Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Danger of Watching Donny and Marie; The Joy of Resurrecting Sonny and Cher

Christmas is a great time to reunite with friends and family, and to share happy memories of times past. (Or is that New Year’s?) Either way, I had a very interesting Christmas this year when it came to the presents I received. Apparently I must reek of nostalgia for TV variety shows of the 1970s, because a lot of my gifts seemed to share that common theme. (I kid you not.) I was given “The Best of Donny and Marie,” “The Sonny and Cher Show,” “The Best of Laugh-In,” “Love, American Style Season One” and the weirdest selection of the bunch, “Paul Lynde’s Halloween Special.”

Some people might consider this a collection of bargain bin items. But I was actually looking forward to sitting down and reconnecting with some of the shows I thought were so great when I was younger. (With the possible exception of Paul Lynde's special, which I'd never heard of before.)

First in the line-up was “The Best of Donny and Marie,” which comprised several of their greatest episodes from the first two seasons of the show. But after watching the first three, I was surprised the show ever made it to Season Two. (Let alone Episode Two.) The sad part is that the DVD is being released as “the best” of the series; which makes me wonder just how bad “the worst” of the series is. (Perhaps those would be more interesting to watch.)

The jokes were horrible, the sketches were childish, and the singing was mostly lip-synched. How did I ever think this show was good? Or maybe I never really did; I just thought I was supposed to. After all, Donny and Marie are a part of American culture. We grew up with them; or at least I did. And though I don’t think the show translates well in today’s more sophisticated TV environment, I’m sure the simplicity of themes and dialogue might do well on a channel like Nickelodeon, or perhaps in conjunction with a show like “The Teletubbies.”

I’ll admit I’ve always had a place in my heart for Donny and Marie. Not because I was such a big fan, but because they represented the kind of nerdy optimism I wanted so badly to believe in. Their perfect smiles and happy-go-lucky attitudes were as foreign to me as the countries we’ve bombed and invaded over the past several years. Perky was not accepted in rural Ohio like it is in Hollywood; especially from a boy. But on television every week, Donny and Marie reminded me that anything was possible; even if it meant using a laugh track and ice skates to accomplish it.

So maybe my happy memories of “The Donny and Marie Show” were more about what Donnie and Marie represented rather than the actual show itself. They taught me to look for the silver lining and never wear spandex in public, and for that I will always be grateful. Their shows, however, could use a major facelift.

And that's when I wondered whether I was getting into some dangerous territory. If I didn't like the Donny and Marie show as much as I thought I did, what did that mean for the rest of my 70s memories?

Next on the viewing agenda was “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” which is just as creepy as you might imagine. Mr. Lynde, a regular on Hollywood Squares and Bewitched, is just not interesting enough to carry his own show. He’s much better served as a supporting player, using his signature vocal inflections to deliver a ribald punch line or two. But in this TV special, which only recently became available on DVD, he is horribly upstaged by the long list of celebrity guest stars, Donny and Marie among them.

Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” reprises her famous role for the special, and is humorously aided by Witchipoo from the old “HR PufnStuf” series. Together, they drive the show forward, as Paul Lynde sort of stands around looking miserable. The highlight of the show is a horrible disco version of Harold Arlen’s “That Old Black Magic,” uncomfortably sung by Florence Henderson, who dances around the set in a floor length sequin black dress accompanied by dancers in orange Afros. Screechingly bad!

Two down. Three to go.

Finally, I decided to watch a little of the “Sonny and Cher Show,” just to make sure my memories of 70s television weren’t being irrevocably tainted by our current atmosphere of terror and cynicism. And to my relief, the show is as funny and campy today as it was when it first aired oh so many decades ago. Cher is much younger, of course, and her nose looks different. But the chemistry between these two is unquestionable.

Every time Sonny thinks he’s going to win an argument, Cher easily deflects his zingers with her deadpan attitude and delivery. It’s classic comedy, brilliantly marketed to the masses by two people who always seemed like the epitome of cool. Even when they were arguing, they were fun.

And then of course, there are Cher’s many costumes and solo performances, which have been copied and duplicated by drag queens all over the world. No wonder she’s been able to survive so long. People keep resurrecting her persona. (Although at this point, I’m not sure how many more resurrections her body can physically take.) Nevertheless, I loved this show when I was younger, and I still love it today.

Having restored my faith in the legitimacy of my happy memories, I will next move onto “Laugh In” and “Love, American Style.” But right now, I just want to bask in the glow of at least one childhood recollection restored, and one more Christmas celebrated.

I can’t even think about 2008 yet.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Decoration of Independence

To celebrate Christmas this year, I decided to go “all out” when it came to decorating my house. I wanted to saturate my rooms with the same kind of Christmas décor I remembered from my youth. Ornaments, figurines, a wreath made out of bottle caps and bread dough. I wanted to immerse myself in the holiday spirit and cover my walls with everything red and green.

And to make sure I had enough time to successfully complete the process, I decided to begin right after Thanksgiving. That would give me nearly a month to get everything ready. Plenty of time, right?

So on Black Friday, with an overabundance of enthusiasm and caffeine, I mounted the stairs to the attic to find my collection of holiday paraphernalia. The various boxes and bags were all carefully stored together in one corner, so whenever I purchased a new ornament or decoration, it was easy to find a place for it. I would just add it to the pile.

Unfortunately, now that I was actually standing in front of the pile, trying to remember what all the boxes contained, I got a little overwhelmed. There was so much stuff. Certainly too much to effectively conquer in a mere twenty-some days. Perhaps I should have started this process much earlier. Like before Halloween.

As I pawed through my stack of holiday memorabilia, I remembered all the joy I used to have as a kid whenever holiday decorations were brought out. The whole family used to gather together to trim the tree and place all the decorations throughout the house. Even our bathroom had special décor we’d put out every year. (A toilet seat cover with Santa’s face on it. When you lifted the seat, the other side showed him covering his eyes in embarrassment.)

There was such a magical aura or spirit about the season, and for some reason the decorations had a lot to do with maintaining that ambiance. I was always sad when we had to put everything away again, because it immediately changed our house from a festive party atmosphere to something much more ordinary. And dull.

So with this in mind, I began carting the boxes of ornaments and other accoutrements down to the living room, where I piled them up in a corner for safe-keeping. This pile was eventually divided into two sections, one of which was taken down to the basement for distribution in the recreation room. Because of the number of boxes, and the awkwardness of getting them down the narrow attic stairs, the entire process took several hours to accomplish. And when it was completed, I suddenly had no desire to do anything more, let alone decorate. So I took a nap for the rest of the day.

A week went by and the boxes still remained in their piles on the floor. Every time I looked at them, I began to feel nauseous. Not because I didn’t like what they contained, but because I dreaded the day I’d have to haul them back upstairs.

And that’s when I realized I might have a bit of “selective memory” when it came to my youthful holiday experiences. Because now that I really thought about it, my family stopped decorating for the holidays sometime before I reached puberty. I was the only one who actually brought down the decorations and distributed them throughout the house. The rest of the family was too busy watching football games or doing crossword puzzles. So if I really thought about it, most of my childhood memories of domestic holiday spirit were actually manufactured by me. If I hadn’t kept up the tradition of setting up the tree and decorating it, we might have opened our presents in front of a Hallmark card.

So in reality, I wasn’t recreating a family tradition by decorating my house in style. I was recreating my own tradition. A tradition I’d carried out independently, long after other members of the family ceased to care. (I don’t mean they didn’t appreciate my efforts; they just didn’t care to help with the process.)

It is now December 20th and I haven’t even gotten through half my boxes yet. What the Hell was I thinking? How much Christmas spirit does one need to purchase until they realize enough in enough? Don’t get me wrong, I love all the Radkos and Hallmarks and lighted houses and such. But now I have enough holiday décor to supply a small village. There simply is not enough room in my house to showcase everything effectively. Or at least not in the little time I have remaining.

Next year, I think I’ll hire a display crew to come in and set everything up. That way I can still enjoy the holiday, without losing any of my spirit.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Curiosity Willed the Cat

This is my cat Trey, doing some light reading over the weekend on why it's important to have a Will. Not sure where he found this particular piece of literature, but it makes me wonder who he was thinking about while reading it--himself or me.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Artist

Have you ever read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron? Well, don't let the title fool you. The book is not just for artists. It's intended for anyone interested in going on a spiritual journey to free their inner creativity. Personally, I never had such a desire. If I want to go on a journey, I'd much rather go to London or Disney World.

Nevertheless, I can't tell you how many people over the years have suggested that I read it. I'm talking dozens of people, perhaps hundreds. At first, I thought it was just a nice suggestion, like:

"You should really read The Artist's Way. You'll like it."
"I was given a copy of The Artist's Way. But I think it's more for someone like you than someone like me."

“Someone like me?” I would ask, not sure what they were implying. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know, someone creatively stifled,” they would respond with a smile. “And poor.”

Gradually the suggestions began to take on a much more desperate tone, tinged with a sense of urgency and panic.

"Please, please. Do yourself a favor and read The Artist's Way. It may be your last chance at finding a happy and fulfilling life."

It was as if people thought The Artists Way was some kind of antidote for whatever ailed me.(Though I don't think laziness is really considered an ailment, is it?)

Naturally, I didn't listen to any of these suggestions, which is probably why I remained unmotivated and miserable for years. Then I got laid off from my full-time job and found myself faced with nothing to do, a relatively large amount of time on my hands, and no more excuses. So I decided to pick it up.

Now the first thing you learn as you're reading the introduction to The Artist's Way is that it's a twelve-week program. Not to be confused with a twelve-step program, although I'm sure the principles are similar. And it's not just a book. You actually have to do work. You read a chapter a week and then do all these exercises that are designed to help you "discover and recover your creative self". (And I'm quoting here.) But twelve weeks? I barely have relationships that last twelve weeks.

So I'm reading the introduction and I find out that before I even get to Chapter One, I have homework I need to start right away. And what's more, I have to do this homework every day. (Which suddenly made me realize why so many people kept recommending it. They needed to justify their own experience with this 12-week program by making sure other people did it too. Kind of like a pyramid scheme.)

Anyway, the homework I’m referring to is affectionately known as the "morning pages." Every morning I was supposed to get up and write down three pages of anything that comes out of my brain. It could be stream-of-consciousness, or writing about an event that happened, or just three pages of crap. In fact, that's what it's supposed to do. Drain your brain of all the crap. Freeing you to be a more effective creator, no longer burdened with the pain of mental overload. I almost put the book back on the shelf.

But as I said, I had the time, though maybe not the right attitude. So I started writing my morning pages. And for the first few days, I really enjoyed it. Writing down three pages of bitching is an opportunity one should never pass up. I actually found myself yelling in my morning pages…with lots of expletives and exclamation points.

I blamed everyone in the world for my failures. For my inability to move forward as an artist, for my writer's block, for getting laid off from a job I never really liked. Basically I used the pages to exert my revenge upon the world.

"Boy, will they be sorry. I talked about them today in my morning pages. That'll show 'em.”

Still, even with this daily ritual of bitching, nothing was changing in my life. So I decided to move on from the introductory chapter of The Artist's Way to the first week of the course. My intent was to devote myself whole-heartedly to this project of creative enlightenment. I wanted to completely immerse myself in constructing origami birds and building skyscrapers out of tin cans. Or whatever the weekly projects in The Artist’s Way happened to be.

That was my intent. But in reality, I never made it past the first chapter. For before I even began working on my first exercise, I received a phone call from a woman named Unity Kingsmill. A phone call that changed my life forever. (Of course, if you’ve read “It Happened in Plainfield,” you know exactly what I mean by that.)

I still have my copy of The Artist’s Way, which I fully intend to pick up again someday. (Perhaps even before I get fired again.) As for my morning pages, I haven’t completely given up that form of literary diarrhea. I just call them something different now. My blog.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My Vet is Killing Me!

When did the cost of taking care of an animal exceed the cost of taking care of yourself? Recently I’ve taken my cat Chase on a series of unfortunate visits to the local Animal Hospital. I say unfortunate, because I’ve spent more for Chase’s healthcare over the last six months than I have for myself over the last ten years. It’s unfathomable that a little cat could require so many tests and shots and examinations that an average visit costs between $600 and $900. For a cat! I can go to a regular doctor and pay less. (Unfortunately, my healthcare plan doesn’t consider Chase a "significant other.")

And because Chase was recently diagnosed with diabetes, I now have to give him two shots of insulin a day. Plus, all the ongoing tests he must get, the special food he has to eat, the other medicines he must take. It’s like I’m caring for an invalid parent. And while I’m very sympathetic to his situation and needs, the cost of keeping him healthy is going to put me in the poorhouse.

And diabetes isn’t the first major issue I’ve had with Chase either. I once spent over two thousand dollars for a series of tests that ultimately determined the reason for Chase’s sickly demeanor was because he had a mild case of gas. What? You couldn’t just look at him and tell me that? You had to run his blood work so many times I needed to take out a small loan just to pay for the results?

I remember when going to the vet meant a quick check-up, maybe a blood test or two, and then a nominal fee for the whole visit. You didn’t pay a Vet as much as a regular doctor because you weren’t dealing with humans, you were dealing with animals. But now the Vet has assumed a different status; a snotty sort of superiority that makes you feel guilty if you don’t want to pay for that extra urine analysis or a dissection of his stool sample. Not to mention the ridiculously high fees they charge for “waste disposal.” (How can anyone justify $7.50 for waste removal? You throw something in the trash can and you’re done. For that, you get $7.50? I should be so lucky.)

I also have a sneaking suspicion the receptionists in a Vet’s office get a sadistic pleasure when they tell you the price you'll have to pay for the visit.

“And the total for today's exam is…,” they say, inserting a huge pause before dropping the bombshell. “Ten thousand, four hundred dollars and twenty three cents.”

It’s like they get some kind of high every time they get to deliver the bad news. And if people freak out, so much the better. On one visit, I actually witnessed someone faint in front of me when the receptionist gave her the total. And after they carried the poor woman out of the reception area, I believe they added on a fee for “waste removal” as well.

So I guess the question becomes, when does your pet become more of a liability than a pleasure?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Strange Facial Contortions of Celine Dion

I was watching Celine Dion perform on the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting last week, and was shocked to find that her strange mannerisms (once thought to be eccentric) were now getting severely out of control. As Ms. Dion sang her two lip-synched numbers, she raised and lowered her eyebrows, pursed her lips, bulged her eyes in and out, and generally overplayed every facial muscle she had. The result was an oddly entertaining performance that made me wonder if Celine Dion is actually the first documented case of living animation. There simply is no other explanation for the fluidity of movement from one bizarre expression to another.

Perhaps because she was lip-synching her songs rather than actually singing them, she felt the need to do more with her face. Or perhaps she just doesn’t understand the concept of “less is more” when it comes to interpreting the lyrics of a song. For example, you don’t actually have to act like a snowflake when you say the word “snowflake.” Although the word flake probably would apply very well here.

I’m not saying anything about Ms. Dion’s vocal abilities, because they are undeniably exceptional. She has an incredible range. But to watch her actually performing a song has become almost painful. Her over-the-top facial orchestrations are beginning to remind me of a young Norma Desmond. Or an old Dakota Fanning. It just didn’t seem like her expressions were connected to anything going on inside her head. If in fact there was anything going on at all.

Not only was Celine’s contribution to the show lip-synched, but it was probably also taped days earlier. After all, Celine sang LIVE on “Dancing with the Stars” the night before. It’s doubtful she would take a red-eye all the way back to NYC, when she’d already been there the week before. And why she decided to sing dull songs, I don’t know, but they certainly put a damper on the otherwise peppy proceedings. (With the possible exception of Taylor Swift’s uneven deconstruction of “Silent Night.”) Maybe Celine was afraid to lip-synch to a faster song because she couldn’t methodically construct that many expressions in enough time to fill the space.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s your opinion of Celine’s mannerisms?