Thursday, November 26, 2009

I'm accustomed to a smooth ride

By ned * Other ned Posts

Certain musicians craft lyrics fitting to comfort the uneasiness of a particular moment. For me, one artist has showcased this talent repeatedly without my searching him out to do so. There is no doubt of Paul Simon’s acclaim as poetic lyricist supreme, but I would like to add one more accolade to his resume – troubadour of serendipitous soothing.

In regards to social relevance, the moments have gone been beyond stumbling on "The Only Living Boy in New York" while jogging through Manhattan to blow off some steam. I first noticed this skill when I saw him perform at Yale’s Tercentenniel celebration in the fall of 2001. The occasion glorified a history of achievement of a grand institution but felt at times surreal and out of touch with the mood of times; the dust had not settled on tragedy 80 miles away in lower Manhattan. The ceremony was out of touch that is until honorary Yale grad, Paul Simon, performed “Bridge over Troubled Water” - a song where the performer reaches out his hand to give his audience strength against adversity.

Fast forwarding a few years, last year America was at the peak of anxiety over an economic recession. Fear about the overall direction of the economy was at its highest fervor in the fall – especially in my home of Manhattan where big banks are king. Personally, my employer had just gone out of business. Out of nowhere Paul Simon pops into my life again to stir up positive emotions.  Promoting a new book, Simon sung “American Tune” on the Colbert Report. By selecting to perform this classic, he broke some of the tension of the times. The song does not shy away from the real hardships in life but is ultimately to me a song of hope.  Its thesis is what you truly need will always be provided, a perspective lacking at the time.

There is one personal exception to this association of Paul Simon and unexpected comfort and joy: whenever I pack to head back to my native land of Columbus, Ohio, I always reach for the song “Homeward Bound.” As I fold – read crumple – my t-shirts into my bag, images from a Saturday Night Live video, baggage on a carousel as well as a lick to the face by a cruel alarm clock known as the family’s lab run through my mind with the song in the background.

Somehow the act of selecting “Homeward Bound” as the fanfare for my triumphal returns fits the occasions. Just as I select a song, I make a choice to return home. Just as I listen to the song, going home is a deliberate act to surround myself with the comforts of the familiar. The images they both extract on first blush are the stuff Hallmark Cards are made of.

Given the simplicity of that depiction of the emotions of going home, perhaps familiarity alone is not the entirety of what creates the comfort of returning home. Part of it may be more like my "American Tune" experience than I realize as I pack. There are unexpected surprises including delightful conversation, particularly good slicing of the turkey, and new traditions. Although overshadowed by the familiar, these unexpected nuances are what make each return memorable and special.

So in all likelihood your joys and comforts this holiday season will be the result of circumstance and conviction, of surprise and sameness. I certainly hope they are plentiful – even while just listening to music on shuffle with your ticket to your destination.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Night Out With Dad

By Josh Cain * Other Josh Cain Posts

I was pretty sure my friend Gabe was about to be disappointed. It was his first time in New York City and I had just found a bar that would let 18 year olds drink. For some reason his enthusiasm was undiminished by the facts that a) it was a Tuesday b) we were being allowed to drink because the bar was almost empty and my dad knew the owner and c) the only reason the bar was “almost” empty was because my dad was the sole patron.

We arrived to find a simple bar adorned with various sporting memorabilia and outfitted with a dozen televisions, each displaying groups of men using some combination of sticks and/or balls to make scores and thus earn the adulation of the unwashed masses. At the bar sat my father, a handsome 50-something in t-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap casually drinking a beer and watching the progress of his favored squadron. It may seem weird to refer to one's own father as “handsome,but he once went to a pornstar convention and had to pretend he was gay to keep from getting jumped by the women there. I’m not even joking. The best I’ve managed to pull off is having an overweight drunk girl talk to me at a frat party before pausing to vomit on herself.

Hanging out with Dad was the staff: the bartender, a pudgy, jovial guy who was clearly in his element talking loudly and drinking beer while watching sports; the waitress, a tall blond who might have been hot but looked like she’d lived hard; and the owner, a cute little blond bouncing with energy who was clearly slammin’ back in the day but whose hotness was diminished by the fact that she was at least 40 (which might as well be 80 to an 18 year old).

Gabe and I joined my dad and grabbed beers, made all the more delicious by their illegality. I quietly sipped while Gabe and my dad discussed athletics and politics, two subjects where I know nothing and have no interest in learning. It was likely due to this distraction that I overheard the owner proudly describing her custom-made underwear that prominently featured her own face on the crotch. When the bartender heard this he exclaimed, “oh yeah, check this out! Thunderbolts!” slightly pulling down his pants to reveal the electric undergarments in question. I am, of course, an asshole and thus feel the need to one-up people whenever possible (that’s pretty good, but I’ve got a way better public urination story), so I foolishly said, “man, I’ve got cooler underwear than that.”

Conversation halted and everyone froze. After a few seconds of silence the owner issued a challenge, “Let’s see ‘em, she whispered.

Uhhh…I’m not actually wearing them right now,” I said. The superior underpants I had in mind, namely Spider-man undies and my Monopoly board boxers with “Water Works” over the fly, were both items I saved for special occasions. 

“I said show me your underwear,” she said more forcefully, the waitress and bartender shouting down my protests. “Get behind the bar and drop trow,” she ordered.

Uncertain and grasping for help I turned to my father for assistance. Our eyes met and with a slight nod he said, “Do it, son.” This might seem like an odd reaction for a parent, but when you view the situation as a man who once complained that there were just ten truly gorgeous women at his college and he “only” dated 3 of them speaking to his 18 year old virgin going on 19 year old virgin son, you can maybe understand why he was encouraging me to take my pants off in front of women.  

With a resigned sigh I hopped over the bar and soon found myself wearing distinctly uninteresting grey boxer briefs and holding a bottle of whiskey. Gabe’s laughter at my predicament was quickly silenced as the increasingly excited owner commanded him to join me in my state of undress. Pantsless and confused we were told to create a drink neither of us had heard of. Gabe and I floundered behind the bar amidst the cheers of my father and the staff. This was accompanied by the occasional comment by the waitress indicating that she thought we were both “cute,” but “preferred darker men,” leering at me as she said this. The surreal nature of putting on a sex show for two older women and my father allowed me to dissociate myself enough to focus on the task at hand and eventually slop some random combination of liquors into several shot glasses.

We took our shots with gusto and the owner announced that we were going to get our “reward.” As she leaned over the bar and grabbed the bottom of her shirt, the bartender started hitting me on the shoulder and saying “oh man, you are so lucky!” As I turned to face him to figure out what about this event could be construed as “lucky,” I heard a collective cheer. As I turned back with a puzzled expression Gabe leaned over and informed me that we had just been flashed. Yet again I had been denied the adolescent Holy Grail that is the booby.

As I rejoined my dad, newly pants-wearing, he took me aside.

“So I was talking to that waitress,” he said, “and she offered to take you home and show you some things if you’re interested.”

Slightly aghast, I asked, “How old is she? Like 26?”

“38!” he said brightly, a smile creeping across his face.

I admit that I did consider it, but decided that I didn’t want my first time to be associated with public degradation, a woman twice my age, and having my father as a wingman.

“I’ll pass,” I said to him. He told me that it was ok and, strangely, didn’t seem disappointed.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Finding my NYC State of Mind

Working and living in New York City isn’t always what it seems. With so much energy devoted to the day-to-day affairs, keeping noses to the grindstone as it were, the allure of the city goes to the wayside. But the arts - film, television, song and comics – can be refresher courses in the city’s wonder. Such is my case. I've been introduced to works that have re-introduced me to New York City: they reflect not the traditional conception of New York but rather show the New York that I've experienced, am experiencing or long to experience.

Woody Allen has become one of the most famous New York auteur. Prior to his acquiring a passport, Annie Hall and Manhattan served as practically boilerplate on depicting New York City. While I own both of those movies, I have yet to remove their shrink-wrap. I’ve seen them before but I have not been compelled to re-watch them. Not to discredit Mr. Allen's fine films but my NYC movie happens to be Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. To be fair, neither Nick (Michael Cera) nor Norah (Kat Dennings) speak to me as characters (both characters are from New Jersey, which is an automatic disqualification); The film's setting, the concert venues of New York, are a backdrop to the characters' pursuit of a mystery performance. This romanticizing of concert euphoria recalls some of my fondest high school experiences.

I was something of a concert hall junkie during the latter years of high school. I dragged many a friend to Irving Plaza, the Roseland Ballroom, Webster Hall, the Hammerstein or elsewhere to see bands they had barely heard of, if at all. Because of my bona fide momma's boy status, the biggest thrill, after the music, was being in the thick of these places, surrounded by the smells of beer and various smokes, without partaking of either recreation. I have a fondness for cigarette smoke that can’t be mirrored. I stayed in the mosh pits because it was a workout for me, surfing people and
pogo-ing. I’d emerge from this mass, drenched in sweat (mostly mine) while remaining mostly unscathed. I say ‘mostly’ because on one night at Irving Plaza, I was lightly bitten on the neck by Dicky Barrett of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones . I'd call it a Hickey by Dicky but I didn't have to wear a turtleneck to school the next day. He was gentle.

Nick & Norah is an avenue for these concert moments but also for the post-show atmosphere. Bodegas and Diners are the locations of preference. When lucky, the ideal is a hotdog from Gray's Papaya. Ideally, it’d be from the 72nd & Broadway location, which is my favorite one. I really appreciate that the film has the characters go to that specific location even though it is geographically illogical (The concert venues in the film are either on the Lower East Side or Brooklyn; that Gray’s is on the Upper West Side.). Also, kudos for going to a Gray's Papaya and not a Papaya King, King Papaya, Papaya Dog or Famous Original's Gray's Papaya. Accept no substitutes, kids.

Gray’s has earned its loyalty. Fools Rush In, starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek, holds a very special place in my heart because, without giving too much of this cinematic masterpiece away, the 72nd and Broadway location plays a pivotal role. My college roommate, who’s from Texas, developed a craving for those specific hot dogs because of the movie. I took him there and he called his Dad afterwards. It filled me with a sense of pride that I’d never felt before. It was like … a Gray’s hotdog.

Television holds my single favorite depiction of New York: The Simpsons' episode “Homer v. The City of New York.” That episode shows how the same city on the same day can be wondrous for some (Marge, Lisa & Bart) while disastrous for others (Homer). While the message is not something unique to New York City, it is nice to see The Simpsons use the city for that vehicle. Also, Bart licking a subway pole in a grift gone wrong really makes you admire the art of the panhandle.

Putting the Taxis and the Night Courts aside, the television series that holds the most influence on my NYC view is How I Met Your Mother. The show revolves around 5 friends (Ted, Marshall, Lily, Robin and Barney) living in New York City at pivotal stages in their lives. Their exploits are told through a series of flashbacks that Ted narrates to his children in the near future. I want to make their New York City my New York City. I’ve awoken after a night out to discover things I have no recollection of but never something as strange as what Ted found in “The Pineapple Incident.” I’d like to have a reoccurring driver like they have Ranjit. “The Limo” persuaded me the idea to rent a limo for New Years for me and my friends to use; it also dissuaded me by pointing out that traffic is everywhere in New York, especially on that day. All of these things are nary impossible but How I Met Your Mother makes them seem plausible at least.

The episode “Ten Sessions” has a sequence that epitomizes that sense of the improbable. Ted wants to ask his dermatologist Stella on a date but can’t due to AMA rules. Ted decides to wait until he is no longer her patient to ask her out. During that time, he learns a lot about her, particularly that Stella only takes 2 minutes for lunch. Ted devises a date that includes a cab ride (Ranjit!), a short screening of Manos: the Hand of Fate, lunch al fresco, flowers and a stroll back to her office. It's illogical that all parties involved - the cabbie, the electronics store, and the restaurant - would be willing to bend the rules just so that Ted could charm Stella for 2 minutes. In their New York, however, this happened and
totally worked

“The Burger” is a more relatable episode that carries a sense of the city with it. Marshall leads the group to various New York burger joints in search of the perfect burger he once tasted 8 years before. In doing so, the episode observes the city’s corporate expansion: independently run shops that were New York staples - diners, clubs, restaurants - have become Pharmacies, Fast Food Chains and Banks, frustration Marshall in his Quixote-like search for burger shaped windmills. But the use of framed autographed 8 x 10’s adorning the walls of burger joints that triggers memories of Big Nick's Burger Joint, the location of one of my favorite burgers. Like Marshall, I've been in pursuit of the best burger (while taking an occasional side journey for
cupcakes) in New York City. I too have exhausted Zagat guides and humored the recommendations of friends, co-workers and know-it-alls. They’ve all ended in disappointed. Given the quality and variety, it is an almost endless endeavor. Marshall achieving his goal is motivation for me to continue mine.

Incidentally, Ted, who is originally from Ohio, has an irrational hatred towards New Jersey, brought on by residing in New York for a few years. It is a trait that many New Yorkers share, including me. Thanks, HIMYM writers.

Several Comics take place in New York City. New York City, in the Marvel Universe, is home to Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, several Avengers teams and the Hood, which is only a small sample of the heroes and villains that protect and terrorize New York City. For a genuine homage to New York, I turn to
Johnny Hiro by Fred Chao. He combines true-to-life depictions of daily life in NYC like the big city weariness that inspired this post but combines it with element reserved for the superheroes. Johnny and his girlfriend Mayumi, get their sleep interrupted by a giant lizard attacking for example. In another instance, a night at the opera turns into a battle against 47 ronin businessmen. At any given time, an ordinary night can become and unlikely adventure. They’re rarely on par with fighting a Godzilla-like creature while wearing bunny slippers but not everyone is Johnny Hiro.

There are countless bands from New York and countless songs about New York. Right now, “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys fits both categories. Hearing Keys sing the beloved city name alone encapsulates the song’s anthem-like and admittedly cheesy nature. It’s a sense that the residents of New York have embraced, expressed by constantly playing the song. Hell, it’s the first Jay-Z song on my iPod that hasn’t been mashed with something more to my palate (Jay-Zeezer's Black and Blue Album and Danger Mouse's Grey Album hold the other spots). My everlasting sentiments, however, are with another song and I plan on converting people to it one day soon.

The Artist: Andrew WK

The Song: “I Love NYC
The Venue: Drunk Karaoke Bar

Have you ever noticed that an Actor, when interviewed, will say something like. “[City] has the best audiences in the world.” or a Musicians say, “Nobody rocks harder than [City]!” Better yet, have you ever been at a concert and realized that the musician changed the words to a song to include the city name or one its landmarks? The response is always a loud cheer from the audience, right? In professional wrestling, that’s called a “Cheap Pop.” “I Love NYC” is one of the best Cheap Pop ever recorded because it only really works with New York City. I’m sure Andrew WK may have tried at to put another city name in there (I Love … Walla Walla?) while on tour possibly, but the song wouldn’t remain the same. A more blatant examples of a Cheap Pop song is LMFAO’s “I’m In Your City.” They actually released multiple versions for
multiple cities, a marketing move that I respect.

Back to “I Love NYC,” I have no idea what the verses say. I only care when Mr. WK gets to the Chorus: "I Love New York City! Oh yeah! New York City!" Repeat 20 Times. I mean, I've looked up the lyrics but, frankly, I could care less. Here is the mental image I get when I listen to this song: Me conducting dozens and dozens of Karaoke Kings & Queens in a chorus of "I Love NYC," having them alternate between bellowing "I Love New York City" and "Oh yeah! New York City," arranged by gender, or by side of the bar, or by whatever arbitrary factor I decide. It’ll be the World’s Worst Chorus having the World’s Best Time! And by ‘World,’ I mean “New York City,” because they will be one and the same at that point. How do I am to accomplish this feat? Well, the song speaks for itself; but a round of free drinks should carry “I Love NYC” the rest of the way.

The Pop Cultural items listed below are representatives of New York as much as the works considered more traditionally or more popularly 'New York.' From my vantage point, these works are greater representations of New York because of their ability to invoke my personal memories or wants. I'm not shunning quintessential New York works. Arguing that Nick & Norah is a better film than Annie Hall would be silly. My preference on what to watch on an idle Saturday afternoon, however, leans more towards seeing Michael Cera and Cat Dennings over Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. My flow can't handle "Empire State of Mind" nor the vocal prowess to tackle the chorus, for that matter. But hoarsely yelling "I Love NYC" over and over again? Mission Accepted, providing copious amounts of alcohol. If anyone doesn't like it, deal with it. That's about as New York as it gets.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mountain Goats and the Economy

By CL * Other CL Posts

The video below is an interview between Stephen Colbert and John Darnielle, the singer/writer/main guy in The Mountain Goats, of which two parts caught my attention. The first was the "suicidal pride" (in Colbert's words) of mountain goats, in that many die attempting to jump across ravines that are significantly wider than they can jump. The second was Darnielle's discussion about finding hope in times of absolute desolation because, basically, there's nowhere to go but up.

The Colbert Report
Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
John Darnielle

Colbert Report Full Episodes
Political Humor
Michael Moore

The day after that interview aired, I received in the mail a copy of Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson's Summer of Fear (which is pretty awesome and you should buy it). The song Trap Door (embedded below) is an interesting counterpoint to Darnielle's statement above: it basically argues that things can always get worse; there's "a trapdoor in every rock bottom."

Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson - Trap Door from LaundroMatinee on Vimeo.

Thinking about these ideas, I thought back to my freshman year of college, when I broke my arm shortly after my birthday. I had a cast up to my elbow and was unable to write at all, and unable to type, eat, or do just about anything else at a normal speed. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a huge deal - I had no permanent injury or scar, and I didn't have any midterms or finals while the cast was on - but it still would have annoyed most people. After I had had it on for a few weeks, one of my friends pointed out that I seemed to be enjoying the experience, and wondered what was wrong with me.

I responded by saying that it was an opportunity to temporarily see things from a new perspective, and try something that I (hopefully) would never have to do again. In hindsight, I have no idea why it would be desirable to experience one-armed life. But the "new experience" thing, coupled with the fact that I really wasn't suffering very much, was enough to make me (sort of) enjoy it.

More generally, this got me thinking of a fairly simple model of personality profiles. In it, there are two basic states of reality: better than average, and worse than average. In each of these states, you can believe that (and act as though) the state will continue indefinitely, or you can believe that it will soon revert to the mean.

Putting it this way is a little bit different from the old glass half empty/glass half full dichotomy, in that, viewed this way, there are four possible personalities:

1. The Mountain Goat

This is the eternal optimist. Like the band's lyrics, they are comfortable with the knowledge that after a certain point, things can't get any worse and must get better. Like the animal, they can get overconfident and take excessive risks, which don't always end well. For an example, think of a typical eight-year-old...and be thankful that I didn't make a "kid" pun about it.

2. The Trapdoor

These people are the worriers. If things are going badly, they can probably get worse. If things are going well, they're bound to get worse. Lots of old people seem to think this way, which is hopefully not an inevitable result of the aging process.

3. Momentum-Conservers

The conservation of momentum is a physical law, as unavoidable as it is dependable. Some people extend that to their lives in general - if things are going badly, they're bound to get worse, and if they're going well, there's no way that's going to stop. It would be easy to say that these people have no perspective on things, or that they're just stupid. I'm not strongly inclined to disagree with either statement. A nicer way to put it may be that they give themselves too much credit when things are good and too much blame when things are bad, and as a result they think their current trajectory must continue. This profile fits the typical teenager pretty well.

4. Mean-Reverters

These people think things are going to revert to the mean sooner or later - if things are going badly, they're going to get better; if things are going very well, that's going to slow down at some point. I'm probably one of these, and if I thought there was a stronger argument that most middle-aged people think like this, I could have rewritten this whole post as an age-based thing.


Unfortunately, the American economy seems to be driven by Momentum-Conservers, and we'd be much better off if the opposite were true and it were driven by Mean-Reverters.

During the internet bubble, day traders and professional analysts/stockpickers were amazed at how talented they were (and conveniently ignored the fact that everyone else was doing just as well as they were); many kept doubling their bets until everything started crashing. During the housing bubble, builders and brokers ceaselessly sped up construction until demand - clearly a factor outside their control - slowed, then they were left with acres of unsellable and/or unfinished inventory. In the run-up to the credit crunch, traders bundled mortgages together and somehow thought they could increase the expected return of a set of mortgages by combining them in a different way (note from anyone with a decent knowledge of statistics: you can't); their faith in their own mathematical skill was not enough to beat the laws of probability. In the last year or so, we've seen the flipside of this momentum-conserving belief: excessive pessimism when things aren't going well, and a feeling of hopelessness regarding the economy's short and long-term prospects.

The lesson in all this is that more temperance is needed: people shouldn't rush to throw all their assets at whatever sector of the economy is doing well (either by investing their life savings in tech stocks or by buying a house they can't afford) and companies and banks shouldn't overleverage* themselves just because they've done well recently.

*It's a little ironic that someone who went to law school - a choice, despite being made by many risk-averse people, that generally brings huge amounts of student loan debt in return for the promise of an unresaonably high salary - is advocating against excessive leverage.


As a side note, Daniel Kahneman and Noah Tversky's prospect theory - which is a foundation of behavioral economics and won them a Nobel Prize in economics - is centered on the idea that, from their current vantage point, people overweigh the risk of any loss and underweigh the possibility of any gain. This would mostly correspond to a trap door viewpoint above, though they go into much more detail and explain it (and its implications) much better than I could.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mixtape Mondays - A Month of Plenty

When the editors of ATC put the team up to the challenge of creating a mix tape in honor of this month of feasting and harvest, one contributor by far and away had the best set of suggestions.

Therefore, this month's mix tape is brought to you by the letters "L" and "K" as LeKeith solo dj's this month mix which creates a symphonic meal. May your ears devour it.

Your Mix Tape Menu

Food Prep aka Places where there is Food / Drink:
The Clash - Lost in the Supermarket
A - Starbucks

Cock-Tail Hour:
The Cardigans - I Need Some Fine Wine and You, You Need to be Nicer
The White Stripes - Little Cream Soda
Thin Lizzy or Metallica - Whiskey in the Jar
Great Big Sea - Old Black Rum
The Who - Old Red Wine

Main Course:
The Beets - Killer Tofu (Totally my favorite!)
The Flaming Lips - She Don't Use Jelly
Weezer - Pork and Beans
The Presidents of the United States of America - Peaches
B52s - Rock Lobster
Kate Nash - Pumpkin soup
The Ting Tings - Fruit Machine

Dessert or I Thought this was a Food but may have been Mistaken:
Mika - Lollipop
Lazlo Bane - Buttercup
The Foundations - Build me up Buttercup

Post Dining Fun - aka Food as a Euphemism
Warrant - Cherry Pie
Flight of the Conchords - Sugalumps