Thursday, March 31, 2005

Noteworthy: The Light in the Piazza

Despite what I might've thought from the promotional art, the main character in The Light in the Piazza -- composer Adam Guettel's new musical currently in previews at Lincoln Center Theater -- is really the American mother guiding her daughter (of an initially indeterminate age) around the sights of post-war Florence and Rome. Like the changing nature of the metaphor in the title, her depth and complexity is slowly revealed as the sun arcs through the days of the play.

At first, your heart goes out to the innocent daughter as her wide-brimmed sun hat floats off magically on a gust of wind into the hands of a dashing young Italian. You silently hiss at the mother's insistence on thwarting any connection with the locals, ready to cast her as the usual domineering mother for whom no boy -- no matter how cultured and friendly and honest -- can ever be good enough. But then we hear and see the cracks in the mother's marriage and learn of a detail in her daughter's past that colors your first impressions of young love and aged wisdom. Guettel's music is not meant to be very hummable, but it's accomplished and gently powerful. (He is, by the way, the grandson of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers.) He gives some of the best lines of melody and most fraught lyrics to the mother, and your sympathy for her grows and starts to form around her.

The second act opens with a song that B. dubbed more akin to Guettel's previous works but which stuck out slightly from the light but nonetheless earnest scenes of the first act. After hearing many of the Italian characters sing and speak in their native tongue (without 100% translation), one of the characters opens the fourth wall and sings directly to the audience in English about what's going on. This technique brings the audience sharply back into the play, but then the action returns more to its original tone. Along the way, there is tension and release as we compare and contrast the American mother's distant husband with the young Italian suitor's father. Not all feelings are illuminated, but we see enough to carry the play forward.

The sets are duly resplendent, and I really loved a moment where the daughter strides in silhouette across the bright backdrop, and another where nuns and friars in period habits seem to flutter across the stage. The overall mood is one of very small but very beautiful human events happening after the violence of war. A kind of innocent joy and promise has returned, but while we do not see it, there also is a sense that things are again on the brink of changing, that the innocence will ebb away once more. The sun will set, perhaps, and when it rises again, the memory of the light will not match its reality the next morning.

It's in that window of unabashed hope (with time inevitably advancing) that the mother sings the closing number at the fringes of the ensemble. I was enjoying it all so much I barely stopped to realize that here the story would end and the musical would close. It's not a short show or a very complicated one, but it took me in and I didn't want it to end.

Today, I wished the tunes of the show had been more memorable. But like the light, they're hard to capture in the brain after experiencing them just once, and instead, I'm left remembering how much I liked being there in the auditorium watching the story happen before us.

A black winter coat, an iPod, and a dog? Well, I've got two out of three.

It's not hard to poke fun at outsiders' knowledge of a place, but sometimes you just gotta.

Case in point: "A Southerners' (sic) Guide to Visiting New York City." When you're writing a travel guide, it's usually a good idea to check your facts.

"A good place to eat is Tavern on the Green. It’s located on the west side of the park in the 70’s." Try 67th?

"There is a great bakery on Bleeker called the Magnolia Bakery. ... And it’s across from a little playground that has benches for you to sit on while you stuff your face with cupcakes. This is an area where you could spend many days. So much is going on. But it is not like FRIENDS." Um, don't you mean "Sex and the City"?

"Our last day was spent on the Upper West Side and way downtown in the Financial District. We pretty much covered the whole island that day." The whole island except of course for Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood, right?

"The Upper West Side was my other favorite. It’s very residential and clean. Julliard is located in this area, as well as ABC studios and Columbia University. You could walk into Regis or Pavarotti at any given time." This really makes it sound like people are strolling from 66th to 116th on a regular basis. And Columbia isn't really on the UWS!

"Also in the area is Pier 17. So cute. It’s like a shopping mall outside, but you feel like you’re in Maine." Isn't that what they call the South Street Seaport?

This is actually a matter of opinion, but I couldn't resist: "I didn’t go to China Town either. It just didn’t seem appealing. But, I hear they have some really good Green Tea ice cream." Because the whole neighborhood can basically be reduced to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

"Union Square (over in the teens around Midtown)..." This writer just cannot get her geography together: Union Square is at least a mile from anywhere really known as Midtown.

And last but not least, Fosse for Beginners: "I got to sit on the front row of Chicago. A great show, very simplistic. They wear the same costume, and carry any props they use."

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Wednesday, along Fifth Avenue. Temperature: 60 degrees.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Better than (Ezra) I remembered

It is with some trepidation that I admit that a lot of the music that I heard and loved in high school is not really on the radio all that much anymore. The music of the mid-to-late '90s is now nearly a decade removed. But an equal joy exists in rediscovering those songs that were around and fun to listen to but which I never actually owned and therefore didn't really think of as my own. (I know that's a really consumerist way of thinking, but it's unfortunately rather true for me -- without a CD or dubbed cassette, it felt more like someone else's song, not mine.)

Such is the case with Better Than Ezra. I can never remember buying any of their CDs. My sister might have had one or two, but not me. Yet they produced a lot of the songs I heard throughout high school and into early college and that I enjoyed without ever wanting to go out and buy them. I've rediscovered several of them with the band's Greatest Hits album just released this month. Among my favorites: "One More Murder" (which I think might've been on some X-Files companion compliation somewhere), "Good," "At the Stars," "Desperately Wanting" and "This Time of Year." They aren't masterpieces, but they're good, enjoyable tunes that take me back: in ways more vague than perhaps some other particular songs that I owned and cherished while still evoking a time worth remembering.


One more reason to go out and buy Punk Farm (the picture book -- with web music -- by Jarrett J. Krosoczka that goes on sale in 27 days, 1 hour and 57 minutes)? The author e-mailed me a shout out today! In reply, I asked him who the "real" band behind "Old MacDonald" is. Turns out, it's his "little sister, brother and their friends." Rock on!

At the New York Botanical Garden's orchid show, Friday afternoon.

"Does Writing Change Anything?"

An impressive slate of international writers will try to answer that burning, oft-asked question on April 18 at a session of the PEN World Voices shindig in Town Hall. Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Ha Jin and Salman Rushdie are scheduled to show up. The host is The New Yorker's David Remnick. Tickets went on sale yesterday. They're advertised as $10, but unless you go to the box office, you must submit to the evil wrath of Ticketmaster, so they're really closer to about $15.50 a person. Get 'em while you can!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Brrr to 60 in 4 days

(NEAR) PHILADELPHIA -- I'm on the outskirts of my other favorite city this weekend for the holiday, ensconced again in a world where the daily weather doesn't matter quite as much, thanks to the family car. But it's supposedly "spring" already, and tomorrow it'll be Easter, and then come next weekend, the trifecta will be complete when we turn our clocks forward. So where's the requisite warm weather for the shivering Northeast?

Well, if the forecasters are correct, it's just on the horizon! I saw the number 60 in association with the anticipated temperature next week. 60! After a bit of rain early in the week, Wednesday could just turn out to be "partly cloudy / highs around 60" in upper NYC. In Philly? "Mid 60s!" And what about Chicago? Tuesday should bring the spring temps.

Friday, March 25, 2005

All the news that fits your ZIP:

When three of the country's largest newspaper chains buy a stake in a website, you know this page must be doing something right. That site is, a news aggregator similar to Google News. Each site has its own pluses and minuses, but something I enjoy about Topix is the geographically focused news pages it maintains. Type in a ZIP Code or city name at the top of the page, and you'll come up with a list of recent stories from -- or relevant to -- that particular area of the country. Here's Manhattan, NY's and here's the one for Manhattan, Kansas. Topix also has general topic pages as well as ones for famous people, specific sports, companies, etc.

Of course, while it claims to have this "NewsRank" technology that infuses some prioritization into the mix, Topix is still prone to odd choices of which stories to list higher. People whose job description it is to make judgments about stories and sources (aka "news editors") have at times criticized the poor judgments made by supposedly unbiased computer-run news aggregators, but then again, it's probably easier -- and cheaper(?) -- to rely on computers to do the lion's share of that work, especially when you have so many news sources to draw from on the web. Before Topix' partial sale to KR, Gannett and Tribune, it had an agreement with NYT that I assume had something to do with giving Times articles prominence (and their own box) on many of the news pages. My guess is you'll start seeing more of the same boxes when these other media companies start having some say.

Other recent tech headlines that caught my eye show the popularity and (lucrative) promise of digital photos:

Yahoo to buy Flickr & HP to buy Snapfish.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Afloat on the goodwill of past dates: Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda"

Woody Allen movies can be a lot like the characters he used to write for himself and now writes for younger actors still of prime wooing age. Perhaps you/we, the moviegoer/woman-of-interest, have gone on a few dates with him before, and are left with mostly positive memories. Sure he's a bit neurotic, but aren't we all? Sure, he's not that attractive, but he's funny -- most of the time, at least. And he likes art, and wine, and good music, and he's passionate and likes to go on field trips within a reasonable radius of the New York universe. And those doubts he has about everything? Well, we all have doubts, don't we?

Such is the case with "Melinda and Melinda," Woody's latest film. It has a fun sort of dinner-table-intellectual premise (does life offer more fodder for comedians or tragedians?), some interesting and talented actors, and that wonderfully anachronistic but nonetheless enticing Manhattan-of-Woody's-mind with the spacious apartments to die for, owned by out-of-work actors who could likely never afford them at today's prices. Along the way, the divergent storylines mix and match motifs and locations, and because it's a Woody Allen movie, you end up laughing at the absurdities of the supposedly "tragic" Melinda's plot as much as you do at Will Ferrell's goofing as the Woody stand-in during the film's "comedic" half. (Both Melindas are played by Radha Mitchell, a promising Australian actress caught in a less-than-wonderful film.)

At times, I couldn't help asking whether the "tragedy" scenes with Melinda were meant to drag on so dully or whether Woody just got lazy with his premise (or didn't know how to pull off "sad") midway through. During a few scenes, I got that recurring notion: "Come on, people! Pull yourselves together. Your lives could be a hulluva lot worse; here you're hopping off to Belmont every other day, shopping for expensive Art Deco jewelry, listening to live Bartok ... Snap outta that woe-is-I misery."

And then those feelings pass, and I laugh some more, and the movie ends, and it's not great cinema, but it's still a Woody Allen movie, and heck, it was nice to come in out of the biting, stinging sleet on a Wednesday evening out in real-reality Manhattan. So there: I've been entertained and I have enough warm, funny Woody memories to get me through a few seasons until his next film comes out.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Romenesko's other passion

This evening I happened upon a blog entirely devoted to track the phenomenon that is Starbucks. Being an online media-news junkie, I was surprised to discover that none other than Poynter's Jim Romenesko appears to be the author of this java blog. The tagline? "Somebody has to monitor America's favorite drug dealer."

Recent entries include a 95%-flattering (and not really all that groundbreaking) "day in the life of ..." piece from the NYDN and the write-up of an NPD Group survey on the rate of coffee shops (Starbucks and others) per capita. Apparently, those cold Alaskans in Anchorage have lots of opportunities to warm up with a cuppa joe: There are nearly 3 coffee shops per 10,000 people! In second place? Yep, you guessed it: Starbucks' home base, Seattle. New York doesn't rank very highly on the per-capita chart, but still boasts a whopping 525 coffee shops total. (I wonder how they classify "coffee shops" since I imagine many New Yorkers rely as heavily on neighborhood delis as they do on Starbucks and its ilk for daily shots of caffeine.)

Ready.Gov? Try Ready.Bert!

Terror Alert Level

Today's terror alert level ... for kids!

(Click on the pic for the other "levels.")

A New York State taxing moment

So I got a love note in the mail from the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance the other day. My heart nearly skipped a beat as I saw the big envelope with their logo in the corner. I stepped onto the elevator and tore into the letter, wondering what sweet words it might hold. Would "audit" be among them? Or something like "missing income declaration"? Apparently, I shouldn't flatter myself. The more mundane and dumb (on my part, chiefly) reason for their correspondence? I'd forgotten to sign the bottom of my return. Yes, that was all. I duly affixed my John Hancock and spent the 60 cents to send it back to Albany.

In these days of e-signatures and e-filing, it just slipped my mind that you still need to flourish your pen even after the computer has done all the math for you and spit out the form to be mailed.

Let's just hope I don't get another letter from the state three weeks from now.

Monday, March 21, 2005

In the Harrisburg, Pa., train station.

The Mayne event

Congrats to Thom Mayne for winning the Pritzker Prize, one of the top awards in world architecture. From the number of interesting and out-there commissions he's done, you'd think his name would be more well-known. Perhaps now he'll rightfully join the ranks of today's "star-chitects" -- Gehry, Koolhaas, Calatrava and Libeskind, etc. Mayne's work includes the Caltrans District 7 HQ in L.A. which looks like he crossed a futuristic raceway grandstand with a government building and added touches reminiscent of the highway. His design for the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau evokes a planetarium as well as the wide-open Alaska sky. Closer to home he has proposed designs for the NYC 2012 Olympic Village, which would infuse Long Island City with more of that MOMA-QNS-esque spirit, as well as a new academic building for Cooper Union.

An interesting tidbit about Mayne's S.F. federal building: Most of its elevators don't stop on every floor, but instead on every third floor -- to save energy while encouraging interaction and walking.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Save our trains

This weekend I relied on four train routes (run by the MTA, NJT, SEPTA and Amtrak) to get me where I was going with minimal help from cars, and it was an empowering feeling. Sometimes I miss driving, living in the city, but most of the time I'm glad that I can sit back and get places without having to give it 100% of my focus. And it's nice to not have the hassles associated with a car: insurance, rising gas prices, tune-ups, random chunks of metal taking out your radiator, etc. Public transit is indeed a public good, as it allows many of us to forgo owning a vehicle.

Unfortunately we have many leaders today who are acting upon the swim-alone-or-sink mentality when it comes to trains and buses. Now, I'm all for fiscal responsibility, but we shouldn't treat the groups that run these operations like disposable widget makers. We have to work together to keep these systems intact because they're a vital part of our country.

What can you do to support public transit? Vote with your feet. Choose trains, buses and the like whenever the option is available and reasonable. The more we use them, the higher chance there is that the people running the show will realize how much of a hurt they'd cause if they withdraw their support from transit systems. It's not a guarantee, but by avoiding the systems, we only give public-transit opponents more fodder to complain about them being a drain on public coffers. I'd love to see a day when we could start weening transit systems more off public money, but in the meantime, let's not kill the engine while the train is midway across the bridge.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

"This is the first multi-level Whole Foods Market store anywhere!"

Fans of Whole Foods Market (such as B.) can rejoice (as B. is currently doing): Their new location on Union Square has opened, complete with those new-fangled cart escalators which have allowed big-box-type stores typically at home in the suburbs to make their way into the city (see also: the Bed, Bath and Beyond near Lincoln Center). I haven't yet visited, but I'm sure we'll be there soon enough. Is there any chance it will remain less crowded than the one at Columbus Circle? Nope, didn't think so. On the upside, now there is another big indoor cafe area at Union Square for people with small budgets to hang out in for extended periods of time (the other one being the B&N facing it across the square). Ah, so, the suburbanization of the city continues.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Apparently there is a way to link to Wall Street Journal stories without being an online subscriber, so here for the time being is a chance to read the story of Daja Meston, the troubled/hopeful boy-monk of A1 today.

No end in sight for Columbus?

When will the construction work at Columbus Circle be done? I can't seem to find a solid answer, although it's clear that the work has taken longer than expected, since one DOT website says it was to be completed in late 2004. I could not come up with a more updated target. The final product (midway down the page) with its walkways, fountain and landscaping looks nice enough, but when can we expect to enjoy that? Come on! This is the city that built the EBS in 410 days.

"Lost and Found: Left in Nepal at 3, Daja Takes Decades to Find Out Why"

Column 1 in today's Wall Street Journal featured a story that seemed to me almost purely of human interest (as opposed to capital interest, which occupies the paper most of the time). Usually the quirky, strange or just offbeat human-interest stories go under the "A-hed" in Column 4, but not today, which had me wondering: "Why this?" and "Why now?"

(I'd link to the article, but the Journal is one of the relatively small number of news outlets that charges for its online site. I have a hard-copy subscription, but didn't have to pay for it directly, having traded in some frequent-flier miles to get it.)

So I was intrigued by the article -- which runs down a whole column and fills an entire inside broadsheet page -- and I managed to read the entire thing throughout the day. It was a great read, the kind of gripping narrative that the Journal's known for, the kind of narrative it (and this reporter, Clare Ansberry) won awards for, post-9/11. But it didn't seem very timely to me, just more of a general feature/profile.

Now: I can be an easily beguiled reader. I let down my guard if I'm reading for pleasure, often, and don't parse the text with much of a critic's eye. So here I enjoyed the tale, but then I hit up Technorati to see what other people were saying about it, and discover that the only other person out there I could find at the time was a freelance New York writer named Rob Horning, who's written a very persuasive critique of the article, drawing out what he sees as its inherent metastory: the idea that such narratives, while offering a bit of armchair adventure, in the end prove that New Age-y liberals who seek enlightenment outside the capitalist mainstream are really rather selfish and likely to cause irreparable harm to their kids by, say, dropping them off as toddlers in a Buddhist monastery and then failing to follow through on the whole parenting thing. He argues that this article thus exists as a comforting agent to the Journal's regular (affluent and conservative) target audience.

Normally, I'd be open to such read-between-the-lines interpretations, but here I was taking the article at face value, so once again, I felt disappointed about being supposedly taken in.

But setting all that aside, before I read Rod's entry, the article spoke to me because it seemed a worthy rhapsody on differing worldviews. It reminded me of sitting in World Religions class and learning of Buddhism's view that: All of life is tinged with suffering; therefore, emancipate yourself from the attachments that will add to that suffering. And how Buddha's early life was also one of wealth and privilege, before he looked at the outside world and saw much impetus to seek truth elsewhere.

I thought about how Daja's life might have been different if he'd lived longer in the East, before being exposed to the wealthy life of his mother's family, so that maybe he never would have desired to live again in his parents' birth country.

I was touched by the feeling that -- no matter the circumstances -- parents make choices for their children; parents choose to love their children in one way or another, or not at all. This is true whether you're sending your kid to a monastery or to a prestigious boarding school in New England, whether you bring up your child to be a devout fundamentalist Protestant or as an atheist focused only on the things of this life. I guess I was touched overall by the fascinating twists and turns traced in the article and how each person got through. But just as I don't think we're supposed to take from the movie Mary Full of Grace the idea that the drug trade is ultimately a means of upward mobility for poor Colombian women, likewise, I don't think we are meant to take from this WSJ article the idea that seeking fulfillment outside the norm is a selfish and futile journey.

I've since gone back to Technorati and found another reference to the piece: "I'm pissed at his parents and the damn buddhist system he grew up in," this author writes.

Perhaps this is the kind of response the author of Marginal Utility worried about. But there are more than merely two opposing ways to view the actions depicted in this article as well as this article itself. I concede that the reporter might have consciously or unconsciously chosen certain words that shape readers' views, but I do believe it's possible to look beyond that to see a great piece of reportage.

With or without U(2)

Can someone please tell me how a normal U2 fan -- without mad connections and unwilling to pay more than $150 a ticket -- manages to see the band live these days? Because I just don't see how it happens if you live in a big city. How is it that all five October shows at Madison Square Garden get sold out like one and a half minutes after they go on sale?

Grrr, Ticketmaster! Who is getting these tickets?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Tunes for and from the animal kingdom

On today's show: Songs that make you go Ruff! & Sheep who just wanna rock (warning: music may start immediately).

First, on NPR the other day, Scott Simon had one of those interviews where he has to restain himself from being entirely sarcastic with his well-meaning guest, encouraging -- for instance -- listeners to gather their dogs around the radio to listen to cuts from Skip Haynes' CD Ask the Animals: Songs to Make Dogs Happy!. It's an album of songs perfectly calibrated to send your pooches off to doggie heaven on a raft of easy-going synth riffs without any of the hard percussion (which would remind them too much of gunshots, we were told).

Meanwhile, if you're in the mood for lots of percussion, there is the new children's picture book and accompanying website called Punk Farm, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka. The book doesn't blaze the shelves for another 42 days, but the book's "single" is free for the listening. For ironic young parents who want to ease their youngsters into the joys of post-punk and indie. (You can even start them on the road to obsessing over band-related "merch," such as the stickers you can download and print out.)

Thank you, Wisconsin!

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Southwest/Philly's back again

Growing up a native of the Philadelphia area, I often felt like my city was always being trumped by New York in seemingly every category. But now here's a NYT article that highlights an interesting reversal: air travelers from the NYC metro are actually going by land the extra distance to PHL to take advantage of the cheaper fares offered by Southwest, etc. Which raises an interesting but age-old travel question: What's more valuable to you? Time or money. Frankly, the thought of going all the way to Philly to get out of the Northeast seems like a bit much to me, unless I would couple it with a trip to family. But even then, the airport is on the opposite side of the city from where I'd be. Both PHL and JFK are so far away from the city center that you can spend a whole lot of time getting there to begin with. Newark and LaGuardia are marginally better, but not by much.

So here's a (very) rough estimate of the time and money I'd spend getting from my house to each of these four ports, considering the fact that I don't have a car:

To JFK: $7 and 1:30 hours via subway and AirTrain. OR $45+ via taxi in about an hour (depending on traffic).

To LGA: $2 and 1:10 hours via subway and bus. OR around $35 via taxi in about 45 minutes.

To EWR: about $8 and an hour via subway and train. (Not sure about taxi fare, but probably about 45 minutes.)

To PHL: about $28 and 3:15 hours via subway and train. (Taxi would be through the roof and still about 2:30 hours.)

At this point in my life, with less vacation time and the promise of more income down the road, I just don't see planning in another 2 hours into my vacation schedule just to save some $75. If I were retired, though, or not willing to spend as much on vacation, I can see I might have the leisure to go the Philly route. But still, wouldn't it feel like you were lugging your bags everywhere and traveling all day?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The welcoming neighbor at 1 East 70th

We finally visited the Frick Collection today, a modestly-sized (by New York standards) art museum housed in the former residence of Henry Clay Frick, a Pittsburgh-area industrialist who rose to fame and wealth in the Gilded Age coal and steel business alongside Carnegie. The house, just off Central Park, is massive and sprawling in a manner not usually associated with the city, but it's a great place to experience art as if you too were a member of the rich aristocracy, arrayed as it is amid the domestic accoutrements of the Frick's house. Because of this presentation, it reminded me of the Barnes Foundation in (for the moment, at least) Merion, Pa., although the Barnes crams more works into about the same space, whereas the Frick presents the paintings and sculptures with a more spaced-out approach.

My favorite works were this Whistler, this Vermeer (why does it seem like all the famous Vermeers were painted in the same room with the same window on the left?) and this Bellini. I also appreciated that it wasn't as crowded as the Met is usually and the personal audio guides were free with admission.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The second place I visited was a little bit harder to find because it's in a neighborhood I'm less familiar with: the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem. This house at 339 Convent Avenue (just up the street from City College) was the family home in "The Royal Tenenbaums." The film itself is set in a sort of mythical Manhattan, and includes scenes at one of my all-time-favorite fictional locations: "the 375th St. Y." (Someone else apparently liked the name so much they used it for their blog.)

You've got Cheese and Antiques? ... After flipping through a movie lover's guide to NYC today, I decided to go off in search of two locations from films that I've enjoyed. The first one was the little neighborhood book shop ("Shop Around the Corner") that Meg Ryan's character runs in "You've Got Mail" (1998). As it is with movie shooting locations once in a while, the real thing just isn't as impressive. Still, the owners have a poster from the movie posted proudly next to the cash register inside. Maya Schaper Cheese & Antiques is located at 106 West 69th Street.

After lingering much longer than the officially declared end (they took a while to dismantle), "The Gates" are gone, returning Central Park to its regularly scheduled winter hibernation. Seeing the park again like it used to be reminds me of a line from Wallace Stevens' poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: "I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

"Typing error causes nuclear scare"

This is why the world needs good copy editors. Who knew a steno could find him/herself at the center of a minor international crisis?

Sort of reminds me of the Ali G bit where he's asking some dignitary (I think) whether it isn't a bit dangerous to have Iran and Iraq start with the same three letters. What if some general is talking on the phone -- he postulates (speaking in his faux rapper slang) -- and the connection cuts out just as he's telling the guy next to the button, "Let's bomb Ira-," and then we bomb the wrong country?

Except that -- somehow -- Ali-G's scenario is just a little less funny.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A graceful "Maria"

We finally rented "Maria Full of Grace" tonight, now that I'm back in Netflix's clutches. Imagining something akin to Soderbergh's "Traffic," I steeled myself for a movie with some of the same violence and frenetic frustration that comes from the Catch-22's of the drug trade. But instead, I felt treated to an utterly (yes) graceful and humble movie that infuses its characters with dignity even as it measures their despair. You could almost say the ending was too positive and hopeful -- which isn't to say that some of the lives depicted aren't shattered/altered in the course of the film. The film succeeds in giving us a realistic and methodical (but not plodding) take on one story, without seeming to suggest that this story is The Story of all young female Colombian drug mules. I felt like it challenged some of my expectations and notions, and reminded me that -- despite its horrors and illicit nature -- such underground systems do continue: partly because they thrive on desperation and addiction but also because they work enough (on all sides) to be useful in a strictly utilitarian sense. All of which is to say: No, I don't feel better about the actions shown here, but yes, I'm reminded that these are multi-faceted people participating here, living here, hoping and dreaming here.

Behind St. Patrick's Cathedral, Wednesday afternoon.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The dot-com millionaires' 5-year reunion

Thursday marks the five-year anniversary of the all-time high close of the NASDAQ stock index -- and the beginning of the end for the Internet dot-com bubble. I was too busy enjoying college to appreciate its importance (or weighty disappointment) at the time, but it's still amazing to think of all the websites that started up, flourished and then fizzled in that short period of the heady (ha, ha) Clintonian late-'90s. There's a great site that has collected the Final Pages from dozens of sites that went under after the bubble burst. For your browsing pleasure, find more than 100 "e-bituaries" here. They range from the poetic/wistful to the terse and vaguely hopeful.

But not all dot-com stories had a sad ending. The former sock puppet has proudly re-emerged as the spokes-puppet for 1-800-BAR NONE, a car-loan company that targets people with bad credit. Its slogan? "Everyone Deserves A Second Chance, BarNone." (Including -- apparently -- dot-com puppets.)

Monday, March 07, 2005

Martha, Martha, Martha

So. Did anything of note happen in the world of current events since Friday? I couldn't really tell. Because all the media outlets seem to be falling over themselves to cover every moment of Martha Stewart's freedom (well, semi-freedom).

But seriously, you can't buy this kind of publicity. Sometimes the best strategy, especially when crime is involved, is to just put on a happy face and feed the gaping maw that is the media's desire for photogenic entertain-me-news. What do you get? A perfect trifecta of coverage: entertainment outlets cover her because she's a lifestyle icon and likes to smile for the camera and is rich and owns a pretty estate, news outlets cover her because she is a famous person who just got out of jail, and business outlets get in the action because she's the queen of a publicly traded company. At least two of the major NYC networks did a variation on "Martha: In Her Own Words." (President Bush would be proud of this end-around-the-"filter.")

It hasn't been this good since the governor of Cal-ee-forn-ya cruised his way to victory by dodging the "real" (read: boring) political press and mugging for the showbiz media shows. Programs like "Inside Edition," which -- in its hard-nosed quest to get to the truth of matters -- is currently subjecting its host to a bit of participatory journalism to see what it's like to wear that cute ankle bracelet Martha's got. As she informed viewers in today's episode, even Fox News interviewed her about her daring, personal foray into the world of "house arrest." (George Plimpton can now officially roll over in his grave.) So you're telling us a network that's already steeped in propaganda is reporting on a parallel dramatization of a event that was being hyped up for maximum benefit to begin with? Riiight.

Where's the news in all this? Oh, we've got news. A sampling of real headlines: "Martha Stewart Enjoys Comforts of Home" ... "Martha Stewart Catches Up On Housework" ... "Martha Stewart Going Back to Work at NY Office" ... "Martha Praises Her Employees."

Well, in case you missed recent news from my corner of the world, here's a digest: "Jeremy Brings Home Fresh Food from Local Supermarket" ... "Jeremy Appreciates Conversation With Friend While Doing Dishes" ... "Jeremy Expected to Make Appearance at NY Office Tomorrow" ... "Jeremy Anticipates Imminent Night's Rest."

Is it great to NOT be in jail, or what?

Le Parker Meridien's "secret" hangout

From the number of magazine clippings ("Cheap Eats!" etc.) on the wall, Burger Joint doesn't seem to be too much of a secret anymore. But its location still baffled and amused me Saturday night, as we approached the entrance below the little neon burger sign at the end of a narrow curtained hallway. You wouldn't normally expect to find a place that serves $5 burgers (and they were mouth-watering) and only one kind of beer (Sam Adams) to be ensconced inside a chic minimalist Midtown hotel lobby with cathedral ceilings. But there it was: the open kitchen run by kids that looked like they were still in high school, napkin drawings taped up to the faux-wood-paneled walls, and "Animal House" playing coincidentally but appropriately on the TV. With its "If you don't see it, we don't have it" menu, and its reasonable but good food, it reminded me of Corner Bistro, but more brightly lit and slightly less dingy.


On the phone front, I'm stuck with my old one for the moment, because I guess there was some sort of misunderstanding and I don't get my free upgrade for ANOTHER month. So in the meantime, I have to use my earbud headset for each call, since the speak-into-it microphone is broken/on-its-way-out. When I asked why they can't just replace my phone now -- it being half-broken and all -- they tsk-tsked me for not getting the stupid monthly-premium insurance policy back when I first got it. Grrr, Verizon.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Meet the Parents' spawn

Many big-budget movies have become just another brand/franchise these days: Star Wars, LOTR, Son of the Mask. All the sequels (some good, some embarrassing) that flood theaters.

And then there are the movies that try to be very similar to other successes without actually using the same brand. Case in point: two new flicks that seem like they're trying to ride the coattails of "Meet the Parents" and its inevitable and surprisingly successful authorized sequel. The new films are "Monster-in-Law" and "Guess Who." (Both trailers were shown ahead of "Hitch" the other night.)

In both of these, you have a giddy-in-love couple come home for a "meeting the parents" moment. Opposition (and supposed hilarity) ensues. These summaries, of course, are according to my understanding of the trailers alone, but that's key to how many people decide whether to see certain movies.

We'll have to see if these movies do well, and if so, what is it about this story that appeals to people? Is it that these tales take the feared consequences to the extreme, thereby lessening whatever real-life embarrassments/obstacles young couples normally face?

P.S. It appears that "Guess Who" is actually sort of a remake of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" (1967, starring Sidney Poitier), with (it seems) the race of the roles reversed. (Remakes: yet another version of branding/franchising.) Still, the choice to remake and sell this picture now seems pretty coincidental without the influence of Ben Stiller's recent hits.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The short, but chatty, life of a cellphone

If Verizon keeps its word (and I've been understanding the sales people correctly), I should be eligible for a new cellphone next week, worth up to $100. It's definitely about time I got a new handset; my current one is beat-up and its call quality has gone down. Often, like today for instance, I'll make a call and then the person on the other end of the line won't be able to hear me, even though I can hear them, or vice versa.

So this little Samsung is going to be retired. But how much use have I gotten out of it? Luckily for my obsession with numbers, there is a "LifeTime" air-time log, so I know exactly how many calls I've made/received and how long I've been on the phone.

The totals? 4,408 calls amounting to 276 hours, 18 minutes and 16 seconds. Now, considering I bought it in early June 2003 (say June 4), what does that come out to, average-wise?

About six to seven calls a day. Three minutes and 45 seconds per call. Nearly 26 minutes per day, or about 1.8% of each day spent on the phone. The funny thing is, I don't remember spending so much time on the phone each day.

A proud and slightly scratched Samsung A310, about to be put out to pasture

Olympic land grab?

To see more of those anti-NYC-Olympics spoofs, see this page of images. And this page encourages you to print and post them yourselves.

I'm not really sure how I feel about the proposal: On the one hand, it would be an exciting reason to transform a lot of the city and a great thing to look forward to and be proud of; on the other hand, it'll siphon off a lot of money in preparation, take up valuable space for sports venues, could end up costing the city more than it brings in and could distract from other basic quality of life issues, which the mayor has tried to focus on during his tenure. So far, the city has mostly benefited (although not everyone would agree) from hosting two recent short-term events: the RNC last summer and The Gates this winter. But the Summer Games are on a scale that dwarfs both of these combined. And in terms of getting decision makers and stake holders to champion the cause, this one is international.

The final say is up to the IOC at their "117th Session" in early July in Singapore. Bottom line: My bet is on Paris.

Meanwhile, only "343 giorni" until Torino 2006.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Guerilla counter-ad campaigns are everywhere these days, opposing everything from President Bush to New York's long-shot 2012 Olympics bid. Here, someone's used a similar font and voice to mock the official slogans and assert: "there will be steroids and vote fixing," "every host city loses money" and "every taxpayer will get screwed." Found on a subway ad, Thursday evening.

Thursday afternoon, watching the numbers outside Fidelity Investments on Park Avenue.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Lorrie Moore, out loud

We hurried over to Symphony Space after work tonight for another installment of "Selected Shorts" -- that fond memory of my childhood now come to life at the corner of 95th and Broadway, with Isaiah Sheffer himself (he of the great booming public-radio voice) speaking oh-so-lovingly into the mike, introducing the stories and their readers.

The first one tonight was probably my favorite: file it under writing about writing (a perennial topic). From 1985, it was Lorrie Moore's "How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliche?" (They only introduced it with the first half of the title at the show tonight, but I discovered its full name after I found the full text available in the NYT's archives.)

It's written in the second person -- that weird middle-ground voice that can be hard to pull off and make believable as it wavers at times between first-person narrative and omniscience. But it works well in Moore's story, especially since the title introduces it as a sort of how-to.

Those who've taken anything like Fiction 101 or Intro to Poetry might appreciate this passage:
In creative writing seminars over the next two years, everyone continues to smoke cigarettes and ask the same things: ''But does it work?'' ''Why should we care about this character?'' ''Have you earned this cliche?'' These seem like important questions.
The story has a lot of laugh lines, but it felt a bit off-kilter to me, because I was expecting to laugh a few more times, but then the narrative took a turn for the serious and not-so-hilarious. Only after it was all finished did I start to think back to how the author dropped in allusions and hints to what was going on in her family and her head beneath the veneer of "deciding to become ..." and then "becoming a writer."

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The best part of The New Yorker

Everybody knows what the best part is: the cartoons! And there is a rule: You have to read them first before you read anything else in depth. B. and I seem to agree on this. The new issue of The New Yorker arrives in the mail (usually Monday or Tuesday), and you start flipping through and you look at all the cartoons. They're not the only good part, but they're the quick, fun part, like eating the cherry and licking the whipped cream off the top of the sundae. After you've got them out of the way, you can feel free to indulge in the rest of the magazine-y goodness.

Why can't you read them as you go through? B. says it's because you might be reading an article and then see a cartoon out of the corner of your eye (it sort of sneaks up on you) and then you have to read it. You might laugh upon reading it and if you laugh, you have to look at all of them. Even if you just quietly smirk to yourself, you still might want another. And another -- the ice cream analogy applies here as well. And then you might not finish your article and that's bad.

There is of course a new anthology of most of the New Yorker cartoons from the past 80 years, but a) it's too expensive, b) it's too big and c) it would be like eating a whole Serendipity full of ice cream and that would just make you sick of cartoons.

(Acknowledgements: Much thanks for the use of B.'s new laptop, Raul. It came as a surprise to me that consumer electronics need names, but apparently they do in some circles.)