Take a Good Look at My Face

As a kid, I didn’t really know that contemporary music was a thing.  I only ever listened to oldies, as that was the only music my parents ever listened to.  I knew vaguely of Debbie Gibson, but she wasn’t the person I idolized.  Actually, my first fan letter I ever sent was to Johnny Rivers.  Who the heck is that you ask?  He is the guy who sang “Secret Agent Man” amongst other things.  And six-year-old me wanted Mr. Rivers to know I thought he was amazing.

My first concert? The Beach Boys, which is not embarrassing, but actually kind of awesome.  I mean, they are the Beach Boys and this was when Full House was at its peak of popularity, so there was even some contemporary street cred to my choice.  John Stamos didn’t show up and sing “Forever”, but it was still a great show.

Considering most of you understand I am 100 years old on the inside, this obsession with oldies music shouldn’t surprise you.  I am going to be more excited to see Mickey Dolenz than I would seeing Mumford and Son not only because I enjoy the music more, but because there is a scarcity to seeing these folks now.  Anyone with the funds and proximity to a big city can see major music acts these days.

I had to travel to Australia to see Angela Lansbury on the stage in “Driving Miss Daisy”, but it was worth the journey.  In college, I met all sorts of contemporary film geniuses like Jon Favreau, Billy Bob Thornton, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Alexander Payne, but the best celebrity encounter I had?  Serving meals at the Midnight Mission in Downtown LA and meeting the one and only Dick Van Dyke.  Because these other people, being contemporary pop culture icons are present.  You don’t see Dick Van Dyke places unless you seek him out.  He’s not on Twitter, he is not on tour.  So, in addition to being a great talent who has already stood the test of time and proven to be canonical, he is a scarce resource.

I know there is something to say for seeing people in their prime.  I would much rather have seen The Monkees perform in 1967, but I had to settle for 2000.  Sure, it will be nice to tell people that I saw Tim McGraw and Faith Hill perform together in their last show at the Venetian this past weekend, but the performance that will stand out to me is the show we saw before that.

Thanks to my awesome friend Elaine, I got to go see Tim and Faith, but we also got to see the 1000th Vegas performance of Human Nature, the Australian Motown tribute group that performs at The Venetian.  The show was a lot of fun, as these very polished performers belted out some of my favorite oldies I grew up on.

Then they sang what might be one of my top three favorite songs of all times: The Tracks of My Tears.  Smokey Robinson wrote this tune, then made it famous performing it with The Miracles.  

What is remarkable about this song is that it sounds happy, but the visuals invoked by the lyrics are incredibly depressing.  As Robinson explained to Adam Lambert on American Idol a few seasons back, the song came from an idea Robinson had one day: what if someone cried so much that, if you looked closely at their face, you could see where the tears had run down, over and over again.

This song about a guy faking it until he can make it after a rough break up is beautiful, heartbreaking, and makes me want to belt it in my car all at the same time.  As someone whose job frequently requires them to put on a happy face even when I am not particularly happy, the imagery has always stuck with me.  I don’t know about other people, but while I smile and nod, my mind is almost always racing about something, or several things really.  There is usually some nagging negativity in there that tries to break through the facade.  

Nowadays, with social media and this constant ability to put on a face, this song only strikes me as even more poignant, as people try to present some idealized version of themselves to cover up that they may be struggling on the inside. The fact Robinson belts it always gets me thinking that his lovesick musical protagonist simply couldn’t take bottling it up anymore and he burst, in this case into song.

As you can tell from the rant, this song just means a lot to me, so when the group began to sing, I smiled.  When the second verse began and none other than Smokey himself strolled on to the stage to sing it, I gasped. Then I clapped.  Then I cheered.  Then I rushed to take pictures.  Because there he was, 25 feet from me, singing a song that I have listened to thousands of times over the years.

Smokey Robinson doesn’t tour.  He pops up on shows like Idol during Motown Week, then returns to semi-obscurity.  But on this night, in this theater, he was there and I was present to witness it–like seeing a yeti or the Loch Ness monster.  It may not be the spectacle of Tim and Faith, but it is, in 2014, a once in a lifetime type of opportunity that I rank among my favorite celebrity brush ins ever.  So, while this is a song I typically find very sad, I will forever beam when I hear it thinking about the time I got to hear the man himself sing his masterpiece even if it was in 2014 and not 1966.

And now this song, which already meant so much, will mean even more. I can’t stop listening to it, be it originals or covers like this Adam Lambert version, which I consider to be the best performance in Americal Idol history:

It is haunting, this version.  That is what all this old culture I love so much does to me though.  It haunts me, leaving me craving those moments like last weekend where I get to see in person the artist I wanted to write a fan letter to because he came on the radio in my mom’s car on the way home from elementary school.  They may be ghosts or past their prime, but these brushes with people like Smokey Robinson and Dick Van Dyke make me more grateful for my life and my experiences than a lot of other things these days.


Looking on the Bright Blue Side

The college basketball team I root for lost a pretty important game last night.  But you know what else happened? This:

I won’t forget that the University of Connecticut straight up outplayed us yesterday, nor will I forget what could have been had my team remembered how to make free throws.  What will stand out in my mind though is the moment James Young apparently decided, “eff all these people in my way, I am putting this ball in that basket.”

Two days before that, my Wildcats managed to beat Wisconsin, win me a couple hundred bucks in bracket pools, and advance to the championship game of the Big Dance, which is great. The moment we won was incredible, but it won’t compare to this moment right here:

For the third game in a row, Aaron Harrison literally made my heart jump out of my chest.  After a season of hoping that these guys might wow me, they actually did.  For two weeks, they wowed me several times over, exceeding my expectations game after game.  Not only did they win game after game that they were supposed to lose, they did so in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.  Each game, a new young stud would emerge as the superstar of the half, pulling off plays I didn’t think imaginable.

In fact, the only reason I won any of my bracket pools is because this year I made two brackets. One, I labeled “Head” and had UK losing to Wichita State in Round Two.  The “Heart” bracket had decidedly more upsets, including UK ousting the 1 seed.  Once I had them beating Wichita State, I felt like we weren’t going to lose to Louisville if we beat them early in the season when we were decidedly worse.  It seemed like we wouldn’t lose the round after that either, so I had the team advancing to the Final Four, assuming it was wishful thinking.

I guess that is why I am not so sad we lost.  Six weeks ago, I would’ve questioned us even making it out of the first round.  During the SEC tournament, I got my hopes up that this really might be the corner we’d been waiting for the team to turn.  They were so young though.  I don’t love the one-and-done approach to college hoops, but I don’t fault Coach Calipari for gaming the system.  I do get sad to not have that wise senior leading the way.  When Jarrod Polson, the lone senior on the squad, got some minutes, I was elated, even though he is far from our best player.  I had to resort to naming Willie Cauley-Stein as my favorite player on the team as the sage old–sophomore.

I doubt we’ll see Stein stick around for a junior season, but I certainly wish he would.  Judging by the impact this kid was able to have even when cheering on the sidelines in his paisley shirt (which is awesome, DeMarcus Cousins, so stop your hating), I think he is just the leader I would like to see stay to lead the team to another stellar season.  

But if he leaves along with all our other playmakers, I won’t be too sad.  Much like the result of the game, any extra time we get from these guys feels like a freeroll, the proverbial icing on the cake.  But a girl can hope Marcus Lee might be that little dollop of frosting in the bottom of the container that sticks around, right?

Who knows who stays and who goes? Who knows if next year we’ll lose to Robert Morris in the NIT or make another run like this?  That is the risk you take with Cal’s approach, so I am okay to live with the consequences that some season, these kids just won’t figure it out in time.  Rather than expect a lot, I am going to sit back and appreciate what I got, which was my favorite tournament run I’ve ever seen Kentucky put together.  Sure, watching Anthony Davis and crew decimate the field two years ago was fun, but to get to be a UK fan and experience the thrill of being a Cinderella story is probably not gonna happen again for a while. We didn’t end up with the slipper, but we had a hell of a time before things went back to pumpkin status.

Here’s a ‘Scandal’: ‘Game of Thrones’ is a Soap Opera

So guys, I know you are super excited that Game of Thrones is coming back tonight. I don’t blame you. It is a fun, entertaining, well-made show that is always full of surprises and keeps the audience guessing. I am looking forward to watching myself.

What I have to say next though, is probably going to upset some of you, so brace yourselves.

This show you love so much? It is a soap opera.  It is “The Young and the Restless” with scraggly dudes and dragons.  I know you don’t like hearing that you favorite show bears more of a resemblance to “Scandal” than “The Sopranos”, but that is God’s honest truth.

Before you completely write me off, let’s just walk through this together for a minute.  What are the generic conventions of soap operas?

-A serial narrative structure with numerous storylines that don’t always intersect –I still haven’t seen Khaleesi interact with anyone else from the cast, have you?  This narrative complexity you love, with seven or eight separate storylines isn’t new–Luke, Laura, and the gang at “General Hospital” perfected it half a century ago.

-Long scenes of dialogue—While there are action set pieces, pay attention to how often this show just features two people talking at one another.

-A penchant for the melodramatic with focus on interpersonal relationships—This entire show is basically about how people maneuver around one another in an attempt to gain power. While they aren’t exactly boyfriends arguing with girlfriends, think about how much of this show takes place within people’s homes or personal spaces.  This is actually a characteristic of women’s dramas—scenes that take place in domestic spaces like bedrooms or at home as opposed to in the work place or in public locations.  This show may as well be a Douglas Sirk movie given how all of the key power plays tend to take place in these intimate conversations, not on the battlefield.

-The characters tend to be glamorous and attractive—I’m not talking Hodor here or anything, but look at how sexualized the two most powerful women on this show are.  Bleached blondes who are clearly natural brunettes, Cersi and Daenaris are powerful women who are generally depicted as very sexualized beings (brief aside: I am shocked an academic hasn’t written a book about the absurdity of a tiny white girl liberating an entire slave population who, God forbid, seek freedom without her help, but I am sure that dissertation is somewhere in the peer review process).  In a world that exists without deodorant, the guys always manage to look pretty sexy too.  Even when Jamie is wandering around covered in shit without a hand, he still looks like he wandered in from his Vanity Fair cover shoot.

The one thing I will give GoT is that they are willing to kill off characters and, unlike “Days of Our Lives”, they don’t come back from the dead.  In fact, I think in twenty years, this will be the one thing this show gets remembered for.  Sorry y’all, this show is good, but it is not going to end up on any best of all time lists.  It will however, be credited as the show that sparked the trend of offing seemingly key characters at surprising points within the series.  I ought to mention though that other shows have done this. I recently started watching “Deadwood”, which pulled a similar trick almost a decade ago.  "Game of Thrones" seems to be the show that pulled it off to the greatest dramatic effect though, so much so that it now seems to be a signature of the show to have a stunning and startling offing of at least one major character every season.

I know I sound like I am not on board with this show, but that isn’t the case.  I enjoy it for the exact same reasons I enjoy “Scandal”.  These shows pack a whole lot of plot into each episode, keeping me engaged and wondering what diabolical chess move awaits in the next episode.  I enjoy seeing who will randomly join forces for a partnership of convenience to get what they want.  I enjoy seeing what glamorous outfits they will show up in, though there is not a female on this show who comes anywhere close to matching Kerry Washington’s style as Olivia Pope.

But that is really where my admiration for this much-lauded show ends.  It is a remarkably well-made soap opera with incredible production value and some great source material, but this isn’t Shakespeare.  They aren’t redefining any genres, they aren’t blowing me away with their execution, they are just consistently hitting solid line drives that keep the game going and keep me roped in the action.  Just because this doesn’t seem as geared for female audiences as “Scandal” doesn’t mean these shows aren’t completely comparable.  Sure, “Scandal” has been off since returning for its back nine episodes, but at its best, it is just as good as “Game of Thrones” for many of the very same reasons.  Both are shows about the quest for power and the compromises you make to obtain it.  Both shows interweave a number of complicated narratives and expect the audiences to keep up.  And both are able to absolutely make your jaw drop with a well-executed plot twist.  Yet, so many people speak of GoT as art and Scandal as a guilty pleasure.  So, I speak out not against “Game of Thrones”, but in favor of appreciating this show for what it is, not pretending it is something it isn’t.  Suds on up, watch those dragons, but just accept that you like a soap opera and there is nothing wrong with that.

Instant Gratification Vol. 3: Orphan Black on Amazon Prime

To name this Canadian sci-fi drama as something to watch on streaming this week feels kind of like a copout.  It is a show that many of my friends already discovered, one that I feel like I am late to the bandwagon on.

However, for every one person I find who has watched the ten-episode first season of this Canadian production, I find two who still haven’t heard of it, that I decided it was worth the post to try and raise awareness to those who don’t know it exists. More importantly, I want to convince others unsure of whether or not this show is their bag that it is, in fact, worth their time.

I knew of this show for the past year or so, mostly because of how much people raved about Tatiana Maslany, who plays seven or eight different characters over the course of the first season.  I wasn’t really won over by that as a selling point at first.  When people complain that parts like these get overlooked by the Emmys and the like, I tend to think this stuff feels like a gimmick more than a genuine performance.

I will say that in this instance I was completely wrong.  This girl is insanely talented and it is genuinely remarkable how much each of her characters feels like completely different people.  You might be wondering why she is playing eight different characters, which brings me to my next deterrent.

I am not normally much of a sci-fi person. While I have long been a fan of fantasy, if it is not Star Trek or The Twilight Zone, I tend to not be all that into the genre.  This was another reason I avoided this show, which is billed as a sci-fi program dealing with cloning.  While the cloning obviously plays a big role in the plot, I would say that, at least so far, this show is more of a thriller in the vein of “The Fugitive” than it bears a resemblance to “Blade Runner”.  Maslany is constantly on the hunt for information, trying to solve the mystery of her existence, so if you like mysteries and thrillers, but aren’t a sci-fi person, this show is actually right up your alley.

Finally, the name.  I have to be honest, I hate the show’s title and it is probably one of the reasons I avoided it for so long.  It sounded so serious and dour and sci-fi-ish that it really put me off.  I still don’t understand the name, I assume its deeper meaning will be revealed as the show progresses?  In other words, don’t let the dumb name deter you. This is not a weird hard to comprehend sci-fi series that is dark and depressing.  In fact, there are moments, particularly when Maslany is playing soccer mom Allison, that the show is really rather funny.

So, if you don’t like sci-fi, the name turns you off, and the thought of one girl playing a million characters sounds like something for fitting for SNL than serious drama, think again.  This is a one-of-a-kind type of show that will surprise you, keep you guessing, and, most importantly, keep you entertained.

Ice Cream, a Dish Drying Rack, and Two Great Friends


Two of my very best friends were born on the same day, April 2nd.  It makes keeping track of special dates pretty easy, but it also makes this day a special one for me too, as I get to see not one but two people who are incredibly important to me get showered with love and praise that they most rightfully deserve.

Over the years, I have actually done a good job of never doubling down on birthday stuff for them. Part of the reason I haven’t is because these two gals are two of my best friends, but they actually have very little in common.  One, Lindsay, is one of my oldest friends.  We met in the seventh grade and have been pretty inseparable ever since.  The other, Stephanie, was my roommate throughout college and I just saw her last weekend during a mini-USC reunion.  I couldn’t ask for two better friends and I couldn’t possibly adequately describe them in a single blog post.  Instead, I thought I would tell a story about each of them that reminds me of them and makes me smile, hoping that it might do the same for them on their special day.

I’ve spoken of Lindsay on here before and our love for “The Chipmunk Adventure”.  But, in honor of her 31st, I think today I will tell a story about 31 flavors, aka Baskin-Robbins.  At first glance, my very slight childhood friend may not seem like she can eat all that much.  She is about my height, but easily weighs 25 pounds less than I do, so I can see how people make that mistake.

Be warned though, Lindsay needs to be fed and fed frequently.  My senior of college, she drove my car out to Los Angeles with me.  We had to stop every four hours to feed this child, and I am not talking grabbing her a granola bar at the gas station. No, we stopped at Wendy’s and I ordered a chicken sandwich and a water. Lindsay sits down with a double cheeseburger and a Biggie sized fry and asks, “Is that all you’re getting?” I tell her yes and she informs me not only will she be eating every bite of what she ordered, but she intends to head to the gas station and get a Snickers bar before we hit the road again.

We both have our sweet teeth, that is for sure.  We also both hail from some pretty redneck roots, which means our stomachs have the ability to expand when we smell a bargain. All you can eat buffet you say? Just hand me that stack of seven plates, I’ll be needing all of them.

Therefore, when we were in our college years and heard of Baskin-Robbins offering a free scoop night, we scrapped any existing plans and made a beeline to the nearest ice cream parlor.  Once we got there, we saw that there wasn’t much to the process. Stand in line, get a cone. No ID check, no coupon, nothing. Which got us thinking…and while we thought, we finished our ice cream, and promptly decided…we needed more of where that came from.

Over the course of the next two hours or so, we proceeded to hit up all seven Baskin Robbins in the city of Lexington, Kentucky.  At no point did we consider skipping one or not eating the entire cone either, oh no. We ate seven scoops of ice cream each, because these were the days before our metabolism up and died and, dammit, we made the most of them for a couple of years thanks to the generosity of one ice cream company.

While I don’t think I will hit up every Ben and Jerry’s in Las Vegas, next Tuesday I do plan on raising a cone and perhaps pouring some out for my dear homey, who won’t be close enough to celebrate Free Scoop Day.

As for Stephanie, well, she can get a little hangry too, but my story is her is less about food and more about my theory that she is secretly Amish.  Steph claims to be from the South Chicago suburb of Flossmoor, but I still think that is a giant front, for my friend came to college with virtually no knowledge or understanding of contemporary pop culture whatsoever.  As a graduation gift, I typed up and bound a small booklet for her called “100 Movies You Need to See in Order to Be Culturally Competent”, where I offered her explanations of why she needs to see movies like “The Godfather”, “Jaws”, and “Gone with the Wind”.  To this day, I doubt she has seen more than 20 of them, but she still holds on to it and even scribbles down titles in the margins of other movies that have come across her radar.

It wasn’t just movies Stephanie didn’t know though.  I always joked she didn’t know how to watch TV, because she would pop popcorn, turn out all the lights, and refuse to let anyone speak so we could watch the reality gem “Temptation Island”.  She hated the mall and didn’t know how to wander around and window shop.  She would beeline straight to the store she needed, then immediately left.

Perhaps it was this unwillingness to really look around the mall that led to one of my favorite exchanges between the two of us ever:

Me: “Hey Steph, I am running to the mall, do you need anything?”

Stephanie: “Yeah, we could use a new dish drying rack and a loaf of bread.”

What I love most about Stephanie is that some things never change.  Just a few weeks ago she texted me to inform me her husband Matt told her he was running to the hardware store.  She asked him if he could grab some lime Jello while he was there.

In many ways these girls have stayed the same amazing gals I knew when I was younger, but in other ways they have grown up and wowed me with their accomplishments.  I often feel like they are my babysitters or big sisters, offering me sage advice on life that I don’t really have to offer in return. But, I can offer silly stories, an endless rant of inside jokes, and years of years of friendship that I hope will be followed by years and years more to come.

Happy birthday Stephanie and Lindsay!


Look How Robin Sparkles

As I glanced at my Twitter feed as work was winding down yesterday, I got concerned.  The reactions to the series finale of “How I Met Your Mother” were rolling in and they weren’t just negative, they were angry, horrified, and outraged. To paraphrase the comic book guy from “The Simpsons”: Worst. Episode. Ever.

I wasn’t going to not watch though.  I jumped on the HIMYM bandwagon somewhere between Seasons 2 and 3 and loved the show from that jump.  I was like Ted with a French horn to pledge to this sitcom, which found that balance between funny and poignant, and let me just say there is not nearly enough poignant on TV these days. 

Most of the reason I gave the show a shot in the first place was because Alyson Hannigan, aka Willow from Buffy, was involved.  I came for Willow, but I stayed for Cobie Smulders and for Robin.  While I don’t identify with Robin the same way I do Liz Lemon or Veronica Mars, she is a female on TV I respect, which is something I can’t say for many characters in this alleged “Golden Age”.  She was independent, but could still be feminine and attractive.  She cared about her job, she could crack a joke, and she could be a guy’s girl and a girl’s girl.  In other words, in Season 1, I hated Ted for choosing boring, lame Victoria over the awesomeness that is Robin.

My adoration for Robin waned in these later seasons, in part, because I never really bought the Robin and Barney romance and, in part, because she had become a bit removed from the chill Robin I had grown to love.  Even so though, last week when she vented her wedding jitters to Ted and wondered if she had missed her chance with the right guy, I teared up.  Robin may seem so down to Earth and career-driven, but I always loved how the show gave us a glimpse at the side she keeps from people that wants to be swept off her feet, that wants to have children, and that wants to be taken care of by someone.  She may seem self-sufficient, but that isn’t because it is what she wants, it is because she has learned to be that way for lack of other options.

I think that is why I pretty much adored all but the last four minutes of the show’s finale last night.  Yes, it was disappointing to learn Robin drifted from the group, but it would be insane if she didn’t.  Her summation of “the gang” to Lily in the empty apartment was spot on.  Robin isn’t going to sacrifice her self-respect and punish herself by watching the two major men of her life move on without her.  Like I said, she is a girl who learned the art of self-preservation, and you’d destroy yourself trying to live all those years in a situation like that, even though it makes us sad as viewers.

I was okay with Robin and Barney quietly getting divorced, that made sense.  I had grown to be okay with Robin and Ted not ending up together, especially once I got a glimpse of The Mother and how truly awesome she is.  Yes, I thought they were a good match, but there are often times in your life where you think you’ve found the right person and, guess what, you’re wrong.  I wanted Robin to find happiness though.  I wanted her to find someone to be with or new friends or something.  Instead, she spends a good decade of her life in purgatory with nothing to do but wait.

Most people are upset that the finale of HIMYM undercuts the lesson that Ted’s long period of waiting and near-misses was worth it because of what was waiting for him under that yellow umbrella.  By pairing him with Robin in the end, it does somewhat feel like you are invalidating something. Some might argue this resolution invalidates the relationship with The Mother, but I am inclined to disagree.  Ted’s monologue about Tracy that he tells his children, in which he told them he cherished and loved every minute of every day with her and knew never to stop loving her with all his heart was just the payoff I was hoping for in that relationship.  He went through a lot, he felt like the right person got away several times, but in the end it was worth it.  I don’t even mind that their love was cut short, as I’ve indicated here in these posts before.

What I do think it invalidates though is Robin, not to mention the relationship between Robin and Ted.  We really are supposed to accept that Robin did nothing but wait around alone with her dogs for Ted to come back?  We are supposed to be as invested in this relationship as we were in the pilot, even though we know about Tracy and how amazing she was? 

I guess I should admit here that I can be a little judgmental when it comes to widowers.  I understand that not everyone is like my mom and content to be alone.  But being a widower and a divorcee are two very different things.  A widower is no longer with the person they loved because they have no other choice, not because things didn’t work out.  So, while I know many a widower who remarry and it certainly isn’t that they don’t love their new spouse, there does seem to be a certain amount of inequality in the spousal rankings that isn’t as present in someone who divorces and remarries.  If you were Robin and saw what Ted and Tracy had, how could you agree to date this man for a third time?  How would you not spend the entire relationship wondering how you measured up, wondering if you were just Plan B because Plan A died?  In a way, it is like an even crueler thing to do to yourself than stay entrenched in the group.

I can understand why Ted, who get so lonely so easily, would try to win Robin back after his wife died.  What I can’t understand is why Robin would agree.  Yes, she had her doubts at the wedding, but that was something like 17 years prior to the rekindling of this relationship.  If Robin, who always learned to get by on her own and act strong even though she may not have felt strong hadn’t moved on at that point, how miserable must those 17 years have been? I’m sure she dated other guys during that period, but if we are to believe that the thought was always in the back of her head that Ted was the guy, this is way more depressing than the fact she isn’t at McLaren’s with the gang twice a week.

So I pretend the last four minutes of HIMYM never happened not because of The Mother, though the show exceeded my wildest expectations, as did actress Cristin Milioti, whose scene with Josh Radnor under the umbrella was pitch perfect in every way, not because of Ted and his journey and what it meant to viewers, though I am partial to the reading that all his bad timing and close calls only made what he found with Tracy even better, but because of Robin, who deserves more than to be the afterthought, who deserves more than to wait for years and years alone and wondering if she did this to herself, and who deserves to meet her own happiness instead of relying on the unhappiness of someone else to make her life complete.