• The Worst Writing Job in the World (2014 Edition)

    Date: 2014.04.17 | Category: Consumerism, Internet | Comments: 0

    The most popular post on this blog was published way back in 2010, and was titled The Worst Writing Job in the World. The job? Writing Groupon descriptions. I felt it was high time to revisit that post.

    First, I had to check Groupon.com to see if the once-popular discounter was still around. I unsubscribed from its mailings years ago, and haven’t heard anybody mention that they’ve purchased a Groupon in forever. It turns out that the company still exists, and the writing is as marvelously awful as ever. One current sample: “The dough wizards at Papa John’s create circular masterpieces with original and thin crusts made from high-protein flour to support warm bouquets of toppings.” Somebody got paid to write that!

    Unfortunately for the Groupon writers, their stock options aren’t going to make them rich. Groupon closed today at $7.41, down from its NASDAQ debut (and all-time high) of $26 per share. Founder Andrew Mason, who was fired as the company’s CEO in 2013, released a CD of “motivational business music” called Hardly Workin’ after his dismissal. Sample lyric, from “K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid)”: “Don’t make me cut through no thistles/ You can keep all your fancy bells and whistles/ and shove them where the sun don’t shine.” Perhaps Mason could have gotten one of his former employees to ghost-write some better lyrics.

    Now that Groupon is no longer the hot new start-up on the block, it’s time to crown a new king, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with me when I say that the new Worst Writing Job in the World is… Upworthy headline-writer!!!!!

    Upworthy is the horribly annoying site that generates those hyperbolic headlines that just dare you to ignore them. When they first appeared, I clicked on them. But you won’t believe what happened next. I trained myself never to click on an Upworthy URL. Because the articles never lived up to the OMG this is so amazing! promises of the headlines.

    The site has become a favorite target of parodists (Funny or Die, riffing on the Pixar movie “Up”: “The First Ten Minutes Will Make You Sob. The Next 86 Will Change The Way You Think About Balloons”). A joke “headline generator” uses random bits of Upworthy-type phraseology to create counterfeit click-bait. Can you guess which of these headlines are real, and which were generated by the randomizer?

    1. Before You Say Babies Can’t Be Homophobic, Listen To These Six Words From A Former Klansman.

    2. Watch What This Make-Believe Girl Means To 1000 Sexual Predators.

    3. I Thought It Was A Deadly Poison. But Then I Saw This Amazing Short Film.

    4. 9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.
    At 1:05, I get a rude awakening. At 1:41, he starts talking about you.

    5. That Moment When An Author Gets Real About The Biggest Problem In America.
    Get ready to spend the rest of the day trying to pick your jaw up off the floor.

    6. His Military Dad Was Disappointed In Him When He Came Out. For A Really Good Reason.
    At 4:48, we meet his dad. At 5:20, we learn why his dad is so amazing. And I try to keep my composure. And at 6:53, it’s party time.

    7. Think You Have Job Security? Maybe You Should Listen To This Queer Former Model.
    At first you’ll be intrigued. Then you’ll be blown away.

    8. I’d Ask You To Like This Photo, But Then I Think That Proves The Photo Right.
    Seeing these three ads was like getting a tweeting-hearting-liking punch in the stomach.

    9. Watch A Slandered Witness To A Murder Become A Legend With Six Words.
    The good stuff starts at 0:30. Make sure to stick around till 1:34.

    10. This Amazing Kid Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

    Ready for the answers? The even-numbered stories are real; the odd-numbered ones are fake. “I thought all ten of these headlines were real Upworthy stories. When I found out the truth, it blew my mind.”

    When I wrote my initial post, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Groupon style guide, which revealed the secrets of achieving the “Groupon voice.” Well, Upworthy has been kind enough to make their how-to document available as well. Page 15 made me roll my eyes. Page 23 made me mad. And by the time I got to Page 28, I kind of hated life.

    Here is the key to writing Upworthy-style headlines, and what must make working there an unmitigated hellscape: you have to write 25 headlines for every single story. Twenty-five! And they illustrate that dictum with a photo of a toilet. In case you didn’t get the point the first time, the document repeats the 25-headline dictum over and over again. (“You should write 25 headlines unless you want the terrorists to win.”)

    The doc also reveals the target market for Upworthy content: moms on Facebook. “Almost all your traffic will come from Facebook,” says one slide, illustrated with a photo of Mark Zuckerberg with a Photoshopped crown on his head. “Middle-aged women are the biggest sharers on the Interwebs.”

    Unfortunately, relying on Facebook is a dangerous business strategy, since the social network site is constantly tweaking its algorithms; one report said that Upworthy’s traffic dropped by 51% after Facebook made major changes to its users’ news feeds. The assumption is that you’d rather see photos of your friend’s new baby than links to Upworthy or the many clones (ViralNova, Elite Daily, etc.) that have followed in its wake.

    If annoying viral headlines are still plaguing you, you might want to try installing a browser plug-in called Downworthy. No longer will phrases like “Will Blow Your Mind” and “You Won’t Believe” infect your web surfing; Downworthy will rewrite them for you on the fly. “Will Blow Your Mind” will be automatically replaced with “Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment”; “Will Change Your Life Forever” turns into “Will Not Change Your Life in ANY Meaningful or Lasting Way”; and “Won the Internet” becomes “seems alright.”

    By the way, if you enjoyed this blog post, be sure to share it with your social network. Feel free to tell them that this photo of a sleeping Boston terrier will totally restore their faith in humanity.

    sleeping Boston terrier

  • “This show’s so good, it ought to be televised.”

    Date: 2014.04.08 | Category: Personal, TV | Comments: 0

    There is nobody who had a bigger influence on my sense of humor than David Letterman. Absurd, sarcastic, mistrustful of authority, a little bit cranky–he is my comedy soul mate. I was fortunate enough to be just the right age to watch his 12:30 PM NBC show: young, energetic, and able to function at school or work the next morning on six hours of sleep.

    Those old episodes are gone from TV and the internet because, I can only assume, Letterman doesn’t want us comparing his former self to the guy who currently appears on CBS five nights a week. Because once Dave moved to CBS, the magic was gone. I kept watching, but found myself tuning in less and less frequently; the only time I watch “Late Show” now is to see his annual Halloween and Christmas shows, or if there’s a guest I’m really interested in. As far as I’m concerned, he’s been phoning it in for well over a decade. His monologue, never the best part of the show, is perfunctory at best; then there’s the going-through-the-motions Top Ten list. The only good part is his unscripted banter with Paul Shaffer.

    It seems like Dave stopped caring about his show as Jay Leno grew increasingly dominant in the ratings. And yet he persevered, perhaps because he wanted to outlast Jay, or beat his idol Johnny Carson’s on-air longevity (Carson retired at 66, and Dave turns 67 on Saturday). But almost everything you’re going to hear about Letterman’s greatness over the next several months will be because of “Late Night,” not “Late Show.”

    What I remember most about “Late Night” is Letterman’s willingness to take chances. There was the time the show was filmed by a camera that slowly rotated 360 degrees, so that halfway through, at 1 AM, the picture was upside down. A rerun was aired dubbed into Spanish. Once, an entire episode was filmed on an airplane. Sometimes, Dave would drop something like a keg of nails or a frozen turkey off a five-story building, just to see what would happen. He wore a suit of Velcro and flung himself at a wall. He held contests to create inexplicable catchphrases (“They pelted us with rocks and garbage”; “Who do you think you are, Bjorn Nitmo?”). And who could forget what happened when giant corporation GE purchased NBC? Dave tried to visit headquarters with a fruit basket for chairman Jack Welch, only to be thwarted by a security guard who wouldn’t even shake hands with the polite Midwestern host.

    Of course, NBC wound up thwarting Dave’s dream of sitting in Johnny Carson’s chair, and he jumped ship for CBS, which launched what must have been one of the biggest ad blitzes in history to introduce its new host to an American public that may not have stayed up late enough to catch his act. I somehow managed to score tickets for the taping of Dave’s very first show at CBS; Paul Newman was sitting just a few seats away from me when he stood up and asked the immortal question, “Where the hell are the singing cats?” Just to prove how long ago this was, my plus-one at the taping was a journalist who was likely the only news reporter in the Ed Sullivan Theater that day (no working press was allowed in). He did get a front-page story, which ran the next day, out of the deal, but his editors made him write it up as a straight news article–he wasn’t even allowed to mention that he was there. No one outside of the theater knew what had transpired until “Late Show” debuted at 11:30 that night. Today, of course, most of the audience would have Tweeted and Instagrammed the heck out of it–#singingcats would probably have been trending on Twitter well before air time. Those were different days.

    A lot of the flavor of “Late Night” can be credited to Letterman’s then-girlfriend, Merrill Markoe, who as head writer on the program created Stupid Pet Tricks, Viewer Mail, and countless other segments. I always feel Markoe doesn’t get enough recognition for her comedic brilliance; I doubt Letterman would be where he is today without her contributions.

    Funnily enough, the #1 contender for Letterman’s soon-to-be-vacated time slot is Stephen Colbert, who currently competes with Dave at 11:30 with his Comedy Central half-hour. According to a New York Times report, Colbert’s contracts with Comedy Central have been timed to coincide with Dave’s, so that if Letterman retired, Colbert wouldn’t be stuck in a long-term deal with the cable network. One of the reasons I watch Colbert religiously is that like Letterman in his NBC days, he’s a risk-taker and an innovator. It worries me that if Colbert moves to CBS, he might get stuck in the monologue-celebrity interview rut. Letterman’s guests this week include Zach Braff and Lindsay Lohan, while Colbert will be interviewing Jane Goodall and mathematician Edward Frenkel. Would a Colbert-hosted “Late Show” require him to stick with a cookie-cutter approach for the sake of ratings?

    (Incidentally, Leno’s successor, Jimmy Fallon, is like the anti-Letterman; no one will ever accuse him of being too rude or caustic to his celebrity guests. The Fallon-led “Tonight Show” could just as well bear the title of an old “Daily Show” parody segment: “We Love Showbiz!”)

    I just hope that once Letterman retires–and I am quite sure he’ll try to drop out of sight completely, as Carson did–his old NBC shows will get a second life as TV reruns or on streaming video. A new generation needs to discover the delights of the Late Night Monkey Cam and the Suit of Suet.

  • Twit-wit

    Date: 2014.03.03 | Category: Internet, Movies | Comments: 1

    Over the years, I’ve given up numerous things for limited periods of time–I gave up sugar for a month, I quit reading mystery novels (to focus on other genres), I’ve shunned dairy. But nothing was as easy to give up as Twitter. I didn’t really miss it, and after a few days of checking in once a day to see if anyone was trying to contact me via the site, I even forgot to do that.

    After my non-Twitter week was up, I unfollowed about a third of the Tweeters on my list–my basic requirements for keeping someone was that (a) their Tweets simply made me happy (Patrick Stewart, Steve Martin) or (b) they provided information that I found useful and/or very interesting on a regular basis (Sarah Weinman, Linda Holmes). I dumped everyone who Tweeted primarily about politics and current events; I listen to enough NPR to know what’s going on. And I got rid of a lot of duplicates–following two TV writers, not a half-dozen, is quite enough, so I picked my favorites.

    Yesterday, I binged on Twitter like a dieter who goes crazy at a  Cheesecake Factory after weeks of deprivation–I watched the Oscars with my iPhone in hand, reading everyone’s funny quips during the ceremony. It made the interminable telecast a lot more fun, especially when something unexpected happened, like John Travolta’s mispronunciation of singer Idina Menzel’s name. (You’d think Travolta could have practiced saying “Idina Menzel” a few times before getting onstage.)

    Those unscripted moments were very welcome, considering how bloated the show was, even by Oscarcast standards. Sure, everyone always complains about how long it is, but the non-awards content was especially bad this year: the WTF “heroes” montages, Pink’s unnecessary rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and worst of all, Bette Midler’s treacly “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which sent Joe lunging for the remote control so he could mute the TV. If they had to have Bette, why couldn’t she have sung during the In Memoriam montage, something that’s often happened in the past? (Esperanza Spalding sang “What A Wonderful World” in 2012, while Celine Dion crooned “Smile” in 2011.) At least I knew the whole shebang would be over by 9 PM or so here on the West Coast–pity the poor Eastern Time Zone residents who had to stay up past midnight. (At least today was a snow day for many of them, so they could sleep in.)

    I’m not going to complain about Ellen DeGeneres, though. She was obviously brought on board to counter Seth MacFarlane’s smutty antics in 2013, and Ellen was Ellen. The producers got exactly what they bargained for. She’s not edgy, but she’s funny, appealing and game for anything. Her now-famous selfie caused my Twitter feed to freeze for 10-15 minutes as the photo was shared over a million times. (Only two people I follow retweeted it, thank goodness.)

    One of the reasons we desperately need the Oscars to be entertaining is that they’ve become so predictable, at least in the major categories. The nine-field Best Picture field had been winnowed down to two serious challengers, “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave.” The Oscars are the last stop for actors who have been making the awards-show rounds for weeks, from the Golden Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards to the BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild Awards. Best Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o, for instance, had already taken home over 25 awards by the time March 2 rolled around. She lost to Jennifer Lawrence at the Globes, but picked up almost every other trophy she was eligible to win. No wonder Oscar-watchers like BoxOfficeGuru.com‘s Gitesh Pandya were able to predict the winners with almost uncanny accuracy. (Pandya’s only error: picking Disney’s “Get a Horse!” instead of “Mr. Hublot” in the Best Animated Short category.)

    Final thoughts:

    Matthew McConaughey obviously practiced his Oscar speech in front of a mirror a bunch of times, since there wasn’t a shred of spontaneity in it; that’s fine, but I wish he’d taken the time to mention the AIDS crisis, the subject of his film, “Dallas Buyers’ Club.” We have better meds nowadays than we did in the 1980s, the time period in which the film took place, but AIDS is still an ongoing issue and he should have said something about it. Nyong’o’s speech, including the line “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” was far more gracious (and humble) than McConaughey’s.

    Speaking of rehearsed speeches, how about “Let It Go” songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez and their rhyming thank-yous? Personally, I wish that Lopez had opened his shirt to reveal an EGOT necklace like Tracy Jordan’s.

    Hopefully, “The Lego Movie”‘s “Everything is Awesome” will be nominated next year. Don’t watch this unless you want it stuck in your head FOREVER.

    Sometimes I see Restylane or Botox ads and wonder, “Hmm, I wonder if that could make me look fresher and dewier?” and then I see someone like Kim Novak, or Priscilla Presley, or Kenny Rogers, or Bruce Jenner, or Liza Minnelli, or Joan Rivers, and I figure I’ll just stick with Oil of Olay and concealer. Compare Novak’s appearance last night to British actresses like Maggie Smith or Judi Dench who age naturally. I think it’s clear that the Brits look better, despite their wrinkles. (Fun fact: Smith and Dench will both turn 80 in December of this year!) Dench is still flat-out gorgeous, and if Smith had gone under the knife, would she have been able to play the Dowager Countess? And here’s Angela Lansbury in a stunning red dress. It sucks that women aren’t allowed to age in Hollywood–I guess they have different standards in London–but I hope that attitudes will change over time so older actresses will no longer feel the need to mutilate themselves in a futile attempt to look young.

    I only saw one of the nine best picture nominees (“Gravity”). That’s a record low.

  • In the Bag

    Date: 2014.02.12 | Category: Consumerism, Personal | Comments: 1

    Today, I did something I very rarely do–I looked at the traffic stats for this blog. By far the most popular post is a review of a Rush concert I wrote, titling it “What about the voice of Geddy Lee,” a reference to a song by my favorite band, Pavement, which mentions the Canadian singer’s distinctive warble. Apparently, anybody looking for info on Geddy’s voice winds up here. Somewhat disturbingly, another perennial favorite is an entry I posted shortly after a friend of mine committed suicide called “50 (or 25) Reasons to Go On Living.” The top search query that lead people to that one: “why go on living.” Somehow, I can’t imagine that anyone on the brink of doing themselves in will read about my desire to see the rest of August Wilson’s oeuvre or my curiosity about the ultimate fate of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and say, “Why, it really is a wonderful life!”

    This is, in general, not a terribly popular blog. And I’m fine with that. It is simply a place for me to vent when I feel I have something to vent about. I can also target specific readers. This entry is dedicated to my friend Vallery, who always reads the blog and even comments. She is an extremely talented, generous and intelligent person whom I feel privileged to know. Vallery is an avid quilter; you can see some of her work here.

    She is also the person in charge of book bags for the mystery convention I’m involved with, Left Coast Crime. If you have never been to a mystery convention, when you go to the registration desk to sign in, you are given a canvas tote bag filled with books. Free books! Awesome!! However, if you attend a lot of mystery conventions, you will find yourself accumulating a closet full of canvas tote bags. I have at least a dozen of them, and I’ve given a bunch away over the years.

    The thing is, Vallery always does an amazing job selecting the fabric and design. The totes are sturdy and attractive. I almost always take them along on trips; if you see me in an airport, chances are that I’ll have a Left Coast Crime tote slung over my shoulder. However, I will be receiving two new totes next month–Joe is also registered–and I’m reaching a state of Tote Overload. Knowing Vallery, the 2014 tote will probably have unique features that previous bags lacked, but if the new tote becomes my bag of choice, what will I do with all of my old ones? Like a true pack rat, I don’t want to part with them–they hold too many memories.

    So here is what I’m suggesting for future conferences: a BYOT (Bring Your Own Tote) option when you register. If you’ve already attended a million other mystery conventions, simply let the organizers know that you’ll bring an old favorite along next time–no need to manufacture a brand-new bag. It would be fun–you can strike up conversations with people carrying souvenirs of Hawaii ’09 or Santa Fe ’11 and reminisce about times gone by. (I suspect I’d want to flaunt my credentials as a world traveler and would bring a tote from the U.K. CrimeFest conference.) The free books could be kept in boxes behind the registration desk, and you would be handed a few volumes to drop in your tote. Folks like me who have surplus bags could bring extras, in case somebody checks off “I’ll bring a tote” when they register but then forgets to pack it.

    So how about it? It would be economical and environmentally friendly. And I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of closet space in my tote–I mean coat–closet.

  • Flipping the Bird

    Date: 2014.02.09 | Category: Internet, Personal | Comments: 1

    twitter no signI was scanning my Twitter feed on my iPhone yesterday evening when I noticed that one of my clients had Tweeted a link to a piece about a certain film director who has been much in the news lately. I’m not going to name him because I don’t want this page to show up in any Google searches, but you know the one–the alleged molester whose private family matter has been played out in the New York Times, not to mention the entire Internet, during the past week. Many people I follow on Twitter, including my client and a prominent TV writer, are obviously convinced that the director is GUILTY, GUILTY, GUILTY and anyone who doesn’t agree is a dirty victim-blamer who deserves to be shunned. (No one I follow has come to his defense, probably because doing so would bring on a torrent of wrath from the folks who just know that he’s a lying pedophile. Who needs that headache?)

    Here’s the thing: I don’t want to have an opinion about this director’s guilt or innocence. I have seen exactly two of his movies in the past two decades, so it’s not like I’m a fangirl whose heart would be broken if it turned out he was a molester. But it’s none of my business, and it’s quite obvious that no one will ever know 100% what really happened between him and the girl in question. He was never charged with or convicted of a crime, unlike another famous director who has been living in exile for many years… one who happens to be a “close friend” of Director #1′s ex.

    The Tweet from my client was kind of the last straw. I felt so angry that I decided to try and mute any posts mentioning the director’s name, but wasn’t able to figure out how to do it on my iPhone’s Twitter app. During my attempt, I noticed that my own Twitter feed had fallen from 300 followers to 299. I had been all excited on Friday that I had 300 followers. Yay! Now I felt bummed. Why did one of them leave? I don’t even Tweet all that often–Saturday, my only Tweets were a link to my lineups page, and a response to someone who sent me a correction. All in all, I’ve Tweeted an average of once a day since joining in March of 2009. My first Tweet was about a new song by Bob Mould, one of my favorite musicians; the second was about the weather, a typical rookie Tweet.

    The fact that it’s taken me five years to accumulate 300, I mean 299, Twitter followers proves that I’m more of a consumer than a producer of content. People who aren’t on Twitter usually think it’s all about what you’re eating for lunch, but the truth is that no one who fills their feed with banal Tweets would gain any followers at all. For a work-at-home person like me, being on Twitter is like gathering ’round the water cooler with the most interesting people in the world. There are hilarious folks like comedian Patton Oswalt and Steve Martin; pop-culture mavens like NPR’s Linda Holmes and Ken Tucker; and, geared to my particular interests, theater people, authors and book bloggers, and a Swedish word-of-the-day. The 140-character limit makes Twitter sort of its own art form. Whenever I browse Joe’s Facebook feed, I appreciate the virtue of having to keep things concise.

    I’ve heard of an Internet phenomenon called “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out), which has been defined as “the fear that everyone else is having more fun, more excitement and more rewarding, anecdote-worthy experiences than you.” For instance, if you’re scanning Facebook and a friend of yours “checks in” at a restaurant or bar near your house, and you feel bummed that you’re sitting at home in front of the computer; no one invited you to come along, hang out, and enjoy a mai tai. (I realize how ridiculous this must sound to people who aren’t on social media–yes, thanks to Facebook, the agonies and ecstasies of “Am I popular enough?” that you experienced in high school can now last a lifetime!) My FOMO, however, isn’t so much to do with people as it is with information. Without someone I follow on Twitter posting a link, I would have missed out on reading this awesome article about people fighting on Twitter! And now the snake has truly eaten its own tail.

    When I saw the same photo of the kicked-in bathroom door in Sochi cross my feed a dozen times in a row, not to mention the last-straw Tweet about the director, I knew I had to make a change. I’ve decided to try to cold-turkey it for a week–no more browsing Twitter while I’m waiting in line at the post office, or checking my feed first thing in the morning so I can find out what’s going on in the world or what is the outrage du jour. It’s actually the perfect time for this experiment, since so many Tweets are about the Olympics, an event I hate with a passion (and even more so now than I did in 2012, considering the human rights abuses in Russia). I’ll report back next weekend with the results. Will I feel liberated, uninformed, or itchy to check back in?

    (There is one exception I’m allowing myself: I’m going to check the “connect” section of my Twitter feed once a day, in case anyone has tried to get in touch with me. Yes, some people, mostly fans of my lineups page, do contact me through Twitter instead of email. But I’m not going to look at, or respond to, any Tweets that don’t have an “@trow125″ in there somewhere. I just checked, and someone had indeed sent me a question–and while I was on the site for a grand total of 30 seconds, I noticed that my follower count had gone back up to 300. Um, yay?)

    P.S. No comments about how “stupid” Twitter is, please–especially if you haven’t spent time there. Here’s a great article about Twitter which explains why so many people love it, despite the outrage fatigue and monotony of certain news items showing up over and over again.

  • Angels and Demons

    Date: 2014.02.04 | Category: Books | Comments: 0

    The Kept Girl blog tourDisclaimer: Kim Cooper invited me to participate in the blog tour for her new novel, The Kept Girl. I have met Kim a couple of times and she was kind enough to blurb one of the books I published. She has written several books about music and popular culture, including the best-selling volume in the acclaimed 33 1/3 series, an oral history of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Kim is also a third-generation Los Angeleno and her company Esotouric takes participants on tours of her city that go far beyond the usual tourist fare, including “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles” and “The Real Black Dahlia.”

    The Kept Girl may be Cooper’s first work of fiction, but much of the material in this novel is based on true events and real people. The year is 1929, and Los Angeles has grown from a “sleepy, slightly sleazy grove-man’s village” to one that has been forever changed by “oil and real estate speculation, motion pictures and tourism, dream makers and sharpies.”

    Working in the booming oil business is one Raymond Chandler, who rose from bookkeeper at the Dabney Oil Syndicate to vice president before being fired in 1932 for alcoholism and absenteeism, a turn of events which ultimately led to his career as an author. As The Kept Girl opens, Chandler is still the fair-haired boy of Joseph Dabney, who wants his employee to help recover $40,000 lost to swindlers by his spoiled and ineffectual nephew. Chandler soon discovers that the women who took Clifford Dabney’s money were not run-of-the-mill grifters, but a mother-daughter duo who head a cult of angel worshippers. The women promised Clifford that the Angel Gabriel was going to reveal “how to read the stars to find the mineral wealth within the earth,” something that could potentially turn his small fortune into a much larger one.

    Chandler is aided in his search by his loyal secretary and mistress, Muriel, and an idealistic policeman named Tom, demoted to street patrol after clashing with some of the LAPD’s top brass. (Tom is based on real-life L.A. cop Thomas H. James, who may have been a model for Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe.) Muriel splits off from Tom and Ray, impulsively “going rogue” to try and infiltrate the cult, hoping to dig up enough information on her own to win recognition from Joseph Dabney. All three of the investigators wind up making some truly creepy discoveries and facing danger from fanatics who will do anything to keep their horrible secrets.

    I don’t consider myself an expert on religious cults, but it’s a topic I have been fascinated by for a couple of decades, and I have read a lot on the subject. Everything in The Kept Girl rang very true to me. In one scene, Ray meets a true believer, who says that he and his fellow worshipers “don’t sneer at Christ, but we leave him in the past where he belongs. This is a modern world, friend. We need modern prophets, who understand machines–and science!” (Cue the recent Scientology ad which starts out, “Imagine science–and religion!”)

    Ray sometimes seems like he’s going to sink under the weight of his troubles, which include alcoholism (it was obviously not difficult to get a drink in Prohibition-era L.A.) and a loveless marriage; meanwhile, the intrepid Muriel wound up as my favorite character in the novel. She loves Ray, but she’s nobody’s fool, and a scene in which Muriel, separated from her boss during her solo investigation, considers what her life has become since she met him is incredibly poignant.

    Browsing the list of true crime tours presented by Esotouric made me want to book a trip to L.A. to see which of Chandler’s old haunts still exist–and it made me hope that Cooper is already planning to write more novels set on the early-20th-century mean streets of her beloved home town.

  • Best of 2013: Theater

    Date: 2014.01.02 | Category: Theater | Comments: 1

    First of all, in case you’re wondering, I finished Book #52 of 2013 (Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson) at around 10:15 PM on New Year’s Eve. Wilson’s book is probably the only serious work of cultural criticism to namecheck Kant, Hume, Madonna and Celine Dion. There’s an expanded version coming out in March, featuring essays by Nick Hornby, Mary Gaitskill, Krist Novoselic, and many others; it sounds great and I may have to pick it up, but I’m glad I only had the original version or I wouldn’t have finished it by the time the ball dropped.

    I saw 45 plays in 2013, which is probably a personal best. Even so, when I look at other people’s end-of-the-year lists, I am always struck by how much I missed, and I am reminded anew how incredible the Bay Area theater scene is. Here are my personal favorites; in case anybody who doesn’t know me is reading this, be aware that I am not a critic, I’m a fan. I devote a lot of time, money and energy to theater, but since I’m not assigned to see shows, I tend to go to things that I think will appeal to me. We do have season tickets to a few companies, which is valuable since it helps take you out of your comfort zone–something you would not otherwise have attended might wind up becoming a favorite. I encourage everybody to become a subscriber to at least one theater company. It’s often a big money-saver, too, when you consider the price of individual tickets.

    1. “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard (ACT): This was, for me, the right play at the right time. I wrote about it at length a few months ago. Rereading that quote from the character of Septimus takes my breath away all over again. I fear if I ever meet Stoppard, I’ll burst into tears like a tween at a One Direction concert.

    2. “The Pianist of Willesden Lane,” Hershey Felder, based on the book by Mona Golabek & Lee Cohen (Berkeley Rep): I just saw this play so it’s extremely fresh in my mind, but I have a feeling that you could ask me again in six months and I’d still defend its high placement on this list. This one-woman show about a young pianist’s journey via Kindertransport to start a new life in England is so absorbing that I was riveted during every moment of its 90-minute running time. It has enjoyed a completely sold-out run for over two months now; the power of Golabek’s story (she portrays her mother, Lisa Jura) and her virtuoso piano performance are undeniable. There’s lots more info about Golabek, Jura and the play here. Before landing in Berkeley, the play enjoyed successful stints in Chicago and Los Angeles; if you ever get a chance to see it, go.

    3. “Abigail’s Party,” Mike Leigh (SF Playhouse) and “Vanya & Sonya & Masha & Spike,” Christopher Durang (Berkeley Rep): I’m pairing these two because sometimes you just need to laugh out loud, and both of these plays provided me with plenty of guffaws. They were neither deep nor meaningful, but they gave me loads of amusement in a year where I sorely needed it. I particularly enjoyed Susi Damilano as the pushy and uninhibited hostess Bev in “Party,” and Anthony Fusco’s aggrieved Vanya, whose baby-boomer cri de coeur (“We used to lick postage stamps!”) is the highlight of the show.

    4. “Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness,” Anthony Neilson (Shotgun Players): Shotgun frequently offers holiday counterprogramming, in which they go up against the scores of “Nutcracker”s and “Christmas Carol”s with something dark and perverse. “Gant” fills the bill–it’s a very weird show about a small troupe of traveling actors who perform a variety of scenes and songs that range from the beautiful to the downright freakish. It’s not often that a show completely takes me by surprise, but this one really gave me a jolt. In a good way.

    5. “No Man’s Land,” Harold Pinter (Berkeley Rep): How did we get so lucky to have Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart in our midst last summer? This pre-Broadway run featured the two old pros, along with younger pros Shuler Hensley and Billy Crudup, as a couple of poets–one rich, one down-and-out–who drink and talk their way through an evening and morning. The perfectly executed physical comedy and verbal repartee left us hungry for more, and as the same quartet would also be doing “Waiting for Godot” in New York, Joe & I figured we had to get ourselves to Broadway–which we did. Their “Godot” was marvelous, but I’ve seen that play a bunch of times, whereas, believe it or not, I had never seen anything by Pinter before. (There are huge gaps in my theatrical knowledge; for instance, I’ve never seen “Our Town,” but Shotgun is staging it later this year, so I’ll finally see what just might be the most famous American play ever.) I now consider myself a Pinter fan and want to see more, even if the cast isn’t quite as star-studded.

    Best out-of-town show: Of everything we saw in New York, the one that has stuck with me the most is the incredible version of “Twelfth Night,” performed by an all-male company imported from London, Shakespeare’s Globe. Sometimes I find Shakespeare impenetrable; when it’s really done well, however, the dialogue flows as naturally and is as easily understandable as the modern-day American or English tongue.

    Hardest working actor: Gabriel Marin. We wind up seeing almost everything he’s in, and it seems like he’s always in something, and he’s invariably good. Last summer, he appeared in Neil LaBute’s “This Is How It Goes” at Aurora as a man who becomes involved in the life of an interracial couple; then he popped up at SF Playhouse in October playing a U.S. Marine in “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” and a mere ten days after that play closed, he was back on the Playhouse stage, starring in John Patrick Shanley’s “Storefront Church” as a Bronx politician. Where will he turn up next?

    Play I’m most excited about seeing again: Josh Kornbluth has reworked “Sea of Reeds,” last summer’s Shotgun Players hit, and is just about to start a new run at the JCC in San Francisco. I liked it the first time around, and Kornbluth’s plays are often greatly improved once he’s had time to hone them, so I can’t wait to see what “Reeds” version two will be like.

    Play I missed that I’m glad is getting a second chance: Just Theater’s acclaimed production of Rob Handel’s “A Maze” won rave reviews, so I’m definitely not going to miss it when it comes back to Berkeley next month.

    Play I missed that I hope gets a second chance: Lauren Gunderson’s “The Taming”–its fall run coincided with our trip to the East Coast and general pre-vacation busyness. It’s wound up on a lot of critics’ ten-best lists, so I hope somebody restages it soon.

  • Fish Tale

    Date: 2013.12.26 | Category: Internet | Comments: 0

    Occasionally, I will ask myself: “Self, why are you such a suspicious person by nature? Where’s your faith in the goodness of mankind? Why can’t you simply embrace Upworthy instead of sneering and recoiling every time you see a link to it?”

    Well, as Upworthy’s headline writers might say: “This Lady Told The Internet She Was Pregnant With Twins. What Happened Next Will Astound You.”

    One of my favorite blogs has a very active commenting community. Each daily post routinely gets upwards of a thousand comments. I tend to only read the top (i.e., most-liked) comments, or none at all, because while there are some extremely astute and insightful commenters, most of what’s posted is not worth reading. You’d think that only the best, most articulate commenters would receive upvotes, but what happened was that the most frequent commenters (i.e. those who spent hours on the site each day) formed their own little tightly knit community and would talk amongst themselves. And not just about the topic of the blog: just whatever they felt like yakkin’ about.

    A very frequent commenter–I’m going to call her Cat’sPajamas–had announced earlier this year that she was pregnant with twins, and her posts received so many upvotes that they almost always floated to the top. Her due date was right before Christmas. Apparently she was going to be a single mother and shared stories of her difficult family life. I found out later that many other commenters had held a “baby shower” of sorts for her, sending her gift cards and presents for the little ones. A couple that lived in her area agreed to use their home address in order to collect the gifts for her. They would then drop them off to the very pregnant Cat’sPajamas.

    A few days before Christmas, Cat’sPajamas mentioned that she had fallen down, but everything was OK, she was going to the hospital. That was the last anyone heard from her. Naturally, many people were very concerned and asked if anyone had heard how she and the twins were doing.

    Today, the blog owner–who tends to keep himself above the commenting fray, with occasional exceptions–announced that Cat’sPajamas had been “catfishing” us. Remember football player Manti Te’o and his fake dead girlfriend? Well, one of Cat’sPajamas’ local friends, one of the folks who had been collecting the gifts for her, confirmed that he had received a text from her on Sunday stating that her twins had died as a result of her fall. Naturally, he was devastated. He contacted the blog owner to ask how to best break the news. The blogger thought this all sounded suspicious, and did some digging. He was able to learn that Cat’sPajamas had never been expecting and that everything she had said about her supposed “pregnancy” was a lie. (At this point, one savvy sleuth was able to look at her commenting history and determine that she first announced the pregnancy 48 weeks ago.) She had even worn a fake belly when she met with the folks who were dropping off the gifts.

    Of course, now many people are feeling angry and duped. Others claim they knew something was off all along (many of these folks are moms of multiples who thought her pregnancy stories didn’t ring true), but they didn’t dare say anything because nobody was a more loved member of the community than Cat’sPajamas, and to dare speak against her would have been too controversial. I didn’t really follow the saga as it happened, but I have to admit I find the aftermath pretty fascinating.

    My hope for the blog going forward is not necessarily that people start distrusting each other; wanting to help people in need is a good thing. But there’s a time and a place for everything, and if you’re posting comments to a blog about, say, fly-fishing, perhaps you could keep your comments focused on the topic at hand. “Here’s a story about the first time I went fly-fishing in Montana”–good! “My boyfriend just broke up with me and I need a virtual hug”–bad! The reason I largely ignored Cat’sPajamas is because she was so rarely on-topic. But with a thousand comments a day, I can understand why the blogger (who has a day job) didn’t want to actively moderate the forum.

    The blogger, incidentally, is a longtime journalist. I think that profession makes you naturally suspicious, because people are constantly trying to “spin” you and feed you so much bullcrap. Thank goodness this sob story put him on alert. Yes, it’s no doubt painful for people to learn the truth of what transpired, but at least they aren’t left mourning the death of two (imaginary) babies.

  • The Five Worst Christmas Carols

    Date: 2013.12.23 | Category: Consumerism, Music | Comments: 3

    This morning, I had to visit a couple of stores to buy food so that Joe and I could, y’know, eat this week. This was nothing out of the ordinary; I always do our grocery shopping on Monday mornings, after I deliver Meals on Wheels. Monday morning is a perfectly fine time to shop. Unless it’s Dec. 23, in which case shopping becomes a nightmarish hellscape in which you are cursed to drive around and around looking for a parking space within a mile of the Safeway. Then, when you finally reach the store, because it is December, they will be playing Christmas carols on the P.A. In the Safeway, the carols are broken up by prerecorded P.A. announcements that go off approximately once every 30 seconds: Courtesy desk, two… oh… two! Courtesy desk, two… oh… two! And on and on, because nobody at the Courtesy Desk ever answers the page, and I’m feeling positively homicidal. I start wondering why I actually choose to go to the Safeway, when I could use that Amazon subscription service to have a 12-pack of toilet paper and a pallet of mac ‘n cheese sent to my house once every six weeks.

    Just as I was feeling in the mood to bludgeon someone to death with a honeydew melon, Safeway’s Muzak system began playing a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” featuring a children’s chorus. 11 AM isn’t too early to grab a pint of Bombay Sapphire gin and chug it down in the parking lot, is it?

    I think one of the reasons I hate Christmas music is overfamiliarity. Here’s an alternate example: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Back in nineteen-ninety-whatever, when I first heard that song, it sounded fresh and exciting. Now, I feel like I never need to hear that song again, ever. Because it’s been played relentlessly for the past two decades, I know it so well, every single note is tattooed upon my brain. Ditto the American Christmas canon. I feel like the people who are excited to turn on KOIT (a local FM station which plays nothing but Christmas music from Thanksgiving on) are as freakish as those who, say, think it’s fun to craft their own chain mail shirt. God bless ‘em, but it’s just not for me, you know?

    Today on NPR, I heard a Spanish version of “White Christmas” called “Blanca Navidad” and it was actually pretty darned fun to hear a twist on a holiday classic. But some holiday songs should just be retired and never played again, ever, anywhere. Here are my picks:

    5. “Wonderful Christmastime”: This one is down at #5 because it’s not as ubiquitous as other Xmas songs–I don’t think I’ve heard it at all this year (yet!)–but it’s still terrible. It sounds like it took Paul McCartney about five minutes to write. Just thinking about this sing-songy nightmare is the mental equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.

    4. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”: This needs to be up there just on the basis of Bono’s line “Thank God tonight it’s them instead of you,” which instantly makes this song the musical equivalent of Justine Sacco’s Twitter feed.

    3. “Jingle Bells”: I was subjected to this song during today’s shopping trip and it occurred to me how simple it is. Simple in a bad way. If you’re older than six, you have no business ever singing or enjoying this song. If my honorary nephew Eric, who is currently two, likes this song when he’s seven, I’m going to put a stop to it A.S.A.P., probably by forcing him to listen to Lemmy’s cover of “Run Run Rudolph.”

    2. “The Twelve Days of Christmas”: The repetition… oh God, the repetition. Mike Huckabee tried poking fun at Obamacare a couple of weeks ago with a “Twelve Days” spoof, to which Stephen Colbert rightly responded, “Folks, that is a great song to parody, because everyone know jokes get better the more times you repeat them. It’s what comedians call the rule of twelve.”

    1. “The Little Drummer Boy”: Everyone knows this is the worst carol of all time. Back in the pre-Internet era, former Grand Rapids Press film critic John Douglas used to write an annual column decrying the tune and tracking the first time he heard it each season. When I was a junior in high school, I had an internship working for Douglas’s production company; he was the sort of salty curmudgeon every 16-year-old should get to spend time with. Douglas’s “LDB” hatred rubbed off on me, and I become righteously apoplectic whenever I hear it in public. My first time this year was at the post office. The clerk seemed oblivious. Had it been me behind the counter, I would probably have started throwing packages around in a white-hot rage. The only mitigating factor is that I can’t help but feel some nostalgic warmth for John Douglas whenever I hear it. Such a lovable ol’ grump!

    Other terrible Christmas carols: “Jingle Bell Rock”: If this was a top 10, this would definitely be up there. It’s awful, no doubt about it, but I feel like the original “Jingle Bells” is just a tad bit worse. “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”: A truly dreadful novelty hit, but no one ever covers it and it must have been a good five years since the last time I heard it, so I’m letting it pass just due to its lack of ubiquity. “Baby It’s Cold Outside”: A favorite worst-carol pick these days due to its rapey lyrics, but the tune is actually quite pleasant. “Saturday Night Live” put a genuinely sweet twist on it a couple days ago.

  • The show must go on

    Date: 2013.12.22 | Category: Theater | Comments: 0

    A long time ago, the great Noël Coward wrote a song called “Why Must The Show Go On?” It went, in part:

    Why must the show go on?
    It can’t be all that indispensable.
    To me, it really isn’t sensible on the whole,
    To play a leading role,
    While fighting those tears you can’t control.
    Why kick up your legs
    When draining the dregs
    Of sorrow’s bitter cup?
    Because you have read
    Some idiot has said
    “The curtain must stay up!”

    Today, I saw an example of the show going on and the curtain staying up, despite sorrow’s bitter cup. I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Coward. Sometimes, theater can help us heal.

    An long-time friend of Joe’s is an extremely talented actress. We always go see her shows, even when they’re not always to my taste (ahem, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Sunset Boulevard”), because she is never less than phenomenal. This month, she has been performing the lead role in “Mame.” I hadn’t seen “Mame” in years, and it’s a bit of a chestnut, but I figured she’d play the hell out of the part. I bought tickets for the closing performance, a Sunday matinee.

    “Mame” was on our calendar for several weeks. Joe is Facebook friends with the actress, and three days ago, she posted that her brother had passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. I had only met her brother a couple of times, but of course it’s always a heartbreaking shock when someone relatively young dies suddenly. I wondered if she would be able to continue performing in the show. As the lead, there is no margin for error. All eyes will be upon you.

    I’d forgotten that the reason Mame winds up with her young ward, Patrick, is because her brother died, leaving him an orphan. There are at least two or three places in the script where she has to explicitly refer to her brother’s death. I’m sure most of the audience members were unaware of the implications, but for me, it was difficult to hear those lines.

    As it happens, the actress’s real-life boyfriend had been cast as Mame’s love interest in the show, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. There’s a scene near the end of Act I in which the brassy New York broad manages to win over her man’s large Southern family, who had been prepared to dislike her on account of being a Yankee. In a lavish production number, the entire family–played by at least two dozen actors–performs a singing, dancing salute to Mame:

    You coax the blues right out of the horn, Mame,
    You charm the husk right off of the corn, Mame…
    You came, you saw, you conquered
    And absolutely nothing is the same.
    You’re special fascination’ll prove to be inspirational,
    We think you’re just sensational, Mame.

    It’s a rousing number under any circumstances, not the least bit melancholy, but I found myself wiping away a tear or two. The love up there on stage was palpable. The cast didn’t have to “act” their feelings of affection for Mame–they truly did show their love for this wonderful, grieving woman by putting it into a song. I don’t think you had to know the back story to feel the magic–the audience’s wild applause (and, later, a standing ovation) proved that everybody knew they had witnessed something special.

    Don’t forget Mame Dennis’ most famous words: “Live! Life’s a banquet–and most poor suckers are starving to death.”