's a great, if not so subtle again, satire on what society's sooort of like even now. I say, though, that if you're offended by that depiction, you deserve it. The notion of the "fat, ugly American" is a horrible stain on our culture, and if it takes an animated film to point that out to people, so be it. I do wish they'd have fleshed out the characters a bit more, though. They exist only to be a backdrop, and are not nearly as life-like as human characters in other Pixar films. But like I said before, it's not about them; it's about Wall-E.

Wall-E wound up being more expressive, more connecting, and more sympathetic of a character than almost anyone else I've seen on screen this year. He's a tad more human in his emotions and actions that you'd expect from a robot, but that's nitpicking; this is a Disney film at heart, after all. In those big, puppy-dog eyes, you find a very lovable character. (He actually reminded me of my dog Clinton in that way.) He's a throwback character in so many great ways, though, from the way his innocence and enthusiasm remind you of how you were as a child, to the way that he utilizes visual gags in such effective and hilarious ways, like an old Charlie Chaplin film.

There's one gag in particular that stands out. Home from one of his trash compacting/foraging days on the job, Wall-E goes back to the storage unit (I guess that's what it was) that serves as his home and place to store and show off all his found treasures. He has multiple rows of bins that rotate, like a Ferris wheel, in which he keeps all of his things, and starts spinning the rows around to deposit what he's found -- a Zippo lighter goes into a bin full of other lighters, for example. He pulls out a spork at one point, and moves from a bin full of spoons to the bin full of forks right next to it, then back to the spoons, then back to the forks, spoons, forks, spoons, forks, and on and on, until he just gives up and puts it in the space between them. Classic.

All in all, this was just a solid film. I've heard rumors that it might be a pick for a Best Picture nominee at next year's Oscars, and while I wouldn't oppose the idea, I'm not sure it's complete enough to stand in the company of past Oscar winners. But it deserves the acknowledgment, if only for its incredible visuals, engaging characters, and the massive scope of its ambition. Mainly, it's just a fun, very warm-hearted movie that knows how to play to its audience, something that you don't see enough of these days at the cinema.

You'd think a movie that features a non-talking (not really, at least) robot who spends most of his time by itself would just seem silly, and end up being boring even in the end. But somehow, it pulls it off. Pixar continues on with its hit parade, unscathed. I'm no longer looking for the flop; I'm just excited it for the next one.


July 7, 2008

A New York $tate of Mind

There's a certain word that causes more upheaval, debate, and class/race warfare here in New York than almost any other. It's not the N-word, or any of George Carlin's famous "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," or any other "bad" word that's usually associated with FCC-inflated hullaballoo.

The word is "gentrification."

Put in the simplest and most popular terms, gentrification occurs when the architectural hearts of whole deteriorated/old neighborhoods -- houses, stores, warehouses, etc. -- are purchased and then renovated by individuals and/or groups of people of upper- and middle-class incomes, and then resold at much higher values. This, in turn, usually results in the existing residents of said neighborhood -- who have lower-class incomes -- being displaced because they've been priced out. This also results in the crop of buyers who usually grab up properties in that area changing from the usual, lower-income individuals to those of better means, looking for something a bit more affordable than the cream of the real estate crop.

In New York, gentrification has been occurring at epidemic levels for years, starting first in the neighborhoods of Manhattan, and spreading to the outer boroughs -- Brooklyn and Queens, most notably. Depending on what side of this price war you fall on, this is either A) the inevitable result of urban renewal, the spread of wealth, and natural growth of a populace, a metro-area-wide improvement that can only bring lower crime levels, better shopping and attractions, and more pleasing aesthetics, or B) the slow, forced oppression of a long-entrenched group of residents who, by no fault of their own other than living a life they and their families have lived for generations, are being made to leave the comfort and familiarity of their homes because a wave of real-estate moguls, yuppies, and the dreaded "hipsters" took a gander at their block and decided to stake a claim.

Although it goes against what I'm told are supposed to be my liberal ideals, I have to say that I fall pretty firmly in the pro-gentrification camp. Obviously, being a white, middle-class college graduate who's never had to endure anything less than modest means, I'm afforded the right to actually sit back and actually decide whether or not I agree with this practice; had I grown up in a poor family and had an actual connection to the "oppressed" side of this debate, I might change my stance, but probably not. More on that in a bit.

What set me to thinking a bit more deeply about this issue was this recent piece in New York Magazine about a certain black real estate developer's (Willie Katherine Suggs) strong-arm tactics in gentrifying Harlem, and how she's been vilified by large swatches of the black community there for "selling out" her people and Harlem in general. Although she certainly does seem to be over-aggressive, greedy (she labels herself as such), and puts her foot in her mouth at least half a dozen times in the article, it's hard to come out and say that what she's doing is inherently an evil, or just bad/wrong, thing, as she's been accused of doing by Harlem residents.

Suggs makes a bold (albeit true) claim in the piece that Harlem doesn't belong to the black community; it just happens that it eventually became that way. She points out that blacks didn't take part in the construction of Harlem, and didn't live there when it was first constructed as a haven for middle- to upper-class whites. What she says is true, technically, although it'll never go over in Harlem, especially in the abrasive way in which she puts it. History tends to be pretty short-sighted, and the fact that Harlem has been a cultural center for the African-American community for the past century has seemed to cement its place as "the black part of Manhattan." But in conceding to that argument, you have to consider the benefits of the other side.

When someone utters the word "Harlem," it immediately conjures up images of a dangerous, ghetto-ized place that no non-black dare tread. It's established a reputation, fair or not, that reaches well beyond the boundaries of the New York metro area. I'd lived in Ohio for my entire life until moving to NYC three months ago, and even I knew that you didn't venture north of 95th Street if you were looking for a safe neighborhood to call home. (A visit to a couple of apartments in that area confirmed this, so it's not just hearsay for me anymore.) During the crack epidemic, its crime rates sky-rocketed, and abandoned buildings were condemned and left vacant. With no foreseeable change on the horizon, there was little reason for the general population to ever change its mind about Harlem. If that's the case, does it really do a group of people a lot of good to just hunker down and accept their current, depraved living conditions as an unchangeable way of life?

This brings me back to my earlier point about whether or not gentrification actually harms existing residents. Yes, the idea of being "forced" out of your home is wrong, and it disrupts what had been the normal course of events of selling/passing on the home to someone within the family, but it's not as if people are being picked up and dropped out of their houses, left homeless and with no place to turn. What never seems to get mentioned in the gentrification debate is that the current homeowners are making money hand-over-fist when they accept offers from real estate developers. True, the developers themselves make a fat profit when they renovate the buildings and flip them, but that's the nature of a capitalist society. The "displaced" residents still wind up collecting many times more than what the house is worth, and, more importantly, are given the chance to start over in a safer neighborhood. Pride in where you came from is one thing; being forced to grow up next to a crack house is another.

If people are inherently good, and if the current residents of Harlem aren't the direct cause of crime and depravity as they claim, then the problems that eventually crippled Harlem won't follow them to wherever they move. What's left, then, is an area that is able to get a second chance, and most likely sees a reduction in crime and urban decay that's made so many areas suffer in the past. Again, my current state allows me to form this opinion from the outside looking in, but I'm aware enough to know that this wave of rising real estate prices isn't something that's ever going to change in New York.

The high cost of living is just something you have to live with in this city. (I pay almost three times as much for our current apartment in Astoria for less space than what we had in Columbus, but I also don't have to suffer the costs of car payments and insurance, and the ever-rising price of gas, so for me it balances out.) You'll have a better chance of finding a happy Knicks fan on the day of the NBA Draft than you will of finding a bottle of beer for less than $5 in any NYC bar. Promo items that you see in commercials for chain restaurants are never that cheap here. (Those $5 foot-longs from Subway? Non-existent in NY; try $6.15 foot-longs.) The cost of housing is no different, and gentrification is just a result of it.

Some of it isn't even the fault of native New Yorkers, or more specifically, Manhattanites looking to take control of the rest of the island. This piece about Europeans flooding NY and buying up real estate because of the weakness of the dollar is from last year but is no less relevant today.

It's sad to think of people not getting the chance to settle in a neighborhood they've either always known as home or hoped to do so since moving there, but change in this manner is inevitable. If we wanted to get into a "I was here first" argument and actually give weight to that bickering, I think there'd be a whole hell of a lot of Native Americans who might want to say a word or two.

In this case, at least Harlem residents aren't being plundered, sold a false bill of goods, and made to walk a trail of tears. Many are collecting fat checks for homes on blocks that haven't seen the slightest ray of hope for improvement in decades. There are 8 million people in this city, and 20 million in the greater metro area; it's naive to think that you wouldn't eventually feel the nudges of overcrowding in the most coveted 13-mile stretch of island in that area.

Like hundreds of other two-sided arguments happening every day in this country, there are no clear-cut, black-and-white heroes and villains here, just shades of interpretive gray. The beauty of America is, it's all home. Just with a new address.