Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Long Island

I'm sure this is coming from the fact that it's the end of January and I CAN'T TAKE THE COLD ANYMORE. It makes me really depressed. I would love to move somewhere that's warm year round.

But I can at least look forward to this:

That's Long Beach, NY. It used to be a major resort for weekenders from the city, but now that it qualifies as an "inner suburb" it's more just a recreational beach and boardwalk for people who live in the area. It's famous for having some of the cleanest, whitest sand you'll ever see anywhere. I actually boosted the color in that pic a bit because otherwise, it just looks like snow in photographs.

I'm not a huge beach person, but I love the whole feel of coastal towns. It's like being in a whole other world compared to the city. Long Beach is a pretty big town, but there are others around it (along the same inlet) that aren't. And you can just go wandering around in areas like Point Lookout and be pretty much totally by yourself in the middle of sand and reeds, with the ocean beyond. But you can see that even Long Beach is not that crowded; it's not like most of the Jersey Shore. Part of it's that I think there's not enough parking, and most of what there is is reserved for people who actually live in the oceanside apartment buildings. But it keeps it from getting crazy.

This was actually taken on the north shore... but just look at how peaceful this is:

Back down on the south shore, we've also got this for year-round enjoyment:

So it's the best of both worlds, really. City fast food with country recreation. That's Nathan's, the hot dog place born in Brooklyn. There's a ludicrously large one on the way to the beach, and I stop there every couple of weeks for a chili or corn dog. (No, those aren't both mine! One's for my wife.) This Nathan's really brings back memories of my childhood in a way that most of them don't - it's still got a big game room (ie. an arcade) and they play mostly 80's music. Last time I was there, I actually heard Loverboy for probably the first time in 20 years.

It's actually pretty pathetic - we live in a huge Italian area and we've never been to an Italian restaurant here, but I could tell you the names and locations of probably every fast food outlet within 10 miles. There's of course McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, also Pizza Hut, KFC, and lesser-known chains like Nathan's and White Castle. I go to White Castle a lot because they still have deep-fried apple pies (though their fries are the worst of any fast food chain).

We've also got some of the best diners anywhere. I mean the real thing, with neon lights and chrome and art-deco interiors lifted out of a 1930's-era train car. Real Greek diners with gyros and souvlaki mixed in with the burgers and fries. Every town around here has at least one major diner; some have two. We've got our favorite, and this is it:

Yeah, picture looks like it was taken from a speeding getaway car or something, but I just happened to snap it as we were leaving one day.

You know how you can tell a real diner from a fake one? Order a cheeseburger and see whether they put raw onions or onion rings on it. I have never seen a fake diner get this right. Real diner burgers have onion rings. It's universal.

Of course, we still go to (or stay in) the city to eat a lot of the time. That's still where the really great restaurants are, and I'm sure I'll write about more of them in the future. But I love the food on Long Island, even without having tried much of the local ethnic food. I think we've already fallen into our habits.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

So Long, Rudy

So tonight, Rudy Giuliani lost Florida and all the "pundits" expect him to drop out and endorse McCain. Good riddance. And I say that as a native New Yorker.

I had actually half hoped that he'd get the nomination, if only because the guy's carrying so much baggage with him that there's no way in hell he could ever beat any of the Democrats. See, New Yorkers know the real Rudy. We know all of his scandals; we've even forgiven some of them. We don't much care about a politician carrying on extramarital affairs up here, for just one example. That's between him and his wife. But the rest of the country apparently does care, and I knew that once people around the country saw the real Rudy, he'd tank. I'm just maybe a little disappointed it happened so soon.

I'm insulting Republican voters' intelligence a little bit, though, as I think the pundits (whatever that word really means) are doing now also. They're all saying that the more people saw of Rudy, the less they liked him - and that's probably true. But I don't think it's for the reasons they think. Could a pro-choice, pro-gun control candidate really never be a Republican nominee? If so, then it just shows how extreme that party's gone over to the right-wing fringe. (You'd never hear the Democrats say that an anti-gun control candidate could never be the Democratic nominee.) But I don't believe it. People nationwide knew about Rudy's stances on the issues going back to last summer at least, when he was ahead across the country by 20 points.

No, what I think happened is that people realized that Rudy's a one-trick pony, and that trick's not even a very good one. I remember when he came in fourth in New Hampshire, the NY Daily News ridiculed him in a headline that went something like "Rudy: This isn't nearly as bad as 9/11". He actually said something like "I'm not worried about losing New Hampshire... now, on 9/11, there were times when I was worried." He injected it into absolutely everything. The Onion also ran a funny piece about Rudy running for "President of 9/11". But that basically encapsulates his entire campaign; that's pretty much all he ever talked about, and people just got tired of it - New Yorkers especially. And when the rest of the country starts getting tired of your one issue, and they see that your home state doesn't even support you (he was in danger of losing New York on super Tuesday), then you're in major trouble.

Rudy's main problem is this. His argument that 9/11 makes him an expert on terrorism is like someone who suffers a head injury arguing that it makes them an expert on brain surgery. It just doesn't make sense. And he continuously drew attention to it, and eventually, people figured it out. There were a lot of failures of city government on 9/11 - the poor placement of the command center (in the twin towers!), the non-functioning FDNY radios, etc. All he did by harping on 9/11 so continuously was draw the ire of the city's first-responders - who started trailing him around and launched TV ads against his candidacy - and show everybody around the country how far out of his depth he was. (Saying he spent as much time in the pit as the firefighters didn't help.) He swift-boated himself.

New Yorkers didn't like Rudy before 9/11; he was about to leave office with approval numbers in the high 30's. (He was popular on Staten Island...) After 9/11, his ratings shot up simply because he was there - as Bush's did too. Remember when Bush had a 90% approval rating? Well, at some point, people come back to reality. New Yorkers did with Rudy long ago, and now it looks like the rest of the country has too.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kimura Kaela - Live Scratch

LIVE Scratch - Agatte Masutteba Tour @ Budokan Sta Men  / Kaela KimuraBuy LIVE Scratch
at CDJapan

I've talked a little bit about Kimura Kaela on my PUFFY blog, but I've finally just picked up her recent DVD Live Scratch and it's definitely worth spending a post on here.

I'm sure most non-Japanese readers here are saying "who?" In Japan, she's big enough to be known by one name: Kaela. (Pronounced "keye-la.") This is one Japanese artist that I think rock fans around the world could get into. The Japanese pop music industry is much the same as ours in a lot of ways, but there's room for artists there that just could never make it here. You just don't see a hell of a lot of girl rock stars in the US these days - not honest ones, anyway.

Kaela's on her third album (soon to be fourth), so she's been around a while now. There's a good reason for that: she rocks!

She first hit public consciousness as a fashion model for Seventeen magazine - and she was a teenager at the time. She's of mixed ethnicity - half Japanese, half British. She speaks English, though not fluently, and a lot of her songs are in English too. Musically, she comes from a pure punk background - she had a high school band called "Animo" that took a lot of inspiration from modern western punk bands like Rancid. This is a sample of her early music (and a really early performance):

She's come a long way since then. I kinda like how raw she is above, but she also doesn't look very confident and she doesn't have a lot of stage presence. Here's a clip from Live Scratch, which was shot last year:

Big difference, if you ask me. She's more comfortable, her movement feels a lot more fluid, and she owns that stage. She's 23 now (don't tell me she doesn't look it), and she's all grown up.

Live Scratch was shot at Nippon Budokan - yes, the Budokan of Bob Dylan at Budokan and Cheap Trick - At Budokan fame. It is just as famous a venue for Japanese artists, who only know they've really arrived when they play their first concert at this arena. It is hallowed ground among rock musicians and has been ever since the Beatles made their Japanese debut there in the 1960's. This was Kaela's first show at Budokan (it took her three albums to make it there), hence the faux-tuxedos being worn by the band. No, she normally doesn't dress like that - it was a special occasion.

Here's the full track list:

1. Scratch
2. Circle
3. Magic Music
4. L.drunk
5. トゥリル トゥリル リカー
7. リルラ リルハ
8. ワニと小鳥
9. Snowdome
10. sweetie
11. never land
12. dolphin
13. You
15. きりんタン
16. BEAT
18. Ground Control
19. You know you love me?

20. Samantha
21. happiness!!!

It's long! Japanese artists really give you your money's worth.

Notice the final track before the encores - she does sing the same song from the early clip above. It sounds more or less the same, although she is much different. The band is also different, so the instruments sound a little less "punk" and a little more "rock".

It's obvious from the first couple of songs on the disc that she's really just taking it all in. It's a real experience for her. The thing I really like about some Japanese stars is how humble they are even after getting big. It's surely not universal, but it seems true of all the Japanese artists I happen to like.

I gotta say that this is one of the most slickly-produced and well-edited concert DVD's I've ever seen, as was the concert itself. I really wish I could have been there, because there is just a huge amount of stuff going on. The light show is amazing, the sound is amazing, Kaela's voice and presence are amazing. About the only thing I can criticize is the set list order, which starts the show with a great mood-setter in "Scratch," then ups the energy with a slightly modified and heavier "Circle" and several more quick-tempo songs before really bringing things down way too much in the middle. There's a great recovery by the end, though, which is one of the best, most genuinely emotional finishes I've ever seen at a live show.

If you don't own Scratch, Kaela's last CD, you should buy it. The album is just full of great songs in a bunch of different styles from beginning to end. The problem is some of the best songs on the CD don't really translate live (most are slow, lush songs that are slowed even further on stage), and these are the songs jammed together in the middle of the DVD. "Snowdome", "Wani to Kotori", "Dolphin" and "Sweetie" are the biggest offenders. The DVD ain't called Live Scratch for nothing, though - she plays through pretty much the entire album, with only highlights from her previous two included. That's okay, though - Scratch really is her best, and she's included most of the top stuff from her other two (including her best known songs in the west, "Rirura Riruha" - aka "Real Life Real Heart" - and "Happiness").

You really could just buy this DVD as an initial introduction to her music. Most of her songs - with exceptions noted above - sound better live than they do on the albums. "Beat", "Circle", "Tree Climbers", the list goes on - all stronger as live performances than they are recorded. A big part of it is just her voice, which is held back a bit on the albums, but let loose on stage. She may be tiny, but she can belt. (And yeah, she really plays guitar.)

Before the last song of the encore, as she's thanking the band, her mom and all the people that helped her out, she cries uncontrollably. Not crocodile tears, either; I'm talking waterworks, can't even get a word out kind of stuff. I've never seen anything like this at a concert before, and it runs completely counter to the image I've always had of her. She's never pictured with anything but that big smile on her face, and she's always completely cool and usually somewhat distant in interviews. She manages to get through the final song, but she skips a few lines - it's obvious that she's still completely choked up. It's really pretty endearing. (The screenshot below is the best I could get - I didn't want to show a shot of her face all curled up in a sob!)

The DVD itself is anamorphic widescreen, though the picture quality is strangely grainy. You get used to it, especially with as much going on visually as there is. It is a region-protected disc, which still makes no sense to me - are they really planning to sell this in region 1 someday? I doubt it, so why the region coding? In addition to the live show, there's a making-of section showing some of her rehearsals leading up to the moment of the show's start - interesting because of how self-admittedly nervous she is. As usual for behind the scenes stuff, this footage is 4:3.

By the way, for any new fans that want to keep up with what Kaela's up to, she maintains a pretty regular blog, complete with photos. Check it here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Budweiser Alternative - Brooklyn Pilsner

I'm getting a little sick and tired of those Budweiser "Great American Lager" ads - you know, the ones where that smug idiot stands there and tries to convince everybody (and likely himself) that Budweiser is superior to "darker, cloudier beers" because lighter beers like Budweiser don't "mask flaws" like those other beers do.

What a bunch of bullshit.

For one thing, there's really no such thing as an "American-style Lager", as Budweiser refers to it in the ads. At least not as an actual beer category. Go ahead, Google it. What you'll find is a Wikipedia page that was first written in December of 2006 (and initially edited largely by one person), a couple of articles referring to said Wikipedia page, a few older posts and articles derisively referring to "American-style lager" not in any formal way but as a colloquialism, and then Budweiser's own site. You see the pattern here? Budweiser invented this term to explain away why their beer tastes like water. There are no real distinguishing characteristics to "American lager" other than a lack of taste. And that just arose from the two or three early major brewing companies cutting corners and using cheap ingredients like corn and rice in their beers, instead of proper hops and barley.

A little beer lesson for those coming here through Google. There are really only two kinds of beer: ale and lager. Everything else is a style of one of those two beer types. Even stouts, which are ales. Pilsners are lagers. What distinguishes an ale from a lager is the process used to make each. But effectively speaking, ales are sweet, lagers are dry and bitter.

If you want a "light" American beer (not a "lite" American beer) - and really, there is nothing wrong with that - you should drink this:

Yep, that's Brooklyn Pilsner. Budweiser is also just a (really bad) Pilsner, whatever they want to say about being "American-style Lager" - they always just called themselves a Pilsner before. Pilsner is already a light lager. The difference is Brooklyn Pilsner actually has taste.

I've been a fan of the Brooklyn Brewery for a while now, and not just because they're from Brooklyn. (Most of their beer, including the Pilsner, is actually brewed upstate in Utica.) I know I went on and on a while back about Japanese beers, all of which are also light lagers, but Brooklyn Pilsner is probably even better. It also has the advantage of being pretty widely available. Yeah, you might need to go to your local "beverage" store, but it's not at all hard to find. And this is really a top quality beer, not just "for an American beer", but I'd hold this up to any Pilsner you could dig up from anywhere around the world. (Remember, don't believe all you read on beer rating sites. Their results are skewed by a few people who believe that good beer has to look and taste like used motor oil. They never rate any pilsners very highly.)

Brooklyn Pilsner tastes extremely clean, like a Pilsner should, and is quite dry. The overall taste is pretty malty. The finish is very bitter, which may be an acquired taste, but this is the way lager is supposed to be. What the bitter finish does, though, is just make you want to drink more. By the end of a bottle, you feel as if your palette has actually been cleansed by the beer. That's pretty much exactly what Budweiser wants you to think about their beer in their new ads, but Brooklyn Pilsner's got about five times more taste and none of the skunk. I don't even think it's possible to skunk a Brooklyn Pilsner; I've never had one that was.

The great thing about Pilsners is that they go with pretty much any kind of food. That's probably why they're so popular around the world, and it's why Brooklyn Pilsner's become sort of my default beer now. (I was drinking Brooklyn Lager, and I still like it a lot, but it's a little too heavy for some foods.) Now look at this - this is what I call a winter meal:

Mmmm, chili under all that cheese, corn bread and an ice cold Brooklyn Pilsner. It don't get no better!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


So are you all excited about the latest monster movie to hit the screen?

This thing's been being marketed to hell and back for what seems like the past six months, but still it seems like a lot of my friends and co-workers know nothing about it. That probably has something to do with the poster and print ad campaign being barely visible in real-life New York City:

I think I've seen a total of one of these, which is honestly not that surprising. I was actually more surprised that I saw any at all.

Why, you ask? Well, it's more than a little reminiscent of some of the images we saw first-hand on 9/11:

Pretty obvious that they're exploiting 9/11 for marketing purposes. I don't even see how you can argue otherwise. It's not like nobody has ever seen these images; they can't claim ignorance.

I think that Paramount is probably treating this film with kid gloves around New York, as well they should. I personally have mixed feelings about it. I actually am looking forward to seeing the film, in the same way I looked forward to seeing something like Escape from New York. I think everybody has dark fantasies about seeing what their own town or city would look like in a post-apocalyptic (or just apocalyptic) setting, with the key word being fantasy. It can't be too realistic, especially when there are real-life things like 9/11 going on. But fear is an emotion with a purpose, and we all have a need to see those fears expressed. It's a kind of catharsis.

Cloverfield seems to be trying really hard to tiptoe right on the edge of that line. It seems pretty likely to me that, consciously or not, the entire film is one big allegory for 9/11. (It is at least a film about fear - and what are we fearful of these days? Giant monsters?) It's evident especially in the way that it's shot in first-person mode from the point of view of a small group of people trying to escape - a familiar memory of 9/11 for many of us - and you therefore (supposedly) never really get a sense of exactly what's going on. That's a feeling I think all New Yorkers can now directly relate to, and it's one that neither of the two actual 9/11 films have managed to capture in the slightest.

This isn't the first time a science fiction film has invoked post-9/11 fear of terrorism - I think it's pretty easy to argue that Steven Spielberg's remake of War of the Worlds was also just one long terrorist attack, and it too began in New York (well, really right across the river in New Jersey, but that's sort of beside the point), before spreading out all over the country.

I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing. You could say too that Escape from New York was a vehicle to express our fears of rising crime (as it was at the time) and the future it would bring, purposely set in a city that was morally and financially bankrupt and was fast becoming the murder capital of the country. The same is true of many films in that genre. Fantasy and sci-fi are often a much better way of expressing our real-world fears than non-fiction, because the filmmakers can ironically be more honest in their emotions if they allow themselves the freedom of imagination. They're better able to use their tools of cinema to invoke that emotion, rather than trying to force emotion from a set of historical events over which they have no control.

Fantasy and sci-fi are also pretty much the only ways we have of expressing our fears of something as big and nebulous as terrorism; abstract concepts and ideas that, if unchecked, could consume us all. You really can't do that in a romantic comedy, a buddy film or a road movie. You need the kind of movie where anything goes, and where the sky is literally the limit. (Oh, lots of films have tried to do terrorism fears on a small and realistic scale, but not many have been very successful, with Babel maybe one of the few exceptions. War of the Worlds expresses our fears better than Munich, for just one example.)

What I'm sort of uneasy about, though, is the obvious attempt at cashing in on a specific trauma, and the deaths of thousands of real people. War of the Worlds may have been an allegory for terrorism, but it was never marketed using 9/11 imagery - it was left abstract, at least on the surface, as this kind of thing should be. It's one thing for a filmmaker to express his or her fears to an audience that shares them; another for the distributor to try to make a buck off the lives and deaths of innocent people. (My wife was actually completely turned off by these posters.) I'd feel a little more comfortable if the posters weren't such an obvious reference to a specific, terrible event that many people, including myself, lived through... while others weren't so lucky.

But I'm still going to see the movie.

UPDATE #1: Lest you think I'm some sort of right-wingnut or conspiracy theorist, the left-leaning New York Daily News posted a review of Cloverfield that also brings up the "9/11-inspired imagery". And the similarly liberal New York Times refers to the film's "tacky allusions to September 11". It's just obvious to any New Yorker; it has no basis in politics or any other ideology. And I'm not making a judgment on anything other than the marketing. (Oooooh, don't even get me started on the "viral" alternate reality game!)

One other thing. I've gotten a few comments from people that don't see the 9/11 or terrorism connection at all. Well, this is what JJ Abrams himself has to say about that in the press notes for the film:

"We live in a time of great fear. Having a movie that is about something as outlandish as a massive creature attacking your city allows people to process and experience that fear in a way that is incredibly entertaining and incredibly safe."

Which is pretty much exactly what I said above.

UPDATE #2: Saw the movie. Pretty much exactly what I expected. It was fun, though mostly in a "wow, they really nailed 9/11" kind of way. The actual monster stuff wasn't particularly interesting, especially the little Alien-like parasites that exist in the film solely to make the subway tunnels a non-viable route of escape. And there were a surprising number of scenes that were actually pretty slow.

The camera work was also annoying in that it was trying so hard to be realistically shaky that it was actually unrealistically shaky. It went too far. Nobody is that bad of a cameraman. It was distracting, and it didn't really look like a home movie. Every shot is also zoomed in to what seemed like the maximum, so all you ever see are unidentifiable parts of people's faces or bodies, unidentifiable streets, unidentifiable monster limbs. I'm sure that's by design, but it again was both unrealistic and annoying.

Not my favorite film, but sort of interesting, at least. I don't think this has really created "our own Godzilla", though - this doesn't feel like the start of a franchise. But who knows.

RENT has Lost its Lease...

I knew the day had to come sometime, but the New York Times is reporting today that my favorite Broadway show of all time - Rent - is closing on June 1.

This show spoke to me in a way that probably no other piece of entertainment in any medium ever had. See, as a poor college student I lived in a run-down tenement on 1st Avenue and 3rd St. in Manhattan at the time the play was written in the early 1990's, just a few blocks from where it's set, and I went through a lot of the real-life events that serve as the backdrop for it (including the squatter riots). Most of my friends - and myself too - were so similar to the characters in the show that I actually wondered after the first time I saw it whether I had ever known Jonathan Larson and forgotten. I knew, for example, an amateur filmmaker with spiky red hair that wore thick glasses and long scarves - just like Mark. The character of Mimi seemed to be an amalgam of two different people in my life - one of whom was a go-go dancer at Limelight and a heroin addict, the other a crazy filipino girl with whom I had a perpetually strained and weird relationship. And at that time, I was a sullen and surly leather jacket-wearing wannabe musician - just like Roger.

I connected with these characters and their stories because they seemed like they were ripped right out of my own life, and because by the time the show first hit the stage, it was already part of my past - that door had been shut on me, and not really by choice (that's a whole other story). That area of lower Manhattan had also changed pretty dramatically by 1996 as it began to gentrify. So seeing Rent the first time was like looking back with nostalgia on a bygone part of my life. I know that wasn't the intent of the show, and I know about its roots in La Boheme and its message about AIDS - but I'm sure Jonathan Larson would have been happy to see his show resonate with audiences in whatever way they personally felt, and that's how it resonated with me.

If you live in New York and you haven't seen it yet, go before it's too late. The cast is not the original cast, and some of the AIDS-related scenes might seem dated today, but the show is still incredibly emotional and, I'm here to tell you, realistic. Yes, people really lived like that in that place and at that time. I was one of them.

There is of course the film adaptation, but trust me when I tell you it's nowhere close to being as good as the stage version. It's better than nothing, and I had actually been planning to write up another post about it at some point, but it's not really Rent. There is too much missing, and too much glossed over. See the stage version if you can, while you can.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Best and Worst of 2007

I'm a little late, but picking up where some other blogs I read left off, this is my best and worst list for 2007. This is mostly random stuff I liked and disliked from last year, either new for 2007 or just new to me. In no particular order! Though I'm writing things as they come to me, so I guess there's probably some subconscious favoritism going on here.

Favorite things of 2007:

1. Paramore - RIOT!
I'm serious - I love this band. I really can't say enough good things about them. John Mayer called Hayley Williams "the great orange hope" and he's right. She's got everything - she's cute, she's smart, she's wise beyond her 19 years, judging by interviews like this one she seems like a pretty nice person, she's got her own style, and she's got a huge voice. The rest of the band is no less talented; there is some great guitar work on this album, and the songs! The songwriting - assuming you're at all into this whole poppy punk emo-ish thing they do (and maybe even if you're not) - is as good as the genre gets. The last line of the album is "we were born for this", and no one could argue with that.

2. Legal absinthe.
And I don't mean absente, I mean the real stuff. I can't say I've managed to make myself like it yet - it tastes like extremely strong, alcoholic licorice (yeah, I know how to make the louche), but it's more the idea of it that appeals to me. Down with prohibition!

3. Blu-Ray.
I bought a 1080p HDTV this past year and a PS3 to go with it. The jury's still out on the PS3 as far as games go, but Blu-Ray movies have been universally stunning. Even old ones like Blazing Saddles look unbelievable - it could have been shot yesterday. Most movies don't look this good in a theater, what with the lack of care most theater owners put into the experience these days. With HD-DVD on death's doorstep, I'm now pretty confident I made the right choice in which format to support.

4. PUFFY - Honeycreeper.
It's not actually my favorite album of theirs - it's heavier and less fun than most of their releases - but it's still better than almost anything else that came out last year. After 11 years - an eternity in Japan - they still know how to churn out those catchy tunes, even with an all-new slate of producers and songwriters working with them. Should be getting a US release in 2008.

4a. My PUFFY autographed t-shirt. A guy out west was nice enough to pick me up a t-shirt at PUFFY's concert in Anaheim, and on his way out, he actually met the girls. He asked them to sign the shirt he bought for me, and explained to the girls who I was and that I run a fan site. So I've got my very own personalized PUFFY autograph, signed in pen. I won't even take it out of the envelope it got here in.

5. My Fender Jazzmaster.
This is the first real electric guitar I've ever owned, and it's perfect. Well, except for all the little parts I'm planning on replacing, but then that's just what guitarists do to their guitars. I still love it; it's beautiful, it sounds great even with the stock Japanese pickups (which don't have the best rep) and it *feels* like a real guitar, not like one of those crap shredmaster metal guitars. Best part is I can pretend I'm Kevin Shields.

6. Kimura Kaela - Scratch.
Kaela's the top rock star in Japan right now, and this was the first album of hers that I picked up on my last visit there. She really has no US equivalent - the closest would probably be Avril Lavigne, but Kaela's so much less annoying, so much smarter, and she's also not a complete bitch. (In fact, she's not even a partial bitch.) Her music ranges from rock to pop punk, and most of it is catchy in the way that only the best Japanese pop songs ever are. I was singing my way through this album for months without even knowing what the words meant.

7. Home Improvement.
No, not the dumb 1990's TV show... my actual house. We bought this place two years ago and unbeknownst to us, it was kind of a dump. The previous owners were weird; they did maintain a lot of things and replaced them when necessary, but then other things they just let go for probably 30 years. So we saw the new furnace and water heater, the nice floors, the working fireplace, and we sort of figured they were conscientious and took care of everything. I didn't even think to check things like the windows or the chimney or the porch floor. (Yes, we had an inspection, but I was sort of blinded by love for the house by then and he didn't really say anything was crucial, he just wrote comments on his report like "anticipate desire to update", which sounded like a fun thing!)

Anyway, so we just got done having fourteen new windows installed, that was the big thing last year. Ten of them are wood, so they were pretty expensive and we had to paint and stain them ourselves. (Two we're not even done with yet.) But I didn't want vinyl windows in my living areas. Vinyl's just a code word for "plastic", and all these plastic houses around these days piss me off. Who wants to live in plastic? I need wood. (Insert your own joke.)

We also painted a bunch, installed new flooring in one bedroom (bamboo! Very nice), and got a bunch of new furniture. Still not done yet, but the place is starting to feel pretty livable! And I'm not freaking out anymore about being unable to sell if we have to someday. (Assuming this market ever recovers...)

By the way, I originally had meant to post about some of these things we were doing to the house as we did them, but I kept forgetting to take any "before" photos! So it seemed kind of pointless.

8. Evanescence - The Open Door.
Ok, yeah, it came out in 2006. I forgot before I posted this. But I was still listening to it in 2007! And I also know that this album didn't sell as well as their last one, Fallen. But then, this album didn't have a hit single from the Daredevil soundtrack on it either. It's also in many ways intentionally less commercial - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There are no obvious radio-friendly tunes here. But there's a lot of depth, and it's an album that gets better the more you listen to it.

I know also that Amy Lee's weight has kind of been increasing a bit over the years (that's an old picture of her at left, when she was thinner), and I hate to say it, but I don't know if that's affected their popularity. You know, like it or not, we're in a multimedia world now - bands are visual these days too, and I don't honestly think there's anything wrong with that. Amy's really not as much of a sex symbol as she was a few years ago, not that she ever wanted to be. But she is an amazing singer and she still has more style in her pinky toe than most people have in their entire body, and I am still a huge fan.

9. Japan. Or at least my latest trip to it. I've been there a bunch of times now - we're basically on pace to go once a year these days - but I still manage to find things to do there that I've never seen or done before. It is my favorite place in the world.

And now, my least favorite things of 2007, again in no particular order:

1. Health problems.
I'm only in my 30's, and while I don't look it, sometimes I feel like my body's just falling apart. Two years ago I had my second spontaneous lung collapse, and now my premature ventricular contractions (which I had when I was younger) have returned. This is a supposedly benign condition that feels anything but. When you have PVC's, your heart tries to insert extra beats between its normal rhythm... and because it can't, it sort of stops mid-beat and then resets. This feels like a "skipped beat", and if you see it on an echo-cardiogram, your heart literally seems to stop for a second. This happens to me about ten times per minute. Yes, it's as awful as it sounds. And it's all the time.

Worse from a health standpoint is that my aorta is dilated, and combined with my lung collapses, my doctors think I might have some kind of connective tissue disorder. They say it's not Marfan syndrome, but it could be something else. In any case, I need yearly tests to make sure my aorta doesn't grow further. If it does, I will need to have it repaired surgically (or I will die, the same way actor John Ritter did), which is not something that sounds like much fun.

All this from a guy that appears outwardly healthy. I am not fat, I look young for my age, I'm tall, I have a quick walk and a normal gait. Again, like John Ritter, who had the same problem. You'd never guess I had any issues at all. But inside, it's like my body's just slowly ravaging itself. Ironically, it was going to the doctor for my "benign" PVC's that led them to discover my aorta was dilated and started them down the connective tissue disorder path. I now have to take blood pressure medication for the rest of my life, I have to restrict my exercise, and I cannot drink caffeine (this was hell at first, but I managed to switch to decaf full time). I can drink a little alcohol because it's actually good for the heart... that's about the only positive thing about all this.

I know anything I write after that is gonna seem trivial (and it is), but...

2. Avril Lavigne - The Best Damn Thing.
More like the worst damn thing! Ha. Ha. Ha.

Little April Levine infuriates me. I think I've decided my hatred for her is really more disappointment than anything. See, I think she actually has a really good punk voice. And I think she can sometimes be kinda cute. She's got real potential. I want to like her.

Problem is, her cheerleader pop music masquerading as punk sucks big donkey dick. A whole generation of little kids is growing up thinking this is what punk sounds like. And worse, she's a first-class arrogant cunt about it.

I actually bought this album for my wife as a kind of gag Christmas gift. She kinda likes her, and she knows I really don't, so it was just one of those little unexpected things and maybe a little dig. Anyway, the version I bought came with a pointless DVD that was supposedly a "making of" documentary about the album. All it really was, though, was Avril sitting there talking about what a great songwriter she is and how she did all the work on the album and nobody helped her. Yeah, nevermind all the real songwriters and producers and musicians that actually played all the instruments and that are all credited as such on the album. She probably thought she did all the work because one day they woke her up to throw down some vocal tracks and then boom, album's done. That's all it takes to make an album, right Avril?

Then she has the nerve to write lyrics like "
Get ready motherfucker cause I'm happening". Yeah, the only thing that's happening is my boot in your face. I mean really, there's nothing wrong with being an arrogant bitch. Johnny Rotten's an arrogant bitch. But he can be an arrogant bitch because he's Johnny Rotten and he's awesome.

Avril Lavigne, you are no Johnny Rotten. Get over yourself.

3. Endless Political Campaigning. Christ, is it only the beginning of 2008? We've got a whole 'nother 10 months of this shit to go? It seems like the presidential campaign started sometime around 1999 and it just hasn't ever stopped. This isn't good for anybody. It's annoying, it's a massive waste of money, it's at best total distraction from actually running the country and at worst it actually influences running the country (as I'm sure it does). It also is what's responsible for the now-perpetual divisions among the population, who are constantly being forced to choose up sides rather than working together to solve problems. Stop the madness! Seriously.

I suggest a system similar to Japan's, where political campaigns are mandated by law to be no more than something like 17 days. That means no stump speeches, no TV ads, no town hall meetings outside of that government-designated window. And guess what? The country's a lot more peaceful and they actually get things done. How do you think they built a massive high speed rail system, for one example? They governed, that's how. They weren't pandering to special interests or worrying about being labeled "liberals" or "soft on terror". They were investing in the future. You can do that when you're not constantly campaigning.

On that note...

4. Endless Wars. Don't think because this is #4 that it's less important to me than Avril Lavigne... I said this wasn't in order. I just don't feel like there's much I can do about this, whereas with Avril, I can just not buy her next CD and make fun of her in the meantime. But I get so overwhelmed and angry thinking about these trumped-up wars that Bush is hellbent on fighting - now he's trying to create a new Tonkin Gulf since his first excuse for war with Iran was shot down (hey, George! It's been done!) I'm sick and tired of this bullshit bloodlust. These are not necessary wars, or guess what? We wouldn't be the only ones fighting them. Oh, say what you want about "coalitions" - we dragged all of them kicking and screaming into Iraq, and now most of them have left or are in the process of doing so. Nobody's going to follow us into Iran, that's for sure. Our credibility is completely shot to shit.

It is amazing to me that some people in this country continue to think that the only way for us to solve any perceived (meaning real or not) problem we have with another country is to go to war over it. War has become our first resort, and we look for ways to justify it. It should be the other way around. If you're in a restaurant and the waiter miscalculates your bill, do you first decide to shoot him dead and then look for other things you can blame him for? That's the kind of country we've become.

5. Missing all my favorite bands in concert/ticket "brokers" (or as I like to call them, scalpers). I didn't go to a single concert this year. It wasn't for lack of trying - I just could never get a ticket. In PUFFY's case, that's because they were playing 2,500 miles away. They only seem to do each coast every other year these days. But in all other cases, it's because these jackass ticket "brokers" bought up all the tickets within the first minute they were on sale, before I could even get to the ordering process. I tried with the Foo Fighters, with Evanescence, with the Police, with Paramore, with several others. You just can't buy tickets at face value anymore.

Some people will say "well, they're only selling tickets at market price... supply and demand, man!" Bullshit. That argument only works when the supply is not so tightly controlled to drive demand, and even then only if your assumption is that the brokers are basically altruistic. They're not. They only care about making the most money possible. Ticket brokers buy up all the tickets and then only sell a few at a time, and they will even hold back tickets altogether to keep them off the market until the last possible minute. They make more money selling 10 tickets at $200 each than 20 tickets at $40 each. Their interest is not filling up the arenas; their interest is artificially inflating prices to make the most money. They're perfectly happy if an arena is half full if it means they can drive up prices to maximize their profit. Meanwhile, 5,000 or more fans might not get to see their favorite bands, though the arena can still claim a "sell-out".

It should be illegal, and it used to be. This stupid idea of deregulating everything under the sun is what broke the system. There's a reason we had those laws in the first place, and this was it. We need laws to protect us from assholes. In fact, that's really the government's most basic job, if you think about it - everything comes down to that. Not protecting us from ourselves; I know the two words can sound similar if you say them fast. Protecting us from assholes.

This is getting long, but I think I'm about done anyway. If I think of any more, I'll post 'em later.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Now This is News

Mainichi Daily News ran a story yesterday about one of the most pressing issues of our time. (Unfortunately, no English version that I could find - you'll have to take my word for it.)

Apparently, two separate customers paying for train tickets at a station in Japan were given the wrong change.

What seems to have happened is the clerk, instead of grabbing a 100 or 500 yen coin, picked up a 10 yen coin by mistake. One person's change was 180 yen too low, and another's was 480 yen too low. This is national news.

If only I could live in a country where the threshold for making the papers was so low (and where expectations were so high). Did you know that only about half the murders in New York City even make the local newspapers because there's not enough space to print the rest? And crime is down here!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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