Friday, May 29, 2015

Chesneyland: How Pittsburgh Is Preparing

It’s that time of year again: it’s time for a right proper Kenny Chesney concert in Pittsburgh!

Most people remember the last Kenny Chesney concert here in the steel city back in 2012, which did not end…well. The concert itself was more or less without incident, but the aftermath was a disaster: a vast field of garbage, vandalism, and sketchy biomass met the city the following morning, all baking in the unforgiving sun until it could be cleaned up by civil servants. Chesney fans were rightly called on the carpet about it, most of which were still too hung over to care all that much.

Concert fallout is hardly new, of course; it was just that people 1) weren’t expecting it to happen with Kenny freaking Chesney and 2) the volume was amplified by being held in Heinz Field, where even the garbage-producing standards of Steelers fans was miraculously eclipsed. 

Of course, the city of Pittsburgh has taken every precaution to prevent a repeat of last time. Here are a few of the precautions that have been implemented to combat having the arena look like a war zone:

• Thin out the crowd a bit right from the start with a new opening act: Sienna Miller (featuring Bill Belichick) butchering covers of Donny Iris songs.
• Have mayor Bill Peduto come out and say that for every piece of trash left after the concert, he’s going to open another bike lane in the city.
• Switch all the cans of beer out with Keystone Light so no one can get drunk.
• Tell the audience that by the end of the concert the venue should be as washed up as Kenny Chesney is.
• Guilt everyone by reminding the crowd that Mister Rogers would never leave so much trash in a public place.
• Have volunteers put lawn chairs in all the spots of the parking lot so no one parks there.
• Force the makers of Arizona Iced Tea to install anti-taking-a-poop-in-this-box devices into all of their packaging.
• Post notices around Heinz Field written by noted music critics from Rolling Stone, Spin, and The New York Times about how bland and derivative Chesney’s music is and they should all go home and enjoy something else. Ha, just kidding! Music critics have never influenced anyone ever.
• Ban any vehicle that features a knockoff Calvin pissing on a logo, NOBAMA bumper sticker, or a pair of truck nuts.
• Each pickup truck must be accompanied by a hipster who will badger the passengers into only enjoying the music ironically. Said hipster will also divert some of the alcohol consumption by drinking a portion of their shitty beer.
• Have Renee Zellweger come out before the concert and unsuccessfully convince everyone how straight Kenny Chesney is.
• Enact a dress code: no wrestling T-shirts or NASCAR hats for guys; no white tank tops and cutoff jeans for women.
• Prohibit any alcohol consumption during any song that is indistinguishable from any previous song.
• Get some Jimmy Buffet fans to come out and shame the concertgoers. Because if parrotheads think you’ve gone too far with your debauchery, it’s time to buy some mirrors to look at yourself in.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: The Final Episode

Well, I wasn't going to write about Mad Men because I've written about it a lot before, but it seems like everyone else is, so why not?

Note: Spoilers ahead

Mad Men is a fairly solid part of our cultural zeitgeist at this point, but it's possible there are plenty of those who aren't familiar with the program. Mad Men just ended its run of seven seasons, stretched out unnecessarily over eight years, garnering all sorts of well-deserved awards in the process.

Mad Men is a show about advertising executives, initially set in the 1960's, eventually landing us in 1970. The show was really about three things: it was about advertising, it was about characters, and it was about history. The show managed to meld all three of them more or less seamlessly, while we watched a core group of people evolve in the turbulent 60's all under the backdrop of a relatively familiar industry.

Specifically, the show centers on Don Draper, a good-looking and highly successful creative director at the middle-range firm of Sterling Cooper. Draper is, to mangle a metaphor that probably doesn't fit, the executive all companies want and other executives want to be. It's established early on that Don is a legend in the industry, and every so many episodes someone makes an inquiry if he's willing to jump ship. He's a hot commodity in more than one way--he easily beds many women in many different stations, from the beatnik artist to the rich daughter of a high-end department store owner. He is, of course, married, to poor, unassuming Betty. 

It's easy to think of Mad Men as simply The Don Draper Story, but that would be a mistake--the show is definitely an ensemble production, with a core group of highly interesting characters supported by a ring of other highly interesting side characters. You have Pete, the young, ambitious blue-blood who resents Don's success and, early on, has difficulty balancing the cache his name has with earning a reputation on his own. There's Roger, a partner and head of accounts trying to fill his father's shoes (and act as an enabler to Don's drinking and womanizing), the epitome of second-generation wealth. There's Peggy, the fresh, young face in the secretarial pool who manages to transition to creative (a woman! In creative!). And you have Joan, the office manager who tries to balance using her sexuality to advance her prospects and trying to establish her needs in spite of it.

There is, of course, more to it: there's Don's kids, Sally, Bobby, and (eventually) Gene. There are other workers, such as Harry, the head of media, Ken, an account manager, and Bert, the eccentric but practical senior manager. Some early characters, such as progressive Paul and art director Sal, also get an early exit, while other, new characters (like Megan, Don's new wife, new artist Stan, and Lane, the new financial manager) are slowly introduced. Mad Men excels in weaving all of these characters into believable story arcs that are told in 13-episode-season efficiency.

Of course, it's not long in the series when we discover some new things. Don has a deep, dark secret that no one knows about, not even his wife. Everybody in the cast effectively leads two lives, which is portrayed as being standard for the time; the show, however, does show a spectrum of reactions. Don shamelessly sleeps with pretty much any woman he can find, while Harry has a drunken one-night stand and feels incredibly guilty about it.

Mad Men spends a few seasons reveling in scotch-soaked assignations and history porn, but eventually settles into a few comfortable arcs. The ever-evolving nature of the corporation (mergers, acquisitions, firings, and restructurings happen frequently) as well as using advertising to highlight the changing social landscape start to take focus. Of particular note is the story arc of Peggy, who begins as a mere secretary with little knowledge of the real world and ends up one of the more successful and happy characters. It's a fascinating journey that is not only believable but also does an excellent job of showing the progression of the women's movement in the 60's without pounding it in your face with a frying pan. It's extraordinary subtle.An honorable mention goes out to the character of Lane Pryce, a tragic figure in a show with plenty to choose from. And let's not forget Roger, who just seems to be having a blast the entire run of the series.

Let's be honest here: Mad Men can be a hard sell. It's not a particularly engaging idea (ad execs?) and boardroom antics are famously difficult to make interesting on the screen. And there's no violence or explosion or all that much steamy sex, either. This isn't Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, both similar character-driven shows that still had the benefit of pulling out a gunfight when necessary. Still, somehow, they were able to not only make it interesting but engaging.  

Of course, the series isn't perfect. The biggest issue I had was that there are a few story lines that never really seem to go anywhere. They don't advance the plot, they don't develop the characters, and often seem to be simple time-fillers. The plot involving Conrad Hilton, for example, never really went anywhere, and some of Don's affairs were particularly cringe-worthy in their uselessness. Who cares about Sylvia, or the waitress, or that teacher whose name no one cares to remember?

Anyway, on to the final episode. I enjoyed it, more or less; the final few episodes kind of wrapped up a lot of the story arcs. Betty getting cancer was certainly a downer, but to see Sally mature was satisfying. Roger is Roger; nothing less could be expected. It was very nice to see Peggy actually be so happy being with Stan; the sexual tension was never palpable and it could have gone either way, but I'm glad it went the way it did.

While I enjoyed what happened with both Joan (starting her own production company) and Pete (reconciling with his wife and moving to Kansas to work for Learjet), both seemed rather abrupt. Joan had never once indicated any sort of interest in being a producer, and Pete was a smarmy slimeball right up until the final three episodes or so where he became a saint. It would have been nice to see some sort of catalyst of change for both--it's certainly believable--but it just sort of happened. I do wish we had gotten a more solid resolution with Harry and Ted (the latter not showing up at all) but they were secondary characters and it's understandable.

I'm still conflicted on Don. While Don has always been one to go on his own for some soul-searching--he had run off to California earlier in the series--the whole retreat seemed forced. It was very much out of character for Don. At least they led up to it (Don leaving the meeting, him traveling across the country, etc.) so it wasn't as abrupt as Pete and Joan, but still. In the end, the implication that he came up with the Coke ad is perfect (they don't explicitly say it, but it's pretty obvious--the girl who worked at the counter also resembles one of the girls in the commercial); Don, the man who finds enlightenment and then goes and makes a boatload of cash on it.

Mad Men was a rare show, indeed; period dramas are expensive and hard to make without coming across as trite. It will be a long while before we see something like it again, I suspect.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

4 Items Or Less

I swear, I don't just write about food.

Thankfully, this post involves food only as a secondary aspect of the story; the first is my inability to engage in common social interactions.

I went into the local overpriced grocery store chain to look for a specific item--a frozen gluten-free pizza, which my wife enjoys but can be somewhat hard to find. So when we do come across them, we tend to stock up in case they are harder to find in the future.

Anyway, I look in the freezer section and saw that they did, in face, have frozen pizzas in stock. So I grab three of them and throw them in my cart. I browsed the store quickly but realized I didn't want to spend $14 on a small cylinder of artisan Diet Pepsi or $8 for a single vegan GMO-free gourmet chocolate chip cookie, so the only thing in my cart were the pizzas.

The nice clerk checks me out and tells me the total, which seems much higher than it should be.

"Uh..." I say, trying to avoid eye contact. I glance at the screen and see that she had charged me for four pizzas, not three.

"You charged me for four pizzas," I say, trying not to embarrass the poor girl. It's an easy mistake, but not one you can let slide when you're buying specialty pizza at the world's least competitively-priced store.

"Yeah," she replied, in an equally non-direct-confrontation manner.

"So, uh, I only got three."

The clerk--who couldn't have been much more than sixteen, glanced down at the bags she had just made.

"No, there's four."

"No," I repeated a little more forcefully, "I picked up three."

I then realize with horror that there are, in fact, four pizzas in the bags. I somehow must have grabbed one more than I thought.

"Whelp," I said. "Looks like I got four. I swear I got three."

The clerk didn't really respond. I don't blame her; she was wrongfully accused in an open court of random people who just wanted to buy their arugula tea and prepackaged fusion sushi through the system and go home to drink their mid-range wine and watch premium cable.

I swiftly grabbed my bags and left. Looks like I'll have to find a new grocery store to embarrass myself in.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Worldwide Conspiracy, Graham Cracker Style

I'm not sure, but I may have uncovered a conspiracy of monumental proportions.

This very night, my wife and I enjoyed the first smores of the season. I opened a box of graham crackers, which are my favorite snack because they have the audacity to call themselves "crackers" when they are quite clearly cookies, and looked inside. Now, I'm not about giving away free advertising on this site--I don't care how tasty you are, ya still gotta pay--and I also don't want 1) to be sued for libel because of this forthcoming post and 2) I don't want the Illuminati to use keywords to track me down. Let's just say they are a major graham cracker manufacturer whose name rhymes with "Bunny Laid."

Anyway, I pull out the first package--for some reason graham crackers are packaged in three different wrappers because apparently some marketing genius somewhere doesn't think people just eat all three packages in one sitting--and I noticed something peculiar.


 What on earth is this? (One mystery that doesn't need solved is why it looks like someone ate half of the crackers in this pack. It wasn't me. Mystery solved. Let's move on. Ahem.) It's a regular pack of graham crackers, but right in the middle of the package is an "A". So I pulled out the next one.


A "B"? What sort of Brave New World nonsense is this? But there's a third package in the box. What mysteries will it sing for me?

An "A" again. What sort of devilry is this?

No, seriously, I have no idea why this is the case. If there is one thing that the Bunny Laid corporation loves more than making tasty treats for the eagerly hungry public, it's not spending stupid money to stamp a Ariel letter for no reason on their packaging. More importantly, all three packs were the same. Same number of crackers. Same color, flavor, everything.

I could understand maybe lettering them "A", "B", and "C", but they didn't do that. They went back to "A". Why? It doesn't made any sense from a packaging standpoint, or an inventory standpoint, or really any sense of logic whatsoever.

Anyway, I have some theories:

1. There are people being held hostage in the Nabisco Rabbitsco bakery but they think that there is a two-thirds chance that the only person who can rescue them is the Fonz.
2. Graham crackers have gained sentience and are working their way through Richard Scarry's alphabet books.*
3. Big Cracker is trying to send out a coded message with the laziest cryptographer ever.

In any case, it may take a while to solve this mystery. Maybe the cinnamon crackers have different letters. I hope so, because now I'm hungry again. This is going to be the tastiest Da Vinci Code-style mystery-solving shit ever. 

*I'm not sure if Richard Scarry Alphabet Books are a thing, but that seems to be the sort of thing graham crackers would be up for. Weirdos.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Dollar Store Fever

Dollar stores are one of modern America's enigmas. I don't know why they haven't been a standard presence in most of the history of free market capitalism, but they've certainly fed into a need almost anywhere. Their sudden boom over the past decade or two is evidence of that.

But they certainly are far from perfect. Sure, they're great when all you are looking for are some generic cleaning supplies, remainder books, and holiday-themed kitsch, but they aren't going to get you what you need to furnish your new store. (Although, oddly, I find their soft drinks to be fresher-tasting than what you normally find at convenience stores, which makes no sense whatsoever.)

Anyway, I do have a cautionary tale. Never go there on an empty stomach and a weak sense of willpower.

It's not a secret that the food you find at dollar stores fall into one of two categories: they are either 1) mere minutes away from forming mold, or 2) they are hopelessly generic. You won't find many Hershey Bars at the dollar store, but you'll find plenty of Herschman's Chocolate-Style Rectangle-Shaped Snack Foods.  Still, they'll do in a pinch.

Or not.

I had the misfortune of having to run to get dog food hurriedly last week. "Misfortune" in quotes because the only reason I had to do this is because I was lazy and didn't get any until we were all out. Of course, the place I usually get it from is drenched in traffic roughly 100% of the time, so running there and back is always a bit dicey.

So after I get the dog food (and resisting buying every single dog toy in the place) I realize that I am hungry. Not just hungry, but stomach-growlingly hungry. So I decided to run into the dollar store to grab something quick and easy to pad down my hunger.

Learn from my mistake.

I knew I wasn't getting top-quality, here, but I figured I could just grab something small. I didn't just want candy, I was hungry for something crunchy--nuts or chips or something. But I was shopping while hungry, which is always a bad idea, and I ended up getting quite a few things.

Spicy nuts are good, right? And peanut butter is healthy, correct? And as  dessert, how can you go wrong with fudge AND chocolate?

In retrospect, I have instituted a new rule, and that is never trust anything with a logo that has a sombrero unless you see an actual Mexican prepare you some Mexican food. (Are spicy peanuts even supposed to be a Mexican thing?) Not only were these peanuts not very good, they actively made me simultaneously hungrier and lose my appetite. I'm not even sure how that is possible, but somehow this little packet of nightmare kernels did it.

"Well," I thought to myself, "I can take the taste out of my mouth with some sweet peanut butter." NOPE. Not only were these cookies not good, they didn't even taste like peanut butter. They weren't even shaped like peanuts! They were vaguely oval-shaped, which means it could just as easily have been a cucumber as a peanut. And the paste they used to stick those two tasteless biscuits together was also tasteless. About the only thing this had in common with the Nutter Butters they were trying so shamelessly to copy was that the color is roughly the color of what one thinks of when they think of peanuts. Hell, I actually checked the ingredients to make sure there was peanut butter in there and not "peanut-inspired soy dippin's." (Shockingly, there is PB in those cookies, though for the life of me I couldn't find it.)

At this point, I was suspect of the fudge grahams, and rightfully so. Oddly, it wasn't that bad--which the chocolate tasted nothing like chocolate and everything like brown-painted wax, the graham crackers were at least decent. It's hard to screw up graham cracker, although I'm sure someone in the dollar store biz has tried.

Anyway, learn from me this simple life lesson: don't go to a dollar store hungry and expect any sort of satisfaction. And if you do, stick with the name brand Mike and Ike's. Those things never go stale.