One of the great joys of going on a West Coast road trip is In-N-Out Burger. Now, you may ask yourself why I, a longtime vegetarian, would want to stop at a fast food hamburger chain. Well, it turns out that In-N-Out Burger has a “secret” menu (I put “secret” in quotation marks because it’s literally available on the company’s own web site), and one of its unadvertised specials is the “grilled cheese”: “two slices of melted American cheese, hand-leafed lettuce, tomato, spread, with or without onions on a freshly baked bun.” That sounds prosaic, but it’s actually delicious. They’re generous with the crunchy lettuce, the bun always tastes fresh, and the spread, a version of Thousand Island dressing, is addictive. Add an order of hand-cut French fries, and you have the perfect quick vegetarian meal to enjoy after many hours of driving. Another bonus: the restaurants are uniformly staffed by the world’s politest teenagers.
I will soon be tempted by an In-N-Out Burger in my very own town. Granted, there’s one just a couple miles away in Oakland, but it’s kind of out of the way. This one, I pass by several times a week. The architecture is surprisingly elegant for a fast-food chain establishment–it looks sort of like a California mission, if the missions had featured giant yellow arrows instead of crosses. It looks like it’s almost finished, so it’ll be opening soon. I plan to avoid it for at least the first couple weeks, assuming that it’ll be crazy busy for quite a while. Eventually, the novelty will wear off, but I suspect it’ll stay fairly busy; In-N-Outs usually require a wait, even at odd times of day or night. The food is made fresh to order, and that takes time.
Yesterday, I drove past another establishment under construction, a couple miles away from the In-N-Out: Smashburger is coming to town. I’m not familiar with them, but according to their web site, “our mission is to put burgers back into people‘s lives. We want to change the way people think about burgers and the way they feel when they have a burger. We want Smashburger to be an every occasion burger restaurant that people can call their own.”
They want to “put burgers back into people’s lives”? Oh, I don’t think you needed to come to my town to do that, my friends. Because here’s what already exists within a few-block radius of the soon-to-open Smashburger: Baron’s Eats, Alameda Grill, Scolari’s, Five Guys, Burgermeister, and The Red Onion. On the other side of town, near the soon-to-open In-N-Out: Habit Burger and Nation’s Giant Hamburgers. Plus, of course, there are multiple locations of McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Burger King and Carl’s Junior in town.
How many vegetarian restaurants are there in town? Zero. The only one, Central Vegetarian, closed a year or so ago. Of course, there are several restaurants (mostly Asian, as was Central Vegetarian) such as Burma Superstar and Bluefin that offer numerous vegetarian options.
I get it. The people have spoken, and they’re saying “Give us hamburgers!” Joe has tried them all and I’m sure he’ll patronize Smashburger at some point. (His favorite: Habit Burger, a stone’s throw away from the In-N-Out.) Some of the burger joints offer veggie burgers with an actual patty instead of the cheese-and-garnish option you get at In-N-Out; to be honest, most of them are obvious afterthoughts, ranging from OK to terrible, and they’re almost always cooked on the same surface they cook the meat burgers on. I tend not to care, but for a lot of vegetarians that would be a deal-breaker.
How is it that in 2015, most of the public, even here in the Bay Area, seems to believe it’s not a meal if it doesn’t have meat? I am a regular reader of Michael Bauer’s restaurant reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle, and if anything, local eateries seem to be getting more meat-centric; the most famous vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, Greens, has been around since the 70s, while new ones are crazy for pork belly and bacon. A lot of buzz-worthy new dining establishments, like the super-trendy Lazy Bear, are off limits because they offer chef’s tasting menus where you don’t get a choice of dishes–everyone eats from the same menu, and that menu inevitably includes meat. A recent Sunday review in the Chron had the enticing headline “Al’s Place puts vegetables front and center,” but “fatty hog jowl,” hanger steak and duck breast are all on the menu. I suspect the proprietor and/or his investors realized that opening a true vegetarian restaurant would not be financially feasible.
So yes, I’m disappointed that young chefs don’t want to open vegetarian restaurants, and that most people probably wouldn’t patronize them if they existed. There always seems to be room for another restaurant like Cockscomb: “Just about every item on the menu has meat, whether it’s pig ears cut like spaghetti and tossed with a spicy tomato sauce, or a Little Gem salad dressed in Green Goddess and garnished with pork cracklings,” writes Bauer, in a review illustrated by a photo of a “wood oven-roasted pig’s head… with the added effect of gold leaf melted on the tip of the snout.” The head comes with a dipping sauce made out of pig’s brain and mayonnaise. I would imagine that even the most determined carnivore might look at that and say, “Take it down a notch, bro”–my guess is that this place is popular with the 20-something tech dudes who are taking over the city. The gold leaf adds the perfect Instagram-ready, Masters of the Universe touch.
But here’s the thing–our local burger-splosion may be the last hurrah of hamburgers as everyday foodstuff instead of as an occasional treat. As anyone who’s been following the news about our drought here in California has read by now, 80% of the water used in the state goes toward agriculture. This New York Times article lays it out in very stark terms: “Beef turns out to have an overall water footprint of roughly four million gallons per ton produced. By contrast, the water footprint for vegetables [is] 85,000 gallons per ton; and for starchy roots it’s about 102,200 gallons per ton.” The thirstiest plant in California is alfalfa, which “sucks up more water than any other crop in the state. And it has one primary destination: cattle.” Oh, and simply slaughtering an cow “demands 132 gallons of water per animal carcass, contributing even more to livestock’s expanding water footprint.”
The conclusion: “Changing one’s diet to replace 50 percent of animal products with edible plants like legumes, nuts and tubers results in a 30 percent reduction in an individual’s food-related water footprint. Going vegetarian, a better option in many respects, reduces that water footprint by almost 60 percent.”
It seems futile to take tiny steps like not flushing the toilet every time you pee or turning off the shower while you lather up if you’re consuming hamburgers several times a week. Right now, most of the burgers in town are relatively cheap; even if you also order fries and a drink, chances are you’ll still get change back from a $10 bill. But as the drought worsens, it seems inevitable that the cost of meat will rise. McDonald’s will probably rely on low-quality, cheap imported beef, but I can’t see the fancier places (many of which advertise grass-fed, all-natural beef) going that route. Maybe someday, one (I’d settle for one!) of our dozen-plus burger joints will eventually be replaced by an eatery that truly does put vegetables and legumes “front and center.”
According to an IHS Automotive study, the average age of a car on the road in America today is 11.4 years old. A few weeks ago, I would have been one of the drivers pushing that statistic up; our Toyota Prius was purchased in July 2002. I wrote about it here back in November, and what I feared eventually came to pass: the Prius eventually required too many pricey repairs and it was time to give it up. Joe and I decided to donate it to our local animal shelter, which has a deal with an organization that tows it away, sells it at auction, and splits the profits so the charity gets 70% of the take. (We haven’t found out yet how much the car sold for, but considering that the Kelley Blue Book value was south of $3000, I can’t imagine it’ll be a big donation; still, every bit helps, right?)
The guy from the car company came to pick it up at 6:45 AM (I’m not a morning person, but the time was non-negotiable; “I’m coming down from Stockton!”). The plates had been removed, and I’d emptied the car of all of our old maps and canvas grocery bags and expired car wash coupons. (I also found a tiny notebook in which I’d recorded the price of gas back in the summer of ’02: $1.45 a gallon!) I couldn’t bear to watch him put the car on the tow truck and drive it off; late last year, we drove a rental car right behind an AAA truck towing the Prius to our mechanic in Berkeley, and I found it almost heartrendingly poignant. It looked so vulnerable up there somehow. The car had been part of my life for so long; it was super cool and cutting edge back in 2002, but it hadn’t been high tech or trendy for over a decade. Still, we had put over 98,000 miles on the car (so bummed we didn’t make it to 100K!) and it felt sad to let it go.
Our mechanic persuaded me not to buy another hybrid, simply because we don’t drive enough to make it worth the extra cost. The 2015 Corolla we wound up buying does get very good mileage; we had no trouble driving it from the Bay Area up to Ashland, OR (350 miles) last month without stopping to fill the 13-gallon tank. We like the hands-free cell phone feature (just push a button on the steering wheel to answer a call!) and the fact that we can stream podcasts or music directly from our phones with Bluetooth (on the Prius, we had to hook our phones up to a clunky cassette adapter).
Other than that, though, it’s a pretty boring car. It’s what you buy when you want something reliable and relatively inexpensive to get you from point A to point B. I thought that maybe at this point in my life, I’d be driving something cool, but why bother when the vast majority of our trips are to Trader Joe’s, the farmer’s market, the dog park, or my book group? Despite our recent trip to Oregon, I doubt there are tons of exciting road trips in our future; the Prius only left the state once, back in 2006, for a swing through Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.
So far, we haven’t added any personal touches–the Prius had fun personalized plates and a Boston Terrier sticker–and it’s possible that I will never feel as attached to it as I was to the old car. Which is probably for the best. Madison Avenue has persuaded us to spend more than necessary on “cool” vehicles (there was that horrendous Super Bowl commercial with the faux focus group in which a bunch of women said they’d rather have sex with, uh, meet a guy who drives a truck than one who owns, God forbid, a compact), but for many city dwellers, a car represents just one part of our transportation mix. Joe and I both have Clipper (transit) cards, and we deliberately chose to live in a neighborhood where many destinations are accessible on foot. Car-sharing and bike-sharing programs are growing in popularity in dense urban areas. And maybe–just maybe–when it’s time to replace the Corolla, Google will finally have perfected those self-driving cars.
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.
It 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.
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.
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.
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!
“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.
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.
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.
I, 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.
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.”
2. 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.
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