Sunday, January 30, 2011

Favorite Places A-Z-A rare travel article

Akranes, Iceland-A small little seaside town of about 7,000 people with exactly one restaurant, one internet cafĂ©/coffee shop, and one club (I imagine one-night stands with someone you met at the club must have difficult repercussions). Also has absolutely gorgeous seaside views, a fish factory that I’ve toured, a soccer team and a gym/water wonderland. I stayed for two weeks in the gym while working on a forestry project and found it a very welcoming place.

Baltimore, Maryland-This city 45 minutes from my own home city, is a place I’ve always seen as the ideal American city but then again I’ve spent very little time in the section that The Wire is based on. I just go occasionally to visit the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, the Aquarium, the State Fair or the Science Museum so I just see it from a bright lights perspective (as in people being attracted to the city because of its flashier attractions). I also see things in Baltimore that are attractive because they’re not necessarily Washingtonian things. Washington is basically a company town with the company some monstrous entity that hires IT, non-profit fundraising, lawyers and lawyer wanna-be’s, event planning, and schmoozing. Baltimore is a real city with heavy industries and subsequently, it's much lighter on the B.S.

Calgary, Alberta-This city is approximately 90 years old which actually makes a lot of difference because it’s a really clean city. It doesn’t have a lot of rind or soot on the buildings. It just also feels young. I visited the Olympic Park, Basin and Cave National Park and the Railroad depot. I also remember the Canadian Pacific fascinating me with a certain romanticism that people hold for the Orient Express or Wes Anderson so obviously held for the Darjeeling Limited when he made that movie.

Delft, Holland and Dublin, Ireland-The only time I’m going to put two here. I found Dublin really charming. The greenness that Ireland is (probably) famous for is visible all throughout this urban landscape. There were also very cool looking castles in this city superimposed on top of everything else.

Since I realized that I don’t have anything from my trip to Holland when I was 10 and I don’t have a Z, I thought I’d include Delft, Holland. That bluish pottery you think of when you think of Dutch pottery comes from Delft, Holland. It was a lot like Amsterdam but cozier and more compact. People rode bicycles often and there were canals.

Edmonton, Alberta-With so many places in the world, I hate to go back to Alberta again, but Edmonton was pretty exciting in different ways than Calgary and very few cities fall into the "E" category. The city had two remarkable sites. The first, Fort Edmonton, is a living history museum divided into four sections that called Fort Edmonton that seemed much better designed than Colonial Williamsburg. the West Edmonton Mall which is either the first or second biggest mall in the world (it’s in an arms race with Mall of America). Just like how Ft. Edmonton is cooler than Williamsburg, the West Edmonton Mall is (sorry to my American friends, especially the Minnesotans) bigger and bolder than the Mall of America and if you’d went there, you’d see it for yourself. The Mall of America is basically a mall with a cool amusement park and legoland display in the middle. The West Edmonton Mall is a combination mall and theme park. Paramount Kings Dominion wishes they could integrate storefront space and rides as well as WEM does. It’s segregated into different neighborhoods with themes and stuff. This place is a monument of human achievement: It’s ability to get people to go and spend on things they don’t need is unparalleled.

Flagstaff, Arizona-A change of pace temperature-wise from the rest of Arizona. It’s very cool and surrounded by forests. Nearby is Slide Rock State Park. It was also the place where Pluto was discovered and you can see the observatory and look at the very photographic plates where it was discovered.

Grand Banks, Ontario-I briefly stopped here with my friends Garret and Victor on an ambitious road trip through the Northeastern section of North America. It’s a charming beach town in the middle of Canada and on the banks of Lake Ontario which I found to be quite surprising. I would not have pictured a beach town in the middle of Ontario from looking at the globe, would you?

Haifa, Israel-Where my mom was born. The 3rd biggest city in Israel is where I spent at least 2-3 months combined when I was 6 and 8. Do not remember much except the pool, the playgrounds and malls my grandmother would take me too and the elevation. I distinctly remember the view and looking down at the Mediterranean Sea.

Indianapolis, Indiana-I went here with my dad once and then went here with Victor and Garret. I was sort of stranded there for four days while Victor and Garret attended a convention but I came to find the place charming. Sort of like the guy in Local Hero or Music Man. Every state (except maybe New Jersey) has its own uniqueness that it brings to the table, and I got the feeling that the state of Indiana is a little more attuned to its uniqueness than anywhere else. Maybe that’s why I found it charming. Also, a lot of people don’t really talk about Indiana so I felt like I was discovering a hidden treasure when I was over there.

Jerusalem, Israel-Honestly, it’s the lack of J’s that is making me go with Jerusalem. I prefer the more urban parts of Israel. Jerusalem is soooo holy, it’s a little intimidating. It’s like a casual Jew going to visit the synagogue for an ice cream social and then getting invited to lead services on Yom Kippur. At least that’s the way I felt the first couple trips to Israel when I was 6 and 8. Fortunately, I had a great tour guide which showed me all the aspects of Jerusalem and it’s not to say I wasn’t in awe at Jerusalem. I still see Jerusalem more as a living museum than a city. I do remember our secondary guide on my birthright trip, Tamar, had a couple friends who lived in the city and there was a marketplace, so I might have yet to see that side of the city where people might actually lead normal lives rather than living in some constant state of holiness.

Key Largo, Florida-The Florida Keys are my favorite place in the world, hands-down. Key West is the most famous point in the Keys and people associate it with drinking margaritas, partying and experiencing nightlife, but that’s an anomaly and just not the point of the Keys. The Keys is about living this easy slow-paced simple life with the occasional water-skiing or boating adventure. It’s like a stripped-down version of civilization with one highway and never more than a quarter mile on either side of it until you reach the ocean. There are tiki bars all over, but I’ve never associated them with a wild time, usually people are very sedate watching the sunset. Oh, yeah, and fishing’s big.

London, England-Went there when I was ten on the same trip as Holland. I have a lot of pictures that I was recently looking through and that big giant Ferris wheel I recently saw isn’t there. London has a lot to see and a rich history. And there’s that proper British way of doing things. Eating breakfast at the hotel felt like Anne Hathaway suddenly being confronted with royal life in the Princess Diaries (I swear I’ve never seen the movie, just the preview)…there were sugar cubes of different colors and toasts, and crumpets and teas and everything. And one of those guys outside the palace with the really tall hats heckled me because I asked a dumb question (I asked “what’s the purpose to the Tower of London”). I thought they weren’t supposed to talk, right, yeah, I know. Also, the theater district was pretty cool. Up until I was in my 20s I’d only been to Broadway once and it sucked and the two plays I saw in London I still vividly remember to this day as great experiences.

London might possibly be the most important city in the world, when you consider that New York as important as it is just the cultural and financial capital of one country and London is slowly becoming a center of a massively expanding European Union that includes many countries full of people who are trying to rapidly learn English (and not American English but the Queen’s English, I might add).

Mexico City,Mexico-So many to choose from. I spent a summer in Minneapolis and had the best study-abroad experience ever in Merida, Mexico, but Mexico City is quite possibly one of the most exciting cities in the world. So much activity on every street corner with demonstrations, peddlers, beggars, native Americans offering healing potions, street magicians and performers, people playing music for no discernible reason. Needless to say, the city was very lively. Every street was filled with some historic cathedral or building that had existed for 500 years situated next to a drug store situated next to an apartment, situated next to something else. It was completely random. Aztec ruins were there right in the middle of the city. I was only here for four or five days on a study-abroad trip but I remember when we were being shuttled around town how much interesting stuff there was to look at on the streets.

New Orleans, Louisiana-There’s a very good reason that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina lasted longer than it did and we didn’t just clear out the city: That city meant something to those people, and for good reason. New Orleans isn’t just a collection of houses on a piece of land: It was something special and it is a one-of-a-kind place. The cultural roots of the city were historically unique but that culture is still thriving and it’s been preserved very well. One thing that stuck out at me when I was in New Orleans was how well-versed people were about the local history. In some cases, it was kind of the stuff of legend and folklore.

When I volunteered in New Orleans, I worked with Common Ground and Camp Hope. If you want to know what they're working on with the rebuilding effort check those websites.

Orlando, Florida-Disneyworld and all. What more is there to say. I’ve never been to Disneyland so I suppose this is the Gold standard of amusement parks. Last was there when I was 9, so hopefully it’s still just as fun.

Park City, Utah-I love skiing so sooner or later, we’d get to a ski place. Park City is very much a small town. It’s got one big main street where all the glamorous shops are and a pretty efficient bus system that gets you everywhere. It’s amazing that such a small place holds the biggest stars in the world every January for the film festival. I also have a mild interest in what mining was like, and they had a recreated gold mine from what I remember. They also had an Olympic museum that we didn’t go in because I was disgusted that the museum wouldn’t acknowledge how corrupt the SLC Olympics were. They also had three ski resorts and one (Deer Valley) was literally on the edge of town.

Quebec, Canada-I was 5 when I was here, so can’t say I remember too much but it’s a Q. Even though the capital is in Ottawa, I believe that there was a changing of the guard eventgoing on here.

Reykjavik, Iceland-Reykjavik is a really cool place except when I was there the price of everything was ridiculously expensive. I don’t know economics well, but I hear with all the currency problems it might have gotten cheaper. Where to begin with the coolness of Reykjavik: The sun was only up for 7 hours a day in January, so it’s like a really surreal thing that everyone was going to work in the middle of the night. Then when I was there in the summer, it was daylight for literally all 26 hours. People stayed up pretty much all night on the club scene and it really wasn’t that hard. It’s almost like a college town and I literally walked from one end of Reykjavik to the other many times, almost daily in fact, and I even remember bumping into the same people fairly often in my short stays there. The town also had an interesting look. The houses were all painted different colors and I don’t know much about architecture but there was definitely something funky going on there in a lot of Reykjavik but there were also buildings that looked like they were built in the 60’s.

Sun Valley, Idaho-It’s the country’s first ski resort, more or less. It is the country’s first ski resort with a chairlift, I can definitively say, because the first chairlift is a statue with a plaque. The skier’s village at the bottom, therefore has that added historical authenticity. There’s a luxurious ice skating rink, a big ice statue of a sun, one of those shops specializing in chocolate and fudge, and a theater that has weekly screenings of the film Sun Valley Serenade which featured the town in the 1940’s. The ski resort itself also has that touch of class with fancy rugs and intricate wood carvings on the doors. The walks outside the ski mountain are also geothermically heated. At the ski lodge you can also see pictures and autographs of a lot of famous people from the last 70 years and I have a feeling that Sun Valley has a more impressive list than anything else.

Toronto, Canada-I think it’s funny that Americans don’t like to admit there might be things Canada does that are better than us. Like build a better city. For one, Toronto is a true melting pot but with very little racial tension compared to its American counterparts (that I know of). Toronto’s CN Tower is also taller than any American building. They also have lured the film industry away from LA and…..[I don’t remember what went in the second half of this sentence, my computer crashed in the middle of the Toronto entry]

Uxmal and Chichen Itza, Mexico-Say what you want about Mexico lagging behind America but their Natives would beat the crap out of our natives. The Mayans were constructing large cities, using astronomy and psychedelic shrooms to subjugate the working class. They also developed calendars that are more accurate to today’s standards and went all the way up to 2012 while our Natives built a bunch of wigwams and sang about the Colors of the Wind.

Villa Soleadad, Honduras-No other city named V has the distinction of being built by a friend of mine. No other city in the world for that matter. So this is an easy one. I have a friend who went on a trip to Honduras, was touched by the unending poverty he saw, and vowed to do something about it. A hurricane hit Honduras in 1998 from which they never recovered. He raised funds and started a non-profit with his sister to build a new set of houses at higher elevations for one of the towns stuck in the flood plains. It was a really incredible experience to be a part of it last summer.

The organization is called

Mt Washington, New Hampshire (this entry includes Northern New Hampshire: Bathe/Bretton Woods/Franconia Notch/Cannon Mountain)-(Kind of cheating a bit here but my other W’s were a little problematic. My other options were Williamsburg which pails in comparison to Fort Edmonton, Wayzata, Minnesota which satisfies the requirement of putting something from Minnesota on the map but is kind of small and not notable except for a cross-country skiing venue, and Whistler which is a good representative of the Pacific Northwest but just another ski resort town)

Anyways, I’ve been to this Northern New Hampshire area twice: Once with my dad on our first and last camping trip when I was 10, and once with my whole family twenty years later.

Mt Washington has a cog railway and is important for some reason my dad always stresses that I can’t remember. Hold on a minute, let me ask my dad….Mt Washington has the highest wind speed ever recorded outside of Antarctica. Oh, ok. There’s that. Now I got my dad babbling about wind and if they theoretically could measure a wind station at the top of Mount Everest, I don’t know what his obsession with wind speed is all about, oh boy…

There’s also Franconia Notch where the Man on the Mountain was (see the back of the state quarter), the great skier Bode Miller’s hometown, a really interesting ski museum where I learned a lot about how ski resorts started in this country and looked at some old pictures of people skiing, which I find to be a constant source of diversion. Overall, it’s just a nice place. It’s bed-and-breakfastish but not so desolate that things aren’t open past 6 pm (a problem with neighboring Vermont)

Xoxicalco, Mexico-It’s another city of Mexican ruins very high up. Advantages over Chichen Itza are that there were a lot more signs to show you around, making it possible to see the place without a guide (although we did foolishly hire a false guide, my friend David can tell you more about that story), and the view is incredible. It’s situated way above this forest.

Yorktown, Virginia-Kind of like Colonial Williamsburg but without all the hype and hubbub. The historical district is maybe 3 blocks wide, has very consistent bus service that shuttles you to every stop, and it has a nice beach. There’s also a preserved shipwreck which is a one-of-a-kind experience.

Z-Racked my head trying to find a Z with no luck.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ebert and Roeper Version 4.0

Ebert at the movies was cancelled but Roger Ebert made the wise decision that with the right backing, there's no reason why the show couldn't work. I agree: The audience of people wanting to read and delve into film criticism is much greater now than it was decades ago when Ebert and Siskel started. I have a hunch that even if the blogosphere existed when Ebert and Siskel first came on the air, there would be a lot fewer film blogs. The idea of caring what film critics had to say was novel back then.

Seeking to resurrect his program, Roger Ebert hand-picked his successors: Christy Lemire from the Associated Press and the world's luckiest internet film critic in 24-year old Ignatiy Vishnevetsky who was plucked from obscurity.

A little background on Ignatiy: He immigrated to the USA from Russia at the age of 9. Went to film school and dropped out after two semesters to watch three movies a day, so he could learn everything there was to learn about film. Aside from doing some translation work, he blogs on two or three websites and co-manages a video store in Chicago which charges one dollar per film which isn't exactly a powerhouse.

It's a safe bet that he would have had a career indistinguishable from every other film blogger if Roger Ebert hadn't actively looked for a new and different voice. For that, both Ebert and Vishnevtsky are now cult heroes as far as I'm concerned.

Lest you think that Vishnevtsky has no social life because he watches movies all day, he's very well-connected to people in his field in Chicago, he's very charming and articulate, and he recently proposed marriage to his girlfriend and then impulsively got married two days before the first show aired.

So I tuned into this show very excited at what was being awaited. Everything worked very well. Both hosts are photogenic (read: easy on the eyes), knowledgable and able to compress their opinions into informative one-minute discussions.

There was just one little glitch to the first episode: The way they voted.
Vishnevtsky and Lemire both voted the exact same way every time. He liked absolutely everything. Lemire absolutely disliked everything. Thumbs up thumbs down to eveyrhting.

They shouldn't have been dishonest but they should have at least picked a film where someone had a change of opinion. It looks like one's a softy and one's a massive cynic so far, and they would have been better served by picking a film where they meet in the middle. Hope, it changes next week.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Brief reviews of Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Outsourced tonight

Hey Guys, I'm going to drift off to sleep very soon, so this will be a somewhat loosely written and sloppy reflection on my thoughts of tonight's episodes.
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Parks and Recreation:
Last week, Parks and Rec disappointed me by focusing so heavily on the dating lives of Ann and Leslie that I started to feel like the show was becoming a romantic comedy. Fortunately, things cooled down a little this week as we got classic Leslie buffoonery.

Leslie is starting to remind me pretty heavily of that other quintessential TV comedienne whose name starts with an "L": Lucille Ball. In fact, didn't Lucy Ricardo have at least one episode per season in which she tried to break into Ricky's show while sick? My colleague Cory Barker at wrote that Parks and Recreation is already better than The Office (I don't know if I'd go that far) in part because Leslie is a lovable character that we root for, whereas Michael Scott is inconsistently written.

Moving on, Leslie's determination to give the speech was almost a red herring. It wasn't really about whether Leslie would succeed at the speech but what kind of working relationship Leslie would have with Ben and, to a lesser extent, Tom. Ben proved that he'd stand up for her and that he could be counted on and Tom proved otherwise which stayed consistent with what we already know about him. The plot device was entirely meaningless and treated as such: The money was raised despite the fact that she essentially screwed up big.

P&R is essentially about a strong group of friends at a workplace and that ensemble is rounding out nicely. I'm glad that the cast was tweaked to add some new blood. I only hope that Rob Lowe and Adam Scott weren't bought in just to provde romantic "solutions" to Leslie and Anne. Some notes:

-I have seen Rob Lowe in millions of things. He's a ubiquitous actor who finds his way into Aaron Sorkin dramas, Mike Myer comedies and everything in between. His character on Parks and Recration, however, is the first time I've ever seen him act. I'm very impressed

-It's to P&R's great credit that they navigated through a lose-lose situation by giving him some sort of girlfriend figure at the moment but still not taking away what amounts to an inferiority complex. Tom still is jealous of Ron for dating his significantly hotter ex-wife and he also has that same ineffective desire to please with the guys at the spa. It's both a step foward for Tom but it's not enough of a step foward that he isn't essentially a sad figure.

-I still have no idea why everyone's so crazy about Ron Swanson. It seems, based on reviews I'm reading, that he's already become an iconic character who's transcended the popularity of the show itself. Hell, I don't even know why Tom's ex-wife is even interested in her. I have no problem with adoration for Ron Swanson and Nick Offerman. I do, however, feel that Audrey Plaza is the ensemble darkhorse of the show and just hope those on Team Ron are throwing a little love for Team April too.

-Still undecided about the Andy and April relationship. I don't think it has long-term potential and I suspect most viewers don't. Thus, the question is: Are we rooting for a mistake to be made?

30 Rock:
The Tracy-Liz relationship has been one that existed in an uneasy state of equilibrium but it's generally been a constant. Tracy is annoying as Hell and he would drive most people insane. But Liz puts up with it and that's a big key to the show.

Let me explain: It's part of the framework of the show that this star-studded universe is askew and that chracters like Tracy, Jack, and Jenna exhibit alarmingly unacceptable behavior and Liz gets only a little annoyed as if dealing with mildly irritating colleagues like these is just part of a normal workday and she's supposed to grin and bear it.

If one were to call Liz a straight man, they'd be misidentifying her. A real straight man would be a character like Queen Latifah's congresswoman who walks in there and immediately notices that this workplace is full of extremely abnormal people. The fact that Liz reacts with just a little irritation rather than a genuine fear that someone like Tracy is diabolically insane and the business decisions of the entire NBC programming department is in the hands of someone who makes such irrational decisions (seriously, listen closely to Jack's lines) is what makes this universe work.

With that in mind:
Liz blowing up at Tracy is not consistent with the tone to date. It might be a very realistic course of action if the show were a realistic one but I found it a little jarring.

That being said, 30 Rock's strengths were in plain view tonight. When it comes to satirizing the norms of show business, 30 Rock pushes the envelope better than anyone and you know that the writers have a particularly sharp set of surgical tools with which to pick at their target. Liz and Tracy arguing through the song "Uptown Girls" so the reality show producer couldn't film it was one of the most clever scenes I've seen in a sitcom in ages. (Side note: How meta that Billy Joel probably will get money off of it)

I also had the observation tonight about 30 Rock that I can't think of any other show on television that's better line-for-line. When 30 Rock goes for a joke, it's a multi-layered piece of art. Lines of dialogue are beautifully inverted and subtly placed between seemingly ordinary sentences so when you catch it, it's a hidden treasure. There are a million examples of this but Jack said as the credits closed, "We haven't had ratings this good since that episode of SVU where the detectives watched American Idol." Is that not one of the most brilliant lines of dialogue you've ever heard? I will admit that 30 Rock had a drop in quality in Seasons 3 and 4, but that attention to crafting brilliant jewels and subtly inserting them into every line of dialogue they could is something that never waned. This convinces me very strongly that the writer's room is not full of lazy people.

Last but not least:
Outsourced: The episode was typical Outsourced which was pretty good for a show in its first season. With the strength of Parks and 30 Rock tonight, it was easy to not appreciate it as much (in fact, most other critics have already written the show off entirely) but there was some nice things to appreciate.

There were two pretty good twists I didn't see coming. The introduction of the other lover and the backfiring of Rajiv's plan. I thought the plan would backfire but I didn't see it backfiring that way. Falling into predictable sitcom formulas in the first season is the biggest indication (to me, at least) that a show is going nowhere, so I take this as a good sign.

The episode introduced different pairings too which is the kind of thing Community would do in the first season a lot en route to becoming a cult favorite.

But, let's talk about the big development: Charlie finally found out about Todd and Tanya. It's about time. Also, Tanya is looser than I thought. It was a nice moment of resolution and I think the joke was dragged out long enough.

A very overgeneralized argument for why songwriting dissapoints me as an art form

Hi followers, I'm back for the first time in a while....Happy new year and sorry for the delay....
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This is a large generalization I'm making and I don't expect to solve such a big and impossibly complex debate.

Look over at or and look up the meanings to a lot of songs. When asked what their songs mean, few artists ever give as impressive an explanation as the one you thought of in your head. In fact, most artists just say "I like keeping it vague so the user can take their own meaning."

Sometimes, I just feel like these artists are just string together a few rhyming words while they're high and just piece it together without much thought. I say this as someone who sometimes finds something profound to relate to in a song lyric and feels really empowered by that, so I've historically wanted to have a great respect for the people putting together these lyrics.

I was listening to the Greenday song 21 Guns and I related to it in so many ways. Without going into too much detail, I encountered someone I used to work for and I found myself dwelling on the pain from the bad of our relationship rather than the good of it. I related to the parts about the song regarding whether you know what's worth fighting for

So I wanted to see what it was about and BJ Arsmtrong had this to say:
"It brings up 21st Century Breakdown in a lot of ways, and the 21 gun-salute for someone that's fallen, but done in an arena rock 'n' roll sort of way."

I mean, that's so nothing at all. He just strung a piece of symbolism together and used to make a statement about war. Like he hasn't done that already or even done it far more effectively in the past. Billie Joe Armstrong was way more effective talking about war in interviews I've read than in the blurry symbolism hidden within three verses of song. If he already has the power to be articulate about how he feels about current events, why bother putting them into a song?

Maybe him and other songwriters have some meaning in their head but compare this to directors and screenwriters. Listen to DVD commentary or public appearances: they usually love to talk on end about what they were thinking and what they intended when they made films.

I don't mind that Billie Joe Armstrong had a different meaning in his head when he wrote the song than the way I interpreted it. I would be a little disappointed if he didn't put much thought into it at all.

I also think that songwriting is something that needs to defend itself more because screenwriting or directing is an undertaking which requires a tremendous amount of creative energy and effort. You can't just stumble onto a masterpiece that resonates with the zeitgeist of the times by pure chance. I'm more inclined to think that capturing the zeitgeist by pure chance is more possible when all you have to do is 200 words (21 Guns comes out to 221 words, with many sentences being duplicates) and your primary goal is to make them rhyme.