Monday, February 27, 2006

Closing Thoughts

I tuned into the Olympic Closing Ceremonies last night and “Saving Private Ryan” broke out. I wanted just one more kick-Bode-when-he’s-down moment. Instead, NBC aired Tom “The Greatest Generation” Brokaw’s profile of Vernon Baker, a member of the all-black 92nd Infantry who apparently single-handedly liberated Italy from the Nazis. Was it unpatriotic to flip from this to the finale of the Greatest Guilty Pleasure ever—“Dancing With the Stars?”

As I ping-ponged between the two programs, I couldn’t help but wonder:

(Ping) In the 50km cross-country race—think Tour de France on snow—what keeps skiers from bayoneting each other with their poles?

(Pong) Just how scary is Lisa Rinna’s body? Does anyone want to join me in trimming her partner Louis’ mullet in training?

(Ping) Why are there children running around the Olympic Stadium dressed up like Amelia Earhart? (“Why shouldn’t they be?” Dave replies.) Am I the only person who thinks the symbols attached to their coats look a little too much like the Star of David?

(Pong) Did someone forget to tell Stacy that the phone lines are closed? Because that story about the sick little kids at Johns Hopkins smelled a lot like Vote for Me Cologne.

(Ping) Have I died and gone to bridal heaven? There are 300 women marching down the Olympic aisle in wedding gowns—and not a groom in sight. Finally someone understands that it’s all about the dresses.

(Pong) What’s a credible recording artist like Mary J. Blige doing in the “Dancing” musical spotlight? Does she know her predecessors include That Guy From the Righteous Brothers and the Pussycat Dolls?

(Ping Pong) I’ve adored the Winter Games ever since I was too young to realize that Randy Gardner was gay. So why was I more excited for Drew and Cheryl than Tanith and Ben?

Superficially, “Dancing” works better as entertainment. The dramatic lighting, the glitzy costumes, the cheesy cover tunes (“The Final Countdown”—brilliant). Fewer contestants—10 celebrity dancers compared with 3,000 athletes—means we have a passing shot at getting to know more about these folks than whatever relative’s recent death/illness/financial hardship is affecting their performance. It doesn’t hurt that we can actually see their faces. Can anyone identify a skier other than Darth Vader? In Week 1, “Dancing”’s playing field is utterly level—we get to decide who we like best, not Jim Lampley. Bon mots from the judges, however contrived, are infinitely more fun than watching thousandths-of-a-second tick away on a timer. Who can forget Bruno Tonioli calling Stacy Keibler a “weapon of mass seduction?” Anyone remember the winning time in the Super G? Ultimately the consequences on “Dancing” are minimal. The worst that can happen—contestants are sent quick-stepping off the stage back to their comfortable C-list lives. If a favorite has an off week, they live to samba another week, thanks to our largesse of votes. With Olympians, dreams are shattered, years of training go up in flames, crucial endorsement dollars are lost. Back in the '80s, I got the distinct impression that Russian athletes would be shot or sent to the gulag if they didn’t bring home the gold. That's a lot of pressure on the viewer.

But perhaps it was “Gentleman” Jerry Rice who answered my conundrum. “People are living a dream through me.” Don’t we all believe that with professional training, in just eight weeks we too could cha-cha-cha with the best of them? It might not be a particularly likely scenario, but it’s possible. Isn’t Jerry Rice proof? Then I look at Sasha Cohen. I could practice 18 hours a day, every day, for the rest of my life, and I will never be able to lift my leg above eye level. While spinning. On ice. You want a dance floor? Clear some room in front of the TV. You want a bobsled run, get thee to Lake Placid. It’s a curious world we live in when George Hamilton is more relatable than Natalie Mancuso.

* * *

Cheap Shot

I don’t think Nike anticipated its Join Bode campaign would morph into Join the Bode Backlash. It will be hard to top the scolding Bob Costas delivered from the principal’s office, but I’ll give it a try.

There is a difference between being carefree—a la snowboarder Shaun White—and being careless. Miller says he has no regrets about leaving Torino medal-less because “I got to party and socialize at an Olympic level.” Um, if that were the point, we could have sent the Cubs Bleacher Bums in your place.

They say you are one of the most talented skiers the sport has ever seen. Do you realize how lucky you are? You don’t punch a time clock. When you blow out your knee, you have access to the best health care the U.S. has to offer. You get to travel the world without worrying about using up all your personal days. And I’m guessing you do all this on someone else’s dime—whether the American people’s or one of your many sponsors. Was it too much for us to ask in return that you treat the Olympics like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not a two-week, all-expenses-paid pub crawl.

Somewhere in the U.S., another skier watched the Olympics on TV. You took up his spot on the team. You didn’t deserve it.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Eye Sore

I have bumps on my eyes.

There’s a pingueculae in the right and a pterygium (the “p” is silent) in the left or possibly both—I’m sort of confused about the diagnosis and keep wanting to call them "pelicula," which I'm pretty sure is Spanish for "movie." In any case, they’re pin-sized triangles of thickened tissue in the corner of each eye, where the white part meets the brown.

The bumps are relatively harmless. They don’t affect my vision. You wouldn’t even notice them if I hadn’t just told you they exist.

But I see them. Every day, every time I look in the mirror. I will never be ready for my close-up.

I am not supposed to have bumps on my eyes.

Pterygia are common in people who live near the equator—Mexicans, Haitians, Africans. I was born in Indiana, raised in Ohio, live in Chicago. I have stymied no fewer than four members of the medical profession.

When the mass on my left eye started to grow, my mind went straight to “Cancer!” and I raced to the ophthalmologist’s. My bumps bored her. It wasn’t a tumor. Yawn. Sometimes these bumps just swelled. Yawn. No, she couldn’t tell if it would continue to expand. Yawn. No, there wasn't anything I could do about it. Yawn. Next patient—preferably someone with glaucoma.

I should have been relieved; instead I felt ridiculous, and resigned to a life with ocular imperfections.

For years, five maybe six, the bumps remained stable. I didn't exactly hide them (we all know how well that fake brown nose didn't work for Rudolph) but I did try not to dwell on them. Then, last summer, my right eye wigged out. My husband Dave and I were on a road trip out West. The weather was hot, dry and sunny—the trifecta of bump irritants. The nubbin became red and swollen—it felt bee-stung. At times I could barely stand to keep my eyelid open.

My doctor referred me to the Eye Institute; I arrived at my appointment prepared to choke on another serving of humble pie. I met with Dr. Marruenda, who charmingly struggled for a politically correct way to say, “What’s a white chick like you doing with a pterygium like this?” My bumps flirted shamelessly, “Pay attention to us! Pay attention to us!” He prescribed a steroid to calm the inflammation in my right eye and asked to see me again. Nothing screams vindication like a trip to the pharmacy and a follow-up visit.

While the medicated drops would ease the swelling, Dr. Marruenda noted that surgery is the only way to send the bumps packing for good.

So great is my aversion to the O.R., that I once closed a four-inch gash on my arm with band-aids rather than face getting stitches. But the chance to restore the whites of my eyes to their natural beauty, some might say luminosity, was tempting.

I asked Dr. Marruenda to describe the procedure.

Step 1: They prop the eye open, which alone scares the bejesus out of most patients.
Step 2: Then comes the local anesthetic, administered via needle to the eye. I understand this to mean I will be conscious during the entire operation and able to hear everything. Even though this isn’t dentistry, I imagine the whir of a drill.
Step 3: The pterygium is cut out, and the place where it touched the cornea is polished down. This time I imagine a sander.
Step 4: To patch the pothole left by the excavated bump, a slice of membrane is taken from above the iris and sewn into the gap.

There’s no pain during the surgery, but some afterwards. Also bleeding in the corner of the eye and redness for up to three months. A new procedure eliminates the need for the swatch of upper eye filler material, substituting a piece of amniotic membrane (which is glued on, not stitched).

I mull the offer.

I have bumps on my eyes.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Thank God It’s Friday

I Feel Your Pain: Sasha Cohen may or may not have skated her long program while suffering from a groin pull, the same injury that forced Michelle Kwan to withdraw from the Olympics entirely. Perhaps, like me, you were unaware that women had groins. I thought it was part of the male anatomy until I strained my own. Guys may be interested to know that the soreness is further aggravated by wearing high heels—I can scarcely imagine the effect of flinging oneself in the air and landing on ice. Stretching only makes it worse, which I assume applies to Ms. Cohen’s Gumby poses. My leg hurt just to stand on it, much less pull it over my head. I confess I am not a huge fan of Cohen’s (I really, really, really wanted Kwan to win a gold) and I don’t know that her crash landings last night merited a silver medal. But I have to applaud her groin-and-bear-it routine. Now let’s give the girl a cortisone shot.

Bright Lights, Big Ratings: We all know that the real competition last night wasn’t on NBC. I’m talking about the finale to “Dancing With the Stars.” On the one hand, you’ve got little pixies floating across a swath of white ice to the strains of obscure classical music. On the other, you’ve got Jerry Rice getting jiggy in an Afro wig. No contest. I will even forgive “Dancing” the hour of filler material, which was utterly redeemed by Drew and Cheryl’s Urban Slutboy freestyle. It was almost enough to erase the sight of host Samantha Harris attempting the jive—apparently she was sick of being the only tastefully dressed female on the show. It was almost enough to compensate for the judges, who between this week and last were either a) lobotomized, b) sent to Paula Abdul cheerleading camp or c) de-clawed. How else to explain the 9s (9s!) handed out to Jerry Rice—didn’t they all but beg America to vote him off—or their failure to completely lambaste Stacy’s dance to Saturday Night Tepid. The white girl can’t disco, 42-inch legs or not. Drew and Cheryl laid it down, literally, and deserve to win.

Cusack for Governor: Minnesota had Jesse Ventura. California got Schwarzenegger. I think it’s high time for Illinois to elect its own celebrity governor. The Land of Lincoln is not exactly swimming in star power, so I’m willing to settle for Harold Ramis, Richard Marx or either Cusack—John or Joan. (We’re saving Oprah for President.) They couldn’t be worse than our last two picks. The former governor—George Ryan—is on trial for corruption. I don’t think anybody’s actually following these proceedings. They only caught my attention when I noticed that Ryan’s wife was separated at birth from Canadian sexpert Sue Johanson. The current officeholder—Rod Blagojevich—made a befuddled appearance on “The Daily Show,” claiming he didn’t know it was a spoof of the news. I know Rod is busy trying to look like he deserves to be re-elected but c’mon. I don’t have cable and I know the difference between Jon Stewart and Dan Rather. If I were governor, minimally I’d assign someone on my staff to read Entertainment Weekly. Which is where Cusack should announce his/her candidacy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Word Play

The 10 words searched most frequently online at Merriam Webster in 2005:


The list reads like a recap of the year’s top news stories. Hurricane Katrina: refugee, levee, inept—and possibly contempt and insipid. Bird flu: pandemic. New pope: conclave. Supreme Court nominations: filibuster. Tsunami: tsunami.

Or it could apply to my current frustration with public transit in Chicago. I rely on the El—specifically the Brown and Red lines—to get around town, but for the next six months, my station at Rockwell is closed for renovation. It’s February. It’s cold outside. And now I have to add another half-mile onto my walk to board a train.

I wonder, do any members of the insipid conclave who decided on the construction schedule actually take public transportation?

Are riders not the reason for the CTA’s existence? If so, why do they hold us in such contempt?

Will refugees from the Rockwell station return in August, or will they abandon it permanently in favor of the Western or Francisco stops?

Can I expect the CTA’s inept level of service to improve once my shiny new station re-opens or is the agency’s incompetence so pandemic as to be an incurable condition?

Do I trust the integrity of statements promising the restoration of Rockwell will last “up to six months” and no longer?

I predict popular words along the Brown Line in 2006: prevarication, onerous, dawdling, setback, disgruntlement, vexation, acerbity, fretfulness, disenchantment, automobile.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Ripped from the Headlines

Home field advantage
The war between U.S. speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick appears to have escalated. Now their hometowns are getting in on the action. Announcing results of the men’s 1,500-meter race, the Chicago Tribune’s electronic edition heralded its local hero with “Davis Wins Silver Behind Italian.” “Third Place” shouted the home page of the Houston Chronicle, with accompanying photo of Hedrick.

Dancing with the Stars on Ice
Once upon a time, Vera Wang designed Nancy Kerrigan’s figure skating costumes. In Torino, we have couture by the Bedazzler, with female ice dancers committing crimes against fashion Stacy Kiebler can only dream of. Sequins on the forehead, beading at the throat, and precious little fabric anywhere else. The Ukrainian had tassels hanging from her boobs—for a second I thought I’d stumbled onto a rerun of the Lingerie Bowl. The Italian wore a salad, with her abs and rib cage on display as the entrée. Guidelines state that costumes must be “athletic in nature,” sort of like ice dancing itself. The sport/not a sport debate continues.

Steroids vs. Botox
The Austrian ski team is being investigated for possible blood doping and the use of banned substances. Over on “Entertainment Tonight,” former “Charlie’s Angel” bombshell Cheryl Ladd divulges that, gasp!, every woman in Hollywood has had a few “tweaks.” My husband raises an interesting question: Why is it that performance enhancing drugs are outlawed in sports, but plastic surgery is perfectly acceptable in Tinseltown? Both give the individual a leg up on the competition, both push the body beyond natural boundaries—providing limitless strength and endurance or infinite youth. I say we legalize steroid/doping along with the Botox, and concede that if we’re going to expect superhuman feats of our athletes and actors, we’ve got to let them use every tool in the box. Or we ban both, and level the playing field on all fronts—no more 70-home run seasons, no more “Joker face” on 50-something starlets.

Double Standard
Nick Lachey may or may not request spousal support from Jessica Simpson. Reporting on this newsflash, “ET” turned to Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah for comment. Because Lindsay Lohan and George Clooney apparently were unavailable. Foxx opined that it was unmanly to sponge off a woman (although apparently perfectly studly to have a baby’s mama, huh Jamie). If only Nancy O’Dell had shoved a microphone in my face. I would have said, “No Nick, no ‘Newlyweds,’ no Pizza Hut commercial. He deserves every penny.”

But Seriously
My computer news crawl tells me that George W. sez: Arab Co. Port Deal Should Proceed. I beg to differ, not because I’m the sort of person who has a stockpile of duct tape in her basement. I don’t even have a basement. Terrorists don’t keep me up at night. No, it’s the fact that all my clothing is made in Honduras or Vietnam. And I don’t think this bothers our current President. I don’t think he cares that Americans don’t produce much of what we buy or that far more goods are entering the U.S. than leaving. And now we don’t even own the ports of entry. I understand we’re playing in a global economy, but our role as Designated Consumer seems precarious, and one that might some day have us sitting on the bench.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Pipe Dreams

In the annals of Olympic boycotts, it doesn’t quite rank with the U.S. withdrawal from the Moscow Games or the Soviet’s retaliatory nyet to L.A. in 1984. It’s even possible the embargo went unnoticed altogether.

I refused to accept the introduction of Moguls, Aerials or Half Pipe as Olympic events.

Why? Because they’re not sports, much the way Rap isn’t music and the last three “Star Wars” installments aren’t movies. Instead, they’re the Hallmark Holidays of athletics--Aerials is to the Downhill what Secretary’s Day is to the Fourth of July. Don’t think I don’t know these manufactured competitions weren’t created solely to lure more 18-34-year-old viewers (and thereby more advertisers) to the Olympic telecast and, as a side benefit, inflate the U.S. medal count.

We swept some of these events in Salt Lake. I did not melt. Pot smoking, tattooed, eyebrow-pierced surfers on ice. Punks. Slackers. That’s what I thought of our Gold-Silver-Bronze Extreme Team. How about we replace “U…S…A, U…S…A” with “Get…a…job. Get…a…job.”

I planned to continue the deep freeze during the 2006 Torino Games. But then this Grinch met her Cindy Lou Who. His name is Shaun White and I love him.

Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my brother Matt. Maybe it’s because I was already so over the Bode-Miller-was-raised-by-hippies-in-a-cabin-without-electricity story. Maybe it’s because I didn’t appreciate the speed with which we were expected to switch allegiance from Michelle Kwan to Emily Hughes, a.k.a. America’s Newest Sweetheart. If you didn’t jump on the Hughes wagon, you might as well have said I don’t support the troops.

With his hip hop uniform and shock of red locks, no one’s going to mistake Shaun White for Eric Heiden. Then again, what’s wrong with having a personality or showing a little exuberance? Or executing tricks with names like “fakey nose grab 1080.” He had me at “McTwist.” After nailing his gold medal routine, White told the commentators, “I had a lot of fun today.” So did I. Then he momentarily lost his cool and started to cry. “I wasn’t going to tear up, but seeing the family…”Awwww.

I hope Shaun White keeps on having fun. I hope he doesn’t change a single hair of his shaggy mane. I hope he never has to learn PowerPoint or Excel. I hope he never cares more about making money than loving what he’s doing. I hope he keeps giving his dad great big bear hugs.

* * *

These X Games hipsters did a far better job representing the Olympic ideal than U.S. competitors in more traditional sports. Figure skater Evan Lysacek consistently referred to his own fourth-place finish as “courageous.” Note to Evan: I’m pretty sure Superman didn’t walk around saying, “You know, I am faster than a speeding bullet.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if Lysacek’s horn tooting wasn’t his way of announcing his campaign for the DHL Spirit Award.

If there were a Cry Baby Award, it would go to Chad Hedrick. Hedrick came into the Games with an outside chance at five Gold Medals. After winning his first event, he was all Texas charm. When things didn’t go his way in the Team Pursuit, he pouted and started fingerpointing. Sort of like another famous native of the Lone Star State.

Shani Davis bore the brunt of Hedrick’s wrath, as if Davis’ sole raison d’etre was to help Hedrick get his face on a box of Wheaties. Never mind that Davis, a world record-holder, had his own races to prepare for.

I question the class and motives of any individual who tries his case in the Court of Public Opinion. Hedrick all but stated, “There is no ‘I’ in Team, but there’s certainly one in Shani.”

The U.S. Olympic Team is a myth. Except for events such as 4-Man Bobsled, athletes do not eat, sleep, breathe and train together. They do not go to karaoke bars, join hands and shout out the chorus to “We Are Family.” It’s every man and woman for him- or herself. Does Bode Miller skip the Downhill so Daron Rahlves has a better shot at medaling in his final Olympics? No. Is Sasha Cohen thrilled to see Michelle Kwan out of competition? You betchya.

Shani Davis grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He worked his ass off to get to these Olympics and did what he needed to do to put himself in the best position to win a medal. Chad Hedrick wanted Shani to put Chad Hedrick in the best position to win. And that’s what I call selfish.

* * *

From the Mouth of Dave

My husband's observations on the Olympics:

Female speedskaters look like Storm Troopers, until they take their hoods off and turn into girls.

Every other athlete wears a "uniform." Figure skaters wear "costumes." Not a sport.

Do the Dutch get confused by the whole "Netherlands" thing?


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Grand Torino

Thank god for Bob Costas. Without the Dick Clark of the Olympics to call the play by play for the Torino Opening Ceremonies, I might have thought I’d stumbled onto a performance of “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory: The Musical.” Why do the kick offs to these quadrennial sporting events always come across as Cirque de Soleil on acid? U.S. editions are the exception, where nothing screams American culture and history like a good ol' hoedown. And then we bring out the covered wagons. I suppose that's one way of convincing the world we're serious about kicking our addiction to foreign oil.

In Torino, we had speedskaters with flaming fire balls attached to their backs, a performance by the Von Trapp Family: Next Generation and dancers wearing costumes that resembled nothing so much as a Gateway computer box. No one escaped the Vortex of the Weird, not even Giorgio Armani. Earlier in the week, the king of couture had complained about the dowdy tracksuit he was forced to don during his stint as a torch bearer. M-kay. But were the hospital scrubs-like ensembles he designed for the group presenting the Italian flag really any better? Poor guys. Their one shot at strutting around in a custom-fit Armani suit, and they looked like hospital orderlies or refugees from a Puff Diddy Daddy all-white pajama party. Of course, they were merely escorting Carla Bruni, delicately carrying the Red, White and Green as only a former paramour of Mick Jagger can. Bruni fared much better, wearing a gown of shimmering silver and the sort of blank stare it takes years to perfect.

This was all so much preamble to the Parade of Nations, which is why most of us tune into the O.C. in the first place. It wasn’t much of a fashion show, what with everyone bundled up in down parkas and headgear. Even the dreamy Scandinavians were kept under wraps. The coolest outfits were the shearling coats, cowboy hats and jeans worn by the U.S. team. In Lake Placid. In 1980. Still, there were a few sartorial highlights, and Costas came armed with enough Stupid Olympic Stats to keep me from flipping over to "Reba":

  • American culture is pervasive. Athletes from Albania to Macedonia to Venezuela entered the Olympic Stadium to tunes by K.C. & the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, Michael Jackson, Chic, Donna Summer (twice) and Van Halen. Here’s Serbia and Montenegro marching to “YMCA.” Here’s Ukraine stepping out to “Disco Inferno,” which actually would have made sense for Iceland, home, Costas told us, to the most discos north of the equator.

  • No one looks good in hats. Not even the French. The Mongolians were wearing entire PETA-be-damned-it's-freaking-cold pelts atop their heads (sashaying along to “Video Killed the Radio Star”). The Danes opted for ear muffs, which I’m sure was not meant to be metaphorical in the least, as in “turning a deaf ear” to pesky protestors.

  • If geography class would include more fun facts, kids might pay attention. Did you know Andorra has more mechanical ski lifts per capita than any other country? Did you even know Andorra was country and not the mother from "Bewitched"?

  • Canadians are not as nice as we’ve all been led to believe. “Own the podium” is the country’s rallying cry for 2010, when they host the Winter Games in Vancouver. Who do they think they are, Americans?

  • Life does not imitate art. The fictional kingdom of Moldavia was the setting for a royal wedding on “Dynasty.” The actual country of Moldova is one of the poorest in Europe—residents of Torino were taking up a collection to help finance the athletes. Ironically, Moldova’s team was followed by Monaco's, who I'm sure would have contributed to the cause had they been carrying anything other than poker chips.

  • What do Iceland and Senegal have in common? Neither has ever won a Winter Olympic medal.

  • Alphabetically speaking, it pays to be Venezuela. The Albanians kicked off the Parade, and then cooled their heels for several hours waiting for the rest of the athletes to take their seats. Were they packing Porta Potties under those parkas?

  • Were the Germans making some sort of nod to Italy's renowned cuisine? How else to explain the team from Deutshland's horrific cauliflower, asparagus and cream of tomato uniforms, which also included standard-issue "Heidi" braids for the female members of the contingent. Berlin clearly not gunning for Fashion Capital of the World. That title goes to Milan, hence the Italians’ metallic coats with fur trim. Born to the catwalk, the women strutted in skirts and black boots with heels. They’ll be participating later in the evening gown competition.

  • Aerial acrobats rock! Do these people hold regular jobs or are they some sort of squad that travels from one Olympic O.C. to the next? Their smash up impression of Blue Man Group does Spiderman, morphing into the Peace Dove was one of the strangest, most magical bits of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed.

  • Sophia Loren headed the contingent of Women of Distinction—one from each continent, though Antarctica apparently passed on sending a penguin—carrying in the Olympic flag. Her paisans included former Olympians and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Susan Sarandon represented for North America. Was Oprah not available? Peggy Fleming?

  • Yoko Ono is still random, John Lennon is still one of our greatest artists. Peter Gabriel’s rendition of “Imagine” was inspired and it was goosebump-gorgeous to watch the athletes link arms and sway to the music.

I thought the show had ended, but Costas teased one final surprise. Back from commercial, there was Luciano Pavarotti (I believe the Salt Lake Games boasted R. Kelly). I couldn’t take my eyes off his ink black brows. Then he started to sing and I realized that Andrea Bocelli, plugged all week by the “Today” show, is not a Tenor. Pavarotti soared and took the crowd—and viewers—with him. It was breathtaking, some might have said luminous, and over far too soon. “You da man!” yelled someone from the U.S. contingent. Yes, he is.

* * *

Luminous Sighting

Feb. 10, Los Angeles Times, item on the latest issue of Vanity Fair: "...two actresses...are luminously naked on the fold out cover."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Art of Persistence

As a little shock for your retinas, that’s Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, joining Mick & Keith in the exclusive club of aging rockers who persist in making themselves up like teenage girls so we won’t notice their faces are falling off. I’m not saying these guys should put on a pair of Dockers. But how about taking a page from someone like Bruce Springsteen—a year younger than Tyler and a year older than Perry—who manages to look hipper than my dad without resembling a drag queen.


In other music news, Barry Manilow has his first #1 album in more than 29 years. Oh Mandy! Showing the kids how it’s done, “The Greatest Songs of the Fifties” moved 156,000 units, besting efforts from Mary J. Blige, Jamie Foxx (giving Kanye West a run for his I-love-myself money) and Eminem. Barry was one of my very first crushes. Who could resist that page-boy hairdo (of course, now he looks like Mamie Eisenhower, but hey, I was a kid) and the way he always mentioned his dog Bagel in the liner notes. I chalked my love for Barry on the sidewalk, sending my friend Amy into hysterics, and memorized how to play “Mandy” on the piano; I let loose on a keyboard at Costco just last weekend.

Manilow all but disappeared from radio and sales charts decades ago and the music industry didn’t seem to mind. This is not the schnozz that will launch a thousand ringtones. But he persisted, playing concerts, popping up on the occasional talk show and prepping for a second act as the next Wayne Newton. He struck me as the sort of person who knew he had fallen out of fashion and didn’t really mind. He wasn’t going to follow the trends, and now, whaddya know, the trends have caught up to him.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Tale of Two Authors

I love books.

I learned to read, courtesy of my older sister, before I entered the first grade. As a 10-year-old, I surreptitiously tucked novels into my textbooks and set off on adventures in foreign lands while the rest of my classmates studied their multiplication tables. I am the rare child who’s been reprimanded for reading in school.

But I am not a fan of the Memoir.

Much ink has been spilled over James Frey, author of “A Million Little Pieces.” This short-lived king of the publishing world was brought down to peasant class when fabrications were discovered in his work. What Oprah giveth, she can also taketh away.

I do not defend Frey’s actions. But I place at least a small portion of blame on the reading public’s obsession with the Memoir, which has created a culture of “toppers” among its practitioners. You know, the sort of people who, when you say you’ve hiked the Grand Canyon respond with, “Ah yes, I remember hallucinating about the Grand Canyon during my solo trek across the Gobi Desert. Marauders stole my food and water the first day. I survived by drinking my own sweat.”

Witness some recent releases in the category:

  • Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle: Ms. Perle arrives in Singapore, where her businessman husband has been transferred, only to be told at the Arrivals Gate that the marriage is off. She’s shipped back to the States with a mere $1,500 to her name.

  • I Am Not Myself These Days, Josh Kilmer-Purcell: Let’s see, do we have all the requisite memoir ingredients—Manhattan ad agency setting, drag queens, crack addicts, S&M, escape from Midwestern roots. Yep.

  • The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper: The author’s father estimates it has cost him $2 million to raise his son—and he wants the money back. The son spends 10+ years trying to figure out What’s Up with Dad, for the purpose of wringing out content for this memoir.

  • Without You, Anthony Rapp: Actor rides the highs of a successful Tony Award-winning play (“Rent”) and the lows of his mother’s death from cancer.

How was Frey’s been-there, done-that story of one man’s road to sobriety ever going to compete without throwing in a little jail time?

What I find most disturbing about the Memoir, apart from it causing perfectly decent people to rue their perfectly functional upbringing and passage into adulthood (damn you, Mom & Dad, for being good parents), is the same thing that annoys me about Britney Spears. Brit dances with a snake, wears the minimal amount of clothing required to be considered “dressed,” dates a guy whose girlfriend is pregnant, sells tons of records and makes an assload of money. Meanwhile, people who can actually sing work as waiters, alongside writers who can’t get anyone to publish their novels because editors are too busy looking for this week’s Biggest Hedonist with Crappiest Childhood.


Last night I went to the Newberry Library for a reading by Julian Barnes, who is touring the States in support of his latest book, “Arthur & George.”

Perhaps 150 of us attended the event. Waiting for the author to take the podium, I mulled the turn out for Barnes vs. the Oprah-sized audience for Frey’s coming out party and the respective sales figures for Frey vs. Barnes. In both instances, the response is most decidedly in direct disproportion to the talent involved.

Barnes is one of the "big boys of undead EngLit," his peers generally considered to be Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. He’s been shortlisted three times for Britain’s highest literary prize; his work pursues the themes of love, history, reality and truth. (insert link to other guardian article)

Though a work of fiction, “Arthur & George” recounts actual events: In the early years of the 20th Century, George Edalji is wrong convicted of a crime. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, works to clear the man’s name. Barnes meticulously researched the facts of the Edalji case, as well as the lives of his main protagonists. He obtained a copy of George’s death certificate to make sure that an imagined scene at the end of the book could actually have taken place. Because that’s the sort of thing professional writers do. Even when dealing with worlds of their own creation, novelists strive for authenticity.

“Arthur & George” rewards with a page-turning mystery, finely nuanced characters and terrifically good writing. When the jury pronounces the verdict of “guilty,” Barnes needs just two words to convey George’s horror and the reaction any of us might have in the same situation, “Unsay it.” But the book is more than a whodunit or “CSI: Victorian England.” George Edalji is half-Indian. Barnes explores the subtleties of racism, and what we might term “profiling,” placing an individual under suspicion simply because of the color of his skin or nationality. Issues very much of the moment. For good measure, we also have a cover up by the establishment and a coordinated effort to concoct evidence to support a foregone conclusion. (WMDs, anyone?)

Personally, I would much rather spend my time with a work of fiction that feels true than a true story that feels like fiction.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Monday Morning Quarterback

Half-time at the Super Bowl: Two years have passed and we’re still being penalized for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. I ask, why must the viewers suffer, and Justin Timberlake is allowed to continue dating Cameron Diaz? Nothing against the Rolling Stones, but they haven’t been relevant musically since Terry Bradshaw quarterbacked the Steelers. And next time someone suggests Nicole Richie needs to eat a sandwich, they should send a couple of pizzas to Mick & Co. Memo to Mr. Jagger: We expect you to date 20-year-old supermodels, not have the figure of one.

The ads: Anyone who logs online to view the Internet-only version of’s commercial, which features a buxom lass pouring out of her tank top, should be forced to contribute to Dove’s Self-Esteem Fund for young girls.

Post-game: I have managed thus far to resist the impulse to tune into the “Desperate Housewives”/“Grey’s Anatomy” Sunday night juggernaut. But those geniuses at ABC sucked me in with their onslaught of cryptic “Code Black” ads for “Grey’s.” In case you are immune to marketing ploys, Code Black turned out to be a signal to call the bomb squad or evacuate the hospital (this wasn’t quite clear), thanks to unexploded ammo lodged in a patient’s chest cavity. Haven’t I seen this somewhere before? Why yes, I believe it was a “very special” episode of “ER.” As a bonus gimmick, “Grey’s” ended with a cliffhanger, hoping to get us newcomers to tune in again next week. Um, no.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Counter Programming

Over on the WE network, they’re airing “Love Affair.” AMC has “Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles.” E! offers up “100 Sexiest Celebrity Bodies” and TLC is going wall to wall with “Wild Weddings.”

Oh, and there’s something called the Super Bowl on ABC.

I stopped caring about the NFL the day the San Francisco 49ers traded Joe Montana to Kansas City, but I continue to tune into football’s annual championship game for the same reason I plug into all massive pop cultural events—water cooler talking points. Still, I appreciate the counter programming effort aimed at us chicks.

PBS stopped my remote in its tracks with a repeat of its "Regency House Party" series finale. Twenty-first Century singletons are sent back to the 19th, where they engage in elaborate courtship rituals. Would love or money, head or heart carry the day? I was transfixed by this Jane Austen novel come to life: empire gowns, sumptuous setting at an English manor, Mr. Darcy look-alikes, chamber pots. Superman has his kryptonite; I am brought low by romance. And I’m not alone. Of the 30,000 applicants for Regency House, 85 percent were women.

Then the splash of cold water. One of our heroines, Miss Hayley Conick, announces she would rather take her chances as a mistress than choose the fairy tale ending. The reality of Regency marriage: women turn over all property and rights, one-third die in childbirth and spousal abuse is perfectly acceptable.

I flip over to ABC. Mike Holmgren, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is talking about his wife Kathy, who is not attending the game today. She’s in the Congo, with one of the couple’s daughters, an M.D. Like Regency House, the ladies are doing without electricity and indoor plumbing. Unlike House, they’re busy training medical professionals in a part of the world where doctors are few and the need is overwhelming. “She gets to fulfill a dream,” Holmgren says proudly. Now there’s a Prince Charming.

Damn, ABC is good. They counter programmed themselves.


Luminous sightings “Most people know a little about the period from the luminous fiction of Jane Austen.”

Entertainment Weekly, Feb. 10 issue, pg. 34, item on Oscar nominee Charlize Theron: “…in 2003’s Monster, much of the focus was on her startling transformation from luminous beauty to broken-down beast.”

Entertainment Weekly, Feb.10 issue, pg. 56, item on Oscar nominee Amy Adams: “Adams has racked up…her first Oscar nomination for this luminous turn.”

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Giant Jar of Mayonnaise

Our new favorite place to go on a Friday night: Costco.

A friend loaned us her membership card back in December, we took a covert tour and promptly joined ourselves. The attraction? Hard to define.

There’s the sense of getting a “deal” on everything. The comical size of the products, a.k.a. the “giant jar of mayonnaise” factor, and the accompanying notion that somehow buying in bulk will save us time. The quixotic juxtaposition of washers and dryers next to apples and oranges next to diamond rings (I always make sure to visit “my” one-carat princess cut sparkler). The samples.

I like to think of the $45 membership fee as an annual pass to the local amusement park, where reason and sense take a holiday.

Last night, we arrived in need of bread, salad mix, energy bars, and snacks to take to a Super Bowl party. We walked away with:

  • Three 2.5 lb. loaves of multigrain bread. We eat a lot of sandwiches.

  • 1 lb. container of Spring Mix salad

  • 24-count Zone energy bars

  • 30 oz. bag of Doritos

  • 3.5 lb. container of peanuts

And then, just because we could:

  • 18-count pack of kitchen sponges

  • 1 quart container of salad dressing. To go with the Spring Mix.

  • 2.5 lb. Colombian coffee

  • 3 lb. cottage cheese

  • 2 lb. Swiss cheese slices. We eat a lot of sandwiches.

  • 16-count hamburger buns. To go with the 16-count veggie burgers we bought back in January. As a connoisseur of many a horrendous veggie burger, I pronounce Costco’s The Best Ever.

  • 32-count “antioxidant” organic blueberry waffles with pomegranate infusion; 2 bags Total whole wheat cereal. Someone’s cholesterol is 279.

  • 4 lbs. butter; 4 lb. bag brown sugar; 16 Healthy Choice fudge bars. Sort of defeating the waffles and Total.

From our shopping trip of January 16, we’re still working our way through:

  • 32 cans of Caffeine Free Diet Coke

  • 300 oz. of laundry detergent (good for 96 loads)

  • 8-pack of Chapstick

  • 16-count pack of fruit parfaits

  • 5 lb. bag of frozen oven fries

  • Two 3-lb. containers of peanut butter

  • 48 Sweet and Salty Peanut Granola Bars

  • We’ve yet to even open the 56 oz. bag of frozen spinach ravioli, two 30-oz. containers of mustard or 2-pack of Refresh eye drops

From December 18, we still haven’t depleted:

  • 60 envelopes of Swiss Miss hot cocoa

  • 4-pack of Lysol toilet bowl cleaner

  • 48 bar Nature Valley Granola Variety Pack

  • 1 pint 100% pure bourbon Madagascar vanilla

  • Two 18-oz. packages of frozen butternut squash ravioli

  • 5 pack Kodak film

  • 265 tablets Tums maximum strength ultra. For the calcium.

  • 250-count One a Day Vitamins for Women

  • 3-pack Colgate Total Whitening gel toothpaste

  • 2 lbs. Red Star Active Dry Yeast

  • 4 lbs. confectioner’s sugar

Are we saving money? I have no idea. Certainly, some of our purchases are practical items that are staples of our diet and lifestyle; on a cost per unit basis, I know we’re getting a bargain. But we’ve also made our share of whimsical impulse buys. What possessed me to put that box mix of jumbo Cinnabon muffins in my cart? Costco made me do it.

Are we saving time? Possibly, but we haven’t altogether negated the need for trips to Jewel or Trader Joe’s. With limited storage capacity in our condo, we’ve passed on Costco offerings like the 12-pack of paper towels, 8-pack of Kleenex, 88-count box of tampons and a 500-count box of security envelopes in favor of more diminutive counterparts available elsewhere. (My parents, on the other hand, installed additional shelving in their basement to hold approximately 1,842 rolls of toilet paper.)

Are we evil for succumbing to the allure of The Big Box and sticking it to The Little Guy? Rumor has it that Costco employees are unionized and receive healthcare benefits. So I feel good about that. And hey, I still get my single 16-oz. jar of mayonnaise at the produce market down the street.

Are we contributing to the suburbanization or mall-ification of the urban landscape? I don’t care. It’s something different to do on a Friday night. And those Cinnabon muffins were awesome.

Friday, February 03, 2006

You Might Also Like…

Amidst the current debate about the legitimacy of wiretapping, a more insidious invasion of privacy continues unabated. I’m talking about the tracking of online purchases and the assumption that A leads to B.

I ordered James Blunt’s “Back to Bedlam.” You all know what came next. The list of other artists Amazon thinks I might enjoy. Damien Rice, David Gray, Coldplay. Holy target marketing, Batman. I own a total of seven CDs by those three.

Put a book by Jonathan Safran Foer into your cart. I can almost guarantee recommendations will pop up for Nicole Krauss, Ian McEwan and maybe Michael Chabon or Zadie Smith. Bingo. All of these writers can be found on my bookshelves.

Are we really so predictable? Can we be pigeonholed so easily?

I log onto Amazon’s site and click on their suggestions for me. Three of them I already own, another six I have given serious consideration. I find this disturbing. The “personalized” list makes me feel less like an individual and more like a category. As if I could be interchanged with any number of people who have a fondness for folkie male singer/songwriters and literary fiction. I suppose I am expected to feel like part of community; instead, I am depressed that I’m so easily defined.

Or am I?

My husband can tell I’m a David Gray fan because he’s heard me play “Babylon” to death. But he’s also aware I thought Gray’s last CD was kind of weak and I’m not going to invest in his latest. Conversations with my friend Aleks frequently center on books, which is why she would never steer me toward something in the non-fiction genre. There’s something to be said for personal interaction and an intimacy that’s been earned.

I open my email. has a deal for me. I click on the message, hoping for a 30% off coupon. It’s not. Instead, they’d like me to know I can pre-order a children’s book.

“We’ve noticed that customers who have purchased ‘Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook’ by Shel Silverstein also purchased books by Kate Dicamillo….”

Yes, I bought “Runny Babbit.” As a Christmas gift for my nephew. I’ve never heard of Kate Dicamillo, thought I’m sure she’s a perfectly fine author.

And suddenly I feel vindicated. I am capable of throwing the occasional curveball. The computer knows my buying history. But it doesn’t know me.


Luminous sighting
Chicago Tribune, Feb. 3, review of the movie “Something New”: Kenya (the luminous Sanaa Lathan, who emerged as a star in 2000’s “Love and Basketball”) is a hugely successful accountant….

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Musical Soaps

OMG! Tristan Rogers has returned to General Hospital as Robert Scorpio, panache and Australian-accent intact, completing the ’80s flashback that began in December with the reappearance of Rick Springfield as Dr. Noah Drake, only slightly less dashing and hiding his Aussie roots as well as ever. If Luke Spencer hadn’t sprouted grey hair, I’d swear time in Port Charles had stood still.

I parted ways with the soaps when I graduated college and joined the world of full-time employment. But now that I’m home during the day, I occasionally tune in for the companionship. It’s been great catching up with my old friends, although keeping track of their new names and addresses has been like solving a Sudoku puzzle.

Erica Kane, Reva Shayne, Vicki Buchanan and Marlena Brady are all still holding down their respective forts. Diedre Hall apparently works with the same crew that lights Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. I keep thinking my glasses are smudged, but they’re perfectly clean.

Holden and Lily are still breaking up and getting back together over there on As the World Turns (seems that, no, actually it stopped rotating some time ago). Bo and Hope are still sharing the Days of Their Lives. Victor and Nikki are not so Young but still Restless. The only difference is that these Super Couples are now parents to a whole new crop of hotties.

If you’re looking for Days’ conniving Carly, you can catch her on Guiding Light as conniving Olivia. Not to be confused with General Hospital’s Carly, who used to play Cassie on GL. The current Cassie also stars as Woman Looking for Her Son at Olive Garden. GL’s Alan-Michael Spaulding is now Ric on GH, whose wife Alexis is the refugee from Santa Barbara formerly known as Julia.

“She Gets Around” Award goes to Skye Quartermaine—same actress, same character has appeared on all three ABC soaps and married five times.

“Demi-Ashton” Award goes to Lila Quartermaine, played by the now deceased Anna Lee (b. 1913). The character of her long-time spouse Edward Quartermaine rotated between John Ingle (b. 1928, and now seen as Mickey Horton on Days) and Jed Allan (b. 1937, aka C.C. Capwell on Santa Barbara and Don Craig on Days, who was once married to Marlena!).

“What the …?” Award is a three-way tie. Get your scorecards ready:

  • Josh Taylor, currently Roman Brady on Days, formerly Chris Kositchek on Days

  • Wayne Northrup, formerly Roman Brady on Days, now Dr. Alex North on Days

  • Judi Evans, currently Bonnie on Days, formerly Beth on GL, Paulina on Another World and Adrienne on Days

Now, not only is a character never truly dead, they are being reincarnated right in front of our eyes and not just as Evil Twins.

Soaps are one part escapism, one part fantasy, one part comfort food. I dip my toes back in after a 15 year absence and it's like I never left. With my reality in constant flux, it helps to know that some things never change: love conquers all; the world is full of second chances; reinvention is within our grasp; mistakes can be forgiven; it never pays to pull a baby switch. If all this business of actors hopping between shows and characters is a little jarring, it’s also nice to see a friendly face in an unexpected place. And if they haven't aged a day, well I guess I haven't either.

Tristan Rogers, good to see ya, mate.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

'Paris' Part II: The Tourist Trap

When I complain to my brother about where I live—the filthy sidewalks, the noisy neighbors, the litter—he tells me, “You want to go to Germany.”

That wouldn’t have been my first choice.

I have been dying to travel to Europe for as long as I can remember, and by Europe I mean England. My bookshelves are crammed with novels by Anglo authors, from Austen and Bronte to McEwan and Barnes; my husband describes my taste in films as “If it isn’t British, it’s crap.” I wrote a research paper in the 10th grade on the Tudor kings; I remember my teacher asking, “Are you actually interested in this?” Oh, I was interested. I’m not sure what exactly I find so intriguing about the Brits. The Royal Family, certainly (I kept a drawer of Princess Di press clippings at my parents’ house until they moved a few years ago). The accent, which makes every utterance sound intelligent and charmingly witty at the same time. The history, though admittedly much of my knowledge comes courtesy of Shakespeare. Hugh Grant.

Despite this intense Anglophilia, I have never ventured outside the U.S. Unless you count Canada, which I don’t. Not even the French-speaking part.

I am still trying to figure out when traveling abroad became as commonplace as, say, getting an MBA. When I was growing up in Ohio, no one went anywhere, except maybe the family cottage on Lake Erie. These days people jet off to Copenhagen or Cambodia like it’s a trip to Walgreen’s. Half my cousins studied in Europe during college. Even my brother Joey—Mister Burger-in-a-Basket himself—honeymooned in Greece. If he wasn’t one of my all-time favorite people, I would have to hate him.

Yet I remain States-bound. I offer up, in my defense: the expense, the language barrier (albeit, not valid for the U.K.), the hassle of planning such an excursion, the wealth of attractive destinations in the U.S. (e.g., the Grand Canyon), the fact that I’d have to buy some sort of converter for my hair dryer and a complete lack of decisiveness on my part.

There are, quite simply, too many options. I want to go everywhere, so I wind up going nowhere.

England would make for a good start, but it feels like a cop out—not enough of a stretch or challenge. Besides, if I don’t fall into a ballroom scene out of “Pride & Prejudice,” I fear I’ll be utterly disappointed. And if not England, then where?

After sitting through 5,000 hours of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, New Zealand vaulted to the top of my wish list. My husband cautions, “You do realize that the hobbits won’t be there.”

Thanks to a recent PBS special and Conan O’Brien, Finland is now on my radar screen. And apparently Deutschland is the perfect place to satisfy my lust for order and cleanliness.

I have never once considered France.

The French disdain for Americans is legendary and I don’t imagine my high-school Spanish will earn me any points in the cafes. I’d prefer not to spend the entirety of my vacation living in mortal terror of making a fashion faux pas.

Yet I’ve spent the past week in Paris, courtesy of Adam Gopnik’s collection of essays, “Paris to the Moon.” And he’s starting to win me over. (Side note: Gopnik admits he became a Francophile only because his sister had already lay claim to an obsession with London.)

The premise of the book is fairly straightforward: In 1995, Gopnik and his wife decided to pack up their infant son and spend the next five years living the American expatriate’s life in Paris. I expected humorous fish-out-of-water vignettes and observations in the “Mon dieu! The French are so silly” vein. But Gopnik never sinks to the cliché, instead providing heartfelt and profound insights into culture and identity, drawing on both major public events and minor domestic scenes. He utterly enchants, and Paris basks in his reflected glow. Gopnik nearly had me convinced that I simply must go see the City of Lights.

Until he started talking about the food.

The plats offered on the menu of his favorite restaurant never change: steak au poivre, roast chicken, grilled sole or salmon, calf’s liver, gigot. (I had to look that one up—a leg of mutton, lamb or veal.) He describes the overall cuisine as “a disk of meat, a disk of complement, a sauce on top.”

I shall starve.

I don’t eat meat, not because I feel a particular sympathy for animals (truly, I am not fond of many of them, especially dogs off their leash) but because I don’t like the taste of it. Not beef, not pork, not chicken, not turkey and most decidedly not anything attached to the seafood family. We found this difficult enough to accommodate when road-tripping through Cattle Country USA last summer. Would the French chefs be so inclined to whip me up le burger de veggie or le cheese de grilled? How about an avocado sandwich with alfalfa sprouts, served on whole grain? Do they know about Trader Joe’s frozen organic brown rice, which comes packaged in single servings and only takes 10 minutes to heat on the stove?

(Undoubtedly, I could survive on a strict diet of pastries. Or baguettes and cheese. Either scenario holds a certain appeal, but I understand that exercise is verboten in France and I wouldn’t be caught dead walking the streets of Paris with my waistband unbuttoned or, quel horrible, wearing a pair of sweatpants.)

I can just see myself, “Vegetarian’s Guide to Europe” in hand, passing up the Louvre while frantically searching for the Subway on the Rue du Bonjour. I refuse to give the French the satisfaction by confirming yet another Ugly American stereotype.

So I stay home. And I ponder whether it would offend the Germans were I to enter their country packing a suitcase full of Kashi bars. I promise to keep the wrappers off their sidewalks.