• The Two Bibis

    Date: 2015.03.19 | Category: News, Pets | Comments: 0


    A couple of years ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance when my dog came up in the conversation. I will note, because I believe it’s relevant, that this person is Jewish. When I mentioned her name, his eyes widened and he reacted with shock and even some outrage. How could I name my dog after the Prime Minister of Israel?! He didn’t think it was an insult to Netanyahu–he genuinely disliked the guy and thought that it was highly inappropriate that I had chosen to pay “tribute” to him with the name. (I assured him that had not been my intention.)

    As it happens, I don’t think I was aware of Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname when I named Bibi several years ago. We adopted her from Wonder Dog Rescue and she was an owner-surrender named Bugsy. I hated the name but figured she might be used to it and that it might be best to choose something similar-sounding. I thought of the Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, who appeared in numerous Bergman films, including “The Seventh Seal.” The dog seemed to respond to the name, so she was Bugsy no more.

    bibisitterIt has been odd, over the past few days, to see “Bibi” crop up so frequently in headlines. There have been numerous Bibi-related puns; the New York Post went with the groanworthy “Bibi King,” while in the run-up to the election, at least one publication opted for “To Bibi or Not To Bibi?” Even Netanyahu himself got in on the punning in this bizarre ad where he arrives at a young couple’s door, telling them he’s there to care for their kids: “You ordered a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter!”

    I was curious how the PM ended up with the same moniker as Ms. Andersson (whose given name is Berit); the best explanation I could find was in this article from the Associated Press, which notes that Netanyahu was nicknamed by his brothers when he was a boy. “Despite its macho, militaristic image, the world of Israeli politics is filled with tough characters bearing—and even flaunting—their diminutive childhood nicknames,” explains the AP. “Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon is Bogie, former Finance Minister Avraham Shochat is Baiga and another former Cabinet minister, Eliezer Zandberg, is Moody, short for Hamoody, or ‘cutie’… [T]he phenomenon speaks to Israel’s notoriously close-knit, informal nature, where personal boundaries are thin and everyone seems to meddle in everyone else’s business.”

    Netanyahu may embrace the nickname now, but according to this 1996 essay from JWeekly, at first, his official spokesman urged the media not to use it. “Mr. Netanyahu’s staff should lighten up, forget about formality and make good use of his moniker,” suggested writer Jonathan S. Tobin. “After all, it’s not every political leader who can get the press to sing, ‘Yessir, he’s their Bibi!'”

    Whether you’re pro- or anti-Netanyahu, I think we can all agree on one thing: that’s a truly awful pun.

  • Here Comes the Son

    Date: 2015.03.07 | Category: Theater | Comments: 1

    It’s a banner weekend for fans of plays with really long titles. Over at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, you can check out Just Theater’s “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915,” written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, while across the bay in San Francisco, the Breadbox is staging Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad: A Pseudoclassical Tragifarce in a Bastard French Tradition.” Now we just need a local company to take on Arthur Fish’s “Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray in Which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape From the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary,” which I believe is the longest play title ever.

    I haven’t seen “Tom Ryan,” but according to the New York Times, it’s a compact 65 minutes. Both “We Are Proud” and “Oh Dad” run approximately an hour and a half each, with no intermission. (The four-letter “Gatz,” on the other hand, is a six-and-a-half-hour marathon.)

    The script of “Oh Dad, Poor Dad” was assigned reading in one of my college composition courses, and I remember thinking that the title was hilarious; the play itself didn’t make as much of an impression on me, but considering that it was first staged in 1962, my curiosity was piqued when I read that the young Breadbox company was planning to revive it. There are so many theaters in the Bay Area that sometimes it seems like the same plays get done over and over again–Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice” seems to pop up every few months, and this summer, three companies in the South Bay will all be putting on “West Side Story”–but I don’t recall “Oh Dad” playing here before. All good reasons to go check it out.

    There is a pre-show warning to audience members not to stick their feet out too far–Joe and I were sitting in the front row, and considering that the extremely energetic, and occasionally acrobatic, cast of eight was literally inches away, I hope that nobody trips and falls before the run ends. “Oh Dad” takes place in a tropical locale, where Madame Rosepettle and her son Jonathan have recently arrived and checked into a posh hotel. Among the possessions they bring along: Jonathan’s collections of stamps and coins, and, yes, the titular corpse. At first, I thought Jonathan was a child being played by a grown-up actor–J.D. Scalzo sprawls on the floor as the audience files in, coloring and reading a booklet about dinosaurs–but no, he’s an adult male, albeit one so stunted by his overprotective mom that he’s more of a disturbed man-child. When a lovely young lady named Rosalie comes calling, bent on seducing Jonathan, it turns into an Oedipal nightmare.

    “Oh Dad” could be lumped in with the theater of the absurd which flourished in the 50s and 60s (critic Martin Esslin coined the term in 1961, shortly before Kopit’s play premiered). Among the surreal touches are Madame Rosepettle’s Venus flytrap and goldfish, both played (wordlessly) by actors. Sam Tillis’ Rosalinda the Fish was right in my line of sight, and let me tell you, he acted the hell out of that part–imagine Jack Nicholson’s character from “The Shining” reincarnated in piscine form and you’ve got the general idea.

    But the play belongs to Mary Jo Price as Madame Rosepettle, who commands the stage with charisma and power. At one point in the show, Rosepettle performs a 20-minute monologue, recounting the story of her marriage to Jonathan’s father, and how the man came to be stuffed (“Wonderful taxidermist I know”), to the lovesick Commodore Roseabove, who goes from wanting desperately to marry her to fearing for his life. This may be ultra-low-budget theater, but Price gives the sort of dynamite performance that is worth a suitcase full of rare Danzig guldens and Turkish piasters. (Incidentally, Jonathan’s coins and stamps are represented by cut-up Trivial Pursuit cards, corks and poker chips; of course, if you can buy a woman playing a Venus flytrap, the props shouldn’t faze you.)

    A few blocks away, playing in what is perhaps San Francisco’s poshest house, the Geary Theatre, is Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.” Because I am at the center of the Venn diagram of “fans of modern theater” and “fans of ‘The Simpsons,'” I knew I had to see it. “Mr. Burns” is a meditation on storytelling and the creation of art, using as its raw material the classic “Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” (a.k.a. the one where Sideshow Bob is paroled, tries to kill Bart, and steps on a lot of rakes). In a post-apocalyptic world, a ragtag band of survivors spends their evenings around the campfire telling stories–that is to say, recounting “Simpsons” episodes, which were presumably all lost in the unspecified disaster. (It was apparently related to nuclear power, adding another layer of relevance to the “Simpsons” source material; Homer works at a nuclear power plant owned by the richest man in town, Montgomery Burns.) The play is presented in three acts: the first, shortly after the apocalypse, features a half-dozen survivors trying to remember the plot and dialogue of “Cape Feare”; in Act Two, seven years later, they’re a full-fledged acting troupe, going from town to town, as was done in medieval times. As for Act Three… well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise; this review does, in case you’re curious.

    “Mr. Burns” has proven to be a divisive show. (One Goldstar member’s review read, in part: “Not recommended unless you live with a psychopath and are desperate to get out of the house.”) I suspect that the “Simpsons” angle can be a hard sell for people who have never seen that show (yes, they exist–there was a post-show talkback and several folks copped to never having watched a single episode). There’s something very postmodern about a play that mashes up “The Simpsons,” “Cape Fear,” “Night of the Hunter,” Britney Spears, Eminem and Gilbert & Sullivan, but I think Washburn had some serious points to make about memory, survival and why certain stories resonate at particular times and with particular audiences. (I’m reminded of film critic Mick LaSalle’s comment: “Every week, our movies play at the destruction of beloved landmarks, to the point where we have to wonder if this is our culture unconsciously rehearsing for something.”) Happily, “Mr. Burns” seems to be finding its niche; far from the mass walk-outs described in some of the early Goldstar critiques, I’d estimate that 98% of the people in our section of the theater returned after intermission. The production moves on to Minneapolis’ Guthrie at the end of the month, and I hope the Minnesotans will enjoy it as much as I did.

  • The Quotable Roger

    Date: 2015.02.20 | Category: Theater | Comments: 0

    I recently searched online for a quote by Roger Ebert, something about how no good movies are depressing, while all bad movies are. I was prompted to do so after seeing the current play at San Francisco Playhouse, “Tree,” written by Julie Hébert. This was a really excellent production, featuring a quartet of fantastic actors, particularly Cathleen Riddley, who portrays a woman suffering from a form of dementia that frequently leaves her crying out in psychic pain; sometimes she’s lucid, but more often, she seems alternately terrified or belligerent. Riddley (whom I last saw playing the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance”) throws herself into the role with an almost frightening intensity. Sometimes I found the play difficult to watch because it was so intense. This isn’t the sort of show you attend because you want a fun escapist night of theater, but it’s rewarding because afterward you feel you’ve experienced something essential and soulful.

    At the end, I witnessed something I can’t remember ever having seen before in a theater. The audience clapped politely, the actors came out and took their bows, left the stage, and the lights came up. The applause died down. This is usually the point where everybody puts on their coats and races toward the exits.

    However, a few seconds went by—10, 20—and then, as if we’d all snapped out of some kind of collective trance, the audience rose to its feet and started applauding again. The clapping grew louder and louder until the actors had no choice but to come back onstage and take more bows. I’ve experienced plenty of curtain calls where there’s been loud and sustained applause, but not with a quiet pause in between. I think that’s because the play left us all feeling a little shellshocked and it took a moment to realize, yes, these are actors, this wasn’t real. But you felt that connection between actors and audience, one that is rare but magical when it does happen.

    Anyway, I found Ebert’s quote, from this 2010 column (though I’m pretty sure he said something similar before then, on the “Siskel & Ebert” TV show): “In thinking about ‘depressing movies,’ many people don’t realize that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.” I’m not sure I agree with it 100%—bad movies (or plays) tend to make me angry, not sad—but it’s the sort of sentiment I would expect from Roger Ebert, and it led me to this page of Ebert quotes on Goodreads, which is very much worth perusing because the man wrote with so much insight and feeling. Here are a few other favorites:

    “An honest bookstore would post the following sign above its ‘self-help’ section: ‘For true self-help, please visit our philosophy, literature, history and science sections, find yourself a good book, read it, and think about it.’”

    “All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it.”

    “A lot of fans are basically fans of fandom itself. It’s all about them. They have mastered the Star Wars or Star Trek universes or whatever, but their objects of veneration are useful mainly as a backdrop to their own devotion. Anyone who would camp out in a tent on the sidewalk for weeks in order to be first in line for a movie is more into camping on the sidewalk than movies.”

    “To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

    We must try to contribute joy to the world. A good lesson for us all.

  • Blogrolling

    Date: 2015.02.18 | Category: Internet | Comments: 1

    My friend Vallery just told me that she checks my blog every day and was disappointed that I hadn’t updated it in so long. For some reason, it never occurred to me that people manually check my blog; I use an RSS reader, which shows me a list of updated feeds so I don’t need to click on every blog I want to follow to see if there’s anything new. The reader I use is a Chrome extension called Slick RSS. It’s useful because some of my favorite blogs, such as Passive-Aggressive Notes and J.A. Konrath, aren’t updated all that often, and this way I am notified when they do post a new entry. Of course, my very favorite blog, The Underground Bunker, is updated every single day at precisely 7 AM Eastern time. You could set your watch by it, it’s so reliable.

    Here are some other blogs I read:

    Jon Crispin’s Notebook: This guy is an amazing photographer, and he’s working on photographing hundreds of suitcases that were owned by patients of an asylum between 1910-1960. You can read more about the project here.

    Michael Bauer: He is the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. I enjoy reading his reviews and commentary, despite the fact that I’m sure I’ll never go to 99% of the restaurants he covers. We’re not frequent restaurant-goers; it’s difficult to dine at a fine-dining establishment for under $60 per person (including tax & tip) here, but most places are super-crowded, so obviously a lot of people are happy to drop that kind of cash regularly. Even if I was an Internet billionaire, though, I don’t think I’d want to eat out every single night, as Bauer famously does. I might hire a personal chef, though…

    I Have No Endings: My friend Janet A. is, unlike me, very good at updating her blog, even when she’s dealing with serious health issues. Plus, my husband Joe writes occasional guest posts for her. He doesn’t particularly like to write (like Dorothy Parker, he says he “loves having written”), but I think he’s a really good writer, so I’m glad she has persuaded him to contribute tales of the Marriage Factory.

    Behind Closed Ovens: Joe introduced me to this blog a few months ago and I loved it so much that I read every single post in the archive. It’s an amazing weekly column featuring true stories sent in by people who work in restaurants. This compilation of the best stories of 2014 is just incredible. #4 (contributed by Alton Stauffer) is my favorite. Warning: occasional foul language. But it’s really (bleep)ing funny.

    The Passive Voice: This is one I read for work. Lots of news about the book business, with a focus on independent (self-) publishing, Amazon, and other things I need to stay up to date on.

    I would never publicly admit to reading this blog. I’m far too busy to concern myself with such scurrilous trash. OK, maybe I peek at it occasionally, like once or twice a day. But that’s it!

  • 2014: A Look Back

    Date: 2015.01.01 | Category: Books, Movies, Music, Theater, TV | Comments: 1

    “Allt För Sverige”: After a weak Season 3 (which featured the two most annoying contestants in “AFS” history), my favorite reality show came back strong with a Season 4 that just made me want to hug and hang out with all the participants. The premise is that a group of Americans with Swedish heritage is sent to their ancestral homeland to learn about the country, their long-lost relatives… and, ultimately, themselves, as the experience often proves life-changing. It’s a tremendously entertaining, heartwarming show that proves “reality” doesn’t have to be a synonym for “trash TV.”

    “@Midnight”: This is a deeply silly TV show that airs four times a week at–you guessed it–midnight on Comedy Central. A panel of three comedians riffs on goofy Internet videos and headlines. It’s frequently dumb (especially when all the comedians are male, dick jokes and bathroom humor have a way of coming to the fore), but no show makes me laugh more on a consistent basis; it’s like a televised antidepressant. Certain panelists–Ron Funches, Arden Myrin, Steve Agee, Rhys Darby, Paul F. Tompkins–make me giddy with glee. It’s briefly moving into the 11:30 post-“Daily Show” time slot before the new “Nightly Show” debuts on Jan. 19.

    Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Once again, I read precisely 52 books during the course of the year; I’d like to do better in 2015, but in the immortal words of Willy Wonka, there’s always so much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. In any case, nothing I read last year gave me more pleasure than this dazzlingly ambitious book that manages to encompass the Elizabeth Taylor film “Cleopatra,” the Donner Party, community theater, World War II, the Italian Riviera, and so much more; it’s all perfectly executed, and the final chapter is so great I had to go back and reread it immediately.

    Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia and Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: My second- and third-favorite books read in 2014–and don’t they fit nicely into this alphabetical construct?–are, respectively, a wryly funny, twisty tale of young musical prodigies, memories, and murder, and an addictive, soapy saga about an outsider who longs to be accepted by her college roommate’s blue-blooded, old-money family.

    “The Coast of Utopia,” Shotgun Players: Speaking of ambition: I saw over 50 plays in 2014, including Tom Stoppard’s trilogy about pre-Revolution Russia, which Berkeley’s Shotgun Players presented in a single day. Yes, roughly eight hours of theater over the course of one Saturday. I wrote about it here. Tom Stoppard is, to my mind, the foremost artistic genius of our time.

    “The Colbert Report”: Off the air after almost 1,500 episodes, and I probably missed no more than half a dozen of them over the entire run. Is it wrong that I cried my way through the last half of the final episode? Fans are not just losing a show, we’re losing an entire world, literally hundreds of inside jokes shared by the program’s dedicated viewers: Ambassador Hans Beinholtz, Gorlock, Sweetness, godless killing machines, Ham Rove, Munchma Quchi, Bud Light Lime, Steagle Colbeagle, apologies to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Esteban Colberto and the chicas… sure, Stephen is moving to CBS, but it won’t be the same. No matter how good “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” is, the demands of the genre dictate that it must be, in essence, just another talk show, one where Colbert will be required to interview Channing Tatum about his latest movie instead of poking fun at the absurdity of news and politics.

    “Die Mommie Die,” New Conservatory Theatre: No play I saw in 2014 was more flat-out entertaining than this Charles Busch camp-fest, starring the fabulous J. Conrad Frank (best known around these parts for his alter ego, drag diva extraordinaire Katya Smirnoff-Skyy) in the lead role; I smiled and laughed from start to finish. “DMD” plays like a mad cross between Douglas Sirk and John Waters.

    “Gidion’s Knot,” Aurora Theater: Entering the theater, you see a set that looks exactly like an elementary school classroom, complete with fluorescent lighting, educational posters, and little desks. It looks unassuming–but when a mom and a teacher start to have the parent-teacher conference from hell, it’s obvious that this isn’t kids’ stuff. A pair of the Bay Area’s finest actors, Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones, gave two of the strongest performances I saw last year in this provocative production.

    “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: 2014 marks the year I gave up on movies. I saw four of them. “Do you mean you saw four in a movie theater?” somebody recently asked me, assuming I must have been watching at home on Netflix or TCM. No… I mean four total. The one thing guaranteed to send me running to a cinema is a new Wes Anderson film. I love all of his movies, with one glaring exception (“The Darjeeling Limited,” if you must know), but “Budapest” may be his best. Months later, images from the film linger in the mind. Whatever he decides to do next, I’ll be there, the only filmmaker I feel that strongly about.

    Harley the Boston Terrier and Boss the French Bulldog: I envy the pet owners who get to share their darlings with the world via social media, since Bibi hates cameras and will run away if I point the iPhone in her direction. I am particularly enamored of these two adorable dogs, who both live in Stockholm and frequently play together. Harley‘s feed combines precious photos with funny and sardonic captions, usually combined with an emoticon or five–yes, I realize there is human intervention involved, but I prefer to believe that she crafts them all by herself. Then there’s the ridiculously photogenic Boss, who has almost 200,000 followers. Seeing Boss pose with a tomato on his head or wearing a Darth Vader helmet will make you wish your own pet was as agreeable.

    “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”: The Most Extreme Thing I Did For Love Of Theater in 2014 was not spending an entire day at “The Coast of Utopia” marathon; it was traveling 2,500 miles to see the Broadway revival of my all-time favorite show, starring the incomparable Neil Patrick Harris. And it was so worth it. For one thing, they managed to re-arrange the one song in the production I’ve never particularly cared for (“Sugar Daddy”) and turn it from a lackadaisical country-rocker into a propulsive glam-rock powerhouse; and the Broadway production values enhanced the show while still retaining its slightly ragged downtown charm.

    “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”: I don’t think anybody knew quite what to expect when “The Daily Show”‘s Senior British Correspondent struck out on his own, but he managed to take full advantage of the commercial-interruption-free format allowed by HBO to do long pieces on difficult topics like net neutrality, oppression of homosexuals in Uganda, and the Indian elections–basically, anything that might make you think “No short-attention-span American TV viewer is going to sit still for that!” And yet, the show became a smash hit, on TV and online; a 15-minute piece on predatory lending racked up over 3.7 million views on YouTube. The secret: whenever things threatened to get too dour or dull, Oliver and his writers would throw in some element that managed to be funny while still making a point. I can’t wait to see what subjects “LWT” will tackle in Season Two, which begins in February.

    “Serial”: I was an early adopter of this podcast, which hooked me after its first episode aired as part of “This American Life,” so it was a bit weird watching the 12-part true crime story blossom into a cultural phenomenon. I’ve been listening to podcasts since around 2007 and now, finally, they’re the Next Big Thing. “Serial” eventually became so big that it spawned a “Saturday Night Live” parody, which I’m guessing is about a million times funnier for obsessive “Serial” fans than to the uninitiated.

    TV On The Radio, Seeds: TVOTR has always been one of those bands I’ve liked, but never loved, until 2014: for some reason, Seeds‘ melodic guitar-rock just connected with me in a big way. The only problem is that I listened to it nonstop for so long that I’ve become a little overfamiliar with it. Still, I have tickets to see them live in March, and I’m sure by that time I’ll be thrilled to hear “Happy Idiot” and “Ride” and “Careful You” and all of their other brilliant songs.

    The Underground Bunker: One thing not many people know about me is that I have a longstanding obsession with Scientology. I’ve been fascinated by cults–what makes people join them? What makes people stay?–since I was a teenager, but journalist Tony Ortega’s tireless reporting on L. Ron Hubbard’s wacky “religion,” which has persisted despite the fact that the founder “dropped his body” over 30 years ago, has me hooked. Every single morning of 2014, I visited the Bunker to see what stories Ortega was breaking. With Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Faith,” premiering at the Sundance Film Festival later this month, 2015 is shaping up to be another blockbuster year for Scientology watchers.

    “Venus in Fur,” Shotgun Players (staged reading): The absolute high point of 2014 for me was the magical night of July 14. I had successfully bid on a “choose your own staged reading” event at Shotgun’s annual fundraiser, and I decided on David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” a play we’d seen earlier in the year at A.C.T. If you’re a big theater fan, you’ve undoubtedly had those moments where you’ve wondered how another actor would fare in a particular role; in this case, I was left dying to see how one of my favorite local actors, Kevin Clarke, would approach the role of Thomas. Another fave, Anna Ishida, was actually the understudy for the female lead at A.C.T., but she never got to go on. Somehow, not only did both Kevin and Anna agree to let me team them up in my little fantasy cast, but they found a brilliant director (Patricia Miller), and while they performed script-in-hand, the lighting and props and set made it close to a fully realized production. Around 40 people attended, and I think everyone there agreed that it was an unforgettable night. The whole Shotgun crew (with a special shout-out to their always-gracious, hard-working director of development Joanie McBrien) holds a special place in my heart for helping create an event that surpassed my wildest expectations.

    “The Whale,” Marin Theatre Company: A play about a morbidly obese man–portrayed, in this production, by a thin dude in a fat suit–sounds like it could be exploitative and some kind of theatrical equivalent to those TLC trashfests like “My 600 Lb. Life.” And yet, “The Whale” was one of the most touching and profound shows I saw in 2014; in the lead role, Nicholas Pelczar ensured that we never lost sight of Charlie’s humanity, making him someone we empathized with and rooted for, even when his prickly personality made him hard to like. Playwright Samuel Hunter won a MacArthur “genius award” in 2014; pulling off something like “The Whale” proves he’s definitely one to watch.

    Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger: 2014 will also go down as the year I had a book dedicated to me. And not just any book, but a beautiful, suspenseful, meticulously-researched mystery dealing with an important topic (the sexual exploitation of Native American women) by one of my favorite authors. That’s something else from 2014 that I will always treasure.

  • A Christmas Story

    Date: 2014.12.31 | Category: Personal | Comments: 0

    I’m going to try to do some best-of-the-year posting here over the next few days–I loved NPR.org blogger Linda Holmes’ 50 Wonderful Things from 2014 post, so I may shamelessly rip off her format–but first, a True Holiday Story.

    Joe & I have some close friends, Michael & Susan, who are the parents of a 3-year-old boy. He is obsessed with cars and trucks. For Christmas this year, I thought I’d give him something truly special: a vintage Fisher-Price garage. This was one of my favorite toys back when I was a kid in the 70s (remember that “Free to Be You & Me” era before everything for girls was pink and princessy?). It’s all wood–nowadays, all F-P toys are made of plastic.

    My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and I knew that garage was stored somewhere in the depths of their basement. I asked my mom if she could find it and ship it out to me. It arrived a few weeks ago, and looked good as new.

    On Christmas morning, Joe & I head over to Michael & Susan’s house with the garage. We go in the living room, where the young lad is on the floor… PLAYING WITH THE EXACT SAME GARAGE I HAD JUST BROUGHT OVER.

    It turns out Michael and his brother had also owned the garage back in the 70s, and their parents had hung onto it all these years as well. What are the odds?! I would not have been surprised to bring a duplicate gift if it had been whatever the hot new toy of 2014 was, but this is a vintage playset that was last manufactured when Jerry Ford was in the White House.

    We wound up bringing our duplicate garage back home. Joe’s sister is getting married next year and is planning to start a family shortly thereafter, so maybe we’ll be able to pass the garage on to a niece or nephew in a few years. Those old F-P toys stand the test of time.

  • Driving Away

    Date: 2014.11.20 | Category: Consumerism | Comments: 2

    What could be more exciting than a new car? Now that the holiday season is almost upon us, I’m sure those ubiquitous Lexus commercials (you know, the ones featuring luxury autos bedecked with gigantic bows) will be all over the TV soon. On “The Price is Right,” there’s no prize more valued than “a new caaaaaaaar!” And “new car smell” is so popular that simulations of it are available in sceneted oils, candles and air fresheners.

    carI, on the other hand, find the idea of trading in my 2002 Prius for a shiny new auto to be… well, sad. Yes, the car is 12 1/2 years old. The acceleration is, to put it kindly, poky. The steering wheel is so worn that it feels pebbly to the touch. I had it detailed for the first time about a year ago, but the interior still bears stains. It’s got dents and scrapes a-plenty, and while it’s possible to listen to music or podcasts from an iPhone, it requires plugging the phone into a cassette adapter. Oh, and the sound system’s on-off switch doesn’t work, so you have to turn the volume all the way down if you don’t want to listen to the radio.

    Despite all that, though, I love the car’s familiarity. I know all of its quirks. I love its small size and tiny turning radius, so appropriate for city living. I also love the fact that it’s long since paid for and insuring it only costs $500 a year. Because we make a lot of short trips, the mileage isn’t as high as you’d expect from a hybrid–usually we get around 35 miles per gallon–but overall, it’s been extremely cheap to maintain and run.

    But now, the trusted mechanics at Art’s Automotive, who have been caring for the Prius for a decade, have informed me that the car has reached the point of no return, where the repairs will become increasingly expensive. Because Joe and I share the one car (an advantage of living in a walkable community with good public transit), reliability is a must. We don’t have a second car to tool around in while one is in the shop.

    And so I find myself researching new autos. I am definitely a Toyota fan, but considering how little we drive (the Prius only has around 98,000 miles on it despite its advanced age), another hybrid probably doesn’t make sense. If money were truly no object, I’d buy a Tesla Model S, but I’d have to have enough cash to bathe in a la Scrooge McDuck before I could feel comfortable spending that much on a vehicle. We’ll probably wind up getting something dull but practical like a Corolla.

    The Prius is only the third car I’ve ever owned; the first two were a couple of Fords (a new Escort and a used Taurus) that vexed me with their unreliability and need for repairs. I was glad to see them go; I think I traded in the Escort, and donated the Taurus to charity (it wasn’t running, so it had to be towed away). But there will be a tear in my eye when I have to say goodbye to the Prius. I would happily keep it for a few more years, were it possible; I had at least hoped we’d make it over the 100K mark. No matter how many cool new features our next auto has, I’m sure it’ll take me a while to stop missing that little blue car.

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • The Bad Seed

    Date: 2014.10.18 | Category: Movies, Personal | Comments: 1

    Earlier today, Joe and I were discussing the “bad” things we had done in our youth. I mentioned that two transgressions stand out in my mind as the epitome of my youthful trouble-making. (It was a more innocent time; I can only imagine someone a couple generations younger than I am claiming their worst misdeed was dipping a classmate’s pigtail in an inkwell.) Both are related to motion pictures.

    1. Dustin Made Me Do It: Today’s tweens may be devoted to Justin Bieber or One Direction, but I was infatuated with a middle-aged Jewish man: Dustin Hoffman. When “Tootsie” opened, I skipped school to take the bus to the Movies at North Kent so I could attend the very first showing of the film. Yes, I got in trouble, but on the plus side, the film is a classic that still holds up–I saw it again not that long ago and it’s hilarious and touching. What if I’d ditched class to see something like “Yor: Hunter from the Future”? My crush on Dustin was long-standing–a couple years earlier, my parents had allowed me stay up super-late to watch him win the Best Actor Oscar for “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

    Cat_People_1982_movie2. Putting Out Fire (With Gasoline): I came of age in the post-Marilyn Monroe era, when there were two preeminent female icons: Farrah Fawcett and Natassja Kinski. The latter was famous for being the subject of a Richard Avedon photograph in which she posed with a snake. Generally I was allowed to see any movie I was interested in–because I was insanely nerdy, I usually wanted to go see whatever Siskel & Ebert were recommending, which was usually along the lines of “My Dinner with Andre” or something directed by John Sayles–but the only film I recall being strictly forbidden to see was Kinski’s starring vehicle “Cat People.” Perhaps because it had a theme song by one of my favorite singers, David Bowie, “Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” or maybe because it was helmed by another one of my favorite auteurs, Paul Schrader, I decided I simply had to see “Cat People” immediately. I recruited my best friend James to take me, and we saw it the night it opened. Unlike “Tootsie,” I’ve never seen “Cat People” since then, and I don’t recall anything about it–just that my mother was very upset with me for having disobeyed her. It was probably not all that great. “Tootsie” endures, but who remembers “Cat People”? Maybe I should try to track it down one of these days to see if it’s shocking.

    Drugs? Alcohol? Sex? No thanks–for me, it was all about the movies.

  • They’ve Got Magic To Do

    Date: 2014.10.03 | Category: Theater | Comments: 0

    The first real rock concert I ever attended was by a band called The Tubes. They were playing at the Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium, and I was a fan of their hits, but I had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, the San Francisco-based group put on a wild show featuring costume changes, dancing girls, stunts, smoke machines, bondage gear… at one point, lead singer Fee Waybill came out dressed as his alter ego “Quay Lewd,” wearing platform shoes and a fright wig. The scent of marijuana hung heavily in the air; I’m sure my parents would have been shocked had they known what sort of debauchery was going on in downtown G.R. that evening (luckily, I turned out OK–hi Mom & Dad!–though perhaps this formative experience partly explains why I eventually moved to the Bay Area and adopted “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” as my all-time favorite musical).

    Because I didn’t know any better, I assumed that what I had seen was a typical rock concert. When I attended other shows, I was crushed to realize that the average gig’s “visual spectacle” consisted solely of guys standing around on a stage playing instruments and singing. Where were the acrobats? Why was everyone wearing jeans and T-shirts? Where was the glitter?

    I wonder if anybody whose first experience with musical theater happens to be “Pippin” is similarly confused when they realize that not every musical includes magic tricks, a granny on a trapeze, knife-throwing, pyrotechnics, trained animals and balancing acts, not to mention genuine Bob Fosse-choreographed jazz hands. I’ve spent 30 years as a theatergoer, and I’ve never seen anything like “Pippin.” The storyline, about a young prince’s coming of age, is pretty ordinary, but the production itself is an eye-popper. I can imagine that “Pippin” could be done by high school drama clubs and it would be a pleasantly low-key show, not unlike “The Fantasticks,” but the Tony-winning Broadway revival adds so much over-the-top circus craziness that you probably won’t even notice the rather blah plot (unless you think about it on the ride home, at least).

    The title character, played by Matthew James Thomas with the charm of a young Michael J. Fox, is the son of Charlemagne (John Rubinstein–the original Broadway “Pippin” way back in 1972!). He’s been away from the kingdom to receive an education, and like so many modern-day grads, he’s now convinced that he needs to do something Big and Special with his life. He decides to become a warrior like his stepbrother Lewis, but that doesn’t work out so well. (At one point, Pippin has a conversation with the decapitated head of one of his foes.) When Pippin gets caught up in an anti-tyranny demonstration aimed at his own father, he kills the old man and takes over the kingdom, only to learn that it’s not so easy to govern an empire. Finally, he meets up with a young widow and her son and spends some time living the simple life on a farm.

    See–nothing special. And yet this show provides nonstop entertainment. Not for nothing is the orchestra pit covered by a net, though these performers are so agile that I doubt anyone ever falls into the string section. Even Lucie Arnaz, stepping in for Tony-winning Andrea Martin in the role of Pippin’s grandmother, performs a showstopper of a song while swinging on a trapeze with the grace of a circus vet.

    Heading the troupe is Sasha Allen as the Leading Player, making her mark in a tricky role that requires her to grab the audience’s attention even as people are doing backflips around her. She’s got a killer set of pipes and enough charisma to pull off the part that made Ben Vereen a star (Watch Ben perform “Magic to Do” from the original production, which was obviously very different from this revival… they kept the jazz hands, though). Sabrina Harper is a hoot as Pippin’s conniving stepmother. As for the acrobats, magicians and circus performers… well, it’s often a real three-ring circus up there, and no matter where you look, someone will be doing something to make you gasp and applaud.

    “Pippin” is one of those shows that really gives you your money’s worth, even at full price, but a few of the performances have discounted tickets available on Goldstar. If you’re looking for some escapist fun, don’t miss it.

  • It’s Funny Because It’s True

    Date: 2014.09.12 | Category: Internet, Meta | Comments: 0

    ‘I Let Everyone Down’: A Blogger Apologizes For Not Posting In A While (from the Onion’s hilarious site, Clickhole)

    After more than two weeks of radio silence, blogger Dylan Tafferty has finally issued a public apology for not posting in a while.

    “I cannot tell you how ashamed I am,” Tafferty wrote in the latest entry on his blog, The Tafferty Take, where he writes about a variety of subjects for an audience consisting of mostly friends and family…

    As far as giving any sort of explanation as to what drove him to neglect his blog for a two-week period, during which he failed to comment on such major events as the Emmys and his big dentist appointment in late August, Tafferty had this to say:

    “I’ve just been really busy with work and family stuff,” he wrote. “That’s not an excuse. It’s just a reason.”