Friday, September 28, 2007

Fact: The Office rules

About last night's season premiere of The Office, I have three words for you. And those three words are: McCarthy flowered cabs!

Like most people, I expected the American Office to be a disaster, but I watched the first episode anyway. I had to -- I'm from Scranton! I certainly didn't expect the show to be good. And even when it turned out to be really, really good, I still didn't think it would be good for Scranton. I knew enough about the British series to know that getting tapped as Dunder Mifflin's business address was no honor. Who wants to be the Slough of the U.S.?

But it soon became clear that The Office wasn't out to get laughs at Scranton's expense. In fact, the show's creators and producers proved surprisingly affectionate toward the real Scranton, PA. The city sent them stuff, and the set dressers used it: an official chamber of commerce plaque (which you can see on the wall behind Pam's desk), Froggy 101 bumper stickers and Red Barons bobblehead dolls (for Dwight's desk), local lunch-spot takeout menus (on the fridge in the breakroom). At this point, even if I weren't enjoying the show, I'd still be watching just to spot the authentic bits of Scranton in the background.

It helps, of course, that the show is so awesome; just being associated with it is good for Scranton's image. The local paper publishes regular reports on the show, and a few of its stars have made appearances at the mall and were astounded by the reception they got. Of course we love you, Brian "Kevin" Baumgartner! You said "Cugino's" on TV!

Last night's hourlong episode took the Scranton love to a whole new level. To be honest, I thought that the second half (where Michael organizes the "fun run") was markedly weaker than the first. But then Stanley, Creed and Oscar took a powder on the run and instead got a ride from... a McCarthy flowered cab! For as long as I can remember, Scranton's small taxicab fleet has been sponsored by McCarthy's, a florist, and so naturally the taxis are decorated with flowers. (At least, that's what I've always assumed.) As an exercise in urban whimsy, it's much more successful than the present, ambiguously sourced flowered-cab campaign in New York City. And nowadays, it's one of those things that makes me feel at home when I'm back in NEPA: Ah, the Electric City, where the people are courteous and the taxis are covered in flowers.

That cab must have looked pretty random to non-Scrantonians who noticed it on The Office last night. But how much do I love the folks at The Office for including it? I was excited about the Jim and Pam revelation, but it was the cab that really blew my mind. (Of course, the streets it traveled didn't look anything like Scranton's, but there's only so much they can do.)

And so, as my wedding approaches, I'm excited to be inviting my out-of-town friends and future in-laws to the home of Dunder Mifflin. I'm even considering going home for The Office Convention. Nine cast members will be there! If I could just get one of them to make an appearance in January...

ETA: The Washington Post recognizes this phenomenon.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Other places I've been typing

If you're so hungry for a post from me that you'll even read a relatively colorless plot summary of a brand-new TV drama, check out my recaplet of last night's Private Practice premiere. Next up is the full recap, which I'm already looking forward to writing... Did you watch? What did you think? Will you watch again?

I'm also working on designing our wedding invitations. If I had known I was going to be doing this, I might have invested in some decent design software, but I don't feel like I have time for that now, so I'm making do with Word. Here's hoping I can bend it to my will.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Just when you thought I couldn't get any cooler

So, remember when I joked that Hilton Als must be happy Audra McDonald is back on television? Well, now I'm happy, too. Because it turns out I'll be one of Private Practice's most faithful viewers.

"Why?" I hear you asking. "Do you love Grey's Anatomy that much?" Not exactly. But I do love Television Without Pity -- don't you? And hey, somebody has to recap this show, so it might as well be me!

Yes, it's true, I am now a TWoP recapper. (I told you I was watching Grey's for work!) And I'm so darn proud of myself, I'm not even hiding behind a clever pseudonym. Private Practice is my first assignment, and I'm not sure how I'll feel about the show, but I'm very glad Audra will be sharing this journey with me.

So that's one reason I've been busy: the show premieres this week. (It's a Grey's Anatomy spinoff, for those not in the know -- you may have seen the commercials where the redhead dances around naked.) If you miss it Wednesday nights, you can look for my Thursday morning recaplet to fill you in on the basics. And whether or not you tune in, I hope you'll enjoy my detailed, likely-to-be-snarky recaps. For now, my writeup of last week's promotional special will get you up to speed on all things Addison. If I'm doing my job, it will also make you snicker.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Here comes the stress

Now that we are only three-and-a-half months away from our Big Day, the fiance and I are beginning to freak out about how much we have left to do. Well, okay, I'm freaking out. He's a little worried about how his fantasy sports teams are doing, but otherwise fine. But we're both realizing that we can no longer put off the various chores on our to-do list in favor of watching Law and Order reruns we've probably already seen but don't totally remember. Our free time is spoken for.

This weekend we managed to cross at least one big item off the list: the bridesmaids' dresses are settled and set! Or, at least, we're 75% of the way there... Two had to be mail-ordered because the store didn't have the right size in stock, and the one we did buy in the store was based on a "what size will the eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant MOH be wearing three-and-a-half months from now?" gamble. But still, we're moving forward. And after that, we celebrated by attending a super fun wedding and dancing our worries away. Seeing all my relatives eating and drinking and boogying reminded me that this will all be worth it in the end... Whenever I am tempted to call off everything and just run away to Vegas (which is maybe every other day), the image of my aunts and uncles dancing to "Get Ur Freak On" will inspire me to keep going.

One of our first engagement/wedding gifts -- actually, an item from our wedding registry that we bought for ourselves using a gift certificate we got as an engagement present -- is a fancy-schmancy toaster from Crate & Barrel. It has a space-age console with a digital display that allows you to customize your toasting experience -- we've found that level 6 gives just the right amount of crispy brownness to an English muffin, and I love that it has special "defrost" and "bagel" settings. The only feature I'm not so excited about is the "circular countdown display that beeps when toast is ready." The circular display is cute and everything, but actually standing there to watch it count down seems like a major waste of 30-45 seconds. Surely there's a countertop you could be wiping or a dishwasher that needs unloading. Or a blog that needs reading. And we can't figure out why anyone thought it was important for a toaster to "beep when toast is ready." When the toast is ready, the carriage pops up, noisily, just like any other toaster. It's actually quite difficult to miss. And the Pow! of the carriage popping up is much louder than the soft but high-pitched beep, beep, beep that follows. So every time we toast anything, we hear POW! beep, beep, beep... So far we find it terribly amusing to feign confusion -- "Shh, did you hear something?" "I think the toaster is trying to tell us something, but what?" But eventually that will get old, and we'll still have a toaster that beeps shrilly for no reason. It's enough to make you eat your bread cold. Still, we are the joint owners of a toaster we picked out together, and that's pretty cool, I have to admit. Domestic bliss can't be far behind.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

If you want to be a hero, well, just follow me

Beatlemaniacs, humanitarians and fans of collaborative rock projects: have you heard about "Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur"? It's a John Lennon tribute! It's a humanitarian effort! It's a dubious promotional offer from American Express! It's an unprecedented John-Lennon-song-catalog windfall for iTunes! All this and more wrapped up in a single website -- an obnoxious, confusing, glitchy, flash-based website. Proceed at your own risk.

To spare you the frustration of trying to navigate the project's website, here's the gist: a bunch of artists recorded covers of John Lennon songs -- made available through the generosity of Yoko Ono -- and many of those recordings appear on a two-disc album, sold to raise money, or maybe just awareness, in support of Amnesty International's efforts in Darfur. There are lots of ways you can contribute: You can buy the album. You can buy individual tracks on iTunes. You can buy a Green Day "Working Class Hero" T-shirt. You can sign an online petition, demanding that the killing stop. could just donate money directly to Amnesty International. I'm not a huge fan of consumerism-as-charity (or charity-as-consumerism), and I'm not at all sure how exactly this project works, so I'm going to drop the Darfur/Amnesty International angle from here on out and focus on the music. Because whatever I might think of this as a charitable endeavor, I am here to tell you it's a solid tribute album.

The 23 tracks I've heard (I have the standard U.S. version of the album -- more on the various options in a bit) are, by and large, very successful covers -- just original enough to be worthwhile, but still faithful enough to avoid being irksome. Rather than looking for a radical approach, most artists made the songs their own in subtle ways, by deemphasizing a prominent feature of Lennon's original version and allowing their own sound to shine through in a way that illuminates Lennon's craft as a songwriter. For example, U2's "Instant Karma" drops the original's percussive insistence and brings out a subtle reggae influence. R.E.M. turns in a "#9 Dream" that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Out of Time, and retains the ethereal flavor of Lennon's version (although I'll admit I miss Yoko's whispering "John..." in the appropriate spots).

My favorite of the 23 tracks I've heard is "Gimme Some Truth" as performed by "Jakob Dylan featuring Dhani Harrison." Replace Dylan with Sean (or even Julian) Lennon, and you've got yourself one hell of a coup. But the actual pairing is nothing to sneeze at, and I love the way it turned out. I was going to compliment Dhani on his -- if I may -- positively Georgian guitar solo, but the credits on the website list him as providing vocals only. So perhaps that's someone else doing what George did best, but regardless, the harmonized vocal line is a very nice touch.

Jackson Browne makes sure the lovely "Oh My Love" doesn't get overlooked. Big & Rich turn in a friendly, country-flavored "Nobody Told Me." Green Day's "Working Class Hero" is not as punkish as you might expect, but it distinguishes itself by downplaying the two-note guitar figure that drives Lennon's version, and by ending with a snippet of Lennon's own vocals. That's a trick that could have been overused, but happily no one else tries it, so it's very effective here.

I've long heard people talk about how "talented" Christina Aguilera is, but since I am unable to stand listening to her music for more than 3 seconds at a stretch, I have never been able to test that claim for myself. Now I know it's true, because she turns in a fine rendition of -- of all things -- "Mother," with restrained melisma vocalizing in place of Lennon's primal screams. The instrumentation sounds great, too; just as spare as Lennon's but not quite so ponderous. If Aguilera did an album of Lennon covers -- and if Linda Perry produced it, as she did this track -- I just might buy it.

The more adventurous departures from Lennon's templates generally work out well -- the Postal Service's "Grow Old With Me" and the Flaming Lips' "(Just Like) Starting Over" are especially worth hearing, and Snow Patrol does a moody "Isolation." I don't know who Corinne Bailey Rae is, but I love what she's done with "I'm Losing You," and I love how the song takes on a new dimension when the singer is a woman. And Regina Spektor's "Real Love" turned out much better than the "Beatles" version on the second Anthology album.

Meanwhile, back-to-back tracks by Jack Johnson ("Imagine" -- and unfortunately, he's not the only one) and Ben Harper (a less cloying, but also less appealing, "Beautiful Boy") prove, once and for all, that they are not the same person -- an impression I have long struggled to shake -- but are otherwise unremarkable. The other "Imagine" on the U.S. non-AmEx release is performed by Avril Lavigne, and it's equally skippable. Which brings me to my main criticism of the project: too many overlapping song choices. Along with two uninteresting "Imagine"s, this 23-track selection includes two "Gimme Some Truth" covers that aren't that different from each other (or from the original), which seems like a big waste of space. And a little more imagination might have resulted in a little less "Imagine" overall -- sure, one rendition was probably inevitable, given the popularity of the song and the nature of the project. But for a song that is both overfamiliar and not terribly conducive to reinterpretation, five covers is far, far too many. And there are a number of tunes in Lennon's catalog that don't show up on this list. (Didn't anybody want a shot at "Woman Is the Nigger of the World"?)

My other complaint is that the final lineup includes way too much reggae (or reggae flavoring). At some point someone ought to have told the participating artists: The fact that you can perform many of Lennon's songs to an island beat doesn't necessarily mean you should. "Give Peace a Chance," as performed by "Aerosmith featuring Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars," was probably asking for this treatment, and Aerosmith's approach to the verses is novel, but novelty only goes so far, and the track ends up being more obnoxious than anthemic. Other close-but-no-cigar entries include Lenny Kravitz's funky but low-energy "Cold Turkey"; the Black Eyed Peas' fuzzy "Power to the People," which makes me think there's something wrong with my stereo; and "God," performed by "Jack's Mannequin featuring Mick Fleetwood." The last is very faithful to Lennon's original, which, in this case, is probably a mistake. "God" is so personal a statement on Lennon's part that a cover artist should lay claim to it assertively or else leave it alone. When Lennon declares, "I don't believe in Beatles," it's devastating; when Jack's Mannequin makes the same statement, it's presumptuous. Who asked you?

So, let's say you want to check out the music. You've got a lot of choices: There's the version I have, with its 23 tracks. American Express cardholders can buy a "limited edition" version with a bonus disc of six more tracks -- which is surely what Lennon would have wanted. And then there's Make Some Noise, the international version, which has five tracks not on the U.S. version (and is missing one, a polished "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" by Los Lonely Boys). That might be the best way to go, because you'll get a chance to hear "Love" as performed by the Cure, and a-ha's take on "#9 Dream." (I haven't heard either, and I'm dying to.) But you'll still be missing out, because the project's website lists a total of 69 available tracks. I assume you can purchase all of these from the iTunes store, but I'm having trouble accessing iTunes to verify, and I'm getting a headache trying to navigate the official project site. So I leave that to you to determine. Tell me how it turns out! And if you've already heard the music, what do you think? Are there song/artist pairings you'd like to hear? Comments are open as always.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Medical update

I almost forgot to tell you: My Monday-afternoon X-rays and blood tests say I'm doing fine. (Actually, the word the doctor used was "beautiful.") Hooray!

The fiance and I went straight from the hospital to Scranton, to taste-test our reception menu (delicious) and meet with the new asst. pastor at the parish where the wedding will be. I stayed an extra day to spend lots of money in a craft store -- I could spend all day in the scrapbooking-supply section, and I nearly did. Our invitations will be cute. But now I'm heading back to Manhattan (on the bus, ugh), so regularly-scheduled blogging should resume tomorrow!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Now I remember why I never watch awards shows

I half-watched the Emmy Awards last night, something I don't usually do. So I don't know whether they're generally professional and entertaining. But to me the whole event looked like they threw it together in a big hurry -- like they just found out it was happening last week. (Except for the actresses, who had clearly been planning their gowns for months.) A lot of what I see on TV gives me the impression that the network execs think, Oh, it doesn't matter, they'll watch anyway, no matter what crap we put on the air. But I didn't expect that attitude to inform the Emmy telecast itself.

I've been yammering about Roots recently, so I appreciated the 30th anniversary salute. But why did the entire Roots contingent look like they'd been huffing paint backstage? And where was Georg Stanford Brown? Also, I know nothing about Broken Trail, but it looks fairly serious-minded and history-focused, so when they announced the Best Miniseries nominees, I was praying it would win. Because after all that buildup about making TV history and touching people and elevating the form, how embarrassing would it have been if the Roots folks had to present the award to The Starter Wife?

Finally: In what decade will the sexual objectification of women stop being a staple of awards shows? In my lifetime? Because, naive as I am, I am always taken aback when the Emmys or Tonys or Oscars resort to "I'd do her" jokes about the women they're supposedly there to honor. "We'd like to recognize your achievement in the field -- but more importantly, we'd like to call attention to how hot you are! Am I right, fellas?" Are powerful women really and truly that frightening, that they must be reduced to blow-up dolls at regular intervals? I was most put off by Brad Garrett and Joely Fisher's too-long, not-funny back-and-forth about Joely's cleavage. Between that and the just-aired promo for their show, I get the feeling 'Til Death is nothing but boob jokes, which at least makes me feel good about never having seen it and not even realizing it was still on the air. But special sleaze mention goes to Neil Patrick Harris's patter about how Hayden Panettierre recently turned 18, nudge nudge, wink wink! Even she looked a little grossed out (but resigned. After all, it was the second jailbait-cheerleader joke of the night). I found this especially irksome because, now that the whole world knows Harris is gay, he has a very solid excuse to opt out of the disgusting "me likey boobies" stuff. But then, maybe that's why they wrote it for him in the first place -- I guess it all depends on what you think is disgusting. I'll get down off this soapbox in a minute, but I just have to ask: what does it say about our culture, or even just about TV, that scripted drooling over hot teenage actresses at the top of the show is ginger-peachy, but Sally Field's making a comment along the lines of "war makes mommies sad" close to 11 p.m. is enough to get the rest of her speech censored?

Gotta run -- I have a doctor's appointment (fingers crossed), and then the fiance and I head to Scranton for another whirlwind wedding-planning trip. Be good while I'm away.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A report on my semiannual trip to the cinema

I don't go to the movies all that often, and that's partly because going to the movies, especially in Manhattan, is expensive and a big old hassle. Especially when the movie in question is playing in only one theatre, and you have to set aside 45 minutes to get there, and who knows how long it will take you to get home when it's over (as the subway isn't terribly reliable on weekend nights). And you have a perfectly good TV set and a comfortable couch at home.

Considering all this, I have to be really excited about a movie to see it while it's still in theatres, much less the weekend it opens. And I was that excited about Ira & Abby. The fiance and I could have stayed home last night, watching Law & Order reruns or HBO On Demand, as is our wont. But I was pretty sure this movie would be worth the trouble. And I was right. If that's not enough of an endorsement for you, I'll get more specific. You should see Ira & Abby if:
    ...You saw and enjoyed Kissing Jessica Stein. Jennifer Westfeldt cowrote that movie, and starred in it; she wrote and stars in this one too. If you haven't seen Kissing Jessica Stein, you should probably do something about that. (You can borrow my copy.)

    ...You are a theatre geek. If your favorite part of watching Law & Order is spotting New York stage actors in small roles, this is the movie for you. (How many cast members from the recent Broadway revival of Wonderful Town can you spot?)

    ...You're a New Yorker who gets a kick out of seeing real NYC locations on the big screen. It turns out much of this movie was filmed very near my apartment, so I had almost as much fun spotting familiar sights as I had recognizing actors. I walk by that Paris Health Club every day! That's my Hot & Crusty! Etc. Now I don't have to sit through You've Got Mail to see my neighborhood double as a rom-com movie set.

    ...You have trouble sitting through You've Got Mail and its ilk. Do most romantic comedies leave you with the the distinct impression that the filmmakers think you're stupid? Does that make you cranky? Yeah, I hear you. But this one won't. This one thinks you're smart.

    ...You'd prefer that a movie show you too little, rather than too much. Ira & Abby is packed with interesting characters, but it doesn't slow down often; as a result, there were a lot of elements I'd have been happy to see more of, and almost nothing I wanted to see less of. The fiance and I had plenty to talk about on the (long) subway ride home.

    ...You think you should enjoy the films of Woody Allen, don't. This movie is inspiring Annie Hall comparisons left and right, and I can see why, but for me there is one major difference: Ira & Abby has likable, not to mention good-looking, stars/principal characters, where Annie Hall has...Woody Allen. (Of course, if you really love Annie Hall, you'll probably like Ira, too. I'm just saying, if you're like me in that comparisons to Woody Allen make you nervous, you can relax.)

    ...You like movies that are very carefully cast, and/or you like good acting. There's an awful lot of good acting in this movie. Judith Light, Frances Conroy, Maddie Corman: all terrific. Jason Alexander's really good, too.

    ...You hate to admit it, because he's a genius and everything, but you're just a tiny bit sick of Fred Willard's "well-meaning but overbearing buffoon" shtick. Did you know he could tone it down? Did you know he can play a character who's more sweetly sad than irritating? It's a nice surprise.

    ...You have warm fuzzy feelings about the movies The Music Man and Harvey, both of which make appearances here. I've seen both many times, and so having them pop up here was like running into old friends. Plus, any character who turns his life around after watching 15 seconds of Harvey -- bet you can guess which 15 seconds -- is a character I want to spend more time with. (And, incidentally, a character unlikely to surface in anything written by Woody Allen.)

    ...You are a big fan of my very talented sister Amy. (And who isn't?) Amy fans, keep your eyes peeled toward the end!
So okay, maybe I'm not the most objective of critics in this case. But you know I wouldn't recommend it if I didn't really love it. So, New Yorkers, get on down to the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas, and bring a date. And everybody else -- you'll get your chance!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

I'd write a sharply worded note, if I knew where to leave it

I have a neighbor who owns, and frequently plays, some sort of electric organ. Not a cool electric organ, like what Billy Preston plays on Let It Be. It's more like what you'd hear at a circus, or on an old-timey carousel. And I'm not talking fun, swirly calliope music (like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite") -- just the basic boo-boop-boop boo-boop-boop sound that makes me imagine clowns with tiny umbrellas. Whatever makes that sound, that's what my neighbor plays. Often. Especially on the weekends.

This has been going on since I moved in to this apartment two years ago, and I have never been able to locate the source of the sound -- it comes in through my window, but I can't tell whether it's coming from this building, or an adjacent one, or someplace across the street. Being able to hear it so clearly and not trace it to its source makes it that much more maddening -- and it was already pretty darn maddening. This amateur musician's playlist includes the hymn "How Great Thou Art" (at least, I think that's what s/he is trying to play, but since s/he is not so hot on what the professionals call "rhythm," it's hard to be totally sure), "Hey Jude," "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" and, of course, one or more Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes from Phantom of the Opera. I think "How Great Thou Art" rules out the synagogue across the street as the source of the sound, but otherwise I am baffled. And inevitably, whenever I sit down to work on something that requires concentration, and I decide to turn off my own music to facilitate that concentration, I hear the familiar tunes wafting on the breeze, each note wavering in a completely unsuitable manner: "...Then sings my soullllll..." (boo-boop-boop boo-boop-boop). And I have to turn my own music back on, loud, to drown it out.

The thing that really drives me crazy is that this instrument is obviously electronic, which means it very likely has other, less annoying settings. (Nothing could be more annoying, unless it was that howling "human voice" option we had on our old Casio). But the person playing it seems very attached to this cheesiest of tones, perhaps because of the way it cuts through all other noise. Even if there are no other sound options, the odds are good that the instrument has a jack for headphones to be plugged into it. If only my more-enthusiastic-than-talented neighbor would take advantage of this, s/he could play all day and night and I would be none the wiser. I've actually considered making a gift of headphones to this person, for this purpose, but... I can't tell where the sound is coming from! So, if you or a loved one live on the Upper West Side and spend your weekends pounding on a circus organ, I beg you to consider plugging in some headphones now and then. And also: buy a metronome. I thank you.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Service unavailable - try analog

Sorry so quiet. I have a lot of little things going on: two writing gigs, one short-term and one long-term, that need my attention; a new season of RCIA starting up (know anybody who wants to be a Catholic? I know a great program...); lots of copy-editing work; and, of course, a wedding to plan. (We're just under 4 months away!) This week the fiance and I met with a florist, and next week we have our tasting, and my gals and I are planning a bridesmaid-dress excursion, and I need to think about invitations, and so on and so on. Plus, I haven't run into any celebrities or colorfully insane people on the streets or subways lately. And on top of everything else, I've been feeling a bit under the weather, and when that happens my blogging faculties are the first to go. Which is just as well; you don't want to listen to me whine anyway.

On the other hand: I had more traffic yesterday than any other day this month. That's no way to encourage me to post regularly! I'll be back with more later... probably...

P.S. Meanwhile, in other blogs: Sars saw The Brave One in spite of its risible title, and does not recommend it, but she made me laugh out loud by calling Jodie Foster "Mrs. Clenchyjaw McIntensewhisperpants." Hee.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I have no words

Today I am copyediting on-site at a magazine, and like any good copyeditor, I have the Eleventh Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary close at hand. This particular dictionary (known to word geeks as Webs. 11) is the standard reference everywhere I've worked, and the copy chief here recently bought a few new volumes so we wouldn't have to share (or, worse, rely on the outdated Tenth Edition; I mean, you might as well consult Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever). And so, when I came across a reference to an actress's "pilates" regimen in a layout I was reading, I turned to Webster's for the verdict -- should "pilates" be capped? My copy of Webs. 11 (which turns out to be from the first printing, in 2003) says this:
Pilates: trademark -- used for an exercise regimen typically performed with the use of specialized apparatus.
So, before I signed off on the page, I noted that the "P" should be capped "per Webs." and brought it to the copy chief's attention.

"Oh," she said, "I looked it up. Webster's says lowercase." I was skeptical: "Really? Because I looked it up..." She flipped open her copy to the appropriate page and showed me the entry. It was indeed lowercase. Color me perplexed. "I swear I looked it up..." I went back to my desk and consulted my copy again. There it was, on page 939, in the very same spot -- and capped. We were both using the Eleventh Edition, but where mine labeled the word a "trademark," hers noted that it derived from a proper name (that of Joseph Pilates), but did not even note that the word is "often capped." The capital 'P' was clearly contraindicated.

Maybe you need to be a copyeditor to fully appreciate the consternation this discovery caused. The whole reason Webs. 11th is on my desk is to prevent this kind of confusion. Webster's solves disputes. "Per Webs." cannot be argued with. But what hope is there for the noble copyeditor if two copies of the same edition of Webster's can't even agree with each other? Are there no true standards on which we can rely? Is our professional code nothing but lies?

I assumed that changes, additions or deletions to the dictionary would require a new edition, or at least a note to indicate what had changed. But the volumes we compared were alike in every way except their copyright date -- at least, so we believed, until today. In fact -- who knew? -- "Merriam-Webster updates its best-selling Collegiate® Dictionary every year with a number of new words, senses, and variants." And I guess the only way to stay on top of it is to buy a new copy every single year. Make that several new copies, if you have a staff.

In this case, it turns out there was a court decision that declared the word "pilates" is not a trademark. But that was in 2000, before the Eleventh Edition ever came out, so it's curious that Webster's took several more years to make the change. And they still haven't updated their online dictionary. (But they also misuse the phrase "begs the question" in their press materials, so what do you expect.)

When I did sign off on that page, I wrote my initials and the date, as usual. Today, though, I've been moved to add the year, even though it isn't necessary -- these proofs aren't meant for posterity, and even if they were, the page is clearly from the October 2007 issue. There's no need to specify which September 11 I mean. It just seems strange, and frivolous, to write "9/11" when I mean nothing more than today's date. How can I use "9/11" to refer to this unexceptional, rainy day, a day when I spent a good 20 minutes fretting over the discovery that the office dictionaries don't agree on terms like "pilates"? I don't know whether knowing I've spent Tuesday, September 11 in a Manhattan office building doing ordinary things makes me feel grateful, or sad, or guilty, or relieved. Maybe all of the above.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Better" and "worse" are relative concepts

Ed of The Dizzies nudged me in the direction of this article in USA Today about the comic strip For Better or For Worse and creator Lynn Johnston's plans for its future. (I mentioned my lingering fascination with newspaper comics a while back.)

This news has been a topic of discussion over at The Comics Curmudgeon for months, and I've been staying out of it, because I am a little frightened by how seriously people -- whether devoted fans or avowed critics -- tend to take For Better or For Worse. Growing up, I always found the strip mildly amusing, often snarkable, and just about worth the 15 seconds it took to read it over my cereal in the morning. But I lost track of it in college, until I happened to visit the strip's website, which is how I became aware of Johnstonmania. If the evidence is to be believed, there are people out there who are really, really crazy about this strip. And I mean crazy. As I read the monthly "letters" from the characters (seriously: here's the latest from Elizabeth, and this is from the family pets), and then the responses to those letters from readers, I wondered, Have all these evidently real people lost sight of the fact that the Pattersons are not real people? I've always wondered about the people who write letters to, for example, People magazine, saying things like, "Thanks for writing about Jennifer Aniston! She deserves real happiness, and I hope she finds it!" Are those real letters? Who has that kind of time to waste? But writing to fictional characters seems like an even bigger waste of time and energy. Like, don't you have real-life relatives and friends who might enjoy hearing from you, and in whose lives you might take an interest?

So, fearing I might catch the madness, I try to stay away from FBOFW-related debate. But I did want to react to this article, because it's such a great illustration of the infuriating death-is-not-an-option editorial approach to newspaper comics pages, which keeps them bland and unsatisfing and oh-so-very dispensable. Here's the gist of the plan, as detailed in the article I linked to:
Instead of aging, the characters will spend much of their time recalling earlier adventures. In what Johnston calls a "hybrid" format, she is reintroducing the cartoons that started it all while wrapping up the few dangling plot twists. ...That way, the Toronto-based artist, whose strip appears daily in more than 2,000 newspapers in North America, can cut back on her workload by having less to draw.

"Its [sic] a whole new experiment," says Johnston, 60, who has a central hand tremor that makes drawing twice as time-consuming as in earlier years. When she suggested retiring to her editors at Universal Press Syndicate, "they felt the strip would do well if it started again, if it ran in reruns again like Peanuts. And I thought, 'Well, I'm still on the planet. I would still like to keep my hand in it, and I would prefer to keep working on it if there was a way to do that.' "
So, Johnston has reached retirement age and is finding it difficult to keep up with the workload. Very understandable. But only in the world of comic-strip syndicates would the options be: (a) Run the strip entirely in reruns, or (b) Run the strip in repackaged reruns, so that it's kind of still alive. Option (c): Retire the strip entirely -- which seems like the most dignified and sensible of routes -- is, apparently, out of the question.

The folks over at The Comics Curmudgeon talk about "zombie strips," like Blondie and Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey and, oh, pretty much everything you've heard of. The creators are, in many cases, long dead, and the strips themselves have ceased showing signs of life, but they stagger on. You probably didn't even know that Johnny Hart, creator of B.C., died this year. If you did hear the news, perhaps you thought, "Thank God B.C., with its weird 'jokes' about cavemen golfing, its uncomfortable proselytizing and its crankily retrogressive worldview, is over at last." But you would have been a fool to think that a long-running, long-neglected strip would die just because its creator was no longer with us. Where there is money to be made, and where there are photocopiers to be used, there is always a way. The "new" B.C. strips are even more carelessly thrown together than the premortem ones, as Josh has pointed out. But we're stuck with it. And hey, next to this, zombified FBOFW will probably look pretty good.

Just this morning I got a good laugh out of one of Josh's "Comment of the Week" runners-up, from user SmartPeopleOnIce: “Apparently For Better Or For Worse isn’t just the name of the strip, it’s also some sort of contract rider.” But at the end of the article I referenced above, you can read this:
The cartoonist says she hopes people enjoy the hybrid format, but if not, she'll move on. ..."It's not just the readers that write to you, it's the editors who say, 'You know, this can be replaced.' If I'm not doing something that's competitive and worthy, then I don't deserve that piece of real estate."
Is this true? Do editors of comics pages ever threaten to replace comics when they start to stink? Because I admire Johnston's sense of obligation to create something "competitive and worthy," but based on the evidence -- like the fact that someone still gets paid to produce Marmaduke -- I don't think she has anything to worry about.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Blonde on bland

I may be late to the party, but I've finally seen Legally Blonde: The Musical. Well, okay, full disclosure: I only saw half of the show. (The first half, thank you very much.) So this is really only a half-review... I think I saw plenty, but your mileage may vary.

While we're making disclosures, I should also admit that I have never seen the motion picture Legally Blonde. Not even half of it. I may be the only female of my generation who can say this, and I'm not really sure how I missed it, but I did. Still, I didn't think it should matter -- surely the musical was made to stand alone? -- and for the first three minutes, it didn't. I loved the opening number, entitled "Omigod You Guys" and performed by a crowd of sorority girls. Catchy tune, witty lyrics, and a chorus that made me laugh. The actors playing the Delta Nus are energetic and engaging, and each one has clearly developed a personality for her sorority sister. I was really ready to dig this show. And then the central character, one Elle Woods, makes her dramatic entrance, and the show seems to stall. The song meanders, and it's a relief when the charismatic chorus rushes back onstage to sing the refrain (even though the joke is already wearing thin). The next few scenes come and go, and soon enough we're at Harvard and I still haven't seen anything to make me care about Elle, or what happens to her there, or whether she gets together with Warner. Their scene together (Elle thinks he's proposing, he thinks otherwise) gave me no real insight into either character or the strength of their bond; the song they sing together is funny (or, rather, Laura Bell Bundy's performance is funny), but it definitely isn't good. And for me the less intimate scenes in the Delta Nu house only established that Elle is the least interesting of the girls who live there. So I had a hard time understanding why everyone else seems to care so much about her, or why she deserves to be the lead character in everyone else's life.

I guess I should have done my homework before I showed up, because the musical assumes that we audience members have arrived well acquainted with Elle's charms, and already thrill to the sound of her name. "Elle Woods" meant nothing to me, and so I was hoping for something -- a memorable spotlight number, a revealing dialogue, a moment of intimacy -- to make me embrace her as a heroine. I know all that is easier to establish in a movie. But easy or not, it needs to happen, and it seems like bad dramaturgy to rely on Reese Witherspoon to lay the groundwork.

None of this is Bundy's fault; she works hard to find a firm foothold in the material she's given. But I was much more interested in watching a number of the very hardworking chorus members developing their characters -- standouts include Enid, the butch activist 1L student (Natalie Joy Johnson), and the slutty sorority sister, who I believe is named Shandi and played by Nikki Snelson. (If I'm right about that, I'm sorry I didn't stick around to see Act Two, when I would have seen more of Snelson in another role.) Noah Weisberg, understudying Christian Borle in the role of Emmett, also has loads of appeal (but then, I've always been a sucker for boys with big curls), and Kate Shindle is a strong, icy presence as Vivienne, Elle's rival for Warner's affections. But Elle and Warner remain cardboard cutouts, at least for those of us who haven't made their acquaintance on film. (And I should mention that, from what I could tell, the over-50 audience members had the under-35s outnumbered two to one, at least. So you can't tell me I was the only one meeting Elle for the first time.) And, of course, the dogs upstaged everybody.

The biggest problem, for me, was that the songs just weren't good. "Omigod You Guys" gets things off to a strong start, and Orfeh's comedy number, "Ireland," is another reasonably bright spot. But otherwise the first act is a wash of forgettable tunes that gesture toward contemporary pop but fail to match the Top 40 in catchiness or depth. The rest of the Broadway-musical components are in place: fluid staging, attractive choreography, talented cast, smart set design. But characters in a musical assert themselves through song, and if the songs fall flat, so do the characters. And it's especially hard to justify musicalizing a movie if the music doesn't hold its own.

So, when intermission came, I didn't jump up out of my seat, grateful for freedom, as I have done once or twice in the past. (Of course, it seems like, whenever I see something truly terrible, it's intermissionless.) I thought about staying for the second act. The final number was energetic enough to make me want to stick around; any time the chorus was onstage, I was convinced that the show really wanted to be liked, and I really wanted to like it. But, I thought, do I want to know what happens next? Do I care about any of these characters? And I had to admit, no, I didn't. And did I want to hear more songs, knowing that they were very unlikely to improve on what I'd heard so far? No, I definitely didn't. I did kind of want to see more of those doggies, but I weighed my options and decided that wasn't worth another hour or so of my night when I could be watching baseball on TV with my fiance. (I didn't particularly want to know what happened to the Yankees, either, but the promise of company was a draw.) So I left. Incidentally, it was on my way home that I passed the O'Neill and considered spending the rest of my evening with a more successful pop score. But I decided I'd had enough for one night.

Now I see that MTV is planning to film and broadcast a performance (well, actually, three performances) of Legally Blonde. This strikes me as a bad idea, since I would think that a music-oriented television station would want to pick something that had, you know, good music. But it doesn't matter what I think, since even I am too old to get a free ticket to the taping, falling as I do just outside the target 15-25 age range. But here's what I want to know -- if the show's demographic is ages 15-25, why was the audience full of middle-aged people and senior citizens the night I saw it? Who is convincing these people to see this show? I even saw an older couple, straight out of "vaguely European" central casting, informing an usher, "We are for the first time visiting New York." And somebody talked you into seeing Legally Blonde? I wanted to ask. Really? The show isn't embarrassing, but it's not The One to See, either. Especially if you're in your 70s. It was one of those moments when I wanted to say, Listen, if you are for the first time visiting Broadway, you should know: it gets so much better than this.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Holliday weekend

More later, but right now I just want to let you all know that tonight, Friday September 7, Turner Classic Movies is airing a three-film tribute to Judy Holliday! From the official schedule:
    8:00 PM The Marrying Kind (1952)
    A judge forces a divorcing couple to think back on the problems that drove them apart. Cast: Judy Holliday, Aldo Ray, Madge Kennedy. Dir: George Cukor. BW-92 mins, TV-G, CC

    9:45 PM Phffft! (1954)
    A couple divorce but can't stop getting mixed up in each other's lives. Cast: Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Kim Novak. Dir: Mark Robson. BW-88 mins, TV-G

    11:30 PM Full of Life (1956)
    A married couple has to deal with pregnancy and the husband's meddling father. Cast: Judy Holliday, Richard Conte, Salvatore Baccaloni. Dir: Richard Quine. BW-91 mins, TV-G, Letterbox Format
I've only seen the first, and I wrote about it here in July. And I gushed about Judy (and Born Yesterday) back in February. Tonight I'm hoping to catch one of the others -- I'd love to check out Phffft!, which is probably not nearly as good as It Should Happen to You (another, slightly earlier Holliday/Lemmon comedy), but which must, at least, be better than its title. Honestly, Phffft!? This TCM article tells me that the original tagline was, "Don't say it -- see it!" They left out the next part, which I believe was something like, "And then don't tell your friends about it, even if you like it, because you'll sound stupid trying to say it!"

Now that I've landed there, I may spend the rest of the day poking around the TCM website. So maybe you won't get more later. I have a lot of ground to cover over there.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

From a window

Yesterday I was walking along 49th St. at about 9:15, weaving my way through the crowd of smokers outside the Ambassador Theatre (where Chicago is playing). It was intermission time, you see, not just for Chicago but also for Spring Awakening, across the street at the O'Neill. Looking toward that crowd, I could see the lights flashing in the house, summoning the audience members back to their seats. Then I heard shouting, coming from above. I looked up, and there, leaning out a third-story window and calling merrily to a group of young people (fans? friends? groupies?) below her on the sidewalk was Lea Michele, star of Spring Awakening. Next to her, laughing, was her costar Jonathan Groff. Below them, oblivious, the grownups were filing back into the theatre. After a moment, still laughing, Lea shut the window, but I could still see both actors silhouetted behind it, apparently not too nervous about their Act Two call. They seemed so happy to be in their dressing room, I was tempted to sneak into the theatre with the paying customers just to see them onstage again.

I didn't -- I went home. But you'll hear more on how I ended up in that spot at that moment in another post...

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

To whom it may concern

Dear People Blocking the Sidewalk and/or Subway Entrance and Trying to Hand Me Papers,



P.S. "Papers" includes, but is not limited to: drugstore circulars; free or reduced-price copies of The New York Post, Newsday, and all other tabloid newspapers; coupons for 30% off men's suits; religious tracts; political pamphlets; lists of personal grievances.

P.P.S. I didn't really mean the "thank you" part.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Monday, September 3, 2007

Baby you can drive my car

The fiance and I had a wonderful time in Boston, except, of course, when we were driving around. If you've ever tried to get around Boston in a car, you know where I'm coming from. The drive there was just peachy -- we made it in 4 hours flat in our flashy Mustang convertible (half the fun of renting a car in Manhattan is being surprised by what you end up driving), and we listened to the Beatles Anthology most of the way. However, things started to unravel once we got off the Massachusetts Turnpike and immediately screwed up our first set of directions. ("It says to 'bear left,' but which left?") We somehow ended up back on the Turnpike; when we exited we called the hotel where we were staying and got new directions, which we again failed to follow correctly. As "navigator," I should probably take some responsibility for this, but I think most of the blame goes to Boston itself, with its crazy intersections and maddening rotaries and poorly delineated lanes and inadequate street-signage. Anyway, we ended up near Fenway Park, which was definitely not where we wanted to be, especially since there was a game just about to start, and the streets were filled with baseball fans, as well as double-parked minivans unloading BU students into their new homes. At this point we called the hotel again and got another set of directions, which -- you guessed it -- we could not manage to follow. That time it took us much longer to realize we'd missed our turn, though. Finally, a nice man on the street pointed us in the right direction (thanks, nice man!), and we made it to our hotel only 90 minutes after we'd first left the Turnpike. Good times.

Things got better once we got out of the car! On Saturday night we hung out with my brother and his family, and then I strolled around Harvard Square with a friend who's about to start grad school. This time of year always puts me in an academic mood, and so I was jealous of my friend, with his classes to go to and books to read and quads to hang out on. If the feeling persists through the fall, I may need to walk up to Columbia now and then, just to soak up the atmosphere. Anyway, Sunday morning the fiance and I got back in the car, and successfully (!) followed directions to the church where my newest nephew was to be baptized. The celebration was lovely; the four-month-old candidate for baptism acknowledged the solemnity of the event by responding to all of the priest's queries with a hearty Bronx cheer. (Priest: Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God's children? Ryan: Thbbbbbbbbbbbbt!) After mass we had brunch, and then hung out a bit more at my brother's, where we were entertained by my nephews and niece and their many adorable cousins. We headed home that afternoon, and made it back to NYC before 9. I even spotted more wildlife on our trip: one dead fox on the way to Boston, and two deer (one alive!) and one woodchuck on the way home, all alongside the Merritt Parkway. All told, we had a great weekend, but we've resolved that the next time we drive to Boston -- or anywhere -- we're buying a map before we get in the car.

This morning, on my way to visit a friend in Tudor City, I wandered right past the crater left on 41st Street by July's steam pipe explosion. It took me a minute to realize why the street was so torn up there, and why that block seemed so deserted (even for a national holiday). Then I turned the corner onto Lexington and beheld, stretched out north from 42nd Street in all its splendor, a street fair. Which just goes to prove that New York City street fairs cannot be stopped. A nuclear explosion could obliterate Manhattan, and within a month, the crater that used to be Lexington Ave. would be lined with vendors selling corn fritters, incense and slightly irregular tube socks. I don't know who would buy them, but I don't know who buys that stuff now, either. Is it you?