Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Just wanted to wish you all a happy holiday today. Considering the state of the world around us, it's good to take whatever crumbs of warmth and joy we can get.

Friday, December 12, 2008



That is probably the best way to describe the way my life has been in recent weeks---or, heck, months. Neither overwhelmingly exhilarating nor out-and-out soul-sucking, my life both at work and outside of work have been...well, pretty much same-old same-old.

In other words, I definitely need some kind of a shaking up.

I never got around to making a list of things I'm thankful for on Thanksgiving. (I haven't done a lot of things on this blog, as some of you may have noticed.) It's a pretty small list, but not insignificant.

I'm thankful, for instance, that I actually have a steady job---that isn't something to sneeze at considering the state of domestic and international economies these days. I'm thankful that said job at least inspires a modicum of creativity every day, as I try to improve my caption- and refer-writing abilities in addition to my usual, um, "clerical" duties, I guess (what all that practice will eventually lead to, however, has yet to be determined). And I'm thankful that the job allows me to interact with interesting people (or, at least, interesting when they aren't complaining about job-related stresses on a daily basis).

I'm thankful, in many ways, for my commute; long it may be (about 1 hour and 20 minutes door-to-door, depending on traffic), but it gives me a reasonable amount of extra free time every day to indulge in my personal artistic consumption---in other words, reading and music-listening. I certainly didn't have quite this amount of extra time when I was driving to and from South Brunswick. (Theoretically, this frees up time in the evenings for more movie-watching, but my Netflix subscription has been moving pretty slowly recently---and I've only got maybe two or three more weeks to catch up on 2008 releases that I missed!)

And I suppose I should be thankful---i.e. not take for granted---that I have a roof over my head and parents who, for all the exasperation they may cause in me, are willing to provide for me.

That said, could there be such a thing as getting too comfortable? I've grown into something of a daily routine now, and I'm pretty comfortable with that routine. But then I start thinking about my oft-discussed aspirations for my future, and I then begin to feel restless, impatient. Obviously, getting into a position where you can write about the arts full-time isn't something that just happens to someone, and so I've always looked at the relatively humdrum way things are in my life right now in the context of a larger, longer narrative. I guess, however, I'm somewhat torn between my desire to take a big plunge and my comfort with the way things are. Strike the iron while it's hot, one side of me says: you're at The Wall Street Journal, and it's time to use that connection to your advantage! Then the other side says: Am I ready for the big time? Do I have the depth of knowledge that distinguishes one arts critic from, say, a perhaps more-knowledgeable-than-usual ordinary Joe off the street? (Lord, if you only knew how many of the supposed classics films I still haven't seen yet!)

Of course, I could be saying that for the rest of my life and never actually get off my ass and do something.

I'll say this much: the longer I go without writing longer pieces, the more I feel like I'm wasting away. Writing something other than these kinds of let-it-all-hang-out personal entries is difficult for me: when it comes to reviews and such, I end up slaving over it, sometimes agonizing, endlessly tweaking. And it always comes out long---verbosity seems to be part of my nature as a writer. Nevertheless, I probably do need to just do more of it, and not get too complacent with that aforementioned daily routine. (Maybe it's time to work on conciseness and economy.)

Don't consider this any kind of mission statement going forward. It's just that today I found some free time and decided it was time to put "pen to paper," so to speak, and write whatever came to my head. Forgive me, then, if none of the above makes any coherent sense. Hopefully this means a bit more posting in the future---especially as 2008 comes to a close and I try to work up something like a Top 10 Movies list for the year.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Date of Birth

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For the folks who are still following this blog, even after my two-month absence... is my 23rd birthday.

I would be more reflective and take stock of where I am in my life and my goals at this point in my life, but for now, I just feel like celebrating!

I'm going to be at Josie Wood's Pub & Restaurant at around 9 p.m. tomorrow night at 11 Waverly Place in New York. If you read this blog and don't have any pressing plans, by all means, feel free to come around and say hello!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Comedies of Power

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm taking a week off from The Wall Street Journal next week; I have a whole slew of vacation and personal days that I can hopefully use up before the year is out (at Dow Jones, vacation and personal days don't carry over year-to-year). I'm not going anywhere special for this particular vacation, so that might mean more blogging than my one-entry-a-week usual---key word being "might."

The truth is, I haven't been in much of a blogging mood recently. With the exception of the Coen Brothers' hilarious tragedy Burn After Reading, most of the movies I've seen in theaters have ranged from art-house disappointments (Carlos Reygadas's visually sumptuous but simplistic Silent Light, Béla Tarr's dull The Man from London) to pleasant diversions (the agreeable Ghost Town, worth seeing for the wonderful performances) to unmitigated trash (Righteous Kill, Eagle Eye, and especially Alan Ball's Towelhead---none of which I was really interested in seeing, all of which I was dragged to by a friend)---so no great discoveries in movie theaters recently (except maybe how much of a hack Alan Ball truly is outside of TV). I've been too wrapped up in other things outside of work to get moving on my Netflix subscription (stuck in between the first and second panels of Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales). And so much has been happening in this country recently---the financial crisis, the controversy over the bailout bill (approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush yesterday), the continuing presidential campaign---that I guess I've started to really sit up and take notice.

Not that I really like much of what I see right now in the news. If anything, seeing Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the House of Representatives fumble about on Monday on its way to defeating the initial incarnation of the Treasury's (problematic, to say the least) bailout plan made me think about just how much bleak comedy can sometimes be glimpsed among our supposed elites, not to mention regarding this particular situation we find ourselves in. It's not that I agree with the crowd of House Republicans who, on Monday, after the bill failed, blamed Pelosi's speech for changing people's minds (this after vocally emphasizing the need for bipartisanship in Congress, mind you); it just exasperated the hell out of me that Pelosi decided to choose that moment---on the verge of a vote on an important bill that pretty much demanded strong support from both sides, regardless of reservations---to tear into the Republicans and trumpet how Democrats knew this was coming all along. Really, Ms. Pelosi? You're making a party pitch now, of all times to do it? But then, the Democrats have been so seemingly ineffectual these past two years, even with their majorities in both Congressional houses, that this couldn't help but both amuse and somewhat depress me. It reminds me why politics have almost always turned me off---so much pettiness, so much distortion.

Oh, but you might say, you're being too cynical; you're just looking for an excuse to remain disengaged. Well, look at the country's economic and political situation now and tell me how else I should look at it. Hopeful? If there had been more regulation of lenders, if people hadn't been so reckless with borrowing beyond their means, if banks and other financial institutions hadn't been so reckless with lending...who knows what better shape we might be in now? I know, I know---mistakes were made, but, as Alaska's great political comedian Sarah Palin said at Thursday night's vice-presidential debate, we have to look forward now, not look back, goshdarnit. But with a bailout plan that was conceived more as a temporary band-aid than as an ambitious law tackling root causes (although maybe you just can't regulate human greed), maybe---as with the Iraq mess---dwelling on mistakes made isn't such a bad idea.

Sorry, but this situation can't help but drive me up a wall when I think about it. Why this should be, I don't know; I'm not directly affected by the financial crisis right now. Maybe I'm too much under the influence of Howard Zinn's fascinating People's History of the United States---with example after example of elites giving into power-hungry impulses or influences of business interests, and not representing the interests of their constituents as they ideally should---to get past my (to quote Armond White) "superficial modern negativity." Certainly, the fact that I view both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, with a certain amount of skepticism isn't helping me feel any better.

But I think I'll get to that some other time; for now, I might as well jump back into Eric Rohmer.

Friday, September 26, 2008

My Lenny

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm not entirely sure what the occasion is for "Our Lenny," a celebration/retrospective of the legendary musician Leonard Bernstein that's airing on WNYC, New York's public-radio station; sure, it's the 90th anniversary of his birth in 1918, but why 90? Why not 100? That number sounds more "celebratory," to me. Whatever. The program started a couple days ago, it's running for a little over two weeks, and it has recently gotten me to reflect on how Bernstein, in a certain way, affected my own way of looking at music, art and the world. If the following personal testimonial sounds like fanboy gush, I apologize, but in this case, the man is, for the most part, worth the gush.


I don't remember exactly which year it happened---it was probably during one of my middle-school or junior-high-school years---but one day, I was browsing through the classical-music section of my local library, and I came across a box set they had available that piqued my interest. It was Leonard Bernstein's second complete Mahler symphony cycle on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and the first thing I noticed was that each jewel case of the 13-disc set was a photo of the grand old man Bernstein, always in the midst of symphonic rapture, eyes closed or face in a half-smile, living the emotion of a particular musical moment onstage.

But I didn't pick the set up primarily because of the conductor. At the time I had developed a mild obsession with Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony (his second, for those who aren't hip to it), especially its finale, a visionary 30-plus-minute epic narrative that plumbs the depths of, well, sonic and spiritual death and transfiguration (to borrow the title of a Richard Strauss tone poem). I had heard one previous CD recording of the work---a reasonably fine Teldec disc with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic---but Bernstein's interpretation was something else entirely.

In the finale, about 10 or so minutes in, after a brief hushed moment from the lower strings (this coming after a powerfully sustained orchestral tutti), a drumroll materializes from the ether and begins a gradual crescendo, underpinned by tam-tam. At the peak of its crescendo, the brass punches out three notes; Another gradual-crescendo drumroll/tam-tam combo occurs, followed by the brass punching out two more notes until the entire orchestra bursts in---the "march of the dead" has begun. It's a breathtaking passage, and Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic played it in suitably impressive fashion. But then I turned to the equivalent passage in the Bernstein recording and it was like hearing something from another world. As he and the New York Philharmonic played it in their 1987 DG recording, he stretches out that initial drumroll to about 20 long-drawn seconds before the brass enter; I'm not sure I could ever do it justice in merely trying to describe it, but the effect, as executed by Bernstein and his orchestra, was exhilarating, alive and absolutely nuts---a total fulfillment of the "Christendom gone mad" characterization Bernstein articulated in an essay about Mahler that was included in the box set.

That week I rabidly devoured the rest of that box set, and each recording provided one profound emotional epiphany after another: the glowing hymn to love that rounds off Mahler's gigantic Third, the terrifying depths of despair and tragedy covered by his Sixth, the modernistic weirdness of the Seventh, the bleak leave-takings of the concluding Adagio of his Ninth (answered with a bit more affirmation with the opening Adagio of his unfinished Tenth). All these delirious sounds were coming out of my radio, being channeled from the pages of Mahler's score through Bernstein's baton through my speakers. Under Bernstein, Mahler's music embraced profound emotional extremes, and that certainly spoke to me during a time in my life---adolescence---when I couldn't help but feel those extremes and embrace artworks that expressed exactly what I felt, or what I wished I could feel, in raw, uncompromising terms.

Bernstein's emotionally generous, yet never crude, approach to Mahler---and to just about all of the music he composed and conducted through his long and illustrious career---is not the only one, of course, and one could certainly make the argument that, as an interpreter in general, Bernstein had a tendency to put himself above the music he was supposed to serve, especially in concert when he made his own athletic podium manner a part of the attraction. Egotism and exhibitionism? Maybe. And yet, I think it would be short-sighted of me to deny the profound effect Bernstein's music-making had In one fell swoop, he helped open my eyes to a certain way of approaching art: an approach that isn't afraid of feeling, of finding rough beauty in ugliness, and, above all, isn't overly concerned with maintaining good manners at the expense of human warmth. (It's a temperament that, by all accounts, extended into his personality and personal life---his desire to bring the joy of music to everyone's life.) Perhaps I've been unduly spoiled by his openhearted, soul-baring emotionalism, but it's the kind of feeling I can't help but crave from artworks these days---music, movies or otherwise.

P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't take the time to mention that this is one of my favorite records ever, and that if you haven't heard Bernstein's live 1988 take on Shostakovich's much-maligned "Leningrad" Symphony, as performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its pulverizing brass, oh boy, are you missing out!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sense and Sensibility?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Man, what a week!

I don't think I have to recount for you all the whole host of bad news that came out of Wall Street this past week. Turns out Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were only the tip of the iceberg, to say the least, as firms like Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG all seemed to fall like dominoes, one after another. The latter two got some help, either from another investment firm or from the Fed; Lehman, however, ended up having to fend for itself and file for bankruptcy. (After bailing out those first three organizations, I guess the Fed had to draw a line somewhere, though, of course, tell that to all those people with families who are in grave danger of losing their jobs because of the Chapter 11 filing.)

Anyway, all this turmoil in the financial markets found something of a mirror reflection at The Wall Street Journal---lots of late lock-ups, lots of last-minute decisions to be made, etc. Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the restructuring that's going on at the Global News Desk, which has meant a short staff in general and thus lots of responsibilities being heaped upon less people than usual. But I can't help but think there's still some kind of correlation between this financial crisis and some of the fresh stresses at my little corner of the journalistic world. Has to be, right? We are The Wall Street Journal, after all...

As ever, I'm maintaining positive thoughts in my head: from simply a dispassionate-observer point-of-view, all of this is rather fascinating to watch and be a part of. And at least I still have a place to go and earn my keep every day (a place where I'm fairly well-respected as well---that certainly helps).

And to what's going on in the markets right now...well, I apologize if this sounds flippant or snarky, but I can't help but echo something an NPR anchor uttered earlier in the week, when he said that even his six-year-old daughter knows not to lend money to people you suspect may have trouble paying you back (or something to that effect). Seems like plain old good sense, doesn't it? But apparently good sense is the first thing to fly out the window, for lenders, borrowers and regulators, when times are good financially...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lucky Me

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Next week I'll probably put up a more substantive post, especially after seeing the Coen brothers' latest film, the farce/tragedy Burn After Reading, which I enjoyed immensely and which once again has me reflecting on just what kind of "contempt" is seemingly acceptable among many film critics these days. (Once again, I'm seeing adjectives like "snarky" and "condescending" popping up in critics' reviews, and it's enough to make me tear out some of the hairs from my head in frustration.)

In the meantime...well, I might as well link all of you readers to a link to a personal essay I recently wrote for what I guess one could unofficially call the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund '08 blog, created not only for the current crop of copy-editing interns that went through Professor Edward Trayes's rigorous (to put it mildly) two-week residency at Temple University, but also for past Trayes alumni like myself. Basically, it sums up what has happened to me at Dow Jones in the past few months, amidst all the talk of relocations, layoffs, consolidations and such.

It also had a concluding section of personal advice that was apparently cut out of the post as it finally appeared I'm going to reprint that truncated final two paragraphs or so below---just because I feel like it.

Thus, I come to the part of my entry where I guess I’m supposed to offer some advice to all you Trayes vets out there reading this blog. Well, I’m not the one for advice; I don’t think I’ve really lived enough to have much interesting advice to impart. Still, I have gotten something out of my recent experiences that I would love to share with you all, if you haven’t figured this out already for yourselves.

Basically, it’s this: don’t be afraid to just go wherever the wind takes you. You never know where you will end up, and that way of thinking just makes life much more colorful and interesting. This isn’t to say that you should take a passive approach to your own life and career; certainly, it’s good to have a long-range goal in the back of your mind to guide you in your decision-making. But be eager to take on a broad range of tasks, expanding your skill set, even stepping out of your own comfort zone once in a while. Such an attitude of openness can only help as your career rolls along. And if you ever become worried that all this experimentation may lead you astray from your long-range goals…then I can only suggest that, with a combination of smarts and luck, yes, it’s quite possible to be confident that eventually things will work out in the end, whatever issues you will come across. It has certainly worked out for me up to this point, in more ways than I ever dreamed.

Friday, September 05, 2008


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I know, I know: it's been about two weeks since my last update.

When I've taken such lengthy breaks between posts in the past, it's because I haven't been able to work up the enthusiasm to blog about anything in particular. This time, however, I think I can honestly say that I've been legitimately too busy both at work and outside of it these past couple of weeks to have the time to sit down and compose a thoughtful, substantive entry. Yes, readers, I have actually, for once, been living it up! (We'll see how long that lasts.)

What have I been doing, some of you might be wondering (if you haven't abandoned this blog already)? An accounting of events and impressions is in order...


Over the years, I've developed a bit of an allergy to the institution of the Broadway musical---not just because Broadway has recently been putting on too many revivals, revues and movie-to-stage adaptations to my liking, but also because I've just found the genre increasingly irrelevant: too many glitzy, empty spectacles, too little connection to anything resembling reality or art. That said, I've still attended a good amount of local musical productions: at Rutgers, the Livingston Theater Company made musicals its raison d'etre (even though their productions rarely ever approached anything beyond the agreeably second-rate), and every summer a friend and I check out generally high-quality productions at Plays in the Park, a state government-sponsored theater that stages musicals outdoors at dirt-cheap ticket prices. Thus, I've had more than my fill of Broadway musicals---but precious few of them have made such a profound impression on me that I would rank them aside, say, some of the more revelatory movie-watching experiences of my life. Perhaps a Livingston Theater Company production of A Chorus Line was the closest I've ever come to actually feeling something close to rapture at a Broadway musical. That show, with its tough-minded portrait of backstage Broadway life, broken dreams and artistic compromises, felt deep and humane in ways that other hit shows I've seen---like Cats, Miss Saigon, and The Producers---don't even bother to approach. Those three---among many others I've seen---may make for great tourist attractions, but they're high on glamour and short on humanity. And as for actually going to New York to see these shows...well, do I even have to remind you all how expensive those tickets can get? (Oops, I guess I just did.)

But a few weeks ago, a friend of mine brought up the idea of finally biting the bullet and plunking down our hard-earned money to see a show in the city---Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's 2007 Tony Award Best Musical winner. My friend's main interest in seeing it mostly lay in glimpsing a new cast member, Hunter Parrish, the MILF-loving son in Weeds. I had heard other friends rave about the show, so I figured I'd take a chance on it (a $94 chance, to be precise).

Folks...Spring Awakening is so good that it provided an awakening of sorts in me: a reawakened thirst for more theatrical experiences, and in general more of the culture, high or low, that New York has to offer. Frankly, the idea of seeing art-house films after a tiring day at work just isn't exciting me anymore (I almost dozed off at the last one I saw, Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon; that doesn't mean the movie was bad---the parts I was fully conscious for were actually quite breathtaking---just that I had a really long day); it's time to branch out. As Frank Sinatra famously sang: I want to be a part of it---New York, New York!

Oh yeah, back to Spring Awakening. My theater-going companion, in typical ad-blurb style, simplified it down to a cross between Rent and The History Boys. Um, well, I haven't seen the latter, in either its stage or screen incarnations (although, having heard something about its plot, I think I get what he means by evoking the title), but if you're going to bring in Jonathan Larson's much-acclaimed rock musical into the discussion, then allow me to go against the grain and state that, at its best, Spring Awakening, in its excoriating view of both teenage sexuality and damaging adult prudery, strikes me as a hell of a lot less sentimentalized and false than Rent. Larson threw in a lot of superficially "edgy" topics---homosexuality, AIDS, the vagaries of living the bohemian lifestyle---but failed to bring anything resembling social insight or even many memorable tunes ("Seasons of Love" notwithstanding), leaving it a rather shallow celebration of youthful artistic rebellion.

Some of that sentimentality admittedly underlies Spring Awakening: For the most part, the adults in the story are portrayed as either broadly villainous or just plain clueless in their overprotective nature. (That all the adult roles are taken on by a male and a female actor suggests a view that all adults, at least in the show's universe, are pretty much the same.) Spring Awakening is, to put it simply, all about the kids. On the other hand, to criticize the show for being adolescent-centric would be missing the point not only of this show, but also the 1891 Frank Wedekind drama on which it's based (side note: I haven't read or seen the play, but I've heard that it's even more provocative and daring in its depictions of budding sexual confusion than the musical)---one of its more plangent points being that to shield young children from the truths about sex and adolescence is not honorable good taste or good manners, but has its own set of possibly tragic consequences.

Tragedy certainly befalls the characters in Spring Awakening...and Melchior, the appealing rebel at the center of the show, isn't exempt from experiencing it. Not that he perhaps didn't bring it upon himself. Melchior clearly prides himself on his "adult" knowledge of sexuality; he's the most thoughtful and well-read character. One can see why his male peers and the girls find him attractive: Melchior's frankness and open-mindedness provides a breath of fresh air from their parents' collective cloistering. But then, as the drama unfolds, the truth eventually reveals itself: Melchior doesn't really know as much about adult behavior as anyone else. Just because he knows the truth of where babies come from doesn't mean he's better equipped to deal with sex and the messy consequences of it. He passes on his sexual knowledge to straining overachiever Moritz, but even he can't prevent Moritz's eventual mental decline as this knowledge more or less tears him apart. Even more tragically, Melchior beckons the shy girl Wendla to let go and give in to her passion as they have their first bout of consensual sex---it's gloriously liberating in the moment, for sure, but the consequences turn out to be dire and, by its conclusion, fatal. Sexual repression may be damaging, but Melchior's single-minded idea of "freedom" turns out to be its own dead end. Adolescence as both a time of exhilarating discovery and a time to realize the agonizing complexities of adulthood---that is Spring Awakening's proposition, one that is put across with just enough nuance, and with no small amount of sympathy and feeling, to make it seem honest and convincing rather than sentimental and pandering.

Certainly, it helps that Duncan Sheik's score is richly varied---hard-driving rock numbers alternating with folk-like ballads---and Steven Sater's lyrics and book psychologically acute. I don't think I've ever seen quite as gut-wrenching a moment in any Broadway musical as the scene in Spring Awakening where Wendla, realizing that she feels nothing at all for a friend's abuse at the hands of her father, meets Melchior and goads him into beating her with a stick---"to feel something," she says. The fact that she expects to feel some kind of pleasure from this will stick in your throat. (Is this how S&M fetishes start?) The shock of the moment, and the hard truth it revealed, left me gaping at the stage.

But that isn't the only revelation this show has to offer. My friend noted that nearly all of the songs---numbers which, rather than merely advancing a plot or providing some cutesy respite from the gloom, serve as expressions of the characters' private emotions, sometimes in deliberately florid, impenetrable flights of poetry, always sung directly to us in the audience (Brechtianism in a Broadway rock musical?)---cut off before their natural endpoint. It's actually another brilliant touch, suggesting the abruptness and fluidity of people's thoughts, the way a thought may simply stop when you're interrupted by something back in real life. And of course there's the fact that the show's makers made no attempt to try to clumsily "update" Wedekind's controversial play beyond having the American cast speak in their natural accents. The fit sometimes comes off a little awkwardly---early on in the show, some of the actors at the performance I went to seemed to be overdoing certain emotional emphases in their speech, as if they were actually trying to preserve something of the feel of the German spoken language while speaking American English---but otherwise the lack of a strong historical component works marvelously to give the story a universal quality that somehow enhances its power, even if the world it creates may feel far from our own.

I could go on, but I'll just end this quasi-review by saying that if you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth the trouble. Dark, unflinching, moving and sometimes quite beautiful, it's a powerful evocation of adolescence on the cusp of adulthood, the limits of freedom and rebellion, and the danger of repression. Spring Awakening ends with its own bit of Broadway-style uplift ("And all shall know the wonder of purple summer," the entire cast sings in its concluding number), but the catharsis is tempered somewhat by the realization that it's not so much a resolution as simply an unresolved cutoff point. Melchior is perhaps no closer to truly understanding the adult impulses that torture him, and the society that surrounds him is arguably no closer to understanding the tragedy of its attempt to shelter its children. The really the only thing left to do is to keep living, because Melchior at least hopefully has his whole life ahead of him, whatever troubles he's dealing with now (and it's a lot of tough shit). When you're an adolescent frustrated by feelings and impulses you don't understand, sometimes it's hard to remember that.


Consider my venture into the U.S. Open last Friday, then, as a pleasant postscript. One of my Wall Street Journal co-workers apparently makes it a ritual every year to buy a bunch of tickets to a day session of tennis at the U.S. Open and then offer them up to people at work. Mind you, I'm not a tennis fan---heck, I'm not much of a sports fan in general---but I figure this would be a nice opportunity to not only mingle with co-workers outside of the workplace, but also spend some decent quality time with one of my younger brothers, who is very much into tennis himself (he played it nearly every day during the summer). Anyway, it was a fun time, although the warm weather blindsided all of us---the weathermen were all saying last Friday would be overcast with a chance of showers; much of the day turned out to be hot, sunny and humid instead. Neither of us were prepared for the bright sun beating down on us; for that reason, we've been battling dry skin on account of the sunburn we both acquired this past week. But my brother seemed to get a kick out of seeing Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the flesh. No Nadal or Venus or Serena, alas. Maybe next year.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

All Talk: Profit Motive, The Dark Knight, The X-Files

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - First things first: I recently dipped my feet back into writing movie reviews for The House Next Door, and my latest review---of Claude Chabrol's latest, A Girl Cut in Two---is up today! Check it out here.


I'm still in my classical-music near-obsessive phase right now (I recently purchased---online, of course---Herbert von Karajan's complete set of Bruckner symphonies, and one re-hearing of the trumpets-blazing coda of the first movement of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony has pretty much gotten me hooked on that piece again), but it's been a while since I blogged about some of the recent movies I've seen. So let's go back into my mental archives...


The most notable new film I've seen in the past few weeks is...well, it ain't The Dark Knight, I'll say that much. (More on that anon.) Instead, it's a documentary entitled Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind: an abstract, experimental hour-long work that tries to essentially illustrate the socialistic version of American history explicated in Howard Zinn's classic People's History of the United States by visiting the tombstones and site markers of the various people and events chronicled in Zinn's book and shooting these structures and their surrounding environments---pastoral landscapes, graveyards, mundane highways, etc. And when I say "shooting these structures," that is exactly what director John Gianvito does: he points a camera head-on at a tombstone or site marker and shoots them---sometimes in interesting angles, sometimes moving the camera up and down. He times each shot so that we in the audience have enough time to read the writing etched on these rocks and take in the suggested meaning of them all. Because Gianvito relies on these sites to tell the story, he eschews voice-over narration and talking-heads interviews, letting the images do the heavy lifting.

The result of this method of filming might sound repetitive, dry or static. On the contrary: it may be the most enthralling demonstration of living history I've come across in any movie, fiction or nonfiction, a fascinating, inspiring work that opens one's eyes toward the ghosts of our nation's past that reside everywhere you look, whether you are conscious of it or not. Profit Motive certainly has an interesting take on American history and the forces that shaped our country and continue to do so---but I'm guessing that much of that take is taken from Zinn's book (I haven't yet read it, to be honest, but the film makes me desperately want to give it a careful read). Its more lasting achievement in broader in scope, and harder to put into words: by the end of its 58 minutes, one's awareness of vast historical and societal forces working underneath the surface of everyday sights and sounds is gloriously reinforced. (The film is no longer playing at the Anthology Film Archives, so, if I've piqued your curiosity, you'll most likely have to wait for a DVD release.)


While Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind operates through blissful, thought-provoking imagery, The Dark Knight operates almost entirely through talk---and pretty mind-numbingly heavy-handed talk at that. Obviously, I am really late to the discussion of what has become a box-office juggernaut that may well run Titanic very close financially speaking during its initial theatrical run. Many friends I respect seem to love it immensely, and I really wish I could share their enthusiasm. I mean, I really do respect Christopher Nolan's ambitions to try to bring more intellectual and moral seriousness and shades of gray (amidst the requisite action fireworks, of course) into the comic-book superhero genre; if a category of films ever needed an infusion of that kind of adult sensibility, the comic-book category is certainly it (although I don't think even this summer's other much-lauded superhero flick, the overpraised Iron Man, provided that sensibility). But I say, what's the use of all that over-intellectualizing over good-versus-evil, order-versus-anarchy, and heroism-versus-vigilantism if there are no human beings to relate to onscreen? Funny how a narration-free documentary seems infinitely more alive than a big-budget action spectacle.

Just about every single character in The Dark Knight remains glued to their preconceived allegorical roots, and nearly every plot twist seems predetermined by the director's philosophical game plan rather than emerging from a sense of exploration and life. Nolan's apparently lack of empathy for his characters as flesh-and-blood people is so deadening that I found it difficult to even feel much for Harvey Dent's eventual corruption into reckless murderous vigilantism. First of all, his penchant for coin-flipping---supposedly espousing a relying-on-chance worldview that the Joker seizes upon in order to seduce him to the dark side---seems so much of a deliberately placed literary conceit that it sucks out all interest in the character himself (despite Aaron Eckhart's valiant efforts to bring emotional credibility to the role) when his moral descent finally, predictably, happens. And the way the film is constructed, if you can't empathize with Dent, the whole movie's sunk, really. He's supposed to be the emotional fulcrum in this theoretical tug of war between the ambiguous hero Batman and the unambiguous villain Joker, one creepy and mysterious but working for the good of Gotham, the other creepy and mysterious and working to bring down its destruction (just for laughs, I guess, although Heath Ledger's conception of the Joker---admirably controlled even when he goes off the rails, which is pretty much throughout the entire movie---doesn't make much room for the funny). Unfortunately, Dent/Two-Face remains...well, a fulcrum. No more, no less.

I should probably qualify all this by admitting that I'm not a huge comics fan and that my only experience with Batman is through the previous feature films (the Tim Burton ones and the earlier Joel Schumacher flick) and glimpses of episodes of the old 1960s TV series. So who knows, maybe this doesn't make me fit to speak with any authority on the fascination of the DC Comics icon. Whatever. Tim Burton, in his two Batman films, was able to wring genuine mystery out of the character; but in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan attempted to demystify Batman's origins, and did so in an often thuddingly literal manner (its worries about the thin line between revenge and heroism was more verbalized than imaginatively demonstrated) with incoherently edited action sequences to boot. Though Nolan has become a smoother action director in this second go-round---he thankfully settles on long takes filled with action rather than MTV-style cutting to simulate a visceral blur---he goes further with the bloodless literalness: the whole movie has become an abstraction, with obvious allegory substituting for human drama. It's way too easy to pick out all the emblems and post-9/11 metaphors, because Nolan lays it all out for you like an analyst laying out a bunch of stock options. Sure, you could say there's something more on its mind than the usual summer blockbuster. But aside from some impressive action sequences (particularly its opening bank heist, with its shades of Heat), a few dryly funny line readings from Michael Caine (as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred) and a climactic sequence that engineers some impressive morally inflected suspense (before ending it in all-too-comfortable box-office tastefulness---really, you think a big blockbuster like this one is doing to risk upsetting the masses by having one boatload of innocents actually go through killing the other boatload?), there's no beating heart to it, or at least no genuinely felt emotions to latch onto. It's a cold, lifeless Philosophy 101 lecture conceptualized in comic-book-movie form; it talks about darkness a lot more than it actually lives and breathes it.


The X-Files: I Want to Believe is actually a vastly more humane and affecting movie, even if it, too, relies on dialogue rather than searing images to explore its themes. But at least the dialogue---written by director Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz---is often a lot more eloquent and poetic than The Dark Knight's comic-book balloons; non-fans might find lines like "I can't peer into the darkness with you" too high-flown, but fans---myself included---should be attuned to its distinctive cadences.

Sure, the movie is basically one long super-sized episode, and yeah, its central plot---despite intimations of homosexuality, pedophilia and other assorted taboos---is disappointingly mundane and draggy compared to some of the wilder inventions of the TV series (the Flukeman, Tooms, Donnie Pfaster, Pusher---hell, I'd even throw the online-preying fat-sucker 2Shy on that list). But how many of its episodes essentially used plot as merely an excuse for deeper, more character-based examinations? In I Want to Believe, Scully is faced---as she often was throughout the series' nine-year run---with the question of deciding whether to go ahead with a risky treatment for a boy with cerebral palsy, or to follow the disapproving glances of her Catholic superiors, who find it better for the boy to simply leave things with God. That dilemma right there is The X-Files in a microcosm: the conflict between faith and rationality, the intersection between following a religion while maintaining a scientific mindset. It was the series' richest theme---and in hindsight, I think even the frustratingly convoluted alien mythology explored that theme in its own operatic ways---and I Want to Believe, for the most part, does right by it, creating involving human drama out of Scully's vacillations, daringly distancing us from Mulder's obsessiveness, and creating a surprising amount of creepy atmosphere out of its Vancouver-shot locations. It's hardly a masterpiece, and I'm not entirely sure what X-Files newbies would really get out of it if they haven't followed the series in depth. But it's considerably better than you've heard. (Were critics really that disappointed that they got this intimate character study instead of another freaky creature feature? Few of the writers I read regularly---with a welcome exception in Roger Ebert, bless him---touched on its religious and moral complexities, or were apparently too jaded to take those complexities seriously. Their loss.)


Also worth checking out, if it's still playing in a theater near you: the French hit thriller Tell No One, with a doozy of a Hitchcockian plot---in which a doctor-husband finds out that his wife may not be as long-dead as he had initially thought---a dazzling foot-chase sequence, a few killer plot twists, some beautiful French (and, in the case of Kristin Scott Thomas, English) women (clothed or unclothed), and some great French actor-legends (like Jean Rochefort and André Dussollier) delivering loads of explanatory dialogue. Who cares if it doesn't totally add up? Tell No One draws you into its wild conspiracy plot while never forgetting to maintain its emphasis on the human beings involved. It's quite entertaining---so entertaining that I bet Hollywood will try to remake this in a couple of years and fuck up its memory. Or is one already in the works...?

Movies I'm interesting in seeing in the theater soon: the hit documentary Man on Wire, Eric Rohmer's supposed valedictory film The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and yes, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.

And to bring this post full circle, let me put in a good word for one of Claude Chabrol's lesser-known masterworks from the late '60s, This Man Must Die, a revenge thriller that develops into a deliciously macabre but fundamentally serious meditation on the cost of hollowing out one's life and humanity for the sake of pursuing vengeance. Its final, breathtakingly poetic image---that of an ordinary man so unsettled by the evil inside him that he literally sails away from the rest of society---puts both the numbly literal vengeance-minded quandaries of both of Nolan's Batman movies and also the over-the-top Greek tragedy of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy to shame (though that doesn't mean I don't still like Oldboy, although maybe not as much as Park's earlier and more harrowing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). It's available on DVD in a watchable non-anamorphic transfer---no matter; its psychological acuity and formal precision still communicate forcefully.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Aftershocks Indeed

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This week, I'm going to bring this blog back down to earth to meditate a little on my own current status within the increasingly troubled, insecure, blurry world of journalism---not to mention within the current job market in general.

As some of you may have heard: a few weeks ago, the higher-ups at The Wall Street Journal decided that it was finally time to consolidate all the news operations and locate them all in New York. Thus, all the bright and wonderful people that I know in my old stomping grounds at the South Brunswick office at the copy desk and pagination departments---among many others affected by this decision---were basically laid off in one fell swoop. Even worse: if some of these people want to stay within the company, they would have to apply for 24 newly created positions, all based in New York, and wait until mid-August to find out if they have gotten these positions.

Jeez, might as well turn this into a Survivor-style competition while they're at it.

In the midst of my recent traffic-ticket and health troubles (yeah, I've had a couple of minor health scares; I'll only reveal them if any of you readers are, er, dying to know), my mother has recently hit upon a new piece of motherly wisdom that she repeats to me over and over: "don't worry." Basically, she thinks I have a tendency to worry too much during times of trouble, and that I dwell too much on negative aspects of a situation. She probably has a point (most of the time, I hate to admit, she does have one when she offers her "advice" to me, especially because I have always considered myself a low-expectations kind of guy---expect the worst, sometimes hope for the best). Anyway, I've been thinking about hope and worry recently in light of what happened to the copy editors, some of whom have been working there for a long time, some of whom have families to take care of, others of whom have to deal with rent and all those other headaches that come with living on one's own. Now they're hit with this piece of anxiety-inducing news and are forced to be kept in dire suspense as to whether or not they will still have a job with Dow Jones come September. I can only imagine what must be going through their minds during such a time. How would I react? Fearful? Apprehensive? Or more numbed by indifference? I can't even bring myself to contemplate the prospect at this point. (I've chatted with a few people at the copy desk since the layoffs were announced, and while most of them try to put a positive spin on their situations---what else can one do at this point, really?---one of them did describe the atmosphere over in South Brunswick right now as something perilously close to a sense of devastation. "People are scared," she said.)

All of this can't help but make me reflect on just how lucky I have been so far in dipping my toes into The Wall Street Journal. Four months into my stay at the (late) monitor desk, I was already emailing the chief of the copy desk, asking him if I could come back to the desk---only to be told that there weren't any more spots for me, at least with the resume I had. (Not that he actually saw my resume, but let's put that aside for now...) At the time, I regretted not going for Rutgers journalism-school credit with my Dow Jones Newspaper Fund copy-desk internship last summer (I had thought I couldn't do if I was getting paid by the company, but the Rutgers journalism school's internship director later told me that, as far as he was concerned, I probably could have done so). I could still be copy editing right now---checking facts and grammar, struggling with headlines, etc.---and not still stuck looking for small production-level flaws and obvious grammar and spelling mistakes in my proofreading, I thought, with a wince, at the time. Now look at the bullet I just dodged!

Sure, there was a month-long stretch during which none of us who were left at the monitor desk had any idea what was in the future for us, or if there was even a future for us within the company. Of course, I did what anyone faced with job insecurity would do: look for other jobs inside or outside the company and apply for them, not pinning all my hopes onto one prestigious, good-looking candidate. And yet, somehow, I never got the sense that my job was on the verge of termination---I took the insecurity in stride and soldiered on, taking an attitude of eagerness to see what would be next for me. Now that I'm firmly ensconced (for now, anyway) at the Global News Desk and taking on new challenges---I'm now doing some photo-caption and refer-box writing, and I recently even decided to try a minor reporting assignment---I can only count my lucky stars and think: maybe there's something to the "things happen for a reason" or the "it'll all work out in the end" clichés after all.

And yet, the reality remains: in the American job market, genuine good news can seem dreadfully difficult to come by. Recently, my father was cut off from his partnership with Canon after serving them for years, and now my mother---who is a postal worker, with the USPS---is in the midst of scary layoff talks at her organization. Maybe it's just our collective bad luck to be working in fields that are arguably falling by the wayside: print journalism, non-digital camera repair, physical mail delivery. Are we just working in analog professions during a predominantly digital era? It's amazing how things just come into vogue and go out of fashion, and all the while time and history just keep progressing along, watching it all with seeming objectivity (no comment, so to speak). I guess all that's left is to make the best of the circumstances...even if it's as little as maintaining a measure of optimism in the face of shifting trends and all the aftershocks they may bring. Aftershocks indeed.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Hills Are Alive...

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Not sure if this is an experience that is universally shared, but...

You know how you experience something that really catches your eye, ear or mind, and suddenly you find yourself gripped in an obsessive need to explore anything and everything related to that original bolt of sensual lightning? You think about it night and day, you scour for more from the creator of that particularly memorable experience, you even lose sleep in order to stay up a bit later than usual in order to have more time to indulge in your explorations.

That's the state I've been in for the past week or so with my music collection---specifically, my (relatively sparse) collection of classical-music recordings.

Yes, I've been bitten by the classical-music bug again after neglecting the genre for what seems like years now, in favor of digging into rock music's past and present. I've been thinking back on some of my previous classical-music experiences---the shocks of discovery and excitement accompanying, for instance, initial, fresh hearings of Beethoven's revolutionary "Eroica" symphony, Mahler's "all-embracing" (his description) symphonic worlds, Bruckner's symphonic cathedrals of sound, Alban Berg's disturbing 12-tone opera Lulu. I've also returned to some of the CDs I have, considering what deserves to go into my iPod or what I might want to purchase in the near future for further explorations.

Most of my reignited interest in classical music probably stems from the sad-but-true fact that I have no life and don't mind sitting in my room in front of my computer for hours on end. (Hey, I'm doing it as I write this, and browsing through the review archives of, the Web site for the British classical-music magazine Gramophone.) Some of it, however, also stems from a book I've been reading recently: The Rest is Noise, a recently published history of 20th-century classical music that balances formal analyses of the music of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Shostakovich, Copland, Stockhausen and many others with valuable historical context and rich biographical detail, all ambitiously wrapped in an amazingly accessible writing style. It's by Alex Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, and it has definitely stoked my interest in either revisiting 20th-century works that I've heard, or hearing works I've never heard before. (Ross is even kind enough to provide a useful list of recommended recordings at the end of his book.)

I'm not nearly done with reading it yet, but so far, it's proven to be just as dazzling and fascinating as film blogger Jim Emerson expressed in an entry he wrote on this book months ago (basically, it was through that entry that I became aware of, and interested in reading, Ross's book). The 20th century was one of the most turbulent and troubling times in Western civilization---what with two world wars, threats of nuclear annihilation and assorted other conflicts and atrocities. No surprise, then, that the century produced some of the most unsettling music ever written---unsettling and endlessly fascinating. Sure, the thorny music of the Second Viennese School---Schoenberg, Berg and Webern---may never be a popular choice at any concert, classical or otherwise. This sure ain't your papa's Bach, Mozart or Beethoven---to some, it might all be, well, just noise. By putting these composers and their compositions in proper historical, societal and cultural contexts, however, Alex Ross helps us appreciate why, for example, Schoenberg decided to create his controversial 12-tone technique (a return to formal order mirroring the way Germany tried to return to some kind of order in the 1920s after World War I), or what inspired the infamous fistfights at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Although The Rest Is Noise is principally about 20th-century classical music, it has gotten me thinking a lot more about music in general---music in the abstract if you will.

Abstract? Exactly!

I hope I'm not the only one who feels that music may well be the most mysterious of all the art forms out there. With painting, at least you have an image in front of you to associate with other images, both by other painters or from your own experiences; books have words; films have both. Compared to music, those art forms feel more concrete, or at least have more concrete elements to them. But what do you see when you open up a music score? All staves, notes and foreign-language instructions on a page! It's like a secret code that only the initiated---composers, conductors, soloists, etc.---can access. Obviously, a good conductor can bring that code to life for audiences to hear and perceive---but even then, the ways in which music affects us can be extraordinarily difficult to try to put into words. How does one vividly convey the sense of disorientation at losing your tonal bearings at Wozzeck? The sense of spiritual peace that accompanies the drawn-out coda of Mahler's Ninth Symphony? Unless the piece has a choral setting, you can't necessarily point to any specific lyric or line of dialogue to illustrate the point. (But hey, even lyrics can be tricky, too; Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello may load up their songs with puns and clever wordplay, but do those prosaic virtues totally account for the exhilarating experience to hearing the whirling "Like a Rolling Stone" or the controlled viciousness of "This Year's Girl"? Not entirely, I would say.)

In music, then, it seems to me that it's almost entirely about how it affects you on a gut level. Not that novels, poetry or cinema don't also hit you on a primal level, but music's effects have always struck me as the much more elusive---and thus maybe the most fascinating---art of all in how it achieves those effects. Notes on a page certainly won't reveal too much, at least to the layperson. (How did conducting geniuses like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein learn and absorb scores? Just by looking at them? That is talent right there.)

I don't really have much more to add to this subject at this time, but it's been on my mind a lot lately, so I figured I'd put it in words. Words---at least words are something I know how to use to express myself!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Brief Life Update No. 23: WSJ-NY---The First Two Weeks

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - After a long delay, it is time for a quick, long-overdue update about my first couple of weeks working at The Wall Street Journal's office in the World Financial Center in downtown Manhattan.

First things first: I am, for the most part, really digging my commute. You would think it'd be a strain to have to wake up at about 6:15 a.m. every morning to try to catch a 7:40ish NJ Transit bus to get to a Jersey City train station, and then hop on a PATH train to get to the World Trade Center site (which, for those who don't know, is right across the World Financial Center). Actually, though...well, it's been an appreciable boon to the amount of free time I have every day to indulge in my pleasure-reading and pleasure-listening. I have about an hour or so each way to read and/or to listen to my iPod---which is about the amount of time for each activity I gave myself many days before I got this job in New York. So now that I can get that stuff done during the day, that theoretically frees up time in the evenings to really catch up on, say, my DVD-watching. (I say "theoretically" because that hasn't quite worked out in the practice so far...but it will soon, I hope.)

And to continue along the lines of movies: my job in New York also means that I am in fairly close proximity to art-house theaters like the Film Forum and the IFC Center---now, those two theaters are only three or four MTA subway stops away if I want to go see a movie in either theater right after work! I've taken sweet advantage of this the past couple of weeks and have caught two (highly recommended) films: Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World (a rambling and irascible but wondrous documentary about, among other things, science, nature, freedom, and the spirit of exploration in all its glories and absurdities) and the recent theatrical premiere of Milestone Films's restoration of Kent Mackenzie's 1961 feature The Exiles (a moving, empathetic, sometimes lyrical evocation of the apparently dead-end lives of Native Americans who have decided to forsake the reservations and live in a big city---in this case Los Angeles). More great discoveries will hopefully follow!

Finally, there's the job itself. As I might have mentioned before, right now I'm back to doing my old proofreading and index-compiling bits that I did for the two international papers before it was decided that the monitor desk would fold. I make no complaints---hey, I'm comfortable doing it, and once in a while it has its rewards---but I am already thinking about what else I might want to try to do in addition to my usual daily dose of reading and catching fixes and such. Maybe this would be a good time to ask to start back up with some mild copy editing. Considering that I'm usually in the office way before my official shift start time---sometimes a whole hour before my shift begins at 10 a.m.---maybe I could put that extra time to good use to point the way toward some kind of career advancement. (Of course, that begs the question of which kind of career I would really like to advance to. Readers, that is a whole other post, one that I'm not particularly in the mood to conceive of right now.)

All in all, things are generally looking up for me right now. I was transferred before the company's recent announcement that it was cutting back on copy editors and shifting most of the South Brunswick operations---copy editing, paginating, etc.---to New York, so I feel like I might have dodged some kind of bullet there. (Imagine if I was still on the copy desk right now. Maybe jumping over to the monitor desk did eventually work out in the end.) And, again as I have probably mentioned before, I'm in a prime position to go somewhere in this company, if I was so inclined.

(Time to start plotting and scheming...)

Friday, July 04, 2008

May It Please the Court

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Another quick life update: yesterday (July 3) was the date of my court appearance regarding those four tickets from my hit-and-run accident a few months back. The result: my lawyer was able to---if I understood it correctly---whittle down the four charges to three, plea down two of the charges to lesser offenses, and thus leave me with two points on my license and a little over $400 in fines, all of which I paid off on the spot. Ugh. Well, I obviously wasn't going to get away scot-free, what with four tickets from one accident---so I'll take it, warts and all.

At least I have money, although today I was spending it like hotcakes; I also purchased my NJ Transit rail pass for the month of July, which cost about another $200. Double-ugh. Money sure does make the world go 'round...

Once I start my new job at the World Financial Center next week, though, I'll not only be possibly cutting down on the chance of more unfortunate traffic accidents/violations; I'll hopefully be saving a lot more of the money I would usually be spending on $4-a-gallon gas and other weekly expenses I might incur driving to and from South Brunswick. More money to spend on pointless shit, yay!

Enjoy your Independence Day, everybody!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Let's Get It Started

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Yes, I know---My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second hasn't been as introspective and exploratory as it used to be. I guess I'm just in the midst of one of those whirligig times in a person's life when stuff just keeps on happening and you don't have much time to stop and think too deeply---or at least, in my case, don't have much time to give voice to deeper feelings on a blog like this.

Well, here's hoping I will regain some of that time soon---now that I've got reasonably settled what my new job up at The Wall Street Journal's New York office at the World Financial Center will be.

Basically, it breaks down like this: I'm back at my old international-edition stomping grounds. I will be working during the day, about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. And I will be doing a lot of what I used to do at the monitor desk---proofreading, double-checking page refers, indexing, etc.---with the possibility of taking on extra duties. I'm not sure what those extra duties would entail, but I'm eager to find out.

This comes as something of a relief, actually. I feared the difficulty I would encounter in trying to figure out how to commute to New York from East Brunswick during the afternoons without having to spend ridiculous amounts of money parking every day (I found out the hard way that parking permits are all but impossible to obtain in such a short amount of time as a few days in both East Brunswick and other cities like New Brunswick, Edison and Metuchen---all with waiting lists of up to 4 years). But a day shift, as far as I can tell, works out perfectly for me---I can take one of the NJ Transit buses that stop by sites near my house in the mornings, and thus not worry about parking costs and such.

And working in New York? Well, it's not exactly living near the city, but for now, it'll do. More opportunities for advancement, for sure.

I'm excited for, and intrigued about, what's ahead. (Maybe a byline in the paper soon...?)

And once I get settled in over there, maybe I can get back to some of the life rhythms I had developed before this state of transition shook things up (in a good way, ultimately).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

New York Minute

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - A brief entry tonight on the big news of this past week: after weeks of being shorthanded---four people, a mere three on some nights---on The Wall Street Journal's monitor desk in South Brunswick, and after a bit of apprehension and even some soul-searching and job-listing-scouring upon hearing about the imminent demise of the monitor desk, I and the rest of my monitor-desk brethren have finally been placed in positions up in the paper's news desk at the World Financial Center.

In other words: I will be finally working full-time in New York City!

Details about what we're actually going to be doing up there are rather sketchy right now (it's quite possible the news editors up there aren't even sure themselves of what they plan to do with us and our combined skill sets); I'm going to have to make a special trip to the New York office this coming Monday in order to meet with a couple of the news editors and ask them questions. (I'll let you readers know of the details once I receive and understand them.)

But anyway, I'm hoping this is the break I need to perhaps finally get something interesting and exciting in my young professional career off the ground. (Time to get a byline in one of the most renowned papers in the world!)

Now to deal with the not-so-fun, i.e. practical, part of this new endeavor: planning out my daily commute from East Brunswick, and figuring out how much of a chunk it will take out of my wallet. That and perhaps finally---finally---moving out of my parents' house and finding a place to live on my own, close to New York. (Living on my own: that thought perhaps makes me more nervous than working in New York, even though I technically haven't done either before.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin (1937-2008)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I was still up last night when I got a NYTimes alert about George Carlin's death from heart failure at the age of 71. My first reaction? "Holy shit!" I might as well have added "piss," "fuck," "cunt," "cocksucker," "motherfucker," "tits" and whatever dirty words Carlin decided to add to that initial seven in later shows.

What else to say about a comedy legend who rarely ever stooped to empty cynicism; who married keen observation and clever wordplay with his own intelligent, freethinking, sharply critical (curmudgeonly?) worldview; and who, at his best, had something interesting, insightful and gutbusting to say about the universal subjects---the absurdities of the English language, the hypocrisies of religion, or the foibles of our modern human species, for instance? Well, certainly not banalities like "Rest in peace" or "May he look down at us all"---because that's the kind of bullshit he railed against.

The man, however, was my introduction to the potential revelations of great stand-up comedy; I mean, for one thing, the man practically shaped my own skeptical views of religion (although no, I don't worship the sun and pray to Joe Pesci). So, yeah, I do consider him something of an important figure in my own artistic explorations.

And, as I was telling a friend, and fellow Carlin fan, earlier today, at least I got to see him live (sometime last year at the State Theatre in New Brunswick).

Anyway, here is one of my personal favorite routines of his: a brilliant deconstruction of the safety lecture that you always hear at the beginning of an airline flight. Of course, I was recently on a plane, and this routine was playing in my head every time I sat through one of those videos. (Warning: the audio/video sync is way off in the second part, so feel free to just listen to the audio.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Holding Pattern

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I will be back with an update---quite a bit has happened since I returned, actually, both good, bad and indifferent---as well as hopefully a link to online web albums of pictures I took in China. Patience. (Besides, haven't I had longer hiatuses on this blog before I decided to force myself to update more regularly? You faithful few should be used to something like this from me...)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Some Final Thoughts/Reflections on China

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Fact: as I have probably mentioned before, I haven't been out of the United States in, I'd say, 12 years or so. My last trip overseas was to Japan, and even then I barely remember anything about it except visiting my aunt, watching Die Hard for the first time and gorging on my American-TV obsession at the time, The X-Files (one two-episode VHS at a time); if we did any sightseeing, I don't recollect all that clearly what we saw. Since then...well, I could point to my parents always saying, at least up to late last year, that they were busy with their jobs---but I'd be talking about them, not me. Truth is, I've probably always been somewhat nervous about exploring the world far beyond the New York/New Jersey area---nervous about dealing with air travel, airport restrictions, all the reservations that would have to be made, etc. And yet, people are always suggesting to me, or flat-out telling me, that traveling to other countries is a good way to expand one's own perspective on the world around you---because, of course, everywhere is not like it is in the U.S. Books, films and TV shows are nice, but one can't hope to rely strictly on those to give you a tangible sense of how it is out there beyond the four corners of one's bedroom.

So when my mother hinted, last fall, of the possibility of a trip to China, I jumped at the chance to go (not least of which was the fact that my mother was paying for most of the trip, that we were joining a guided tour, and that a travel agent had made our air-travel arrangements in advance---to make things somewhat easier on all of us). I'm not sure if China is necessarily/technically a huge part of my heritage---my mother, after all, is a Taiwanese, not Chinese, citizen, and my father is a Japanese one. This trip, then, wasn't the personal equivalent of one of those Israel-birthright trips I see a lot of Jewish young adults take. But, even though English is admittedly the primary language spoken in our household, Chinese culture has always lurked on the margins, whether through adopted customs like rice-eating and tea-drinking, or through my own personal exposure to Chinese pop music (mostly from the '80s) or films. Thus, maybe this trip was a step toward finally bringing that culture to the fore, if not physically in our household, then mentally in my own consciousness.

How'd it go, then, you may or may not be asking? All in all, it was a fascinating and amazing experience, albeit an exhausting one. By my last couple of days overseas, when I visited relatives in Taipei, I could barely muster enough enthusiasm to get out of bed, much less get out of my aunt's house to do some minor sightseeing in the heart of the city. (The on-and-off rain showers didn't help much either.)

But that's at the end. What about the beginning?


Let's start with the tour group I was a part of. The tour company is called Grand Holidays, and it arranged---through a participating travel agent---everything, from airplane flights to restaurant visits to hotel stays, not to mention the tour itinerary. The company spared little expense, too; we got high-class restaurants (all of them buffet-style, with a movable round table in which food---often way too much food---is placed in front of us to pick and eat) and high-quality hotel accommodations. The Great Wall Sheraton in Beijing, the Grand Metro Park Hotel Suzhou (the best of them, I think), the 34-floor Tian Yuan Hotel in Hangzhou---none of them were too shabby, to say the least. (Being used to motels and their less snazzy accommodations when my family has traveled to other parts of the U.S., I was surprised to find that these hotels even went so far as to provide toothbrushes for its residents! Do American hotels do that? Or did I just show how just how sheltered I am by asking that question?)

All of this for a "mere" $1399 a person---really not a bad deal at all, considering how much we see and do in China. I couldn't imagine planning such an elaborate sightseeing tour for myself at that price.


The airports turned out to be a breeze, for the most part---although, on the early morning of Thursday, May 22, when we were driven by my dad to John F. Kennedy Airport to catch a 6 a.m. United Airlines flight to San Francisco, I initially got nervous when, while we were waiting in line to check in our luggage, a man started giving out elaborate instructions about things that couldn't be brought on board, things that needed to be displayed on a suitcase, things that needed to be shown right away in order to speed up the line, etc. (When he got to the part about cosmetics and other small things that could only be placed in zip-lock bags, I said to myself, "I sure hope we don't have things like that, or else this man sounds like he'd get pissed immediately.") Fuckin' 9/11 and the culture of fear. Anyway, there turned out to be nothing to worry about in the end. Everything was processed so methodically---and there were plenty of signs throughout the airport---that my previous fears about getting lost in a huge airport were soon discounted. (I had to conquer similar worries when I tried out NJ Transit and MTA subways for the first time years ago. Unfamiliar transportation and places worry me, what can I say?)


I guess I'll have to wait until another trip to deal with the prospect of having to fend for myself in a foreign country with little-to-no command of its national language, because on this tour, not only was I traveling with my mother and my aunt, both of whom understand and speak Mandarin Chinese fluently---our tour guides were native speakers who could also speak good, comprehensible English. That was necessary, of course, because not everyone in our tour group spoke Chinese; we had a couple of Filipina girls who didn't know the language, as well as a Russian couple from Queens who spoke only English during the tour.

Nevertheless, this trip did give me a chance to test my Chinese-language skills, see how much I could speak and understand. Years ago, when I was in elementary school, I took Chinese-language reading/writing/speaking courses every Saturday at a local junior high school; additionally, in my sophomore year at Rutgers, I took a year of Elementary Chinese. I'm not sure how much all of that previous education---combined with hearing a little of it spoken at home, either through my mother or through the Chinese-language movies I've seen over the years---helped during these 10 days (and, when we got to Taiwan, I was near-clueless when it came to comprehending the Taiwanese dialect). But, early on in the trip, my aunt commented on how good my Chinese sounded (of course, I responded with a humbled "xie xie"). And that, if nothing else, made me feel more confident in using Chinese in certain small situations---dealing with waiters and porters, for example. (When I got a full-body massage one day on the tour, I was forced to try to carry on a conversation in Chinese with the masseuses, even translating words I could understand for my younger brother, who understands just about zilch. I probably didn't make a great go of it, but the female masseuses seemed tickled by my attempts, and my mother eventually came into the room and conversed with them, saving me from further awkwardness.) In fact, I've already started to think about picking up the language full-scale; some people---including one intelligent guy in my tour group---are already predicting that China may eventually overtake the U.S. as the world power, so a working knowledge of the language would certainly be helpful. (That, and I think it's as beautiful and aesthetically elegant a language as I've ever heard and seen---that musical tone of pitches and the visual beauty of its characters!)


When I consider this trip as a whole, I don't think I'd go quite so far as to call it deeply profound or earth-shattering. Even in eight packed, sweaty days, however, I still felt pretty immersed in a culture totally different from the grab-bag American culture I'm so used to. I always tell myself that I love movies that successfully bring me into another world; I experienced that same exciting feeling with a real-life world in China, and that's an experience I count as valuable, or at least worth experiencing. (I wonder how American culture will feel after observing a culture that holds on steadfastly to its beliefs in being at one with nature and maintaining some kind of eternal balance. Oh, but then, on Sunday night, after my dad picked me up from the airport, I immediately decided to have Subway for dinner instead; last night I indulged in some ice cream for dessert. So maybe I'm already getting back to my American ways.) At minimum, this trip has made me more fascinated by Chinese culture (and hopefully not in a condescending Orientalist way); maybe I'll do my own intellectual explorations now that I'm back home. (Jia Zhangke and Tsai Ming-liang, here I come...)

Putting aside all that culturally-aware stuff, however, this China trip, most importantly, got me off my sheltered ass and onto the soil of a foreign country for a much-needed widening of perspective. It helped me get over my own fear of overseas travel and airports. If nothing else, though, at least I can now tell people Ive been to the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Shanghai, etc. (I got the pictures to back it up!)

I'm already feeling the traveling bug itching at me again. Maybe Hong Kong next...?

But first I have to get over this jet lag...not to mention get back to work at The Wall Street Journal (at the soon-to-be-kaput monitor desk, so I'll have to consider larger issues like what kind of job I'd like to try next), deal with this multiple-traffic-ticket situation, see the newest Indiana Jones flick, and many other mundane real-life obstacles that I'm sure will come my way. Ah the real world!

That's about all I've got right now in summarizing Fujishima in China. I'm sure I've forgotten something, though. So if any of you readers want to ask me any questions about my trip, feel free to ask them in the comments section.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I'm Baaaaaack! Plus, More Pictures


Does the fact that I slept pretty deeply on the plane during the day from San Francisco to New York---dreams and everything---signal an uphill struggle against jet lag similar to the way I spent my first few nights in Beijing struggling to go to sleep?

We'll see.

Yes, I'm back on U.S. soil, and none the worse for wear. It feels good being back home, because I'm in comfortable territory here---but, having finally taken what I consider a big step in traveling to a foreign country for the first time in, oh, 12 years, I'm already itching to travel somewhere else far from home, whether within the United States or abroad. (I'll probably wait until next year for another trip abroad, especially if I'm paying for it.)

I'll have more detailed thoughts and impressions soon. For now, how about some more pictures?


Our day in Suzhou ended with both a visit to the Hanshan Temple and a boat ride down one of the city's famous canals. I must have once again run out of battery sooner than I expected at this point, so I have no pictures from both at present. Hanshan was quite beautiful, though, especially seen afar with one of Suzhou's canals below.

Actually here's one picture I was able to get on my camera from one of Suzhou's canals:

Now in Hangzhou:

Yue Fei Tomb

West Lake

I tried to capture, with that ship in the middle, a divide between the big city and the rural trees in the horizon. Not sure if I was all too successful, though, but you can judge for yourself.

Longjing Tea Plantation

Green tea galore here, 100% homegrown and authentic!

And finally...


I tried to catch the Shanghai Stadium in passing; I don't think I was particularly successful, but I'll post the picture anyway.

The Oriental Pearl Tower

Shanghai at night---Times Square anyone?

Sights like these almost made up for my missing Hong Kong this time around.

And finally, a view from the Bund---the Shanghai skyline (although, unfortunately, the weather wasn't exactly the best for seeing it clearly).

A few miscellaneous pictures:

The new Beijing Olympics stadium, in long (and foggy/smoggy) shot:

Another thing I can cross off my I-can-now-say-I've-done-it list: getting a full-body massage. Nope, never done it before. Would I do it again? Well, this particular experience was...interesting, to say the least. I'm not much of a let-yourself-go kind of person, so some of it was more uncomfortable than relaxing. (Besides, I was trying to keep a conversation going with the two female masseuses in the best Chinese I could muster.) But it sure did its job on my joints after the 1 1/2-hour session was over: they felt somewhat close to rejuvenated.

Wuxi is also apparently known for its pearls. So we visited a pearl factory/store. Here's an appetizing shot of pearls in a real live oyster.

Pictures from perhaps the best hotel we stayed at, the Grand Metro Park Hotel Suzhou.

Nice, but wait a minute: where's the lock to this bathroom door?

Answer: there is none. Watch out!

Suzhou seems to have gotten the environmental message faster than most American cities: its streets are rife with bikers and electric scooters. It almost made me wish I could have one of those scooters.

Only thing I regret is not taking photos of some of the food we ate over the past week-plus---especially the Peking duck.

And last but not least, here's a photo of some of the group members in the three-day Beijing leg of our tour, along with our lively tour guide, Andy, peering in all the way in the back.

Good times!