Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ten Years Ago Today...

My mom told me my very first dirty joke at the age of nine.  I was a little slow on the uptake -- it took a decade for me to get it.  Not that I would ever have admitted it to her.  The joke, if I remember correctly, had something to do with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and her method of cooking his breakfast.  ("Sliding up and down the banister!" brayed my mom gleefully.)  I've always wondered if she read that joke somewhere or made it up herself.  Either way, I laughed right along with her -- I wanted to be as cool and smart and irreverent and funny as she was. But did I have any idea what it meant? Nope. Not a clue.

Bright red chipped toenail polish.  Mischievous gray eyes and a cynical smile.  A foamy glass of beer.  Elegant fingers cradling a lit Parliament cigarette, poised over a misshapen green ceramic ashtray I had made in art class and proudly presented to her one Christmas. (I never saw it thereafter when it wasn't full of lipstick-stained butts.)  A nimbus of hazy yellowish smoke around her head.

These are some of the images I retain of my irrepressible mom, who has been gone now for exactly ten years today. 

If I had to guess, I'd say that the very last thing on earth she aspired to be was a suburban housewife and mother.  (Funny how that whole "self-fulfilling prophecy" thing works.)  Having found herself in that position, though, she gamely gave it a shot...with mixed results.  She wasn't what you'd call domestically inclined -- she had zero interest in housekeeping, wasn't very good at mending our clothes or tending the garden or ironing.  She could charitably be described as an indifferent cook:  her Jello molds were crooked, her gravy was lumpy, her pot roast was tough, and her cookies tended to come out burned around the edges...assuming she remembered to turn on the oven in the first place.

It was clear even to me as a child that her heart just wasn't in it, and it was obvious that she thought that any woman who professed to enjoy these things -- like the perky gals enthusiastically hawking housewares in TV commercials -- was either "a lying sack of crap" or had been brainwashed.  Forget Donna Reed and Jane Wyatt and (later) Florence Henderson.  I'm thinking my mom's television alter-ego was probably the sublimely sexy Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams, who serenely ran her household from a big rattan peacock chair without ever appearing to do any actual work.  (That slinky black dress, perfect manicure, and enveloping mane of hair would have made it difficult in any event.)  What a life -- effortlessly beguiling her smitten husband, Morticia never had to concern herself with mundane things like attending PTA meetings or pretending to be interested in somebody's new recipe for chicken salad or keeping up on the latest kitchen appliances.

So, mom wasn't going to win any housewife-of-the-year awards. We were fed and clothed and had what we needed...wasn't that enough? Dust? Clutter? Big deal -- life is short.  And she didn't have much use for anyone she saw as phony, elitist, and pretentious, whether they be a public figure or someone from the neighborhood.  Case in point:  Jacqueline Kennedy, either before or after JFK's assassination. "They were aiming at HER!" declared my mom to the ladies at the weekly bridge tournament, who nearly dropped their Bloody Marys in shock.   That was fine; my mom liked to shock people.  It should come as no surprise that she didn't have a lot of friends among the neighbors, who probably found her candor alarming.

She fled from convention.  She deplored conformists.   Ironic, considering where we lived on my hardworking dad's teacher salary: a small, flat ranch house identical to many others in our cookie cutter bedroom suburb.  Such a banal existence must have seemed like the seventh level of hell to someone like her.  There were many days that she retreated into alcohol and food and ordering things on the Home Shopping Network and shouting out all the right answers on Jeopardy.  Her bed was her best friend sometimes.

I've always wondered how her life would have been different if she had continued to work. Clearly, she was a brilliant woman, and proved to be -- to our pleasant surprise years later -- a very savvy investor. There were many times, I'm sure, when she was frustrated and miserable and filled with regrets.

But catch her in the right mood and oh, the stories she would tell!  Scheherazade in a seersucker robe.  Outrageous tall tales about her childhood, her wacky family, her various unusual jobs, the men she had her va-va-va voom youth before my dad came along (no detail was spared!), and her skillful lampooning of our very stereotypical 1960s-era neighbors...

The Osaka family -- mom, dad and three daughters -- who trooped out of their house every Wednesday evening to their county orchestra rehearsals, all of them with French horns in tow. Mrs. Osaka also gave French horn lessons, and whenever the sound would waft out of their house and over our back fence, my mom would bellow, "Release the hounds!"  The McKendricks, whose Grandma had Alzheimer's (we didn't know that word then -- to us, she was just crazy). The poor thing would forlornly wander the neighborhood in her bare feet and nightgown in all kinds of weather, searching in vain for her late husband.  My mom would sigh, throw on a coat, grab a blanket, bundle the trembling Mrs. McKendrick into the car, and determinedly take her back home.  The Pembertons, who perennially won the prize for the gaudiest Halloween and Christmas church and state, they thought nothing of having a big Santa and his reindeer right next to their Nativity scene in the front yard.  Mrs. Pemberton, resplendent in her heavy Cleopatra eye makeup, capri pants, and perfect ash blonde beehive, assailing us with an impossibly chipper greeting as she arrived for the early morning kindergarten carpool.  My mom had a field day with that -- "What, is she up at four in the effin' morning?"

The time I, a newly-minted five-year-old, refused my mom's help and insisted on personally carrying six big flat boxes of chocolate donuts into my classroom birthday party.  Of course I dropped them, and my mom and I, laughing like loons, had to chase down four dozen donuts as they rolled down the snowy street...later doling them out anyway with nobody the wiser.

And the family -- her doctor brother Herb and his family, looking down their noses at us while constantly moving from pillar to post.  Her feckless philandering cousin Jack and his long-suffering wife Joanne, who once went after him with a stiletto-heeled shoe right there in our living room -- in front of all us kids -- upon hearing of his latest indiscretion.  Her genial faith healer mother, a line of alarmingly bright wigs on her dresser (probably a holdover from her flapper days), whose rambling St. Louis boarding house was filled with doddering catatonic shell-shocked veterans, books on the occult, a perpetually smiling black cook named Elmira (my very first African-American!), and an ever-changing coterie of striped felines -- all named "Mama Cat" -- undulating in and out of the house.  Her tight-lipped frugal Baptist mother-in-law, for whom even Mother Teresa would never have been good enough for her only son.  She and my mom proved worthy adversaries, doing surreptitious battle for years right under the nose of my unsuspecting father.  His only sister, who baked for church socials and raised four Eagle Scout sons in rural Indiana while harboring a secret fascination with bats -- she liked to keep the little creatures in the garage until she was persuaded that they didn't make good pets for the kids.

A running commentary on all of this, and much more, would flow freely from my mom with a swig of beer and a sardonic drag on her cigarette.  Was it all strictly accurate?  Who knows? As my dad used to say, "Your mom never let the truth get in the way of a good story." Certainly I never tired of hearing her stories -- on the contrary, I was her biggest fan, and made her repeat them over and over.  I think she liked that; after all, what good is a performance without an appreciative audience?  And in my eyes, she was Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller and Lucille Ball rolled into one.  I hope she knew it.

My last exchange with her, ten years ago this weekend, was typical. In the final stages of lung cancer (all those Parliaments had finally caught up with her), she was now in a wheelchair on oxygen. I had brought her a big tightly bound bouquet of bright pink tea roses, and upon taking them out of the wrapping, I was dismayed to discover that they were full-blown, meaning they wouldn't last long. I said as much, and my mom gasped, "No, I'm glad...I don't have to wait for them to open. They're...perfect."

We had a nice visit and shared a grilled cheese sandwich (sadly, I ate most of it). As I was leaving, I leaned over to kiss her goodbye and said I'd see her tomorrow. She smiled sardonically and rasped, "Maybe I won't be here." I looked at her, weak and ill, hunched in her wheelchair, hooked up to those heavy oxygen tanks and a loudly buzzing generator, and asked her where she was planning on going. "Maybe I'll be out dancing," she whispered, with that old glint in her eye.

I guess she knew more than I did -- she was gone the next day. And maybe she really did go dancing. I like to think so.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Much Ado

About nothing? About an iconic show? About one person’s opinion of another person’s performance that others have already critiqued in a similar manner.

Clay Aiken has added a great feature to his fanclub site where he answers questions from fans on just about any topic. He’s been funny, serious, thoughtful, snarky and even political at times. It’s been the best addition to the fanclub site since its inception. (I find it interesting that he only started it after he left RCA but I digress). There have been over 4000 questions asked and he’s answered about 300 so far. It’s been a wonderful experience to get to know him a little better because the format is just like people sitting around a living room talking about the issues of the day. He’s answered questions that surprised me (for instance, we knew he had TMJ surgery in February but they actually broke his jaw to fix it). He’s obviously well read and that shows too.

Recently a fan reminded him that he’d said he thought AI wasn’t the same as it used to be and asked if Kris Allen won, would that renew his faith in the show getting back to its roots. Clay waited until the results were announced and then addressed the question, first on the message board and then moved to his blog. The basis of his answer was that he felt that the other contestant, Adam Lambert, was pushed on to the public and practically declared the winner ahead of time. Seriously, the guy had a magazine cover weeks ago, how fair is that? I didn't even watch the show and I knew who Adam was and what he looked like. I didn't even know who the other guy was.

Clay felt that there may have been some public backlash to that which drove votes to Kris and overall, he felt that Adam and many others in the last few seasons have been too polished and too professional and that’s not what made AI so successful when it started. I agree and I think it started when they raised the age limit and was exacerbated when they focused more on the guest acts and forgot about the regular folks competing on the show.

He’s said this before as have countless other news outlets. Here he was talking about it with Good Day LA in 2008. As you can see, the anchors note that Simon Cowell was rather frustrated as well.

Here he is talking about it with Kathie Lee Gifford during that same time period, including reiterating that he's grateful for the opportunity Idol gave him.

Media Magnet
Clay started his blog by talking about Adam Lambert. He’d received a handful of questions about this contestant specifically. He noted that he didn’t care for Adam’s rendition of Ring of Fire (a performance that Cowell called “indulgent rubbish”). He said it made his ears bleed. While I agree 100% with Clay on that account (and Cowell for that matter), it is understandable that many Adam fans have cried foul or expressed some resentment. Of course the media has run wild with it. (Which amuses me to no end that Clay has stolen the spotlight during finale week, the same way he did during season 5 when he surprised Michael Sandecki.)

A few weeks ago, Clay visited the Idol set with his son Parker. He has said he has many friends who remain on the show and just like you or I might return to a former place of employment with a new baby, he did the same. The National Enquirer took that little piece of truth and concocted a story about him looking to mentor Adam or do a duet. (I guess the bleeding ears thing kind of refuted that, eh?) The Chicago Sun-Times took that story as gospel and ran with it and other “journalists”(are there any left in entertainment media?) copied it verbatim from either source. Now those same “journalists” are taking that lie and using it as a reason why Clay spoke about Adam and the way he did. How convenient for them. They fabricated a story and then used it to put their own twist on a new fabricated story. Boy, I wonder if they even have to turn on all their brain cells for that one. Or as Nan has said, the media love dust-up, distortion and distraction. And if they can’t find it, they “help it along”.

The other little side piece of crap about that story was that Clay was escorted out. (Interesting is that same piece of crap story was repeated during finale weeks of years past.) While I agree that AI has shunned Clay (they refused to let him sing when he was promoting his album On My Way Here and 2 years of Idol Gives Back fabricated charity shows and they didn’t once mention one of their own who is a UNICEF Ambassador and has visited five countries in very dangerous situations?) I am not buying that for a minute. Convention wisdom is that by leaving the AI/19 management group (and likely convincing tour buddy Kelly Clarkson to do the same) he doesn't have to hand over a huge chunk of his millions. They might not have taken too kindly to that.

But the producers are one group; his friends who work behind the scenes are another. Does anybody believe he would have taken his son to visit friends if he didn’t think he could get past the gate? He was recently an invited guest at a birthday party for a former Idol producer, as well.

I’m glad Clay was honest in how he felt, even if he wasn’t as diplomatic as he could have been. Unfortunately the focus shifted to his Adam comments and many are missing the message of the blog entirely. He said America has always gotten it right, even in his season and that perhaps this was sending a message of "let us decide." Well, America may be sending another message as this was the lowest rated finale since Season 2. The highest? Clay and Ruben’s finale. The second highest? The AI5/Sandecki one where Clay appeared with the new dark haircut.

I do feel badly for Kris Allen. First, his headline is that he “upset” the media/judges favorite. Now, because the media favorite is deemed slighted, he’s pushed to the background.

A second blog by Clay
After I wrote this Clay blogged again to laugh at how much influence he has at times and how things are twisted. He made the blog public so here it is.

Who knew I had so much influence and that my words and opinion mattered so much to so many people!?!?! HA HA HA I'll be the first to admit that my opinion is just that, only my opinion, but for as much as some of the bloggers seem to dislike me and care so little about my thoughts, they sure can waste a lot of their space on what I say! If only many of them took the time to pay attention to important things like the US economy and the welfare of the world's children. But... nah... I could blog about that type of stuff anytime and most wouldn't think twice, but let me say something that they can pick and choose quotes and misinterpret me... and it's showtime! I never assumed my opinion mattered so much! I guess I may have been wrong.

That said, since my previous blog got dissected like a biology lab frog, i suppose I should clarify and even retract some of what I wrote.

I am sure that some were upset by my choice of words describing my opinion of a performance I heard from Adam Lambert. I hope no one actually believed that blood truly poured forth from my ears when I heard him. I obviously meant it as a colorful statement to imply that I did not enjoy what I heard. Any performer hopes that their music will appeal to all people, but no singer realistically expects it to. God knows, I am SURE there are PLENTY of people who can't stand to hear me sing either. I wouldn't dream of assuming that, and I am sure that far worse things have been said about my performances than I would even venture to type here. To me, that's fine. I don't expect unanimous, nor even majority support for my music. But, my guess is Adam doesn't either.

I would not venture to make judgements on the personality or demeanor of anyone I don't know, so none of what I said in my previous blog was directed as a "slam" on Adam as a person. At the same time, I wouldn't dream of slamming him as an entertainer. He does what he does, because he enjoys it, and he obviously has many fans who enjoy it as well. If what i said in my previous blog regarding my impression of a single performance from Adam upset or offended any of his fans, I expect that the mature ones will realize that it was simply a poorly worded metaphor describing my personal tastes. The only person I would really dream of apologizing to is Adam. And the irony is, if he's smart he couldn't give a crap what I think of his Ring of Fire performance. As an entertainer, Adam knows that one person's opinion of one performance really matters a little less than zero, in the grand scheme of things. He could not have gotten on Idol (nor made it as far as he did) without an immense amount of talent. He surely doesn't need my approval to know he has a gift. At the same time, he realizes that amazing talent doesn't always equal universal appeal. (I could NEVER have the amount of skill and talent that ballet dancers have! that's talent! But, I don't particularly enjoy it!)

I am sure that I will have plenty of opportunities in the coming years to hear Adam sing. I imagine he'll be around for years to come. But in the meantime, I definitely don't want to stoop to the level of so many negative freaks on the internet... so, I do apologize to Adam for my colorful (and negative) choice of words. I hope he can forgive me. I imagine he doesn't give a damn! :-) God knows he shouldn't. :-)


Now, for those of you who are able to comment on this.... lets take bets as to which bits and pieces of this blog will end up mass distributed. Be creative.... they don't seem to care about punctuation or whether or not they use all of the words in a sentence... so, have fun.... ;-)

Ok, Here was my prediction for how the media will discuss this new blog...

Aiken grovels at Lambert's feet after media outrage. Begs him to duet or even better, let Aiken open for Lambert on his world tour beginning in December."

Here’s is Adam singing Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire in the performance that Clay was referring to. It's a video from an Adam Lambert site that conveniently cuts off right before Simon growls and Randy Travis grimaces. If you like it, then check out more of Adam or his album when it comes out. If you don’t, then you’re no different than Clay or me. Yet, your opinion won’t be twisted by entertainment media who like blood sport more than they do truth.

Technorati tags: