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.

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.

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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Father and the Mystery of the Doomed Orange Tree

Dear Dad,

You'll remember this story well, but I feel the need to tell it again today.

At the Stuckey's in Danville, Va., I spotted the miniature orange tree that I knew I must have. It was maybe six inches tall and lived in a white cardboard box with cellophane windows. I marveled at its compactness. How could an orange tree be so tiny?, I wondered. The fact that I loved oranges, that they hinted of exotic lands, made this 10-year-old's boy desire even stronger.

I went searching for you, hoping to convince you that I couldn't possible continue existing without that mini orange tree. We were making our usual pit stop at the Stuckey's halfway between Greensboro, where we lived, and Roanoke, where you were from. During this period, I'd ride up to Roanoke frequently with you. Your father, Daddy Jimmy, had recently passed away, and you, being his only immediate survivor, would go up on weekends to settle his estate.

I went along for the ride for several reasons. First, it got me out of Greensboro. Second, I loved Roanoke, loved Daddy Jimmy's big old house there.

There were other reasons, too, Dad, that weren't evident to me then. I deeply missed my grandfather. He was a white-haired, classy, gentle man, and you named me after him, so there had always been a link. And the trips to Roanoke gave you and me quality time alone that never quite happened otherwise.

You worked six days a week, sometimes seven. On your days off, you often loved to fish. It was no secret to you that I loathed it. On the few fishing trips you'd convinced me to go on, I was alternately bored and appalled: bored by waiting endlessly for a fishing line to tighten, appalled at the can of squirming worms into which I was expected to stick my fingers and extract a sacrifice for the fish hook. You also loved to golf. Again, for me, golf = boredom. I'm sorry about that, Dad. But that's just who I was.

Back to Stuckey's. You came in to pay for the gas, and excitedly, I led you to the orange tree. "Isn't that neat?" I said. "Can I have it?" If memory serves, I believe the tree cost $5 or $10—an investment back in the late 1960s.

With your careful photographer's gaze, you studied the Bonzai-ish fruit tree in its box. "I'm sorry, son, but I think it'll just end up dying," you said. "It'll be a waste of money."

"No it won't!," I pleaded. "I'll take care of it. I'll water it!"

"I'm sorry," you repeated gently, and I knew that was that.

A few months later, on my birthday, I awakened and rushed downstairs to see what goodies awaited. There, in the center of the breakfast room table, was the miniature orange tree. You flashed me a sheepish grin. "Happy birthday," you said.

When did you buy it?, I wondered. I hadn't seen you do it during our subsequent Stuckey's stops in Danville, and there was no other Stuckey's close by. And I would've seen you try to sneak the tree into the car. And I'd gone with you on all your other Roanoke trips between the time I coveted the mini citrus tree and my birthday.

You remained mysterious about the orange tree's procurement, which of course drove me nuts. Ultimately, I decided that you drove by yourself to the Stuckey's in Danville, which is about a 45-50 minute ride, specifically to buy the tree. You took time out of your busy work life to buy your son what he wanted for his birthday. I think you did that as a way of saying 'thank you' for accompanying you on all those trips to Roanoke. I couldn't have known this then, but now I know how much you missed your father, and having me there probably gave you a lot of comfort.

And of course, Dad, you were right. I became the little orange tree's unintended executioner. It may have lasted two weeks before browning and collapsing into an exhausted heap. But you never said what many parents would have in that circumstance: "I told you so."

I've bought a few miniature orange trees over the years, perhaps in an effort to show you I could sustain them. Unfortunately, the outcome was always the same: death to the innocent orange tree.

Although my efforts at raising miniature fruit trees have been fruitless, Dad, there are some things I've managed to get right over the years. One of those is, along with my sisters, to take good care of the woman you adored, the woman you were married to for over 50 years, the woman who was never quite the same after you passed away.

You've been gone 20 years now, as of today, Dad. But you've never left me. Just this morning, you came to me in a dream. I was at your funeral, and some man I'd never seen before was giving the eulogy, and I was growing agitated because he clearly didn't know you. I wanted to stand up, move him aside, and talk about the man we were there to mourn.

When I rose to speak, you were suddenly seated beside me in the church pew. You touched my shoulder gently, smiled, and said, "Don't forget to tell them about the little orange tree."

"I will," I said. "And by the way, how did you get that? I've wondered all these years."

You smiled enigmatically and gently waved me toward the pulpit.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Confessions of a Southern-Fried Quasi Vegetarian

In the South, some restaurants still list french fries as a vegetable. This wonderfully creative view of vegetables should come in handy—as I flirt with vegetarianism.

I can imagine the raised-eyebrow reactions the above statement may cause among those who know me (or perhaps even those who read this blog). Yes, I am notorious for my adoration of fried chicken. Fried chicken is what I'd eat the night before my firing squad execution, along with garlic mashed potatoes (with gravy), baby lima beans (one should still have something green on the dinner plate), big buttermilk biscuits dripping with butter that I can use to sop up gravy, and banana pudding for dessert. In fact, I love chicken in almost all its cooked variations. A juicy filet mignon (cooked medium well)? Yes, please. Barbecue pork sandwiches in North Carolina? Nectar of the Gods. I even love the 'pulled pork' sandwiches, which are a reasonably close approximation to Southern barbecue, that are trendy now in San Francisco. Pot roast, coq au vin, and lamb chops, oh my!

Why, then, would I even consider becoming a vegetarian? Last May my overall cholesterol level spiked to 218. I suppose the fried chicken and hamburgers had finally caught up with me.

Since then, I've been modifying my diet and upping my exercise, and I've brought the overall level down to 169. But the other numbers (LDL, HDL, etc.) still aren't where they should be, and I don't want to go on statin drugs.

And so, in advance of my next cholesterol test in late July, I decided to take my efforts to a new level. Nearly every morning, I'm eating steel-cut oatmeal with flax seed and slivered almonds. I'm swallowing handfuls of supplements throughout the day: Metamucil capsules, CholestOff, niacin. I took garlic supplements for a while, until Nick turned to me one night and said, sweetly, that I smelled like a basket of ballpark garlic fries.

And now, the big step. Three days a week, sometimes four, I eat absolutely no chicken, pork, or red meat. (I will eat fish during those days.) The shocker? It's not as difficult as I thought, thanks to MorningStar Farms (I actually love their crispy Chik'n patties), Trader Joe's meatless meatballs, vegetarian lasagna from Whole Foods, tuna fish salads, meatless pizzas, and that classic quick lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (with exotic 'jellies,' such as Pineapple and Mango preserves).

In a few weeks, when I get my next cholesterol check, I'll know if all this has paid off. Even if it doesn't, I've already learned something valuable. I'm not as wedded to my old Southern-by-way-of-San-Francisco diet as I assumed. This old dawg can learn new tricks—and perhaps even prefer them to the old ones. Who knows? I may take this vegetarian thing even further.

In any event, it's comforting to know that french fries are a vegetable.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Failure to Thrive? Not So Fast

This is a story I never thought I'd write: My mother is expected to be released from hospice care soon.

Since hospice began caring for her in early March, Ruth Martin has gained 10 pounds. Though she used to mostly stay in her room at Heritage Greens Arboretum, a memory-care facility in Greensboro, nowadays she is often found in the main 'recreation' room, participating in a game of ball bouncing or checking out the other residents.

Later this week, the oxygen tanks that have cluttered Ruth's room are to be taken away, as her oxygen levels have returned to normal.

Ruth's unexpected revival has astonished and delighted us all—certainly my sisters and I, but also her caregivers. Rarely have they seen someone her age (93), and in her prior condition, bounce back so dramatically.

This turn of events seemed unimaginable. In early 2013, a bad stomach virus, which my mother caught, had circulated through the Arboretum. Management had strongly advised family and other outsiders not to visit, fearful of spreading the virus even further. And so, for several weeks, my sisters (three of whom live nearby) were not able to visit Ruth.

By late February, my mother had grown extremely weak. She began refusing to eat and take her medications. She slept most of the time and when awake, spoke mostly gibberish. The memory-care facility administrator suggested it was time to bring in hospice care, which to me meant that my mother's clock was now ticking—loudly. Her official diagnosis? "Failure to thrive."

And so, on a Monday morning in late February, I decided to make a hasty trip to Greensboro. With Nick's help, I booked a flight at 11 a.m., cancelled my business appointments for the week, showered, packed, and made it onto the plane for its 1:30 p.m departure.

While in Greensboro, I was determined to get my mother to eat. I bought her favorite junk food: McDonald's french fries, doughnuts, Baby Ruth candy bars. She treated them all as if they were something vile. I bought baby food--anything I could think of she might be able to swallow. During my nearly week-long stay, she ate almost nothing, limiting her intake to cranberry juice and some Ensure drinks.
My mother, late February 2013
During the last hour of that visit with Ruth, I knew I had to somehow say goodbye. She dozed off and on as I paced around her small room, wondering what I could say that would have any meaning for her as well as for me. I decided to keep it simple.

"Thank you," I said, and kissed her on the forehead.

She woke up, looked me in the eye, smiled weakly. "Thank you," she replied.

With that, I walked out of my mother's room, convinced I'd just spent my last few minutes with her.
But in the weeks to come, an alternate scenario slowly unfolded. My sisters took turns visiting Ruth every day, reading to her, painting her fingernails, being by her side. The hospice staff visited several times a week. The Arboretum staff gave her extra care. Her doctor took her off several medications and gave her a drug whose side effect is known to increase appetite.

By mid May, the news was so encouraging, I returned to Greensboro. This time, my mother was alert, her blue eyes looking directly into mine in a way I hadn't seen in a while. She smiled and laughed. She let me feed her, but more importantly, she was now feeding herself.

She is still talking in gibberish, still confusing past with present. But she seems happy and content, and she has moments of clarity. The other day, when an unfamiliar Arboretum resident walked past, my mother said to my sister: "Who is that old lady?"

I attribute much of my mother's rebound to my sisters, and of course to Ruth herself—a tough country girl from North Carolina, through and through, whose mother lived to 100 and whose grandmother passed away peacefully at 95. One lesson to take away: Never, under any circumstances, underestimate a Southern woman.

On July 22, Ruth Martin will be 94 years old. I don't know how much time we have left with her. But since late February, every visit, every phone conversation with her has been what they call in New Orleans a lagniappe—a sweet, unexpected gift.

My mother, early July 2013. (Note the Piggly Wiggly T-shirt under her sweatshirt.)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day in Photos: Carol W. Martin, Photographer

On this Father's Day, there are stories I'd like to share about my father, the late Carol W. Martin. I have one in particular--about the disastrous time I tried to cook him a steak. But I'll save the stories for another time. Today, I want to share photos.

Which is appropriate, because my father was a professional photographer. Of course, this means that for most family portraits, he was behind and not in front of the camera. Even so, there are some great snapshots of him.

I cherish the following photos of my warm, talented, Virginia-born gentleman father. Nearly 20 years after his death, he is still remembered and revered in Greensboro, where he ran a photography business with his partners for decades. He is still my moral compass. C.W. Martin showed me how to treat others with consideration and respect, how to turn your passion into a successful business, and how to never give up when there's something you really want.

OK, one story: My father graduated from college during the depth of the Great Depression. He was burning up to be a newspaper reporter, but the local newspaper (in Roanoke, Va.), wasn't hiring. Undeterred, he visited the newspaper editor every week for months, reminding him that he wanted to work for the paper. Eventually, a job became available, and my father's career as a reporter--which later led to his photography career--was launched.

Hate the cigarette. Love the effect it gives this self-portrait.
Always ready with a flash bulb ready to pop.

Speaking of popped flash bulbs!
Dad would have loved all the small digital cameras we have today.
The family man reading to my sisters Nancy (left) and Sandi. Though he was often working late, C.W. always made it a priority to spend at least a few minutes every day with his kids. We might not see him all day, but then he'd tuck us in at bedtime and give us little back rubs. In just those few minutes, he gave us the connection to him we needed. 

My grandfather (left) and C.W. were big fishermen. 

C.W., third from left, hangin' with his homeboys. 
I'll just say it: Movie star!

Hard at work as a newspaper reporter.

C.W. loved convertibles. So do I. 

Cute photo of my parents in their early days together. 

Towards the end of his career. Still the dapper gentleman photographer. Sill loved, admired, missed.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A First, and Last, Sip of Cheerwine

Shauna Gamble has been one of my dearest friends since 7th grade. We haven't seen each other in years. We don't call each other much. Time and geography have a way of creating such distances. But in our case, the distance disintegrates as soon as we get on the phone together.

On May 30, Shauna messaged me on Facebook that her father, Martin Wimbs Sr., had just died. I called her right away. Among the many endearing, inspiring, heart-tugging stories she told me about her father, one in particular sticks with me. It involves Cheerwine.

For the uninitiated, Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored soft drink made in North Carolina (where Shauna and her family live and where I'm from). Its distribution is mostly in N.C. and a few neighboring states--though I'm happy to report that BevMo in San Francisco sells it.

Shauna's sister Pam is a Cheerwine devotee. She nearly always carries a can of it, Shauna tells me. On the last afternoon of her father's life, Pam goes to visit him in his hospice room, Cheerwine in hand. Her father notices the red soft drink can. Though he'd never tried the drink before in his 86 years, he was curious about it. He asks Pam for a taste. She obliges.

"That's pretty good," he says afterwards. And other than perhaps a sip or two of water, that swig of Cheerwine was his last drink.

It was a small moment. But not to me.

Shauna's father's was a successful business executive for many years at Blue Bell in Greensboro, which made Wrangler jeans. He was a devoted husband, married for 65 years to Shauna's mother, Nelle. He was a beloved father, grandfather, great-grandfather.

But Martin Wimbs Sr. was also an adventurer. After high school, he became a Merchant Marine; he loved the sea and sailing. In his business career, he worked in and traveled to over 54 countries, including Egypt, Morocco, India, Thailand, Argentina, and countries I can't even pronounce. He flew private planes.

With his Cheerwine request, Shauna's father was still exploring. Think about it: How many people do you know who, facing imminent death, would want to try something new?

Most of us say we love adventure. I suspect the truth is, in our stressful world, we prefer comfort-- especially as we grow older, and even more so when we become seriously ill. But comfort, whichever stage of life we're in, can be a cage. Adventure is what sets us free, helps us grow. Martin Wimbs, Sr., right up to his last few minutes, never lost sight of this. He was what I aspire to always be: free.
Martin Wimbs, Sr.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memo to the Wolf Blitzers of the World: Don't Assume Everyone Believes in God

On Tuesday, CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed a young mother who survived the deadly Oklahoma tornado. "You've gotta thank the Lord, right? Do you thank the Lord?," he asked.

The young woman briefly hesitated. "I'm actually an atheist," she said, and laughed off Blitzer's awkward, foot-in-mouth moment.

Having just returned from Charlotte, N.C., where a Starbucks barista said "God bless you" after a transaction and a shuttle driver freely expressed his belief in God to me and other strangers, Wolf Blitzer's question makes me bristle.

Perhaps I'm old school. But I firmly believe religion is a deeply private matter. It's not something you bring up with strangers, unless you happen to meet those strangers at a like-minded religious gathering. I even believe you should be careful mentioning religion with friends and family members. But judging from the religious postings I see frequently on Facebook, I'm in the minority here.

Religion, politics, money, sex. They're all vitally important topics, but in my view, they're usually not something to be casually brought up. The fact is, there are plenty of atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and others in the world whose spiritual beliefs don't align with yours. When you express your religious beliefs to them, you make them uncomfortable at best, combative at worst.

Admittedly, my 'God is great' antenna are always out, probably because as a gay kid growing up in the South, God was often used against me. (I'm gay, therefore I'll burn in hell is the general theory.) Luckily, my parents didn't participate in this charade. My father strongly disliked it when someone would bring up their religious beliefs. This was because his mother was a Bible-thumping Baptist who forced religion on him and his brother. Not surprisingly, her actions had nearly the opposite effect.

My father decided that he wanted to expose my sisters and I to the Christian church and for us to be confirmed in the church. We attended a nearby United Church of Christ, but not all that often. In fact, I visited Sunday school so infrequently as a child, the teacher assumed I was chronically ill. Mischievous kid that I was, I didn't discourage her assumption. After we were confirmed, my sisters and I were free to participate--or not--in the church.

As tempting as it might be, I'm not going to share my spiritual beliefs in this post, because I feel so strongly about how personal those beliefs are. However, I'll add that if you have strong religious beliefs, I'm happy for you. Seriously. Life can be extremely challenging, and we all need something to get us through the difficult as well as the joyful parts. We must all find meaning to our lives, to understand humility and gratitude, and religion can be a powerful means to those ends.

But if you're a rental car company shuttle bus driver, or a Starbucks barista, or Wolf Blitzer, or a Facebook friend, don't assume I share your religious views. Or that your beliefs are better than mine. Or that you need to lay your beliefs on me like a choir robe. We're all believers in something, and we often don't believe in the same things, and to that I say: Amen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Do Americans Want? More!

This tale begins and ends with biology.

One afternoon, during my junior year in college, I sat in biology class, befuddled as usual. So I tuned out the teacher, flipped a page in my notebook, and wrote out my post-college goals. They were as follows:

1. Be a writer.
2. Live in a big city.
3. Have a partner.

Miraculously, within eight years, I'd achieved everything on my to-do list. You'd think I've been content ever since--and I am, at least where the city (San Francisco) and the partner (Nick) are concerned. And yet, I continue to strive, plot, and scheme. I'm always looking ahead at what's next, whether it's my next career move or my next meal (or both).

In that sense, I suspect I'm typically American. Unlike, say, the Italians, who savor il dolce far niente, Americans typically don't know how to appreciate "the sweetness of doing nothing." We're rarely content with where we are, what we have, who we are, and what we do. We're always looking for something else, something new, something more.

There's a fabulous scene in one of my favorite films, Key Largo, that expresses the perpetual American drive. Edward G. Robinson plays a gangster on the run, holding the occupants of a Florida hotel hostage so he can elude the police--as a hurricane approaches, no less. I'm paraphrasing and condensing here, but basically, Humphrey Bogart says to Edward G.: "I know what you want. You want more!," to which Edward G. heartily agrees.

Stay with me, as I'm about to connect the dots.

Last Friday was a warm, sunny day, so Nick and I did something we rarely do: play hooky. We scampered off to our favorite beach, Gray Whale Cove, just south of San Francisco. Nick snoozed on and off, I read the newspaper. And then I did something that's even more rare than playing hooky. I simply sat and watched the sunlight sparkle off the waves. After a while, my mind drifted back to my college junior days, when I scribbled down my life's goals in biology class. I saw myself then and now. I felt a deep contentment.

As I continued to watch the sea with no purpose in mind, I noticed a spout of water shooting up, about 100 yards off shore. The water often sprays upward here after crashing against a rock, so I didn't think much about it. And then, another spout, and another, and before long, a large black fin poked through the waves, followed by another. Whales! In all the years we've enjoyed Gray Whale Cove, we had never seen a whale here before. (I tried to grab a photo; below is the best I could manage.)

Maybe the whales were there on previous visits and I just didn't see them? Who knows. But this much is certain. If we hadn't taken time off to "do nothing"--i.e., go to the beach--and if I hadn't been gazing at the sea without motivation, I'd probably have missed this thrilling example of biology in action. Or, to put it another way, by not looking for "more," I found it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The First Item on My 'Do Not Do' List

A few months back, a cousin from North Carolina visited San Francisco on business. Nick and I had dinner with him and his business associates at an upscale restaurant in the city's North Beach neighborhood.

That evening led me to start a "Do Not Do" list.

I ordered duck, which I love but don't often eat, from the menu. So did at least two others at the table. When my dish arrived, I gazed upon the entree with alarm. It was the color of eggplant, looking like it had been barely introduced to a flame. The others who had ordered this foul fowl dug in and seemed to be enjoying it. I showed it to Nick, who curled up his nose and suggested I send it back to the kitchen immediately.

I decided to be brave and plunge ahead. The duck was sliced into medallions. I ate one and a half medallions before I accepted the fact I was simply enduring my meal, not enjoying it. I sent the duck back for additional cooking. But the gastrointestinal damage had already been done. I'll spare you the details of the unpleasant aftermath, except to say that the dish should have been named Daffy's Revenge.

The next day, once I had sufficiently recovered, I decided I'd reached a point in life when it was time to be clear about what I would not be doing again, ever. "Eat rare duck" became my "Do Not Do" list's first item.

That incident occurred back in January. To my surprise, I've only added four items to the list since, and they're rather half-hearted items that I probably will do again, such as "Going out more than once during the workweek."

As it turns out, I feel old enough to not want to waste time and effort, but not old enough to shut the door forever on a list of things. For example, I was tempted to add "Eat anything rare that is usually cooked" to my "Do Not Do" list. But then, about a month ago, I (hesitantly) tasted a friend's tuna tartare appetizer and loved it.

So for now, I'm living each day with a seemingly endless "To Do" list and a really short "Do Not Do" list. Somehow, the imbalance between the two feels right.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Unexpected Hero in the Boston Bombings

I'm running on the gym treadmill. I change the TV screen's channels until I come to Anderson Cooper, reporting the latest news about the Boston bombings. Three people are dead, including an eight-year-old boy named Martin Richard, and more than 140 injured.

The camera closes in on a picture of Martin who, about one year ago, was photographed holding up a sign he made that read, "No more hurting people."

I grab the treadmill rails, not sure I can go on. I slow the speed to a walk instead of a run, to give myself time to recover. I can't think of anything but this: If I'm having trouble going on right now, imagine how the people of Boston feel. How Martin Richard's family feels. Or how everyone else in the world feels, frankly, when faced with senseless, horrible acts of violence.

By now, I suspect most of us have found a way to cope with terrorism. For some, it's religion and prayer. For others, alcohol and anti-anxiety meds. Psychotherapy. Meditation. Crying. Avoiding large gatherings. Giving someone you love a longer hug than usual. Exercise.

I look around the gym. The treadmills are all occupied, and many of the screens are on CNN. I'm the only one who has slowed down. Am I being overly sensitive? Should I keep going on like my fellow treadmillers in the tried-and-true "Keep calm and carry on" style? After all, the moment we let terrorists disrupt our lives or fill us with terror, they win.

I continue walking on the treadmill, absorbed by the news reporting, struggling with emotion--an eight-year-old boy! My attention drifts back to the screen. CNN is showing an interview with Bill Iffrig, a Washington state resident and veteran Boston marathon runner. Iffrig was just 15 feet from the finish line when the first bomb went off. He fell to the ground, where he was widely photographed--his picture made the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated and is probably a shoo-in for next year's Pulitzer prize in photography.

Shaken but unharmed, Iffrig said he continued to the finish line and walked back to his hotel six blocks away. And get this: He's 78 years old. He's been in 45 Boston marathons.

In every tragedy, heroes like Iffrig emerge. He reminds me there are far more heroes in the world than terrorists. Just watching a few minutes of the news about Boston makes this fact obvious. So I turn up the treadmill speed and start running again. I know how to go on now.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Why I Loathe the Word "Like"

Agony, that's what this is. Sitting on a plane, waiting for it to taxi down the runway, but it's not moving, there are six or more planes ahead of us. Meanwhile, directly across the narrow coach aisle, sits a young woman chattering to a young man. They just met. She's telling him about herself, he's nodding his head, occasionally interjecting a question or comment of his own. But it's not easy, because the young woman speaks in an endless stream of words. Unfortunately, the vast majority is only one word.


"I'm like going home to LA for like the weekend?" "I'm like a sociology major at school?" "I like speak like a little Polish because like my father is from Poland?" "I like thought it would be cool to like talk Polish with him?" 

Like like like.

I look over at Nick, who is already scrambling for his earplugs and rolling his eyes. I realize my ear corks are deep in my bag in the overhead compartment. We aren't allowed to stand at the moment because the plane will accelerate down the runway any moment. Portable electronics are also at the moment verboten. So I have only a pair of earbuds as a defense against the Los Angeles Liker.

When did a fairly meaningless word such as "like" become so endlessly, tirelessly, appallingly overused? And why do Likers also tend to speak declarative statements as if they were questions, their voices swooping up at the end? 

It's easy to blame Los Angeles for creating a generation, if not more, of Likers. I first became aware of their existence in the parody song Valley Girl in the early 1980s, about teenage girls in the San Fernando Valley. The song was followed by the (surprisingly good) movie version. 
Perhaps L.A. is the Liker's native homeland. But when the Grammar Guards were fast asleep in their watchtowers, the Likers slipped across the borders. There was no Ellis Island through which they had to file, no stern English teachers to interrogate them, find them wanting, and refuse to stamp their passports. And so, the Likers were free to spread wide and far and spawn. 

Like like like like like.

Why do people speak this way? Is it a generational thing, primarily popular among teens and 20-somethings, and people at these ages tend to speak and act as their peers do? Is it based in uncertainty? Is that why you'd say "she's, like, all mad at me" instead of "she's mad at me?" Because you're not sure she's really mad at you? Do Likers grow out of it? (Yes, please!)

The most pressing question: What to do now that the Like genie has long escaped its bottle. We have freedom of speech in this country, and amen to that. However, freedom of speech means the freedom to heavily sprinkle every sentence you speak with more  'likes' than Justin Bieber's Facebook page.

Of course, disabling the Liker temporarily can be accomplished through ear plugs or listening to music with Like-cancelling headphones. However, this isn't always practical, such as when riding a bus or train. You might miss your stop and end up in Tuscaloosa when you meant to embark in Tucson. Mentally tuning out a loquacious Liker is challenging as well, because the sing-songy intonation of their speaking worms its way into your ear canal, where it's free to tap dance on your ear drums (and your last good nerve). Invoking the "Don't speak" command from Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway is the most tempting course of action, but it's one that my Southern upbringing won't allow me to do. 

Perhaps we may politely request Likers to donate $1 to the charitable organization of their choice every time they use the word as filler. And above all, just as in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we must be careful not to become Likers ourselves. In the past 24 hours, I caught myself using the word "like" unnecessarily--twice. And that is something I do not like. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Best of the Worst Blog Spam

Nearly every day, this humble blog receives at least one comment from someone who wishes to remain Anonymous. Usually, the comments have nothing to do with a post I've written. They are what's known as blog spam, intended to direct traffic to dubious websites. 

The vast majority are written in cracked English. And while I find spam comments individually annoying, collectively they could form a slim volume of hallucinogenic haiku poetry. Here are some of the best of the worst blog spam comments I've removed from my blog in recent months. The first two are ridiculous; the last one, outrageous. 

In response to my post on A Piggly Wiggly piggy bank, a pie bird, and other Southern essentials: "One is designed to prevent herpes infection, and the other to treat herpes, so those are promising projects. capitalists would, and he wrote that "the two value model presented here most resembles Eysenck's hypothesis. Job interviews serve the purpose of the employer and the potential employee meeting for a face-to-face interaction, with the employer getting a chance to assess first hand the suitability of the candidate for the position."

A comment left for my post Why I love Tennessee Williams' stage directions -- and Elizabeth Taylor, too: "This is a powerful, biological urge. Put on a happy face. Applying a penis vitamin cream (most health professionals recommend Man 1 Man Oil) can help to ensure that the area has an ongoing supply of skin-rejuvenating, disease-fighting and sensation-enhancing nutrients to keep it looking and feeling healthy and sexy."

And finally, this one is my favorite. It's a comment left for my post Is Southern Hospitality a Myth? "Ground cover can be added to pedophile the landscape. And your shoes will not be tracking soil into the house. This same person spread several yards of the mulch around their house before they realized the problem, and it ruined many of their plants."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

It All Began With a Marijuana Lollipop

The lollipop in my fridge
On April 12, my play Lollipops, which has a bit of fun with medical marijuana, debuts as part of an evening of short comedic plays, I'm Not OK, Cupid. The production, by Left Coast Theatre Company in San Francisco, showcases plays that depict the hilarious travails of modern romance and online hookups. Left Coast is posting interviews with the production's featured playwrights on its Facebook page. Here are the questions they asked me, followed by my answers.

LCTC: The story of Lollipops centers around a middle-aged-recent-divorcee-neo-lesbian who is trying to get back into show business. What and/or who inspired such a dynamic and conflicted character? Did the character appear out of thin air or build upon itself as you were writing?

Martin: I've known more than one middle-aged woman who, after years of what seemed like a happy marriage, suddenly found herself alone, wondering what the hell happened, why did my long-time spouse or partner leave, and where did the time go? This often creates a sense of urgency, a need to make up for lost time--now. When you have a character in this situation who also had deferred her big dream--as so many people do--the stakes are suddenly very high. Sandy, the main character in Lollipops, hears the clock ticking loudly. She wants to leave something of meaning behind, she wants a legacy. Faced with this situation, a character like Sandy makes uncharacteristic choices, which is what I find so compelling.

LCTC: Where did the idea of ‘magical lollipops’ come from? Have you ever eaten ‘magical lollipops’? How does one make ‘magical lollipops’? Do you know if Paula Dean has a ‘sugar free’ magical lollipop recipe?

Martin: I have had one magical lollipop in my life. A friend gave it to me. He has a prescription for medical marijuana, and he prefers to take in lollipop form. I'm totally in support of medical marijuana, but I just find the concept of prescription lollipops hilarious. But the idea for Lollipops came to me in Dolores Park on a sunny afternoon. I was enjoying the weather with my partner, Nick, and this young woman walked by selling "ganja lollies." I was intrigued enough to beckon her over and ask her a bunch of questions about them. Since I'd cross-examined her, I felt obliged to buy one of her lollipops. It is still in my refrigerator. For whatever reason, I don't trust it, and yet I don't want to throw it out, either. How ridiculous is that?

BTW, Paula Deen doesn't eat anything without sugar, with the possible exception of steak.

LCTC: Your last play, The Buck Naked Church of Truth, really played into the world of San Francisco politics. Do you want Lollipops to have a similar message or voice? What was your motivation and drive behind this piece?

Martin: Whenever I write a play, I want to leave the audience with something more than just a pleasant experience. I want them to discuss their reactions to the play with whomever they see it. With The Buck Naked Church of Truth, I wanted the audience to figure out where they stood on the issue of public nudity in SF. Were they for or against it, and why? Lollipops is less political and timely and much more personal, for me. Yes, it touches on medical marijuana, but in a farcical way. What I would like the audience to think about after this play is: What dreams have they deferred? Have they given up too much for their long-term spouse or partner? And what would they do if they were suddenly free to start all over again in mid life?


I'm Not OK, Cupid runs April 12 through May 4 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20 online at Brown Paper Tickets. Nick and I will be there opening night, April 12.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Runaway Resident of the Memory Care Facility

Nearly every time I walk into the Alzheimer's facility in Greensboro, I see her sitting in the community area. Her reddish hair is hard to miss. But what truly sets Hazel apart is her warm smile and her playfully pointing finger.

That's her way of saying hello, pointing at me repeatedly. The pointing eventually becomes a beckoning, her hands clutching the air, aimed toward me. Even though I'm on my way to my mother's room, I can't resist Hazel. I go to her, lean down, and hug her. I know nothing about this woman, nor does she know me, but her embrace is as tight as mine.

Her eyes are wide, joyful. I wonder if she's always been such a happy person? I'm no expert on the subject, but I've come to believe dementia can make the elderly both more of who they were and less of who they are.

I ask Hazel if she's been behaving herself. "Oh no," she says, shaking her head. This is something else I've learned about Alzheimer's sufferers: They often love being asked this question. Maybe it makes them feel like they're still capable of mischief, which means they're still a force to be reckoned with.

And they can be. Just a few days before I arrived, I received an email blast sent to those with family at the facility. The message said that "a resident has again found out the door code" needed to exit the building.

"We believe the resident had figured out to look in the back of the visitor's log and was able to peek at it while assisting some other residents out of the front door for an outing." From now on, the memo continued, the exit code will no longer be written in the back of the visitor's logbook. The message gave the new code, with the implication that you'll have to keep it handy or remember it. I must admit, I love the irony of needing to remember a code to exit a memory care facility.

Back to Hazel. As we talk, her hands grab mine and hold on, firmly. I think she's even flirting with me, so I flirt back. We are adoring each other, laughing and talking. And then, her tone grows quieter, her smile fades, a desperation comes into in her eyes.

"Can you take me home?" she asks. "Please?"

Entrance to the memory-care facility
I've been asked this before where my mother lives--sometimes, my mother is the one asking. It always destabilizes me, like a mild earthquake. For a second, I don't have a response. My mind flashes back to the runaway resident I read about in the email. Was it Hazel? It could have been. It could have been just about any of the residents, except perhaps for those I always see slumped in chairs or staring blankly ahead.

The truth is, Hazel is home. I won't tell her that, however. I know that at this stage of her life, the truth is as meaningless as a lie. But the truth continues to sting; the lie offers fleeting hope.

I hug Hazel once more and tell her I'll be happy to take her home, but I must first visit my mother. Her smile returns, though not as brightly as before. Perhaps she knows, intuitively, that although where she is may not be home, it's where she must be.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Own Version of '56 Up'

How much do you believe you change every seven years? Does your personality, the essence of who you are, evolve? Or is it simply the surface stuff—your demeanor, knowledge, looks, attitude, situation--that shifts?

If you aren’t sure, or want to see that question played out cinematically, catch 56 Up. Currently playing in some U.S. theaters, 56 Up is an acclaimed British TV documentary series. It began in 1964 with the release of 7 Up, a look at a group of U.K. children at age seven. The filmmakers asked them what their dreams were for the future, what they liked, disliked. The same group of Britons have gone before the cameras every seven years since. With the recent release of 56 Up, we see how those cute kids have evolved in middle-aged adults. 

The entire series is a powerful, unique record of how we age, the choices we make, the dreams we defer, the relationships we develop. The movie left me wondering: What would my own 56 Up look like? 

Age 7. I’m a gregarious kid living with my family in Greensboro, N.C.. I wander the neighborhood, entering neighbors’ homes through their unlocked doors, asking what they’re having for dinner, and if it pleases me, asking if I might join them. Miraculously, no one seems to mind in the least. I spend hours drawing cartoons using the downstairs hallway as my desk, causing everyone to step around me. Here, too, no one seems to mind. I feel safe, loved, and because I’m the only boy with four older sisters and I'm the youngest child, special. (My sisters would lovingly add “spoiled.”) I’m having a great childhood.
Me at about 6 years old, on "The Old Rebel" TV show
Age 14. I'm skinny, with braces and a bad shag haircut, and most of the time, I want to disappear. I've become the butt of jokes in school, the last one to be picked for any sport in P.E. I’m completely inept at sports and not doing well academically. I spend many hours in my room, drawing cartoons, writing plays and stories. Not even the teachers in my school seem to be on my side. During a social studies class, everyone has to go to the front of the room and present a book report. As I try to present mine, homophobic hecklers in the class mock me, calling me “Sweets” and other such names loudly enough for everyone to hear. The teacher tells them to stop, but they don’t, and he says nothing more. I can barely speak as I stand before the class, fearful and hurt. This moment creates a dread of public speaking that remained with me for decades. Completely alone, the only thing that gets me through is the knowledge that one day, I'll leave my hometown forever. (Note: Not surprisingly, I haven't found any photos of me around this age. But if I find one, I'll upload it.) 

Age 21. I’m an English major at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. I’m running and working out, to build up my ‘stick arms’ and fill out my spindly legs. My grades are excellent. My teachers praise my term papers. I have many friends. I visit New York City for the first time, tagging along with my roommate’s drama class. For four or five days, we go to Broadway shows. My love of the theater is set afire. And one day, bored in biology class, I make a list of the things I want after graduation: 1. To be a professional writer. 2. To live in a big city. 3. To have a lifelong partner. 

Circa 1979, striking a pose with my sweet grandmother "Sissie"
 Age 28. I’ve achieved all three things on my to-do list. I’m employed as a correspondent for a computer business weekly, and I write travel and other freelance articles for national magazines. I live in Atlanta with Nick, who has been my partner now for five years. My job requires me to travel frequently, which I love to do: New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, New York. And yet, I’m discontent. As I sense 30 approaching, something seems missing—until I visit California for the first time, on a vacation with Nick and our good friend Edward. 

With my friend Edward, my first trip to San Francisco, 1986
Age 35. By this point, Nick and I have been living in San Francisco for six years. I’m working at the best job I’ve ever had, as an editor for Macworld magazine. During those heady economic times, the magazine takes the editorial staff to a working retreat in Hawaii. I love my co-workers; there are few if any ‘divas’ to make life miserable. Nick and I had made three ridiculously fun trips to Europe by now. I have everything, it seems. 

With Nick and our pet ducks Dickie and Dee Dee, Florence, 1992
Except, as events unfold, my father. As he’s dying of cancer, I fly to Greensboro for a visit. My family and I have decided it’s time to bring in hospice care. The last time I see my father alive, he's in bed, surrounded by my sisters and my mother, making jokes with the hospice worker who’s come to meet him. I look into my father’s eyes before I leave to catch my plane back to San Francisco. He knows, as do I, that this is goodbye, yet we don't say it. Off I go to the airport, only to discover my flight has been delayed, and then delayed again, and once more delayed. I spend at least five hours waiting in the airport, all the while thinking: I should be with my father. Finally, I board the flight, I return to San Francisco, and I live with this regret (and others) still, 20 years later.

Age 42: I’m self-employed and doing well. Nick and I have bought a condo in San Francisco with great views of the city. I’ve been writing a novel for two years and enjoying it immensely. One Friday, in July, Nick tries calling his mother, as he does every Friday. But Mrs. P, as we called her, doesn’t answer. That’s not too unusual. On Fridays she is usually getting her hair done and after that, buying a sub sandwich for lunch. Or she’s playing golf. As night falls and there's still no answer at Mrs. P’s home, a sense of dread creeps in. We make up reasons why she might not be answering—she has been known to accidentally leave the phone off the hook. The next morning, I awaken uncharacteristically early. Immediately I dial Mrs. P’s phone; no answer. Nick calls his former sister-in-law, Margaret, and another family friend, Nancy Lee. Together they go to Mrs. P’s, as they have a key to her apartment. They find her, still in her bathrobe, on the bed. Mrs. P’s death leaves a void in my life that has yet to be filled and never will be. During her memorial, I am one of the eulogists. As I walk to the podium, my mind flashes back to that horrible social studies class when I was 14. None of that matters anymore. Before a chapel packed with mourners, I tell my favorite Mrs. P stories with ease (see the video clip of my eulogy, below). I talk about the unique relationship she and I had, and my heart is full of loss and gratitude.

Age 49: The year before, I'd faced one of the biggest challenges of my adult life: My sisters and I had to move our mother, against her will, out of the home she’d lived in for nearly 50 years, due to her advancing dementia. And so, at age 49, I join a therapy group. I'm fearful of doing it, and yet, I knew I had to. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Every week, for the following five years, I learn a little more about how to undo the old behaviors I developed when I was younger—things that protected me then but got in my way now. I learn how to be vulnerable in front of others (not easy for me to do, when I had to present the strongest possible fa├žade to survive my teenage years). 

With my sweet (and feisty) mother, 2007
Since I was 49, my life has been filled with many positive changes. After all those years, my love for theater was rekindled during a trip to New York when I was 50. Since then, I’ve written a full-length play and have had, to date, four productions of my short plays. A fifth one is scheduled this April. I co-authored a book for Random House. I started this blog and have met many fabulous people through it. My relationship with Nick grows stronger and deeper every day. I am blessed with loving friends and family.

Having turned 55 this week, days after seeing 56 Up, I couldn't help but look back at where I've been, and ahead to where I may be going. Have I become a different person throughout my own seven-year intervals? In some ways, yes. But in a sense, everything that’s happened has helped me return to the seven-year-old I once was: a boy full of hope and without fear, a kid who sprawled out on the floor drawing for hours, contentedly lost in a world of his own making.


What would your version of 56 Up look like? 

Friday, February 15, 2013

What's Your Honey Boo Boo Nickname?

While looking at my Google Analytics, I discovered that a sizable number of people have discovered this blog by doing a Google search for Honey Boo Boo name generator.

I had no idea such a thing existed, though I have written a couple of Honey Boo Boo-related blog posts, so I guess Google took a wild leap of faith sending those unsuspecting searchers to my blog. I've since learned that Honey Boo Boo Nickname Generator is a Facebook app that, when you input a name, automatically creates the kind of nickname Honey Boo Boo might give you.

Naturally I wanted to see what HBB might call me. The answer: Jabber Maverick. I didn't care for that one, so I tried again. The second time around, HBB called me Jaclynn Mamie. On the third-ground, I became Jinxy Mini-Belle. I'll go with that one.

Curious, I typed in the names of some other Southerners. Here's what Honey Boo Boo would call them.

Scarlett O'Hara: Skylar Oinker

Blanche DuBois: Boo Boo Doodle

Tennessee Williams: Tutu Wonderful

Bill Clinton: Beauty Crustie

Rosalynn Carter: Raspberry Crybaby

William Faulkner: Willy Fairy

Lee Thompson (the real name of Honey Boo Boo's 'Uncle Poodle'): Love Trouble

Alana Thompson (Honey Boo Boo's real name): Aishlynn Trixie

It's not quite as funny as I was hoping, though I did get a chuckle out of "Raspberry Crybaby" and "Boo Boo Doodle." If you give it a try, please share your Honey Boo Boo nickname in the comments below.