This Space For Rent

April 26, 2007

Recently, there’s been some startling news from the astronomy world. It’s been announced that a planet capable of sustaining life has been discovered outside of our own solar system. This, of course, opens up all kinds of incredibly important scientific and social opportunities, especially those involved with the real estate market.

Granted, of course, this news is part of the ongoing and never-ending battle between journalists eying up a juicy story and experts trying to do their best to cautiously downplay expectations. In this case, it’s the same story being reported as either “A probability has maybe arisen that a planet has perhaps been found that is likely to be able to possibly sustain some form of potential life, perchance, at some point in the undetermined future” or “Green men photographed landing in the Yucatan, enjoying box seats at Yankee Stadium.”

The first acknowledgment to be tagged a hospitable planet is the presence of water, since water is a signal of life, something proven by the cultural significance and population surrounding the Ganges river, but then equally excepted by Lake Erie. Other indicators of life include the presence of an adequately bright star to revolve around and at least one major media market. Such planets are difficult to come by, since most are bloated gaseous bodies that just stopped caring after they got married.

Though, of course, the scientists are trying their hardest to downplay any undue excitement. It’s not like we’ve gotten canceled postmarks from the place yet or anything. And many astronomers are at pains to point out that their definition of a hospitable planet includes Mars, a planet not known for being a predominantly welcoming place, what with the only people who would conceivably want to go there are those that want to have the universe’s best off-season travel expenses, followed by the universe’s quickest death by asphyxiation.

Most people tend to forget that these heavenly bodies have starkly different attributes than our own. This new planet, for instance, orbits its sun every 13 days, meaning that there would be 28 seasons of American Idol for every one season we have to put up with here. Its star is part of Libra, the least imaginative of the zodiac (“Hey, I’m a mighty hunter.” “Hey, I’m a ferocious lion.” “Hey, I am used to determine the heft of an object in accordance with a table of standard weights and measures and also am the abstract representation of justice.” “Uh…yeah. Hey, Sag, let’s go buy that virgin over there some Jaeger shots.”) And our weight would be much larger; the planet’s gravity is about one and a half times stronger, meaning that no woman would ever set foot on this planet at any time, ever, unless she is in a situation where she simultaneously gets married and also never has to interact with another female ever again.

Think of it, though! A planet full of teeming possibilities! A billion new customers without worry from protectionist interference by the United Auto Workers! Or, if there’s no one’s home, a placid meadow of economic growth and material wealth! It’s something that can be almost universally anticipated by everyone. The religious have new souls to convert and new heretical branches to found; the environmentalists have a whole new planet to cry themselves to sleep about; industrialists have a whole new set of mountain ranges to crack open and scoop the contents out of; scientists have a whole new set of funding to tap so they don’t have to beat the global warming horse around anymore; science fiction writers have an entirely new genre to flog to death and eventually discard in the dustbin of Millennium Falcons and appropriately hyphenated Middle-Earths; and politicians have an entirely new society to find new and inventively creative ways to take a symbolic (or perhaps not) massive dump all over.

The parallels to the Age of Exploration are hard to pass up mentioning. Like centuries ago, there’s a level of excitement that, after hundreds of years of armchair imagination, slow, occasional drips of unverifiable yet illuminating information, and the distant, lustful wishes of newfound wealth and fame, finally came to fruition. Advances in navigation made it less likely that ships would become unceremoniously lost or sailors would die horrible deaths by drowning, mutinous violence, scurvy, or, alas, most likely, gonorrhea, inventions such as the carrack, the lime, and Puritanism made long-term voyages possible. Today, satellites, stellar probes, high-powered telescopes, and the congressional delegation of Texas have all made space exploration more of a reality than one mediocre episode in a dated anthology.

The flip side of the celestial coin, of course, is if we can’t inhabit this new Earth—it’s already taken. The chance of extraterrestrial life this close to our house is pretty small—you’d think we would have heard a minor league hockey game on the wi-fi or something by this time—but there’s always that infinitesimally small chance that we might meet up with someone or something. Chances are, it will be some walking fish or furry rodent-thing, just another item on the Dollar Value Menu. But there’s also the chance they have gained sentience and progressed as a civilization, building a complex world of social contracts, scientific advances, and fantasy sports leagues. But somehow, I doubt it. A civilization such as ours that has developed to the point where there is an evolutionary need for a cheeseburger pizza, well…I suspect they’re going to get to us first.

Red Zeppelin

April 24, 2007

Some days, I swear, there is some vastly undiscovered rule of journalism that requires news reporters to occasionally create stories and headlines composed of randomly selected words, and there is a jovial competition as to which correspondent can build the most absurd story out of these various selected parts. Perhaps there is some prize journalists vie for, like a Pulitzer or having a pay scale above minimum wage. I can bet there’s a boiler room in the basement of the Associated Press building New Utopia, Holidayland, where a young doe-eyed stringer right now is pulling Scrabble tiles out of a velour sack and giggling over that universally euphoric joy of making shit up. I’m pretty much certain this is how we got “Jimmy Carter Get Attacked By Swimming Rabbit,” “Bill Clinton Tells Journalists He Had Astroturf in the Back Seat of His Car,” and “Evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction Found In Iraq.”

This concept seems to have recently been exorcized back to life recently, as I foolishly decided to scan the recent headlines to see what was going on in this world the other day. To my equal parts astonishment and dismay, the headline that caught my attention was “Venezuela Launches Zeppelin To Combat Rampant Crime.”

Now, there are several things inherently wrong with that headline.

Firstly, it’s about Venezuela. Venezuela is one of the more…well, shall we say, deceptively progressive communities in the Western hemisphere. Its leader, Hugo Chavez, was elected to its presidency twice now, in accordance with the fact that during these races the laws governing the definition of “election” were somewhat more relaxed than what occurs on a yearly basis down at the local AFL-CIO chapter. Presumably this is a mandate so engineered that all future elections will be foregone conclusions, assuming that the method of vote is not cast in the form of bullets purchased in bulk by the CIA or the United Fruit Company. Venezuela has managed to be a reasonably prosperous standout in a South America community beset with cyclical poverty, mostly due to its rather stable oil production. This revenue permits a rather large amount of latitude for Chavez to experiment with far-reaching communistic programs—or, more accurately, programmes—without worrying too much about the consequences. Oh, if only Havana had an operational offshore drilling rig.

As is the rather usual trajectory, however, Chavez has taken his populist mandate and slowly been carving it into a Latin American-style dictatorship, with draconian decrees and Martha-Stewart-style force of will. Part of this can be justified in the failed coup against him that occurred in 2002, but not by much. He’s also specialized in becoming kind of a third-world spokesman for anti-Americanism, an issue that has been a persistent thorn in the side of Fidel Castro, whose own legacy has pretty much been left as being a pain in the ass to the United States and perhaps the accelerated integration of major league baseball.

Chavez’s economic management has met with some resistance, however, as his largely anti-corporate stances have scared off many efficient companies and driving the economy to more resource-gathering activities, such as coffee and more Venezuelans. Thank goodness, though, that their major commodity is the largely constant cash cow of oil, assuming out any commodities that aren’t inserted into your body either nasally or intravenously.

The second question mark, and the more important one, in that whole headline is the zeppelin. I mean, a what? A zeppelin? You’re talking about the big, lumbering things that are pretty much known for nothing constructive unless it involves selling tires, hippies with mud shark fetishes, or catching on fire? Apparently, the idea is that the zeppelin will be able to more effectively patrol the streets by getting a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade view of Caracas. Its main point is to combat the major points of crime in the city, mostly looking out for rogue individuals handing out copies of The Road to Serfdom and selling Valvoline out of the trunk of their cars, or at least theoretically, if they could afford cars.

Then again, how is having a big, awkward rigid airship whose usefulness ended with the advent of fire any different than security cameras or computer chips implanted directly into your spinal cord? (Oh, like you don’t know already.) At least with a freaking blimp hovering overhead, you know that Big Brother is watching you. Who knows what the NSA is watching you do in the privacy of your own bedroom? You sick jerk. (They also keep track of what you buy at the drug store and your web site visits by volume, so don’t pretend to look so innocent.)

Still, the rather ludicrous notion that a zeppelin is an effective crime-fighting method will either be hailed as a creative way to solve the eternal problem of lawlessness, or decried as the expensive and desperate gasp of a tinpot dictator. Given the tested attributes of tinpot dictators in that region, though, we’ll have a good 40 years to find out.

Kurt Vonnegut, RIP

April 15, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, occasional author and professional curmudgeon, died last Wednesday. So it goes.

Now that his obligatory catchphrase is out of the way, it’s safe to say that Vonnegut represented one of the last true authors to make a career out of simultaneously hating the world and loving it at the same time, a feat unparalleled until Burger King authorized a senior discount for the Tendercrisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch sandwich.

Vonnegut was a known pessimist—though, to be fair, not really. He was, occasionally, a sunshine optimist, believing that reason and rationality would one day take precedence over misty-eyed tribalism and short-sighted realpolitik. But mostly he would look at the world and see a cloudy mess of self-interest and brutality, and often clutched forcefully onto the glass-half-empty for much longer than was absolutely necessary. Walking away from the final acts of a Vonnegut novel would make me seem like the pollyannish grand marshal of the Everything’s Always Gonna Be OK Happy Time Fun Parade. But this elaborately inventive grasp of all that is dark and wrong with the world was the perfect fit into the social abyss that was the late 1960’s.

The defining moment of Vonnegut’s life occurred while he was a prisoner of war in Germany. There, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, a horrifyingly violent act that demonstrated to Vonnegut what kind of soulless destruction the human will was capable of propagating, regardless of whether it was to establish a Third Reich, expand religious belief, or sell diet pills to fat housewives. This event no doubt contributed to his fascination with fatalism, something that fares very well when writing science fiction or living through the Vietnam War. Hearing something like this that can be a very humbling experience for someone like me. The single greatest trauma visited upon me when I was a child was the day I missed the Inspector Gadget where the Chief replaces him with a computer, but in the end find out they need him after all, because sometimes computers aren’t capable of feelings. How dastardly.

Though, quite frankly, Vonnegut should only be labeled as a science fiction writer with the loosest of definitions available. His novels are more black comedies mixed with healthy doses of abject satire, armchair physics, and vivid displays of anti-authoritarianism. Like many authors of his generation, he believed in the austere finality of science but was pessimistic about its application; the arms race had created a mockery of the definition of diplomacy and the exponential destruction that nuclear weapons introduced to warfare were not in the least bit offset by pull-string plastic garbage bags, digital stoves, and Tang.

His books were a jumble of perfectly coifed sentences and “experimental” context, often inserting himself into storylines and keeping an arm’s-length distance from the conventional rules of punctuation and grammar. Sometimes these devices introduced a novel way to advance the plot, while others found it to be pretentious, awkward, or an award-winning combination of both. He was also accused of excessively reusing his characters, making most of them mere caricatures of himself, though he defended himself my stating that if he wasted all his time developing new characters, he wouldn’t have the time to find new and creative ways to recycle his plots.

Vonnegut himself specialized in being a killjoy about most things, in some areas more than others. Late in life, he became somewhat of a provocateur without the benefit of being an active author, stating quite plainly that he had paid his dues to the literary establishment long ago and had no desire to continue, a sentiment one hopes will some day, preferably soon, afflict Rosie O’Donnell and Ann Coulter. He presumed that terrorists were “brave people,” acknowledging that he only meant that they were fighting for a belief and not simply random brutality in the inevitable non-apology slash explanation he expressed when the media got wind of it. He regarded the Bush administration as not much more than a gathering of head-barely-above-water frat boys looking to score extra points in some sort of universal Fantasy Global Domination League. Surprisingly, given his ideological influences and disdain for organized religion, he was a detractor of the theory of evolution, refusing to believe that the harsh determinism of science was solely capable of producing occasional acts of genius in the gene pool, geniuses such as (cough, cough) oh, I don’t know, say, Kurt Vonnegut.

His physical troubles paralleled his mental proclamations as well. In the early 80’s he attempted suicide, as his mother had rather unfortunately done, and in the last decade caught his mattress on fire whilst smoking in bed. Indeed, his fatalistic outlook almost made him seem like he was “unstuck in time,” as Slaughterhouse-Five’s Billy Pilgrim had done. He seemed to know how and when he was going to die, but for some reason the world wouldn’t let him. And then he fell, and then he died. All together, now: so it goes.

Sweet Nothings

April 14, 2007

The other day some comment by a passerby triggered some nostalgic memory long buried under layers of work, relationships, one bout of strep throat, and three seasons of Lost. That memory was that of the Summit candy bar.

Many of you may not remember the Summit bar. In all actuality, I don’t, either. I vaguely recall it being somewhat peanut-butterish in nature, wrapped in chocolate and perhaps chopped nuts, though to be perfectly honest it could just as easily be nougat, kitten fur, and cabernet-flavored licorice bits. But I do remember, rather vividly, that this was the candy bar that, as a child, I often craved, begged for, and demanded upon completion of significant childhood tasks, such as raking leaves or not letting the dog eat raw hamburger out of the kitchen crisper drawer.

I remember the wrapped being navy bluish with a graphical depiction of a sunrise on it, the “Summit” part of the name being more along the lines of a beautiful theoretic act of nature and not of the Reykjavik variety. Again, this could be the altered logical conclusion of my rose-colored hindsight, and the wrapped could just as easily been a surrealist collection of migrant workers and swastikas as far as I know. But like most things with my memory I tend to block out the stuff that I dislike and glorify those that I love, which would explain why peanut butter is so prominent in my memory and nougat not so much so.

So, like most things, the vague thought of something I haven’t eaten in probably twenty years or so forced me to dedicate about four minutes of my life determining how to procure a Summit candy bar, a quest of glory no doubt unrivalled since the race to discover cold fusion or a contented female. I assumed its existence was regional and, just like the Boo Berry cartel set up in the former Confederate states, a kindly gentleman of a tender nature would supply me with a humble package of wistfulness for a nominal fee.

About three minutes into my four-minute devotional however, I was let to an unsettling and painful realization—the Summit candy bar was no longer in production. A rather alarmingly comprehensive list of discontinued candy bars put my perspective in black and white—the Summit Bar was no longer in print, as it were. In addition, other fondly remembered confections are no longer in existence except through the remembered mirror of progressive age, such as the Bar None candy bar, a product that I believe is the only one that is less kosher than divine, and the oft-forgotten PBMax bar, a treat I’m pretty sure never quite lived up to its name of colon rupture due to the maximum amount of artificial peanut flavoring it delivered into my system. (I was also pleased to learn that the Powerhouse bar is gone forever, in what may be a misplaced sense of justice; I am 90% certain this was a bar covered with that Communist invention of white chocolate, but my memory isn’t clear enough to make it a certainty. Still, guilt by association isn’t entirely unjustified in many cases.)

The worst part of it, though, is that I was also introduced to some other candy bars that are no longer in production that I was unaware of, and do not even have the benefit of a unclearly recalled childhood memory to claim a bastardization of. There’s the mysteriously named Cherry Hump, something no doubt is best left remembered either as clear as a bell or not at all. There’s Lifesavers Tangerine and Clove flavor, a combination I have a feeling was cooked up after the marketing department tried a combination of Lifesavers Cannabis and PCP flavor. Apparently there at one point was a Reese’s Chunky Peanut Butter Cup line, a product I equate with cultural significance somewhere between the Ark of the Covenant and the finale of M*A*S*H. There’s the Denver Sandwich bar, a rather confusingly named item I can only assume is the world’s only candy bar with egg, ham, and cheese flavoring. The Jingles Candy bar was apparently the pioneer in a generally accepted candy marketing rule of never naming a candy bar after something that could either be the name of a clown or a monkey. And, of course, there is the Yoo-Hoo chocolate bar, which either was the single greatest candy bar ever, or the single worst candy bar ever. We will never know, now.

It’s kind of a discouraging statistic that 99% or so of all new candy bars are rejected by the marketplace, and even most of those that succeed are simply variations of candy already established. There’s only so many ways that peanut butter, chocolate, nuts, nougat, and caramel can be combined, solidified, chopped up, and then given an absurd name unrelated to their content or taste. Still, one hopes for improvement. Perhaps tomorrow there will be that revolutionary candy that I will eventually forget, fondly remember, and distort its attributes decades from now, much like I do with sitcoms and ex-girlfriends. If it works for them, I don’t see why it can’t for me.

Revenge of the Fish

April 11, 2007

I don’t fish, but I understand it’s supposedly a rather relaxing activity. Apparently, I am wrong.

By all accounts, it was a normal day of fishing for Josh Landin. He and his friends settled down for a rather mundane day of bait fishing, when suddenly one rather bold fish decided that enough was enough and he just wasn’t going to take it anymore, even if it meant making a completely futile attempt that would immediately cause him to die and have no impact on the rate, frequency, or quality of the fishing. The fish, 57 pounds and nearly five feet long—the equivalent of the sixth grader with the full mustache and a rather tenuous grasp on the purpose of standardized testing—appeared from the water like a deus ex machina, only with less a purpose of bringing about a convenient resolution and more for a purpose of horking a chunk of flesh from Josh’s calf. The convenient resolution occurred much later at the hospital once Josh got over a hundred stitches applied at the hospital. Thankfully, his friends kept the long-deceased fish, where they plan on letting the local crabs feast on his carcass. Which seems to be about the best solution for everyone involved, except perhaps the fish.

Animals have taken an increasingly alarming stance against the encroachment of human populations into their environment. Deer, long the bane of suburban planners and Dodge Neon owners, have been particularly nuisancical in their objections, their form of protest being as fertile as a Kentucky sorority house and desecrating the foliage. Town councils all over the country have dealt with this in a manner of comically disquieting ways, from hidden oral profilactics in salt licks (“Here, eat this”); massive deportation to more deer-friendly locales (“Here, get in”); forced contraceptives (“Here, hold still and put this on”); and, in the most extreme cases, a bounty for incoming rural hunters (“Here, hold still”). These latter individuals are all too happy to demonstrate to lonely soccer moms the difference between sloppily violent street guns and the finely glamorous art of hunting, or as glamorous as something like that can be when you are carrying around a packet of synthetic doe piss.

The most amazing thing about this is that the animals haven’t turned against us sooner. Take our dogs. We treat our dogs as pets, with copious amounts of love and compassion, but we start our relationships off with our best friends by naming them Booger and snipping off their cocoa pebbles. Then we pat them on the head and make them grab sticks out of the air, then pump them full of Chinese wheat gluten and wonder why they deliberately piss all over the porch steps.

And, really, what pet hasn’t suffered the humiliations of perpetual subservience? We condition our hamsters and gerbils that strolling about endlessly on a little steel wheel is about the single greatest demonstration of earthly nirvana that can ever visit upon a rodent. For felines, we cultivate a dependency of a formula based on finely balanced proportions of catnip, codependency, and Fancy Feast. We cage our fish in translucent Cracker Jack boxes and feed them hippie-colored compressed factory sweepings from the same Centrum canister for two years instead of busting out an extra eight dollars for a fresh jar of Sam’s Choice Enhanced Goldfish Meal every Daylight Savings Time.

Some animals, of course, have learned, and act rather forcefully as a result, their brutally violent actions much more effective than filling out a nonexistent customer satisfaction survey. Sometimes, animals are subtle about their resentment. For instance, you occasionally read about some distant elephant in Bombay who, after forty years of bonding with their elephant steward, or whatever they’re called, they show this appreciation by stamping their keepers forcefully in the face about a hundred times in succession.

Probably the most recent notorious example of this is the case of Montecore, a white tiger trained from cubdom by Roy Horn, better known as the least gay member of Siegfried and Roy. In exchange for six years of training, room and board, and all the Frosted Flakes he could ever possibly want, he decided one day that Roy would look exceptionally great clamped between his teeth and bloodily mauled in front of a live audience numbering in the thousands. (Vegas being Vegas, not a single member of the audience “saw anything.”) While being carted to the emergency room, he famously declared that they not harm the cat, being Red Flag Number One that perhaps that mother’s day gift of a chocolate-covered gazelle was perhaps a little bit too familiar, even given their endangered status.

Naturally, the subculture of people who love to see animals attack people (Hey, to each their own. You should see what TiVO “recommends” to me based on my viewing habits) has spawned the legendary When Animals Attack, a Fox product (who else?) seen as a practical alternative for NBC Nightly News viewers. These shows, which were primarily a rather rough documentary in the form of crudely spliced footage of animals attacking humans in rapid succession, garnered respectable viewers while it was on. Most of these viewers, of course, weren’t intimidated when Snappy the wrongly-identified “box” turtle pinched their longman, or unimpressed when Chirpy the ex-girlfriend’s worthless parakeet merrily chomped on their big toe like it was country fried steak day down at the cafeteria, so they have to get their big-animal conflict fix on the tube. And while any animal with enough hardened dead skin cells formed into a talon-shaped, uh, talon is a potential enemy, sleep soundly knowing that man will always have the upper hand. That is, until Boxy learns how to access the internet.

A Case on Behalf of Being A Rabbit

April 6, 2007

I think it would be great to be a rabbit.

I mean, why not? Rabbits haven’t been relegated to rodent status like guinea pigs or communications majors. They’re not imputed with vices like snakes and scorpions are, even though their impact on the environmental ecosystem is roughly equivalent. (Here, I am assuming that shedding your skin on top of the refrigerator in the half-darkened and rarely visited part of the garage in an unexpected place so when I find it I wet my pants or crawling into your shoe and taking a nap until you poke your big toe all up in his face and the only retort, naturally, is to sink your stinger deep into the ingrown part of the nail, respectively, are parts of the ecosystem.) And they’ve hippity hopped up the Disneyified branch of the evolutionary scale, so the only rabbits poorly looked upon are those sitting on the dusty shelf at the Snatch ‘N’ Sniff Boutique in Mobile, Alabama.

So, I say, why not be a rabbit? Just think of the perks, at it were.

First, you have the benefit of advantageous association. You have the sugary contagious happiness of the Trix rabbit; the second-degree imagined respect of Harvey; the wiseacre traditionality of Bugs; The honest-I’m-not-enjoying-this-at-all-haw-haw-look-at-what-he’s-up-to-now! frivolity of Br’er; the benign and complete noninfluence on modern culture of Peter; the corporately inclined energy of Roger; the nonexistent nostalgia manufactured from the time filler at two in the morning on the Boomerang channel in Ricochet; the lamentable hubris of the Hare; the soulful, post-9/11 determination of the Energizer; and the creatively named yet innocently missed Bunny Rabbit. Thinking about any of these fictional characters, and you think fondly to yourself—anyone would love to hang out with any of these rabbits if somehow they anthropomorphically inserted themselves into our daily lives—Bugs making change at the register at Denny’s, say, or Trix running mule routes along the Rio Grande.

Fictional rabbits aside, the rather comical engineering of the standard rabbit is a pleasant aftertaste as well. While they seem rather poorly designed, with an inability to walk or, technically, do much at all, what they are designed to do they do very, very well. You can scour the animal kingdom with a fine-toothed comb and not find another creature that can stand still for six hours at a time munching on the same piece of vegetation without so much as twitching. Though one tends to think that someone somewhere was acting on a dare during the prototype stages of their construction—giving the poor rabbit such big ears, large enough to hear the many, many natural predators that come knocking on the door, yet have a complete and utter inability to actually run away without scrambling about in an amusing manner akin to the last sketch of a Benny Hill hour. At least those choppers, while the bane of every rabbit during Senior Picture Day, are really good at chomping down on ugly raw vegetables and pet store clerks.

The rabbit has an easy life. What are rabbits known for? Eating grass and laying the cottonwood, mostly. And while I could do without all the grass-eating, I also don’t envy the female of the species, who apparently are impregnated if standing downwind from the rabbit equivalent of the prom king and gives birth to about six hundred rablits approximately every Monday.

And what are the goals of the lowly rabbit? To eat more grass than your neighbor, which, given the trajectory of the standard rabbit warren population, is probably cottontail to cottontail with you right now? I could handle that. It’s a lot better than aiming for holding onto a spirit-crushing middle management position long enough to retire without too much shame. You may find the odd rabbit that aims to outlive his immediate friends and family, something, granted, a touch tougher than simply shoving mushed grass in your mouth all day long. But the old adage is still the best one—you don’t have to be faster than the fox, you simply have to be faster than that draggin’-ass Mipsy.

Still, rabbitry isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are still some negative portrayals of rabbits in the culture. Top of this particular list is that smug, self-satisfied look of the Playboy Bunny, the one that says “Hey, at least I’m not gonna be the one to spend all weekend watching the Monk marathon, hoss.” And while rabbits have come to symbolize fertility (“How you doin’?”) and innocence (“I’ve never done anything like this before!”), they are just as often portrayed as irresponsible (“I’ll pull out!”) and cowardly (“That ain’t mine!”).

All told, though, being a rabbit seems like a solid, fulfilling career change. And if you’re still not sold, think about this: if you were a rabbit, you would never have to be forced to read Watership Down. ‘Nuff said.

The Bottom Redline

April 4, 2007

Recently, comedian Eddie Griffin wrecked a Ferrari during a charity event. He didn’t wreck it in the politely-exchange-insurance, call-you-at-the-office manner; rather, it was in a full-fledged, grade A class 1 totaling beyond repair manner. He walked away without a scratch, thank goodness. This rather unfortunate even would perhaps only merit a vague mention in two months’ time in the Celebrity Poop inside jacket column in the Sunday supplement, except that this particular make of Ferrari was worth $1.5 million dollars. Perhaps I should have bolded that. $1.5 million dollars. Three things should be apparent at this point:

1) A rich person’s idea of charity is to race cars worth over a million dollars, despite the overwhelming evidence that the only point in racing cars is hoping that at some point someone is going to wreck.
2) The charity was in the form of a car race, since car races are a traditional form of fundraising, oh, and, by the way, Redline, a movie about rich men who race expensive cars for kicks and wagers, starring Eddie Griffin, comes out April 13th.
3) The car was being driven by someone whose sole experience in racing is limited to driving Undercover Brother to the cheap bin at the Wal Mart.

The entire episode is strangely ingratiating. The movie they were promoting was about bored rich billionaires who race their expensive cars around, and there was a wreck because…a bunch of bored billionaires were racing their cars around. It’s life imitating art, though in this case it’s more like staged Hollywood produced media event imitating a staged Hollywood produced media event. Though in real life, I’m assuming Nadia Bjorlin went home alone that night.

Charity or no, there is something fetchingly alarming about rich people pissing their money away. Now, I fancy myself a pretty hardcore off-the-chart free marketeer, one who equates the celestial paradise somewhere along the lines of a rather sadomasochistic Ayn Randian eBaying of commerce and government services. What people do with the money they earn is of no business of mine. But some days, surveying what rich people do with their money makes me want to rally the masses, grab a Spanish double-loaded rifle, and march the proletariat straight to Tiananmen Square, with me in the tank sitting on a crate full of little red books and bread vouchers.

Stories of the nouveau riche’s pecuniary excesses are hardly a new phenomenon. Tales of ancient Rome are rife with decadent Senators, libertines, and future members of Harvard School of Business. And the media absolutely loves to report on these stories because people love to listen to them, and think, “Yeah, I might not make the mortgage payment this month, and I may be doing a criminally negligent job saving for my daughter’s college education, but at least I didn’t spend eight thousand dollars on a Hungarian swan display for my nephew’s bar mitzvah.”

Recent displays of conspicuous consumption aren’t all that hard to find. Probably the most recent tale of excess was that of convicted Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowki. He was convicted, in part, due to his wife’s week-long birthday party, cleverly disguised as a “shareholder meeting.” Among an embarrassingly long list of crimes, one of them was somehow hornswaggling the company into paying for half of what can charitably be called the single greatest depraved orgy even organized by mankind in the last ten centuries. The party itself was an almost picture perfect demonstration of decadence at its best, rife with hired oily gladiators, ice sculptures peeing vodka, cakes formed into the shape of a set of breasts (along with a festive set of strategically placed sparklers!), and a rather cavalier attitude towards the Greek jurisdictional interpretation of adultery. (I got a $20 gift certificate to the Eat ‘N’ Park on my birthday, by the way.)

There doesn’t seem to be a considerable difference in the behavior of businessmen versus celebrities in this particular regard. One might plausibly expect celebrities to acquire money, then find new and creative ways to blow it out their honeyhole. Businessmen, on the other hand, tend to at least pick up some of the financial lessons necessary to get rich in the first place, such as “buying pastries in the shape of barnyard animals may be a fun diversion, but if the markup is 60,000%, perhaps there is a better allocation of funds to be found.” But apparently not necessarily. For every Michael Jackson who buys giraffes like most people buy DVDs, there’s a package on the doorstep of Tyco International with a $6,000 shower curtain in it.

Sometimes, the amount of wealth wasted is subtler. Or, rather, they waste it with “good intentions,” which is code words for “they don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” Donald Trump routinely throws money away every few years in an established money trap known as “marriage.” And George Soros’s own extravagance should not go passed unnoticed, since he contributed around $23 million in the political equivalent of a fantasy sports league.

Griffin’s limited foray into expensive waste seems doubly distressing. His wealth is closer to the Andy Richter There-By-the-Grace-of-God-Go-I end of the scale as opposed to the Warren Buffet end. But one has to think about the super rich in this world. If someone of Griffin’s modest wealth is out wrecking million dollar cars…what exactly are they going to destroy?

The Godfathers of Premium Cable

April 2, 2007

In a few weeks, the last few episodes of The Sopranos will air, thus leaving the only program on television to effectively portray an intricate blend of crime, family, drama, and every combination thereof, to be Dateline NBC.

The Sopranos is a highly popular HBO series detailing the lives of a mafia family and the situations they encounter while traveling throughout ancient Rome running a funeral service along with four middle-aged sexually frustrated harlots. Despite the rather violent nature of the scripts, The Sopranos plays out much like a traditional soap opera, only instead of, say, disclosing an intimate affair during a formal dinner party with a well-timed barb over dessert, the protagonists will inject a bullet execution style at a Perth Amboy loading dock. Plus there aren’t nearly as many product placements for Playtex.

The standard mob drama has been strangely absent from television, excepting just about every other episode in the first three seasons of Law & Order. Given its propensity for reasonably exhilarating twists and impressive production values to snatch at least one of those Emmys for costuming they award at like four in the morning the day before the red carpet is rolled out, one would think there would be more attempts than have been made. The rather aggressive nature of the mafia, along with the salty language and their gruesome solutions to immediate personnel problems, have probably contributed to the networks’ aversion to producing such shows, allowing Martin Scorsese to specialize his talents in Hollywood instead. So it’s no surprise that HBO, unrestrained from the fickle wiles of the FCC, picked up on it.

The Sopranos depicts the events surrounding a mob family in (where else?) New Jersey. The family patriarch, Tony Soprano, is encircled by the requisite comically-nicknamed and numerously extended family, including (but, as always, not limited to) the legally obligatory patient wife who doesn’t approve of the life of crime but does like its benefits so is at pains to reconcile her conscience with her lifestyle; the 100% trusted family member everyone grew up with who still somehow surprisingly turns out to be an FBI informant and therefore must be assassinated by a childhood friend; the headstrong daughter who tries to escape the life of the mafia by choosing a profession outside of organized crime but will probably ultimately use that profession to return to help out the family; the elder mother who manipulates everything behind the scenes and is often depicted as the real power within the family; the head of a rival family that they keep good terms with but someday will cause a gang war; and the young upstart who believes he has paid his dues and ultimately dies as a result of his hubris. Chances are I didn’t need to point any of these characters out, since they have been in every depiction of every mafia family in every screen adaptation ever made about the mob, but I figured it’s better to be safe than sorry.

While The Sopranos is busy murdering originality, it at least injects a device never used before in a drama—extensive dream techniques. These dreams, rather that being a cheap, ineffective way to bring about resolutions that scriptwriters can’t seem to create what with their grueling schedule of writing 13 episodes about every three years or so, are more like…well, okay, that’s exactly what they are.

The series’ depiction of Italian-Americans has caused the cast and crew some slight embarrassment. They were denied access to a Columbus Day parade due to objections from an Italian-American advocacy group, a rather ingenious self-reference to a previously aired episode where the Sopranos threatened a Native American group from protesting the parade. And when filming the series’ final episode, set in an ice cream shop, the local council waffled between permitting, then denying, then permitting again their right to film, as the council couldn’t decide whether the series was 1) an insult to the stereotypical depiction of Italian-Americans, or 2) the slow, burning realization that whether you are propagating negative portrayals of Italians, Poles, Native Americans, Chinese, or African-Americans, the banks still clear the checks the same.

The cast of The Sopranos is also playfully self-referential in their run-ins with the law. Of all the cast members combined, they have been either arrested for or convicted of grand larceny, armed robbery, assault, possession of heroin, DWI, forgery, second degree murder, and, rather laughably, “criminal mischief,” the latter charge which seems more akin to TPing the roller rink than smacking your girlfriend’s forehead against the gearshift of your Trailblazer.

Still, there’s plenty to both love and hate about the show. It’s a rather well-written show with plenty of cliffhangers, artificially intriguing plot developments, and likable if flawed characters. Then again, it does a surprisingly effective job at glamorizing a violent lifestyle that doesn’t show the uglier sides of organized crime, which probably includes a lot more jailhouse buggery and visitations to disgusting trailer parks to pick up crates of crystal meth and surplus Oxycontin than media portrayals would like to admit. The biggest crime committed by the Soprano family, however, is stretching a three-hour Goodfellas knockoff into an 86-episode, six-series production.