Thursday, June 28, 2012

Moving Out

To my readers (you know who you are),

I'm going to be shutting things down here for the indefinite future, but fear not! I will be writing the same sorts of things (i.e. whatever I feel like writing about) over at the Albany Times Union and you are welcome (and encouraged) to read my blog there.

Not much more to say except: Who needs a house out in Hackensack?

I'll catch you on the other side.


Monday, June 25, 2012


When I was a kid, the big unspoken secret in my building was that you and a neighbor could talk to each other on the building’s intercom, thus saving the trouble (and expense) of actually using the telephone. Every now and then, I would simply press the “Listen” button on the intercom in our apartment and more often than not would catch a conversation between two of my neighbors already in progress. You’d think that this would be exciting for someone like me, who thrilled at any type of eavesdropping, but of course it was always the most mundane type of conversation that two old ladies might have on a building’s intercom system.

There was a couple in the building, friends with my mother and stepfather, who had no children (this was always remarked upon by my mother), but had a pet rabbit named “Blondie” who roamed their apartment like a cat, but was, as rabbits are, skittish and unfriendly. The man was a sometime musician and apparently had played with the band The Left Banke whose one hit was “Walk Away Renee” in 1966. My mother had a habit of befriending minor musicians.

When I was in eighth grade, we moved to a building that was much smaller, and I got to know our neighbors pretty well. There is so much to say about our next door neighbor “Lacy” (name changed for no good reason) that I’m afraid I will never do her justice. First off, rumor had it that her family was connected to the mob in some way, which is the vague way everyone refers to this kind of thing. Second of all, she had a sometime job as the receptionist at an auto body shop, but for the most part her job was dating numerous men, some married, some not, who made sure she lived a fairly nice life. She was a little bit older than my mother and her daughter was a little bit older than me. Somehow we all became friends.

When Lacy was getting ready to go out, and her own daughter was not home, she would call me on the phone to help her zip her jeans. And I’d step out of our apartment and go next door to hers, where the door would be left open for me. She would be lying on her back in her bed (which was actually a fold-out couch in the living room) with her jeans on but unzipped. It always looked like an impossible job. There was her slightly round belly and the open zipper of her jeans that somehow had to get closed. She would have a pair of pliers nearby and it was my job to use the pliers to zip her jeans up while she sucked in her belly as much as she could. Somehow it always worked. There were times when I would stay and watch her put on her makeup, which she did at her dining room table, and took at least an hour. You knew she was finally done when she would paint on the tiny black beauty mark on her cheek. If her hands were completely occupied, she’d ask me to light a cigarette for her. I was twelve years old.

I used to spend hours and hours at Lacy’s apartment even though I found her daughter totally boring. She wasn’t the brightest of kids and she didn’t have much of an understanding of what was going on in her mother’s life. Most of the time Lacy spent lying in bed, smoking and talking on the phone, surrounded by her three adoring cats. She would usually be wearing some sort of negligee, no matter what time of day it was. At some point, she had her apartment completely redone and many of the walls had been turned into floor-to-ceiling mirrors. She would talk to you while watching herself in the mirror.

I don’t remember the last time I saw Lacy, but I think it was when I was in college. Apparently one final gesture of her richest and oldest boyfriend was to buy her a condo in Florida and off she went. It is so easy to picture her now, sitting on a lounge chair at some pool, talking on the phone and smoking, her overly tan skin nearly matching the orangey foundation she used copiously on her face. I totally admired Lacy when I was younger. I hope she still paints on that beauty mark.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Special Request Show

The content of this post is based on random requests, which of course means I have to dedicate it to my former college radio show co-host and great friend SZ, who, if you know her, you pretty much also know that your goal in life is to write or say something funny just to hear her marvelous laugh.

I might as well start out with candy. Some of the candy we ate as kids was straight up disgusting. Remember those wax bottles full of colored liquid? And wax lips, which you could eat? Maybe? And pixie sticks, which was just colored sugar in a straw that you could pour into your mouth and something my friend brought in her lunch every single day, which made me jealous beyond belief. And naturally this leads me to circus peanuts, which no one has actually ever tasted, since they have no taste, but everyone can tell you they have the exact texture of Styrofoam. I knew they were orange, of course, but I discovered, after doing a little research, that they are considered “marshmallow candy.” Also this: “In 1963, General Mills vice president John Holahan inventively discovered that Circus Peanuts shavings yielded a tasty enhancement to his breakfast cereal.” I like to picture the steps that led to this inventive discovery.

Speaking of inventive discoveries, let’s move on to the Manson Family, which I never found as interesting as most people did, even though you’d think I would if you know me at all. But due to my fascination with the American presidents I am somewhat interested in Squeaky Fromme who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. Though to be honest, I’d rather write about the assassination attempt on Ford’s life just three weeks later by Sara Jane Moore (not of the Manson Family). And that story is particularly interesting because of Oliver Sipple, the ex-Marine who saved Ford’s life and whose own life changed overnight when he became a hero. Sipple was active in San Francisco’s gay community, but had not come out to his family or his employer. Gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, who knew Sipple, allegedly said that this would be a great opportunity to show that gay people could be heroes. I mean, who could blame him. Sipple asked the press not to mention that he was gay, but the San Francisco Chronicle reported it anyway. Sipple was then hounded by the media and Sipple’s parents back in Detroit were harassed by their neighbors and soon became estranged from their son. Sipple tried to sue the Chronicle for invasion of privacy, but the case was dismissed in 1984. Sipple’s health deteriorated due in part from the PTSD (or “shell shock” as it was known then) he suffered in Vietnam, and he ultimately died of pneumonia in 1989, at the age of 47. For me, this case brings up a whole bunch of interesting issues, including what happens to people who get instant fame (Sipple admitted a number of times of how he was sorry he grabbed Moore’s arm as she fired the gun meant for Gerald Ford, who notably did not invite Sipple to the White House, but rather sent him a short thank-you letter) and what constitutes the private details of a person’s life when he or she becomes a public news story.

But where was I? Oh right, Charles Manson. I only recently learned that the Beach Boys recorded one of Manson's songs, which appeared on the B-side of their 20/20 album. Manson really believed that he had a musical career in his future and was deeply disappointed when it did not pan out.

Which leads me right to The Clash. Back while we were waiting for the Internet to be invented, my friend Christina found a book in the library that actually included the lyrics to all of The Clash’s songs. She had made us both xeroxed copies of the lyrics and we pored over these pages together as though we were reading treasure maps. “Ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl!” we shouted. Slowly all the mysteries were being revealed. We had, together and on our own, watched the movie “Rude Boy” probably a dozen times, with our favorite scene being the one in which Joe Strummer washes his t-shirt in a hotel room rink. It’s not a good movie, by any means, except for the concert footage, but if you were a girl of a certain age it could certainly make you all swoony. I should admit here that the first Clash album I bought was “Combat Rock.” People, I had no idea.

(Brief interlude while I listen to the song “Jimmy Jazz” which is decidedly not off that album.)

Here is probably all you need to know about unicorns: “The famous traveler, Marco Polo, agreed the unicorn was only tamable by maidens, but when he wrote about the unicorn he'd been shown, he described it like this: ‘Scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant's. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead. They have a head like a wild boar's. They spend their time wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at.’ It has since been realized Marco Polo was describing a rhinoceros.”

Here is a picture of a double rainbow that I took last month. Pretty.

Speaking of rainbows, take note that vintage “Mork and Mindy” rainbow suspenders are available on ebay, which is something of a relief.

Which, oddly enough, leads me to when and how kids grow out of their meanness, and unfortunately I have no answer for this at all. And I'd like to take this opportunity to forgive a certain boy who teased me for, of all things, being flat chested (I was freaking 12 years old in eighth grade!) who when I reminded him recently of this had no memory of it at all.

Good night!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Rules Are There Ain't No Rules

“Is that all it takes, 15 minutes?”

That line from the movie Grease was one of many that would perplex me for years. I was 8 years old when the film first came out and like every single person I knew I was going to the theater and seeing that movie over and over again and yet the sexual innuendo throughout was so over my head that huge chunks of dialogue would just fly by without my even knowing. And yet nothing could stop me. The impact of that film on my life cannot be underestimated. Sometime over the course of my obsession, I begged my mother to buy me the “fotonovel” of Grease, which was like a comic book that used stills from the movie, and until it actually arrived in the mail I truly had nightmares that it would arrive damaged in some way.

Though if you were around when that movie came out, you’d have to agree that its impact was a collective one. You couldn’t go anywhere that summer without encountering a group of kids with their arms around each other singing “We Go Together.” My friends and I acted out scenes from the movie with our Barbie dolls. If you did not know the lyrics to every single song, even the one that Stockard Channing sings towards the end of the movie, you were something of a loser.

But what exactly were we getting out of Grease? If for whatever reason you never saw the movie (loser), here’s the plot: It’s the 1950s. Danny and Sandy meet on some California beach the summer before senior year of high school, they fall in love, she tells him she has to go back to Australia, but then on the first day of school, there she is. Danny is a greaser and Sandy is hopelessly devoted to him, but also totally uncool, despite hanging around with the Pink Ladies, a group of sometimes mean girls, who, if you look closely, are all about 30 years old. After a whole bunch of misunderstandings at a drive-in, the school dance, a car race, Sandy proves she truly loves Danny by wearing a skintight black leather jumpsuit and high heels. Everyone sings “We Go Together” and Sandy and Danny drive off into the sky.

What I’m leaving out here is all the singing and dancing everyone was always doing in the 1950s! This is what made the movie such a hit, of course. Who could forget the song “Greased Lightning” with the line: “You know that I ain’t bragging, she’s a real pussy wagon.” Or even better: “The chicks’ll cream for greased lightning.” I remember singing along to these lyrics as a child, totally clueless. From this movie I learned the terms “knocked up” and what it means to “put out,” though I’m not sure I entirely got the context of either. I noticed, bewildered, that adults in the audience laughed every single time Marty said her last name was Maraschino: "You know, as in cherry."

And yet it was that singing and dancing that kept bringing us back. I recall one time seeing the movie with my mother and some of my friends, walking out of the theater, and then simply turning around and walking right back in to see it again. No one’s parents had any objection to this movie, clearly, though I was not allowed to see Saturday Night Fever, even when the PG version of it was released. The curious message of the ending, when Sandy dresses like a slut (I’m using this word with all due respect) in order to win the man of her dreams, was never questioned. In fact, I seriously imagined that I would be wearing that exact outfit someday since that was clearly the ideal of womanhood. Our John Travolta-loving parents brought us to this movie over and over again. Do you see what I’m getting at? There is something so hilariously innocent and also disturbing about this, which is probably a good way to define the late 1970s, if you think about it. And jeez, maybe it's time I got that leather jumpsuit already.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Smoking: True Confessions

All right, let me just say this up front. I have a very complicated relationship with cigarettes. It’s the sort of thing where I spent many years of my life saying how much I hated them while secretly loving them and then also plenty of time pretending to love them while secretly hating them. But the thing is, me and cigarettes, we go way back.

When I was in ninth grade, and ridiculously young I should add, my friend A. (not her real name) had already mastered the art of smoking and managed to look like she’d been doing it for years. For a couple of afternoons she had let me practice smoking for a few seconds at a time, which was enough to make me write in my diary that night, “A. let me have a drag from her cigarette today and I liked it! Am I addicted???” (content verbatim from my diary)

Though in all honesty, I could go back a lot further than that. Now I didn’t exactly grow up during the Mad Men era, but it wasn’t so far off. I remember when people could smoke cigarettes on a plane, in a restaurant, in a hospital, and, best of all, in a car with the windows rolled up (car windows actually rolled up in those days). My father and stepfather both smoked, which meant that I was never very far from secondhand smoke, and the bronchitis I suffered as a kid may have its origins there. No one really thought about that though. When I was 16 years old, I worked at David’s Cookies with an older boy who actually rolled a pack of cigarettes into the sleeve of his white t-shirt. I’m not going to say that was the only reason I had a crush on him, but it helped tremendously.

I started smoking myself, occasionally, sometime in college. During a particularly stressful and miserable time of what was in general a stressful and miserable time, I took to smoking cigarettes on the porch of the house I lived in or in my room when no one else was home. I was 19 years old and I figured that’s what you did when you were miserable.

But interestingly that was the last time I would ever associate cigarettes with anything negative. In my early 20s it became something fun to do while drinking. Also it became something absolutely necessary to do with someone else. How great it is to have something to do with your hands, people always say about smoking, and that really is part of it. Plus you can’t help loving the grown-uppy way you look knocking the ashes off casually in between drags (something my friend R., a real smoker, had to teach me so I would stop looking ridiculous).

When I was 22, I introduced my boyfriend to cigarettes and he took to it so naturally that within a week he was smoking a pack a day, a habit he kept up for many years (sorry, C!). Whereas I still managed to have the occasional cigarette and, despite my ninth-grade worries, never really got addicted at all. I knew that I was never an addict because the thought of waking up and having a cigarette was always just about the most disgusting thing I could imagine. I really only smoked when necessary and then I could go for a long while until the urge would strike. I’m not going to say all that much about having a cigarette after sex except that if you’ve ever done it then you know just how much you feel like a character in a movie while doing so.

Meanwhile, I often found that after a night of smoking too many cigarettes I would wake up with a certain heaviness in my chest that wasn’t quite pain, but wasn’t quite not pain either. I used to think, Well, this must be leftover from my bronchitis days. My body must really not like cigarettes. Well, of course not. They are disgusting. Smoking is one of the most repulsive things you can do to your body. And yet how cool and grown-up I felt every single time! Doesn’t everyone who smokes feel this way? I’m going to guess that it’s true.

And now? At the very beginning of 2011 I felt that having an occasional cigarette (which I had not done for like 15 years) was a way of celebrating my newfound freedom. By the end of 2011, when I found myself puking in a friend’s bathroom after a night of wine and cigarettes, I decided that was that. And it is, mostly, except when sometimes the idea of smoking with someone feels so thrilling that I forget that it pretty much disgusts me now. There is a strange disconnect between the thrill and the disgust that is not like anything else I’ve ever experienced. Maybe all smokers feel this way. I can’t exactly say.

All I will say is that I hope never to smoke another cigarette ever again. And that also I'm pretty sure I will.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Classic Rock Songs That I Would Never Like to Hear Again

There are tons and tons of classic rock songs out there that I should totally hate by now and yet remarkably I don’t. I mean, nobody really wants to hear Ray Manzarek play the organ one more time and yet we can all kind of sit through repeated listenings of the Doors if need be. And even “Stairway to Heaven,” in which I always find myself thinking, What will be the total number of times I will hear this song in my lifetime? and then answer: n + 1, because there will always be one more time. And yet I keep on listening because that song still works even if you are no longer a teenager whose very soul is composed of it. And even all the Stones songs they play on classic radio shows (none of which come close to my favorite Stones songs) are still quite listenable. And, of course, every single time I hear the first few guitar strums of “Maggie Mae” I am totally psyched to sing along. So if that’s the case, is there anything left? Oh yes, there is. There are some classic rock songs out there that I lost my patience with years ago. These are the songs that would be played in my own classic radio hell. I reveal them here for the first time knowing that, naturally, they will come back to haunt me.

1. Hotel California
All right, this is an easy one. Even if I hadn’t been forced to listen to it a million times in college when the boys that lived above me insisted on playing it day and night on a continuous loop, I think I would have grown to hate it anyway. What the hell is going on? You just can’t kill the beast? Come on, what are you talking about?

2. Money
Ugh. This song bewilderingly is on an album ("Dark Side of the Moon") full of dreamy swirly songs and yet it is exactly the opposite of that. It is like some kind of slap in the face. Who cares if that bass line is one of the most recognizable of all time? The song still sucks.

3. Walk this Way
I don’t have much to say about this one except that no one really likes it, right? I thought so.

4. Rock The Casbah
Okay, seriously, what is wrong with people? This is the Clash song you’d choose to play repeatedly out of all of them? Think of the worst song off their first three albums (Hmm, what would that song be? Maybe “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A”?) and it is still 1,000 times better than this one! The worst experience has to be listening to a classic rock station (in the car!) and hearing the D.J. saying, Next up, the Clash! and thinking, Please don’t let it be "Rock the Casbah"! Please don’t it be "Rock the Casbah"! and lo and behold, that’s exactly what it is.

5. Bennie and the Jets
This song is sort of exhausting, though it doesn’t become really awful until Elton John can’t stop repeating “B-b-b-bennie and the Jets” and then just “Bennie!” in that high-pitched tone that makes my head hurt just thinking of it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cause and Effect

At the very end of 1993, my boyfriend at the time and I made a list entitled “2010,” in which we predicted what the world would be like in that year. This was based on a few things, including what we expected, what we hoped would happen, and, of course, what was happening on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which pretty much informed the future for us. We did not predict jet packs, since by then everyone knew that was always going to be the pretend vision of the future, but we tried to think about what would truly be possible.

Many things were not very visionary on our part ("New York City subway system will be using farecards!") or not very well elaborated ("something will replace microwaves – instant food makers") but some of them are kind of intriguing. We predicted that Europe would be one country (not bad), but also that North America would also be one country (way off). We predicted that there would only be email, no snail mail (even though we didn’t use the term “snail mail”), and that there would be "no more video stores – all movies through cable" (kinda). There are some things on the list ("virtual reality – primitive – consumer selling, medical") that I wish we’d elaborated on and some things that I don’t quite understand ("books will be published through modem – bulletin board, etc."). The first two things on the list ("voice-activated doors, video phones") came directly from "Star Trek."

I’m thinking about this now because of a video clip I saw recently that I cannot get out of my head. One of the guests on a 1956 episode of “I've Got a Secret” was the last living eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination. He had been five years old, attending the production of Our American Cousin, when he saw John Wilkes Booth leap onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, and fall and break his leg. This man, born in 1860, lived to tell his story on television. I can barely get past this fact, much less the rest of the details.

And yet here I am, living in the twenty-first century, the future. I was not a witness to anything as truly remarkable as a president's assassination, but I still remember when television simply ended at like 2 a.m., when, if you were frustrated by a busy signal, you could get an emergency operator to interrupt a phone call, when, as a kid, you could lie across the entire back seat of a car and sleep the whole way home. And these simple things are all pretty remarkable to my own children, who watch "Star Trek" with me now, and notice how not everything seems so futuristic on that twenty-fourth century ship. My favorite episodes are always the ones in which time is proven not to be a linear thing, but round, something you can catch up to if you’re not careful.

Which leads me back to Samuel J. Seymour, a man still alive in the age of television, who proved that somehow the Civil War was still present and not just part of some disconnected past. For his appearance on the show, Seymour received $80 and a can of pipe tobacco.