Saturday, April 26, 2008

Make your mother sigh

I saw the new musical Cry-Baby a few weeks ago, early in its preview period, and although I made notes, I never got around to writing about it for you all. I wasn’t sure I would, but while I was still procrastinating, the show opened, and I broke my usual rule and read Ben Brantley’s review before finishing my own. That reminded me why I do this in the first place: his review seemed much more interested in being cute than in being fair, and it didn’t reflect the show I saw. Cry-Baby isn’t an instant classic, but there’s much more worthy of comment and analysis than Brantley acknowledges, and given what so often passes for a decent musical on Broadway, I don’t think we can afford to ignore the merits of a show that actually has a few.

I should say, right off, that I don’t completely disagree with Brantley’s final verdict; he says the show is “tasteless,” by which he means “flavorless,” and I’m afraid he’s basically right. There’s much more to say, though, about why it turned out that way, and Brantley doesn’t do the writers justice. The material isn’t the problem, for the most part. The first and most important thing you need to know about Cry-Baby is that the score, by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, is quite good. Brantley dismisses it completely, which is a shame; the songs are as well-formed as anything Marc Shaiman wrote for Hairspray. Not as sugary, of course, but they shouldn’t be, and what they lack in instant hummability they make up in (relative) depth. That is, they play like character pieces instead of advertising jingles. They use a pop form, but move the story forward. And the lyrics are terrific. The titles alone made me laugh out loud as I glanced at my Playbill before the show –- I won’t spoil the fun -– but the really good news is, I didn’t stop laughing after the first chorus. The songs are more than just jokes. The humor is topical and self-aware, but not obnoxiously so; it never threatens to undermine the show, which is rare in the contemporary world of “comic” musicals. And the lyrics are technically flawless, never fighting against the music (read about the authors’ praiseworthy high standards here; hear them on NPR's Fresh Air here). Schlesinger and Javerbaum tell their story through spot-on pastiches of 1950s musical styles: close-harmony corn (a la Forever Plaid) for the whitebread “Whiffles”; country-western balladry (a la Patsy Cline) for Lenora; heartbroken-on-Prom-night lamenting (a la Shelley Fabares) for Allison; three-chord rockabilly (a la Elvis Presley) for Cry-Baby himself. But that last one poses a problem that contributes to the show’s weak presence: Elvis-style rock songs are a lot less fun to parody than the era’s more expansive pop styles. There’s not much to them, and that’s the whole joke. So Cry-Baby, who should be the most interesting character onstage, gets the least exciting songs; I was never looking forward to his next number, and I was never satisfied that he deserved my affection or attention more than the characters whose songs really entertained.

Partly as a result of that, I never totally understood why Cry-Baby is the title character in the first place. His entrance is strong enough, but the social criticism he spouts in “Watch Your Ass” suggests a sharp satirical perspective that the rest of the show doesn't fully deliver, and both character and actor (James Snyder) lack the Fonzie-style magnetism the plot calls for. The casting, in this and nearly every other role, feels, not terrible, but slightly imperfect; I couldn’t shake the impression that I was watching a touring cast several months into its run, which is perplexing, since I was actually watching the Broadway cast at what ought to have been its freshest point, a few weeks before the show even opened. Snyder and his leading lady, Elizabeth Stanley, are perfectly competent and quite likeable, but they fall just short of the star quality this show needs. The rest of the casting feels similarly second-rate; the chorus is colorless, and some of the “teenagers” look middle-aged. Two scene-stealing performances make that all the more obvious: Harriet Harris, playing Mrs. Vernon-Williams, is more at home than anyone else onstage, and the audience responds. And Alli Mauzey, as Lenora, brings a refreshing blast of personality to all of her scenes. Christopher J. Hanke, as Baldwin, grew on me as the show went on; his duet with Lenora may be the show's most successful number, short of the finale.

Brantley notes Harris’s star turn, but claims “the text doesn’t support her,” which isn’t what I saw. Harris finds and lands every one of her laugh lines, but she didn’t put them there. The book, by Mark O’Donnell (whom I’m proud to know) and Thomas Meehan, is efficient and sharp; it keeps things moving; it has a fluid relationship with the score (more so than their book for Hairspray, probably because this show’s score has a stronger presence), and it showcases O’Donnell’s particular talent for daffy dialogue and smart satire that lands without leaving a bitter aftertaste. Too many of the jokes miss their mark, but Harris’s success proves it isn’t the book’s fault.

So who’s responsible for Cry-Baby’s failure to catch fire? The casting seemed off, but it wasn’t just that. I couldn’t tell who the audience is supposed to be: certainly not the preteen girls who’ve made a smash out of Hairspray. It’s too edgy. At the same time, I suspect the show is too aggressive for gray-haired patrons, and it may be a little too youth-focused to sell itself as a show for grownups. Cry-Baby is essentially a much sharper rewrite of Grease, but bluntness gives Grease a broader potential appeal, and this production doesn’t create a world as self-contained and vibrant as that of Rydell High. It misses the mark especially with Cry-Baby’s gang, the “Drapes,” who are so thoroughly off-putting I kept hoping they wouldn’t return. I haven’t seen the Waters film, but surely these counter-cultural characters should be at least a little likeable, right? In place of Grease’s sassy Pink Ladies, whom you’re tempted to side with even when they’re cruelly picking on poor, harmless Sandy, Cry-Baby has a collection of aggressively unpleasant females being nasty for no reason and reactionary in the absence of much to react against; the shape of “squareness” in 1950s Baltimore is very well-defined, if only by the book and song lyrics, but the Drapes are as vague and motiveless as their name suggests.

What Cry-Baby needed was a director who knew how to bring a big, smart, satirical musical to life. Someone who’d pull together a cast that matches the material and figure out exactly what response he wanted from the audience; who could make every joke find its mark, and sharpen the focus of every musical number. I can’t begin to imagine how Mark Brokaw got the job, because nothing in his (admittedly impressive) resume suggests that he’d be a good fit. In Brantley’s words: “Mr. Brokaw, a gifted director of small-scale quirky plays, seems incapable of imposing a cohesive sensibility here.” Why would he be? Which of those small-scale quirky plays would have prepared him to put up a noisy musical on the stage of the very impersonal Marquis Theatre?

So, as I said, in the end I’m not a lot more positive than Brantley about what I saw onstage. A lot of bad decisions were made (and a lot of decisions should have been made and weren’t) in the process of bringing Cry-Baby to Broadway. But I’ve seen quite a few new musicals in the past several years, and very seldom have I come away excited about the creative team in general and the songwriting in particular. I was consistently impressed by the quality of Cry-Baby’s score and consistently amused by its book. In the world of musicals-based-on-movies, that strikes me as a small miracle. So I hoped the professional reviews would acknowledge that. I shouldn’t be surprised that Brantley didn’t, since, as regular readers of the NYT’s Arts section know, what gives a show flavor for Brantley is a big star, ideally a female star. Performances are what he likes to analyze, and Cry-Baby doesn’t have much to offer in that department, so he doesn’t find much to say about it, besides “Eh, don’t bother.” Compare that with his relatively charitable attitude toward Legally Blonde, a show with songs so disappointingly underwritten I left at intermission, bored to tears; and also consider his charitably light touch with Little Women, absolutely the worst Broadway musical I had ever seen until this week (stay tuned to hear what took the title). Yes, this is a strangely lackluster production, but the show itself holds up better than most, and Javerbaum and Schlesinger are a very promising pair. If you’re a fan of musical theatre and it’s been a long time since you’ve felt hopeful about the state of the showtune, Cry-Baby is a show you ought to see.

P.S. At least one critic liked it even more than I did: Terry Teachout has some interesting insights.

ETA: Saw it again, 9 weeks later: Here's my re-review.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Destined to be pals

I forgot to mention the other day that I saw Martha Plimpton on the street. Again. I think she's pretty great. But I guess I forgot to mention it because I see Martha Plimpton on the street all the time. (Including once on the subway!) I have friends living in the city that I wish I saw as often as I see Ms. Plimpton. And that's not even counting onstage sightings. It reminded me of a line from Mark O'Donnell's wonderful piece "Diary of a Fan": "I saw Sigourney Weaver on the street again. Maybe she isn't so famous after all."

P.S. You can listen to Mark reading "Diary of a Fan" on WNYC's The Next Big Thing here!
P.P.S. Who wants to see Top Girls with me?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Like a candle in the wind - but much more complicated

Whew! Are you poped out? I must say I am surprised by the intensity of my own pope fever. I wasn't working in the office this past week, so while I was home I had the TV and/or radio on most of the time, tracking BXVI's every move. EWTN was my destination for comprehensive (and reverent) coverage, but when I grew weary of the Raymond Arroyo-Rev. Neuhaus commentary team I turned to NY1, where the coverage was surprisingly thorough and the discussions well informed. (The NY1 anchors themselves tended to be clueless, of course, but they were smart enough to assemble a roster of knowledgeable guests to help them out.) On Saturday I got my chance to see His Holiness both in and out of the popemobile with my very own eyes -- more on that soon -- and on Sunday, I rested and watched his final appearances in NYC. His appearance at the WTC site was so very moving, and so different from all the other public events. The pope's words were few. He prayed mostly in silence. The crowd was small. Most of the short time the pope spent there was devoted to meeting the survivors and listening to their stories. Even more than the others, it was an event defined by images: Benedict kneeling in prayer, the compassionate expression on his face as the survivors spoke to him, the candle he lit in remembrance of the lives lost.

When Benedict knelt to pray, you could hear only the clicking of the many photographers' shutters. (I don't know why they continued taking pictures, since he didn't move at all for about two solid minutes, but they did.) I enjoyed seeing the photos, so I can't complain about that disruption, but I do have to call your attention to the dumbest photo caption ever written. In case that link doesn't work (or the caption gets fixed): it's part of a slide show of pictures from Sunday. This one shows the pope, flanked by his clerical retinue, lighting the candle at the WTC site. One bishop holds the taper; another holds the glass cylinder that will protect the flame after it has been lit. And the caption says:
Then, with assistance from two clerical aides, he lighted a candle — apparently with a little bit of difficulty at first, perhaps because of technical problems.
Okay, first of all, it was windy. As was completely obvious to anyone who watched the event on television, and, I imagine, to those who listened in on the radio (since the sound comes through the microphones). Also, have you ever been to that part of Manhattan? It's always breezy down there. But even if you somehow managed to observe this event, and you perceived that the candle-lighting process was taking longer than it ought to, and you couldn't figure out that this was due to wind blowing out the flame each time the taper was lit... Technical problems? What sort of "technical problems" might interfere with lighting a candle? The motherboard blew a fuse? The jet engines refused to ignite? The satellite had a delay? I mean, come on.

Look, journalists: I know all this pope stuff is intimidating to non-Catholics. (Hell, it's intimidating to most of us Catholics too.) I understand it can be scary to cover something that you know is governed by rigid rules and represents a rich and sacred tradition. I appreciate your efforts to get things right, or at least not completely wrong, even when you end up using purposefully vague language (e.g., identifying a member of the clergy as "one of the faithful") just to avoid making errors like (oh, for example) "symbolically transubstantiate." You try to get fancy and you might end up looking silly -- like the Daily News, when they printed a photo of the pope incensing the altar at St. Patrick's Cathedral and said he was using an aspergillum. (Duh, it's called a thurible?) But there are some things that we Catholics -- even the pope! -- do just like everyone else. And lighting a candle is one of those things. No complicated technical process involved. Flame + wick – strong breeze = new flame. So...

Oh, you know what, just forget it. He's gone now, so you can go back to your stories about Benedict and his cats. Popes! They're just like us!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The lucrative popish market

I went to Rome in the fall of 2005 with a friend from college (the same friend with whom I had so many raisin-focused conversations in our college days). Benedict XVI was still relatively new on the job at that point, and the attention that attended the death of John Paul II had made St. Peter's Square an even bigger tourist attraction than usual. All over Rome, but especially near the Vatican, we saw kiosks selling popish souvenirs that were as gloriously, unironically tasteless as any Catholic kitsch you can imagine. Infant of Prague dolls? Light-up neon Guadalupe icons? Wall-sized posters dedicated to the Divine Mercy? All dignified and understated compared to what we saw for sale in Rome. Postcards, calendars, handkerchiefs emblazoned with the image of the late pope, sometimes alongside the image of the present pope. And when I say "alongside" I mean that they were awkwardly Photoshopped into a single scene, so that JPII appeared to be blessing BXVI. Usually there was a rainbow or some doves in the background. And there were other images that showed a giant, ghostly JPII looming over St. Peter's Square. And doves. Lots of doves. I wanted to buy a bunch of these and send them to my pope-loving friends and family back home, but they tended to be oversized and expensive, and I couldn't bring myself to spend more than a euro on something so hideous. So they stayed in Rome, and in my memory.

As I passed the souvenir shops opposite St. Peter's and beheld both popes, side by side in tchotchke form, I naturally began to wonder what would happen to the JPII merch once it stopped selling. Would it go on clearance? Would it be junked? And what happened to the souvenirs issued to mark the election of popes past? You know there were merchants who lost their shirts investing in John Paul I knick-knacks! When I got home, my friend T. and I began to speculate about opening a store in Rome that sold remaindered pope merch. John XXIII ashtrays! Paul VI shot glasses! After much discussion, we decided our store would be called Pope-pourri, and our slogan would be "Habemus Kitscham!"

Clearly this is an exciting time for papal souvenir speculators such as T. and myself. In the coming days I will be keeping my eye out for truly excellent Benedict XVI stuff. I wonder what a mint-condition, $20 "Christ Our Hope" teddy bear will go for 20 years from now?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Happy Birthday, Holy Father

Today in the Times, a short profile of my own beloved parish. I am not quoted at all, accurately or inaccurately, but I still think it's worth a read if you're the least bit curious about where I spend much of my time.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What is the ratio of Schrute Bucks to Stanley Nickels?

If you're a New Yorker, odds are very good you have a Duane Reade "Dollar Rewards club" card in your wallet (or attached to your keychain). Non-New Yorkers are surely familiar with the concept -- the cashier scans the card when you check out, and your "account" receives "points" for whatever you buy, and every so often (when you reach 100 points) you get a coupon for $5 off your next purchase. Since DR has a stranglehold on the drugstore market in Manhattan -- and a store on every other block -- I end up shopping there a lot, and I'm all for saving money once in a while. I once heard a guy giving the cashier a whole speech about how he didn't have a card and he didn't want one, because the company was just using it to track his purchases and he wasn't going to be part of their scheme (and the cashier was like, Whatever, guy, I'm just supposed to ask if you have a damn card). Perhaps that man is right -- I wonder if he's still holding out? -- but I have enough soapboxes to stand on already; I can't be bothered to care about whether my pal Duane is keeping an eye on what I buy. I don't have anything to hide, aside from my addiction to Pepperidge Farm Brussels cookies. And there's no shame in that.

The only time I give any thought to the DR "Dollar Rewards" program is when I actually have one of those coupons (which print out at the bottom of your receipt) and I have to remember to use it within two weeks. Otherwise it is not a big part of my life, and that's how I think it should be. (Apparently you can keep track of your account online, but if you do that regularly I think you might need a hobby.) I mention it because I think it provides a helpful contrast to the "rewards" program at D'Agostino's, one of our neighborhood supermarkets. D'ags has the most complicated customer-rewards program I have ever encountered. I feel like I would need to take a night school course just to get a grasp on how it works. The husband signed us up a while ago, figuring it couldn't hurt, and I attached the little fob he gave me to my keychain. However, neither of us had any idea what "rewards" we would earn, if any, and subsequent shopping trips didn't make this any clearer. We always came home with a handful of receipt printouts pertaining to said "rewards," but aside from reading material we weren't getting much out of it. We decided that they were, for all intents and purposes, Schrute Bucks.

And then! Yesterday! The husband came home from a D'ags run and announced, "I saved money with our Schrute Bucks!" He says the cashier asked him if he wanted to apply his "Greenpoints" to the orange juice he was buying. Already we can pinpoint a problem with the D'ags system: They shouldn't have to ask you if you want to save money. There should be no decision-making involved. He said yes, of course, and we're not complaining about the $4.20 we saved. But we still have no idea why we saved it. This explanatory printout, which we studied for a good 10 minutes, hasn't been much help.

As you can see, I blacked out any potentially identifying information -- and I suspect I blacked out a lot more data than necessary. It's not that I'm paranoid; I just have no clue what any of these numbers mean! That's how impenetrable I find this whole program. We have a "target" number of "lunch purchases"? Says who? And it gets even more complicated -- check out this exciting opportunity.

WHAT THE HELL, D'ags. Why is this so COMPLICATED. I think it's the little "S&H" logos that are really throwing me off -- what is "S&H"? And do the icons mean something, or are they just there to confuse? I can't believe I'm wasting all this time thinking about it. And I don't even get 5 extra minutes of lunch for my troubles! Have any of you cracked the code? Can you fill me in? I'm totally at sea here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

An almost fanatical devotion to the pope

Where are you turning for your Papal Visit 2008 pregame coverage? For official information, you can turn to the USCCB, or to our very own archdiocese. If it's scuttlebutt you want, surely you've bookmarked Whispers in the Loggia. and those in the mood for commentary can try Beliefnet... Or, if you're of a more secular bent, you can try your luck with our mainstream-media friends. Here in town, the New York Times is offering "complete coverage." How are they doing so far? Well...

This morning I read this article ("Candles, Clergy, and Communion for 57,000," by Sewell Chan) about the preparations for BXVI's major public appearances in NYC, especially the mass at Yankee Stadium on April 20. I was mainly interested in the promised "Graphic: Communion at Yankee Stadium." What can I say, I'm a sucker for frivolous visual aids. (And my parish could certainly use a communion-distribution chart. They could publish it in the bulletin, for people to study while they're not putting anything in the collection baskets.)

Anyway, click on the jpeg to enlarge, scroll on down to the bottom and check out the delightful communion-wafer flow chart. you have to love that adorable little cartoon pope extending his cartoon hands over all those cartoon patens. But take a look at the text accompanying that image and see if you can spot this article's Major Error (you knew there would be one!). If you are now or ever have been Catholic, it won't take long... Everybody got it?
"During the public Mass, the pope will consecrate -- symbolically transubstantiate into the body of Christ -- about 26,000 wafers..."
Perfunctorily catechized eight year olds could tell you what's wrong with that sentence. For the non-Catholics (and journalists) now reading: "symbolically transubstantiate" is a total oxymoron (not to mention a heresy). If it's "symbolic," transubstantiation has not occurred. Either the substance has changed or it hasn't. On a purely logical level, you have to marvel at the absurdity of using a word like "transubstantiate" in a supposedly explanatory aside: if you know what "transubstantiate" means, you don't need the explanation, and if you need the mass explained to you, the word "transubstantiate" is not going to clear anything up. But on a fact-checking level: "symbolic"! My pre-Vatican II-Catholic-school-educated readers are all sitting on their hands right now, because the use of the word "symbolic" in connection with the Catholic eucharist has awakened a sense memory of zealous and ever-vigilant nuns who defended the faith with rulers when necessary. The whole point of the Catholic mass is that, once consecration happens, there's nothing "symbolic" about "The Body of Christ." (As Flannery O'Connor supposedly said, If it's just a symbol...)

Does the Times need to accept Catholic doctrine and present it as fact? Of course not. But the Times needs to be accurate, informative and objective. I can think of several ways that sentence could have been worded to make it accurate, informative and objective, but as it stands, it's none of the above.

I'm not promoting any conspiracy theories about the Times or the MSM being out to get Catholics, or religious people in general (since I'm sure Catholicism isn't the only system of belief that gets misrepresented on a regular basis). And I'm not trying to make a point about the Times's reputation as the Paper of Record, and whether it's deserved. I just know that when I read an article about any topic I know something about that gets a very basic fact very wrong, I despair a little bit. How many errors am I accepting without question in articles on subjects I know nothing about?

Earlier this week I spoke at length to a journalist from the Times who's writing an article about my parish (more of the papal-visit frenzy). Perhaps I shouldn't have jumped at the chance to be misquoted. This reporter let us know upfront that religion is not her usual beat, and I have no idea whether she's a practicing Catholic herself. But I figured I might as well give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she'll be at least as careful as the reporters who do cover religion regularly, and still make basic errors like the one noted above. (See also the recent article regarding the Pope's revision of the Tridentine-Rite Good Friday liturgy -- which referred to "Good Friday Mass." Correction later appended.) So I did my best not to say anything misleading, and crossed my fingers.

Also this week, the Times asked readers to submit questions about the pope's visit, some of which were then answered by their "national religion correspondent" and their "Rome bureau chief." The latter, Ian Fisher, fielded a question from "Paul S." about how he prepares for his duties: "How many of [the pope's] books have you read to familiarize yourself with his background and manner of addressing the world today? ...From what persons and sources have you sought clarification or insight into the mind of Pope Benedict? ...How many times have you attended [Benedict's semi-regular Wednesday] catechesis or reviewed the Wednesday sermon on the Vatican’s webpage?" The original question is much longer (and I think the original question posted online was longer still); Fisher interprets its tone as basically hostile (correctly, I suspect) and answers it defensively, noting that he keeps his own annotated set of the collected works of Ratzinger on his desk, because it's his job to read that stuff. He adds:
"Forgive me if I am wrong, but your question seems to carry the slightest hint of confrontation – the suggestion that the people who cover him, and maybe us in particular, have not jumped in deep enough. With a body of work so large, I think one could spend a lifetime digesting it and still not understand everything. But I can assure you we have made the effort – and then quite a bit more. Which does not mean we will not get things wrong. But those mistakes are made in good, forgive me, faith."
Fair enough. No doubt covering events in Rome is a complicated beat. But if you want to know why "Paul S." and others end up suspicious, take a look at that "symbolically transubstantiate" thing. Mistakes like that don't happen because somebody skipped a paragraph in one of Ratzinger's theological tomes. That's carelessness.

Anyway. The exception at the Times is the redoubtable and always readable Peter Steinfels, who wrote this excellent installment of his "Beliefs" column about -- no, seriously -- the distressingly shallow media coverage that is likely to attend this papal visit. You can also find it if you scroll down far enough on their "complete coverage" page, provided your irony tolerance is sufficiently high.

ETA a little more genuine praise -- behind their falsely polarizing and misleadingly reactionary headlines, the folks at Slate do a commendable job covering the Catholic beat. Check out Melinda Henneberger's recommended reading list and Michael Sean Winters's article "'God's Rottweiler' Becomes the Church's Beloved German Shepherd'" to get a deeper sense of what we're all about to see on the 24-hour news networks. (The latter oversimplifies the Good-Friday-Liturgy issue to serve its Slate-y purposes, but you can't have everything.)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

No, not even figs...raisins.

Chocolate-covered raisins. I can't decide whether I like them or not. I just ate a whole bag of them (non-branded), and I am no closer to a decision. What do you think? Are they a foul attempt to upgrade raisins, or a ridiculous but necessary ruse to justify the consumption of chocolate?

The husband and I had an argument recently about oatmeal cookies and the desirability of raisins in same. My position is that an oatmeal rasin cookie is basically a breakfast item masquerading as a cookie. A non-bar-shaped granola bar -- boring and never more than forgettable. Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, on the other hand, are a credit to the entire cookie family. Like ordinary chocolate chip cookies (i.e., delicious), but with more texture and personality. And then we have the treat that tries to have it both ways: oatmeal cookies with raisins and chocolate chips. These are an abomination and an insult to the name of cookie. I will eat an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie (or five) any time I'm offered one, and be grateful for the opportunity. I'll eat an oatmeal raisin cookie if I'm looking for something to pair with tea (ugh) or as a breakfast substitute on the go, or if I get to the lunch table late and it's the only thing left on the cookie tray. But don't try to trick me into thinking I'm getting a chocolate-chip cookie and then sneak in some raisins. Because biting into a fleshy, tangy raisin when you're expecting sweet, melty chocolate is enough to ruin the whole dessert experience. Once in a while the kitchen staff at my college dining hall would sneak some raisins into what appeared to be oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and after we got wise to them my friend V. and I used to keep each other informed on the status of the cookie bin. I well remember one dinner when V. picked out an oatmeal chocolate-chip cookie, bit into it, and wailed, "There are raisins in this!" He studied the cookie. "Golden raisins! The most devious of all the raisins!" And so we shook our fists at the dining hall staff and vowed not to be fooled again.

My husband, on the other hand, thinks raisins and chocolate chips are much closer together on the oatmeal cookie toss-in desirability scale, and he has no problem with the heresy of raisins and chocolate chips side-by-side in a single oatmeal cookie. Who's right? And should I stop tormenting myself with the bite-sized confusion of chocolate-covered raisins? Please advise.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is

Indulging my immature impulses landed me another a coveted runner-up spot in the Comment of the Week competition at The Comics Curmudgeon. The strip in question was Dick Tracy, the continued existence of which is a mystery I cannot solve. Is there a single person alive today who enjoys, or even casually follows, the newspaper comic Dick Tracy? "Demented" is a word that comes up a lot in Josh's discussion of this strip, and it's really the only word that applies. Every single day, Dick Tracy is like a stylish, stark, three-panel look inside the mind of a criminally insane person. This is the strip that provoked my comment, and it's as good a sample as any of what I'm trying to describe. Just gazing at it leaves me feeling nervous and unmoored.

The other strip that earns the "demented" tag fairly often is Gil Thorp, the pleasures of which I have already extolled here. But since that time, Gil has changed artists! Twice, in fact, but the new guy is reportedly here to stay, and I'm still trying to sort out my reaction to all this. It goes without saying that the previous artist, the one whose work so fascinated me, was terrible. Then the guy who draws Apartment 3G took over for a while, during the transition gap, and the strip was bland and unremarkable -- totally impenetrable, yes, but not in a fun way. But now, this new artist seems to be almost as bad as the one he's replacing, yet in a completely different way! From what little I've seen, his style seems completely ill-suited to the content of the strip -- I can't tell what era it suggests, exactly (art deco? early 1980s?), but it certainly isn't the eternal 1950s of Milford High. But maybe I just haven't adjusted yet. It does look full of snark potential, so that's a comfort, at least. I will be relying on the Curmudgeon to carry me through this difficult time.

Friday, April 4, 2008

In which I am perplexed by electronics

According to the "User Guide," my new cell phone comes equipped with this optional service alert:
    Minute Beep: alerts you one minute before the end of every minute during a call.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The "O'Reilly" factor

So I might have mentioned that I got married a couple months back. This has brought me much joy and happiness, but also much paperwork and administrative scrambling. For me, 2008 has been the year of the split personality. Witness these ticket stubs from my recent trip to Boston and back:

The first one I bought from a machine, with the credit card that still bears my maiden name (although a new one is supposedly in the mail!). The second I bought at a ticket window, with my new driver's license -- the teller entered the name herself. Perhaps it's appropriate that I traveled to Boston to visit my brother and his family (and reconnect with a grade-school friend) as "Mollie Wilson," and I returned to my home and husband as "Mollie O'Reilly." But neither label seems completely accurate anymore. I'm still working on making all the paperwork agree, as far as possible -- as I said, my credit card is on the way, and I'm about to send in the application for my new passport. I have yet to go to my bank and change the name on my personal account, but I think that will happen this week, because I really need checks that show my current name and address. When all that is over, I will still have to change my name in my insurance and hospital records, and get new cards for both. It's exhausting -- but so is trying to remember who calls me what. (By the way, I got two catalogues yesterday, both addressed to my maiden name, both delivered to the correct box. If the mail carrier has to misplace something, I'd really rather get my hospital bills and not the Land's End catalogue.)

Before the wedding, a number of people who'd known me by my maiden name laughed when they heard what my new surname would be. "That's so Irish!" they squealed. My response to this is always something like, "...Indeed." It doesn't seem funny to me to have a super-Irish name, because Irish I am and I always have been. (Name that musical comedy paraphrase!) I never realized that this wasn't obvious until people started joking about my "new" identity. From an ethnic perspective, my new name actually fits me better than the deceptively neutral, probably English last name I've always had. But I suppose, if I weren't already Irish, it might not fit so comfortably. And if I'd married a man whose surname reflected an ethnic background that is not part of my personal makeup -- Ramirez, Gatelli, Nguyen -- adding it to my own might have been a more difficult adjustment. I look like a "Mollie O'Reilly," and I burn in the sun like a "Mollie O'Reilly," so I'm happy to be called that, as long as I can get used to answering to it!

On the other hand, I'm already beginning to understand why my own Irish ancestors dropped the "O" prefix from one of our family names many generations ago. That apostrophe is a troublemaker. And they didn't even have computers to deal with! Some printouts simply drop it ("OREILLY") and some turn it into an initial ("MOLLIE WILSON O REILLY"). Some machines choke on it -- the husband says he's never been able to use a self-check-in kiosk at an airport -- and some add a bunch of weird characters where the apostrophe should be ("O/&%REILLY"). All you people with "de" and "van" and "L' " in your names: I think I feel your pain.

Does your name represent you accurately? If not, do you wish it did, or are you glad it doesn't? Did you have to make a big adjustment to your married name? Sure I'd love to hear about it.