Monday, April 30, 2007

One Day Blog Silence

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Musical Journey To The Past! ...

I was just catching up on a few episodes of The Explore Your Voice Show, and Kate, the doll, said something that sent a little charge through me: "Nervousness does not mean that you can't sing."

WOW. It's obvious, right?, but what a valuable thing to hear her say.

A couple years ago, as part of the voice class I was taking, I was part of what Gwen, my voice teacher, calls "We Haven't Quit Our Day Jobs Yet" Nights. It's not compulsory, so I didn't participate for the first couple classes I took with her (her classes run in 8-week sessions). But I attended one of them and found myself really wishing I was up on stage. Well, it's easy to wish you're up on stage when you're safely seated and there's no chance that you're going to be played onto the stage.

So the next time the opportunity presented itself, I signed up to sing. Gwen paired me with Briggetta, a woman with a gorgeous, soulful voice that sounds like cream on silk. Our duet? "Moonglow." We worked on it in class. Gwen split the song into parts (we performed it twice through, so we got to sing together as well as sing solo). We rehearsed it at the cabaret. Miraculously, I didn't die.

(I've blogged about this before, if it feels familiar. That post is here.)

The night of the performance, which was delayed by more than an hour because a "real" performer had a show earlier that evening and it ran long, I sat on the banquette, waiting for our song, and focused very hard on my breathing: deep breath in, deep breath out, deep breath in, deep breath out.

I'd asked Iva once if he gets nervous before performing. I figured, anyone with his level of success would have no problem taking the stage. I mean, when you're filling concert venues, those people are there to see you because they love your music, so what's to be nervous about, right? Oh, I was so wrong. He confessed that he was nervous all the time, that he'd kick everyone out of his dressing room before a show and take some time to center himself, to stretch and breathe. He recommended that I focus on breathing.

So that's what I did that night. And Gwen played our intro, and we took the stage and adjusted our mics, and, as expected, I was a little shaky right out of the gate. As I wrote before, we started the song together for eight measures, then it was me. Just me. Singing. By myself. Into a mic. On a stage. In a roomful of about 90 people. My voice wasn't as strong as it could have been at first. But then it was Briggetta's turn to sing. (She sounded flawless.) I gave myself a little pep talk in my head. I knew I could do this. So when I took it back to the top for the second time through, I tried to banish the nerves and sing stronger and hold my notes like I knew I could. By the time she took her part over, I was quite enjoying myself up there. And we nailed the harmony at the end! And then I wished that we could do a second song, because the first one was a blur.

But thinking about Iva telling me to focus on my breathing set my brain off in another direction. In September, I wrote about him. I've been a fan for a long, long time. I have Man of Colours on cassette.

And more recently, as part of a post about men and leggings, I wrote: "A long time ago, I fell in love with Iva Davies wearing jodhpurs in an Icehouse video. Dear God, that was a good look on him."

Or maybe they weren't jodhpurs. Maybe they were just pants tucked into boots. Either way, I was smitten.

So a few minutes ago, I thought, "Huh. I wonder if it's on YouTube now?" I'd checked in the past and come up empty-handed. And HOLY CRAP! It's there! Posted four weeks ago! I hadn't seen this video in, what?, 20-some years?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the object of my teenage lust (specifically, the shot right at 2:18):



Though my walls were never plastered with pictures of Iva. My teenage room was a shrine to Howard Jones.

My walls are plastered with pictures of Iva now.

P.S. I'm joking.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Driven To The Brink Of Baked Bean Abuse ...

Poor Hugh Grant.

Aside from crossing the line by telling the photographer who was trying to snap a shot that he hoped said photog's children died of cancer (Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, where are your British manners?), you gotta figure that he was clearly driven to the brink if he hurled baked beans at the guy.

Brits love their baked beans. I love baked beans. Therefore, I am British. Does that syllogism hold up? Sadly, not. I'm Serbian, Polish, and a smidgen German.

My mom (from whom I get my Serbianness) makes the best baked beans on the planet. (I should invite Hugh over for a plateful.) Some people just buy a can and heat them up, but not mom. Oh no. Mom renders bacon and then sautees onion in the bacon fat. That mixture goes into the beans, then dry mustard and salad mustard and ketchup. And then she bakes them until they're thick, bubbling, bacon-y, onion-y, mustard-y, brown sugar-y heaven.

Clearly, the baked beans in Grant's world aren't nearly as good as mom's, because if they were, he would have thought twice about letting them fly and he wouldn't be in this mess.

Today, running errands with mom, chatting about this and that, I piped up with, "You need to make baked beans!" Mom wondered aloud where the hell that non sequitur came from. But that's what makes a non sequitur a non sequitur.

A couple years ago, for the 4th of July, mom doctored up two warehouse-club-size cans of baked beans. She had to bake them in three batches. Happily, we didn't even go through one of them. Happiness is leftover baked beans.

Make baked beans, not war, Hugh. And really, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Next time, just ignore the man with the camera, go inside, make some tea and toast and eat your beans.

Otherwise, you'll just find yourself on Leno time after time with Jay asking, "What were you thinking?"

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Dreaming ...

Last night, as I nestled into my many pillows and pulled the covers up over my shoulder (I sleep on my side), I stated my desire to dream about a certain someone, just to see if he'd show up in my slumbers.

Instead, I dreamt about G.

Yeah, that G. More-than-a-year-ago G.

Where the hell did he come from? Let me state, unequivocally, that I have no interest in dating him again.

It was a good dream, a long dream, one of those dreams that you wish you could TiVo. In it, he had moved on to dating someone new, someone rather short and plain. Someone I seemed to recognize. His apartment was cooler in that it was a corner unit and the views were of the lake.

I was there to gather all my things (not that I ever had things there when we were actually dating, except for a pillow, which I left) but I was there for a long time. And I was working on his computer, editing a video. Huh? I don't edit videos.

Anyway, the dream was gratifying for a number of reasons:

His apartment was a sty, and I smugly thought that he was clearly dating the wrong woman if he put up with such a mess. G's real apartment was/is fastidiously neat. Well, his desk was a mess, but the rest of his apartment looked like he was waiting for a magazine crew to show up for a shoot. But in the dream, there was crap everywhere. Everywhere. Dishes piled up in the kitchen, a dining table covered in papers and assorted junk. An old couch with flattened cushions covered in ratty throws. In my dream, he went somewhere with New Girl and I told him I'd clean up the areas I'd used. And I became a cleaning dervish, making everything tidy, knowing he'd walk in later and realize just how much he hated living in a mess. Heh, heh, heh.

But as I gathered all my stuff, I realized that there was no way I'd be able to schlep it all to my car in one trip. So I started looking for the set of keys that he used to give to me when I stayed there. I found them, but the main key was broken, as though he'd snapped it off in a lock. Oh well, I figured. I'll just leave his door unlocked between trips to my car.

But then he came home - alone for the time being - and as he was in his bedroom, I remembered my video on his computer (a laptop on the messy dining table) and logged on to e-mail it to myself. For some reason, it was important. He joined me in the living/dining room as I was getting my things together and proceeded to try on two shirts, asking me which one I thought he should wear to wherever it was he was going.

And in a happy dream moment, I said, "Um, you don't get to ask me the 'girlfriend-y' questions anymore."

He was nice enough to help me carry my stuff to my car (in his building's parking garage) as we stood there in my dream, I thought about really planting one on him, a long, deep kiss, just to remind him of what he'd given up. He was looking at me that way. I knew he was thinking about a kiss, too.

And then I said, "Well, thanks for your help!" and got in my car and drove away.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Room For Two? ...

Curled up on the couch, laptop on my lap, watching Lost, I just saw a promo for Desperate Housewives in which Susan says, "I'm totally, hopelessly in love with two men."

It raises an interesting quandary: If you love someone, is there room in your heart for anyone else?

I know mothers fret about being able to love their second children as much as their first, and yet, love just expands to encompass them all.

But what about romantic love? You can't love two people with the same intensity at the same time, right? You'll always love one more than the other, and that imbalance seems like it would spell an inevitable end to the relationship that comes up short.

Then again, I wouldn't really know. Maybe you can love two people with the same intensity for different reasons.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Exploring My Voice ...

It is a very good thing that I do not subscribe to too many podcasts. As it is, I have a backlog of 'em in iTunes. But I can listen at my leisure. Which is usually while I'm walking. Not that my walking is leisurely.

Lately, I've been catching up on The Explore Your Voice Show. Now, I don't know how many of you are interested in exploring your voice, but given the name of my blog, I'm damn interested in exploring mine. Finding and exploring. You'd think one would have to follow the other, but nope, apparently you can do both simultaneously.

Michael Oliphant, Kate Slaney, and Roger McLachlan are the hosts, three lovely Aussie folks who share their collective wisdom about voicey topics such as How To Choose Songs and How To Use A Microphone and How To Write A Set.

"How to use a microphone?", you're thinking? Yep. As with other things that measure just over six inches long, technique is terribly important to a successful performance.

The podcast complements Explore Your Voice," a unique singing method designed to help you discover your singing voice as quickly as possible. There are no scales or boring exercises, just great grooves to get you exploring and developing your voice," quoting from the site.

In between laying down my latest tune and getting to a place where I like listening to it, I wrote to Michael, Kate, and Roger, all together, and asked, "I'm a perfectionist, sure, but I'm wondering if all singers (and/or those just starting out with recording) go through this, like actors who don't like to watch themselves onscreen?"

And then, because I am old and addle-brained, I forgot that I wrote.

So imagine my delight this morning to find a reply from Kate waiting in my in-box. In the middle of her missive, addressing the main point of mine, she wrote, "Are singers perfectionists? The good ones are! That being said you should reach a point where what you hear is exciting and fresh every time in your ears. Something you want to live with permanently. As a writer you would know how many drafts come before the decision to print."

Clever girl, that Kate. Nothing like putting things in terms a writer would understand.

Of course, as a writer, a perfectionist writer, it's very hard to ever deem anything "done." I think most of my writer pals would agree that if it weren't for deadlines, we'd tinker endlessly.

As I replied to her today, "I've continued to listen to the track and it's certainly grown on me. I think hearing myself recorded on good equipment - hearing how I really sound - is just so new to me that it's somewhat startling. ... I think the true test of my comfort came the other day when I realized that I'd let a professional musician pal hear it. He's in Australia, too. Clearly, Australia is the epicenter of cool music people."

Which isn't to suggest that Michael and Kate and Roger aren't professional musicians. Of course they are. But I don't know them. Ah, geez. Lemme shoot her a note to make sure I didn't offend them. Hold on ...

OK, thanks. Anyway, I haven't yet put down my ducats to buy the singing lessons on CD, but they're also available through iTunes if you'd like to try one or two on for size.

If you've ever wanted to explore your voice, check out Explore Your Voice. I haven't taken any of the lessons yet, so I can't vouch for those, but the podcasts are great. As is the theme music. As are their accents.

Of course, to them, we're the ones who sound different.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Earth Day ...

Yes, I'm a liberal of the tree-hugging variety.

Not that I spend a lot of time hugging trees. But I do give a damn about the planet. I have, for a long time.

I remember my father, a bazillion years ago, grabbing a Styrofoam cup for a swig of juice.

"Why don't you use a glass?" I asked.

"Then we'd have to wash it," he said.

"Yes, but that," I said, nodding toward the cup, "will sit in a landfill for 10,000 years. Let's wash the glass."

Fast-forward to today, when a large chunk of the population, incredulously, still denies that global warming is a threat.

I mean, huh?

Should the GOP change its mascot to an ostrich?

Maybe it's because I've absorbed all the Earth Day messaging, but this weekend, I've been hyper-sensitive to everything I do and how it affects the planet. Yesterday, running errands, idling at a stoplight, I was looking at all the cars and thinking about all the emissions.

I'm a bit of a germophobe and wash my hands a lot. When I'm in the kitchen, I dry them on paper towels. I go through a lot of paper towels. I didn't fret about it much before, because paper breaks down. But I never thought about the front end of the paper-towel process, the fact that all that paper comes from trees. So I've picked a particular towel for drying my hands.

I unplug my coffee maker when I'm not using it. And I don't drink coffee every day (I know, right?), so that's a big shift, from leaving it plugged in all the time even if I only use it a few times a week. Ditto for my blowdryer. I used to leave it plugged in all the time. Now, I keep it in my bathroom closet and only pull it out when I need it.

I try to walk errands when I can. I haven't yet started to take my own canvas bags to the grocery store, but I can put that on the list of things to do for this week.

Right now, it's plenty warm outside and I have most of my windows and doors open, but when it's time to use the thermostat, I keep the house cool in the winter and dial it down even further at night, and in the summer, I keep the thermostat pretty high.

There are lots of little things we can do, like replacing one lightbulb with a compact flourescent, or using fewer paper napkins. If everyone incorporates just a few things, things we hardly even notice, we'll be on our way to cooling down this crisis.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

I'm Lovin' It (If By 'It' You Mean A Cardiologist) ...

Sometimes, I'm just lazy.

Like today. On the way home after running errands, I pulled into the drive-thru lane at McDonald's for an Asian salad with grilled chicken. Hey, it's got edamame in it.

Waiting in line, I couldn't help but hear the order of the guy in the car - a gleaming white Cadillac Escalade - in front of me.

He opened with a crispy chicken Club sandwich ... with extra mayo.

That's right: reheated fried chicken topped with extra mayo, bacon, and cheese.

Did McDonald's introduce a McNitroglycerin Patch? McDefibrillator? McStent?

Seriously, dude: extra mayo? "Yeah, there's not quite enough fat on my sandwich. Gimme some extra fat."

I sat in my car and laughed.

If you'll excuse me, it's time for my nightly bowl of Miracle Whip with chunks of butter.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Whassat, gov'nor? ...

God bless the Brits.

Seriously, they're a hoot. Sure, the Queen might come off as a wee bit stuffy, but she's a queen, for God's sake. And I, for one, like my world leaders to have a bit of gravitas.

But Brits in general, what I've experienced of 'em on my two hops across the pond, are a fun-loving bunch. Pubs close at 11 p.m., but that's because pubs there aren't like bars here. Pubs are more like a communal living room, not a place to get shitfaced and try and score.

When Tracy and I were there, way the hell back in 2001, we had a grand time. As we walked along the sidewalk astride the Houses of Parliament, we noted a woman in front of us wearing a particularly fetching denim skirt and a belt. Rhinestones on the belt spelled out "Perfect" and rhinestones on the back pocket of her skirt spelled out "Sexy." And in the moment, she became immortalized as Perfect Sexy. It's so very Austin Powers, don'tcha think?

So imagine my delight tonight, late tonight, as I rue drinking that caffeinated Pepsi earlier, in discovering a story splashing the imminent arrival (in May) of Dickens World!

That's right! Chuckie the Dick (English Teacher Dave used to call William Shakespeare "Willie the Shake" - and maybe he still does - so I'm cribbing his naming convention) is getting his very own theme park! Located in Chatham, just an hour outside London, it promises an authentic Victorian experience, including a Dickensian Shopping Mall, where, no doubt, I'll be able to stock up on capes and cravats.

I don't have a lot of history with Dickens, though I do get a kick out of watching "The Muppet Christmas Carol" with my nephews and niece. I mean, Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit? Perfection.

Like the rest of the planet, I've read "Great Expectations." I was supposed to read "A Tale of Two Cities" in high school but I didn't quite get around to it. Wrote a paper on it, though. For English Teacher Dave, no less. "You left out the class struggle in this book," he commented on my paper. Years later, I told him that it was remarkable that that's all I left out, considering I didn't read it.

I bought "Bleak House" and tried to read it. Really, I did. No luck, to date. Maybe someday.

But the next time I'm in London - and that needs to be soon, because I haven't been there in a few years - you can bet that I'll get myself on a train to Chatham for a day of literary fun at Dickens World. Best start dusting off my English accent now, eh? Start eating beans on toast and all that? Remember to look the other way when crossing the street? Take it all in stride when I pay the equivalent of $9 for a cup of Starbucks?

Perfect Sexy!

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Finding My Voice ...

Some people are born with an uber-thoughtful streak.

Doreen is one of them. She's that friend who diligently compiles envelopes full of things she thinks I'll like to read - Doreen-O-Grams, I call them - and every so often, one pops up in my mailbox. Given that my mailbox is usually full of bills and junk, Doreen-O-Grams are a welcome arrival.

Yesterday's was especially poignant. In the May issue of O, Patricia Volk writes about taking a voice lesson with Barbara Cook. The title of the article is "Finding Your Voice."

I saw Barbara on TV one day, PBS I'm sure. Students performed and she'd say things like, "Yes, yes, that's nice. You can sing the notes beautifully. Now sing the emotion behind the song."

That's Barbara's mission: To get singers to present songs authentically. To not merely sing the notes on the staffs but to really think about what the song is saying and convey that emotion to the audience. As she says to Patricia, who's worried about sounding hammy, "The only way it could get hammy is if you're on the outside doing it. But if it's really coming from a real place in you, there's no way it can be hammy. we all have these feelings. You're saying, I'm human, too. I'm like you. We're not alone. Hmm? And it heals. It's important. It not a little thing."

No, it is far from a little thing. I pick my material in a very primal way: I have a visceral reaction to a song. I literally feel something deep inside my chest that connects me to the music and the lyrics. And I know that it's a song I'm meant to sing, because I can feel it.

But one of the key things I learned when I took voice classes with Gwen Pippin at The Old Town School of Folk Music is that until I started taking with her, I wasn't really sure what my voice sounded like.

(I highly recommend taking classes with Gwen at OTS. You can register for classes online. The next round begins April 30, but don't dawdle. Gwen's classes always fill up first.)

When I sing along with prerecorded tunes, I try very hard to sound exactly like the artist whose song I'm singing. Which makes sense for what I'm doing these days, covering a collection of tunes. Brian, my sound god, minimizes the existing vocal and lays my track over the bed, so it behooves me to sing as closely to the artist as possible, to recreate the song in my voice.

But I get messed up in my head and very critical of myself when I don't sound just like k.d. lang or Dianne Reeves or whomever, which is ridiculous, because, duh, I'm not supposed to sound like them because I'm not them. If I sounded just like them, nobody would know it was me singing.

All very logical. And yet, singing is hardly logical. It's a very emotional pursuit, as Barbara Cook strives to impress upon her students.

It's startling for me to hear my own singing voice recorded, covering songs. I suspect it will be even more startling to hear my singing voice recorded someday when I'm singing something original. Not an original song, necessarily, but a tune that's been arranged for my voice. Like I've said recently, it would be a joy to develop songs around my voice instead of finding songs to fit. Like having clothes custom tailored versus buying off the rack. To let my style happen, as Dave says.

I'm drawn to singing standards. They just seem to suit my voice. Though I wonder if the world can withstand the release of one more collection of standards. Not that I have labels beating down my door.

But it's a fascinating process, finding my voice, singing the longing in a song and not just the notes. If I'm doing it right, others will feel it, too.

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Chicago 2007 3-Day, Revisited ...

I first posted this in January, but here we are again in April already (sheesh, where does the time go?) and in the event that I have new readers, I'm plugging this anew:

Well, I'm at it again.

Today, after braving the cold to shovel the fluffy Hollywood snow off my sidewalk and driveway, I plopped myself down in front of my computer to register for the Chicago Breast Cancer 3-Day.

In August.

Yep, I'll be walking 60 miles in Chicago.

In August.

I think I need to get shoes made out of silicone to ensure that they don't melt on the pavement.

But I'm excited at the prospect of walking, as I am every year.

It's such a remarkable experience, one you never get used to. Every walk is more amazing than the last: more-amazing stories, more-amazing people, more-amazing acts of kindness.

It's selfish, really, my involvement in the walk. Yes, it raises money for a very worthwhile cause, and yes, the blisters I sustained last year were not fun. But that memory has faded and this year, I'll finish the walk with a smile not a wince.

E-mail requests for support have gone out to many friends and family, but I invite everyone to contribute.

Someone is diagnosed with breast cancer every three seconds. It's a disease that affects us all.

If you'd like to help out, visit my web page.

If you know anyone who'd consider a contribution, send them this URL, or click the little envelope icon at the end of this post.

If you'd like to walk, drop a line my way (my e-mail is in my profile on this page) and I can help you get started.

Love and thanks,
Beth

This is Shelly, Erin, Mike, and me on last year's walk. You can read about it here.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Food For Thought ...

Today, Doreen told me about this show on PBS. I watched the entire thing online.

"FAT: What No One Is Telling You" isn't about shirking responsibility. It's not one of those commercials for a weight-loss pills that reassures, "It's not your fault."

I've struggled with my weight for almost my entire life. These days, I'm thinner, but I'm not thin. I don't know if I'll ever be thin. But thin isn't my goal. Healthy is my goal.

It seems simple enough, right? Eat less, exercise more.

Yup, in theory, that's what it takes.

Except that, as the doctors in this show point out, there's so much we don't understand about the physiology and neurology of our digestive systems. Turns out, people who have gastric bypass surgery don't just lose weight because their stomachs become the size of a walnut. They also lose weight because something is literally changed in their wiring when their small intestine is rerouted.

It's like our gut has a mind of its own, independent of our brain, with the power to override our conscious, logical mind. Which would go a long way toward explaining why we can look at, say, a hot fudge sundae and know we shouldn't eat it, but eat it anyway.

And the thing is, anyone who's never been overweight can't understand the struggle. It's not as simple as, "Well, don't eat that." It's far more complex, not just physiologically, but psychologically, emotionally, genetically.

Food comforts us. Food makes us feel less lonely. Food is our friend. Food is our lover. Food is always there. Food doesn't judge. We judge ourselves.

And it's a swift and steep spiral, our judgment. Eat a cheeseburger and fries and it gets much easier to say, "Well, I might as well have the milkshake, too." And on it goes.

Rocky, a subject of the documentary, decides to undergo gastric bypass. In a heart-wrenching scene, he sits in the dark, crying. "... I really want to lose the weight. But I don't think I'm ready to say goodbye to food," he says. "It's just really hard. But I'm not going to eat tonight. I will not eat. I won't. I won't do it because I know if I do it, I'm not going to have the surgery. I want to be skinny. I want to be healthy. Yeah, I want to be skinny. ... I'm gonna have the surgery. It's gonna change my life forever. Everybody's gonna love me. ... I'm not gonna eat tonight, I will not eat tonight. I can't eat tonight."

"Everybody's gonna love me." There it is. If we're thin, people will love us. If we're fat, people won't. That's enormous baggage. We're not just climbing a mountain, we're pulling a boulder behind us. One misstep and we lose ground and we need to start over again. And sometimes, some days, we just stop trying. "To hell with it," we say. "It'll never happen." And we reach for the chips.

Until we reach the nadir, become so filled with disgust and anger that the pendulum swings the other way, and we start climbing the mountain again. And this time, we gain a little more ground.

Some people reach their goals. Some never do. Dr. Lee Kaplan reveals that only five percent of gastric-bypass patients get to a normal weight. And most people who lose any weight by any means gain it back, often gaining more than they lost.

In You On A Diet, Drs. Oz and Roizen recommend making you-turns: If you get off track and eat something you shouldn't, don't beat yourself up, they say. Just get back on track. Nice thought.

But sometimes, our states of mind make us shrug our collective shoulders and say, "The hell with it," and we don't make a you-turn until the next exit comes along, miles and miles and many M&Ms down the road.

And if you were heavy as a child, the struggle is even harder. Your hormones have been affected and willpower simply isn't powerful enough to overcome the subconscious.

Food addiction is just like drug or alcohol addiction. It has to be managed one day at a time. Except that a cocaine addict can live without cocaine. An alcoholic must avoid all alcohol, but a food addict cannot avoid all food. And so every meal, every snack, tests us. We know we should make good choices, but we didn't gain weight by eating too much lettuce.

It's a lot to chew on, a lot to figure out, more than just steering past McDonald's or saying no to a slice of birthday cake. It's healing old emotional wounds, reprogramming our metabolisms, reprogramming our brains. It's not just saying "no."

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Plagiarismpalooza! ...

So, I just read this story in the Washington Post about "intellidating."

This sentence made me smile: "In New York and other northeastern urban centers, including Washington and Boston, gray matter is the new black of the hip social scene."

When I was through reading the piece, I thought, "Hmm, I wonder if there's such an organization in Chicago?"

So I Googled "intellidating + Chicago" and I got a hit from a story from November 8, 2005, which begins:

"(Reuters) - For Londoners, gray matter is the new black."

Maybe that's one of those instances of writers just having the same idea.

Still ...

In a bizarro twist to the Katie Couric scandal, the New York Post is reporting that the producer fired for lifting Jeff Zaslow's Wall Street Journal piece has a twin sister who was also fired for plagiarizing.

Plagiarism: Nature or Nurture?

Discuss.

And from today's L.A. Times, Scott Collins suggests that Katie should send Don Imus flowers for deflecting the media's glare off of her, the same thing I said to Doreen last week. Not that I'm suggesting that Scott plagiarized my IM conversation, just that we're both news geeks.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don Ho Died Today ...

Don Imus apologized for it.

Jon-David, Hair Architect ...

Update, May 2010: J-D now works his magic from Joseph Michael's.

Though why he's not a model, I don't know. I mean, look at him. Photogenic bastard. : o ) (Hi, honey. I love you!)

That's my label for him, hair architect.

I've been fawning about him for years. I first went to him, in, oh, 1992? Ohmygod. Wow. I hadn't thought about that until now.

And yesterday, I went to see him at his current salon for the last time. As he told a client, "I was tired of my 8-minute commute. Now it'll be 5."

As he finished my hair, I said, "Well, you're 100 and 0."

"Oh, there must be something I've done that you didn't like," he said.

"Nope," I said. "Well, maybe there's been a style I didn't like. Not enough poof."

"Hey," he said. "I went through a flat phase. It was in all the magazines."

"Oh," I said. "As if you follow what's in magazines."

Well, OK, he does, if you want him to and (this is the key) if it'll work with not only your hair type but the shape of your face and your coloring.

Hence why I call him a hair architect: It's very much an art for him, but there's also a lot of science behind it.

Citysearch.com calls him "The best colorist in all of Chicago." I've never let anyone else color my hair, so I have no basis for comparison, but I can't imagine anyone better.

Yesterday, he casually glanced at my head and said, "I'll be right back."

He returned with two tubs of goo and a stack of foils and the next thing you knew, I looked absurd, as most women do in a salon. (Seriously, the things we go through for you guys.)

Later, foils out, color rinsed, hair shampooed, he started blowdrying and I could see the true color. Not my real color, mind you. God no! It's been a long time since we've seen that. But the color that he envisioned in that quick glance.

And, as always, it's fabulous.

He gave my finished style a final tousle. "I love it," I said, looking at him in the mirror.

He nodded. "Yup, it's hot."

(This shot was taken many hours after he worked his magic, but you get the idea. Lots of layers. Lots of movement. And the lighting in this shot doesn't begin to do the color justice.)

He's moving to a new salon next month, Dennis Bartolomei at 15 East Pearson. The number for appointments is (312) 787-7778. Not that he needs me to drum up business for him.

You can visit his MySpace page if you'd like to learn more. (I'm sure he'll be breaking up those huge blocks of text just as soon as he reads this. I can say that. I'm his editor. In addition to being a hair genius, he's a novelist and playwright, too.)

Seriously, you'll never find a better stylist.

Crickets ...

Yeeeesh.

I posted my first-ever audio for all the blog-reading world to hear and the only comment was from the guy in India who supplied the HTML code I used to embed the song.

Artists have fragile egos, people! Is it too awful to comment on? Are you sparing my feelings? Did you miss the post in the flurry of Couric-mania? Is my voice so spectacular that it paralyzed your hands, rendering you unable to type? What gives?

Update: For those who have been having problems with the embedded audio player, the direct link to the tune is here, if you're so inclined to try again.

Lazy Saturday ...

Part of me really wants to just lie on the couch all day and watch cooking shows.

Part of me is poking myself in the arm, saying, "Beth, you have to do laundry. You have to clean up the house. You have to go to the grocery store. You have to cook something."

Hmmph. Fine. So I shuffled over to the stereo and put on the Boston CD that I got in the mail yesterday, yes, that Boston CD, from 1976, baby!

It is impossible to be still with this CD blaring.

And it suits my new J-D hair. Lots of layers. Lots of movement. Very rock 'n' roll.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memories of Sagaponak, 1989 ...

In an e-mail this evening, Jay mentioned that he was hoping for more details of my Vonnegut interview.

Well, why not? I have a better time remembering what happened when I was 19 than what happened yesterday. So here we go:

Kurt gave excellent directions to his house, an old cedar-shingled salt box with a weather-beaten American flag hanging from the eaves. I walked from the front door back. He walked from the backyard forward. We converged in the sunroom.

"Hi, I'm Kurt Vonnegut," he said. I smiled at his casual tone of voice. Some people are so famous that their names hardly seems like their names anymore. The man standing before me wasn't Kurt Vonnegut, Sagaponak resident on an August afternoon, he was Kurt Vonnegut, literary icon.

"Do you prefer a lot of gushing or just a little bit of gushing?" I asked.

No gushing. He was a no-gushing kind of guy. He was wearing white shorts and a turquoise polo shirt.

He was not wearing shoes.

He settled into a chair (I got the feeling it was "his" chair) and I positioned myself on the sofa.

I extracted Linda's poster from my portfolio.

"My friend Linda asked if I'd have you sign this for her," I said, handing it to him. It was folded, about the size of an album cover. He unfolded it on the coffee table in front of us. It was the quintessential picture of him, very professorial with a hint of sardonic, as though he thought the publicity photo was a bit absurd. "She suggested a kicky adverb," I continued. "Like 'passionately.' "

He signed it with a black Flair pen. (Did I produce it? Or, when it comes to a writer of his esteem, can one ever be out of reach?)

"For darling Linda," he wrote, and signed it in his very exaggerated way. "Sagaponak, N.Y., August 29, 1989."

I put it away and proceeded to ask him about Cat's Cradle.

As I wrote in yesterday's post, I'd read Cat's Cradle before our interview. The book begins, "Call me Jonah." Later in the book, there's a reference to a headstone in a cemetery.

"So, what's the name on the headstone?" I asked.

He looked at me as if I was dense.

"Mine," he said.

"But, the book begins 'Call me Jonah.' Why would the reader think the narrator is you?" and as I was speaking the words, a voice in my head was saying, "Shut up, Beth. SHUT UP. You're arguing with Kurt Vonnegut about ONE OF HIS OWN BOOKS."

I quickly got off the topic.

I asked him about Nelson Algren, my reason for being there.

In 1989, for my paper Coming to know Nelson Algren, I wrote of Kurt:

"He did a good job of illustrating Algren's dark side - his bitterness, his decline. 'He had spectacular success, then thhpppp!, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing.' He has a theory about writers who end up like Nelson: 'Just because you're famous doesn't mean they send you a check every week. You know, they just live too long.' "

Their friendship was limited. They had taught together at the University of Iowa. He had nominated Nelson for a medal of merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was invited to a party Nelson was throwing in honor of a journalist friend from Chicago. And he called Nelson's house the day of the party, the day Nelson died.

Salman Rushdie was visiting Vonnegut, recently after the release of his first book. Nelson had written a favorable review of it, and Salman wanted to meet him. Mr. Vonnegut had called Nelson's house to see if it was all right if he and his wife brought along a guest.

'Sag Harbor Police Department.'

'Sorry," he said. 'Wrong number.'

'Who were you calling?'

'Nelson Algren.'

'This is his house, but Mr. Algren is dead.'

I wanted to hear about the funeral, the people who attended it. But Mr. Vonnegut didn't go to the funeral. He had a speaking engagement that day. He couldn't tell me about the funeral, but he had plenty to say about writers and injustice.

I mentioned that I had read in my research that we're experiencing a Nelson Algren renaissance. He shook his head.

'We're not experiencing a James Farrell renaissance, either. A renaisssance can only begin at the university and the university can only teach books they can get their hands on. And with certain writers, the computer at the publisher says it's not worth keeping them in print.' I asked if he thought there was any way to keep these writers' names alive.

'We live in a disposable culture where 40 million people can't read. That is one Spain, that is one South Korea. Talk about keeping something alive? Talk about a huge corpse. You don't need a fire to burn down a library. Apathy'll do it.'

He thinks that Algren will vanish entirely, and he thinks he'll vanish entirely, too."



He stood up and said, "I've gotta go get some MicroShakes for dinner, but if you're still here when I get back, we can keep talking."

(When I told my friend Rob that line later, his jaw dropped. "What were you going to do?" he asked. "Just hang out in Vonnegut's house?!")

But I thanked him and said I didn't want to take up any more of his time. He remembered that a friend who lived nearby knew Nelson as well and offered to call her for me. He tried, but no one was home.

We walked outside together. He met my father, who had made himself scarce, poking around Sagaponak during my interview. I didn't think to get a picture with Kurt. But this is his house. And his trees.



I regretted not getting a picture with him. I called him the next day from a phone booth and asked him if I could stop by.

"I don't want to talk anymore," he said.

Fair enough.

He'd already given me plenty.

He may be gone, but I'm quite sure history will prove him wrong: He'll never vanish entirely.

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Hello, Imus Be Going ...

I've never listened to Don Imus's show, and now, I never will. At least not on CBS. I wouldn't be surprised if Don ends up on satellite radio (or maybe I would be), but I don't subscribe to satellite radio, so, yeah, my window of Imus opportunity has passed.

What a shame.

I've been chatting all week about this story with friends both pro-Imus and con. And they all have valid points. But even having never heard his show, I found myself in the anti-Imus camp.

He's made a career of being offensive, so I hear. But the "nappy-headed ho" incident isn't just offiensive, it's topped with a big dollop of stupid.

Bernard McGuirk, Imus's producer, was the one to trot out the word "ho" in reference to the Scarlet Knights. Then Don piled on. It's as though he thought, "Oh, that was kinda funny. I should have said that," and he tried to one-up his sidekick. A quick, "That's harsh," and a change of subject would have made sense. But no. I guess such decency would have been out of character for him.

But the bigger problem? These girls didn't deserve such a slur. Not that anyone deserves a slur, but this team is the second-best women's college basketball team in the nation. And maybe their final game of the season wasn't the stuff movies are made of, but "nappy-headed hos"? Seriously?

So good for CBS. I've heard a lot of people trot out the ol' First Amendment defense for Don. Nope, not this time. Imus was paid a lot of money to spout his crap on public airwaves. And the public said, "Enough's enough."

Time has a good piece on who's allowed to say what when, even if the print edition will now be dated, given the firing of Imus earlier today. It's hell to be a weekly in a world of 24-hour news.

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Work In Progress ...

Brian and I finally had the chance to get together this week after a couple of canceled sessions.

It was a weird day. My nerves were shot. Have you ever had one of those days when your body feels like it's revving too high and you really need to downshift but you can't? That was my Tuesday.

So Brian and I spent the first part of the session reviewing past work with thoughts of tweaking one tune into something listenable. But I didn't feel like singing the smoky jazzy stuff.

I stepped into the booth and tried Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." It's a good song for me, but it wasn't a good song for me that night. So we turned to k.d. lang instead.

I've loved the song "Outside Myself" for a long time. Brian had my copy of Ingenue on his console for, literally, years. But we never got around to recording it. Until Tuesday.

Brian's a doll. I told him that I'd know in a few bars whether or not I wanted to record it, and he said, "Give it a chance."

I laid down two takes and then stepped out of the booth to listen to them on his studio speakers. I stood behind him and winced.

"You've only done two takes!" he said.

Well, leave it to Lil' Miss Perfectionist to allow herself no margin for error.

I laid down a third take and we listened again. Where I didn't like a phrase, he played the other two takes. If we liked one of those phrases better, he plugged it in. For the phrases that just didn't work, I went back into the booth to punch those and he laid them in.

And then he did a bit of magic, adjusting levels and such, and laid the tune off to a disc.

It's still very much a work in progress. There are a lot of things I'd like to smooth over. But I listened to it last night, phrase by phrase, and it holds up, by and large.

Now the challenge is to present it to you.

I found some code on Deepa's web site (in Bangalore, India; don't you love the web?!) that should allow me to present it to you without you having to navigate anywhere else to hear it.

Fingers crossed, kids. If this works, you should be able to just click the Play button below. (It's about a 4MB file, so if you're on dial up, it'll take quite some time for it to load. High-speed users will have no problem.)

Hey, it works!

Remember, it's not done. But I've been talking about singing for so long, it seemed like it was high time that I posted some audio. And you're on the journey with me, so I can share works in progress.

And if you need it, the direct URL is here.

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Yesterday's News ...

This morning I noticed Howard Kurtz's 'Katie's Notebook' Item Cribbed From W.S. Journal features a link to my blog in a sidebar.

As Steve Martin said when he discovered Navin Johnson's name in the phonebook in "The Jerk": "Things are going to start happening for me now."

Well, not really, but I love that line.

And it's nice that the Post is linking to me. I don't get tons of traffic every day, but we'll see if this provides any kind of spike. Though a spike based on my current traffic would be about as high as a speed bump.

Or smaller. I just refreshed the page and realized that the top three blog links are dependent on the time of publication, and that it's not so much the Post linking to me as the Post using a Technorati widget to display the links of blogs that link to the Post story.

But publishing this post and updating my original Couric post put me back on top. For now.

OK, my non-techy brain is starting to understand how this works.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut ...

He died tonight.

I was just thinking about him the other day, interestingly.

I wrote a blog post about him, in part, a year ago January.

When I was in college, I interviewed him at his home in Sagaponak, N.Y., for an article I was writing for one of my courses. As the New York Times' piece says, he was indeed a chain smoker.

Pall Malls.

I'd read Cat's Cradle before our interview. The book begins, "Call me Jonah." Later in the book, there's a reference to a headstone in a cemetery.

"So, what's the name on the headstone?" I asked.

He looked at me as if I was dense.

"Mine," he said.

"But, the book begins 'Call me Jonah.' Why would the reader think the narrator is you?" and as I was speaking the words, a voice in my head was saying, "Shut up, Beth. SHUT UP. You're arguing with Kurt Vonnegut about ONE OF HIS OWN BOOKS."

He was gracious during my visit. When I was nervous about the idea of interviewing him, Grace, my officemate at the Chicago Sun-Times, said, "Beth, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else."

Meeting Vonnegut was my earliest experience with someone truly famous, and Grace's words have stayed with me to this day. Famous people are people.

Still, some people are more iconic than others.

And tonight, the world has one fewer icon.

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Incident? That's One Word For It ...

News organizations and blogs alike have picked up on the Couric plagiarism flap. Couric herself has yet to say anything about the matter. I watched her broadcast tonight and thought she'd acknowledge the story at the bottom of her broadcast. But she didn't.

Perhaps she doesn't think the story merits any mention. Perhaps she thinks that most of her audience isn't aware. And maybe she's right. Maybe we news-type folk are the only ones who care.

But any comment from CBS is better than no comment from CBS, and so then, this is the latest from the Public Eye area of CBSNews.com:

- snip-

More Details About "Couric & Co." Incident
Posted by Brian Montopoli

Yesterday, I posted an item about the "Couric & Co." blog apologizing for an "omission" involving the April 4 installment of "Katie Couric's Notebook." The Notebook, which has been removed from the site, bore striking similarities to a Jeffrey Zaslow piece in the Wall Street Journal, though no acknowledgment was made of Zaslow's work.

Today, new details have been made public. The first, and most significant, is that a producer has been fired over the incident. In the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz compared passages from the Zaslow piece and the Notebook.

The Notebook, he noted, included this: "For kids today, the library is more removed from their lives. It's a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out." Zaslow, meanwhile, had written this: "The library is more removed from their lives. It's a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out."

There has also been some discussion of the language in the Editor's Note, specifically the use of the word "omission." Writes Regret The Error: "This is a case of plagiarism, not omission." The site also expresses "hope this incident will inspire CBS to create an online corrections page and policy." We discussed how CBS deals with corrections last year.

In the comments section of my initial post, joycewest wrote this: "I didn't realize Katie Couric didn't always write the 'Katie Couric's Notebook' herself. Maybe I am naive, assuming that 'Posted by' means 'Written by,' but I wonder how many other people didn't know that?"

Couric has significant involvement in the Notebooks, though she does not write all of them. Every week, she meets with producers to go over ideas and discuss possible themes. Sometimes, she then writes the pieces herself; in other cases, a producer writes them, after which Couric edits and tapes them. In the case of the April 4 piece, Couric was involved in choosing the topic, though she did not write the piece herself.

Newsweek reported that this "episode started last week, when Couric and the show’s producers gathered for a regular weekly meeting to discuss possible topics for the 'Notebook.'” That's not the case: Couric was on vacation last week, and the April 4 Notebook was pre-taped to run while she was away.

Zaslow has said he is satisfied with CBS' handling of the incident. He is quoted in the Post saying CBS "been very gracious and apologetic, and we at the Journal appreciate it."


- snip -

Maybe that's why Katie's been mum: Jeff says he's satisfied, so why say anything further?

Because the credibility of an international news organization is on the line. Sure, CBS was quick to dispatch the offending producer, but Katie is the Harry Truman of CBS News. The buck stops with her.

The Red Badge of Couric ...

The poor, embattled mainstream media, assaulted from all sides, damned if it does and damned if it doesn't, trying mightily to wave the white flag of righteousness, trying to be seen and respected through the haze of gun smoke, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes literal, lingering like a fog over the battlefield, trying hard to rise above the bloody fray.

And now this, this latest chink in the armor that wears a little thinner, the latest blot, the latest mark on the breast of respectability, a modern-day scarlet letter.

P is for Plagiarism.

In a story that broke Tuesday, it was revealed that the April 4, 2007, Katie Couric's Notebook entry, a blog and video blog feature of CBS News, which bears the byline "Posted by Katie Couric," lifts almost every word of its content, in whole-sentence chunks, from the March 15, 2007, Moving On column written by Jeff Zaslow for the Wall Street Journal.

Here's a handy line-by-line breakdown:

Couric: "Hi everyone, I still remember when I got my first library card."
Zaslow: "Getting our first library card was a rite of passage."

Couric: "For kids today, the library is more removed from their lives. It's a last ditch place to go if they need to find something out."
Zaslow: "The library is more removed from their lives. It's a last-ditch place to go if they need to find something out."

Couric: "If Google doesn't turn it up first."
Zaslow: "They usually turn to Google if they want to research something."

Couric: "Sure, children still like libraries, but books aren't the draw."
Zaslow: "Sure, there are still library-loving children, but books aren't necessarily the draw."

Couric: "A recent study found kids use libraries more for DVDs, story hours and computers than for checking out books."
Zaslow: "Suburban kids, especially, often use libraries more for DVDs, story hours and computers, according to a 2005 study by the Association for Library Service."

Couric: "Many kids skip the library altogether and head for the store. Sales of juvenile books rose 60% from 2002 to 2005."
Zaslow: "Many kids, of course, skip the library and head right for the store. Sales of hardcover juvenile books rose 60% from 2002 to 2005."

Couric: "It's an encouraging sign that kids value reading."
Zaslow: "That's an encouraging sign that kids still value books."

Couric: "But many tech-savvy kids never experience the joy of using the library's shelves as a place to discover new worlds."
Zaslow: "But many tech-savvy kids never experience the library as a place for serendipitous discovery."

Couric: "And students are arriving in college unable to navigate libraries with a Dewey decimal system many have never used."
Zaslow: "Students are arriving in college unable to navigate libraries. At Minnesota State University, librarian Larry Schwartz finds himself explaining to students that books are shelved by call numbers."

All uncredited by Couric.

And it's not just words on virtual paper. It's a video blog feature, too. Katie, on set, looking into the camera and reading Jeff's words off a TelePromptTer. Not just publishing them as though they were her own, but speaking them as though they were her own.

And note this nugget, in "Couric & Co.'s " "Rules of Engagement, The E-Etiquette Guide For 'Couric & Co.' ":

- snip -

We're eager to hear what's on your mind and get your comments, but we have a few ground rules that we'd like you to abide by — and we'll be following them, as well. This will insure that we are all on the same page, and behaving ourselves.

There's legal language nearby. Here's the plain English: no libel, slander, lying, fabricating, no swearing at all, no words that teenagers use a lot that some people think aren't swearing but we do, no insulting groups or individuals, no ethnic slurs and/or epithets, no religious bigotry, no threats of any kind, no bathroom humor, no comparing anyone to Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot. We expect lively debate, but comments should be polite and civil. No shoving or shouting. Please.


- snip -

"... no fabricating" and before that, speaking of the rules, "... we'll be following them, as well."

Oops.

And by the way, "insure" should be "ensure": "make certain that something will occur or be the case."

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm friends with Jeff. I worked with him - a long time ago - at the Chicago Sun-Times. I'm not writing this because Jeff is my friend. I'm writing this because plagiarism is journalism's ultimate sin.

Sometimes, what does or does not constitute plagiarism is grey. A lot of words are written every day, and sometimes there are only so many ways to convey a given thought. So if one simple sentence seems common among authors, it's easy to argue that grey zone of unintentional similarity. This instance, though, is very much black and white. There is no "right or wrong" debate. This is not a case of pilfering a story idea. News outlets do that all the time. I once called John Kass at the Chicago Tribune about a story that he turned into a couple columns. The Chicago Sun-Times picked up the story, as did the local Fox affiliate, as did Hannity & Colmes. No one credited John, but no one lifted his exact words, either.

According to reports, Katie's producers write her Notebook entries. Nevermind that they're read by her in the first person. And one producer - now a former producer - wrote the entry in question.

But anyone who's in charge of putting words in Katie's mouth should know that it's wrong - the wrongest of wrongs - to copy someone else's work and pass it off as your own. It's not even Journalism 101. It's more rudimentary than that.

It's plain and simple stealing.

CBS's PublicEye web site, a site that explains itself thusly: "Public Eye’s fundamental mission is to bring transparency to the editorial operations of CBS News — transparency that is unprecedented for broadcast and online journalism" posted this mea culpa:

- snip -

"Couric & Co." Blog Apologizes For "Omission"
Posted by Brian Montopoli

Last night, an Editor's Note was posted on the "Couric & Co." blog. It reads in full:

Correction: The April 4 Notebook was based on a "Moving On" column by Jeffrey Zaslow that ran in The Wall Street Journal on March 15 with the headline, "Of the Places You'll Go, Is the Library Still One of Them?" Much of the material in the Notebook came from Mr. Zaslow, and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece. We offer our sincere apologies for the omission.

"Katie Couric's Notebook" is a regular feature on "Couric & Co." in which Couric reflects on a particular issue on camera. A transcription of her comments is usually posted on "Couric & Co.," along with the video, which is also made available to all CBS owned and operated and affiliate stations. In addition, the audio of her comments is made available to authorized CBS Radio stations.

The April 4 Notebook has now been removed from the site. Mike Sims, director of News and Operations for CBSNews.com, declined to comment about the specifics of the matter. "The Editor's Note speaks for itself," said Sims.


- snip -

Except that the link I provided to the April 4th Notebook entry is still live. And "Much of the material ..."? How about nearly every word? And "... we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece"? How exactly can Couric & Co. claim it as "our piece"? Nearly every word of it was written by Jeff. This isn't a case of failing to acknowledge a source or an idea. This is a case of passing off someone else's work as one's own. There shouldn't have been need for acknowledgment because the piece never should have appeared. Because it wasn't CBS's piece.

Newsweek has picked up the story, as has the Washington Post. The AP's story is appearing in USA Today, the Chicago Sun-Times, ABC News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Daily News ... (well, you get the idea), clued in, I'm guessing, by Jim Romenesko, who ran a link to CBS's mea culpa Tuesday.

This should be a big story. Because it's a big story.

Update: I noticed this afternoon that the link to the offending post on Couric & Co. has indeed been removed and replaced with the aforementioned "correction."

Update 2: I watched the CBS Evening News tonight. Katie said nothing about the plagiarism story, despite it being picked up by more than 120 news outlets around the world.

Update 3: The New York Times has weighed in, and this piece from the New York Sun is particularly entertaining. To wit:

- snip -

CBS News disclosed the plagiarism in the "Notebook" section of its Web site the night it aired, conveniently (and dishonestly) calling it a "correction." "Much of the material in the notebook came from Mr. Zaslow," the correction stated, "and we should have acknowledged that at the top of our piece." It would have been fascinating to see Ms. Couric thread that needle. "Funny thing happened the other day when I was reading the Wall Street Journal piece about libraries by Jeffrey Zaslow," Ms. Couric might have begun. "Turns out I agreed with every word of it, so I'm just going to read you some of his better lines ... here we go!"

- snip -

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Monday, April 09, 2007

All Hail The King ...

I do not worship at the altar of Stephen King fiction. The only book of his I've ever read cover to cover was The Green Mile and that was seven little books, serials, God bless him. Isn't he quaint?

But I revere - yes, I said revere - his book On Writing. Good stuff in there. Like a magician telling you how he does his tricks.

Of course, if it was that easy, we'd all be insanely rich authors, we writers who long to find a way to make this writing thing work. King's got a gift, to be sure. His writing reads like making half a baloney sandwich: slap some meat on a slice of bread and fold. He makes it seem that damn easy.

But seeming easy, of course, is often very hard. Just like the best actors don't look like they're acting.

So today I picked up my April 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly. King has the back of the book - once a month, is it? - and in this column, he wonders, "Why would a company publish a book this good and then practically demand that people not read it?"

He's lamenting the fate of Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, languishing at "No. 24,571 on Amazon best-seller list, and not apt to go much higher."

Not apt to go much higher, maybe, unless it just got plugged by Stephen King.

EW is a weekly, but who knows what King's lead time is on his columns. One would hope his editor - let's pause for a moment to contemplate that job: Stephen King's editor - would have updated that number as the book went to bed, but in any event, let's figure that that sales ranking is no more than a couple weeks old.

I just checked Amazon.com: Fieldwork is No. 381.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

NYC: The Play ...

I love theater.

Last year, I bought a subscription to The Goodman, a long-overdue commitment.

But it had been too many years since I'd seen a play on Broadway.

When Kevin Spacey became the artistic director of The Old Vic in London, I vowed to go see one of his productions. I love London. I hardly need an excuse to hop across the pond, but my London plan hadn't materialized, even though I was so geeked about seeing him play C. K. Dexter Haven in "The Philadelphia Story." (Very few people should ever consider stepping into Cary Grant's shoes. But Kevin is certainly an acceptable heir to that throne.)

Happily, Kev returned to New York and brought "A Moon for the Misbegotten" with him.

That performance was my sole reason for going to New York. Everything else was incidental. I would have gladly flown in that afternoon, taken a cab to the theater, watched the performance, hopped in another cab back to the airport and caught the red eye home.

So while I enjoyed my time in the city and seeing my cousins and seeing John and eating amazing meals, it wasn't until I was in my seat that the excitement of the play really set in.

It officially opens on Monday, but my preview performance was perfection. The theater was built in 1926, when everyone was 5 feet tall, apparently. My knees were pressed against the seat in front of me. But did I care? Hell no. I was in the second row of the mezzanine, dead center. And in such a small theater, I was practically on top of the stage.

The set is sparse yet detailed, the acting so charged with emotion that I often found myself holding my breath.

The evening ended with an extended standing ovation and two curtain calls. Kevin, though, generous man that he is, was not the last actor to take a bow. He graciously ceded the spotlight to Eve Best, the female lead. She does indeed carry the play, and as such, should be the final actor to receive the audience's applause, but while she shares the marquee equally with Kevin, he is undeniably the show's biggest star.

Filing out of the theater, I was momentarily aside a woman who said to her companion in an accent that was very unmistakably New York, "It was just so down and depressing."

I repeated that to my mom quietly. "What was she expecting?" I said. "It's Eugene O'Neill."

"Yeah," Mom said, without skipping a beat. "Not Neil Simon."

Funny, my mom.

After watching Kevin for three hours, rapt, I pondered waiting for him by the stage door. It's known that he comes out after performances to greet fans. There were barricades erected outside the door, a little corral of sorts in which for the stars to step for their meet-and-greets. A good-size group had already gathered. I walked on. I figured, even if I got 10 seconds with him, it wouldn't mean anything. I would be yet another faceless fan.

I saw Kevin perform at the House of Blues during his concert tour to promote "Beyond the Sea," and I was charmed by his voice and his schtick and his tux. I wrote a letter to him following that performance, which I've mentioned, and he replied, which I've mentioned, too.

As I walked west on 47th, I turned over my shoulder to look at my mom and said, "I'll write him another letter." Which I did. That night. In my hotel room. I'll type it up and send it on its way.

If I ever meet Kev, it should be to share a couple glasses of scotch or something.

Maybe when he returns to London. My friend Ciaran, an actor, is based there.

They all know each other, right?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fashion Advice For Boys ...

Stacy, my latest blog crush, has compiled yet another knockout list, this time devoted to helping those afflicted with Y chromosomes learn how to present themselves to the world.

Because, let's face it, guys: Unless you're George Clooney, you don't really know what you're doing. (Said, of course, with my tongue lovingly planted in my cheek. I have male friends who know how to dress themselves. And some of them aren't even gay!)

But Stacy and her faithful female friends are here to help you find your ways.

You're welcome.

: o )

NYC: The Food (For John) ...

The food. My God, the food.

Chicago is giving New York some serious competition for best food city in America, but I suspect New York will always win. It's simply a bigger city and the epicenter of the planet. And so the chefs flock, if only to cut their teeth before moving on to another town. Like Chicago.

On Saturday night, my cousins Patty and Barry made reservations at Five Points, just around the corner and down the block from the hotel.

The decor, as you can see, is lovely. The night we were there, the massive vases down the center of the restaurant's "wooden river" as Patty calls it (think of a very long wooden beam carved into a trough) were filled with flowering tree branches - dogwood, perhaps? The ceiling panels are woven into the pattern you see.

Oh, but I'm not here to talk about decor, am I, John? (My friend John, whom I saw on Tuesday, likes it when I write about food, so this post is dedicated to him.)

The menu was amazing. I have a very hard time deciding in restaurants. My friend Dennis once said, as I struggled with my decision, "Beth, you can come back another day and order something else." True, true. But when faced with so many tempting choices, it's hard to make up one's mind.

I started with a salad of baby greens and roasted beets with toasted almonds and a dried apricot chutney. I will eat roasted beets in any form. Go ahead, make a roasted beet shake for me. I'll drink it.

For my entree, I combined several elements on the menu, so I could choose more things, make fewer decisions. And so dinner was a combination of an appetizer and two sides: a triangle of polenta, lightly pan fried to give the edges just a bit of crispness to contrast the creamy interior, topped with a mound of roasted wild mushrooms and napped with a lovely fontina cream, and sides of roasted Brussels sprouts and exquisitely soft mashed potatoes. Let's not think about all the butter and cream.

All of which was delicious, but all of which pales, pales, pales in comparison to the dessert. I am a panna cotta devotee. If it's on the dessert menu, I order it. Consequently, I have had panna cotta in many places in my life. But none - none - have ever compared to the panna cotta at Five Points. Served on a plate drizzled with blood orange syrup, the texture of it is nearly indescribable. It was the most silken texture I've ever put on my tongue. Like silk wrapped in cashmere. It was simply the most decadent, luxurious dessert I've ever had.

When our server stopped by the table, I extended my compliments to the pastry chef. I've never done that before.

Sunday's "breakfast" was a muffin and latte at Dean & Deluca. Utterly forgettable. I didn't think it was possible to screw up anything containing the words "cappuccino" and "hazelnut," but D&D proved it possible. My muffin was leaden. And somewhat dry. And the frosting/glaze on the top of the muffin was dry and cracked when I pulled the muffin into bites. And where exactly was the hazelnut? I wasn't expecting nuts, but I was expecting the flavor of the nuts. All very sad.

Sunday's late lunch was pizza and salad at a cute place on 57th. Tasty, but not worthy of much exposition here. It was more of a snack to tide us over before dinner. In Brooklyn. At Rose Water.

It is a wee restaurant. Maybe 36 seats inside. The kitchen appears positively diminutive. But Patty, and Barry especially, are frequent diners there and know the chef, Ethan, well. When we arrived, Barry ducked his head into the kitchen to mention that they were entertaining family from Chicago (I was in New York with my parents, and this dinner was to celebrate my mom's 65th birthday) so the chef took every opportunity to send out special tastes and treats. Our first was a meze plate of hummus and celery root puree and baba ghanouj and white bean puree with feta and olives and freshly made wheat pita.

I had a baby greens salad. Simple and good. Light, which was important, as the entree promised to be a bit heavy, but a stunner.

But first, the chef sent out individual dishes of risotto for us. A saffron risotto with olives and roasted red peppers and Asiago cheese, was it?, plated with a drizzle of port wine reduction. And just enough. I love risotto, but the portions are always too large.

My entree was a braised short rib flanked by mustard spaetzle and fresh sauerkraut and topped - this is the stunner - with a horseradish dill creme fraiche. Outstanding. I don't often write about my companions' entrees, because I'd have to write a novella every time I discussed dinner, but my mother's cod is worth a mention. Not the cod so much as the sauce on which it sat. I won't even try to describe it here. Just get to Rose Water before the menu changes and order it. Really.

There were five of us for dinner and five desserts on the menu, making that decision rather straightforward. Mine was a coffee-poached pear with a small hazelnut cake (which tasted, happily, like hazelnuts!) and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. According to the menu, it should have been whipped creme fraiche, but why quibble? Ethan sent out dessert wine pairings for all of us. I had a tawny port.

Which brings us to Monday. Patty and Barry had to work, so we were on our own for the day.

At dinner at Rose Water, Barry had mentioned the quiche at Balthazar. Yes, we eat one meal and discuss the next. So, Monday morning, Balthazar it was. I ordered a bowl of cafe au lait and a mixed berry scone and the quiche which came with greens. Ah, salad for breakfast! The quiche was indeed fabulous. Caramelized onions and roasted red peppers and gruyere in the most delightful egg custard, perfectly cooked to just the right consistency, creamy yet set.

Lunch was rather inspired, if I do say so. I absolutely had to have an H&H bagel and I absolutely had to pop into Zabar's and Dad wanted to see Central Park, so I pulled together a picnic. We each picked our favorite bagel at H&H (sesame for me, always) and I grabbed a tub of veggie schmear. At Zabar's, I chose fruit salad and Black Forest ham and, the piece de resistance, an apricot cheese strudel. We found a pretty little pavillion in the park and noshed our hearts out. We ate half the strudel and I toted the other half back to the hotel for my mom and dad to have with their coffee in the morning. She invited me to their room to share.

Monday night, Patty made reservations at Cafe Bianco, a tiny little place she spied on Bleeker Street and looked up online. With good reviews from Zagat and other sources, we decided to give it a try. It is a very happy find.

I started with fried zucchini blossoms and garlic shrimp. Heaven. The blossoms were slit to lie flat and coated in the most delicate batter (think tempura). The shrimp were perfectly cooked.

My entree, in a moment of great departure and adventure for me, was the crispy salmon. I am not, not, not a salmon eater, but I ordered it in Dave's honor. Pan seared in a bit of butter and salt, I'm guessing, then finished in the oven, plated with crispy rosemary roasted potatoes and the most immense mound of garlic-sauteed spinach. (Dave, if you're reading, I ordered it medium and it was cooked perfectly.)

I tried the panna cotta for dessert. Not surprisingly, following the Five Points effort, it fell rather flat. Alas.

Tuesday, mom and I joked about going back to Balthazar for more quiche, but we got a late start. We met John at Rockefeller Center (John and I have one specific spot where we meet every time) and headed down to the cafe (with a view of the skating rink) for some coffee and a quick bite. I had a salad with hazelnuts and cheese I'd never heard of. It was like a Stilton if Stilton was a yellow cheese. In any event, it was good. And my mimosa was a happy accompaniment.

Of course, that nosh was just a precursor to our lunch at the Oyster Bar at Grand Central. I had the grilled sea scallops which came plated with steamed vegetables and potaotes. Not the most remarkable meal. But I nabbed a spoonful of John's bouillabaisse broth and that was pretty sensational. One of our servers, a handsome Italian man, was pleased when I ordered the lemon panna cotta for dessert, but it was easily the worst I've ever had. It was grainy, almost like ricotta cheese.

And lastly, before going to see the play (my entire reason for going to New York), we stopped into the restaurant next door for drinks and little bites. (The play clocks in at three hours, so I didn't think we'd be eating after.) The smoked prosciutto wrapped around something like fresh mozzarella and grilled was tasty, as were the rosemary-roasted potatoes. Of course, downing two glasses of Absolut Mandarin in the space of about 45 minutes would heighten pretty much any experience.

Breakfast the next morning at the airport was a bottle of orange juice and a Clif bar. And I think I'll eat sticks and twigs for a week to see if I can't lower my cholesterol a bit.

And yet, for all the amazing meals, I don't think I gained any weight.

Thank God New York is a walking city.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

NYC: The Hotel ...

I'm a hotel snob and proud of it. I'm not a five-star hotel snob. I don't refuse to step foot into a hotel if it's next to an Interstate or if the room doors are visible from the parking lot. My first requirement is that my room is impeccably clean. Beyond that, I'm flexible. Sometimes, serviceable is satisfactory. But sometimes, a girl needs more.

And I found it.

Mies van der Rohe never had the chance to stay at The Bowery Hotel, but like the man said, "God is in the details."

But for a couple billing snafus, the experience was seamless. Charming.

The steel and glass canopy (which sounds modern and industrial but isn't) welcomes guests without a word. I like it. It's like a secret club, and only members know the entrance exists.

Saturday, the day I arrived, was breezy and sunny. The lobby of the hotel is quiet and dark. The front desk is beautiful, as is the furniture behind it, a wall of cubbies for the room keys. The room keys are magnetic and programmable, but keys nonetheless. And they are attached to gigantic burgundy and gold tassels. If you're thinking, "Well, that's a hassle to stuff in your pocket," worry not. You leave the key at the front desk when heading out for the day, pick it up when you return.

Upon signing in (and resolving the issue of the rate), the challenge became to find a room. After checking my bag and taking a seat in the lobby, the beautifully furnished lobby, rich with rugs and embroidered draperies and upholstered antiques and huge floor palms and a fireplace and a bookcase full of books you'd actually want to read, a member of the staff appeared and offered to buy me a drink, to apologize for the inconvenience.

Yes, thank you. Vodka solves just about everything.

With a room arranged, and my betassled key in hand (and a Bowery Hotel business card with my room number written on the back; clever idea), I headed to the elevators through a short, tiled hallway. Carved dark wood, more subdued lighting. The lighting is so flattering everywhere, it may be impossible not to look beautiful in this hotel.

My room was tucked away in a corner of the fifth floor. The hallway smelled new, like fresh carpet and paint. Not overwhelmingly so, but pleasantly. New hotel smell.

From the dimmish light of the hallway, I opened my room's door to a small entryway and admired the hardwood floors. Hardwood floors. In a hotel room. Except in the bathroom, whose floor is clad in marble and whose walls are clad in gleaming white subway tile with a small green accent tile stripe toward the top of the room. The hardware of the bathroom is heavy, old-looking brass. The showerhead, tucked behind a wall of glass, not a shower door, comes directly out of the ceiling to bathe you in rain. The towels are plentiful and fluffy. The bathrobes are thick and heavy, "The Bowery" embroidered at the chest. Bigelow soaps and lotions and gels and shampoos and conditioners await along with a loofah mitt and cotton swabs (individually wrapped cotton swabs) and toothpaste. Details, details, and more details.

Built into the entryway is a wall of doors lined with shirred, striped fabric. Behind the first, a closet (with lovely wooden hangars on an actual closet pole), a small ironing board, iron, and full-size blowdryer. The iron and the blowdryer have retractable cords. Tidy.

Behind the next door, a series of shelves for sweaters and things that should not or do not hang.

And behind the third door, the mini bar, both with a small wine fridge for beverages and an array of other liquors and must-haves up top. No Jack Daniels here. Bombay Sapphire and Grand Marnier and Patron and lovely bottles of vodka, the brand of which I've forgotten. Though, of course, if you want Jack, I'm sure you can get it in the beautiful bar off the lobby.

Through the doorway into the actual room, a doorway adorned with a bit of stained glass overhead, the floor is mostly covered by a large, beautiful carpet. Whether antique or made to look well worn, it is a lovely contrast to the dark hardwood floors.

The bed, dressed in Turkish linens (according to the hotel's web site), is a dark hardwood base with a perfect mattress on top, not too hard, not too soft. A lush down duvet rests inside a lovely duvet cover, embroidered to match the bathrobes. And the blanket, folded across the foot of the bed, is printed with the name of the hotel as well.

It's impossible to forget where you're staying, as the name of the hotel appears throughout the room, but in subtle ways, like on the wall sconces flanking the large mirror over a long, narrow table on which sits a flat-panel television with integrated DVD player. (The literature in the room reveals that the hotel has a library of DVDs for the guests.) A stool is tucked underneath this glass-topped console if you'd like to sit in the natural light of the floor-to-ceiling windows to apply your makeup.

If you need a cordless phone, it's there. Though your typical hotel phone is on the bedside table, in front of a bank of switches to control various things in the room, including recessed lighting, tucked from view over the bed, if you'd just like a little bit of mood.

On the other bedside table, in front of another bank of switches to control even more things, is an iPod stereo, iPod not included. But as I don't travel without mine, I was able to listen to anything in my iTunes library as I went to bed or while I got ready in the morning.

The chairs and table in front of the wall of windows are the perfect scale for the room. Even the wands to pull the draperies open and closed are pretty, not those ugly plastic sticks. And by the way, if you like your room really, really dark, there's a blackout shade that can be pulled down to cover the entire wall of windows, which are not typical hotel windows but a grid of black steel and glass. I never used the shade. The sheers and blackout drapes made the room plenty dark for me.

Suffice it to say, I was charmed beyond charmed. I adore this hotel. The staff is friendly and attentive. The location is tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Midtown, yet very near many subway lines and it takes approximately a half a second to get a cab. SoHo is steps away. The Empire State Building is in easy view. Five Points Restaurant is just around the corner, so named for the area of New York that was the subject of "Gangs of New York." And another great restaurant, Cafe Bianco, is just around another. But I'll write about food tomorrow.

With my hotel snobbishness, I've always thought it would be fun to travel to hotels and write accounts of my stays for the owners of the properties. I once had a bad experience at a Ritz-Carlton and was quick to write to the management and let them know.

Eric Goode, the hotelier of The Bowery and other properties, along with his partner, Sean MacPherson, included a letter in the room's literature, asking for comments about the hotel experience. (It opened on Valentine's Day; it's very, very new.) I look forward to writing to them.

Or I can send them this URL.

After NYC ...

I'm home.

Three short days in New York, so many stories. Long stories.

Travel days don't count.

I arrived Saturday and left Wednesday, so Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday were the real days of wandering. I had dinner with my cousins Saturday night, but I was back in my room early.

I watched "Valley Girl" on VH1.

I could write one blog entry about the entire sojourn, but, well, summer is coming and I'm sure we'd all like to get outside.

So, for the sake of brevity (not that any of them will be brief), I'll break the topics up into individual posts:

NYC: The Food (For John)

NYC: The Hotel

NYC: The Play

NYC: The Sights On The Streets

Where to begin?

I must begin with the hotel.

And so I will.

See the next post.

As soon as I get around to posting it.