Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The New "It" Couple. If by "it," you mean pointless.

Who is the world are Giuliana and Bill?? (It’s okay, I never heard of them either.) Then I spent the better part of three days sleeping – or restlessly not sleeping as the case may be – in bed with the flu, or what felt like the flu. In my fevered state, I flipped through a number of vapid television shows. And although I never watched an episode, I was intrigued by what appears to be TV’s new power couple, Giuliana and Bill.

Let me see if I understand this. Bill Rancic once found (semi)fame as the first season’s winner on The Apprentice. According to his Style TV biography, many years before he appeared on television, he started a company called Cigars Around the World, which is a multi-million dollar organization today. How someone who founded a multi-million dollar company needed to find his way into the business world as Donald Trump’s apprentice is a mystery to me but let’s leave aside that for now. Since his Apprentice victory, Bill has gone on to a career as – what else?- a motivational speaker and author of not one, but two books.

Giuliana (DePandi) Rancic is a former entertainment reporter (now anchor and managing editor of E! News) who met Bill when she interviewed him. Born in Italy, her family moved to Washington, D.C. when she was 7 years old, where Giuliana promptly taught herself English by watching television. Not surprisingly, she has also written a book and produced such television gold as “Celebrity Rap Superstar” and “Nicole Richie: Her Simple Life.” And aren’t we all the richer for it?

According to the website, the show also features someone named Matt Jacobi, who works as Giuliana’s personal assistant. He “is always there to help Giuliana manage her hectic, high-profile life.” Whatever.

I truly don’t get us. Or at least I don’t get the people who produce and sell programs like this to networks and eventually to us. A “reality” show winner marries an entertainment reporter and there it is. That’s a show. Someone tests the concept with focus groups, and concludes that, yes, in fact we may all just want to follow their every “unscripted” move.

You have to feel sorry for good old Mary Hart. I wonder if she thinks she was born too early? Where were all these reality shows when she was younger and the only female entertainment reporter any of us could name?

All I know is that this week’s promo for G & B centered around a “guys’ night out” in Las Vegas where Bill and his friends get away from their wives and families. As Bill himself says, “What could be better than that?”

Hmmm. I can think of something better; a few things actually. That reality show stars take their winnings and go away immediately after receiving their prizes? That reality show stars never get their own follow-up television shows? That not one of them ever publishes as much as a column, much less a book, or worse, two books??? That the next time a cable network decides to produce a show featuring a motivational speaker / entrepreneur / reality show winner / author married to an entertainment reporter /executive producer / author, someone with the ability to say no to this nonsense, and also with the sense God gave a flea, smacks them very hard across the face and turns it down.

Any one of those things could be better than a boys’ night out, especially one that will be documented for posterity on Giuliana and Bill.

A Celebration: Words and Music by Willy DeVille

I heard this news from one of the generous readers who commented on this post a few weeks ago. It sounds like a wonderful celebration of the man and his music.

Here is the invitation to all - thanks Sister Sue!

Come celebrate Willy DeVille's life and music!

Sat, 10/10/09 in NYC. 3pm - Tompkins Square Park. Avenue B side.

Share stories, emotions & Willy's amazing music.
Bring stories/music or simply be comforted by the company of other fans & friends.

We have RSVP's from Canada, San Francisco, Kansas City & more!

Don't miss this chance to celebrate Willy's life & music with people who understand & care.

RSVP to WDcelebration@gmail.com. But feel free to come whether you RSVP or not!

If bad weather or you join us late we'll be at:
Otto's Shrunken Head
538 E 14th St
NY, NY 10009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Another* flying story

No, this isn’t another case of me wailing about delays and other assorted kinds of airline inflicted pain. In this story, although the airline ultimately irritated me, my complaint lies largely with my fellow passengers.

Here’s the story. Dallas / Fort Worth to Newark; the 5:45 pm departure. I’ve taken this flight many times and it often lands promptly at 10:15 in Newark, which puts me home and in my bed before midnight. Not great but not horrible. The horrible times are when it’s delayed in Dallas and lands around 1 or 2 am in New Jersey.

This week was not one of those late nights. In fact, our flight landed at 9:30 pm. Yes, 45 MINUTES early. I don’t get it. I’m guessing the pilots follow the same flight plan every night from DFW to Liberty International but who knows. It’s obviously that weird airline ‘time warp time’ that makes no sense to me: a three and a half hour flight really takes just two hours and forty-five minutes. Except when it doesn’t. Okay, fine. That must have been some tailwind.

Two things are starting to get to me these days, every time I board a plane. First: what’s with the passengers who decide to store their bags nowhere near their seats? This makes no sense to me. I’ve watched many men – it’s always been men in my experience – store their bags above row 5 or row 6 or row 7 and then walk back to row 20 or row 21 or row 22 – passing empty aisle after empty aisle - to take their seats. Then the people seated in row 5 or row 6 or row 7 get aboard. They look around and despite no one sitting in their rows, the overhead bins are full. Is this a power thing? A guys-taking-charge thing? Whatever.

But this week, I guess I was extra tired or something. As is customary these days, once the first class passengers boarded the flight, the Elite, Silver Elite and Gold Elite passengers were invited to board. I’m not kidding: nearly everyone stood up and clustered around the gate. (Here’s where I started to get aggravated.) Once they had checked in, that left about 20 people in the gate area, including me. (My Elite status has somehow disappeared or expired despite numerous trips on this airline annually. I can’t explain it.)

As the Elite passengers handed over their boarding passes, I couldn't help but size up the various pieces of luggage they carried with them. Very few met the height and width “requirements” Continental displays front and center at each gate. They were nearly all huge suitcases, mammoth garment bags and over sized soft-sided luggage. And I thought: this is annoying. Why does an airline bother having a “your bag must fit here” display if they refuse to enforce it?

The best news of the night was that as the rest of us walked down the jetway, one of the gate attendants joined us and announced she had to tag and check all our bags. (Our bags that fit within the stipulated requirements, by the way. I know. I looked around when she said she had to check them.) Surprise! The overheads were full. Well, I wasn’t at all surprised. I saw the size of those 100 bags those 100 Elite passengers carried on board. Everyone left at the gate could have told them they were too big for the overheads. It’s not that they didn’t fit; they did. But each one took up two or three spaces. Super.

So, I had to do what I NEVER do: check my bag. And then wait at the carousel for it to appear, while I watched all the Elite passengers on my flight walk by, nearly every one of them carrying a bag the size of an ottoman.

I called Continental the next day and voiced my complaint to a lovely passenger service person who listened politely. She agreed that especially in very full flights, attention should be paid to the size of the luggage accompanying passengers on board and promised to convey my displeasure to the gate crew in Dallas.

Will she? I don’t know. I don’t think it will make a difference anyway. Apparently, Elite passengers follow different rules than the rest of us. But as I said, I take this flight regularly. I’m sure I’ll get the chance to find out.

* You may want to read two other in-flight adventures, here and here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thanks for the fantasy....

As my own special tribute to Patrick Swayze, here is the first piece of writing I ever did that earned me a paycheck. (It's nearly ten years old so forgive the anachronisms.) For that reason, and because of the responses it drew from all kinds of readers (including a number of men), it will always remain very special to me. You may want to choose your own favorite Patrick moment, but for me, it will always be that final scene. Enjoy.

If you have a VCR and a little time to spare, you have everything you need to understand women. In just two hours, you'll learn the secret to what makes women run, disguised as a sleeper hit from the mid-eighties. Its title has true "guy" appeal: Dirty Dancing.

No matter what, no matter when, I have to watch the final scene of Dirty Dancing whenever I come across it on TV. The goofy end-of-season resort talent show, the disgruntled dancers scowling in the back of the room because their leader was unceremoniously ousted from their ranks, the awkward table for three where Baby (Jennifer Grey) and her parents self-consciously sit and watch the entertainment.

It doesn't matter that I've seen it - oh, let's call it 50, 60 times - I have to watch it. Not because it's great cinema. Not for the awful singing of the older, less engaging sister. Not even because I have to hear that infamous line from Johnny Castle (Swayze): "Nobody puts Baby in a corner," before he hauls her up on stage.

No. Because deep down inside, I know and believe with all my heart that with just a few turns around the floor, I could learn the number from Patrick, wear the flow-y dress like Jennifer and do an unbelievable job with that final dance.

If you're surprised, it's because you're a man reading this. If you're a woman, you're nodding your head saying, 'Yes! Yes!" Am I right? Of course I'm right! Any woman worth her strappy, high-heeled sandals would say so. There but for the grace of a good dance partner go I.

So what does this have to do with understanding women? Try just about everything.

The teaching and the learning of the dance steps throughout the picture. The early challenges of Baby and Johnny's partnership. The first time they appear in public at a nearby resort, ultimately building up to that final ballroom scene where they put it out there for the world to see, is a road map for what women want.

What does Baby get from Johnny that she hasn't gotten from other men in her life? She gets exactly what all women want from their lovers: patience, dedication, and decisiveness, confidence in themselves and their partner, the good sense to share the spotlight - even step into the shadows occasionally - and finally, strength.

Think about it. Ever notice the way women stare at couples on a dance floor? Try wedding receptions. At the last one you attended, I guarantee you every woman at your table commented on a terrific couple on the dance floor and every other woman at the table nodded in knowing comprehension. We are all fascinated with the way they anticipated each other, the light touch on her back that commanded so much, the casual way they moved apart without ever really leaving each other.

Did Baby feel good about her first few turns around the room with Johnny? No. Did he believe he was quite possibly making an enormous mistake? Yes. Does that sound like countless first dates? Or maybe the first few years of your marriage?

But they made it through the toe-squashing and the missed moves. Somewhere along the line, Johnny's patience as an instructor paid off. His confidence helped Baby polish her own natural abilities and they became each other's perfect partner.

(Politically correct alert: Yes, Baby taught Johnny a few things, too. But that's another article.)

And the climax of the previously mentioned, never-to-be-missed, final scene? The lift! The scary, you-better-hold-on-tight-and-not-drop-me, I'm-not-sure-I-can-do-this, lift! With grace, trust, and a look of exquisite joy, Baby flings herself into Johnny's waiting arms and is...what? Elevated above and beyond, truly basking in the glow of her own pride and confidence, nurtured and encouraged all along the way by her lover and trusted friend.

So what's the secret? Arthur Murray? Maybe. But if you're not ready for the "take 12 lessons and the 13th is free" route, tuck these rules away and refer to them often.

Hold her. Hold her tight, hold her lightly, hold her passionately. Never think your touch is old and unwanted. When you stop holding her, you start missing even the easy steps together.

Let her go. A woman is nothing if not contradictions. She'll need to take some solo steps from time to time, and it will help to know you're in the wings, cheering her on, watching her make her own moves.

Pay attention. Dedicate yourself to getting it right. These "man / woman" steps get complicated sometimes. When you make a mistake, even a pretty bad one, move on together. Try real hard not to make it again.

Lift her up. When the rest of the world tries to defeat her, remind her through your indefatigable confidence in her that she's a goddess who can soar above mere mortals.

Look her in the eye. Fancy footwork will get you so far, but look into her eyes and confirm, "I want to take these steps with you for the rest of my life."

You'll get distracted: jobs, kids, life. You'll slow down in the years ahead, maybe even forget a step or two.

But your commitment to each other will make all the difference in your pas de deux. Like the couple dancing at the wedding, you'll fall into a comfortable, semi-private place every time you reach for each other, moving together like couples did so naturally, so many years ago in the Catskills.

Contrary to the title, I guess it is me.

Quick: who is Stephanie Courtney? Don't know her?

Well, how about Eric Violette?

Oh, come on. If you're alive and in America, you know them. I guarantee it.

Stephanie is that supremely annoying woman on the Progressive Insurance television commercials. Not only that, you see her face every single time you open your home page. Eric is the male version of Stephanie: he's the guy featured in the ubiquitous free credit report commercials.

Honest to God, I would never ever consider buying - or even investigating - Progressive Insurance because I find their spokeswoman cloying, insipid and patronizing. And as far as my credit rating goes, I've never ever wondered about it - not once - and there is not one thing about hopping online to get a credit report that appeals to me, free or not. (Years ago, a financial advisor I know mentioned that the new found feeding frenzy over credit reports or "knowing your credit score" was something of a financial canard. In other words, if you need to know your number, you can assume it's probably too low.)

The reason I've titled the post this way is that apparently, at least when it comes to Stephanie, I'm in the minority. According to Stuart Elliott who writes about media and advertising for The New York Times, many viewers LOVE Stephanie. They call her "breezy." Progressive Insurance even reports that people have called the company, and expressed their desire to buy insurance, but only if they can purchase it from Stephanie.

Whatever. I can only hope these callers deep down understand she's an "actress," playing a role of some kind, although I can't quite figure out what exactly she's supposed to be. To me, she's aggravating, not approachable. She's unctuous and smug. I'd run in the other direction if someone with her style and manner tried to talk to me about insurance.

But again, that's me. Maybe I am mostly alone in my perspective here. She does seem to keep getting work so there must be some return on this investment for Progressive. More troubling is the report of people calling the company and asking to speak to Steph or have her work up a policy for them. Could any of them be serious? Even just some of them?

Sometimes, I wish I were that clueless. Sometimes I feel too mean to live. Maybe therapy would help. I wouldn't mind getting some counseling, but only if I could sit across the room from Dr. Paul Weston for an hour or so every week. OK, so Paul is really Gabriel Byrne, playing a psychologist on television. What's the difference? The same people who buy policies from a TV spokeswoman would also call HBO and try to find out where Dr. Weston's Brooklyn office is located.

And we worry about securing healthcare coverage for everyone in the country. We should be more concerned about the number of citizens who think they can buy insurance by calling an actress who appears in a television commercial. I'll bet for every one who called, there are ten at home who believe the same thing. We're doomed.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I need to start paying attention to the annual rhythms of my life. It seems to me I go through similar kinds of feelings from season to season, from year to year. Not that much gets resolves, mind you. But it does feel kind of cyclical.

Example: like a lot of people, I usually find myself re-examining my life about mid-January every year. Once the holidays are behind us and a new year is underway, I spend a great deal of non-productive time thinking about my life and how exactly it has progressed to this point. I rethink my job, my personal life, my activities, my resolutions, my plans...just about anything you can think of and every single year I come to no reasonable conclusion and make no startling changes about anything. I've worked at the same place for more than twenty years, I've been married for almost twenty-three years and have no taken up a new hobby in forever. (I'm not sure I have any hobbies if I think about it.)

But it's too early for all that; this isn't the new year and the post-holiday brooding I engage in annually. No, it's the start of fall and if my personal history means anything, I'm entering into my Jane-Austen-is-a-goddess phase. I've started re-reading Pride & Prejudice , I've already watched Sense and Sensibility, and the Masterpiece Theater version P&P as well, all four hours, with the most perfect Mr. Darcy ever conjured up by a casting director, Colin Firth. There must be something about the fall, the coziness of a room with a blanket, a cup of coffee or tea and a great story from Ms. Austen that just cries out for some attention. I just don't think I could ever read P & P on the beach. It's a fall book, requiring a blanket and fading afternoon light.

As I engage in all this Austen overload, I think about my life and ask myself the logical question: WWJD? (What would Jane do?)

Let's consider the incomparable Elizabeth Bennett in P & P. In Elizabeth, we discover a woman who seemingly didn't spend a lot of time questioning her life. (Well, maybe she did in some ways but let's face it, her choices were somewhat limited.) Even so, I admire her resolute behavior, her independence, her intelligence and her feistiness. I wish I had more of her (and Jane) in me. I doubt she ever spent one single second considering the shape of her thighs or her weight. She didn't regret her abs, her roots, or her wrinkles. She didn't buy product after product to address the size of her pores. In fact, if she felt insecurity about her appearance, she kept it to herself.

She never once seemed envious of anyone around her, although it could be reasonably said that many possessed more and had more opportunities afforded to them in life. She enjoyed the company of her friends and was attracted to particular men, but she never lost herself in her pursuit of friends or lovers. I have to think that was mostly unheard of in actual life for Jane and the women who surrounded her. Pride & Prejudice character Charlotte Lucas alludes to as much, when she talks of marriage and how love is a luxury many women can ill afford.

I need to be channeling a little more Jane and Elizabeth. For god's sake, at this point in my life, the insecurity is getting a little tiresome, even for me. Maybe if I pose the WWJD? question every time I want to succumb to the daily assaults on my self-esteem, I'd feel better. Like the next time I see that "one simple rule to lose your belly fat" or whatever that ever-present ad is every home page I visit, I'll close it without so much as a pang of regret. Maybe I won't click through another ad that will tell me how to get effective butt-shaping moves. And maybe I won't develop Michelle Obama's arms. I'll live. I might not look my best, but I'll live. The question is: WWJD? She would note them with polite interest and move on. Okay, it's not much. But it's a start.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

I think this is what it means to come full circle.

Something about my activity this last week feels very familiar. I walk into a neat, clean, welcoming room; a room that looks absolutely perfect but for the absence of its owner. I wander in and out of it from day to day, puffing up a pillow there, smoothing out an already smooth bedcover there. The pictures are in place, the curtains hang neatly, and the little touches that make it unique remain intact from day to day.

I know what this feels like. The last time I spent this much time looking around a child’s room, just taking it in, was during the last stages of my pregnancies. I remember sitting in a rocking chair, anticipating who would eventually live in that room, first cradled in my arms as we both swayed in that glider rocker, day after day, night after night. I remember how much I loved creating that baby space, anticipating my newborn. I’d change diapers, nurse babies, dress children and read books in those nursery and boyhood rooms. I’d eventually watch each of my sons climb out of my lap, literally and figuratively, and walk out the door.

So here I am, some eighteen years later, having witnessed three little boys who are not so little anymore leave their rooms behind. All three are enthusiastically making new homes for themselves in a college apartment or a dorm room this fall. Only the glider rocker remains from all those years ago, but its former occupants are otherwise occupied. Well, not me, not really. I suppose I could take a seat as I survey the room, but I don’t.

The primary-colored plastic toys and stuffed animals are long gone. The X-men, Power Rangers, Street Sharks, Pokemon, Gargoyles, Disney characters and Star Wars vehicles are also either long gone or packed far, far away. Over these last few days, each of the boys’ rooms has taken on the undeniably attractive look of a crisp, clean, perfectly organized space. There is not even one cash machine receipt crumbled up on a desk, not one soggy towel draped on the floor, not one food wrapper or empty snack bag to be found. After housing years and years of living and laughs, years of sadness and tears, shouts and whispers, hugs and kisses, slammed doors and raucous debate, the rooms are strangely and unnaturally quiet. Each room has survived nicely, still standing after the challenges and missteps that define childhood. I can only hope the same is true of their owners.

I realize not every mother (or father) does this kind of nightly stroll down memory lane in what are now unoccupied bedrooms at home. It sounds sort of pathetic and I can’t really explain it other than to say it makes me feel closer to my boys somehow. Just standing in each room, looking around, quietly tells me each of their stories one more time. Sure, the rooms look more pristine than they have in more than a decade but the stories remain.

Now I spend some time anticipating my sons in a new way; imagining who and what they will be, this time as adults, not as my children. The rooms have their past; I’m not sure how much of their future they’ll hold. Yes, the school breaks, the vacations, sure; the next several years – maybe more than that - will find us with at least part time occupants in those rooms again.

Like the toys and games, our days of sitting in the glider rocker together are also long gone. What I hope remains, lingering in some way in those rooms and beyond those walls within each of us, is the familiar, comfortable feeling of home, of connection, of love.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

This confounds me. It really does.

As I stood at the checkout counter at a local bookstore, I came across a People magazine cover featuring a headline that confounded me. Here it is: Kate Strikes Back!! You won't be surprised to hear I didn't purchase it.

There she was, the ubiquitous Kate Gosselin. The subheads exclaimed: She's mortified about his affair with Hailey, feels like 'it's a fifteen-year-old I'm getting divorced from,' and finally, her explanation for Jon's behavior? 'Aliens have taken him away.'

I have never once watched an episode of this horrifying "reality" show featuring the Gosselin family. I can't think of anything that would compel me to do so. But even though that's the case, the media has done a bang-up job educating extraordinarily disinterested parties like me about every move the unhappy couple makes. At this point, I have to wonder: leaving people like me out of the equation, aren't even the fans of this show sick of these people yet?

I wondered what exactly Kate was striking back at these days. Could it be "the media?" The same media she invited into her home, her marriage and her family life; the media that has taken over her life and splashed it across the tabloid pages, not unlike the magazine cover she herself posed for this week? I'm sorry, but I have no sympathy for any of the adults in this little melodrama. The kids yes, the parents, no. Unfortunately, my feeling is that the kids don't have enough hours left in their lives for the therapy they're going to need with these two chuckleheads for parents.

The part that really, really gets to me, though, is Kate's best-selling book. Remember that? Just eleven months ago, this horror show found its way to the printed page and her fans snapped it up. Where do you start with something like this? Let's go to the logical place: the dedication.

Kate dedicated this to her husband: "...Now I know you meant it when you said in your vows that you would be here 'through new and challenging experiences.'" Charming. The introduction talks about God's plan for them and how fulfilled they are as parents. Published by Zondervan, a Christian publisher, each chapter opens with a quote from the Bible. (I'm sure the Zondervan folks are wondering what the heck happened in the past few months.)

Let's recap. The book pubs in October, 2008 and by June, 2009, the couple has separated. I don't know about you, but that sounds a bit like fraud to me. To your publisher and to the book-buying public, you are a Christian, spiritual, loving couple. Eight months later, the marriage is over and the husband has a girlfriend?

Let's go back a little further and consider the marketing savvy of this couple. Their sextuplets arrived in May, 2004. Fifteen months later, Discovery Health taped a few television "specials" about the family and by October 2006, production had begun on a regular television show. The show films three days a week and has been on the air regularly for more than two years. All this, while Kate was apparently drafting a book where they thank Jesus for the gifts he gave them and the strength to raise them.

I know we like to watch misery. We wait for the car crashes at a race track. I think Kate and Jon and the rest of them have shared enough of their own particular type of train wreck with us, don't you? Time to move on. Time to let someone else take the reins and gallop into our collective consciousness with their own particular kind of crazy. I'm sure there are lots of them out there, just waiting for that camera crew to show up.