Monday, November 22, 2010

A Thanksgiving Tale

[ Originally posted November 20, 2006 on MySpace ]

NOTE: This story may not be appropriate for my mom. Mom, perhaps reconsider reading.

Sometime last week, a few coworkers got into a laugh-filled banter fest near my desk. I had been tuning in and out of the conversation, until I heard these words: "It's like showing up to a test drunk." Everyone laughed. How preposterous! Who would show up to a test drunk? Well... I didn't laugh...

To my memory, there have only been two times that drinking made me sick. This is the story of the first of those times. And for those of you who are squeamish, don't worry. I won't be detailing the color and texture of vomit, or anything like that.

It was the fall semester of my senior year of college. By this time, I was scheduling all my classes for the afternoon or evening. Mornings were a thing of the past, except for the nights when I stayed up late enough to see dawn. Most of my evening classes were at a separate institution, Pittsburgh Filmmakers; but occasionally, one of my liberal arts requirements would be on the main campus.

And oh, what a campus. Point Park College [ note: now University ] was all of three buildings, and each of those building were connected. Everything you needed was indoors. If it weren't for those Filmmakers classes, I never would've had to go outside.

The centerpiece of Point Park was Lawrence Hall, a 23-story former hotel, bought out and turned into a college in the '70. Food was on the 3rd floor, laundry was on the 8th, and home was somewhere above that.

I was taking an art history class, which I believe was two floors below my dorm room. Despite being a required course, it was only me and three other guys. It always felt very informal. We'd look at some slides, talk a little biography on the painter or sculptor, and then end class early or sit around and talk. Being a 6 PM class, off-campus people sometimes brought dinner with them (I had usually stopped on 3 beforehand). There were so few people in the class, with so few questions, that the teacher's lectures would always end early. Sometimes we'd watch videos from A&E to fill in the extra time.

When it came to Thanksgiving, college classes were always suspended starting the Wednesday before. Art history class was on Tuesday. In the evening. Needless to say, nobody was expecting much to happen during this last-class-before-break. In fact, as I would discover, nobody was even planning on showing up other than me.

I'd finally made it to the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. It had been a long, uh, fraction of a semester, and after grabbing some dinner on 3, I decided to start vacation early. I had some Firewater Schnapps in my dorm room, left over from a summer spent in Squirrel Hill wherein the only way to get my girlfriend to join "the party" with the rest of us housemates was to offer her something that didn't taste like alcohol.

For those of you who've never heard of it, Firewater is no light drink. It's an impressive 100 proof. It's a bright, molten red color and has the precise taste of those Fireball jawbreakers. The strong cinnamon flavor disguises the alcohol.

I presumed this last-class-before-break would be a whole lot of nothing. We'd probably just check in, say hi, and be on our way. Maybe we'd watch one of those A&E shows. So I did a shot of Firewater with some friends who were still stuck in the dorms with me. And then another. And maybe one more. And then it was getting close to 6 o'clock, so I grabbed my notebook and headed down two flights of stairs.

Now, at the time, I was a guy who could hold his liquor. Just ask my friend Paul about the time I drank half a bottle of Bacardi during the running time of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, however long that is. Three shots were not going to do much of anything except get me warmed up for the more drinking I anticipated doing after class. I would just sit in the back of the room, keep my eyes open and keep my mouth shut.

But a strange thing happened on the way down the stairs. Those three shots really started to hit me. "Oh well, who cares? We're not going to be doing anything anyway. The teacher will probably let us out after 15 minutes. Just hide in the back of the room, let the other guys draw attention away from you, grin and bear it for as long as it lasts, and then get back upstairs."

When I got to the classroom, no one else was there. It was just me and the teacher.

Caroline was short, with wide eyes and long, fading-blonde hair almost to her waist. She had a great sense of humor, but one that required close attention. She sometimes came off a little flaky, and I often considered the possibility that she might live in some sort of aging hippie commune outside the city limits. But she made the class both fun and interesting, and I enjoyed talking with her. Unfortunately, the friendly nature of our relationship was about to bite me in the ass.

She greeted me with a smile, a joke about no one else showing up, and then dove right into a conversation. I knew that the more I talked, the more I was going to reveal myself as drunk. But there was nothing either of us could do. We were the only ones in the room, so we couldn't ignore each other. And we couldn't pretend that we didn't have a history of easygoing conversation. So we talked. Certainly it didn't take her long to note the state I was in. This realization caused me to drunk-giggle at inappropriate moments in our conversation, only confirming what she must have already suspected. This ship was sinking fast.

We finally came to the conclusion that no one else was going to come to class that day. Relieved, I made for the door. "I guess I'll see you next week. Have a good Thanksgiving."

"Well," she hemmed, "I had this quiz for you guys."

Was she fucking with me?

"Shouldn't it wait till everyone else is here?" I said, as the room buoyed behind her.

"You can take it now. The rest will lose some credit for skipping."

Harsh. For all of us.

Defeated, I surrendered my knees, and they dropped me into a seat. Caroline placed a sheet of paper in front of me. It had five simple questions typed up on it. I began giggling to myself again. I had no idea how I was going to take this test.

Long since exposed as being under the influence, I started making light of the whole situation. I read the questions aloud, causing Caroline to laugh. As I wrote my answers down, I recited each individual word, drawing out everything I was saying as I wrote it. When you're drunk, these are the kinds of things that make sense to do.

Then a funny thing happened. Noticing that I was getting some things wrong, Caroline started correcting me. I looked up from my test to make sure I was understanding the situation. Was she seriously giving me the answers? She was. I began scratching out words and replacing them with what Caroline said.

I went on to the next question. This one stumped me completely. Before I even attempted an answer, Caroline started coaching me. "Remember when we looked at that slide of Donatello's David, and we determined..." We began a conversation, and talked our way through the answer. I wrote it all down.

We got to the end of the test. When I put the last period on the last sentence, Caroline graded my paper on the spot, giving me full credit. "Good job," she said. I felt a little guilty and awkward, but came to the conclusion that I was probably getting full credit just for being the only one to show up. Before I left the room, I shook my head apologetically and laughed some more. Then, with a "Happy Thanksgiving," I left.

Back upstairs, friends started catching their rides away for the holiday one at a time. It was then that I made probably the single most critical error of the night - I did one more shot of Firewater, which I immediately regretted. It did not sit well.

With most everyone gone, I headed back to my room and watched the Peanuts special, "The Mayflower Voyagers." Just as the Schulz-rendered pilgrims started getting seasick on their boat, I myself started to feel a discomfort in my stomach. The Firewater was coming back to haunt me. So I drank some water and decided to sleep it off. Halfway through the night, the Firewater woke me up and sent me running for the bathroom.

And the Firewater still wasn't through with me. The next day, I had to catch an early-morning Greyhound up to Erie to spend Thanksgiving with my family. Head pounding and stomach grumbling, I walked a half mile in a bitter cold autumn dawn through downtown Pittsburgh from my dorm to the Greyhound station. By the time I boarded the bus, it had been more than 12 hours since I drank. Regardless, I had to make use of one of those obscene on-board facilities twice during the trip, dry heaving into the acrid, no-flush chemical toilet.

The moral of this story? Schnapps is evil. It tears your stomach apart, and it has the potential to ruin your holidays. Now, I was lucky and experienced two Thanksgiving miracles that year: an understanding teacher and an amazing total recovery by the time the bus pulled into the Erie terminal. But you may not be so lucky. So this holiday season, I implore you, DO NOT DRINK SCHNAPPS!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Podcast Rollcall:The Treatment

Genre: Interview

What It's About: Though the title may imply that this show is writer-centric, its scope is much broader, including interviews with filmmakers of every stripe.

Why You Should Care: If you're interested in movies, this is among the best interview shows you can find. Host Elvis Mitchell takes an expansive look at his interviewees' lives -- upbringing, education, relationships, etc. -- and explores how these things have influenced their work, their style, and the career choices they've made. More than most other interview shows, The Treatment places film and filmmaker in context with each other.

Frequency: Weekly

Average Length: 30 minutes

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Elusive Thanksgiving Movie

When it comes to Halloween and Christmas, Hollywood's got you covered. More than covered. There are backlogs of Halloween movies and Christmas movies so large that it's probably impossible to watch them all in a lifetime, not to mention the fact that more are being made every year.

But here in America, there's a little fourth quarter holiday that's been greatly underserved by the movie studios. I'm referring, of course, to Thanksgiving. While Hollywood continually churns out new material for The Big Two holidays, it virtually ignores Thanksgiving.

The reason for that is simple: money. You can sell Halloween and Christmas all around the world. But Thanksgiving, as I mentioned, is a specifically American holiday. The studios have good reason to fear limited box office returns, as Thanksgiving has little appeal beyond our borders. (I suppose you could sell a Thanksgiving movie to Canada as well, but you'd have to wait until October of the following year. God forbid an American movie open in Canada before the states... unless it's at the TIFF.)

But Thanksgiving movies do exist. They're few and far between, and the trappings of the holiday are usually just background noise rather than a prominent feature. But with such limited options, you have to take what you can get. Here are a few of those rare gems.

Hannah and Her Sisters. This one is often listed as a "Thanksgiving movie" even though the holiday is only on screen for about ten minutes. Still, it's good - Woody Allen in his prime, with great performances from a great cast. (NOTE: Available on Netflix streaming, so cue it up at your leisure on Thanksgiving day.)

Miracle on 34th Street. Definitely more of a Christmas movie, but the first act is set against a backdrop of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade scenes were shot during the real 1946 Macy's parade, and it's interesting to see the similarities and differences between the parade now and the parade 60 years ago.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Thanksgiving is the motivating goal of this movie, but doesn't feature too prominently until the end. Of the movies listed here, this one may be the most effective at expressing the togetherness that Thanksgiving is meant to represent. It's also funny.

Pieces of April. A slight movie, but good for what it is. One of the few movies to place Thanksgiving front-and-center, as the title character spends the entire run time struggling to prepare a feast to impress her family.

Home for the Holidays. Probably the most conventionally enjoyable movie of the bunch listed here. Another one of the rare instances where Thanksgiving is central to the story. Despite being centered around Thanksgiving, this movie ends up having more of a Christmas vibe.

The New World. I haven't seen this movie yet, but it's my selection for this year's ramp up to Thanksgiving. A non-animated telling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. I don't know how Thanksgiving-y this movie is actually going to be, since the events it depicts predate the Puritans by more than a decade. But I've been meaning to watch this movie for a while now, and Thanksgiving is as good an excuse as any.

As you can see, pickings are pretty slim when it comes to Thanksgiving movies. TV is more reliable for Thanksgiving specials and Thanksgiving-themed episodes of regular series. But if it's a movie you're looking for, I hope this list helps.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Podcast Rollcall: Macbreak Weekly

Genre: Technology

What It's About: Tech journalists from around the country discuss the latest news, software and hardware releases, bugs, and rumors surrounding Apple and its line of products.

Why You Should Care: Home computer technology has been the most important and influential cultural force of the last 20 years, and Apple specifically has taken the lead in innovation over the last decade. No matter your level of interest, the decisions they make and the products they release are affecting your everyday life. This show keeps you up-to-date on those decisions and products, as well as what to expect in the near future. That they happen to be a group of intelligently funny people only makes the show more listenable.

Of note: If you insist on hating Apple, the This Week In Tech network also produces a Windows Weekly series.

Frequency: As the title suggests, weekly

Average Length: 1 1/2 hours

As always, if you become a regular listener to a podcast that solicits donations, try to find a way to make the occasional contribution.