Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why Thanksgiving Is the Most Totally Awesome Holiday in America

After reflecting upon what has been another very enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday, I began to wonder if Thanksgiving is in fact the most totally awesome holiday in America. Intrigued, I made a list to test my theory out. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions, but so far I agree with myself.

Thanksgiving only improves with age.

As anyone who has known me for at least fifteen minutes can attest, I was born on Christmas. This made that already-special day take on even greater significance since it was also my birthday (other people on Team Christmas Birthday: Humphrey Bogart, Clara Barton, and Sir Isaac Newton). However, somewhere around the onset of adolescence, one begins to discover that days such as Christmas and your birthdays yield diminishing returns (even when they are on the same day). Not so with Thanksgiving. It’s the rare holiday that actually gets better as you get older. Things like the glory of stuffing are lost upon the under-12 demographic, while activities like sitting around and listening to the older relatives’ stories are wasted on the ears of the youth. Usually adult holidays are depressing (Memorial Day), boring (Secretary’s Day), or nondescript (Labor Day), but Thanksgiving is an adult-centered day that is essentially enjoyable. At least until the hangover kicks in.

You can always wish people a Happy Thanksgiving.

I’ve had the privilege of coming of age during a time of intense cultural changes for our country: The end of the Cold War, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the awkward transition from saying “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.” Now, in a post-“Merry Christmas” world, any greeting that refers to that sacred Christian day comes with a tinge of political incorrectness, a sort of white man’s burden of the WASP set. We aim for multicultural diversity but wind up with bland compromise. But you can wish anyone a Happy Thanksgiving and not run the risk of that awkward pause followed by the word “Actually…” In a nation of blue and red holidays, Thanksgiving is a purple one.

There’s no Thanksgiving music.

Now, I love Christmas music in theory, but when it comes down to it there’s only a half dozen seasonal albums I ever need to listen to (let’s see: Elvis, Phil Spector, Charlie Brown, Dean Martin, John Fahey…alright, that’s actually less than half a dozen). This is because there’re only a few dozen Christmas songs, and they’ve all been recorded a million times. Does Michael BublĂ© or Kenny G really think they’re gonna add something significant to the Christmas canon with one more elevator-music rendition of “White Christmas”? Now, I’ve always felt the music industry is missing a goldmine by not having bands release Thanksgiving records. Think about it: Unlike the limitations of Christmas music, this is a completely open field – there can be no trite rehashing of music because there are no Thanksgiving songs. To paraphrase Robert F. Kennedy, some people look at the holiday music that is and say why, but I look to the holiday music that isn’t and ask why not.

Thanksgiving is the fastest holiday.

Unlike the twelve days of Christmas or the what-am-I-going-to-be pre-scramble of Halloween, Thanksgiving is a self-contained holiday, neatly lining up with the ever-increasing speed of our postmodern attention span (or lack thereof). It’s the only holiday that’s not even an entire day – it’s a part of the day, something that can’t be said for holidays as diverse as Easter, Martin Luther King Day, or Veteran’s Day. Yes, the meal often begins early, but if you play your cards right, you can also end early – thanks in no small part to all that “food coma”-inducing turkey.

Thanksgiving is based on a fairy tale that isn’t a mask for racism.

Okay, so there was no turkey eaten at the first Thanksgiving, but aside from that, the raw idea of Thanksgiving – Pilgrims and Indians breaking bread together after the harvest – is essentially true. Compare this with Columbus Day, where we celebrate a tyrant who slaughtered Indians and died without even knowing that he “discovered” a new continent. Even the Fourth of July was originally based on the tacit assumption that “All men are created equal” translates to “all free, white landowning males are created equal.” In a country that hides and manipulates its own history in order to save face, Thanksgiving is as close to well-intended history as possible, plus it’s the only day I can think of that’s indebted to Indians. Not bad for a country that remembers Crazy Horse’s First Slaughter as Custer’s Last Stand.

Thanksgiving has the better TV episodes.

This one seems counterintuitive because there are more Christmas episodes, but in terms of quality, they have nothing on Thanksgiving. Remember the Cheers with the Thanksgiving food fight? Or The Bob Newhart Show where the guys all get drunk at an “orphans” Thanksgiving (four words: “moo goo gai pan”)? Or the WKRP where they do the Thanksgiving promotion of launching turkeys from an airplane, unaware that turkeys can’t fly? Or the Fresh Prince where Will’s mom makes the kids cook Thanksgiving dinner (it gets bonus points for Will and Carlton’s “hip” teacher’s “Hamlet” rap)? Or the Seinfeld where Elaine knocks the pointy thing from the window of the celebrity dentist’s apartment so that it deflates Mr. Pitt’s Woody Woodpecker balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade (okay, like all great Seinfeld episodes, it’s kind of complicated to explain)? And remember: Thanksgiving provided the best fodder for Friends’ awkward ’80s flashbacks with fat Monica and pre-nose job Rachel. I could go on further, but I think I’ve made my point.

Thanksgiving is the rare holiday that’s consistent with our national values.

Halloween encourages children to dress up and then rewards them for being something they are not. Christmas alleges to be the most religious of days, but is spent by most families doing weird pagan rituals that have been reinforced by the greeting card industry. And Valentines’ Day? Just ask any ’60s burnout how the whole “All you need is love” thing worked out. No, Thanksgiving is not trying to be anything that it isn’t – it’s a day reserved for sitting around and overeating and drinking in front of the TV in preparation for going out on the biggest shopping day of the year. And if that isn’t a quintessentially American day, I don’t know what is.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Random Thoughts, Vol. 2: Gettin’ out of My League

At the risk of completely stereotyping against jock-types (not that that’s ever stopped me before), I believe that the whole idea of fantasy football is wasted on a demographic that isn’t the least bit aware of the full potential such an activity holds.

This is a fantasy football league, people! They’re not real teams! You aren’t really in charge of them! So why limit yourself to current football players? If this is truly a made-up fantasy world, you should be able to bring players back from the dead. I mean, imagine if you could build your little pretend team around Jim Thorpe? Or, um, some other dead football player – he’s the only dead one I can apparently name. In fact, outside of O.J. Simpson and whatever the Refrigerator’s real name is, Jim Thorpe is the only non-current player I can name, period. Oh wait, there was the guy who ran the cafĂ© in My Two Dads. Oh, and the dad on Webster. But I digress.

As this last tangent shows, I would have a most awesome fantasy football team ever because I wouldn’t make the silly mistake of limiting myself to people who are and/or were professional football players. Let’s keep things interesting, people. I bet Abraham Lincoln woulda been one heck of a player – 6’4” and he can out-chop any other rail-splitter in this-here county? Done – Abe, you’re playing for me. Teddy Roosevelt too, he must’ve kicked some ass in his day. In fact, I have a recording of a speech he made to a boys club comparing something (life, maybe?) to a football game. Y’know, trying to keep the kiddies’ interest and all that. But if any of those kids had shown disinterest and mouthed off, you know he coulda charged right into the crowd. And while we’re on the subject of presidents, wasn’t Gerald Ford All-American? And Ronald Reagan played Knute Rockne – oh wait, I can name another dead football star. (P.S.: Am I the only one to notice that all the presidential football players are Republicans? Damn you, the Kennedy Clan and your damn wussy touch football games!)

So yeah, I like where this is going. Pretty bad-ass. We get a fantasy league of dead presidents – Lincoln, Teddy, Ford, Reagan – throw in a few live ones – well, Barack Obama (George W. can cheerlead from the side) – and then keep Knute Rockne as an alternate (he can give Abe pointers on offense and Ronnie pointers on acting) and have Will Rodgers play defense (okay, I don’t think Will Rodgers would be any good at football, but he would have hilarious things to say about participating in a game with half a dozen dead presidents).

And then, of course, I’d center the whole team around Jim Thorpe.

Now, there’s a Super Bowl I would watch. Just imagine what they could do for the halftime show, let alone who would have the wardrobe malfunction. And the victory party? Sign me up.

Dead prez, consider yourself drafted; fantasy football, consider yourself welcome.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Random Thoughts, Vol. 1: Good Book, Bad Intentions

They say that the Bible is the most stolen book in the United States. While most people find this surprising or ironic, I think it makes perfect sense. If people are stealing the Bible, they probably haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet; thus, they haven’t learned that “Thou shalt not steal.”

I think the real tragedy here is that the Bible is not the most returned book in the United States. But this may not be as much people consciously defying moral standards as it is a reflection that most people buy books not to read, but to put on their shelves so that they look smart when people come over.

And as the Word of God, is there any smarter-looking book to own besides the Bible?

That is, until David McCullough releases his next book about some historical thing that you never cared about until he put his name on it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Retailin’ It Like It Is

While pissing away the final moments of an employee lunch break (literally, I’m afraid), a dark epiphany crossed my mind: When my birthday occurs next month, I’ll have spent over half of my life working retail, on and off. It’s less a career choice than it is an old high school flame that I find myself hooking up with every time I come home for Thanksgiving -- so easy, so accessible, yet ultimately, so wrong. But as life throws you curveballs, it’s the one thing you can always come back to.

I came up through the music stores such that my resume now looks like a tombstone: Tower Records, followed by Virgin Superstore, followed by Borders Books, Music, & Cafe. The music industry has now left me stranded among the last gang in town: Barnes & Noble, a solid company though surely not a stupid one; I can almost watch as the inventory ominously disappears like the limbs of Marty McFly’s siblings in that photo during the original Back to the Future. We live our days on borrowed time.

Despite all of these changing companies, positions, and policies, there are some retail truisms that have remained constant such that I feel they are worth relating here. Hopefully they will provide pearls of wisdom upon which future generations can meditate, ponder, and absorb. At any rate, I call this lesson: My Top 3 Really, Really Annoying Things Customers Do That Piss Me Off When I’m Working Retail.

1. The Magical Backroom

Somewhere, in a magical time of castles and kings there was a place where every single stock item that anyone ever wanted was kept. Despite all of the things that we’ve been able to shed from the dark ages -- the black plague, barbers as doctors, a geocentric theory of the universe -- this one has stubbornly remained. Whenever something can’t be found on the floor, the customer’s eyes well up with enough hope to fuel twenty Obama campaigns and ask, “Could you check in the backroom?” In their minds, they are prepared for the retail clerk to smack their forehead and say something along the lines of, “Yes! The backroom! How could have I been so foolish?!” and then proceed to skip off towards that room and arrive back with the item in hand seven to twelve seconds later.

Well, after working at all of the above places, plus a local used CD store, I can safely say that this room does not exist. If there is a backroom at all, it likely has items like employee jackets and backpacks that are not for sale (and too cheap to be worth selling in the first place). The few times there is product, it’s overstock (i.e., the 600 extra copies of every Norah Jones album since Come Away With Me), defects (i.e., the item you want already bought, broken, and returned by someone else), or random freak things (i.e., my old music manager’s stash of “Amy Winehouse Death Watch” CDs -- alas, he was about three years ahead of his time).

That’s about it. The fact is that most retail stores keep everything they have on the sales floor. Otherwise it would be like going to an Eric Clapton show and having him play only songs off his new record. (Which, I’ve actually seen and it ain’t pretty -- I’m lookin’ at you, Pilgrim tour.)

2. Your Child/Grandchild’s Brilliance

Most people shutter when they have to work in the kids department because (a) they hate kids, (b) they hate kids’ products, (c) they hate picking up other peoples’ messes, or (d) they hate picking up other peoples’ messes of hated products that were designed for an age group they hate. As you probably guessed, for most people it’s because of choice (d).

Well, I’d like to offer my own reason for why I shutter when I have to work in a kids’ department: The inability of the child’s parent or grandparent to base their minds in a reality that lines up with the one that everyone else lives in.

It usually happens like this: They say, “I’m looking for a book for my son/grandson.” You say, “Great, how old are they?” And then, almost without fail, they answer with pride: “Well, he’s six, but he reads like a 37-year-old. The teacher says he’s very advanced for his age.” Whenever I hear this, my mind instantly rockets to a fantasy in which I am standing at a huge podium where seated before me is every parent and grandparent in the world. I ask the crowd, “How bright is your children and grandchildren?” And then I fold my arms and watch with sly satisfaction as they all answer without fail and at the same time, “The teacher says he’s very advanced for his age…” before their words trail off in the surprise echo surrounding them that triggers the unimaginable realization that every teacher says this about every kid.

Meanwhile, I do my best to help the customer in front of me as best I can. “Well, if your child is five but reads like an eighth grader, you should just go to the regular adult fiction section, because that’s what most eighth graders read.” Or, I just take them to the Shakespeare section and ask if their kindergartener is more of an Othello or an As You Like It man. They should probably wait and tackle the violent stuff like Titus Andronicus or the brainy stuff like King Lear until they’ve at the very least learned about fractions.

3. Just Because You’re into It, Doesn’t Mean the Rest of the World Is.

Here’s something that happens every day: A customer bounds in and says: “Do you have that book [insert partially correct title here]? It was on [insert generic daytime talk show here]. You must have it. Eeeeeverybody is buying it!”

If this is their pitch, chances are good that at least one of these three (if not all) are wrong. People have the crazy notion that just because they read about something on a random page in a newspaper, everyone must’ve heard about it and are clamoring it up. This is almost never true. In fact, sometimes I’m least happy when I can find the book for the customer and they see one of two sad copies that have been sitting in section untouched since they came in on their release day. In that situation, the customer has a wakeup call that causes them to question the world in which they live: “Well, why don’t you have more? And why aren’t they out in front? Isn’t everyone asking for this?”

It’s hard not to tell the customer the truth, especially when the book is something like I Saw Nothing: The Kato Kaelin Story or Lean on Me: A Detailed History of the Household Wall. Actually, I take that back. It’s very, very easy to tell the customer the truth, even though it’ll cost you about twenty more minutes in Purgatory.

* * *

So, if you can just keep these concepts in place, chances are you will be doing better than 95% of the people who walk through the front door of my store. However, that’s not to say that even when these peeves are cured, there won’t be other ones forming down the line like new strains of diseases once the antidote has been found.

But I’d risk it to say that if these peeves are corrected, it will at least bring the conventional wisdom level out of the Middle Ages and into that of the Early Renaissance. There may not be three-point perspective yet, but at least they’re beginning to tilt the halos.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I’m Sorry, But You Must Be Stopped Immediately. (An Open Letter to Nicholas Cage)

Dear Mr. Cage,

I know that you’re a huge Elvis fan, and so am I.

You have probably heard that story (I believe I read it in the 1999 30th anniversary edition of Elvis’s post-comeback studio recordings, Suspicious Minds: The Memphis 1969 Anthology) where Chips Moman, the producer with whom Elvis would collaborate on the sessions, was trying to get through to Elvis just how out-of-touch he was, having spent the Age of Aquarius shuttling back and forth between Graceland and Hollywood, surrounded only by a crew of hanger-ons and lackeys who did little more than sit around and worship him.

The story goes that for some reason or another, Chips wants Elvis to go outside with him when they were meeting for the first time in California. Elvis tells him, no way, I’m the biggest star in the world and I’m just gonna get mobbed. Chips is able to finally convince Elvis to try it and the two men walk down the street in late-’60s Los Angeles. And Elvis is shocked at the fact that not only is he not mobbed, but that no one seems to even notice him.

The upshot was that Elvis sobered up (at least momentarily) enough to reassess his situation and work with Chips, who was pretty much the only producer of his mature career to challenge him on material and performance. In so doing, Elvis made the finest studio recordings of his life.

I relate this rock and roll version of The Emperor’s New Clothes because I fear that you are in a similar situation that Elvis was in in the late 1960s, and I fear that you may be surrounded by yes men and hanger-ons who don’t know or don’t care about the work you’re doing.

What follows is a manifesto of what one potential fan of yours would like to tell you:

1. You are 47 years old. There is no reason why you should be making action movies that would make Shia Labeouf look immature.

2. Your hot costars are young enough to be your children. Drop-dead blonde 20-somethings don’t fall for 47-year-olds, unless you are rich and can potentially be used to gain recognition, either financial or otherwise…Oh, wait, I see. Still, it doesn’t make it comfortable to watch.

3. People who talk like David Schwimmer don’t make realistic action stars. If you talked like Matt LeBlanc, there’d be no problem here. I think I could even work something out if you talked like Matthew Perry. But Schwimmer? You’d be better off if you talked like Courteney Cox.

4. You have an Oscar. Use it for something other than rubbing your back after a hard day of injuring yourself with stunts that mostly had to be done by a double anyway.

5. Return to your roots (and I don’t mean hairplugs). Accept the fact that as time moves forward, your film returns diminish. You cut your teeth on indie/outsider stuff like Birdy and Raising Arizona before breaking through artistically with Leaving Las Vegas. But then, you had one great action film (The Rock, although the Criterionites are still almost as pissed it’s #108 as they are that Armageddon is #40, but I digress) and one decent action film (Face/Off) before the long, sad slide into one generic blob of loud and crashy dreck.

6. Finally -- and this one’s probably going to hurt -- you should never play Superman EVER. EVER. EVER. You playing Superman would be like the equivalent of Steve Buscemi waking up one day and telling his agent, “Hey, I think I should play Mr. Darcy in a remake of Pride and Prejudice.” Or Sylvester Stallone deciding to direct and star in a remake of Hamlet. Or Bob Dylan convincing his label to record him crooning Bing Crosby-style Christmas standards. (Oops, scratch that last one…But you get the picture.)

I hope I’m not totally being totally disrespectful of your career or your talent. Please understand that this comes out of a deep respect for these things. I loved you in Birdy, thought you were charming in Moonstruck, and that The Rock was a lot of fun. Heck, I’ll even take 2,000 Miles from Graceland over your current work.

Which brings us back to the King. What I’m hoping is that, like Elvis getting his hard-to-take-but-much-needed wakeup call from Chips Moman, you too can take this advice and prosper into a late-period career worthy of comeback kids and late bloomers like Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray. Heck, you still have a chance to win a second Oscar before Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise land their first. But time is always of the essence.

And as I already mentioned, you are 47 years old. If you were Elvis, you would’ve been dead five years ago.



Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Slickest Thing I’ve Ever Said (A Daylight Savings True Story)

I hate Halloween. Maybe it’s because I was born on Christmas, maybe it’s because I hate clowns, maybe it’s because I was always nervous around kid-centered social activities, but it was a day I never liked. It probably just boils down to my hatred of people wearing makeup, something that has made me one of the few people I know who is consistently unimpressed by The Wizard of Oz. (I think the movie sucks when it goes into color; I always want to see more of what happens in the black-and-white world.)

At any rate, I often avoided trick-or-treating when I was younger, preferring to stay home, watch television with my parents, and answer the door when trick-or-treaters came by. Sometimes I’d even dress in a “low maintenance” costume (usually a Boston Red Sox player) in case any of my classmates came to the door, so that I could play it off like I had already gone out and was now home. Hence, trick-or-treating was usually avoided; Halloween parties were out the question.

This put me in a strange spot a decade later when a few of my closest college friends were throwing a Daylight Savings party. They originally wanted to throw a Halloween party, but an overlapping group of friends were already planning what was going to be the definitive one of the season. My friend Adam realized that Daylight Savings was happening a few days before Halloween that year and told everyone: “It’s a Daylight Savings party, but you’re encouraged to wear your Halloween costume.” It was a stroke of genius: No toes stepped on, no party spirit lost.

It made me think of my favorite episode of the most underrated television show perhaps ever, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, which had a short run in the ’90s on Nickelodeon. The show always had a surreal bent that separated it from anything else on the channel (let alone the fluff that they played on Disney), which in hindsight feels like a precursor to shows like Community and movies by Wes Anderson.

At any rate, they were the only show I’m aware of to do a Daylight Savings episode. In it, Little Pete decides he hates Daylight Savings and wants to fight against it, so he bicycles across the time zones of the country, racking up the extra hours gained in each. Meanwhile, Big Pete goes on a date with his best friend Ellen, only to have it turn disastrous when he tries to cross the line from friendship to romance. After regretting his actions, Big Pete and Ellen realize that Daylight Savings has given them an extra hour, in which they can redo their failed date and bring their relationship back to friendship.

So, suffice to say that the notion of a Daylight Savings party, even one in which you were encouraged to wear your Halloween costume, intrigued me. I had never been to a Daylight Savings party before.

I put on my college equivalent of a “low maintenance” costume: A tie-and-sweater vest-wearing Alex P. Keaton, complete with parted bangs and a copy of the Wall Street Journal under my arm. I am pleased to report that my costume proved so successful (this being an art party, where everybody usually stays in the costume), someone called me a baby-killer in the kitchen.

As I defended rightwing ideologies to leftwing extremists, I noticed my friend Katy (who hated “slutty” girl costumes and dressed like a cowboy) was getting drunker and drunker. When the party was winding down, a very intoxicated Katy (intoxiKaty?) was ready to make her way home. Even though she lived roughly a half an hour out of my way, I decided I was going to be a gentleman and help her navigate through the mean streets of suburban Pittsburgh, where many a lesser man has fallen prey to the well-lit winding sidewalks and charming front lawns. Through some brave combination of caution, diligence, and determination, I was able to get her home safely in one piece.

The next day, I ran into Katy in a computer lab. She had long since sobered-up and put together what had happened the night before. “Thanks for walking me home,” she said with a bit of embarrassment. “I feel bad – you really didn’t have to walk so far out of your way.”

“It was a Daylight Savings party,” I told her. “I had an extra hour to use, so I used it to walk you home.”

She smiled and gave me a look as though I had just said the slickest thing I would ever say.

Which I just had.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Giving Something Ba[ra]ck.

My wife & I just moved to Washington, D.C. -- the scenic Northeast Quadrant of Brookland, to be exact. So far it’s quite lovely. There’s no shortage of American flags or historical markers (or American flags on historical markers, or even, in the case of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, a historical marker for an American flag, but I digress), which is just fine by me.

One bonus of moving to Washington was that we would be closer by all sorts of good people we haven’t been near in a while -- immediate family, high school friends, college friends, post-college quarter-life crisis-era friends, and more.

But there is one person in particular that I am very interested to be living closer to: My good friend who I’ll refer to as Barack O., to keep his identity private.

Did you ever have one of those friends who only ever contact you when they want something? Well, Barack O. is that person in my life. He emails me personally all the time asking me for money. Although I never respond, he still keeps emailing me just the same. Every now and then he throws in an invitation to dinner, but somehow it never seems to work out.

I hope that living near him will cause us to run into each other on the street. If and when we do, boy will he feel awkward! I’ll say, “Hey man, it’s me, your good friend Eric! I know you know who I am since you email me directly almost every day. Funny to run into you now…I was just about to grab a coffee, but I’m short on cash. Can you lend me some money? Any amount, no matter how small, would be greatly appreciated. Getting me coffee will help keep the terrible agenda of tiredness at bay at a time when it is most crucial for my body to remain on the right course. With your help, I know we can do this together. God bless America!”

If that doesn’t get at least a buck fifty out of him, I’m gonna strongly reconsider calling Barrack O. my friend in the first place.