Friday, December 12, 2008

The New (And Not So) Christmas Classics

Folks, it’s just under two weeks ‘til Christmas, or Chrismukkah, as our dearly departed young friends from “The O.C.” once called it. With the festivities looming in the air like freshly baked sugar cookies your spinning instructor will surely shame you for eating, I’ve been devoting the bulk of my spare time to getting in the non-denominational holiday spirit by watching Christmas movies and TV specials, as well as eating and drinking anything remotely holiday-themed. In the midst of this bacchanalia, it has occurred to me that while many of us have our go-to perennials, there are some new classics out there worthy of being put on your holiday checklist, as well as some other ones that easily deserve to go the way of the fruitcake.

Movies: Don’t get me wrong, I love watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” this time of year too, but if Clarence getting his wings and Ralphie getting his Red Ryder b.b. gun (spoiler warning!) fail to move you for the billionth time, then pop one of these babies in the ol’ Betamax.

“Love Actually”(2003) – Ok, so maybe there are a few too many storylines in this hilarious British heartwarmer, but what’s a Christmas bird without the extra stuffing? The scene where Alan Rickman’s aspiring adulterer tries to get his work crush’s Christmas gift wrapped by Rowan Atkinson’s over-eager retail clerk is truly classic.

“The Holiday” (2006) – I have to admit to totally shunning this movie on its initial release, despite being an avid fan of both Jack Black and Kate Winslet. I caught it on cable not too long ago and found it to be surprisingly engaging and entertaining, even though it’s a good half hour too long. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of hot apple cider on a cold winter’s night. But really, guys, two and a half hours?

“The Royal Tenenbaums” (2002) – This is in no way, shape, or form a traditional holiday movie, but Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic tale of an urbane, but goofy, tribe of upper crust New Yorkers has the feel of a heartwarming winter’s tale. Maybe it’s the fact that the theme from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is used in the film, but the movie features a dysfunctional family, and isn’t that what the holidays really are about?

Not so classic: “Wacky” Christmas comedies such as “Christmas With The Kranks,” Surviving Christmas,” and “Deck The Halls” that have plagued the multiplexes over the past several years. This year’s lump of coal, “Four Christmases,” dismally looks like it’s keeping the trend alive.

TV Specials: Sure, it ain’t the holidays unless Linus once again tells us the true meaning of Christmas and Rudolph makes all the conformist reindeer eat his wake, but there are a few new specials that should earn a spot in your jam-packed DVR queue.

“A Colbert Christmas…The Greatest Gift of All” (2008) – This aired on Comedy Central just before Thanksgiving and as far as I’m concerned, its the funniest, if not best, holiday TV special to come down the chimney in quite a while. Colbert and his usual crack staff of writers hilariously lampoon the Andy Williams/Dinah Shore/Bob Hope, celebrity-centric, TV specials of yore while offering a Whitman Sampler-esque collection of truly inspired songs and sketches. Did you know that every time a bell rings an angel gets his balls?

“The Office Special” (2003) – It helps if you’ve seen Seasons One & Two of Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s brilliant, BBC, TV series. This special is anything but treacly, yet it has one of the best pay-offs in all of TV history. Nothing the NBC version has done has come close to this enormously satisfying tree-topper.

Any Original Holiday TV Movie on ABC Family or The Hallmark Channel – A few Christmases ago, some friends and I started a tradition of watching really, really, bad holiday cable TV movies. The tradition continues to thrive today, albeit in a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” type of setting. If you don’t mind a little cheese on your holiday turkey, I whole-heartedly recommend the neo-classics “Santa Baby” (2006) in which Santa’s daughter (former Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy) must mind the North Pole while dear ol’ dad recovers from an illness he contracted (after reading the teleplay no doubt) and “Holiday in Handcuffs” (2007) starring Melissa Joan Hart as a girl so desperate to bring a boyfriend to her parents’ house for Christmas that she kidnaps Mario Lopez and cuffs him to her in order to pull of the charade. The operative word here is “desperate.” Funny for all the wrong reasons.

Not so classic: NBC’s “Christmas at Rockefeller Plaza.” (1998 - present) I’ve tuned into this so-called" special” for the last two or three years and I don’t know why I bother. Al Roker is no doubt a likable presence on the small screen, but this hour-long perennial feels more like a sixty minute commercial, as a new celebrity is introduced every two minutes and –surprise, surprise- they have a new CD dropping or TV show coming up. Watching Harry Connick Jr. shamelessly plug his new holiday CD this year was enough to sour anyone’s plum pudding. The climax of the show is lighting the world’s largest damn Christmas tree, which doesn’t really look that impressive on a small screen. I dunno, maybe it looks better in HD.

Music/Audio: Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song?” Check. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas?” Double check. “ “Deck The Halls” by…Twisted Sister??? Well, why not? Here’s some other off-the-beaten path Christmas candy to delight your eager ears.

“Holidays on Ice” by David Sedaris (1997) – Not a holiday CD per se but a hilarious audiobook of holiday themed essays spoken by the wonderfully nasal and deadpan Sedaris, which is the best way to enjoy his numerous other works. His chronicles of being a Macy’s Christmas elf is the stuff of Christmas comedy legend. I’m also very partial to “Front and Center with Thaddeus Bristol” in which Sedaris writes from the perspective of a snooty theater critic attending an elementary school pageant (spoiler warning – he pans it.)

“Christmas Island” – Jimmy Buffett (1999) - If you don’t mind a little extra rum in your holiday nog, then Buffett’s reggae/calypso-themed holiday CD will be right up your alley. Perfect for folks who dream of tropical climates during the stress-filled holiday season. Ja, mon!

“Things I Want” – Tenacious D/Sum 41 & “Little Girls and Hobos” – Naked Trucker and T-Bone (2001) - These lil’ Christmas ditties were both featured on L.A. radio station KROQ’s annual holiday charity CD a few years back and I continue to play them around the holidays. The D & Sum 41’s collaboration channels vintage Iron Maiden while Naked Trucker & T- Bones are more for the CMA crowd. Not sure if they’re available on iTunes, but I’ll gladly burn them for you on a CD. What can I say? I’m a giver.

Not so classic: I’m sorry, Josh Grobin fans, but while we can all agree the dude has some pipes, his holiday offerings just aren’t cutting it. “Believe” from “The Polar Express” just might render you bi-polar while his cover of “O Holy Night” I keep hearing on the 24-hour Christmas music station sounds like a funeral dirge on DayQuil. Perfect, however, for the insomniac in your life.

Food & Beverage: Got nog? Yawn! Candy canes? Not with these expensive inlays! Here are a couple of worthy, sustainable, substitutes.

Holiday drinks from Starbucks/Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf – Yeah, they’re overpriced and a tad too sugary, but man, they go down smoother than Santa Claus in a butter-lined chimney. I’m partial to the gingerbread lattes and, yes, the egg nog lattes from $tarbucks, but CB&TL has better pumpkin spice lattes. Rumor has it these places actually serve coffee as well.

Holiday Hershey Kisses – They just came out with these in the past year. I dug the Candy Corn and Pumpkin Spice ones around Halloween, so I’m dying to try the Candy Cane and Mint Truffle flavored ones. Some might find the continual unwrapping of aluminum foil annoying, but to me, each one is like a confectionary striptease. Yeah, I don’t get out much.

Christmas Cap’N Crunch – Strictly for those who like a sweet breakfast (or late-night snack.) Many of you will be appalled by the sight of Cap’N Crunch cereal dyed red and green, but me, I say Merry Crunchmas! And what kid doesn’t love green milk? You know you want it. Ain’t nothin’ merry ‘bout no damn granola!

Not so classic: Not to bite the hand that pours my lattes, but those Christmas Blends sold by the very stores that ran your favorite coffee shop out of town don’t taste at all Christmasy - they taste like coffee! Just load up my latte with some more of that artificial egg nog flavor and I'm happy. However, if they start brewing red and green coffee beans, then we’ll talk.

Have a classic Chrismukwanzaa, readers!


Monday, December 8, 2008

Freelance Writer Gone Wild: The Article You're Not Supposed To Read!

Greetings reader!

This is my first time on Blogger so...welcome! I feel like I should be wearing one of those name tags that informs the reader that I'm still in training. Nevertheless, here goes something.

Recently, I started writing freelance for Girls Gone Wild magazine (yes, you read that right.) After writing a soon-to-be-published article on what not to do at a bachelor party in Vegas (what, you were expecting a sobering analysis on 2009's economic forecast?) I was commissioned to write a piece on college fraternities that have been banned in the U.S.A. After being told my first go was too "textbooky" and didn't contain any of my "voice," I submitted two more rewrites, which were ultimately deemed not "edgy" enough for publication. Apparently, if the story doesn't end with a guy getting his rocks off or two girls going at it, then it's not quite right for the faithful GGW readers. Anyhow, the beat goes on, but I though I'd let you read the article for yourself and you can tell me if you think it's something you'd read on an airplane, StairMaster, or even in everyone's favorite "reading room" in their house. Enjoy!

Buzzkill: How Some College Fraternities Got Banned

College fraternities. When most people hear that phrase they usually conjure up images of toga-clad frat boys and naked sorority babes running amok a la the collegiate comedy classic “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” As most of us know, though, movie college and real college are two wholly different things. For instance, in real college, you actually have to study. When I started out as undergrad back in…well, let’s just say that Girls Gone Wild was merely a gleam in Joe Francis’ eye, I went to a liberal arts school in downtown Chicago and we didn’t have any fraternities. We had cliques, to be sure – film geeks, theater geeks, and of course, people who were just flat-out geeks – but my campus experience wasn’t anything like the debauched revelry shown in movies like “Revenge of the Nerds” or “Back to School.” However, after doing a search on some of America’s top fraternities and the nefarious (read: illegal) activities that have resulted in them being booted off campus, I’m just glad I survived college at all.

Now, it’s no surprise that college students loves them some beer – after all, what is college but a four-year drinking binge disguised as aspirations for higher learning? So when the news reports about the occasional fraternity pledge o.d.’ing due to excessive amounts of alcohol, it doesn’t seem very shocking. What is shocking, however, is what happens after the keg has been tapped, like in 2002, when members of Sigma Alpha

Epsilon and Delta Kappa Epsilon at Syracuse University were put on interim suspension after engaging in an alcohol-fueled brawl that involved over 100 people at a local tavern. Yikes. That same year, the chapters of Zeta Psi and Alpha Chi Rho were suspended after a member of the latter fraternity hit a Zeta with a sock containing a billiard ball – ouch! I guess there’s a little bit of rivalry among most fraternities, but barfights and homemade weapons sounds a little too “Jets vs. Sharks” to me.

In other cases, it’s not so much the alcohol itself as what’s going in it that is the problem. In 2005, nine female University of Colorado students were hospitalized for alcohol consumption after a party thrown by the Sigma Pi and Phi Kappa Tau fraternities. Traces of Gamma Hydroxybutyrate, also known as GHB, or the “date rape drug,” were found in blood samples of two of the students, one of which suffered a nearly fatal dose of the infamous substance. UC offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who had information relating to the incident, but not surprisingly, not one student came forward. In 2001, Dartmouth University closed their Zeta Psi chapter after a newsletter was circulated that detailed the sexual exploits of it’s frat brothers and even went so far as to list names and photographs of their female undergrad conquests. The informative periodical also promised “patented” date rape techniques in future issues, which luckily never saw the light of day. Ten years prior to that incident, a female Temple University student alleged that she was gang-raped by four male students and two Alpha Phi Delta members. The charges were eventually dropped, but the university ultimately revoked it’s recognition of the fraternity chapter.

Even consensual sexual escapades have landed certain chapters in hot water. It’s no secret that college students are avid porn fans, but in 2005, members of Phi Kappa Tau at Cal State-Chico were suspended for actually participating in a skin flick shot on campus. The “Shane’s World” DVD series based in Van Nuys, California apparently received a request from the fraternity to be featured in one of the company’s popular “College Invasion” installments. The DVD features several frat members engaging in hardcore sex acts with actual porn actresses, something that, while certainly commendable, doesn’t look very good on a resume when applying to grad schools.

Now when it comes to pledge-hazing, we’ve all heard the urban legends. You know, like the infamous, and bizarrely homoerotic, thumb-up-your-neighbors-butt “classic” known as “The Elephant Walk” or the God-awful-sounding “Ookie Cookie” where a group of frat members masturbate onto a cracker and…well, you get the idea. While the line between fully committing to the brotherhood and competing on an episode of “Fear Factor” gets blurred beyond oblivion, the most severe cases of pledge-hazing are anything but a laughing matter. In 2005 at UC Irvine, a 19 year old student died after sustaining massive head injuries during a football game in which 9 pledges were pitted against 40 (!) Lambda Phi Epsilon members. The chapter was initially suspended then ultimately disbarred. That same year, a 22 year old Cal State University student pledging the Chi Tau fraternity died during “Hell Week” after being held hostage in a campus basement where he and another student were forced to do calisthenics in raw sewage, endure blasts of ice-cold air on their wet bodies, and drink from a five gallon jug of water. The pledge eventually collapsed into a seizure and was soon pronounced dead from water intoxication. Five Chi Tau members, all in their early 20s, received one year prison sentences for participating in the hazing incident.

If you think hazing is a thing of the past, think again. Earlier this year, ten Pi Kappa Alpha members at Tulane University faced felony charges, as well as suspension, after burning pledges with hot water and pepper spray, then smearing their bodies with flour, vinegar, cayenne pepper, and wasabi sauce. Two students were treated for severe burns and the frat members were charged with aggravated second degree battery. At the University of Wisconsin, Sigma Phi Epsilon’s new pledges were encouraged to carry the grand ol’ tradition of dumping bucket loads of vomit, urine, and fecal matter upon the chapter’s older members. Frat members escaped expulsion, however, since the incident was not considered hazing and was not sanctioned or supervised by chapter leaders.

And just this past May, a sorority member’s death due to an overdose of cocaine at San Diego State led to a sweeping drug raid in which six fraternities were suspended for selling coke, Ecstasy, methamphetamines, and prescription drugs. The arrest came after a frat member, who, ironically, was a criminal justice major, sent a mass text to his customers advertising reduced rates of his product. Of the 96 students arrested, 18 of them were arrested for selling drugs to undercover cops – d’oh! - who collected nearly $100,000 worth of drugs during the raid. And to think all the college students I knew were flat broke.

And let us not forget my personal favorite Hall of Shame-worthy campus caper: in 2006, the Alpha Gamma Rho chapter at Western Kentucky University was suspended after university police responded to complaints about strange noises coming from a frat house basement and discovered a goat tied up and standing in its own urine and feces. Also found on the scene were several unrolled condoms, which, after further examination, yielded no evidence of any semen. The fraternity president claims the goat was used to fool pledges into thinking they were to have sex with the animal, but it was merely a hazing prank that got out hand. While that very well may be true, it was later discovered that the goat indeed had – wait for it - abrasions in its rectum. Coincidence? You decide, but keep in mind that the abbreviation of Kentucky is, in fact, “KY.”

So, guys, take it from someone who survived college without ever once having to scrub the cafeteria floor with a toothbrush, much less being turned into a human Port-A-Potty - if you’re a college dude and you really want to belong to a group, here’s one to strive for: the graduating class! However, if pulling a train on a farm animal or having piping hot liquids poured on your nuts is your idea of group bonding, then be my guest. Me, I’ll just take my lil’ Bachelor of Arts degree as my parting gift and just be thankful that I made it out after four years alive and with all my body parts – and my dignity- fully in tact.

~ T.W. Porrill