Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Category: Popular Culture

What the Kids Are Watching: The Best of Toddler TV

There was a time, touchingly, when I believed I was not going to allow my young child to watch television. Today my two-year-old can name so many different animated characters that she’s either sneaking out at night to watch bootleg videos at some kind of toddler speakeasy, or the educational games her nursery school touts are just a front for a daily program of endless cartoons and puffy synthetic snacks.

In any case, apart from a few crossover stars like Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants, television shows that are major cultural reference points in our house are virtual unknowns on the adult scene. For the benefit of those without children or cable, here’s a quick primer on what the kids are watching these days. (Kids under three years old, I mean. Not teenage ‘kids’. I genuinely have no idea what they’re doing. Just planking and sexting each other, as best I can tell.)

Read more . . . 


Courtside at the World Championship of Ping Pong




The consensus in Alexandra Palace, the Victorian-era exhibition hall in north London where the World Championship of Ping Pong is happening, is that ping pong on this island has never seen anything like this.

The center court game is televised on Sky Sports, Britain’s closest home-grown thing to ESPN. There are TV commentators jawboning in a glassed-in booth and colored spotlights shooting across the audience and “Born to Be Wild” blasting on the sound system while lanky men in shorts rally under klieg lights.

Adoni Maropis, one of three U.S. players, is warming up on the center court. All of his matches today have been televised, which has less to do with the fact that he was the 2011 U.S. hardbat national champion and more with his former gig playing terrorist Abu Fayed on “24.” The tournament’s promotional materials refer often to the Hollywood actor among the 64 entrants, but Maropis is hardly the only star. Number-one seed Maxim Shmyrev of Russia has his own trading cards. Gavin Evans, 19, was an auxiliary member of the UK’s Olympic table tennis squad. There are four representatives here of the Orange Army, the traveling fans that accompany Dutch athletes to seemingly every competition in the world, and one is wearing a full-body plush lion suit in support of Marty “Loekie the Lion” Hendriksen.

The Philippine delegation looks a little dejected. Sandpaper table tennis – the kind played here – is a fringe religion in the Philippines, with money trading hands over illicit games in back alleys and basements. The squad had high hopes, but only three of their seven players are advancing to the round of 32. Organizers did not pay expenses, and it’s a long flight back to Manila without a piece of the $100,000 prize pie to show for it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Reece Mavro, 18, a former competitive player who’s just aged out of England’s under-18 table tennis program, outside of the audience grandstands. “If this was normal table tennis, it’d be sick.”

Let’s get some things straight: Table tennis and ping pong are the same thing, except on specific occasions when they are not. The World Championship of Ping Pong is such an event. Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you ask.

Read more . . . 

Remembrances of Buttocks Past: Watching Magic Mike

There are two doors at the top of the cinema stairs. One goes to the theater showing “Magic Mike,” and the other goes to a sensitive film fresh off the festival circuit. I don’t have tickets for that movie.

“This the way to ‘Magic Mike’?” I ask a woman walking up the stairs with a glass of wine in each hand (because how, why, would you see “Magic Mike” in a movie theater that doesn’t allow alcohol?) She says, “Uhh, yeah,” all furtive and uncomfortable, like I just reached over the back of the seat at an adult theater and offered to shake her hand. We’re living in a post-shame age, lady. People read Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway. You’re at the stripper movie. Own it.

There are a lot of reasons I’m at “Magic Mike” but there’s no point in naming any of them, lest it sound like the beefcake-movie-ticket-holding lady doth protest too much. I can take the high road and say it’s for work, but – really? All the journalists in Homs right now just couldn’t snag the “Magic Mike” beat? Let’s not overthink this. It’s Saturday night, I have a box of stale popcorn and a large glass of Chardonnay, and I’m seated in a very energetic theater of women and exactly two men who appear to have been conscripted as dates.

“I don’t even want to think about the things I’d have to do to my boyfriend to get him to come see this with me,” my friend whispers, which is ironic, because in about 50 minutes Channing Tatum is going to tell his love interest that she doesn’t want to know what he has to do for a $20 bill.

“Magic Mike” is about a 30-year-old part-time Tampa roofer who does not look like anyone who has ever fixed your roof. By night, he leads a muscled all-male revue that grinds and thrusts before a shrieking crowd of female revelers. Every stripper has an “act,” a dance constructed around the somewhat flimsy premise that he is a fireman who needs to take his clothes off, or a policeman who needs to take his clothes off, or variations of that theme. Women like a story. I once went with friends to a strip club aimed at gay men, and those dancers dispensed with such character studies entirely. All the acts followed a single narrative, that narrative being that everyone in the room would like to see some penis as soon as humanly possible.

We learn early in the film that Magic Mike’s talents are not limited to the stage. His real passion, he explains to a young woman who has just woken up nude in his apartment, is making furniture out of crap that has washed ashore on the beach. The camera lingers on a photo album of his creations, and it is not spoiling much to say that this is not a movie about a talented furniture maker reduced to stripping to make ends meet. Mike takes a protégé under his wing, one 19-year-old Adam, and the rest of the film plays Adam’s burgeoning infatuation with the glamorous world of male stripping against Mike’s increasing disillusionment. Matthew McConaughey is their dirty, half-crazed, bare-chested, bongo-drum-playing employer. It is possible that Matthew McConaughey’s entire career up to this point has been a drawn-out teaser campaign for this role. He is kind of a genius in it, and if it transpires next year that somebody like Ben Kingsley loses an Oscar to Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, I will not contest that decision.

All of these plot points are really just filler between scenes of be-G-stringed men writhing against some very willing audience volunteers, and here is where “Magic Mike” performs a public service. Strip clubs are not for everyone. If you have never been before, you will know within minutes of the “It’s Raining Men” routine if this kind of thing’s your scene. I only wish that kind of informed consent had been available to me.

A few years ago I visited a Las Vegas strip club in the company of a bachelorette party. I had never seen a show aimed at women – my only previous experience was with the gay boys, and that was very much an observer mission – so I don’t know what I was expecting. Something saucy, but ultimately PG-13, like the male answer to Gypsy Rose Lee. I guess I also thought we were traveling back in time.

This is not what happens. The Marine uniform or cowboy vest or whatever comes off, of course, and that’s nice, but there is a whole interactive element that can be really challenging for someone whose personal boundaries preclude publicly dry-humping a stranger in a sailor’s cap. There’s a lot of dancer-patron touching. And grinding. And fake-sex having. It’s the type of stuff that would maybe make an unprepared prude like me disappear to the bar when an emcee starts asking if anyone needs a spanking.

Fortunately for the dancers, uptight killjoys were in the minority that night. The other patrons expressed their appreciation loudly, proudly and with dollar bills between their breasts. While I was shrinking behind my drink,  other members of our party pooled their money and – surprise! – bought me a lap dance. Suddenly there was before me a gentleman in an electric blue thong, curly hair greased into a ponytail, and the determined, half-crazed smile of a Disneyland parade dancer.

I remember it in the way you remember something to tell the police about later. There was jiggling, and shimmying, and buttocks so uncomfortably close to my face. Someone grabbed my hand and placed it on his butt cheek, where the stubble of a not-so-recent ass shave sprouted through a slick layer of oil and sweat. I felt marginally less alarmed than if a stranger on the subway had leapt from his seat and treated me to the same performance.

I recognize that there are people who don’t feel this way, and who embrace the strip club experience in the playful sense that Matthew McConaughey’s ass-less pants suggest it was meant to be taken. I don’t remember the denomination of the bill I gingerly tucked into his waist strap, but I can’t imagine it was as robust a tip as he might have received from a more enthusiastic lady. And that’s just not fair to a clearly hard-working freelance professional.

“Magic Mike” accurately portrays the onstage world of male stripping. The offstage one? That I can’t say. Perhaps the most fantastical element of this film – and this is a bit of a spoiler – is how remarkably well everything works out for everyone. The novice who screws up a drug deal gets mercifully bailed out, the skeezy club owner gets his promotion, even the golden boy bows out before the herpes or male-pattern baldness hits to make his ugly furniture. Maybe the world of male stripping really is just a rocking good time with no greater downsides than the pain of a good back wax. But I don’t know. From my single interaction with a member of the profession, I felt – as much as you can feel from a single touch of a sweaty, stubbly ass cheek – that perhaps not all of his choices in life had worked as well as he’d hoped. But what do I know? For his sake, I hope that “Magic Mike” is an accurate portrayal of life behind the tear-away pants, and that it helps its viewers self-identify who might enjoy a night of pecs and padded jock straps, and who should stay home and stop ruining it for everyone else.

It’s already helping. The next day I spoke to my mother, a nice Catholic lady who doesn’t watch “How I Met Your Mother” because Doogie Howser’s jokes are too racy. She had also gone to see it. She has never been to a strip club. She was appalled.

“That was not dancing,” she said in a voice full of shock and awe. “That was not dancing.”