Sunday, August 9, 2015

Why Pet Parenting Represents the Nadir of Modern American Civilization

Man and beast have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for thousands of years. Our quadripedal companions have long looked to us for sustenance whilst providing us with companionship and security. It's an arrangement that's been pretty swank for the animals (mostly dogs due to their training efficiency and degree of affection) and certainly useful for us. Somehow, though, a seemingly trivial, minor distinction has been lost in the past ten or fifteen years--one that seeks to undermine the validity of this interaction and, dare I say, to degrade and devalue our own existences. At some indeterminable point in the past two decades, animals went from being pets to family members. This might not seem problematic to you but it scares the living shit out of me because, well...

...but pets aren't people.

We live in a society where everything has to have an additional level of value--unnecessary descriptors that serve the sole purpose of seemingly elevating our own overinflated egos; nothing is simple or sacred anymore. It used to be just an apple but then somehow it had to become an organic apple (or "AW-GAH-NIC" if you're from Staten Island). I get that distinction though, especially in light of the harsh hormones and caustic chemicals that are used in food growth. You want to know what's going into the food that's going into you and that's a good thing. What's not a good thing is the added layers of distinction that accompany damn near everything nowadays.

"Organic" no longer suffices; now it has to be "locally harvested," "hand-raised," "farm-to-table," or derivative of one of the myriad, asinine dietary subcultures like vegans and paleos. The coffee you're drinking is no longer simply light or dark roasted: it's coffee from fair-trade, Ethiopian/Sumatran/Himalayan, medium-bodied, saturnine roast, hand-picked, organic, ethnically sensitive and environmentally sustainable beans. Just the thought of reading a sign with all of that bullshit written on it is making me sick.

We are a society of self-promotion. I say society and not generation because it's not the up-and-coming youth of America who are furthering this egoistic agenda but rather the goddamn adults! Think about it: people between the ages of twenty and sixty are setting the example for the next generation who are already assholes by association. It's not limited to food and coffee but is endemic in damn near everything including two of my most ardent passions: music and craft beer. EVERYONE is a music critic in his or her mind nowadays and no one stops to question whether or not they are qualified to make the bombastic claims that they do or to explore the history of the genre they're lambasting. And don't get me started on the self-aggrandizing snobbery in craft beer; beer geeks are achingly wannabe elitists.

I could write tomes about all of the different groups of people that piss me off with their narcissistic, self-serving behavior but in the interest of keeping my own level of agita to an acceptable level, I'll focus on the folks who belong in the ninth circle of hell: pet parents. I'm amazed by the rush of anger and aggravation that just rippled through me when I typed that. These people are enough to make me want to drive off a cliff or take a chance on a SpaceX trip to points unknown.

I'm sure that what I'm about to say will piss off a lot of people and I'm okay with that because getting angry is the first step towards awakening; actually feeling something real like that is akin to being detached from the Matrix and marks the beginning of a new life in some ways. Raw emotion is shunned in present-day America in favor of the endless self-esteem masturbation that you people engage in on a daily basis; therein lies the bigger issue that I hope to tackle by the end of this acerbic address.

Everything has a surfeit of superfluous nomenclature nowadays and yet there is an alarming dearth of value and meaning in these tag lines. It's painfully obvious to me that most of these descriptors exist for precisely two reasons: to make us feel like we are better than we are and to give the appearance to others that we are better than them. It terrifies me that that's really all it comes down to and yet, to me, it seems like an insurmountable obstacle to getting people to extract their heads from their asses.

We have become a people incapable of actually feeling anything because our capacities for emotion and
criticism have shriveled like an old man's prostate; we're tumbling down Maslow's pyramid at an accelerating rate and no one seems to notice or to care. People are engaged in a never-ending pursuit of praise through self-promotion, chasing the meaningless adulation from the masses that has somehow become the American lifeblood. It's funny and sad how often I hear people complaining about the fact that every kid gets a trophy just for participating (I refuse to employ the word "competing" because there is no competition involved in those attaboy/attagirl eliciting activities; competition belies a winner and a slew of losers in his or her wake, which is patently impossible when everyone walks away with an award) and yet no one seems to realize that they're engaging in the same type of behavior in their everyday lives!

The difference is superficial but achingly telling: people post things on social media to obtain likes. Likes, for crying out loud! Jesus, it's right there in front of you goddamn lemmings and none of you are willing to pull your dead, vacant gazes away from your screens to notice. You live your lives sucking at the teat of empty, insipid praise under the guise of happiness and self-fulfillment without once questioning the purpose of what you're doing or the actual retail price of the emotional satisfaction that you think you're deriving from these endeavors. Every act of self-aggrandizing is a vacuous attempt at feeling special and important in a world where less and less matters simply because you oafs have stopped paying attention to what has any actual worth. You're all oblivious to the vampiric nature of social media and the way each and every post, poke, and like sucks a little bit more of your soul and self-worth away from you, turning it into garmonbozia for the puppeteers who keep feeding you the same meaningless bullshit you all just keep lapping up like warm milk.

Remember, kids--you can't spell "meme" without "Me!"...two of them, actually. And isn't that precisely what a meme is all about? Me! Me! Look at me! Look at how clever I am! Look at how witty I am! Well aren't I ironic! Who's ironic? ME! ME!

Ahem--I digress. Everything has an extreme end to it and, to me, pet parents are the worst of the worst when it comes to the aforementioned praise-seeking bullshit. I cannot tell you how viciously I disdain these people but I can tell you why I loathe them with such vociferous ferocity: they are knowingly perpetuating the farce I outlined above and are intentionally seeking your attention. It's akin to the brightly colored advertisement on the road that says, "You just read this sign." There's no value in that act--no accomplishment to be had because it caters to our basest reflexive actions. It's akin to Kevin Durant swatting this kid's shot. Sure it counts as a block on KD's stat sheet but did he really achieve anything?

What I'm getting at is the people who shove their pet ownership in your face usually by way of bumper stickers, car magnets, and t-shirts, saying nothing of the bullshit that occurs online. Nothing infuriates me more than seeing a "Who Rescued Who?" magnet on the back of the car in front of me; it takes every ounce of willpower I have not to slam a dull, heavy object repeatedly against both vehicle and operator in those moments. This bothers me on multiple levels (the least of which is grammatically--it should be "Who Rescued Whom" but no one gives a shit about grammer or speling nemore so y should i,) and it really embodies the sentiments that represent the culture we live in.

First, here's an actual quotation I found online about that magnet:

"I really admire the bumper stickers with a paw print that states: “Who Rescued Who?” It’s so cute and powerful and to the point."

This single couplet sums up everything that is twisted and wrong about you fuckers mostly because of the sheer number of you who probably agree with him or her. I'm going to use that quotation as a jumping point for the dressing down to come.

First of all, what the fuck is admirable about that self-serving slurp-fest? I admire hard-working folks who toil away at thankless jobs to provide for their families without ever complaining. I admire people who give freely of their time to help others without ever asking for anything in return. I admire those who struggle and fail but who pick themselves back up and remain determined to achieve their goals.

You people admire others who are so emotionally empty that they seek to sate themselves with vapid, inane self-indulgence.

Trust me: there's nothing powerful about that crap. And just what in the holy hell is the point? The common answer would likely be some insipid shit like, "I was lost but Bowser (or whatever other yuppy puppy, hippy dippy, bilbo baggins bullshit name people give their pets) saved me."

Seriously--stop for a second and think about that. Let that marinate in your cranial juices for a moment. The implication is that the pet owner was emotionally lacking in his or her life and that the presence of this animal somehow saved them from that aching loneliness. Sounds innocuous enough on paper until you look back at the original statement:

"Who Rescued Who."

This is where my vitriolic fury really begins to heat up. Why can't it just be a pet like it's been for literally thousands of years? Why does it need the distinction that it's a "rescue"? And why do you have to point out your role in the transaction? (I'll answer that question in a moment--I'm on a roll so I can't stop now!)

As a literal person, I'm offended on a deeply cognitive level by the whole notion of "rescuers." Notice that I didn't say rescues and that there are quotation marks around the word I did elect to use. I can get behind the idea of rescue animals and I genuinely admire (!) the folks who elect to adopt those animals over others...to a degree. I'll type this next sentence v e r y  s l o w l y  s o   y  o  u    c  a  n    u  n  d  e  r  s  t  a  n  d    i  t:

YOU did not rescue that animal.

Phew! I can't believe how much relief that just gave me. It was so much fun I think I'll try it again!

YOU did NOT rescue that animal.

One more time for posterity!

YOU DID NOT RESCUE THAT ANIMAL!

There! I said it. (And I seriously derived a sick amount of pleasure from that.) My biggest gripe with the whole rescue thing is the fact that it is devoid of logic (or, more importantly, why it is purposely devoid of logic). That animal was actually rescued by someone other than you therefore it is physically impossible for you to be the rescuer! You're making false claims and operating under an assumed identity, which is probably illegal but most certainly should be. Shame on you for the farce!

Let's cut the bullshit out for a minute and have some real talk, shall we? Let's call it exactly what it is and then explain why this distinction is crucial and egregiously, intentionally overlooked. Unless you personally rescued an animal from a dire, life-threatening circumstance, you, yourself are not a rescuer. The fact that that animal might be put down if it wasn't adopted before a given termination date does not make you a rescuer--it makes you a pet owner. The person who emancipated the animal prior to adoption is the sole rescuer; you simply moved it from its present safe-haven into your own home. And what does that make that act?

A transaction.

Back in the day, you went to a pet store and you bought a pet. How we managed to fuck up something as simple as an exchange of cash for a product is beyond me but it has undeniably become drenched in the pathetic deluge of profligate self-gratification. Again, I respect the choice to purchase an animal that might be overlooked by most folks because, let's face it, everyone loves puppies and kittens. There also are people who genuinely elect to adopt these animals solely because they recognize that a) there's a good chance no one else will and b) that animal will subsequently be put to death.

Funny, though, that the same people who have no problem snagging the unwanted, one-eyed mongrel with a gimpy leg won't touch that bruised peach or dour-looking lettuce in the produce aisle. There's a specific reason why that's true though: there's no social currency to be gained by the latter but rather a perceived amount through the former. Think about it: no one ever boasts about buying food that's near or past "expiration" (another fallacy for another rant) and yet EVERYONE who has obtained a rescue animal vocalizes that act in one way or another; the reason for that is the crux of this entire diatribe and sits at the core of what is slowly sucking out all of our souls.

Residents of the year 2015 have an innate, insatiable need for recognition by their peers. It makes me think of Lisa Simpson during the school strike when she freaks out and screams, "Grade me...look at me...evaluate and rank me!" People are so pathetically unfulfilled that they seek the most minute modicums of approval from others and interpret that as being somehow valuable. Their lives are so empty that they have to bolster every single act that they perform by adding purported layers of meaning just to feel like they're actually doing something worthwhile and good. The problem though is that what is gained in esteem from these things is so minuscule it's almost non-existent (thus the Kevin Durant video--sure he blocked a shot but there was no challenge--no chance of failure in what he did thus stripping the act of any true meaning).

Many if not most pet owners are not content simply with having an animal companion to take care of. Instead, they flaunt the animal's past as if it were their own thereby elevating themselves, enhancing their perceived self-worth in their warped, twisted minds while simultaneously degrading and devaluing the rest of us. They believe, genuinely, that they have done something noble--courageous even!--by adopting these animals. They go so far as to refer to the animals as their children and themselves as the pets' parents...

...and that's where I draw the line.

There is a very real, necessary caveat that I have to throw out there before I press onward. I recognize and respect the fact that some couples experience difficulty in conceiving a child. For some, it's a physiological issue while for others it's simply shitty luck. Regardless, not being able to achieve something that you desperately want to while many others who are far less worthy seem awash in good fortune is a gutting thing to go through. My children represent the source of the richest happiness I enjoy in my life and it makes me ache to think of others who go through life wanting to produce offspring but for whatever reason are not able to. THESE people have a very real void that they often fill with something else--travel, hobbies, or, occasionally, pets. I can understand them treating their pets like children because, psychologically, they are balancing out their emotional needs--plugging the hole in their hearts and providing themselves with an avenue for the affection they've always had but were otherwise incapable of bestowing upon progeny.

The same could be said for couples who actually had children but who lost one or more. That must be even more emotionally excoriating and I can't even begin to fathom that pain. Nothing can ever replace that child or fill the emotional void left in its place and, if it was an only child, it might simply be too painful to have another one. That's when the empty nursery gets turned into a home office or a craft area and the perfect opportunity to adopt a pet.

The notion of pet parents--these pitiful perpetrators of vainglorious acts of mass asininity--is beyond reproach in any other case. The scariest, saddest part though is that many of these people actually have children. That's the most addling aspect to me--the fact that that filial void doesn't exist for these people and yet they still feel the need to self-aggrandize. Then again, that just speaks to the zeitgeist of social media--the emotional sweet that is slowly rotting our souls leaving behind an aching cavity and some crumbs in our facial hair.

It's become anathema simply to be a pet owner; what once was the norm is now an atavistic endeavor shunned by the masses in favor of something a little glossier. People nowadays say shit like, "my pets are my children" without ever considering the lunacy of their ludicrous proclamations. No, actually, they are not your children. Biologically speaking, do they share your D.N.A.? Did they spend time in your womb?

"Well, adopted children are still children and they don't fit those criteria," you might say and you would be right. But the difference is that those adopted human children count as dependents on your taxes, must engage in some sort of compulsory education, and, most importantly, they will someday (potentially) join society by gaining employment, moving out, and beginning their own families.

You're so hellbent on proving that your pets are your children? Fine. Let them tend to your needs when you're an invalid.

The one overarching reason why pets can never be your children is this: you can walk into any pet store and buy a replacement if yours gets flattened by a moving van or dies of old age at fifteen. All it takes is cash or credit to have your very own Snowball II or Santa's Little Helper the Second.

The saddest part of all of this is that there are many, many children who would benefit from adoption. These kids would enjoy a very real rescuing from the foster-care system and would provide far more emotional fulfillment than a pet; the problem is that they require more out of you in every way possible. And isn't that the central issue in all of this? People don't want to be challenged anymore: they want the most amount of reward for the least amount of effort and commitment. No one wants to earn anything and in-so-doing they are losing everything there is to be gained through the process; they want the physique without the aching muscles.

People will take whatever ego stroking they can get whether it's Facebook likes or nods of approval and adulation for their saccharine car magnets. They would rather portray themselves as valiant heroes and heroines worthy of your praise for essentially buying an animal. It makes me sick and it leaves me wondering what the hell is next in this cesspool of absurdity--our throwaway culture that overvalues the most evanescent moments of panegyrical praise while turning a blind eye to the ugly emptiness in their own hearts and the fact that they simply aren't as important as they've been made to feel.

It's only a matter of time before adopted children start being referred to as rescues; by then, will we all be beyond saving?




Thursday, July 9, 2015

Asininity or the American Obsession with Fireworks

Professionally prepared and launched fireworks displays bear a certain mystical aura that resonates with the very core of our American identity: the majestic sights and sounds of light exploding in the twilit sky hearken back to the unrest and conflict that led to the birth of our great nation. The sensory overload that accompanies such a display evokes deep rooted emotions that are indelibly linked to our national anthem, which, unsurprisingly, often serves as the sonic backdrop for fireworks shows along with other patriotic tunes. Such shows are at once awe-inspiring and enthralling, captivating onlookers with their dazzling demonstrations of vibrant variegation and thunderous din.

Small scale fireworks, however, are fucking asinine.

Since I was a kid, I've been unable to understand the allure of fireworks for people. To me, the appeal must be to the most basic, primal pleasure portions of the brain favored only by the heaviest of mouth-breathers and knuckle-draggers. Most fireworks simply make a loud noise and an evanescent burst of light--both of which could be easily attained, say, by dropping pots and pans onto the floor from some height or rapidly flipping a light switch on and off. Ironically, I feel like people who are entertained by small scale fireworks would be equally enraptured with the aforementioned pastimes.

Maybe it's the danger aspect of it that gets people going. Sure you might wind up with sore toes dropping the pans but there's no real risk of losing any digits nor is there a true chance of suffering debilitating burns by the intense heat of an exploding firework when one diddles a light switch. People knowingly endanger themselves for some sort of cheap thrill all the time (B.A.S.E. jumping or running with the bulls for example) and though I understand that and can even appreciate it to a certain extent, when it comes to fireworks I just can't wrap my mind around the derivation of enjoyment. I guess it's the same thing with riding really loud motorcycles but at least with that the rides often look awesome and you're doing something marginally productive.

Nearly everyone I know has had a close call with fireworks or has suffered some sort of injury as a result of mishandling them. When I was little, someone shot off a bottle rocket from our yard and it went through my great aunt's window across the street and lodged in the back of her television set; it didn't explode until it was in the TV. Perhaps you can piece together why that would be a problem (unless you're a fan of fireworks in which case please continue staring at your feet in wonder). Fireworks lead to property damage and utterly gruesome injuries but offer little in the way of offsetting positivity.

Poor judgment leads to most of the negative situations people find themselves in when it comes to fireworks--something that has an alarmingly high occurrence rate. Case in point, barely a week ago on the Fourth I was sitting on the beach with my 10 month old son playing in a small pool of water as the tide rolled in when three teenage boys came walking towards us. One kept playing with a lighter and eventually set off a small firecracker when they were still some distance off. My wife urged me to scoop up our son and bring him over to her but I wanted to give the kids the benefit of the doubt thinking foolishly that they would exercise at least a modicum of sound judgment; they did not. As they approached the other end of the small pool of water that I sat in with my son, the same kid lit another firework and dropped it into the water presumably to see if it would explode and make a splash.

Take a second to let that sink in: twenty feet from a ten month old child this kid dropped a lit firecracker into a pool of water to see what would happen.

Saying nothing of the fact that this genetic defect could have dropped it, oh, I don't know, into the fucking ocean that was right behind him where no one happened to be swimming, this kid thought absolutely nothing about the fact that he was lighting what is essentially a highly explosive device within feet of an infant. One might be tempted to chalk it up to his age and immaturity but I won't. Teenagers often exercise a disconcerting lack of judgement but when it comes to fireworks adults are just as bad if not worse. Teens and toddlers both exist in this id-driven, myopic state so in a sense I wouldn't expect the kid to have utilized what common sense he had available to him...but it didn't stop me from lighting him up for endangering me and my kid.


Many people seem incapable of understanding that the risk associated with fireworks simply isn't worth it, including, apparently, an alarming number of professional athletes. Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants had a finger amputated along with suffering several severe injuries as a result of a fireworks accident over the weekend. Not to be outdone, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cornerback C.J. Wilson lost two fingers in his respective incident.

Whether or not the loss of the phalanges will impact their careers remains to be seen but I can't help but wonder why anyone would waste their time with such an inordinate amount of risk for such a disproportionate amount of pleasure or entertainment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LeBron's Legacy

I am a nearly lifelong, diehard Miami Heat fan and I couldn't be happier for LeBron James this morning. Though I'd undeniably prefer to be rooting for my favorite team in the NBA Finals, I'm content to root for LeBron and will be pulling hard for him to bring a title to Cleveland. In a perverse way, it's almost better that it's the Cavs and not the Heat vying for this year's title; the response to LeBron's departure by a number of Heat fans was not only inexcusable but mortifying as well. The behavior exhibited by a slew of South Beach knuckleheads served only to worsen the opinion of the general public towards a fan base that's already derided for being fair weather and only cursorily interested in their team's games. Way to go, clowns.

My rooting for LeBron in no way lessens my Heat loyalty; if anything, it is deepening the respect that I have for one of sports' most polarizing figures. I wasn't a LeBron fan during his first stint in Cleveland but I didn't hold his reputation against him either. He was thrilling to watch but there was nothing in his game or his mien that made me want to include him in my very small group of favorite athletes.

Truth-be-told, when he announced with the Decision I was initially more excited by the fact that he wasn't going to the Knicks than I was with the fact that he signed with the Heat. I had zero expectations in terms of what sort of impact he would have on my all-time favorite sports franchise but the disappointment that his selection rendered in Knicks fans brought me almost as much joy as a championship. The New York Knicks have the single most schizophrenic fan base in all of sports: they are at once fair weather (the Garden is a ghost town when the Knicks are irrelevant) but incredibly pompous and high-flown in their opinion of their preferred team. Basically, they have the overblown self-confidence of Yankees fans only with about 1/14th the number of titles.

See, people seem to forget that about the Knicks: they're as mediocre as they get when it comes to sports franchises. I constantly hear the Garden referenced as "The Mecca" of sports. Really? If so then it's for a) events unrelated to the Knicks or b) events that happened to the Knicks (remember that season where LeBron and Kobe each dropped 50+ on them? Mecca indeed). As referenced in a post from a few years ago, the Knicks, Rangers, and Mets are almost exactly even across the board in terms of championships, championship round appearances, overall records, number of winning seasons, and number of playoff seasons. The Mets are the laughable, loveable losers of the sports world and the Knicks with nearly identical statistics are somehow the creme de la creme of franchises? Give me a break.

Thus LeBron's flight to Miami. It was a humbling moment for the Knicks and their fans--the first in a number of much needed doses of reality. It was a huge, "Thanks but no thanks moment"--and the first since Pat Riley's departure nearly a decade and a half earlier. Of course, in true Knicks fashion, they wind up getting Carmelo Anthony midway through the 2010-2011 season and Knicks fans rejoiced. Using their superpowers of delusion they managed to convince themselves somehow that 'Melo was just as good--no, wait--even BETTER than LeBron and that he was their ticket to Title Town.

How's that working out for you guys?

The differences between LeBron and Carmelo are legion but the only one that matters is this: LeBron has a sense of where he came from and players like 'Melo don't. Sure Carmelo "grew up" in New York (he spent his first eight years here before actually growing up in Baltimore) but he didn't re-sign with the Knicks to bring a championship to a title starved city--he did it to line the Carmelo coffers. Sure he could've bolted to another city that would give him a much better chance to win...but he didn't. Instead, he took more cash while simultaneously using the opportunity to run a ruse on Knicks fans. Ironically, the fact that he all but ensured that he wouldn't be winning proved to be a win-win for him: he got the most money he could AND he was able to avoid taking a public heat by returning to the Knicks.

Classic 'Melo.

I bring all of this up not to rub salt into the wounds but rather to provide a counterpoint to LeBron's experience. LeBron did exactly what Carmelo Anthony didn't have the stones or the ambition to: he chased championships instead of money and exposed himself to the most heated hatred perhaps ever levied upon a professional athlete. That's not to say that LeBron wasn't compensated for that decision but more to highlight the fact that, for all that he gained, something was indelibly lost in the process--something that money and even titles couldn't buy.

I remember going to the bagel store last year while wearing my White Hot Heat LeBron jersey. The guy behind the counter asked me if I thought that LeBron was going to leave Miami to go to Cleveland. I scoffed at the idea and said that if he wanted more titles that he'd be crazy to do so, asserting that he would stay in Miami at least until his contract was up and then potentially re-sign for a year or two before going back to Cleveland; I was wrong on both counts. What I underestimated was how much value he placed on what was lost--that ineffable sense of self that would forever be tied up in the wine and gold of the Cavaliers and not the similar but undeniably different shades of the Heat.

When LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh got on stage shortly after The Decision and pranced around like it was a rock show, I realized that something big was happening. After a lifetime of disappointment as a sports fan, I felt the nascent stirrings of excitement and, worse, hope beginning to build. I was 3 when the Mets won the title in '86, I endured all of those awful losses to the Knicks as a Heat fan and the Giants as a Vikings fan in the '90s and early '00s, I watched John Kasay kick the Panthers' chance of a Super Bowl victory literally out of bounds, and I watched Brett Favre literally throw the Vikings' chance of a Super Bowl berth into the hands of Tracy Porter. The lone meaningful championships came in '06 when the Heat beat the Mavericks and in '07 when the Ducks beat Ottawa but I was on a road trip and missed the Miami victory and didn't manage to watch most of the Ducks' victories as I was gearing up for my wedding in 2007. If LeBron managed to make good on his promise then this would shape up to be something special.

During that first season in Miami, I experienced a lot of theretofore unknown things as a sports fans--things that became apparent rather quickly. I became a Heat fan because of the Knicks (when I was little I had read about Muggsy Bogues in some magazine and I happened to be the same height as him. It sparked my hoop dreams and gave me hope that if he could make it in the league then perhaps someday I could too. It caused me to root for the Hornets for a few years. They made the playoffs with high expectations only to be taken down by the Knicks. My heart had been ripped out of my chest and I vowed that whoever played the Knicks next would have my undying support. It wound up being Miami and the rest is history) and I suffered most of my most agonizing moments as a sports fan because of them (::cough:: Allan Houston ::cough::).

I was never really paid any mind for being a Miami fan in Brooklyn because the Knicks were still relevant and the Heat basically weren't; we were the kid brother trying to be admired to the same degree as our big brother. No one ever really talked about Miami and most people, if anything, were bemused or confused by my fandom. As a result (and outside of the few epic playoffs clashes between the Heat and Knicks), I never really dealt with taking any flak from people for being a Heat fan.

That all changed in 2010.

All of a sudden, EVERYONE had an opinion on the Heat. Suddenly there were bandwagon fans everywhere rocking gear that, to that point, I saw only myself wearing. On the flip side, there were people who vehemently hated not just LeBron but the Heat as well. Conversations abounded that were constantly putting me on the defensive; suddenly, I felt like I was on trial simply for rooting for my favorite sports franchise. It pissed me off that I was thought to be another newfound fan when, for all intents and purposes, they were the first team that I really genuinely thought of as "my team"--a moment that came almost fifteen years before LeBron's arrival.

As pathetic as it sounds, I willingly lost friendships over the vitriol that spewed forth locally from jealous Knicks fans who were at once spurned and out for blood. They didn't just want LeBron to fail but Miami as a whole. Suddenly the Knicks' dominance over the Heat from the late '90s was everywhere as the scabs from the Pat Riley-inflicted wounds were picked off. Every misstep by Miami was mocked--every failure put on display. Friends that never spoke a word to me about Miami were riding me over every little thing and, unsurprisingly, few had the maturity to handle my retorts (Knicks fans are notoriously soft-skinned in that regard). I drew a line in the sand and prepared for all that was to come.

All of the hatred served only to solidify further my connection to and appreciation for the Heat. Basketball has always been my outlet--the court my safe-haven. There were some years where rooting for Miami got me through some awful times, as pathetic as that is. There's an inexplicable bond that I have both with the sport of basketball and Miami as a team that will not only never be broken--it will serve always to define me. I was an outsider in my own hometown--a situation that I've faced and felt in many other aspects of my life as well. With this circumstance though there was the chance of a positive, fulfilling outcome: a championship and all that came with it.

The hate worsened throughout the 2010-2011 season and I dug my heels in. I still wasn't a LeBron fan but seeing all of the absolutely mind-blowing level of contempt that even the most casual sports follower had for him made me want to root for him. I was obviously thrilled when they made the Finals that year but part of me wasn't entirely unhappy that they lost; LeBron's cocksure attitude made it hard for me to root for him. His words made it seem like he felt not just entitled to a championship but that it would be hand-delivered to him. I didn't appreciate that as a Heat fan--not with all of the work Dwyane Wade had put in through the years--the ups and downs that he endured. I knew that he "got it" but LeBron? I wasn't so sure.

The ensuing two seasons are the ones that ultimately sold me on LeBron. What he did and how he changed not only his game but his entire mental attitude made me root for him big time. I was elated when they won the first one because it finally silenced the haters and then the second one managed finally to quell the talk about legacy. I thought for sure that they would get the three peat but they didn't and I think fate had a lot to do with that.

Professional wrestling offers the best analogue to what LeBron experienced. There are the good guys (faces) and the bad guys (heels). Which performers fall into which category is obviously scripted but there's an undeniable personal element to the level of success they attain in their given roles. Essentially, certain guys are born to be bad while others will never be as popular as when they're the good guy. I think of Bret Hart and the Rock as two guys who could jump the fence on a moment's notice--effortlessly going from the people's champion to the villain and back. Others, however, are incapable of doing so: they thrive in one role but simply can't handle the other.

LeBron James is one of those guys.

I noticed it during his second season with the Heat. It was obvious not just that he didn't anticipate the level of venom that would be directed at him following the Decision but that he wasn't prepared to handle it. He tried to embrace his role as a villain but it just wasn't him--it didn't fit. Sure he absolutely destroyed opposing teams but that's because he took as constructive approach as possible to solving the situation. He used the negativity as motivation to get better figuring that, by improving, he would silence his critics with his play. Essentially, that's exactly what happened but it was clear by the end of the 2012-2013 season that LeBron simply wasn't comfortable or as happy as he thought he would be: he had gotten what he wanted in the titles but it wasn't everything he thought it would be. Something was missing and it wasn't until last year that he seemingly figured it out.

He needed to win a title back home.

I'm a big believer in soul mates--the idea of "the one." I'm fortunate to feel like I have found mine and I know what such a bond and a relationship means; it's indescribable to anyone else who hasn't experienced it. In part though it makes everything that you do that much better--all of the positive moments that much sweeter. For LeBron, his soul is in Cleveland. He thought that he wanted the legacy--the chance to win not five, not six, not seven championships--but what he really wanted was to do that for his city--something that Miami would never be. South Beach is the place that Wade built and it will forever belong to #3; in order for LeBron to etch out his own immortality, he would have to head back to Northeast Ohio.

And so, last year, when he released the letter saying that he was going home I was stunned and stung but not angry. I felt hurt as a Heat fan; it was as if I had just been broken up with, asking and wondering what went wrong--what was it about me that wasn't good enough for him anymore. But then I realized that it had nothing to do with the Heat or the city of Miami; it was always about Cleveland.

Legacy has a lot to do with it too. I'm sure LeBron wants to be considered the best ever but that's an unwinnable argument. For one, there is no surefire, clear-cut winner in that department. Essentially, it all comes down to what criteria you're using: if it's number of championships then Bill Russell is the greatest of all time--if it's points scored then it's Kareem. Those two rarely come up in the conversation of the best ever though so there must be some other definable quality that makes a player "the best." I think that dominance has a lot to do with it but it's not the endgame either. Wilt was the most dominant player of all time but the competition wasn't up to his level both figuratively and anatomically and so that hurts him. Shaq, by comparison, was the biggest guy on the court pretty much all the time and he won four titles with two different teams including three in a row with the Lakers...but he had "help," which, again, hurts his claim. I would argue that he was the most dominant player on his team but he had Kobe and later Dwyane Wade backing him up.

We've got a few ingredients laid out with utter certainty though: in order to be the absolute greatest of all time you have to be dominant, statistically exclusive, and have championships. I think that the solution to the rings argument is simply that a player has to have, among several other things, an above average number of titles. I'd say at least three but probably four to be considered for GOAT status. Jordan is the one that everyone seems to judge others by and his number is six. Kobe has five and so does Duncan so they're close but not close enough for most. The thing with MJ though is that his greatness transcends his dominance, his statistics, and his championships. Michael Jordan never made it to a fourth consecutive Finals but that's because he retired twice after the three peats; who knows what would have happened had he stayed for those two middle seasons?

To me, and many others, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game. He was the most dominant player of his time (think about how many other phenomenal all-time greats failed to win a title because of MJ!) going to six NBA Finals, winning all six NBA titles, and being awarded all six NBA Finals MVPs. Yes Russell won more championships (eleven in total including eight straight) but he did so at a time when the competition, again, wasn't up to snuff. Jordan is at or near the top of many offensive statistical categories and was an impressive defender in his own right. Sure Wilt and Oscar Robertson had better career stats but there is an intangible aspect to MJ that puts him head and shoulders above them. To me, THAT'S the defining quality of the Greatest of All Time: legacy.

Michael Jordan's legacy is unsurpassed in all of sports. He became the face of his sport and helped it to transcend globally. He's arguably the single most recognizable figure in the history of sports (I'd wager that more people from other countries would recognize Jordan as the Jordan logo than they would Jerry West as the NBA logo). He engendered interest in basketball on an incomprehensible level and spawned entire generations of future hall of famers simply because of his own renown (LeBron being included among them). Michael Jordan is synonymous with basketball the way that Wayne Gretzky is with hockey and Pele with soccer; those guys aren't merely the faces of their respective sports--they are the embodiments of them.

And so on to LeBron's legacy. His dominance is beginning to reach Jordanian levels. He's going to his fifth consecutive NBA Finals and in the process has prevented a number of future all-time-greats from getting rings while owning particularly successful franchises in the process (the Bulls and the Pacers among them). He's a far more diversely skilled player than Jordan was combining Michael's scoring prowess with Magic's passing ability and possibly surpassing Wilt's defensive capabilities. He can play and can defend all five positions on the floor at an elite level--something that very few players can claim and something that, I believe, Michael Jordan cannot. A win this season would give him what I consider an above average number of championships but it would be this one that I believe will define him.

See, right now, he's the John Elway of basketball. Elway went 2-3 in five Super Bowls--LeBron is presently 2-3 in five NBA Finals appearances. Michael Jordan and Joe Montana line up and, naturally, are considered the respective bests in their sports (Montana won four Super Bowls with three Super Bowl MVPs) but the ones that Elway won meant more. If Elway's titles came at the beginning of his career a la Tom Brady then they wouldn't have meant nearly as much. He and the city of Denver suffered collectively for them finally winning them back to back before Elway marched off into the sunset; LeBron is now trying to do the same for his hometown.

It's easy to overestimate the importance of sports (after all--we refer to athletes as warriors and the sports arena as war when they are both anything but) but its importance shouldn't be devalued either. I can speak first hand about what it meant for "my team" to win it all. Oddly enough, LeBron's years in Miami coincided with the best years thus far of my personal life and I associate so many good memories with what was going on in basketball at the time. I watched the Heat win their second title but LeBron's first in 2012 and then, early the next afternoon, I went with my wife to close on our first house. The very next year I sat outside in our yard with a glass of Jack in my hand at 3:30 in the morning too amped up to sleep celebrating the second title back-to-back. And though they didn't win it all last year, I enjoyed an early Father's Day present when I flew down to Miami for Game 3 of the Finals; it was the first time in my life I got to root for my favorite team in an environment where the support was almost unanimously geared towards them.

I remember all of those things that happened around the time of the championships but I also remember exactly how it felt; it's one of those things that I'll hopefully someday tell my grandkids about. It was an exhilarating concoction of excitement and vindication--pride and giddy glee. I'll never forgot how much it meant to me--how much it still means today--and because of that fact I understood why LeBron decided to return home. It's also why I didn't fault him for a second and why I was so livid and disappointed in the Heat fans who were burning his jersey and t-shirts. There is exactly one thing that Miami Heat fans should be towards LeBron James and it's appreciative. The four years that we had with him on our team are likely the best we'll ever enjoy. He didn't rip our collective hearts out like he did with Cleveland and he didn't fail us in his quest for a championship--quite the opposite, in fact. Because of him we were thrust into the limelight for nearly a half decade--a perpetual ride of attention and conjecture. There's also the four consecutive Finals' berths and two titles back-to-back. You don't burn that man's jersey--you hang it on your wall if you're a Heat fan.

Knowing how much those four years meant to me, I can only imagine how much more it would mean to the people of Cleveland for LeBron to win them a title. LeBron certainly understands it though because he is one of them. Being a Heat fan transcended the sports arena and entered my personal life--hell, it helped to form my very identity. My first-born son is named after my all-time favorite Heat player and my third born will be having a Miami Heat birthday party when he turns one later this summer. I bought my daughter a pink Heat jersey at Game 3 of the Finals that she wears with pride often for days on end. It doesn't matter to her that Miami isn't playing right now: she's just excited to root for her "Hot Hot Heat."

It's all about legacy. I hope that my kids will be lifelong Heat fans but I won't stand in their respective ways of rooting for whatever teams capture their hearts. My oldest son is still a Heat fan but he's a LeBron fan first. He hounded me for months to buy him a Cavs jersey beginning almost immediately after LeBron announced he was going home. He was bummed at first that he left the Heat but, in his mind, there was only one thing to do: cheer for the Cavs.

And that's what I'm doing too. I'll never consider myself a Cleveland Cavaliers fan but I'm "All In" for #23.

Thanks for the memories in Miami, LeBron, and good luck in the Finals.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Band Evolution Versus A Complete Departure In Sound

I've heard some people say that you should never listen to a band beyond their third album.  Fortunately, I rarely follow absolutes and have seen many instances of bands hitting their stride later in their careers.  Many if not most modern bands wind up being one hit wonders with either a smash hit single or, if they're lucky, an album rife with solid material; it is when they release their sophomore efforts that they begin to fade slowly into the ether (The Calling and Crossfade are two great examples).  Some manage to repeat their success and have either a remunerative followup or simply sustained support with a string of solid singles later on (The Wallflowers, Goo Goo Dolls, and Vertical Horizon).  Fewer, of course, are those who write an unforgettable album--one that assures them a spot in music history--but who fail to find that magic a second time (Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral" is one of the most amazing albums ever written but, despite Trent Reznor's musical brilliance, he's failed to write anything remotely comparable to that opus).  Fewest are the bands who craft not simply a great album but a legendary one and who go on to duplicate that fame and fortune later in their careers.

Bands who manage to create a sustainable writing career often do so with a particular sound--something that they are recognized for instantly and that serves to define them.  They become the best at what they do, which ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword: they grow to be inextricably linked with a particular genre and set themselves up for failure should they try to break free of those classifications.  Some manage to find success by working within the confines of their genre but many others struggle to break free, often to their own detriment.

There are numerous instances of bands with an identifiable sound resorting to a formulaic approach.  To an extent, every album sounds the same and there is little evidence of the band pushing musical boundaries.  Nickelback is arguably the best example of this approach.  It's not unreasonable to declare that every Nickelback album sounds the same because, essentially, they all do.  There are a few heavier tracks, the requisite (see: money making) ballads, an oddball acoustic track here or there, and a slew of filler.  Of course, the Nickelback sound is not limited to the actual music but the lyrics as well.  Nearly every song is about sex or is sexualized to some degree and few if any have any remotely memorable quality to them.  That is not to say that the songs and their words are not catchy just that there is nothing redeemable about them.  On the contrary, it's Nickelback's infectious sound that has generated the insane level of success that they have enjoyed over the past decade.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are bands who suffer from musical A.D.D..  Their sound is mercurial at best, shifting constantly either from one song or one album to the next.  Weezer is emblematic of this approach but in their case it works to their advantage; Rivers Cuomo's inability to sit still, musically, is part of what Weezer fans love about the music.  The problem with this approach, consequently, is that there is no rhyme or reason to the albums and thus no stability.  Fans of these bands rarely if ever know what they are going to get and many often lose patience and interest in the long run.

Arguably the most successful and interesting bands are those who will dabble within the parameters of a particular style, branch off to something different but still related, and ultimately make a return to the sound that made them famous, putting a new spin on it that only years of experience and experimentation can provide.  The first band that jumps to mind that fits this description is Metallica.  The metal mogul's first few albums were quintessential thrash, even following a particular formula (e.g. the mega-hit, the Em based song, and the instrumental track).  There was an evolution of sorts towards a cleaner, more listener-friendly sound that culminated with The Black Album.  From there, though, things got a little bumpy with the release of Load, ReLoad, and then St. Anger.  These three albums serve as the experimental members of the Metallica canon, causing derision and division among longtime fans of the band.  A return to form with Death Magnetic gave the sleeping giant new life as the much anticipated followup album looms in the distance.

Part of what rubbed people raw about the aforementioned Load and ReLoad is the fact that both seemed like a huge departure from the sound that made Metallica famous.  As a music fan and musician myself, I find this point highly salient and love contemplating the question that it engenders: when does a band's evolution become a complete departure in sound?  For me, I would say that the answer lies in the motivation behind the change and in the execution.  Many rock bands are releasing albums that are heavily influenced by electronic sounds and are incorporating elements of styles like Dubstep.  Again, for me, this seems more like a pathetic effort to stay relevant and to cash in on a current trend rather than a form of evolution for the band.  That's not to say that there aren't instances of brilliance but rather that most do not seem to jive with the band's identity to that point.

Evolution, of course, is a slippery slope when it comes to music.  I cannot say with any degree of certainty where evolution ends and experimentation begins; it is something that needs to be determined by the individual listener.  I find bands like Incubus and Linkin Park to be excellent examples of evolution gone awry.  With regards to the former, most fans who encountered Incubus with their album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. have hated everything since because of how different the sound is.  Ordinarily, that would represent less of an evolution and more of the aforementioned departure but in this case I think it's a little more nuanced than that.  Incubus was heavily influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, having gained confidence in themselves from the commercial viability of S.C.I.E.N.C.E., they wanted to establish themselves in their own right rather than being labeled an R.H.C.P. ripoff. 

What followed were four of my favorite albums and the core of the Incubus canon.  Make Yourself was phenomenal and is an album that demonstrates extensive musicianship despite being written off as another piece of nu-metal garbage.  Morning View, the followup to Make Yourself, is one of if not the greatest album I've ever heard and is a clear evolution from its predecessor.  A Crow Left of the Murder and Light Grenades, in turn, are easily linkable to the other two albums despite showing considerable changes in sound.  There are fewer heavier tracks on the later albums but the complexity of the arrangements improved to an impressive degree. 

I absolutely abhor the latest album but many feel like it is yet another step forward.  I felt like the lyrics were insipid and that the music was uninspired.  To me, the heavy aspect of the music is part of what made Incubus great and to see it replaced with mellower, almost muzakian elements saddens me.  Still, as I see it, the band made one left turn after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and has followed a relatively straight path since then without playing it too safe.

As someone whose introduction to Incubus came after S.C.I.E.N.C.E., I have an easier time appreciating all of the albums than someone who began with it.  An extremely latecomer to the world of Slipknot (I first became familiar with them in 2012), I have a similar appreciation for their body of work and can see a clear progression from their inimitable self-titled debut and their most recent effort.  Fans of the Slipknot and Iowa albums, though, often hold Vol. 3 and All Hope in Gone in disdain because of a lack of edge and aggression.  I see them both as being the pinnacle of their musicianship despite the aforementioned beginning efforts serving as their defining works.  So perhaps when you encounter a band might also influence the conclusion of evolution versus exploitation.

I can think of no better example of that exploitation argument than Linkin Park.  I was a huge LP fan when they came out and was with them right up until A Thousand Suns came out.  The first two albums were amazing and incredibly similar.  Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a rap rock band, Linkin Park then shifted towards a more mainstream rock sound with Minutes to Midnight.  For me, the focus on the musical instruments and the move away from the rap-centric tracks represented an evolution; the guys seemed to have grown as musicians.  The problem came with the fourth album, A Thousand Suns.

Experimental at best, A Thousand Suns took a long time to grow on me.  I can now appreciate it as an excellent album in its own right but I have a difficult time accepting it as part of the Linkin Park canon.  It sounds like nothing else that they've done and it just doesn't seem to fit among the collective of their work.  Thus the problem with that complete departure in sound.  See, I feel like an album like A Thousand Suns would fit in the canon if it was portrayed as being an intentional experiment--an album in its own right but one that was meant to serve as a pet project for the members rather than the next link on the album chain.  I can see a sort of bond between their most recent release, Living Things, and the first three albums but still do not feel like there is any relationship with A Thousand Suns. 

The band risks further alienating its fan base--one that is clamoring for a return to form of sorts--with its next release.  To date, Linkin Park has released two rap rock albums, one rock album, one ethereal experimental album, and one electronic album.  There is little relationship between the later works and the earlier ones and, frankly, it feels like the band is losing sight of who and what they really are.  That's the danger with too much experimentation within the brand of the band.

When a band is known for a very particular sound it can become extremely difficult to produce something new that doesn't sound stale and contrived.  Green Day became legends with the release of Dookie in the early '90s.  The problem for them was that they tried to stick to the pop punk formula without ever really hitting it big within the genre.  It wasn't until they released arguably their most prolific hit, "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" that the opportunity for evolution presented itself.  Suddenly, this high-energy punk band was known worldwide because of an acoustic guitar-based track (much like Plain White Ts with "Hey There Delilah" of recent fame).  They tried the Dookie formula one more time before drafting their magnum opus, American Idiot, in 2004.

Touching upon my initial point, that's precisely why you cannot give up on a band you love, even when it seems like all hope is lost.  Their legendary status solidifying album was their third but their best work to date didn't come until their seventh record.  And how did they follow that up?  With one of the most ingenious moves in music history: they released an even more different-sounding album under a fake name.  This deflected the insane level of expectation that American Idiot generated and allowed the band to write another phenomenal album (though one that I admittedly dislike).  Rocking the boat one more time, they followed THAT up with three record releases in a single year.  Granted, none of the triad was particularly good but it shows that the band is not content to rest on their laurels.

And then there are the Foo Fighters.  Easily my favorite band of all time, the Foos are fronted by one of the most brilliant musical minds we've ever seen.  How do you follow the demise of one of the most beloved, successful bands of all-time?  You go out and do your own thing.  The honesty of the first Foo Fighters album showed that Dave Grohl was not content to cash in on the fame of his previous band but was intent instead on blazing a new trail for himself.

Here's the great thing about the Foo Fighters: they have an instantly identifiable sound but one that is not easy to define.  I can hear a single note and know that it's from a Foo Fighters album and, in some cases, if it's a b-side, know which album it was connected to.  The band's sophomore album featured numerous tracks of which any single one could have made their career and was followed up by two more excellent albums.  The danger at that point though was releasing another record like numbers three or four.  Instead, what followed was the best example of musical evolution I've ever encountered.

After penning There Is Nothing Left To Lose and its mega hit "Times Like These," Dave Grohl decided to flex his musical muscles and to demonstrate both his and his band members' instrumental prowess.  The band released In Your Honor, a gargantuan album almost unrivaled in its scope.  One disc was electric-based, heavy, uptempo rock while the second featured stripped down, sparer acoustic tracks, exclusively.  The collective serves to define who the Foo Fighters are with each disc standing alone as its own incredible album.

On the heels of In Your Honor came Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace--a sleek, slick studio effort that produced some of the band's most popular songs.  Not content to craft another polished record despite its success, Dave Grohl and company then went to work on the quintessential, career-defining album Wasting Light.  Recorded analog instead of digitally, in a garage instead of a multimillion dollar studio, this album stands as the band's crowning achievement.  Heavy, soft, complex, catchy, it has all of the elements of the perfect album...and the scary part is, when the Foos finally lay down their instruments for good, it might not even prove to be their best.

And that's just it.  You can never count a band out no matter what changes they make if it's a part of their evolution.  The ones who try to ride on the coattails of current trends will ultimately fail if that's the only thing that they do; it's those who draw from those experiences in an effort to sharpen their definition further that will ultimately succeed.  The best bands, then, have an easily identifiable sound--one that varies but never completely changes as they move forward through their careers--and an insatiable desire to push themselves to new musical heights without selling out to the lowest popular denominator.  They release extremely different music as EPs or side projects without tainting their legacy.  And, ultimately, they find their way back to who they are if ever they lose sight along the way.


Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Incubus, Slipknot

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Story Of Echo

Echo at the Manitoba Welcome Center up the road
from the Canadian border

One of my favorite experiences as a kid was going on road trips with my parents; few things excited me as much as the prospect of seeing a new state welcome sign.  Part of it was the fact that visiting a new state felt akin to stepping foot on foreign soil--embarking upon a journey to a new world.  I mean, to a seven year old, Virginia or Maine might as well be halfway around the globe!

Through my adolescence, I often dreamed about the trips that I would go on when the freedom of adulthood would finally wrest me from the bondage of high school.  The cross country road trip always held a special allure, reaching Colorado in particular partially because it was something my father had done before I was born.  There was just something invigorating about the idea of having nothing but open road ahead of and behind me while I cruised towards whatever destination lie in wait.

Sometimes, the realization of our dreams leaves us wanting--aching for the expectant anticipation rather than the underwhelming realities we experience as adults.  In a few rare instances though the actuality of that attainment far surpasses anything we could have dared to imagine.  Looking back on all of the journeys that I have been blessed to have undertaken, I can only smile and be thankful that the latter proved to be the case time and time again.  Each of those trips had its own identity and none would have been the same without the woman sitting across from me and the car that we drove in.


This is the story of our 2001 Toyota Echo.

At first glance, she might not seem like much.  An atypical shade of blue (supposedly "sea foam blue," which, to this day I argue makes no sense whatsoever!  I've always heard sea foam green but, apparently Google agrees with the paint namers since there are more results for sea foam blue than green.  Whatever!), the Echo served for years as the stalwart sentry of the entry level economy market for Toyota.  Thusly priced, named, and colored, it would prove to be the ideal car for my wife as she graduated from high school.

I can still remember hearing people talk about Heather zipping along in "that little blue car of hers" early in our relationship.  Separated by the Verrazano Bridge, we spent a fair amount of time traveling between Staten Island and Brooklyn in Heather's first and only car.  It was the site of long talks and daydreaming sessions, of late night, after-movie snacks, and of course the requisite amount of making out.

During those early years, Heather and I would often go driving aimlessly around at night, happy just to be spending time together and to be away from our respective situations.  It reminded me of nights spent in "the van" with my best friends towards the end of high school.  Though that was a brotherhood in its own right, there was undoubtedly a relationship of sorts being fostered between Heather, her car, and me.  Then in my early twenties, I once more enjoyed the thrill of exploration as I learned the lay of the land in Staten Island, sharing in Heather's history when we visited certain places and forging our own as we encountered things neither of us had ever seen before (like the lighthouse and the South Pole on Staten Island).

One day during a petty argument, I took out the Starburst that I had been chewing and placed it on the outside of the windshield while Heather was driving.  I don't remember the exact context of the moment but I will never forget the vehemence in Heather's demand that I take it off and the obvious hurt that I had caused her by essentially defacing a part of her.  Until that point, I hadn't realized just how much her Toyota Echo had meant to her and it was only then that I began thinking of how integral a role the car was beginning to play in our lives.  I had gone to visit Heather a handful of times in Staten Island but anytime she came to Brooklyn, either to pick me up or to drop me off, it was in that car.  In a sense, it was what literally and figuratively brought us closer together.

It wasn't until 2005 that my relationship with Echo began.  As graduation loomed on the horizon, Heather and I discussed a number of trips that we wanted to take together in the future.  Ultimately, we decided that since I had never been to Florida before and that she loved Disney World as much as she did, that we would head down there following our commencement from Baruch.  Now, though I had taken driver's ed in high school and spent some time practicing with my Dad, I ultimately never went for my license. With the road trip of my dreams dancing tantalizingly close, I decided that I would freshen up my driving skills and go for my license so that I could partake in the driving.  To that point, Heather had done nearly all if not all of the driving for us including a day trip (!) to Niagara Falls that took nearly 22 hours round trip.

Though I learned the mechanics of driving from both my coursework in school and from my Dad, it was through my experience with Echo that I really learned how to be comfortable in the driver's seat.  I brushed up on all of the technical aspects while learning the nuances during the dozens of hours I spent practicing with Heather.  I had already learned how to drive but my then-future wife had taught me how to drive.  I made it through the tollbooths at the Verrazano, drove for the first time on the highway, and laid the seeds of all the future miles ahead of me under Heather's tutelage with Echo's pedals beneath my feet.

If you're reading this wondering why I'm spending all this time on explication then it's probably worth taking an extra moment or two for something more direct.  Heather and I have gotten all kinds of comments from people throughout the years about our car and, no matter what's been said, we each just silently shake our heads because it's obvious that people just don't understand.  I've been asked how I can possibly be comfortable in "that little thing," we've both been asked about how many miles she has on her, followed by a shake of the head and an "isn't it time to upgrade?"  We've been ragged on for the no-frills design--mocked for the lack of power windows and power locks.  Echo's even been referred to as a "clown car."

The thing that people fail to understand though--and the overarching point of this entry--is that neither Heather nor I consider Echo just a car; she's a part of our family.  I've mentioned this from time to time to people and have been met with polite eye rolls or hostile laughter--something that never fails to amuse me in this era of pet parents and rescues.  If a pet can be considered a family member then why not a car?  If home is where the heart is and our Echo takes us wherever our hearts desire, then how can she not be considered home?  Hell!  With all of the time we've spent traveling in her, she basically is a home of sorts.

To me, Echo's the type of car from a bygone era--a time when cars were given names and had personalities.  No, I'm not referring to those ridiculous eyelashes that you see on cars or the myriad decorative stickers, ribbons, and decals that adorn vehicles these days.  I'm talking instead about the days when a first car mattered--when it offered the opportunity to build a personal history with its driver(s).  Momentous events that occurred in the lives of these owners were made all the more special because of the involvement of that car.

See--that's it.  It's the history that we share with this car that makes it so cherished.  That Toyota Echo took me and Heather on our first date to Chevy's at the Staten Island Mall; she's driven us on every single road trip that we've embarked upon within continental North America (the only three drives we've gone on without her were in Hawai'i on our honeymoon, from San Francisco to Carson City (also during our honeymoon), and throughout Puerto Rico during our trip a few months later); she was present for every one of our amazing Adirondack adventures with Dick Doux and the crew up north--all seven trips into the mountains during the heart of winter; she helped both Heather and I move out of the houses that we had spent our respective childhoods growing up in and then again helped to move our growing family into our first home.  It was within Echo's friendly confines that Heather and I had the discussion that helped us to realize that we could get engaged after all and it was Echo's front passenger seat that held the ring on my way home from the jeweler, rife with a torrent of excited emotion.  She drove us home from our wedding reception and twice to the hospital for the deliveries of our children.  We brought each of our children home from North Shore LIJ in Echo--one to Staten Island and one to Hazlet.  She was there when we dropped off our son for his first day of school and when we picked him up later that morning.

Sure plenty of people experience those things...but to be able to do them all with the same vehicle?  To me, that's priceless.

But that's the serious stuff!  My personal relationship with Echo has been forged through long, long hours spent driving along the highways of the United States and Canada.  I've listened to countless minutes of music and passed innumerable mile markers as the macadam moved beneath our feet and enjoyed a nearly equal amount of conversation with Heather on our trips.  I mean, people know that we've traveled a lot but I'm not sure that they're quite aware of the extent of our journeying.  Here's just a sampling of the experiences that we've had with our Echo or the things that she could knock off of her bucket list were she to have one:

Echo has driven us to 19 of the 21 Major League Baseball parks that we've been to.

She's been across the U.S. Rocky Mountains three times and the Canadian Rockies twice.

She's been to the Everglades and the Bayou, the Nevada desert and the Colorado mountains including up and down a 14,000 foot mountain during which we lost the brakes (Mt. Evans), up a volcano (Mt. St. Helens), and over the Mississippi River four times.


She's driven through a blizzard with complete white out conditions, a hurricane, impenetrable fog, and complete and utter darkness in Arizona, she's hit tumbleweeds while thunderstorms rolled in across the vast valleys of the southwestern United States, and she's had the red dust of Wyoming on her tires.



She's been to all 48 contiguous states and 42 state capitols.

She's been to the Jack Daniel's distillery twice, Central High School and a yard sale in Arkansas, Disney World, a Pony Express station, and more than a half dozen lighthouses including those at Montauk, New York and Ponce Inlet, Florida.

She's driven up a magnetic hill in Moncton and over the world's longest covered bridge in Hartland, New Brunswick.

She's driven through Times Square on a Friday night in the summer, to the September 11th memorial lights a few days after they first blazed towards the heavens, to Boston on Patriot's Day, and in Indianapolis during the Indy 500.

She's driven on both an official NASCAR track in Watkins Glen, New York and on the very beach where auto racing was born in Daytona Beach, Florida.  She even dipped her tires into the Atlantic Ocean while on said beach!

We've driven to places that many people have flown to like Seattle, Washington and Las Vegas, Nevada...
...as well as a few places that we've all heard of but few people I know have gone to...


She's been as far southeast as Key West, Florida, as far northeast as Halifax, Nova Scotia, as far west as Fullerton, California, and as far northwest as Fort Nelson, British Columbia.

She's seen Mile 0 on Route 1 in Key West
Route 66
Four Corners State Park


And, most impressively of all, the first 250 miles of the Alaska Highway including Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, British Columbia!



She's driven on 46 of the 66 official Interstates in the continental United States:

I-4
I-5
I-10
I-12
I-15
I-20
I-24
I-25
I-29
I-35
I-40   
I-44
I-49
I-55
I-57
I-64
I-65
I-66
I-69
I-70
I-71
I-72
I-75
I-76
I-77
I-78
I-79
I-80
I-81
I-83
I-84* (separate highway in a distant state)
I-84
I-85
I-86*
(separate highway in a distant state) 
I-86
I-87
I-88
I-89
I-90
I-91
I-93
I-94
I-95
I-96
I-97
I-99


She's also seen her fair share of adversity on the road having been involved in one collision in Brooklyn and a hit-and-run at the Staten Island Ferry parking lot.  She got stuck in the sand in Daytona when the local roads' commission decided to open up a stretch of beach previously reserved only for AWD vehicles.  She had a 70 mph encounter with a runaway construction barrel in Tennessee.  And, most notably, she survived driving through a mudslide on the Alaska Highway.

So from Route 1 to Route 66--the Trans-Canadian Highway to the Alaska Highway, we've covered A LOT of ground in our Echo.  Not counting the scores of mini-road trips that we've gone on throughout the years, Echo has endured a full dozen trips of 1,000 miles or more including SIX of 3,000 miles or more and, of those, THREE were 4,000 miles or more with TWO eclipsing 6,600 miles apiece.  Our longest took us through fifteen U.S. states and four Canadian provinces, covering over 8,500 MILES in a mere FOURTEEN DAYS!  When we finally made it home, I took this shot of our trip odometer:

8,583.6 miles--the LONGEST single trip we've ever done!
That's a total of more than 36,183.6 miles of road tripping completed in only 69 days of driving (a few trips had built in lounging days that had minimal driving to no driving involved so that total reflects the number of days where the majority of the time was spent driving).  That means that over the course of those dozen trips we averaged over 524 miles per day or approximately 9-plus hours of driving a day, every day.  Amazing that there was nary a stretch that felt that long!


We recently completed our first long road trip with our daughter Sarah.  It was Timmy's third such trip but also his longest as well.  I'm sure if we would have discussed our intentions with people they would have scoffed at us and declared that it couldn't be done.  "There's no WAY you're going to fit all of that stuff into that tiny car!"  Well, not only did we manage to survive two seventeen hour-plus days of driving (the first and last days of the trek), we also were able to fit the strollers, luggage, souvenirs from Downtown Disney, other souvenirs, and almost two cases' worth of beer for ourselves and our friends back home.  Comfortably, I might add.

Still, though, successful as our trip had been, I had and continue to have the sense that it might very well be our last long one with Echo.  Despite our ability to make things worth with the spacial restraints we face with her, it is undeniable that our family is growing and will likely someday outgrow what she can offer.  We're already eying a larger vehicle that will likely be purchased next year or the year after.  When that time comes to pass, it will make all of the past experiences with Echo all the more special.  Despite the suggestions we've been given about trading her in, I have absolutely no intention to do anything other than put Echo on a pedestal when her driving days are done.  We wouldn't trade her in or put her down any more than any of you would do the same with your respective pets/family members.

Her place in our family has been solidified through years of service--long miles up mountains and through deserts, across two countries and back again.  Revisiting my earlier maxim that home is where the heart is, I made one important request when I surprised Heather with a customized ornament after we moved in to our first home last year.  The ornament was meant to be a miniature representation of the first space that we could truly call our own.  Thankfully the artist honored my request as you can see from the picture below.


Monday, April 1, 2013

An Unnecessary Death: Andrea & The Walking Dead

I think it's pretty safe to say that Andrea was one of the three least liked characters on AMC's The Walking Dead (the other two being Lori and Carol).  I disliked the character strongly and cannot stand the actress playing her to an even greater degree so, much like most of The Walking Dead viewing audience, I wasn't sad to see Andrea go during last night's season finale (even more so after having to sit through Laurie Holden's Talking Dead appearance a few weeks ago).  With all of that said, she got a raw deal--one that, in spite of my visceral dislike of the character, I feel was wholly undeserved.

My general stance with television shows is not to get all up in arms when something seems a bit unbelievable.  By their very nature, shows like The Walking Dead, LOST, and Fringe require a certain level of suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewing public.  When people start nitpicking or getting caught up in trying to make sense of the minutiae, they are slowly whittling away at the show's foundation and are detracting from the overall enjoyment level that they can attain.  Complaining about the fact that there's a polar bear on an island is pretty ridiculous when that same person ISN'T bitching about the island being able to move through space and time or about the countless other esoteric phenomena that comprised the plot of LOST...and yet people still did it ROUTINELY.

Part of the problem as I see it is that we are spoiled to a ridiculous degree in our modern entertainment era.  We demand instant gratification (hence the rise to prominence of binge viewing of television shows) and we feel entitled to our opinions.  Instead of just discussing television shows the way we once did, we feel compelled--even obligated--to dissect episodes, characters, and plot elements as if we're warranted a spot at the writer's table.  The Internet--especially social media websites like Facebook and Twitter--is the biggest contributor to this change as it has engendered a forum for millions of voices to come together simultaneously while offering the illusion that all of these perspectives are equally informed and valued.  Newsflash: they're not. 

Pop onto the Facebook page of any popular show--The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad--whatever--and look at the comments that pile in after an episode.  Many people champion the great writing and acting but SO many more complain about some stupid, inane aspect that has no bearing on the overall enjoyment factor that the show presents.  The problem is that there are A LOT of people like this.  Hell, even on this blog I just got a comment from some dope bitching about the fact that I provided directions to the various things to find in Waldo books instead of pictures of said items.  The quote in its exact form: "HOW MUCH IS A FRINKING INCH JUST SHOW PICTURES OF WHERE IT IS THATS USEFUL"

Yes, folks: this is the society that we live in.  Don't help me to find something--find it for me, goddamnit!

But I digress.  With so many ridiculous comments about unnecessary details, sometimes the bigger picture is overlooked.  I'm someone who specifically avoids criticizing television shows that I enjoy because, if I really love the show, then I invariably buy into it full steam ahead.  I believe in the writers' abilities and the creators' vision and want to see where both will ultimately take the show.  It's why I loved everything about LOST, Fringe, Firefly, hell--even Dawson's Creek back in the day!  So for ME to be bothered by something says (at least to me) that it was pretty egregious.

Enter Andrea's death.  Ordinarily, I won't question the decision to kill off a main character even if the reason isn't made immediately apparent.  Shane's death served its purpose and was hinted at for the better part of two seasons.  Even Sophia's death--arguably the worst, most boring build up ever--was shocking in a way (most likely the way it was ultimately revealed) and, again, it served a higher purpose.  Ditto for Dale's--a point that became even more salient in light of Carl's behavior last night.  He must be rolling in his grave at the lack of humanity in that boy.

Did Andrea deserve to die?  Honestly, I'd say that she didn't.  It's not so much about her noble intentions as it is the fact that, as a major character, she really wasn't all that major (like Shane).  If the writers were trying to tug at the heartstrings of the viewers (like with Sophia/Carol) then they failed miserably AND served to provide overkill since they managed to do so perfectly with the Merle/Daryl scene the week prior.  And if her death was meant to be symbolic like Dale's then it fell a little short because I feel like the message was diluted and it didn't need her passing to be expressed; David Morrissey's acting and the way The Governor treated "his own people" sent a FAR more powerful message about the state of humanity in the post-apocalyptic world the characters inhabit than Andrea's "all I wanted to do was help people" parting speech.

But it's not even so much about the fact that Andrea died as it is about the way she did.  This is where I call bullshit on the writers.  This girl was one of the most prolific, efficient walker dispatchers on the show!  Look at what she did in the forest with Milton when the pair encountered Tyreese for the first time.  Ditto for how she handled herself during countless encounters after the farm and, hell, the fact that she even survived the herd attack in the first place!

See--that's where I have a problem.  You have a character survive that many close-calls and overcome seemingly impossible odds and then she dies in a room with one walker while she's armed!?  It's such a waste of a strong character.  She should've gone down in a flurry of bullets or in hand-to-hand combat with The Governor.  Instead, she's left alone with zombie Milton (fucking MILTON!) and we're supposed to believe that he managed to get close enough to her to cause that much damage?

Maybe Andrea was too busy trying to engage him in conversation that she failed to realize he was gnawing on her shoulder.

That brings us to bullshit point number two: how long it took her to get out of the chair.  This is arguably the worst part of her death--the fact that she was unable to extricate herself quickly enough to avoid her fate.  First of all, she stopped trying to pick up the pliers every time Milton spoke to her.  Uh--HELLO!  MULTITASK, DUMBASS!  Move them feet while you move those lips!  Secondly, she went about freeing herself with ZERO urgency.  ZERO!  You have Milton fighting to hold on long enough for her to escape--knowing full well that he's going to turn and will have no control over his actions--and she's dawdling, twiddling her twat between her thumbs while she's shooting the shit with the suddenly tragic hero.  Give me a break!  She should've been TEARING ASS to get out of that chair.  And how long did it take Milton to turn!?  If it was like an hour then, really?  She couldn't get out in THAT much time?  If it was only a few minutes (as it appeared to be), then why the hell are people turning so quickly!?  I know it's varied in terms of how long it takes but come on!

Finally, the bullshit factor reaches its apex here: Glenn survived while Andrea didn't.  I'm not knocking Glenn--he's one of my favorite characters on the show (in the comics he's a bit soft)--but who's killed more walkers?  Andrea by a mile.  Glenn's clearly got balls of steel with all of the runs he went on (and the fact that he stole a farmer's daughter right out from under the old man's nose!) but he admitted that his motivation for taking those chances wasn't so much bravery as it was an indifference towards death (at least until he met Ma-gaggie).  Andrea also suffered from post-apocalyptic ennui but hers was really more straight up PTSD.  HER courage came after she overcame her ambivalence towards life.  She didn't care whether she lived or died after what happened to her sister but eventually she found something to live for (or at least something to avoid dying for).  It was after that that she became a walker killing machine.

Glenn survived being beaten by Merle and then having a ravenous walker turned loose in the room while he was duct taped to a chair!  He not only survived but he absolutely demolished the biter BEFORE freeing himself completely!  Andrea had ample time to unshackle herself AND THEN DID while zombie Milton was still shambling across the room!  Seriously!?  SERIOUSLY!?  I'm supposed to buy Andrea slipping up in that moment?  Give me a break! 

Andrea's death was easily the worst, most unnecessary of the entire series.  For all that she went through, she deserved a better end than she got.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

WHERE'S WALDO? THE INCREDIBLE PAPER CHASE (BOOK 7) LOCATIONS FOR WALDO, HIS FRIENDS, AND THEIR THINGS

This blog entry will catalogue the locations of the following persons and things in Book # 7 of the American re-released Waldo books called "WHERE'S WALDO? THE INCREDIBLE PAPER CHASE" It is the book seen here:
http://www.amazon.com/Wheres-Waldo-Incredible-Paper-Chase/dp/076364725X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362696110&sr=8-1&keywords=the+incredible+paper+chase


The format will be to list the page, its descriptor, and then each of the following with their respective locations:

WALDO
WENDA
ODLAW
WIZARD WHITEBEARD (WIZARD)
WOOF
SCROLL
BONE
KEY
CAMERA
BINOCULARS
PAPER


Directions are as accurate as possible but please allow some leeway when it comes to the cardinal direction that you will be following. In other words, WNW might actually be NNW if you were following it exactly; the directions were my best guesses without actually using a compass.

Please note the following legend that will be used in this entry:

BLURB (refers to the Paper that appears on the upper-left corner of every left page)
N, S, E, W (refer to North, South, East, West)
LLC/LRC (refer to Lower Left Corner and Lower Right Corner)
ULC/URC (refer to Upper Left Corner and Upper Right Corner)
LPG (left page)
RPG or RTPG (right page)
BCE/TCE (refer to Bottom Center Edge or Top Center Edge of page. Go along the respective edge to the middle of the page.)
Crease (the crease that separates the left and right pages)


If you have any questions about the location of a particular character/item or if you found this to be a useful resource, please drop a comment and let me know!


PAGES 1&2 – HI WALDO-WATCHERS

WALDO                      3.75in ESE of URC of BLURB

WENDA                      4.75in NNE of BINOCULARS

ODLAW                      5.5in SW of WIZARD (right of tower)

WIZARD                     2in SW of WOOF

WOOF                        2in W of RCE of RPG (left of round tower)

SCROLL                     1.25in NNW of WENDA

BONE                         0.5in SSW of WOOF

KEY                            5.25in N of WOOF (on round table)

CAMERA                    2.75in W of WOOF

BINOCULARS           1.5in N of BCE of LPG

PAPER                        1.75in NW of ODLAW (atop tower stone)

 
PAGES 3&4 – THE JURASSIC GAMES

WALDO                      5.5in N of BONE

WENDA                      2.25in NE of CREASE BOTTOM

ODLAW                      3.5in E, slightly S of LRC of BLURB

WIZARD                     2.75in N, 0.5in E of LLC of LPG

WOOF                        3.5in W, 0.5in N of BONE

SCROLL                     1.25in SSE of WENDA

BONE                         4.5in NNW of LRC of RPG

KEY                            1.5in SSE of BONE (hard to spot)

CAMERA                    2in E, slightly N of LLC of LPG

BINOCULARS           2.5in SE of LLC of BLURB

PAPER                        2in ENE of CAMERA (on yellow dinosaur’s back)

 
PAGES 5&6 – PICTURE THIS

WALDO                      7.5in W of WIZARD

WENDA                      0.5in SW of KEY

ODLAW                      0.5in SW of LLC of BLURB

WIZARD                     2.75in WNW of RCE OF RPG

WOOF                        2in E of WALDO

SCROLL                     4in NNE of CREASE CENTER

BONE                         1.25in S of WALDO

KEY                            2.5in SSW of WIZARD

CAMERA                    2in NE of LLC of LPG

BINOCULARS           1.75in ESE of SCROLL

PAPER                        0.5in S of WIZARD

 
PAGE 7 – THE GREAT RETREAT

WALDO                      1.5in WSW of URC of PG

WENDA                      4in NE of WOOF

ODLAW                      1in SSW of BONE

WIZARD                     0.5in NNW of LRC of PGf

WOOF                        1in E, slightly N of SCROLL

SCROLL                     2in NNE of LLC of PG

BONE                         2.25in SSW of WALDO

KEY                            2.5in ENE of WOOF

CAMERA                    1.75in NNW of LRC of PG

BINOCULARS           2.5in W of RCE of PG (right of the monster’s spikes)

PAPER                        0.75in ESE of ODLAW

 
PAGE 8 – WHAT A DOG FIGHT!

WALDO                      2.25in ENE of SCROLL

WENDA                      2in E of ODLAW

ODLAW                      2.5in N of WIZARD’S STAFF

WIZARD                     2in ENE of KEY

WOOF                        1.25in E of WIZARD’S STAFF

SCROLL                     5.5in N, 0.75in E of LLC of PG

BONE                         1.25in SSW of CAMERA

KEY                            1.5in ESE of SCROLL

CAMERA                    2.5in WNW of RCE of PG

BINOCULARS           1.5in S of PAPER

PAPER                        1in SSW of URC of PG

 
PAGES 9&10 – THE BEAT OF THE DRUMS

WALDO                      4in SSE of SCROLL

WENDA                      2.25 ESE of WOOF

ODLAW                      1.75in ENE of BINOCULARS

WIZARD                     3in ENE of ODLAW

WOOF                        1.5in ESE of WIZARD

SCROLL                     1.5in SSW of LLC of BLURB

BONE                         2.75in W, 0.5in S of URC of RPG

KEY                            2.5in SSE of BONE

CAMERA                    1.25in NNE of CREASE BOTTOM

BINOCULARS           1.25in ENE of LRC of BLURB

PAPER                        1in NE of BCE of LPG

 
PAGES 11&12 – THE GREAT ESCAPE

WALDO                      1.5in NE of CREASE CENTER

WENDA                      4.25in ESE of WALDO

ODLAW                      3in NW of WALDO

WIZARD                     2.75in NE of WALDO

WOOF                        1.5in S of LLC of BLURB

SCROLL                     2in S, slightly W of WOOF

BONE                         2in N of BCE of LPG

KEY                            1.5in WNW of RCE of RPG (NNW of yellow balloon being popped)

CAMERA                    3.25in E of WIZARD (on hedge)

BINOCULARS           3.5in W, 0.75in S of URC of RPG

PAPER                        2in NW of BCE of RPG

 
PAGES 13&14 – THE ENORMOUS PARTY

WALDO                      4.5in NNE of CREASE BOTTOM

WENDA                      5.5in ENE of WALDO

ODLAW                      2.5in S, slightly E of LLC of BLURB

WIZARD                     4.5in NNW of WENDA

WOOF                        1.25in NE of BONE

SCROLL                     2.5in N of BCE of LPG

BONE                         0.25in NW of CAMERA

KEY                            1in S of PAPER

CAMERA                    3.25in WNW of WALDO

BINOCULARS           1.5in NE of SCROLL

PAPER                        2.25in W of WALDO’S HEAD