One thing’s for certain: there are going to be more live musicals airing on NBC. Considering the ratings for the “Sound of Music” telecast, it wouldn’t surprise me if a group of execs are sitting around a boardroom table even as we speak, throwing out suggestions for future theatrical-based programming. At the very least, this should become a holiday tradition.
I avoided social media after 5 PM (when “Sound” kicked off on the East Coast), because I wanted to make up my own mind about Carrie Underwood’s performance and the rest of the show. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was really looking forward to it. Obviously, lots of other people were as well, though it seems like many of them were looking for something to hate-watch/Tweet, along the lines of SyFy’s gloriously cheesy “Sharknado” or the disastrous Lindsay Lohan vehicle “Liz & Dick.” Obviously, the combination of “SoM” fans, “American Idol”/Carrie devotees, and social media users looking for a dishy communal event added up to a ratings bonanza, and even better, something that demanded you watch it live, not on TiVo whenever you get around to it. (My own viewing was slightly delayed–I started playback at around 8:30, so I could fast forward through all those Wal-Mart commercials.)
So there’s definitely gonna be another one of these next year. Here are my suggestions for NBC on how to do it better in 2014:
1. Find a lead who can act. No, Carrie Underwood was not awful or a train wreck by any stretch of the imagination. However, it was quite clear that she is not a particularly gifted actress, and showed little emotional range. I thought the highlight of her portrayal of Maria was her enthusiastic rendition of “The Lonely Goatherd”–her voice has kind of a bleating quality to it that made her really good at yodeling. Even if you’re going to stunt-cast your lead, there has to be some quality control. For instance, Carrie’s fellow “Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson wound up winning an Oscar for her first acting performance (in the movie “Dreamgirls”). The difference was that Hudson had to audition for the role, proving that she had the acting chops as well as ability to belt out a tune. I have no doubt that if my local community theater tried to cast the role of Maria, they could find a half-dozen young women who could nail the part more convincingly than Underwood. (How about Riley Krull, who played Wendla in “Spring Awakening” a couple years ago? Someone get that gal a dirndl!)
2. Reconsider the sound stage. “SoM” was filmed in a cavernous Long Island studio with no audience. The lack of an audience seemed especially glaring during the play’s more theatrical touches (for instance, when a wall of the von Trapp mansion was raised up to allow Maria to walk right back into the abbey). But the worst part was the background noise. There was a very distracting hum of some sort throughout the show which sometimes even obscured the dialogue. The lighting was also weirdly dim in many scenes. NBC announced at the opening that this was the first time a live musical had been produced on TV since the 1950s; hopefully, if this becomes a regular thing, they’ll be able to work out the technical kinks.
3. Keep the Broadway ringers. The fact that Audra McDonald, probably the greatest musical theater star of our generation, was able to play such a prominent role (the Mother Abbess) single-handedly justifies the entire production. If you were not moved by her “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” you are dead inside. Laura Benanti killed as Elsa Schraeder. Other Broadway vets, like Sean Cullen (Franz) and Christiane Noll (Sister Margaretta), appeared in smaller parts. All of that Broadway firepower reminded me of those “Dancing with the Stars” routines where an extravagantly talented pro tries to disguise her partner’s lack of ability by sort of dancing around him. Of course, no matter how skilled your partner is, eventually your own shortcomings will be displayed.
4. Chemistry is good. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer didn’t exactly set the screen ablaze in the film version of “SoM”–Plummer has made it pretty clear over the years that Captain von Trapp is not one of his favorite roles–but “True Blood”‘s Stephen Moyer and Carrie Underwood made the original pair seem like Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in “Body Heat” by comparison. On the whole, though, I thought Moyer did a decent job, although Joe had to look him up on Wikipedia to assure me that he is actually British (I thought he was doing a fake accent at first). Sure, he seemed a little stiff and awkward, but von Trapp is supposed to be stiff and awkward–he’s at ease on a ship, not with his comically large brood.
(From Wikipedia, here’s a photo of the real Captain von Trapp with his first wife, Agathe, who died of scarlet fever when her youngest child was a year old. Also, one of the original von Trapp children–the one who inspired the character of Louisa–is still alive at age 99!)
5. Next year, do “Chicago.” It’s another famous play-that-became-a-movie; granted, unlike the 50-year-old “SoM,” the film version of “Chicago” with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger is still fairly fresh, but I still think it could be a great candidate for the live TV treatment. For the stunt/celebrity casting, how about Justin Timberlake as Billy Flynn? Get on it, NBC.
Nobody actually keeps their New Year’s resolutions. I was going to try to Google some statistic proving that, but why bother? We all know it’s true. Back in the days when I belonged to a health club, I used to love going in December, because I had the place to myself. After Jan. 1, it was a madhouse… for 4-6 weeks, anyway. Then things returned to normal.
It seems to me that Dec. 1 is the perfect time to make resolutions for 2013. You only need to keep it for a month! Come 2014, you’re off the hook.
I did not make a New Year’s resolution last year to walk more, but I can say that I have exceeded 10,000 steps a day almost every day of the year, thanks largely to my Fitbit. In November, I only missed two days: Nov. 4 and 12. I made it to 8,000 steps on the 12th and 9,500 on the 4th, which isn’t terrible. In August, when we were in Sweden, I averaged over 12,000 steps a day.
2013 has not been such a fruitful year for reading. Last night, I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, which was the 45th book I read since Jan. 1. By this time last year, I’d read 56 books. I tend to average around 60 books a year. I wish I could say that I’m behind in 2013 because I’ve been reading difficult classics, like Middlemarch or something Russian. But no, I haven’t even been able to rack up 50 mysteries and works of pop fiction.
I blame the Internet. I’ve read about, but (not surprisingly) haven’t actually read, a book called The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, quoted in the New York Times review of his book (written by disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer). “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Speaking of Jet Skis, once I noticed Jonah Lehrer’s byline, I immediately had to Google him to find out what he’s been up to since he resigned from the New Yorker. He’s working on a new book, but may have plagiarized his book proposal, and he owns a famous midcentury home in Los Angeles.
But I digress.
I have to at least make it up to 52 books before New Year’s Eve rolls around! I have to focus!
So my goal is to finish seven books this month. I’ve just started Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. This is the second time I’ve had it out from the library–the first time, I never managed to crack it before it was due back, something which always makes me feel super guilty. Going Clear is due on Thursday, so the clock is ticking.
I have a number of other books on my TBR (To Be Read) pile, including The Dinner by Herman Koch, W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton, and The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey, who is one of my oldest friends and it is completely unforgivable (not to mention very embarrassing) that I still haven’t read her book, which came out in August, for heaven’s sake. Plus, my book club’s reading list is trickling in, starting with Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller, which I need to be prepared to discuss on Jan. 7.
I’ll report back in a couple of weeks with my results.
Click on a photo to see a larger version
Last week, Joe and I enjoyed one of the rarest dining opportunities available in the Bay Area: we ate a meal while seated in the kitchen at Berkeley’s world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant. This is a highly sought-after perch, and only a handful of people per year get to experience it.
How did we get access to the inner sanctum? Through a personal connection, and a donation to one of our favorite organizations, Shotgun Players. At the time, Chez Panisse was closed due to a fire. They rebuilt and reopened in late June, but we decided to wait and schedule our visit to coincide with our general birthday/anniversary period.
I didn’t want to spend the entire meal distracted by my camera phone, so I only took photos in a couple of quick bursts. That means I don’t have pictures of all of our food, but there are still quite a few pix here for you to enjoy. (Yes, I asked for permission first, which was kindly granted.)
We were seated at a table squeezed in between the areas where the desserts and the first courses were being prepared. On one side of us, a pastry chef was cutting huge sheets of almond cake, using a ruler and a sharp knife to make sure they were perfectly rectangular in shape. (Odd pieces were put aside for the staff to eat later.) On the other side, a chef was delicately slicing pieces of yellowtail from a large filet, along with a colorful variety of carrots (including purple ones!), radishes, endive and shallots. The raw fish was served with an accompanying salad made up of the vegetables, dressed with very fresh and fruity green olive oil. The bottle of oil had 2013 printed on the label–it was the Capezzana brand. Apparently, there is a “nuovo” olive oil release in late fall similar to the Beaujolais Nouveau wine release. As someone who has purchased nothing other than Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil for the past decade or so, it made me think about how even changing one basic ingredient can enhance the quality of a dish.
The second course was a Meyer lemon risotto with fried sage, winter squash and cipollini onions agrodolce. Risotto is one of my go-to dishes. I think I’m pretty good at making it. Of course, the chefs at Chez Panisse do a much better job. I toss in a cup of frozen peas, for instance, rather than roasted and diced winter squash and cooking onions. Joe asked the chef who made the risotto how she did it–this was in the lull between the first and second seatings, so everybody in the restaurant had already enjoyed the dish–and it involved a fancy stock, pureed squash and, of course, lots of butter. Chez Panisse keeps a lot of huge slabs of butter around the kitchen. (Another CP secret: they use McClelland’s Dairy Artistan Organic Butter, and it’s available at Berkeley Bowl.)
The main course was Becker Lane pork loin with mustard sauce, braised greens and chicories, and fried potatoes. Becker Lane is a producer of organic pork and their pigs “have access to the outside world and be able to engage in their instinctive behaviors such as rooting, wallowing, foraging, and nesting,” according to their web site. Despite the humanely raised aspect, I haven’t consumed pork in over 20 years so I didn’t want to break that streak. I had informed them in advance of my dietary preferences, and I got a delicious substitution involving chanterelle mushrooms and fresh ricotta; the mustard sauce, greens, and the amazing fried potatoes that accompanied the pork also came with my dish. Joe, of course, had the pork, and said that it was excellent.
Because we’d been sitting so close to the counter where the dessert was being assembled, it was exciting to finally get to taste it: huckleberry ice cream with almond torte and quince. We also received a small plate of dates and persimmons. I tend to be a little disdainful of winter fruit, since I so cherish summer berries and cherries, but this was a very nice way to feature some seasonal offerings.
The pastry chef, Mary Jo Thoresen, was very friendly and generous with her time, answering all of Joe’s questions about how the dessert menu is devised and how she was assembling the torte. She took the slices the other chef had cut with geometric precision, then “painted” them with glaze using a pastry brush that was exactly the same width as the cake pieces (a happy coincidence). Then she placed the toasted almonds by hand on each piece before it was plated with the sauces and ice cream. In fact, one of the things I noticed was how much the chefs use their hands in the food preparation. The guy making the first course mixed up the vegetable salad using his fingers–no spoons or tongs. I suspect this is a fairly common occurrence in kitchens and if more people witnessed it, they would be rather upset about the fact that most restaurant workers receive no paid sick leave. Chez Panisse adds an 18% service charge to its bills in lieu of the usual tipping policy, and it pays its staff a living wage, complete with health care, vacations and sick days. One result is that a lot of people stay there for a long time: Thoresen has worked as Panisse’s pastry chef on and off since the 1980s.
Joe, the nondrinker, had a citrus spritzer, while I had wine pairings with the courses. Usually I never order wine pairings because it turns out to be way too much wine, but these pours were absolutely perfect–it probably added up to a couple glasses total, which was fine over the course of two hours. Everything was really well paced. When we left, I didn’t have that bloated feeling I often get after dining out. The dishes were rather rich, but the time between courses and the size of the portions had been expertly devised. (The downstairs restaurant, as opposed to the upstairs cafe, offers two seatings every night: the first is from 5:30-6:30, the second around 9:15. We had been told to arrive between 6 and 6:30, probably so the most hectic part of dinner prep would be over. By 7:45, much of the kitchen staff was able to break for its own meal. Those people eat really well.)
Dining at Chez Panisse is much more inspiring for the home cook than eating at a place like, say, Coi, where some of the dishes are literally assembled with tweezers. Sure, I’ll probably never make risotto exactly like they do it there, but next time I might be inspired to put in some lemon zest and cubes of roasted squash. And I’d probably be more inclined to pick up purple carrots or splurge on some young olive oil. I probably won’t have another chance to eat in the Chez Panisse kitchen, but perhaps I’ll try to bring some of the chefs’ enthusiasm and inventiveness into my own home kitchen.
By the time I met Joe’s mother, Judi, she was already in relatively fragile health. She was only able to visit us in California once; another time, she came up to New York during one of our trips to the city, and we took her to see the musical version of “Grey Gardens,” an experience she enjoyed tremendously; it led to an ongoing fascination with the Beales. However, these bursts of activity were sadly few and far between. Judi had a painful and difficult life, but it was not without joy. She cherished her two smart, accomplished children–Joe and his half-sister Melanie–and she loved to read.
More than anything else, I knew her as a reader. She and I enjoyed the same type of books; she loved reading mysteries and thrillers by authors like Harlan Coben and Lee Child. I have met Child a couple of times and I know a lot of authors who are well acquainted with him. In one of our final conversations, I told her what a generous and friendly man he is; despite his riches and success, he always has time to write a blurb or do a favor for his colleagues. She was very happy to hear that. It seemed important to her that one of her literary heroes was also a nice, genuine person.
Last year, when we were visiting the U.K., Joe was able to get Child and Sue Grafton to autograph books to his mom. The crime fiction conference CrimeFest was our first stop on a month-long trip to Europe, and I groused more than once about the fact that we had to tote two heavy books (a large-format trade paperback and a hardcover) from Bristol to London to Paris to Stockholm and finally back to the U.S. I know she appreciated the crisp new copies, though. Most of her books came from thrift stores or from our local Friends of the Library sale. Joe volunteered at the sale for years, which entitled him to get first crack at the books, before the general public gained admittance. He would quickly scan the tables in the mystery section, keeping an eye out for his mom’s favorites–Clive Cussler, David Baldacci, Janet Evanovich. Once he filled a box, we’d ship it to her in Pennsylvania via media mail.
I thought she might enjoy the work of one of my clients, William Kent Krueger, and asked a bookseller friend to send her autographed copies of his first few Cork O’Connor novels. The main character is part Native American, and a theme of Native spirituality runs through the series. She told me she really enjoyed that aspect of the books, and looked forward to reading the rest of them, and then rereading them. “I don’t just read books once,” she told me. I seldom have time to reread anything, but at that moment, I thought about how her collection functioned as a portal to places she might feel like visiting on a particular day. If she was in the mood to travel to Northern Minnesota with Cork O’Connor, or New Jersey with Evanovich’s sassy Stephanie Plum, or sunny southern California with Kinsey Millhone, she could simply pick up a book and escape.
Since she was not healthy enough to get to the library, Joe bought her a Nook e-reader so she could download books, but Judi felt a paper book was far superior to the electronic version. I don’t know if she ever read any novels on the Nook, but I sort of doubt it.
Now that she is gone, most of her collection will probably be donated to a charity that can sell them to other readers for a quarter or two; I know she’d have appreciated that. As for the personalized books, Joe requested they be returned to him so he can have them as keepsakes. On Monday, the day she died, I received a notification from the library that the new Lee Child book I had reserved, Never Go Back, had come in. I’m sorry she never got a chance to read it, or Coben’s latest, Six Years, which had an ingenious twisty resolution she would have loved.
When I was visiting my local library today, I took a moment to read the inscription on artist Michael Carey’s redwood sculpture that stands by the stairs. It’s called Diosa de la Bahia (Goddess of the Bay) and features a plaque at the base with some lines from the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins, “There is no frigate like a book/To take us lands away…” From now on, that poem will always remind me of my mother-in-law, because books truly were her frigate, and I’m glad I was able to share part of her voyage.
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I love “The Sound of Music” deeply and unironically. In case you haven’t heard, a new version is going to air live on NBC early next month. (Well, tape-delayed, for those of us on the West Coast.) There’s a preview of it here, along with some very funny observations about the original film from NPR pop-culture blogger Linda Holmes. Sample: “When Mother Abbess tells Maria, ‘Climb ev’ry mountain,’ she is setting a very unrealistic expectation of success, especially since they are in the Alps. It’s one thing to use a metaphor about uninterrupted mountain climbing if you’re in Nebraska, but when you look out of the window every day and see more mountains than you could ever climb in your entire life, that’s just setting you up to feel like a failure.” (Also: bonus points to the commenter who used the phrase “manic pixie dream nun” to describe Maria.)
I have no problems poking fun at “The Sound of Music” and I agree with Holmes that to my adult eyes, it does seem like the Captain should really have married the Baroness. Nevertheless, the music’s fantastic, the scenery is beautiful (I still can’t believe that I’ve never managed to visit Austria), and the movie is packed with plot. It’s almost three hours long, and it earns every one of those minutes. There’s nothing I’d cut out of it. Not even “The Lonely Goatherd”!
You might expect that I’d be prepared to ignore and/or scoff at the NBC remake, starring “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood as Maria, but no, I’m so eager to watch it that I’ve even marked Dec. 5 on my calendar so I don’t schedule anything else that night. I want to watch it live(-ish). I got really excited when I heard that the legendary Audra McDonald had been cast as the Mother Abbess (that means she gets to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” which will no doubt bring the house down).
What I like about NBC’s approach is that they’re not remaking the movie. They will be broadcasting an adaption of the theatrical production, which ran for almost 1,500 performances on Broadway. I’m all for more theater on television. (“Great Performances” on PBS has a couple must-sees for theater lovers coming up this month: Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” tonight–the one with Stephen Colbert!–and “Oklahoma!” starring Hugh Jackman next week.) Sure, it’s always better to see live theater, but TV is a mass entertainment and can reach millions of people. Who knows, if “The Sound of Music” is a ratings hit, perhaps there will be more to come. And if casting former “American Idol” contestants brings in viewers, why not? Though I have to admit I’m grateful that NBC didn’t cast Chris Daughtry as Captain Von Trapp.
If you’d peered into my kitchen window yesterday afternoon, you would have seen me sitting on the floor with a moist rag and a bowl of Ajax cleanser, wiping the dirty fingerprints and random food stains off the cabinets. Prior to that, I was dusting the wainscoting in the dining room, as well as the base of the pedestal dining table. I also cleaned between the countertop tiles using a grout brush.
A few minutes ago, I was busily cleaning the kitchen island and spraying the living room with Febreze “Meadows & Rain”-scented air freshener. According to the manufacturer, it is supposed to smell “like a grassy meadow misted in early morning dewy freshness.” I actually find it quite pleasant, though its main selling point is that it effectively masks the smell of dog.
Intensive cleaning is not something I just do for the fun of it. I only clean like this for one reason: people are coming over. If you are reading this and are upset that you aren’t on the guest list, don’t be–I didn’t decide whom to invite. Occasionally, we volunteer to host a cocktail party for supporters of a nonprofit we are involved with. There is no hard sell, or any sell at all for that matter, at these events, but hopefully they will make people feel warm and fuzzy and inspired to make a donation. A couple years ago, someone at one of our parties made a $10K donation shortly thereafter. Joe and I don’t have that kind of money, but we do what we can to help. In my case, that is to make sure the house is tidy. (I will note here that Joe does help, but he doesn’t obsess over the details like I do.)
Even when our house is spic-and-span, though, I still feel like it is biding its time to return to its natural state of clutter. Have you heard of a “dry drunk”–someone who still has an alcoholic’s mindset despite the fact that they no longer imbibe? One of the reasons I was so obsessed with the now-canceled TV show “Hoarders” was because I sometimes felt like I was a few stacks of newspapers away from becoming one myself. You just give up that vigilance for a little while, and the next thing you know, you’re making your way through your house via an elaborate network of goat paths.
A few years ago, I tried out a few methods of keeping your house clean. One of them involved index cards–you were supposed to record all of your household chores on 3×5 cards, and then do a certain number of them every day. Fly Lady is another popular resource, though her command of “dressing to your shoes” even when you’re inside the house is a deal-breaker for me. (Scandinavians, like the Japanese, simply don’t wear street shoes in their homes. We are a slippers-wearing people. For events like tonight’s, I don a pair of simple black flats that I have never worn outside. And no, I don’t ask visitors to remove their shoes.)
The only method I’ve found that is completely foolproof is having people over. Now that we have a house-sitter, I spend the day before we leave on a trip in a cleaning frenzy. (She always leaves the house tidy, though coming home from vacation always seems to require a week or so just to put away everything you brought back with you; I spent part of last night alphabetizing my Playbill collection.) But there’s something extra-intimidating about having people you don’t know in your home. I don’t want anyone to drive away asking their spouse, “Did you see the size of those dust bunnies?”
Of course, no one ever notices the absence of dust bunnies. That’s one of the things that makes cleaning a thankless task. Plus, no matter how well you do it, you’ll have to do it again in a few days (or, in the case of dirty dishes, a few hours).
As I was writing this entry, I received an email from an East Coast friend who is in the Bay Area for work this week. He’s coming over to visit us on Saturday. That’s good news: it means the house will stay clutter- and dust-bunny-free for a little while longer.
The first time I ever set foot in Times Square was during one of its lowest ebbs. It was home to downmarket strip clubs, drug dealers and grindhouse movie theaters. There were so many deserted theater marquees that artist Jenny Holzer was dispatched to put her aphorisms on them as a way of distracting people from the seedy surroundings. Here’s a photo of one of her creations: Deviants are sacrificed to ensure group solidarity. And another one: Any surplus is immoral.
I’m glad that photographic proof of those marquees exists online, or else I may have thought I imagined them. Now, I have no nostalgia for the run-down New York of the past; I love being able to walk around, even after dark, and feel perfectly safe, and I am glad the subway stairwells no longer reek of urine. However, if it weren’t for the Broadway theaters, I would be very happy to avoid Times Square entirely, the way I stay far away from Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. But when I’m visiting NYC, I usually have to go to Times Square at least once or twice a day. And that brings me to the two most perplexing things in the Square, if not the country–nay, the world. I refer, of course, to the M&M Store and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
I have actually been inside the M&M Store, a couple of years ago, when my sister-in-law was up here with us. This is a store devoted to selling M&Ms–a product, I hasten to add, that you can purchase much cheaper at any Target in the country–and M&M-themed stuff, from mugs to keychains to T-shirts. Joe figured that it appeals mainly to foreign tourists, but I don’t believe it; sometimes, it seems like half of everybody in Times Square is carrying an M&M Store bag and they’re not all speaking foreign languages. M&Ms are not an exotic commodity! You don’t need to buy them in a special store while you’re on vacation! It makes no sense!!!
But, hey, candy, everybody loves candy, right? And I guess most people love shrimp, since the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company chain has been around since 1996, and averages $7.2 million per domestic unit, according to Food Industry News. Times Square isn’t exactly a hub of adventurous dining–there’s a Ruby Tuesday’s, an Olive Garden, an Applebee’s, and that Guy Fieri restaurant that was famously trashed in the New York Times–but the thing that confounds me about Bubba Gump’s is that it has an entire “Forrest Gump”-themed souvenir business attached to it. Who even cares about “Forrest Gump” after nearly 20 years? Why would you buy, much less wear, a “Life is like a box of chocolates” T-shirt in 2013? Would anybody try to sell “The Santa Clause” or “True Lies” (other top-5 grossing flicks of 1994) stuff nowadays? Granted, “Dumb and Dumber” is getting another sequel, so perhaps mid-90s nostalgia is in full swing.
Prior to New York, I spent a couple of days in Baltimore, returning to the city I lived in for 12+ years for the first time since 1998. One of the first things I noticed was that the “Baltimore: The City That Reads” bus benches I remembered from the 90s had been replaced by benches with a new slogan (I am not making this up): “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.” Somebody told me a possibly-apocryphal tale that the “Greatest City” slogan was put in as a placeholder for a mocked-up draft of the new city web site, the mayor liked it, and it stuck.
In any case, I hate to break it to you, Baltimore, but you’re not even the greatest city in the mid-Atlantic region (that would be Washington, despite its problems–at least it has the Smithsonian and the 9:30 Club). Despite Times Square, the noise, the crowds, it’s always been clear to me that New York is truly the greatest city in America. Love it or hate it, you can’t deny it is the biggest and the best. Case in point: there is a place a few blocks away from where we’re staying called Insomnia Cookies, which serves hot, delicious cookies until 3 AM. It’s 11:30 PM as I write this, and I could go out and spend $1.50 and get a freshly baked cookie right now. I mean, I’m not going to–I’m planning to brush my teeth and go to bed–but I could. And I would probably have to wait in line for it.
R.I.P. to one of the true poets of New York, Lou Reed. His song “Dirty Blvd.” sums up the good, the bad & the ugly of this place.
Last weekend, Joe was watching football in the living room when he called out to ask me to come see something. It was an ad for a smartwatch–I’m not going to name the brand–which featured a montage of Smart Watches In Popular Culture, from “Get Smart!” and “Dick Tracy” to “Star Trek” and “Knight Rider.” It’s a clever ad, and I can only imagine how much work it was to get permission to use all of those clips. However, the reason Joe brought it to my attention had nothing to do with the product or the clips. It was the musical accompaniment, a simple eight-note melody playing over a bed of synthesizer sounds, which I suppose was considered “retro-futuristic” enough to back up the kitschy imagery.
For me, though, that music is much more than just a bleep-bloop soundtrack for “Jetsons” and “Flintstones” clips. It is one of only a handful of songs I have heard in my life that I can say I love unreservedly. The name of the song is “Someone Great,” and it’s by LCD Soundsystem. There are no lyrics heard in the ad, which makes sense, since the song is about reacting to the death of a loved one. The songwriter, James Murphy, has never been willing to discuss who exactly he had in mind when he wrote the song, which makes it somewhat enigmatic; there are dozens of comments speculating about it on a site called songmeanings.com, but no one will ever know for sure unless Murphy decides to spill. I kind of like the fact that he hasn’t done so. In a way, that means the song belongs to everyone who has ever lost a loved one; they can find comfort in it, as I did when I posted the video and lyrics on this site shortly after a close friend’s suicide.
I hate to sound like an anti-capitalist fogey, but it makes me unhappy to hear that song being used in an advertisement. It cheapens it somehow. I recognize that it’s not my song, it’s James Murphy’s song, and he can do as he pleases with it; he disbanded LCD Soundsystem a couple of years ago, so he no longer has that revenue stream. (He is still active in the music world, though, most recently producing the new Arcade Fire album, Reflektor.) And I’m aware that a lot of people discover new music through commercials. Nick Drake would never have had his posthumous career resurgence were it not for the car ad that featured his “Pink Moon.” But still, I can’t help but feel, why did they have to use this song?
Earlier today, through my TV lineups page, I received an email from a guy named Steve Young who writes for “Late Show with David Letterman.” He has co-written a book called Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals. These musical numbers were “glimpsed only at conventions and sales meetings… the audience is managers and salesmen, and the songs are about how great it is to be working at the company.” I was listening to a few of the tunes, like “An Exxon Dealer’s Wife” and “Don’t Let a Be-Back Get Away” (the latter from the 1959 Oldsmobile show “Good News About Olds”), and while the songs weren’t written and produced for the general public, they still made me think back to the days of commercial jingles. No one seems to write music specifically for ads anymore. It’s probably cheaper and easier to license pre-existing songs, and when they’re already fairly well known, you have the added emotional resonance that comes with them. In the case of “Something Great,” though, the feelings that song brings up in me definitely do not make me want to run out and buy a watch.
Every September, I look forward to the Legacy Home Tour, or as I call it, the Jealousy Home Tour. The Legacy Home Tour is an annual fund-raiser for our local Architectural Preservation Society, and features a half-dozen old homes, usually grand Victorians, that have been lovingly (and expensively) restored. I always go on the Home Tour by myself, since Joe isn’t interested and I sort of enjoy going at my own pace, though that means I don’t have an opportunity to share my opinions with anyone.
The ideal home on the tour has what you might call a high “holy s—” factor–in other words, you enter the home and exclaim, “Holy s—!” (Well, maybe I should call it the “wow factor” instead, since you don’t want to offend the docents, most of whom are friendly seniors. A lot of them even dress in period garb.) Some elements that provide a “wow factor” include a magnificent staircase, unusually large foyer with multiple types of wood or marble, or enormous stained glass window. I was particularly excited this year when I found out that my favorite house was on the tour–it’s one I walk by all the time, and I never fail to admire its beauty. I was so enthusiastic that I decided I would arrive at the house at 10:59 AM (the tour opens at 11) so I could be among the first to view it, thus avoiding the crowds. In some ways, this was a plus–I’m sure it was much quieter than it was later in the day, and the owners were in the kitchen, baking chocolate chip cookies and offering them to visitors!–but the downside was that seeing this home first made the other five homes on the tour look a bit pale by comparison.
If I ever did go on the tour with a friend, I thought it might be fun to make bingo cards, because so many motifs recur in numerous homes. Here are a few sample bingo squares:
- Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper
- Granite countertops (the houses may be old, but the kitchens are always freshly renovated)
- Sub-Zero refrigerator
- Photos of long-dead relatives (or former owners of the home)
- Terrible framed art work (typically paintings done by one of the owners, or by Thomas Kinkade)
- Paintings, models or other representations of the house you are touring
- Embarrassing books (I spotted Fifty Shades of Grey on at least one shelf)
- Model railroads
- Owners require you to remove your shoes before entering their home
- Back staircase for servants
- Sleeping porch
I just can’t resist looking at people’s bookshelves. One home on the tour had a nice little home office on the second floor. I glanced at the bookcase, and couldn’t help noticing that every single book on the shelves was written by the same author: L. Ron Hubbard. All of his science fiction volumes were there, as well as his Scientology books. The desk also boasted a Scientology mouse pad. Because I am obsessed with Scientology, I had to stop myself from trying to track down the home owner and ask him which OT levels he had reached, and why he thought church leader David Miscavige had postponed the opening of the Super Power Building. However, it probably wouldn’t have taken long for him to realize that pretty much all of my Scientology knowledge comes from anti-Scientology blogs, and I’m sure he would have declared me an SP and asked me to leave.
Anyway, I highly recommend the tour if you are into old houses. Just be prepared to come home wishing you had a spare couple of million dollars with which to buy and refurbish an old Victorian.
Mike Daisey wants to know what you think. He is encouraging amateur critics to post reviews of his monthlong storytelling extravaganza, All the Faces of the Moon, tagging them #moonshow to be eligible to win a prize. I have no doubt that Daisey will read all of the reviews people submit, which makes me a little nervous to be writing this.
Daisey has found my blog before, in the days before hashtags; I know this, because he once quoted me on his own blog. I used to say really complimentary things about Mike Daisey. I discovered him in 2004, when Berkeley Rep presented his monologue “21 Dog Years,” and I’ve followed his career ever since. I’m a big fan of monologuists, from the late Spalding Gray to my pal Josh Kornbluth. For the most part, the theatrical monologue is a fairly niche art; even Gray, probably the best-known practitioner, was never exactly a household name. But in March 2012, Daisey became a genuine celebrity, albeit for the worst possible reason: he was at the center of a media scandal. Portions of his monologue about Apple, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” were found to be not entirely factual. This revelation wouldn’t have gotten much traction were it not for the fact that the public radio show This American Life had broadcast an entire episode based on “Jobs,” and then they had to retract it, in an hour-long broadcast that is one of the most cringe-inducing things I’ve ever heard. I listened to it in bed, burying my face in my pillow at certain points. I also wrote a blog post about it, a cri de coeur of the betrayed fan.
The fact is, even if Daisey single-handedly rescues a bus full of orphans from plunging into an icy lake, sparing dozens of innocent children from certain doom, the first line of his obituary will no doubt refer to the “Jobs” incident. But Daisey apologized, and while that’s obviously not enough for some people–he will forever be known as the controversial Mike Daisey, the infamous Mike Daisey–what was he supposed to do? Give up his life’s work and open a deli? The man works in the theater, an art form you are welcome to ignore (99% of the public is happy to do just that). “People are free,” said Daisey. “If they’re not comfortable and they don’t want to come, they shouldn’t come.”
Daisey hasn’t been back to Berkeley since the early-2011 run of “Jobs,” but anyone who wants to get a taste of his work can now do so, thanks to his mammoth Moon project: 29 unique monologues, one performed each night at Joe’s Pub in New York between Sept. 5-Oct. 3, and uploaded to the web the next day (you can find them on iTunes or Soundcloud). You can listen to one, or to all 29, for free. I’ve subscribed via iTunes and plan to hear them all. Daisey’s podcast is titled “All Stories are Fiction,” and he refers to himself as a storyteller, not a truth-teller. I will never again assume that he’s telling me the unvarnished, journalistic truth. I will assume that he’s going to use his 29 days to tell a good story, or several dozen of them.
To up the ante, I’ve decided to listen to the podcasts only while walking. I estimate that I will cover around 120 miles during the epic saga. Today, I managed to tire out the dog; I just kept going, until she finally lay down on a cool patch of grass. I almost always listen to podcasts while I walk, but they tend to be more newsy or informational, like “Fresh Air,” “Marketplace Money” or “On the Media.” Daisey’s podcasts are not like that. They’re intimate. In the first episode, he discusses his suicide attempt. No specific time frame is given, but the implication is that it happened after the “Jobs” episode. I find myself wondering: did he actually try to kill himself, or is this a story too? Are we discovering real truths about Daisey the individual, or is there a character named “Mike Daisey,” kind of the way there’s a real Stephen Colbert and the faux pundit “Stephen Colbert” that he plays on TV?
In the end, does it matter? He is talking, and you can choose to listen or not, but thousands of people are listening, and the reason is that Mike Daisey is one of those rare people who can hold your attention no matter what the subject is. Some of the individual stories on the podcast are more compelling than others; out of the ones I’ve heard so far, my favorite involves a childhood story featuring a mysterious deck of cards he discovered hidden in a hollow tree. Daisey ended that particular tale with a cliffhanger, Scheherazade-like; I hope he picks it back up again. The most banal: a rant about a gentrified Brooklyn farmer’s market, which is about as hacky as a stand-up comic dissing airline food. Of course, it could be that such stories don’t resonate with me, since a trip to my local farmer’s market usually involves running a gauntlet of elderly Chinese women filling bags with mysterious-looking $1-a-pound greens. I guess the Ferry Building farmer’s market in San Francisco is more on par with the one in Carroll Gardens. Heck, there’s even a food cart there now selling edible insects. Take that, Brooklyn hipsters.
Will Daisey’s “theatrical novel” prove wearying or wonderful? So far, I can’t imagine not wanting to keep listening, and if it does all tie together in the end–even the farmer’s market story winds up integrated into his larger tapestry, which seems to involve a never-ending party with a bit of an Alice in Wonderland vibe–it’ll be an extraordinary achievement. I like the way he seamlessly switches between the timeless, almost fairy-tale-like or mythical portions of the story, and the parts that are as topical as today’s headlines (a lengthy digression on the recent New York magazine interview with Mayor Bloomberg, for instance. Mike Daisey really hates Mayor Bloomberg). I listen and walk on, not knowing the destination; the voice coming from my headphones urges me to keep going, don’t stop now, because there’s always just one more story I need to hear.
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
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- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- December 2012
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- October 2012
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- January 2012
- December 2011
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- December 2010
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- March 2010
- Joe on My Advice to NBC
- Janet Appel on A Reader’s Voyage
- vallery feldman on A Reader’s Voyage
- Bill Gottfried on A Reader’s Voyage
- Janet Rudolph on A Reader’s Voyage