Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Who Would You Spend The Night With?

So, last night, my lovely Princess once again made a decision that shows me where I really stand in the world.

This is me.

This is Buddy Bear.

Guess which of us she chose to spend the night with?

Can you blame her?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Vengeance directed by Johnnie To

As an exercise in genre, Johnnie To's Vengeance is a masterpiece, a kind of B-movie pastiche that somehow transcends the sum of its parts.

There's a hero with a dark & troubled past who finds himself surrounded by criminals who live by a kind of unspoken code; there are scenes of well-choreographed violence filled with an endless shower of bullets; there's a hysterically weird uber-villain with kinky mannerisms; there are multitudes of colorful minor characters; there's stilted dialog and contrapuntal interludes of domesticity that serve to accentuate the shadowy milieu in which our story is set.

Plus, Vengeance boasts the well-practiced eye of Johnnie To, who carefully composes every shot so that the movie is a kind of second-by-second visual feast. Nowadays, it seems fashionable to film violence as visual vomit with half-second splashes of action that seem disjointed and chaotic. Not so with Johnnie To, who treats every second of his movie as a continuation of the plot, somehow relaying a keen sense of spatial relations even as the camera zooms and dives.

(Picnic's over. Let the man-dance begin!)

Now, whether all of this coalesces into art is a debatable point. But I'm confident in assessing that Vengeance constitutes a master-class in craft.

Of course, for those of you who like your crime-dramas to have an air of gritty realism, Vengeance may strike you as a kind of comic-book-come-to-life, with all the veritas of a Michael Bay movie. I concede the point and am willing to pigeon-hole Vengeance as a crime fantasy, with a story as fabulistic as anything by Tolkein.

And the acting? Well, let's just say the best way to appreciate it is to think of it as a lampoon on the supposed stoicism of hard men. For good or ill, the dialog in Vengeance has been pared down to essentials, and I always appreciate artistic economy.

Starring the venerable French icon Johnny Hallyday as the memory-addled (think Memento) protagonist who nonetheless knows what to do when the bullets start flying, Vengeance also stars a host of Johnnie To regulars, including a trio of local hit-men who decide, at considerable cost, to help our hero in his quest to avenge the harm done to his daughter. These three are by far the most interesting people in the film, and they carry what little thematic weight that Vengeance has with workmanlike aplomb.

(Our hero meets his helpers.)

I have avoided revealing much of the plot of Vengeance because, like all thrillers, so much of its story relies on timely revelation. In other words, it matters to this movie when you find out what you know, and I am trying to preserve as much of that experience of the movie as possible while still discussing it.

Suffice it to say that I recommend this movie to anyone who appreciates the entertainment value of fictional violence.

directed by Johnnie To

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Loss In The Family

Well, so a beloved member of my family has passed.

I wasn't close to her, but, of course, I should have been.

Fortunately, the rest of my family -- all of whom are better at caring both about and for each other -- gathered and mourned. Circumstances prevented me from attending the funeral, but, now, on a late night nearly a week after her passing, I am suddenly stricken with loss.

But, because I have been such the prodigal son, I feel as if I have no claim to grief, for I did not share in any sort of fellowship or care for this loved-one before she left us. Which only makes me ache even more.

The best I can offer is meek remembrance: a faint memory of a woman on a farm who had a quick laugh and always seemed to regard me with a kind of generous bemusement, as if she knew, from the moment she met me, that the biggest dangers I would face would always be the ones I posed to myself. And yet she never failed to offer me some offhand generosity (a kind word, along with a glass of milk and a biscuit with apple butter), because, after all, I was family, however distant and tenuous the thread was that connected us.

So, as the gathering that I missed (for a woman I barely knew) disperses, and as my kin return to their homes after having shared their grief and paid their respects, I sit here with my usually-well-composed demeanor suddenly ripped open, exposed and raw.

I have a feeling she would have chuckled at such sentiment, again recognizing the kid who needed to be kept away from sharp things and large animals, if only for his own safety, and I can't help thinking that she would have had some sidelong comment, both funny and maybe a little biting, for this injured idiot who frets too much about things that can't be helped.

Rest in Peace, Grandma Brixey. You lived long and worked hard, raised a farm and a family with all their attendant woes and joys. And now your suffering has ended.

And this, such as it is, is my meager measure of respect and farewell. Not knowing you better is a loss I shall always carry.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NSFW: Extreme Morning Wood

So I woke up with the worst morning wood ever, sticking straight up like a purple, throbbing flagpole.

It could not have been more perfectly-angled had I been a committed urophagist, and its rigidity approached something on the upper reaches of the Mohs hardness scale. I would've rubbed it out, but my bladder was painfully distended with the gallon of mint iced-tea I'd ingested just before falling asleep.

Contorting in front of the toilet, I tried everything short of standing on my head to get my member to point bowlward, but it was a no-go. Bending it felt like I was trying to break it off at the base, so I said fuck it and got in the shower and made like a fountain, gushing for a full minute as I stood at the very back of the bathtub so my pressurized stream could arc into the drain, accompanied by 2 gut-wrenching farts and, at the end, a little belch that tasted strangely of apples and garlic.

And then came the magic, the reason I felt the need to share this moment with you, for there, as I stared at the far end of my gurgling stream, concentrating on my aim in order to get most of the flow into the drain, I swear, just before I finished, I saw a little rainbow. Whether my tears were from relief or some unspoken renewal of some strange covenant with myself, I cannot say. Perhaps I was hallucinating.

When my urine petered out, my johnson deflated and I felt as spent as a honeymooner, so I quickly rinsed myself and the tub and went back to bed to collapse into the blissful slumber of the truly relieved.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Doing Good: Khan Academy

Talk about taking a simple idea and running with it.

Khan Academy is the brainchild of Salman Khan, a young man working as a hedge-fund analyst in California's Silicon Valley. His original idea was to create short, illustrated, step-by-step web-videos as tutoring lessons for his cousin, who was struggling in math.

(Salman Khan: A good man with a great idea.)

These videos feature Khan's voice over an animated screen showing examples of whatever his subject is, be it quadratic equations or the laws of physics. None of the videos is more than 12 minutes long, which makes them perfect, bite-sized chunks of educational nutrition.

Then Khan got an even better idea: he put those videos up on YouTube so that anyone could view them, for free. Khan himself has been quoted with this gem as his motivation:
"With so little effort on my own part, I can empower an unlimited amount of people for all time. I can't imagine a better use of my time."
Talk about walking the talk.

The videos went viral, and the demand for more skyrocketed. Within a few years, Khan had quit his hedge-fund job and was working as a full-time volunteer educator, creating a whole series of web-videos on a variety of subjects, including science, history, and economics.

Salman Khan then founded Khan Academy, a non-profit organization that manages a web-site that promotes the use of these videos around the world FOR FREE. His work has gotten the attention of both Google and the Gates Foundation, both of which have awarded the Khan Academy with funds to expand their reach and scope. (Indeed, Bill Gates is purported to use these lessons to help teach his own children!) PBS & CNN have done profiles on Salman Khan, and Forbes magazine has called him "a name you need to know" in 2011.

So, thanks to Salman Khan and Khan Academy, if you've got a computer and an internet connection, then you have access to basic curriculum on important subjects like math and science and history and economics. And it's free. Whether you need a little tutelage personally, or you're trying to help your kids get a leg up on their proficiences, or you're operating a school that's sadly short on resources, Khan Academy has what you need. The site even provides tracking & analytics for your students, should you need them.

As of this writing, the Khan Academy website boasts over 41 million downloaded lessons of over 2,100 videos in such subjects as Algebra, Chemistry, Physics, Banking, and History. And they're giving it away, for the betterment of the entire world.

I can think of no downside to Khan Academy. If education is an absolute good, then Khan Academy is doing sacred work.

Find them, use them, support them, and promote them.

The world needs more of this.

founded by Salman Khan

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fool Me Once by Rick Lax

Rick Lax went to law school and wrote a book about it called Lawyer Boy. He even graduated and passed the bar exam. But, instead of becoming an attorney, he lit out for Las Vegas, and, as far as I can tell, he's been here ever since. Indeed, he's become such a naturalized Las Vegan that he now blogs about his wanderings through the city in the Las Vegas Weekly.

Lax's second book, Fool Me Once, tells the story of what drove him to travel to Sin City after taking the bar exam, and, in a word, it's deception. Without giving too much away, I'll just say that the author has some compelling personal reasons for wanting to understand how deception works and why people use it. These reasons stem from deep in Lax's childhood, when he developed a fascination for magic tricks, and they also stem from more contemporary circumstances involving Lax's love life.

What follows is an engaging & provocative account of one man's first few weeks in the den of iniquity that is Las Vegas, wherein Mr. Lax falls in with various interesting, if not reliable, characters, all of whom have much to teach the author about the nature of deception.

Las Vegas seems an obvious choice for such an education. It's a city built on all sorts of fantasies, where shiny facades hide prosaic (even dangerous) realities, and Fool Me Once serves as a colorful snapshot of the Strip in the late 2000's, with its burgeoning nightclub scene and hordes of beautiful (and not-so-beautiful) people seeking a good time amidst the glittering casinos and games of chance. This is a city where knowing the odds is important, and Lax is obsessive about properly gauging probabilities, whether he's playing poker or trying to decide if the person sitting next to him is telling the truth. For the most part, this obsession serves the author well.

Lax visits a club of magicians, meets more than a few lovely women, has some great conversations with Pick-Up Artists (or "PUA's"), meets Lance Burton and Criss Angel, conducts some experiments involving the uses and misuses of trickery, and, finally, he comes to a belated realization of how a preoccupation with deception can come back to haunt you. Along the way, he manages to impart some insights to the reader. Here's one of the more crass ones: "Strippers pride themselves on not sleeping with guys for money; call girls pride themselves on not getting naked before large groups of men."

It took me some time to get through Fool Me Once, through no fault of Mr. Lax. He has a fluid style, and he is an entertaining storyteller. And I truly enjoyed the book. But his preoccupation with deception hit a little close to home, so I pored over each page, soaking up its incidents and insights like it was a holy book.

Why did Fool Me Once affect me this way? Well, let's just say that I also have a deep & troubled relationship with deception -- a relationship that I have only recently ironed out. To get me to reveal more, you'd have to buy me a drink.

A more rewarding use of your time and money would be to buy Fool Me Once and read it. Honestly, would I lie to you?

by Rick Lax

Monday, March 7, 2011

4 Reasons I Hate Buffets

(In the mood for a B-grade meal? Then this is the place!)

As a longtime Las Vegas resident, I've eaten at more than a few casino buffets. And I've run the gamut when it comes to quality, from premier properties like the Bellagio to bottom-of-the-barrel joints like the Circus Circus. I've even paid the obscene prices that some buffets charge for their "premium" events, like Sunday brunch (where a gospel choir and pitchers of mimosas turned the meal into a kind of party) or Seafood Night (where piles of crab legs and bowls of chilled shrimp enticed diners to pay quadruple the normal rate).

When I was a starving college student, casino buffets were a godsend. I could pay the off-hour (i.e., breakfast or lunch) rates at, say, the Sahara (before they closed it) and stuff myself so full of slices of prime-rib and chicken (or sausage & eggs) that I could nibble on snacks for a day or two before the hunger pangs recurred.

So, given my long & comprehensive experience with the casino buffet, let me surprise you by finally admitting that I hate them. I really do.

Unfortunately, I have friends and family members who don't, and, so, on occasion, I find myself accompanying a group of people I care about to some buffet where I'm told I'll get a "great deal on some good food" -- and I am inevitably disappointed. This just happened a week or so ago, when I had a family member visiting, and my mother insisted that we have lunch at the Studio B buffet at the M Resort.

The result: I had to stand in line for almost 90 minutes before being seated, the food was barely tolerable, my drink came late and sat empty for most of my meal, and I had more than one run-in with some truly odious people (not my relatives, mind you). What's worse, right at the start, I picked up a supposedly clean plate (still warm from its run through the dishwasher) that had gum stuck to the bottom of it. It took me a whole minute to extract the gooey strands from my fingers, and then I had to spend some time chasing down someone to hand the soiled plates to. My appetite barely survived.

Without further adieu, here are my particular reasons for hating the buffet:

1. The quality of the food is mediocre at best: Even the best buffets serve food in ways that quickly degrade the quality of any dish, so that by the time you get it (whatever it is), your food is only about 50% as good as it could have been. Just about the only way around this is to attend a buffet that has stations with live cooks preparing certain dishes to order (like omelets or steaks). But such stations mean 2 things: you've just added to your wait-time for food, and you have to tip the cook in question, over-and-above what you paid to get into the buffet in the first place (unless you're a total cheapskate). And even the best cook can't overcome the less-than-prime quality of the ingredients he or she is working with. Case in point: I can take the same $15 that the Studio B buffet charges for lunch and spend it at any number of restaurants to get a high-quality, filling lunch that will leave some change in your pocket.

2. The lines are way too long: Because the vast majority of people are attracted to such lowest-common-denominators like price & portion size, casino buffets always sport long lines. In fact, this fact of life is so pervasive that I am automatically suspicious of buffets that don't have long lines. But I'm a firm believer that waiting in long lines actually shortens one's lifespan. Case in point: My recent lunch at the Studio B buffet at the M Resort lasted almost 3 hours, half of which was spent just standing in a long queue. Had we chosen to eat at a real restaurant, we could have had our meal and watched a movie in the same span of time.

3. People act like pigs: I hate to sound totally misanthropic, but I honestly believe that the lowest-common-denominator aspect of buffets attracts people with the worst manners -- people who think that the only possible measure of the quality of a meal is how much your plate weighs. These are not people I generally like to spend my meals with. Case(s) in point: During my recent visit to the M Resort, my mother, who is in a walker, got cut off by another middle-aged woman who apparently thought she was too good to wait in line. This same specimen of humanity later cut me off at the bread station just so she could get the last slice of pumpernickel, and then she yelled at a passing busboy to go get more. And she wasn't exceptional. The rest of the surrounding crowd bumped and jostled and piled their plates with grub to the point of structural unsoundness. Also, there's nothing like sitting next to people who stack their discards near you, giving you a close-up shot of their scraps while listening to them slurp down their next plateful.

4. Service is laughable: I realize that we're in the midst of recovering from an economic downturn that has every company focused on cost-cutting as a means of survival, but having a single server working a couple of dozen buffet tables is no way to service your patrons, even if all the server is doing is getting drinks and taking away discarded plates. Case in point: During my lunch at Studio B at the M Resort, I watched my server hustle at an inhuman pace trying to keep up with his continent-sized station. He did manage to eventually get us our drinks, but I actually had to hunt him down for refills, not because he was lazy or inattentive -- he was swamped. Call me a prude, but it's a bit unappetizing when the guy bringing your drinks has sweat pouring down his face.

So there you have it. Although I generally think highly of the M Resort itself, their buffet is just another in a long line of lowbrow feeding troughs.

I know others will disagree with me, which reminds me of another pattern that I've become familiar with: In Las Vegas, everyone loves the newest buffet in town. Maybe it's the result of a property coming out of the gate like gangbusters before such concerns as operating costs and portion control start to drag the new buffet back towards its mediocre equilibrium. Or maybe it's just that new things shine brighter. Either way, I've seen it happen with the Golden Nugget, the Mirage, the Rio, the Bellagio, and the M Resort. Of course, the latest scuttlebutt is about the Wicked Spoon buffet at The Cosmopolitan. I hear it's truly amazing.

Color me jaded.

And I'll make this bet with any of you: the next time I go to any casino buffet, the four reasons I've just listed above will hold true during that meal as well. I'd stake the price of dinner on it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cedar Rapids starring Ed Helms

Cedar Rapids is a modest film about an innocent who travels from his backwater hometown to the big city for the first time. Ed Helms plays this innocent with the same open-faced earnestness that he brings to the role of Andy in The Office. And, just like the blockbuster The Hangover, Cedar Rapids sports an all-star cast of comedic talent.

But, unlike either The Hangover or The Office, Cedar Rapids doesn't have satire or condescension at its core. Sure, it has its share of chuckles and outlandish situations, but it seems to have been made with an overarching, warm affection for its characters. Its shots at the blandness of midwestern culture aren't nearly as pointed as Fargo, and it even manages to make the argument that insurance salesman can be noble (which is no small task in my eyes!).

Perhaps this impression stems from the lead character himself, a genuinely pure-hearted soul who, despite his ignorance of the ways of the world, ends up being more capable and resilient than even he himself thought possible. It's particularly telling that, under the influences of some illicit substances and the urgings of a friendly prostitute, the lead character becomes more of a gentleman, even as he is rendered hilariously incapacitated to act.

(The insurance salesmen at the heart of Cedar Rapids.)

Offsetting Helms's somewhat anodyne portrayal is the scene-stealing bombast of John C. Reilly, playing a kind of cynical buffoon who takes our hero under his wing (and who also proves to be more than he initially seems). Reilly, along with Helms, is proof of the argument that comic actors are generally more talented than serious ones. It takes genuine craft to be able to utter lines that express both depravity and insight, and Reilly seems to do it every time he opens his mouth in this movie.

The rest of the cast, including Sigourney Weaver and Kurtwood Smith, is similarly excellent, with surprise performances coming from Anne Heche and Alia Shawkat. Isiah Whitlock, Jr., seemingly relegated to being the token ethnic representative in the cast, somehow manages to relay a bit of nuance in his unmodulated baritone, throwing a kind of metafictional shout-out to my all-time favorite TV series, The Wire. Personally, I was also pleased to see Mike Birbiglia in a minor role, since I'm such a fan of his storytelling and stand-up.

Cedar Rapids is a good movie, if not a great one. Still, I urge you to see it.

directed by Miguel Arteta
written by Phil Johnston

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Screed on Craft: Input versus Output

Somehow, referring to myself as an artist seems too precious. (And anyone familiar with my work would probably agree!)

I prefer the term craftsman. Referring to what I do as a "craft" rather than an "art" puts the emphasis on the actual work and not on such notions as "talent" or "potential" or even "theme," all of which lead to abstractions that I consider a soul-sapping quagmire into which many otherwise fruitful conversations can disappear.

What's more, I consider almost all discussions of any "craft" to be largely a waste of time. Either you're talking about a particular work (be it a painting or a motion picture or a book or a meal) or you're just blowing a lot of unhealthy smoke. And listening to such discussions can be just as lethal.

To paraphrase an old bit about Faulkner when he was asked about the efficacy of creative writing programs, he is said to have answered that they were a waste of time because "if you're writing, then you're too busy to discuss it, and if you're not, then there's nothing to talk about."

Of course, having said all of this, I now turn to my own abstract discussion of craft: the idea of input versus output.

In my writing-student days, I once sat in a graduate-level seminar and listened as a sage instructor told us to beware of becoming "too smart to write."

"You can actually make yourself too well-informed," I remember being told. "And you end up outwitting your own imagination."

For a compulsive reader and browser like me, this was revelatory advice.

Like all wannabe artists, I want my own work to stand up to the competition. I want it to compare favorably. In order to do this, I have felt compelled to survey the artistic landscape with comprehensive regularity. Plus, in any creative endeavor, it helps to know what's out there before you give into any grand delusions that you should add to it.

So I read a lot. I also watch a lot. And I listen a lot.

And all of this takes a lot of time and energy...

...which means that I then have less time and energy to devote to composing my own work.

Also, this constant survey of my artistic milieu tends to short-circuit my own impulses to create, as comparisons inevitably occur between what I'm trying to make and what's already been made by others. And, yes, my own work, especially in its more larval stages, almost always compares unfavorably, to say the least.

The novelist Philip Roth famously despaired that his imagination was constantly being trumped by the day's headlines. It's a despair I'm familiar with. And yet, like Roth, I still feel compelled to write. (If only my writing were as magnificent as his!)

So, in order to keep my appetite for input from drowning my compulsion to create, I've learned to control it.

The solution is simple: for every hour of input, I schedule an hour of output. Thus, a 2-hour movie means I owe myself a 2-hour session of composition. And an hour of book-reading means I must follow it with an hour of writing. And so forth.

As anyone can tell you, input is easy. You just relax and let whatever's in front of you wash over you, whether it's a painting or a short story or a woman singing the blues. You pay attention, sure, but the effort that such attention demands is as nothing compared to what's required when you switch modes over to output.

Output is hard. It's physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. It requires even more attention than input, obviously, so I never let myself get discouraged when, after a 2-hour reading session that has allowed me to devour half-a-novel, I then engage in a 2-hour writing session that yields just a few dozen words.

Even something as lowbrow as my vampire novel took months to write, so I shouldn't be surprised at the agonies involved when I compose anything. Birth, as they say, always requires labor.

In any case, this is how I juggle my need to read with my wish to write. It's a balancing act.

And the hour I just used to compose this blog post means I can now spend another 60 minutes with Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

As they also say, moderation in all things.