Thursday, June 19, 2014

Far too young and clever

I've been thinking about the late, great Casey Kasem all week, and I needed just a bit more room for my  #throwbackThursday this time.

"American Top 40" aired Sunday nights, when I was in the prime listening demographic. Six to ten p.m., or 7-11:00 maybe? My mom was still rigid about school night bedtimes, but at some point in my middle-school years I was allowed to--or figured out that I could--listen to my crappy clock radio on the lowest possible volume, while lying in bed.

I'd get misty while Casey called out the long-distance dedications. I could not wait, to have, and possibly then break up with, an Actual Boyfriend to whom I would devote the syrupy regret of a pop song. Casey Kasem willing, I'd do so in a forum broadcast to everyone in the United States. Learn from my romantic tragedy, fellow tweens! Heed my hard-earned relationship wisdom!

I rooted for my favorite songs to move up in the countdown, as if I had money riding on it. I guess in a way I did, hoping that my latest obsession would crack the top 20 and thus appear on the wall behind the cash registers at DJ's Sound City, four rows of 45s in their paper sleeves. The other bins of singles were a crapshoot, but I knew that one slat-wall would be fully stocked. The cashier could just turn 180 degrees and hand down the record. If it wasn't top-20, though, you had to wait. If you had particularly esoteric tastes, you might wait a long time. This was the 80s, luckily, already a wondrous and bizarre mishmash of pop trends, where stations on the AM band played Kenny Rogers cheek-by-jowl with Alice Cooper and the Beatles and the Knack.

But I think about it a lot, the patience that's no longer required. Was delayed gratification ever that much sweeter? (Usually, I think this after I've gone on a nostalgic iTunes binge, snapping up every crazy one-hit wonder I can think of, most of which are preeeeeety terrible.)

Anyway. Casey Kasem and "American Top 40." A primitive map, for the adolescent culture I was on the periphery of. Teenagers! Here were things that teenagers did: listened to music, bought records, affected the surge and sway of the pop charts. Casey was my guide. And, ever the straight-A student, I took notes, writing down the most thrilling countdown moments on my calendar.

I knew I'd saved one somewhere--for the calendar illustrations (vintage children's-book illustrations, if you're wondering. Nothing racy, ew! I was in 7th grade! And a nerd!). I didn't realize what an excellent anthropological document I was preserving, though. Here's April, 1983. I was thirteen.


I've always enjoyed the Oscars, though I was nonplussed by "Gandhi" winning Best Picture. "Tootsie" was my pick, and I'd evidently seen it twice, which I hope did not adversely affect my performance on that Western Hemisphere test in Social Studies. But I digress. Check out Sunday the 24th. Dexy's Midnight Runners, with their fiddles and their overalls, had hit number one--in the USA!--with "Come On, Eileen." The mildly suggestive lyrics were luckily obscured by the lead singer's incomprehensible mumbling, and so I think we even convinced my mother to buy the whole album, on cassette, from Columbia House Records and Tapes. I hope we got that one for the proverbial penny.

But I suspect I slipped out of bed to write this, to find a pen and scribble down this milestone, lest I forget. I had a babysitting job on the horizon, and I have a pretty good idea now where that cash was gonna go. It was spring, it couldn't BE any more 80s, and it was totally awesome. Thanks, Casey. Rest in peace.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

What silence equals

I don’t get it. Certainly, running the US broadcast on a multi-hour tape delay gave NBC’s editors ample opportunity to decide which parts of the Sochi Opening Ceremonies to cut—seemingly, too much of the wackadoo good stuff, like Get Lucky. And yes, speeches, welcome, thank you, swifter higher blahblah boring…but to patch together Thomas Bach’s remarks while neatly trimming his emphasis on dignity, tolerance, respect…? That can’t be sheer clumsiness. It’s got to be deliberate. Sure, Putin is a creepy dude, but is the fourth-place American television network so intimidated that they can’t bring themselves even to let someone else politely criticize his brutal, discriminatory policies?

Or are we a lot closer to them than we think?

I was a competitive figure skater as a teen. Oh, I wasn’t any good—I started too late for that. But I spent my adolescence in several mildewy local rinks, twirling and daydreaming and landing on my ass more often than not. Most of the kids I skated with were girls. Most of the coaches I knew were women. But I worked with three male coaches over the years, in summer clinics and training camps…and all three of them were gay.

Plenty has been written elsewhere, about the USFSA, the various Olympic committees, and whether they’re constantly searching for The Great Straight Hope, in men’s figure skating. I don’t have the tools or the inclination to analyze this, now, to explore why and whether gay men might be disproportionately drawn to the sport. I mean, sequins and Stravinsky don’t have some inherent magical gay-making power. And I have no idea whether the men I knew were out at the time: to their other friends, their families, out in their public lives away from the rink. Looking back, I don’t remember it being a topic of discussion, either…more of an open secret. They were gay. We all just knew, and didn’t care.

Tony taught me my first rudimentary spins, the coiled etchings of my blade on the ice like a plate of spaghetti. (Tony also lost his shit and screamed at me when, during rehearsals for the annual ice show/recital, I botched his vision, tripped, and collapsed in mortified, giggling paralysis.) Ryan was a brilliant choreographer, a prankster, a wiseass. Ryan swapped books with my mom, danced with me at somebody’s wedding. Alexi spoke English as a second language. “More slow, please,” he’d beg me, when my breakneck teen-girl blithering proved impenetrable. They were my teachers, friends, fixtures in my world. They were just people.
This was the mid-to-late 1980s. A history lesson in another disproportionate percentage: two of these stories end badly. Tony died of AIDS-related complications while I was away at college; first he vanished, then he died. I heard at roughly the same time that Ryan was sick. That’s how I was told, in that circle: a half-whisper, low tones, already too late. Someone was Sick. Ryan is…Sick. “Oh, Ryan, be careful,” my mother had blurted, once, the lone time AIDS had somehow come up in conversation. I remember that he promised that he would. Whether he was or wasn’t, I couldn’t know. Maybe it already didn’t matter. Ryan hung on, fought like hell in fact, for 17 years…but died a decade ago at 42. Younger than I am now.

I associate the “SILENCE = DEATH” message with the ACT UP movement in the same late 80s-early 90s period. I’d remembered it as both a demand for more research into HIV and AIDS, better medicine, a cure…and an exhortation not to remain silent—to protect each other by practicing safe sex, keeping everyone informed, being aware of one’s HIV status. But it turns out that, all along, it also meant being open about one’s true self, gay, straight, bi, trans…so that by calling attention to prejudice, oppression, danger, we can fight against it and root it out. From the Silence = Death Project’s manifesto: “’silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The slogan thus protested both taboos around discussion of safer sex and the unwillingness of some to resist societal injustice and governmental indifference.”

This is why I’m watching the Sochi Olympics, why I couldn’t bring myself to support a boycott. Russia’s discriminatory policies and human rights violations are an offense, and they deserve—NEED—to be called out on the world stage. I’m proud and protective of the brave athletes from around the world who are willing to defy these wrongs, in whatever large or small way they can: Ashley Wagner rainbowing it up. Alexey Sobolev making Bob Costas invoke the name “Pussy Riot” on national television. Brian Boitano, realizing that saying nothing is just another form of silence.
And this is why NBC’s decision to excise those portions of the IOC President’s speech so grates upon me. Matt and Meredith spent a lot of last night’s narrative talkin’ ‘bout Putin: how these were his Games, his message, his stage…almost as if he were single-handedly pulling every cable on the floating schoolgirl, twirling inflatable onion domes, and light-up hockey players swinging from the stadium roof. Putin, Putin, Putin! But if we don’t talk about why we’re talking about Putin—or why he is intimidating, sinister, sitting up there in his box like a reptilian cyborg—then we’re silencing ourselves. We’re silencing the good people fighting for change: those who are gay, those who aren’t, all of us just people like the coaches I knew. And silence = acceptance. Silence = the continuing wait for a cure. Silence = discrimination, imprisonment, getting beaten to death on the street or trapped inside a burning nightclub. So don’t give in, don’t give up. Be loud. Shout and cheer, for your team, your athletes…and for their humanity. For everyone you and they know and love.

Monday, February 03, 2014

How to end a dry spell

Such a goofy, giddy atmosphere in Seattle yesterday, like a particularly localized bizarro Christmas. Seahawks banners were taped up in every window of the ballet studio, and to the Campfire Girls’ card table outside the market (though by the time I made it out with my nacho fixins, they’d packed up their mints and raced home with their moms to make the kickoff). Someone had draped 12th-man flags on the pedestrian bridge over Holman Road and strung the handrails with blue and white twinkle lights plugged into an outlet on the city’s dime. People in Hawks jerseys thronged Chuck’s Hop Shop and the Sunday-morning biscuit truck outside. Driving through the anticipatory mayhem I had a weird momentary thought: that I wished I was a child, just a bit, to be experiencing this unique civic holiday from that perspective.

I was nine years old when the SuperSonics won their lone NBA championship. Seattle was still effectively a small town, known for boom-and-bust cycles of lumber and airplanes and little else. 1979 was closer, then, to Elvis at the World’s Fair and Here Come the Brides than I am to nine, now. Bill Gates and, yes, that Paul Allen had just moved their fledgling company up from Albuquerque. There was one Starbucks. Just the one! Think about that for a second.

So the Sonics were still somewhat accessible, to normal people. They made appearances at my elementary school assemblies, gentle giants signing autographs. Some crafty local made sock dolls in team likenesses; my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Eskenazi, had one of her favorite player, Dennis “DJ” Johnson, complete with frizzled-yarn Afro and his trademark freckles—somebody’s grandma had painstakingly embroidered a dusting of French-knot specks across his knitted cheeks. Based on a (shockingly accurate) self-portrait of the period, I had a Sonics t-shirt:


And so we were invested, at least somewhat.
We were with our dad, Sis and I, the night of Game 5. I don’t think we actually watched it, on the green-tinged 19-inch tube TV in the living room (though I’d love now to have the brass-and-veneer midcentury-mod Media Cart it sat on). But someone had hired a skywriter: I remember running around the yard in the long light of early-summer evening, and the little plane spelling out SONIC BOOM in puffy cloud trails in the air. And I remember afterwards, the shouts and horn-honking and people whanging pots together, house to house. Dad piled us into the pickup—just the three of us sliding around on the bench seat in the cab, never a thought of belting in because safety hadn’t been invented yet either—and drove us to Mercer Island, where Kathy still lived with her parents. He’d marry her, that fall. I cross Lake Washington every day now, but it seemed an epic journey, a vast distance, at the time. There were carloads of other celebrants on the highway, snapshots zooming past: a shirtless man hanging out of a VW Beetle whooping for joy, his own Sonics tee whipping and snapping in his hands like a flag.
“Wait,” Dad told me, “wait…” until we reached the I-90 tunnel…and then he let me lean over and pound on the horn. Honking in the tunnel! A delirium of echoing, illegal racket! Other cars took it up and we shot out the far end in a cacophony of blaring joyful noise that I’d instigated, thrilling and dangerous, champeens of the world.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


At Starbucks this morning, the woman in front of me proceeded to order twelve different complicated beverages, from a clipboard. NO NO NOOOO OH MY GOD COME OOOONNN. Who does that, at 9:45 a.m., in everybody's way? So I smiled pleasantly at nothing while irradiating the girl with my eyes. Beaming hatred down on this woman, seething and writhing internally because I had to wait on my mocha. Five whole minutes! Maybe six! HAAATE.

Then the sixty-something woman behind us both touched Clipboard on the arm, and sweetly volunteered to help her carry the three trays of beverages to her car, in the pounding December rain.

Okay, Universe, I get it. Take a breath, unclench. Look up. Be Zen. Christmas is coming.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Put your glad rags on

I don't have much to add, to any eulogizing of Tom Bosley--he had a good run, a large part of which he spent portraying a nice dad on a sitcom encoded into my DNA and that of many of my thirty-to-forty-something peers. Linda Holmes, over on the NPR blog Monkey See, says what I would only more gracefully; I was especially taken with this bit:

There's always some temptation to put disclaimers on a remembrance of a TV
actor, as if some apology is in order for thinking fondly of something you spent hundreds of hours enjoying as a kid instead of spending all your time
mourning obscure actors appearing in the truly great plays of the world.

May you rest in peace, Mr. C...and now let me pull this back to focus on a more personal memory. Coincidentally, the Hub cable network (revamped Discovery Kids, I guess) has been airing family fare all week, including ancient sitcoms from the pilot on. So I came home one night this week to faded, Chuck-Cunningham-era 1974 episodes of Happy Days, when Fonzie sported a grey windbreaker (I KNOW!), and the credits went like this:

Bill Haley! Oh my god, the sound of that jukebox working: the coin dropping down, the flip of the 45, the needle crackling into place*...and then the drummer just tears it up, man.

*We used to make fun of my Grammy, Sis and I, when she'd offer us change for "the nickelodeon." Now I look at this entire sentence and can imagine that, if I have any readers under 21, I might as well be writing about hoopskirts and Conestoga wagons.

Anyway. It makes my eyes well up, because in 1974, when my parents were still married and Sis was an infant, my mother took a "ceramics" class one night a week. It wasn't throwing clay on a wheel, but the kind where she and the other (presumably frustrated) suburban ladies chose from molded forms and painted their own color schemes. We had multiple garden gnomes and mushroom-patterned kitchen canisters and the like, for a while there. So, once a week Mom got a night off and Dad would "babysit," what modern child-having persons might call "parenting."

I don't remember whether I went to bed on those nights with adequate nutrition (unlikely), or brushed teeth (less so). But I do know that, whatever my bedtime was supposed to be, my dad let me stay up until, oh, 8:02. Through the Happy Days credits, and we would dance. Rockabilly swing dancing to Bill Haley and the Comets; he'd twirl me around, spin me in and out like a yo-yo, jiving in front of the television. We would seriously cut a rug--the harvest-gold shag that carpeted our sunken living room, in fact. Me and my dad, rockin'. I was four years old.

"This is a show about when Daddy was a boy," I can remember him telling me. He must have loved it; the protagonist was even named "Richie." I'm not sure when I started to suspect that Happy Days was not quite a documentary lens on the 50s, what with Fonzie and the shark-jumping and Mork and what have you. I watched it through to the bitter end, though, into the 80s, when Ron Howard wanted out and so the writers packed Richie Cunningham off to Vietnam, what the hell, and then there was Arnold's and the little girl from Poltergeist. And the finale with Joanie and Chachi's big wedding. Okay then. I bet Joanie got to dance with her dad then, man. Unfair.

It's a sweet memory, though, even as it stings. My mom used to harrangue my dad for his tendency to get me "all wound up," in her terms, immediately before bedtime: rasslin', or various furniture-jumping acrobatics. "Rich. Rich! You're getting her all wound up!" I'm sure frenetic swing-dancing also qualifies, as something unlikely to send a preschooler off to restful slumber. But it's the only time I can remember dancing with my father, and I know I'm lucky just to have that.

Okay, an antidote to The Maudlin: here's Bill Haley and co. in a live performance at breakneck speed. It's not entirely clear what this show is from the notes, and even less clear why there are several little girls (and their apparently grown partners) dancing their asses off in front of the band. But look at them go! Talk about rug-cutting. If the band slows down, we'll yell for more...but it doesn't look like there's any chance of that happening.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Our appliances were also that color

My Grammy suffered from a congenital inability to tell a joke. She could be witty, or quick with a biting remark...but the formal structure of setup-beat-punchline eluded her all her life. Her attempts at scripted levity all went something like this: "A man walks into a bar, and the bartender, wait. A priest! A priest goes into a bar...and also one of! A priest and a rabbi, and the bartender, no, that's wrong. No, wait: first the priest says...oh, hell. I've screwed it all up."

So she was funny, in a way, with these epic, backtracking stories--just never in the manner she intended. You had to give her credit, really, for soldiering on. A couple of her weird non-sequitur punchlines became family jokes in and of themselves, a quick shorthand we'd repeat like a hilarious mantra. The most famous of these came about in front of all her coworkers at the UW budget office. The joke itself was a hairy old chestnut indeed, about the world's cheapest hit man, Artie, plying his trade as a bargain-rate strangler. Stop me if you've--no, never mind. Suffice to say, Artie does his thing and the next day's headlines read:


Well, Grammy tried to tell this one to her colleagues, and I can only imagine the narrative weaving around towards its inevitable end. But she got there, eventually, and said: "So, the next day in the paper, all the headlines read...

(pregnant pause)


Well. Blank faces all around. Interestingly, Grammy could remember this humiliation and repeat it to us later, as a personal anecdote; her mental block was exclusive to telling a proper joke in the first place.

And this one became legend, somehow. I've been saying "avocados-three-for-a-dollar" reflexively for probably 30 years, at the slightest prompting: both when I botch a story of my own, and every time I see a little mesh bag of avocados (with a much higher price tag) at the supermarket. It's part of my family lexicon. We have to say it; it's ingrained, like "Jinx! Buy me a Coke!"

This is my own longwinded meandering way to wonder if any of y'all are watching Fringe as avidly as I am? Because in last week's episode, set in the blighted alternate universe (not watching? just...go with it), Olivia marveled that Frank had procured apparently rare and precious avocados for their dinner. "Where did you get them? How much?" she asked dubiously...and you KNOW what I shouted at the teevee with absolute delight. Hi, Grammy! Miss you!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I wasn't afraid of the typical stuff, as a kid. A girl in my Brownie troop lived half a block from a cemetery, and we'd ride our bikes through the place and admire the more ornate headstones, sitting on the ones that had benches, distributing the tiny weedy daisies that grew in the lawn on the plots that seemed wanting. I had no worries about ghosts. I don't plan to be buried, but I figure you could do worse than to have a couple of dopey third-graders disrupting your Eternal Rest while wobbling around on their Schwinns and reciting selections from their favorite Bill Cosby albums. (Heather Lerwick--where are you now? If ever you Google yourself, surely this will be the weirdest hit!)

But I wasn't fearless. Oh, I had very specific and deeply held anxieties, over which I lay awake in dread on many a night. Would you like to hear about them? The three things that haunted my dreams and stirred me to helpless panic? Come scootch over here real close, and look upon the first face of terror:

That guy. That guy!

What is the deal, with the Cat in the Hat? Come on, he is PETRIFYING! He just shows up, while your mom is away, and she didn't even lock the door so he just COMES IN and starts WRECKING the place. Balancing shit! Spilling shit! Letting a pair of Things run amok! Strewing wanton chaos and mess in his wake!

Okay: my mom was a compulsive neat freak, taking her own anxieties out on dirt with furious aggression. We wiped out the sink after each use, played with one toy at a time, and knew to open the fridge with a sleeve pulled down to prevent fingerprints on the handle. She's mellowed considerably since then, thank Prozac...but there was a time when the slightest mess provoked her displeasure, and if mama ain't happy...well. Cat-induced mayhem boded ill.

And so at a tender age I was vaguely afraid of the Cat in the Hat, worried he'd show up to get ME into terrible trouble some rainy afternoon. (Although this line from the Wikipedia plot summary is splendid: The Cat's antics are vainly opposed by the family pet, a sapient and articulate fish.) On some level, I understood that a gigantic, bipedal, English-speaking cat sporting a stripey chapeau was...unlikely. (Thank heavens I wasn't subjected to Mike Myers's mutant visage as a kid; that gives me nightmares now.) But I soon had new demons to dread:

AAAAAAAAAAHHH! Laurel and Hardy! Coming with pickaxes, yet, to DESTROY YOUR HOME. (Yes, Mecklenburg, I can hear you laughing from here.) They were a silent menace that played on an overhead screen at the local Shakey's Pizza, accompanied by jaunty-funereal organ music as they smashed china and furniture and upright pianos to smithereens. Laurel and Hardy were real, if consigned to the realm of Olde Things, and I found them completely terrifying. All right, all right: the Cat in the Hat was a drawing...but these two maniacs could still possibly appear on your doorstep and tear the house down around you, giggling wordlessly, blinking their tiny black evil eyes. Laurel and Hardy: shudder. In a college film seminar, I had to watch "Big Business," and was hard-pressed to explain why I was peeking through my fingers in American Film Comedy. Not funny not funny not funny. Not.

Even less funny? Ohh, dude. Look at THIS:

OH MY GOD, NO. I was nine years old when 1941 came out, probably old enough to know better...but holy mother, look at that poster. That particular poster, in the back of some comic book or magazine I had, scared the bejesus out of me. SO MUCH DESTRUCTION. They are FIRING UPON the amusement park! Normally a fun place! They're blowing up the movie theatre showing DUMBO! That house, at the end, ruined and pulverized and pushed off the cliff into the sea! Merry Christmas! Ha ha ha! Wheeeee!

Oh dear lord, I could not handle it. Still can't; never seen it all the way through. The whole reason I started this post was because this blasted-ass terrible movie popped up on cable this evening, and I was lulled into false complacency by the merry jitterbugging in the USO. Before they SMASHED THE ENTIRE TOWN TO FLAMING SMITHEREENS, and I realized what I was watching and fumbled for the remote, whimpering into my mac and cheese. Not funny!

Also, now I am prone to wondering if there is a homeowners' insurance clause for Wanton Cinematic Mayhem. Acts of Laurel and Hardy?