September 22, 2007

What I did on my Summer vacation... part 1

This month is back to school time all across the U.S., and despite having been out of school for several years, the circadian September - August rhythm still holds sway in my life. Summers are for slacking, the Fall is for action, activity, motion, getting things done.

While this past summer hasn't been nearly as eventful as last summer (thankfully) I have had some adventures that due to timing, discretion, or disinclination I haven't written about, so I thought I'd do an end of summer wrap-up; clear the decks, so to speak, of the news you haven't yet heard about.

There's was a world premiere of a movie at Radio City Music Hall, which was less fun than you'd think it might be. A couple of stars were there, sure, and I appreciated the opportunity to see a movie at Radio City, which feels like a wonderful "old timey-New York City" thing to do. Walking out of the movie I happened to catch a woman with extraordinary breasts and was remarking to my friend how she looked like Ice T's wife when my friend jabs me with his elbow and whispers, pointing to the guy behind her "That's Ice T!" and sure enough it was.

The last time I was that close to Ice T was 15 years ago in Hadley, Massachusetts during a concert of his. He flubbed a couple of words during a song, and the crowd boo'ed a little bit. "Fuck you!" he shouted out to us, laughing. "I've got 200 mother-fucking songs, you try and remember all the words!" He also has said one of the funniest things on TV, during an episode of Law and Order. When he and Richard Belzer were confronting a gangster, the gangster asked Ice T "Who's that guy" gesturing to Richard Belzer. "That's my Jew" was Ice T's reply. Now, no one who has ever seen him act will mistake Ice T for someone with any skill or artistry in the craft, but his delivery of this line was so fricking brilliant, embodied such a world of African-American/Jewish relations and experience... Well, I was jealous of Richard Belzer that day, let me tell you.

And if that wasn't enough, Ice T''s Original Gangster album is one of the five greatest rap albums of all time, and he was one of the first rappers to come out as... well, if not supportive of homosexuality, at least indifferent. "She wanna be lez, he wanna be gay? Well that's your business, I'm straight, so nigga have it your way..." My point being, I'm an Ice T fan. Not so much that I'd bug the man while he was trying to get out of a crowded theater, but it was exciting none the less.

And the movie was pretty exciting as well - the latest Die Hard. A real solid action flick, though like many recent films the entire premise was based on a lack of even a rudimentary understanding of Information Technology and computer networking, and the plot expects that its viewers are equally unburdened by knowledge in that arena. The absurdity of Hollywood's repeating impression of both the supremacy of computer networks to control our lives, as well as the extraordinarily well-funded and implemented consipiracies that with a few flicks of a few switches can take control of them, continues to baffle me. It's insidious, in that it simultaneously inspires an unwarranted fear of technology as well as false impression of our government's competence. As someone who has more than a passing familiarity with the topic, I assure you that the reality is that our networks are neither that vast, nor that well-organized, connected, and maintained by anyone.

It plays into the "this is something you don't understand and so should be afraid of, but we understand it, so relax and let us take care of things" marketing that many forces in our lives, including our current executive administration, try to encourage. The end result is we're left with yet another low-level background fear, a constant thrumming of danger in our lives, which we're willing to abrogate all responsibility for. "Protect us, and we'll let you!" becomes the refrain, from the terrified masses cowering in the face of the magic that has befuddled them.

Yet the truth is the average sixth grader - in fact, even the below-average sixth grader - has more accurate and complete knowledge of science, medicine, and the world around them than 98% of the human beings who have ever lived. Aristotle, for all his genius, didn't know most of the facts that our children take for granted. We live in an era of unbridled technological riches, which is the result of an embrace of science, a willingness to face into the great unknown future into which we're hurtling, and accept what comes. The absurd fear-mongering of movies like The Net, and this Die Hard, while taking liberties with the truth to tell a story do everyone a disservice by presenting something in a horribly distorted light, yet in such a way as many folks will never recognize the difference between their false-reality, and the actual one.

Some other things I've done -

Earlier this summer I took a "Play" course, a one-day class given by a group here in NYC that focuses on the games we play in life, the overt and subtle rules we expect others to play by, and how we can interrupt their games. One of the exercises was a quick "first impression" snapshot of each person in the class. We stood up in front of them after only fifteen minutes of interaction, and each person wrote up a quick snyopsis of the games they thought we were playing. We were given these cards at the end of the day, to do with what we will.

Consistently my cards came back with "I'm smart and perceptive so you'll like me" and "I'm smart and aloof so you can't touch me" and similar. One of my favorite came from a woman I had been flirting with, who wrote "look at how non-threatening I am, I won't hurt you (yet)" which was shockingly prescient. The class was a lot of fun, though I don't know that I actually learned anything or got anything out of it. It was a pleasant way to pass a day though, and I look forward to more courses with them.

I've spent some time this summer actively seeking out emotionally connected people. Earlier this year I read a fabulous book titled A General Theory of Love which describes what happens in the body when we fall in love - the physical manifestations, how it actually happens. One of the interesting points in the book had to do with the search and experience for love having to do with what we learned as children, what strikes us as familiar or alien in terms of how people express themselves to one another.

Often when an infant falls down, it will look to others to determine whether it should cry or laugh, to help it gauge what it has experienced as severe or inconsequential. From our earliest days we learn how to interact with the world around us from the people and culture we were borne into. While I've inherited countless extraordinary talents from my family and culture, I don't think I ever learned some key lessons regarding romantic attachments. Having been more or less a hermit for much of my adult life, I'm theorizing that I lack some of those fundamentals, which has resulted in my reactions to my romantic experiences being so confusing to those hapless unfortunates who have wanted to marry me.

By spending time with folks who are comfortable and open with their emotional sides I hope to gain some better sense of how to enjoy mine. And if nothing else, I get a whole new appreciation for "energetic healing" which is apparently something hippies like to do when they aren't doing yoga or tie-dying things. So far, so good!

And lastly for this installment, for years I've had "learn how to play poker" on my to-do list, and earlier this summer I began paying $60 a week for poker lessons. At least, at the end of the day, that's what's happened... Poker Object-lessons, I suppose it would be more accurate to say. It's been a lot of fun, and I'm getting better and better at it. I can tell because last time I played I only lost 57 dollars... Come on, Aces! Daddy needs an iphone...

September 16, 2007

Big Mistake. Huge.

As much as I despise poor advertising, I'm a sucker for what I deem to be good advertising. Friday night during the Yankee - Boston game (one of the best games in a long time) McDonald's got me with a fun commercial. They're trying out this new Angus burger, and they're making a big deal about how it's only in select markets.

Playing up that theme, they have a bunch of Boston-southie types envying NYers who have access to this apparently amazing new burger, pleading with NY to support it, ensuring they'll soon be able to get it up in Boston too. Burger King has had an Angus burger since 1994, but the recurring theme in all McDonalds advertising is that no other sources of food exist in the world, and so the commercial is at least internally consistent. More importantly, it was a terrific commercial for the game; funny, fun, playing with the Boston/NY rivalry... very well done. Though I haven't had a McDonald's burger in months - and I haven't had Mickey D's when not on the highway for many, many months - yet I decided I'd give this Angus beastie a try.

Big mistake. Huge.

The normally over-salted and dry McDonald's patty is palatable smothered in their over-sugared ketchup when it's comes in at a quarter-pound or less, but this extra thick, dry, salty, mealy patty of meat on their gross yeasty, sugary bun... so not worth the money and the ramifications of the 820 calories, 43g of fat, and 65g of carbohydrates it cost me. I'm a sucker for a decent ad, and been suckered before, so I should have known better. All summer long I've been barbecuing, and some friends at work and I are doing a "best burgers in NY" lunch tour. I must be an eternal optimist in thinking this burger might be satisfying in some way considering my elevated burger standards.

"But Dan" you may say "that was only one burger. You can't condemn an entirely new sandwich campaign based on only one experience!" Oh yes I can. McDonald's spends millions of dollars - MILLIONS - ensuring product consistency. Consistency is a declared aspect of their corporate identity - so either this is how they wanted the thing to taste, or they failed at ensuring that no matter which McDonald's I walk into, anytime, I get the same culinary experience. In either event, they own the problem and not I.

All is not lost though. The good news is, the McGriddle has never let me down. Never. It's always there for me, like an old friend...

September 13, 2007

The Forgotten War

Americans on the whole barely remember the War of 1812, and often when they think of it, if at all, it's to wonder exactly why it requires an overture all its own. The seeming lack of significance of this war in U.S. history belies the tremendous impact that this conflict had on our nation.

This second war with Britain, occurring just a few decades after our revolution, put the survival of United States at stake. Anything less than a stalemate, and the terms for peace with Britain would have undoubtedly included renouncing our recent independence and returning to British rule. Though it wasn't a popular or particularly rousing conflict, we were fighting for our continuing independence and the right to conduct the affairs of a sovereign nation. And two years into it, the Americans weren't doing very well.

Earlier in the summer of 1814 British forces had decimated an unprepared American militia and marched into the recently constructed Washington D.C., forcing President Madison to flee. After literally eating the President's abandoned dinner in the White House, the British burned it and the Treasury building, humiliating the young nation and plunging our morale to its lowest point. Pushed out of Washington by a fierce storm and the summer heat, the British forces next chose to move on the thriving port city of Baltimore. In the early nineteenth century Baltimore was the primary hub of our Atlantic merchant vessels, as well as a staging ground for our ragged navy of pirates and privateers.

To lay siege to such a large city, the British would require that Baltimore couldn't be supplied or reinforced by sea, which meant controlling Chesapeake Bay. If they could take the Chesapeake Bay, and the city that commands it, the British could effectively cut the fledgling American nation in half, denying each half vital communication and trade with the other. As the British ground forces moved into position, the British Navy sailed towards Baltimore.

The only thing standing between the citizens of Baltimore, and the nation, and defeat at the hands of the British was Fort McHenry. Yet small Fort McHenry had never been through a battle, an this unproven fort with short-barrelled cannon faced the most powerful and well-trained navy in the world. The British Navy had much longer guns, and could easily stay beyond the range of the fort's meager cannon fire, attacking the Americans with impunity, which is exactly what they did.

In the early morning of September 13
the British began what was the single largest artillery bombardment in human history. For twenty five straight hours, over three thousands rockets and bombs were hurled at the small fort, and the garrison had no choice but to endure the shelling. Hunkered down in crowded underground bunkers, unable to fight back because the British remained out of range of their shorter cannon, the defenders had no alternative but to withstand the unrelenting bombardment for hour after hour.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Baltimore watched from the heights as their only hope endured the British assault. Merchants, tradesmen, women, and children all relied on the small fort and its young men to hold firm. Loss of Fort McHenry meant the loss of Baltimore, their livelihoods, and possibly their lives. Yet how could they possibly hold out against the British Navy for long?

The battle was also being observed by a young lawyer who had been visiting the British Admiral under a truce-flag. He was on board the Admiral's ship to negotiate the release of a prisoner of war, and because he had heard details of the imminent attack, this Maryland lawyer was obliged to remain aboard until the battle was over. As dusk turned into darkness, young Francis Scott Key passed the night as a guest of the British Navy while it shelled his countrymen.

And it was a very dark night; moonless with heavy rain. Both the fort and the city of Baltimore were in complete blackout to reduce ambient light, not wanting to assist the British with their targeting. It became so dark that the only way to gauge the battle came from the exploding rockets and bombs, momentarily lighting up the night sky, providing a fleeting glimpse to those watching for any sign that the fort, and their fates, might crumble. Watchers fixated on the one point they could discern through the flashes of gunpowder - the small American flag flying above the fort. If the fort surrendered it would strike the colors, so as long as the flag still flew there was still hope. Helpless, the citizens of Baltimore and the young lawyer could do nothing but watch and wait. The night and the shelling wore on, and everyone wondered what the morning would bring.

As dawn broke on September 14, 193 years ago today, the citizens of Baltimore peered into the early morning gloom to learn their fate - did Fort McHenry hold, or had it fell, dooming the city? What greeted them that morning stunned them; waving in the breeze above the Fort was indeed an American flag but it was not the small, ragged, ripped flag of the night before, but rather the largest American flag anyone had ever seen.

Earlier in the war when it became apparent that it was was unlikely Baltimore would escape unscathed, the Fort's Garrison Commander Major George Armisted commissioned a Baltimore seamstress to sew him a very special American flag, one so large it could be seen from the city five miles away. In that darkest hour just before dawn, this prescient Major lowered the small storm flag and raised for the first time what has become our star-spangled banner. 30 feet by 45 feet, it was the largest American flag in the world; pristine, enormous, and unscathed, and it was a message to the fearful city- the fort held.

The new flag was also easily seen by the British Navy just a few miles offshore, and wisely the Admiral deduced that if Fort McHenry wasn't going to submit after the twenty-five hour onslaught it had already received, there was nothing remaining in his arsenal that might do the job. Abandoning his hope for Baltimore, the Admiral gave the order to weigh anchor and he sailed the fleet out of Chesapeake Bay. Deprived of their naval support, the British ground forces also decided to pursue easier pickings, and they too moved on, leaving Baltimore - and the United States - intact.

Francis Scott Key was moved by what he experienced that night, and by what what our soldiers endured for their country. He quickly wrote a poem about his impressions, which was originally titled the Defense of Fort McHenry, but soon became known as The Star-Spangled Banner. After years of unofficial status as our defacto anthem, in 1931 Key's poem and the music it was set to became our official National Anthem by an act of Congress. It's a four verse song, though we're only familiar with and only sing the first verse, and over the years many have argued that it's not a fitting tribute for America. Some have proposed America the Beautiful and God Bless America as better songs for the job, more accessible and easier to sing.

Yet I say we didn't just pick the Star Spangled Banner, we earned it. And the men and women of our armed forces deserve it. Today is not a holiday, there are no parades on anyone's behalf. Few ever consider the War of 1812, and fewer still the Battle for Baltimore. But those guys sat there huddled in the dark while getting shelled for 25 hours, and in doing so, saved a nation. Damn it if they don't deserve a hell of a good song for that.

Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

September 09, 2007

Ode to James Stockdale

I had planned on blogging today about Jewsapalooza, occurring in Riverside Park this afternoon, but after nearly two hours of driving I found myself only on First avenue and 64th Street, with all of Manhattan to cross and several blocks north to travel before I could even begin looking for parking. So I bailed on the event and came home.

It's so hit or miss with driving in the City. Most of the time I have relatively little difficulty, such as yesterday when I left my place at 10:15, drove to the lower east side, found a metered spot across the street from where I was meeting Rob for lunch at 11:00, and walked in to the BBar and Grill fifteen minutes early; the whole thing couldn't have been easier. I tend to have decent driving/parking karma overall, and I test it with some regularity, but when it goes wrong it goes spectacularly wrong, like it did this afternoon.

The source of the problem today? For some reason New York City loves to give permits to these roving street fairs we're plagued with every summer. Weekend after weekend the exact same collection of bad street food, towels, tools, and as-seen-on-tv products stretch for blocks and blocks. Today, a whole swath of third avenue was closed to traffic, which would be fine except for this particular swath is the neighborhood that the 59th street bridge feeds into.

With backups all the way into Queens, I assert that thousands and thousands of cars spent at least an hour in traffic just to get by the snarl this fair caused. I spent more than an hour, but let's be generous, and say one. And let's assume that there was an average of two drivers per car - I was by myself, but there were plenty of full cars next to me, so let's just say two. So I assert that eight thousand person-hours were lost to traffic today, with three thousand gallons of gasoline (at 2.85 a gallon) fuming into the air, just so that a thousand pedestrians could stroll along and perhaps buy some irregular socks. This is the sort of thing that makes me crazy about city planning: to wit - the lack of all planning.

It doesn't help that the only way I could have more road-rage while driving in Manhattan is if I were taking anabolic steroids as well. Nothing makes me angrier, crazier, and hate NYC more than driving in it, when the driving is going poorly. It always seemed to me that the focus of traffic patterning should be to get cars off the roads as soon as possible, and yet the poor signage, absurdly inconsistent one-way streeting, and complete lack of traffic enforcement all contribute to the eternal gridlock. The city has for years run a "don't block the box" campaign, to attempt to keep intersections clear, with dubious results. Part of the reason the program isn't more successful is that the worst offenders are the city buses themselves. I'd love to set up a camera at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street one week, and record the sheer tonnage of traffic violations the buses should be cited for, it would be staggering.

I've been considering moving out of Queens for some time now, as some friends of mine are putting together a crash-sublet in NYC (place to shower and sleep, for those of us who are home less and less). I originally got my two-bedroom apartment because I had a live-in girlfriend and a dog, and now that I have neither I just don't need this kind of space. I like my place, but it's accumulating stuff at an alarming rate as I'm filling the empty spaces of my apartment with things that I've become attached too, and yet I don't want to live like that just now.

One of my biggest concerns about moving back to Manhattan is my car - I don't think I could keep it in the city, and I would hate to pay for a spot, but I like having it so much... yet this afternoon I noted that I'm never so angry as when I'm driving, which got me thinking that perhaps the car wasn't so great for me after all. Tonight I'm going to assess the yearly cost of the car, and do some checking vs. the expected costs of the occasional rental for out of town trips, and get an idea of where I land. I love having it, I'd miss it, but is it a legitimate reason not to move back into the city?

September 03, 2007

My goal is to become a veterinarian because, um, I love children....

Now this is more like it! I've found her, the one for me. Such eloquence, such poise! A shiksa-love goddess for Dan...

Although, there could be some complications down the road... At least she has a bright career ahead of her.