Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Tribute to the Awesomeness of “Family Matters”

Remembering one of the greatest…and weirdest…family sitcoms of all-time

Nowadays, the acronym “TGIF” doesn’t mean very much, but back in my day, it was four of the most revered letters on the planet.

In hindsight, nobody’s going to call ABC’s Friday block of “family-friendly” programming in the 1990s great television - “Full House” was no “All in the Family,” of course - but it was pretty hard to knock a majority of the line-up. Over the course of an hour, you got Wonder Years Lite AND a sitcom consisting entirely of tyrannosaurus puppets; if you can complain about something like that, you sir or madam, have no business in our society.

With February representing Black History Month here in the States (insert your trite, clichéd joke about the shortest month of the year being the one allocated to African-American citizens), I figured it was only fitting that we celebrate our black sitcom heritage by revisiting what was probably the best overall TGIF program of them all - “Family Matters.”

I don’t care what any of you TV elitists may think, this show was one of the ten greatest comedies to ever air on American television. Even now, the show remains pretty enjoyable, and it’s practically a given that the show will have legs far into the 21st century. It’s not that “Family Matters” is a timeless show, by any stretch - in fact, it’s one of the most obviously dated sitcoms of the 1990s - but the absolute insanity of the program gives it a certain quality that makes it entertaining and enjoyable in spite of its outdated trappings.

In the spirit of remembrance, I decided to revisit the show, and I pinpointed five very particular reasons why I thought the show was, and still is, so entertaining and enjoyable to this very day…

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number One:
For a family sitcom, it was absurdly violent. 

The inherent “morality” of “Family Matters” seemed to fluctuate from impossibly wholesome to almost subversively relative at the drop of a hat. In one episode, the show could go on a diatribe about the ills of teenage gambling by having Eddie Winslow get into trouble with bookies, only to have the dilemma resolved when Carl’s mother cons some dudes out of their moolah in a game of billiards. For a family anchored around a law-and-order-serving patriarch, the Winslows sure as heck had a subjective take on what constituted right and wrong behavior.

Now, as a law enforcement official, you’d think that the head of the Winslow clan would have something of a distaste for unlawful violence, but I’ll be damned if “Family Matters” wasn’t one of the most violent sitcoms of the decade. Hell, the show may have even had more per capita fistfights than “Married…with Children,” and that was an adult-oriented program featuring strip club visits as weekly plot devices!

It seemed like every other week, there was some sort of imminent threat from a gang in the community. In one episode, Eddie tried to defend Rachel’s honor by facing down a violent posse on his own, only to end up beaten into a bloody mess. So incensed, Carl was ready to go vigilante on the gang’s respective asses, until Steve was able to convince him to set up an elaborate (and probably illegal) sting operation instead. With violent beatdowns, paternal rage and plenty of law-enforcement moral ambiguity, you would think we were dealing with some sort of TV-M AMC procedural drama or something, but nope: this was something tons of impressionable 6-to-12-year olds were tuning in to see, every Friday night at 8 PM.

A recurring plot motif on the program involved bullying storylines, which all seemed to follow a similar pattern; uber-nerd Steve gets harassed by his classmates, and idealistic protectorate Eddie would swoop in and throw down like a boss to avenge him. Every now and then, we’d see a mild alteration in the formula, with Steve learning some sort of fighting trick or something and fending off his would-be attackers on his own. Give that man a towel, and I assure you, there will be some welted asses momentarily.

Perhaps the absolute most amazingly violent thing about the program occurred later on its run, when a wacky sci-fi plot device was introduced that saw Steve using some homemade gizmo to transform himself into a Bruce Lee facsimile. In a couple of different episodes, Steve managed to seek retribution by turning himself into the famed action star, and in case you couldn’t deduce it, a trail of kicked asses was soon to be blazed. Hell, there were even a few episodes in which Steve’s device turned Carl and a few kids into Jeet Kune Do destroyers; all of that stuff about child endangerment and police brutality, I suppose, flying out the window in the process.

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Two:
It tackled hard-hitting social issues, in the absolute most awkward ways imaginable.

While it’s not uncommon for sitcoms to occasionally address “serious” social issues every now and then, they way “Family Matters” went about tackling some decisively heavy material deserves special accolades. I mean, you have to have some SERIOUS chutzpah to go from having a story arc about teleportation machines and killer robots to episodes dealing with racism and gun violence, after all.

The two standout “serious shit” episodes I recall most are the aforementioned ones about firearm violence and racial intolerance. In the episode “Fight the Good Fight,” Laura decides to start a Black History Month program at her school; and then, she finds her locker defaced, by someone that, apparently, doesn’t necessarily like “the black folks.”

As the episode unfurls, a near race riot breaks out at the school, until Laura, inspired by her grandmother’s tales of heroically visiting a segregated library when she was younger, manages to stage a nonviolent protest that gets the school to support her program. All this hot and heavy racial stuff is going on, I might add, while a slapstick subplot about Carl trying to figure out how an old vacuum cleaner works is wrapped around the primary narrative.

As awkward as that episode was, it really doesn’t have shit on an episode titled “The Gun,” which revolves around Laura’s quest to obtain a handgun to defend herself from a roving gang of well-armed Amazons. After one of her friends gets capped at school, Steve decides that it’s time to make a stand against gun violence, by holding a firearm buyback program. Just try and watch the videos below without feeling a mild urge to scrub soap all over your exposed skin tissue.

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Three:
Three words: Waldo freaking Faldo. 

While “Family Matters” may have been Urkel’s show, there’s no denying who the program’s true legendary character was: Waldo Faldo, Eddie Winslow’s dim-witted best bud that seemed to have an IQ somewhere between that of a special needs child and an sea slug.

This “highlight” video speaks for itself, I do believe…

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Four:
Steve and Carl were the most ass-kicking comedic duo this side of Riggs and Murtaugh

When you look at the annals of great comedic duos - your Laurels and Hardies, Your Rens and Stimpies, your Beavises and Butt-Heads - I’d surmise that Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow deserve a spot in the pantheon of slapstick tandem greats. That, and the undercurrent beneath their rocky relationship is the stuff new-wave action flicks dream about.

When you really look at the two characters, what we are dealing with is the physical juxtaposition of law and anarchy. As a police officer, Carl clearly represents order and the social structure, whereas Steve - a borderline criminal genius - represents social chaos. Think of all of the times Steve has absolutely DESTROYED Carl’s property; I’m not sure what sort of insurance plan safeguards against nuclear explosions, but apparently, the Winslow clan bought as much of their coverage as they could get.

Steve, the insufferable embodiment of social anarchy (a parable for crime? Drug epidemics? Job outsourcing?), ALWAYS goads Carl into some sort of goofy predicament the assures much pain, embarrassment or financial setbacks for the Winslows. Whether he’s getting himself and Carl held hostage by international drug traffickers ("Random Acts of Science"), damn near destroying the Winslows’ entire house while coked up on diet pills ("Life in the Fast Lane") or signing the two up for shoot-fights against the Bushwhackers ("The Psycho Twins"), Steve seems to have only one consistent motive in life; the complete and utter torture of Carl Otis Winslow.

Steve and Carl’s adventures were more philosophically compelling than “The Dark Knight,” wackier than anything Bill and Ted ever got caught up in and consisted of more straight up, lunatic violence than Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield’s combined “Pulp Fiction” romps times twenty. And that bizarre, strangely confrontational relationship didn’t just result in a ton of laughs; it pretty much carried the program for an entire decade.

Reason “Family Matters” was Awesome Number Five:
I’m still not 100 percent sure how a show that began life as a quasi-realistic comedy about a working class African-American family ultimately ended up becoming a wacky sci-fi series about a mad teenage scientist, time travel and killer ventriloquist dummies.

At one point in time, “Family Matters” seemed like it was going to be a relatively staid, lower-middle-class sitcom that touched upon a lot of contemporary urban issues. In most realities, “Family Matters” likely would have ended up a short-lived, Afro-centric comedy program, essentially a “lite” version of “Good Times” or “What’s Happening?” only with far more melodrama thrown in the mix. And then, halfway through the first season, a one-off character named “Urkel” was introduced, and like that, the program went from being a fairly “serious” sitcom to being arguably the most outlandish “real-world” program ever to grace our airwaves.

Looking back at the first season of the program, the series appeared pretty damn uniform - and formulaic - in content. There were episodes about Henrietta losing her job, a mother-in-law moving back in with the family and even an episode about a recent widow trying to move on with her love life. Despite some periodic goofiness involving hot air balloon rides and a drunken Urkel almost falling to his death, the second season content similarly remained largely by-the-book as for as sitcom elements went.

And then, as soon as season three begins, the absurdity kicked into high gear. The very first episode of the season was anchored around Urkel befriending a monkey, and by the second episode of the season, we already had jet packs being incorporated as plot devices. If there was a traceable “jump the shark” moment for the series that indicated a bold leap away from conventional sitcom fare, it probably would be episode 54 (episode 7 of season 3, for those that REALLY take their sitcom canon seriously), which was the introduction of the infamous “Urkelbot.” That stated, as goofy as the idea was, it was still quasi-viable as a real-world plotline; in later seasons, the appearance of an android with dance moves provided by that dude from “Breakin’” would actually prove one of the more believable storylines on the show.

Peculiarly, season four was a whole lot more down-to-earth as far as storylines went, with only the season opener - which featured Carl and Urkely duking it out on “American Gladiators” - continuing the ridiculousness of the previous season. With the introduction of Steve’s amorous, potion-borne alter-ego “Stefan Urquelle” in season five, I suppose you could say that was the point in the show’s lifespan where it completely broke away from reality, but for the next two seasons, the show remained mostly rooted in real-world physics and science and all that shit.

By season seven, though, the program had just flat out lost it, with episodes about Carl and Steve getting shrunken to two inches in stature and Urkel turning into a human lightning rod standing side by side with episodes about Laura seeing Steve naked and members of the family learning to tap dance. From there, utterly impossible plot points involving evil dummies, teleportation, super-aphrodisiacs and time traveling pirates become common plotlines for the program. I guess you could say there was some signs of transition from sitcom to sci-fi screwball comedy over the years, but it all happened so gradually that it’s hard to just come out and say that the show went off at the deep end at any precise point.

The very first episode of the show was about a rebellious teenage son trying to break curfew, and the very last episode of the series - nearly a decade later, I might add - concluded with that same character nearly getting killed in a “Heat”-style shootout while his next door neighbor gets stuck in the vacuum of space when a NASA expedition goes array. Comparatively, that’s like the final episode of “Seinfeld” featuring a ninja invasion, or the series finale of “Friends” ending with a sudden werewolf attack.

And by golly, it’s also what made “Family Matters” one of the most freakin’ awesome things that’s ever been put on TV, too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Myth of Chicago Gun Violence?

Staunch Second-Amendment Defenders Say that the City is Proof Positive the Gun-Control Policies are Ineffective. Actual Statistics, However, Seem to Say Otherwise.

Many “right-to-carry” proponents look at Chicago’s exorbitantly high number of firearm homicides, in tandem with the city’s strict handgun regulations, as “proof” that gun control legislation “doesn’t work.”

These people, to put it gently, are absolute idiots.

While there’s no denying that Chicago has a MAJOR gun violence problem, the statistical reality is that, per capita, Chicago is nowhere close to being the national leader in terms of violent crime. Let me point you towards something called the Uniform Crime Report, an annual FBI release detailing the severity of crimes like homicide, assault and armed robbery. Late last year, the findings for 2011 were released, and the results? Well…they might just come as a surprise to some folks.

When it comes to murder and non-negligent manslaughter rates, fifteen cities rank ahead of Chicago. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Washington, D.C., another jurisdiction oft-criticized by Second Amendment loyalists for “anti-gun legislation” ranked two spots ahead of the Windy City on the Murder-Counter. And before you say that’s conclusive “proof” that gun control policies result in more street violence, just remember that top 13 cities in the country as far as murder rates go ALL have open-carry legislation on their books. Also worth noting? The top spot in 2011 belonged to New Orleans, whose murder rate of 57.6 people per 100,000 was nearly QUADRUPLE that of Chicago…this, despite the fact that the Big Easy has a total population that’s almost THIRTEEN times smaller than Chi-Town.

Regarding national robbery rates, once again, Chicago didn’t even crack the top ten. When it comes to aggravated assaults, the city barely even made the top 25, ranking 24th in the nation; among the dyed-red, gun-toting strongholds where you are statistically likelier to get physically attacked are Wichita, Tulsa, Indianapolis, Toledo and (much to the chagrin of both Sarah Palin supporters left out there) even Anchorage, by-god Alaska.

Believe it or not, Chicago even out-performed several red state burghs when it comes to non-violent crimes. The Windy City barely made the top 40 cities for property crimes. For those of you wondering, there are SEVEN cities in Texas alone were you’re likelier to have your shit defaced. In fact, per FBI data, people living in Mobile, Alabama are about 20 percent likelier to be the victims of serious vandalism than property-owners in Chicago. Among the cities with higher burglary rates than Chicago: Seattle, St. Paul, Louisville (Kentucky) and Albuquerque. Larceny rates are higher in Colorado Springs, Lexington (Kentucky) and Portland than they are in Illinois’ largest city. Regarding grand theft auto, residents of Milwaukee and Kansas City have much more to worry about than Chicagoans.

Now, if we want to get REALLY in depth with the numbers, we can even compare the murder rates of Chicago with that of much smaller cities. Get ready to shit a brick, because according to real-life figures, you’re more likely to get killed in ALL of the following cities than you would be in Chicago: Jackson, Mississippi, Dayton, Ohio, Birmingham, Alabama, Richmond, Virginia, Wilmington, Delaware, Fort Myers, Florida, Gulfport, Mississippi, Albany, Georgia, York, Pennsylvania, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Even with an estimated 506 homicides reported in 2012, it’s worth noting that the number of homicides in Chicago have decreased dramatically since the much-debated hand gun ban was instituted in 1982. The number of murders in Chicago in 1974, a good eight years before the ban went into effect, reached 970. Even in 1994 - the highest peak year for homicides in the city since the ban went into effect - the total number of in-city homicides was still 41 fewer deaths than when there was no handgun prohibition in the city at all. Skirt the issue all you want, this much is absolutely indisputable; compared to data from four decades ago, there’s actually 48 percent less murders in Chicago today than there was during the Gerald Ford administration.

Chicago Police data paints a downright schizophrenic portrait of city homicide activity; prior to the 2012 upswing, the 433 murders in Chicago in 2011 represented the city’s least deadly year in several decades. Since topping out at 931 in 1994, the city’s homicide rate has more or less been on a steady decline, with only minor upticks in citywide murders reported in 2001, 2006, and 2008 and 2012. Interpreted longitudinally, I suppose the best the pro-munitions lobby can offer is that there isn’t a clear-cut correlation between gun restrictions and actual on-the-street-homicides, and with more than three decades worth of data at our disposal, one could strongly make the case that, shockingly, policies forbidding certain types of firearms may factor in the city’s general downturn in murder.

Now, this is a complicated issue, and there are certainly some anomalies at play; despite the handgun ban, an estimated 88 percent of Chicago murders in 2012 were committed with firearms. Making things worse is that from 2008 to 2010, more than two-thirds of firearms confiscated by Chicago police were the verboten handguns. The question here is pretty apparent: if there’s a citywide handgun ban in place, than how come the firearm-homicide rate is so high?

A lot of gun-enthusiasts will tell you that the lack of concealed weapons laws leaves people “defenseless,” and therefore, all of the “bad guys” (and more on this routine, juvenile reductionism later) with guns have a field day when it comes time to loot and plunder. The tragic-comedy here is that, in Chicago at least, the kids don’t go to the guns - instead, traffickers and opportunists of all varieties are the ones taking advantage of lax suburban gun laws to bring firearms to inner-city youth.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” NRA Wayne LaPierre said in the National Rifle Association’s first remarks in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre. This childish abstraction dilutes the sociology of the argument to Saturday morning cartoon levels of black and white; and like many pro-gun arguments, it completely skirts away from the underlying socioeconomic roots of not only a majority of gun crime in the United States, but a majority of all (non-white collar, of course) crime in the nation.

The New York Times recently published a graphic laying out the correlation between socioeconomics and violent crime in Chicago. The findings are utterly remarkable; in neighborhoods with high rates of homicide, demographics skewed toward African-American communities, where less than 20 percent of residents had at least a bachelor’s degree and the median household income rest at about $38,000 annually. The neighborhoods with the lowest rates of homicides skewed towards predominantly white communities, where more than 40 percent of residents had at least bachelor’s degrees and the median incomes rests at about $61,000 per year. To cite a “lack of concealed weapons carry laws” as the cause of Chicago’s homicide rate is like calling divine wrath the catalyst for the Bubonic Plague; it’s a direct slap in the face of science, a bizarre, nonsensical accusation that completely omits sociological reasoning altogether.

Even with the deluge of scientific data that lends credence to the theory that facile gun access factors prominently in the nation’s homicide rate, even those stats can only assert a correlation between guns and violent crime - not direct causation. The underlying roots of violent crime are matters a whole lot more complex - and invisible - then simply stating that having a firearm present is responsible for - or preventing - homicides. That said, the data is clear, and completely irrefutable; guns are the most popular instruments of murder in Chicago and the nation as a whole, and ease of accessibility, transport and sale of firearms (not to mention that efficiency of the weapons as murder devices) are definitely factors that explain why that’s the case in northern Illinois and elsewhere.

Now, if you REALLY want to know why Chicago’s homicide levels are so high, there’s a 2011 documentary you direly need to see called “The Interrupters.” What happens when you leave marginalized young people, in impoverished, drug-infested pockets with virtually zero social capital and infrastructure, with pathetically underperforming school systems and next to no sustainable employment opportunities? What happens in an environment where father absenteeism is nearly 100 percent, educational disdain is seemingly built into the culture itself, and state and federal supports are limited to the occasional National Guard call up to curtail civil dissent? What happens when youth live in a nihilistic social structure where violent familial loyalty trumps not only civil laws and norms, but even a basic consideration for human life in general?

Lots of bad things, I assure you. And when guns enter that mix, the outcomes get even worse.

Monday, February 25, 2013

CD Review: My Bloody Valentine - “MBV” (2013)

After a guerrilla launch, the first My Bloody Valentine album in more than 20 years is finally here…and yeah, it’s pretty good. Mostly. 

My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album “Loveless” is unquestionably one of the best alternative rock albums of the 1990s. Really, it’s one of the few much-adored, Spin and Rolling-Stone-beloved compact discs from the era that truly deserves all the acclaim and accolades it gets; “Slanted and Enchanted” and “Aeroplane over the Sea” can straight up blow me.

The first time I heard “Sometimes,” it was positively floored. It was such an effortless, lo-fi, humdrum display of minimalist beauty, and it was positively breathtaking. In fact, listening to that album in its entirety for the first time basically constituted an out-of-body experience for me; as soon as “Only Shallow” kicks in, it’s as if your spirit hops inside the body of a transsexual alien shopping for frozen yogurt, or you Quantum Leap inside the boots of an obsessed stalker pleasuring himself in the bushes will weeping over a particularly meaningful passage from “The Canterbury Tales.” It sounds like a peculiar reaction to have to a rock and roll album, but trust me; once you actually listen to it, you will know EXACTLY what I am talking about here.

To the uninitiated, I suppose you could mistake “My Bloody Valentine” for just another one of those needlessly celebrated, shit-rock alt-acts whose music sounds like the audio cross-pollination of a malfunctioning blender and the mating call of psychopathic baleen whales. Despite being fronted by the world’s single biggest fan of fuzz pedals (and similarly, a dude that looks like the bastard amalgamation of Chewbacca and Johnny Depp), MBV is actually one of the better much-ballyhooed bands from the largely forgettable “shoe gaze” genre, and if you haven’t given them a listen -- yeah, you probably need to.

After two decades of not releasing shit, the band decided to covertly launch their first album in 22 years literally overnight, with tons of neck bearded hipster douche bags waking up in early February and blowing their collective wads upon finding out, “hey, there’s a lot of new MBV material on the Internet this morning!” Ingeniously titled “MBV” (get it! That way, it’s a self-titled album, but not really!), the CD launched on the Intrawebs earlier this month, to pretty much universal acclaim. Ever the curious sort (and an individual that enjoys the taste of roasted, holy bovine), I decided to take the entire album for a test spin and the results? Well…yeah, I kinda’ liked what I heard, unfortunately.

Track One
“She Found Now”

The song (and hence, the album) starts off with a nice, slow, muted tempo with a solid, but understated, guitar hook in the background. As far as fuzz box noise usage goes, the song is classic My Bloody Valentine, with carefully-arranged static tracing the song throughout it’s five minute lifespan. I guess the best way to describe the track is U2 covering a Muzak version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” - well, that, or the Deftones, if the Deftones, you know, sounded good.

Track Two
“Only Tomorrow” 

Definitely one of the best songs on the entire album, with a pulsating, heavy secondary riff pushing through a fuzzy-as-hell lead track. Out of all the new numbers, this is the one that sounds most at home on “Loveless” - it’s familiar, and melodic, and chaotic, and reassuring, and mildly frustrating, and uneven and totally inharmoniously beautiful all the same. At almost seven minutes in length, the track does tend to linger on for about a minute or two longer than it probably should, but considering the masterful guitar work on this one, it’s kinda’ hard to complain about much of anything here.

Track Three
“Who Sees You”

Even if you don’t think the new album is on par with their almost-impossible-to-top discography, you really have to give the band props for NOT radically altering their sound. This track doesn’t just sound like something recorded in 1990, it actually sounds like it was recorded using 1990 EQUIPMENT; you could have told me this thing was an unused B-side on “Loveless,” and I never would have known the difference. One of the weaker tracks on the album, but yeah…it’s still better than 99.723 percent of what you’ll hear on the radio these days.

Track Four
“Is This and Yes”

Probably the “artsiest” sounding-track on the album, with a minute-long pseudo-synth opening that sounds kinda’ like the soundtrack for a relatively highbrow porno looped around the menu screen for a “Shin Megami Tensei” title. As the case with most of MBV’s discography, I have no earthly clue what the lead singer is saying, or even if he (or she?) is actually uttering English language things on the track. A little too experimental for my liking, but it’s not wholly detestable, either.

Track Five
“If I Am”

A traditional shoe gaze ballad, with breathy, sigh-y vocals and a twangy, albeit low-pitched guitar-driven sound and probably some drums in the mix somewhere. Kevin Shields sounds remarkably the same as he did back in 1991 - either the dude used some Dr. Oz shit to preserve his vocal chords, or audio-dubbing equipment nowadays is flat out astonishing. A decent track, but it seems a little too staid for my liking. If you like your tracks lukewarm and Slowdive-sounding, you’ll probably dig this one.

Track Six
“New You”

You know, the Smashing Pumpkins were heavily influenced by MBV, so I guess it’s a little meta that the first thing I thought of when I heard this track was “holy shit, Billy Corgan remembered how to mix a track again!” Anyway, it’s a very relaxed track - yes, even for the band - and really one of the stronger tunes on the album. I really like the bass line, and the vocals on this one are particularly crisp and reassuring. That, and I won’t BS you - if you close your eyes and listen to the song, just TRY and not picture the front man from Wheatus pulling microphone duties.

Track Seven
“In Another Way”

Definitely the album’s signature “ass kicker,” and certainly the most energetic track on the entire CD. The guitar work here is quite good, with a nice, zesty twang that pushes throughout the entire song, with some electronic-funk-gunk-techno-synth stuff going on in the background to make things a tad more versatile. The best drum work on the entire album is probably on showcase here; a solid overall track, but by the four minute mark, you’ve heard pretty much all there is to hear.

Track Eight
“Nothing Is”

Well, if you were wondering whether or not MBV still had their analog input devices from the late 1980s in deep storage, this track answers your inquiry. Arguably the weirdest and least-MBV sounding track on the entire album, and probably the most needless. It’s not quite unredeemable filler, but it certainly seems out-of-place within the greater context of the album.

Track Nine
“Wonder 2”

The concluding track, in my humblest of opinions, is probably the worst song on the entire album. The whole ditzy, space-rock vacuum-sound stuff just doesn’t gel with Shields’ vocals, and the guitars seem a little stretched out in some parts. I think this one can be attributed to way too much pressure on the artists to end the album on something super sonic and hyper-memorable; instead, this otherwise way-better-than-average album ends on a surprisingly bland note.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by “MBV.” While it has nowhere near the impact of “Loveless,” it’s a solid album through and through, and there’s nothing on the album really worth hating. The CD is getting some downright absurdly high scores from the elitist music press, and while the album does deserve quite a bit of praise, I think it’s coronation as album of the year is just a wee bit pre-mature. And for those dingle berries that are ALREADY calling this thing “album of the decade?” Good sirs, I turn your attention here, here, here, and here . This stuff is undoubtedly pretty good, but the best out there right now? Nah, I’ll still take the latest from Metric, Off!, and Sleigh Bells over this, thank you very much.

So to conclude? “MBV” is a good album. Good, but probably not great, and certainly not as good as “Loveless,” by any stretch. But it’s still good, for the most part. In other words; the album is EXACTLY what you thought it would be, for better, and for worse, and thankfully the better generally outweighs the worse this time around.

The follow up album, currently on track for a February 2034 release, is already looking quite promising…

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Batman Taffy!

I am Vengeance. I am the Night. I am…really, really hard to chew.

When you think of Batman, you probably think about a couple of things. A pretty good movie from 2008, or an even better one from 1989. A fantastic animated series in the ‘90s, and a cheesy - yet wholly entertaining - live-action program from the 1960s. You might think Frank Miller, or “Arkham City,” or even Joel Schumacher, but the one thing you probably wouldn’t EVER equate with the Caped Crusader would be taffy. Well, thanks to America’s absolute finest retailer of surplus goods and potentially lethal foodstuffs, the Dark Knight and hardly chewable candies will forever be interconnected notions.

Strolling down the aisles of the local Dollar Tree, I observed this set of nine - count ‘em, NINE - sealed candies, which is remarkable for two primary reasons. First and foremost, that’s an absolute shit ton of candy for just a dollar, and I’ll be several shades of darned if the artwork on the packages wasn’t half-way awesome-looking. And for four measly quarters, you bet your sweet derrière that I’ll take a gamble on a sugary comestible that has the Scarecrow’s face on it.

So, I plopped down my two dollars (that’s right, I bought two of these sets, just in case I felt the need to devour a solid pound of artificially flavored things on the ride home) and decided to review each individual candy. Why, you might ask? Because…well, honestly, I don’t know. You gotta’ do something in between periods during NHL games, I guess.

Not surprisingly, the two pieces of candy that caught me attention first were the two “mystery flavors” with the Joker’s face plastered on them. Since the set consists primarily of characters seen in Nolan’s second Bat-movie, I’m thinking that, perhaps, this thing was initially released to capitalize on the success of “The Dark Knight.” By extent, this also means that the candies themselves would be almost five years old now, but come on…it’s not like the Dollar Tree ever sells products past their expiration dates or anything.

As far as the “mystery” here is concerned, I’ve got little to say. The first one tasted a lot like bubble gum, while the second piece of taffy tasted like really, really sharp bubble gum. Seriously, the textures here are an absolute Russian roulette game for your gum line; sometimes, you get soft and squishy, and other times, you get what appears to be a knife painted strawberry pink. With that in mind, I’m beginning to see how the manufacturers of this stuff were so quick to associate the particular candies with a clown-faced mass murderer known for convoluted trickeries.

If I had to pick a favorite out of the set, I would probably go with the Two-Face candies, for one particular reason; they’re the most palatable flavor in the set (blue raspberry, known by all cultures as the greatest of all unnaturally-occurring substances), and they’re blue…therefore, totally different looking than everything else, and therefore, the easiest to pick out in a line-up.

Not that this doesn’t go without saying, but you really are getting a mixed bag here, as far as candy textures and sizes go. Alike chemical-encrusted snowflakes, no two taffy bars appear to be uniform in length, width or height, and frustratingly, they seem to fluctuate wildly in overall texture. Some of the bars are soft and pillowy, and others are basically shivs that you can also eat. Maybe it’s just a commonality among the more villainous bars, perhaps?

The Scarecrow bar had to have my favorite artwork of the set, by far. As far as comestibles targeting children, that’s a pretty freaky mascot to slip on the packaging of a piece of candy; I’m damn near thirty, and even I had to look away from the package while I crammed the item down my throat hole.

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to say about this one. Umm, it tasted kinda’ like cherry? Well, that’s about it. And also, it was somewhat chewy, and it clings to your bicuspids. Folks, YOU try and find a way to diversify a review of TAFFY. It’s a whole hell of a lot more difficult than it appears, I assure you.

As far as the Bat-branded flavors, we end up getting a LOT of duplicates (but more on those later.) The main, Batman-only flavor is sour apple, which might just be my least favorite, quasi-popular artificial flavor of all-time. I especially hate how they ALWAYS include it in those value-priced “three sets” of Bubble-Yum, where it’s smack dab in between two flavors that are delicious. Methinks its some sort of conspiracy to rid the factory of a surfeit of undesirable product, you know…

So, uh, yeah, the sour apple taffy. It’s green, It’s also really powdery, and true to the nomenclature, quite tart. I guess my favorite thing about this one is that it has Batman on the package, rearing back to cold-cock something. Which is a little fitting, since eating sour-apple flavored things is only slightly more desirable than getting socked in the jaw by a psychopathic JFK, Jr.

Hey, do you like strawberry? Well, you better,  because there are two strawberry flavored bat-treats on board. Peculiarly, both packages feature Batman swinging on a rope, Tarzan-style. That might have some sort of sociocultural significance, but it probably doesn’t.

I like how the taffy in the orange packaging kinda looks like a tumor, or some artificial lung or something. Conversely, the red package taffy looks just like a tongue, which…you know, I’m not even sure, to be honest. I’m reviewing pieces of taffy, for the love of Jehoshaphat; if this isn’t a sign that this perma-winter is driving me crazy, I don’t know what it is.

And two more duplicate flavors to round out the set; another cherry (featuring Batman heroically leaping towards his own emblem) and another blue raspberry (which I can never, ever complain about, of course.) I really like Batman’s completely stoic “action pose” here. It’s almost like he’s saying, “dude, just forget it…just forget it.”

That’s cool how the cherry one doesn’t even look like a thing. The best I can fathom is that’s it’s a picture of Tennessee drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, or some really hard to wield Medieval lance. And the blue raspberry bar is just blue…as it should be, as nature intended. Batman, surely, would approve of this.

So, there you have it; an absolutely, absurdly in-depth review of a throwaway, 99 cent store product that no one in their right mind would ever care to read so much about. But you know, it’s our civic duty to document this kind of stuff. Can you imagine a world were people never KNEW that blue raspberry Harvey Dents were once mass-marketed, or that last fall, you could spend a human dollar on a garbage bag that sort of resembled a spider? It’s a selfless job, and one without prestige; but as long as surplus, novelty goods keep getting manufactured and hoisted upon lower class America…

…I’ll be waiting in the wings, America. I’ll be waiting in the wings.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Make Your Own Mediterranean Pizza!

What Happens When Italian and Arabic Ingredients Collide? DELICIOUSNESS, THAT’S WHAT. 

Man, it has been a LONG time since I’ve done a post about wacky, weekend food creations. I’ve really slacked off in that department, and the fact that I’ve gone THIS LONG without detailing to you people how I fused two bizarre-o food groups into a singularity is absolutely inexcusable. Somewhere, there’s a Taco Bell menu offering that is just SCREAMING to be transformed into a casserole somehow, and when genius strikes me, I’ll be sure to let the masses know.

So, uh, pizza; it’s great. Similarly, hummus is pretty great, too, but very rarely do you see pies with Middle Eastern influences. I always thought that was more than a little strange, seeing as how Italy and the Arabic world are so geographically close together. OK, so looking at a world map, perhaps calling the dish a Libyan Sea Pizza or even an Ionian Sea Pizza is probably a bit more accurate, but what the hell ever; the fact that a product of an American high school system can even name some of the waterways of Eurasia is a minor miracle unto itself.

So, what is a Mediterranean Pizza, you may be asking? Well, think of it as what happens when Italian, Greek and, uh, Middle-Eastern cuisine have a three-car pileup on a circular sheet of dough. There’s hummus, there’s pesto, there’s feta, there’s black olives, there’s tomato chunks, and there’s some red (purplish-red, to be accurate) onions in the mix. You figure the outcome would be pretty great, but the reality here? Not only is the dish absolutely stellar, it’s arguably one of the most delicious things I’ve ever put in my mouth. Yes, even better than that grape-flavored Play Doh they used to make.

The ingredients, you’re probably wondering? Well, let’s take it from the top. You’re going to need some dough, but probably not that really awesome home-tossed stuff, because unless you have several hours on hand to adequately unroll that shit, it’s probably going to prevent you from eating the final product within the next 18 or so hours. Really, the world is your oyster as far as possible toppings, but the three things that are absolutely PIVOTAL here are pesto (preferably of the green variety), hummus (really, any variation will do, but I opted for a mix with some lemon and basil seasonings) and of course, white cheese. So much white cheese, your kitchen floor will end up looking like an icy tundra (because snow is often white, which is the same color of the cheese you are putting on your pizza.)

Regarding recommended toppings: portabella mushrooms are always nice, and you know I dig me some black olives. Ever the traditionalist, I reckon it doesn’t hurt to have SOME form of tomato included, so if you have some nice, pulpy maters, I say toss ‘em aboard. Remember: you’re just going to bury this stuff in mozzarella anyway, so who cares if it doesn’t seem like it will gel with everything else, anyway?

For our first go-around at Casa Internet-Is-In-America, we decided to vouch for a tic-tac-toe design, with one third of the pie consisting of just pesto sauce, another third consisting of just hummus, and the final 33.3 percent of the dish consisting of coalesced pesto-hummus sauce. There’s really no wrong way to divvy up the pie, so feel free to experiment with your food-sexuality all you want here.

Red peppers and feta aren’t huge favorites with everybody, but I’d suggest heaping them on the grocery list, anyway. They really give the overall pizza a tart and spicy kick that it wouldn’t have otherwise, and it really adds to the experience. Per me, anyway. And a nice side salad always goes well with homemade pizza; similarly, it gives you somewhere to chunk all of your excess mushrooms and peppers, too. BONUS FRUGAL POINTS ON THE SALAD DRESSING: we got it for a reduced price, simply because it was like three minutes away from expiring.

And lo and behold, el producto finale. It’s a downright gorgeous looking pie, and I assure you; as pretty as this thing looked, it tasted about twenty times better. Like, way better than even Totino’s frozen three-cheese pizzas, if you can believe it.

The ingredients seemed to gel a lot better than you’d think, with the nice, chunky texture of the hummus merging surprisingly well with that zesty green sauce. Similarly, the white cheese blend was downright exquisite in tandem with the red peppers and mushrooms, and when you take all of this together as a comprehensive experience, you get an absolutely delicious pie that’s worlds better than just about anything Pizza Hut or Domino’s will toss on your doorstep.

So, there you have it; when Sicilian culture runs smackdab into Kuwaiti cuisine (after taking a bathroom break in Athens), the end result is something so utterly yummy that I’m actually strapped for words to describe it. Really, really delicious? Well, that’s a lot of unnecessary qualifiers, but I’ll take it, I guess.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pryde of the X-Men!

In 1989, a pilot episode was created for a never-to-be “X-Men” animated series. And even for a 1980s cartoon, it had a LOT of homo-racial subtext and child predator jokes…

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably watched the animated “X-Men” show on Fox. Alongside “Batman: The Animated Series” and the still-kinda’-underappreciated mid-90s “Spider-Man” cartoon, it helped steer animated TV away from the hokey, merchandise-motivated aesthetics and narratives of the ‘80s and pushed the genre into unprecedented heights of legitimacy. The shows were intellectual, and well-scripted, and surprisingly “adult”-natured for children’s TV. Hell, the very first episode of the Fox “X-Men” show touched upon death, familial loyalty, cultural xenophobia and politicized oppression; kind of a leap from watching “Denver the Dinosaur,” no?

Well, in case you weren’t on the up and up, that Fox “X-show” wasn’t the first attempt at turning the franchise into an animated series. Back in the late ‘80s, Marvel and its TV associates created a pilot episode for a would-be “X-Men” series, and because nobody saw the implicit value of the franchise, it ended up being a one-time special. Stuck in purgatory for a while, the pilot episode, alongside a couple of “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” episodes with X-Men cameos, ended up getting re-released on VHS right around the time the Fox X-show was taking off.

I have some pretty fond recollections of the video cassette. Granted, the episode itself wasn’t all that great, but the experience itself was pretty memorable. Hey, remember those Scholastic book catalogs you used to get back in homeroom during elementary school? Well, they were carrying this thing on VHS, and since I was such an avid Marvel fan, I just HAD to pick up this mysterious, “new” X-Men cartoon. I ended up picking up a few “Spider-Man” tapes that way too, which were basically one-off “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” episodes. But, since those things were LOADED with some killer video game commercials - including one with a (for the time, anyway) dope-looking CGI Venom - I just felt as if I was in on something nobody else in town was. Admittedly, it’s a stupid reason for liking a forgotten piece of pop culture memorabilia, but hey - that’s what made being a kid in the 1990s so dadgum awesome, wasn’t it? Well, that, and Gak. Can’t forget about Gak, ever.

Still a better Peter Parker than Andrew Garfield, though.
As far as I’m concerned, the absolute best thing about the entire VHS tape is this opening PSA from the Video Software Dealers Association starring an actor dressed like Spider-Man encouraging viewers to vote. There’s so much meta-text and furtive political connotations here that I don’t even think a Jean Baudrillard could effectively dissect it. As a kid, I thought it was just awesome seeing a Spider-Man in live-action (for all you young Turks, I actually remember getting excited reading about James Cameron’s never-realized “Spider-Man” movie in Cinescape all the way back in 1994), but now that I’m watching this as an adult…well, I have more than a few questions about the agenda here. OK, so it’s a PSA, released in the early 1990s, about voting.  There’s nothing too unusual about that, I suppose, until you remember that this is an animated, 30 minute-long video intended for children. The first time I saw this thing, I was a good 10 years away form being able to register, so who exactly is this tape trying to target? The parents of the kids watching the tape? Maybe the high-school aged babysitters that put this thing on to quiet the rug rats? Hell, maybe there’s been a massive, neck-beard audience for this kind of stuff even prior to the Internet. Needless to say, it’s a beyond-bizarre public service announcement, even for the heyday of weird-o PSAs. And trust me…that’s saying something.

After that, we get a blue-screen copyright warning and a bumper for the video production company (I think, anyway.) And just 54 seconds into the tape, we’ve got ourselves 1980s crap-rock, “He-Man” laser sound effects and animated army men trying to escape from quicksand-trapped tanks. You best believe, this shit is on, and hard.

You know, nobody really expects solid lyrics in a late 1980s animated program jingle, but I have to say that the lyrics to this would-be show’s would-be theme song sounds particularly effortless. I really liked that verse about Magneto’s plans to “pillage and plunder,” which predate similar lyrics to the Captain Planet end-theme by at least two years. I also really like how the stanza is completed, with Bob Dylan-esque grace, with the narrator/singer claiming that the “team strikes like thunder.” Well, it was either that or use “wonder” or “chunder” to complete the couplet, I suppose.

The episode begins with a particularly melodramatic opening from Stan Lee (really, is there any other kind?), which does a pretty succinct job of setting the story for us. “Hey, there are mutants out there. Some are good, and some are bad. Here’s Magneto. Also, this entire cartoon may or may not be an allegory for racism/homophobia.”

So, Magneto is being transported out to somewhere in the desert by a military convoy. All of the voice actors are extremely throaty, and they keep reminding us that “mutants shouldn’t be allowed to live on earth with humans.” The White Queen uses her mental powers to make a bunch of troops think they’re melting, and Magneto is able to escape. A couple of million bonus points are doled out when instead of killing the shit out of the colonel that was berating him earlier, Magneto just drops him off in a sewage drain instead.

After that, we’re introduced to both Kitty Pryde and Professor X. Seeing no need to mask the fact that his schoolhouse is actually an underground training center for violent vigilantes, he lets the new recruit in on all of the ins and outs of being an X-Person. I really liked how right after telling her that he used a specialized, NASA-powered mind-reading device to find her, the first thing he shows her is a cavernous, virtual reality room filled with death traps. How exactly is the kind of overhead listed on the tuition bill, anyway?

"Meet your roommates, Kitty: a blue demon, Freddy Krueger and various people that can shoot laser death at things. Your parents ARE OK with this, right?"

From there, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast, whom are beating up a bunch of robots in a Mayan-like simulation (a metaphor for colonialism, perhaps?) There’s Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Dazzler, Wolverine and Storm. Well, outside of Dazzler, that’s not really a bad line-up, at all.

One of the great recurring “gags” in the cartoon is that Nightcrawler has the hots for Kitty. Since Kitty isn’t exactly turned on be three-fingered devil Smurfs that canonically, smell like sulfur, she constantly has to use her “phasing” powers to ward off his advances. And then, you realize that Kitty is probably a high-school aged girl, and Nightcrawler has to be damn near thirty, and…well, yeah. As a bonus, having the ability to teleport probably helps him get out of a whole lot of “To Catch a Predator” appearances, though.

Literally every character on the team has a really pronounced accent. Storm, for all intents and purposes, sounds just like the Nubian-to-the-tenth-power-sounding voice actress that played the character on the Fox ‘90s show, and both Colossus and Nightcrawler speak with the expected Eastern European twang. Wolverine, however, has a hilariously offensive Australian accent, which makes him sound like a cross between Paul Hogan gargling and a bilabong tree getting thwacked by a jolly swagman.

The X-Men end up getting called on a false flag scare, which gives Juggernaut ample time to plow through the Xavier mansion. Magneto, for reasons that aren’t really clear, really wants the main circuit chip or something in Cerebro, and since Kitty forgets how to use her powers, she ends up forking it over the Master of Magnetism. Meanwhile, the X-Men wind up on some secret base, where The Blob and Pyro are holding an African-American family (ironically prejudiced against mutants themselves) hostage. Much homoeroticism follows.

Pictured: that "much homoeroticism" I promised earlier. 

So, following a quick skirmish, we find ourselves on Asteroid M, where Magneto and the Brotherhood of Terrorist Mutants (probably the most abrasive name for a non-profit organization I’ve ever heard) are plotting and scheming to enslave humanity. We also meet Toad, who is basically our comedic-relief, Gollum-esque sympathetic villain, which was required by law to be in every cartoon produced from 1970 to 1991. Back to the X-Mansion, where Storm uses her weather powers to clear up some debris. You know, I would really like to hear a quasi-scientific explanation for how she can manipulate conditions in the Earth’s atmospheres while completely indoors, kids.

All right, so check this shit. Magneto’s plan is to use Cerebro to turn himself into a mega-magnet, so he can take control of a comet and slam that sumbitch right into Earth, while he and his mutant cronies just kinda’ hang out in space,  wait awhile to return to Earth, and restart civilization. If you’re not seeing some parallels between this and the “Mother Wheel” prophesized by Louis Farrakhan, you probably need to hit up the cultural studies section at Books-A-Million more frequently.

A shouting match between Wolverine and Kitty Pryde reveals that the latest X-recruit is 14. So yeah, bang up job on all of that child endangerment shit, Charles. And so, the X-Men hop in their space place and don their space suits - how the hell they ended up getting NASA equipment, we’ll probably never find out - while Cyclops advises Storm to do totally impossible weather shit while they’re just hanging out in the vacuum of space. And, time for our boss run portion of the episode, as Dazzler holds off Pyro, Wolverine kung fus Toad, Colossus dukes it out with Juggernaut and Cyclops battles the White Queen. Eventually, it comes down to Nightcrawler and the Blob, with old Kurt using his teleportation powers to simply sneak past Magento’s blubbery protector.

Nightcrawler; a HUGE fan of Stanley Kubrick, apparently. 

And so, Kitty Pryde shows up and tackles Magneto, while Nightcrawler does some blue-looking stuff to re-shift the comet’s trajectory, or something like that. Magneto and the evil mutants evacuate, but Nightcrawler is forced to stay onboard until the comet collides into the asteroid (yeah, you read that right) and then he teleports at the very last second but, oh no! He’s falling into the earth’s atmosphere, where he will assuredly get disintegrated!

Then again, it’s not like the dude could just teleport himself safely into an air lock or anything. Oh wait, yeah, that’s the whole premise of the character. We get a full X-reunion, and Stan Lee sends us home with a promise of future adventures…that never happened. Oh well.

I’m not really sure who all the voiceover folks were. Outside of Frank Welker, I’ve never heard of any of these people. I’m sure some hardcore animation nerds are reading this, so if there’s anybody on the roster that’s accomplished anything of note since, please feel free to drop me a line.

According to the IMDB, the main writer of the episode, Larry Parr, wrote every single episode of every single cartoon made in the Reagan Years. Go ahead, look at his resume, and try to tell me otherwise. As for why the show was never picked up, I really can’t tell you. I guess it was mostly because animated TV was going through such an upheaval, with syndicated programming looking a lot less bankable than a Big 4 afternoon or Saturday morning slot.

Probably the biggest cultural import of the episode, of course, is the fact that it served as the inspiration for Konami’s legendary, six-person “X-Men” arcade cabinet. If I even have to begin explaining to you how awesome that thing was, you might as well take your iPod and jam it right down your esophagus now, you technologically-elite, snot-nosed Millenial waste of space.

In hindsight, I think it’s a pretty underwhelming one-off, and had it been given a go-ahead, I doubt much stuff of substance could have arisen. The animation was OK, but the voice acting was atrocious, and as far as scriptwriting went, it was horrifically by-the-numbers. Even so, it’s an interesting look at what could’ve been…although what could’ve been was nowhere near as awesome as what we actually ended up with. Is “Pryde of the X-Men” anything more than a brief curiosity piece? Eh, probably not, but it’s still kinda’ fun to soak up all of the Bush, Sr.-era cheese and clumsy attempts at social commentary. And hell, how can anybody hate anything that opens with Spider-Man telling you to go down to your local video store and ask for voting registration papers?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Five Types of Girls You Date in College

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a primer/reminder about the university women ALL college dudes, inevitably, end up courting

“ I thought of that old joke, you know, the, this... this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don't you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships; you know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep going through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs.”

- - Woody Allen
“Annie Hall” (1977)

“Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat…college.”

- - Same Guy
Same Movie, Same Year

The absolute best movies about male-female relationships - “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “8 ½,” “High Fidelity,” and of course, “Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman” - all tell us pretty much the same thing: most of our romantic affairs are utterly pointless, insanely detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing, and ultimately rendered completely meaningless by the passage of time. Alas, as Alvy Singer remarked, it’s something we just HAVE to keep going through, because…we’re masochists? Yeah, probably.

Some folks have their first real girlfriend in high school, but I think most normal people (or at least, normal considering the demographics of this blog, anyway) probably don’t experience their first serious boy/girl courtship until college. In fact, when you walk out of university, you’re effectively handed TWO sets of diploma; one for your academic achievement, and an unofficial, invisible one that acknowledges you were somehow able to do all of that academic achievement while toiling through failed, doomed and unsatisfying relationship, one after another. For more on this theory, I would suggest listening to the sage words of one Dr. Richard Pryor, particularly this lecture I’ve conveniently linked to right here.

I’m pretty sure all guys have the exact same experiences when it comes to romantic affairs in college. In fact, I think every successful male college graduate goes through five necessary developmental phases when it comes to the matter of  young amore - meaning, ostensibly, that all of us end up dating five very particularly types of girls throughout our university stays.

The specifics, most likely, will be different, but the fundamentals we’re talking about here are fairly static. If you do it right, you’ll see yourself sweeping through this evolutionary process, as you drift from checkpoint A to checkpoint B. If you’ve already gone through the gamut, than consider this an opportunity to reveal in what once was, and if you haven’t, consider it an omen of things to come. Your results may vary, but for all intents and purposes, the following are the five types of girls EVERY guy, at one point or another, dates during his collegiate years…

The One (That Totally Isn’t)

For four years, you slogged through high school, awkwardly fumbling through failed courtships, delayed romantic endeavors and a general, profound lack of getting any. College, however, is an entirely different beast, because now, people will actually WANT to interact with you socially (pending you don’t smell like a dead Tauntaun, anyway) and some of these people may in fact be members of the opposite gender. Now, if you’re like me, your experiences with females in high school was limited to top secret make outs with overweight goth chicks and that time you ALMOST talked to that one girl you kind of liked on the bus once; now that you’re in higher education, however, you’ve actually got girls that want to study with you, have lunch with you, and even, by Job, go out with you. And the shocking thing? These aren’t just your typical skanks and skeezes - some of them are pretty, and witty, and in some instances, hyper-intelligent. In other words? All of that stuff you couldn’t find in high school, you’re getting in droves when you’re a freshman undergrad.

So, you’ll “talk” to a few of them. You keep thinking about pushing the proverbial “let’s go out” button, but you never do. It’s just too…new…of an experience, I suppose. And then, you meet a girl that is - seemingly - everything you could ever desire in a member of the female race. She’s intellectual, she looks decent in high heels and you can talk to her for more than five minutes without wondering if she’s on drugs or something. And the fixer here? Not only is she all of the above, she actually LIKES you back, too. As in, she wants your tongue in her mouth, and sooner rather than later.

So, you go out with little miss Everything-I’ve-Ever-Wanted, and that whole platonic friendship nonsense soon gives way to some truly inspired make out sessions at the local Cineplex and, if you play your cards right, a literally-paved-for-you off-ramp to Camp Second Base. It’s an utterly indescribable experience, at first - someone you genuinely “like,” that “likes” you back, that would additionally “like” to jump your bones. And so, those dying teenage hormones, mixed with your fledgling sense of social egotism, gives flight to this wild and kooky idea: not only do you really, really like this girl, it feels so great being around her that you believe you just HAVE to be in love with her. I mean, it’s arguably the greatest social feeling you’ve felt thus far in your young adulthood, and it’s pretty hard to listen to your prefrontal cortex screaming “YOU’RE NOT READY, ASSHOLE!” while the voluble sound of her giving you the most awesome hickie in history resonates throughout the hinterlands.

She may be your first love, and it’s almost a 115 percent chance she’s going to be your first heartbreak, too. The biology here is just working against you - when hormones override common sense, bad things are bound to arise - and truthfully, neither of you are old enough to really grasp the enormousness of something as comprehensive and life-entrenching as “love,” anyway. You’ll dig her so much that you concoct the most elaborate lie this side of The Loch Ness Monster to impress her parents (who, assuredly, will hate you guts for merely existing), and in the fog of all of that frenzied French kissing and stroppy fondling, you’ll tend to overlook the fact that, at her core, she’s actually a downright horrible human being, basically a junior Ayn Rand in pineapple flavored lip gloss. Give yourself about five years, and when you reflect on her, pretty much all you will be able to recall is just how incredibly naïve you were to think she was something different or special or unique or really worth squandering all of your time and disposable income on. Alas, she’s your first, and as we all know, it’s the first “loves” - whether or not it actually WAS love to begin with - that does the most damage to you. Things - much sooner than later - will inevitably come crashing down, and you will be a miserable, sopping mess for the foreseeable future. And with the one that wasn’t officially out of the way, it’s time to drift ahead to the next tragic romance of your college tenure…

The Best Friend (That’s TOTALLY Platonic, For Sure…) 

You’re still reeling from what’s-her-name, and the last thing you want to do is LOOK at another girl for at least the next year and a half. This is a strategy that you will proudly adhere to…that is, until the girl in the back of your English class catches your eye.

Generally, the “rebound girl” isn’t necessarily your typical “rebound girl,” when you look at the overall schematics. In fact, you will go out of your way to make this fledgling courtship so Platonic, you won’t even hold hands with her when she starts scratching at your knuckles at the movies. What you have with her, clearly, is a genuine, honest-to-goodness friendship, devoid of all those pesky sexual overtones that made the last relationship with the opposite gender such a draining and taxing experience. And if you’ve ever seen “Some Kind of Wonderful,” you know EXACTLY how this one’s going to end up.

I don’t know if it’s some kind of subconscious decision or what, but it seems like steady college girlfriend #2 is ALWAYS the exact opposite of the first one. If your first college sweetheart was a born-again straight-edge Christian, than the next girl in line will most likely be a hardcore pagan ecstasy-user; all in all, you’re looking at a completely different kind of experience here, and while it lacks the emotional intensity of your first college romance, it more than makes up for it in the physicality department.

You can try to be “just friends,” but it’s an impossibility. She’ll date other guys, and you’ll get jealous…even though, you know, you totally don’t like her like THAT, of course. And if you even look at another girl, she’ll shoot you a stare so icy your testicles might turn into ice cubes. So this unexpressed, mutual admiration goes on, and on, and on, until like a volcano, it just explodes one night in an awesome shower of sloppy open mouth kissing and, depending on the libertine proclivities of your gal pal, some good old fashion casual doin’ it.

Of course, you know it’s not going to work out. She’s too much of a buddy to be long-term girlfriend material, and you kinda’ want to bone her too much for her to stay just a friend. You might have your “friend with benefits” phase, but that doesn’t work out, either - surprisingly, sexual forays are only comprehensively fulfilling when you love, not just like, the person you’re with. You’ll have plenty of fun with her, and maybe even a poignant moment or two, but you’re fully aware that the long-term potential here only extends to about next week. And so, you drift apart, which will now doubt steer you into the next romantic acquaintance…

The Completely, Utterly Random Girl (In Fact, Several of Them) 

By now, you’ve pretty much given up on finding love, and emboldened by your prior escapades with the last romantic conquest, you feel as if it’s your prerogative to go out there and have as much unconditional fun with the female kind as you can. Some people call this your “Man Ho” phase, and yeah…they’re kinda’ right, I suppose.

With some minor redactions to protect the innocent (well, mostly innocent, anyway), here’s a brief list of the myriad females I took out on at least one date as a sophomore in college:

- This one girl that was really into anime and Fleetwood Mac, that also had an aversion to kissing, but absolutely ZERO qualms about second base whatsoever. I don’t think I ever learned what her last name was, but her perfume smelled nice, at least.

- This “spiritualist” older student (read: cougar) with an addiction to Farmville and Victoria’s Secret lip balm. You know that line in “You Oughta’ Know,” where Alanis Morissette talks about “goin’ down on you in a theater?” Well, apparently…that kind of shit DOES happen in real life, folks.

- This one undeniably skanky chick that kinda’ looked like a cross between Lisa Loeb and Rosie O’Donnell. I almost thought about kissing her good night, but she had this overpowering lobster smell on her clothing that was so severe, I just couldn’t allow myself to touch her. By the way, the place we were eating at DIDN’T serve seafood, of any kind.

- A chain-smoking punk rocker Wiccan girl that wanted me to join her shitty death metal ensemble. She almost kissed me once, in front of her boyfriend, no less. If I was sober enough to find where her lips were, I probably would’ve gone ahead with it.

- A Mormon girl that was really into LOLcats macros and pancakes. I STILL don’t know how that one ended up happening.

- This one girl that wanted me to join her trivia team, because I won her and her three friends a free plate of nachos once. I honestly can’t remember her name. Like, not even the first letter.

- Several sex-starved friends of a friend that attended a Christian college and clearly did not give one iota of a damn about their reputations anymore. The less said about that, I assure you, the better.

I know that sounds like a lot of quasi, semi and pseudo-romantic affairs for hardly a year’s time, but when you really look at it…well, no, I guess it’s still a lot. The reality here is that while this phase is fun, it’s also pretty empty, emotionless and - outside of the occasional free movie and snogging session -  utterly unfulfilling, through and through. Most people with human souls could probably only keep this up for about a year, because it’s just so cold and passionless, sort of like eating refrigerated, unflavored gelatin. Yeah, it has calories and shit, but it doesn’t really count as much of anything else. My advice is to have fun here while it lasts, use protection if needed, and try to make sure none of the girls you temporarily commingle with are stark-raving lunatics, lest you end up drawing the ire of a scorned 20-something that’s one part “May,” and one part that chick from “Audition.”

The Almost Girlfriend (That For Whatever Reason, You Never Make a Move For) 

So, after your pell-mell year of dating up a storm, you’ll end up a little put off by all of this “seeing people” business. It’s around this point that you’ll run into a girl - heck, she might even be one of those completely random girls you were quasi-dating for a while - that, for whatever reason, you just like. Maybe she has a nice smile, maybe she tells funny stories about work, maybe her eyes get this twinkle whenever she’s talking about sea mammals - there’s something there, and you kinda’ want to get to know her better. The thing is, neither one of you seem to want to make that first amorous move towards the other party. All in all, it ends up becoming sort of the romantic equivalent of trench warfare - you just stay where you are and she stays where she is, and you hope you don’t choke to death on mustard gas while waiting for Armistice Day.

Remember your best friend from earlier, the one you said you’d never hook up with, but you did anyway? Well, the “almost girlfriend” is pretty much the successful realization of that, because the most sexually-charged thing you’ll most likely end up sharing with her is that time your fingers grazed for like, a second, when you opened the door for her at McDonalds. You will go out on dates, but you really don’t consider them “date-dates.” I mean, you might go to amusement parks and movies and eat dinner, but you never really feel like you have a romantic thing going on, at all. It’s not that you don’t like her - you do - it’s just that the grand forces of the cosmos simply keep you from feeling the urge to convert that bituminous friendship into any sort of romantic energy whatsoever.

The funny/tragic thing here is that it is apparent - glaringly apparent - that she likes you back. She might even invite you over to her place - basically, the equivalent of tapping out “please kiss me at least once, you dope” in Morse Code  on your forehead - but…you still just can’t do it. Eventually, the stagnation will get the best of you, and one of you will seek greener - or at least, more amorously adventurous - pastures, and as it has happened so many times before, you’ll just kinda’ drift apart, as if you never knew each other at all. And the best part? You’ll talk to her a year later, and she’ll just flat out tell you that she would’ve made out with you on the second date, if only you would have had the wherewithal to hold her hand at the movies. And somewhere, the dying tones of a Katy Perry song can still be heard, echoing throughout the foothills of the kingdom…

The One (That Totally Is)

Well, it’s come to this. After a good three or four years of disastrous, delayed or denied relationships, something utterly unexpected happens. You’ve been trying to find Ms. Right for half a decade, and in the process, been to so many Nicholas Sparks movies that your will to continue on this seemingly fruitless quest for lifelong love and companionship seems just about nil. Girls come, girls go, and you just want to lay down, and not think about any of them. Love is great, love is grand, and when it keeps eluding you - through whatever means, self-inflicted or out of one’s control - it’s enough to make a dude think about growing a mountain man beard and moving to Alaska. You’ve gotten to that point where the last thing in this world you care about is finding a girlfriend - even a temporary one - and it just seems like you’re destined to be forever alone in this crazy, callous and increasingly frigid world. And then? You meet the girl that changes absolutely EVERYTHING about your life, and for the better in ways you couldn’t possibly have imagined just a year earlier.

It will seem pretty rudimentary at first. You’ve dated plenty of girls before, so you know what to expect. Movie, dinner, maybe a walk in the park. You might even take her to the town fair - you know, the kind where they do nothing but play AC/DC over and over again and everything smells like fried corn dogs - and there will be a magnificent moment where you almost want to hold her hand on the tilt-a-whirl. But more than that, you’ll feel an incredible urge to vomit, meaning that’s the last damn time you will EVER eat an entire bowl of fondue cheese before hitting up a rollercoaster again.

But, whereas most girls would simply ignore you when you kinda’, sorta’ puke on their new dress, she’ll actually KEEP hanging around you. You’ll go out on another date, see another movie, go for another walk in the park, and you’ll slowly, albeit surely, begin to wise up to how spectacular she is as a human being. She’s nice, sweet, insightful, caring and you’re actually interested in what she has to say. No, really! You’ll even start e-mailing her random news stories you find, just because you honestly want to know what her take is. And oh yeah, unlike the myriad girls before, she actually has the same interests as you, which means you CAN have a dinnertime conversation about “Escape from Freedom” and the philosophical overtones of “Rugrats,” they way you’ve always wanted to.

Over time, not only does she become your girlfriend - unofficially, but everybody knows - but your honest to goodness BFF, too. She’ll become your confident, your most trusted source for advice and your number one “Mario Kart” buddy. You’ll want to do EVERYTHING with her, from baking outlandish casseroles (the fact that she goes along with you cockamamie schemes is enough to clue you into the fact that you’ve got something MIGHTY special going on) to catching off-off-off-Broadway musicals to simply walking around town together. After awhile, the activities become utterly irrelevant; all that matters is that you get to spend time with her, you get to talk to her, and the downtime between your next visitation grows incrementally smaller.

One month becomes three months becomes a year, becomes two years becomes three. And it all goes by so fast. What’s amazing is how normalized the relationship feels - for the first time in your life, you feel as if you have something you just KNOW is going to be lifelong. And when you have something like that on your plate, everything else - school work, finding a job, finally beating “Gunstar Heroes” on the Sega Genesis - becomes monumentally easier for you. In fact, the love, happiness and togetherness you share with this girl (or young woman, let’s not piss off the Gloria Steinhams of the world) is so powerful and amazing that it genuinely seems to reshape you as an individual. Being with the girl you’ve always wanted to be with, somehow, transforms you into the man you’ve always wanted to become. It’s impossible to explain how, but once you feel it, I doubt you’ll really need an explanation for it, anyway.

It may take some time, but you’ll eventually realize that - holy cow - you really are in love with this girl. And not that bullshit, made-for-cable Def Leppard power ballad “love,” either, I mean the real deal, through and through, I’d-catch-a-grenade-for-her love that MUST have been what propelled all of those starving Soviet troops to defeat the Nazis. It’s something that feels so great, so fulfilling and so complete that it just doesn’t seem humanly possible - but it is, and it’s far and away the greatest sensation you will ever experience, times twenty, with a cherry on top.

So, your college quest began with you a lovelorn teenager trying to feel what being alive was like, and it ends with you becoming a young man porting about the greatest endowment any human being can receive - the conscientious awareness that yes, you HAVE found your soul mate. After oh so many Gwen Stacies, Felicia Hardies and Betty Brants, you’ve finally found your Mary Jane Watson, and you’re no longer just a Peter Parker; you’re a real, true and blue Spider-Man. [*]

[*] NOTE: Finding your soul mate may not ACTUALLY give you the ability to stick to walls and shoot webbing out of your hands. Trust me, I tried. 

Will you end up spending the rest of your life with this girl? Nobody can predict the future. You may end up in some Kevin Arnold - Winnie Cooper  on/off/on/off arrangement, or you might end up taking the June Carter and Johnny Cash together-forever route. But no matter what, you know she’s going to be there for you, and you’re going to be there for her. She’s far and away the best thing that will ever happen to you, and not for one second will you ever think about letting her go. You’ve got her, and you’ve got everything you’ve ever wanted. And in case you forget about what happens to the man that suddenly gets everything he’s ever wanted, I think it’s best to turn things over to our good buddy, William Wonka…

(skip to about 03:13, if you're of the impatient sort)