Nick & Choose 30: NBA Jam

Published Dec. 1, 2010

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Can’t Buy a Bucket
Nostalgia is no slam dunk.

I think it was Street Fighter II. Or maybe it was Mortal Kombat I was playing when my father first snuck up behind my usual perch on the couch to say, “You’re not going to play those things when you’re older.” He instead preferred that I “read challenging books.”

My dad thinks of video games as a waste of time. This stance has always struck me as ironic, as it comes from a man who brags about once being able to spend all day at the movies for a nickel.

The fact is, my generation was the first to be born into the era of video games as an influential pop product, an effect only accelerated by games moving out of the arcade and into the home. We’re a generation of cartridge blowers, of Genesis defenders. Ask any guy between the ages of 30-39 about the Contra code and get ready for an immediate recitation of directions and letters, an involuntary response as natural as blinking or breathing. While my father may have been awed by the deeds of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, I marveled at the unstoppable force that was Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl.

One of my childhood’s most iconic games was 1993’s NBA Jam. The premise was simple: a two-on-two battle between professional basketball stars. The gameplay was outlandish, with players performing acrobatic dunks from outrageous distances. Secret characters, like Bill Clinton, could be unlocked, and a comic voiceover peppered the action with taglines like “He’s heating up” and “Boomshakalaka!” which have become part of the sport’s actual lexicon. Riding the popularity of the NBA’s heyday and featuring life-like player models—an innovation at the time—NBA Jam made over $1 billion in quarters.

Released earlier this month for Xbox 360 and PS3—it came out in October for Wii—NBA Jam‘s sentimental hold on my peer group can be seen in a Gchat conversation I had with Improper sports editor Rich Levine.

Rich: We on for Jam tonight?
Me: just bought it
Rich: BONER

Yes, products like NBA Jam are a direct call to our adolescent selves. As Rich explains, it’s all about nostalgia. “I can suddenly get back to my teens,” he said.

Nostalgia was also the first word from my friend John, a man who owns every system from the Neo Geo to the Virtual Boy, and an NBA Jam Tournament Edition T-shirt. Explaining NBA Jam‘s appeal, he said, “It’s one of those games that anyone can pick up and play.”

And we did, at which point we were almost immediately reminded of perhaps the game’s greatest strength—infighting. NBA Jam has few rules, little strategy and only one guiding principle: Victory is never assured. As such, it’s easy to feel cheated, and half your time is spent complaining. As the rounds progressed, the swearing increased, insults were lobbed and farts were directed at faces. I suppose the adult equivalent would be arguing politics.

Solo play throws the game’s biggest negative into relief—its lack of depth. Amazingly, the core content hasn’t changed at all in 17 years, and different modes like 21 and Backboard Smash aren’t worth more than a glance. In nostalgic terms, they’re the needless CGI aliens added to reissued editions of Star Wars. Online play, however, is a welcome addition, evoking the near-forgotten social pressure of arcade play without the anxiety of having to ask your parents for more quarters.

After our final contest, Rich concluded that he liked the game, but it didn’t quite bring him all the way back. “That’s probably my fault,” he said. “Got too old.” John, on the other hand, has since contacted me repeatedly, looking for a rematch.

My enthusiasm splits the difference. Were NBA Jam a downloadable title with a corresponding price point (as its producers originally intended), I’d say it’s an essential purchase for anyone who once longed for a pair of Reebok Pumps. However, its current $50 price is a prohibitive toll for memory lane.

But, with disc in hand—and much to my father’s consternation—I’ll continue to play, perched on my own couch, on a TV that sits between my armchair and bookcase. My Xbox next to Anna Karenina. The games stacked next to my copy of Moby Dick. Fittingly, my current station in life at a point somewhere in between.

Nick & Choose 29: Relaxation Drinks

Published Nov. 3, 2010

View as PDFThe Big Chill
Relaxation drinks. Fuel for an inactive lifestyle.

Energy drinks are a multibillion-dollar business. Names like Red Bull and Monster stand at the top of the category, but parasitic brands such as Steaz, NOS or KaBoom are around to fight for the crumbs of profit.

My friend Adam is in the drink biz as the associate publisher of Beverage Spectrum Magazine and BevNet.com, and together we once toyed with the idea of entering the market. We even had product samples made of a shot we called Midnight Oil, but our plans never got off the ground. It may have been our complete lack of drive, capital or business sense, but failure was practically assured anyway. The category is oversaturated, and some people had doubts about the name. One former intern, Kyle, said it sounded like a sexual lubricant.

With the market sealed, some entrepreneurs have created an equal and opposite reactionary product: relaxation drinks. In the same cans packed with caffeine and B vitamins come beverages like Tranquila and iChill, infused with rose hips and kava root. The sector has little traction at the moment, with the sales leader pulling in just $5 million in revenue, but that just means there’s opportunity for growth. So I decided to investigate the competition. As I was also starting a new position, I figured my nerves could use the help. Plus Kyle had returned as our new editorial assistant. Here was my chance to help with his first-week jitters, and exact revenge for that lubricant comment.

“This tastes like Dimetapp mixed with beer,” said Kyle, sucking down a Drank. Debuting in this region last December, Drank is the category’s most recognizable name. With ingredients like valerian root—which some studies have shown causes abnormal heartbeat—and melatonin—which can disrupt circadian rhythms—Drank pulls no punches in knocking you out. Never comfortable chatting with strangers, I chugged a can before an interview and magically transformed into punch-drunk Charlie Rose. I faltered; I stammered; I did everything short of drool. Across town, Kyle eventually passed out, missed two phone calls and ended up in bed by 9:30 pm.

Before a night out, I gulped a can of Lean, similar in formula to Drank. After meeting up with my girlfriend, she took one look in my dreamy, slightly glassy eyes, and accused me of being high.

There are less severe alternatives. Some, like Novocaine, which Kyle deemed a complete failure, feature kava root extract as the main active ingredient. I rather liked the Relaxing Tea, but even these lighter drinks come with printed warnings to not exceed two bottles per day. All of them claim to be lifestyle beverages, but I can’t see how you can consume them while simultaneously leading a productive life. The only time I could draw a positive effect was when I’d face a project, drink a can, and then try and get everything completed before the melatonin kicked in.

That may have been the wrong approach, so I called Drank CEO Peter Bianchi, who apparently drinks his product throughout the day. As Bianchi sees it, Drank is a safe alternative to “the bottle of Jack Daniel’s in your drawer for when you’re pulling your hair out, or the bottle of Valium your doctor prescribed.” At Hunter S. Thompson, Inc., yes, I suppose Drank is a healthier choice. But what of Drank’s clear allusion to drank, aka lean, aka the recreational consumption of prescription-strength cough syrup? Hedges Bianchi, “In ‘I Gotta Feeling,’ when Fergie says ‘Drank!’ she’s not talking about promethazine, she’s saying ‘Let’s have a drank.’ This is a celebratory beverage.” I voiced my doubts about the products viability, but Bianchi assured me, “Call BevNet. They’ll tell you this is the most explosive category in the industry.”

“Well, anyone with a brand is going to say that,” said Adam, later on the phone. Fresh from a Vegas trade show, he’d seen a lot of new entrants to the market, but said, “It’s still such a young category. Distributors are still hesitant and worried to pick up unknown products, just because they don’t want to be burned.”

While unpaid bills are an understandable concern, the bigger problem might be a target demographic too tired to purchase another can.

Truth be told, I drank a Red Bull before writing this. I needed the energy, and getting tasks done is what eliminates my stress. The two fingers of whiskey is the reward, not the crutch. But when the time comes to relax, I don’t always need the help. I’m already sleepy.

Nick & Choose 28: Gadgets

Published Oct. 6, 2010

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Inspector Gadget
Technophobia? There’s an app for that.

I was at the gdgt tech expo and feeling out of touch. Powerline network kits? Dual USB GPS car chargers? These aren’t the gadgets of my youth. I worked at a Brookstone. A waffle iron/alarm clock that plays humpback mating calls, that’s a gadget. A FreeAgent GoFlex TV? That’s just a… well, it sort of, um… OK, I really have no idea.

The very first booth I visited hammered home my Luddite status. “So, what do you guys do?” I asked the representative from Springpad.

“I’ll show you. Do you have an iPhone or a Droid?”
“I have none of those things.”
And then we shared an awkward silence.

There was only one person in attendance who appeared to understand my unease. A man with no companion, looking a bit lost, and a bit ridiculous in a white, skintight, electroluminescent costume.

“Hey, Tron Guy. What are you doing here?”
“I’m just here for Lenovo.”
“What do they have you doing?”
“Just standing around, bein’ Tron Guy.”

Not on my watch, friend. Averting my eyes from his unfortunate spandex bulge, I put Tron Guy to work explaining one of the featured products. Seems Lenovo developed a kind of one-handed keyboard remote to make surfing the Web on your TV easier. Sadly, I don’t have the Web on my TV. In fact, I realized, I’ve never actually seen one of Tron Guy’s YouTube videos. I’ve never even seen Tron. That’s when my shame spiral really started to spin.

I don’t have the Internet on my phone. I don’t even have wireless! I have no DVR. My non-HD TV is longer than it is wide and weighs more than my oven. What can I do? Teach me, Tron Guy! “What’s the name of this device?”

“I don’t know.”

Well, if a man dressed as a computer program can’t be relied on for technological expertise, that certainly levels the playing field. With renewed confidence, I wandered over to the Kodak booth to speak with a nervous young man about the PlaySport video camera he had submerged in a fishbowl. I guess being waterproof at 10 feet is impressive, but why would I choose the PlaySport over the PlayTouch, with its on-screen editing and better Web connectivity? “If you go scuba diving—well, shallow scuba diving,” he replied.

Shockingly, it appeared I was the most tech-savvy person in attendance. So, as a man who still listens to cassette tapes, I present the gdgt Best in Show.

3. Scvngr, based in Cambridge, is a free, location-based app like Foursquare and Gowalla. The difference? Rather than simply “checking in” at a participating location, Scvngr presents you with challenges. Board the Fung Wah Bus, snap a picture of yourself making it to New York without catching on fire, earn a discount on your next trip. I have my suspicions about these apps, as my friends who use them don’t seem to derive any real enjoyment, but Scvngr has two things in its favor. One, it just received $4 million from Google Ventures, so you might as well get used to seeing it. And two, its 21-year-old CEO dropped out of Princeton and, according to The New York Times, now works 96 hours a week. Here’s a kid who’s torching his youth to help others have fun. I hope the inevitable truckload of cash offers some comfort.

2. “They come from the planet blõôh located in the galaxy 4210,” said the guy from Mimobot. Finally! Something I can understand. Based in Allston, Mimobot makes flash drives designed to look like characters from Hello Kitty, Star Wars and more. The flash drives come with an amusing backstory, but they don’t really do anything besides store data. Is it silly? Yes. Do I want a $40 C-3PO? Yup.

1. Another free app, the Woburn-based HeyWire allows you to text or chat with anyone around the world at no cost. With streamlined connectivity, you can be reached simultaneously by phone, Facebook, IM, smoke signal, whatever. “So I can never hide?” I asked the rep. “You’re not the first person to say that,” he confessed.

At what price, privacy? About $120 sounds right, which is what my abacus tells me I’d save if I cut texting from my phone plan. With an extra $120, maybe I could upgrade to a smartphone and actually use these programs. Or I could go to Brookstone and buy three RC helicopters and an electronic bottle opener. When it comes to gadgets, I’m a purist.

Nick & Choose 27: Compression Gear

Published Sept. 8, 2010

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Under Pressure
Recovery gear: the next step in high performance or the emperor’s new clothes?

Last month, I signed up for the Lowell Sun Half Marathon, a race more than four times the length of any I’ve run before. I’m aiming to finish in just under two hours, a time that’s perfectly respectable but that won’t impress anyone, which pretty much describes me as an athlete, as well.

In the sports world, compression gear is a hot commodity. Recovery socks are getting full spreads in running magazines. NFL players are currently shrinkwrapping their brawn under compression shirts. A few years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern got his undies in a bunch when superstars like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade took to wearing tights.

The company that supplies Wade with his stockings is McDavid, Inc., one of several firms now fabricating recovery gear. About six years ago, McDavid found the world of spandex had gone slack. “It got to the point where every average Joe mowing his lawn was wearing Under Armour,” says marketing director Rey Corpuz. Working with Olympic hopefuls, McDavid created a line of products designed to both boost performance—by increasing support and the flow of oxygenated blood to the focus area—and aid in recovery, as increased circulation prevents blood from pooling and lactic acid buildup. Of course, there’s an aesthetic hurdle. When actually wearing the gear, you feel like the guy who brings cleats to the company softball game.

“I’m going to be honest, you look a bit like a douche,” my girlfriend said, as I modeled my pants and knee-high socks. “Is that really going to help you when you’re not a peak performer?” I was going to find out.

Due to a weekend wedding, I missed 11 scheduled miles of training, so I had planned a rigorous week of catch-up. Three hard days in a row had me ready when my apparel arrived on Wednesday. That night I slept in McDavid’s True Compression Recovery Pant ($75). Like Superman’s pajamas, they were cozy and gave my thighs a snug eight-hour hug.

The next day I stepped onto the treadmill like someone walking across hot coals—expecting the worst and hoping for the best. I wouldn’t say my legs felt peppy, but they weren’t sore, and I banged out four miles at a decent clip. Facing another four on Saturday, I slept in the socks and used Friday to put my legs through a gauntlet of squats, lunges and sprints, all exercises proven to rip my muscle fibers like cheap burlap.

With another night in the pants, my legs felt fine, considering. A Saturday run in the socks, minus the stares, was quite comfortable. After one last night with vacuum-sealed stems, I awoke on Sunday to face the final leg: seven miles, 90-degree heat and what seemed like a headwind at every turn.

Running in the pants was like putting new tires on a car with no fuel, as I stumbled around for an hour, pain-free but exhausted. Though there’s a sense your muscles are being pulled into action, like a puppet tugged by a string, and the stocking did provide a breezy cool I hadn’t felt since a grade-school production of Robin Hood.

The benefits are hard to quantify, as you can’t objectively measure an absence of aching or a slight increase in energy. I tend to agree with the case studies showing recovery gear decreases delayed muscle soreness but offers no real performance advantage. But what does the man on the street say?

“You’re at least a little less sore the next day,” says Will, an employee at Marathon Sports and a fellow former member of the Bates College track team. With a half-marathon time around 1:20, Will often runs in calf sleeves, but he admits, “some days your legs just feel better than others.”

“It’s probably—next to minimalist shoes—the fastest-growing market in running,” says Justin Burdon, co-owner of South End Athletic Company. A near four-minute miler while at Boston College, or as I prefer to call it, “the inferior B.C.,” Burdon refrains from compression gear. “I’m not in competition anymore, so it’s not something I really need.”

At $20-$60 just for socks, I’d pass, too. I especially wouldn’t shell out $200 for the new Saucony recovery suit, unless I wanted to complete the superhero ensemble. But with the gear already in hand, it’s going to get some use. An advantage, even minimal, even fictitious, needs to be grabbed this many miles from the finish line.

Nick & Choose 26: Rolls-Royce

Published Aug. 11, 2010

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Puttin’ on the Ritz
Giving the luxe life a spin

The Great Gatsby threw dazzling garden parties. He wore a pink suit and silk shirts in coral, lavender, faint orange and monograms of Indian blue. He was a shiny neon sign obsessed with a green light who paraded around town in a yellow Rolls-Royce.

I always related to the narrator, Nick Carraway. He’s quiet, reflective and, like myself, I think he’d be perfectly content with a Honda. Of course, we’re happy to dabble in grandeur, and when I received an offer of a Rolls-Royce for the weekend, I grabbed it. My friends were getting married in Newport, and here was a chance to turn Aquidneck Island into my own East and West Egg.

I was nervous on my way to pick up the 2010 Phantom Drophead Coupe. (That’s pronounced coo-pay. I don’t know why, and I didn’t want to ask and embarrass myself in front of the car.) There’s a 453-hp, 6.8-liter V-12 engine under the brushed, stainless-steel hood. It has 21″ wheels, teak decking inspired by America’s Cup yachts and dealer options that cost well over my car’s resale value. The Phantom is meant to stand out, and as such, it’s a very polarizing vehicle.

I wasn’t even out of the driveway before I received my first thumbs-up from a passerby. Less than a mile later, the first middle finger was waved in my direction. “I think this guy is giving you the finger, too,” my girlfriend said during mile four, as an 18-wheeler swerved near, blaring its horn. “No, never mind, he’s giving us the “let’s switch” sign.” It was rush hour; I was antsy and picturing a truck tire destroying the $12,000 paint job on my $500,000 loaner. So I flipped a bird of my own.

It was hard to relax in my luxury automobile. I admit, during that first afternoon I was a bit of a pill. Seems the Rolls is more fun to be driven in than to drive. The America’s Cup styling is appropriate because at 18-feet long and almost three tons, the Couple steers like a boat. This isn’t a vehicle for hairpin turns. For my passengers, though, relaxing wasn’t a problem, and they all took the opportunity to lounge in the sun, role play as young moguls or simply sleep on this leather sofa on wheels. Meanwhile, I just kept my hands at 10 and two, smiled nervously at other drivers and exhaled deeply whenever I stepped out the suicide doors.

But I always looked forward to climbing back in. One has to show off a little, and the following day we left downtown Newport, cruised past the vineyards and the polo matches, and made our way to the modest, West Egg side of the island, where I had to make a vital stop: my high school.

Of course, being July, no one was there. Not my stentorian dorm master. Not the girl who took me as her pity date to the winter formal. Just some sad summer-schoolers, who hopefully learned from an alum that with a little hard work, you, too, can fake a better life.

On the way out of town, I learned that being rich apparently saves you money, as the hotel elected not to charge me for parking. After all, a Phantom out front is a free boost to an establishment’s cultural cachet. That, or my cargo shorts and old T-shirt suggested that I might not have the cash on me.

Fifty miles later, we made one last stop by my folks’ house, where my father got a kick out of pushing all the buttons on the dash, which he’s always yelled at me for doing. He even described the Phantom as “sexy,” a word I don’t recall him saying before. My mother enjoyed a Sunday cruise, but afterward confessed she’d prefer something she could abuse, which was disconcerting to hear, both as her son and the owner of her old car.

In the end, the Phantom was fun to drive, in no small part, because it gave my friends a chance to climb behind the wheel, to imagine themselves as the owner of a seaside mansion or a shiny pink suit. I was happy to observe, then hand back the keys and write it all down.

Nick & Choose 25: Beach Reads

Published June 23, 2010

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A Novel Situation
Nick’s summer-reading breakdown

Summer is the season to let go. You exercised for months, so now, feel free to grab that fourth hot dog. This winter, you actually watched The Blind Side, starring (Oscar-winner) Sandra Bullock. In August, wash that down with The Expendables, starring (Fulbright scholar) Dolph Lundgren. You put in the time to psychically and culturally better yourself. Summer is when you flush all that hard work down the toilet. It’s awesome.

Then there’s the beach read, the written word’s version of the Travel Channel. You can pretend you’re learning, but you’re really just watching a fat man trying to keep down a seven-pound burrito.

There are principles to this form of escapism: 1) It’s a throwaway. If the book falls in the Sandals pool, there are 1,000 more copies waiting at the airport; 2)The plot typically involves lawyers or lovers; and 3) I tend to stay away. I once read Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed, and my testicles still haven’t redescended.

I enjoy noir. One of my favorite authors is Ken Bruen, and in his stories, damaged men riddled with self-hatred get blackout drunk and kill each other. They’re a joy.

The books of Elin Hilderbrand are the polar opposite, but just like noir, her beach reads have a formula. In her novels, beautiful people deal with unexpected love and loss against the backdrop of Nantucket. Her latest tome, The Island, focuses on Birdie Cousins and her daughter, Chess, who loses her Ivy League fiancée in a mountaineering accident. Or there’s A Summer Affair, in which a car accident forces Claire Crispin to give up her dream of glassblowing. Seriously.

I sound pompous, but these novels are popular. In the public library system, more than a third of all the Hilderbrands are checked out. For Bruen? Just 17 out of more than 200.

I try to be objective about these things, but the first page in Hilderbrand’s The Castaways had me cringing. In walks Sergeant Dickson, but uh-oh, he’s “without his usual peppermint breeze of self-confidence.” (Only in Nantucket do the cops smell like candy.) Seems Tess and Greg MacAvoy drowned, and now their close-knit group of friends is coming apart at the seams. I’d tell you more, but I barely cared myself. What kept me engaged was detecting the beach-read components.

First, everyone comes prepackaged with adjectives. Characters aren’t developed as much as traced from preexisting archetypes. Thus we mourn the loss of Greg, who “had six-pack abs and the shoulders of Adonis” and a voice “somewhere between Frank Sinatra and John Mayer.” I read that, and I’m glad Greg is dead. There’s a palpable sense of laziness to the description, like the novel was written by someone on vacation, not for someone on vacation. This is a world where thunder sounds like “someone on the second floor was picking up large pieces of furniture and then letting them drop.” and points of comparison include “the Chief was so humorless, he made Jeffrey feel like Jay Leno.” (Any place where Leno is the apex of comedy isn’t a place I want to visit.)

Pronouns also play an immense role. As in a Dick and Jane book, the subject of each sentence is explicitly stated and underlined; like Hilderbrand is worried we’re going to get the staggering amount of six total characters all jumbled. What’s worse is that the characters are endlessly thinking about one another. Delilah’s mad at Tess. Phoebe loves Addison. I once decided to count the number of first names on the page I was reading. 37! After that, each page read like roll call at an elementary school for children with incredibly unimaginative parents.

Of course the biggest device is that we’re constantly forced to acknowledge the drama. I’m nearly paying a compliment when I say that The Castaways reminded me of Anna Karenina, the last novel I made myself read. For 800 pages, Anna weeps and frets about which rich jerk she should spend her life with, until she finally throws herself under a train. Coincidently, the 7:10 to Moscow is my favorite character in that book.

Beach reads are about escape, but to enjoy the story, you have to go someplace unexpected. I already know how to be white and privileged. Give me switchblades. Give me renegade cops. Give me homicidal motorcycle gangs on a killing spree. And then, I can relax.

Nick & Choose 24: Spray Tans

Published May 25, 2010

Umber Party
Nick tans his hide.

I officially retired from the sun last spring. For safety’s sake, I decided I’d had my share of tans, I’d had my burns, and it was time to embrace a life of permanent French vanilla.

My girlfriend decided she wanted to see something in a russet or raw sienna.

The impetus was the curiosity of her friend Kate, whose skin tone would be the envy of all social circles, were these medieval times. She wants to live life in the Bronze Age, but when the summer comes, heredity has her slathering on SPF 85. That’s a level of protection I didn’t know existed until we found ourselves chatting in a waiting room, mentally preparing for $40 spray tans. We were at Perfect Tan, a location chosen both for its reputation and immediate availability, giving me no chance to weasel out.

I can’t say my pale arm was twisted, but my girlfriend was definitely the driving force, and, as she tagged along to see the show, I began to suspect her motive was more about comedy than cosmetics. “Please go aggressive with it,” she half demanded, before digging through the tan-line stickers. I looked to Kate, who was filling out the release.

“Are you allergic to sunlight?” “Well, sometimes I feel sick if I’m out in the sun for a while.” She paused. “I’ll check in the middle.”

There was no help to be found.

Surprisingly, I found the process itself rather enjoyable. Once you’ve stripped down to your briefs, you step into what looks like a giant futuristic phone booth, and a bizarre game of Simon Says begins. Through a variety of poses, an attendant sprays all your nooks and angles with two coats of a mixture containing dihydroxyacetone. DHA interacts with the acids in dead skin cells, turning them brown, and has no proven toxicity. (Sure, it may be a chemical developed by German scientists before World War II, but seriously, don’t sweat it.) Finally, with the what-the-hell attitude of a dieter ordering dessert, I opted for an additional third coat, then stepped out in front of a mirror and laughed my ass off.

Things were less funny the next day. With bronzer coating my skin and setting off a panic in my mind, I looked like something that had crawled out of a used cigarette filter. But as the additives circled the shower drain, the angst faded a bit, and I figured that, like a drastically new haircut, this was something I’d have to own if it was going to work.

And like a new ‘do, there are pluses and minuses, a fact made clear when my coworker Andrew came by with his normal morning greeting. “Hey, how’d the—OH MY DEAR GOD.”

Not a huge shot of confidence. Continuing the haircut analogy, there’s no way to hide the fact you’ve just been spray-tanned, and I imagine he’d have found a mohawk less shocking. Initially more charitable, our assistant editor remarked, “If you told me you just got back from vacation, I’d say, ‘Sure.'” She then added, “Because I wouldn’t guess, based on the way you dress, that you’d go tanning.” Thanks?

Day two brought drastic changes, as my new hue, hiding in plain sight, became invisible. In fact, people accused me of scrubbing off the results, but a quick shot of the tan lines silenced any doubters. And though, with my face to my forearms painted one uniform shade, things didn’t look fully natural—I felt more dirty than tan—I began to embrace the positives. Muscles pop. Skin (incorrectly) appears healthier. An approximation of the superficial look you want can be had then forgotten over the course of a week.

Kate’s boyfriend, Matt, summed up the situation best. On day two he was relieved to see that the “Lindsay Lohan glow” had faded. By day five, he’d moved onto more important matters. “When I was in high school, no one ever mentioned you could make money spraying down naked women.”

As for my tan, only the eroded scraps remain. And I miss it like a sucked-down strawberry daiquiri. It’s a summer treat I feel lightly ridiculous enjoying. But when it comes time to hit the beach this year, though I may not always be comfortable in my skin, I resolve to be comfortable with my shade.

Nick & Choose 23: Buckfast

Published April 28, 2010

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Loched & Loaded
Nick drinks like a Scotsman.

Back in February, in an item sandwiched between a workout for six-pack abs and an article on how the right haircut can tone your tummy, Men’s Health declared Boston the nation’s least-drunk city. We don’t drink and drive. Our livers produce bile of unassailable quality. Our health should be a source of pride, but I can’t be the only one who immediately wanted to challenge Reno, Nev., to a chugging contest.

It seems everyone is drinking less. Between 1980 and 2007, per-capita consumption of alcohol in the U.S. dropped 17 percent. In Canada, it’s 24 percent. In Germany, a country where liters of beer are regularly guzzled from boots, they’re drinking 30 percent less. Thankfully, the U.K. still knows how to party. Nineteen percent more people are waking up with a headache, nausea and a stranger in their bed.

In Scotland, the major culprit is Buckfast Tonic Wine, or bottles of phosphate-fortified grape juice packed with eight Cokes’ worth of caffeine. For a ned—a Scottish hooligan—two or three dirt-cheap Buckies consumed in a filthy Glasgow alleyway gets the night going, all without the indignity of ordering a Jåger Bomb. The fear is that Buckfast might be too provoking. The Scottish government wants to ban it, and the stats give them reason. In the Strathclyde district, for example, the wine was mentioned in 5,638 crime reports in just the last three years.

Our government won’t allow the import of “loopy juice,” but the recipe isn’t hard to improvise. I wanted to show Men’s Health what’s what, and maybe make a crime report of my own. Here’s how things went down.

On Saturday at 7:30 pm, suspects Nick Altschuller and his friend John began mixing 1 ounce brandy, 2 ounces Red Bull and 6 ounces of red wine topped with Coke. Upon raising his glass, John remarked, “To the last thing we remember tonight.”

8:30 pm: Two servings down, the accused found a trove of adrenaline-raising programming on television, including Rocky, Rocky II, and Boston College in the NCAA Hockey Championship. As a BC grad, John didn’t need the extra stimulation.

A twitching Nick noted that their speech appeared accelerated. “I think we’re chatty drunk,” John agreed, quickly. Witnesses confirmed they sounded like giddy secretaries at happy hour, as opposed to anything approaching manly.

9 pm: John began hearing things, causing Nick to giggle at 400 BPM.

10 pm: The duo found Lethal Weapon II on TV. In honor of Mel Gibson’s performance, Nick demanded he be called Riggs for the rest of the evening.

10:30 pm: Out of Red Bull, the men switched to used Redline, an energy drink that comes with a 200-plus word warning label advising consumers to keep the product away from children and nursing women. Both suspects agreed the taste improved.

11 pm: Out of Coke, the men switched to tonic. The defendants no longer cared about the taste.

11:15: With all three bottles of wine gone, John mixed a different caffeinated cocktail. Using his last sober brain cell, Nick advised against it. John responded, “I’m doing this for f***ing literature!” Both men headed out to make some bad decisions.

Like paying a cover charge. Thinking a jug of alcohol and enough caffeine to reanimate a corpse could reverse time, we arrived at a bar where I spent many hazy hours in my youth. Times have changed, though. Sipping a Red Bull and vodka—for some ungodly reason—I stood in the middle of an empty dance floor watching dozens of people queue for the party upstairs. With music blaring, I gave a shimmy, then a shake, but no moves could convince these youngsters that the only difference between the two floors was about 15 feet. Channeling my inner Murtaugh, I muttered, “I’m too old for this shit.” Besides my pulse, things slowed from there. The most shocking thing to occur was arriving home by last call.

The next day, John studied for a finance exam. He may like to drink, but the man’s got goals. I went for a run to flush my prized Bostonian organs. It won’t be the last time I’m lambasted, but through experience comes beer-goggled hindsight. I’d rather be a Nick than a ned.

Nick & Choose 22: Le Whif

Published March 31, 2010

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A Real Drag
There’s a sucker born every minute.

Ideas good in theory: strip clubs, socialism, pizza bagels. In practice, these things never live up to their imagined potential. For the moment, breathable food can be added to the list.

Le Whif is an invention from Harvard biomedical engineering professor David Edwards. As the founder of both Labogroup and the Foodlab at Le Laboratoire in Paris, Edwards and his team have created inventions like Andrea, an air purification system using houseplants; the Pumpkin, a specialized container to aid water transportation in the developing world; and a cylinder of inhalable chocolate, named after an effete, Pink Panther villain.

The idea behind Le Whif is to provide chocolate without the calories. Each ChapStick-shaped inhaler contains eight to 10 puffs. A quick drag covers your taste buds with an organic chocolate cloud. Not a chocoholic but a product tester with an oral fixation, I grabbed handfuls of all three flavors and handed them out to coworkers and friends for a week of experimentation.

The most common response upon encountering Le Whif is one of confusion. “It looks like some drug,” said Amanda, our assistant editor. “If you saw me doing this, you’d be like, that girl’s f***ed up.” Giving her a raspberry Whif and a tutorial only increased the unease. Pull out this. Suck on that. It was all very Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The best response to the first hit came from our intern Tom. After a burst of mint chocolate, his eyes shot open like he’d been goosed. As his blush faded, he managed a weak, “It kinda tastes like chocolate.”

For me, that was the problem. I found the taste weak. Yet at the same time, while the granules are too big to enter the lungs, each pull felt like I was battering my uvula and tonsils with a blustery Nestlé gale. Nearly all my huffs were followed by coughs. Either I possess the lung power of a bottlenose dolphin, or, despite years of practice, I was screwing up the process of breathing.

“It takes some time to learn the technique,” said LaboGroup COO Tom Hadfield. “We equate it to learning how to use chopsticks.” (For the record, I can’t use chopsticks without getting hand cramps and soy sauce on my shirt.) Calling from London and masking his pity behind an English accent, Hadfield explained that enjoying Le Whif requires just “a gentle kiss.” This is a hard concept to follow when candy is involved. If the tubes had cargo-bay doors, I would’ve dumped their payloads into my mouth like I was fighting an oral forest fire.

That technique would’ve flown in the face of Le Whif’s primary selling point. Besides offering portability, Hadfield claims that the product provides efficient consumption. Consider that one Hershey’s Kiss contains 200 calories, and while it delivers taste, only a few grams of all that fat and sugar is actually coating your tongue. With Le Whif, a soft blanketing of flavor nets you less than a single calorie.

“Yeah, but chocolate melts in your mouth,” contended my friend Derek, after an unenthusiastic toke. And surely, the sensuousness of eating is absent. Le Whif would also be hard-pressed to win my girlfriend’s $2.50. “If there was some other thing to it besides the chalky chocolate, maybe. It needs some kind of bonus.”

Ahead of the game, the FoodLab has created coffee Le Whif, with each tube containing the caffeine equivalent of a shot of espresso. Already in demand after a limited run, I couldn’t get my hands on any, which may be good, because as a caffeine junkie, it’s possible my mouth isn’t the only orifice I would have used to ingest it.

“We’re working on new flavors,” Hadfield assured. “In the future, it’s conceivable you could breathe almost any food, so maybe you’ll be breathing a three-course meal.”

But there’s competition in the cutthroat world of aerosol science. Hometown rival Compellis Pharmaceuticals is now working on a nasal spray designed to curb the appetite by temporarily altering one’s sense of smell.

Faced with a tube packed with powdered au poivre, I might not need the help.

Nick & Choose 21: Voice-Overs

Published March 3, 2010

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Timbre!
Nick sounds off.

It’s natural to lie to yourself about your looks. My thinning hair makes me seem distinguished. See? It’s easy. And necessary. If every glance in the mirror coincided with a moment of honest self-awareness, the world would unfurl into chaos.

Your voice is a different story. It’s a trait you can hide from—until a phone message or home video shatters whatever auditory illusion you created. I wish I spoke like Donald Sutherland, but truthfully, I sound like I’m making Jell-O molds of my sinuses. Good thing I’m so handsome.

Speaking of delusions, I also believe in easy money and luck. Because of the former, I signed up for “Getting Paid to Talk: An Intro to Professional Voice-Overs” at Tufts’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (there’s another class on March 31). Due to the latter, on the same day I enrolled, I met Tom Dunn in a bar.

You may not recognize the name, but if you grew up around here, you know the voice. As our conversation turned to our professions, in lieu of a direct explanation, Dunn leaned over and whispered, “Promotional consideration for Sesame Street has been provided by.” For a second, I could feel myself in footy pajamas. “Whenever I say that to people your age, their stomach drops,” he explained.

For years, Dunn was the voice of Channel 2. Working with WGBH-TV, he often filled in for Robert J. Lurtsema, who, for the adolescent me, might as well have been the voice of the Almighty. Meeting Dunn was a sign, so I prodded him for guidance. “See a shrink and stay calm,” he answered. (Perhaps I’m only hoping he was still referring to voiceovers.) He also recommended I practice by reciting ad copy, as it’s often well-written and direct. When the day for my lesson arrived, I walked to campus repeating something about the quality of Absolut vodka, mindful of Dunn’s advice to learn where my voice might fit in the field.

While he offered staid leadership, instructor John Gallogly was all vigor and exuberance. Gallogly is the creative director of Voice Coaches—what he intimidatingly described as “the Harvard of Voice Acting”—and with his buzzed head, jeans and untucked shirt, he looked like a bouncer in a tweed jacket. (Appropriate, as he had just taped a cage fighting commercial earlier that day.) I wasn’t sure what to make of him at first, but after I learned Dan Castellaneta vouched for his program, I relaxed. Homer Simpson’s stamp of approval is all I need.

We spent most of the class breaking down the money in the industry—$11.7 billion was spent in the voice-acting business last year, a 7.5 percent increase from 2008. A lot of that cash is doled out in four- to five-figure increments to professionals doing about 20 minutes worth of labor. Nice work if you can get it.

But could I? Audibly, I don’t think I could sell anything. It’s hard for me to express excitement without the benefit of an exclamation point. Thankfully, commercials are only 10 percent of the business. The rest is narration, in the form of products like instructional tapes, public address announcements or video games. I couldn’t sell you a car, but maybe I could play an irritating citizen/shotgun fodder in the next Grand Theft Auto. Gallogly saw this latent talent. As I walked to the mike to record an ad for our voice test, he said, “I want you to be sarcastic. I have a feeling you can do that.”

Apparently quite well, at least according to Jenny Marcotte, Gallogly’s studio director. While currently figuring out whether Matt Damon or Jeff Bridges is going to narrate her next project, she took the time to evaluate my voice. Seems my vocal tone was made for humor and sarcasm, “but not upscale sophistication or sensuality—or children’s books.” So sleepy slacker, yes; sexy with kids, no. I can live with that.

Surprisingly, Marcotte suggested work in audio books. Such a heavy dose of my voice could probably double as a sleep aid, but 700 words at a time sounds about right. Maybe the role I was born to play is me. Then again, “Nick & Choose” as read by Donald Sutherland would blow your mind.