Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson, Friday night, Boston's Back Bay

This Friday night, the day after Michael Jackson died, I was waiting in front of Back Bay station for about a half hour. Enough cars passed playing Michael Jackson's music -- I can probably just call him "Michael" for the remainder of the article -- that the survey of his music was uninterrupted. Many Boston radio stations were playing nothing else. At the park in front of the Copley mall, there is a loud and enthusiastic sing-along to to the sound-snippets driving by: Don't Stop Till You Get Enough, The Girl Is Mine, Billie Jean, Beat It, and Wanna Be Startin' Somethin, and Thriller. People are moonwalking and doing that vampire dance.

I'm waiting for Wesley Morris, a writer for the Boston Globe who has been at work very late writing a piece about Michael's relationship to race for the Sunday paper. A lot of writers at the Globe are writing a lot of articles prompted by Michael death. There's a lot to write. As we walk down Dartmouth street, we're talking about his article. How does his transformation reflect his and others attitudes toward race? And some other issues I didnt quite get.

From behind us, a young woman, who is white, has overheard part of our conversation and confronts us. "Well, it doesn't matter if he's black or white. That shouldn't come into it." I don't know exactly what she's responding to (because I've also been listening to I Want you Back playing from a passing car) but she's upset. And she looking at us. And approaching. And continuing, "That's all people want to talk about, is plastic surgery, and kids sleepover, and all that. And its just not right because he gave us so much." Her date, it may even be a first date, is plainly embarrassed.

I'm struck -- and so is Wesley -- by how very wrong it is to think we are doing anything but celebrating Michael tonight. "It made me really mad how all the news clips are of child molestation case and all that." Wesley is quickly commiserating. "I heard the news channels couldn't get the rights to play music clips. So they keep playing those old child molestation court case clips." "Oh yes, fair use, they can only play 12 seconds of the video," I offer. I need to say something.

Her face becomes more increduluous and irritated. Now she's glaring at me. "Are you a lawyer?" A lawyer who is disrespecting Michael Jackson -- is there anything worse. "No," I may be stammering at this point, "we work for ... a media company." "Oh really?!" This is really too much for her. Did we spend all day running child molestation clips? I continue, "the Boston Globe," as in, not-the-tv-news. She softens a bit. "It such a tragedy," I offer. And I mean it.

So many of us spent our adult years distancing ourselves from the man who was the soundtrack to our childhood and adolscence. He gave us our MTV after school, our summer vacations, our prom, our times with our lifelong friends, our weddings, our nostalgia, and still most Saturday nights. And we questioned him, we mocked him, we laughed meanly when the New York Post shouted "Wacko-Jacko". All at once, we all somehow know this is our time to sing along stand up for him. Even her date felt the need to step up. "They'll never be another talent like him." She looked up at him, and away from us. I think he'll do alright tonight.

I'm feeling -- I think we all are -- the power to forgive, to absolve, to celebrate.

Pho Republique was not playing Michael Jackson music. They were playing Bob Marley. Our waiter apologized almost immediately. "We've been playing Michael Jackson music all night, and I just started getting so sad because ... well its so terrible what happened. This seemed like the right thing to play now." Maybe we came in at just the right time, but as I was scanning the menu, it became clear our waiter is a prophet. Bob Marley is explaining:

Won't you help to sing,
These songs of freedom,
Cause all I ever have,
Redemption songs
Redemption songs.

In the Back Bay, we've been singing them all night.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Adieu LOLCats. Hello "F*** You, Penguin."

There's a bit less smiling going on these days, and it seems our taste for cuteness has also gone sour.

Fluffy and playful, the internet's LOLCats spent the holidays posing for staged photos on the living room floor, mangling toilet paper rolls and the English language. Now copies of the doe-eyed holiday book "I Can Haz Cheeseburger" fills Borders bargain-bin at $1.98 begging you to it home.

Stocks are down, and we're taking it out on the kitty. Enter "Fuck You, Penguin". A site that unleashes accusatory vitriol on animals we used to think were cute.

Gazelles are "desperate for affection", the endangered booby a "blue-footed sleaze", and "overhyped" cranes are "the mortgage-backed securities of the animal world". In general these animals all conspire to use mindless cuteness to annoy and endanger humans "hop by excruciating hop."

The creator of the site, a Boston writer who goes by the name of bza, tells me he is under contract to Random House to produce a "F*** You, Penguin" book, using mostly material from the web site, for publication in Fall 2009. If two points make a line, then Cute Overload makes it a trend. Cute Overload tries to be sick of fluffy kitties, F-U-P succeeds -- and is much funnier.

Both sites are becoming hugely popular. As of today, F-U Penguin has 11,700 fans on Facebook, about 5000 Twitter followers, and shows strong page visit growth in Alexa.

Look for the book to be a recession best-seller this Christmas.

Monday, February 16, 2009

There will be references

It takes blood, machismo, and a bit of a snarl. Then you have a movie catchphrase that men can rally around. The title of the 2007 Oscar-winning movie "There Will Be Blood" is turning out to be the "Say hello to my little friend" of this decade.

This newish favorite macho-meme assigns a hardcore intensity and cruel severity reminiscent of the ruthless main character, oilman Daniel Plainview, portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Let's take a look at some recent usage just in the New York Times:

Straight usage:

"There Will Be Blood" Maureen Dowd on nomination battles between Clinton and Obama (Feb 2008)
"There Will Be Blood" Steven Davidoff on ominous signs of an impending financial meltdown (Sept 2008)
"There Will Be Blood" Nicholas Kristoff on the ongoing armed conflict in Sudan (Mar 2008)
Extended usage:
"There Will Be Blood and Musical Chairs" Stu Hackel's NYT hockey blog "Slap Shot"
Turn of phrase:
"There Will Be Floods" Alex Prud'homme on continuing levee breaches in the New Orleans area.
"There Will Be Extravagance" Janet Maslin on Bryan Burrough’s book about Texas oil money (Feb 2009)
"There Will Be Bagels" Jennifer Lee in the New York Times on the availability of bagels in Utah.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Jews Kill Yet Another Children's Show Host in Gaza?

The most popular children's show in Gaza has a bouncy xylophone-driven soundtrack, but bunnies and other fluffy-fun lead-characters are dying more gruesomely and frequently than on the Sopranos.

The latest casualty is Assud the Bunny, a six-foot-tall smiling pink rabbit with big ears and a dancy gait who wants to "finish off the Jews and eat them". After a year of teaching numbers, the alphabet, and a bit of debatable Middle East history, Assud the Bunny threw himself in front of an Israeli missile in his final episode yesterday. On his deathbed he invited a little girl in a headscarf to "remember him as a martyr."

Assud the Bunny is no stranger to tragedy. He took over as host of "Tomorrow's Pioneers" from his cousin, Nahoul the Bee, who was martyred in February 2008 by starving himself to death in front of millions of adoring viewers and his improbably human on-screen family.

Nahoul the Bee hosted the show for seven months, teaching children, among other things, how to annoy cats by swinging them around by the tail and letting go, and how to rile lions in the Gaza zoo by pelting them with stones.

The first host of the show was Farfour the Mouse, who encouraged children to drink milk and listen to their parents. Farfour also led youngsters on the show in songs about the AK-47 and led in an accompanying dance that included shouldering and firing motions with imaginary rifles.

In his final episode (June 2007), Farfour the Mouse was quite graphically punched/stabbed by actors playing Israeli officials. A young teenage girl appears afterwards and gives a martyr's eulogy that is part teen-fan and part peer-encouragement.

But its not all fun and games at Gaza children's television.

After "Tommorrow's Pioneers," a stark panel discussion is on. The "panel" is of children ages 9 to 13, and the show is hosted by a calm and smiling adult questioner. He asks questions of the children:

Host: "Do you think its natural to ... blow your self up?"
Sabrine (age 17, by phone): "Yes! It's our right!"

Host: "Martyrdom. Do you think it's a beautiful thing?"
Walla (age 11, at table): "Yes it's a beautiful thing. Who wouldn't yearn for paradise?"

Host: "Would you agree with that?"
Yussra (age 11, at table): "Palestinian youth are not like other youth ... they choose martyrdom."

The children respond in a uniformly excited smiling manner, eager to please the questioner.

Even Fatah (the Palestinian party that control the West Bank of Palestine) has condemned these programs -- especially the latter talk show (if parroting dogma can be called talking) that is so obviously and explicitly designed to cause children to believe life is simply an opportunity for a useful death.

Useful to Hamas, that is.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Québec's Algonquin-language rapper, Samian

Samian is a popular (if you are in Québec) Algonquin-language rapper, who blends the themes of "first nations" (indiginous peoples) issues into his music.

The music is great, his message is important and unique. His music videos have often been, well, terrible. Finally, a very good video worthy of his music and message.

link: Samian's bio from Voir Québec (French)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Is Crayonphysics the new Electroplankton?

Is this thing even a game?

Goal-less and experiential like the Japanese Nintendo DS hit Electroplanton, the new PC game "Crayonphysics" is amazingly engaging, brilliant, and simple game/experience/art.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rosettes, other cookies, and the Italian-American Christmas

Each year, for Christmas, my mother makes rosettes. Rosettes have only 5 ingredients, yet they are nearly impossible to make. The recipe (if there were a standard one) is different for each particular oven. Timing when combining and mixing the ingredients is so critical that a single minute in either direction before cooking can result in collapsed, inedible discs after cooking.

Even if you manage them to bake the rosettes correctly (congratulations), frosting the cookies is another gauntlet. Frost too early, and the hot cookie will ruinously liquify the frosting. Frost too late, and the cold, hardened frosting will rip the cookie apart as you spread. About 30 seconds separates these two states, so make sure to frost each cookie as it comes out of the oven individually. What fun!

Additionally, the process often fails, partially or completely, for no discernible reason. Witness my 10-year-old niece (the assistant cook) crying over a suddenly and inexplicably gluified mass that cannot be extracted from the mixing bowl.

In short, rosettes are the perfect holiday cookie.

Growing up in our small Italian-immigrant community, I had always believed the traditional set of holiday cookies (wand, pizzelle, dischi, rosettes, taralle ...) were the pinnacle of taste and artistry in Italian baking. It seemed that, as such, these marvels of taste-as-pleasure should be enjoyed at most once a year (imagine you are Catholic and this might make sense).

Now I know the truth. The rosettes, for example, are good but are simply one cookie-type. There are certainly many easier-to-make, better-tasting, and festive Italian cookies that come out wonderfully for the first-time maker. Why make rosettes, wand, dischi, and the other half-dozen Italian-American Christmas traditionals?

Making rosettes is a yearly trial for even the most experienced cook. It took my mother (a rosette expert) two discarded batches this Christmas to produce an acceptable third batch of rosettes. The first was destroyed by the Northeastern ice storm that cut her electricity in mid-bake. A few days later, the second batch was flattened by a forced substitution of butter for margarine due to closed roads between her and the supermarket. (butter can collapse the rosettes)

Ok. Why even try? Isn't there a toll house recipe somewhere on the Food Network web site?

Each Italian woman in my family (or naturalized-Italian wife) has a specific cookie she makes every year. In most cases the same cookie her mother (or mother-in-law) made. The arcane subtlety of preparation that results in an acceptable cookie is passed down from mother to daughter through years of pre-adolescent cookie-bonding in the kitchen.

The tradition is the desired result, the cookie is a side-effect.

With this in mind, I give you a full year to try to master the rosette. My mother's recipe is below, with her quite valuable but certainly incomplete advice unedited in parentheses.

Ironically, the most colossal failures provide the best memories. Who can forget the 2001 rosettes when she accidentally added salt instead of sugar. Miraculously the right shape, a few rosettes were grabbed by 6-year-old Sarah before anyone else could taste them. Every year, we do an impressions of little Sarah's shocked face: "Aaack! They don't taste right!"

Brave readers, let us know how you do.


3 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tbsp vanilla (some people use anise)
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine (don't use butter)

mix to medium softness
shape into balls (use a spoon and flour your hands)
place on a greased sheet pan
bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes

mix confectioners sugar and milk. keep a fairly stiff consistency. dip or spread (and add sprinkles immediately or frosting will harden).