Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What We Can Learn From Leslie Jordan

Brace yourselves. I'm about to use a baseball metaphor.

Last Sunday night, we delighted in seeing character actor Leslie Jordan performing Show Pony, a one-man performance about his recent Hollywood adventures. When I wasn't laughing out loud at his breathlessly recounted stories, I couldn't help but admire what he has accomplished.

OK, now the baseball metaphor. As far as traditional Hollywood goes, Leslie Jordan had three 'strikes' against him—and still managed to hit a home run.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1982 with "dreams as big as the California sky," Leslie's first potential strike was his height. At 4 feet 11 inches, he wasn't exactly of leading-man stature.

Then there was his deep Tennessee accent, which apparently hasn't diminished despite living in Los Angeles for over 30 years. Leslie has the kind of accent you could stick a spoon into and it would stand straight up.

The third potential strike? Leslie Jordan is "the gayest man I know," he says. In his book and stand-up show My Trip Down the Pink Carpet, he shares tales of Hollywood directors trying in vain to "butch" him up, such as the time he played an FBI agent in an early TV role.

When you put the pieces together, Leslie's chances of success seemed dim at best. In 1982, he was already 27, which is bordering on retirement age by Hollywood casting standards. He was diminutive, had a thick Southern accent, and was obviously gay. Was he out of his mind, thinking he could have a movie/TV career?

Absolutely. And being out of his mind clearly worked for him.

Leslie confesses on stage and in his book that when he arrived in Los Angeles, he struggled with religious shame and self-confidence, along with alcohol and drug abuse. Despite the internal struggles and the big odds against him, he worked hard, learned how to showcase and fine-tune his inimitable style, became sober, and eventually won an Emmy (for Will and Grace).

Not surprisingly, Leslie has become a hero to the gay community. I think his amazing life illustrates an important lesson for everyone: That our self-perceived limitations can actually be assets in disguise. All we have to do, as Leslie might say, is to learn how "to work it, y'all."
Left to right: Me, Bob Wheeler, Leslie Jordan, Kurt Kleespies, Nick Parham (March 2014)









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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Is San Francisco Really the 'New' New York?

San Francisco is undergoing a transformation. I've lived here since 1987, and I've never seen so many buildings under construction. It's as if every empty wedge of space, every former gas station lot is transforming into a mid-rise apartment or condo building with ground-floor retail space. Mid Market, a stretch of Market Street downtown, is finally gentrifying, with the likes of Twitter and other tech companies setting up camp there. Google, Genentech, Apple, LinkedIn, Facebook and other companies shuttle well-paid employees from their hipster, overly priced apartments in the Mission to their jobs down in Silicon Valley.

But trust me: San Francisco is not turning into the 'new' New York, a question posted by New York magazine's March 9th article, "Is San Francisco New York?" (with a gratuitous photo of nudies boarding a Google bus, natch.) And to that, I say 'thank God.'



Don't misunderstand. I love New York. It's the most dynamic, creative, culturally rich, diverse city in America. I feel a jolt of electricity in my veins from the moment I see the Manhattan skyline materialize in an airplane window to the moment that same skyline recedes through the airplane window of my homebound flight.

But in my humble opinion, San Francisco is not the 'new' New York and never will be. Here's why.

1. San Francisco gives me a wide-open feeling I don't get in New York. As I walk around San Francisco, I might gaze for miles away at distant hills, the sparkling blue bay, at other cities and towns across the water. I have a panoramic, almost cinematic view from so many hilltops, it feels like nothing could hold me down or contain me. I feel, for want of a better word, enlarged. When I walk down Manhattan streets, however, I feel dwarfed by the tall buildings, insignificant, contracted, even a bit claustrophobic. You look up, and you see just a sliver of the sky. In San Francisco, the sky is vast and virtually everywhere.

2. San Francisco establishments tend to be less 'exclusive' than New York establishments. In New York, the velvet rope at nightclubs is supposedly meant for crowd control, but really, it's more often than not used for crowd selection, a throwback to the old Studio 54 days. I'm not a nightclubber anymore, but the only time I've seen a velvet rope in San Francisco is at the Clift Hotel, which, not coincidentally, Ian Schrager took over in 2003. Schrager was also co-owner of Studio 54 back in the 1970s.

3. San Francisco is a more livable city. Though the constant fog of August makes me koo-koo, overall, the weather in San Francisco is like perpetual early spring. Compare that to the harsh winters and endlessly muggy summers of New York. Also, because San Francisco is less populous than Manhattan, it has a gentler vibe. Life is just easier here.

4. New York is more diversified in its people, but San Francisco is more diversified in its geography. No doubt, New York is America's most racially and culturally diverse city. San Francisco is fairly diverse, too, but we are in danger of losing some of that diversity, due to all the techies moving in. But there's another kind of diversity worth mentioning. In San Francisco, within 15-30 minutes, you can be walking among redwood trees. Lounging on a dramatically beautiful beach (but most likely not dipping a toe in the ice-cold ocean). Hiking among wildflowers on Mt. Tam.    Exploring Glen Canyon Park, an enormous canyon in the middle of the city. Watching the ships pass beneath the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands. You don't get that kind of diversity in New York.

5. San Francisco is still one of the country's most tolerant cities. I feel comfortable walking arm-in-arm with Nick through most of San Francisco. By comparison, on our many trips to New York over the years, I've rarely felt comfortable showing obvious signs of affection to my partner. On more than one occasion, young men driving around Manhattan at night looking for trouble have yelled "fag" or worse at us. If we were to answer back, would they jump out of their car and pick a fight? Do they have concealed weapons? I don't want to find out.

6. New Yorkers are better dressed than San Franciscans. In fact, just about any city's population is better dressed than San Francisco. There are exceptions, of course. But in San Francisco, it's common to see someone wear leather chaps to the Opera. Blue jeans and a T-shirt to a classy cabaret nightclub. A hoodie to an elegant restaurant. Or no clothes at all to a public park in the center of the city. It's a by-product of living in a casual, liberal city full of computer coders and tech workers. I don't love the clothing choices, but I love the environment in which people feel free to make those choices.

Ultimately, this is not so much about which city is better than the other. They both have a great deal to offer. It's more about the trend in journalism to say "X" is the new "Y," a la Orange is The New Black, to generate buzz and capture page views. The truth is, San Francisco is not the new New York. San Francisco is a one-of-a-kind place, and if it's the new anything, it's the new San Francisco, as a writer recently noted. I should mention that the writer's article appeared in, of course, The New York Times.



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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Do You Ask So Many Questions?

It was a Christmas Eve, and I was being cross-examined.

I was attending a holiday party at the home of Bob Wheeler and Kurt Kleespies, circa 2008. I was seated on the sofa next to Marie Alaimo, in her late 70s at the time, and she was full of questions for me: "Why do people like Facebook so much?" "What was the difference between Facebook and Twitter?" "When would someone use Facebook and not Twitter?"

Marie asked me how I came to be writing a book, what was it about, and my favorite question, "Who would want to read it?" She laughed, realizing the question didn't come out the way she had meant it.

I answered all of Marie's questions and half-jokingly asked one of my own: "Why do you ask so many questions?"

Marie answered that she had always been interested in what people were doing and what they thought or felt about what they were doing. I'd add that Marie's active mind kept her young and vital, connected to others and engaged in the world around her, especially as Parkinson's disease chipped away at her body and eventually made her home-bound. I suspect Marie was particularly curious about younger generations, as she had many friends who were decades her junior.

I had a 'Marie' moment myself not long ago. I was staying with my nephew, Stafford and his wife Deb near Greensboro, N.C. It was a snowy night, but we decided to brave the weather for a night out at a restaurant. On the way, I peppered Stafford with questions about his work while the kids, Ford and Victoria, fiddled with their Apple handheld devices. I could tell Ford was playing a game. I started questioning him about it, asking what the game was, why did he like it, how was it different from other games? Before long, I was playing the game too (despite the fact that I loathe computer games).

At some point during that car ride, I realized I was doing just what Marie would have done, had she been with us. And so I said a silent "thank you" to Marie, who had passed away two weeks earlier.

There are plenty of anti-aging products on the market, but Marie reminded me that one of the best ways to stay young is to never stop asking questions.

And if there is such a thing as Heaven, I bet Marie is there. And man, does she have a lot of questions to ask.






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Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Surprising Connection Between a Tape Recording and an Indiegogo Campaign

This is the story of an elderly woman's decades-old tape recording and a young woman's Indiegogo campaign.

The story begins with Marie Alaimo, the elderly woman. At a Thanksgiving party about five years ago, Marie, a marvelous woman of Italian heritage and a life force if ever there were one, brought a tape recording of her singing opera. (She'd been asked to bring it.) The recording had been made decades ago. As Marie played the tape, I thought how rich and nuanced her voice was, how she could have been a professional singer.

Marie had, in fact, dreamed of becoming a professional opera singer. But in the end, she didn't pursue it, because her teacher told her she wasn't good enough.

The Thanksgiving party was held at the home of Bob Wheeler and Kurt Kleespies, and Marie was their good friend. (She called them her "kids.") Now let's fast-forward to 2013. Again, we're at Bob and Kurt's, this time for their annual Christmas Eve dinner. Sadly, Marie, in ill health, is unable to attend.

Bob and Kurt's friend Ricardo Pacheco arrives with a surprise guest, Ricardo's co-worker and a lovely young woman in her late 20s. Her name is Adina Dorband.

Adina Dorband
As the evening progresses, there's an announcement: Adina is here to serenade us. She is an aspiring opera singer who will be traveling to Paris in January to audition for a year-long residency program with the Paris Opera. Adina was running an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for her audition trip, and Ricardo had generously supported her by contributing to the campaign. In exchange, Adina, a soprano, delighted the gathering by singing Christmas songs.

Afterwards, I ask Adina if she is nervous about her upcoming audition. Stupid question, I thought to myself; who wouldn't be? Sure, she replies. But she says she feels something much stronger: the need to grab this opportunity now.

"I'm 28," Adina says. "It's now or never. Besides," she adds, in what has become my motto for life, "I'd rather face rejection than have regrets."

It is one of those cosmically profound moments in life, where one thing suddenly connects to another in ways you could never have anticipated, and all you can do is be awed by it. It was as if I could actually see the world turning, time passing, life coming full circle. The dreams of one woman passed silently along to another, each with no knowledge of the other.

Adina's Indiegogo campaign was a success, though I don't yet know the outcome of her audition. As for Marie, she had regrets, and who doesn't? But she lived a long rich life, adored by those of us in her 'true' family in San Francisco, until she passed away Jan. 15, 2014 at 85.

Say what you will about the evils of social media. But I can't help but wonder: What if there had been an Indiegogo when Marie was young? Would she have found the support and encouragement she needed to fulfill her dream?

Marie Alaimo

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Main Thing 'The Sound of Music Live' Lacked, Thankfully

Thursday night's broadcast of The Sound of Music Live lacked something. And it may not be what you think.

The great Rodgers & Hammerstein score wasn't lacking. Yes, the songs are kind of corny and schmaltzy, but they're also joyous, melodious and memorable. (I can't count how many times I've worked "to yeu and yeu and yeu" as an exit line.)

The staging, at least sometimes, didn't lack for economy. I loved how the von Trapps simply walked from their home into the Swastika-decorated concert hall.

The choreography lacked left something to be desired. The performers sometimes moved in circles, stalked each other, or marched up and down the big staircase for no other reason than the choreographer had probably seen one too many "walk and talk" scenes from The West Wing. But the choreography isn't the big thing the show lacked.

Was it Carrie Underwood as Maria that lacked? Yes and no. Of her acting, the charitable thing to say is she has room for improvement. I'd never heard her sing before, however, and now I can see why she won American Idol. Most importantly, Underwood didn't lack big cojones. She dared to take on the challenge of starring in a demanding live TV musical broadcast to millions. I would have cast someone else (Anne Hathaway?). But good for Carrie for stepping up to bat.

The program, at three hours, didn't lack for anticipation and suspense. I'm old enough to fondly remember when "event TV" wasn't simply a sports game, in which participants risk life and limb for our viewing pleasure, or an awards show, in which participants should risk life and limb when their acceptance speeches plod on. Think of the dramatic possibilities. Instead of a big hook creeping up from stage right to yank the talkative award winner off stage, perhaps an Uzi should slowly descend from the ceiling whenever an award recipient thanks her makeup man? Now that's what you call "must-see TV."

No, here's the main ingredient that The Sound of Music Live lacked: Edge. It was three hours free of snark, murder, mayhem and smutty jokes. You know, the type of stuff you see everywhere else on TV and the Internet (which was particularly snarky toward Underwood.)

Being edgy has its purpose when it's done effectively and for a reason. Example: The Blacklist is one of my favorite new programs (thanks Nick!). But does absolutely everything in pop culture today have to "have an edge" to get our attention? ("Um, yeah!," says Miley Cyrus's tongue.)

The only edge The Sound of Music Live had was in making the audience wonder if someone would flub a line or have their wimple set afire by a candle. Nasty Nazis aside, the show was proudly sentimental, a nice counter balance to everything else on nighttime TV.

A steady diet of such sugar as The Sound of Music Live would, of course, put the national glucose level at high risk. Still, I say let's have more "event TV" programs like it in the future. Who knows? Maybe not being edgy will become, well, edgy.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

3 Sure-Fire Solutions to the Government Shutdown

The federal government is still partially shut down. Late last week, CNN reported that both the Democrats and Republicans said they're winning the stalemate, which means everyone else is losing. What can be done about it?

Easy. Send the citizens of Boston down to Washington. They'll whip Congress into shape.

Think about it. On a Monday, terrorists bombed the Boston Marathon. By the following Friday, the terrorists had been identified and a city-wide can of whoop-ass had been unleashed on them. So imagine what results we might achieve if we dispatched to Washington a group of 'don't-mess-with-us' Boston citizens and police officers?

If the people of Boston have better things to do, here's another solution to the stalemate: cut off Congress's liquor. Senators and house members are notorious for their love of adult beverages, and reportedly during the shutdown there's been a lot of "Bottoms up!" So let's hold their hootch hostage, and the government will be back up and running faster than John Boehner can kick back a shot of scotch. (The gossip is that Boehner loves his booze.)


Still not enough? Let's get technology and entertainment wizards involved. Project a lifelike hologram of Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce, entering the House of Representatives and Senate chambers with padded shoulders and a pistol. "Congress, I'm seeing you for the first time, and you're cheap and horrible!," Joan would say. "Now get this country back to work before I kill you!"


Problem solved. Until the next government gridlock/stalemate/shutdown, which should happen in about, oh, 25 minutes.

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Why Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" Haunts Me

I'll never forget Blue Jasmine's final sceneno matter how hard I try.

Woody Allen's latest film is partly set in San Francisco. I've been an enthusiastic Allen admirer since Annie Hall, and I'd been anticipating for months the prospect of seeing what he would do with this city's beautiful scenery and quirky inhabitants.

Adding to my anticipation was the fact that Blue Jasmine is an updated retelling of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, in my opinion one of the 20th century's greatest plays and films. To top it all off, Allen's film stars Cate Blanchett, who will at a minimum receive a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Blue Jasmine. She may even win the damned thing (though I wouldn't want to go up against Meryl Streep in the upcoming August: Osage County).

Blanchett as Jasmine plays a modern-day Blanche DuBois, a fallen woman (in the financial sense) forced out of her One Percent Manhattan life. With nowhere to go, Jasmine must move in with her lower-class sister in San Francisco's still-sketchy-in-places Mission neighborhood.

The storyline follows Jasmine as she attempts to rebuild her life. Psychologically, however, she's not up to the task. And the Jacqueline Susannesque quantities of Xanax and vodka she swallows aren't helping, either. Though Jasmine is pretentious and self-destructive, I came to care deeply for her. She is one of my favorite Allen heroines to date, and I rooted for her all the way.

Spoiler Alert! Don't Read The Following If You Haven't Seen the Movie

As Jasmine's situation becomes more claustrophobic, with doors and windows closing on her in every direction, I began to fear the worst outcome for her: death. I was wrong. It was worse than that.

Toward the very end, it's clear Jasmine can no longer remain in her sister's apartment, her last refuge. And so, in the final scene, we follow Jasmine as she leaves the apartment, wanders the streets, and eventually plants herself on a park bench. Her hair is stringy and wet, she wears no makeup, though she is wearing one of her last pieces of nice clothing, a Chanel suit jacket. Jasmine is talking to herself in such an unnerving way that a woman seated on the bench gets up and leaves. Cut to black. The end.

That's when the purpose of Blue Jasmine became all too clear. It's a case study of how someone becomes 'a crazy homeless person.' No one has Jasmine's back. She's completely alone, without means, and unable to care for herself. Allen's film suggests to me that any of us could end up like her, whether it's due to a loss of: money, physical health, mental health, family and friends, or youth. And this is why the movie's ending haunts me. The scene doesn't tap into the audience's fear of death, as many of Allen's movies do. It taps into our fear of a living death.

Allen offers some hope, however. Jasmine's downfall was, I think, largely because she wasn't fully present in her own life. She looked the other way at the inconvenient and unpleasant truths happening right in front of her. It's as if Allen is saying that if we're to avoid our own 'living death,' attention must be paid to what's going on both within and around us. Once we do, we have to take the appropriate actions—before it's too late.

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