Sunday, May 30, 2010

Celine Is Pregnant—With Twins!

After months of hoping, praying and more than one disappointment, People magazine reveals that Celine Dion is 14 weeks pregnant with twins. She had undergone six rounds of in-vitro fertilization in an attempt to add to her family, with husband René Angelil and 9-year-old son René-Charles.

"We're ecstatic," Angelil tells People."Celine was hoping for one baby and the news that we are having two is a double blessing." Delightful!

Happy Birthday Strele-Bop

Today would have been Carlton's birthday. It's still hard to fathom that he left us Jan. 5, 2008; how can it possibly have been so long? I still often see him in dreams, and there, he seems to be doing a-okay. Miss our beloved Carlton.

Yo, DJ: My Top 5 Of All Time

Memorial Day weekend... For the past six years, Ayhan and I have been invited to join pals B&T at their cottage in Fire Island's Cherry Grove. And typically, it's 45 degrees, blustery and rainy—naturally until this year when the weather is utterly ideal... and we did not receive the hoped-for invite... Well, damn.

Instead, Ayhan and I partied at home late Saturday night, trading DJ turns and getting our own Grove groove on. As part of the festivities, I counted down my five favorite songs of all time, which I'm wholly, utterly convinced that Smoking Nun followers are dying to know. And so...

1) Flashdance (What A Feelin')—Irene Cara
2) My Heart Will Go On—Celine Dion
3) Morning Train (9 To 5)—Sheena Easton
4) I Won't Hold You Back—Toto
5) For Your Eyes Only—Sheena Easton

Hey, I never ever claimed to be hip. But that makes me cool, right?

Ayhan's list held a little less steel-plated conviction, comprising Robbie Williams, ABBA, Keane, Hoobastank and Duran Duran.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

When Hell Freezes Over...

I had such a good time with my art creation about double-wide strollers a couple weeks ago (right) that I pondered... What irritates me on a daily basis? Easy: the ever-devolving New York subway system. When I go to the U.S. Census office, it's often faster to walk 20 minutes than wait for the R train to go two damn stops.

Since I don't know what I'm doing—I bought Photoshop a year ago and remain illiterate—this was done on Word, lifting images from the MTA's web site, then applying its Helvetica font. I must admit, this cracks my shit up.

21 Nun Salute: Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

Happy Memorial Day weekend from The Smoking Nun!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Census Report: Call Me Mr. Clean

At last… a new actionable role with the U.S. Census Bureau—and this is gonna be good. For the next several weeks, I'm helping clean up scores of incomplete questionnaires cascading into the office, whether because of a “hostile” situation, resident’s refusal to cooperate or, unfortunately, in many cases, cause the assigned staffer simply doesn't have a clue.

Not a big surprise: Most of the 700 enumerators in Brooklyn knocking on doors were freshly hired within the past month, endured four days of training and were then shooed into the field.

More than a handful appear to not only lack the gumption to fill out the (rather complicated) paperwork required, but—more critically—seem void of common sense. You can “learn” somebody to fill out a form, but using their noggin logically… pretty much got it or not, know what I mean?

Part of the challenge is that there are requirements for these Census hires that supersede smarts: They’re micro-assigned to specific neighborhoods; are fluent in languages other than English; or are available to work weekends and nights.

Going through a two-foot-high stack of Census forms today that didn’t make the grade was either the most hilarious exercise I’ve endured—or the most tragic. Without giving away any specifics and getting my ass in trouble, let’s review verbatim enumerator notes, shall we? Some suggest the staffer is better suited to a career at Taco Bell. Others are wildly entertaining, based on the absurd situations these poor folks found themselves in:

• “Be careful. She is threaning. She said they send it in. She was pointing her finger at me and was louding.”
• “He said not to bother him on the Sabbath. It was Thursday.”
• “The resident referred to the Census as harassment and molestation and threatened to call the police. Visibly agitated.”
• “Five drunk and high men were making sexual remarks, so I said, ‘Have a nice day' and left.”
• “There was a huge dog off the leash blocking the entrance. I was scarred and turned around and leave.”
• “She looked at me through the door screen and pushed me.”
• “An old lady answered the door and started to yell at me. Her husband tried to get in my face. Andrew was with me and thank God for that. I was really scared.”
• She had a look in her eye that was threaling, and I think she was going to spit me. I didn’t go back.”

Being an enumerator: $18.75 an hour. Actually receiving a high school diploma: priceless.

MTA Unveils Updated Subway Map

The New York Times has a nifty interactive tool showing how the New York subway map evolved in 1968 (top L), 1972 (top R), 1979 (bottom L), 1998 and one month from now (bottom R), when MTA introduces a new simplified (read: reflecting service cuts) diagram. This is great stuff! Below, a look back at Brooklyn (click for larger image).

Norman Gentle Appears On "American Idol" Season 9 Finale... Kinda Sort Of

Wednesday night's "American Idol" season 9 finale was one agonizing affair. Is it any surprise ratings plummeted 16%, their lowest since season 1? The Bee Gees, Alanis Morrisette and Janet Jackson were refreshing—if only they weren't padded by all those no-name amateur finalists. And top two Lee DeWhatever and Crystal Suxsox... Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson they are not.

The reason I tuned in at all was to see our Norman Gentle, the first finalist ever invited to appear on two consecutive finales; he was slated this year during Dane Cook’s god-awful unfunny farewell tribute to Simon Cowell.

As the song began, Norman gamboled onstage with his Cowell cardboard cut-out—only to be short-circuited when that asswipe Ian Benardo stormed the stage and began an abusive tirade. The camera quickly cut to a commercial—eradicating the entire 4-minute song that Gentle had been rehearsing three days for.

What we see in the last second is Gentle tossing aside his companion cardboard cutout to wrestle the microphone from the vigilante dumbass. Norm's a hero! After the show, Cowell offered Gentle a hug(!), sharing, “I loved your song. Loved the music video." Sweet! We love the fact that Cowell has heard Gentle's single "Brit Slap!"/"Bitch Slap!"

Meanwhile, Normy was interviewed by The Los Angeles Times' Shirley Halperin for its red carpet video coverage Wednesday night, where he hawked "Bitch Slap!" Well done!
And Thursday morning, Gentle appeared on "Wendy Williams Show," which showed a clip of the music video, also highlighting it on her web site. Gorgeous...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sarah Palin Shares Great Wisdom With Bowlers

Sarah Palin will share her virtuous platitudes with an audience that is at last worthy of her "novel" intellect. On June 30, she will keynote the Bowling Proprietors' Assn. of America in Las Vegas. Is that not a gorgeous "Gotcha"?

Palin will receive an estimated $100,000 to talk about such bowling-centric topics as abortion, religious pomposity and how that black guy that's president is real bad.

Steven Johnson, executive director of the BPAA, says—with no hint of irony—"Sarah Palin is a great friend to the bowling industry. Regardless of your political affiliation, her presence underscores the impact and importance of bowling, one of our country's leading national pastimes."

One thing's for sure: Palin is certainly an expert when it comes to verbal gutter balls. St-t-t-t-rike!

Census Report: A Lot of Nothing Much

This morning I returned to Fort Greene—one of my favorite nabes in Brooklyn—for a where-we-be meeting with U.S. Census Bureau management, supervisors and Crew Leaders. In the early days (um, March), during the Group Quarters count, that comprised all of 15 folks. With NRFU—the mammoth residential knock-on-doors operation—there are close to 100 CLs in our Brooklyn district—in addition to their 700 staffers.

The news: Wrap it up! The feds have little understanding that the big ole United States is not all the same city. So if Omaha can get its count done in a month, well, surely, there’s no reason that all of New York should have any trouble doing the same. This is what happens when the U.S. Department of Commerce is controlled by statisticians instead of real people.

Unfortunately, because I came into NRFU late—since I was tying up loose ends for Group Quarters—I was never given a staff of enumerators to canvas my Brooklyn Heights neighborhood as a CL, as with GQ. So instead, my role for the past several weeks has been to float: train new hires, assist my original supervisor O with spontaneous clean-up tasks and miscellaneous duties… none of which have been scintillating enough to share here. Sigh.

However, today, I was able to collect some delicious anecdotes about the thrills and spills of those crews that are knocking on doors in Park Slope, Borough Park, Clinton Hill, Sunset Park, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens… Believe me, despite an exhaustive national ad campaign, there are still plenty of idiots and assholes that just don’t get it.

“If Jesus came down from heaven, I wouldn’t give him the information you’re asking for.” Fabulous! Buffoons who cherish their Second Amendment privileges and come to the door with gun in hand. Wonderful! “I got two of the questionnaires in the mail. Why is the federal government wasting all that money, and now they’re paying you to interview me?” Response: “Did you send either of them back?” And: “Well no.” Dingbat, that’s why we’re here! Then they are those buildings where the doorman forbids Census workers to enter the premises, cause that big macho man is protecting his residents from the scary Census workers… sorry boob, it's federal law that you let us in.

Come on, we’re only here to help out your community, your neighborhood, perhaps your very family. And still, paranoid people remain paranoid. So please take your meds and deal with the fact that we’re not going away. Knock, knock, it’s the feds. Again. And again and again. Tee hee.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Idol" Finale LIVE!

First time I've tried this... live blogging, cool cats. Whee, this is fun!... Argh, my formatting is cutting off the right side. So sorry. I actually attempted to adjust my template... nope. But thanks for reading!

My Urban Garden

I treasure my little fire escape greenery here in Brooklyn... a full pot of robustly growing ivy, a secondary pot of ivy that survived from 2009, my pachysandra and... coming soon, fresh parsley! Cool cats, this is the way our garden grows when there's no outdoor space. I'd like to think that I devote all the loving care that the average American offers to their half-acre of greenery. (Not pictured: my just-sprouting "English Garden" planter box: Give me a month!)

iPhoto Phun

Not that the West Village's famous Christopher Street isn't plenty picturesque, but after stopping through the nabe Tuesday with my trusty Nikon Coolpix, my photos left me a little non-plussed, with a bit of the same ole, same ole. Not anymore...Manicured to look like a faded 1970's memory; in fact, May 25, 2010.The classic corner of Christopher Street and Seventh Avenue with the thankfully enduring Village Cigars. So oversaturated that it looks like a cartoon image.Ditto!
Could as easily be the 1920s as the millennium.A relic that has somehow survived amid skyrocketing rents. While many of the porn stores and tattoo parlors are being supplanted by trendy clothing boutiques—for better or worse—this neighborhood utility stands loud and proud... though here, quietly muted.The Freedom Monument in Sheridan Park.So long... see you soon!

Power Ball

Lunch Tuesday was not only a blast, but a learning session at Rosie O'Grady's in midtown Manhattan, with Ayhan, advertising genius Ben Colarossi, Dennis, Ashley, Ghia and meese.

Career counseling: Topics at hand were upping Norman Gentle's momentum (he's in Los Angeles this week for press and "American Idol's" finale), Ayhan & Dennis' DNA trajectory, Chuck Taylor's next moves... and the finest burgers in the nabe.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who Wins "Idol"?: Not The VIewers!

Like much of America, watching season nine of "American Idol" was simply too painful to fathom. A six-month commitment to the same old shit? Two nights a week to hear "Dawg, that was a little pitchy"? No thanks. I'd rather vacuum the living room.

Out of curiosity, I'm tuning into tonight's final round between Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze... with the advantage of having absolutely no investment, so I can watch with total objectivity. And thus: Uh, this is the best America could do? No wonder the franchise is going down the toilet.

It feels like, for the first time ever, "Idol" is truly an amateur competition. Lee: plain, if not downright dowdy, zero magnetism, not an iota of vocal individuality. Crystal: Boy, she's trailer trash (Ellen would have been more at ease wearing that black dress from Walmart), unpolished and gruff, and about as commercially viable as a millennial Judy Collins.

In a word: Borrring. These two performers make cardboard cutout Ryan Seabreast appear animated (just kidding; not even a hit of ectasy could bring him to life).

"This is what this show is about," Randy just bleated. Ellen: "Someone unique. In a league of your own." Kara: "You were completely emotionally invested. Amaaaazing." Simon: "That was the song of the night." Chuck: "Zzzzzzzzzzz!!!"

Give me a break. Is there a sincere second to be had here? Does anyone really care whether the Birkenstock folkie or the howling faux rocker wins? "American Idol," it's time to hang it up. This not only made my ears ache, it hurt my feelings.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Toni Braxton: "Yesterday"

Toni Braxton and I go back in time, to her first solo hit, “Love Shoulda Brought You Home" in 1992, which I adored, during the heyday of producers L.A. and Babyface. The hits then came on like a tidal wave, propelling Braxton to mass appeal: “Another Sad Love Song,” “Breathe Again,” “You Mean the World To Me” and of course, her No. 1 Diane Warren-penned “Un-Break My Heart” in 1996, which won a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal in 1997.

Ironically, that marked the chart peak for Braxton, though she has thankfully kept her followers satiated with new recordings. Her latest album “Pulse,” released on Atlantic Records May 4, includes “Yesterday,” the best song Toni has released in a decade.

On first listen, one would swear the track is a Ryan Tepper production, a la Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love,” but in fact, “Yesterday” was first released eight months ago as a midtempo R&B sizzler (it peaked at No. 12 on the R&B Singles chart), framed as a duet with Trey Songz. In the U.K., however, his distracting vocal was stripped and now, for the U.S. album release, it remains solo, along with a production overhaul, amping percussion and tempo, and a more mainstream pop persona. It was the right decision.

“Yesterday” offers a total Toni Braxton career perspective in the course of 4 minutes. Sensual and saucy, it celebrates her wondrous range, soaring to the heavens, alongside velvety layers of harmony—even offering her trademark “whoo!” The chorus is a jubilee of anthemic triumph, while the updated production embraces her assertive vocal with just enough grit to remind us that our diva is one sexy creature.

And boy, that’s made all the more clear in the =new= music video for “Yesterday.” This bitch is 41?! Wait until you see her… never looked better. Never sounded better. “Yesterday,” to date, is my favorite song of 2010. (Better to click above; my format clips the vid.)

BEHIND THE MUSIC: I wrote about Toni Braxton for Billboard in October 2002, and she was so very charming—and pregnant. It was one of those phoners that felt more like a conversation than an interview.

I wrote, "Toni Braxton is pretty much surviving on crackers and soda water these days. Bad case of nerves preparing for her fifth album release? Hardly. It’s called the first trimester.
“I should be fine in a few weeks, but right now, this is kicking my behind,” Braxton admits of her second pregnancy. “I’m eating like a parrot.” By all indications, however, the delivery of her other baby—"More Than a Woman" on Arista Nov. 19—should be much less of an ordeal…

I was able to coop the article into a cover story for New York gay rag Next... doubling the pleasure...

Then, a couple weeks after the interview ran, I was surprised to receive a package from Braxton, with a handwritten note thanking me for a good time, along with a silver keychain from Tiffany. That's a class act.

We met years later, where I was at last able to thank her in person. I was stunned at how tiny this lady is, with her great big voice.