Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Catty and Caustic Comedy of Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin is a rare commodity in Hollywood. A comedian who is able to bridge the gap between overexposed celebrities and the adoring fans who worship them, Ms. Griffin has built a reputation in Tinsel Town as the “Queen of Mean.” It is no wonder that so many famous film and television stars avoid her like the plague, no doubt fearing any kind of encounter they might have will somehow end up in her act. And they do!

I’ve been a fan of Kathy Griffin for years, mostly because she’s not afraid to talk about the eccentricities and bizarre behavior of some of Hollywood’s finest. Her detailed recollections of encounters with megastars like Whitney Houston, Britney Spears or Liza Minnelli are priceless peaks into a world most of us only dream about. Like a tour guide at Universal Studios, Kathy takes us on a behind-the-scenes journey of the entertainment industry, pointing out important facial reconstructions and peculiar mannerisms as if she were describing the attributes of a studio back lot. And we happily go along with her, perhaps laughing a little too much at the foibles of those we consider much more privileged than ourselves.

And perhaps that’s why Kathy is so successful. She has tapped into a mindset that craves Schadenfreude (taking pleasure hearing about other people’s misfortune). Only in Kathy’s case, she is exploiting the misfortunes of the very fortunate, so somehow we feel better about laughing at them. After all, who doesn’t like a good Tom Cruise joke? Except that Kathy doesn’t really tell jokes. Her brand of comedy is more observational, as she literally recounts her encounters with famous celebrities. And this is when she is at her most brilliant. Because as she describes all the intricate details of her experiences, we feel like we’re right there with her. For one brief moment, we are standing alongside Kathy as she recalls her scary meeting with Whitney Houston. We are right next to her when she hops into bed with Liza Minnelli and asks the famous Diva if she ever had sex with Bob Fosse. And we’re sitting on the couch next to her as she discusses which lubricant is the best with Barbara Walters. (Ms. W prefers Astroglide.) Kathy takes us into that world like no one else.

I first noticed Kathy when she was on “Suddenly Susan,” as Brooke Shield’s sassy and sharp-tongued co-worker. In fact, she was one of the only reasons I watched the show, as her one-liners were some of the only laughs the sitcom evoked. Then I tuned into “The Mole” for one episode and got hooked because of Kathy’s hilarious observations of other celebrities like Steven Baldwin. This was the first time I’d ever witnessed Kathy doing anything akin to her stand-up act. But after that, I was hooked. I watched every comedy special, and enjoyed her frequent stints on the talk show circuit.

But then when “My Life on the D-List” came out, I was finally able to get a good dose of Kathy for at least a few weeks at a time. Her constant search for the spotlight, and her often embarrassing methods of achieving it, are what drives the show forward. By far my favorite episode so far was when Kathy and Mad TV’s Michael McDonald were performing for the troops in Iraq. Not only was it a very touching episode, and a nice tribute to the men and women serving our country, but it also had some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen on television. The final improvisation section is simply brilliant.

So it was with much anticipation that I went to Madison Square Garden last Saturday to see Ms. Griffin live in concert. Sitting between a cluster of heterosexual couples on one side, and a gaggle of gay boys on the other, I felt like the mediator between two different mindsets. The gay audience, who love Kathy’s ribald humor and catty observations; and their straight counterparts, many of whom appeared to have been dragged there by their wives. At least the guy next to me was. He hardly ever laughed, and had to ask his wife several times what Kathy was talking about. (Apparently a translator was needed for some of Kathy’s more obscure references—like who Clay Aiken was.)

The concert started off a little slow, as Kathy described her mother’s decision to vacate her palatial California home. But once she began talking about celebs like Anderson Cooper and Oprah Winfrey, the audience was right with her. And that’s when Kathy soared. Her implied position as the underdog in any given situation is why we relate to her. She is humility and hilarity all rolled into one. She is us, and we are her. She asks all the right questions, says all the wrong things, and gets herself into hilarious scrapes that could easily populate a sitcom for years. And we’re right there with her, living vicariously through her experiences. It’s this connection and relationship with her audience that makes her one of the most popular comedians in show business today.

But that’s just me. What do you think of Kathy Griffin?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Do You Waffle, Pancake or Popover?

There was a wonderful tradition in our house when I was growing up. Every Sunday morning my father would get up early so he could fiddle around in the kitchen, preparing one of three favorite family breakfasts---Waffles, Pancakes or Popovers. To make sure we got up in time for Church, the smell of cinnamon and maple syrup would wake us, and we’d happily trudge down to the dining room to see which of our three favorite meals he’d prepared. Not only that, but we’d also have to guess what secret ingredient he’d added that week.

For you see, my father didn’t rest on his laurels when it came to making the perfect pancake or award-winning waffle. He was constantly trying to improve on the recipes Aunt Jemima and Bisquick had already established. Adding a few drops of fresh orange juice or a tablespoon of wheat germ was common, but he also experimented with other spices, fruits, and flavorings. Sometimes he even ventured into the confectionery world, with surprise additions of chocolate chips, M & Ms or peanut butter. But mostly, he stuck with the basics, preferring to experiment with the mixture itself, rather than trying to overpower it with a lot of bells and whistles. (Or in my case, chocolate and peanut butter.)

The one experiment that truly went wrong was when he somehow found a recipe for Sauerkraut pancakes, a combination I still don’t understand to this day. But apparently if you added a small amount of Sauerkraut to the recipe, it gave the pancakes a moister flavor, or some such nonsense. (What can I say? It was the late sixties. Someone was probably on an acid trip when they came up with the formula.) Anyway, nowhere in the recipe did it say you had to chop up the Sauerkraut into tiny pieces before putting it into the mix. So my father, always diligent when it came to following recipes, threw whole pieces of Sauerkraut into the bowl. This created quite a mess when the batter was then poured onto the skillet. Needless to say, the pancakes ended up looking like small baseball mounds, with weeds poking out from all directions. Even when we drowned the pancakes in maple syrup, it didn’t help the taste. Or the weird texture. After that, my father was a little less daring when it came to tampering with the family classics.

The long-standing staple of Sunday mornings had to be the pancake. We had pancakes on a fairly regular basis; certainly more often than both waffles and popovers combined. Probably because it was the easiest to prepare, and was a virtual winner every time.

In our family, we liked our pancakes of the thinner variety. Not necessarily silver dollar size, but definitely silver dollar consistency. I was never a fan of the thick heavy pancake you find at most IHOPs and Denny’s. They are weighted down with so much dough and filler, you can’t even get through one, let alone a stack of three. But with my father’s light and airy pancakes, I was able to eat eight to twelve, an astonishing feat for someone so young. Slathered with butter and dripping with syrup, these tempting little treats always started the day off on the right foot. (Though halfway through the church service we attended afterwards, I would begin to feel the after-effects and often doze off during Communion.)

Waffles were also a favorite in our household. But for some reason, they’d often make the transition from breakfast to dinner. And more often than not, we would eat Waffles at night rather than on a Sunday morning. I’m not sure why this was exactly. Maybe because the waffle iron took so long to heat up and go through its cycle, it somehow elevated the meal to a more important status. Whereas pancakes could be turned out pretty fast, there was nothing to quicken the pace of our old waffle iron. One waffle every five minutes was about all it could handle, which meant most of the waffles were put in the oven to warm until the entire process was completed. This meant that some of the first waffles would be a little crispier than the final waffle off the iron. Still, the little pockets and holes were perfect for filling with butter and syrup, and gave me my first basic lesson in how to compartmentalize.

The final Sunday morning treat, and certainly my favorite, was the Popover. An English tradition that my father somehow incorporated into our heritage as well, the popover was a magical creation that took the longest to make, but was definitely the most fun to eat. With its soft airy interior and crispy outside, it was the perfect vessel for honey or jelly or anything sweet. I loved to break them open and watch the steam rise, as the doughy interior screamed to be covered in butter. (Or Country Crock, or whatever was in the plastic tub in the center of the table.)

The popover had to go through a two-step process in the oven, which was so critical to its success, my family practically didn’t speak until the batter successfully made it through the popping process. Sometimes we’d even monitor the progress through the oven window, just to make sure all the little cups of batter were rising properly.

But no matter which of the three Sunday morning treats we had, it was always the best meal of the week. Even if it meant we’d have to go to Church afterwards. (Which of course, as a child, I really hated…BORING!) Which makes me wonder if my father’s motivation for creating these amazing Sunday morning concoctions had less to do with making something delicious, and more to do with making sure we got to Church on time. Either way, I will always associate Sunday mornings with my father’s creative cooking, as I continue to carry on his tradition to this very day.

But that’s just me. What’s your favorite Sunday morning meal?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

10 Tips to Consider BEFORE Auditioning for "American Idol"

Like Salmon that swim upstream every year to lay their eggs, the current crop of American Idol contestants has once again invaded the airwaves with their amazing vocal talents, or total lack thereof. And like Salmon, many of the contestants will be eaten alive by the vicious tongue of Simon Cowell or the hungry lips of Randy Jackson. (Paula, who isn’t in the mood for fish, will simply sit and giggle. Or adjust her wig. Or both.)

This is Season Seven of “American Idol,” so you’d think by now people would understand what it takes to get their “golden ticket to Hollywood.” You actually have to own some pretty significant singing chops in order to participate in this contest. Even to survive past the first round of cuts, there needs to be a polish and professionalism to your performance. So why is it that year after year we still have to suffer through a series of embarrassing and humiliating auditions that nobody with half a brain would put themselves through?

As a person with many actor friends, I know how hard it is to audition for professional jobs. And though “American Idol” is supposed to be an amateur contest, the people who make it to the final ten usually have a lot of experience and training in their portfolio. They don’t have silly wigs and lobster costumes, but why would you wear those to a talent contest anyway? Unless you were auditioning to be a costumer, in which case, you should perhaps apply to “Project Runway” instead.

I think in some ways, “American Idol” represents the poor man’s road to the American Dream. People seem to think it’s an easy path to fame and fortune. Only it’s not so easy. And just because you delude yourself with feelings of grandeur, it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to the prize. You have to earn it. You can’t just show up and expect all the glory without any talent to back you up. And yet, year after year, that’s what people do.

That being said, I have assembled a list of ten tips to consider before auditioning for “American Idol.”

1. Can you sing? This one should be fairly obvious. But judging from the millions of people who audition each year that can’t, I think it’s a pretty fair question. And just to emphasize the point:

2. Repeat Question #1 four more times. And then ask other people as well. (At least forty.) And not just relatives either. Go up to perfect strangers on the street and sing them a few bars of Mariah or Whitney. If they don’t think you’re crazy, and actually like what they hear, then you may advance to Tip 3. (If not, please go back to Question #1 and repeat until you finally decide to give up and audition for something more appropriate, like maybe “Extreme Makeover” or “The Biggest Loser.”)

3. Do you have talent? Even if you can sing in the church choir or the school play, would your voice actually sell a record? And I don’t mean a William Hung type of record. I mean something that people would actually buy for more than a quick laugh. (Unless you are intentionally trying to be funny, in which case, you might instead audition for “Last Comic Standing” or “The Singing Bee.”)

4. Do you have experience performing in front of people? It constantly amazes me how many people freeze up in front of the judges. Or sing so quietly, you’d think they were whispering. I understand that nerves can be severely heightened, especially since you are also being filmed in the process. But if you don’t already have experience handling this type of pressure, why would you put yourself through it now? Did you think that everything would magically come together once you got in the room?

5. Is your physical appearance appetizing? I don’t mean you should look like someone would want to eat you, but your appearance certainly shouldn’t want to make us throw up either. The minute you walk into an audition room, you are being judged. And one of the first things you are judged on is your appearance. So if you come in wearing leg warmers, a poodle skirt and a ski mask, you’re probably not going to be taken as seriously as someone who looks nicely put together. You don’t have to wear a tux, but don’t look like trailer trash either. (Unless you’re going for the grunge look, in which case you might want to consider “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel.)

6. Can you sing? Hey, people have gotten further than this without really knowing.

7. Have you ever spent time in a mental hospital? Seriously, I have to ask, because there’s simply no other explanation for some of the people who audition. Where do they get off feeling like they’re so entitled? “F*&k you, American Idol! I’m a star, whether you know it or not. And I’m going to keep pursuing my dreams, and you’re going to see me in the movies in no time. It’s your loss, not mine. Because I am a star! Do you hear me????? I’M A STAR!!!” This is followed by a lot of fire breathing and screaming and general chaos, until the Godzilla of Stars finally decides to leave the building, an unsympathetic cameraman following her all the way.

8. Can you handle criticism? Because if you can’t, you’re in the wrong business. You’d better have several thick layers of skin if you hope to survive past the final round of cuts. And then several more layers for what you’ll encounter should you actually win the entire contest. This is not a business for the shy or introverted. So why do people, like this week’s inflated Tiny Tim look-alike, insist on auditioning for something that obviously scares them? Unless it’s like a therapy session for them, and they’re using the experience to try and break down their “inner walls,” in which case they would be a better fit for “Dr. Phil.”

9. Do you need a lot of sleep? Then this contest isn’t for you. Because once you get accepted to Hollywood, your life as you know it will be over. No more sleeping till noon, or partying all weekend long. You will be thrown into a non-stop whirlwind of rehearsals, vocal lessons, photo shoots, television appearances, and other obligations that will take every second of your time from now until the end of your contract. (Which, by the way, is almost akin to signing your soul away to the Devil.)

10. Can you sing? Please, please, please take an honest evaluation of your voice. Because just your desire to be a star is not going to be enough. You actually need some vocals to back you up.

There are many roads to the American Dream. For millions of people, “American Idol” seems like the easiest route. But for many this road will only lead to pain and disappointment. So if my little list of Ten Tips can save just one person from going through all that angst, my work here will not be in vain.

But that’s just me. What are your best tips for auditioning?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Celebrity Mystery in Plainfield NJ

Hit the play button above to watch a humorous story about celebrity sightings in my hometown. Just another example of the strange things happening around here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Key to Kyle XY

How did a show about a boy without a belly button become so intriguing? And I don’t mean because the storylines always contain a nice blend of science fiction and soap opera. I’m intrigued because some of the topics are pretty risqué, especially given that it’s an ABC Family Channel show. For example, past episodes have included pretty frank discussions of teenage sex, pornography, infidelity, pot smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, cancer and even masturbation. Not the typical subject matter you’d expect to find in a Disney produced vehicle. But there it is nonetheless, cleverly mixed in with mystery and adventure, so you don’t notice as much.

Granted, these issues might not be new to network television, but they are somewhat new to family television. Except that ABC touts itself as “a different kind of family,” so I guess that means we don’t have to pretend we’re living in the 50s anymore. But does that also mean that Disney might try to instill this new kind of honesty into their other iconic stories? Imagine an updated version of “Cinderella” where the stepsisters complain about nothing but menstruation and cheating boyfriends. Or a modern day “Pinocchio” where the little wooden puppet is put in jail for executing indecent acts with his nose. And I shudder to think what might happen between Snow White and those seven little men.

Don’t get me wrong. I like this honest approach to such mature subject matter; I’m just surprised the producers haven’t gotten a lot of flack for doing it. Maybe it’s because the show is partly Science Fiction, so the conservative family organizations don’t give it much attention. They figure since there’s no such thing as a genetically created human being, there must also be no such thing as masturbation and drug abuse? Or maybe because Kyle has amazing powers and super-human intelligence, not to mention great eyes and a killer smile, they equate him with another immaculately conceived human being? (Oh come on, you don’t think there are some pretty heavy Jesus overtones in Kyle XY?)

At any rate, I like this show. The various members of Kyle’s extended family have grown on me; particularly the brother, who has matured into a good little actor. Some of the most poignant moments from last season were scenes when he and his “girlfriend” were going through the hardships of talking about her Cancer.

And then there’s Matt Dallas, who is unabashedly charming and innocent as Kyle. He was a good choice for this role, because there is something almost inhuman about him. His line readings are sometimes mechanical, and his facial expressions somewhat limited, but that only lends to his credibility as a manufactured object. Though, for the entire first season, I thought maybe he was wearing a wig because his hair always looked the same. Even in a windstorm, it had that “fresh-out-of-the-package-and-glued-to-the-head” kind of look. But in Season Three, it looks like he’s progressed beyond that style.

Too bad he can’t also progress beyond his annoying girlfriend, whose pouting and prissy personality is as bland as Tilapia. After two years of playing the martyr, I think it’s time she moved to college for good. And took her mean old mother with her.

But until that happens, I’ll still tune in to see what taboo topics the show plans to investigate this year. Maybe Kyle’s female counterpart Jessie will decide she really wants to be a transsexual or a cross-dresser, or both. Or Kyle’s supportive adopted parents will start a weekly “key party,” where they begin swapping more than stories with the neighbors. Whatever the major themes might become, you can bet that Kyle XY will explore them with honesty and integrity. Because that is the key to Kyle XY. The show has heart. And with heart, you can conquer anything.

But that’s just me. What do you think of Kyle XY?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My Quest for the Perfect Cup of Coffee

Everyone who drinks coffee knows what it means to have the “perfect cup,” although what’s perfect for one person is not necessarily the same for another. For some, the rich robust taste of a strong pot of black coffee is all they need to get going. For others, the addition of a little cream and sugar adds just the right touch of sweetness to titillate their palettes. And then there are still others, myself included, who don’t really like the taste of coffee at all. We only use it as a resource for the Flavored Creamers, Splenda and other tasty powders we can add to it. This is not to say that coffee doesn’t play a large part in the taste of such a super sweet concoction; it’s just not the overriding theme.

My first introduction to coffee would have to be from my parents, who liked their java as black as coal, no milk or sugar added. To me, this tasted like mud. Or dishwater. (Not that I have a habit of tasting either, but you get the point.) I never understood why they liked to drink something so distasteful, until I began noticing their shift in mood immediately after consuming a cup.

My father was particularly obvious when it came to coffee’s effect on his psyche. He would wake up every morning at five or six to fix himself a pot of coffee and read the newspaper. So by eight o’clock when the rest of us woke up, he would already be through one pot and on to the next, his twittering behavior a clear indication of caffeine-infused veins. He also had a somewhat manic exuberance that reminded me of a Mexican Jumping Bean; he just couldn’t sit still. In fact, he usually chose this time to grill me on my previous evening’s activities, often sounding like a machine gun as he fired off questions in rapid succession. I don’t know if he even cared to hear the answers; he just like shooting off the questions. I had barely woken up and he was already interrogating me like a Drill Sergeant.

For that reason alone, I resisted the temptation of coffee until my junior year in college. Then, the quintessential “all night” study sessions made the need for coffee a mandatory obsession. By that time, I’d also discovered that by adding creamer and sugar to your coffee, it actually didn’t taste like coffee at all. But rather like a bland hot chocolate (minus the chocolate). I found that I could definitely stomach this type of mixture, though I still wasn’t completely sold on the taste.

Then came the advent of flavored coffee, which at least was a step up from the standard mud flavoring most coffee employed. But the absolute turning point for me came when Nestle introduced the Flavored Creamer collection (an off-shoot of the International Coffees Craze). With such tempting flavors as Hazelnut, Amaretto and Irish Cream, I finally had a reason to get up every morning and fix myself a cup of Joe. And now it not only contained flavored coffee, but flavored creamer to boot. If only I had a flavored sugar substitute as well, I’d be all set. (Which, of course, Splenda introduced several years later.)

But even with all that, I still searched for something I thought would make my coffee even better. My “perfect cup.” And one day, I thought I’d found it. A new type of powdered substance known as “Latte Creations.” Though it was meant to be used as a substitute for instant coffee, I actually added a spoonful to my regular cup of coffee (along with creamer and Splenda). The additional ingredient added a creamy consistency to the mixture that the flavored creamer alone couldn’t achieve. It was the Crème de la Crème of Creaminess. Pure Heaven. I’d finally created my “perfect cup.”

But then Nestle decided to discontinue the product for some reason, leaving me Latte-less and Creation-free. Discouraged, I went on a mad search of my local supermarkets to buy up any remaining inventory. I even scoured the internet and close-out stores, hoping to find any of the left-over stock before it disappeared forever. But the search has thus far been fruitless. “Latte Creations” is as out of date as last week’s underwear.

And don’t even get me started about Starbucks, whose regular coffee is way too strong for me, and whose specialty coffees like Caramel Macchiato are way too expensive. Starbucks may have a stronghold on the take-out coffee industry at the moment, but for me, a scoop of Taster’s Choice Hazelnut, 2 packs of Splenda, and a generous helping of Flavored Creamer is the best cup of coffee I can find. It’s not what I’d consider my “perfect cup,” but it comes darn close.

But that’s just me. What’s your “perfect cup” of coffee?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Who Took the Vacate out of Vacations?

I love to travel. There is something very exciting about going to a foreign country. You get to learn about different cultures, try new kinds of foods, and spend way too much time exploring gift shops filled with overpriced junk and unnecessary trinkets. Unlike a beach vacation, which emphasizes relaxation and drinking, traveling to a foreign city or country requires a desire to move outside the confines of your hotel. In fact, a trip to Paris or London might hardly be relaxing at all if you tried to cram everything you could in the time allotted.

Even so, I much prefer the rapid pace of this type of exploratory holiday over the slow-as-molasses atmosphere at a beach. Plus, on a beach I turn into a slovenly glutton after ten days, whereas on a touring vacation I lose ten pounds.

Last year I went to Italy and immersed myself in the history, architecture and classic art of this incredible country. It was a wonderful vacation, though there was hardly enough time to see and do everything. One of the highlights was getting off the train in Venice and walking onto the promenade for my first glimpse of this incredible city. It was truly a magical moment, like stepping into a living fairy tale.

This year, I wanted to visit Spain as a part of my annual sojourn to Europe. But after looking at the prices for airfare alone, I might have to rethink my plans. How the heck am I supposed to survive in Madrid for ten days, if the cost of getting there could send me to the poorhouse? The price for airfare alone is staggering. Unless I wanted to make more than one stop, with layovers of five to six hours between flights. On top of that, there’s the cost of the hotels, the meals, the attractions. And all the many souvenirs and momentos I’d have to purchase in order to remember the trip when I started getting old and senile. I could probably pay someone’s college tuition for a year on what it would cost to go. (Granted, it might only be tuition at a community college or night school, but still…)

When did traveling become so expensive? Even Canada, which used to be the best bargain vacation of all, has caught up in strength against the U.S. dollar. No longer able to take advantage of the two for one exchange rate, going to Canada is now as expensive as going to most cities in the U.S.

At this rate, the only vacation I may be able to take this year is a vacation from vacations. Who can afford anything else?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

In New Jersey, "Driving" Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Some of you might remember the famous catch phrase from the movie “Love Story,” that told us “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Of course, that kind of thinking is not only ignorant, but downright dangerous. Particularly because I think some drivers in New Jersey have actually taken that old tagline to heart. Swerving in and out of traffic, at speeds rivaling the Indy 500, many drivers in New Jersey live in a world all their own. A world that’s free of restrictions and boundaries, where every day is an opportunity for another exciting thrill ride. You see, rules don’t apply to this type of driver, because they’re above the law. They’re special. Or at least they view themselves that way.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed near misses when it comes to potential accidents while driving. And it’s not just “Speed Racers” that are the problem. There are also the “Horse and Buggy” drivers, who slow traffic down to a stand still every time they enter or leave traffic. For these drivers, caution is the keyword, and they use it with unapologetic excess.

Unfortunately, they don’t always bother to look out for oncoming traffic when they enter a roadway. They just sort of thrust themselves forward and hope for the best. As you might imagine, most of these drivers are of the elderly variety, some of whom should probably have retired from driving long ago. But there are also some younger drivers who adhere to this principal, particularly when they are planning to turn off the road. They begin slowing down a mile from their exit, flashing their blinkers and drifting on and off the shoulder, until they finally get to their much anticipated change of direction. That’s when the brakes are fully applied, so they can accomplish the incredibly difficult task of turning the wheel. This method of stopping completely before turning has caused more accidents than I care to count.

But if “Horse and Buggy” drivers are overly-cautious, the “Liberty Cells” are just the opposite. With their blue-tooth attachments or cell-to-ear technology, they don’t have time to pay proper attention to rules and regulations. They have calls to make, things to say, people to talk to. All of which leaves them very little time to watch out for other cars when they’re changing lanes, or assuming that a red light means they actually have to stop. Those policies don’t apply to them because they’re in the middle of a conversation, and they certainly aren’t going to let “driving” distract them from that. It would mean interrupting their important train of thought, which to them is a clear violation of their “freedom of speech.”

Then of course, there are the “Puddle Jumpers,” those whimsical mischief makers that simply can’t decide which lane they want to be in. So they make quick decisions, and jump over to the next lane regardless of how close they might come to the car in front or behind them. These drivers live by the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” philosophy, assuming that whichever lane they aren’t in must be better for some reason. So their journey becomes a never ending game of hopscotch, as they skip back and forth between lanes, second-guessing their decisions and then skipping back. And it doesn’t seem to matter if there’s barely a car-length available for them to skip into; if they need to get over there, they’ll make themselves fit. Naturally, these people tend to suffer from other types of maladies as well, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder or ADD.

Now why, you might wonder, am I crediting New Jersey with exclusive ownership for these types of drivers? Surely these categories exist in other states as well. Yes, that may be true. But in New Jersey, there seems to be an overabundance of “entitlement” that makes your daily journey on the roadways a living re-enactment of “Grand Theft Auto.”

But why New Jersey? Why do so many aggressive or oblivious drivers seem to aggregate in the Garden State? Well, after much contemplation and theoretical debate, I think I’ve finally come up with a hypothesis.

The reason that New Jersey drivers don’t follow rules is because of the Jughandles. Those weird little turn-arounds that make you go right when you want to turn left. That is the precedent, the very principle which guides New Jersey drivers wherever they go. If the convention of having to go in the opposite direction to get somewhere is a standard practice, then why wouldn’t the opposite be true in other circumstances too?

For instance, if they tell you not to speed, you actually can. Or if they tell you not to change lanes without a turn signal, who cares? As long as you’re turning right to go left, you’re following the rules. Rules, that for New Jersey drivers, were made to be broken.

But that’s just me. What do you think of driving in New Jersey?

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Jaded and Arrogant Magic of David Copperfield

I’ve always loved magicians. Or rather, I’ve always loved what magicians can do. The can make people levitate, make people disappear, make people transform into ferocious animals. There’s no limit to the types of illusions they can create, and the fun part is trying to figure out how they do it.

Like most people, I know the majority of magic tricks are based on some very simple principals: a trap door, a hidden wire, a forklift. But when someone can perform a trick that’s so unusual and complex that you just can’t fathom how it was done, I have nothing but respect and admiration for their skills.

So it should be no surprise that when I went to Las Vegas a few years ago, one of the shows I definitely wanted to see had to include magic. And since the only resident magician I was familiar with was David Copperfield, I decided to go see him. Not that I had a particular affinity for Mr. Copperfield, other than remembering he once dated Claudia Schiffer; he just happened to be the only magician's name I recognized.

So I went to his show with great expectations. Upon arriving at the theater, my friend and I were escorted to the front row, and placed at a small round table with another couple. We were then asked if during the finale of the show, we would participate by immediately standing up and applauding when the trick was over.

“And feel free to yell out words like Bravo or Encore or encouraging stuff like that,” the bright young P.A. explained. “Let David know how much you love him. And while you’re standing, David is going to come down the row and shake everyone’s hand. Isn’t that great? You’ll actually get to shake David’s hand. Cool, huh?”

Yeah, real cool. Naturally, my friend and I looked at each other with a little bit of skepticism. Why would someone as famous as David Copperfield need his audience to shill for him? Was he that insecure that he needed a standing ovation every night? I suddenly felt like I was “in on the trick;” like I’d been exposed to a part of the act I wouldn’t have been privy to had I been sitting in the third or fourth row. But since my table was practically hugging the front of the stage, I was being “used” to trick the rest of the audience into giving Mr. Copperfield his nightly ego boost. (And I wasn’t even getting paid for it.)

Nevertheless, we agreed to do it, if only to keep the P.A. from harassing us. But after waiting over a half hour for the show to start, I began to get a little irritated. Then, before Mr. Copperfield even appeared, we still had to sit through a twenty minute film which did nothing but tout Copperfield as the greatest living human being in the world. Forget being a magician, David was portrayed as a virtual God. It was a little weird. Why did this guy need to remind us who he was? Didn’t he know that’s the only reason we came to see him? Why was he giving us such a hard sell? The whole thing made me very uncomfortable.

But that was nothing compared to the shock I felt after David finally appeared. Because you’d think after all that build-up and self-grandizing, you’d be greeted by a guy that was full of energy and bigger than life. Instead, David appeared rather bored and indifferent throughout his act, walking around the stage with all the energy of a nightlight. There was no pep in his patter, nor any enthusiasm for what he was doing. It was like he was walking through the show with condescension for both his audience and the very tricks themselves. (No wonder he made us sit through all the film clips—it was the only time he showed any life during the entire evening.)

And though there were a few stand-out illusions, including the finale where he magically appears from the back of the audience, most of the show consisted of smaller, more ordinary tricks. Magic that could probably be done by most magicians in their sleep. In fact, that’s exactly what it looked like Mr. Copperfield was doing. Performing in a slumber. And since he couldn’t bring himself to actually wake up to participate, he decided to sleepwalk through it instead. (To be fair, Mr. Copperfield was doing a lot of sniffing and snorting throughout the show, so perhaps he was suffering from a cold. Or something.)

Or maybe he was just getting tired of doing magic. Maybe after years of performing, he was finally more jaded than genuine. After all, he’d probably done these tricks a thousand times before for countless audiences all over the world, many of whom were probably much more important than us. Regardless, I paid good money for my ticket and I expected to be mesmerized; not condescended to.

So when it came time to stand up for Mr. Copperfield during the finale, half the front row hesitated. Why? Because we all knew it was BS, and maybe felt a little weird contributing to Mr. Copperfield’s already bloated self-esteem. Of course, we all eventually did, but I definitely came away from the show with a very bad taste in my mouth.

Then months later, when all the allegations came out about Mr. Copperfield’s “alleged” sexual misunderstanding with a female in the Bahamas, I wondered if David had gotten bored with other social conventions as well. Like the not-so-subtle differences between dating and rape. But regardless of whether Mr. Copperfield is actually guilty or not, his persona has forever been tainted in my mind. And not because he’s not a talented magician; but because his talent seems to have ballooned his head into monolithic proportions.

Perhaps he should take a clue from the Dickensian character whose name he cleverly borrowed, and return to a time when he was more humble and less arrogant. Then maybe we’d all rediscover the magic that used to be David Copperfield.

But that’s just me. What do you think of David Copperfield?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

My New Years Substitution

So it’s the first day of the year. The first day of the rest of your life. The day when you look forward with excitement and awe to all the possibilities the New Year might hold for you. Will you get a new job? Will you fall in love? Will the public ever get tired of hearing about Britney Spears?

In other words, this should be a very optimistic time. And yet this morning I woke up with a bit of a headache, and a day filled with dark clouds and pouring rain. Not exactly what you’d call a buoyant beginning for 2008. So instead of greeting the New Year with energy and enthusiasm, I crawled in bed and went back to sleep.

But now I’m wide awake, and sober, and my mood hasn’t gotten much better. What happened? Last night I was so upbeat and full of energy, and today I feel like I just hit BANKRUPT on “Wheel of Fortune”. Other than residual lethargy from an evening of celebrating with friends, there shouldn’t be this gloomy feeling pervading my spirit. And yet, I find myself looking toward the future with uncertainty…perhaps even doubt. Will 2008 be better than 2007? Will the War in Iraq ever end? Will someone please explain to me why Paris Hilton is important?

I find myself filled with so many questions that I can’t quite see the future as clearly as I thought I did. So instead of writing the traditional list of New Years Resolutions, I decided to deconstruct my many thoughts and fears, and try to figure out why I have so much angst about the coming year. A substitution for the typical resolutions, if you will. (It also prevents me from having to make any promises I know I won't keep. Like giving up my $4 cup of Starbucks coffee, for instance.)

So here is a partial list of my questions for 2008:

Will the Writer’s Strike ever end? Or is Winter television going to be filled with a slew of reality shows like “Family Fight Club” and “Skid Row Nation?”

Will iTunes ever give us a “Free Song of the Week” that’s actually good?

Will steroid use in sports darken the careers of more legendary athletes?

Will the Spice Girls be as popular as they were before?

Will J K Rowling have success past Harry Potter?

Will Hilary become the first female President?

Will (fill in the blank) ever come out of the closet?

Will my 1-year-old iPod continue its swift journey toward irrelevancy?

Will the real Lindsay Lohan please stand up?

These are the kinds of questions plaguing me today as I take stock of the New Year. I’m sure you have a few of your own, so feel free to add them to the list.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be a little more optimistic.