Saturday, December 26, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Has Never Awoken In This One

I feel compelled to begin this blog entry by saying that I DO NOT hate the Star Wars movies. I don’t even dislike them, for the most part. But my horrible confession—the shadowy burden I must release from my soul, is that I just think they’re okay; not amazing or stupendous or life-changing, but just pretty good.

I’m not saying this to offend anybody or to say that I think the gazillion people who do find Star Wars amazing, stupendous or life-changing are wrong, because I don’t; but rather I make this admission to come clean, so I can walk in the light of day without people thinking I am something that I am not.

Indeed, admitting this is difficult, because when people find out that I don’t share their unbridled passion for Star Wars, they often look at me differently—like I’m a cute puppy with really bad halitosis. Okay from a distance, but you don’t want to get too close.

The original Star Wars (I refuse to call it Episode IV or A New Hope, or whatever other ridiculous moniker it has since accrued) came out when I was seven. I saw the movie with my family a couple of months after it came out when the hype surrounding it was at its height. I remember thinking it was okay, but I also remember dozing off at some point during the film and being startled awake by the baleful wailing of a giant furry creature trapped in a garbage disposal. Mostly I remember wondering why all my friends were going bonkers about this movie. It wasn’t bad (although even at seven I recognized some of the acting was) but it certainly wasn’t rocking my world.

Indeed, the sensation that Star Wars caused was a mystery to me. My friends were acquiring Star Wars toys and paraphernalia at an alarming rate—action figures, model kits, lunch boxes, pajamas, and of course the light saber. I will admit that I did want and got a light saber, but not because it had anything to do with Star Wars. I got it because every other kid my age had it and that made me want it. If every other kid played with a neon green, rubber cow I would have wanted that too.

When The Empire Strikes Back came out three years later and Return of the Jedi came out three years after that, I saw them and had more or less the same reaction as I did to the original. Did I enjoy them? Sure. Did I feel compelled to see them over and over and over again until I memorized every line? Surely, not. (Indeed, the only movie from that timeframe that I felt that way about was Airplane!)

When the next trio of Star Wars flicks came out from 1999 through 2005, I eventually got around to seeing all of those in the theater as well. While they each had their moments, these were nothing more than mediocre in my mind. A decade or so later I don’t remember much about this grouping of movies other than the fact that Darth Maul was a badass and, had Jar Jar Binks been crushed under foot by an AT-AT walker in the first five minutes of the first film, it would have made the rest of the series infinitely better.

And that brings us to 2015 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, as far as I can tell, everybody on the planet who does not live in my household has seen. In the past nine days since the movie has opened I have been asked by many friends and coworkers when I plan on seeing the film, to which I respond, “I don’t know, maybe March or April when the crowds start to die down a bit.” Sometimes I get a chuckle in response (although I’m not saying it to be funny) and sometimes I get a nasty or incredulous look conveying the unspoken “What the hell is wrong with you?”

The truth is I do want to see it. I’ve heard great things about the new movie and my hunch is that when I finally get around to seeing it, I’ll think it’s okay. And okay isn’t bad. Of course if Airplane! suddenly had a reboot and a new movie hit the theaters I’d be first in line for the midnight showing. Surely I can’t be serious, you say? I am serious! And don’t call me Shirley!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Woefully Out of Touch With Modern Music

Recently, I was reminded of how woefully out of touch I am when it comes to current music. This realization happened as a result of my organization’s annual “No Talent Talent Show.” The show, which is perhaps the most anticipated event of the year among employees, showcases our staff’s utter lack of talent, often to hilarious effect. Proud of my own ineptitude, I enter the show every year and as such, always see the list of acts the day before, when we are informed of the order in which we’ll go on.

When I looked at the list of acts in this year’s show I noticed that one group was doing the song “Hello.” I immediately assumed it was the Lionel Richie song released in 1984 and was excited to see the performance, since I bought the album Can’t Slow Down when I was in junior high and listened to it incessantly at that time. I waited with bated breath to see their send up of Lionel’s iconic song, but when the music came on, it was quickly evident that this was a totally different song.

I looked around the room and it was clear that almost everyone there other than me was familiar with this song. It wasn’t a bad song, and the spoof of the video done by my coworkers was quite entertaining, but I couldn’t help but feel like an old, out of touch relic.

A couple of acts later it was my turn, so I got up and did my well-rehearsed finger dance to Soft Cell’s 1981 classic “Tainted Love.” People seemed to respond well (if you consider nervous laughter a good response) and afterwards our emcee made a comment that made me have an epiphany. She said, “So, half of you were born before that song came out, and half of you were born after.” Looking at the crowd, I realized she was more or less correct, and perhaps “Tainted Love” wasn’t as current of a song as I thought it was.

After the glow from the No Talent Talent Show faded (about 6.3 minutes after the show ended) I decided my next task would be to familiarize myself with current music. I didn’t want to be the old dinosaur I’d swore I’d never become as a teen, so I decided to listen to the top ten songs from The Billboard Top 100. (Part of me was amazed The Billboard Top 100 still existed, but apparently they have it on this thing called the internet.)

As it turns out, the number one song for the week of November 28, 2015 was the very song that sparked this journey—“Hello” by someone named Adele.  I’ve heard the name Adele in recent years, but had no idea if she was a singer, actress, or UFC fighter. Turns out she’s a singer and a decent one, too. Although it’s not generally the style of music I go for, I don’t mind the song “Hello.” I think this Adele has a pretty good voice and might be a star someday.

Number two on the charts was a song (and I use that term loosely here) called “Hotline Bling” by Drake. A “drake” is a male duck, and I’m pretty sure I would rather have heard that for four minutes and nineteen seconds than what I did hear. This song was about as tuneless as they come and poor Drake seems to have a hard time enunciating. But I guess that’s okay since lyrics like, “I know that when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing,” aren’t really worth understanding anyway.

The number three and number six songs on the list were both by Justin Bieber—“Sorry” and “What Do You Mean?” I figure I don’t really need to write separate reviews of these songs since they are essentially the same sappy, uninspired tune. Of course I’ve heard of Justin Bieber. I may be out of touch, but I’m not quite at hermit-living-in-a-cave level. I’ve heard of him because of all of the ridicule and scorn that seems to be heaped upon him on social media, not because I’ve ever heard any of his songs before. Well, now that I’ve heard two of his songs, I can fully appreciate all of the ridicule and scorn being heaped upon him on social media. He basically sounds like a breathless baby goat.

The current fourth most popular song in popular music is a tune called “The Hills” by a band called “The Weekend.” Apparently this band is under the impression that there is a moratorium on using complete sentences. When the best line in your song is “Keep our business on the low-low” you might want to hire a new lyricist.

When the number five song started I heard a guitar and it made me realize that this was the first guitar I was hearing on this musical journey. Everything up until now was just keyboard and percussion. So I was ecstatic to hear a guitar. But about ten seconds after the song “Stitches” starts, its artist, Shawn Mendes, starts singing and the joy brought to me by the guitar is suddenly overshadowed by the 12-year-old boy sounding voice and impossibly corny lyrics. At the point at which he sang, “Now that I’m without your kisses, I’ll be needing stitches,” I frantically stopped the song so as to avoid vomiting.

The number seven song, called “679” by Fetty Wap featuring Remy Boyz is an intense hip hop song with lyrics I can’t print in a family friendly blog. I don’t know anything about Fetty Wap or Remy Boyz, but my hunch is that neither Justin Bieber nor Shawn Mendes would want to run into them in a dark alley.

Coming in at number eight is a song by Taylor Swift, yet another artist I’ve heard of but know nothing about. The song, called “Wildest Dreams” is actually not that bad, but as with the Adele song, simply not my cup of tea. In fact, I think Adele and Taylor Swift should team up and do a song entitled, “Not Andrew’s Cup of Tea.”

At this point on my journey I started to wonder if I would come across any song that I genuinely liked, and with number nine, it almost happened. The song “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” by Meghan Trainor featuring John Legend is a bluesy duet that didn’t make me want to rake my eyes out like most of the other songs in the top ten. It was also only the second song on the list that contained guitar. (Are Fender and Gibson going out of business?) The song was okay and I can almost perceive a scenario where I might willingly listen to it a second time.

With that glimmer of hope, I cued up the number ten song—“Ex’s and Oh’s” by Elle King. I thought the title suspect, so I didn’t go into this with much hope, but then the song started…wait a second here. Was this a full band? Like several instruments at once, including a guitar? What was I hearing here? Was this a good song? After listening to so much mediocrity I was starting to lose my understanding of good music, but I think this song was good. Like, really good. It was as though a torch song singer met a hard rocking band. And the lyrics were fun! How did this song sneak into The Billboard Top 100? Here was a song I would actually listen to a second time, and in fact, have.

So now that I’m familiar with ten popular songs from 2015, and even like one of them, does that mean I’m no longer out of touch? Hardly. There are still a good 20-plus years’ worth of songs that I’ve never heard and I haven’t the time nor inclination to backtrack and listen to them all. And based on the overall quality of the ten songs I did listen to, I’m not particularly inclined to start listening to new pop music on a regular basis moving forward.

Where does this leave me? Will I remain out of touch the rest of my life? No, no, no. I figure I’ll listen to the top ten songs again at some point. Probably in 2045 when I do my No Talent Talent Show finger dance to “Ex’s and Oh’s.”

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Day Without a Computer...I Survived

At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without it by my side. But as it turns out, going an entire day without turning on my computer didn’t kill me. I did survive.

The date was November 7, 2015. It was a Saturday just like any other Saturday in Chandler, Arizona—sunny skies; highs in the 70s; birds chirping; scorpions scurrying. It was all very ordinary, except for one thing—at no point that day did I turn on my computer. I didn’t flip open my laptop. Didn’t press the power button. Didn’t enter my password. And most importantly, I didn’t surf the internet. No checking my email. No scrolling through my Facebook feed. No tweeting or retweeting. No randomly searching Wikipedia or the IMDb. Just digital silence.

And for those of you thinking, “Big deal! Who needs to turn on their computer to do any of that stuff anyway? You just use your phone for all that,” I should let you know that I never use my phone for any of that. Yes, I’m about a decade behind when it comes to electronic technologies. My iPhone is certainly capable of doing any of those things, but I don’t use it in that way. Mostly I use it as a phone, a camera, or a paperweight.

And so it was that I spent an entire day without looking at my computer screen. More than a day, really, since I went from about 11:00 pm on Friday, the 6th until about 8:30 am on Sunday, the 8th without booting up. That’s 33.5 hours for those of you doing the math at home.

When I finally turned on my computer on Sunday morning, I wondered what kind of world would await me. Would cats have evolved to be winged-creatures? Would purple now be the new black? Would the Donald Trump presidential run all have been an elaborate prank that culminated with his appearance on SNL? (One can dream, anyway.)

As it turns out, nothing particularly earth-shattering seems to have occurred during my computer hiatus. I had 45 new emails in my inbox, of which I deleted 34 without opening. Of the eleven emails I did look at, the most important one informed me that my brother Mark’s 91st favorite album of all time is Venus and Mars by Paul McCartney and Wings. Again, nothing earth-shattering. (Had it been 90th instead of 91st that would have been earth-shattering.)

On Facebook, I missed the birthday of three friends. But unless any of them keeps an Excel spreadsheet of their birthday greetings, I doubt they would have noticed that I didn’t post amongst their hundreds of well-wishers. But just to be safe, happy birthday to Michele, Kevin and Joanna!

And as for Twitter, I gained one follower in my absence—someone I never heard of named Ali Spagnola. I’m guessing she’s someone famous because she has one of those blue “verified account” symbols next to her name. Why she decided to follow me, I have no idea, but given that she follows 1.78 million people, I’m not going to take it to mean that we’re going steady.

So what did I learn from this grand experiment? Was it worth it to not be tapped in to our cyber society for an entire day? And will little Billy be rescued from the well? This and all more on the next exciting episode of As the Days of Our Lives Turns into the Shadow Knows

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ghost in the Big Red Machine

As I drove to work this morning listening to the Doug and Wolf Show on the radio, it was reported that the hotel the Arizona Cardinals are staying at leading up to their game with the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday may, in fact, be haunted.

The hotel—or more accurately, resort—located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, is called The Greenbrier and has been serving guests since 1778. Presumably some of the original guests of the resort are now dead and, having grown bored of taking advantage of the same amenities for the past 200 years, are messing with the minds of the Cardinals players. Indeed, one such poltergeist—a little girl named Carol—has been whispering in the ear of Cardinals’ safety, Tony Jefferson.  It’s unclear what it is she’s trying to communicate, but hopefully she’s giving him some advanced intel on the receiving routes of the Steelers’ Antonio Brown.

In the meantime, other players are reporting hearing noises at night. They haven’t specified what kind of noises so it could be anything from a creaking door to someone in the adjacent room playing World of Warcraft a bit too loud, but the implication is there is something otherworldly afoot.

It’s tough to say what affect all this paranormal activity will have on the Cardinals this Sunday, but as long as Carson Palmer doesn’t start suddenly spinning his head around and spitting pea soup in the middle of a play, I think they should be okay. Then again, maybe if he does do that, defenders will back off of him and he’ll have more room to throw. Hmmm…here’s hoping the phrase “possession Cardinals” takes on a whole new meaning this weekend.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Is it Healthy to Take a Selfie?

Recently, a video of a bunch of sorority girls taking selfies at an Arizona Diamondbacks game went viral to the tune of more than 36 million views. (If you’re one of the few lucky people who haven’t seen it yet and feel you must waste the next minute of your life viewing this mind-numbing spectacle, click here.

When I saw this video my inner curmudgeon came raging to the surface with fists in the air and my old man voice in full tremble. “What’s wrong with these kids these days, with their cellphones and their picture taking and their obliviousness to the world around them? Why can’t they put that devil’s technology down and watch the perfectly wholesome baseball game going on right in front of them?”

Disgusted, I was! What kind of narcissist would ever desecrate the great American pastime by completely ignoring the game and taking a selfie? Then I thought back to the last time I was at a Diamondbacks game a couple months ago and remembered this:

Yep, apparently I’m the kind of narcissist who would desecrate the great American pastime by completely ignoring the game and taking a selfie. I could try to pawn off the idea on my son, but that would be a bald-faced lie. I thought to do it, I held the phone, and I pressed the button. So don’t aim your pitchforks at my kid—this is all on me.

Indeed, selfies are just the latest in a long line of technology-borne behaviors that I initially abhorred and eventually embraced (at first reluctantly and then enthusiastically.) First I swore I would never text, because you should just call somebody if you need to tell them something! Now I text. Then I swore I would never tweet because why in the world would people who I don’t know care what I’m thinking in 140 characters or less?!? Now I tweet. Then I swore I would never blog because I’m a real writer, dammit, and my work is supposed to appear on the printed page. Now I blog. And finally, coming back to the topic at hand, I swore I would never take a selfie, because I’m not a vapid, self-absorbed, vain, egomaniac who needs constant photographic evidence of my existence. Now I take selfies. 

In my defense, it’s not like I’m taking selfies on a daily basis. I could go weeks between selfies. In fact, I didn’t take one selfie in the entire month of September! That’s right, my last selfie was the one below, taken on August 31, 2015.

(Of course, that selfie was taken in a men’s room, which brings up a whole other range of psychological questions.)

Ultimately, I think the lesson to be learned here is that cultural norms change, especially when spurred on by new technology. Perhaps the thing to do is just roll with the punches and jump on board the technology train when it comes into your station. Unless, of course that train wants me to read books electronically, in which case I hope it derails, because the only way you would get me to let go of a printed book is by prying it out of my cold, dead hands.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Young Grasshopper Does Well in First Karate Tournament

A few months ago I enrolled my sons in karate lessons with three goals in mind for them: 1) get exercise; 2) learn self-discipline; 3) spend at least one hour per week not thinking about video games. While they definitely get exercise at their karate lessons, the jury is still out on how we’re doing on goals two and three. (There’s a pretty good chance that while they’re up there doing their kicks they’re picturing themselves as some dude from Minecraft kicking a mutant zombie in the head, or some such nonsense.)

For a karate novice like myself (I don’t consider watching a few poorly dubbed Kung Fu movies in my youth a real martial arts education) it’s difficult to know how my sons are actually doing in their class. Sometimes they seem engaged, sometimes not, but that’s really true of all the kids participating. So today was the first real way to gauge how the lessons are going—at least for my older son.

A couple of weeks ago the leaders at the dojo started upselling a citywide karate tournament to take place at the prep school across the street from the dojo. My younger son had no interest, but my older son kept on haranguing me to enter him. I was initially reluctant because of his newness to the sport, but soon my son’s passionate pleas to participate won me over. (Yes, I was sick of saying “no” so I caved.) Today was the big day.

While my son had been very excited in the days leading up to this event it was clear that as we drove to the tournament he was very nervous despite my reassurances that he’d be fine. Once we entered the building and saw the hundreds of participants and spectators, his nervousness clearly ratcheted up a notch. And by the time they called up his division, I thought the boy would pass out before he ever set foot on the mat.

There were eight kids in my son’s division and while I sat in the bleachers watching him waiting his turn with a look of dread on his face, I thought to myself, “Please let him get at least one flag, even if he doesn’t win a match.” I should explain. My son entered the flag sparring event. Each competitor has two flags tucked into their belt. The object is to try to remove your opponent’s flags before they remove yours. It’s a test of speed and agility. I would suck at it.

When my son was called up for his match he still looked initially panicked, but the second the match started his look transformed into one of complete confidence and control. I mean would you mess with this guy?

My son and his opponent were well-matched—so much so that they grabbed each other’s first belts off at the same time. Here’s an incredible action shot that Sports Illustrated would be envious of showing the moment that my son grabbed his opponent’s belt a split second before his own was yanked off.

The score was tied 1-1. The boys faced off again and again their belts were yanked at the same moment. The referees conferred, changed the score to 2-2 and gave them each back one belt to go at it again. It was karate overtime. They squared off like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (I guess, since those are the only two karate stars whose names I know.) Round and round they went and then BOOM my son struck like a cobra and got the final belt! "He freakin' won!" I cheered to myself while I politely applauded out loud. 

My son’s win in this match allowed him to proceed to the next round. In his second match he lost 2-1, but he put up a great battle and his overall performance put him in third place! He was given a bronze medal and this time I cheered out loud while I politely applauded in my mind.

As we drove home happily talking about the events that just unfolded I couldn’t be more proud of my son. Of course I would have been proud of him if he lost, too, but coming home with a medal ain’t too shabby. I guess the karate lessons are paying off after all. (And yes, as soon as we got home he started playing video games.)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Monsooner or Later, You're Going to Get Hit

When most people who don’t live in Arizona think about the weather in Phoenix during the summer they think about the heat—the dry, unrelenting, convection oven-like, heat. And of course, they’re right to think about that. It gets so hot here in the summer you can cauterize a stab wound by holding it up against your car’s fender. (Caution: Don’t ever try that unless advised to do so by a physician.)

But the thing that seems to always surprise non-Arizonans about our summer weather is that we also experience about two or three months’ worth of monsoons. I know that most people think of monsoons as something that only happens in Asia, but the reality is that from about mid-June to mid-September monsoons loom large in the life of Arizonans.

The monsoon comes in all shapes and sizes, but it usually hits in late afternoon or early evening. My first run in with one was about a year after I moved out here. At the time I was living in Mesa (east of Phoenix) and I had to drive all the way across the county to Peoria (west of Phoenix) to go to a rehearsal for a play I was in at the time. The rehearsal started at 7:00 pm, and as I drove in a westerly direction I suddenly saw a massive wall of dust coming towards the freeway from the south. It looked kind of like this:

I had never seen anything like this in my life and I assumed my death was imminent. No weather phenomenon I had ever seen in New York looked anything like this, so I figured this was the world’s largest tornado and my corpse would end up somewhere in Oz. I hit the gas pedal as hard as I could, frantically hoping I could outrun this thing, but within a couple of minutes the dust was upon me…and it wasn’t that bad. Yes, my visibility was greatly reduced, but my car was not thrown into the air as I assumed it would be. I safely made it to rehearsal and told my castmates of the bizarre weather event I just drove through. They laughed at me and told me it was just a haboob. I assumed this was a made up word and they were just putting me on, but as it turns out “haboob” is a fancy word for dust storm. Indeed, I’d been haboobed that night and many nights since.

But the Arizona monsoon is not merely a bunch of harmless haboobs. Sometimes it brings heavy downpours, fierce winds, and obnoxiously loud thunder. While we were watching the All-Star Game this past July it actually hailed on our house for about 90 seconds. That’s right, hail! My kids were amazed when they looked out the window and saw little balls of ice bouncing off the sidewalk. Okay, I admit it, I was amazed too.

Unfortunately, these storms can also be quite damaging. Last year we got really lucky when a monsoon took out a large portion of our neighbor’s tree and it landed right next to our house…six more inches and it would have gone through our roof. A couple of weeks ago, some friends of ours were not as lucky when a tree took out their backyard gate as well as their powerline. (See below for startlingly real photograph.)

                                Photo courtesy Jon Jahrmarkt

Of course, if we want to look at this from a glass-half-full perspective, the good news is the tree fell away from their house, because things would have been significantly worse had it gone in the other direction. 

And the even better news is that in the next couple of weeks our monsoon season will come to an end, as will our triple-digit temperatures. By winter, when the rest of the country is digging their cars out of the snow and dealing with single-digit temperatures, everyone here will be skipping through the park, wearing short-sleeved shirts and sipping lemonade. And there won’t be any haboobs in sight—except for the ones talking loudly on their cellphones in movie theaters.  

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Tomato Conundrum

For some reason I have been thinking a lot about tomatoes as of late. I have no idea why, other than to say that this is a food item that poses several philosophical conundrums, which I have recently been contemplating.

The most obvious question concerning the tomato is whether it is a fruit or a vegetable. This is a question that has been plaguing me since well before I could even spell the word “tomato,” several months ago. Everybody thinks they know the answer to this question and strangely, everyone is correct. If you think a tomato is a fruit, you are correct. If you think a tomato is a vegetable, you are correct. You probably think I’m being a wise guy, since that’s my modus operandi, but in this case, I speak the truth.

Botanically speaking the tomato is a fruit, since it grows from the flowering part of a plant and has seeds, and you would think the story ends right there, but such is not the case. The unbelievable truth is (and yes, in a moment when I reveal this, you will find it unbelievable, but trust me, it’s true) in 1893 the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS, as it’s now annoyingly called) declared the tomato a vegetable.  Let me restate this without my superfluous parenthetical statements, so there’s no ambiguity: In 1893 the Supreme Court declared the tomato a vegetable. I kid you not—Nix v. Hedden, if you want to look it up.

While legally the tomato may be a vegetable, I have noted a certain irony in the number of popular tomato varieties that are named after fruits. There are plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and grape tomatoes. I sort of like the idea of rubbing the Supreme Court’s noses in the tomato controversy by naming the various types of their so called “vegetables” after fruits. I think we should rename Roma tomatoes, nectarine tomatoes, and start calling beefsteak tomatoes, banana tomatoes. That’ll show our Supreme Court justices a thing or two! (Of course, none of our current justices had anything to do with that decision, and the last living justice who did—George Shiras, Jr.—passed away in 1924, but that’s beside the point.)

Beyond the nomenclature issues surrounding tomatoes is the more practical concern of how to eat them. Raw or cooked?  Clearly raw tomatoes, chopped into salads, sliced onto sandwiches, or, in the case of cherry or grape tomatoes, dipped into ranch dressing and eaten whole, are quite popular. (Interestingly, you rarely see anyone holding a large tomato in their hand and taking a bite out of it like it’s an apple, so maybe the Supreme Court wasn’t totally off its rocker after all.) But cooked tomatoes certainly have their place as well, especially when sautéed and placed lovingly into a pasta dish. Personally, my favorite use of a tomato is when it is turned into a paste, seasoned with oregano, garlic, and olive oil, spread across a 16-inch round dough, topped with mozzarella cheese, and placed into a hot oven for about 10 to 15 minutes. But that’s just me.

The final tomato conundrum I’d like to address is their historic use as projectiles aimed at vaudevillian performers of yesteryear. Despite the fact that when I used to do improv many years ago I had more than my fair share of dud performances, I never had a tomato hurled at me. And I’ve never seen a tomato hurled at anyone else in a live setting. Yet I’ve certainly seen many movies—generally from the 30s and 40s—that depicted this odd dynamic. Comedian tells a joke that doesn’t go over—tomato in the face. Singer hits a sour note—tomato in the face. Dancer seems uncoordinated—tomato in the face. Did this kind of thing really happen in theaters at one time? Presumably so, otherwise it would not have been so ubiquitous in films during the golden era.

It seems odd to me that people would bring tomatoes with them to the theater. If you brought a tomato with you, the assumption would be that you are intentionally going to a show in which you expect the performers will be bad. But what happened if the performers turned out to be good? Would the audience member give the tomato to the performer as a gift after the show as if to say, “Had you not entertained me I would have thrown this at your face, but here, eat it instead—it’s delicious?” A very curious practice indeed, although I do think it should be brought back today at political stump speeches.

Thank you for letting me get my tomato angst off my chest. If you have any other concerns about this fruit (I’m sorry—vegetable—please don’t turn me in to the authorities) feel free to let me know in the comments section below or via registered mail.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Farewell to Rush?

Tomorrow—August 1, 2015—marks the end of an era…probably. Rush, the reigning gods of progressive rock, will play the last show of their last major tour at the Forum, in Los Angeles, California. At least they are saying this is their last major tour. I, like many diehard Rush fans, are hoping they’re lying through their Canadian teeth. But, if the last 40 years of the band’s public life have proven anything, it’s that Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart are not like your typical egomaniacal, blustery, self-promotional rock stars—in other words, they’re probably telling the truth.

On July 27th, I was fortunate to see Rush for the 12th—and likely, final—time in my life. I attended the concert at US Airways Center in beautiful, sunny Phoenix, Arizona—or as Rush proclaimed our city on a giant screen before they came on stage, “Vitamin D capital of the universe.”

The band was in top form and Geddy seemed to be hitting notes I don’t think I’ve heard him hit since the late 90s. This was particularly impressive considering it was the third to final show of a 35-show tour that started back in early May. And Neil and Alex were none too shabby either. On that note, I feel compelled here to say a few words about Alex Lifeson.

Rush is one of the few major bands in which the guitarist is the least talked about member. As the band’s affable, extroverted singer and bass player, Geddy Lee is Rush’s “front man” and often the focal point of major screen and print interviews. Rolling Stone ranked him #4 on a list of their greatest bass players of all time. As the band’s intellectual, introverted lyricist and drummer, Neil Peart has developed a mythic persona among Rush’s rabid fans. Rolling Stone ranked him #3 on a list of their greatest drummers of all time. (A ranking that most Rush fans were probably mortally wounded by.)

But what of Alex Lifeson, the band’s stalwart guitarist? Ranked #98 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest guitarists, Alex, with a sardonic wit that often leaves his bandmates paralyzed with laughter, seems to revel in his role as third fiddle. In the 2010 documentary about the band, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, there’s a great scene in which Geddy and Alex are eating in a small diner. When the waitress recognizes Geddy, she excitedly comes over and asks for his autograph. As Geddy graciously signs for the woman he points to Alex and tells her who he is. The waitress politely smiles and nods and focuses her attention back on Geddy, completely ignoring Alex, who happily continues to chomp on his sandwich undisturbed. You can see that he’s fine with being left to his food while the attention is heaped on his bandmate—in fact, he somewhat relishes it.

Yes, Alex is ignored, but oy vey, can this man play. I spent a large portion of the concert staring in amazement at the hands of this 61-year-old, heavyset man, as he completely shredded on his guitar.  The set list started with songs from their most recent album, Clockwork Angels and proceeded to go back in time, album by album (although four albums were skipped) until they ended the show with “Working Man,” from their 1974 self-titled debut album. And Alex played like a madman every step of the way. Having seen him eleven times previously, this didn’t surprise me, but I always like to be reminded of the virtuoso skills of Rush’s least heralded member.

A Rush show is more than just a concert—it is an epic theatrical experience. It not only features amazing musicianship, but also psychedelic lasers (see below), comic video interludes featuring the likes of Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Peter Dinklage, Jay Baruchel, and Eugene Levy, and lots and lots of geeky, middle-aged men head-banging in unison. Indeed the intermission of a Rush show is one of the few places on the planet where the line to the men’s room is significantly longer than the line to the women’s room.

If this past Monday’s show was, indeed, the last time I will have seen Rush live, I have to say they left me happy. They couldn’t possibly play every one of my favorite songs of theirs since that would take them the better part of seven hours, and their show was only three, but they did sneak some hidden gems into the set along with their more popular stuff. In fact, one song, “What You’re Doing” was played for the first time since 1977—nine years before my first show!

So with that, I now wish Rush a fond farewell. But Geddy, Alex, and Neil, please take note—if I ever become a billionaire, I will pay you handily to do one last show…which will last seven hours and contain a set list handpicked by me, personally. Here’s to hoping I get to show number 13.

Photos by John Jones

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Twenty Years in Arizona

Twenty years ago this month I became a resident of Arizona. I landed at a Motel 6 in Tempe, before moving into a one-bedroom, furnished apartment in Mesa, whose monthly rent was a little less than half that of the tiny studio apartment in which I had been living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side for the previous three years. I was excited to be in Arizona after a seven-week road trip that took me through 17 different states. (I realize you can get from New York to Arizona in three or four days, but I decided to take the scenic route.) And 20 years later I’m still excited to be here.

Certainly, I can write a small book about my time in Arizona, but since I don’t have an agent, publicist, or crazy, stalker fan, I’ll just focus on a few highlights of my time in Arizona so I can keep it to regular blog size. Let’s go sequentially, shall we?

The Really Early Days

After seven weeks of living on the road at campsites, youth hostels, and the back seat of my Oldsmobile Delta 88, I finally settled into my small, neat apartment overlooking a swimming pool. And after the initial excitement of getting to my destination wore off, I was bored out of my mind. After almost two months of hiking (summited Harney Peak, highest point in South Dakota), sight-seeing (went to the football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio), and partying (got drunk at the Steamboat Days festival in Burlington, Iowa) I suddenly had nothing much to do. Mostly I spent my time watching Court TV, because the O.J. Simpson trial was in full force and, well, it was better than watching daytime soaps. I also wrote a lot—freelance articles for MAD, a screenplay I never did anything with, and journal entries about…the O.J. Simpson trial.

After a few months living off my savings and an occasional MAD sale, I thought I should probably get a part-time job to have at least some sort of steady income. I drove up the block, stopped at the first “Help Wanted” sign I saw, walked in, told the boss I used to work at MAD Magazine, and was hired on the spot. I was now a short order chef at a hamburger joint called The Longbun Grill. As a vegetarian this was, admittedly, an odd career move, but I needed some cash and the place was a 90-second drive from my apartment, so it worked out well. Whenever the boss asked me if I wanted to try the burgers or the bratwurst we made, I told him I was allergic to meat. Somehow he believed me. I worked at The Longbun Grill for about five months and then my freelance income picked up enough that I was able to quit.

The Theater Days

Supporting oneself as a freelance writer may sound romantic, but it can be a lonely lifestyle. I spent the bulk of my days writing and/or staring at walls trying to come up with something to write about. I spent the bulk of my evenings watching sitcoms and/or trolling in AOL chatrooms. I didn’t have much in the way of in-person social interactions, other than the once per month I went to the office of my apartment complex to pay my rent. Yes, it was fairly pathetic.

Eventually it occurred to me that I should participate in an activity I enjoyed that afforded the opportunity to interact with other humans on an ongoing basis. I enjoyed reading, but it turns out that trying to chat someone up who’s reading in a library generally does not go over very well. I enjoyed watching movies, but it turns out that trying to chat someone up in a movie theater goes over even worse. Finally, I hit upon something—acting. I’d done it for years in school, but never in my adult life. As it turned out there was a community theater a couple of miles from my apartment and they were having auditions for a play called Night Watch. I auditioned and got cast as a New York City police lieutenant. I’m sure my accent—mild by New York standards, but thick as a calzone by Mesa, Arizona standards—is what got me the part.

Acting again, after about a seven year hiatus, was exhilarating. Even more exhilarating, however, was that I suddenly had a social life again, after about a seven month hiatus. Hanging out with my cast mates on a regular basis was a blast. We often went out as a group after rehearsals and performances and, because of the close proximity of my apartment to the theater, we had a cast party at my house on the final night of the show. (I could tell the party was a success, because when I came back from a beer run I found out the cops had been to my apartment while I was gone to tell us to turn down the music.)

Over the next four years I became ensconced in the local community theater scene. I bounced from show to show, theater to theater, playing a variety of roles both big and small. I found many a kindred spirit in the Arizona theater world and made many a lifelong friend along the way. After doing about a dozen shows I decided to try something a bit different and joined an improv group called Comedy Sportz Phoenix. I found improv even more exhilarating than traditional theater, due to the fact that it was all unscripted so the next line in the show was anybody’s guess. This was both exciting and terror-inducing, and I loved it. I found even more kindred spirits in this setting, but more importantly, it was during this timeframe that I also found the woman who would become my wife.

The Romance Days

Nicole does not perform improv (at least not on a stage in front of other people) but she sure does enjoy watching it. We met as coworkers at the University of Phoenix (I was temping there to supplement my sporadic freelance writing income) and became great friends. She soon found out that I was part of an improv comedy troupe and came out to see one of our shows. She laughed at every joke…and loudly…and contagiously, so that there were no dead spots throughout the entire show. Everybody in the troupe loved her, because she was like our own personal laugh track.

After that first show she came to another, and another, and another. Eventually I started wondering if she was coming because she liked to laugh or because she liked me. Then I realized the truth was probably somewhere in between—she was coming because she like to laugh at me! Finding a beautiful, intelligent woman who laughed at everything I said was my dream come true, and soon we started dating. Five months later we were engaged and seven months after that we were married, less than a year after we started dating. (I realized once I found somebody who laughed at my good and bad jokes equally, I had to seal the deal quickly.)

For the next six years after we got married we ate out a lot, went to lots of movies, entertained often, traveled frequently, and generally had a great time. Then we had kids.

The Family Days

Okay, okay. I know the last sentence of the previous section sounds bad. I don’t mean to say we haven’t had fun since having kids—certainly we have a ton of fun. Of course, we don’t eat out, go to the movies, entertain, or travel anywhere near as often, but we sure do play with Legos—lots and lots and lots of Legos.

And we sometimes go to the city pool. When I grew up in New York, summer break was a time to play outside with friends, but here in Chandler, Arizona, where the average temperature in July is 105-degrees, playing outside is the last thing you want to do, unless you have a pool, which we don’t. So we often go to one of the City of Chandler pools—most often one called Desert Oasis. It’s really a lovely pool—as long as you’re not grossed out by the thought of what the toddlers running rampant in the pool might be evacuating into the water.

And that, my friends, is a very, very high-level synopsis of my last 20 years in Arizona. I feel remiss having skipped stories about karaoke singing, scorpion hunting, and searching for (and finding) decent pizza, but you’ll have to wait for my book to find out about those things. But first I have to find an agent, a publicist, and a crazy, stalker fan. Oh wait, I already have one of those—and I married her! I’m one-third of the way there!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The "F" in Father's Day is for "Fun"!

Last year on Father’s Day I wrote about some of my favorite memories of my father. (If you missed that piece, or if you loved it so much you absolutely have to read it again, click here.) This year I thought I’d write about some of my own experiences as a dad—specifically the fun ones.

In the interest of time (I have 29 minutes to write and post this before I have to wake up my sons) I’m just going to cop out and use the reliable list format.

Legos: When I was a kid I built with Lincoln Logs. I guess Legos were around, but they were very basic back then and not that big of a deal to kids of the 70s. These days Legos have infiltrated our culture to such an extent that you can’t throw a rock in a store without hitting a Lego set, shirt, lunchbox, book, or other paraphernalia. But the point is that I have built a ton of Lego structures with my kids and I won’t lie—it’s a blast playing with those colorful bricks. But whereas I use 30 or 40 bricks to build a basic house, my 8 and 6-year-old sons use thousands of bricks to build elaborate towns, spaceships, and torture chambers. (Sometimes they’re a bit dark.) I’m amazed by what they can build and very proud of their creativity.

Bike Riding: Generally I don’t find exercise fun and try to avoid it at all costs, but I have to admit that the first time I went bike riding with my boys could not have made happier. They just learned how to ride bikes without training wheels back in March, so a few weeks later I bought myself a bike to ride with them. It’s tough to explain how great I felt riding around with the boys, especially because I didn’t learn how to ride a bike myself until I was an adult. (It’s a long story, but basically nobody ever thought to teach me as a kid.)

Creative Play: Every once in a while the kids want to play the whole super heroes versus bad guys thing. You can guess who plays the bad guy. My kids will often put on their old Batman, Spiderman, or Iron Man Halloween costumes and I’ll find random bits and pieces of old costumes and string them together to be the bad guy. There’s nothing more liberating than dressing up as a steampunk pirate wearing a beret, wielding a ball of socks as my secret weapon.

Music: I’m shameless in trying to force my own musical interests on my kids and I’ve been surprised to find that for the most part, it takes! Both the boys enjoy the classic rock I play on the radio when we’re driving around and in particular they are huge Beatles fans. Interestingly, their favorite song is “Nowhere Man,” which they sometimes sing incessantly for hours on end, even though neither can hold a tune. What’s particularly fun is when they make up parody lyrics to the tune of “Nowhere Man.” That’s always a proud papa moment for me.

So those things listed above (plus dozens more I don’t have time to write about) are why I say that the “F” in Father’s Day is for “fun.” Of course, the “A” is for “agonizing,” the “T” is for “tiring,” the “H” is for “heart-wrenching,” the “E” is for “exasperating,” and the “R” is for “rigorous.” But I don’t have time to get into all that right now.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

My 25th MADiversary: A Memoir of Idiocy

Me posing with MAD paraphernalia at the 1994 MAD holiday party

June 4, 1990 was a defining moment in my life. On that Monday, exactly 25 years ago today, I traveled from Brooklyn to 485 MADison Avenue (midtown Manhattan), took an elevator up to the thirteenth floor, and stepped into the offices of MAD Magazine as a summer intern. I would be getting paid $150 per week, but would have gladly paid that amount myself for the privilege of working in the hallowed halls of the humor magazine that I revered from the time I was a small, wide-eyed child. Now, as a small, wide-eyed college student, I could barely contain my excitement as I sat down in the dingy office that would be my home for the next six weeks and sifted through a box of fan mail while I waited for the editors to arrive.

While this was my first time at MAD in an official capacity, it was not the first time I had set foot in their offices. A couple of months earlier I had gotten the phone call (which increased my heartrate by a magnitude of several thousand) from then Associate Editor, now Senior Editor, Charlie Kadau, letting me know that I was chosen as one of the magazine’s two summer interns. Charlie asked me if I wanted the June to July slot or July to August slot, and I spat out some incoherent babble that he correctly took to mean I wanted the first slot. He then invited me to stop by the offices sometime in May to meet everyone and see where I’d be working. So it was, a couple of weeks before my official start date, I went to the MAD offices to meet the Usual Gang of Idiots. I was never more nervous about anything up until that point in my life.

You have to understand that my personal connection to MAD ran long and deep. I was born in 1969 and I have brothers who are eleven years and seven years older than me, so they were prime MAD-reader age at the height of the magazine’s popularity, just as I was being potty trained. And if ever there was a magazine that was appropriate to look at while peeing in your pants, MAD was the one. But it was not only my brothers who indoctrinated me into the ways of MAD. During my grade school years I came to learn that my cousin David had one of the most impressive collections of MADs east of the Mississippi. Every time we went to my cousin’s house I would spend hours poring over old issues of the magazine from the 50s and 60s. By the time I reached junior high I could tell you the name of every writer and artist and could recite the masthead verbatim, the way a cultured person might be able to recite a Shakespearian sonnet. I idolized the MAD men, but none held a loftier place in my mind’s eye than William M. Gaines, founder, publisher, lord of the idiots!

So, on that day in May, when I was given the MAD tour by the other then Associate Editor, now Senior Editor, Joe Raiola, and the very first stop on the tour was the office of William M. Gaines (who I was told to call Bill) I was shaking so hard that I’m sure Bill and his wife Annie must have thought that I had some sort of medical condition. They were both quite gracious and welcoming toward me, despite the fact that I couldn’t get a coherent word out. As we left Bill’s office, Joe looked at me as one might look at someone muttering to themselves on the subway, and gently said, “It’s okay. Calm down, man.” I did calm down—in part because of Joe’s soothing tones, but mostly because now that I’d met Bill I knew that nothing else would be as daunting.

Bill and Annie Gaines in Bill’s office at 485 MADison Avenue

I don’t remember who else I met during that first visit, because in my faded memory, the rest blends in with the internship itself, but over the course of the next two months I did get to meet many of my childhood idols. Al Jaffee, Dick DeBartolo, Angelo Torres, George Woodbridge, Paul Peter Porges, and Stan Hart were all regular visitors to the office. One of the things that surprised me most when I started working at MAD, was that all of the writers and artists were freelancers, meaning none of them worked in the actual office. They only stopped by from time to time to drop off their work or tell dirty jokes. The creative staff at that time only consisted of seven people—five in the editorial department and two in the art department. And then there was me—thrown into the mix for six weeks, constantly doubting my comic worthiness as the rest of the staff threw pointed barbs around at 100 miles per hour.

Although I doubted myself, I was having a blast reviewing writers’ submissions, looking at artist’s rough sketches, and watching the constant comedy show provided by my coworkers. I shared a small office with Charlie Kadau, Joe Raiola, and the third Associate Editor, Sara Friedman; but a large portion of my time was spent in the office of then Editor, now Senior VP and Executive Editor, John Ficarra, whose office is pictured below. John is the one seated, while Charlie is the one holding the Easter Island head.

Charlie Kadau and John Ficarra, sometime in the early 1990s

Take careful note of the snare drum next to John’s desk. That was there so he could do rim shots whenever someone delivered a particularly effective zinger. Every Wednesday we would gather in John’s office for editorial meetings and I would long for the moment when I might say something to earn a rim shot. My moment finally came one day when we were coming up with department titles for the articles in issue number 299. For the uninitiated, department titles are puns used on the table of contents page on top of each article. For example, the standard department title for Spy vs. Spy is “Joke and Dagger Department.”  The department titles for ongoing features were set in stone, but new articles needed new department titles, so we sat around the office throwing out puns. We were trying to come up with a department title for an article written by Mike Snider and illustrated by John Pound called “World Communism Close-Out Sale,” and I spat out, “What about ‘Attention K. Marx Shoppers?’” Instantly the rim shot came and Nick Meglin, a 30-year plus MAD staffer who shared the editor title with John, turned to me with a broad smile and said, “Whoa! Good one, Eel!”

Masthead showing my summer internship with the department title that earned me my first rim shot below. (Note: While my internship was in June and July, the magazine had a six month lead time, which is why the date of the issue is December 1990.)

I should probably pause here for a moment to explain why Nick Meglin called me Eel. I’m a small guy and generally a quiet one, so my comings and goings can sometimes go unnoticed. One day I stepped into John’s office while Nick and several other staff members were there. Nick didn’t hear me come in and I guess I was standing in his blind spot, because when he turned and saw me right next to him he got startled and shouted, “When did you get here? You slithered in like a f***ing eel!” The staff roared with laughter, one thing lead to another, and suddenly John coined me “The Brooklyn Eel.” I wasn’t thrilled with the nickname at first, but somehow it stuck, and soon almost everyone on the staff and all the freelancers were calling me The Brooklyn Eel, which mostly got shortened to Eel. (A few years later when I moved to Manhattan’s Upper Eastside, my moniker was changed to The Eastside Eel.)

Another highlight of my time as an intern was being asked to appear on the magazine’s back cover. While the majority of the magazine’s articles are illustrated, every once in a while an article calls for a photo shoot. In an instant I went from editorial intern to male model. Clearly, the magazine does not have high standards.

Back cover of MAD #301, March 1991

When my internship ended I was thoroughly depressed. While I was new to the work world, I recognized that rarely does one find a job where they get paid to sit around and make wisecracks all day long. Indeed, what I had gotten paid to do for the previous six weeks would get 99.9% of people fired. But my depression was tempered by a flicker of optimism. During my internship I was encouraged to submit article ideas, and at the time that I left, one was on the verge of becoming my first freelance sale. I had always dreamed of becoming a professional writer and had submitted dozens of short stories (mostly humorous sci-fi and horror tales) to magazines from the time I was 15 years old, without any luck. But in the fall of 1990 my lifetime drought finally ended when I was handed a $1,200 check for my satire of the television show “Unsolved Mysteries.” My spoof was called “Unsolved Miseries.” Genius, I know.

But even though the check was larger than any I had ever been handed to that point in my young life, the thing I was even more excited about was that my article was going to be illustrated by Jack Davis, whose work had been appearing in MAD since the very first issue in October 1952. I had admired Jack’s work since my diaper days and now his art was going to be paired with my words. The wow factor for me was probably heightened by the fact that I had still not met Jack in person, as he lived in Atlanta and would send his work via FedEx. I had heard his stately southern drawl on speaker phone in John’s office, but because I had never met him face to face, there remained a mythic quality about him in my mind. It was like my article was being illustrated by Zeus.

First page of my first MAD article – Issue #304, July 1991

Once I made my first MAD sale I was hooked. I began spending a large portion of my spare time trying to come up with article ideas. Many of my ideas were rejected, but having been on the editorial side of the fence this didn’t faze me, because I knew that most ideas that writers sent in did not end up making it to the pages of the magazine. Sometimes an idea wouldn’t be outright rejected, but the editors would ask me to try it from a different angle. I would craft, I would hone. I would still usually be rejected, but every once in a while I would make a sale.

While all of this was going on in the beginning of my senior of college, I started contemplating what I might do once I graduated. I was at a loss. The skills I learned at MAD were really not transferable to any other office on the planet and there seemed no hope of getting a permanent job at MAD given the very small staff size. The freelance checks, while large in my eyes, were few and far between, so I knew that supporting myself that way was not realistic. I started buying lots of lottery tickets. That was much more realistic.

Then, in September 1991, something amazing and wholly unexpected happened. The editors asked me if I’d like to work at the offices part-time on a contract basis, two days per week. I’m pretty sure Guinness doesn’t have a world record for the amount of time it takes to say “yes” once a question has been posed, but I’m relatively certain if such a record existed I broke it at that moment. Two months after my internship ended, I was now an Editorial Assistant. This part-time, contract gig came with no promise that it would evolve into a full-time staff position and yet somehow, miraculously, it did.

A couple of months before my graduation, Sara Friedman let the editors know that she would be moving to Russia to be with her husband who was an Associated Press reporter there. Suddenly, a full-time position was available and Nick and John, perhaps too lazy to look for a more qualified candidate, offered the slot to me. My fancy degree in English Literature from NYU was going to be put to good use.

The timing of my coming to work full-time at MAD in June 1991 could not have been better. Every two years Bill Gaines took the entire staff, all of the regular freelance contributors, and all of their significant others on an all-expense paid trip. The next trip was coming up in September 1991 and I was suddenly on the list to go on a cruise to Bermuda. What, me excited?

Describing the Bermuda trip could be a tome unto itself, so I’m not going to go into intricate detail here. Instead, I’ll just share a few photos with captions…

Bill Gaines was a huge Marx Brothers fan, so someone got it in their mind that as a gag we should reenact the famous stateroom scene from “A Night at the Opera,” where tons of people show up and crowd into the small cabin. Bill had no idea this was coming, but one by one people started barging into his cabin uninvited much to his surprise and amusement.  I’m pictured above in the middle wearing a teal shirt and staring down at the ground. Directly behind me on my left is John Caldwell and to his left is Bob Clarke and to his left is Annie Gaines. Holding a tennis racket in the front of the frame is Angelo Torres and right behind him with a camera held high is Dick DeBartolo. Way in the back of the pic with the dark hair and beard is Sam Viviano. I don’t know the guy behind me on my right side. He worked on the ship, as did many who were roped in to help us with this gag.

One night on the cruise there was a masquerade ball, but nobody knew to bring costumes. I was bummed because I wanted to participate, when suddenly I had an epiphany. I was on a cruise ship with a dozen of the most talented cartoonists in the world—surely one of them could make me an impromptu gorilla mask. I asked John Caldwell and he happily obliged. Soon after the cruise was over I asked Caldwell if he would sign the mask. If the inscription in the corner is too small for you to read it says, “Eel, we’ll always have Bermuda! Love, John Caldwell ’91.” This pic hangs in my den to this day.

This is a group photo of everyone who attended the Bermuda cruise. In the words of Mike Snider who sent me this photo, “You’re on the far left, either doing your best Mr. Dapper Dude pose, or being John Ficarra’s ventriloquist dummy.” Famous MAD folks in this photo who I have yet to mention at any point in this article include Sergio Aragones, Duck Edwing, and Paul Coker. I’ll let you Google them to figure out who’s who.

While the MAD cruise was a definite highlight of my first year at MAD, the truth is I was having fun at work on a daily basis. It was like I was a cast member of an R-rated Romper Room.  Of course we had to work—there was a magazine to put out every six weeks after all, and the final week of production was often pressure-filled—but we had no discernible dress code, had a Star Wars pinball machine in our storage annex that we could play whenever we were bored, and sat around most of the time talking about and making fun of pop culture, which was of course, our jobs. It was a fine time, but the party came to a screeching halt on June 3, 1992, when Bill Gaines, our beloved, eccentric leader passed away at the age of 70.

Bill was a crazed visionary and a patriarchal figure to the staff and contributors of MAD. It often felt like he and Annie were the parents of a bunch of out of control adolescents, and I was honored to be one of the brood. When he passed away it hit me almost as hard as when my own dad died six years earlier. In the days following Bill’s death I often found myself wandering around our office suite aimlessly and/or just staring into space. It felt like I was suddenly a crewman on a rudderless ship.

But of course, the show went on. Difficult thought it was, we continued to produce the highest quality low-quality rag in America, with John and Nick leading the way. Yes, the idiocy continued as Bill would have wanted it and soon I was asked to model again—this time for the front cover. As a result, I have the unique distinction of being the only person in the history of the world whose photograph has appeared on both the front and back covers of MAD Magazine. Of course, as you’ll notice below, you don’t actually see my face on the cover, but that is, indeed, my body and arms.

Andrew J. Schwartzberg—magazine cover boy…with an Alfred E. Neuman jack-o-lantern superimposed on his head

This was a very odd photo shoot, to say the least. Irving Schild, MAD’s go-to photographer, had me come to his studio at midnight (presumably he didn’t want anyone seeing the questionable quality of talent he had to work with) and we were there until somewhere around 4:00 A.M. There were two possible concepts for this cover—one is the one you see above, and the other was me holding a mirror in my left hand instead of pumpkin rinds. Below is one of hundreds of Polaroid proof shots from the concept that was not used.

Andrew J. Schwartzberg looking like a psychotic killer for the sake of art

Irving took countless pictures of me holding that knife and mirror at slightly different angles and wearing different styles of shirts. After a couple of hours of pictures with the mirror we moved on to pictures with the pumpkin rinds. But first we had to create a mess. Irving had purchased a bunch of pumpkins and cantaloupes and the two of us set about bashing them to pieces to produce as much gooey, orange, sticky stuff to put all over me as we could. Irving’s thought behind the cantaloupe was that it would be juicier than the pumpkins and its slop would help to create more of a visible mess. His theory proved to be correct and by the time the photo shoot was finished I felt as though a produce department had spontaneously combusted in my face.

Besides editing, proofreading, pun-creating, and male modeling, another one of my many duties at MAD was giving tours of the offices to fans. Several times a week someone would show up to the offices and ask if they could look around. Generally the low man or woman on the totem pole was stuck with tour duty. This was me until about mid-way through 1993 when I was promoted to Assistant Editor and a new Editorial Assistant—Amy Vozeolas—was hired on. Usually the fans were well received by us, but sometimes they were a bit too overzealous. I don’t remember the exact circumstances behind the photo below, but apparently neither John nor I were particularly ecstatic about having our picture taken at this moment.

John and I not looking particularly ecstatic about having our picture taken at this moment. This fan was nice enough to send me this photo in the mail, probably hoping it would end up on the World Wide Web two decades later.

Although Bill was gone, he and Annie had already put plans for the 1993 MAD trip into motion. This trip, which would be the last MAD trip, was to the Principality of Monaco, the tiny but eminently picturesque mountain country on the border of France and Italy. Somewhere I have photos from that trip that show the amazing scenery, stunning views, and breathtaking landscape of Monaco and the surrounding parts of France and Italy. Somewhere…but I have no idea where. Fortunately, MAD artist, Rick Tulka, was nice enough to send me a few photos from that trip, as you can see below.

John and I not looking particularly ecstatic about having our picture taken by Rick Tulka, while eating lunch in San Remo, Italy

Me and artist, Tom Bunk, on a rainy day in Monaco

A blurry photo of a bunch of us having dinner at a pizzeria in Monaco. I have no idea who’s sitting to my right, but to my left is Paul Peter Porges. The guy waving with the glasses and goatee is Rick Tulka. The person whose head is barely sticking out behind Rick’s waving hand is Mike Snider. The guy in the denim jacket in front of Rick is Desmond Devlin. The woman seated next to Desmond is Joyce Robbins, wife of MAD Production guru, Thomas Nozkowski, who is seated across from Joyce. Between Nozkowski and Porges is Brenda Torney, wife of Rick Tulka. And finally, the bearded man in the lower left hand side of the picture is Lenny Brenner, who was the Art Director at the time. Lenny loved garlic more than any other person I ever met before or since, which is why the art department was often a very quiet place. Oh, and the guy standing up is a waiter whose name I don’t recollect.

Me and a fake sleeping Rick Tulka in the world’s first selfie somewhere in Europe

I consider myself beyond lucky that I got to go on the last two MAD trips. Of course the final trip was bittersweet, because Bill’s absence was keenly felt by all of us. Still, nothing beats traveling internationally with dozens of professional idiots. But the MAD trips were not the only times that the Usual Gang of Idiots assembled en masse.  The annual holiday party was another large gathering of the MAD crew.

Me at the 1994 MAD holiday party with George Woodbridge and Al Jaffee. (My wife thinks I look like a bearded Scott Baio in this picture.)

While the MAD holiday parties were mostly attended by the contributors who lived in the tristate area, every once in a while someone would travel from more far-flung places to attend the party.

John Ficarra pointing to famed MAD artist and writer, Dave Berg, at the 1994 holiday party.

For whatever reason, Dave Berg, legendary creator of “The Lighter Side of…” did not go on the MAD trips. (At least not the MAD trips I went on.) He lived in Marina del Rey, California, so I had never met him in person, although I spoke to him on the phone countless times. So I was ecstatic when “Uncle Dave” as we all called him, decided to come to New York in December 1994 to attend the MAD holiday party. I was thrilled to finally meet him in person and found him to be the perfect combination of lovable and unhinged.

Dave’s “The Lighter Side of…” may have been the most well-known ongoing feature in the magazine, other than Al Jaffee’s fold-in. The feature, which ran from 1961 until Dave’s death in 2002, was basically a series of light-hearted comic strips on everyday life. One of the very cool perks of being on the MAD staff was that Dave often incorporated illustrations of the staffers in his strips. Dave drew me dozens of times while I worked at MAD and I was always jazzed when I saw myself turn up in his work, even though likenesses weren’t his forte and I often looked like some strangely distorted version of myself.

Me and Nick Meglin as depicted by Dave Berg in MAD #336, June 1995

While the gag above is not much of a gag at all, the thing that I found hysterical about it when I first saw it was the preposterous notion that I might be able to beat Nick Meglin in straight sets. Despite the fact that I was in my mid-20s and Nick was in his late 50s at the time this was drawn, Nick was a tennis junky who was in excellent shape and I was just a schlub who bought a racket on a whim. Indeed, the couple of times we played, Nick schooled me good.

Sometime in late 1994 or early 1995 I began experiencing wanderlust. I loved my job at MAD, but I felt like I was done with New York and I wanted to see new places and experience new things. Besides the two MAD trips, I had done a lot of other traveling with friends in the early 90s, so I knew this wasn’t just a desire to travel—this was a desire to live in a completely different place, to test my mettle and see if I could flourish. It was like I decided to thrust myself into my own reality show before reality shows were a thing.

So, in May of 1995 I said goodbye to MAD and New York, bought a car, packed my bags, spent almost two months living on the road, and wound up in Arizona. The picture below was taken in my office at MAD a couple of months before I left.

Me at 485 MADison Avenue in the spring of 1995. Notice the vintage word processor on my desk.

Although my career as a MAD staffer was officially over, my association with the magazine did not end. While I tried to figure out what to do with my life, I needed to somehow make ends meet, so I began freelance writing for the magazine I had just ceased editing for. Suddenly, I was back on the other side of the fence, sending article ideas to my former coworkers. From 1996 to 1999 I sold 26 articles to MAD and managed to make that my primary source of income, but the very sporadic nature of freelance sales began to make me an undesirable combination of paranoid and frugal. (Hmm…not sure there’s actually a desirable combination of those two things.)  Eventually I decided to get fulltime work in an unrelated field and my MAD submissions tapered down to a trickle.

These days, I’ll still send in an idea every once in a very rare while, but it has been a couple of years since I made a sale. But that’s okay, because the truth is that with a fulltime job, volunteer commitments, and two young sons at home, I simply don’t have the time to think in a MAD way anymore…except, of course, for the past six days, while writing this 5,000 word tome. Maybe for my 30th MADiversary I’ll just send myself a card.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Beatles Haters: They Walk Among Us

I personally know several people who will hate this blog post. I apologize in advance to those people, but sometimes certain things need to be written, even if it means some people may feel affronted. I am sure there were some folks who were very upset when the Manga Carta was written in 1215, but that didn’t stop the Archbishop of Canterbury from writing it, because he knew that it was necessary. Now, 800 years later, this blog post needs to be written, and so I have written it.

About four years ago, I was having a conversation with a coworker about music and she mentioned that she hates the Beatles. At 41 years old, I had gone my whole life to that point without ever coming across someone who said that and I was dumbfounded. Before I could edit what was coming out of my mouth I said, “Do you also hate food and people?” Fortunately she laughed, even though I wasn’t necessarily joking. “I know, I know,” she said. “I get that reaction a lot.” She went on to explain that she grew up during the height of the Beatles popularity (she’s about ten years older than me) and everyone loved the Beatles so much that due to her inherently rebellious nature, her reaction was to despise them, if for no other reason than she was expected to love them. I get that to some extent, as I sometimes have that reaction to enormously popular movies. For example, I felt that way about Avatar, but the difference is that whereas Avatar was mediocre, the Beatles were amazing.

That night when I came home from work I told my wife this seemingly unbelievable news about my coworker and she revealed to me that someone on her side of the family (who shall remain nameless) also hates the Beatles. “What!?! You mean there are two people on this planet who feel this way???” I was flabbergasted. Were these people delusional? In denial? Living with an as yet unidentified genetic disorder? I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

In the four years since that inauspicious day I have stumbled across a couple of other anti-Beatles people in a rock music chat room I created on Facebook. Every time I learn of someone new who hates on the Beatles I feel a little twinge of pain somewhere down in the core of my being. It’s not like I’m some closed-minded idiot who feels like everyone should like the exact same music I like (indeed, my favorite band is actually Rush, and I’m completely fine with the fact that there is a very large contingent of people who can’t stand them), but rather that the Beatles’ music: a) seems inherently likeable; b) contains such a wide variety of styles that there’s something there for everyone; and c) laid the foundation for all rock and pop music that came after it. To me, saying “I like rock music, but I hate the Beatles,” is akin to saying “I like beds, but I hate mattresses.” It simply doesn’t make sense.

Originally I was going to spend the rest of this post explaining to those who hate the Beatles why they should, in fact, love them, by describing the joy and/or brilliance of specific albums and songs in minute detail. But unfortunately, I believe this would be like trying to explain advanced calculus to a canary (or to me for that matter).  Instead, I’ll just leave off with an appropriate lyric from each one of the Fab Four.

Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see.” –John Lennon, Strawberry Field Forever

“Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” –Paul McCartney, Blackbird

“And the people, who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion, never glimpse the truth.”
– George Harrison, Within You Without You

“Resting our head, on the sea bed, in an octopus's garden near a cave.”
– Ringo Starr, Octopus’s Garden 

Alright, so maybe Ringo wasn’t the world’s most profound lyricist, but that doesn’t mean you should hate the Beatles.