Say Beer Cheese!

As you get older, things that seemed very normal growing up turn out to be not run of the mill at all.  Many of these involve local customs, traditions, and restaurants that you assumed as a kid were available everywhere.  When you are young, differentiating between global and local is tough.  Until you get a better sense of scope, how can you really gauge how small your little corner of the world is without knowing how big a world you live in.

When I was a kid, my dad was heavily involved in the local HAM radio scene, which meant that he knew every local weatherman in town.  Each of them was over at our house at least once, and each time I watched in awe that my dad knew someone famous.  I would always ask if Dan Rather would ever come visit, because I didn’t understand that there was a difference between local and national news.  If the guys who did the weather on the TV came over, why wouldn’t the guy reading the news join them?

Needless to say, Dan Rather never came over for dinner and I eventually learned the difference between local and national news.  Over the years I also learned about local vernacular, regional cuisine, and all the other customs of Kentucky that don’t exist elsewhere.  Even as an adult, every once in a while, I still get surprised that something isn’t a thing in the rest of the country.

That happened this weekend when I decided what I needed to munch on while watching the University of Kentucky basketball team secure its spot in the Final Four (Squee! btw) was a nice batch of beer cheese.

Problem is, they don’t sell it in Nevada.  Come to find out, they don’t really sell it anywhere besides the Commonwealth.  I actually had no idea beer cheese was a Kentucky-specific thing.  It is so delicious and decidedly not Southern in my brain, that it never dawned on me I hadn’t really seen it anywhere else.

Just what is beer cheese, you ask?  It is basically hummus for rednecks.  It is a cheesy spread that consists mostly of very sharp cheddar cheese, an array of spices and condiments like cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder, garlic, dried mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and in some recipes, a little horseradish.  It also contains beer.  Basically, you take these ingredients and combine them with flat beer (the general consensus is Newcastle is the way to go, but I would love to try a batch with Kentucky Ale Bourbon Barrel fwiw), then mix them up in a food processor and let it chill overnight to attain a more spreadable consistency.  Then you serve it cold with crackers, pretzels, or assorted crudité. 

The key to a good beer cheese is the bite.  You want it to have a kick, but not be too hot.  My ideal has always been the Hall’s on the River recipe, perfected at, who guessed it, Hall’s on the River restaurant, a quaint wood cabin situated directly on the Kentucky River. I’m not huge on spice, so I prefer the more Worcestershire-heavy combinations than those that lean on the cayenne. 

Today I made my first homemade batch of beer cheese and quickly learned that it isn’t that difficult to whip up at all, which makes me all the more confused why this delicious concoction didn’t catch on other places.  It does appear that in Wisconsin there is a similar dish of a hot variety called beer cheese soup.  It also seems like pub cheese, often prepared with wine, bears a similar resemblance to what I am talking about here.  People like cheese, people like kick, people like things to dip crackers in.  This isn’t rocket science.

My beer cheese turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.  It isn’t exactly Hall’s caliber, but it will certainly suffice to try to spread the word about the spread.  I may not be able to get Dan Rather to come over and try it, but I can do my part to make sure this is not just a local phenomenon.

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For the Love of Bean

When it comes to picking favorites, I was always that person who could never pick the obvious choice.  Out of all the incredible basketball players that have come through the University of Kentucky, my all-time favorite is Tony Delk. My favorite on the current roster is the now-injured Willie Cauley-Stein.  I was not an Anthony Davis girl, nor did I think Nerlens Noel was all that.  I like the underrated and underappreciated.  This is why I think Fredo is the best.  It is why Dumbo is my favorite Disney movie.  It is why I never like to root for the obvious or bet on the favorite.

I ordered something off Amazon the other day that epitomizes this obsession with being a contrarian.  So, my best friend from childhood works at Disney World, which means one of the lovely perks when I visit is free trips to the park.  On each of these visits, I lament to her my frustrations at being unable to attain enough Dumbo merchandise or why Figment at Epcot Center deserves a higher profile position within the empire.

What I mostly bitch about though is The Muppet Ride and Bean Bunny.  If you’ve been to Disney World in the past 15 years or so, you’ve likely opted to check out this show in an attempt to get out of the sun.  You’ve probably also wondered who that bunny in a cardigan is. He’s Bean.

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Bean first came into existence back in 1986 in the Jim Henson non-Muppet character special “The Tale of the Bunny Picnic”, which is a riff on Peter and the Wolf combined with the story of the Trojan horse (strange, I realize, but the music is damned catchy). With bunnies.  Bean is the star and the bunny who cries wolf, or in this instance, dog, and constantly finds himself in trouble with his kin.  After the success of Bunny Picnic, Bean was incorporated into the Muppet cast of characters.

The whole schtick of Bean is that he is cute to the point of insufferability.  The other Muppets draw attention to his cuteness in a wholly negative manner, but keep him around for reasons I haven’t quite figured out yet.  Henson and company even went so far to incorporate Baby Bean into the Muppet Babies cartoon in the later seasons, where he was voiced by none other than Uncle Joey, Dave Coulier of Full House fame.

Most people hate Bean because he doesn’t have much going for him besides his sharp cardigan and his unerring precociousness.  Being three years old when Bunny Picnic was released, I was obsessed with Bean and would get rather impatient with the other Muppets bagging on him all the time.  He just wants to be cute and have friends, and young me didn’t understand the humor in the obnoxiousness of his cuteness once removed from the Bunny Picnic setting.  Over time, I grew to love the schtick, but still maintain unironic love for Bean, who seemed to always be getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop in various Muppet capers.

Eventually, the Henson company seemed to give up on making Bean happen.  The Jason Segel reboot of The Muppets did not include him, yet managed to include every other Muppet that ever existed.  I normally give Segel carte blanche to do whatever he wants, as he is super talented, but not cool Marshall, not cool. 

I get similarly irritated that the Muppet attraction at Disney World, developed in the early 1990s in the peak of Bean-dom prominently features Bean in the attraction, including an adorable, fuzzy animatronic version of him, but once you get to the gift shop, there is no Bean to be found. Not a stuffed toy, not a t-shirt, not a pencil, nothing.  The best friend has to deal with my ire every time we are there, even though her role within the Mouse corporation has nothing to do with retail inventory.

My love for furry cute things others find obnoxious extends to the Star Wars universe as well.  Return of the Jedi is WAY my favorite of the movies and it is mostly to do with the Ewoks.  In actuality, my favorite Star Wars universe movie is Ewoks: Battle for Endor, but I try not to say that out loud too often, as it would ruin any nerd/film nerd street cred I have left.  This is purely a nostalgia thing.  The two Ewoks movies played on the Disney Channel constantly growing up, so I simply watched them dozens of times more than the original franchise, kind of like how kids now are obsessed with Clone Wars, but could care less about the movies.

What I am getting at here is that I love Wicket.  He is my favorite.  That pudgy, furry little bear cub of a creature is the best and one of the more underrated characters in the Star Wars universe if I do say so myself.  Like I said at the beginning, I realize these characters are pretty unredeemable to everyone else. I’m sure most think of them as the Cousin Oliver of their respective franchises, but I don’t care.

Today, the greatest figurine in history arrived at my doorstep.  I discovered it on Amazon a few months ago when I was typing “Bean Bunny” into the search function to prove to Lindsay he was neglected.  Instead, I found a figurine issued for a special Disney Star Wars weekend last year celebrating the 30th anniversary of Return of the Jedi (coincidentally the same year I celebrated the 30th anniversary of me).  This, ladies and gentlemen, is Bean Bunny dressed up as fucking Wicket. Damn straight:

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I don’t know who did the research and figured out that those folks who love Bean Bunny probably love Wicket for the very same reasons.  Perhaps it was just a happy coincidence or perhaps these people invaded my wildest dreams and tried to satisfy them with this unbelievable concoction.  Either way, there is probably no one on Earth as excited that this thing exists as I do.  In a world where fandom and its offerings are becoming increasingly more precise, I am still beyond floored that this exists, that is how off the wall it is.

Amazingly, I did not buy this thing right away, as I am an adult and have to have a pretty good reason to drop $30 on a toy.  I added it to my Amazon Wish List though and, as I continued to check on it, the price continued to drop.  Once it dipped below $20, I decided it was time to pull the trigger not because I was a collector or because I needed an action figure that badly, but because someone needs to love Bean Bunny and Wicket and I am just the contrarian to do it.

Instant Gratification Vol. 2: 20 Feet From Stardom on Netflix

While I can write a blog on the generally crap selection Netflix has to offer (Prime is where it is at people), one thing they do right is documentaries. For a couple of years now, this site has provided a wealth of Oscar-winning documentaries as well as stuff I wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise, like the shocking “Dear Zachary”.

This second installment of this recommendation falls into the former category, as it beat the much-buzzed about “The Act of Killing” for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar last month.  While “20 Feet From Stardom” lacks some of the innovation of “The Act of Killing”, it proves one of the core tenants of good doc making: your subject is key.

This doc focuses on background singers, primarily those of the Motown era like Darlene Love, who wasn’t just a background singer, but sang lead vocal on “He’s a Rebel” and “It’s Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”.  As a kid, my family listened to nothing but oldies music, so it was incredibly interesting to see just what kinds of circumstances some of my favorite songs were recorded under.

Hands-down best moment of the documentary? Watching a group of singers listen to old songs and they get to the novelty song “The Monster Mash”. without missing a beat, one says:

“This is the song where they told us to sing like white people.”

In case it doesn’t go without saying, race plays a huge role in this film.  Sometimes it is addressed rather overtly, other times it is a little more veiled.  In addition to race though, what is also great is to hear people speak candidly about how some of these dancers couldn’t succeed not for lack of talent, but purely because they didn’t fit in the mold of what a Hollywood singer should look like.

I should also point out that one of my former professors at USC is one of the talking heads in this movie.  Dr. Todd Boyd, author of books like “Am I Black Enough for You?” and “Young, Black, Rich, and Famous” is one of the foremost authorities on African-Americans in the entertainment and sports industries and I legitimately guffawed when he popped up on screen because it has been so long since I’ve seen him.

But back to the question at hand–will you like this? If you like oldies music, this is a must-watch to learn more about that era.  If you like documentaries, this is one that I would take care not to miss.  Is it redefining the form of documentaries? No, it is, as I said, an example of an engrossing topic presented within a pretty standard format.  But, as someone who really thinks that form can get overvalued these days at the expense of content, I will tell you that this was a great watch for me.  I have tried to watch “The Act of Killing” and didn’t quite get through it yet, because it is not an easy breezy watch, what with subtitles (there is no English in the film), a highly visual style, and a subject matter that doesn’t exactly make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, what with the mass government-endorsed executions.

That is not to say “20 Feet from Stardom” is necessarily superior.  I think this is an instance where they are both great.  What I am saying to those who might be a little doc snobby though is this: don’t hold the simplicity of this film against it.  To me, it is what the greatest docs are all about, which is finding a story that needs to be told and letting it shine for what it is in front of the cameras.

Light on My Feet

I wish I had some sort of reasonable expectation why I have been mainlining old seasons of the Lifetime “Dance Moms” instead of digging into the growing stack of books on my shelf, plowing through some of the TCM old movies I’ve DVRed, or worked my way through the growing chunk of season two of “The Americans” I have to offer.

Really though, it is all about laziness.  At the end of the day, I find myself tired and rather than focus on really taking in something I know I will enjoy, I watch something that is the equivalent of junk food so I can write this or play a little online poker or clean up around the house.

I don’t like the feeling I am only accomplishing one thing at a time, but really am I accomplishing anything by piping Dance Moms into my ear while I work?  As a former dance competition kid myself, I was curious about this show, which grows increasingly more staged and preposterous as I now end Season 2.  Having kids learn and perform brand new dances every week? Not likely.  "Fake" auditions for the Joffrey and other Lifetime programming help create drama much like this manufactured rivalry between the show’s star, dance instructor Abby Lee Miller and Kathy, the woman who runs the quaint dance shop Candy Apples.

Like the Real Housewives, I think there is some sort of fascination from my anthropological studies days that keeps me from tuning out completely, but I got a little concerned when tonight I opted for this to be what I actually watched as opposed to the noise in my ear for the work day.  In my time to unwind at home, I should be taking advantage of the opportunity to focus, but instead I want to be able to tune out.  

I blame my queue, which is increasingly becoming heavy on foreign flicks and, well, heavy stuff.  I don’t think I would choose to watch Dance Moms over something a little easier to tackle in an evening than “The Sand Pebbles”, but there seems to be a lack of this sort of stuff online.  Prime on Amazon is getting more and more reality fare, which is the closest thing I can get to a quick fix of entertainment, so I will take it for now.  After all, I am a dancer and I guess I gotta dance when I gotta dance.

But I am hoping someone saves me from myself here soon, as all this screaming and yelling, fluffy as it may feel, might just start weighing me down instead of keeping me light on my feet.

Sweet Surprises at The Grand Budapest Hotel

It is not often I am self-aware enough in a movie that I can feel myself beaming, but it was a feeling I grew quite comfortable with as I watched “The Grand Budapest Hotel” yesterday.  It is not often I can say a movie just plug delighted me, but this one did.  With every unstacking of its Russian doll-like introduction, which unfolds from present day to the late 1960s to its core story, set in the early 1930s, my grin grew larger.  When the movie ended, I grew a little sad, but only because it was over and who knows when Wes Anderson will have a new cinematic treat for me, as beautifully composed and delectable as a Mendel’s cake.

Before I go on, perhaps it is best to backtrack a little.  If you’re wondering who Wes Anderson is, he is a film school nerd icon.  A writer/director, or perhaps we can even drop the word auteur here in spite of the risk of sounding pretentious, he is best known for his unique visual style, which you can see on display here in the Budapest trailer:

For my friends who know my film taste, it always surprises them that I count myself among the hipster filmies who idolize Anderson because I am far from a formalist when it comes to my film taste, meaning that I tend to be more drawn to subtler artistic direction, camera angles, and other technical elements and tend to privilege narrative and characters.

If you can’t tell from the clips, Anderson’s movies are highly stylized.  Every detail of every set and every costume is meticulously planned ahead of time and you could truly spend hours pouring through every freeze frame admiring the attention to the most minute of minutae.

For me though, the beauty of the Anderson mis-en-scene is that it helps to create an entire world populated with the quirkiest of characters, taking part in a narrative that has me completely rapt.  This might explain why I find Anderson so hit or miss sometimes.  While I positively adore “Bottle Rocket”, “Rushmore”, and my favorite, “The Royal Tenenbaums”, others like “The Life Aquatic leave me wanting for more.

That is the rub with Anderson.  If you don’t buy into the characters and the world doesn’t pull you in with a compelling story, the unusual look may keep you entertained for the length of the film, but you will feel distant and removed from the action at hand.

In "Grand Budapest Hotel”, there are actually three distinct looks at play.  There is the present day look, which we don’t get much but a fleeting glimpse of in the opening scenes of the film.  Then there is the 1968 look, where the hotel is presented with the same starkness as “The Shining” with the standard Wes Anderson touches, but as if they’d been unattended to for 20 years.  During this “My Dinner with Andre-esque” sequence with Jude Law and F Murray Abraham, it perfectly invokes the films of that era, but Anderson isn’t done there.

The 1932 portion of the film is a mix between a Buster Keaton silent film like “The General” and the early screwball comedies of Cary Grant.  I’m hard-pressed to believe Ralph Fiennes’ playboy protagonist M. Gustave is not some sort of tribute to the debonair Grant, while relative newcomer Tony Revolori as Gustave’s Lobby Boy-in-training Zero steals some scenes himself with his expressive face and penciled on moustache that seems to pay homage to Chaplin or another silent film star.  There are certainly some scenes like the mountaintop chase featuring Willem Defoe or the prison escape sequence that feel like Marx Brothers comedy set pieces.

If you are a fan of 1930s cinema, you will appreciate these nice touches, but you will appreciate the anachronistic moments of humor even more.  This movie is definitely Anderson’s funniest work since Rushmore and the funniest moments tend to come from the abrupt changes in tone from a poetic 1930s romance to an expletive-ridden tirade (done expertly by Fiennes and Adrian Brody).  There were a number of highly quotable laugh out loud moments in this flick for me, which was something I was certainly not expecting going into it.

Unexpected is probably the best single word I can use to describe this movie.  There is the familiarity in style and tone that comes with every Anderson movie, but most of this film caught me by surprise. Thanks to comedic moments and plot twists, I gasped more than once as our heroes evaded danger, cracked wise, and even fell in love (side note: does anyone do simple, earnest love stories as well as Anderson these days?)

It dawns on me I have written so much about this movie without really saying much regarding what it is about.  It is a caper film at its core, with dashes of other genres thrown in.  In many ways it is also a buddy comedy, as the bond between Gustave and Zero defines the film and is the emotional center of the story. It is a well-crafted relationship too, both fatherly and brotherly at the same time, sincere without being schmaltzy, and an interesting case of opposites attract.  If you’re asking me more deeply what the films themes and messages are, I can only guess after one viewing, which I am hoping is the first of many.

As I mentioned earlier, what Anderson depicts in this movie is not the actual 1930s, but the cinematic version of the 30s, as the section in 1968 is a very cinematic version of what 1968 looked like in celluloid.  It doesn’t even have real Nazis or take place in a real country.  It is a romanticized version of what this part of the world should have been like during this time of turmoil, an ode to the escapism of Ernst Lubitsch and Chaplin and Preston Sturges.  Anderson drew some criticism from folks frustrated to not see him actually deal with Nazis, only address them in this roundabout way, but to me, that was the point.  Sturges made light of the Nazis to hilarious and subversively wonderful effect in “To Be or Not to Be”.  One does not need to be “Schindler’s List” in order to make a point about that era in history.

In fact, it seems like Anderson is doing a lot of very intentional manipulation of time to make a point about Gustave and Zero that our film’s narrator (Jude Law) states rather plainly at the end of the film.  They were not people of their time.  But that can be said of many of the famous names I have mentioned here.  There is something classic yet modern about Sturges, Chaplin, and Lubitsch, much like our two heroes who try to live the life of gentlemen of a time long since past, but at times seem to forward thinking for the era they are in.  Like the titular hotel, it is grand, opulent and old-fashioned, while in its peak, it was the definition of the modern place to be.

I am a classic cinephile, so it probably is no surprise that my initial reading of this movie has me theorizing about actual eras versus their cinematic representations.  It also doesn’t surprise me that Anderson has delivered another movie so rife with opportunity to delve into and try to pull out some sort of meaning that may not be right there on the surface.  It is something I haven’t wanted to do for a movie in a long time and, as I said, it was a lovely, unexpected surprise.

Theoretical Role Models

In my past life as an aspiring academic, it wasn’t always easy to find role models.  Yes, the faculty in my department at Indiana University was incredible, but when it came to nationally known academics that weren’t obliged to mentor me, I tended to have but a couple of idols.

One was Henry Jenkins, whose approach to intertextual film studies, fan studies, and cultural consumption jived with mine.  He had a writing style that was accessible even to non-academics, not to mention a point of view that was not as bogged down in theory as many other writers in film and media.  I knew I wanted to write like Henry Jenkins, the problem was I never was going to be able to produce anything as interesting or compelling to say as he did.

This was really my entire problem with academia.  I had things to say, sure, but they were things to say about NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya or Larry the Cable Guy.  I could take someone else’s theory and apply it to something, but when it came to devising my own theories, I had very little to offer.  Part of the problem is that I found myself rolling my eyes at high theory (think the really difficult to read esoteric stuff) more than I found myself inspired by it.  I found writers like Jenkins accessible, but felt like he was the exception rather than the rule.

So I got out while I still could.  To be honest, I was probably more scared to fail than I was willing to admit at the time.  I have an idea still for a dissertation and, to my knowledge, no one has written it yet.  In the back of my head, I always think, “Someday, I’ll write that book.” Therein lies the problem though. As a chronic procrastinator, I could put off writing ten page papers in college and 25 page papers in grad school, but I don’t think I could produce a book in a 48 hour binge. So, it remains a pipe dream.

Every once in a while though, I get a sign of hope that this weird middle space I inhabited in grad school might be growing.  One such sign came this weekend, when a writer I’ve been a fan of for a while announced she was leaving academia to go work for BuzzFeed.  I first came upon Anne Helen Petersen via her Facebook page, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.  This was precisely what I had been looking for—an examination of the pop culture news of the moment through the lens of cultural studies (the field I tended to work in when I was in school). 

Reading her Hairpin article, I could relate to some of her academic frustrations, most notably the whole “being paid peanuts” thing and the fact that her given field of study, celebrity gossip, was not something her peers and her superiors necessarily afforded much respect.  My area of interest in film and media during grad school was looking at depictions of rural working class people (read: rednecks) and using a lot of theory from the horror genre to explain how our cultural artifacts tend to very intentionally marginalize them. Worth noting that, right after I exited grad school, the minstrel-show like genre of redneck reality in the form of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty exploded.  I never said I was good at timing.

Several of my academic friends had a variety of reactions to the news.  I can see how, if you are part of the institution, it is frustrating to see someone give up years of work to go write web content on the cheap at a site like BuzzFeed.  More accurately, it is disconcerting to see one of their peers having to leave the academy because they can’t get hired despite doing interesting work that clearly has a wider reach than a lot of other work.  While I can see the disappointing side to this story, I am mostly just inspired. 

If you can’t tell, I am already falling off my blogging promise for Lent.  I don’t really have an excuse either. Being in LA with friends, just being really tired, these may be explanations I guess, but end of the day, it is hard to write just to write every single evening.  Reading about Anne Helen Petersen gets me motivated again.  Knowing there are a growing number of people existing in this middle space has me hoping that, bad or good timing, there is an audience who cares about this kind of commentary. Either that, or I have a good number of people who feel compelled to read this site out of guilt or a sense of obligation, which works for me too.

This is 30

I remember those college days when the NCAA tournament meant a long weekend of basketball, crowds, and loudly cheering for my teams (yeah, plural, I have a couple that I rank in the following order: 1. USC 2. UK 3. IU).  Years later, this is still one of my favorite weekends of the year, but my priorities have changed slightly.

For example, I agreed to spend the weekend in LA to hang out with not one, but two pregnant friends who would very much like to do anything that doesn’t involve basketball.  Thankfully, I had some allies in one of their spouses and the other single friend in our group, Vince, of Copacabana Beach t-shirt fame.

Vince has had my basketball-loving back all weekend, from the moment I got off the plane right as tip off for the Kentucky-Kansas state game.  I hopped in the car and we headed straight to find a place to watch, though that did not come without a little deliberation.

“We can go back to Qs where I was,” Vince offered.  “But there are so many people. And the parking. And so many people.”

Rather than pick a happening place, we decided to stay close to the airport, as Vince lives near Westwood, home of my least favorite college in the country, UCLA, whose game was tipping off at pretty much the same time.  Which is how we ended up at the Fox Hills Mall.

I don’t really know if people still call this nearly 40-year-old mall the Fox Hills Mall anymore. They’ve definitely gussied the place up a bit since I lived out here, including installing several restaurants like a Lucille’s, a BJ’s Brewhouse, and an Olive Garden.  If you thought we would beeline to BJs, the most sports bar-esque of the three, you would be wrong.

Vince runs through our options, then asks, “Do you think Olive Garden has a bar with TVs?”

“They typically have bars,” I said. “And I am definitely on board with soup, salad, breadsticks, and some cheap vino at the OG.”

That’s right—we were both genuinely excited at the prospect of a night of OG and basketball.  I really like breadsticks, not gonna lie.

Unfortunately, the OG does draw a classiness line somewhere in the sand and does not put TVs at their bars.  We proceeded to Lucille’s only to discover all their TVs were on a single circuit. Knowing we would be outvoted by Bruin fans, we bolted to the crowded BJs and managed to secure a table in the dining room where I had a view of a TV with the game, though it was a good 30 yards from my seat.  The Jess of a decade ago would not have been okay with this arrangement, but contemporary Jess thought, “well the game isn’t close and oooh flatbreads on the menu.”

Then we turned in early because, well, we had a brunch to be at in the morning.  Yeah, I didn’t go celebrate a UK victory because of a breakfast date.  As Jason Segel’s character on How I Met Your Mother notes though, you can’t really beat the awesomeness that is brunch.  This brunch, at Gjelina in Venice, was particularly delicious, but it was not a quick meal precursor to a day of basketball.  Instead, it was a precursor to a day of walking around, having some casual drinks, and playing some trivia.

Yes, trivia.

My friend’s husband Matt has done some trivia in his time and very kindly put together a game for us, which was awesome.  This is how I like to pass my afternoons, answering trivia questions, keeping an eye on the scores and turning it on when there is a close game.  We watched the first half of the Wisconsin-Oregon game, as Matt had to cheer on his alma mater. Even then though, we missed most of the second half, eagerly watching the GameCast on our phone because we walked to our dinner reservations at C&O Trattoria in Marina del Ray.

At dinner, I was more than happy with our agenda of the day though.  As I swayed my wine glass singing along to “That’s Amore”, toasted my pregnant friends, put away some garlic knots, and split some delectable linguini with Vince, I realized a couple of things.  First, that food appears to be my top priority in my traveling these days, which is both disconcerting and awesome all at the same time.  Second, that things have changed a lot in the decade since my college days in LA, but so far the important stuff, like seeing these friends of mine on a semi-regular basis, remain.  Finally, that missing out on some of opening weekend of a tournament just isn’t as big a deal to me at 30 as it was at 20.

That being said, this was how we parted last night:

“Y’all do whatever you want, but at 11:45am tomorrow, my ass will be firmly planted in front of a television showing the Kentucky-Wichita State game.  You can leave me behind, meet me later, or watch with me. I don’t care, but this is what I am doing and it is non-negotiable.”

I mean, friendship is friendship, but there is nothing, not even food, that compares with watching the Wildcats in March.

Instant Gratification Volume 1: “Company” (2011) on Amazon Prime

Let’s face it, there is a lot of crap on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the other streaming services.  When you are paying $7-$9 for unlimited movies though, it isn’t exactly surprising that most of what you have to choose from is drivel.  Thankfully though, there are certainly gems to be found, you just have to look a little to find them.

Or, you can just listen to me.  I am always very aware of what is coming and going on the streaming services thanks to weekly posts on sites like Vulture and The Dissolve as well as my streaming best friend, Instant Watcher.  If that weren’t enough, I just fall down the rabbit hole of perusing the offerings more often than I would like to admit.

My first suggestion in this “Instant Gratification” series came from such a perusal.  I am not exactly sure how it came up in my feed, but given that I have been refining my Amazon preferences for a good decade, it doesn’t surprise me that the 2011 New York Philharmonic performance of “Company” popped up.  In fact, it isn’t even the first taped performance of “Company” floating around the streaming world.  The 2007 revival with Raul Esparza in the leading role of Robert was on Netflix for some time, and it was something I watched that introduced me to the seminal Sondheim musical. 

When I watched the ’07 version, I appreciated some of the numbers in the show, but I didn’t understand what the big deal was about this show.  Then I watched the 2011 version, which features Neil Patrick Harris as Robert, Patti Lupone as his mom, and a remarkable cast of friends that includes the likes of Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Martha Plimpton, and Steven Colbert.  I know it sounds cliché, but I literally couldn’t tear my eyes from the TV.

Perhaps I wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate the show the first time around, as the 07 cast was certainly talented.  Really though, I think the credit goes to Harris for turning me around on this show.  Honestly, is there anything this guy can’t do?  Doogie, Barney, Dr. Horrible, and now sensitive unmarried 35 year old Robert belting it out about life as a single person?  It is astonishing how he can get me to buy into him as any character under the sun.  I don’t make it to New York City often, but if I do while he is Hedwig on Broadway, you know where to find me, bopping my head along to Wig in a Box.

But until then, I think I might just watch this staging another dozen times.  Harris isn’t the only highlight. It goes without saying that Patti LuPone knows her way around the stage. What might surprise you is that Colbert, the tongue-in-cheek funnyman, is actually remarkably sincere, convincing, and funny to boot in his part as Plimpton’s husband.  His performance in “Sorry-Grateful” shocked me, it was such a departure from what I know of him.

Then there is Katie Finneran as Amy, the bride with cold feet who gets to perform the show stopper of a number, “Not Getting Married”.  I’m going to make this about me for a second, which shouldn’t surprise you if you’ve read my blog at all prior to this.  I did musical theater all through my childhood and teen years, but I had a tiny problem.  I can dance no problem and acting was never really an issue, but, fact of the matter is, I cannot sing to save my life. I am seriously tone deaf.  So, whenever I see parts in musicals in which singing is minimal, I add them to my list of dream roles.  I long to play Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a Jet in “West Side Story”.  I feel like I could pull off Kristine from “A Chorus Line” with ease, as the whole point of her song “Sing!” is that she suffers from the same problem I do.

Now, the character of Amy in “Company” does sing a little bit, but most of the song is spoken rapidly and is about the comedy and the character.  Katie Finneran plays Amy in the 2011 revival and nails it, though Madeline Khan’s rendition of this tune remains my favorite.  I will give Finneran that her physical comedy really brought a lot to the role though, and has me even more inspired to someday try and live in a town with community theater and someday try and play this part.

So, will you enjoy “Company” as much as I will?  If you are not a musical theater person, no, you probably won’t.  If you are 19 or 20, you may not really understand the incredibly deep themes at play in this musical.  If you are curious just how talented Colbert is, just watch his vignette and it is worth your time.  If you want to see NPH go all NPH on Sondheim, this is can’t miss endeavor. And, if you are a little more grown up and you enjoy the theater, there is no way you won’t enjoy this masterwork of artistry.  I mean, just look:

My Friend Veronica Mars

(Warning: If you care at all about spoiling the plot of the Veronica Mars movie, don’t read this until after you’ve watched. Also, if you haven’t watched Veronica Mars, this will likely make no sense to you.)

A long time ago, Veronica Mars and I used to be friends.  We don’t talk as much as we used to, but I’d like to think we still are.  She remains up there with Liz Lemon and Mary Richards in my pantheon of inspiring yet believable independent women of the television world.  Unlike Mary and Liz, Veronica was always a little bit colder, a little more cautious with her feelings, and sporting a much more caustic view of the world.

This caustic view is why she and I get along so well.  In fact, the reason I got into the show is because my friend Jenni implored me to watch, explaining, “She talks like you. I mean, she says sentences you say, verbatim. She dropped a sarcastic, ‘Be cool Sodapop’ in the pilot.”

In other words, on an emotional level, I feel connected to Veronica, even though she isn’t real.  Her decision making over the course of three seasons of TV always made sense to me, even if I was always rooting for her to dump Duncan and go back to her real love, Deputy Leo (for those unaware, Max Greenfield from “New Girl” can play incredibly charming and boyish when he wants to be. If you doubt me, go watch Season 1’s “Ruskie Business” and watch the moment where he shows up the dance and, in his signature mumble asks, “What’s wrong, Veronica?” as it is beyond swoon-worthy).  While I always thought Leo was the guy I’d pick though, I was very much happy with the Logan and Veronica relationship (full disclosure: I knew Jason Dohring, or Jay as we called him, while I lived in LA, which probably helped explain why I was on board with this ‘shipping from the start).

Like everyone else, I rolled my eyes when Piz (Chris Lowell) showed up on the scene in Season 3 as a potential college love interest for Veronica. Sure, he was sweet and doofy, but Veronica and Logan were, as Logan aptly put it, “epic” and Piz was, well…I mean…his name was Stosh Piznarski.  I don’t want to call the love of my life Stosh nor do I want to call him Piz, so right there we have problems.  As a girl who has had very lovely boys express interest I simply didn’t reciprocate for an array of reasons, I had Veronica’s back when she went with the troubled Logan over the seemingly superior Piz.

That is what friends do, they support each other’s decisions. We also support each other when we need help, which is why I eagerly contributed to the Veronica Mars Kickstarter campaign and spent the past year eagerly awaiting answers as to what happened to the people of Neptune.  I finally returned to my friend’s side this past weekend thanks to the release of the Veronica Mars movie, fully prepared to be on board with Veronica’s decision making once again.  After all, even if you lose touch with good friends, if they are truly good friends, it is no problem to pick up where you left off.  They change, sure, but they aren’t unrecognizable.

Veronica ten years removed from high school, like most people, has changed.  She is still prickly and snarky and self-depricating, but some of her spunk is gone.  I can relate.  In high school you have the hope of the future to keep you going.  Veronica is experiencing that ennui we all do as we grow up.  It reminds me of a Great Big World lyrics: “Cause we’re all getting older, wishing we were young, Hanging on the memory of what we would become.”  There comes a point where you realize some of these big dreams aren’t going to happen. While it is disheartening to come to terms with sometimes, it is part of growing up, and the good news is that you may end up down a path you never considered instead.

Veronica is reaching that point in her life where she is starting to feel that pressure that there won’t be enough time to become what she set out to become.  Yes, her life plan is falling in place, but  the whole premise of the movie is that she needs to go back home and make sure this life she left behind deserves one more shot or not.  While I don’t necessarily agree that Veronica’s options are as binary as presented in the movie, which offers her Neptune or NYC, it is a believably conflict nonetheless.

I think most people who set out on a different life path than their friends can relate.  I can also understand why Veronica is still under the pull of that boy who was supposed to work out even though the whole world is her oyster in New York City where she has a life, a great job, and a supportive boyfriend that is none other than Piz.  In other words, she has her doubts, but she also has the life most 27 or 28 years olds would kill to have.  Three years ago, if you told me things were coming together like this, I would like to believe I would be thrilled.  Really though, two years ago I got the job I wanted for years and, while it was great to get, I realized fairly early on that the job didn’t make all of the other life issues easier to take or disappear. It helped sure, but it wasn’t a cure.

Veronica has her chance to live that life and hope it makes those feelings of self doubt and uneasiness disappear, but she throws it all away.  For the first time in our friendship, I didn’t quite understand Veronica.  She not only chooses to return to her old life, give up what she spent years working towards, and basically just concede she is a lost cause who can never be more than what she was in high school, she is also a gigantic bitch to Piz.  Seriously, this girl is supposed to be in New York to meet this boy’s parents and she doesn’t even bother to call to tell him she isn’t coming even after this supportive boyfriend flew all the way to Neptune, CA to see her and did not say a peep about the fact she was frolicking around with the very same boy from college that kept Veronica from choosing Piz the first time around.   You could argue Piz was being a doormat, but come on Veronica. You dated this boy a year that, unless you just straight up hate him, you call him and tell him why you can’t come home and you certainly don’t get lippy when he calls you out on your bad behavior.

As I watched the movie and, for the first time, really felt like I was on Piz’s side, I had to wonder if it was Veronica who changed or if it was me.  Credit to the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, this is actually right in Veronica’s wheelhouse of behavior.  She will double cross anyone, her dad included, if she feels like it is what she has to do (see her and Duncan’s insane plot to get baby Lily out of the country).  She can be selfish (see her unabashed and unashamed using of Deputy Leo’s attraction to her to get details on the Lily Kane case).  She can be a little ruthless when it comes to other people’s feelings (See her initial courtship with Piz back in college where she readily admitted she should want him, but that she wanted Logan, yet still messes around with Piz nonetheless).  This behavior was classic Veronica, it was me who was different.

Somewhere along the way, I began to identify more and more with Piz.  In fact, I have to wonder why fresh out of college Jess didn’t seem to notice how sad and unfair it was that Piz did everything right and Veronica just couldn’t bring herself to care.  Yes, the heart wants what the heart wants, but come one Veronica, your heart finally sees what this guy has to offer years later and you can’t even call him to apologize that you aren’t coming home?  This is a step beyond standard selfish Veronica behavior. It is just cruel.

In fact, I will say one thing that I was surprised to see in the movie.  The Veronica I knew from the TV shows would answer phone calls from her potential employer.  Even in the worst of times, Veronica always managed to get her school work done, show up for events, and be a responsible human being. She didn’t run from her problems and she didn’t hide from things that scared her by clicking ignore on her cell phone.

But the more I think about my dear friend Veronica Mars, the more I realize I am not nearly as upset about her actions as I was about Liz Lemon’s out of character behavior near the end of her “30 Rock” run.  Yes, it is disappointing, but for the brutal noir-toned TV series about a girl hardened by life, it is an ending that makes perfect sense.  She had a chance to get out, but, like the rest of us, life wore her down and, when an opportunity arose to go back to what was easy and familiar, she took it.  Some may believe it is dissatisfying and I can’t disagree.  I want to see Veronica pick Piz, even though Logan in his weirdly oversized Navy whites is rather dreamy.  I want to see her get what she set out for.  But, this has always been a show about the harsh realities of the world and a girl coming of age and learning just how harsh they are, that even ten years later, there seems no other way this story should end than with her learning a life lesson that, even if you manage to check off all the boxes of the life you are supposed to live, it may not feel like you’ve accomplished much of anything.  And sometimes you decide that returning to what you know is easy and comforting, even though it may not be the smartest thing to do.  Even Veronica Mars can get tired and selfish sometimes, which makes me feel a little less badly about the fact that sometimes I do too.