Monday, July 31, 2006

"Mum, Dad -- It's Me, Emma. I Have Something to Tell You . . ."

From this week's Publisher's Weekly:

"Zoe Pagnamenta at PFD NY has just concluded an auction for Emma Brockes's memoir, What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Can Change Your Life. . . . Brockes, a 30-year-old writer at the Guardian in the U.K. who is obsessed with show tunes, will explore the world of musicals through her own story of growing up with a mother who knew all the words to the songs in The Sound of Music and Oklahoma. . . ."

On a related note, I've been thinking for some time now that Ina Garten of The Barefoot Contessa is also a gay man in a woman's body. She is so gay! You have to watch her Food Network show to know what I mean.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Country Cousins

It struck me Monday night that two-stepping, or any partner dance -- or more precisely, getting better at two-stepping or any partner dance -- requires a strange and paradoxical combination of (1) self-confidence and (2) not caring about making a fool of yourself.
Or are those two the same thing? They feel like opposites to me, but I suppose they could be viewed as cousins.

"But they're cousins, identical cousins . . ."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stan -- You da Man

I swear I read this almost 24 hours after writing my last post:

"That editor, called Miranda Priestly, is Meryl Streep, who is white-haired here and, uncomfortable though it is to say so, is disappointing. Never in the course of the film does Miranda raise her voice, whether commanding or dismissing or even grudgingly admitting satisfaction. Apparently Miranda decided early in her career to play against type, to keep the voce very sotto, as a surprise to those who expect a blast and to unnerve victims. But Streep doesn't give us the woman who made that decision, the woman who restrains her impatience and anger with the dolts who inhabit her world. We get no sense from her of that vocal pitch as this woman's calculated method. She is simply soft-voiced."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Forgive Me, Meryl

Okay, it's no big deal. I just thought Meryl Streep made a peculiar choice in The Devil Wears Prada: Instead of playing Miranda Priestly as a cartoon monster, she played her as . . . a cartoon monster on Valium.

What was with that monotone, hushed delivery? Really annoying -- not subtle, not nuanced, and no, please, not Oscar-worthy. Though see if anyone listens to me come January when the nominations are announced.

So her Miranda is more "human" than the character in the book (which I didn't read). She's still pretty near one-dimensional and, frankly, just marginally human. I detested her a lot more than I think I was supposed to, judging from all the fawning press I've read about Streep's performance.

And it is, of course, a mediocre movie.

I normally think Meryl Streep walks on water, but what is she doing playing these cutout characters in so-so movies lately? I felt the same about her Oscar-nominated turn in The Manchurian Candidate a couple of years ago. I kept reading about how much she expressed in her character's ice-crunching. That sounded interesting to me -- I thought it might be some ongoing tick she would "use" in the role.

It turned out she crunched some ice in one scene.

This is the woman who made Sophie's Choice, Manhattan, Kramer vs. Kramer, A Cry in the Dark, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Plenty, Postcards from the Edge, The Bridges of Madison County, The River Wild (yes, I'd include that one) -- all excellent to extraordinary movies.

I haven't seen A Prairie Home Companion yet but have enjoyed her two recent appearances on the PHC radio show to promote it (here and here), so it seems promising -- to me anyway. I know the movie has gotten mixed reviews, and you could argue all of the characters out of Garrison Keillor's head are cartoons, but hey, I'm a fan. And it is Robert Altman. I don't believe the director of The Devil Wears Prada was named Altman.

That's all -- nothing more to see here. Move along.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Feelin' Opinionated

I had a very nice weekend in Massachusetts seeing two plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Contrary to the newspaper review I quoted in my last post, Lucy and the Conquest by Cusi Cram was terrifically enjoyable. The play -- which explores, mostly comically, how one integrates ethnic heritage and family history with one's present life -- is kind of all over the place and not perfect, but I give it very high marks for pure inventiveness and taking chances. The cast was great, especially the lead actress, Jeanine Serralles. (It turns out she was in The Velvet Sky at Washington's Woolly Mammoth earlier this year. I now wish I'd seen that and will keep my eye out for her, though I don't think she's based here.)

Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, starring
Margaret Colin (whom I know I've seen in a sitcom or two over the years) was equally polished, even if I found it to be one of an already talky playwright's talkier works (I hadn't read or seen it before).

Beyond the thrill of seeing a theater company that I've heard so much about over the years, both productions were of a consistently even and professional quality. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but I mean it as the highest.

Maybe it's just me, but one of my pet peeves, which I see way too much of in Washington, is actors who miscalculate the size of the space they're playing in. Most of Washington's theaters are relatively small, yet I repeatedly see at least one actor, sometimes a whole cast, come stomping out, overgesticulating and screaming into a nonexistent upper balcony. That happened this year in both the way overpraised Fat Girl by Neil LaBute at DC's Studio Theatre and the forgettable production of Hedda Gabler at Maryland's Olney Theatre. I hated Edward Albee's mystifyingly Tony Award-winning The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? so much when I saw it at Arena Stage last year -- and I mean I hated the play itself, which was about nothing except its own supposed provocativeness (a married man falls in love with a goat -- oooh, provocative) -- so my memory may be clouded, but I remember some overprojection there, too.

What are these actors and directors thinking? And why don't critics point this flaw out more often? Are they so used to it that they don't notice it anymore? I just don't get it.

The Williamstown productions were perfectly scaled in every way -- a pleasure to see.

I'll blog more about the rest of the weekend later, including (as much as it pains me to say a negative word about her) a contrarian review of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Very Special

My 100th post should be something more momentous than this, but here goes: Tomorrow I'll probably attempt to go back to work. The fluish part of my illness has pretty much subsided, leaving me with just a garden variety coldishness. But the worst is over, and that's a good thing.

Early Friday morning I leave for my getaway in the Berkshires, so it's a very good thing I'm on the mend. I'm taking the train to NYC, and my friend K. will drive from there. Since I last blogged about it, we've added a second play onto the schedule -- figuring that as long as we're going all that way, why not make a real theater weekend out of it? That play, on the second stage, is a world premiere, Lucy and the Conquest. I see tonight that a review in a local newspaper calls it "muddled" and "hyperactive." Oh, boy. We bought tickets before it opened, and I don't regret that. It's an adventure! I don't see any reviews for Sweet Bird of Youth yet.

Here's where we're staying: "a very special place."

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Flu

I have it. Be afraid. I got a flu shot in the fall, too.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

On This Date in History: Special Summertime Twofer!

NPR's Weekend Edition had an interesting interview this morning with Margaret Sartor, author of the new book Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the '70s. The book is the actual text of the rather minimalist diary she kept as a preteen and teenager in the early 1970s: "Wore a halter top today. Bought a new bra." (More excerpts are at the same NPR link as the interview.)

Damn. Who knew I had a publishable book sitting in my desk drawer all these years? Sartor is a couple of years older than me, but I too -- as faithful Mantelpiece readers know -- kept a minimalist diary around roughly the same time. So in honor of this publishing event, it's time for
another On This Date in History -- Twofer Edition!

Sunday, July 15, 1973 [age 11]
We saw the movie
Man of La Mancha today. We all liked it. The reviews I read didn't praise it too much but I liked it. It was a musical.

It was rainy and dull today except for the movie.

Monday, July 15, 1974 {age 12]
We celebrated Dad's birthday today. I gave him the book August 1914. M. gave him the Harvard Lampoon [I meant
National Lampoon] yearbook parody, the girls gave him a shirt. Mommy gave him alpine shorts and two china coffee cups. We had a lazy daisy cake.*

I finished The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. It was a good book but I'm glad to get it out of the way.**


* A standby from my mother's recipe card box. I still make it.

Billy's Mother's Lazy Daisy Cake
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
1 tblsp butter
1 tsp vanilla

5 tblsp brown sugar
3 tblsp cream [I've substituted milk]
3 tblsp butter
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Beat eggs. Add sugar gradually. Beat until fluffy. Sift flour, salt, and baking powder together. Add to egg mixture. Beat thoroughly. Heat milk and butter to boiling point. Add to butter. Add vanilla. Beat slightly. Pour into greased 8x8 cake pan. Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees) about 30 minutes. When done, spread immediately with topping and place under broiler until browned. Topping: Mix ingredients and heat just enough so it is of the right consistency to spread.

** The school I went to had a summer reading list. We were required to read some excellent books (I really did like this one), but it was always an onerous chore to get through them all and, as was usually required as well, keep a journal on them. The second sentence of my "review" would make a funny book-jacket blurb, wouldn't it?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Das Nibelungensplat

This evening as I was walking along L Street on my way to the bus stop, I tripped on something and began a clumsy, utterly hopeless tumble. I remember it feeling like the longest fall -- forward and down, inexorably forward and down -- that I'd ever experienced. I knew it wasn't going to end well, and it seemed I had all the time in the world to dread its conclusion.

This fall had layers. It had chapters, subheadings, footnotes, and bibliography. It was the Long Day's Journey Into Night, the Ring Cycle of public urban pratfalls. If it were a meal, it would have had not only appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert but a cheese course.

I just kept going forward, my hands flung out desperately ahead of me, my bag swinging on my shoulder, my feet bumping along the cement like Fred Flintstone's trying to skid to a stop in his bottomless car.

I finally came to rest in a gully of grayish water between curb and street (it had poured only an hour or so earlier), rush-hour traffic inching by me slowly enough to observe my every move.

I immediately stood up and said, "Goddammit, all that from such a little thing!" (I don't know what I had tripped on, but I knew it was small, and those were the words that came out of my mouth.) A man said, pointing at something on the sidewalk behind me, "It was that [unintelligible]!" At least three people asked if I was all right, one of them from her car.

"I'm fine!" I said. "I'm fine!" and kept walking.

It was then that I noticed my entire right leg was soaking wet, and I had a hole in the knee of my pants (not to mention a skinned knee, just like when I was a kid). They were my favorite pants, though they weren't expensive -- just from Le Gap, of course. (I don't own any expensive clothes, except for that shirt I bought in New York last summer.)

It was a supremely humiliating moment -- especially since I then had to get on the bus looking the way I did. But it also made me think of a routine that Ellen DeGeneres does in her HBO show from a few years back, Here and Now, one of the funniest standup shows I've ever seen in my life. I've watched it three or four times, and my laughter never diminishes. It's so hilarious it hurts. Seriously, if you haven't seen it, see it.

Anyway, she does a bit about those times when we trip in public and then immediately try to cover it up by breaking into a silly, temporary little jog. On stage, she pretends to trip and then imitates her clumsy self saying, "Oh, ha ha -- I just feel like jogging now! . . . Now I'm done! Not jogging anymore -- back to walking. Just wanted to jog for a little bit there, but now I'm done."

Guess you had to be there.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


"I suppose that there are endeavors in which self-confidence is even more important than it is in writing -- tightrope walking comes immediately to mind -- but it's difficult for me to think of anybody producing much writing if his confidence is completely shot. In order to take a crack at the third or fourth draft, you have to hold on to an almost insane belief -- insane in that you can't think of any rational evidence to support it -- that what you're working on, by now stupefyingly boring to you, will be of interest or value to others."

Monday, July 10, 2006

Stepping, Stumbling, Spinning

The dogs have retreated to their other dad's house for a little less than a week this time, so it's my night to begin de-doggifying the apartment: washing sheets, pillowcases, blankets, duvet cover, bathroom rug, dropcloths over couch and armchair (sometimes even the couch's slipcover itself); vacuuming all the rooms; dusting if it's time for that (it is); mopping the kitchen and bathroom floors; tidying up mulch strewn about in the backyard; etc.

It's a good feeling to start fresh and have a clean apartment for at least a few days. When I lived with the dogs and my ex full-time, it was a continually losing battle against dirt and fur and disorder. Sometimes the de-doggifying takes the better part of the week or so they're gone, and by the time I have everything back to its unsullied state, the dogs are back too.

When I wasn't stripping bedding and loading the washer tonight, I was doing reading for the class I teach on Wednesday. I took a brief break from that to practice my two-step footing. It would have been quite a sight for a fly on the wall to see me, in my bare feet, quick-quick-slow-slowing back and forth through my wall-to-wall-carpeted quasi-railroad flat. Truthfully, more than the footing itself, I was practicing two-stepping without thinking about it. I'd like to get to the point where I can carry on a conversation or even enjoy, if not occasionally sing along to, a favorite song without losing step.

Speaking of footing, I'm restarting a condo hunt I put on the back burner last summer when I realized I couldn't afford any place I'd actually want to live in. Then later in the year, it seemed as though the market might be turning in the favor of people like me, and that in fact turned out to be the case as 2006 dawned. Now that my financial situation is slightly stronger, I'm gearing up again. I looked at two places over the weekend. Neither was right for me, but at one of them I bonded with the very nice selling agent over dog talk. I think I'm going to call her this week and see if she'd work with me as my agent. She hinted that she would.

Another reason I gave up the search last year was that I never clicked with my super-successful, mega-wealthy (I saw his house), impatient (albeit perfectly polite) agent, who couldn't seem to be bothered with me. To give you an idea, he never once accompanied me to any of the properties he alerted me to; he either sent his assistant or told me to go look on my own.

I find the whole house-hunting process intimidating -- made more so by the fact that I'm a first-time buyer at my ripe old age. That's a long story that some of you know, and I'm afraid I'm not about to go into it here for those who don't. Not tonight anyway.

I've always referred to myself as a late bloomer. But the flip side of that is that I suppose you could say I'm younger than my years in some ways. That's my spin on it tonight anyway.

Okay, there's no room in my apartment to spin -- even with an imaginary partner -- but I was dancing.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Go, Girl

"I had asked [movie director Sidney Lumet] during one of our first talks why he had given up acting and he had begun a long explanation of how acting was a faggot's career and how he knew that if he was ever going to give a woman a real human relationship, etc., and I had simply jotted down 'too short for acting career.' "

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Questions and Mysteries

My most common thought when the Fourth of July rolls around: Does it ever occur to the morons who set off fireworks in backyards and alleys what they're doing to households with dogs in them?

Of course not. Even though there's no reason these people shouldn't be allowed to have their "fun," I still prefer to think of them as morons. (I classify in much the same way the people who set volume levels in movie theaters showing films that might draw elderly people such as my parents, or who program the "background" music in restaurants that this same demographic occasionally frequents. Have they never had anything like an empathetic, compassionate relationship with old people in their lives?)

My household consists of one dog who cowers under a table or bed at the sound of fireworks and another who BARKS CONSTANTLY while said pyrotechnics are going off. In a futile attempt to foil an auditory sense that I already knew was unfoilable, I blasted Glenn Miller while the three of us hung out in the living room tonight (windows closed, air conditioning on, fireworks still audible). I was reading, and I can't read with any music that contains lyrics -- hence that particular musical choice (although a couple of songs on this CD do have vocals).

What resulted was simply one dog cowering and the other BARKING CONSTANTLY to the accompaniment of "In the Mood" and "String of Pearls" (the latter, by the way, being one of my all-time favorite songs; is it a "song" if it doesn't have words?).


The book I'm reading, and having a hard time putting down (it's been a while since I've had that experience), is Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, a memoir about the suicide of a college classmate of Trillin's and the author's efforts to understand his friend's life and what led him to kill himself. This subject, of course, has some resonance for me in light of the recent suicide of my company's owner (though, as I've noted, I had nothing like a friendship with him). But I also am interested for a couple of other reasons.

One of my students was killed last year after being run over by a Metro train when she "fell" onto the track. I've personally come to believe she committed suicide, although I never would have picked her out as suicidal (isn't that the oldest story in the book?), and that certainly wasn't the official story at the time of her death.

She was one of my favorite students, full of life and humor. The last time I saw her was a couple of months before she died, when I gave her a ride home after our last class of the fall session. As she said good night, she told me how much she was looking forward to the winter session.

She died while on her way to the first class of the winter. Or rather, I was told she was on her way to the class, then felt sick and got off the train to switch sides and return home (a new home she'd moved into with her partner only days earlier); that's when the "accident" occurred.

I later visited the Metro station where it happened out of a nagging, haunting brand of curiosity, and it's hard to imagine how one could accidentally fall onto the track, unless one passed out -- which is possible, I guess. I also found out sometime later that she had suffered from serious depression; I never saw any of that.

The other reason I'm interested in Remembering Denny is that the subject of my slow-as-molasses biography project (it may be slow, but it is underway) also committed suicide and, like Calvin Trillin's friend Denny Hansen, had phenomenal talent and promise that, it turned out, she was ill equipped to deal with emotionally.

Both stories are also stories of their times -- Denny's the mid-1950s, when he came of age; my subject's the mid-1960s, when she had her first success -- and of their subcultures: in Denny's case, Yale; in the case of my subject, Hollywood.

A big part of what fascinates me so much about her life is the puzzle of what led to her tragic end. Although Trillin's book takes a different approach than I would be able to (he knew his subject), I'm finding it to be inspiring as well as gripping.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Tennessee in Massachusetts

I'm acutely aware that I have not been blogging much lately. What can I say? I feel scattered, busy, unfocused, pulled in many directions these days. I wanted to blog today, and now here it is midnight once again and I cannot stay up much later. (Although I may not have much choice in the matter: I took an early-evening nap today -- I manage to find time to nap about once every six months or so -- and that may mean that I won't be able to fall asleep tonight.)

I spent much of the evening looking into lodging options in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. I'm going to do one of the things I've always wanted to do three weeks from now: go see a play at the Willamstown Theatre Festival. I'll be going for the weekend with my college friend K. He's a big old theater queen, so he's the first one I thought of when I got the idea to check one of my to-do-before-I-die excursions off my list this summer.

The last time I was in New York for more than a day, he and I saw the Tony Kushner musical Caroline, or Change (which happens to be playing at Washington's Studio Theatre right now and which I highly recommend -- I haven't seen this production, but it's gotten great reviews). The last time he was in Washington, we saw The Glass Menagerie, starring Sally Field, whose performance I really, really liked! ;) Seriously, it was one of the most memorable theater experiences I've ever had. I feel lucky to be able to say I saw "Sally Field's Amanda Wingfield."

In Williamstown, K. and I will be seeing another Tennessee Williams play, Sweet Bird of Youth.

More later! Bed now.