Monday, December 31, 2007


Certainly, the most enjoyable moment of New Year’s Eve is the countdown from 11:59:50 to midnight—ten seconds of anticipation and suspense as we cork our emotions and then let them burst forth in unchecked celebration. In those ten seconds, all of our pent-up frustrations of the past year dissolve into alcoholic ecstasy of the New Year’s promise. We revel in the ten-second countdown—both roomfuls of friends and millions of anonymous people simultaneously playing out the exact same ritual—but like most festive occurrences, the moment ends all too quickly.

That’s why, every New Year’s Eve, I take a page from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, and draw out the moment of anticipation by starting my countdown not from the final ten seconds, but from the final hour. There is nothing like beginning the New Year’s countdown at 3600 and living out the mounting drama three thousand six hundred times. Sure, I’ve received angry stares, many a Shut the fuck up!, and celebrated one or two midnights on the street after being told to leave, but commencing the moment of joyous abandon while everyone else is still making small talk about property taxes and sinus problems makes such awkwardness well worth it. Like how the great Hitchcock let his audience in on the secret and stretched nail-biting suspense across the next hour of Rope, I’ll be starting my countdown to Happy New Year! at 11:00 sharp. Care to join me?

Now let's all sing in our best Alfred Hitchcock voice:

Good evening...
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and never brought to mind…

Friday, December 28, 2007

Man vs. Mild

I spent last night at a Holiday Inn Express in Tarboro, North Carolina. When I awoke this morning, I switched on the television and found myself observing an episode of Man vs. Wild. Bear Grylls was roughing it in the wilderness of southern Alaska, braving dangerous terrain, savage weather, the ever-present threat of bear attack, and the arduous battle to keep warm and fed until rescue. I was impressed. But at the conclusion of the episode, I stepped into the shower and became aware of the almost eerie juxtaposition between Grylls' predicament and my own.

As hot water cascaded down my body, I found that the hotel’s complimentary amenities did not include a vial of shampoo. Sure, I had body lotion and conditioner—but using conditioner without shampoo is like squatting in a forest of the Chugach Mountains and trying to flint-strike a fire without kindling. Pondering my conundrum as soothing steam rose around me, it was too late to hike down to the front desk—my only option to forge ahead with a shampoo-less rinse. Predictably, the ordeal left my hair as matted and unmanageable as Alaskan reedgrass. Bear Grylls may have had to glissade down the side of a glacier, but he didn’t have to endure an improperly washed coif…

When you consider the myriad other perils I faced in that Tarboro hotel—a slightly malfunctioning heater that plunged room temperature to 68°, a lumpy pillow, the noisy occupants across the hall, a mini-fridge set all the way down on the floor instead of knee-high on the bureau, and the looming threat of an errant wake-up call—you can see that a night in a hotel can be just as harrowing as a night in the wild.

So the next time you're traipsing through the forest and find yourself face to face with a 900-pound grizzly, Bear, consider what it's like to experience an incompetent hotel clerk who can't tell time...

(Photo of Bear Grylls copyright The Discovery Channel.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

We Are Not Amused (By Constitutional Monarchy)

Tomorrow, Sotheby’s is putting up for auction one of the seventeen surviving copies of Magna Carta, the 13th-century document that provided basic rights to English citizens and served as the blueprint for the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights half a millennium later. Originally signed in 1215 by King John, Magna Carta didn’t become cemented into English law until 1297. The copy being auctioned by Sotheby’s was signed in that year by Edward I, better known to history as the bad guy in Braveheart. This pricey piece of political sheepskin is expected to go for $20 to $30 million. I don’t have the wall space for it, but Queen Elizabeth does. And after fifty-five years as a queen exempt from income and capital-gains taxes, she’s certainly got the cash.

If I were her, I’d outbid everyone for Magna Carta…and then revoke it. Yeah, Queen Elizabeth has a sweet life, living off money doled out by Parliament and getting to speak in the third person without ridicule. But no English monarch has held real power since Victoria—and what’s the point of wearing a crown without wielding absolute, unpredictable, crazy power? A revoked Magna Carta restores feudalism, neutralizes Parliament, and turns the Queen from a figurehead into a figure of dread. Personally, I suggest renewing English claim to Brittany, Anjou, Poitou, and Aquitaine. If the ancient wars between England and France taught us anything, it’s that they make for really smashing theatre. Then issue a royal edict that Led Zeppelin must go on tour—watching their recent one-off reunion on DVD with a bag of Cheetos ain’t gonna cut it for hardcore fans. And include in that decree that they have to play their obscure gem, “Poor Tom." I further suggest moving the capital from London to Land’s End in Cornwall. Let’s face it: the soul of English culture is fish & chips—the capital should be seaside, where this delicacy is freshest and most readily available. Fish & chips should also be incorporated into the union jack.

And most importantly, confer a posthumous knighthood on the late, great Benny Hill.

Sotheby’s, this Tuesday, Your Majesty. England is yours for the taking…

(Graphic enhancements courtesy of Dave.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Separated at Birth?

For a long time, I’ve wondered if former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus were related. They have nearly identical runaway eyebrows—a homozygous recessive trait found in individuals native to extremely cold regions. Snuffleupagus was born on Wrangel Island, located in the Arctic Ocean, off the coast of the Russian Far East. (In recent years, the well-preserved remains of several snuffleupagi have been unearthed from Wrangel’s permafrost, making the remote island the richest archaeological Muppet site in the world.) Subzero temperatures are common to Wrangel Island, and the winters in Brezhnev’s native Ukraine can be harsh as well. In these hostile environments, overgrown eyebrows are vital to keeping the eyes warm and free of drifting snow. Thus, not only does the genetic propensity exist, but, taken together with the possibility that direct contact between Ukraine and the Russian Arctic occurred via a really poorly planned branch of the Silk Road, atavistic relation between Brezhnev and Snuffleupagus looms large.

Angry at Stalin’s treatment of hand-puppets and fearing a widening of anti-puppetism, Snuffleupagus escaped the Soviet Union and made his way to the United States via a Japanese fishing trawler in 1952, whereupon he requested political asylum. Though eventually granted resident status, Snuffleupagus—an aspiring actor—found himself quietly blacklisted because of the close proximity of his Wrangel mating ground to a Soviet weather station. After years of surviving on odd jobs in the Cold War '50s, he finally found work in the more liberal-minded '60s, becoming an extra on Days of our Lives. Several cigarette commercials followed. Then came Snuffleupagus’s big break: landing a cameo on an episode of Sesame Street in 1971, which, of course, grew into a recurring role. Ironically, Brezhnev assumed complete control of the communist party around this time, and most of Snuffleupagus’s early exchanges with Big Bird constituted diatribes on Soviet foreign policy, including this one, which aired March 12, 1972:

Big Bird: “Hi, Snuffleupagus!”

Snuffleupagus: “Ohhh, hello, Big Bird. Ohhh.”

Big Bird: “What’s wrong, Snuffleupagus?”

Snuffleupagus: “Ohhh, it’s those damned Soviets, Big Bird. Why don’t they get out of Czechoslovakia? Czech dissidents such as Václav Havel have clearly demonstrated a mandate for democracy. Damn that Brezhnev. Ohhh.”

Big Bird (whispering): “Stick to the script, you putz!"

Brezhnev publicly expressed contempt at Snuffleupagus’s frequent harangues, going so far as to call Snuffleupagus a “punk” during the SALT I talks in Moscow (although Pravda added that Brezhnev admired Grover). Thus, in addition to their startling physical resemblance, Snuffleupagus and Brezhnev possess the classic qualities of sibling rivalry.

Although the Kremlin still categorically refuses to release any information on Brezhnev’s DNA or medical history, and Snuffleupagus isn’t talking, I believe that the evidence is overwhelming.

(Photo of Leonid Brezhnev copyright Associated Press.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Will Cubs' Bling Bring a Ring?

After a quick but spirited bidding war between the Chicago Cubs, their crosstown rivals the White Sox, and the San Diego Padres, Japanese baseball star Kosuke Fukudome and the Cubs have agreed to a 4-year, $48 million deal, pending a physical. An outfielder for nine years with the Chunichi Dragons, Fukudome was named 2006 Most Valuable Player of the Central League, batting .351 and smashing 31 home runs, while leading his team to its first Japan Series championship since 1954. Like the Boston Red Sox a year ago, The Cubs are investing a huge amount of money in a player yet to prove himself at the Major League level. In adding Fukudome to a payroll that already boasts the eight-figure salaries of Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs 2008 payroll should well exceed $100 million. This becomes troublesome because Wrigley Field’s capacity is only 41,118, and even though Chicagoans filled it to nearly 98% capacity last season, cotton candy sales were way down.

Though it be baseball heresy, I say the free-spending Chicago Cubs must vacate venerable Wrigley Field for a larger stadium—one with a seating capacity of at least 50,000 and sporting all of the pricey luxury boxes and accoutrements that have made other franchises so lucrative. In fact, I suggest that the Cubs build a domed stadium...and name it—in honor of their latest savior, Kosuke Fukudome—the Fuk-U-Dome, with the lettering directed toward the South Side.

That would really put those hated White Sox in their place.

(Graphic enhancement courtesy of Mount Drinkmore's Dave.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Art of ConVicktion

The Michael Vick fiasco marks a sad and despicable chapter in American sport, painfully illustrating how misplaced is our hero-worship. But if any good has come out of this dog-killing debacle, it is an overdue appreciation for the often stunning work of courtroom sketch artists. Just look at the mastery of Vick’s sentencing captured by artist Dana Verkouteren:

Vick’s prison stripes are bold and stark, serving not just as a literal depiction of his courtroom apparel but as an allegory of inevitable justice. Vick’s defense team—the eldest gentleman behind, the slightly younger lead counsel to Vick's right, and the youngest seated—represents the three ages of man, a metaphor for the spiritual growth over time Vick will experience as he physically serves time. Perhaps most impressive is the array of characters in the background. Their detail is at once revealing yet obtuse. At far left, Vick’s brother clings to his wife in fear of the coming judgment. His fright is palpable, yet his embrace borders on amorous, as if to signify that sex can happen even on the day his brother goes to the slammer. To their left, a host of anonymous eyes observes the fall of an icon. Their gaze is one of incredulity as they ostensibly muse, “You jackass! How could you jeopardize your gargantuan NFL contract plus tens of millions in endorsements to make pocket change by letting dogs maim each other? You’re a complete idiot!” And at extreme right, the red doors symbolize, of course, the gates of hell.

Not since the Mona Lisa has background contained such intricate poignancy.

The splendid work produced by courtroom artists has gone virtually unnoticed in the glare of more respected masters such as Rembrandt and Renoir. But study Verkouteren’s piece against Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party:

Yes, in Renoir’s work, the wine flows as the subjects enjoy a lovely summer day instead of killing dogs (note the lady at left playing with a small dog rather than starving it and administering electric shock); startling technique aside, Renoir concentrated too much on the hats while remaining conspicuously silent on growing French colonialism in North Africa—a detail, I suspect, the daring Verkouteren would not have omitted.

Verkouteren’s piece is similarly on par with a work such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère:

Again, the technique is astonishing—there’s plenty of booze in the foreground, and the bartender’s got a nice pair. Behind her, a multitude of thirsty patrons clamor for absinthe so they can forget that their grandchildren will one day roll over to the Nazis without a fight. Manet managed not to paint outside the lines on this one, and his effort shows abundantly. Still, there is no apparent superiority to Verkouteren’s piece. And let’s face it: those impressionists often used hot models, so their subject matter was more interesting from the get-go.

Regardless, it is time for courtroom sketch artists to be placed among the masters. Their medium reflects who we are, in all of our seedy shame. Only when The Birth of Venus, American Gothic, and The Starry Night are joined by O.J. Tries on the Glove, Saddam Denies Court’s Legality, and Kenneth Lay Weeps Like a Girl will the human race's story truly be told…

(Sketch of Vick’s sentencing copyright Dana Verkouteren and Associated Press.)