Wednesday, June 28, 2006

How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?

The answer to that question, first asked by Depression-era songwriter Alfred Reed, is: Bruce Springsteen.

My passion for Bruce only seems to grow with time. As times get harder and darker, he lifts and shows the light. In this song, first performed with three new verses he wrote to perform in New Orleans, Bruce does that Bruce thing. From tragedy and anger and pain comes enlightenment and the sliver of hope. Even if that hope only lasts as long as it takes to finish a song.

As always, Bruce isn't for everyone (certainly not on a first-name basis like we are). But listen to this and try not to feel. It probably says more about you than him, I figure.

And you can always let him teach you to count.

By The Dawn's Early Blight

A Woodbridge woman flies the Puerto Rican flag on her lawn, mostly to spite her neighbors. What a country! (Spoken in Yakov Smirnoff accent.)

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Tangled Up in the Big Red

"All the people we used to know/ they're an illusion to me now/ Some are mathematicians/ some are carpenters' wives/ Don't know how it all got started/ I don't know what they're doin' with their lives.'' … Bob Dylan

Living in New Jersey again has been disorienting to my sense of forward narrative thrust. I always thought my life's story should move me -- physically, at least -- to new and far-flung places. But little disorients more than confronting your past and present at the same time.

I should have expected the cold.

Ten years ago, I graduated from a school perched -- hunched, really -- on a hill in Ithaca, N.Y., the product of an ancient glacier that plopped down for some millennia on its way to the valley it was to form.

The school is a collection of ivy-and-rust-covered buildings in a most uncomfortably beautiful landscape. It was founded by a man named Ezra Cornell, and he thought: "Could there be a more strenuous location for my university?'' Likely, no. There it sits, and all others trudge.

I drove back there two weeks ago for the Class of '96 Reunion, and of course it rained.

I honestly can't remember a trip to school when it wasn't raining or snowing. Sunshine was out of the question. Other towns further north might get more snow, might get colder in negative degrees Fahrenheit or wind-chill index, but few towns can surpass the all-encompassing climatic misery that dominates Ithaca.

The seriousness with which most inhabitants/students take the university, is co-enabler in this particularly dysfunctional family. Solid months of head-down frozen slogging, wind-shielding, toe-numbing pain and despondency. And then there's the winter.

Perhaps because of the weather or just the prevailing attitude, the Cornell campus is one where eye contact is a precious commodity, hoarded away -- stockpiled for rare and disingenuous occasions.

So the reunion was an opportunity to exercise those old avoidance skills, while wearing a sweatshirt and holding an air-chilled beer on summer days.

I attended with a contingent of 10 close friends, whose weddings I've been and will go to, whose children I poke in the stomach, and whose money I borrow for the time in between winning it in poker and losing it at the next game.

I embraced and kissed other friends and acquaintances, happy to see them and learn the brief rundown of their lives. Some encounters jarred me a little. It turns out three guys from my high school class married three girls from college (I guess they're women now, even if that still doesn't sound right), and they live in and around my hometown.

I'm not sure how I feel about Ron and Beth living in Vicky's childhood home with their twin babies. Old, I suppose.

But also young. Having recently graduated journalism school with a younger crowd and setting out on a new career, I've learned you're only as old as you feel. And if I subtract the rapid aging that comes from pulling for the New (Jersey) Jets, then I'm feeling pretty young these days.

Mostly we drank and ate bad, wonderful things smothered with cheese. We stayed in the same dorms we lived in as freshmen and clogged the same toilets, smelled the same musty smells and mocked the monstrous construction transforming part of the campus into incongruous public housing projects. We stayed up late talking about nothing and tried not to feel tired.

Driving back to my current life, the roads stayed dry and I stopped off to watch a school buddy's baby crawl into walls with a smile wider than the Delaware Water Gap. I arrived home in Highland Park filled with curiosity about the future and warmed by memories.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Top Five Songs About Satan

Now, we all know that there has been a slight revision to the Number of the Beast. But in honor of 6/6/06, here are the greatest tunes for a dance with the Devil:

5. Friend of the Devil, The Grateful Dead
4. Highway to Hell, AC/DC
3. Hellhound on My Trail, Robert Johnson
2. Running with the Devil, Van Halen
1. Sympathy For the Devil, The Rolling Stones

Honorable Mention: "Devil’s Haircut" by Beck, "Devil With the Blue Dress" by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, "Devil’s Right Hand" by Johnny Cash, "Devil Went Down to Georgia" by Charlie Daniels Band, "Shout at the Devil" by Motley Crue, and "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden

Columnist Recycles Blogs

If you didn't read the original, then it's new to you.

The Word on O'Reilly

Bill O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" getting the Colbert treatment. Play along at home. It's really too much fun.

Monday, June 05, 2006

TV? Or Not TV? That is the Question

Deeeeaaaaal? Or no Deal?

Ah, summertime. Time to hit the open roads and inhale the fumes of the interstate. Time to sweat uncontrollably. Time to attack the freedoms of other Americans in a naked ploy to cater to a blinkered and bigoted voter base.

And for many, it's time to pry themselves away from their televisions and plop their plump, melanoma-tempting bodies on public beaches so that our nation's local news affiliates can gather all new B-roll footage for that next report on our growing obesity epidemic.

Yup, there's plenty to do outdoors. But this was the year I gained an all new appreciation for the great indoor sport of television-viewing. Where the good can hardly compete with the bad -- and when we are truly blessed -- the brilliantly god-awful. So maybe you can set your DVR to catch some of these choice selections after cleaning all the sand out of little Johnny's ass.

I'm not gonna waste time opining on that glorified karaoke contest, "American Idol." It's allure is pretty simple: Come to watch amateurs butcher American classics; stay to watch the slow unraveling of Paula Abdul and the spectacle of Randy Jackson attempting to sound black. Can we all agree to forget about this show until its cancerous relapse in January?

And I can't believe America embraced "Deal or No Deal." I'll admit I watched it a bunch of times. But only to root for people to lose money. I just can't endorse a herd of photogenic, excitable mouth-breathers handed a chance to win millions playing a "game" in which there is no discernable skill beyond luck and balls. I particularly liked how host Howie Mandell would carefully explain every obvious stage of the game, milking the manufactured tention, sending us forever to commercials before quietly, with his hands clasped near his chin, solemnly intoning, "OK...Open the case." Wow. Now that's TV, folks.

But my favorite discovery this year was NBC's "The Office." The perfect collision of concept and execution that actually improves on a beloved British import. Steve Carrell leads a pitch-perfect cast of fully-realized characters topped off with the giddy incarnation of Dwight Schrute by Rainn Wilson. Absurd, but rooted in the horrible truths of office life. And finally, here's a show that played its will-they-ever-get-together sexual tension hand to the hilt. This show has set an awfully high bar for next year.

And I'm very proud of myself for seeing past my initial misgivings over the unfortunately titled "House, M.D." Hugh Laurie creates the most entertaining television character on the air -- next to Tony Soprano and "Deadwood"s Al Swearengen. "House" gets the award for the perfect balance of formulaic medical mystery and gradual development of interpersonal relationships, all peppered with scathing witicisms and general dialogue brilliance.

On the west coast of medical comedy, the allure of "Scrubs" tacerbic ascerbic wit of "House" and tweaks everything into beyond-absurd silliness. With a heart. Not exactly hilariconstantlyonstently inventive, funny and entertaining. Even if you want to slap Zach Braff on occasion for his (by design) constant mugging and monkey-like capering.

But there's far more to television than the network-churned crap. Ya gotta dig a little deeper into your cable package to discover the gems. Stuff like "Airline" on A&E, in which cameras follow the crews of Southwest Airlines as they cope with drunk passengers and lost luggage. This is as close as you can get to watching someone who just got bumped from an overbooked flight belittle a hapless agent who can only smile and try to absorb the abuse -- without being that poor schnook.

I highly recommend stopping in "The No-Sense Zone" to watch Bill O'Reillequipped ill-equiped liberal straw men and campaign against pedophiles. But if his solo act merits your attention, the fun doubles when he matches witlessness with frequent guest and mustachioed Fox cohort Geraldo Rivera. There's nothing quite like listening to two dudes investigate, try and execute all sorts of bad people from the comfort of their anchor chairs. It's like an Irish banana republic.

Equally impassioned, but somewhat more reasoned are the diatribes on IFC's "The Henry Rollins Show." Rollins will rail against Bush and Condi Rice with all the spit and venom of a more muscular Al Franken. But he's also a film fanatic with a knack for carrying on interesting conversations with folks like Werner Herzog, Paul Thomas Anderson or Jeff Bridges. Far more engaging and eloquent than his music ever was.

For the subversive, sickening progeny of "South Park" and "Family Guy," look to MTV2's "Wonder Showzen." Modeled like a "Sesame Street"-style kiddie's show with animation and live-action puppets, "Wonder Showzen" stretches bad taste until it curdles over on itself into some other form of taste. Children are prompted to say inappropriate and offensive (by anyone's standards) stuff to unsuspecting marks in on-the-street interviews. Other remote bits put hectoring beyond-Triumph-The-Insult-Comic-Dog confrontations in the mouth of a blue, cuddly high-pitched puppet. The cartoons are racist, vulgar and frankly disgusting (a bit called DOG OBGYN comes to mind). You should check this out just to see how far an envelope can be pushed before someone shoots the mailman.

And while we're visiting MTV2, I recommend anyone not from an inner city or familiar with its culture to check out "Fight Klub," a weekly cutting contest between two unsigned rappers. I'm a white kid from the suburbs. I'm not really sure there's a way for me to describe this spectacle without sounding racist. But setting aside the actual content, I can't imagine the attitude of this show could be doing anyone any good. It surely isn't my place to judge. But jeez.

For more wholesome subversion of morality and taste, check out the wonderous "Robot Chicken" on the Cartoon Network. A stop-animation skewering of culture, history...everything, voiced with a dizzying collection of top-tier talent collected by co-creators Seth Green and Matt Senreich. A bunch of quick-hitting shorts (that add up to about 12 minutes an episode), it's another show which is far better than it has any right to be.

But you'd rather go to the beach, eh? Suit yourself. Bathing suit yourself. Seriously. Nobody wants to see that.