Friday, August 31, 2007

Please do tell us what you think of the American educational system.

I know you've probably seen this already. But don't you want to see it again?
I didn't have the highest hopes when I heard about this video clip in which "Miss Teen USA contestant gives bizarre answer to geography question." I thought, oh, teen beauty queens are dumb and shallow, yawn, what else is new. But I am so glad I watched, because this exceeded all my expectations. It's difficult for any description to do it justice, but the closest I can come is that, in this moment, Miss South Carolina resembles a robot, programmed to respond to beauty-pageant questions, suffering a major system meltdown. Instead of stringing its stored stock phrases ("I personally believe... South Africa... Iraq... education") into a vacuous but generally coherent response, it's just spitting them out at random, and no one can make it stop. Here are a few things I love best about these 47 seconds of footage:
  • She seems to be off to a terrible start with "Some people out there in our nation don't have maps..." but by the end you realize that was actually the best part of her response. After that: total incoherence. And it gets so much worse than you think it will.
  • "U.S. Americans."
  • "...everywhere like such as and." It's the way she adds "such as" to that string that really does it for me. I didn't think it was possible for a native speaker of English not to understand how "such as" functions in speech, but I was mistaken.
  • "Our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. -- er, should help South Africa, and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries." I love that she corrects herself when she "misspeaks" -- because, whew, for a minute there she wasn't making much sense! (In fact, she was actually much closer to answering the question before she corrected herself.)
  • When the bell rings to signal that her time is up and she starts talking fast, as if to wrap up her answer -- even though there's nothing for her to wrap up. She knows she's not supposed to stop talking until she mentions Our Future, and by heaven, she gets it done.
  • Mario Lopez's steady, supportive microphone throughout, and stunned yet gentlemanly "...Thank you very much" at the very end. I once saw an episode of Pet Star where a woman claimed her cat could do this elaborate trick, and of course, as soon as she brought it onstage, the cat balked and ran back into the wings, leaving humiliation in its wake... and Mario reacted in much the same way, as if everything had gone exactly according to plan and nobody had any cause to be ashamed. If I ever embarrass myself on national TV, I want Mario Lopez there to pretend everything went fine. He couldn't save me from YouTube, but he would make me feel better in the moment.
Did I miss anything? What do you like best?

And with that, I am off to Boston for a couple of days! I hope you enjoy your holiday weekend. If you choose to spend it watching the above video over and over, I won't judge. You might want to take a break to spend some time with Strong Bad, though. He could use the company.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Angel in my pocket

It took me a whole month to find another charity to pick on, but I'm back today for another installment of Annoying Surprises in Mollie's Mailbox. Although you couldn't really call the "emergency appeal" I received from Catholic Relief Services a "surprise," since I've been receiving them at regular intervals for a couple years now. I try not to respond to mail solicitations (I give in person or online where possible), because they tend to beget more mail solicitations. So this stuff goes straight to the shredder. But the CRS mailings are especially irritating, because they come with this "Special Gift Inside":Plenty of not-for-profits send "gifts" in the hopes of guilting the recipient into making a contribution. I have a drawer full of notepads and address labels to prove it. But while those other organizations like to send something marginally useful, CRS differentiates itself by sending these little gold coins. Tiny golden albatrosses, good for nothing but breaking your shredder if you don't know they're hiding inside the envelope. I do know, because this one, which arrived yesterday, is at least the eighth or ninth such "gift" I have received from CRS. I would have quite a collection by now, if I took them up on their invitation to "Keep this guardian angel as a reminder of the children you help."

How much does it cost CRS, do you think, to produce and send these tacky little angel coins? Maybe not a lot. Maybe just a little. But you know who would probably like to have that money, even more than I would like to have a collection of shiny angel coins? The world's poor. Tsunami victims. The sad little child staring up at me from this appeal. My friends at CRS, you do wonderful work, I am sure. But I would like you to keep this guardian angel -- or rather, the money you spend sending it to me every few months -- and use it to help some children.

Perhaps you're thinking, if I really feel strongly about this waste of money (and paper), I should request to be removed from their mailing list. And that's the kicker: I already have. After I received the first three or four "gifts" from CRS, I called them up and asked to be removed. The nice man I spoke to assured me he had done so. A week later, I got another little angel. Well, I thought, this was probably in the works before I called. I'm sure this is the last one. But no, I've been receiving them at regular intervals ever since. My calling did no good at all. So I'm doing the next logical thing, of course; I'm blogging about it. (At least I'm not as mad as this guy.) I suppose the next logical thing would be to actually save a bunch of these stupid coins, and then send them all back together in the postage-paid envelope with a note that says, "I believe these belong to you." But that would require a lot more organization than I am prepared to devote to this, and it wouldn't give me much satisfaction to waste even more of their money -- the whole point is, I want them to stop wasting it on me! So, since the situation is apparently hopeless (at least till I move), I'm taking suggestions. What should I do with my collection of slightly-bigger-than-a-quarter angel coins? Should I keep them as a reminder of the children I stubbornly refuse to help? Use them to weight the corners of a duvet? Drill holes through them and make a tambourine?

I'm also curious: what not-for-profits harass you and/or send you junk? Have you ever removed yourself from a mailing list without resorting to threats? Please share.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You only send me your funny papers

The building where I live was once a hotel, and the lobby is set up accordingly, with tenants' mailboxes behind a glass partition. I have to ask whoever is at the front desk to get my mail for me. Yesterday, the doorman handed me this:I don't subscribe to any fashion-related periodicals. This is partly because I'm a snob, but mostly because I have no interest in or aptitude for fashion. For me, reading a fashion-related mag is like studying an instruction manual for an appliance I don't own. It's confusing, unsatisfying, a little intimidating; I might learn something new, but I will almost definitely be unable to apply said knowledge to my life. So I figured this plastic-wrapped mag labeled FASHION must have been placed in the wrong mailbox, and I started to hand it back to the doorman -- "This isn't for me." Then I looked at the address label and saw my name on it. I panicked a little. How could this happen? Had one of my copy-editing employers gifted me with a free subscription? Had I, in a self-destructive fugue state, subscribed to yet another magazine? Then, suddenly, I recalled a similar experience in my past, something I must have blocked from my memory. I flipped it over and saw this:Is this some kind of joke, New Yorker? Are you trying to destroy all my intellectual cred? Because if I wanted to read a magazine with J. Lo on the cover, I would have many to choose from at the newsstand. And if I wanted to read a magazine about fashion, I would buy a real one.

A peek at the masthead of Fashion Rocks reveals that its "editorial director" is one Anna Wintour. Is this some sort of crossover promotion? Fashion-forward friends: was your most recent copy of Vogue bundled with a faux cultural journal? And fellow New Yorker subscribers: what did you find most baffling about Fashion Rocks, assuming you didn't toss it directly into the recycling bin? I think it's the table of contents with no page numbers. I only noticed this because, when I first freed the mag from its plastic bag, it fell open to a spread of photos of Sean Lennon, who has what I consider to be the celebrity world's most interesting face. So I enjoyed flipping through that feature, and I was hoping to tell you where to find it, but the table of contents can only confirm that it exists. And I'm not motivated enough to flip through Fashion Rocks at random to find it again. Even if I did, it wouldn't matter, since the interior doesn't have page numbers, so I couldn't be any more helpful than the aforementioned table of contents.

The only fashion-related content I want from The New Yorker is the occasional shopping-trip field journal by Patty Marx. In the future, Conde Nast, I would appreciate your keeping your glossy and disorienting supplements to yourself. And you guys -- does anyone want a copy of Fashion Rocks?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Going Grey

This past week, I, for reasons that I swear are work-related, have been immersing myself in the world of Shonda Rhimes and Grey's Anatomy. Am I the only woman under 45 who never watched a single episode of this show until now? I was dimly aware of the show and its stars (for reasons that are also work-related), and based on conversations I've overheard at parties and bridal showers and such, I have gathered that pretty much everyone else is a fan. But I'm too busy watching shows nobody else seems aware of (The Riches, people!) to stay abreast of the wildly popular ones, and so now I have a lot of catching up to do. Lucky for me, Grey's Anatomy is on twice a week -- the most recent season is in reruns on ABC, and older reruns air on Lifetime -- and ABC makes episodes available for viewing online. I am approaching it with scientific interest -- So this is what everyone else has been talking about for the last couple years. How interesting. I feel like an anthropologist visiting from another century (or planet).

So far I've seen two episodes from this past season and one from (I think) the season before, and all out of sequence. So that's confusing. But you know what, it would be confusing no matter which three episodes I caught, because this show has, like, 17 major characters, all of whom appear in at least one of every episode's plotlines (a minimum of five, three romantic and two medical). I was expecting something kind of dumb and dramatic, the sort of thing you could watch with only half your brain, but instead -- well, I won't go so far as to say the show is smart, but my heavens, it certainly is busy. Is it always like this? Don't you regular viewers find it exhausting? And doesn't covering your eyes and/or leaving the room during the "gory surgical procedure" portion of every episode make the show that much harder to follow? (I assume I am not the only one who does this.) Here's another question: do men watch this show? I get the feeling they don't, and aren't expected to. The fiance gave up after about three minutes and left me alone to watch, so I'm wondering if it's universally man-repellent. Oh, and speaking of repellent: was Meredith, the sort-of-titular character played by Ellen Pompeo, ever likable? At all? Because in the three hours I've seen, all she's done is simper and sneer and mistreat people who, for some reason, put up with it, and I'm waiting patiently for her to display even a tiny bit of appeal. If I go all the way back to season one, will I be rewarded? Or has she always been this way, like Ally McBeal without the charm?

I tell you all this for a couple of reasons -- first, to let you know what's keeping me busy, and second, to inform you that I've finally gotten with the program (ha!), in case you've been dying to chat with me about Grey's. If any of you are Grey's fans, I'd love to hear your reasons for watching/coping strategies/strong opinions. In the meantime I'm going back to my "research." It may surprise you to learn this, but -- as they say over at The Comics Curmudgeon -- more information on Grey's Anatomy can be found on the internet.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Sing with me the songs we knew

Since I saw Les Miz on Tuesday, I've been hearing the music from the show playing on an endless loop in my head. Actually, to be more accurate, I have mainly been hearing the music that is assigned to the character of Fantine. And to be even more accurate, I have been hearing Fantine's music as performed by Patti LuPone on the 1985 London Barbican cast recording.

Those who felt I was insufficiently reverent when discussing Patti's performance in Gypsy might be comforted to know I think she was all kinds of awesome in Les Miz. I didn't see the original London production, of course (and at 5 I wasn't the most discerning of critics, anyway). But she is and will always be the Fantine in my head, for all the same reasons that she isn't my ideal Momma Rose. When Patti belts "I Dreamed a Dream," she makes it sound like most moving, most powerful ballad ever written. She makes the music sound majestic; she makes the lyrics sound insightful; she makes the song sound like a masterpiece. Then you hear someone else sing it and you think, "Hm, this tune is actually kind of banal. And... 'tigers'? What is she talking about? 'With their voices soft as thunder'? Tigers don't have 'voices,' do they? Is thunder 'soft'? What the hell?"

The same goes double for Fantine's recitative during "At the End of the Day" and "Lovely Ladies," which, on paper, makes me grind my teeth. But who else could sing a line as ludicrous as "Come on, Captain, you can wear your shoes" and inspire pathos? Listen to the way she modulates from loud ("That WOULD-n't PAY for the CHAIN") to soft ("It's all I have") to loud again ("Please make it ten!!") during the pre-prostitution haggling sequence in "Lovely Ladies." Hear the desperation in her voice as she wails, "Ten francs may save my poor Cosseeeeette!" This is a Fantine to root for, and feel for. And [SPOILER ALERT - but come on, if you're still reading, you know the plot of Les Miz] when she dies, she is a Fantine to mourn. Patti belts the hell out of that sing-songy deathbed lullaby ("Come to Me"), which may be why I never had much affection for "On My Own." Why should a lesser (and unrelated) character get to reuse the melody from Fantine's death? Is the poor woman to be allowed no dignity, even in death? And for crying out loud, could Claude-Michel Schonberg not have noodled on his keyboard for five more minutes and come up with a new tune?

The other reason I never liked "On My Own" is that professional Eponines so often sound like Cyndi Lauper. Much like the synthesizers that sap the grandeur from the other songs on the Barbican recording, the pop-vocalist pauper must have seemed more natural in the '80s. That's probably one reason I was pleasantly surprised by Megan McGinnis's sweet and spunky Eponine -- and the fact that she doesn't have Patti LuPone to contend with probably helps her stake a claim on the tune. As for Fantine, I saw Lea Salonga's understudy, so I can't say much about her approach. But I can say that "I Dreamed a Dream" is suprisingly unmoving when you strip away all of Patti's pyrotechnics. To sum up: Viva LuPone! And, it's kind of fun to have pretend conversations in your head using the various sung-dialogue-music from Les Miz. "Pardon meeeeeee, I need to board the su-ub-way. / I would like to catch a train this morning. / Please don't walk so slowly on the plat-FORM / Or I will have to push past you and you will be of-fen-ded."

I confess to not knowing my Les Miz cast recordings all that well; my introduction to the show was a mix tape that I used to sing along with in the car, and I think it had tracks from two or three different versions. So I need your advice, O Les Miz completists: Is the 1987 Broadway recording worth checking out? How does Randy Graff measure up to Patti? What's the deal with this "complete symphonic recording," and how is it different from this 10th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall? Do they all feature Colm Wilkinson, and if so, why? Most important, which version has the best "Drink With Me" (my favorite song)? I know some of you have strong opinions on the subject. Let's hear them.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

All on account of... my name

This week's chilly weather reminded me that my autumn wardrobe is looking a little sparse, so today I did some shopping. Lately I've been having a lot of luck at Esprit -- and ladies, you know how it is once you break the sizing code at a particular store. "Their V-neck T-shirts fit me in medium! I will never shop anywhere else!" So I headed there, bracing myself for their aggressive sales staff. From what I can tell, Esprit employees get a commission for being helpful ("If you need anything, my name is X"), but they are also restricted to particular areas of the store -- a kind of zone offense approach to retail. You can tell when you've crossed a boundary, because the salesperson who has been following you will suddenly turn his attention elsewhere, and a new store employee will hurry to greet you, and the whole thing begins all over again ("Can I help you find a size?"). I really prefer to be left alone when I'm shopping, but since I was holding a bunch of things I wanted to try on, I took the first salesperson up on his offer to open a dressing room for me. I handed him my armful of prospective purchases and told him my name, and he walked a few feet (to the edge of his designated sales area, presumably) and handed them off to the next employee with the instruction, "Put these in a room for Mollie." And she said, "Is that M-A-L-E?"

Now, I don't expect people to be able to spell my name, but their first guess is usually a bit more in the ballpark. I don't often run into someone who is completely unfamiliar with the name. But neither salesperson seemed to have encountered it before, because when the second one ventured this spelling, the first one shrugged and said, "I guess." I wasn't technically included in this conversation, just standing close enough to overhear, so I wondered whether I should intervene. I tend to let people go with "Molly" when it's not important, and in the grand scheme of things, what gets written in dry-erase marker on the door of my Esprit dressing room is not important. But in this case, I thought I might have trouble walking into a dressing room labeled "Male." Before I could speak up, though, the second salesperson walked off to seek the advice of a third salesperson, who guessed, "Maybe it's M-A-L-I"? Not bad, but it's actually a little more Irish and a little less African.

I walked into the fitting room area just as the second salesperson was about to start writing on the door. She looked relieved to see me when I told her my name, and as she let me into the room she asked, "Is it M-A-L-Y?" At that point I wondered whether I should tell her the whole truth, or just the standard spelling. The latter might have been more useful down the line, but I decided I would have felt funny dictating the spelling of my name incorrectly. Especially if she later ended up reading it on my credit card. (For what it's worth, the person who checked me out had no trouble with the name.) So the next customer named Molly who asks for an Esprit dressing room might wonder why they've spelled her name with an "I-E."

Bonus link: this all reminds me of one of my favorite Simpsons moments. I could never find a mass-produced personalized souvenir, either!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

And the song was exciting

Last night I treated myself to a completely unrestricted view at the Broadhurst, where the present Broadway reanimation of Les Miserables is playing. Ordinarily I wouldn't feel the need to be front and center for Les Miz -- proximity to the stage shouldn't be a factor in enjoying this show, even in a relatively scaled-down production. As long as you can see that red flag, you're probably doing fine. But this was a special case, because I actually know a couple of the principals, and so it was worth springing for great seats.

Here's the part where I brag! I once had the honor of sharing a stage with Ali Ewoldt, this production's luminous Cosette, back when we were just the names in tomorrow's papers -- we were both in the chorus of a college production of Merrily We Roll Along ("Have you seen? How was it? You're not SE-rious!" etc.), which was the beginning and end of my onstage career, but happily not of hers. And that's how I ended up grinning at her from the audience as she transitioned from menacing factory worker to listless whore to trilling ingenue. (This show has a very hardworking ensemble -- none of this hanging around backstage until your character gets introduced! Put on a shawl and look destitute!) You can read an interview with Ali here, and for a peek backstage you can read her blog from the early months of the production.

The other reason my sister and I attended last night's show was to see her college friend, the fabulous Marya Grandy, as an exceptionally funny Madame Thenardier (opposite the one and only Chip Zien!). So I felt very cool by proxy.

The cast includes many other performers whom I'd love to claim as friends, but do not actually know. These include Drew Sarich, the youthful and faintly heavy-metal Jean Valjean (you need to hear him wail "I am warning you, Javert!"), who turns in a super rendition of "Bring Him Home" -- even if his claim of "I am old" doesn't quite ring true. Also, Megan McGinnis, a more endearing Eponine than I imagined possible. And, of course, Chip Zien, who makes an energetic and vivid Thenardier -- and whom I finally got to meet, backstage after the show! Amy and I slipped inside the stage door to say hello to our old schoolmates (and her old neighbor). Four Yalie performers, three of them talented, all in one spot! Notify the class notes!

I have just remembered that Ali, Marya and I actually performed together on Broadway, in a technical sense, a few years ago. We were all participants in a Yale-related concert called I Get a Kick out of Blue, which was held on a Monday night in the New Amsterdam Theatre. I'll save that story for another post, but suffice it to say, Broadway is lucky to have them both back.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shoulda stuck with "Untitled Jodie Foster Project"

Talking of lousy film titles: I see Jodie Foster's latest tough-girl drama is called The Brave One. Based on what I've read, Foster stars as a woman who turns vigilante after losing her fiance to a violent crime. But if I had to guess what a movie called The Brave One would be about, I'd say it was probably a war movie, made with a small budget in the 1950s, with no women in it at all. My second guess would be that it's some kind of animal picture, about, say, an intrepid sled dog who must cross treacherous terrain against great odds to find food for his litter of helpless pups. When I hear The Brave One, I don't think "movie with female characters," which may be the point... But I also don't think "well-made movie" or "movie I'd like to see," which is my point. Are we running out of available titles? Is that the problem?

Another recent film title that fails to impress me is A Mighty Heart. That movie, in case you missed it, stars Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl, the real-life widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl. The film is based on Marianne Pearl's book, which I have not read, and it's certainly possible that the title sounds deeply resonant, and appropriate to the subject matter of international terrorism and personal tragedy, after one reads the book or sees the movie. But with nothing but the title to go on, I don't think "gripping and relevant tale of real-life violence and loss, with Oscar potential." I think, "touching made-for-TV movie based on the real-life story of a teenager with Down Syndrome who competes in the Special Olympics despite a congenital heart defect." Either that or, as above, something involving an animal -- in this case, I would expect the story to center on the bond between a human and his/her unusual pet or service animal. I guess I'm thinking of something like Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken -- which, for the record, also strikes me as a terrible title, unwieldy and too clever by half. Remember that movie? About the hoydenish Depression-era girl who dives horses off high platforms, even after [SPOILER ALERT] she goes blind? IMDb says the tagline was "The inspiring true-life adventure of a courageous young rebel who defied the odds...and won." And I say, that's the movie that should have been called A Mighty Heart. And if they wrote the movie from the horse's perspective, they could have called it The Brave One. But I propose that movies for grownups that star Oscar-winning actors should not be released with titles that suggest cheaply-made films for preteen girls.

Jill Hunter Pellettieri wrote about "movies with the same name" for Slate in 2005, when the Will Ferrell movie Kicking and Screaming borrowed its title from 1995 Noah Baumbach film. It occurs to me that either or both of the films discussed above could have been improved by re-reusing the title Kicking and Screaming. Do you have other suggestions? (And don't you kind of want to rent Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken? You know you do.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

How Rude(y)

The fiance and I spent a refreshing weekend at a retreat house, participating in a marriage-prep program, and now I'm easing slowly back into the cyberworld. I made it through the August 20 issue of the New Yorker during the train ride up and back -- just in time for the next issue to land in my mailbox -- and aside from the article I mentioned on Friday, this issue is notable for Peter J. Boyer's lengthy profile of Rudy Giuliani. It contains many little anecdotes to support my long-held suspicion that Giuliani is, more or less, a snake, but this one was my favorite:
When controversial police shootings stirred racial unrest, [Giuliani] seemed reflexively eager to leap to the defense of the cops. After an unarmed black security guard, Patrick Dorismond, was shot and killed by undercover narcotics officers, in March of 2000, Giuliani sanctioned the release of Dorismond’s juvenile arrest record and suggested that Dorismond wasn’t “an altar boy.” (Dorismond actually had been an altar boy, and had attended Giuliani’s old high school, Bishop Loughlin.)
Perhaps in the future we should amend the expression to: "He wasn't a Caucasian altar boy!" Just to be clear.

Tomorrow I am planning my first trip to Broadway, and to the theatre, in much too long! I'll let you know how that turns out.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Lost in the stars

Most magazines take a vacation at some point during the summer, sending out a "double issue" to tide readers over. There may be readers somewhere out there who find this disappointing, but I am deeply, profoundly grateful when these double issues arrive in my mailbox, with a note to let me know that "The next issue of [magazine title] will be dated [in the future]." I can taste freedom! Freedom from the pile of magazines that crouch next to my desk, demanding to be read! Sometime before that designated future date arrives, I may reach the bottom of that pile! I may even be able to -- dare I hope -- read a book!

Alas, the summertime reprieve is never quite long enough, and it's always followed by a renewed onslaught -- in late July/early August, brand-new issues of all the magazines I subscribe to, even the bimonthly college alumni magazine, land in my mailbox at the very same time, and I'm right back where I started, toiling under a pile of magazines-to-read. Most of this pressure comes from The New Yorker: nearly every issue is densely packed with articles that are well worth reading, and a new issue arrives every single week. Keeping up involves as much work as pleasure on my part, and in the process, all of my other relationships suffer (I finally had to break it off with Harper's; I still care about you, I told Lapham et al., but I'm giving so much to high-minded magazines that I don't have time for myself anymore). One of these days my attachment to the New Yorker may weaken enough that I'll be able to resist renewing my subscription -- "I think I should try seeing other magazines," I'll say, and when they try to sweet-talk me into coming back ("Become a member of WNYC and we'll give you a subscription for free!" Oh, I know all their tricks), I'll just focus on what a fabulous time I'm having flirting with The Atlantic Monthly and exploring the possibility of a long-term relationship with Evelyn Waugh. You would think the fact that my affair with The New Yorker recently turned abusive would be enough to send me packing, but for now I'm still trying to make it work.

At the moment I'm in that post-vacation spot where, after taking advantage of the chance to come up for air, let my mind wander on the subway, and bring a book with me on vacation (albeit one written by a New Yorker staffer), I have more reading to do than ever. So I'm slowly making my way through the pile. But I wanted to stop and call your attention to a terrific article in the August 20 issue of The New Yorker that I just finished reading this morning. It's a feature by David Owen entitled "The Dark Side" (and hampered with the dry subtitle "Making war on light pollution"). I am sorry to report that it is not available online, aside from this dull abstract, but it's worth seeking out -- especially if you already have this issue sitting in a pile in your home, awaiting your attention.

Owen begins by describing the work of Galileo Galilei, who made his observations based on the astonomical bodies visible to him in 1610, and the obstacles met by modern-day astronomers hoping to see what Galileo saw. "The stars have not become dimmer; rather, the Earth has become vastly brighter, so that celestial objects are harder to see." This is a simple yet astounding fact, and Owen spends the rest of the story laying out its causes and results. Reading the following excerpt will keep you awake at night (but that's okay, since the too-bright lights in your neighbor's yard and the glow of your alarm clock's digital display are probably disrupting your sleep anyway):
Civilization's assault on the stars has consequences far beyond its impact on astronomers. Excessive, poorly designed outdoor lighting wastes electricity, imperils human health and safety, disturbs natural habitats, and, increasingly, deprives many of us of a direct relationship with the nighttime sky, which throughout human history has been a powerful source of reflection, inspiration, discovery, and plain old jaw-dropping wonder.
There's no hysteria here, just simple, frightening facts, in a piece that's a joy to read because it's so very well written. It moves forward at a steady pace, never lingering too long in any one place. Owen can be funny without calling attention to himself in the process (something the New Yorker's staff writers often have trouble with) -- I laughed out loud at his description of "an empty parking lot so bright that you could deliver babies in it." And he talks about himself and his experiences researching and battling light pollution in a natural way -- his presence and his personal perspective add to the story, rather than distracting from it. Most important, Owen combines technical clarity with provocative, even poetic insight, as when he points out that "pervasive artificial illumination has existed for such a brief period that not even the species that invented it has had time to adapt, biologically or otherwise." Or: "In a truly dark sky, shooting stars are too numerous to bother wishing on."

Even before I got to his description of newborn sea turtles being lured to their deaths by artificial light, the article had won me over. Though I've never been particularly interested in astronomy, or space exploration, or outdoorsy activity of any kind, as I read I found myself mourning the loss of darkness and wondering what the cost has been for all of us. By the end of the piece I was convinced that light pollution, and its ill effects, is an issue I should care about, and an area where I am obliged to take some action. But at no point along the way did I feel Owen pushing me in that direction. He wrote an elegant article about a fascinating topic, and I enjoyed reading it so much that, when I reached the end, I flipped to the "Contributors" page to see whether he'd written anything else I could seek out. Not that I need anything more to read right now, but I might have made some time... and then I read, "David Owen is the author of Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement, which is out in paperback." You know, I think I'll wait for the movie.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Another place you can go where everything flows

If you don't often scroll down past my latest post, you may not have noticed that my multitalented sister, creator and star of the Off-Broadway show Mother Load, is now blogging. It's most entertaining, especially if you're interested in parenting and its unique pressures. I just hope we won't come to blows over who gets to blog about the cute and hilarious things her kids do and say. (Naturally, she gets first dibs... but then again, I update more often...)

I'll share a quick my-nephews story, while I have the floor. Last night I was reading the boys the classic 1943 picture book Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton, which is all about an intrepid bulldozer named Katy and how she plows out the town of Geoppolis (the extra "P" is for "progressive gender roles") after the titular big snow. It's charmingly low-key, sort of like The Little Engine That Could without the heavy-handed moralizing or the freakish anthropomorphic food. And, for the most part, it's very practical -- the bulk of the plot concerns the restoration of basic utilities and services to greater Geoppolis. Did you ever try to explain electricity to preschoolers? I hardly understand it myself. I thought it would be even more difficult to explain the delivery men making use of the freshly plowed roads -- the little trucks marked FISH and ICE and MILK -- but then I remembered that the boys have been greeting Fresh Direct deliverymen ("Fresh Guys," as my nephew calls them) since they could crawl. So door-to-door grocery service makes perfect sense to them. Anyway, the book's air of practicality extends to Katy herself; there is the suggestion of a face in her headlights and grill -- I think she looks a little like a lobster -- but she is not excessively personified, and so, when I finished the book, my 4-and-a-half-year-old nephew asked, "Is there a person inside Katy that drives her?" I told him I thought there must be -- "Trucks can't drive themselves" -- and his eyes sparkled a bit as he replied, "But maybe Katy can!" So we inspected all the tiny illustrations for conclusive evidence. (Burton left it vague on purpose, I am sure, so that we wouldn't ask why the snowplow operator gets none of the glory or hero-worship reserved for Katy in this book.)

My just-turned-three nephew took a long, hard look at the back cover and said, "I think there's a person in there... Or an animal." I assumed his older brother (who, as you may recall, is an Animal Expert) would shoot this theory down, but instead he replied matter-of-factly, "Yes. Because animal mommies and daddies can drive." I must have looked skeptical, because he added, "They just don't have cars. And they don't go on trips, so..." he shrugged, like, It's really very simple, Aunt Mollie. So I knew better than to argue.

As long as we're looking at the blogroll, I would like to call your attention to the very unique web presence of my friend Mike, who displays his Microsoft Paint artwork at Mike Draw. You might say he's an MS Paint Expert. I think I like the animals in this set best of all -- wouldn't your computer like some blue monkey wallpaper?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Working for the weekend

Apologies for the long hiatus! I was in Scranton with the fiance, doing wedding-related things. Although we're not far away, we don't get there very often, because the lack of train service (don't get me started grumbling about that) makes our travel options limited and not very attractive. So these days, when we do make the trip (in a rented car, this time), we try to pack in as much activity and planning as we can. We had a very productive weekend of reception-site-visiting and engagement-portrait-posing and rehearsal-dinner-planning. Not to mention Guinness-sampling (the fiance) and chocolate-fountain-testing (my dad) and dress-modeling (me).

The weekend also brought another exciting wildlife encounter, the latest in what I hope will not be a regular series. Yesterday, we were driving through a lovely rural section of the greater Scranton area, on our way back from our portrait session, and we saw some birds making their high-stepping way across the road up ahead. From a distance we could just make out their silhouettes -- a mommy something-or-other, followed by an impressive brood of smaller something-or-others, with one tiny runt bringing up the rear in a frantic and comical fashion. They were too skinny and long-necked to be ducks, so we thought maybe they were geese -- but they seemed very sure on their feet for waterfowl. We'd stopped the car while they were crossing, and when we started driving forward again we went very slowly, just in case any other brothers, sisters or friends were bringing up the rear. We stopped again when we got to the spot where the birds had crossed the road, because we could see some movement in the tall grass, and suddenly there was a fluttering of wings as this big bird flapped his way across the road right in front of us. It was a turkey! An honest-to-goodness, blue-headed, red-wattled turkey! We saw a whole turkey family out for a morning stroll. My heart was warmed. (Oh, also, driving back to New York yesterday evening, we had to swerve to avoid an eviscerated deer carcass spread across the right lane of I-380. But that's not so unusual, and much less heartwarming.)

Speaking of alarming sightings on the street: Last week I passed a van parked on 57th Street, a white van, apparently being used for some evangelical purpose, with this message on the side: "Love thy neighbor as you love thyself." This offended my sensibilities. Call me a fundamentalist, but I believe the Bible also says, "Thou shalt not start a sentence using old-timey second-person-singular pronouns unless thou art prepared to finish it in like manner."

Oh, and speaking of religion, I have a letter to the editor published in the August 17 issue of Commonweal magazine (and in the lead-off position, no less!). Unfortunately, you must subscribe to read it, but basically, I wrote to say how much I valued the thoughtfulness and seriousness of this discussion of "Homosexuality and the Church" (which you can read for free).

Friday, August 10, 2007

At least my mom will be excited about this

Yesterday afternoon I went to the Time Warner Center to meet a friend for lunch, and who should I see coming up the escalator from Whole Foods but Richard Thomas! ...No? Oh, fine: Richard "John Boy from The Waltons" Thomas! Now you're impressed, right?

You certainly should be. The Waltons was (seriously) a really good show, and Richard Thomas was one of the best things about it. In fact, you can usually measure the quality of a given episode by how central the character of John Boy is to its plot. The one from the first season ("The Love Story") where he falls in love with Jenny Pendleton and sings her sweet hillbilly love songs on his dulcimer? I will drop everything to watch that episode. And when, at the end, sonorous narrator Earl Hamner Jr. intones, "Jenny was to come into our lives again, but the promises we made to each other we were not to keep," I will cry and cry. But if you tune in to the Hallmark Channel and find yourself watching a late-season episode, set during WWII, that centers on Elizabeth's teen angst, or (worse) Mary Ellen and her no-good husband, Curt, or (worst of all) John Boy's return from the war as an entirely different actor, change the channel. You will only be sorry.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Richard Thomas, beloved as John Boy with just cause. But you may not know that there are many other reasons to love him. I mentioned recently that he was surprisingly terrific in the first three installments of Roots: The Next Generations. And those familiar with Law & Order: SVU's honorable tradition of casting, as villains and psychopaths, performers best known for the loveable characters they played on long-running television series in decades past (Henry Winkler, Michael Gross, Fred Savage...) will surely remember Richard Thomas's appearance as syphilis-addled, serial-killing, hallucinatory janitor Daniel Varney (in season 2's "Scourge") as the most harrowing guest-star appearance of all.

And he doesn't just do TV! I jumped at the chance to see him on Broadway, in Democracy, in 2005, and I had the very good fortune to catch him Off-Broadway in Terrence McNally's The Stendhal Syndrome, which was so terrible -- oh my, were those two one-acts dreadful -- that I might have abandoned theatregoing forever had it not been for Thomas's bravura performance. My respect for McNally took a major hit that day, but my regard for Richard Thomas soars ever higher.

So when I walked into the Time Warner Center and saw this man getting off the escalator and thought to myself, "That guy looks just like Richard Thomas... right down to the mole! ...But he's so short!" what else could I do but follow him into Williams-Sonoma, until I heard him talk and was satisfied that it was really him? I couldn't call my mom (who is responsible for turning me on to The Waltons) and tell her I might have seen Richard Thomas out shopping with his family. This called for verification. Confirming the sighting took only a minute's worth of stalking, but I might have continued to trail him for the rest of the afternoon if I hadn't made plans to meet my friend. (Who wasn't quite as excited as I was.) So I went on with my day, and now I'm here to tell you that Richard Thomas is awesome, if not as tall as IMDb says he is (I'm guessing maybe 5'7").

Work is slow this morning, so I'm about to listen to the American Theatre Wing's lengthy "Downstage Center" 2004 interview with Thomas, on the occasion of his appearance in Democracy. And after that I will probably watch this "Working in the Theatre" seminar, where he apparently discusses Twelve Angry Men. And then, since it's raining out, I think I'll spend the afternoon playing with my Waltons Country Home playset. You can drive the pickup truck, but I get to be John Boy!

P.S. Despite the poor quality, that ad is really worth watching. Especially because it was clearly written by someone who never watched the show. "The Waltons' Country Home, with Mom and Pop, John Boy and Ellen..." Weren't the parents called "Mama" and "Daddy"? And who the hell is "Ellen"?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I've grown accustomed to her face

Today I want to talk about Claire Danes. You know what Claire Danes looks like, right? (Yahoo TV has many, many photos, if you want to refresh your memory.) She has an unusual face, nothing dainty about it. Large eyes, broad nose, pronounced cheekbones, wide mouth, pointy chin. It seems like she shouldn't be beautiful, and yet she is. Her face is her greatest asset as an actor; it's what makes people want to look at her; it's the reason she's famous, pretty much. (Her talent has something to do with it, too, of course -- but lots of young women want to be on television, and very few of them are blessed with a camera-friendly drama mask for a face.)

So here's what I'm wondering: why do images of Ms. Danes keep getting retouched to the point where she is almost unrecognizable? What do the photo retouchers of the world have against her individuality? Exhibit A is the cover of the September issue of Glamour, where Danes appears alongside Queen Latifah and Mariska Hargitay (representing all of us twentysomethings in their beauty-by-decade lineup). I read about this cover in another magazine, which is the only reason I noticed that Danes was in the photo in the first place, and even then I spent some time trying to find her. "It says Claire Danes is on the cover, but where? And who's that blandly pretty blond girl?" This happens a lot with magazine covers -- Go Fug Yourself has an entire category devoted to calling out the worst examples. And Danes isn't the only one who looks...not completely like herself on that cover ("Look your sexiest at 20, 30, 40 -- our art department shows you how!"). But honestly, if I don't recognize the celebrity on the cover of your magazine, it defeats the whole purpose of putting a celebrity on the cover of your magazine.

Exhibit B is the poster for new movie Stardust -- which is not the same movie as Sunshine, in case you're confused (I was). Here the weird flattening of features may be due to the "fantasy-movie poster that looks like a painting" genre conventions. And they did get a little closer than Glamour. But still, I had to stop and study the central figure before I was satisfied that it was indeed Danes. And I have better things to do with my time. (Although I guess that's debatable, since I am now blogging about it.) And so I put it to you: Have you noticed this? Do you think Claire Danes has a "no cheekbones" rider in her standard contract nowadays? Or is she just a particularly obvious victim of the overzealous airbrushing that affects all famous people in our digital age?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

They might as well be dead when the rain comes

Apparently it rained a whole lot last night/early this morning. Thanks to my noisy air conditioner, I didn't realize this -- I mean, I knew it was raining, but I didn't think it rained an unusual amount. And so I was ready to head out the door, in cute shoes, at 9:30 when WNYC broke in to the BBC World News to warn me to "delay my commute," because flooding had shut down every single subway line in the city. Most people commuting post-9:30 are already pretty delayed, I would think, so I figured things must be pretty ugly if they were still warning folks to stay home. I gave up on getting to work by 10:00, changed into sneakers and started the long walk downtown. If you're not in the area or haven't been outside, let me say that today was not a day I would have chosen to walk 40-plus blocks. New York was not enjoying any post-rainstorm coolness. It was more humid than yesterday, in fact, and I had to stop a few times along the way to cool off in some air-conditioned store while pretending to browse. But still, I'd rather be sweaty and moving on the sidewalk than sweaty and stuck on a subway or a bus with a lot of other angry people.

So, the bad news is, one heavy rainstorm can cripple the entire New York City transit system. But the good news is, the MTA's policy of providing customers with as little information as possible is still firmly in place and functioning beautifully, as you can see from the many irate comments on this New York Times city room blog post. (See #27 for a familiar complaint: "Let me know the system is not working BEFORE I pay to use it." Sorry, pal, we're the MTA! We have a reputation to uphold.) I didn't even try to get on a bus or train this morning, so I avoided getting worked up about the massive suckage of the MTA, but now that I'm here at my desk, no longer dripping with sweat, I'm starting to claim some of that anger for myself. Because I really think it should take more than a heavy rain to make my "unlimited ride" MetroCard useless, and to make walking 40 blocks my only getting-to-work option. It's a good thing I don't work in an ER or anything. But it's a shame I can't copy-edit magazine proofs from home.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Garden-variety thrills

Can you think of a less thrilling title for a movie than The Constant Gardener? I just love how it hits you with the motionlessness of "Constant" and then follows that up with the thorough dullness of "Gardener." Come for the stability! Stay for the horticulture! Still, the HBO on Demand summary described this selection as a "thriller," and I remembered hearing good things about it... So the fiance and I psyched ourself up to watch by imagining even less exciting adjective-noun combinations. (Coming to a theatre near you: The Sedentary Yam.)

I know I am two years behind the curve here, but in case you haven't gotten past the title yet, let me tell you: The Constant Gardener is actually, sincerely thrilling. "Thrilling" in the sense that it's suspenseful, with a plot full of conspiracy and intrigue, but also "thrilling" because it's a very well-made film, with great performances (from Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, et al.), smart writing (by Jeffrey Caine, based on John le Carre's novel), beautiful cinematography (by C├ęsar Charlone), sharp editing (Claire Simpson) and a lovely score (Alberto Iglesias). At first I thought the jerky, handheld-style camerawork would make me motion-sick -- I can never make it through an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street -- but in practice I always felt the direction (by Fernando Meirelles) served the story. (And I think the framing would have looked a bit less eccentric on a real movie screen, so it's my fault for missing my chance to see this in the cinema.) I loved how the movie kept a step ahead of me without making me feel like it was trying to trick me; it lets the audience follow Quayle, Fiennes's character, through his investigation, so the plot's twists turn out to be truly revealing instead of just gimmicky. I laughed, I cried, I bit my nails... and I didn't have to shut off my brain to enjoy it. Another belated movie recommendation from Restricted View! No need to thank me.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Don't tread on me

Seen on the street yesterday: a snake! Seriously! I did not move to New York City to nearly step on a snake! Especially while wearing sandals! But there it was! A smallish, presumably harmless snake, but nevertheless a snake, slithering across my path! On Broadway! I am still freaking out!

That will teach me to walk around in the Bronx, where Broadway is less "pedestrian thoroughfare" and more "overgrown jungle." I am reminded that my four-and-a-half-year-old nephew believes that "the Bronx" (where the fiance is from) and "the Bronx Zoo" are essentially the same thing. He recently reported on a family outing: "We went to the Bronx Zoo, but we didn't see [your fiance] there." This used to make me laugh, especially since the fiance grew up on the other side of the borough, nowhere near the zoo. But now I think the nephew may not be so far off, because apparently the entirety of the Bronx is teeming with frightening wildlife. Eek.

In theatre news, it seems Charles Isherwood and I had similar experiences watching Patti LuPone in Gypsy. His take, though not ultimately that different from Brantley's, is worth a read, if you're interested in the topic (though you'll probably want to skip the excessively "whimsical" opening).

Finally: I don't like to brag, but I thought you should know that I've contributed a "comment of the week" runner-up at The Comics Curmudgeon for the second week in a row! In my first two weeks of contention! It's a little bit embarrassing how gratified I am by this success. But I figured you should know what I've been up to.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Up from slavery

The fiance and I have finally finished working our way through all seven episodes of Roots: The Next Generations, which I wrote about when we started watching it nearly a month ago. It took us a while to watch the last three episodes, partly because we had fewer nights in and partly because the series got steadily worse as it neared its conclusion. The sixth installment, which centers on Alex Haley's young adulthood, is the worst by far; the seventh is an improvement, but still not as enjoyable as the earlier chapters. That's the one where the grown Alex Haley starts researching the project that became Roots, and it turns out our man Alex isn't nearly as much fun to root for as his ancestors (even if you can forget all that unappealing plagiarism and falsified research stuff).

Until we got to part 5, which introduces little Alex, things were still moving along nicely. Although the series' Emmy awards and nominations went to people like Marlon Brando and Ruby Dee, who had brief appearances and gave their hammy all, the real work falls to actors like Georg Stanford Brown, Stan Shaw and Dorian Harewood, whose characters age many decades and arc across several episodes. I wrote a little about Brown, who plays Tom Harvey, the central character of the final episodes of Roots and the first episodes of The Next Generations, last time. Now that I've seen the whole series, I have to say Stan Shaw turns in the best performance of all -- playing Alex Haley's grandfather, Will Palmer, he never misses a chance to say "here" and pronounce it "chyah" ("Now you look chyah!" "Right chyah in Tennessee!"). He has a fascinating face, all oversized features, which he uses to telegraph his emotions with total clarity. He finds the humor in every scene while managing to maintain his dignity -- even when aged, Stan Winston-style, with sheets of latex and rubber cement. He's a delight, and I was sorry to see him go. But I enjoyed watching Dorian Harewood (as his son, Simon Haley) nearly as much. Harewood lacks Palmer's expressive face -- he communicates Simon Haley's many moods with a single expression, an open-mouthed "surprised" look that proves low-key but shockingly effective.

The women alongside these actors don't come off quite as well, but that's partly because they tend to be more heavily burdened by the abovementioned aging makeup. Usually the men get away with some bags beneath their eyes and an altered hairstyle or hairline -- much less distracting and just as convincing, even if it isn't always accurate (appearances from real-life, modern-day Stan Shaw demonstrate that he actually got quite a bit wider as he aged, while, in the miniseries, everyone stays trim). There are also a lot of ill-advised closeups on Shaw's smooth, unwrinkled hands in Part 5, when he's supposed to be a very old man. But the women have it harder; by the time they reach old age, they're hidden behind so many layers of immobile latex they look like they're standing behind one of those painted portraits with the eyes cut out (like on Scooby Doo). Bever-Leigh Banfield, as Cynthia Palmer, was the strangest-looking "old lady" of all (she also wins the prize for oddest spelling of "Beverly" I've ever come across), so that may be why they recast the role in part 5, but it confused me -- I kept staring at Beah Lewis, trying to figure out who she was supposed to be. (The old ladies rocking on the porch do blend together after a while.)

As far as performances go, the one woman who really sticks in my mind is Irene Cara (playing Alex's mother, Bertha). Yes, that Irene Cara, and yes, every time she appeared I felt the need to sing out, "What a feeling!" or "Baby remember my name (remembah! remembah!)." (Sometimes, if it was a sad scene, I'd sing it sadly.) But she's really not half bad -- and (spoiler alert!) she's lucky enough to die young, before being required to don the latex face of the aged. The worst she has to contend with is the ashen face of the mysteriously ailing.

As you watch the series hurtle forward, from decade to decade, you can't help but marvel at the swift march of time. Experiencing "history" this way, it becomes impossible to think of slavery as something long-ago and irrelevant, and you begin to appreciate the many forms and faces of racism. Roots has its share of mustache-twirling villains, but for each of them there's a handful of casual, well-meaning racists belittling, condescending to or simply fetishizing the African-Americans descended from our very first hero, Kunta Kinte.

The story stretches right up to the present (the 1970s present), but it loses its fizzle after World War I. When Alex himself comes on the scene in part 5, his presence is distracting, because the script can't resist calling him by his full name ("You come with me, Alex Haley!") and foreshadowing his future ("Someday you'll tell this story!"). Once born, he's present in almost every scene, even when it seems most unlikely that he'd actually have been there -- he watches, quietly and sometimes spookily, as the story ambles forward, but we don't learn much about him; he's more of a presence than a personality. This problem persists in part 6, where the role is taken over by the charmless Damon Evans (whom the fiance referred to, gleefully and ultimately disdainfully, as "Lionel from The Jeffersons"). In terms of characterization, he doesn't get much help from the script, which is far from subtle, nor from Lloyd Richards's inept direction. (Television was not his medium.) The chronology is fuzzy, the performances are jumpy, and individual scenes are so obviously spliced together from multiple takes that I began to pay more attention to the continuity errors ("He had his sleeves pushed up in the last shot!") than to the dialogue. Our hero countinues to remind us of his full name at regular intervals, but he doesn't give us any real reason to care about what happens to Alex Haley -- when Simon Haley joined the army during WWI, we saw him in a foxhole, saving the other men's lives; Alex's Coast Guard service during WWII is a whirl of bawdy jokes, clammy courtship scenes and ghostwritten love letters for his shipmates.

James Earl Jones takes over in part 7, and in physical terms the swap is nearly as ludicrous as the LeVar Burton/John Amos switch in the original Roots. Here, though, I was nothing but grateful; if we must follow Alex through his lifelong identity crisis, at least we'll have a talented actor to watch. But even Jones can't make the climax as triumphant as it ought to be; the scripting in the final installment is too obvious ("You're looking for plantation records, you say? Why, certainly, I have them right here on top of this pile of books"), and there's only so much you can do to make the life of a frustrated writer and serial mistreater of women seem heroic. And, as I said, there's that whole ugly plagiarism/falsification scandal to take the air out of the ending. Still, episodes 1-4 are more than worth watching, even if none of this ever really happened. And next time it rolls around, I think I'll be ready to rewatch the original Roots.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Elle M-N-O-P...

I am used to dodging people handing out free papers as I enter and leave subway stations, but today I passed a woman distributing The L Magazine, which was a new twist on an old annoyance. For you non-New Yorkers (or New Yorkers who have long since stopped noticing the myriad publications available for free on the street), The L Magazine is a biweekly (?) young-adult-oriented arts-and-lifestyle glossy about the size of TV Guide. The reason I bring it up is that the woman handing it out was wearing an apron stuffed with copies of the mag and saying, "L Magazine... L Magazine..." to everyone who walked by. Perhaps because I had just read this NYT article, I heard it as "Elle magazine... Elle magazine..." And I amused myself all the way home imagining some poor person hoisting a stack of the 600-page September issue of Elle and begging passersby to take them off her hands. It'd be like passing out free bricks. Although I guess you'd probably find more takers for the magazine (depending on the neighborhood).

I've always thought "Elle" was a terrible name for a magazine, for just this reason; when you say it out loud it just sounds like "L." It doesn't seem to have hurt them any, but it bothers me. Too bad Spain isn't the center of international fashion, I thought to myself as I headed home; they could have called it "Ella," which would be far more distinctive and euphonic. Then I wondered, Is Spanish Elle called Ella? I asked Google and instead learned that Patsy on AbFab was an editor for a fictional fashion magazine called Ella. Can anybody tell me whether they pronounced it like the spanish word, or like the English girl's name? Now I'm curious. Please satisfy my hunger for trivia!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

If I can't have that kind of a wedding, I don't wanna get married at all

You might expect that, in the little time I am not devoting to preparing for my own wedding, I would prefer to think about something (anything!) other than weddings. You would be right, for the most part, but I nevertheless set aside some time this weekend to read Rebecca Mead's recent book on the subject, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.

Mead's approach combines investigative journalism with social criticism; as she turns her attention to the various branches of the wedding industry, from photography to decorating to dressmaking, she unpacks the wedding culture's affection for the "traditionalesque" -- that is, elements like the white gown and the engagement ring that we think of as "traditional," even though they turn out not to be rooted in centuries of practice or deep symbolism and usually became popular after some manufacturer's successful 20th-century advertising campaign -- and examines the industry's redefinition of "memory" (as something one can purchase and micromanage). She analyzes the ways that contemporary women's "tremendous social freedom" leaves us " the pressures and persuasions" of the wedding industry, and suggests that the "invented trauma" of wedding-planning is a replacement for the genuine traumas that used to accompany weddings (when they marked a more abrupt change in one's status and lifestyle). All of this is insightful and thought-provoking, and presented with good humor and a keen eye for telling details. A paragraph setting the scene at a conference for videographers had me laughing out loud, as did a sampling of advertising copy from a 1950s Pocono resort's honeymoon brochure. I particularly admired Mead's ability to pick out the most nakedly self-serving or openly contemptuous quotations from industry literature. Take, for example, the ad for Dyeables shoes she found in the industry magazine Vows: "She spent five years finding 'him.' He spent five months choosing the ring. She doesn't need to know it only took you [the bridalwear vendor] five minutes to order her shoes." (Guess what, Dyeables? It only took me five minutes to order my own shoes from Zappos! and they're not Dyeables! So there!)

Even if you're already convinced that the "traditional" American wedding is out of control, One Perfect Day has lots to offer. A harrowing journey through the too-complicated typical wedding-gown-selection process (which I am thrilled to have avoided) leads into a fascinating expose of the wedding-gown distribution industry in this country and the manufacturing industry in China. And Mead goes further than any other general-audience wedding literature I have come across in addressing weddings as religious rituals. She devotes one chapter, "God and the Details," to examining how the wedding industry influences religious ceremony -- the reasons generally nonreligious people turn to religion when getting married, the compromises religious authorities find themselves making to accomodate these couples, and (most compellingly) what both sides might be losing in the process. It's refreshing to find Mead acknowledging that, from a religious perspective, having a "church wedding" is not just a matter of choosing a picturesque location, and questioning whether the urge to "personalize" one's wedding celebration is compatible with the desire to celebrate within the context of religion. As you probably know, I'm marrying in the Catholic tradition, and for Catholics, marriage is a sacrament -- like baptism or confirmation or holy orders, it is an induction into a new state of life within the Church. That's not a notion that the secular wedding industry is prepared to grapple with (since there isn't much money to be made by going down that road), and so thinking of my wedding in those terms leaves me standing outside the audience of prospective brides that most chirpy wedding-related content is addressed to (not that I'm complaining). Because of this, I particularly appreciate all the work Mead put into researching this chapter -- questioning and debunking the mistaken notion that the "Unity Candle" is a "Catholic" ritual, for example, and investigating the bogus origins of the "Apache" wedding blessing. There is a lot of "traditionalesque" rickrack adorning most "church weddings," and the irony I have discovered, in planning my own celebration, is that the easiest way to have a "unique" wedding is to adhere to what the liturgical rite calls for.

I only wish Mead had spent some time addressing the disconcerting fact that "wedding" and "bridal" are interchangeable terms, as far as the industry is concerned. I kept waiting for her to question the old-fashioned yet frustratingly persistent notion that the American wedding is the bride's day, as opposed to the couple's day. She starts off by talking about "the alleged phenomenon of the Bridezilla" and goes on to question our tendency to blame the bride when a wedding loses focus -- but she doesn't wrestle with the notion that it is the bride who does the planning and obsesses over the details. (Her point is "Maybe we should be blaming the industry," not "Why is there no Groomzilla?") And though she examines the implications of a modern woman desiring, "on her wedding day, to affect the styles and manners of prefeminist femininity," she takes for granted that the wedding is the woman's to plan, basically on her own, regardless of how feminist she might be. Isn't perpetuating the idea of "the bride's day" part of how the industry goes about "selling" weddings, and if so, isn't it worth examining in more detail how and why that is? Mead has a chapter called "The Business of Brides," but that could just as easily be the subtitle of the book; there is no corresponding "The Business of Grooms" chapter, even to ask why grooms receive so little attention as customers and consumers. I mean, yes, one could write an entire feminist tract asking questions like, Why shouldn't we be focusing just as much on what the groom is wearing? Why shouldn't he have to have his makeup and nails done, too? Why should the woman wear a dress? Why marriage at all? And following that path too far would have turned this into a different and much less enjoyable book. But I don't think it's unreasonable to question the notion that, for example, the dishes and towels and wastebaskets on a couple's registry at Bed, Bath & Beyond are somehow "bridal" gifts instead of just "wedding" gifts. Particularly in the absence of any discussion of the bridal shower tradition (true to her title, Mead focuses on the wedding day itself and not on any of the other celebrations that lead up to it). Discussing registries, Mead quotes some poll results suggesting that grooms usually join their brides in picking out gifts and observes that "The involvement of men in the registry a testament to the marketing efforts of companies that have sought to position the creation of a wedding registry as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to score highly coveted consumer items, for men and women alike" -- but she goes on calling it a "bridal registry" after that, apparently just for variety's sake.

Attending one wedding after another during the course of her research, Mead manages to withhold her disdain when describing the sorts of couples (or, let's be honest, women) who might go for a Walt Disney World wedding package, or a destination wedding in Aruba, or a quickie wedding in Vegas; the brides aren't the enemy here, and when she raises an ironic eyebrow, it's usually directed at the wedding salespeople and their sales pitches. But her epilogue, which describes her own wedding with more than a touch of smug self-satisfaction, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I wouldn't have minded if Mead had talked about her own wedding plans throughout -- maybe just a few lines at the end of each chapter, as a way to structure the book and give it a personal touch. But tossing in an epilogue just to let us know that her priorities were in order feels much more self-congratulatory than reflective. If she found herself unable to discuss her own wedding planning and celebration in the same spirit of generosity and open-minded inquiry that she applied to the rest of this book, she ought to have left it out.

Time for me to stop reading about other people's wedding plans and go back to thinking about my own. According to the automatic counter on our wedding website, we have only 164 days left, and there's much to be done. I'm just glad I've made the apparently countercultural decision not to determine every little detail on my own, because where's the fun in that?