Monday, January 27, 2014

Magic, Still Kicking

When I was but a boy, middle school started in 5th grade.  Things were different in Memorial Middle School: an earlier start time, gym every day, and a new type of health class.

Gone was the in-class instruction done by a short haired woman teaching from a cart: now, in the big leaves, was instruction done in the health room by a short haired woman teaching from a cart!  The message had changed too.  We no longer talked about having lots of veggies and how cigarettes can make your lungs turn black.

Instead, there was a new whisper in the wind: s-e-x.  And, in the early 1990s, there was a new crypt keeper in town: AIDS, which, as it turned out, wasn't just for those types anymore.  Anyone could get it.  Get it and die.  AIDS, we were told by the curly-haired health teacher who smoked cigarettes by the carton in her car, would take you from the prime of your life and wipe it all away... to nothingness!  And who was the poster child for such loss?

Irving "Magic" Johnson.  He was, we were told, perpetually about to die.  Coincidentally (or not), white, upper middle class health teachers also found in him the perfect stereotype of lust: an inner city black man whose aspirations were always physical.  (No matter that grew up in a stable, two income, two parent home in the state capital, nor that his goal when entering college was to get a degree.  Such things were not a concern to health teachers at the time.)

Now, because health teachers are generally the least ambitious of the entire profession ("Oh, I want to talk to my coworkers today.  Dodgeball, everyone!  Tweet!"), we heard the same message each year: Magic Johnson Will Die!  Soon!!  To be fair, there was precious little in terms of AIDS research at the time.  This was, if you'll remember, a time concurrent with Ryan White and the start of public figures wearing red ribbons; a bit of confusion was to be expected.

Nonetheless, here we are an astonishing twenty one years later.  Middle school me would doubtless be surprised to hear that Magic is alive.  He did not die during the 1992 NBA All-Star Game (where he played, despite numerous players being concerned about him being either gay or about to spontaneously shoot AIDS upon then), but rather one the MVP and the game. He has been a partial owner of the Lakers, in charge of his own $700 million dollar business called Magic Johnson Enterprises, and now is part of the Dodgers ownership group.  (Perhaps Admiral Piet can supply the figures as to how many other baseball teams have partial ownership by a black man, a further note on how things have changed since 1947.)

It is probably fair to say that at age 59, Magic Johnson will likely die somewhat earlier than would have been his appointed time, and that it will likely be due to having contracted HIV.  (Back in those heady days of middle school, a minor distinction was made between HIV and AIDS, as when you caught the former, you'd catch the latter soon enough, we were told.)  Nonetheless, his life has been far from the racially-tinged story of woe told over and over to me and my middle school peers.

Hop on your Delorean and go ask me at age 11.  If you told me he was still kicking in 2012, I'd say it was like magic.

Monday, January 20, 2014

You Can't Take the Sky From Me

I know how difficult it must be to get a television show on the air.  It seems most shows start with a low number of people--say anywhere from 1-5--who are the voice of the show.  They love it as a child, and their vision is one of perfection.  Then in come the others; sometimes its the moneypeople, sometimes the network brass, sometimes other, more vaunted producers.  But to actually get a show on the air, particularly one that has a unique vision, is increasingly rare.  That goes double for network TV.  So to triumph over those odds must be a special achievement indeed.

Then the network mishandles your show and kills it.

That's the story of Firely, Joss Whedon's scifi/western love letter to the very best of TV.  It was a nearly perfect show for network TV in so many ways.  A nice, big cast, sufficiently multiracial.  An incredible main setpiece: the namesake-class ship Serenity featured the bridge, living area, cargo bay, and more all on a larger film soundstage, allowing for the entire set to be connected as one home for the show.  Despite its scifi set-up, it was also equally dedicated to its western--which is to say American folklore--background.  Our hero, Mal Reynolds, was more solo space cowboy than Han, but somehow sadder and more alone. The list goes on, because it's a great cast of a characters: a priest, a prostitute, a dim-witted gunman (of sorts), a doctor, a girly-girl engineer, and the mysterious young lady.

Yes, on the one hand, it sounds like Ford's StagecoachBut that's the point! Firefly was America--it was meant to be us!  It was meant to capture our world and transport it to another time and another place, and in that time and place we could find ourselves.

The entire series consists of 14 episode.  There are a few in the beginning that are a tad wobbly, as the show finds its feet ("The Train Job" comes to mind.")  There are a few in the middle which are good, silly fun ("Jaynestown" comes to mind.)

Yet after that middle, the show finds its brilliance.  "Out of Gas" is an incredible episode--essentially a flashback pilot episode, except it takes us before the series started and shows us how everyone got to where they are.  "Objects in Space" is the series finale.  It's surreal and strange and wonderful.  It's heartbreaking, because its the last of the show.

Now yes, yes, I can hear the naysayers: but it got its second chance.  It got its movie--a movie which did alright, but not enough to justify more TV or more movies.  To that, I have no answer.  I'm no Hollywood beancounter.  I watch smart TV.  It's usually entertaining (Survivor), it's often depressing (The Walking Dead), but its always smart.  Looking at the renewal plight of Alcatraz, I know that part of the problem is that too few of us watch smart television; that's why The Voice is a smash hit, and Mad Men is a boutique show enjoyed by 2 million people.

All I know is that Firefly represented a dream--not just a dream of Joss Whedon to transplant the Western motif into space, but a dream about the kind of television that should be on.  And there's the great irony: that TV is ultimately in the hands of those beancounters, people more loyal to corporate bosses then creating great dramatic presentations.  There is, I suppose, a certain irony in Firefly's lyrics, since all we're left with us the great sky-dream of the show:

Lost my love, lost my land
Lost the last place I could stand
There's no place I can be
Since I've found Serenity

And you can't take the sky from me.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Knight Industries Two Thousand

Robot friend. It's something that has been considered ever since the Čapek brothers first stared throwing around the word robot. Yet there are a few things to consider before picking your robot friend.

First, let's not forget the basic point of view when it comes to technology in general and extrapolate towards a robot. Why did the VHS format overtake the superior Betamax system in the battle for home video systems? Pornography was more available on VHS. What helped fuel growth of the internet in the 1990s? Ever-increasing pornography. Why would a robot friend in human form be any different--would not it be used for the same lascivious purposes? Indeed, this has already been foretold in the... un-landmark episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled "The Naked Now." Made effectively drunk by a virus ripped off from the original Star Trek, Tasha Yar ensnares the android Mr. Data. She inquires if he is fully functional in every way. He replies in the affirmative, and lasciviousness ensues. At any rate, a robot must not be in too familiar a form.

So then we should have a robot which is a bit more mechanical looking. But what about it's internal security? I'm a fan of the film Lost in Space, perhaps because it has the two things that make Heather Graham great (hint: it's not her ability to deliver dialogue and look emotive). At any rate, the robot, called Robot, was an imposing creation that could mind the environmental controls, wheel about on cool treads, shoot a laser beam, AND declare "Danger, Will Robinson!" The downside though was its security. Once reprogrammed by that pesky Dr. Smith, the robot (or Robot, if you prefer the proper noun) attempted to shoot and kill the family. Same thing with Johnny Five from Short Circuit--too much "I want to kill you" and not enough "I want to help you fold laundry." (A brief digression: isn't Short Circuit 2 superior to the original?)

Let us then get the meat and potatoes of it all: our robot friend must be thoughtful, intelligent, human-sounding, not in human form, and non-lethal. I'll add to it that if the robot friend is of appropriate intelligence, there should be some sort of space made to prevent it from interrupting when you're in your bedroom with that hot girl who can fix cars and complain about Michael Bay (see Sam Witwicky vs Optimus Prime). Thus we come to the greatest of all possible robot friends: KITT from Knight Rider. His intelligence and wit will keep one thoroughly occupied and amused--and, for long car rides, he'll both drive and play chess with you. Also, like any good friend, he'll make sure you're safe. Bullets are no problem (tires included), and he comes with wifi, video chat, and a sun roof. KITT is kind and inquisitive, but not in an annoying Mr. Data sort of way; can one imagine asking KITT how long it will take to get to Albuquerque and being told "4 hours, 8 minutes, 15 seconds"? Of course not--he'd say "A little over 4 hours, Matthew."

KITT: the robot I'd recommend.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wither Thee, Pizza?

Arguably the best in town.
I feel for those whose pizza experience is limited to Dominos, Pizza Hut, and Papa Johns.  You see, when it comes to the food once called a "circular Italian food object" by future Oscar winner Tim Robbins in the weighty film Howard the Duck, I've been blessed.  In my hometown, there are a number of real pizzerias, with real people making real food.  (Spoiler: all the Dominos dough everywhere is trucked in, having been made in a factory.)  Growing up, there were two titans of pizza; both were manned (literally--with no female workers during my childhood) by manly men born in Italy and transplanted to coastal New Jersey.  Both were owned by men with thick accents, who's voices spoke of authentic Italian cuisine.  (Yes, fine, pizza as we know it is actually American.)  Sadly, now are both in decline.  Why?

Let's start with Pat's Pizza, having been created and owned by Pasquale, a thin, smiling man whose teeth showed much metal and a heart of gold.  His was the pizzeria where the many workers were always happy to make a standard pie with toppings; or a Sicilian pie, square and squat in its own sheen of grease; or a sub (aka the hoagie or grinder); or mozzarella sticks.  To enter into the store was to hear a delightful din of workers talking, of the television set showing either the news or football de Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio. The only way to not hear such a din was to go most evenings, or any weekend day or night.  The crowd, pressing to the door, could make space in front of the counter a tight proposition.  Those of us in the know knew to bypass the line and stand towards the back of the crowd near the counter area.  Invariably, you'd catch the eye of a worker who would ask, "Whadyaget?" and you'd be back in your car, hot pie next to you, before the newbies knew what was what.

About four years ago, tragedy struck.  No, Pasquale didn't die, nor was there a fire.  Rather, the eponymously nicknamed owner of Pat's Pizza retired, with the intention of taking all his marbles and going back to Italy.  Signs of change had been in the air for a while: about two years prior, his daughter had started to work the register and phone (a female! behind the counter! la liberazione delle ragazze è arrival!).  His daughter, una principessa italiana who started working there while attending high school in town, was always efficient and cordial, but clearly lacked the enthusiasm of... of what?  Of taking pizza orders all day?  Of the family business?  Perhaps she lacked the enthusiasm of a future prospect: being behind the same counter for a generation and beyond, just as her father had done.  But I digress: one day, a sign was posted, saying goodbye from Pat and his family.  Shock went throughout the town.  A coworker and I literally sat in her office and pondered a world without Pat's Pizza.  

As it turned out, Pat's Pizza wasn't closing: instead, our English-as-a-second-language friend Pasquale had written the sign to say goodbye from his family's ownership of the business.  (Apparently neither the daughter nor the sons relished a prospect of food service for a lifetime.)  Pat's Pizza is still there, and probably the best pizza in down. Still, it's a bit different somehow... it lacks a certain pizazz.  Was there some post-Pasquale tweak in the recipe?  Or does the lack of that metal, toothy smile have some subtle effect when one chows down at home?

This is all contrasted by the rival pizzeria, Vesuvios.  It is co-owned by a mousy, mustachioed man named Dominic and his burly, loud, bulldog-faced roommate.  What is the name of the latter gentleman?  I don't know.  Such is the terror that one has with the man, having grown up going to his pizzeria.  One does not name the four horsemen, beyond their vocation; nor does one name the giant pizza-making Italian.  

The menu and Vesuvios is simple: they make pizza.  They put toppings on it.  They sell fountain soda--the same four flavors for my whole life: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, root beer, and orange soda.  That's it.  Either Dominic or the Giant makes the pizza, standing at the counter and throwing the dough.  As a child, it was an endlessly fascinating thing to watch.  More recently, I just scurry in and out, lucky to have gotten a pie without being yelled at.  Case in point as to their customer service: last winter, as a terrible snowstorm was descending on us, I ordered a pie.  It was to act not only as dinner, but as lunch the next day; further, it was to be a stopgap just in case we were snowbound a few days and our refrigerated food needed to stretch a tad more.  I walked to Vesuvios; on a clear day, it takes five minutes.  With the snow, it was doubled--but still better than driving.  When I walked in, I was covered with snow, and Dominic and the Giant just stared at me--as though I was the jackass for braving the storm to their pizzeria which was open during the blizzard.  (The snow ended up being so bad that their sign, aloft for 40 years, was torn down.)  

The interesting thing is that it was around that time that their pizza started to decline.  At first, I wasn't really aware of it.  We don't get pizza that very often, and when we do, it's generally split between a few different places.  (A third pizzeria, Cuzzins, is our go-to place when we are inclined to use a debit card.  Neither Pats nor Vesuvios takes cards, though the latter has a paper sign posted saying "CASH ONLY. No credit cards or checks.")  Most recently, the pie has been smaller than usual; it no longer touches the sides of the box.  The cheese somehow seems to float on the sauce, rather than encapsulate the tomato paste.  It looks hastily-made, as though the disdain that the Giant clearly has for all who walk through the door is starting to show in his vocation.  Perhaps Dominic and the Giant are merely tired of their decades in the business, going from the downstairs pizzeria to their upstairs apartment.  (Read into that what you may, though as good Catholics from il paese de il papa, I doubt there is much inespresso amore fisico.)  Perhaps I've just hit them at a tired stretch: this is the time of year when, rather surprisingly, they shutter the business for two weeks in order to go on vacation to their homeland.  

Believe in a pizza future? Yes we can!
Nonetheless... it does make me truly a bit wistful to think that these two pillars of pizza, Pats and Vesuvios, have fallen into relative (the former) or perhaps true (the latter) decline.  Pizza--great pizza--is a wonderful culinary treat.  Simple pizza, your Dominos and Pizza Huts and Papa Johns of the world, is a tasty treat... but food, not a meal.  If we can't count on our local, Italian-run pizzerias to bring us the very best in "circular Italian food objects," what can we count on?  It calls into question democracy and security and gravity.  

Wither thee, pizza?