Introduction to Achewood

30 10 2007

Now, for the single clip that solidified my love for Achewood, the 2007 online comic of the year and surely the finest online comic of any time.

Achewood, like drinking, is something that is best experienced and not described. Please indulge. It’ll keep you busy at work for at least a week.

This particular story arc centers around Philippe the 2-year-old river otter’s campaign for the presidency, founded on hugs and happiness. Todd the coke-addled, stuttering squirrel is applying for position of vice president.

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The Boston Red Sox, Your 2007 World Series Champs…and what that means

29 10 2007

In the final breaths of October in 2004, Boston broke down. Offices closed early and started late and TV sets hummed deep into the night. On the Prudential Center, 20 floors collaborated to leave their lights on at night to write ‘Go Sox’ on the side of the building.

Our professors understood — in a way they never had when the excuses were lies to cover hangovers or still-drunk mornings — not showing up to class. Some even canceled them, revealing a rare glimpse of realism and context within academia. And for so many reasons beyond the shutting-down of a major US city for a sports team, it was so easy to be a Sox fan back then.

It seems like a long time since the Sox represented what they did in 2004: workingmen, the down-and-out, the accursed, those without access to the higher circles. In short, losers. And losers tend to be lovable. Especially when they make strides to cease to be considered losers. And in 2004, nobody was making strides like the Sox, who shattered an 86-year-old curse that seemed to not only color the character of the fans, but of the city as a whole — an underdog mentality that composed a significant part of the Boston identity.

Now, another World Series title later, just three years after the last one, the contradictions in Bostonian identity abound. Back in 2004, we became ephemeral Sox fans because it was so cool to join them and their city in their assault on history and those who had oppressed them for the majority of a century. It was like slumming it. It’s only American to root for the downtrodden. But now, the 2007 World Series champions have lost the hunter title. They’ve become what the Yankees were when everybody either loved or hated them: the ones expected to win. A dynasty.

And instead of being the eccentric, weird, not-at-all-self-conscious yet endearing little guys, Sox fans are now becoming the eccentric, weird, not-at-all-self-conscious big guys. Sox fans, who lead MLB fans in their fervor and knowledge, also take the cake in quirks and, as my ex-roomie Anthony would say, corniness. Fever Pitch was more right than it was wrong. 

Thus, it’s time to re-evaluate what it means to be part of Red Sox Nation, a state of hyper-reality that’s more along a tribal level (they even held elections this year to instate the president of RSN).

“The Red Sox tradition has been clouded by the taste of victory,” said my buddy Anthony Piscionere, a Yanks fan. “They’re now an evil empire!”

This Red Sox dynasty, as it now certainly is, was founded on being the anti-Yankees. If you hated the Yanks, the Sox were the next option because they were, it appeared, the only other choice. They were the US to the Yanks’ USSR, and we were the rest of the world during the Cold War, afraid to forge the Third Way. 

And the dynamics of this baseball duality appear to be taking the same shape that the superpower duality did.

It was easy to love the Sox (and the US) for all they stood for — goofing around, liberalism, scumbaggery, general happiness, youth — in the face of what the Yanks (and Soviets) seemed to represent — scowls, drudgery, diligence, straight-lacedmanship. No fun.

Steinbrenner forced Yankee players to shave their beards and cut their hair. The Sox took shots of Jack before ALCS games. The Yankees were pros. The Sox were Idiots, with slogans like Cowboy Up and Manny Being Manny.  

So we tolerated things like Red Sox Nation. I watched my freshman year buddy Joe get brownout drunk during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS — the Aaron Boone game — then berate an elderly lady wearing a Yanks hat outside of BU’s West Campus. We tolerated the self-congratulatory culture, the fact that the fans found themselves to be just as important as the team on the field. We tolerated the exclusivity that gave way to come-one-come-all when Red Sox Nation took shape. We joined in when the “Yankees Suck” chant arose pretty much anywhere, from Fenway to Faneiul Hall to churches. And most of all, we understood the smug closed-mindedness that turns virtually every conversation about the Sox into an argument.

Hell, it beat rooting for the Yankees.

But the Berlin Wall came down and so, it seems, have the Yankees. So what we’re left with is an honest appraisal of Red Sox Nation the same way that the world began to look at America after the Soviets went capitalist. And we can see RSN the same way many see America: bloated, strident and smug.

With two Series titles in four years, this is absolutely a matter of sour grapes. But resentment takes many forms, and only gets sharper and more widespread as the object achieves greater and more sustained success. And Red Sox Nation, so proud of itself, has the outside attractiveness of flag-wavers or Wall Streeters.

Deep down, I love the Sox. But every year, I’m feeling more and more guilty for doing so.





Victory at 1309 calories per minute

15 09 2007

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Having just spackled his blood vessel walls with an off-white, viscous paste known scientifically as low density lipoproteins — contained in flaky, cinnamonny tubes by the 17 Palermno cannolis he had just stuffed down his digestive tract in six minutes — Crazy Legs Conte was in a hurry.

“I’m currently employed at the Penthouse Executive Club, and I’m still on the clock,” he said. “So I’ll head back to a swanky strip club. Now, it’s mostly natural digestion — it’s the anaconda diet.”

He had cannoli shrapnel, the bulk of which was white, ricotta-based cream, embedded in his goatee. Some fragments had even flown past his face and now clung to his brown dreadlocks, which seemed to be more a hairstyle chosen by sloth (hair will naturally dread when chronically unwashed) than aesthetics. And he was smiling.

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When he did so, it was immediately clear that he had not quite chewed everything all the way through.

“A Palermo cannoli — very dense, rich food, tough shell — in a way they’re meant to be enjoyed perhaps one in six minutes,” Crazy Legs said, spitting a little. “Eating 17 in six minutes is a bit much. But at the same time they settle well. I had a little coffee, but as crowded as the San Gennaro Festival is, my lower intestines are that crowded.”

But in the 6th annual Cannoli Eating Contest, sanctioned by Major League Eating and a part of the 80th annual San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy, NYC, the only concrete thing he toted back to the strip club with him were the 6358 calories and 289 grams of fat. He’s won in the past. But today belonged to, for the second year in a row, a young man by the name of Eater X, who downed 21 — five shy of the record he tied in 2006 — to beat the six other contestants. Behind Conte finished Allen Goldstein and Nate Biller, with 16. (EatFeats.com has the final tally)

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(On the right, comparing cannolis with the MC, who called himself Aquafresh)

X, at a pace of more than 249.3 calories per minute (.8 cannolis) faster than Conte, took home the trophy and, as the officials advertised, ‘Eternal Glory.’ At this point, you can start referring to the components in larger units; grams just won’t suffice. X, also known as Tim Janus, the fourth-rated eater in the world in the International Federation of Competitive Eating rankings, took in more than three-quarters of a pound of pure fat, a third of that saturated. At this point, calories aren’t convertible energy: they’re sandbags.

To burn off such intake requires, according to CalorieKing, 36.03 hours of walking. Eight-hundred, ninety-two minutes of straight jogging (Marathons, mind you, take trained runners around 240 minutes, on average). More than 350 minutes of swimming. Not even a great purge — which, if done within minutes of the competition disqualifies the contestant — could undo the damage levied on the human anatomy by this barrage of a delicacy that, even on the most generous food pyramid, is recommended to be eaten sparingly.

 “I didn’t do anything [to train],” Janus, who started competitive eating three-and-a-half years ago, after coming to New York to work on Wall Street, said. “It’s tough to train for these things. I don’t think there’s much method to it. It’s just a chaotic food to eat, so you just go willy-nilly and shove it in and see what happens.”

But stats only extend so far in descriptiveness. Even these numbers, which seem to lop months off lives as they climb higher don’t tell the story. The scene, which transpires and passes with both the human destructiveness and pace of a tornado inverting a village, is both horrific and mesmerizing. And the sight wasn’t made any less absurd by the juxtaposition of “Don’tcha (Wish your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?)” in the background.

When the gun goes off, pairs of hands dive into a plate of brown pastry cylinders with white bulging from both ends. Specks fly into the air and drift gradually down to the stage, tossed into the air by the upward thrust of the non-eating hand on the cup. In the early stages, etiquette inexplicably reigns. It’s eating, just in fast-forward.

Eater Six had six, Crazy Legs, five. But around the turn, things grow sloppy. And slower. Cannolis aren’t hot dogs. Nor are they burgers, hot wings, jalapenos, cabbage, french fries, Polish sausages, Italian sausages, German sausages, sauerkraut, pizza, lasagna, ribs or any of the other more substantive matter consumed in these feats of feast.

They’re like nothing else, really. They’re vein-bombs of soft, sweet cheese stuffed inside crispy shells, seemingly harmless and benign. And that’s where the problems start.

 

“It’s very rich,” said Don Lerman, one of the pioneers of competitive eating and the head judge for the Cannoli competition. “It’s not made for speed.”

 

The pros worked on a pace, gorging to an imagined beat. They came equipped with water or coffee — the only two liquids banned on the stage in any event are alcohol and soup — and dunked, chased and/or primed each tube of lard.

 

 “The dunk is a long-honored tradition in sports, from basketball to cannoli-eating,” Crazy Legs said. “So I do try to honor that. But at the same time, a lot of it is mind over stomach matter. Your stomach can fill up, but your mind can’t.”

 

But even the professionals — I’m not sure where one transitions from avid glutton to professional — were caught off-guard. The day’s weather, an overcast and crisp 74 degrees on the cusp of fall, was a positive for everyone but those on the stage.

 

“A lot of it has to do with the humidity,” Crazy Legs said. “Last year, it was very humid. A lot of times we’ll bring litmus paper and do a pH balance on the air just to gauge how tough the shells are gonna be. This year, slightly overcast, they stayed hard and firm, as if the cannolis were revolting against the fact that 70 of them were gonna be eaten in six minutes.”

 

“When this contest starts, you’re gonna see an eating frenzy like you never saw in your life,” Lerman said. “Except maybe in the shark tank at feeding time. I caution the general public, please don’t attempt this at home.”

 

The Judge

 

The last four minutes differentiated the professional from the sane. Although Janus and Crazy Legs slowed, they maintained their technique: sip, stuff, chug. The less-trained resorted to picking apart the cannolis or dividing the cannolis (ala the Kobayashi hot-dog style) or smashing the cannolis and eating the bits or letting a cannoli sit in their water or coffee cup for 20 seconds before cramming it.

 

Biller, the man in the orange, employed all of the styles:

 

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At the halfway mark, Janus was a cannoli off his record pace from a year prior. But by that time, everyone else was so far off his pace that he could have virtually skipped the last minute and won.

 

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In an age of sweeping democratization, where anybody can be heard (like Chris Crocker, for one), one could be forgiven for assuming that this is another indication of everything’s extension to everyone: a ‘sport’ for the masses, if not the massive. A practice brought down to the lowest and fattest common denominator. A discipline for those without it.

The world of competitive eating has assembled an impressively bureaucratic structure, under the umbrella of the International Federation of Competitive Eating and its child, Major League Eating.

The Nathan’s Hot Dog-eating contest remains the highlight of the season’s schedule, the point when every major eater stands in front of the world and finds new pockets of his or herself into which they can cram food.

“It’s our Super Bowl,” Janus, Eater X, said.  

But it’s more along the lines of a major horse race. All year long, contestants compete in lesser, more fringe events to make their stomachs more elastic and dispostions more masochistic and create stir for when the Fourth of July comes around. Each week offers a new competition in a different ‘discipline,’ some more important than others, all leading up to the main event on the Fourth.

There’s a small debate over whether competitive eating actually qualifies as a sport. It’s a small debate, one that occurs only in small pockets of daily American dialogue, because the overwhelming majority of the planet cannot imagine such a thing occurring.

A Tokyo reporter named Noriaka Takada competed, promptly eating only four cannolis and finishing dead last, a feat for which he was awarded a Luciana Pavarotti ‘box set.’ (It was a cardboard box with a picture of Pavarotti on it and a picture of a shirtless Hasselhoff on the beach inside)

“He doesn’t know why anyone would ever do this,” his translator told me.

But the practice is as much a freak show as it is a sport. The same vernacular — ‘push through,’ ‘prepare,’ ‘practice,’ ‘get mentally ready’ — that’s used in sports permeates competitive eating. And certainly, the words come with a bit of an ironic tint. But they don’t finish that way.

It requires some immense concentration and will to fight the impulses that have been native to humans for their lifetimes, namely the urge to stop. You can’t stop, just like sports, until the whistle blows. And where the body can be trained to run very fast and jump very high and run into other objects as hard as possible, so it can be trained to expand beyond its prior limitations to accept punishment in the form of food. The Romans in their orgiastic vomitoria had nothing on these guys (or girls).

So it is that human nature, basic physiology, becomes a nuisance. An unforgivable weakness.

Sonja “The Slender Sickle of Death” Thomas ate 11 pounds of cheesecake, which amounts to more than 10 percent of her body mass. One of the judges at the Cannoli contest once ate nine pounds of cabbage in five minutes — it wasn’t said whether it was in or out of competition.

“I love food so much, and the one thing I’ve found is I really hate to be full,” Eater X said. “Now more than ever.” 

“You know, in most competitions, that’s all I eat in a 24-to-36 hour period,” Crazy Legs said. “But in the San Gennaro Feast, I consider this pressert. Now I can move onto maybe an Italian sausage.”

Such self-brutality invariably spawns characters. And so you have personalities like Crazy Legs, Eater X, Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and the currently retired Eric “Badlands” Booker, each a promotion in his self. Booker, who retired to work on a hip-hop album inspired by competitive eating (he told me to make sure to include the link: myspace.com/badlandsbooker), performed before the spectacle:

Bill Myers, 341 pounds of him, stayed a cannoli behind the leaders the whole time, eventually finishing fifth. The man, whose knees resemble uncooked, toppling dough, speaks to what’s happened to this discipline. He’s a relic from time gone by, when eating a great deal quickly was the preserve of those who did so for pleasure. But in recent years, sparked, of course, by Kobayashi, men with builds that belong to athletes have taken control.

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So if it has the discipline, focus and pain-denial of a sport and competitors who look like athletes, competitive eating has evolved, indeed, into something that resembles a sport. And if we can call car racing a sport, can we not, this?

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Eh, maybe not.





a question, a movement, a capella

11 09 2007

It is 2004, and a cast of college students sit in a amply tapestried hall in Boston University’s George Sherman Union. It’s Wednesday, circa 8 p.m., and the lights are a dull orange. The people are there, ostensibly, for reasons charitable. But some have come to serve more immediate, more personal, purposes. It is, after all, a date auction.

As the night matures, it proceeds like a multi-course meal. First comes, the salad and bread, the basic and wholesome and not entirely fulfilling fundamentals brought to you capably by members of WTBU, College of Communications Deans Hosts, religious clubbers and various dorm RA’s. Average price range: $5-$15.

Later, the soup. A bit more spicey, more substantive. Now you’re drawing from people involved in clubs with a bit more intrigue, like the handsome devils at the Daily Free Press, the undersexed officers of Young Democrats and Republicans clubs and a few other semi-acceptable societies. Average range: $10-$20

You pick through the different club and marginalized varsity sports, from ski to frisbee to crew, in the pasta portion. Average: $15-$25, with some correction for facial bone structure.

All the while, the main course remained in the back, suits as stiff as their poses. But when they stepped out from behind the curtain, wallets that had until then been clamped shut flew open as priced raced to the sky. Out they came, the Dear Abbeys, who showed themselves to be the most popular five men on the Boston University campus. That night, the Abbeys — BU’s it a capella group for boys — went for about a year’s tuition. Four of the top five earners were Abbeys, with a high tally of more than $200 for one especially upright and melodious man.

The night attested to two of the most fascinating and mystifying trends currently circulating around America’s campuses: the proliferation of a capella, especially male a capella, and its ability to convince girls to separate themselves from their money and their pants. According to Wikipedia, there are more than 1,200 college a capella groups nationwide, a number that has burgeoned from about 300 in New England in the past 25 years. More than 13,000 Youtube hits for a capella. Even a national championship for it.

That’s a hell of a lot of pants hitting the floor.

You have to wonder about an undertaking whose artistic zenith is a song about coffee — the best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup. It’s as if a rock band’s highest aspiration were to jam out for you while you’re munching on Raisin Bran.

A capella is, at first glance, the competitive walking of music, a scaled-back version of the real thing. It’s the white zinfandel, a hybrid designed for popular consumption that emulates and yet reduces the real product.

A bunch of white men — it’s still the preserve of almost exclusively whites — standing straight up, rocking back and forth awkwardly like men do, only highlights the stiffness that playing with instruments covers up. It’s music, naked. And it’s not usually pretty.

It’s been beaten up, to some extent, in pop culture. American Pie juxtaposed singing in a choir with playing lacrosse, with all the requisite emasculating connotations. McSweeney’s did virtually the same thing with this list, which replaces the names of both teams in famous rivalries with an a capella group from each school. Just imagine the way the crowd would pulse as the KopiToneZ broke it down, C-minor style.

“Oh, it’s lame as hell,” said former Abbey and 2007 BU grad Scott Williams. “It’s kind of like Seth Cohen.”

So why join a group?

“Chicks,” Williams said immediately.  

He did, of course, meet his girlfriend via the band.

“[Girls] love it because they have visions of the dude serenading them into bed,” said 2006 BU grad and Boston Globe writer Mike Lipka. “And they think they are all John Mayer. That part makes me sick.”

“Girls love to be serenaded, so if you date a guy who’s in a capella, the thought is that he’ll sing to you,” said Tay McEvers, a 2007 BU grad who will not be serenaded by me.

Bewitched by the sweet harmonies of the modern barbershop quartet, women  

But not everyone gives himself to repeating shoo-bop shoo-bop shoo-bop, mmmhmmm ad infinitum simply because he can make female (or male) loins hum in harmony with his vocal chords.

“Some people do it for the love of singing — about 50/50 — as I do,” Williams said.

“Obviously I’m not in it for [girls],” said Brendan Reilly, 2007 Villanova grad, now a member of two a capella groups in DC. “I also like to sing.”

(He has a girlfriend. Ordinarily he would be in it for girls, he claims. This is something we’ve disputed.)

But there’s got to be more to it. Why a capella and not a real band? Is it why soccer and basketball are more popular in poor places than, say, hockey? Less need for equipment, more reliance on what’s around?

“I always look at people doing a capella like I look at people doing backflips: they are doing it at a show and I think ‘Man I would do that all the time if I were able to do it,'” said 2007 BU grad Steve Macone, a comedian and writer. “I’d backflip to work if I could. Or maybe not all the time, but large percentages of it. Same thing with a capella. I’d be ordering my McDonald’s in song”

Now, singing well — personally or in a group — is a talent. One that I don’t possess. And the arrangements of the songs requires more than just wearing color-coordinated sweatbands and aesthetically ripped t-shirts.

But why do a capella groups fill lecture halls and Boston University date auctions with ease when rock bands struggle to convince anybody they’re actually a band?

Maybe a capella is popular for the same reason that cover bands are: Because they play popular songs. People will flock to unforgivably bad bars to see overweight, overaged and undershaven bands play songs by more famous bands. Why buy the cow when you can get the imitation cow for free?

“You play to a bigger audience,” Williams said. “You can include more songs and styles in your rep, whereas with a rock band it’s more about what the band wants to do.”

“Obviously there is such a thing as bad a capella, but if someone does a cool variation of a song I like, I love it,” Lipka said.

But something has transformed a capella from the hobby of the New England bland bourgeosie — it’s no coincidence that BU and Cornell have about 30 established groups between them — into a national craze. And it’s the same thing that de-lamed traditionally white music to begin with: traditionally black music. After all, the same force (blues, etc.) ushered in rock music.

“There’s something romantic about the transportability of it,” said Steve Macone, comedian, writer and 2007 BU grad. “It’s cool to think of men just sitting around, bursting into song on a stoop. I’m not sure how much that actually happens, but it’s kinda related to freestyle in that regard.”

Beat-boxing, freestyle rap and R&B vocals added layers and complexity and that one elusive element — Cool — to a style of music that rivaled gardening and bobbing for apples in terms of attractiveness. When you can do this with just a permutation of voices, essentially re-inventing the way people interact with a song, there’s more than enough to admire.

Is it simply the evolution of music, another example of the expansive democratization of media, in lowering music to the common, instrumental-less man? Or is it a dumbing-down, a novelty and nothing more?

And if that’s the case, can we ever see a capella as a true musical genre, or just a hobby and a ploy to pick up a mate?





Goldberg Hour

6 09 2007

Jon and the Transportation-Based Game Show

Last night, Mr. Jon Goldberg (below…right)

Men in charge

gives me a call at 10 p.m. in what seemed to be quite a precarious position, telling me to be around my phone sometime in the next half-hour, that I might have to pick him up because he was ‘in a bind.’ He used the ‘in a bind’ term a few times, so you could tell he was in Sell Mode. Which is to say SERIOUS MODE.

Now, John’s good at Sell Mode. But last night, a few things worked against him. These are they:

1 – I don’t have a car in the city, and thus picking him up may have required the Fireman’s Carry or, at most well-equipped, a large backpack.

2 – He was on the Upper East Side. No one is ever in a non-tax-related bind on the Upper East Side.

3 – He had told me earlier in the night that he needed me to be around my phone because he was going to be on Cash Cab.

The third one was the biggest tip-off. And perhaps the most unfortunate — it turns out that the Cash Cab is only half-spontaneous. Some preparations go into it, for both the rider and his phone-a-friend (is that what it’s called?). But ask John about it for more heart-smotheringly disappointing revelations.

So between the hours of 10 and 10:30 p.m., Greenwich Village Time, I had to stick around my phone. The call came somewhere in that time…and the question was:

WHAT IS THE LONE INGREDIENT IN A CHURCHILL MARTINI?

(Don’t Google it)

He says that the episode’s airing in October. Wait for it to see him yelling at me for backing out of my first answer and giving him a second, wrong, one that he didn’t end up going with for good reason.

He went into the Video Bonus Round up a damn good amount. He ended up with either double that or no money at all. But whatever the outcome, the night ended splendidly, with an ever-more inebriated jaunt down Ludlow Street, from Spitzer’s (small beer-hall-type place with about 40 beers on tap) to the Local 138.

I woke up at noon today. Herra.

——-

And thanks to John for alerting us to this credit to humanity, which means a discredit to Carlos Mencia. For impossibly confusing reasons, Mencia is not seen by the Hispanic and earth communities as a source of unprecedented embarrassment.





Gino the Ginny’s Guide to Da Clubz

29 08 2007

If you were considering a trip to Hunka Bunka this weekend, Gino urges you to reconsider.

No need to watch past about the 2nd minute, unless you happen to enjoy Gino’s moves.





Hot Dogs and Giant Land Creatures

23 08 2007

Thanks to my buddy over at justcallmejuice.blogspot.com (very awesome sports blog from a Jack Falla graduate), I stole this clip for the inaugural blog video. I think it speaks to the inner desire in all of us to see a giant bear eat more hot dogs than a muscular Asian man.

Look out for the times when Kobayashi sizes up the bear and wonders just how trained he is.