Archive | August 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge: An Internet Trend to Be Proud Of

There’s finally an Internet challenge you can be proud of and you should ignore the naysayers and do it already. That’s the ice bucket challenge.

The number of Internet “challenges” that have proliferated over the last several years are legion. These challenges normally involve a potentially dangerous stunt such as the “fire challenge,” the “cinnamon challenge” and the like.

More recently there is the “ice bucket challenge,” which involves people pouring buckets of ice water over their heads. On the surface it’s another load of stupid fun, and it could easily be another trend without reason, though pouring a bucket of ice water over one’s head in August is not necessarily silly or absurd. And it doesn’t have to be dangerous, though some people have made it so.

What makes the ice bucket challenge stand apart from your run-of-the-mill daredevil or disgusting Internet challenge is that it is being done to raise money to fight ALS.

ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease is a horrible disease that attacks the nervous system and leaves its victims unable to move or care for themselves before finally killing them.

While it’s certainly a good cause, I might just as easily be dismissive of the trend had I not known someone who was taken from us way too soon. I and several of my friends performed the ice bucket challenge in memory of Betsy Quilliam, a friend’s mother who died from the disease in 2008. “Mrs. Q,” as she was known to most of us, was like a second mother to a lot of us and her home was the central meeting place for my largest circle of high school friends. She was enormously compassionate and generous. There is no accounting for the magnitude of loss her passing represents and no way to express the enormity of the injustice of her death. She was a standard of pure selfless good in an increasingly selfish and introverted world.

So it was with pride that I accepted the ice bucket challenge. I got the challenge on a Friday evening and I was not going to be able to manage to video myself pouring a bucket of ice water over my head within the stated 24 hour deadline.

But that was no matter. Because the real point of this challenge is to DONATE MONEY TO FIND A CURE FOR ALS. All these chilled buckets will only be a waste of water if people don’t remember to do that. So far they have to tune of more than $70 million as of Aug. 24.

So while I didn’t get around to pouring a bucket of ice water over my head on video until Sunday, I got up early enough on Saturday morning to go online and make a donation. Initially that may have been all that is required. The donation was initially supposed to be done in lieu of pouring the bucket of icy water over your head.

But people want to see the bucket of water, and doing it allows you to challenge three people to do the same, so that’s three potential donations you can generate with a little bit of cold water.

I made my plans to do the ice bucket challenge. Lacking a large enough bucket, I cleaned out a large waste container we use to put recyclables and set aside seven trays of ice cubes in a bowl. My wife and I put our baby girls in their stroller and went outside our apartment building with our ice and our water receptacle along with my smart phone and a towel.

I added the water from a spigot on the outside of our building. That had the effect of melting some of the ice cubes which ruins the visual a bit. People want to see a lot of ice and water and want to see a big reaction to the cold. That visual of the ice and reaction to the cold is the “money shot” of these videos so-to-speak.

I guess I can take the cold pretty well because while the bucket of ice water was cold and a brief shock to the system, I didn’t flinch too much. I had planned out what I was going to say so I made sure to deliver my challenge. A few people commented that maybe the water wasn’t cold enough, but it was.

So there are three more people who will be donating to find a cure for ALS. Getting even a tiny bit closer to ending this disease is worth all the stupid Internet fads in the world.

Overrated New York Attractions (And Their Underrated Alternatives)

For the tourist, and many of the locals, New York is a series of attractions and experiences that everyone must check off of their bucket list in order to consider their New York experience authentic or complete. But there are some things that are overrated and that resident and tourist alike should move to the bottom of their list.

Let’s make not being a sucker one of the authentic New York experiences once again. Here are five New York attractions that get way too much attention, along with some more reasonable alternatives:

The Statue of Liberty. The Statue of Liberty is a beautiful monument to the enduring symbol of freedom America is to the world. However, visiting Lady Liberty means paying a shyster ferry company for an overpriced ticket out there, standing in a long line to go through TSA-style incompetent security care of the U.S. Park Police, and then riding to Liberty Island where you can wait in another long line if you want to get to the top of the statue’s crown. Once you get up there, you’ll have a few seconds in front of a small window before you are hustled on your way. It’s not worth the money or the time out of your life. As an alternative, the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free, requires no strip search, and will get you within great photograph distance of both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Brick Oven Pizza.  Hipsters and tourists stand in long lines and pay high prices for pizza that is burned, unevenly cooked, and gives you less of everything. Somewhere a mob-connected pizza scammer is laughing until he wets his creased chino pants. Go ahead and wait hours for your sucky overpriced pizzas and brag to your friends how you pretended to enjoy the thin crust and the flimsy layer of “artisanal” cheese. Meanwhile, any real neighborhood pizza place will get you a delicious slice or pie for a good price. Here’s an effective litmus test of any New York pizza place: if it doesn’t have parmesan cheese for you to sprinkle on your pizza, walk away.

The Central Park Zoo. Every zoo in New York that isn’t the Bronx Zoo is playing second fiddle to that fine animal kingdom. The Central Park Zoo gets lots of foot traffic because of its location but it’s overrated and doesn’t have as much to offer as its counterpart in Queens. People are too enthralled with being in the heart of Manhattan to notice that the zoo they paid for sucks. Take the 7 train to Queens and you can experience the Queens Zoo in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The Queens Zoo is half the price of the Central Park Zoo and has more to offer.

Thanksgiving Eve Balloon Inflation Stampede. The night before Thanksgiving, thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers, tourists and their children make their way to the Upper West Side to see the Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons before the parade. While it’s a relatively mild, family-friendly mob scene, it’s still a mob scene that requires you to pack into a small area where you have no choice but to follow the slow moving crowd. The balloons are inflated but kept under nets at odd angles. This might make for some unintended comedy. It might look like the Buzz Lightyear balloon is being fellated by Pikachu and that might be hilarious, but it’s not hours of being herded like cattle hilarious, and you can’t expect your children to find that funny if you’re a parent. Wait until the Big Apple Circus comes to your borough and take the kids to see that. There will be some impressive talent and you can save Thanksgiving Eve for preparing for Thanksgiving.

Fancy cupcake shops. I like cupcakes as much as the next guy, but any bakery not run by blind monkeys can churn out delicious cupcakes. How a few choice cupcake stores have made everyone whore themselves out for their goods is beyond me. I was at a catered event and had a cupcake from the Magnolia Bakery. It was good, but so where cupcakes I had from school bake sales and every other bakery I’ve been to. For a good New York dessert experience, go to the Lemon Ice King of Corona in Corona, Queens. It is a famous place but it’s far enough away from Manhattan that you’ll have a real New York experience and not be a fool.

New York Has Beach Bums and Boat People

The beach bum and boating life are usually the providence of Florida or California. We don’t normally think of the metropolises of the Northeast to be home to the sun culture of people who live on boats or spend all of their time on beaches. But you can find some interesting seaside life right here within the five boroughs.

You can find a beach bum type atmosphere at Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Boardwalk of Coney Island, where you would swear you were at a seaside Florida town where everyone had overdosed on some combination of sunshine, sand, Jimmy Buffet and/or crystal meth. It is a haven of grizzled sea dogs and leathery skin but it is10 times better than most bars in Brooklyn today. Ruby’s has survived for 80 years, no small feat in our rapidly changing metropolis.

A few years ago, I had the honor of being present when the ashes of New York poet, lyricist and musical performer known as ZAK were spread at sea. The friends of the deceased chartered a special boat that took off from the Marine Basin Marina, a small marina in Brooklyn not far from Coney Island. The marina was near some industrial areas and not connected at all to any of the more celebrated boardwalks of Coney Island or neighboring areas. It was a small and relatively desolate area but even in October it was populated by a small number of people who were living on their boats and didn’t want to leave yet. It’s even possible that some of them lived on their boats permanently.

Living on a boat or having access to one is a form of freedom that no one else has. If you have a boat with access to the ocean, you can travel to anywhere in the world. If I get in my pickup truck I can drive pretty far in it if I had enough gas money but I couldn’t get to Spain, the Philippines or the Cape of Good Hope. Those people docked at the marina in Brooklyn could step on their boats and, with enough fuel and good weather, travel to any continent in the world they wanted. You wouldn’t necessarily expect such a sun-drenched boat culture to be alive and well within the boundaries of New York City, but it is.

Near where I live now in Flushing, Queens, one can find the Bayside Marina for a taste of marina life. The marina sits in Little Neck Bay, the bay that gave us Little Neck clams and serves the shores of both Queens and Nassau County. It is accessible by the Cross Island Parkway by car or by foot or bicycle via a path from nearby parkland. At the end of a long pier is a small nucleus of buildings and decks where a small restaurant will sell you fried food and also sell you flares for your boat. You can hear a loud radio in an adjoining place where boaters radio in as they approach their berths. Joggers, dog walkers and people out for a stroll wander onto the pier and mingle with the salty boating types and die-hard fisherman.

One can also find people fishing on all the shores of the five boroughs. You have to be a special kind of brave to eat fish that have come from the polluted waters of the city. But wherever there are docks and piers you can find people fishing or else find the slimy evidence of their presence. Plenty of piers throughout the city even have counters or sinks set up specifically for people to clear their fish.

Queens is also home to both the Rockaways, which has a large beach and boating culture of its own, as well as the small community of Broad Channel, which sits right in Jamaica Bay.

The city’s many coastal communities are still trying to recover from super storm Sandy that struck New York in October 2012. Before the summer is out, or even in the fall, go visit these places and enjoy, even for a minute, the beach bum or boating life.

New York Summers Are For Free Shakespeare

Summer is when many New Yorkers plot when and how they are going to leave the city for as long as possible. Although this has been a relatively mild summer so far (we still have to get through the rest of August), New York summers can be a cauldron of oppressively humid heat and sweaty anger.

But New York City is also a place of free Shakespeare in the summer, and if you have not gotten to one of the city’s offerings of free Shakespeare, make plans to do so at once.

The most well-known free summer Shakespeare plays are those produced by the Public Theater in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. But there are many others and they run the gamut. Many are done in parks and one is even produced in a parking lot.

When I lived in Inwood in uptown Manhattan I made sure to attend the Inwood Shakespeare Festival of free plays in Inwood Hill Park courtesy of the Moose Hall Theater Company. A few summers ago I was fortunate enough to attend The New York Classical Theatre’s production of King Lear in Battery Park that featured my uncle Andrew in the role of the fool.

Living in Flushing, Queens among throngs of Asian immigrants and currently out of the zones of hipsters and rapid (or at least costly) gentrification, I am fortunately still walking distance from seeing the Bard’s work performed.

The Hip to Hip Theatre Company specializes in bringing Shakespeare to the people of Queens. I was recently fortunate enough Hip to Hip’s production of Cymbeline that was performed in the garden of the Voelker Orth Museum in Flushing. I walked straight there from the Main Street stop of the 7 train and arrived with time to spare. I was able to stroll home afterwards with no trouble.

My wife and our two baby girls got there before me and the good people of the museum had us set up nicely with some folding chairs on either side of our double-wide jogging stroller (bringing a double-wide jogging stroller to an indoor production would indeed make us among the rudest people on Earth but this was in an outside park and we were not in anyone’s way, really).

The audience was at full to overflowing capacity well before show time, and more folding chairs were brought out and placed wherever people could find space without getting in the way of the actors. There was a children’s presentation before the show began. A member of the theater company brought children from the audience up in front of the crowd and put them through their Shakespeare paces, including getting them to perform dramatic Shakespearean deaths.

The show started and despite obstacles that come with performing in public, outdoors and in New York—actors dealt with microphones that cut out and fed back and they were constantly competing with the sounds of overhead airplanes and a running power generator—the cast forged through and put on a great show.

Watching Shakespeare in summer twilight is special no matter where you are. The changing light signals a cooling of the air and the start of night and new possibilities. Dusk ushers in with it the promise of adventure under the cover of night and hearing the poetry of Shakespeare’s plays as the sun sets is magnificent and is a joy that can’t be duplicated.

Watching Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in the summer night was outstanding. Even though we wrestled with two baby girls the whole night and even had to take them to the back when they started getting noisy (they liked the show and got excited), it was still possible to get lost in the beautiful language of the play. And Cymbeline has everything: romance, long-lost relatives, bloody swordfights, the works.

Once the show was over, audience members and actors alike paid compliments to our twin girls. I am proud that they went to their first Shakespeare performance when they were only six months old. The Hip to Hip Theater Company is to be admired for so ably fulfilling its mission.

Don’t miss the chance to see some Shakespeare this summer.

The Horror That Is The 7 Train

Speaking in 1999, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker said the following about New York City:

“Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing…”

Saturday Night Live’s Colin Quinn, doing the weekly news spot, said this about Rocker: “He might be a bigot, but he’s definitely been on the 7 train.”

Despite all the romantic notions you may have in your head about New York, there are some traditional New York experiences that are never pleasant no matter how much you romanticize them. Being mugged is never fun; neither is stepping in dog shit or having to smell a homeless person.

Another old New York tradition that is no fun is the 7 train. The 7 train is a human cattle car of endless misery and inconvenience. It perfectly combines all the incompetence of New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority with the rancid overpopulation of our city that makes New York the cultural calling card of the dying American empire.

I live in Flushing, Queens and work in lower Manhattan. I have an hour-and-15-minute commute each way when things go well, but things rarely go well. I take a bus to downtown Main Street Flushing, which has a crowd density similar to that of Times Square, and board a 7 train that takes me to Grand Central, where I take either the 4 or 5 train (also no joy) to the Bowling Green station near where I work.

Today I managed to get down the overcrowded stairs to the train platform only to miss the closing doors of a not-very-crowded 7 train by seconds. The next express train arrived soon but sat on the platform for 10 minutes and didn’t leave the station until it was wall-to-wall people.

Sometimes the 7 train likes to quit on you and dump all of its passengers out a random stop. “This train is out of service! No passengers!” the conductor will announce. Sometimes the express 7 train decides to go local, sometimes without telling its passengers until they’re at a stop they didn’t plan on making. On the weekends, the 7 train doesn’t run any express trains at all and often will have large service gaps that will leave its passengers scrambling to shuttle busses or trying to find alternate trains to take.

In September, when the U.S. Open is happening at the U.S. Tennis Center, the 7 train is flooded with tennis fans who are clueless as to where they are going and completely unschooled in subway etiquette. Sometimes a perfect storm of passenger clusterfuck will happen and you’ll have Mets fans and U.S. Open fans cramming the same trains heading to the Willets Point station.

The 7 train will often stop service entirely or delay service torturously or decided it doesn’t want to run express trains at the height of rush hour. Often the reason the MTA gives passengers for this is “signal problems.” One winter I asked an MTA worker on the platform why express service was abruptly canceled and he answered, “It’s cold outside, sir.”

I don’t bother trying to get a seat on the 7 train. Those are the dominion of sharp-elbowed Asian women who push their way onto the trains before the unfortunate souls who have to commute to Flushing can exit. I actually prefer to stand. I’ll actually have more room standing and the ride isn’t that long. Besides, I sit on my ass for eight hours at work. I usually try to position myself directly between two car doors in the center of the car, where the crush of passengers will be slightly less.

It is often standing-room only before the trains leave its first stop, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to cram themselves on to the train at later stops.

The 7 train is one of the oldest lines in the city, so its rails are close together and the cars that fit on the tracks are narrow and without as much room as other trains. It is also the only subway serving some of the most densely populated parts of the city and it terminates (for now) in Times Square.

And the 7 train is about to get worse. The geniuses who run our transit system decided it would be a good idea to cram 15 pounds of ham into this 5-pound bag instead of 10, so the 7 line is being expanded all the way to 34th Street and 11th Avenue. This means more crowding on a subway line that can barely handle what its current ridership. Joy.

There are some upsides to the 7 train. Most of it is above ground, so you can see some beautiful views of Queens and Manhattan that you won’t see from any other train line. Also, while it is regularly packed to the gills, most of the riders are working New Yorkers who are not there to cause problems; you don’t have the thug element of the A train or the hipster abominations of the L line. Because the trains are so crowded all the time, you have fewer homeless and crazies. I have never seen a “Showtime!” subway dance troupe try to ply their obnoxious trade on the 7 train.

For all its faults, the 7 line has stood the test of time, and if overcrowding doesn’t bring it crumbling to the ground this year, someone will be bitching and moaning about it 100 years from now.

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