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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hurricane Irene: the aftermath


Hurricane Irene was only a tropical storm by the time she reached Rhode Island. She was very noisy, however; she fairly howled around the windows for a couple of hours on Sunday. We tried to ignore her; we watched television a bit (we were lucky to keep our electricity; a lot of people in the area lost theirs), and then I read and napped for a couple of hours.



(I think disasters make me physically ill. I was queasy on the day of the earthquake a few days earlier; now, with Irene roaring and trumpeting around the house, I felt achy and tired. As a kid, I loved storms. Now I just wanted this to be over.)



By four o'clock or so the rain and wind had (mostly) stopped. Partner suggested a walk, and I was only too avid to get out of the house. The skies were cloudy but bright, and there was a fresh cool breeze blowing. Everything felt different. Masses of leaves had been torn down from the trees; small branches and twigs lay everywhere in the streets and on the sidewalks and lawns. We didn't walk far before we found our first downed tree: a big sycamore. (Why do they have such shallow roots? Are they chumps, for god's sake?)



Most of the damage was obvious, once we looked more closely: rotting branches, badly-pruned trees, isolated trees in unprotected areas. We did come across a small area on Blackstone Boulevard that might have experienced a microburst: two or three large trees torn out of the ground and a lot of downed branches in a very small area. I was sorry to see some of the big tulip poplars on the Boulevard had lost lots of their upper branches, and the wind had brought down whole handfuls of their graceful-looking flower buds. (Liriodendron tulipifera, the tulip poplar, is the most amazing tree: everything about it is remarkably beautiful, from its manner of growth to its flowers to its big mitten-shaped leaves. I hate seeing these trees damaged. But then, I have a weakness for beautiful things. I see a miserable little dogwood missing a couple of branches, and I sneer: Who cares?)



Lots of wires were down. We saw a cop driving lazily through the neighborhood; every so often he'd stop and take photos of a downed wire or an especially large downed branch or tree.



By this time everyone was out walking. This, of course, despite the fact that we'd been warned repeatedly by TV personalities not to go out walking, that there were still dangers everywhere, weakened branches waiting to fall on our heads, treetrunks waiting to collapse right on top of us . . .



Example: Partner's sister, up in Massachusetts, was out walking the dog on the day of the storm. She was bathrooming it under her neighbor's tree (get that?) when she heard the trunk creaking. Time to go, she thought. Half an hour later, safe at home, she heard a creak and a crash, and ran to the window to see that tree fall on top of the neighbor's house and both of his cars.



Example: A Brown shuttle driver told me that he'd been driving past the small park on South Main Street at eight o'clock on the morning after the storm, and had seen only a few branches down. He made his forty-five minute loop, and came back around . . . And a huge tree had in the meantime split in half and fallen all the way across South Main, blocking almost the entire road. Get that? Sixteen hours after the storm was over.



But the weather that followed the storm was fresh and almost cool, and there was dew on the grass that next morning.



What hurricane?



Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The persistence of life




Back in the early 1990s, two apartments ago, I ordered a Pereskia aculeata from an exotic-plant catalog. The catalog picture showed lavish green leaves and big exotic-looking flowers. According to the listing, Pereskia was a primitive cactus, with normal-looking leaves, but with spines, and with the same water-hoarding habits as other members of the Cactaceae family. And then there were those big beautiful white flowers.



My order arrived in the mail. The Pereskia was -



A stick. With maybe three leaves on it.



I stuck it in a pot, with some fertilizer and lots of good wishes.



It lost one leaf, then two. It just sat there for a very long time – a couple of months, actually. I nearly threw it away several times.



Then it showed some activity.



That was twenty years ago, and much activity has occurred in the meantime. There are now potted descendants of that damned twig all over New England and the Northeast.



The original still lives here at home with me. It's a weed! The catalog didn't tell me that. It's a nasty twining thorny nuisance in the Caribbean and elsewhere. I've never yet had it bloom, anywhere. It sprouts, and flourishes, and spins long ropelike spiny nooses that ruin the curtains and growl at me when I get too close. One in a while my original Pereskia leaps at me from the windowsill and tries to kill me with its spines. It did that just the other day, in fact.



But just look what it did it my office.



I brought a small inoffensive-looking shoot into the office, and I set it on my windowsill, and watered it weekly. It blinked at me shyly, and took one look at the nearby cord for the Venetian blinds, and it jumped.



Two years ago I noticed it was actually climbing the cord. Fine, I thought. That's a fool's errand. See how high you get. The ceilings in my office are ten or eleven feet high, or more.



To my utter disbelief, the vine made it all the way up the cord.



And now – as you can see in the photo above - it's on my ceiling, making itself at home.



Some scientists believe that life doesn't need an especially friendly climate to survive. All it needs is something to cling to.



Well, scientists: I think I have some data for you.



Life (at least in my neighborhood) does whatever it has to do to survive.



Life finds a way.



(Next question: is it going to work its way back down again?)



Monday, August 29, 2011

I am Yin


I was born in the year of the Fire Rooster, according to the Chinese calendar. I am supposed to be perverse, and loudmouthed, and angry, and constantly bragging.



I suppose I am all of these things. I think medication has helped me keep my brassier character traits to a bearable minimum.



But often I find myself portraying: the caretaker. The mother. The receiver. The encourager.



In short: I am Yin.



Not long ago, we had a kind of Cleaning Day in the office. I was actually in charge of it. This was intensely difficult for me, because I hoard everything. People come to me for everything: aspirin, shovels, Swiffers, signatures, official forms. I peacefully receive and store (or stack, or just sort of throw aside) things of all descriptions.



So I watched people throwing things away, and once in a while I'd dart in, unseen, shrouded in occult darkness, and snatch up the things they were throwing away.



Because you just never know when a cookie sheet, or a teddy bear, or a leatherette luggage tag, might be really useful.



Flickering through my head all day was a Simpsons line, spoken by Mr. Burns: “Smithers, once again you have been the soothing Yin to my furious Yang.”



Let me tell you something: the Yang of the world is furious indeed.



But I do my best to cool it.



And the most encouraging thing happened recently:



My student assistant Noah, a huge varsity football player, overheard me tell someone that I was Yin. He rose to his feet, and let me tell you, he is impressive when he stands up. And he said, not loudly, but firmly: “You listen to him! He's Yin! And he's my boss! So you better listen to what he says!”



And I said, peacefully and in a very Yin manner, to my colleague: “You see? I'm Yin. And I have a bodyguard. So huh.”



You see?



I am Yin, the gentle and receptive.



Do as I say, or  I will have Noah muss you up.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday blog: Storm warning



Guess what Partner and I are doing today!  



Hiding under the kitchen table with our stuffed animals, of course, and eating tuna right out of the can, and waiting for the Big Storm to go away and leave us alone.



If you'd like to participate in the experience, just get under your own kitchen table, grab a stuffed animal, open some tuna, click on the following file, and close your eyes . . .


Wind-Mark_DiAngelo-1940285615.mp3 Listen on Posterous




Saturday, August 27, 2011

And suddenly it's autumn


Partner is sick and tired of hearing me declare that, in Rhode Island, on August 15 (or thereabouts), we change to autumn.



Except that it's always true.



I mean: I see his point.  Here it is almost two weeks later, and we're sitting here sweltering with the air conditioners on, waiting for a hurricane to pass over in the next 48 hours.



But the August 15 thing never fails. Never. There's a slight drop in the temperature and humidity, and a few drops of dew on the grass in the morning. And I hear the crickets, at morning and dusk. And the light is altogether different, for god's sake! Duskier. More autumnal.



It's a month after the solstice, so of course there's bound to be a change. The evenings are definitely darker. No more twilight until nine o'clock; it's dark, or almost, by eight o'clock now.



None too soon for me, kiddos. I hate the humid unsettled New England summer, all stormclouds and warm fronts. I long for the cool calm sunny weather of September and (better yet) October, which are easily New England's best months.



But so many New Englanders are summer-worshippers! They hate the thunderstorms and humidity as much as I do, but they love summer. Just because.



Well, I don't. It's a pain. I hate sweating through my shirt. I hate looking out the window and seeing a bruise-colored sky. Or brassy angry one-hundred-degree sunshine. Or waiting for another bloody Atlantic hurricane to maybe-or-maybe-not come ashore.



I long for the beautiful colorful New England autumn, and the calm passage into winter.



New England winter itself is a bitch.



But we can talk about that a few months from now, after I've fractured my spine by slipping on an icy sidewalk.



Friday, August 26, 2011



At a certain age we lose our self-consciousness about our bodies.  Just yesterday I was having a quiet conversation with the driver of our campus shuttle-bus as we were trundling between campus locations; I don't know how we got on the subject, but for some reason he mentioned that he has a colonoscopy scheduled for next week.  "I think I'm gonna cancel it," he said.  "Who cares?  I'm seventy-three. What's the worst that could happen?"

I tsked.  "You never know what's in there."

He shrugged.  "Who cares what's in there?"

All at once I realized that the girl sitting across the aisle from me - probably a medical student - was staring at both of us with complete incredulity.  

Just because two old men were having a casual conversation about having themselves probed!

I have had for the past few months a stubborn little inflamed patch on one of my fingernails. The doctor confirmed that it was - ew - fungus. “It usually goes away by itself,” he said. “And the medications don't work all that well. And it doesn't usually spread from finger to finger, so I wouldn't worry about it.”

But it's not terribly attractive.

I'd seen a number of ads on TV for various products, and thought I'd try one, so I went trooping off to CVS.

While there, I realized that lately I've been having, um, tummy trouble. The tummy-trouble aisle is quite extensive, and has just about everything you can think of: pills, gadgets, drops – um – other things . . .

I made my selections and took them up to the cheerful smiling girl at the cash register, who knows me by sight because I go there frequently.

And she looked down at my fungus medication, and my tummy-trouble apparatus, and -

I give her credit for professionalism: not once did she flinch. She bagged my items very quickly, however, as if she wanted them out of her sight, and me too.

But her smile never wavered.

She is a tough little cookie.

Thank goodness she didn't have to call for a price check on anything,

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Come on, Irene


Irene is a pretty name, don't you think? I think I had a cousin Irene a long time ago. The name means “peace” in Greek.



So now there's this super-fabulous hurricane zinging around in the Caribbean and Atlantic, also named Irene. It appears to have its little heart set on coming up north, to visit us Rhode Island folks.



Oh, goody.



Partner and I did not go grocery shopping last weekend, and it suddenly dawned on us that, if we waited much longer this week, the stores would be stampeded by panicky milk-bread-and-batteries customers, so we went last night. Partner struck up a conversation with the bagboy. “You must be expecting a lot more customers later in the week, as the hurricane gets closer,” he said.



Bagboy looked blank. “There's supposed to be a hurricane?” he said. Bless his heart, Irene could probably barrel right through his living room, and Bagboy would probably not notice.



We have not had a good hurricane since Bob, twenty years ago this month. Bob put out the lights in much of Rhode Island for most of a week. Providence got a little flooding, but not too much. Before that, of course, there was the mighty Hurricane of 1938 (back before we gave them cunning little names like Basil and Withnail and Hermione), which flooded the city to a depth of six feet (there are still little brass markers on the buildings downtown, showing the depth of the water), and tore apart much of inland New England.



We don't get 'em often, but we like to do 'em right.



Well, Partner and I have shopped, so we're all set. I've got my liquor and my canned sardines packed in Louisiana hot sauce; Partner has his tuna fish and Italian wedding soup and pitted olives.



As long as we don't lose our can opener, we're all set for a lovely hurricane.




Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Great Earthquake of 2011


I was in a meeting yesterday afternoon when the woman sitting next to me became very still. “My chair is shaking,” she said. “Do you feel anything?”



We all became still at that point. My knee was resting against the desk in front of me, and I could feel a faint unnatural tremble. Then someone else said, “Look at the plant!” We all turned, and the little potted palm sitting in the corner was trembling like – well, like a leaf.



Then it stopped. The first person hmphed. “That was an earthquake,” she said. “I really believe that was an earthquake.”



Indeed it was. We all spent the rest of the day regaling one another with where-were-you? stories. Also, since I love being the first with news of any kind, I kept saying to people, “So did you feel anything half an hour ago?” and was continually delighted when they said, “Nothing. Why?”



Seriously, as natural disasters go, this was right up there with a light dusting of snow or a half-inch of rainfall. One of my coworkers said her sister in Pittsburgh called her to say that her kitchen cabinets kept opening and closing eerily by themselves. Someone else said she heard the building windows snapping and popping, as if they wanted to bust free from their frames. In the last analysis, though, we all seem to have made it through the experience alive.



(My favorite earthquake memory is from when I was very small – maybe four years old – out in Washington state. My family and I were all sitting in the living room, and suddenly everything in the place began to bounce and leap around; I fell off the couch, landed on the floor, and just kept bouncing as the floor shook. I remember laughing with glee, as I thought it was great fun, until I realized that everyone else in the room was screaming and panicking.)



The best reaction yesterday came from Giovanni, the operator of a document-destruction truck, who came by my office around 2:30. He was short, dark, hair moussed into a faux-Mohawk, funny lively eyes, and kept shaking my hand at the drop of a hat. I was showing him around the building and asked him if he'd felt the earthquake. He became very serious. “No suh!” he said. “When? I love that stuff. I watch the History Channel all the time, you know? And this stuff is history. Was there any damage?”



“Some,” I said. “Not much.”



History,” he repeated solemnly.



History indeed. The earth moved, and we were all there, and we lived to tell the tale.



And tell it over, and over, and over again.



And isn't that the best kind of history?



Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Fan fiction


I think one of the great by-creations of the Internet has been the proliferation of fan fiction. It allows fans to pay homage to their favorite movies and books and TV shows by creating new versions of them. Porn versions of “Mary Tyler Moore.” Pirate versions of “Twilight.” Gay versions of “Harry Potter.”



My goofy friend Apollonia, the #1 Twilight fan in the world, subsists on fan fiction. After all, once you've read all four Twilight novels, and while you're waiting for the godlike Robert Pattinson to complete the movie cycle, what do you do? If you're Apollonia, you read fan fiction. “There's one,” she told me breathlessly, “where Edward has Bella trapped, and he just drains her a little bit at a time, and he's in love with her, but she's - “



I will not complete that sentence. Dis – gus – ting.



But I do understand.



I saw an entry on recently about Harry Potter. I'm not the biggest Potterite in the world, but I respect J. K. immensely; I own all 300 pounds of her work, mostly in hard cover.  She recently released a tease that seemed to indicate she was writing more wizard-related material, and then it turned out it was just some bits and pieces to be released on the Net.  



And the world pants for more.



Anyway: so we know that Hogwarts was founded by four wizards, right? A long time ago, right? And there was conflict between the four of them, right?



This would be an awesome movie, right?



The Tumblr people even cast it! Rachel Weisz as Helga Hufflepuff, and Michael Fassbender (the handsome somber young Magneto in the most recent X-Men movie) as Salazar Slytherin . . .



To quote Gene Wilder in “Young Frankenstein”:



"It! Could! Work!"



Are you listening, J. K.?



Monday, August 22, 2011



The Pacific Northwest, where I grew up, is motherland for slugs of all sizes. The commonest in my particular neighborhood were Ariolimax columbianus, which some people call “banana slugs”; they're about the size of a small banana, they're yellow/brown with dark spots, and they glisten in the sun. See the above photo if you're not familiar with them.



They also turn into little mounds of foam if you pour salt on them.



We imported little brown slugs from my Grandma Boitano's house one summer when she gave us some plants. These we called “Italian slugs,” because we called everything that Grandma gave us “Italian.” Italian slugs were a little more durable than their banana cousins, but salt did the trick on them too, eventually.



I am given to understand that, up in the wilds of British Columbia, our friend Ariolimax can grow up to foot long, and can engulf a small animal, given enough time, and given that the animal stays very very still. I'd like to see that.



My favorite slug story is that of my school friend Kate. She has a dim recollection of toddling through the garden with something clutched in her hand, and her mother yelling, “Spit it out! Spit it out!”



The thing in her hand was a banana slug.



No, I'm sorry: I meant to say half of a banana slug.



Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday blog: "Dead," by They Might Be Giants



Lately I have written a lot about growing old, and about death.  



So let us have a nice song about it.


"Now it's over: I'm dead and I haven't done anything that I want.

Or I'm still alive, and there's nothing I want to do."


05_Dead.m4a Listen on Posterous




Saturday, August 20, 2011

Preparing for the end


A lot of my friends have told me that, when it comes to be their time, they want to die in their sleep. “I don't want to know about it,” one of them said. “I can't do anything about it, can I?”



Well, hm.



I like what Rue McLanahan said as Vivian on “Maude” a long time ago: “When it's time for me to die, I'm just going to be somewhere else.”



This is a good plan, but I don't think it would actually work.



Some of my friends have said, much more specifically, that they want to be spared the knowledge that death is coming for them: they don't want a bad diagnosis, or a wonky heart that might go kaboom at any moment, or a nasty lingering complaint that just keeps picking away at you until you give up and lie down and die. They don't want those months or years of misery, waiting for Mister Reaper.



But we are having those years right now, n'est-ce pas? I predict, with absolute certainty, that you will die, and so will I, at some point in the (indeterminate) future.



There! Just like a doctor might have told you.



Now: what are you going to do about it?



I have watched friends and family members go down the road to death:



Mom was nine years from diagnosis to death: for more than eight of those years, she kept active and vital and managed to get some enjoyment out of life.



My sister Darlene, who had six years from diagnosis to death, spent her time taking care of neighbors' kids and cooking and gardening and doing everything she could think of. She was never my favorite person, but you know what? She spent her last few years nobly and profitably. Good for her.



Dad had less than a year. His cancer wasn't diagnosed until late, because he'd ignored the pain inside him – he thought it was his hernia. Diagnosed in October, died in May. Miserable most of that time. Tried radiation therapy, but it was 1975, and radiation therapy in those days was primitive and humiliating and painful.



My friend Bob caught the flu in 1992. It never quite went away. Then he began to lose weight. Then came the HIV diagnosis. He wasn't surprised: his partner back in New York had been HIV+, so Bob had always assumed he was positive too, without being tested. He lasted about three years (he died within a month of the death of my sister Susan, about whom I will tell you later). He got tired a lot, and depressed a lot, but he was still funny and smart and outrageous most of the time.



Oh, yes, my sister Susan. She was diagnosed soon after Mom, also with ovarian cancer, but Susan's cancer was very aggressive. She lasted three years.



She spent those three years living.



I visited her about a month before her death. She had just come home from coffin-shopping. We'd be talking, and she'd be picking through her closet, or her jewelry-box, looking for – guess what? - the right outfit for her funeral. “I don't want them to worry about it,” she said. “I can take care of a lot of that now. Then they won't have to worry. They'll have other things on their mind.”



I can't tell you all about Susan here; there's not enough room.



But, more than any other person in my life, Susan taught me how to think about death.



I hope, when my time comes, I can be as brave and tough as she was.



Friday, August 19, 2011

Sir David Tang


I subscribe to the Financial Times.  This is mostly for the crossword puzzle. I like reading about finance and economics too, however; I know I'll never really understand them, but I'm a masochist and enjoy banging my head against them sometimes.



The FT has wonderful features, especially in the weekend issue. I have already written about the column written by Tyler Brule, the gay Canadian entrepreneur of French / Estonian descent who edits the magazine “Monocle.” (If you've heard of "Monocle," award yourself several thousand snob points.)



Another more recent addition is a column called “The Agony Uncle,” by a Chinese entrepreneur / kajillionaire named Sir David Tang.



I never miss reading him.



“Agony aunts,” for you Americans, are the British equivalent of our “advice columnists” like Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers. This column of Sir David's, however, is not very much like theirs. People ask the most peculiar questions, like: Can I steal the stationery when I stay as a guest in a royal residence? How can I tell my houseguests that I want them to leave? Where can I get sunglasses like yours?



And Sir David answers them, with ponderous authority and dry humor.



Recently someone asked how to mask the fact that one has just farted in public.



Sir David's solution to the problem is perfect, and I will be sure to use it in future.



While you're in the act of farting, just turn to the person closest to you and shout “Stop it!”



You won't find advice like that in your local paper.



Thursday, August 18, 2011

"The A-List: New York," season two


I don't know if you saw the first season of “The A-List: New York.” If you didn't, here's the series in a few words: it's a group of gay men in Manhattan with too much time on their hands and altogether too much attitude. It's just another “Real Housewives,” in the last analysis.



But then again, no it ain't.



Just as with “Housewives,” it's all about the personalities. We have Reichen, big and nice-looking and very self-important, who's very talented, except that – then again – no he's not. He's certainly no actor; he's certainly no singer. His great accomplishment is that he won “The Amazing Race” a few years ago, which ain't nothing, but then again . . . But he has tons of self-confidence. There's Austin, a smirky pudgy little former male model who likes making trouble. And Rodiney, the painfully handsome Brazilian model who's in a very unsteady relationship with Reichen. And Mike Ruiz, who's actually a moderately successful professional photographer, and who's a bit older than the others; the series doesn't use him as much, because he seems to be less likely to make a fool of himself in public. And TJ, and the blond one, and the other one.



We watch them drink, and backbite, and infight, and gossip, and cry.



What's not to love?



Season Two just began in late July, and we are once again mesmerized. The Times recently ran a funny article about how this show is the guilty secret of gay men all over the country: it's awful, the people are awful, the behavior is awful, the situations are contrived – but we're all watching. My friend Tab is entranced, as are Partner and I, but Tab's boyfriend forbids him to watch. But somehow, deviously, he manages it anyway.



My favorite bit in the NYT article was the observation that these guys are not A-list by any reasonable definition of the term. They're comfortable, perhaps even affluent, but they're not celebrities. (The show has probably propelled them to a kind of pseudo-stardom far beyond anything they've enjoyed before. Partner and I saw Reichen's face in the poster for “My Big Gay Italian Wedding” when we were last in New York – we are talking off off off Broadway – but we knew from the TV show that he sings like your Uncle Sidney, so we gave it a pass.)  If you ask the guys on the show, however, they will assure you that they are A-list. “A,” Reichen pontificates, “is for Achievement.”



And for Absolute Assurance, and for Absolutely Absurd, and for Abysmally Awful.



And, maybe, Amazingly Awesome.



I'm not just watching these shows. I'm recording them.



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New horizons in gerontology


There was an article in the Financial Times recently about something called “the old suit”: an outfit cobbled together out of heavy dungarees and oven mitts and kneepads and yellow goggles. When you put it on, you feel old. You can't dial a phone very well. Your vision is dim. You have a hard time climbing stairs.



Well, huh.



I'm already old. I feel a pang in my knee that wasn't there a few months ago. I wear false teeth. My glasses have been Coke-bottle thick for a long time now. I am a pantaloon, in the purest Commedia dell'Arte sense of the word: an old man in baggy clothes, trying to tell people what to do, and having little temper fits when they don't do it (and even sometimes when they do).



It is interesting and a little pathetic, growing old. It's especially interesting when you work at a university, as I do, and have young adults – late teens, early twenties – around you. I hire them sometimes to work around the office, and I am invariably enthralled by them, and invariably feel very parental of them. They are sweet and innocent and just about to leap into the abyss, and I want so badly to warn them.



I recall, however, that when I was that age, I hated advice.



So I try to deliver the information to them in coded form. For example: I might groan softly as I pass the front-desk area. “What's the matter?” Noah asks.




“Nothing,” I say, with just a hint of a stifled sob. “Joint pain. It happens. You'll see.”



Noah is a football player, and very young and big and healthy. So: it is very important that he receive this information.



He needs to know (as I did, at his age) that nothing lasts forever, not even youth.


But he won't listen.


Because I certainly didn't.



Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Movie review: "The Help"


On Friday night, Partner and I saw “The Help.” My goodness, what a crowd at the theater! We sat in the second row, so that we were staring up vertically at the screen, and let me tell you, when you're watching a movie about a skewed society, a skewed viewpoint is actually not a bad thing.



The movie is set in 1963 Mississippi, and things are not good. Like Oz, the place is run by snooty white women; some of them, like Glinda, are good and nice and well-meaning, and some, like the Wicked Witch (well, green skin is almost the same as white skin) are very mean indeed. Then you have the underclass, who (like Munchkins) work and slave, raise the children, cook the meals, and generally get kicked around and abused a lot.



It's a traditional story in one sense: by the end of the movie, the good characters have done good things, and the bad characters have been (to some extent) discomfited. At least one “bad” character redeems herself; at least one “good” character turns out to be a jerk.



Also: it's one of those Southern-gothic stories. The South is the American version of Transylvania: writers and moviemakers can make anything happen there.



But the performers make the story work. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, as two indefatigable maids – one dutiful, the other wry – are just amazing; their faces alone, as they react to the casual slurs thrown at them on an average day, are compelling. Emma Stone, as a well-meaning local girl who wants to be a journalist, and who finds a much bigger story than she'd bargained for, is fun to watch, and easy to sympathize with. Allison Janney as her mother is alternately painful and charming. Cicely Tyson has two wonderful scenes. Sissy Spacek, as the mother of the main villainess, is charmingly vague and suddenly sharp, and always a welcome guest. And one of my favorite gay character actors, Leslie Jordan, as the editor of the Jackson Journal, is funny as always – and I had no idea he could do a cartwheel!



For a moment, toward the end of the movie, it looks like Peace, Love, and Understanding are breaking out all over the place, and I was afraid for a moment that every single civil-rights problem was going to be solved by Christmas 1964. Then there's one last scene (I won't spoil it for you) showing that the problems will go on forever, and so will the people who struggle against them.



This film was executive-produced by Nate Berkus, and you know we gay folk like to look after our own.



So go see it. It will bring you a laugh and a tear.



Monday, August 15, 2011

Movies we love to hate: the readers respond!


I've gotten lots of responses to my recent blogs about movies we love to hate. This is a wonderful thing, because I can just sit back and smoke my Virginia Slim and let other people do the writing for me.



And, my goodness, my friends and relatves and acquaintances certainly write well!



First: the redoubtable Apollonia, with two additions to the list:



"'Airport 1975.' This one has it all – Chuck Heston as the chauvinistic pilot-boyfriend of cross-eyed stewardess Karen Black; Helen Reddy as Sister Ruth and Linda Blair as a sick child en route to medical care; George Kennedy in a miscast leading man role as airport boss, Joe Patroni. This bomb is one of those “who’s in Hollywood and available for a cameo” movies. Myrna Loy and Gloria Swanson should be ashamed. There’s a yummy scene in which Karen Black ramps up the histrionics with a bit of tongue – just to show the level of her concentration – as she tries to grab hold of the tether attached to the pilot they are trying to lower midair into the damaged 747. Ecstasy to watch! The only thing saving this puff from being a complete waste of time is the comic relief of Larry Storch and Sid Caesar.”



[Editor's comment: I'd forgotten Larry Storch was in it. Now I have to watch it again, if only to glory in His Storchness.]



Back to Apollonia:

No list would be complete without 'The Conqueror.' This one is on everyone’s 'best of the worst' list and has it all: John Wayne in a Fu Manchu ‘stache and Oriental makeup, Agnes Moorehead as his mother, and Susan Hayward as a flamingly redheaded Tartar princess. The ridiculous dialogue and Temujin’s lines are a howl – even more so delivered woodenly by Wayne to Hayward in his slow drawl: “Dance for me, Tartar woman!” If I remember correctly [Editor's note: and she does!], in one scene Hayward threatens to decapitate Wayne with a sword. Of course, for a Mongol that’s a declaration of love and seals the deal for Temujin, who then utters the immortal line: “We-el, you’re beautiful in your wrath.” Good stuff . . . .”



[Editor's note: I'm sorry I didn't think of “The Conqueror” for my original list. The only important detail Apollonia left out was that, while the movie was being filmed in Utah, the military were conducting A-bomb tests nearby. And what do you know? Just about everybody involved with the film died of cancer over the next ten or fifteen years.]



Now to another correspondent: my nephew Bjorn in Oregon. Bjorn (what can I tell you? He's part Swedish, and he looks just like me, if I were part-Swedish and six inches taller and fifteen years younger) contributes this:



'Let's Go To Prison.' The concept of going to prison, learning how to make toilet wine, and turning it into a career . . . priceless! Also: 'Idiocracy.' As my former employee Ryan said: 'Two hours I'll never get back.' This is a future world in which people have names like 'Velveeta' and 'Frito' and 'Beef Supreme,' and you can buy a law degree from Costco, or go to Starbucks and get a latte with full release. I mean: who wouldn't want to live there?”



[Editor's note: I had no idea my nephew Bjorn felt so strongly and deeply about the movies of Dax Shepard! As far as I'm concerned, however, “Idiocracy” is a pretty funny movie, and, as far as I'm concerned, a funny comedy is not a bad movie at all. “Let's Go To Prison,” on the other hand . . . meh. I have an aversion to Will Arnett. He looks shiny and soulless, like the advanced-version Terminator played by Robert Patrick. For me, “Let's Go To Prison” is a bad bad movie (toilet wine notwithstanding): not worth watching. Although Dax Shepard is sort of cute.]



Let me add one of my own favorites:



Casino Royale.” No, not the modern version, with Daniel Craig and his rippling abs; the 1967 version, with David Niven and Woody Allen and Peter Sellers and Orson Welles. They tried to do a James Bond movie as a comedy! And it's funny for all the wrong reasons. It's too long. It's completely inexplicable.  It has the air of being made up as it goes along. It has some very funny performances, though: Deborah Kerr as a SMERSH agent masquerading as M's widow in Scotland, with the worst Scottish accent you've ever heard, but who speaks excellent French (apparently her real name is “Mimi”); Woody Allen as Little Jimmy Bond, who ends up being the villain; and Peter Sellers as a schnook who ends up being James Bond.



As one of the drag queens in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” says, standing on the top of Ayers Rock: It never ends, does it?



No, it never does.



Comments, as always, are welcome.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sunday blog: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sing "Heat Wave"


Here's a song for late summer.



I love this song. I love Martha's voice, and the back-and forth between Martha and the backup singers, and the choreography, and the boppy rhythm.



And the hair! And the dresses!





Saturday, August 13, 2011

Economics for dummies


Economics has never been my strong point. I still don't understand a lot of the jargon and concepts.

But, if you watch CNBC, you'll quickly see that an understanding of economics isn't really necessary. As with political programming, it's really all about the screaming.

With sound effects, yet, if you're Jim Cramer. (Actually, Cramer seems to have sobered up a bit; he still does the “booyah” routine, but the carnival sound-effects board with mooing and yelling and oinking seems to have gone by the wayside. Can it be? Can our boy Jim have grown up, a little?

Nah. I think he just had a talking-to by some folks at the network.)

CNBC features stentorian ranters like Larry Kudlow, for whom capitalism is sacrosanct, and who can't say President Obama's name without a sneer. They have Joe Kernan of “Squawk Box,” sort of a minor-league Chris Matthews, who likes to hoot and mock and talk over other people. Most chillingly of all, they have Rick Santelli, who reports from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and who snorts and spins and shrieks and waves his hands in the air. In case you're not familiar with his work, Santelli credits himself (and is credited by others) with helping to found the Tea Party, with a famous / infamous on-air rant. Rick continues to fly into rages and make speeches on the air, hoping for another through-the-roof YouTube success; he did one the other day, in which he compared himself to the Founding Fathers standing up to King George. (Honestly, you can't make this stuff up.)

(To be fair, the whole hyperactively angry thing probably made Rick Santelli very successful in business; trading is notoriously competitive, and I'm sure it's an advantage to be bouncier and crazier than the other guy. On the air, however, these things don't make you a journalist; they makes you a clown.  They certainly don't make you a peer of the Founding Fathers.)

CNBC also has the pretty ones: Carl Quintanilla, Maria Bartiromo. These are mostly memorable for their fresh complexions. They seldom have anything deep to say. They ask questions that seem thoughtful and probing, but I wonder sometimes who writes these questions.

But – and here's the thing – most of these “journalists,” the pretty ones and the howlers and the sneerers, make the most howlingly ridiculous statements on a daily basis.

For example: stupid generalizations and truisms. “Markets always fluctuate.” Hell, I barely passed Econ 101, and I could have told you that.

Also: I know the difference between macroeconomics and microeconomics. Macro is the economy as a whole; micro is economics as it applies to a family, or to a business. They are vastly different.

Then why do these CNBC people treat them as the same thing?

Debt, for example. For a family, and for a business, it 's a problem. For a sovereign nation, less so. Countries can print money. I certainly can't. Countries can manipulate interest rates. Can you do that? I can't.

But the Kudlows and Kernans speak as if the rules that govern the national economy are the same that govern you and me.

So: are they experts, or idiots, or wannabe demagogues?

I don't know. It's like watching Spongebob. It's very unreal.

At least Spongebob is cute and well-meaning.

Because, I tell you frankly, these guys aren't.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Movies we love to hate, part one


Augusta, my movie-buff friend, suggested that I put together a list of shameful pleasures: movies that we love to mock.



I'm all about that kind of thing.



But first, some ground rules. These movies are terrible: agreed. But they are also watchable, and earnest, and funny, and absorbing. They keep you riveted, right up to their ridiculous conclusions.  



Hey: sometimes there's a joy in ridiculousness. These movies are the ugly puppies in the litter. And who doesn't feel a tug at his heart when he looks at the sweet little ugly puppy?



I won't call them “bad movies,” because bad movies are just – forgettable. These are unforgettable.



I'll lead with Augusta's two suggestions, both of which are perfect.



First: “White Christmas.” Based on an earlier, better film called “Holiday Inn,” which is entertaining and brisk in every way. “White Christmas” is just ponderous. It's Bing Crosby, and Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, in an overloaded plot about show business and a failing Vermont inn and a retired general . . . Oh, please. But it has some of the silliest and most wonderful musical numbers, like Danny Kaye's “Choreography,” and “Sisters.” And one of the most trivial songs Bing ever crooned: “What Can You Do With a General?” Also, one of the most overhyped (although I sort of teared up when I was watching this clip): the title number. This movie makes me shiver with pleasure and agony. And I never miss it when it's on TV.



And second: “Valley of the Dolls.” Where do I begin? There's the plaintive Burt Bacharach theme song, and the images of lovely (or, by some accounts, drugged-out) Barbara Parkins watching the rural scenery flow by as she rides the train. Then, of course, there's Patty Duke tearing off Susan Hayward's wig and throwing it down the toilet. Five stars!



Here are three of my nominees for the list:



Zardoz.” Oh dear. Sean Connery as a barbarian in a post-apocalyptic world, who gets lured into the paradisical wonderland next door, and ends up shooting the place up. There's a scene in which he breaks a mind-reading machine with sheer sex appeal. Also, my god, there's a big floating stone head that throws rifles to people! Also: you get to hear the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony over and over again. And Sean ends up, inexplicably, with Charlotte Rampling. My favorite scene: Connery is looking around a garden, with a computer explaining things to him. He sees a flower. “What is it?” Sean growls. “Flo-wer,” the computer warbles. “Purpose?” Sean asks irritably. “De-co-ra-tive,” the computer says.



I'm de-co-ra-tive too.


And how about “Elephant Walk”?   Elizabeth Taylor gets married to Peter Finch and goes to Ceylon. They live in a big house that blocks the elephant migration route. (Did you know that elephants migrate? I didn't.) Peter is stupid and spoiled, and he and his friends drink too much and ride bicycles around the house. Elizabeth is bored and upset, and then she gets a gander at handsome plantation manager Dana Andrews, and – well, what would you do? And, at the end of the day, the elephants destroy the house. Perfect from beginning to end.



And finally (for now, at least):



Cleopatra,” 1963, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Rex Harrison. (Liz must be doing the Watusi in heaven: I gave her two mentions in this blog! If I'd gone on, I would certainly have mentioned “Suddenly, Last Summer,” or "Boom!" - but another time . . . ). This movie is grandiose, and endless. The décor and costumes are heart-stopping, as is the over-the-top acting by all concerned, all of whom should have known better. A few months ago I was sitting in the living room, my eyes like saucers, watching Elizabeth ripping down the bedcurtains and shrieking, when Partner came through for a glass of water. He glanced at the screen briefly. “Oh, yeah, 'Cleopatra,'” he said casually. “I remember this scene.”



There are many, many more movies like these.



You just wait. We will discuss many more of them.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Coming attractions: summer action blockbuster edition


Partner and I went to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on Sunday. After the usual Coca-Cola and Hyundai and US Army adverts, we saw previews for:



Conan the Barbarian.” Magic, swords, evil laughter, panoramic shots of a castle that I thought at first might be Hogwarts. Not much dialogue, but a good deal of grunting and screaming. There was also a very large young man, with a very big sword, and abdominal muscles you could grate Parmesan cheese on, running around scowling and chopping people's heads off. “Did they really need to remake this?” Partner said irritably. “It was only - ”



Twenty-nine years ago,” I said. “Long forgotten. When we were kids, the equivalent movie would have been 'The Jazz Singer.'”



“Can't they at least find a new story?” Partner hissed. “Something no one's done before. Isn't there a piece of literature - ”



John Carter of Mars,” I said. “Ssh. Watch.”



And right on cue, as if summoned by Partner's wish, there it was. The lead actor isn't very distinctive-looking, but once he exchanges his 19th-century garb for a leather S&M outfit and a sword, he's okay. Once again: a little magic, a little bloodshed, a castle. This one also has aliens, however. “At least it's new,” I said. “I don't think anyone's made a movie of those books before.”



"Meh," said Partner.



I tend to agree.



Then, thirdly and lastly, something that actually sounded interesting: “In Time,” with Justin Timberlake. It's the future, and you have a nice digital clock on your forearm that tells you how much time you have left to live. You can work to earn more, or you can spend the time you have on goods and services. You see? Time is now currency. And when your time's up . . .



Okay, maybe not completely new. A little “Logan's Run,” maybe some “Soylent Green.” Lots of running through the streets, and desperate faces, and I'm sure there are innumerable variations of lines like “I'm running out of time!”



But Justin Timberlake is always cute, so we might see this one.



See how easy it is to pick out a movie?



And now: your feature presentation.