Thursday, June 25, 2009

King of Pop

Michael Jackson died at age 50 in Los Angeles today.
I have to let it sink in, because he was a child star who became a musical icon in the 1980s and one of the most famous celebrities in the world.
My first experience hearing his music came in the 1970s when he was still in the Jackson 5 with his brothers. I didn't think much of him at the time. Then came the 1982 album "Thriller" and my respect for him as an entertainer exploded. "Thriller" was the breakthrough album for Jackson. Everybody owned it, even the kids who were into heavy metal. It was the one album by Jackson that you had because it was such a cultural phenomenon, every song a pop gem.
Why? Yeah, it had the title song with a guest narration by Vincent Price, but it also had songs like "BIllie Jean," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "Beat It", Human Nature" and "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)".
Even if you banged your head with Quiet Riot or rocked out to Def Leppard, you owned "Thriller."
The video for "Thriller" was a pivotal moment for MTV. I remember taping it when if first aired, and being blown away by the chorus of dancing zombies. Yeah, the kids snickered at him for his less-than-masculine movements, high-pitched voice and his tendency to grab his crotch more than an Italian man, but when he sang and danced you knew the guy had talent. You knew he was unique among entertainers.
Unfortunately, after "Thriller", Jackson began his gradual slide into weirdness. Maybe he was a victim of his own success or eccentricities. There was when he tried to buy the bones of the Elephant Man, Bubbles the Chimp, the Neverland Ranch with all of the amusement rides, the llamas, the sleepovers with kids, wearing one diamond-studded glove, the whole dangling the baby out of the window thing, the skin turning pasty white, the plastic surgery that made him look like the Phantom of the Opera and the allegations of child abuse. Within a few years he went from a respected cultural icon to a pariah and outcast.
The comedians ate it up. The media skewered him and said he was this bizarre creepy character, a rhinestone jacket-wearing Howard Hughes, cramped in his childlike Xanadu, moonwalking away from the media that adored him decades before.
What can be said about a man whose fame defined him, whose life is bigger than the sum total of his work?
Was he an oddball? Yeah, but he was no different from the most over-publicized lunatics running amuck in Hollywood today.
The difference between Michael Jackson and the bumper crop of drunken harlots and chiseled playboys is Michael Jackson actually had talent. He wasn't all gaudiness and superficial media stunts. Somewhere within was a person who had a very real gift, a unique voice that is now silent.
When the history of popular music is written, he'll go down as a transformative figure, a modern day Elvis who fought for his fame and in many ways, who changed the face of musical culture.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Twittering Idiot

I succumbed to temptation and created a Twitter account after reading about it in the American Journalism Review. The applications for Twitter in the news business are limited somewhat, but I'll try my best to post relevant things and not updates on what I ate or what I'm watching on TV.
I also updated my blog to accept Tweets so you, the reader can be inundated with a glut of information.
At first, Twitter seems completely pointless and stupid, a networking site that gives users constant up-to-date messages in rapid bursts, 140 characters long. Celebrities, politicians and now journalists are using Twitter, and rather than fall behind and appear like some befuddled old fart intimidated by the latest techno-gimmick, I've embraced Twitter and am using it, but for what or how long remains unknown.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jester's Playhouse

After 12 years and 9 months in business, Jester's Playhouse, a comic book and game store in Northfield, NJ is closing forever.
For many, including myself, Jester's Playhouse was a unique place, an oasis of geekdom in a desert of mediocrity and cultural catatonia that is southeastern New Jersey.
Owners Rich and Joanne Gain were more than proprietors: they were good friends. They're closing shop because of the economy, because they just can't make it.
In 1994, when I moved to Cape May County, I first encountered Jester's Playhouse. Back then, Rich ran the shop in Cape May Court House, where it was strictly a game store. I came in one day looking for Call of Cthulhu RPG books. Right away we clicked: we both liked Lovecraft and RPGs and card games. While I was primarily into Cthulhu then, Rich changed my life by showing me a new RPG, a bright orange book with a zombie gunslinger on the front cover. The game was Deadlands by Pinnacle Entertainment Group.
After reading it, I became instantly hooked. I played my first Deadlands game with Rich as Marshal. My huckster character battled ghosts, zombies and gunslingers along with the posse, a group of guys who I still game with. Yes, we play Deadlands 11 years later, all thanks to Rich.
I became a Deadlands fanatic, snagging up all of the books and boxed sets. I ran the game for a while, taking the posse on adventures I wrote as well as published scenarios.
I even crashed in Rich and Joanne's hotel room, along with a few other people at GenCon in 2000. It was my first gaming convention and was filled with so many great memories.
Rich and Joanne held All Night Gaming at their store, a celebration where you'd pay admission and spend all night with RPGs, card and board games and free food and soda. One night, I played and won a Doomtown tournament.
I started a correspondence with Shane Hensley, Deadlands' creator and president of Pinnacle Entertainment Group. In 2003 one of my scenarios, Fort 51, was published in the Deadlands Epitaph.
Over time, my activities with role-playing games waned, but I still kept in touch with gamers and still read gaming products. In 2005, I began development on my own RPG which used Pinnacle's Savage Worlds system. That game was eventually optioned by Reality Blurs and published in 2008. The game was Ravaged Earth, a pulp game set in an alternate world filled with magic, super powers and fantastic science.
During all of this, Jester's Playhouse remained a beacon of light in a dismal place. Whenever the stresses of my day job got to me, I'd cross the bridge into Atlantic County and head to Jester's, where I'd grab the latest issue of Rex Mundi or The Spirit or some other strange comic book and have these great political discussions with Rich. I appreciated his views and injected humor into the conversations, which were funny and enlightening.
Rich knew I liked pulp, and set aside pulp-themed books and magazines. He also introduced me to great graphic novels such as Transmetropolitan and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
Now it'll be all gone. The wonderful times, the conversations, the afternoons of browsing the stacks.
I wouldn't have played RPGs nor would I have written them if it wasn't for Rich. His goofy little store meant so much to me and so many others, including neighborhood kids who came in and played card games. Within the last year, Rich and Joanne installed a bank of Xboxes and computers and charged a fee to play World of Warcraft and other games. I think they saw the writing on the wall, that RPG sales for them dried up and they inclined heavily on the comic sales and video games.
Rich told me a a year ago that if it weren't for the comic books, the store would've folded.
Now that time is here, with the store only accepting cash before Rich and Joanne close the business they nurtured and grew, a place that meant so much to gamers, comic book enthusiasts and dreamers.
Thank you, Rich and Joanne. You really made a difference in my life.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Circle of Freaks

Government is like a freak show filled with misfits, the botched and the bizarre. There are clowns, deformed conjoined twins, fakirs poking themselves with sharp needles, midgets on stilts, strongmen with bulging biceps, jugglers teetering on unicycles, magicians and conjurers, animal tamers subduing savage beasts and hypnotists mesmerizing the crowd. I function as the ringmaster, presenting this circle of freaks to the public, forging order out of chaos, bringing the masses their show and somehow managing to amaze and entertain.
Every so often, one of the freaks escapes their cages and needs wrangling.
The mayor addressed a citizen’s group last week and claimed “special interest groups” were responsible for lobbying council to approved plastic lit box signs as part of a downtown sign ordinance. The mayor said this went against a focus group that deemed the signs were ugly and tacky.
Needless to say, when I reported this, the downtown business owners who backed the zoning changes weren’t thrilled at being labeled a “special interest group.”
The mayor also blamed council for putting the kibosh on certain zoning changes suggested by the city zoning board. According to the mayor, council allowed themselves to be taken in by these “special interest groups”.
When a council member objected to the mayor’s maverick claims that council should be blamed for not sticking to the zoning board’s recommendations, the mayor relied on a tried and true method of subterfuge: he blamed the media.
Specifically, he discredited my newspaper and to a greater extent me.
The mayor said (and I taped it so I have the exact quote): “I haven’t read the Sentinel. Most weeks understandably I don’t read the Sentinel. Please don’t rely on local papers to convey the whole story in terms of what I say or for that matter what anybody says.”
I am the city reporter. I cover city council and the city government. I’ve been on this beat since 2005 and a professional journalist since 1994. I’ve won five New Jersey Press Association awards for my reporting and cultivated reputations with sources all over town and in various branches of local, state and federal government.
So obviously I wouldn’t know what the fuck’s going on or how to report a story.
Not only doesn’t the mayor read the local paper - which shows a disconnect with events in his own town - but he smugly brags about it. On more than one occasion he’s told groups of citizens that he doesn’t read the paper and has received bemused chuckles of approval. These residents probably enjoy being ignorant and uninformed. Hey, I guess if Rush Limbaugh told them to stick a live barracuda up their asses, there’d be a backorder of barracudas at the local pet shop.
After telling council not to rely on local newspapers to get the story straight, the mayor (who is a lawyer by trade) told council what he really meant – that he used the phrase “special interest groups” to describe certain individuals who have a vested interest in their own properties and undermine zoning for their benefit and that council should not listen to them but think about the needs of the town as a whole.
Just the usual verbal diarrhea from an attorney trying to wriggle his way out of a tight spot via semantics and persuasion. Only problem is, he’s wrong. If he referred to the certain individuals, why’d he use the term “special interest groups”?
The ones who backed plastic lit box signs weren’t lone individuals – they were groups, namely the chamber of commerce and the downtown merchant’s organization, both entities comprised of multiple business owners who were part of the original downtown planning process but were later ignored by the consultant the city hired, the same consultant who recommended the lit box signs were ugly.
The mayor did say “special interest groups.” I taped him saying it. I taped him saying these groups don’t think about the town’s needs when zoning is concerned, just their own.
He’s on the record yet he wants to deny it by claiming the newspaper is a pathetic fishwrapper and not true journalism.
That amounts to him questioning my reputation as a journalist for accuracy and my credibility as a professional. Too often I’ve seen politicians lambaste the media. Sometimes the media deserves the criticism, but most of the time discrediting reporters and news organizations has a sinister agenda. By blaming the media, politicians deflect criticism from themselves, and if they can bolster enough resentment, the public will hate the messenger instead of the politicians. By making the press appear incompetent, the public won’t believe us. When that happens, politicians can get away with murder.
Only problem with the mayor is that nobody believes him. Maybe if he actually read the paper, he'd know that with every story about city government, I make sure to include quotes from him or the city business administrator. Until the meeting where he insulted the newspaper, the mayor and I had a good working relationship, or so I thought.
I'm not claiming infallibility, but council knows my record as a professional. One council member told me that my paper reports “the truth” about what’s going on.
It isn’t just council giving me glowing reviews. Here’s what one police officer said about me (and I taped this so it’s verbatim): “You always take the time to call if you have a question and follow it up before you print it and it’s never anything that’s off on your own tangent. I have faith in the way you present stuff because you present it from a realistic version. You don’t come in with an agenda. You just work with what you’re given and the facts and you present that in a non-biased format. That’s important when you do what you do.”
Police officers traditionally are skeptical of the media and reporters. Yet this police officer understands who I am because of my reputation and developed a strong working relationship with me because of it.
Last week I wrote a feature about a New York City artist who visited town. I never met him before, so he didn’t know anything about my writing ability or competence as a reporter. However, after he read the paper he sent me the following text: “Hi Eric – The piece looks great. Thanks so very much. Don’t hesitate to reach out in the future.”
Two complements in one week to a reporter from a newspaper the mayor said couldn’t be trusted.
Throughout my career, I’ve interviewed mayors who were so idiotic you wondered how they dressed themselves in the morning. I’ve covered meetings with mayors who were abominable tyrants, who could barely articulate a sentence, who ran their crooked little fiefdoms like tin pot dictators. I’ve seen the underbelly of Cape May County and experienced the corruption, the favoritism, the entrenched partisan cronyism doled out to the most mediocre people who were rewarded the most important positions.
However, despite the rogues gallery of elected officials I’ve met at the southern end of the county, this mayor is by far the worst elected official for this one reason: he’s a lawyer first and a human being second. He’s in lawyer mode all the time: shrewd, Machiavellian, calculating, scheming. He must beat his adversaries at all costs, unapologetically ploughing through his objectives and offering little to no compromise. His prime directive is to win every argument despite the lessons losing could teach him. There’s no humility, no connection with anyone other than his own power circle, and it shows in a stiff, almost uncomfortable demeanor at public events when the topic of conversation switches over to himself. He’s ego personified. Devoid of humbleness, filled with spite and rancor, he phones members of council and chastises them instead of offering reconciliation.
I’m not writing this to brow-beat him. I’m writing this to make him a better mayor. Unlike the slugs dwelling in the southern end of the county, this guy is intelligent. He could have an 11th hour conversion, an Ebenezer Scrooge plagued by his inner demons, a man who realizes there’s no shame in changing.
The reason the mayor ignores the Sentinel is because I’m not like other reporters. I write investigative pieces and don’t back down from the hard stories. A well-entrenched businessman once asked me why our paper publishes “stories that are critical to the administration.”
It’s because that’s how we serve the public’s best interest. If you had an administration trying to hide something from the public, shouldn’t the public have a right to know about it? Isn’t a well-informed citizenry more educated and just better than an ignorant one?
The mayor’s criticism only gave me more resolve and determination to excel at my profession.
So in an odd way his condemnation is a veiled complement.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Two Thousand Retards Screaming

Yahoo! Mail has a feature called Buzz Up that allows anyone reading a news story to post comments about that story. Perusing the posts is like reading a free-flowing conversation between Mussolini, David Duke and a mentally retarded warthog.
With every post you observe the erosion of civilized discourse, and with each sentence a bit of hope for humanity dies a little bit.
It isn’t that the bile-spewing, maniacal, immature or ridiculous comments are bad. They’re a blood-streaked, filthy abomination towards everything decent and civilized.
Now I’m all for the freedom of expression and the right of individuals to express themselves. I’m also for intelligent expression and civilized dialog, a kindly exchange of ideas. But with the anonymity and distance of the Internet, the call for a civilized exchanged is largely ignored, replaced by shrill scolding, partisan hacking and statements that I wouldn’t type if I swallowed half a bottle of Scotch and toked on a joint the size of a Buick.
Reading the posts, I learned two things: that the people who posted were immature right-wingers and followers who didn’t give a shit about anything but their own world views and that judging by the repeat postings, its easier to insult someone and call them morons and idiots if you hide behind a pseudonym.
Sometimes the comments aren’t vitriolic condemnations or insults. Sometimes the budding comedians throw out goofy one-liners. It doesn’t matter what the story is. It could be about a busload of kids crashing and burning and some jackass will have to throw in an insensitive zinger.
Yeah, I know. The Internet turns people into dicks.
When a gunman opened fire on the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., some of the comments included:
“I heard the shooter was Mel Gibson.”
“Most likely one of Obamas Muslim brothers.”
“Night at the Museum 3: The Lock-Down.”
“They need not be afraid of Negro Hussein being there, he doesn't believe the holocaust ever happened.”
When search teams recovered three bodies after an explosion knocked down part of a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina, many of the messages chided those who made light of the situation. Still, others had to post:
“God willed it so, and that's all we need to know.”
“I don't think this is what they meant by "Snap Into A Slim-Jim!"
When late-term abortion doctor George Tiller was murdered, some comments included:
“I see we have more dumb liberals who don't know the difference between executing a muderer and killing an innocent fetus. LOL

What crime did the fetus commit ?

The person executed murdered someone ! DUH !!!!!!”
“what kind of church would have someone like this is their place of worship? maybe what he did was legal by mans law but was it moral or right.”
“The SHOOTER actually performed a "super late-term abortion", didn't he?”
Okay, to be fair not every post was written people with double-digit IQs. Yet there is an abundance of them and they do generate rants and self-righteous diatribes.
It also seems that 95 percent of the comments call President Obama a Muslim, a socialist or a voodoo witchdoctor. I understand partisanship and playing to your base, but when 5,000 postings repeat the same thing using the same words and tone, that’s not agreement – it’s brainwashing.
That also goes for both Republicans and Democrats spewing rhetoric designed to insult and debase the other side.
There’s really a mental drag when you listen to negative messages whose content is as rational and balanced as Al Qaeda’s list of demands.
I understand the goal of Buzz Up is to allow a window into the reader’s minds, but the rancor and ferocity of these comments is hard to take. It’s like being trapped in a room with a thousand retards, all of them drunk and all of them yelling at the top of their lungs that Obama is Satan, while the other end of the room is filled with another thousand retards yelling that he is not.
After a while you just want to get the fuck out of that room.