Left of the Dial*

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
– Socrates

What’s that saying “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”?

or is it “What the fluck”?

Either way, today I am launching my first digital magazine entitled wait(er). As the name suggests, it is a magazine devoted to stories about the front of the house workers of the restaurant industry. It would seem that television has gone to great lengths to make the back of the house employees, like chef’s, superstars. I might suggest those shows are disrespectful to the true culinary artisans, but that is another argument.

Somehow waiters, waitresses, bartenders, busboys, hosts, etc. have been left out of the small tube mix. It’s not that there isn’t any lack of dynamism among the workers, there is. Something tells me it has more to do with the fact that so many of the FOH workers are most certainly not ready for prime time.

I should know. I was one of them for over ten years.

If you read my post yesterday, you got a sample of what wait(er) is. “Losing the Gamble” is my article for the inaugural issue and available for free by clicking on that link.

The editorial objective of wait(er) Magazine is simple, to provide a home for good stories from, for or about those people in the service, or “serve us”, industry. Some of those will be first hand accounts, some will be profiles, I’m developing some profiles of organizations. There will be solid journalism and there will be loads of snark. As a result of my secondary objective, to provide a home for new and developing writers, there may be grammar hiccups to start, but we’ll get them ironed out.

I hope you will share in the excitement…by doling out the .99 cents a month!

About two weeks ago the idea came to me and I decided to test the water, as it were. I cast a net across craigslist placing ads in San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, New York, New Haven, Austin, Houston, Minneapolis/St.Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, and a few others, looking for writers. The response and feedback was overwhelming. I thought maybe, just maybe, I was onto something…I dunno, we’ll see.

I can tell you that I received emails from writers of all sorts. Bloggers, experienced journalists, high school kids, recent graduates, et al. and it seems that a lot of people have either worked or work in the “serve us” industry and were eager to share their stories. wait(er) Magazine will provide them an avenue to do that.

I recently sat down with myself to ask me a few questions that I thought people may be curious about.

Why wait(er)?  I dunno, the image popped into my head like that and seconds later I though, “Yea, that looks and sounds kind of cool.” Seriously. Oh sure, I could pontificate about some sort of significant meaning behind the parenthesis and lower case, but I would be making it all up. I’m too tired to go down that creative rabbit hole. I honestly just thought it looked cool.

Why not waitress(es)?  Truthfully, that was a concern but in the research I did (albeit, extremely limited) I realized that waiter is not defined as gender specific, we assigned it the masculine property.

So, just restaurant workers?  No, of course not. Barista’s, fast food employees, food truck employees (please I’d like anyone to explain that phenomenon to me), pretzel cart guys, I don’t care.

Why digital and not print?  My last name is Higgons, not Newhouse. I don’t have the kind of scratch, or access to it, to bankroll a print magazine. Besides, then I would have to move to an advertising based model and frankly, I see no need for that. Personally, I feel we are slammed with advertising everywhere we turn and it would be nice to escape from it now and again.

Trust me, you don’t really wanna open up the advertising business model discussion with me. I have thoughts.
Suffice it to say, digital made the most sense personally and economically.

Did you read everything that was sent to you?  I did. I still am actually. It’s just me right now. Well, the dogs and cats try to help, but they’re not literate beyond “sit”, “get off that” and “shut the fluck up” and they have enough trouble with those. So yea, I read everything and will continue to.

Did you edit as well?  I did and admittedly, that is not a strength of mine. So, you may see a few mistakes here and there. There is beauty in perfection and imperfection. If anyone knows someone willing to do some editing, pro bono or at a seriously reduced rate, contact me!

Did you pay the writers?  Yes. Well, not as of this writing, but I am going to. I think it’s important to pay people what you can for their creative efforts and time. I get doing stuff for free, but having done a lot of free work, especially writing, over the past five years, I wanted to be able to offer writers something, other than a venue, to recognize that I value their work.

I felt vindicated today when I read an exchange between journalist Nate Thayer and The Atlantic. They wanted to re-purpose a blog post of his…for free. They claimed to be out of money to spend on digital. They further went on to say they only pay 100 dollars. The Atlantic. COME ON! Thayer has been getting some flack about his stance, but I think he’s right. Free is fine if you are starting out but eventually you gotta get paid and you deserve to get paid.

Anywho, yes, I am paying the writers. It ain’t much but it is what I can afford, with the promise that as wait(er) grows, so will the rate.

Are you getting paid?  No. I’m bootstrapping everything so it’s unlikely I will see any personal returns for some time, if ever. For me, it’s about the experience and constructing a hive of like minded individuals.

How much did it cost to start?  None of your business. More than I have but not enough to stop me from doing it. That is one of the true joys about them Internets, you can go from concept to fully realized vision in two weeks and not break the bank. And look, I am a firm believer that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This just feels right.

Where do you see yourself in five years?  Go to hell, this isn’t an HR interview.

Is there any type of story you are interested in?  Nope. Not at the moment. Pitch an idea. All I am looking for is honest stories that are told well. Leave the revenge piece about a shitty manager or owner for the blog.

Does everyone have a story to tell?  Oh yea! If you have worked in the food “serve us” industry in any capacity for longer than two weeks, you have at least ONE story. And if you don’t have ONE story, then you either weren’t paying attention or weren’t working hard enough. People are crazy and, eventually, they go out to eat.

Will you share all of your stories? All of them, no. I did that work for a long time and am thankful for the experiences and the living it provided me. Truth be told, it’s a job like anything else and it had its routine. BUT when it went bat shit crazy, hilarity ensued, especially in hindsight.

In a restaurant, it’s not just a Power Point slide malfunctioning, it was usually something far worse. It’s those bat shit crazy stories that still make me laugh and shake my head. Let’s be honest too, the story behind some manager who builds an epic PP deck only to have it malfunction is just never going to have the legs of a story about trying to explain to a customer why there was a spider in their salad or kicking someone out of the bar because they haven’t tipped you in four hours.

Will you tell a story in each issue?  That is not my plan. I didn’t create it so I could relay my own personal experiences. I have a blog for that. If I feel they fit, sure. If I feel the need for content, sure. Mostly, I am looking to build the hive.

wait(er) Magazine is for other people to share their stories and to give new writers some exposure. Front of the house staff are a unique group of people…and we’re everywhere. In the restaurant business, after a busy night (actually after any night) you would go drink and talk about your shift. I’d like wait(er) Magazine to be the bar you went to with your fellow workers to commiserate. Sometimes you’ll laugh, sometimes you may get angry, hopefully never cry; hell, sometimes you might learn something but above all else, I am simply hoping you’ll enjoy it.

How often will you publish wait(er) Magazine? A new issue will come out the first Tuesday of each month…to start.

What platforms is wait(er) available in?  Currently, just web subscription, Kindle, MOBI and EPUB. Apple iOS is forthcoming, but they require one issue to be published before submitting it to them for approval. I suspect iOS will be available soon. I’m reticent to give a time frame. Follow us on Twitter @writermag, Facebook, Google+ or on WordPress, for all the updates, etc.

Any last words? Never any last ones, but I will leave you with these:

“We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby
Than we ever learned in school
Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I can feel my heart begin to pound
You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes
And follow your dreams down
– Never Surrender
Bruce Spingsteen

CLICK ON THE WAITER AND SUBSCRIBE!

Waiter Issue 1

* – The phrase used to mean something, sadly now it doesn’t. Nonetheless, this is a nod to a constant source of inspiration for me, The Replacements.

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Losing the Gamble

First published in wait(er) Magazine, July, 2013.

My first job when I moved back to New York City, ten years ago, was working in a subsection of the financial services industry. Getting a root canal, sans anesthetic, would be less uncomfortable then trying to describe the banality of that job and industry. Suffice it to say, I was miserable.

Against almost everyone’s opinion, I up and quit after about 18 months without a back up job. Well, I gave two weeks notice but in keeping with company protocol, they didn’t except it and terminated me immediately. Apparently, they were worried I would steal valuable industry secrets or their clients. Christ, I didn’t know any secrets (if I did, I certainly wasn’t aware of them) and the thought of stealing clients never crossed my mind (until they said it).

I was happy to be leaving with what was left of my pride.

Having about ten years of restaurant experience behind me, I figured that was my best bet to keep me relatively solvent. So the day after I quit, I suited up and armed with a lead from a friend of a friend, I made my way to Penn Station.

Specifically, One Penn Plaza, to a place called Tupelo Grill. Holding the managers names, Aaron, the General Manager and Ethan, the Manager, I popped in to try and speak with them around 3pm. The hostess gave me an application and went to get one of them. It was Ethan who came up and introduced himself to me. We shook hands and I handed him my resume and completed application. He looked it over and asked me, “Do you have any New York City experience?”

Now, this was not the first time in my life I had heard this question. And frankly, it pissed me off then and even now as I write this, it still irks me. So I shared with Ethan why that question annoys me, why it usually means nothing and is a pretty transparent intimidation tactic.

Sometime in the mid-90’s I moved to the Upper West Side and went out looking for restaurant work. At this point I only had a few years experience, but I had been part of a serving staff of a newly opened chain and had been part of a three man team that opened a very successful restaurant outside of Waterbury, CT. I had a fairly solid grasp on the business, especially front of the house operations.

Nonetheless, every single restaurant I went into asked me the same damn question, as they looked at my resume, “Hmm, do you have any New York City experience?” Initially, I was embarrassed that I didn’t and would trip over my rebuttal. With each rejection I grew more and more annoyed. After a week of rejections, I went into Lexington Bar and Books and sure as shit, the guy looked at my resume and asked me “Hmm, well do you have any New York City experience?”

I snapped and retorted, “What exactly does that mean? I mean you can clearly see that I have experience bartending at two restaurants that did between three and four million dollars annually. Volume is volume whether it is in New York City or Des Moines, right?” He was a tad taken aback and silently nodded in agreement. Long story short, I got that job. It lasted all of three hours, but I did get that job (that’s a story for another time).

Ethan took in my tale, smiled and said “Those guys at Bar and Books are assholes anyway.” I’m still not entirely sure if they were assholes for hiring me.

As this was just as the whole foodie craze and the “everyone must know everything about food” crap, he asked if I would be willing to take a test. I shrugged and said “Sure.” It’s not like I had anything else going on.

Looking back, it was maybe seven or eight questions but I distinctly remember one:

Name three kinds of mushrooms:

1.     Good
2.     Bad
3.     Psilocybin

I got the job.

After two lunch shifts training, I was thrown into the fray. I quickly realized that Tupelo Grill was easily the best restaurant job I had ever had. The managers Aaron and Ethan were great and totally supportive, the staff was a lot of fun and easy to work with and the owners were non-existent (for the most part).

Certainly, all those things made the job great, but what made it excellent? The two reasons that matter most, the hours and the money. You see Tupelo Grill was in One Penn Plaza (a big office building) and across from Madison Square Garden (the worlds most famous arena). Because of the law offices and financial companies located on the floors above the restaurant, the lunch shifts were amazing! The proximity to MSG meant the place was packed when there was a concert or event at the Garden and pretty empty otherwise. Oh yeah, and the place was only open M-F.

Working one lunch about nine months into my stay there, I got sat a four top. An older guy, whom I recognized and thought to be in his late 60’s, and three of his colleagues who were probably about 20 years his junior.  I knew the guy was in finance because I had seen his American Express Black Card and the name of the company. Nonetheless, their lunch, as near as I could tell, went along without a hitch. The older guy asked for the check, so I printed it and dropped it off.

The guy was a typical 20% guy, so I didn’t worry too much. I saw him place his card in the check presenter card slot and then excuse himself to go to the bathroom. I meandered over and picked it up and took a stroll around my section to check on my other tables before going back to swipe his card and close the check.

I timed it so that I was printing out his check just as he was exiting the bathroom and was on my way to his table. About ten paces before I got to his table I got smacked across the face with a horrendous smell. The smell only got stronger as I approached the table. I’ve no doubt I grimaced and shook my head, but maintained my composure as I presented the check to the table and said “Thank you”.

As I walked back to the computer, one of the other waiters was surveying the dining room when I said “Jesus, it smells like SHIT by table 44.” She looked over and then I looked over just as my four top was standing and we noticed at the same time, it was shit.

The old man had lost the gamble and shat himself.  The back of his finely tailored grey Brooks Brothers suit was dark, wet and no longer grey. OBVIOUSLY, I first fell into a fit of laughter that gave way to embarrassment for the guy and I finally settled on my go to, sadness. I mean there was NO way he didn’t know he shat himself and NO way his cohorts didn’t smell it. And since he walked out FIRST, there was no way they didn’t see it.

Just as I settled on sadness, one of my other tables called me over to inform me that the men’s room was a mess. I quickly put two and two together and grabbed a busboy to assess the damage. The restaurant hierarchy can be a little murky but one thing is almost universally true, busboys and dishwashers may be on the bottom rung but the best managers always slide on the continuum between dishwasher/busboy and front of the house politico. Both Aaron and Ethan were on this continuum.

So the busboy I grab goes in and immediately comes out laughing, shaking his head to the left and right, saying “No, no, not me. Not me.”

Given that reaction, there was no way I was going in, so I went to get the manager on duty, Ethan, to tell him that the men’s room was a mess. I told him what had happened and who did it.

He lowered his head and simply said, “Fuck, not again.”

I was floored, “Whadda ya mean not AGAIN?!”

“Oh, he’s done this before.”

As he and I walked through the server station over to the men’s room, I had transitioned from sadness back to a fit of laughter.

Aaron walked by and tapped one of huddled busboys and signaled for him to follow. The poor guy put his head down as though he were being led to the gallows pole. They both went in and seconds later Aaron burst out of the bathroom laughing, “Dude, you gotta go in there, it’s everywhere! It’s like a shit sprinkler went off!” The poor busboy immediately followed Aaron, laughing just as hard.

They tried pushing me in there, but to no avail. The three of us laughing like high school students or leads in some Farrelly Brothers movie. Once we regained our composure we began to assume our respective positions.

In the absence of Tupelo Grill branded HAZMAT suits, Aaron and the busboy geared up in trash bags and rubber gloves to clean up while I stood sentry, directing men to the handicapped bathroom around the corner.  Before going into the DMZ that was now the men’s room, he asked someone to take the chair the guy sat on and remove it. The remaining two busboys couldn’t get to table 44 fast enough.

I left Tupelo Grill shortly after this crappy incident (seriously, how could you not see a pun coming) to begin a career as a cube dwelling, media drone and while I worked a couple of parties and a few shifts after, eventually the calls to fill in shifts stopped coming.

The last I had heard of Ethan was that he had developed a rather bad cocaine habit and was waiting tables somewhere downtown and Aaron was managing a hotel in China. Tupelo Grill has been re-branded as some Italian Place.

As for the guy who lost the gamble? I don’t know but I’d like to think that with the advances in adult diaper technology, I hope he is out there…and he is wearing them.

Faith (not the George Michael album).

“I have learned that having faith is trusting in advance what will only makes sense in reverse.”
– Phillip Yancey

In life, you learn rather quickly whether you are a square peg in a square hole OR a round peg trying to fit in a square hole. If you are the latter, you may just be one of the creative set.

And being creative is no easy task. It’s almost setting yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment. It’s an uphill battle at every turn. The path up the hill is loaded with signs telling you to “turn back”, “you’re not good enough”, “it’s been done before”, etc. So few eventually make it to the mountaintop, not because of lack of talent more because of giving up. The path can take its toll.

You have to have faith and believe in yourself.

In addition to slogging ahead and finding a way around those signs and all the set-backs, maybe you’ve got a day job that sucks the life and soul out of you. Maybe your family and friends are simply too busy with their own life to think about whatever it is you are doing. Maybe you’ve got a significant other who manifests their contempt for you by ignoring the very element that makes you, you. Maybe you simply are not that good…yet. That doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?

You have to have faith. It is that simple.

Of course, there are those who have the privilege of benefactors, be they parents and trust funds or a social network large enough to fund every crowd funding campaign they start. But for everyone else, it’s a lonely, uphill struggle.

You’ve got to have faith, because no one else will.

Now look, having faith in yourself is neither God-centric nor the angry defiant “ME AGAINST THE WORLD” type of crap. If you define faith as God, that’s fine, but the “me against the world” stuff is teenage rebel stuff. Less esoteric to comprehend and juvenile is understanding that faith is simply believing in what you are doing, realizing that if you don’t do it someone else won’t. It’s that faith that gives you the strength to sit alone for hours on end sifting through your mind trying to find a seed to plant, water and grow.

The only thing you have to keep you going is you. You’ve got no one to hold your hand as you wander around in your head, no one to help guide you or mentor you or push yourself forward. It’s not that you lack vision or lack direction, you don’t. And it’s not necessarily that no one wants to help, they’re simply not you. Sometimes all of that crap comes together and overtakes you and you begin thinking, “What’s the point?”

That’s loosing faith. Don’t do that.

You hope that you’re creative voice is maybe, just maybe, loud enough to rise above the noise. And you get cranky that your job sucks the soul out of you, you get angry that your family and loved ones don’t hold you up above their own noise. It sucks, but you don’t stop. Because you can’t stop.

That’s faith.

No one can make you be creative. It’s impossible. And no one forces you to be creative. We may all start as clean slates but when we hit that fork in the road, which path do you take, the well traveled or the less traveled one? Most take the well traveled one. Is the white collar guy who connives and fails his way upward any less creative than the guy sitting alone in a dingy basement painting still life’s? We’ll never know. Which one provides more meaning to the world?

It’s that faith that keeps you painting.

Oh, and you’re gonna fail. You’re gonna make missteps. You’re gonna f*ck up. You’re gonna piss people off. You’re gonna alienate them. You can’t let those things stop you. It’s just creative collateral damage, or commonly known as “inspiration”.

But look, you’re simply never going to stop or silence the critics. If everyone loves you, they’re lying. If everyone hates you, they’re lying. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. The reality is it’s their own fear that makes them judge you. It’s their cowardice that prevents them from taking a risk and showing themselves.

Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who sticks to it and manages to rise above the fray, then those critics will be the first people in your corner wishing you well and patting you on the back saying “I knew you could do it!”, recalling all those “glory days”. To be clear, there is the “glory” in the crappy basement. Where is the “glory” in thinking no one gives a sh*t about what you do? Where is the “glory” in all that isolation? Where is the “glory” in all that “inspiration”? There is none, but you don’t stop because you can’t stop.

That’s faith.

You do what you do because you have faith in yourself and when you are racked with doubt or full of questions, you keep going. You push through because it is only you that can get you to where you want to be. You have no choice. You don’t give up because you can’t give up.

It’s not suffering for art, it’s not pissing and moaning that no one is paying attention, it’s not playing the role of tortured creator. You will suffer, no one will pay attention and you already are tortured, you’ve just got to deal with it.

It’s focus.
It’s perseverance.
It’s dedication.
It’s belief in yourself.

It’s faith.

Honest

“As you age naturally, your family shows more and more on your face. If you deny that, you deny your heritage.”
– Frances Conroy

Today is my birthday. I don’t say that looking for birthday wishes, I say that as entry into what follows.

You see, I am smack dab in the middle of my life. I mean right in the middle. And with that comes a fair amount of reflection. It’s not necessarily a crisis, I’m not going to drop everything and get a sports car, I can’t afford it. I’m also not going to grow a mustache or become a reclusive Luddite. I’m going to do what I’ve always done, keep plowing ahead doing the things I want to and doing the things that I feel are right for me and those I care about.

What’s interesting as you get older is how you begin to wonder where you came from. Not necessarily the locale so much as the ingredients that make you, you. Of course, I am able to recognize many of my parents traits in myself, both good and bad, but for the past 15-20 years I have often wondered where some of this other stuff that is hard wired into me comes from.

Growing up we moved around and never really spent any time around our relatives. I never had the opportunity to know my maternal or paternal grandfathers and only saw my grandmothers but once a year. When they would visit, for reasons I can’t fully understand, I always sensed a fair amount of weirdness. That’s hard to comprehend as an adult and even harder to understand as a child. But, truth be told, I was too much of a selfish little kid to actually ask either of my grandmothers about my heritage. Sadly, I’m pretty sure I just didn’t care. And because I had very few interactions with my extended family, I was never privy to the stories and folklore.

My fathers’ oldest sister, my Aunt Alice, passed away recently and with her went some of the stories that provided some history and understanding about my family. On the few occasions my family would visit my Aunt and Uncle and the cousins, I would get to hear some of the stories and they would always shed light onto our family’s gestalt; our love of a good story, our tenacity, our tempers (both good and bad), our love of a good drink and our deep love of laughter.

Yea, we were predominantly Irish.

Certainly, there are some Irish stereotypes that I can accept and am apparently hardwired for, like rebellion. And not in the “I’m a rebel, no one understands me!” James Dean kind of way or the tattooed, motorcycle riding, hard living kind of way (I have tattoos and I’ve owned a motorcycle). For me, rebellion isn’t a look or an attitude; it’s a philosophical belief that stands against any injustice, real or imagined. It’s about having as much knowledge as you can and then believing there is a better way. I’m more rebellious now than I was as a kid, if only because I know more now.

It’s been argued I have a problem with authority (I really don’t as long as the authority figure is smart, reasonable and not an arrogant, power hungry jack ass). I’m pretty resolute when I want to accomplish something (or don’t want to do something), some have argued stubborn. Certainly I have other character traits, but as those have been the most repeated, they quickly popped into my head. I’ve also been made aware over the last 10 years that it’s these traits that are not something that today’s Corporatocracy views as admirable.

Obviously, I’ve had these attributes my whole life and I’ve never seen fit to adjust them and I’ve certainly pushed against any outside effort to change them. They’re part of what makes me, me.

While my Aunt Alice served as our clan’s seanchai when we would gather, it was my fathers’ cousin, Cousin Bill, who took to being the family scribe. I recently received some of what he has written about our family history and while I’m still making my way through it all I’ve had more than one or two “A-Ha” moments so far.

My paternal great grandfather, Denis Murphy, was from County Cork Ireland and came to America in 1892. Like his siblings before him, he made his way to New York City. After a couple of different career choices he became a gardener to wealthy families. Over the course of his career, he worked for three families.

The first family he worked for was Jabez Bostwick family. He was the New York distribution agent for Standard Oil and one of its major shareholders. From there, he went to work for Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, with his wife Mary Ann Coakley. Finally, he worked for Clarence Day, a financial guy on Wall Street and the father of the man who wrote “Life With Father”.

According to Cousin Bill, his recollection of Grandpa Murphy, who was affectionately referred to as “Pop” or “Boss”, was that he was “very strong, very hard working with a quick temper but also a wonderful sense of humor…who brought a welcome element of humor and irreverence to serve as a counterpoint to the strictness of Grandma Murphy”. That certainly struck a chord with me.

Cousin Bill points out that Rye, New York then, much like today, was a very wealthy community and populated by the rich and powerful and the people who worked for them. The Murphy clan fell into the latter, but no less prideful. And being Irish meant they were Catholic and pretty pious.

As such, Sunday mass was Sunday mass and all the Catholics, regardless of social status, worshiped at the Church of the Resurrection in Rye. While my great grandfather was a working class Irish gardener for the Day estate, during Sunday mass it’s quite likely he would have been sharing a pew with some of the era’s wealthiest financiers and tycoons. Well, those that were Catholic anyway.

“Pop” apparently loved to chew tobacco, and he particularly liked the brand Honest. Cousin Bill recounts one story that makes me beam with pride. He recalls attending mass one Sunday with “Pop” where he “deposited a wad of well chewed Honest tobacco on the church floor between the kneeler and the pew…prompted by his awareness of the affluence that surrounded him in the pews.” Obviously, I never knew “Pop”, but something tells me we have much in common.

Perhaps church isn’t the best place to dispose of chewing tobacco, but really, who among the dandy Westchester financiers and business tycoons would have had the intestinal fortitude to say something to the man known around Rye as “Mr. Murphy” or “Boss” and was known to be one helluva hurling player?

So today, I celebrate my birthday knowing a little more about my great-grandfather, Denis Murphy, and a little more about myself.

Brooklyn Film Festival Review #2

A Series of Shorts: A different lens through which to see the world.

Now more than ever, we must look to artists to see the world through their eyes because it is often the artists who hold the mirror up to society and provide us with a different lens through which to see the world. And for those artists who choose to work in the short film or video genre, their vision is crucial for us to gain a better understanding of the human condition.

The short film genre gives artists a truly unencumbered opportunity to tell their story and sometimes, they even do. It may make viewers bored or even angry, or in some cases, both.

Sitting through ninety minutes of short films last night, I got seven very different perspectives and I was seldom bored or angry. I’m not sure they all hit the mark but more did than didn’t. Nonetheless, whatever my opinion is, or anyone else’s for that matter, one must recognize the determination and efforts of the seven artists whose films I saw last night.

So here are the seven films I saw last night in the order they were shown:

Superf*ckers: Burger Brothers
Director: Fran Krause

I have to say this was a huge disappointment for a variety of reasons. One, this is part of a funded YouTube Channel series. Two, it is egregiously unfunny. Three, excessive use of coarse language; as anyone who knows me can attest, I actually enjoy that kind of language…when it serves the story or plays to a joke. Here it does not. At all. Four, I’m not even sure what the f*ck Superf*ckers was all about…other than sucking 240,000 milliseconds from my life.

Crappy content aside, I’m a little unclear why a short that already has a distribution channel in place (a funded YouTube Channel) would be part of the festival. I had it in my head that film festivals, especially short films, were about recognizing talent and not building brands.

PlayPals
Director: Yianni Warnock

With hardly any dialog at all, this Australian short pokes fun at the vacuous nature and emotional immaturity that is often attributed to men. In just 11 minutes, we get pretty much the story of what men like to do: walk around without pants, masturbate, be bored, ignore dishes and hygiene, fight, watch TV and have a singing fish on a wall. The only thing missing was a picture of Dogs Playing Poker, but perhaps that isn’t as popular in Australia.

Of course, the two guys watching TV devolves into a slap fight and wrestling match, not in any sort of homoerotic sense, just two guys who punch each other to see who can hit the hardest. It’s silly, fun and completely pointless.

Aesthetically, this short was spot on. The look, the characters, the setting, the feel and almost complete lack of dialog reminded me of a Wes Anderson film, in all the best ways. The two actors, Shane Gregory Gardiner and Peter Flaherty, resembled a chubby bearded Jason Lee and Zach Galifianakus respectively, played the roles perfectly and without their girth, I don’t think this short would have been as effective.

PlayPals captures the loneliness that often accompanies such infantile behavior and it’s that loneliness that adds a much needed depth and overall sadness to the short.

Eat
Director: Moritz Krämer

Annnnnd, this is the German art house short of the group. This is to say it was kind of funny, looked brilliant but was pretty odd overall. Less narrative driven than the other films in the group but that actually works in favor of the film.

Skinny model gets a break from a photo shoot, retreats to her dressing room to find that everything in the room is edible, from the lipstick to the wall. Skinny model then pulls her lower lip over her entire body and retreats into some sort of cocoon.

Eat just left me scratching my head wondering what the point was. Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve been left befuddled by a German film so I can’t say for certain whether my reaction would have been different if it was shown with a group of like minded shorts. It could easily just be German films in general.

The Places Where We Lived
Director: Bernardo Britto

Opening on a Japanese man reciting some sort of diary entry and then leading into a montage of demolition footage was certainly interesting. Once the animation took over and the actual narrative began to take shape, The Places Where We Lived really began to shine.

I just re-read the synopsis “A man wakes up with a terrible feeling. His parents are selling his childhood home”. I have to say that point was lost on me. Nonetheless, there were some laugh out loud moments here because it was so often awkward and funny. In both style and substance, it reminded me of the animated series “Dr. Katz”, and that is a good thing.

Are We Not Cats
Director: Xander Robin

Imagine if David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch decided to collaborate on a short film. I think you’d find they would create something like Are We Not Cats. You don’t believe me? Read the synopsis “A welder discovers his eccentric girlfriend eating his hair subconsciously as they take a truck drive to an abandoned resort.

Only it’s not so subconscious when, post coital, she coughs up a giant hair ball.

In the hands of writer/director Xander Robin (seriously, if Lynch and Jarmusch had a kid, I’ve no doubt it would be named Xander) actors, Michael Patrick and Kelsea Dakota shine in this quirky little story.

The Amateurs
Director: Kai Gero Lenke

For me, this was both a missed opportunity and a messy short. I think the subject matter, two adolescent boys who know sex only through internet porn, is one ripe for satire, drama or comedy but unfortunately, The Amateurs is none of those.

Writer/Director Kai Gero Lenke clearly has something to say, and reminds me of Todd Solondz, and it could be interesting. Unfortunately, the performances are so bad here that whatever the point is it is completely lost. Lenke, and cinematographer Markus Englmair, certainly capture the barren look Solondz has mastered, but sadly, it’s the actors that dragged this piece down.

I don’t want to say this short is appropriately titled, but it is.

Having said that, something tells me we will hear more from Kai Gero Lenke and I look forward to that.

Chaser
Director: Sal Bardo

In high school I got sick and was out of school for a month. My mother would drive me to the video store every few days to pick up movies to watch. On one of these trips I picked up William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising with Al Pacino. I had no idea what that movie was about until I started to watch it. It’s a pretty tough film to watch in many ways.

Sal Bardo’s Chaser is equally as tough to watch, and in the wrong hands, the subject matter would seem just gratuitous. Thankfully, writer/director Bardo and actor Max Rhyser, as Zach, are so incredibly talented it is anything but gratuitous.

Look, I could easily write an entire article on this film alone, but I won’t.

I will say this is the film in this series that holds that mirror up to society.

The synopsis reads “Alienated from his conservative Jewish family and culture, a promising, young, gay schoolteacher seeks solace in the barebacking community.” Now, that sense of alienation from his family came across, in this context, as sort of self imposed. Does Zach have a sense of self loathing? It would seem so.

In one telling scene Zach is teaching his class and engaging one of his students to explain to him why the character in his homework is a “cutter”. The student’s explanation foreshadows what Zach subjects himself to in that “barebacking community.”

OK, on that note, it seems absolutely unfathomable to me that in this day and age there would actually be such a thing as a “barebacking community”. But it is portrayed so incredibly benignly and believably that I have no doubt it exists. In less adept hands this portrayal of that community would have overshadowed the more powerful component. And that is what Zach subjects himself to.

Despite the brutal depiction of Zach’s self hatred, this short ends on an optimistic note. Which seems counter intuitive to what you just witnessed, but both Bardo and Rhyser have the skills to really make it believable.

Chaser is the best of what short films should be; thought provoking, eye opening and reflective of the community we live in.

Watching short films is a hit or miss endeavor and, for the most part, this particular line up hits more than it misses.

This line up screens again tomorrow Wednesday June 5 at 10:30pm at indieScreen.

I would encourage you to go. All of these film makers have something to say and a couple of them, notably Sal Bardo, are actually keeping the short film genre relevant.

Published 6.5 on The WG News+Arts site.

Open Letter to Netflix Haters

May 29, 2013

Dear Netflix haters,

I’d like you all to step away from your keyboards and close your blog window. If you work for an outlet hating on Netflix, take a break and get some coffee or have a smoke. Breathe, relax.

Let me say right up front, I am not a Netflix apologist, employee or shareholder. So, I have no vested interest in what follows.

It seems to me that so many of you Netflix haters are hell bent on seeing their demise. Over the past year, Wall Street ANALyst’s and a huge chunk of traditional media coverage of the company has done nothing but take the piss out of what they are doing. One must obviously acknowledge the monolithic misstep last year of splitting the company and then the piss poor handling of the ensuing aftermath. They paid the price for that, literally. I think everyone can agree on that. We can also acknowledge that it may be best to keep Reed Hastings on a shorter leash than he may like, but I suspect he is smart enough to know this already.

OK, so why is everyone so hell bent on slamming Netflix?

  • Because they are doing things differently (no one likes a rebel)? No, not really.
  • Because they are bucking the system (no one likes a smart rebel)? Nahhhh.
  • Because they are doing it well AND they are winning (believe it or not, we as a society don’t like winners. We reward them, but seldom like them)? Getting closer.

If only it were that easy, but this being the world of multinational corporations, it’s not.

You see the way broadcast media works is, in a word or two, fucked up. We just finished the annual circle jerk (upfront) here in NYC where all the networks preview their fall schedules. “This is the time of year when the most powerful ad execs in the nation stand in line — line! — to get into Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center to hear the pitch…”(1) Even though traditional broadcast viewership continues to trend downward, this annual shit show continues to generate billions of dollars and all networks see year over year increases. (1) Seriously, it defies all logic.

In and of itself, that isn’t TOO horrible. That is presented like any convention, right? Sort of. It’s the lack of transparency that’s a slap in the face. You see, at a convention, you can bounce around and more or less see what everyone is charging, because it’s more or less universal. During the upfront, most advertisers are not aware of what their competitors, or ANYONE, is actually paying because it is all one big ass secret.

The core principle of a free market (which many of these CEO’s would claim to be advocates of) is to let the market decide what the rate would be…for everyone. Under the auspices of the free market, a 30 second unit for Ford in a popular show should, in essence, be in the ballpark of a 30 second unit for GM.

It’s not a free market if CBS says to Ford “I’ll charge you 10,000 for 30 seconds in ‘Two and a Half Men’ but you can’t tell anyone.”(these numbers are totally made up for simplistic reasons, I assure you they are INFINITELY more) and then goes to GM and says “I’ll charge you 100,000 for 30 seconds in ‘Two and a Half Men’ but don’t tell anyone.” The current foundation of media buying is anything but a free market, it is the very definition of dictatorial.

In all fairness, there have been more open systems tried (Google comes to mind) but they failed. They failed because they weren’t encouraged to succeed. There is much more money in the dictatorial model.

For a better understanding to the bullying or dictatorial market that is the upfront, read Jim Edwards article “A Secret Cartel Keeps The Dying Broadcast Industry Afloat“.

The price determined for these commercials is pure speculation and, from the pitch to purchase, the price is directly tied to the fictional rating system known as Nielsen. Simple facts, Nielsen has about 24,000 set top ratings boxes around the country. There are well over 115,000,000 television sets and well over 300,000,000 US citizens. Even for a non-math person or data analyst, I can tell works out to be a pretty small percentage. Furthermore, Nielsen does not factor into account colleges or universities, prisons, etc. where television viewing is tantamount to water.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE! Nielsen, the networks and advertisers are still trying to tell us that the 18-49 demographic is the most important demo, or “key demo” (they even have the data to back it up..HA). First of all, that is a HUGE spread, 31 years! A generation is typically defined by 25 years. That 18-39 demo is like the FBI’s worst profiler “Well, he or she is a white, hispanic or black male, anywhere from 18-49 with long/short sandy brown hair or possibly not, anywhere from 5’0” to 7’0″ tall.” Secondly, millenials and Gen X’ers (that is the 18-49 demo) are not brand specific and our viewing habits are changing daily. They’re certainly not the same as the baby boomers. And thirdly, any half wit can tell you boomers are the “key demo”.

My generation and the generation below me are constantly being told we don’t save enough and we don’t spend enough. You know what? WE DON’T MAKE ENOUGH TO DO EITHER! The baby boomer generation is roughly 78 million strong and controls a big chunk of the wealth in the U.S. (2) so to argue that x’ers or millenials are the “key demo” is to deny that fact, and it’s both ignorant and severely short sighted.

Netflix is a subscription based model, so they are not beholden to Madison Avenue. And the subscription based model not only turns its back on the the ad supported model but also proves to advertisers and networks just how archaic their business model is. People are fine paying for content that excludes commercials. Hell, HBO taught us that eons ago…before it was snatched up by a multinational.

Netflix has been able to attract some a-list talent, which television has great difficulty doing, and they’ve created some pretty good original programming, which television is also having great difficulty doing. And nothing pisses networks off more than competitors success.

“Lilyhammer” was a nice introduction to the Netflix original programming sked, David Fincher’s “House of Cards” was just shy of brilliant, “Hemlock Grove” was a misfire for me, but apparently it did well. And now “Arrested Development”. I am halfway in and it’s a welcome reminder of just how smart the show was and is.

To expect “Arrested Development” to be GREAT would have been foolish. It’s very good and it’s still INFINITELY better than any of the dreck commercial networks try to jam down our gullet.

Netflix is not beholden to Nielsen. At all. They don’t even need to release the number of views for their shows with their quarterly statement, or at all. One could easily argue Netflix is not being transparent with that information. How dare someone not be transparent to the all might multinationals that own cable and broadcast networks! They would never do such a thing…oh wait, they already do.

Netlix releases their subscription information and right now it hovers just under 30 million, all paying on average 9 dollars a month. Now, even for a non-math guy, I can tell that is a pretty substantial revenue flow.

So why is everyone hating on Netflix?!

One, traditional broadcasting got caught with their pants down and they are not handling the transition to streaming very well. In fact, they’re acting like Lars Ulrich did with Napster. In other words, like rich little jack asses throwing tantrums because they thought they were impenetrable.

Two, Netflix’s success is a reminder that traditional broadcast media is being shown up by a young non-traditional upstart, or rebel. And they’re succeeding without their help. Soon, the networks will take their toys (aka programming) and go home. Instead of acting like petulant children, and they had half a brain, they would strike an alliance with Netflix.I mean a REAL alliance, not just an agreement for Netflix to broadcast the first three seasons of “Murder She Wrote”.

Thirdly, there are no less than three industries that Netflix is fucking with, Advertising, Media Buyers and broadcast networks. And those are some powerful players. Almost every major player in those industries is either owned by a publicly traded company or IS a publicly traded company.

This may come as a shock to you, despite the use of the word “public”, publicly traded companies don’t really have the public’s best interest in mind. And yes, that probably includes Netflix.  So, there is simply too much money, spread out over too many places, going into too many pockets for a simple streaming model like Netflix to be wildly successful. It won’t be allowed.

Lastly, Netflix won’t play by traditional rules and release viewership information. And boy does that make media companies and media watchers angry! You can almost see the steam coming out of their heads. I don’t personally believe Netflix to be deliberately withholding information to be jerks. I suspect they will provide that information in time, but in our instant gratification, narcissistic society where we must measure success IMMEDIATELY, any delay infuriates people.

The truth is, nothing Netflix is doing is traditional, so the archaic, or traditional, rules of broadcast television don’t apply. And instead of highlighting all Netflix is doing correctly like the programming, development, handling the bandwidth,  etc. pundits and spoil sports alike are focused on the crap that only matters to a few. And when the few get angry, they PUNISH people. The Netflix stock price has certainly seen its share of punishment over the past 18 months.

So to you Netflix haters, I say “Go ahead, hate away. I’m not gonna stop you.” All I ask is that you take a good look as to why you are hating them. Instead of acting like pouting prissies, explain your reasons logically. Because logically, Netflix is doing a much better job than most other media companies whose shit scraps you lap up as “genius” and “progress”, when more often than not, they are neither.

Sure, Netflix does some dumb shit and makes some wonky decisions, but as far as moving towards a definable future for broadcasting, they’re looking ahead versus trying to cram the old broadcast business model, and content, down our throat.

As a fan of quality, uninterrupted shows available when I want to watch them, there is no better provider than Netflix. I’ve tried a fair number of them and for my money and my time, Netflix does it best. I doubt it will last forever, media is a serious state of flux, but for now:

Rock on Netflix!

Links:

1 – Edwards Article – http://tinyurl.com/pjlxvww
2 – Boomer article – http://tinyurl.com/oujbbxy
3 – NYTimes article – http://tinyurl.com/oqg7hv7

Circle Jerkin’

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go.
You lead by going to that place and making a case.”

— Ken Kesey

The annual broadcast network, advertising and media buying circle jerk known as the upfront is underway. Yesterday saw both NBC and Fox release their fall 2013 schedules.  Today, ABC releases their schedule and tomorrow it is current network king CBS’s turn, and for those who care, Thursday is the CW.

These four days are traditionally the time when the majority of advertising is booked on each specific network, based upon their programming. It’s the way the business has operated pretty much since…well, it’s the way it’s always operated.

It’s also been a time when all the programming executives get an opportunity to self flagellate their brilliance in front of an increasingly skeptical advertising community. In the case of NBC, skepticism from the ad community is now bordering on outright hostility.

No other broadcast network in history has had a more difficult time than NBC trying to regain some of their viewership. They continue to stumble and make programming decisions that not only baffle advertisers and viewers alike but also leaves them scratching their head wondering what on earth is going at the once blue chip net. For a few years I was convinced NBC was on a path to deliberately broadcast the worst television shows to attract viewers.

Maybe something is afoot at the Circle K though. Since the Comcast acquisition, NBCU CEO Steve Burke has cleaned house, from the top down, and got rid of a lot of the human detritus left by Jeff Zucker. I might argue there is more to be done, but I digress. In so doing, Burke and Comcast made a solid commitment to re-building their NBC prime time schedule and re-building the bridges that Zucker and team so cavalierly blew up…repeatedly.

After watching their upfront presentation yesterday, I am happy to say that it appears as though NBCU CEO Steve Burke and NBC Programming head Robert Greenblatt might actually be on the right path. They’ve done what no one thought was possible, a really good job.

I honestly didn’t think there was any hope for NBC at all but to my utter amazement, they presented a nice slate of shows. NBC presented a really comprehensive and interesting schedule. Here is a list of some of the new shows:

Million Second QuizUnscripted and stupid. I may be wrong here, but this looks absolutely ridiculous. If ever there was a show pitched from a cocktail napkin, this is it. I’m not going to even describe it. If you want to know, waste your own time and look it up.

The Michael J. Fox ShowScripted Comedy. I have to be honest I was beyond skeptical about this show. NBC ordered a complete season without a pilot. It seemed like a huge gamble based on Mr. Fox’s illness. It also seemed like a desperate grab to go back in time. BUT, from the trailer I saw, it looks really funny. I laughed out loud twice! Michael J. Fox is still incredibly charming and very funny. I suspect the Parkinson’s jokes and storyline may get old quick but provided the peripheral players are able to hold their own and support Fox, this show should really work.

Shame on NBC for flagrantly using their other news programs within the context of this show. It’s contrived and extremely hollow, I hope they re-think that. Aside from that gripe, this show actually looks really good.

About a Boy – Scripted Comedy. Based on the Nick Hornby book and the Hugh Grant movie from 2002, this just looks dumb. It won’t work. Nice try and may achieve some modest success in the short run, but this will eventually be a dud.

Sean Saves the World – Scripted Comedy. Sean Hayes plays a gay dad raising his teenage daughter. Linda Lavin plays his mother. No one does befuddled gay guy better than Sean Hayes and Linda Lavin is always a nice treat, it’s just too bad this is the vehicle they chose. NBC appears to be fixated on branching out and capturing the gay audience and expect this show to go the way of The New Normal, that is to say, cancelled.

The Family Guide – Scripted Comedy. Blind divorced dad J.K. Simmons gets a guide dog and young son feels replaced. Jason Bateman and David Schwimmer are producers with Bateman providing the voice over. I like this for a number of reasons, J.K. Simmons is always great, it has a dog, Jason Bateman is involved and so is the diverse and always fantastic Harold Perrineau. Unfortunately, the day they announced the series order, lead actress Parker Posey quit. That is an awful sign, but presuming they get a solid replacement, let’s all hope for Mary Louise Parker, this could actually be a break out hit.

NBC also didn’t acknowledge Posey’s departure during the upfront (HUGE faux paus… sure, everyone already knew, but they should have owned it, acknowledged it and moved on.) It’s nice to see NBC still hasn’t lost their ability to stick their head in the sand.

Nonetheless, this could actually work…mary louise parker, mary louise parker, mary louise parker…

Undateable – Scripted Comedy. Unwatcheable.

Ironside – Scripted Drama. Blair Underwood recreates this 1970’s classic. Much like most shows in the cop genre, this is entirely resting on the cast. We all know the stories and the formula by now. The success of any of these shows rests solely on the cast and how they can make it resonate with the audience. Could go either way, Blair Underwood is extremely likeable but buying him as a paraplegic is going to be a tough sell.

Blacklist – Scripted Drama. This is the show getting the most attention and deservedly so. It looks good, has an interesting story line, a mysterious angle and it has James Spader playing crazy! Spader plays the world’s most wanted criminal, who turns himself into the FBI and offers to give up everyone he has ever worked with in exchange for working with a newly minted agent whom he seemingly has no connection. The “blacklist” in question contains the names of 20 of the world’s most wanted criminals (I suspect most will be Chinese, Hispanic and Russian).

If NBC has half a brain, they’ll get in front of this show and nail it down for an entire series run of 20-30 episodes, long enough to capture the people on the “blacklist” and then wrap it up. If they did that, this could be a defining moment in NBC’s history.

Don’t look for that to happen.

Welcome to the Family – Scripted Comedy. Look for a divorce from viewers.

The Night Shift – Scripted Drama. Medical show. Trying to recapture ER. Not gonna happen.

Chicago PD – Scripted Drama. Spinoff from Chicago Fire. Again, all dependent on the stories and the performers. Could work given the appeal of Chicago Fire. Unlike the flagrant crossover in The Michael J. Fox Show, these two shows would do well to air back to back and have a ton of cross pollination.

Crisis – Scripted Drama. Here is the official logline:
When Washington’s most powerful players are pulled into an international conspiracy, an unlikely puppeteer will bring everyone from CEOs to The President of the United States to their knees by threatening the things they hold most dear.

Here is how that logline translates: Someone kidnaps a bunch of rich Washington D.C. kids (from a yellow school bus, as if anyone believes rich D.C. insiders kids travel to school like that) in order to get back at CEO’s and the Washington elite. While no one likes to see kids suffer, perhaps NBC missed the memo, no one gives a shit about Washington politicians or over paid CEO’s. Absolutely arrogant in its premise and I’ve no doubt this show is DOA.

Dracula – Scripted Drama. Starring the exceptionally talented Jonathan Rhys Meyers (seriously dude, fire your team), this show just looks silly. A big period costume drama about Dracula. DONE and DONE and DONE and DONE…ENOUGH on the re-treads! Maybe a mini-series, fine. A PERIOD PIECE ABOUT DRACULA ON NBC! Ugly attempt to capture the Downton Abbey phenom…with vampires. Awful.

Believe – Scritped Drama. JJ Abrams & Alfonso Cauron. Blah, blah, blah, something about a gifted girl, they travel, some guy saves her and everyone is touched along the way. It could work, but not a long term show. This would be another show I would suggest NBC sign up for a specific number (I’ll say 26, two seasons of 13 ep’s) and then call it a day. If they do that here as well as with Blacklist, these two shows could help re-establish the network as both visionary and a destination for good content.

Don’t look for that to happen.

These are some of the shows I saw during their presentation and after listening to everyone and sitting through their respective pitches, along with the dreadfully unfunny taped pieces; I have to say NBC did a great job. I don’t think this is the type of slate that will put NBC back on top. However, it is the type of slate that indicates exactly how hard Burke, Greenblatt and company have worked over the past 18 months in doing exactly what they said they would do, invest in creativity and talent. Keeping your word and delivering is a sign of true leadership, well done!

Sadly, NBC, just like all the other nets, have their nose so far up the advertisers’ asses they can’t wrap their head around the future of broadcasting. I’m not an idiot, I get it; there is a ton of money to be had in this world of advertising sponsored television. And, wait for it, “it’s the way it’s always been done.” (YAWN)

Look, there is a place for this business model; it is just no longer with scripted shows. Sporting events, talk shows and unscripted shows have that sense of immediacy that prompts destination viewing and will always work hand in hand with commercial advertising.

In case you’re not paying attention, we’re moving toward a world where scripted shows will be viewed en masse. And no matter how hard each of the networks tries to jam that ad sponsored model down our gizzards, it’s simply not what we want. I’m not saying it’s going to happen next year or even in five years. I’m certainly not saying networks need to embrace the Netflix business model. What I AM saying is that it would behoove them to take it under consideration. SERIOUS consideration.

For example, let’s just say NBC decides to take my idea to book and market Blacklist as a complete show. We’ll say 26 episodes. Sure, air it on the network with the 12-15 minutes of commercials and get the revenue (at least until you accept the inevitable). But THEN, charge advertisers for the privilege of being the SOLE sponsor on a commercial free digital replay on the NBC site (preferably not the NBC site because it sucks). This way, everyone gets what they want.

OR Partner with Netflix and charge them the premium for the commercial free web replay. But do this while the story is moving forward. In the case of Blacklist, maybe you do the commercial free digital replay after each person on the list is caught. Just don’t wait 12 months after the first season!

Re-think your model for chrissakes.

Yes, there is Hulu and Hulu Plus…but, Hulu sucks. TV Everywhere has been fumbling along but shows no signs of gaining any real traction because it is confusing as all hell. Amazon is still a wildcard. HBO Go and Showtime Go are solid players. Even though Wall Street keeps yammering and hammering on about how Netflix will eventually fail, I am extremely suspect about their analysis and motivation. More their motivation.

At the end of the day, all the networks, despite their efforts to own and control the digital distribution, are simply going to have to partner with either Google, Apple, Netflix or Amazon and embrace this commercial free model. It’s the cod liver oil modern media in transition.

In the case of NBC, I would strongly urge them to start the process now. The network was built upon forward thinking vision but, with the bungled shenanigans of Jeff Zucker (good luck CNN!), they lost in less than ten years what it took almost 100 to achieve.

NBC finally has an opportunity to recapture that which built the company, true leadership and real vision. With the NBC upfront yesterday, I felt something unusual for the first time, hope…and just a small tingle of pride.

Loyalty and honesty.

“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson

After completing my evening chores last night I decided to watch a little television. Not in the mood for anything too thought provoking and not having a strong desire to sit through a marathon dramatizing the raping and pillaging of New York City via Dick Wolf, I scrolled through the bagillion stations. It was 9pm, so I knew I had to act quickly as shows were just beginning. Buried deep down, on the Palladia Network, I noticed a documentary about British metal gods Iron Maiden called Iron Maiden: Flight 666. I like music so I shrugged my shoulders and decided to give it a try.

Growing up Iron Maiden wasn’t really my kind of music. I tend to go for the more visceral rock and roll stuff. My heavy metal tastes were practically nonexistent. For me, Iron Maiden always seemed geared for the Dungeons & Dragons set and I didn’t run with that crowd. Come to think of it, that crowd didn’t run with that crowd, there was no running at all. They simply sat in their own suburban dungeons playing the game. Nonetheless, the lone rock station in town played a few songs and I grew to like those songs and there ended my interest in Iron Maiden. Until last night.

The premise of Iron Maiden: Flight 666 is pretty simple. A documentary crew follows the band over 45 days, 23 shows in 11 countries accounting for almost 50,000 flying miles, filming the first leg of their 2008 World Tour. Right away I thought that was a pretty aggressive itinerary but the absolutely fascinating part is that the band chartered a 757, dubbed Ed Force One, to carry all of their equipment and crew allowing them to tour more efficiently.

The logistics of a world tour are immediately streamlined when you are responsible for all of it. But to find out that the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, was the pilot of the 757 made me giggle with glee. Its one thing to be the lead singer and responsible for 20,000 peoples enjoyment during a live show and then entirely another to be responsible for that and then responsible for 70+ peoples lives as they travel to the next date.

If ever there were a renaissance man for rock and roll, it would have to be Bruce Dickinson. In fact, in 2009 Intelligent Life Magazine named him a living example of a polymath (someone who’s an expert in a significant number of diverse subjects). Here in the states, we’d probably have someone like that medicated and label him ADHD. In addition to being the lead singer to one of the more successful metal bands in history, he holds an airline transport license, owns aircraft maintenance business Cardiff Aviation Ltd., served as Marketing Director for Astreus Airlines, for eight years was a DJ on BBC radio station 6 and for four years on BBC Radio 2, wrote two novels about a character he named Lord Iffy Boatrace, a semi-transvestite British land owner (yea, they were published and successful), is an avid fencer and owns Duellist, a fencing retailer. I’m sure I am leaving some stuff out, but clearly, Dickinson is more than just a rock singer.

Now, for the cynics out there who say that rock and roll is dead, after watching Iron Maiden: Flight 666, I don’t think that is the case. It may be in a deep coma and on life support, but dead it is not. Seeing how fans reacted to Iron Maiden in South America is truly overwhelming. Seriously, the scenes from Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina and Brazil are insane…and I don’t mean fans at the shows, I’m referring to the fans waiting outside the airports and hotels.

Iron Maiden has been together for well over 30 years! These guys are not 20 something hipsters, they’re all over 50 and they look it. Not in a bad way, they look like quite normal guys, aside from the hair and tattoos. In other words, no plastic surgery, no liposuction, no personal trainers, no bizarre rituals to maintain youth (unless you count drummer Nicko McBrain’s post concert ritual of eating pizza).

Rock and roll means something to the people in those countries.

In one particularly poignant scene from the Costa Rican concert (I think), they cut to a fan that had caught a drumstick from Nicko McBrain. This fan cradled that drumstick and was crying. The camera slowly moved in on him as he wiped away his tears. The shot stayed on him just long enough so that one could comprehend what that drumstick meant to him. Clearly, this was more than just a drumstick.

Of course, Iron Maiden’s music is the reason they still play arenas and stadiums around the world. However, to get that kind of reaction from fans means it has to go deeper than just the music.

From what I saw in the documentary, it is Iron Maiden’s commitment to honesty and loyalty that makes them one of the more relevant bands today. It’s that honesty and loyalty to their music and their fans that, 30 years on, still shines. That’s the reason that guy cried while he cradled the drumstick.

In the past 50 years, virtually every country in South America has witnessed a revolution or been bled dry by their leaders under the guise of the “free market” or culturally and economically screwed by multinational corporations or the IMF or The World Bank or drug lords or some combination of all of those.

As that guy cradles that one drumstick, isn’t it possible that one stick of wood represents a symbol of life, of hope?

There is no rhyme or reason why some things resonate with some people and not with others. For me, Iron Maiden songs are lyrically too verbose and reference things I have no interest in; and the music is undoubtedly amazing and technically flawless but strikes me as lacking emotion. I don’t have the visceral reaction to Iron Maiden that I get from, say, Pearl Jam. I certainly don’t think one is better than the other, it’s just my preference. And then it struck me why Maiden remains so popular. The integrity that Pearl Jam projects to me is the same for Iron Maiden fans.

Seeing the band behind the scenes made me realize how real they truly are. They appeared to be genuine guys who just really love life, their life. There were no shots of mansions, glitzy hotels, groupies or ridiculous parties. No in your face “we’re rich rock stars”, aside from the 757, but when the whole crew is on board and the lead singer is the pilot it sorta negates any envy. No temper tantrums. Oh, I’ve no doubt some of that stuff happens, they are rock stars after all. But you know what? It happens to everybody, regardless of job profession.

Iron Maiden: Flight 666 is really a documentary of the band as people. And you know what? They seem to be really nice people! It in no way appeared to be an act for the cameras either. All six members come across as really solid average blokes. In addition to the already covered Dickinson, bassist and Maiden founder, Steve Harris travels with his family, drummer Nicko McBrain and guitarist Dave Murray are avid golfers, guitarist Adrian Smith is a tennis player, guitarist Janick Gers is a bit of a wanderer. All in all, they appear to be pretty normal and well grounded guys.

But their honesty is just part of it; their commitment to each other is amazing. Of course, being in a band for 30 years, there is some strife. And while I am certain it still exists within the band, thankfully, this film left it out. What it showed was how loyal the band is to one another. It’s fairly obvious they are not all the best of friends, but they seem to have found a way to travel and work with one another without seemingly sacrificing too much in the process.

They’re loyal to their crew. I’m fairly certain I didn’t see a crew member under 40, which tells me they’ve probably been together awhile.

They are loyal to their music, bassist Harris is seemingly the keepsake. He, along with current producer Kevin Shirley, maintain the loyalty of the Iron Maiden sound, which has remained consistent throughout their career.

They are loyal to their fans. As guitarist Adrian Smith tells it, (I’m paraphrasing here) “If I am outside and you want an autograph or photo, fine, I get it, that’s part of my job. I’m happy to do it.”

More tellingly, they have had the same manager, Rod Smallwood, since 1979. Now THAT speaks volumes to the character of the band. How many bands have catapulted their managers once they achieve fame? How many have fired managers as a result of either their own greed or the managers greed? How many managers take on more than one client and then wait for one to hit and then give themselves totally to that artist?

Forget rock and roll, in ANY industry, to find that kind of allegiance from either side is rare. But BOTH sides? And to think that doesn’t get noticed by fans is foolish. Trust me, we notice and it resonates with us because that kind of loyalty manifests itself in the way the band operates, both professionally and artistically.

Honesty and loyalty, in the world outside Iron Maiden, has been trumped by deceit and self interest. Corporations prove time and time again they’ve no loyalty (forget about honesty) to their employees. Employees have no loyalty to the companies they work for because they know the companies have no loyalty to them. Employees have no loyalty to one another because they either want to keep their job or get ahead, not realizing the game is fixed against them. It’s pretty shitty all around.

It’s no wonder we continue to spiral down the rabbit hole toward a revolution.

Just imagine if corporations respected their workers enough to be loyal, to be honest, treat them accordingly and share in their riches? Imagine if employees felt valued? Imagine if employees cared enough for one another to help them achieve their goals?

After watching Iron Maiden: Flight 666, I can’t say I saw any evidence of the band being cognizant of their seeming dedication to honesty and loyalty. From what I saw, it appears to be just part of who they are, its part of each member’s genetic code. It also doesn’t appear to be part of an agenda or PR stunt.  They are just good guys. Sometimes it is that simple.

It’s these traits, and their artistry, that allow them to keep their long time fans and speak to new fans. It’s the reason Bruce Dickinson remarks “Our audience keeps getting younger, not older.” I might submit they keep getting younger because you can’t lie to kids because they haven’t ingested some of the cynicism that comes with age. If music is Iron Maiden’s spoken bond with their fans, their dedication to truth and honesty is the unspoken bond.

Now look, I’m no dummy. I’m aware this was a movie and it’s supposed to paint them in the best light possible. They’re also rock stars, so I suspect there is some dark shit hiding in each of their closets. Regardless, if you are not a good person there is no amount of editing or post production shimmery that can hide that. If you are an asshole, it eventually shows up.

As a band and as individuals, the Iron Maiden organization appears to be asshole free and built around five really good people. I suspect when they formed the band their intention was not to serve as some sort of beacon of light to truth and honesty, but 30+ years on, they are. Thankfully.

This is a sentence I never thought I would write, but here it is:

The world needs more Iron Maiden.

Simple Things

JOHN LENNON

“Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.”

“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”

“As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.”

“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace.”

“Love is the flower you’ve got to let grow.”

“Music is everybody’s possession. It’s only publishers who think that people own it.”

“My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

“If being an egomaniac means I believe in what I do and in my art or music, then in that respect you can call me that… I believe in what I do, and I’ll say it.”

Hot Dogs and Hamburgers

“The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested.”
– William Dean Howells

I love John Mellencamp. In the mid 1980’s, after he had shaken the God awful Johnny Cougar moniker, he proved himself to be a brilliant, socially conscious American singer/songwriter on par with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

To me, he was the definitive songwriter, more than Springsteen and Dylan. I worshiped the guy. During my senior year of high school, as I was facing an out of school suspension for a retaliatory orange throwing incident, I quoted Mellencamp’s “You’ve Got To Stand For Something” off Scarecrow. My father and I were negotiating some sort of equitable punishment for returning fire with said comestible and I was becoming more and more irritated with Vice Principal Durnbaugh’s firm footing that I admit complete guilt. I said “Fine, give me the out of school suspension. I didn’t DO anything and you’ve got to stand for something or you’re going to fall for anything.” In my head, it made complete sense and was pure genius. How could I possibly be punished after throwing that bit of genius down on the table? The two adults in the room just stared vacantly at me.*

While my musical tastes have certainly changed over the years, from an early 90’s dalliance in Brit Pop to a heavy grunge addiction to a deep exploration of the Americana movement of the mid to late 1990’s, I have always found Mellencamp a reliable home base when I needed to reconnect with what matters most to me, honesty. While he is not an overtly personal songwriter, Mellencamp writes extraordinarily well crafted honest social commentary, disguised as songs, about the trials and tribulations of what it is to be a working American.

Over the weekend, I read that on June 4th Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will be released. His first foray into musical theater, written with Stephen King and music production by T-Bone Burnett. I streamed a few songs and found them to be exceptional with an audio aesthetic on par with the more recent T-Bone Burnett productions. Now, while I suspect the content of the musical is probably too dark to ever make it to the Disneyfied Great White Way of Broadway, one can hope. In any event, in honor of the upcoming release, I’ve spent the past few days re-visiting my Mellencamp home base. While there, I noticed something. Something I knew all along but this time it clicked differently.

John Mellencamp has been in the “Serious Business” of music for well over 30 years now and it wasn’t until “Pink Houses” that people began to notice there was a more political side to him. He wasn’t just an ill tempered artist from Indiana, he was actually an insightful and intelligent wordsmith. With the release of  Scarecrow in 1985, he captured to tone of America and he got pissed. With Scarecrow John Mellencamp all but stood in the center of a mid-western wheat field and screamed “SHIT IS FUCKED UP!”

For most of my adult life through today, he continues to chronicle the plight of the average American. Mellencamp is still active in Farm Aid, an annual benefit for American farmers (to date they’ve raised over 40 million dollars used to pay the farmer’s expenses and provide food, legal and financial help, and psychological assistance). And he is still singing about how you and I are getting screwed. All these years on and he’s still standing in the wheat field screaming “SHIT IS STILL FUCKED UP!

Oh sure, he’s a rock star and probably has a fair amount of money. Although with three divorces and five children, I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible. Invariably, cynics and critics will grouse and grumble saying “Oh, he’s just another rich lefty rock singer”. Fuck ’em, let ’em bitch and moan.

He’s an artist and like any good artist he’s done what he’s supposed to do; hold a mirror up to society and provide social commentary. John Mellencamp just happens to be talented enough that he can place his observations into well crafted songs that people like. He worked hard to achieve his success, he continues to work hard. He’s extraordinarily gifted and undeniably in tune with what it is to be American and some of the inherent struggles that entails.

You’d think that over the course of his career that things would have changed, that they would have gotten better. You’d think that maybe John Mellencamp could stop doing Farm Aid, maybe write some ridiculously happy songs about harmony and equality and finally come in from the wheat field after screaming “SHIT’S OK NOW!“.

Well, you’d be wrong to think that.

All you need to do is look at the facts:

  • The Gini Index, or Gini Coefficient, used by economists to measure inequality within nations designates a score of zero as perfect economic equality and a score of one (1.0) being perfect economic inequality. The most recent Gini calculation (2005-2010) has the United States with a Gini index of .47, a 20% rise in income disparity over the past 40 years. A .47 Gini index is on par with both Mexico and the Philippines.(1)
  • The total business revenue of the top 200 corporations in the Unites States has risen from 21% in 1950 to 32% in 2009.
  • The six largest bank holding companies (JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – some of which had different names) had assets equal to 64% of the U.S. gross domestic product (as of third quarter 2010).(1)
  • A confidential 2006 Citigroup memo claimed America had become a modern-day plutonomy where “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few”.(1)
  • In 2011, Advertising Age concluded “Mass affluence is over” and the top 10% of Americans account for nearly half of all consumer spending.(1)
  • Economist Timothy Smeeding states “Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 20–30 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations.”(2)
  • Data from tax returns show that the top 1 percent of households received 8.9 percent of all pre-tax income in 1976. In 2008, the top 1 percent share had more than doubled to 21.0 percent.(3)
  • Between 1947 and 1972, the average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, rose 76 percent. Since 1972, by contrast, the average hourly wage has risen only 4 percent.(3)
  • Economist Jeffery Sachs developed a commercialism index to judge the advanced nations on how commercialized their media and cultures were and then compared that to overall public well-being and the common good. The United States topped the list as the most commercialized and most socially backward. (1)

If you are anything like me, you are acutely aware of how fucked up things are. Continuing to list facts about inequality becomes an exercise in futility. And it’s not just here in the states, you can see this growing influence around the world.

I’d like to believe that no one is naive enough to think that John Mellencamp, or any artist, has all or even some of, the answers. Hell, even Mellencamp admits as much “I’m using my art to comment on what I see. You don’t have to agree with it.”

For the majority of his career, he has been showing us time and time again how screwed up America is while still maintaining his pride in being an American. He’s been able to infiltrate our ears, our minds and our hearts with his observations. John Mellencamp is doing what artists do best, getting us to think.

For the majority of his career I’ve just enjoyed the music and agreed with the observations. But this week something changed, something clicked and the question I’m left thinking is, what are we prepared to do to change the course?

If you believe
Won’t you please raise your hands
Let’s hear your voices
Let us know where you stand
Don’t shout from the shadows
Cause it won’t mean a damn
“Now More Than Ever”

– John Mellencamp

Sources:
1 – http://tinyurl.com/cubm2e4
2 – http://tinyurl.com/2o3hb8
3 – http://tinyurl.com/7xmtqh5

* – I acquiesced to long term Saturday school punishment after my fathers argument that an out of school suspension would have damaged my college eligibility. With a 1.9 GPA, I’m not sure how much more damaging it could have been.

Digital Pet Rocks

“The challenge is to manage the Web in an open way-not too much bureaucracy, not subject to political or commercial pressures.
– Tim Berners Lee

The Internet was developed to communicate. It was not created to be a media tool. When we speak of “new media” that is not the Internet or the Web. That refers to the companies that populate the Web. And many of them seem superfluous. This  transmogrification from what the Web was in the beginning to what it is now, and the even more frightening thought of what it will be in the future, should be alarming to all of us.

I recently read an article comparing the Internet with the advent of the automobile. Both are revolutionary and  with them came the idea that they would free America. Cars were to be the thing that brought America together, made us one, yadda yadda yadda. The same pitch was given about the Internet.

One hundred years later, no one can deny the importance of the automobile but at what price? The automobile business, and its ancillary industries, has killed millions of people, oil has been the source of countless wars, both covert and overt, toppled democracies and propped up dictatorships and on and on. What will they say about the Internet in 100 years?

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the internet was created by hippies. Free thinking and idealistic individuals who didn’t, and still don’t, want the legacy of their creation to be in hands of soulless individuals, also known as corporations. Its original purpose, to serve as a free and open source communication tool, is being hacked away at by corporate monoliths who have no intention of keeping the Web free and open. They want to strangle and subjugate it. The corporations have but one goal, to capitalize on it and reap the most revenue to boost that line item on their quarterly reports. We’re not there yet and we can’t end up there.

We all know the internet is huge. How huge? Tough to say for sure but one could easily make the argument that it represents Moore’s Law…on steroids. For those of us that happen to believe in democracy AND capitalism (and yes, those things are, or should be, completely independent of one another but lately they seem to be one and the same), as big as the Web keeps getting, the smaller it seems to become. You see, corporations are beginning to realize how to strangle the Web and monetize it and we are letting them. For example, the top 10 web sites account for 75% of all pageviews in the United States(1) and of the top 10 web sites only one (Wikipedia) is not built off a profit driven model.(2)

Because of the Internets rapid expansion and the myopic pace of government and partisan politicking, lawmakers couldn’t figure out how to regulate it. Actually, they still can’t. So, in the words of famed free market economist Milton Friedman, the government chose to “Let the market decide.” Given more and more media consolidation and the corporate expansion into “new media” coupled with their powerful lobbying arm, who do you think benefits, at this point, from any potential regulation of the Internet?

I have nothing against making money. In fact, I quite like it. What I take umbrage with is the Internet turning into a place where the sole purpose of creating an Internet business is to be bought out by one of the bigger Internet companies (we all recall the Internet bubble bursting, so IPO’s are out and Acquisitions are in). In and of itself, I firmly believe access to that creative freedom of the Web is awesome. The one simple and great truth about the Internet is that it completely democratizes creativity and if you can make a buck at it, great. But I see so many start ups and think “Why is this necessary?” And, more often than not, they are not necessary. They’re nothing more than digital pet rocks.

In the latest issue of Wired Magazine, they highlight some of the start ups that are located around the Wired SF offices. Among them are Wcities (spent some time on the site and while I consider myself pretty Internet smart, I can not determine what they do but they have some blue chip partners/clients), Cloud Prime (A cloud messaging service, which marries big buzz “cloud” with instant messaging…yea, don’t see the relevance of that, but I do see an acquisition in their future – SalesForce anyone?), Grockit (online test preparation…um, how did the more established companies miss the boat on this one?). Frankly, it’s worrisome that some of the best minds today are creating these types of companies. Wouldn’t it be a lot cooler if some of these minds put some of that intelligence to helping keep the Internet open by building services and/or tools that benefit all of us? For free?

Franco Berardi writes “At a certain point in the development of the application of intelligence to production, the capitalist model becomes a paradigmatic cage, constraining intelligence in the form of wages, discipline and dependence.”(3) The creation of many of these digital pet rocks were to gain entry into the Internets “capitalistic paradigmatic cage”. More simply, the Internet is slowly turning into one giant free market Pac Man game where start ups are built for the sole purpose of being gobbled up by Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook or Microsoft.

Can the Internet be saved? Yes, but only if we want to save it. The Web is big enough that it can house both corporate concerns and serve as a model of democracy. That’s on us as users to make happen. Admittedly, saving the Internet requires work. Every last one of us is stretched so thin on time, energy and patience (thanks to being slaves to feed corporatism…and ourselves), it then becomes how to fit the necessary work into our schedules. Allow me to submit a few ideas:

  • Be more discreet with the tools you use.
  • Share less. Please.You are only hurting yourself and helping them.
  • Spend less time on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Don’t be so quick to hop on the latest digital trend or social media application.
  • Create your own web site using a free service (yes, like WordPress. Yes, they gather data on usage but are transparent.)
  • Read a book.

To the entrepreneurial minded, instead of looking to the short game for a quick pay day, why not play the long game and create to change? We’re right around the corner from a day when the monolithic corporations simply won’t let you create business’ as easily as you can now. Soon, very soon, unless we change direction, that low barrier to entry we all love about the Web won’t be there. It will be too costly for any Tom, Dick or Harriet to start a business. But also, wouldn’t it be a lot cooler to think about how to make things better for everyone and not just how can to create something Google will buy from me?

Stop making digital pet rocks.

In and of themselves, these simple tactics independently won’t crush or alter the growing corporatization of the Web. However, cumulatively, they will have an impact on the two things corporations are most concerned about with the Internet, data and revenue.

Look, I understand this is a gross over simplification of a very complex concern, but unless we change the direction of the Internet it will become just another media outlet for multinational corporations to repress and retard our thinking. From where I sit, there is already way too much of that.

A sledgehammer is to the totalitarian government as media is to a democracy.  The Internet is the last bastion of democracy. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

References:
1- http://tinyurl.com/cvemeg2
2- http://tinyurl.com/6c53k5b
3- http://tinyurl.com/cqbgbkf

Boston Marathon

boston-marathon-bombings

“Humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remain standing the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it.”
– Pope John Paul II

I don’t think I could officially call myself a blogger unless I expressed some sort of feeling about the bombings on Monday at the Boston Marathon. So, here goes…it sucks and I am truly sorry that yet another tragedy has befallen our country. My heart goes out to the people who lost a loved one and those that were injured. And I don’t think enough thanks could be expressed to those that helped the hurt ones. Patton Oswalt said it far better than I could.

Whether you believe this to be a terrorist attack, either foreign or domestic, or some sort of governmental conspiracy, you’ll have to accept that we may never know the truth. The odds are that you will choose a narrative that fits your own personal belief system or one that you were raised with. Sound familiar? It’s getting to a point in America where knowledge gathering is beginning to look a lot like religion in that you go to the sources that subscribe to your beliefs.

Thankfully, there are tons of media outlets to choose from to get your (mis)information from. And in times of peril, like Monday’s bombing, the media turns to experts. The sad fact is that there are simply too many media outlets for any sort of true “expert” to cover and we’re left with news producers scrapping the barrel, willing to except almost any dolt as an expert. What follows are some  “experts” who recently appeared on some of the “trusted” news outlets:

ON CNN:
Former Lubbock, Texas Sheriff Tex Jackson was an “expert” because he once had a car explode in his driveway. And in a shocking display of Zuckerness, CNN ran a lower third during the interview of the coyote (of roadrunner and coyote fame) getting blown up.

ON MSNBC:
14 year old Bryan Watson was an “expert” because he lost his right hand when he put an M-80 in a beer can.

ON CNBC:
Goldman Sachs SVP Levon Jenkins, III was an “expert” because he once ran the Boston Marathon.

ON NY1:
Stacy Levicciochi, a 24 year old actor from Staten Island, was an “expert” because she was going to run in the Marathon but missed her flight.

ON NBC:
Brian Williams had an awkward interview with Watertown, MA Mayor, Jesus Jones, who actually may have been an expert. No one is sure because NBC just kept running a video loop of the bomb going off coupled with Brian Williams incessant “Uhmmms” and it created a trance like feeling for viewers.

ON CBS:
Shrieking MA DMV worker LaTonya Freeman, who kept bellowing “Lordy, Lordy, Lordy, they blown up my baby.” (no indication she or anyone related to her ran or was injured).

ON C-SPAN:
Surprisingly, no coverage. Only coverage of a senate vote to extend the Patriot Act to include Drone Missions on American soil.

ON THE CHRISTIAN BROADCAST NETWORK:
Pat Robertson ordained his cameraman, Tony Maloney an expert because of his two tours of duty in Iraq. Apparently, Robertson got the phrases “Worked with comestibles” confused with “Worked with combustibles”. Things got strange when Maloney asked Robertson to bless his avocado.

Across the radio and the web, celebrities and news actors weighed in:

Glenn Beck:
“President Obama was seen by that trash can two hours before the explosion. FACT!”

Alex Jones:
“THOSE OILY TOWEL HEADED MONKEYS WORKING FOR THE CIA DID THIS AND I CAN PROVE IT! LET ME TELL YOU WHAT, IF ONE OF THEM WALKS 500 FEET WITHIN ME, I AM GONNA SHOOT ‘EM. I’M GONNA STAND MY GROUND!!!”

Rush Limbaugh:
“Has anyone heard from Darnell, I am out of Oxy…and the femi-nazi’s…WELL THEN GET ME SOME SCOTCH GOD DAMMITT!”

Keith Olberman:
“Is anyone out there, because I have something to say.”

Westboro Baptist Church:
“God hates faggot runners.”

The list goes on and on, sadly. Fortunately, with the wide range of media and opinions, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding one that fits your belief needs.

As for me? Well, I’ll wait until I gather some more information from across the media spectrum, and globe, to try and sort out what I think. But I am fairly convinced we’ll never really know the whole truth.

While the talking heads and media pundits definitely need more help, right now, all I am really concerned with are the people who lost someone or who are hurt. And to those people, my heart and prayers are with you.

The Lowdown on an Upright Citizen: Comedian Anthony Apruzzese

From the April 15, 2013 Williamsburg Greenpoint News + Arts:

Showtime3

The Lowdown on an Upright Citizen: Comedian Anthony Apruzzese

by
Keith R. Higgons

Comedy is as much a part of the DNA of Brooklyn as country music is of Nashville. The list of comedians who have called Brooklyn home reads like a history lesson of the hysterical: Mel Brooks, Larry David, Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason, and current late night warriors Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, among countless others. Hoping to one day count himself among those names is Williamsburg resident Anthony Apruzzese. He is currently blazing a trail in the super competitive world of comedy with his improvisation/theater/sketch late night talk show at the Upright Citizens Brigade East Theater called Showtime with Anthony Apruzzese.

READ MORE AT THE WG BY CLICKING BELOW:

WG logo

White Noise

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
– Grouch Marx

Here we sit on the cusp of the annual network television circle jerk, or as it is known in the industry, the up fronts. For the uninitiated, that is where the networks all pitch advertisers about their new fall programming in the hopes of locking in advertising revenue. The largest source of hilarity about this annual dog and pony show is that both networks and advertising agencies think that viewers will actually give a crap about the crap they have slammed together.

For the most part, we don’t. The only people who care about this are the ad agencies and the networks.

What we want is good television programming and that doesn’t seem to be a priority for the networks. So God only knows what sort of mediocre to awful tripe they are going to offer up this year. I’m sure NBC will lead the charge because they have the most to prove and yet have proven time and time again their programming department is either completely inept or…or…actually, I am pretty sure they are completely inept. ABC and CBS will probably stay the course and offer up shows similar to what is proving successful for them. FOX is always a wildcard and with Seth MacFarlane getting at least another 30 minutes of FOX programming, don’t expect too much change there either. Once again, all eyes will be on NBC and once again, I suspect NBC will completely fail to deliver. If any network makes a case for cord cutting, it is NBC.

Much hullabaloo has been spoken and written about over the past few years regarding this proverbial “cutting the cord” concept and, while inevitable, I still feel we’re a few years from any sort of mass severing. The technology exists where you can watch your favorite shows via other channels, Apple TV, Roku, Netflix, iTunes, etc. (albeit at times, kinda spotty) which leaves network television and their minions in a real pickle. You see, they are still holding on to the paradigm that if they put it on TV people will watch it at that moment. That just doesn’t hold any weight anymore. We’ll watch it…if it’s good…and when we have the time to do so.

Bob Lefsetz recently wrote about some of this and I have to say I agree with a lot of it. However, he claims that cable television is going to crumble and crumble quickly. This, I do not agree with. I DO think traditional broadcast networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX simply can’t seem to get out of their own way and unless they re-think their business model and re-align their focus, they’re fucked. It’s that simple. But cable television is still providing the more compelling scripted programming. They are allowing and fostering more creativity whereas the big four are basically trying to find ways to screw the other one. That is not to say that eventually cable will crumble, it will. But not before the big four.

Will streaming crush broadcast media? Not in the short term. Eventually? Yes, it will. Netflix is a force to be reckoned with. Disregard the noise coming from Wall Street about Netflix, they will dominate…for a little longer. I recently had one NBC executive guffaw at my praise of “House of Cards” saying “Oh you mean the 100 million dollar gamble?” Yes, it was 100 million dollars…for 26 episodes of a show starring a Hollywood A-list actor, produced by a Hollywood A-list director, directed and written by some of the best people working in Hollywood today. How much do you think NBC has spent trying to fill the 10pm slot that housed the broadcasting abortion that was the 10pm Jay Leno variety show, with infinitely lesser talents? Trust me, they’ve spent well over 100 million dollars trying to fill that and have yet to yield a hit there. Netflix original programming, so far, has been top notch and I don’t see that trend of quality waning anytime soon. Nonetheless, I think the streaming models of Netflix, and Amazon, will grow and become the destination for more intelligent scripted programming, bypassing traditional broadcast and cable outlets.

So where does that leave advertisers and their broadcast television teat suckers?

The future for broadcast television is with live sporting events and with reality and unscripted programming. That is the plain and simple truth. They both have an inherent sense of immediate viewing, which isn’t there for scripted shows. Networks can charge top dollar to advertisers for live events. Sports fans are sports fans and they need to see the game or event live.

As much as I bash NBC, I will say the rolling up of all their sports nets into NBC Sports was a good move and they actually have a leg up with both the Olympics and Sunday Night Football. They also have a bunch of niche channels which will yield some decent dividends in the long run (admittedly, the long run is not something any network is good at…Corporatism at its best). While I may think starting the Olympics a day early is dumb, maybe they have data that suggests otherwise. I doubt it. I suspect it is just a money grab which smells of desperation. But unscripted programming, much like sports,  have that sense of immediacy built into them which could serve them well.

The giant wild card in all of this is the baby boomer generation and NOT the 18-34 demographic. You know, the baby boomers? The demographic no one wants to talk about but the one that is poised to sustain every industry for the next 20-30 years. Advertisers and networks are still holding on that ideal that the 18-34 demographic is the key one to grab. Their logic is that if they can get them young they can build brand loyalty with them. I’m not sure how they keep missing this, but that demo doesn’t have brand loyalty. In fact, I am not sure loyalty is even part of their vernacular.

Historically, CBS has always been perceived as the old fogey network, which in this case should to carry them through the budding baby boomer explosion. If the rest of the networks had half a brain, and all evidence points to the contrary, they’d be building shows around the boomer interests, be they scripted or unscripted. More than likely, the boomers viewing habits will stay the same. Which is to say that they will continue to rely on the “talking box” to get their information and entertainment whereas the current 18-34 group is all over bejesus getting their information. The reason to work within the baby boomer demographic and build off of them is two fold. One, there is simply more potential eyeballs and therefore, revenue and two, it would allow time for nets to develop an exit strategy.

There is a lot of white noise surrounding the discussion of what the future of television will look like. Will it be a la carte, will there be massive cord cutting, is streaming the future, yadda yadda yadda. The truth is, no one knows and don’t let them tell you otherwise. BUT in order to look ahead, one can not look behind, those days are over. It appears that networks learned nothing from the collapse of the recording industry. If the networks had a theme song, it would be “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen.

If you really want to see where we are headed, look to a few bigger digital players, like Google, Apple and Amazon to see what they are futzing around with and the companies they are buying. History shows us there will only be a few key players in the long run for broadcasting and it simply won’t be NBC, CBS, ABC or FOX.

(For those wondering who that photo is of, that is John Logie Baird, the inventor of the television.)

New Yorker Cartoons Debunked April 8, 2013

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” Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”
– Noam Chomsky

I have lived in New York City for years now and I am still not sure whether reading The New Yorker makes me a snob, an egg head douche, an old fart, someone keenly interested in good, albeit somewhat snotty, writing by east coast blue bloods ivy league twats or just someone who wants to have a look at what is going on in the area. But one thing I DO know is that the cartoons they scatter throughout the mag are sometimes odd, sometimes interesting and sometimes so wildly esoteric that if you admit you don’t understand it, you feel dumb and if you admit you do understand it you are more than likely lying.

For years, I found the cartoons just plain silly, but over the past few years, for whatever reason,  I have begun to understand them. I think. At the very least I have been able to apply some semblance of my life view to them which has allowed me to enjoy them a little more. When all is said and done though, I think the cartoons represent, what I can only presume, is The New Yorker’s demographic. Which from what I can tell is somewhat educated (both traditional and non-traditionally educated), white, middle class and above, left leaning folks.

I selected a few cartoons from this weeks issue (April 8, 2013) and provide a couple of different interpretations.

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LOVE, Part 1

bed

 Interpretation #1 – Marriage and relationships are hard, regardless of gender preference. So anytime you through two people together in close quarters they are bound to fight and sometimes the distance manifests itself in the boudoir. My guess is the illustrator was trying to show that it has been 97 days since the last intimate contact took place in that bedroom. 

 Interpretation #2 – A less likely interpretation would be that the illustrator was making a statement about a serial sex offender in recovery. This interpretation carries less weight as it seems anathema to the New Yorker’s high brow humor approach.

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LOVE, Part 2

lifeTHE CAPTION: “Boy, I hope we never end up like this.”

 Interpretation #1 –The illustrator, without showing the contents of the plate, is indicating that all the food has flooded into each other, making a statement about gentrification by stripping each food of its plate independence. The joke being that the woman hopes she doesn’t loose her independence while being in this relationship.

 Interpretation #2 –The couple is dinning at a cannibal themed restaurant.

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 Cost Efficiency

spoon

THE CAPTION: “The hotel is full, but I’ll see if I can work out a spooning arrangement for you.” 

Interpretation #1 –In an effort to cut costs, big hotel chains are now randomly pairing up people to accommodate more travelers. As the “spooning” comment indicates, all the rooms with two double beds must be full leaving just the rooms with king size beds. Rather than turn the road weary traveler away, and loose the revenue, he offers the new “spoon” package.

 Interpretation #2 –The hotel clerk has placed secret cameras in one room and is in the process of filming an adult orientated “spoon” fetish series for Cinemax.


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Capitalism, Part 1

capital

THE CAPTION: “It may be the rood of all evil, but it’s also the root of all this.”

Interpretation #1 – A wealthy, guilt ridden, left leaning corporate 1%’er tries to rationalize his accomplishments to his cube dwelling 99%’er college buddy.

 Interpretation #2 –The guy is just a dick.

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Capitalism, Part 2

lackey

THE CAPTION: “This is Abramson, our new pinata.”

Interpretation #1 – Abramson is the new corporate HR executive or PR executive, either way, his future looks grim.

 Interpretation #2 – Abramson is the token new state university recruit at the all virtually all ivy league Goldman Sachs, in which case he may, in fact, literally end up a pinata. 

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Doctors

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THE CAPTION: “It’s either conjunctivitis or twin pools of desire .”

Interpretation #1 –A favorite source of humor for The New Yorker, doctors. This is an attempt at trying to find the lighter side of medical practitioners. Clearly, the doctor knows what it is.

 Interpretation #2 –The doctor is making a pass at the patient.

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Millenials

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THE CAPTION: “Nobody asked me about my process.”

Interpretation #1 –Millennials are often keen to extol what they do and how they got there in order to receive as many accolades as possible. Completely oblivious to the fact that no one may even care.

 Interpretation #2 –Actually, I am pretty sure that is whats happening here, the only thing missing are the tattoos.

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Nostalgia

noogie

THE CAPTION: The Noogie Kings

Interpretation #1 –The offspring of the original Noogie Patrol.

 Interpretation #2 – What became of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels.

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Racism

catTHE CAPTION: “Look who’s moved in next door.”

Interpretation #1 –A guarded, yet clever, approach to the undercurrent of racism that permeates New York, and most communities across the country. The two fish represent the ruling white class while the cat in the fishbowl represents every non-white. A bold statement New Yorker, well playedwell played.

 Interpretation #2 –The fish represent every non-white culture and the cat represents the pending gentrification of their communities.

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Esoteric

bearsInterpretation #1 – Bullying is the premise here. You’ll notice there is only one seat available for the bear to fish through the sun roof and with the neighborhood bear bully on his way over,  either the other bear is coming over to rob him of his catch and/or chase him away from his fishing spot. Either way, it looks like the sitting bear is going to have his paws full.

 Interpretation #2 – A sublime statement about global warming because bears are usually hibernating during winter, so the image infers, despite the snow, that it may not be winter. As the bears are ice fishing, this is presumably a pointed remark about climate change.

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Can a corporation be insane?

nbc-broken-peacock“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
– Albert Einstein

Like any kid growing up in the Midwest, I had big dreams. And while my brother had dreams of being a cop or a stuntman or hockey player, I always knew I wanted to be something different. Something BIGGER. In no particular order I wanted to be:

  • A rock star (I always had the temperament just lacked the discipline to develop a skill)
  • An actor (After seeing Henry Winkler in Heroes, I was sold)
  • A writer (Reading John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire changed my life…what does that say about me)
  • An A&R guy for Columbia or Atlantic Records or Warner Brothers (John Hammond was a hero)
  • For a brief period, a corporate executive (Until I discovered weed and realized I lacked the pedigree, and grades, to get into an Ivy League school)
  • A film editor (I would argue a good editor is more important than a good director)
  • An NBC employee (Two generations of kids were raised on NBC programming)
  • A restaurateur

I knew I couldn’t do all those things, but I knew one place I could potentially do all those things, New York City.  NYC is known for housing many industries, legal and not, and three of the larger legal employment arena’s are Finance, Restaurants and Media. About ten years ago, I moved here with two duffel bags of clothes, one suit and about 500 dollars. It sounds like a cliche’ but it’s the truth. Within two weeks I had landed a temp job at a company called Georgeson Shareholder working in one of the most arcane subdivisions of financial services (proxy solicitation) that it hardly bears defining. That temp job led to permanent employment as an Account Manager there doing a job I simply could not wrap my head around.

Eventually, my misery led to ultimate frustration so I simply quit. I quit without having another job prospect but knowing I could fall back on my skills as a waiter or bartender in the short term. Two days later I landed a job at a place called Tupelo Grill, located right across from Madison Square Garden. Of all the restaurant jobs in my day, this one was the best. Only open Monday through Friday and as long as there was something going on at the Garden, you made amazing money and you were done by 10pm. As far as a stop gap job goes, there was none better.  Two years in NYC and I had already conquered two of the three industries it is known for, Financial Services and Restaurants. I set my sights on Media.

As luck would have it, just as I was getting bored with Tupelo Grill, an old friend asked me if I wanted to work at NBC. He didn’t glorify the position at all and told me straight up what it was. It didn’t matter to me; I had always wanted to work at NBC and figured I could springboard from whatever department it was. I knew all I needed was access and then my insane talents would take me to where I wanted to be. I immediately began planning my career trajectory and jumped at the chance for the job at NBC, in the ass end of television.

When I was hired, their prime time dominance was slipping and my goal was to get to the Programming Department, either here in NYC or in LA, I didn’t care. They needed fresh blood, they needed creativity, and they needed ME! Luckily for them, they already had the chrome dome midget mind of Jeff Zucker who promptly fired programming head Kevin Riley to make room for, not me but, the silver spooned idiot child Ben Silverman. And thus began a complete and total dismantling of what was once a creative and ratings juggernaut.

Zucker and Silverman spearheaded the NBC descent into the cellar of television ratings and programming that remains unparalleled in television history. An accomplishment…of sorts. I would argue that these two knuckleheads were dyslexic because they seemed to have reversed the idea of “shoot for the stars” and as opposed to going UP in the sky with good programming they were going DOWN towards the earth’s core with shitty programming. In any other industry, a performance as disastrous as Zucker’s would have been met with almost immediate termination and yet somehow he remained through the Comcast acquisition. My suspicious mind tells me that Zucker held onto his job because he had pictures of either Jeff Immelt and/or Bob Wright with a pre-op tranny in Bangkok. I can’t prove that…yet.

So Comcast acquired NBCUniversal and the best part about that was the spin. They tried to pitch it as a “merger”. Now I didn’t go to an Ivy League school like the upper echelon of GE, Comcast and NBC, but it seems to me when a company purchases 51% of a company, that is an acquisition and not a merger, but what do I know? Comcast has since purchased the remaining 49% so it would seem to be a acquisition now.

Not surprisingly, after an acquimerger of this size comes a changing of the guard. And new head honcho Steve Burke grabbed the bull by the horns and did his best to instill confidence among the rank and file, like me. He assured all of us that he would make the right moves to restore NBC’s luster, to create shows and products across all networks we could all be proud of and believe in. He didn’t mince words, he said it would take time and money and he seemed ready and willing to make the tough decisions. And for about ten months he did all of that and came to define leadership. He cleaned the executive suites and replaced them with either people loyal to him or, seemingly, competent people. Perhaps the smartest thing Burke did was push out Zucker and his minions (Silverman had already been neutered and replaced with talented but rendered impotent Jeff Gaspin). While Gaspin and Silverman held the title, it was no secret that Zucker drove the bus. Burke didn’t then, and doesn’t now, appear to suffer from the same degree of narcissism or micro-management as Jeff Zucker, which points to his leadership.

Once the Zucker mess had been sorted out, Burke brought in former Fox and Showtime head Robert Greenblatt to replace Jeff Gaspin and head up what had become the very definition of epically inept, the NBC Programming Department. Greenblatt was an interesting choice because he has a mix of programming moxy which includes both shite and blue chip television work (Melrose Place, The X-Files at Fox and Weeds and Dexter while at Showtime), a successful run on Broadway as a producer (9 to 5) and a seemingly solid commitment to return NBC to dominance. By all accounts across the board, a solid, if interesting, choice.

To date, dominance has not been any part of the NBC brand. If you follow these things, you’ve been left scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on here. Trust me, we all are. Seriously. Sure, last fall we did well. For some retarded reason people watch The Voice and we had Sunday Night Football, so that makes sense. But the scripted shows were, and continue to be, simply awful. Animal Practice, 1600 Penn, Do No Harm, the continued spiral of Smash, the failed Dane Cook comedy and honestly, the list is too long to mention.

If you think about it, Greenblatt and Silverman (Gaspin didn’t really do anything) have proven only moderately more successful than me, and I haven’t programmed ANYTHING!

Is Must See TV dead? Yep. It should be. What NBC should do is hold a funeral for it, bury it so we can all move past it. I’m not kidding either. Create a spectacular show where all the stars gather together and have a New Orleans style funeral for Must See TV. If we were to do this, we could let that era go and so could the critics and the public, instead of holding out hope that NBC can regain those years and those programs. It’s time to properly celebrate their existence and MOVE FORWARD. And what better way to do that then to celebrate the Must See TV life?

I still believe in NBC and while I have a modicum of pride about working here, it is rapidly disappearing. However, I don’t feel that hitting the panic switch and doing a corporate shuffle is the right thing. People want to see stability and if you keep replacing the head of programming, no clear network vision will ever be defined. And while the other networks may think Greenblatt is the anti-Christ because he came from cable, he’s not. He understands vision and diversity but for some reason, he’s not sticking with it. My guess is he is too accommodating coupled with the heavy influence of Creative Corporatism.

Some thoughts:

  • Getting rid of Jay Leno is a no brainer and having Jimmy Fallon replace him is also a no brainer, but not now. Leno has to go but the mishandling of this is just imbecilic.
  • Yes, Matt Lauer has to go. Sorry Matt, your number is up. People fear change but you can’t let fear dictate any progress.
  • NBC Spin department, stop the bullshit, OK? Even a six year old knows moving “Smash” to Saturday is NOT a strategic move but really a move towards extinction.
  • Create shows with a defined arc. No need for a show to run 8 seasons if it doesn’t NEED to.
  • NBC Programming, take chances. “Hannibal”, really? Come on. Stop dumbing down the shows. The public can take some intelligence.
  • Writers and show runners are not brands, they are creative people. Diversify your creative pool for God’s sake. And if you feel you already do, do it MORE!
  • Stop relying on the same agents and managers for pitches and shows. There is a SHIT TON of creativity out there for you to harness. Go with your gut. Fight for vision.

Sure, I’ve accomplished one of my childhood goals by getting a job at NBC, albeit at the ass end, and even with my rapidly disappearing pride, I hold out hope. I hold out hope that NBC can do better and hold out hope we will be able to show that. But the way forward is not constantly looking in the rear view mirror.

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of programming because, well, I don’t work there…yet. And as I write this thinking back to when I was hired it’s funny because even after all these years, NBC still needs fresh blood, they still need creativity, and they still need ME…but my gut tells me they think they have all the answers already.

If corporations are, by law, people, then NBC is surely insane.

The New Economy

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“The surest what to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem
those who think alike than those who think differently.”
– Friederich Nietzsche

In the New Economy, there are about 14,000 REGISTERED lobbyists in Washington, DC and only 535 elected officials.

In the New Economy, income disparity and its growth shows all indications of being a government sanctioned process.

In the New Economy, corporations pay less and demand more from their workers.

In the New Economy, housing and student loan repayments can eat anywhere from 30-60% of your pay.

In the New Economy, cost of living increases are disguised as “merit increases”.

In the New Economy, you are encouraged to live beyond your means.

In the New Economy, the top 200 CEO’s of public companies earned a median income of 14.5 million dollars.

In the New Economy, corporations do not value their employees.

In the New Economy, employees should not value their corporations.

In the New Economy, the young don’t realize the corporate game is rigged against them.

In the New Economy, you pay more taxes than most corporations…and it’s legal.

In the New Economy, workers are frustrated and angry yet feel impotent.

In the New Economy, we are not powerless.

In the New Economy, there is still only one way to rock.

In the New Economy, college and professional sports recruiting looks more and more like modern day slavery.

In the New Economy, corporate managers want to be called leaders when they are barely effective as managers.

In the New Economy, fear is the predominate corporate management philosophy.

In the New Economy, Bill Hicks is as relevant as he was when he passed away 20 years ago.

In the New Economy, we have more ways to voice our opinion and yet more people have less of an opinion.

In the New Economy, commerce dictates art.

In the New Economy, the story is seldom told.

In the New Economy, mediocrity is celebrated and excellence ostracized.

In the New Economy, your art matters to someone.

In the New Economy, your ideas matter to someone.

In the New Economy, most people don’t know who Mother Jones was let alone that the ideas live on.

In the New Economy, freedom is the ideal, shackled to technology is the reality.

In the New Economy, if you don’t say it, someone else won’t.

In the New Economy, if you don’t do it, someone else will.

In the New Economy, you’re damned if you do, fucked if you don’t.

What time is it? It is now.

banksy

The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use — of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.
Robert Kennedy

It’s hard to write about class distinctions on a personal blog without sounding like either a lunatic or an entitled and spoiled twit. Admittedly, I probably skew a little more towards the lunatic side. I’ve never felt entitled to anything, except maybe my last piece of gum. However, I do feel frustrated by the lack of opportunity available to me so maybe I could improve my station. And I suspect I am not alone in that feeling.

To say the American economy is in recovery is to deny the facts. Sure, unemployment is down, but what about UNDERemployment and those who are simply no longer receiving benefits? Why has federal and state welfare spending increased almost 19% over three years? What do we define as recovery?

I did what I was supposed to do. I went to college (actually, I went to A LOT of them) and got my receipt (degree). I even went one step further and got a Master’s receipt (degree). I have the credentials, and debt, to prove it. Neither of my degrees are from an Ivy League nor are they highly specialized. They are both in the Liberal Arts world, which should indicate I am a well rounded cat. Could it be that no one is looking for a well rounded cat in a rat race?

Before I prattle on too far…left, let me say I am uniquely blessed. I have a job, I make a liveable (barely) wage, I have a roof over my head, I don’t go to bed hungry, I have people that love and care about me and I am very lucky. I shudder to think how many in my country, let alone the world, don’t have such things. I am hyper aware of my good fortune and I should just be happy and shut my mouth, right?

Love. I have people that love and care about me so who the hell do I think I am to bitch? I’m a human.

Feast or Famine. I don’t go to bed hungry and neither do my pets. I am blessed.

Four walls and the truth. I live in a great place and I am ridiculously lucky.

Middle Class (harrumph). I make a liveable (barely) wage. By all accounts, my salary places smack dab in the middle class. And if my bank balance is any indication, I still struggle. Part of that is on me, for sure. I live in NYC, by choice. I have credit card debt and student loan debt. I take ownership of those even if I personally believe credit card debt and student loan debt are almost mandated. But let’s just look at a couple of the things hacking away at my middle class status:

  • FICA tax jumped from 4.2% in 2012 to 7.65% in 2013 for employees and it remains at 6.2% for employers(?).
  • Starting this month, NYC mass transit monthly pass increased 7%.
  • The national average price for a gallon of gas is $3.74 (after nine weeks of increases).
  • Utility bills are increasing nationally for reasons unclear to me (those bills should simply be in Sanskrit, they’d be easier to translate) mine jumped 50%.
  • Food prices continue to go up. Ironically, food that is bad for you (yet, delicious) like pop tarts and all things sugary and fattening remain relatively level. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy nut, but aren’t a large portion of those companies owned by multinational’s? Hmmm…

Occupy my cube. I have a job. While I may not have a career path readily available to me, in spite of the company size, I do have a job. There are in excess of 100 employees managed by eight people. 88.5% of the staff is managed by the 12.5%, with virtually no management tier. It’s as though it functions as a small family business…until there is a problem or new idea to consider, then the myopic pace of a big company kicks in.

Is this a departmental or corporate mandated structure? My intuition tells me it is simply more of a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Make no mistake, it’s busted, but fixing it involves change and change sucks. But even more than that, change is expensive and even in a billion dollar company, money is tight. I recently had my review and it was seemingly quite favorable and yet my contributions and performance for 2012 were rewarded with a pay increase that is less than the national average for 2013. I shudder to think how lesser valued employees fared. I am also looking forward to seeing how our CEO was remunerated.

I suppose I could have gone on record as dissatisfied, but experience has taught me that resistance is futile. I’m more angry about my own apathy.

PART II
Naomi Klein‘s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism cites numerous examples of what happens when a government is overthrown and then placed in the hands of charlatan economic theorists and corporations. In Klein’s cross-hairs is the economic theory designed by University of Chicago Economics guru Milton Friedman and what Klein refers to as “shock & awe”. Sound familiar?

Typically, the first phase, or “shock”, is a revolution (think Chile in 1972 or Iraq, most recently) and is something that shocks the citizens. Then comes the second phase, or “awe”. Economic policies are put into place that benefit, almost exclusively, multinational corporations and the societal top tier. Not surprisingly, built into the economic policy is a long and strong arm of suppression, specifically designed to eliminate dissension. I’m not sure how the “awe” works other then leaving jaw dropping historical proof of its inefficiency, which is certainly awful…horrible pun, I know.

Could it be that the financial crisis of 2007 and its subsequent trillion dollar, and counting, bail out was the American version of “shock & awe”? Of course, the government wasn’t officially overthrown. The bail out seemed to only benefit huge multinationals and the really rich (and continues to do so). Was this crisis designed and this current “recovery” simply the domestic implementation of an economic plan that has proven time and time again to be a horrendous failure for everyone except the few?

I think the fact that we continue to see record corporate profits, record corporate tax refunds, record executive pay, record high productivity numbers, the continued eradication of the middle class, pay increases that don’t cover a cost of living increase, anxiety and depression numbers rising, etc…yea, I kind of think there are some very serious similarities. And I think the 2007 financial crisis gave all corporations the free license to do these things. Legally.

And the fact is that no matter how many people write it, say it, or scream it, it seems as though no one wants to do anything about it. The Occupy Wall Street movement tried and while it was a decent idea it was eventually silenced by the hands of the state and the media.

Let me state this emphatically, I believe in capitalism and democracy which is, presumably, the foundation of our country. Perhaps it’s my own naivete, but I think these two should stand independent of one another. But I will live with that naivete over the cynical acceptance that they are forever linked and we can’t change it.

I don’t believe that corporations should hold our government hostage while the masses suffer. I don’t think corporate leaders should rape and pillage any economy to line their pockets while marginalizing or crushing the population. I am fine with a super rich class, I am not fine with a greedy super rich glass that expands its wealth at the peril of the citizens, the very people expanding their wealth. I am proud to be an American but lately, I am not proud of America.

To ingest the dreck that media companies jam down your throat and present as news is to miss the message. Make no mistake, it is a one-sided conversation controlled by a media oligopoly. “Control the media, control the message” was the famous quote of media theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, so don’t fool yourself, the “news” is presented as information but specifically designed to keep you uninformed.

And please don’t try to make any distinction between mainstream and non mainstream media; it’s ignorant, misleading and wrong…no difference exists. Far left OR far right media is simply extremism and at no point in world history has extremism ever been the answer. The egalitarian nature of the Internet provides a wealth of opportunities to find a more accurate message or, at the very least, different messages for you to form your own opinion. GASP! It won’t always be this way as history teaches us that the Internet will take the shape of the current media landscape.

So, what is my point? It’s OK to say WTF to corporations, to politicians. We should be challenging them, always. Unless we change things, we’re screwed and the following generations are screwed. We all need a collective Howard Beale moment and we need to stand up for what’s right for the people. To let multinational corporations dictate what we will or won’t be or what we will or won’t have and shape our government policies will only continue the income inequality. Without taking action we’ll be complicit in to our own continued marginalization. As a society, as a culture, as a people, we can no longer continue to let corporations do this.

We, as human citizens, have to think bigger and better and force our elected officials to wake the f*ck up. Yes, yes, I realize how naive that sounds but isn’t it better to fight a little then get rolled over again and again? Perhaps collectively we can stop the Facebook and Instagram updating, the tweeting, maybe turn off your television and engage in a conversation, do some research, write a letter, start a book club, do something, anything, to better your environment.

Hell, I’m not writing anything new here. I’m not writing anything most people don’t already know. I’m simply using this as a platform for my Howard Beale moment. This isn’t a question of liberal or conservative, right or left, democrat or republican, it’s about being a citizen and caring for one another. It’s about finding the courage to do what is right for the masses. It’s about questioning the messages. It’s about saying maybe it’s time for something better and then setting the wheels of change in motion.

To think that there is no glass ceiling in our society is to deny the facts. Actually, it’s not so much a glass ceiling because that implies you can break through. What seems more apropos is that it is an invisible force field.

It’s not too late to change things. I promise.

Here is a great video on inequality: http://tinyurl.com/b3jll79.

“A revolution is coming — a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough — But a revolution is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.”
Robert Kennedy

And this too shall pass.

AKAlice H. Kanner
1931-2013

“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth.
Wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”

– Bill Hicks

Much like every teenager, I was a rebellious and moody kid. Which provided a fair amount of tension in our household, especially in the conservative enclave of Centerville, Ohio. Suffice it to say, the ear piercings, underage drinking, pot smoking and overall recklessness did not go over well with anyone, but mostly, my parents. Accordingly, sometime in my last semester of high school my father entered into negotiations, as secretive as the 1971 Paris peace talks, with my aunt and uncle in Chappaqua, New York for me to spend a month with them after I finished high school. Presumably to get me out of the house and maybe slap some sense into the 18 year old.

It’s not that my family, immediate or extended, was, or is, particularly close, we’re not. There is plenty of love just not a lot of chatter. And my interactions with my aunt, uncle and cousins probably numbered under five at that point. Nonetheless, one month after I graduated high school, I went out to Chappaqua to attempt to figure out a future game plan for my life with the aid of my aunt and uncle. I’m not entirely sure I understood that was the objective then. Looking back, it most certainly was, but at the time I suspect my thinking was more of “I’m spending a month with the cool side of my family.”

Now my uncle was an advertising executive and seemed, to me, to be one of the most powerful men on the planet. Watching him enter their home when he came home from work, you’d think he was 6’11” and unafraid to snap you in half, and I suspect in his suit, he could have. But then he’d go upstairs to change and come back down in his blue cords and his red stripped Rugger polo, hop on the counter in the kitchen and have a vodka on the rocks in his juice glass and just be my uncle. Of course, I’d heard horror stories of how stern he could be, but, thankfully, I never saw any of that.

Now my aunt was just about the warmest and kindest person you could ever know. And easily one of the smartest and most intuitive people I have ever known. She was always quick to make anyone feel welcome in her home, your home, ANY home. My aunt was just one of those people that made any house she entered immediately a home. She had the most infectious smile and the most genuine laugh. When she laughed, she laughed with her whole body and her mind and it was real. There was no pretense or falseness in her or anything she did. Being on the receiving end of my aunt’s love was to know that, whatever it was was going to be OK.

Hindsight has taught me that the one-month visit after I graduated was a trial to see if I would drive my aunt and uncle as crazy as I drove my own parents and to find a post secondary school that fit for me…and I could get into. My aunt drove me to a number of interviews at colleges whose names have long since escaped me, but I am fairly certain Columbia University was not on the list. It was on these sojourns I got to know her better and learn a little about my family. More importantly, I learned why everyone called her “lead-foot” and quickly realized that she may have done extremely well as a New York City cab driver. But to no great surprise, all of the college interviews went poorly. It turns out a sullen 18 year old with a high school GPA of somewhere south of 2.0 does not make a strong collegiate candidate. Who knew?

It’s worth noting that I was a pretty rudderless 18 year old and my parents had the intelligence to ignore my high school guidance counselor’s advice of “Well, maybe he just shouldn’t go to college.” I can’t imagine their decision to send me off and live with my aunt and uncle was an easy one, but my parents are pretty good at seeing the bigger picture…or maybe they had just had enough. Probably a healthy combination of the two.

Apparently, I passed the “not driving my aunt and uncle too crazy” test because during one of the nightly kitchen talks during the CBS Evening News, with my uncle on the counter, my aunt cooking and me standing off to the side with a Rolling Rock in hand, I decided that it would be best to start at Westchester Community College and then transfer out. At the time, I was under the impression that this was mostly my decision. Hindsight and maturity have made me realize that my aunt and uncle pointed me in that direction and when I made the decision let me believe it was mine. Brilliant.

So after that month was up, I went back to dull and boring Ohio and waited out the six months until the second semester started in January. I recall those six months being a snapshot of what my life might have become had I stayed there.

January came and I moved out to live with my aunt and uncle and started classes at Westchester Community College. For the first time in my life, I had some educational success and it’s hard to put into words what good grades can actually do for ones self esteem and sense of worth. More importantly, I learned that I had a voice and an opinion and that it mattered. I learned I was capable of having intelligent discussions with adults. I learned that if you work, you will be rewarded. I learned that there is way too much truth to Woody Allen’s classic saying, “90% of success is just showing up.”

Despite the growth I was experiencing, the things I was learning and the positivity, I was still 18 and kind of a moody fella. While I am sure it drove both my aunt and uncle a little batty, my aunt’s positivity and good nature made it almost impossible to stay down for too long. She had a way of luring me into some sort of innocuous discussion that eventually led to me talking about whatever it was that was bugging me. She’d listen, really listen, and help me sort it out. And without fail, every single time, she would say to me “And this too shall pass.” It never really made sense to me then because the problems of an 18 year old are devastating. But now I can think of no phrase that rings 100% true 100% of the time.

The six months I spent with them had as much influence on me as almost anything else in my life. Certainly on par with the jolt I received when first listening to The Replacements “Let it Be” (coincidentally, discovered while living with my aunt and uncle).

I got to see my aunt and uncle in October of last year and was able to say some of these things to them both. I didn’t say all I wanted to, mostly out of my own cowardice, but enough that she seemed genuinely surprised that six months had such an impact on me. Over dinner I said, “I shudder to think what would have happened if I had never gone to live with you guys all those years ago.” My aunt looked at me and simply said, “You wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

Those six months shaped much of who I am today (even if I took one, two or three detours to get here) and my life was changed in ways I’m still figuring out.

My aunt passed away last weekend.

I’m sad and I hurt that my aunt has moved on. But I, along with so many others, am blessed to have known her. And even with this loss and all the sadness and emptiness, I can still hear her saying “And this too shall pass.” These feelings will pass to be sure. The love she showed me, the things she taught me, along with my memories of her, no, those will never pass.

To my father and my other aunt, your big sister was the worlds big sister.
To my uncle and cousins, your wife and mother was the worlds wife and mother.
I am thinking of you all and I love you all.

You need not be a world leader to lead a world. My Aunt Alice led her world and, as a result, changed our world.

Aunt Alice, thank you and I love you.
Keith

NYTimes Obituary

Oscar Picks 2013

Award season is somewhat akin to high school “Most Likely To…” awards, which is to say they are pretty much popularity contests. Hollywood’s annual circle jerk is in full flex tonight with the Oscar Awards and far be it from me to miss an opportunity to chime in on the annual orgy of self flagellation.

In a perfect world, Zero Dark Thirty would sweep the Oscars because, simply put, it was the best movie of 2012. As if we needed reminding, Hollywood will once again show us we don’t live in a perfect world.

Nonetheless, here are some of my predictions for tonight’s bukkake:

BEST ACTOR
Will Win – Daniel Day Lewis

Should Win – Daniel Day Lewis
Yep. He’s that good. The movie itself is boring (gasp, how dare I?) but if you appreciate amazing acting, there was no better movie in 2012.

BEST ACTRESS
Will Win – Jessica Chastain

Should Win – Jennifer Lawrence
Both performances are worthy and Jennifer Lawrence was great. Could go either way. I actually just changed this to Jessica Chastain.

BEST DIRECTOR
Will Win – Steven Spielberg

Should Win – Anyone other than Steven Spielberg.
Which is not to say he doesn’t deserve it, he does. But he has raised the bar so high that continuing to reward him is to neglect what the award would mean to someone else. It’s like giving acting awards to Meryl Streep. We get it, they’re amazing.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Will Win – Alan Arkin
Should Win – Alan Arkin.
Alan Arkin should always win. Period.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Will Win – Helen Hunt
Should Win – Any of them.
Sally Field could upset, but if awards are truly based on performance (which I admit they are not) then this should be Helen Hunt’s.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Will Win – Quentin Taratino – Django Unchained
Should Win – Mark Boal – Zero Dark Thirty
Tarantino has proven time and time again to be a real voice for American cinema and Boal is just as deserving here. Could go either way, but I suspect we’re still too emotionally close to waterboarding for Boal to win.

BEST ADOPTED SCREENPLAY
Will Win – Chris Terrio – Argo
Should Win – David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Sure, Russell has a bit of a reputation as being an asshole, but he has always tackled deeper issues in his films (Spanking the Monkey, anyone?) and somehow makes them work, very very well. His reputation could haunt him in the Directors category, but for writing it shouldn’t. Sadly, I don’t think the Academy can pass by the opportunity to slap itself on the back. The fake movie within a movie concept to save lives is about as clever as Hollywood can get. Added points for historical relevance and emotional impact.

BEST PICTURE
Will Win – Argo
Should Win – Zero Dark Thirty
I’m not sure the Academy can pass an opportunity to stress Hollywood’s importance or pseudo relevance to history or saving lives…or the fact that they ignored Ben Affleck for Best Director.

Make your own picks HERE.