Homecoming

Last week I went back to my hometown of New York City for 3 days to see Bette Midler’s last performance on Broadway in Hello Dolly!.

(Note: Actually, it turned out to be no more than 2 and a ½ days because of a 6 hour delay sitting at the airport in L.A. waiting for the fog, sleet, storm (and likely frogs and pestilence – at this point, you’d believe that, wouldn’t you?) to lift on the east coast.)

CMON PEOPLE. I HAVE BETTE TO SEE! #whatstorm

There’s an old saying that literally says you can’t go home again, probably based on the title of the famed Thomas Wolfe book about a young writer who pens a best-selling novel about his hometown, and is met with nothing but death threats and rage by the people he once knew for his distorted depiction of them, when he very unwisely decides to return there.

Well, that didn’t happen to me, neither the best-seller nor the anger, which in NYC can happen for no reason whatsoever if you are walking anywhere in the vicinity of Electoral College POTUS Tower.

Only in New York. #gooddeal

In fact, I am here to tell you that you very well CAN go home and it can not only fulfill your every expectation but go far beyond them.

Meaning:

– You can get to see your favorite live performer ever once again perform live in the place where you first saw them and they can be every bit as brilliant, and perhaps even more so, than you had ever remembered or imagined.

I’m not crying.. YOU’RE CRYING. #iloveyoubette

– You can spend 2 and a ½ days, give or take, navigating bone-chilling, sub-freezing Arctic tundra weather conditions and yet still wonder how you could have ever left town to begin with and consider how much more quickly you want to revisit and/or even move there again.

– You can pay the equivalent of a really good used car to see two live shows and rent a nice (but not) fantastic hotel room for three nights and still brag, believe and recount to anyone who will listen that, in the end, all things considered, you really did get some kind of deal.

And, in fact, all three might even be true.

You got it right, Audrey.

But you will also, inevitably, experience other things when you go back to the town where you were raised and spend some time, even a mere two and a ½ days, when you are there. In NYC, here’s some of what they were for me:

– The stroll past Electoral College POTUS (okay nee TRUMP) TOWER where I wondered how someone who grew up not only in the same city but borough that I did (Queens), in fact in a neighborhood just 10 minutes away – was allowed to flourish in my hometown. How could all of us have laughed him and his valueless greed off all those decades ago? What were we thinking in allowing him to bribe, cajole, threaten people and build a presumed and/or faux fortune on the backs of many unpaid or sub-paid or illegal workers in exchange for some laughs and shekels and faux eighties glamour?

We say he is the OPPOSITE of the values that every real New Yorker stands for (Note: Okay, it was me who posted that), but is he? Aren’t we just as guilty in a different way for not using our voices before it was too late?

At least when NYers use their voice, they can still crack me up #womenmarch2018

– The aftermath of the fun Italian dinner in the West Village where I find out we’re right down the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital – the place where I last spent a week in the nineties watching one of my closest friends dying of AIDS – along with so many young men – his age and mine.

But as we move closer, I’m told St. Vincent’s is long gone and in its place a lovely yet stone cold (at least that night) memorial park exists with beautiful salutatory proverbs, some benches and endless memories of a time I will never forget but don’t particularly want to remember this well on this night here. A time that one week later I’m still finding it really difficult to shake. It may have taken years to move on, but spend enough moments in your hometown and it’s amazing what moves right back onto your front burner of thought. And stays there.

Hard to capture in just one picture…

– The walk through the set of Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, I mean, Times Square, at midnight – as bright as the Neon Museum or a nuclear test site – take your pick – where I finally accept that parts of the city have totally and intractably fallen victim to corporatism. This part will never return and generations of young people, many of whom are my current students, will never know a world that isn’t slapped with a Disney insignia, candy brand or their favorite breakfast cereal.

Watching HBO’s The Deuce just isn’t enough #sorryMaggie

Is this better than the strip bars, hookers, pimps, pickpockets and porn houses in the former Times Square that I knew? Absolutely…NOT. They were part of the real world fun. As a native New York younger person you knew to hold on to your wallet, got a thrill if a hooker or pimp gave you a look to which you were too terrified to respond, and could never make it past the gigantic bouncers with front door duty at the strip bars. As for the porn houses, no young person in 2018 is going to pay for porn (Note: Seriously?), so that’s not even a factor. What is a factor is that there was an authentic ALIVENESS to that world – one more outgrowth of a sub-section of humanity – that they will see only the worst pictures of and yet never truly EXPERIENCE – even from a distance that, truly, was safe. One wonders, what exactly will they look back on years later when they go visit?

Yes – Bette was great. The new musical we lavishly spent too much money to see from orchestra seats, The Band’s Visit, was haunting, original and moving. Food was fantastic and it didn’t even cost a fortune (Note: You have to save money somewhere). As for the people — always good humored in that snide New Yorker hometown kind of way that will always be deeply imbedded in my soul. Willingly or unwilling.

Everytime I think I’m out, it pulls me back in…

But there is also always a downside to the past that equals the downside of the present. Even my memories of Times Square – where once I recall slipping away from a guy (with some sort of concealed weapon – a knife or gun I believe) who wanted to take my wallet (or worse) thanks to the closing of a subway door.

As we lament the past in the age of T—P it might be good to remember that it wasn’t all good. But as we build up to the future to also know that it wasn’t all bad. It just – was. Time marches on and we do – hopefully WOKE to both.

As Bette continues to entertain us. At least for the foreseeable future.

Bette Midler – “Shiver Me Timbers”

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The Chair’s 10 Best of 2014

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Of course 10 best lists are bogus. After all, what exactly is “best?” Even the first dictionary definition itself can’t decide. It states:

BEST

  1. 
of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.

I don’t know about you but I find there is a hell of a lot of difference between excellent, effective and desirable. In fact, the moments in my life I can remember being at my most desirable in no way made me the most excellent person in the room – especially when that number was two. Truth be told and given what usually prompts human desire, I’d actually argue that the exact opposite was true.

I can recall once or twice being so excellent at something that it is hard to imagine someone wouldn’t have found me equally desirable. But wait, let’s forget that. If you’ve been in the presence of any writer at his or her most excellent you’d know it’s not a pretty sight. Hair askew, loved ones, friends and usually hygiene totally ignored. Not to mention common courtesy. Meaning – don’t even THINK about interrupting, much less BREATHING, because I will KILL YOU. Or worse, BLAME YOU for stopping the flow. Not to mention what the world will do to you if any more of this genius is lost from its most excellent source – Me.

I have no idea what you're talking about Chairy

I have no idea what you’re talking about Chairy

Finally, we’re left with effective and nothing about the word effective comes close to evoking best. Michael Bay is probably one of the most effective filmmakers to ever work in contemporary Hollywood but, uh – best? Well, you see how words deceive. And yes, he can take it. He married us for it. Which only proves that Edward Albee is the all-time best.

Here then in no particular order are my 10 best of the year. I define best as jarring, original, memorable and cool – to me. There is nothing scientific about it. It’s a purely subjective list. As are all those that deal in bests.

FILM: Birdman and Boyhood

Looking up

Looking up

No one except a few film critics, most of whom do not partake fully in life because they don’t have the time, have seen every film in any given year. But at least I see a lot. And I say these two stand above and beyond the pack for different reasons.

In the case of Boyhood, the feat of shooting a film with the same actors aging over a 12 year period, rewriting as you go, and emerging with anything coherent – much less emotionally affecting – is nothing but the best. It takes drive, focus and talent. Richard Linklater has always been an interesting and adept filmmaker but in this case he’s managed to circumvent the Hollywood system with a truly original approach to a universal story. Anyone can pick apart the movie’s faults, but no one in the narrative commercial world has had the nerve to take a path this original lately. In 2014, that’s my equivalent of the B word.

Birdman has stayed with me for months and I’m not quite sure why. I liked the film yet in teaching screenwriting have certainly been one of those jerks to – yes – pick it apart. Still, there is something about watching Michael Keaton, a former megastar of the eighties who my college age students now barely know, play an outlandish version of his public persona so heartbreakingly that it makes me occasionally want to weep. Yes, weep. I’m not a total cynic. This is a project that for all of its faults could have gone horribly wrong. Credit director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, another fearless chance taker, and a cast of actors working at the top of their game, for keeping the high wire act alive more times than not to its pretty thrilling results.

THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE: Malala

Yes, you are

Yes, you are

You’re a smart teenage girl from Pakistan who got shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out for other girls and their education. You then endure a bunch of surgeries and manage to not only survive but to continue to speak your mind as you gain intelligence and, well, even more nerve (Note: As if that’s possible). Then several weeks ago, these same Taliban types shoot up a school and kill 141 people, mostly children, and you still continue to speak out. Not with speechifying anger but with calm wisdom and directness. This is why you win the Nobel Peace Prize before you are old enough to vote. And how the world begins to slowly change.

AMERICAN POLITICS: Elizabeth Warren

America's truthteller

America’s truthteller

Let’s have a show of hands – how many of you are still pissed off at the big banks and Wall Street but don’t know what to say or do about it? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) does. This time she might have been unable to stop Congress from passing a bill several weeks ago that will once again deregulate Wall Street and allow major banks to engage in the kind of risky investments that almost brought down the economy more than six years ago, but that doesn’t mean she will the next time. She’s like the best and smartest teacher in school that you always remember because she was able to take a subject you never could understand and present it in a way that not only made it clear but made you became engaged. The reason for that is that for years she actually did teach at Harvard and innately understands how to simplify unnecessarily complicated principles to undergraduates – meaning the rest of us. Like all the best academics I have ever met, now Sen. Warren doesn’t fall for the fancy linguistic tricks or ill-conceived arguments the establishment class in her field consistently tries to pass off as absolute truth. She questions so we, in turn, learn to question. This is why she probably always gets high evals at the end of every year.

POP CULTURE LOSSES: Joan Rivers, Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman 

Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten

This is not the best but the WORST. Still, it needs to be included because of the ripple effect their deaths seemed to have had across the world. Doing great work in the field of entertainment puts you in public view and when you do it over a long period of time the world feels as if they really knew you and mourns accordingly. And perhaps we all did know them – at least partially. It’s an element of what made them all such outstanding artists.

Still, it is quite odd for three such unexpected celebrity deaths to occur in such a relatively short period of time by less than natural means. Flip the channels on television or the peruse the shelves of a film DVD library and you can’t help but run into these three and marvel at the talent as you simultaneously consider the sudden loss.   JR was in her early eighties, RW was in his early 60s and PSH was in his late forties. Yet in their own very individual ways they each were among the very best at what they did. Which is all any of us can hope for at any given moment in time.

TELEVISION: Lisa Kudrow and HBO’s The Comeback

Oh how we "cherish" you (sorry, couldn't help myself)

Oh how we “cherish” you (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

There is nothing currently on television that evokes the humor, pathos and general uneasy brilliant comic drama that Lisa Kudrow brings to her portrayal of actress/reality star Valerie Cherish on HBO’s The Comeback. And when I say nothing I mean her performance is unlike anything I (or you) have ever seen on TV (nee HBO) or pretty much anywhere.

This series has returned ten years after being cancelled after only running a year the first time around. That alone is remarkable. But nothing prepares you for the eight episode arc of the new season as you watch Valerie/Lisa endure the indignities of rising towards the top of a profession that often leaves little room for any real dignity (Note: How may professions do?). Or maybe she just chooses wrong. (Note: Who doesn’t sometimes?). Whatever the reason, she is simultaneously the underdog and her own worst enemy and it’s sad, recognizable, funny and uncomfortably cringe-worthy. Most of all – it’s real.

I will miss Valerie Cherish for everything she is and everything she is not. If you haven’t tuned in, do so. And for god sakes, given Lisa/Valerie the Emmy.

MEDICINE: Ebola Nurse Kaci Hickox

You ride that bike, girl.

You ride that bike, girl.

What can you say about a nurse who goes voluntarily to Africa to fight a deadly disease, returns to the US where she is put into mandatory quarantine by New Jersey governor Chris Christie (even though she showed no symptoms and did not test positive for the virus) and then publicly stands up to said well-known political bully without cursing him out or punching him in the face? That she’s my kind of gal? Needless to say.

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch...

If ever there was a face I wanted to punch…

For those who don’t recall, Gov. Christie insisted on quarantine for Nurse Hickox in a makeshift tent when she returned to the U.S., which caused her to go public and take a stand against the governor by defying his quarantine and returning home to Maine. She did all this with calm determination and the backing of medical facts despite the hysterical witch-hunts and political grandstanding that began swirling around her.

Then once she got to Maine, she and her boyfriend dared to take a bike ride while being hounded by a gaggle of media. And remain polite and calm. I shudder to think what I would have said. #GetChristieNoLove

MUSIC: Annie Lennox, Nostalgia

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

Click Play. Repeat. Click Play. Repeat.

In the 1980s, Annie Lennox was the lead singer of The Eurythmics and known for huge hit records like Would I Lie To You. Once I saw her in concert where she leaned so far into the stage on one foot with her mic that I thought she’d fall over as she hit a note so raw and pitch perfect that you could hear an audible gasp throughout the entire concert hall. Some years later she went on her own and won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal for No More I Love Yous from her second solo album Medusa. She followed that with an Oscar some years after that for best original song, Into the West, from the last of the first three Lord of the Rings movies.

All that being said, it should come as no surprise that for me the best CD/download/album or whatever you want to call it of the year is hers. In Nostalgia she takes classics like I Put A Spell On You, You Belong To Me, Georgia on My Mind and Billie Holliday’s haunting song of the lynching of Black men in the Deep South, Strange Fruit, and presents them all in stripped down versions unlike anyone you have ever heard before. There are so few true real artists these days with worldwide commercial success. She’s one.

APP: Aaron Paul’s YB

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For free or by paying 99 cents for a more advanced version, you can download an app where actor Aaron Paul’s resonant baritone speaks phrases like Yo, bitch or Happy Holidays, Bitch or See ya, Bitch any time you want. Yes, I find this exciting.

See, when Breaking Bad ended its series run we also lost Paul’s Jessie Pinkman, the dumb as a fox crystal meth-cooking sidekick whose signature phrase, Yo Bitch, became a national obsession. A multiple Emmy winner and fan favorite, Paul raised almost $2 million for his wife’s charity, Kind Campaign, which helps young women in need, with a series of contests and giveaways that coincided with the final season. But after being stopped on the street, emailed and tweeted by thousands of people imploring him to curse them out with variations of his signature phrase he gave in and decided to generate some cash with it – for charity and, hopefully, for himself. Because even cursing people out loses its thrill after a while – and especially when they ask you to.

SOCIAL ACTIVITY: Protests 

Sad realities

Sad realities

The consecutive deaths of too many young Black males in the last year in numerous states by law enforcement has created both spontaneous and planned nationwide protests across the country. In the moment it feels as if this is doing nothing but letting off steam yet through the lens of history one can clearly see this is the American way to social justice and evolution.

I would not have thought this was quite true decades ago. But having been born at a time when the civil rights movement first began taking hold, and then living through the Vietnam War, Kent State, women’s rights, gay rights, AIDS, homelessness, nuclear proliferation and marriage equality, I’ve seen how it works. Societal shifts are only fueled through provocateurs that have a real and righteous point about injustice. Therefore it’s our job to take it to the streets, talk about it, write about it or even just write a check in order to make something happen. It moves at a snail’s pace but things ultimately evolve when we don’t give in or give up. #ICantBreathe.

NEWBORN BABY: Sam Van Buren

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Forget Joe Cool.. meet Sam Cool

Who is Sam Van Buren, you might ask? Well, the coolest, snappiest and best-dressed baby I’ve ever seen – who happens to be the firstborn of my blog cohort and dear friend Holly Van Buren and her husband Michael.

Holly chooses the images and writes the captions for Notes and it might surprise you to know that she literally gave birth two months ago without missing a single week of choosing images, tagging and posting the blog. How is she able to do this along with everything else she is responsible for in her life – I HAVE NO IDEA!!   

It helps when Sam the Man looks like this...

It helps when Sam looks like this…

Sam the Man, as I call him, takes great photos because he is able to both smile and come off as a hipster all at the same time. Again, I have no idea how to do this. But it does give me hope that one day as he gets older he might teach me. That is if I am not too old. Do not say – too late.

GQ baby of the year

GQ baby of the year

For myself, Holly and our marketing director Samantha Rabstein – who has a few surprises in store for 2015 – that’s all he wrote. In 2014, that is.

Must (Not) See TV

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There is too much TV. There, I’ve said it. So do not chastise me because I stopped watching The Leftovers after three episodes and Masters of Sex after two even though I liked them both. Also, DO NOT get on my back because I haven’t yet sampled Orange is the New Black (it’s on my list) or that I can’t deal with Kevin Spacey talking to the camera with a phony accent in House of Cards enough to get past the beginning of season one. As for Scandal, for me it’s beyond ridiculous but not in a good way in much the same way that The Good Wife is a solid, well done broadcast network TV series that has never grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go.

Ugh... yes that too.

Ugh… yes that too.

I freely admit to all of these offenses.

Still, isn’t it enough I have watched every single episode of Mad Men and Girls – two shows that never ever disappoint me even on their worst nights? Or that I long to know what will happen next to the cast of PBS’ Downton Abbey exactly as much as I’m jonseing for season four of American Horror Story to begin next month? Or even season three of Orphan Black to start in January? How about that I never miss an episode of the broadcast network series Revenge, or NBC’s The Voice? Doesn’t that give me some mainstream television street cred?

penny-needs-help-for-her-computer-addiction-on-the-big-bang-theory

Okay, fine – then let’s close with the following – Here are the television comedies I enjoy very much almost every time I tune in: Archer, Parks and Rec, New Girl, The Mindy Project, Louie, Please Like Me and, perennially and forever – I Love Lucy. Though I can stand to miss episodes or seasons here and there because after all, one does need to eat, sleep and have some fun in well, some OTHER way at least…occasionally. Doesn’t one?

I have spent at least a million minutes of my life watching television and for half of that time there were only three broadcast networks and 0.00 cable series to choose from. And I suspect most of you under 30 would have similar stats, give or take a few thousand minutes, especially if you counted TV content you’ve viewed via your computer, touch-Pad, phone or any other mobile device/screen I’ve left out. Oh yeah, you know you would because given the way we live now even buffering counts.

They should really add a pillow app.

They should really add a pillow app.

More than half a century ago Newton Minow, the former FCC chairman and attorney, famously dubbed TV a vast wasteland in a speech he gave before the National Association of Broadcasters. No doubt he’d now have that to say and more about what it’s done to my mind and yours after all these recent years of abuse. Oh – and before you yell BULL PUCKY to the opinion of this still ticking 88 year old – who to my knowledge has never taken back the verdict he came to in that famous speech – consider the entire statement he made all those many decades ago as he chastised a captive audience of station owners and television insiders alike.

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

Hmm, well I haven’t quite tried that. But I will confess to being a part time insomniac and night owl who has watched more than my share of 2 am infomercials. These include Cindy Crawford’s beauty secrets derived from a French doctor synthesizing a rare melon that promises the age-defying skin of a 25 year old to not only you and I and the supermodel but also to Debra Messing and Valerie Bertinelli, two of the celebrity subjects who appear beside CC in this very engaging hard/soft sell. Wasteland? Not at all. I prefer the old adage waste not, want not – as does my age-defying epidermis. Especially when the alternative is to suffer the endless workouts offered at that time of night under the tutelage of Sean T’s Insanity or Tony Horton and P90X.   I mean, talk about a no brainer!

Aside from never aging, she even managed to clone herself

Aside from never aging, she even managed to clone herself

As for television, I try to do my work and it beckons. Daytime, nighttime, afternoon time – it beckons. MSNBC, reality, cable, network, computer, smart phone, tablet – it’s there. It’s difficult to get off the juice, as it always is with any sort of addiction, yet isn’t it wise to try? There are books to read, work to do, people to engage with, movies to see, friends and family members to……..text? Pictures to post on..…….Instagram? And pet videos to…….. ___________? Not to mention, museums, plays and planetariums. Or beaches, hills and mountains to climb. Literally, if you so choose any of the latter.

Well, that's one way to repurpose your old console

Well, that’s one way to repurpose your old console

Speaking of which, this week I was packing up the home of a dear friend who died recently and was going through old photos and various other memorabilia. These items showed this person through the ages and reference various movies through many decades that this person worked on. These movies were all famous and like many people in the business my friend has keepsakes from them – a baseball hat here, a plaque there, a jacket somewhere else. Decades and decades of work you would all likely recognize in an instant.

The fact that this friend had an impressive career in and around some of the more iconic moments in film history was in that moment both impressive and moving to me because it not only referenced visual and intellectual memories of the individual I knew but touched on several iconic moments from the past that would no doubt move people who did not ever know my friend since they serve as enduring pop culture touchstones to many millions of others of us throughout the world.

Movies used to do that more than any other form of entertainment and certainly there are still some films these days that reach iconic status. But one could make a case that the viewing habits ushered in by new technology and our unremitting demand for more, more, more has now placed television at the forefront if for no other reason than sheer numbers. Has anything Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino directed in the last 10 years tapped into the cultural hot button the way Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Office or even South Park has? I doubt it. Even niche television like Broad City outreaches a niche indie film darling like Obvious Child these days.

There is no "shut your phone off" warning before Scandal.

There is no “shut your phone off” warning before Scandal.

For better or worse TV, no matter how you watch it, is at the peak of our culture despite how high or low of a medium one chooses to see it as.   Certainly it has replaced movies as the more consistently discussed mode of entertainment – which replaced theatre before it, which took over from books and radio for a while, which in turn took over from plays. Which has nothing to do with sports except for the analogy of how football began to dominate over baseball decades ago, at least in the U.S. Though who knows for exactly how long as we watch the popularity and billion dollar corporate sponsorship of the NFL begin to collapse the more its culture of covering up the heinous domestic and child abuse allegations against some of its most popular ($$$) players are exposed to the harsh light of day.

That said, one wonders if there is something about all of us which is really to blame here since logic dictates that the most popular entertainment we choose at any particular moment in history is merely and certainly reflective of who and what we really are as a people. Wow, that’s a scary thought. Or, more pointedly, a mind-numbing one. Which sort of brings us full circle.

The eternal question

The eternal question

When this sort of thing comes up, I instead prefer to consider something, well anything else that I’m looking forward to doing the rest of the week. This includes watching anything and everything that I can on television because, let’s face it it’s easier than thinking about any of those questions above for one more second.

Here are a few of those program choices in no particular order and not all of which will even debut this week. I include all of them as possible diversionary material only because it’s gotten to the point where even anticipating and/or dreaming about what’s on television has become more desirable than experiencing or even pondering some of life’s most stickiest issues.

Cherishing Valerie

Cherishing Valerie

1. The return of HBO’s The Comeback on Nov. 9. – This show gives me hope for the future since it proves that in even the turbulent, competitive times of 2014 you can reinvent and resurrect yourself after nine years in the doghouse.       That’s the life-affirming meta message of this half hour black comedy starring Lisa Kudrow as supposedly washed up television actress Valerie Cherish. And this is because after being axed by HBO and off the air for nearly a decade both The Comeback and Kudrow’s Valerie have been given an almost unheard of second chance.   Yes, she might be clueless and fame seeking (which of us isn’t?) but somehow her sweet and sour self perseveres as she tries to navigate the minefields of her career and personal life by allowing any and all cameras to film her day and night. If that’s not a metaphor for today, then…you don’t understand metaphors. Or today.

Cosby show in the Obama age?

Cosby show in the Obama age?

2. Black-ish – I’m going out on a limb with this one because I only saw a 10-minute preview and they tend to be misleading.       Still, when network television (ABC) green lights a story about an upper middle-class African American Dad (Anthony Andreson) who panics when his young son decides he wants a bar-mitzvah and then forces the family into more Black appropriate rituals and behavior– I can’t wait to sample it. And this would be the case if it were the other way around and it were a White TV family trying to act less Black (Note: As if THAT would ever happen).

Adding to the allure here is that Laurence Fishburne plays the crotchety Grandpa. Not to mention that when Dad admonishes his mixed-race wife (Tracey Ellis Ross) for not being Black enough, she snaps at him a line like: Really? Then tell that to my hair and my ass! Sure, it could all go horribly wrong but it could also be politically incorrectly right. Given that ABC has scheduled it to directly follow Modern Family it just might have a shot at the latter. (Air Date: Sept. 24).

Bring it on!

Bring it on!

3. American Horror Story – Season 4 – I’m addicted to this show for all the wrong reasons it’s sick, twisted, sometimes illogical, and campier than a room full of Ann Miller impersonators (Note: For those under 30 substitute RuPaul impersonators, or simply RuPaul). It doesn’t matter. The new season in this anthology series is called Freak Show, is set inside a Florida circus of outcasts run by Jessica Lange and features a set of conjoined twins, a bearded lady and a severely large, red-mouthed guy in white face named Twisty the Clown. Need I say more? I don’t think so.

Until Oct. 8, the preview can say it for you. In three different ways (Note: Actually, thirteen if you check YouTube on your own).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKGwySm9nMc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cexbmH3xLuQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shIZH4GnQT0

Of course, there are museums to visit, social issues to protest and scathing words to write and say about a myriad of issues that comes across our screens on any given day. Not to mention if we really want to be proactive and do something different we could contribute to a charitable cause, or any cause, we believe in with an amount that exceeds our monthly bills from Time-Warner, Direct TV, Netflix and god knows what other mega speed Internet connections we’re signed up to that enables us to view all of the former in minimal discomfort. Those are all worthy gestures and would no doubt be personally satisfying. But nowhere near as exciting as the momentary thrills we receive after just a few minutes in front of our very own small screen. And therein lies the problem.   That is, if any of us ever choose to see it as such.

 

Grief Counseling

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Mourning is very personal, yet it is unflaggingly universal.  Not how we mourn but the fact that we do.  How we choose to do it is a whole different story.  Well, actually, many different stories.

The HBO broadcast of The Normal Heart, coupled with the death of Maya Angelou and our seemingly bi-monthly mass murdering spree by a mentally ill young man with gargantuan firepower, made this past week feel like it was all about death.  Which meant it was really all about life.  Or, to be more accurate – how we all really feel about our own lives.  

No, this is not a greeting card homily because Hallmark, American Greetings and the like do not specialize in those kinds of phrases or in short, tightly written sermons that speak to our true thoughts and issues.  Can you imagine that?

 Too bad they’re gone but you got to admit, someone like you was lucky that they even talked to you.

 If they were so great – how come they’re dead and you’re not?  Hmm, maybe you are better than you think

OR my favorite —

Live it up because if someone as fantastic as her or him died, you clearly will not be living forever.  In fact, obviously you are already dead – inside.

I could go on but I won’t.  Or maybe you want to make up one of your own?

___________(fill in the blank)___________

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

As playwright Marsha Norman confided to me decades ago when I was working on the film version of her Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about suicide, night, Mother, there is nothing wrong with gallows humor when you spend day after day around death.  In fact, it’s necessary.

Still, it’s easy to feel as if all of this stuff is happening just to you, isn’t it? Or at least more deeply to you.  For instance, aside from all of the above indignities in the past week I also heard about the passing of a lovely young woman in her twenties who was the wife of one of my former students, the brain cancer diagnosis of an old friend, and various other serious illnesses involving both my parents. Add to this all the dredged up memories I have of all of the young men my age in the 1980s who literally disintegrated before my eyes from complications of AIDS that were, ironically, brought to life so accurately in The Normal Heart, and you could say I was leaning heavily in that direction and starting to lose it.  In fact I did lose it – meaning broke down and cried from the grief – for about 10 minutes – out of the blue – the following afternoon. (Note:  Don’t fret.  I felt a lot better afterwards).

The Normal Heart hits close to home

The Normal Heart hits close to home

Oddly, it was another death – that of the writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou several days later – that really brought me out of this.  It’s something different for all of us, right?  The only thing you know for sure is that if you are really participating in life, something will indeed not only come to rip you back into the only rat race that we have but to make you feel inordinately lucky to once again retain your rodent status.

I was 14 years old the first time I saw and heard Maya Angelou speak and it was on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated talk show out of Philadelphia that I promise you no other 14 year old boy in my neighborhood was watching at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon.  Still, that’s what made Ms. Angelou so riveting to me – she was different. All 6 feet of her, dressed in some colorfully patterned dress from head to toe – her voice booming in full articulate sentences as she spoke about her loneliness as a child and the brutality she endured and held in – until she finally found her voice.  She then read a passage from her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and all I remember thinking is, Wow – she wrote about her life and all the secrets she had that made her feel alone?  Hmmm, maybe one day if I get up the nerve, which I probably never will, I can write about what’s happened to me and feel better about things and, well, get recognized too- or at least feel less alone.

Phenomenal Woman

Phenomenal Woman

Oh, of course all writers want attention and to get recognized.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And no – I am not comparing my life to a woman as accomplished as Dr. Angelou, who was raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend and who then did not speak for six years because she felt responsible for his murder by other family members who had found out from her what he had done.  Or, perhaps, in some small way – I am.

What I began to realize – decades later – (and still have to remind myself of) is that this is, indeed, what life, and death, are all about.  That small connection.  Maybe only a tiny similarity but a connection nonetheless. It’s also what the creative arts – both great and small (Note: is there small?) is about.

You never, ever know who you will reach with your little story, do you?  Yes, that means you.  No doubt Dr. Angelou did not write Why The Caged Bird Sings thinking that some young, Jewish gay boy in Queens would be helped by it.  Or perhaps she did.

Who are you reaching today?

Who are you reaching today?

Well, none of that really matters, does it?  What’s important when we think of people like Dr. Angelou is not if they intended to speak to us but how they spoke to us – in what way – and what they left behind that to us makes the greatest sense This is also the case for our friends and loved ones.  It’s how they live on and how we manage to go on.

How did they touch you?  Help you to understand life?  What did they inform you of?  Enlighten you on?  Entertain you with?  Were they honest?  Did they tell the truth in life and in art – or both?  Or neither?  Do you?

And finally, when all is said and done – what one thing did they leave behind with you?  Not with the world but for you – yes you.  For as lofty as it might sound, you are the world they leave behind.

If I learned early on about the power of speaking the truth from Dr. Angelou, I was taught the real value (actually, necessity) of speaking your own truth from the deaths of so many young, dear friends and colleagues I lost from AIDS in the period depicted during The Normal Heart.

And —

that I would gladly agree to spend the rest of my days never speaking one ounce of my truth in return for being able to bring them all back and to have had that period of history erased is, of course, the ultimate paradox of life.

Alas, it's not that easy

Alas, it’s not that easy

So here we all are – faced with a world where everyone’s actions and deeds and truth speaking do matter.  Never has this been more clearly seen than in the recent events at the University of Santa Barbara, or at the Boston Marathon, or in Sandy Hook Elementary School – or at countless American locales each year before them.

One cannot pretend to have known what was truly in the heart of our most recent mass murderer in Santa Barbara  – 22 year-old Elliot Rodger – despite the vast human wreckage, extensive written manifesto and plentiful You Tube postings he left behind.  Perhaps that truth was a mystery even to him and is the very fact at the heart of his actions.  On the other hand, it might be much more simple – something that brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes I can recall from Dr. Angelou:

When people show you who they are, believe them; the first time.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

If nothing else, this brings to mind the imperative of really listening.  Not only to the people we care about or are paid to listen to but to each person with whom we come into contact.  I usually learn the most from moments with people from whom I don’t anticipate learning anything at all.  Just as I have often been hurt the most by those from whom I never would have expected such behavior.

Yet every so often you meet a person you adore and you get to spend time with them – and even love them for a period of time.  Sometimes it’s a short time and sometimes it’s a lifetime.  It can also be from afar, or even up-close but not personal enough.  And then, suddenly, they’re gone.

No matter how many greeting cards you get, tears you shed or words of wisdom you read or hear from concerned relatives, friends or anonymous bloggers — It’s hard not to miss that.  Or them.

Eating pizza helps.  Though certainly ice cream or cookies are a good temporary fix, too.  You do what you can.  And then try to have some fun again.

Stereotype Sundae

BIGGAY4

When I read that something called The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop will open in downtown L.A. this spring I was surprised on four counts.

  1. That we’ve come so far that someone has decided to be ridiculous enough to think they could open up a business called The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop and make any money.
  1.  That someone had determined this name wouldn’t offend a significant group of people, perhaps some of them even homosexuals.
  1. That there were already TWO existing and hugely popular Big Gay Ice Cream Shops in New York (the first one opened two and a half years ago), which were spawned by its mobile forerunner, the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, and that they were all created by not one but TWO…Big Gay Men.

AND

  1.  That I – a smaller but probably just as big of heart gay man – didn’t know about any of this and initially thought it was all just one big dumb, and questionably borderline, gag.

So much for my hipness factor.

Well, by comparison, I'm still pretty hip.

OK  – I guess I could be worse…

This all raises a much broader question – what is a stereotype these days and do you marginalize yourself or the particular group of people you belong to by embracing, portraying and perhaps even BEING (or condemning?) the stereotype?

Stereotype:

1. A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image.

2. One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.

Are the two owners of The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop stereotypically gay?  Well, in some ways not at all.  They are very successful, independent entrepreneurs who started a business from ground zero simply by selling ice cream out of a food truck and in just a few years they have three stores in the two biggest cities in the U.S. and are making lots and lots of money.   Clearly, that is a rarity these days.

Yet in some ways they are totally stereotypical – two middle aged homosexuals with a self-professed campy dream who are snide and funny and have a penchant for the eighties TV show The Golden Girls.  Not only that, but GG star Bea Arthur is their store mascot (along with a unicorn) and one of their offerings is indeed named The Bea Arthur – an ice cream cone with vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche and crushed ‘nilla wafers. 

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Inside The Big Gay

Not to mention this side note: Each frozen delight they serve is spotlighted on their website by an array of customers holding up or eating a particular item.  From a sociological standpoint I was particularly intrigued by the two prepubescent boys holding up two cups of ice cream called The Gobbler (pumpkin butter and maple syrup or apple butter and bourbon butterscotch, pie pieces and whipped cream).

Uh…two young boys holding up creamy products advertising menu items from The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop?  If this were the Bible Belt (or even Orange County) there would at best be lawsuits and neighborhood outcries and at worst…well, I don’t want to go there.

Perhaps it’s evidence of how far we’ve come that people’s minds do not “go to that place” of stereotype anymore – meaning somehow connecting anything gay –centric or owned by gay men with the abuse or indoctrination of young boys.  (Perhaps?!) When I was growing up – not all that long ago – this would NEVER EVER EVER have been possible.  And I am still ambulatory, have my eyesight (sort of), and am able to roller skate.

Still got it!

Still got it!

How much diversity do you see within your life, the lives of those within your minority group or how you’re represented in the media and how much is enough?  (Note: Everybody at some point feels as if they are in some kind of minority, even if they’re in the majority). If you’re gay do you proudly proclaim you love Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler in your off hours as a hairdresser, but only at times when you’re not redecorating your apartment or cruising for men clad in leather chaps? Or what about the flip side of the problem, posed by a young African American comedian I saw some decades ago (but whose name I can’t recall, darn it!).  He claimed to have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever (and he didn’t) yet had to embarrassingly prove it to disbelieving people who insisted he demonstrate because a rhythmless Black man didn’t seem humanly possible to them.

One supposes stereotypes do cut both ways – some traits you’d prefer to have (or do have), others you are a bit embarrassed to have (but why?) and still others are a perceived exaggeration of traits attributed to ALL people of your tribe you don’t want anything to do with.

This issue becomes a little more difficult for writers and other artists when representing those minority groups and problematic for audiences who are the spectators.  Just what is your obligation to your crew (or to other peoples’ crews?) Do you have to go out of your way to find a gay guy that doesn’t like Judy (NOTE: I do love her and for some reason most of us do call her Judy) or not show gay men continuously searching for sex?  After all, aren’t most guys – gay AND straight – continually searching for sex, at least in the back of their minds?

The premiere of HBO’s new half hour show about gay men in San Francisco, Looking, presents exactly this challenge.  Starring the very amiable and charming Jonathan Groff, the show seems to consist mostly of a subset of a subset of gay men – urban guys who are mostly dark haired, with varying degrees of facial beards (except for Mr. Groff’s nubile young guy) who mostly look for sex.  It is only in-between that they do a variety or artistic jobs or work as waiters.  Stereotypical?  Well, most certainly.  But all of it or just in certain parts?  And are the characters really stereotypes or just merely post-modern representations of people who, as a given, are a lot more than just that (Sex in the City, anyone?). Well, I for one am not quite sure yet.

4 Non Blondes

4 Non Blondes

By the end of the episode, I – a gay man who has lived some sort of existence in various shades of stereotype – felt as if I had absolutely nothing in common with these guys – nor did I ever.  For one thing, they were much freer than I ever was sexually when I was younger and for another, their friendships and relationships felt so flighty and superficial that I probably would have ran away from them rather than to want to touch them or even gravitate anywhere near them.  (Note:  Or perhaps bitch about their superficiality behind their backs, which makes me another form of gay stereotype, sorry to say).

Of course, as a television show this is both entertainment and a fantasy.  Do we bridle that the rich and powerful Grayson family on Revenge distort patriarchal relationships or that Nurse Jackie is an all-too ridiculous take on people who work in hospitals?  Probably not.  But mostly because there have been hundreds of hospital centered shows with other images (St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, even General Hospital) and thousands of rich, screwed up, primarily heterosexually oriented families on nighttime time soaps (Dynasty, Knots Landing and Desperate Housewives – gay sensibility though they all were – and do not make me get into the latter).

But how many television series almost solely about gay men have there really been?   (Hint:  You can count them on less than one hand).    That puts an unjust burden on the creators of Looking and it’s an unfair one for a dramatist whose only real job is to tell a story the way it happened or happens in his or her mind.  Dallas Buyers Club, the current historical drama about a straight man with AIDS in the 1980s, was criticized for its narrow focus on its homophobic lead character – a straight guy with AIDS who subverts the status quo and sells unapproved drugs that prolong his life and the lives of others (mostly gay men) – because it leaves out all the simultaneous other proactive steps hundreds of gay groups across the country took at the time in getting their own illegal drugs and protesting the government in other ways that prolonged their own lives.

how-to-survive-a-plage-poster-article

the other Ron Woodroofs

Yet the sad truth is that a narrow focus is sometimes needed in order to maximize dramatic impact in narrative work.  And if you reject that notion entirely consider this question:  What IS that writer to do – not write roles in stories that will likely win its two leads, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the male acting Oscars this year?  (Uh, not a chance of that).  Just what is the obligation to history, realism and representation when you want to create a satisfying and dramatic story, or live a satisfying, if not at times dramatic, life.

Members of most minority groups would probably answer it this way — don’t give YOURSELF majority status in our overall story when you were really a minority. Don’t leave our real stories out, don’t represent us as one or two stereotypes and DO NOT act as if you’re doing us a favor by merely showing us onscreen at all or say that we’re classically “oversensitive” for complaining at all.  Does that mean we don’t make films like Philadelphia, Gentleman’s Agreement or Schindler’s List anymore?  Okay, now my head is really spinning – all dizzying gay man clichés be damned.

In the case of Looking its creators and lead actor are openly gay and are working for HBO –a network that pretty much allows talent to do almost anything they please.  So one can assume they are telling this story from a personal  POV (which is all any writer can really do) and letting the chips fall where they may.  Yet is that enough or do they (or you, or I?) need to think about being more inclusive, less stereotypical, and overall more universal when writing about ourselves and the rest of our group/crew/tribe or….? It’s the tricky challenge of all this.

I teach my students the more specific you are about a character the more universal you will be.  But if all your characters are of a rarefied subset group of still another group subset and not varied enough – well, their behavior might be real or true to life for you but could easily bore the hell out of everyone else.  I mean, no one’s real life is consistently THAT interesting over the long periods of time that a television series represents.  Not even Oprah’s – trust me, it isn’t.  You only think it is because of the wide variety of people we’ve gotten to see her talking to.

Well, I didn't say not luxurious

Well, I didn’t say her life wasn’t more luxurious

I learned this the hard way many years ago as a young reporter and then-movie publicist attending one too many red carpet events.   I don’t even know when I finally knew I’d had it but perhaps it was when I was a guest at the premiere of A Few Good Men – one of the most lavish affairs I ever remember attending.  It was at the ballroom of the Century Plaza Hotel, there was a full orchestra, great food and Tom and Nicole were right next to me and everyone else, holding hands and walking from table to table along with all of the other stars and most of Hollywood.  At one time this would be dazzling, exciting, unplugged and unleashed fun and decadence.  Yet after so many of these it felt like being the plus one at the wedding of your much richer and more desirable cousin in whose shadow you had always stood in at a time when you were finally ready to be the movie star of your own life.  It looked good and on the surface it would tell a great story but when you really thought about the people and everything that was going on, there was not much there there.

In short, it bore no relation to your truth.  Though this might be different for those who were a part of the film, or fans who very much enjoyed what these people had made and were just happy to be invited to whatever party was being thrown.    Maybe part of the mission in life is to create your own party  – a thought that might sound stereotypical but in reality an action that you can make original and appealing to a lot more people than yourself if you work it the right way.

** Special Chair Note: This week we will begin listing each blog by subject matter with a corresponding and stylish post-it note on the left hand side of the page.  They will then be archived by that category for easier future access.  For your convenience, our beloved Holly Van Buren – editor, photo chooser, and caption writer extraordinaire, has gone back and archived every blog (yes, that’s all 165!) under one of six categories.  Just click on the subject links at the top of the page you are interested in and you will be able to read your favorite posts from the past (Thanks Holly!).  Also, remember to click on the title of each week’s post at the top of the page (e.g. Stereotype Sundae) – in order to access that week’s song!

Feed your head

I can remember attending the 1964 NY World’s Fair as an infant a child and marveling at General Electric’s Carousel of Progress (yes, there were even corporate sponsor tie-ins back then).  The revolving display featured different sets of automated mannequins (think the end of “Stepford Wives”) using and promoting the gadgets of past, present and – most spectacularly the future – as they sang “there’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day.”

I marveled that the phone of the future could have no cords, much less be push button.   But I stared more wide-eyed than the most Spielbergian of heroes at the idea that these phones would also allow us to look at each other in full view on the screen as we talked.  “What happens if you’re speaking from the bathroom or without clothes,” my very young self thought without ever considering the beneficial possibilities of the latter.  “Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?  I’m not sure I want my privacy invaded like that.”

Yes, that is truly what I wondered.  Aside from the existential angst, you could say I had more than a few issues, even back then.

The idea of such a future felt not only strange but surreal to me.  It wasn’t a world I could imagine because it felt light years from the reality I was then experiencing.  Perhaps Steve Jobs, who was close to my age, imagined talking phones and push button existences back then (Perhaps?  Uh, I think so).  But I’ll bet he also didn’t write tortured poetry about the meanings of life and death or listen to endless hours of show music on his parents’ record player like I did either.  The truth is we all create and live in the worlds of our choosing and the other Steve’s world of computers and touch tones was as surreal to me as the score of the Broadway musical “Mame” (the first musical my parents took me to for my 10th birthday) and my Sylvia Plath-like prose probably would be to him.

A selection of my poetry…. or a stanza from “Lady Lazarus.” You decide.

(And yes, I realize I am making a leap of assumption here about the other Steve’s tastes but just go with the metaphor for now).

The surreal surfaced more than a few times this week as I found myself wading through a series of silly, funny, moronic, infuriating, tragic, annoying and just plain loaded life and death and less-so events.  So much so that it got to the point where I began to confuse the real with the surreal and wondered if anyone else was indeed as confused as I was.

To whit:

1. Does anyone believe Mitt Romney doesn’t know where any of the mega million amounts of money in his blind trust is?

On the other hand —

2. Can even the most fervent Obama supporter believe that when asked this week what the biggest mistake of his first four years as president was that the Big O, off the cuff, came up with, “Uh, I should have communicated my policies better?”

In each case, the answers were certainly unspontaneous if not possibly inauthentic or canned.  In short, they obviously don’t seem real yet are accepted as such and thus enter the sphere of the surreal.

I mean, if you have $250 million presumably you’d be smart enough to also come up with an indirect system to keep track of your money.  The same way any sitting president is intelligent enough to be able to tick off a great many policy decisions he screwed up on aside from the somewhat new agey phrase of “communicating better.”

Now that’s communicating!

But somehow the surreal gets passed off as real and after enough time goes by the former will somehow become the latter and the true answer to the question (even though we all know that answer is really false) becomes something else – thus dropping the public discourse one more milli-notch in reality into surreal-ality.*

Audiences in the entertainment industry often smell this kind of surrealness many miles away too, though it doesn’t always matter. Clearly, “The Amazing Spiderman” was really just an excuse to make more money and “American Idol” continues mainly because, well, in both cases you can’t throw in the towel on a zillion dollar juggernaut.

A good look on ol’ Georgie.

It would be great if someone would admit the obvious and then allow us to enjoy the cheesiness of each event but instead we’re often met with hyperbole about new, wonderful storytelling and original artistic integrity on a level playing field.  It’s tempting to buy into the myth and many of us do and thus, this kind of stuff continues to prosper in both dollars and popularity. (I actually watched the last part of this year’s Idol season, frustrated singer that I am).  But that doesn’t mean what’s being presented is any more in line with the corporate hype of what we’re indulging in.  Like an old lover, once we’re hooked we’ll often settle for crumbs until we wake up or are finally forced to move on when our object of desire takes the initiative and finally leaves us.

Do we instinctively know deep down in our souls when we’re being sold a bull bill of surreal and continue to buy into it or are there levels to the amount of surreal any one of us will accept before we reach maximum trippiness?  And for that matter, can what’s surreal (trippy) for one of us geese actually be what’s totally real for the rest of us ganders?  Hmmm.  I wonder.

The Kardashians (who I can’t help but pick on bi-weekly) are definitely surreal, as are the Duggar family, yet the Osmonds feel terribly real to me.  Maybe it’s because the latter have talents for something other than being famous or having a large uterus and we actually witnessed those talents.   Or, as my smart Significant Other mentioned to me offhandedly when I related this observation:  “The difference is we saw them, The Osmonds, grow up before our eyes, they didn’t just drop out of the sky into our television sets fully formed.”

John Waters, who received the Outfest (LGBT Film Festival) 16th annual Career Achievement Award this week, is as real as you can get – though on the surface his construct might feel surreal.  Yet when you look at a 50-year career of cult, cutting edge, and mainstream filmmaking there is actual evidence Waters was not a false idol but a true a pioneer in the depravity we proudly call our pop culture today.  Love him or hate him, he’s anything but surreal.

The King of Camp

Side Note:  I can personally testify to this.  Years ago I was late to a script meeting on the Disney lot (a lot I would always somehow get lost in because I couldn’t quite get past street names like Mickey Mouse Lane).  Finally wandering into its maze-like animation building, desperately in search of the development executive to which I would be pitching a script idea that both she and I knew would probably never get sold but both choosing to indulge in the surreal idea that it could, I run smack into a very tall thin man with an attaché case one might have actually seen in the 1964 World’s Fair.  I look up and am greeted with a pencil thin moustache smile of the real John Waters – yes, the same man who made a film where a drag queen ate dog poop called “Pink Flamingos” – a film that I found myself waiting in line for in a midnight show one lonely evening in Queens, NY.  The fact I was now seeing him with his briefcase at the Walt Disney Studios (the same one famous for offering endless entertainment pleasure for “kids of all ages” for as long as I could remember), felt like the most surreal of moments to me but was actually as real as the harsh light of global warming is in summer 2012.  Equally real but surreal to me to this day is the fact that the best I could do was mumble, “I’m sorry” to him as I fled to a meeting that was destined to matter only in the world of surreality.

Meanwhile, why does “Dancing with the Stars” feel more surreal than the already surreal “American Idol” while “The Voice” somehow feels much more real than both, even though the latter could hardly be considered real?  Once again, I bow to the Significant Other, who explains:

Dancing is soooo fabricated in that people famous for something else are competing to do another thing that they clearly will have no real expertise in at all after a few months…

While Idol, despite its name, masquerades week to week as a singing/performance competition that really is most interested in a mainstream “star” (a mythical construct if there ever was one),

While The Voice is ultimately focused on what comes down to the vocal instrument/sound of the very person (nee voice) they are actually advertising for.

These definitions feel right, even though the explanation and my willingness to cede center stage to my S.I. is, trust me, truly surreal.

Ronald Reagan felt absolutely surreal, even when he wasn’t.   (But perhaps that’s wishful thinking on my part).  Yet as surreal as Rick Santorum might appear to me or any of my beloved blog readers, I’ve concluded he’s anything but and is actually, truly and scarily real.  Though Sarah Palin is still clearly a mixture of all of the above.

Pres. Obama feels sort of real, though his emergence has an air of surreality, even now.  And as for Bill Clinton – well, he certainly was as surreal as it could get with any number of true reality moments in between.  However, in the end, none of it even mattered so great was/is his power.  The latter happens from time to time with special people or circumstances but these are rare exceptions.

Vito.

Watching the opening night film at Outfest this week called “Vito” – an HBO documentary on Vito Russo, the gay activist/author of the seminal book about gays in the movies called “The Celluloid Closet” — I saw a 40 year history of the LGBT community that I lived through that felt both real and surreal, though intellectually I knew it did not have one moment of unreality in it. Living through the AIDS death plague of the eighties was surreal, as was the AIDS related passing of Russo, a sweet guy who I met a few times.  Or at least I wanted it to be at that time because it somehow made real life less threatening.  Which might explain a few things about why we will still go see “Spiderman” or watch “Idol” or vote for any politician who allows us to get away from reality and make us feel comfortable enough.

The antidote?  Well, Jefferson Airplane probably said it best with its seminal album, “Surrealistic Pillow” – a record I discovered a mere several years after the 1964 New York World’s Fair in the tiny bedroom of a friend in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles when I was 14.  As we sat back, I stared at the swirly pink album cover, which featured odd shapes and images of a group of cool hippie musicians led by a lone female singer with the cooler than coolest name of Grace Slick.  The more they played and the more she sang, a sort of High Priestess of Reality or Unreality, depending on your point of view, I pondered about the pros and cons of a true life of surreal.

What could be cooler?

To this day, I can still hear the closing stanza to “White Rabbit,” their drug fueled fusion of “Alice in Wonderland” and late sixties social zeitgeist, pulsing through my veins as Ms. Slick gave me my first real piece of advice in how to deal with the ever-changing world.

 When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the white knight is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s “Off with her head!”

Remember what the dormouse said

Feed your head

Feed your head.

If you ignore the obvious drug references and take what they were singing to heart, the advice to “feed your head” still holds up today.  And just might be the antidote to our surreal world almost a half century since she first sang it.

* Know that all references to the Paris Hilton/Nicole Richie cable series of the aughts, “The Surreal Life,” was left out because the very notion of spending any intellectual time analyzing that is too surreal for even the Chair to endure.