Wednesday, December 30, 2009

They're Creepy and They're Kooky

As some of my longtime readers probably remember, my sis and I were the recipients of a remarkable gift about a month or so ago -- two free tickets to see the Chicago preview run of the Broadway-bound The Addams Family. It was the cause of tremendous excitement on our part -- the chance to see any professional theatre is always exciting for me, but when you add two of my all-time favorite stars (Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth) to one of my favorite tv shows when I was a kid, excitement doesn't even scratch the surface.

As the show grew closer, I started to worry. What if the show sucked? My sis assured me that we would enjoy the show regardless, that Nathan and Bebe would make it all worthwhile and that there was sure to be something redeeming involved. And still I worried.

We took our seats at the gorgeous Oriental Theatre -- seriously, it is breathtaking. We'd been there before (it was the home of Wicked for several years), but we'd never been down on the main floor. We'd seen "stars" onstage before, but this time, we were actually going to be able to SEE them and not have to squint!

As the overture started, I could feel the goosebumps rising and the tears of joy and excitement growing near. There is just nothing like the rush of theatre, and it's even more of a rush when you know that what lies ahead is going to be a spectacle if not spectacular. When I'm sitting in the audience of a musical during the overture, I feel like a little kid again, ready to engage in the wonder of the stage. My favorite moment of a show is that moment when the overture is wrapping up and the curtain rises to reveal the world that you will be engaged in for the next couple hours. When the curtain rose Monday night revealing the Addams family graveyard -- and the Addams family themselves -- I gasped aloud (yeah, I am such a nerd!). There was this lovely, gloomy set (this enormous tree that the theatre teacher in me immediately wanted to jump on stage to investigate to see how it was made, this giant moon) and there was the cast. I admit, I wept with the sheer joy of just seeing Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth (who honestly looked just like they look onscreen -- he seemed a tiny bit taller than I imagined, she seemed even skinnier than I imagined, but that was about it).

For the first quarter of the first act, though, I'll admit I was concerned about the show. The opening number was kind of blah and anti-climactic to me, and I felt like there was a lack of any clear exposition. The show kind of assumes we know the characters intimately, and it would have been nice to have just a little more establishment of the characters, even if it's just to confirm what we already pretty much know or remember. The show also utilized some things initially that frequently drive me crazy in theatre. After the opening number, Uncle Fester stepped forward and began narrating. I generally HATE shows with narrators because it often feels like a way to cheat your way out of meaningful exposition and character development. Don't TELL me what's going on; SHOW me what's going on. The first couple scenes were quick little scenes, very vignette-like -- another peeve of mine in theatre. I like shows with an overarching story, and it initially seemed like this was going to be more kooky looks at little Addams episodes and that concerned me. Add to that the fact that the presence of Morticia and Gomez seemed a bit diminished at the beginning, and I was not a happy camper.

And then it all changed. About a quarter of the way into the act, Morticia and Gomez had a lovely little song together ("Passionate and True"), and Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth demonstrated a fun, easy chemistry together. They seemed comfortable together, and I really enjoyed that. Around this point, too, the plot began to emerge a little more clearly -- the now 18-year-old Wednesday Addams (a charming Krysta Rodriguez) has fallen in love with a normal young man named Lucas Beinecke (Wesley Taylor). The Beinecke parents, Mal (Terrence Mann) and Alice (Carolee Carmello), are in town from Ohio (of course) and are coming to dinner at the Addams home in spite of Wednesday's objections/concerns. We have a classic culture clash between the normal world of the Beineckes and the kooky world of the Addamses. Wednesday begs her parents to give her one night of normalcy so as not to scare the Beineckes off and ruin her chances with Lucas. Add to the conflict the fact that Morticia is not entirely sure she's ready to be old enough to have a daughter in love, the Gomez is not entirely sure he's ready for his daughter to date, and that Pugsley is not happy that his sister is no longer torturing him (literally) because of her newfound focus on Lucas and you have a plot that works pretty well most of the time. The number that introduces the Beinecke family ("One Normal Night") really kick starts the show -- and finally gives us the money shot of the Addams Family (complete with Morticia's wicker chair) as well as a glorious teaser of the theme song we all remember. You could almost feel the audience relaxing into the show at that point as we all jumped on board the train. The rest of the first act really fired along nicely as we moved towards the set closing "Full Disclosure" (one of my favorite numbers in the show) which found the Addams clan inviting the Beineckes to play their favorite game involving the revelation of deep secrets and which left both families in tatters as the curtain closed.

The second act started off with a nice showstopping number for Bebe Neuwirth ("Second Banana") as Morticia mourned the loss of her youth and was quickly followed by a lovely number for Nathan Lane ("Happy/Sad") as Gomez came to terms with his daughter being in love and letting his little girl go. The act got a bit draggy, though, with ten different numbers stuffed in, several of which often felt like they were taking us away from the big central conflict. Particularly problematic was the cute, visually fun number "The Moon and Me" where Fester woos his great love, the moon. (Literally, the dude is in love with the moon.) It is a funny little number, but it also kind of stops the show dead in its tracks in terms of moving the plot along, keeping us from getting to our resolution.

I felt, too, like the show often struggled under the weight of the three conflicts contained within the overarching conflict of the show -- a rift in the marriage of Gomez and Morticia, a rift in the marriage of Mal and Alice, and a rift in the romance of Wednesday and Lucas. Wednesday and Lucas get their resolution relatively early in act II with the fun song "Crazier Than You" and then the duo pretty much go MIA until the finale. Morticia and Gomez find their resolution in a breathtaking scene which begins with a swordfight and ends in a delicious tango between the two. The number, too, also serves to address another early complaint I had, which was the fact that the required Morticia costume really limited Bebe Neuwirth's dancing early in the show because her legs were constrained in the tight dress. With a flick of a sword, Gomez "frees" her legs and suddenly there was the Bebe Neuwirth I've long idolized with the legs and the kicks and the dancing. Hooray!! "The Swordfight/Tango" was one of the highlights of the show -- gloriously choregraphed and demonstrating the beautiful chemistry between Lane and Neuwirth. It is just so amazing to watch two pros do their stuff, and even more inspiring is seeing how easily they pull this off when they are, honestly, not young people. (Lane is 53 and Neuwirth is 51, but they work like kids in their 20's up there!)

The problem is that "The Swordfight/Tango" wraps up Gomez and Morticia's conflict (the fear that the passion was going out of their marriage fueled by Morticia's fear of growing older), but we were still left with Mal and Alice. These two "strangers" get their resolution after Gomez and Morticia -- and that just felt wrong. For the final 20 minutes or so of the show, Gomez and Morticia basically become onlookers as others find their happy ending. During the show's finale ("Move Toward the Darkness"), it is Wednesday and Lucas who occupy center stage with Gomez and Morticia off to the side with the rest of the family. During that number, Wednesday, Lucas, Mal, and Alice all get "big" moments but there is none for Gomez and Morticia. The show is called The Addams Family and for most people, that really means Gomez and Morticia and I kind of felt cheated watching these strangers get the glory moments while the characters I came to see are off to the side.

Overall, I did enjoy the show. It is incredibly funny, beautifully designed, well acted and sung by a cast deep with Tony wins and nominations. Before heading to Broadway, though, it does need some work -- trimming some songs, tightening the script, and finding that focus on the Family. I read yesterday in the NY Times that Jerry Zaks had been brought on board to "doctor" the show a bit, which makes me think that the show I saw Monday night is going to be vastly different by time it gets to New York in the spring. For the sake of the show, I hope that it gets the tweaking it needs and is able to move to New York as successfully as Spamalot or The Producers (other Chicago preview shows that made it big). The potential is there; the cast is certainly game and capable. What I saw was a good show, but I think that it could be a great show.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Lady Douches

Yesterday, I posted a list of cinema's great douchebags, a list full of men. This prompted my friend Danielle to query as to whether there were any female douchebags worthy of mention. It's odd that you rarely hear this term used about a woman. I'd like to think that it's because women are incapable of douchebaggery, but the simple fact of the matter is that, most likely, rather than calling a woman a "douche," we simply just call her a "bitch" instead. I think, however, there is a big difference between a "douche" and a "bitch." To me, a douche is more innocuous than a bitch. They can be mean, yes, but bitches are evil. The list of douchey females I've complied below are selfish, mean women, but I would hesitate to call any of them evil. Many of them have likely been called bitches; I am rescuing them from that title and calling them douches instead. Mean, nasty, selfish douches.

Because most of the douchtresses who sprung to mind as I began compiling this list were douchey characters rather than douchey actors, I decided to go with identifying single characters. All of the women on this list are played by actors who have diverse careers and have not made a career out of playing these sorts of characters. How refreshing is that?

10. Heather Chandler, Heathers Okay, so maybe Heather Chandler is more of a bitch than a douche, but she ends up dead, so that buys her a little sympathy, right? Sure, she treats her friends like garbage -- mocking one for her bulimia, dragging another to a college frat party and then berating her for throwing up. Heather, though, has a lot of responsibility. As she reminds Veronica, she is the head of the most powerful clique at school (and she's only a junior). There's a lot of power and responsibility that comes with that. Had our Corn Nut munching friend not succumbed to a little Liquid Plumber tonic, perhaps she would have seen the error of her ways. Or maybe not.

9. Beth, Better Off Dead In the grand scheme of things, Beth is probably not THAT bad. Oh, who am I kidding? She's the ultimate in douche arm candy, making her a total douche herself. She dumps sweet, lovable Lane (John Cusack) so that she can pursue the douchey ski stud Roy (Aaron Dozier). After all, she reasons, Roy is a better skiier and has a better car. That's a good reason to dump a guy who adores you. What makes Beth even douchier is that she then stands by and watches as Roy mocks and torments Lane at every possible opportunity. Never once does she say, "Hey, Roy, that's enough. I chose you, man." And in true douchebag fashion, when Lane defeats Roy in the big ski-off at the end, she comes trotting back to Lane, expecting him to just take her back without argument, expecting him to dump his sweet new French honey just like she dumped him when a better prospect came along. Considering all the people who asked Lane's permission to date Beth, she won't be alone for long.

8. Katherine Parker, Working Girl Katherine pulls off a great douchebag trick -- she spends the first quarter of the movie seeming like a great person. When she hires Tess (Melanie Griffith), she becomes Tess's hero -- a strong, intelligent, confident woman. She seemingly nurtures Tess, giving her advice, coming across more as a big sister and mentor than a boss. And then Tess discovers the truth, that Katherine is stealing her idea to make millions and not giving Tess any credit -- and lying to Tess on top of that. When Katherine discovers Tess's own subterfuge, she fights back in true douche fashion, humiliating Tess in front of everyone -- including Harrison Ford. Ultimately, though, Tess wins the day and who knows what happens to Katherine. She probably becomes a senator or something.

7. Lina Lamont, Singin' in the Rain Lina is one of those douches that drives me crazy -- she THINKS she's all that but really . . . not so much. When no talking is involved, Lina is a competent actress. The problem is that voice -- and the fact that movies are about to add sound. Lina then forces innocent Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) into being her voice on film, thereby standing to ruin poor Kathy's shot at stardom on her own. Ultimately, Lina gets what's coming to her and is humiliated in front of a huge premiere night audience. We assume that Lina goes off and lands herself a trophy husband and lives in relative obscurity now that her career is shot and her onscreen partner has danced off into the sunset with Kathy.

6. Betty Rizzo, Grease This is a tough inclusion for me, and I'm sure it's tough for quite a few of you, too. Little girls growing up in the late 1970s and early 80s spent their days dancing to the Grease soundtrack and dreaming of being either virginial Sandy or wicked Rizzo. I was in the Rizzo camp. I was self-aware enough to know that I was no Sandy -- I don't know that anyone has ever referred to me as "perky" or "sweet." Plus, Sandy was clearly not a ginger! So I was happy and content to dance around my bedroom duplicating the choreography for "Look at Me; I'm Sandra Dee." In other words, I was happy pretending to be a douche. Let's face it; Rizzo is a douche. She's snarky and rude. Just look at how many sexual innuendoes pepper her conversations with her friends. She brings her boyfriend's arch-enemy to the big dance just to fuck with him. She mocks poor Sandy pretty openly AND behind her back. Of course, we know that Rizzo's douchebaggery really just hides a wounded soul as she faces the uncertainty of growing up, loving a guy who's clearly destined to be a loser (and who is a bit of a douche himself), and the possibility of a pregnancy. Rizzo probably grows up to be one of those nasty women you see walking around in Wal-Mart, so who can blame her for relishing in her glory while she still can?

5. Sue Sylvester, Glee In just a few short months on the screen, Sue has rocketed into the top five on this list. There is no denying, though, that Sue is a mega-douche. First of all, she's a cheerleading coach. Isn't that enough? No? How about the fact that she has made it her mission to destroy Glee Club -- sending in spies, trying to create rifts, leaking the Sectional set list to the competition? And why? Because it funnels some money from her cheerleading program? Is that really all? Could I ask anymore questions in this entry? The show has been smart to give Sue some depth (the revelation that Sue has a mentally retarded sister earlier this season is perhaps the show's most moving moment so far), and that depth is what keeps me from just shrugging Sue off as a bitch. Add to that her ludicrous political views (the woman is PRO-littering) and you have a great douche. Sue stomped off at the end of the show's first half of the season; you know she's going to come back with a wicked, douchey vengeance.

4. Angelica Pickles, Rugrats Yeah, there's a part of me that feels a little bit guilty labeling a three year old as a douchebag, but I feel better doing that than calling her a bitch. Angelica is a pretty nasty little girl -- relishing in tormenting Tommy and his pals whenever the opportunity arises. She has the world wrapped around her little finger, whether it's demanding toys from her parents or pudding in the middle of the night from her Uncle Stew. There's no doubt that Angelica probably grows up to be a total bitch, but for now, let's just call her a douche and leave it at that.

3. Phyllis Lindstrom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show Phyllis is a classic passive-aggressive douchebag. She claims to be Mary's friend but spends most of her time belittling her -- pointing out her lack of husband, questionable taste, and more whenever she can. And don't even get me started on her treatment of poor Rhoda. She was consistently rude to Rhoda, even giving Mary the apartment Rhoda had apparently been promised, forcing Rhoda to live in an attic while Mary had the dream apartment. Phyllis was a lousy landlord and a lousy friend but a great douche.

2. Regina George, Mean Girls I have to admit -- the choice between 1 and 2 on this list was a tough one for me. Regina George is a giant douche, so why isn't she number one? I mean, she mocks, torments, belittles, and destroys all who stand in her way. She's a lousy friend and a worse girlfriend. (Who dates a cutie like Aaron Samuels and cheats on him?) She is a manipulator -- setting up her "friends" in order to get revenge on Cady. So why is she number two? Well, it would seem that Regina recovers from her douchebaggery. At the end of the film, it seems as if Regina has stepped down and has found happiness with the field hockey girls -- even smiling rather shyly at Cady as she walks by her. See what happens when you get hit by a bus? It knocks the douche right out of you.

1. Darla, Dazed and Confused Darla is the Queen Douche on this list. Granted, we only see one day in Darla's life. Perhaps every other day in her life she is sweet and kind and loyal. I kind of doubt it. Darla spends the day tormenting incoming freshmen and drinking beer -- often at the same time. What seals the deal with Darla's spot on this list is one tiny moment towards the end of the film. Darla's friend Simone is tromping through the field on her cute wedgie heels, twists her ankle, and collapses. Darla's response is to fall to the ground in hysterical laughter. That's a really douchey move, Darla, and congratulations, it earned you the number one spot on this list. Long may you reign!

Great Douchebags of American Cinema

This morning, I woke up to a blanket of snow outside, killing my plans to go to the library and run a couple errands in favor of curling up with some pretty great Saturday afternoon programming on cable. Encore, in particular, is a real MVP today, running a weekend-long marathon of 80's movies. I also stumbled across a particular favorite of mine -- Nine to Five. As I was watching Dolly, Lily, and Jane rise above their chauvinist boss, a thought occurred to me: "Whatever happened to Dabney Coleman?" In the 80's and early 90's, that guy was a real go-to player, appearing in countless classics like Tootsie, War Games, The Man With One Red Shoe, and more. He made several attempts to parlay his cinematic success into small-screen success, but people never warmed to his patented brand of unabashed asshole at home the way they did at the movie theatres. His recent work has been mostly television work, though -- supporting roles on forgotten series or made-for-tv movies -- or small roles in not paricularly successful films like Domino. He has been cast in HBO's upcoming series Boardwalk Empire, so here's hoping Dabney is able to parlay that into some more high profile work.

Pondering the course of Dabney's career, though, got me thinking about other great character actors like him, actors who seemingly made their careers playing douchebags. They are the unsung heroes of the American cinema -- providing conflict, helping make our protagonists more likeable, and giving us a rooting interest in how the movie turns out. We want to see the douchebag fail -- and hopefully fail miserably. Many of them make a handful of memorable films with memorably douchey characters only to fade away to obscurity and made-for-Lifetime films. Others outgrow the douchebag and create new phases of their careers with more sympathetic characters. And still others play the douche for the course of their entire careers, each new character more douchey than the one before.

And so today, let's recognize these great douchebags for all they've given us (and film). Here's a list of my favorite Cinematic Douchebags, members of the Dabney Coleman Hall of Fame. Please feel free to share YOUR list in the comments.

10. Ted McGinley McGinley is better known as a series killer -- appearing on numerous classic television shows once they've jumped the shark and are in their waning years. Check out his resume -- Happy Days, Love Boat, Dynasty, Married With Children. While his arrival doesn't mean surefire, instant cancellation (many of those shows survived many seasons once McGinley showed up), it surely is seen as a sign that the show's glory years are gone, long gone. While that alone may make McGinley a seeming douchebag, what earns him this spot on the list is one of his earliest roles -- that of Stan Gable in Revenge of the Nerds. Talk about a douchebag!! The guy seems to get his kicks from bullying and tormenting a group of innocent freshmen. His frat house burns down; Stan kicks the "nerds" out of the dorms. When the nerds get their own house, Stan and his cro-magnon buddies attack it. Why? What did those nerds ever do to him? Nothing! Supreme douchebag!

9. Bill Murray WHAT? How could I include Bill Murray on this list of hissworthy douchebags? Well, here's the thing -- sometimes, douchebags are likable, and Bill Murray started his career playing just such a thing. Set aside your indignation for a second and really think about those early roles -- Tripper in Meatballs, Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, John in Stripes, Frank Cross in Scrooged, even Dr. Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters. All of those guys are douchebags, and yet we like them and root for them in spite of that. And yet if you knew any of them in real life, you would walk away from an encounter with them thinking, "What a douche!" Murray has given us an opportunity to see how these slacker douchebags grow up, maintaining the smarm AND the charm in films like Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums, and Lost in Translation. He even has had the honor of playing a great Shakespearean douche -- Polonius in Hamlet. (Yeah, I said it. Polonious is a douche -- using his daughter to suck up to the king. VERY douchey!) The other douchebags on this list aspire to be Bill Murray -- to keep douching it up for decades and to be adored for it at the same time.

8. Jason Hervey Hervey limited his douchebaggery to the small screen and really to one role, that of Kevin's big brother Wayne on The Wonder Years. Was there a more unlikable character on television in the late 80's and early 90's than Wayne? It seemed as if Wayne existed merely to bring tears to Kevin's big ol' doe eyes. That one role may not have been enough to land Hervey on this list if not for the fact that, as an adult, he's gone on to produce two incredibly douche-worthy shows -- Scott Baio is 45 and Single and Confessions of a Teen Idol. The first involved revealing to the world that Scott Baio is, in real life, a bit of a douchebag who suddenly realizes that maybe it's time to settle down and stop being a huge manwhore. The second involved a bunch of former teen idols making another attempt at stardom and coming to terms with their own real-life douchery. Other credits in Hervey's resume include a lot of WCW work (the spiritual home of many douchebags) as well as some show called I Want to Be a Hilton. Yeah, that's enough to earn you a spot on this list, pal.

7. Mark Metcalf A classic douche. Metcalf's career is full of small film and tv roles. Go check out his page on imdb and tell me you're not a little surprised to see how active he's been and how many great tv shows he's had guest spots on. But when most of us think of Mark Metcalf, we think of the role that made him famous, playing the psychotic douchebag Doug Neidermeyer in Animal House, a douchebag so horrific that his fate is to be killed by his own troops in Vietnam. Metcalf made another memorably douchey appearance in the video for Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." Add to that his role as the Master in the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and you've got a guy who's managed to take douche to a supernatural level.

6. Thomas F. Wilson Wilson is another one-role douchebag. He's had a wide and varied career, largely television work, but he will forever be known as wannabe rapist Bif Tannen in Back to the Future. For much of the film, Wilson's Bif is your standard, run of the mill bully -- his go-to response to punch masks his complete lack of intelligence. And then comes the moment in the car where Bif attempts to rape Lorraine while his buddies beat the shit out of Marty. There is perhaps no moment more pleasurable in the history of film than when Marty returns to the "future" and we see that Bif has been reduced to the McFly family lacky. (Although why Lorraine McFly would want the man who once tried to rape her hanging around her family is beyond me).

5. William Atherton Has poor William Atherton EVER played a likable character? He is remembered (by me, at least) for two memorable, douchebag characters -- Dr. Jerry Hathaway in Real Genius and Richard Thornburg in Die Hard. He specialized in douches who were out for number one at all costs. Hathaway used his students to further his own career -- and to build a nefarious laser that would destroy all enemies. Thornburg compromised the safety of innocent children in order to score a great scoop. Both also get fantastic comeuppance -- whether it's Hathaway having his house filled (literally FILLED) with popcorn or Thornburg getting punched out by Bonnie Bedelia. Atherton has continued to build a respectable career full of small movies and guest appearances, but I guarantee you whenever he shows up on screen, I'm rooting for someone to punch his lights out.

4. Will Arnett Unlike many on this list, Arnett's brand of douchebaggery is still going strong. He is, perhaps, the face of modern Film Douches. Arnett was slogging away in small films and guest appearances until 2003 when he was cast as douchebag magician Gob Bluth on Arrested Development. Arnett parlayed his small screen douche success to the big screen in films such as Blades of Glory, Hot Rod, The Rocker, and Semi-Pro. One of his finest douchebags is another small screen role, his recurring role as the devious Devin Banks on 30 Rock. According to, Arnett has a slew of films on the horizon -- there will surely be a great douchebag in one of them.

3. >James Spader Spader was perhaps the poster child of 80's douchebags, primarily for his role as Steff in Pretty in Pink. Steff was smarmy, smug, elitist, and vile. He sets out to insert himself between Andi and Blaine for no real reason other than Andi was from the wrong side of the tracks -- and she had rejected him. Therein lies Steff's real motivation. He's not all about maintaining the classist lines that rule his school; he's all about making sure his buddy doesn't get to hit what he wanted to hit so badly. Steff wanted to slum it with Andi, and she turned him down, so she (and Blaine) must pay the price. Spader would go on to play equally douchey characters in Baby Boom, Mannequin, and Wall Street before morphing into more of an unsettling sleazeball later in his career. His Emmy-winning turn as Alan Shore on Boston Legal found Spader finding a way to merge his douchebag roots with a more socially aware perspective. There's no denying Alan Shore was a douche but he was a douche on a mission, with a cause, and for whom we could root time and time again without feeling too guilty.

2. William ("Billy") Zabka In all fairness, Zabka didn't really make a career playing douchebags; he made a career playing dicks. Just check out his 80's resume: The Karate Kid, Back to School, Just One of the Guys, European Vacation. Not a likeable, sympathetic character in the bunch. You actively rooted against Zabka, cheered when he was defeated, and sometimes thought his punishment just wasn't harsh enough. Zabka joined the cast of The Equalizer as the son of the Equalizer -- and that was pretty much the end of Zabka's career. Oh, don't get me wrong. Zabka has been active in the 20 years since then, appearing in 25 films between 2009 and 1991. His film credits in that time period include For Parents Only, Hyper Sonic, High Voltage, Shootfighter, Shootfighter II, The Man in the Silo, and Python 1 and 2. Have you heard of any of these? Yeah, me either. I suspect poor Billy painted himself into a corner that was pretty hard to get out of. His kind of bullying douchebag works well in teen films, but it doesn't work as well when adulthood sets in. That's when Billy's brand of douchebaggery goes from being a dick to being criminal, and no one wants to see that happen.

1. Jeremy Piven Another currently active douchebag, Piven is a triple threat -- holdng the distinction of being a douche on the silver screen, the small screen, and, reportedly, in real life as well. For the first part of his career, Piven's real distinction was being the somewhat douchey second banana in a lot of John Cusack movies (Grosse Point Blank, Serendipity, Say Anything). Then, he was Spence, Ellen's slacker, borderline douche cousin/roommate on Ellen. Piven really spread his wings at the turn of the century, becoming a pioneering frat pack douche in Old School and then becoming the king of the douchebags on HBO's Entourage. In true douchebag fashion, once Piven tasted that HBO success (and the three Emmy awards it brought with it), he decided to bite the hand that had once fed him, accusing "friend" John Cusack in 2007 of being jealous of his success. (Really? Let's be honest, whose career would you rather have? Piven's or Cusack's? Cusack may not have a shelf full of awards -- a real shame, if you ask me -- but at the end of the day, I'd rather have his filmography than Piven's. Add to that the fact that Cusack seems to be much more respected, and you have a real win there.) And we haven't even touched on Sushi Gate, which involved Piven taking his douchebaggery to Broadway to appear in David Mamet's douche-centric Speed-the-Plow and then dropping out midway through the run due to mercury poisoning brought about by eating too much sushi. Just the fact that the guy got sick eating "too much sushi" is so douchetastic I can't stand it, let alone the fact that he left a show high-and-dry like that. Mr. Piven, you are, indeed, King of the Douchebags. I bow to you, sir!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Twenty Years and Still in the Fourth Grade

As I was driving to work this morning, I was reminded that today is a landmark day in pop culture history. Twenty years ago tonight, the very first episode of The Simpsons aired.


Twenty years ago, I was a freshman in college. As Simpsons mania was sweeping the nation, I was being introduced to the world of Freud and Sir Thomas Aquinas and frat parties and cheap beer. I was making friendships that would last a lifetime. And I was falling in love with a quirky family of five from Springfield, State Unknown.

When the show first debuted, there was no local Fox affiliate nearby. I can remember friends coming back to school from winter break wanting to watch The Simpsons and being unable. I remember prowling UHF stations one evening and finally stumbling across a Fox affiliate from a couple hundreds of miles away and that was how I saw my first episode of The Simpsons.

It was "Crepes of Wrath" -- the episode where Bart is sent off to France as an exchange student. It was a revelation. I never knew something could be THAT funny, THAT irreverent. Before The Simpsons, there really wasn't a source for that kind of comedy on television, comedy that was smart, goofy, satirical, and heartwarming all rolled into one.

By the next fall, Fox had acquired a local affiliate and Thursday nights were spent huddled in dorm rooms watching The Simpsons. Those early seasons were filled with brilliance, each episode seeming to top the other. Lines would be quoted often around the table in the cafe. Studying was scheduled around episodes. For me, the show is inextricably linked with my college years even though I only spent a small fraction of the show's history in college. I think of the show and I am instantly back in a dorm room laughing my ass off with my closest friends.

And perhaps that's why I've stuck with the show for these twenty years even though it's been a great while since the show gave us an episode as brilliant as "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie," "Last Exit to Springfield," or "Marge vs. the Monorail" -- those season four gems that stand among the show's absolute greatest (to name just a few). The second decade of the show has been filled more with duds than gems, but even those duds have moments that remind me why my relationship with The Simpsons has outlasted relationships I've had with people. (The only other pop culture relationship to rival this one is my 30 year love of SNL.) There are still moments of biting satire, sharp wit, and lovely goofiness. The Simpsons Movie that came out several years ago surprised me with how the small screen charm of the show could make the leap to the big screen. (And the sight of Homer flipping off the people of Springfield as he went down the sinkhole is perhaps one of my all time favorite Simpsons moments ever!)

As other shows have come along to swim in The Simpsons' wake, the show sometimes seems creaky and old fashioned. As much of a troublemaker as Bart can be, there's a certain charm in knowing that there are things he would never sink to -- like killing a rival's parents and turning them into chili. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Matt and Trey) Despite their dysfunction, the Simpson family does genuinely seem to love each other. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Seth) There is a conscience among those characters that doesn't exist with, say, Peter Griffin or Eric Cartman. The show that once seemed so rebellious now is perhaps one of the most family friendly shows on television. And yet the show retains its liberal heart and its questioning spirit. Recent episodes have dealt with Wicca, helicopter parents, immigration, the drugging of our kids, and more. Matt Groening and his writers prefer to prick little pinholes in our society rather than the gaping knife wounds delivered by McFarlane, Stone, and Parker. There is a subtlety at play that lets us reach our own conclusions rather than being shoved into them. It's sad that this comes across now as old fashioned when, in reality, it just shows that Groening and co. appreciate the intelligence of their audience and trust them in a way that McFarlane, Stone, and Parker never will. And it's that trust and appreciation that still, to this day, makes me more excited about a new episode of The Simpsons than any of its "peers." And it's that trust and appreciation that have kept me around all these years. Tonight, I'm going to go home, curl up, and watch that very first episode ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") and think of those friends with whom I used to share this show and celebrate those friends on the screen who've been a constant for over half of my life.

ADDENDUM: Today is also the birthday of a student in my Drama class. As I wished him a happy birthday, I told him he shared a birthday with The Simpsons ..... and that The Simpsons is older. Wow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

No Complaints Please

The other day I was driving to work and happened to hear a story that made me smile. Apparently, the city government here in town had declared November 25 "No Complaining Day." The idea was that it would be nice to have a day to focus on the things about which we can be positive rather than just bitching and complaining.


One of my biggest pet peeves is with people who do nothing but spread negative energy and complain nonstop. Please understand that I am not a perfect Pollyanna. Yes, I complain, but at the same time, I also try to be as positive as I can as much as I can. I find it so wearying to deal with people who are negative, particularly when it's about silly stuff.

So what made me think of No Complaining Day today? Well, let me tell you a little story.

Perhaps you've seen in the news that the Midwest has had a pretty rough time of it weatherwise over the past couple days. Temps have plummeted, winds are going crazy, and snow blankets the ground. My town didn't get hit quite as hard as other places (I know it's crazy in Iowa right now), but it's still pretty nasty. We were dismissed early from school yesterday because the forecast said the nastiness was on its way. We left the building yesterday with this sort of unsaid understanding that today would most likely be a snow day.

I woke up this morning to my alarm, not a phone call. I shrugged and kind of slowly began getting ready for work, figuring the call would eventually come. It didn't. I looked out my window and thought, "You know, it really doesn't look that awful." My sister and I took off a little early since we were meeting and picking up a co-worker of mine. As we waited for my co-worker, my sister heard that the school where she works had cancelled classes, so we dropped her off at home before heading off for our school.

Once we got on the roads, I could see they were pretty nasty. It wasn't that the roads themselves were bad; it was that the wind was really bad and that made visibility really challenging. My car, a Chrsyler Sebring, isn't a great car for wind. It's a pretty light car and is easily battered around when it's windy out. We slowly but surely made our way the 20 or so miles to work, pulling into the parking lot a minute or two before we are contractually obligated to be in the building (20 minutes before students arrive).

As I got out of the car, I could see another teacher angrily stomping around the parking lot. He came over to tell us that school had been cancelled about 15 minutes earlier. He was livid, swearing and yelling and getting all worked up. Yes, he had had to drive from out of town and had to drive further than I had. I can understand his frustration and yet . . .

I guess my thought is why get all worked up about something you ultimately can't control? Was I a little annoyed that I had gotten up early, driven in nasty conditions, only to find out it was all for naught? Sure. I can't lie on that one. But that initial thought of, "Oh, man, that sucks" was immediately followed by, "But cool ... snow day. I can get a lot done!"

Once inside, there were more teachers stomping around angrily. When I got on facebook, it was loaded with people complaining about the late call (including one student who "singled me out" for pity as he had seen me pull into the parking lot at 7:44 and knew I was driving from a distance). Maybe it made them feel better. You know what made ME feel better? Coming home, having a rare second cup of coffee and another piece of toast while I watched Will & Grace. And I didn't complain about it for a second.

So, Gingerphiles, I offer you a challenge -- pick one day in the coming weeks (before the end of the year) and give yourself the treat of not complaining. If things get to you, face them with a smile and a shrug. See the opportunities that may exist in those annoyances rather than the hindrances. I have a sneaking suspicion that this one day of positivity just may be the thing to get the holiday spirit really pumping, and your blood pressure may thank you.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Spirit of Charity or The Spirit of Competition?

Over the past couple weeks, our school has sponsored several charitable "drives" in the spirit of the season. Before Christmas, there was a huge canned food drive for a local food pantry. This week, there was a drive to assemble care packages for the troops. Still to come is a drive to collect hats, gloves, and warm socks for a local charity. Many students have really gotten into these drives, and a tremendous amount of good has been done for those in need. Kids were seen walking down the halls with boxes filled with canned goods or items to add to a care package. It's a heartwarming thing to see kids so filled with the spirit of giving and helping.

The unfortunate thing is that it's not really the spirit of charity that is driving those kids. It is instead the spirit of competition that has caused kids to go out and drop significant sums of money on mac and cheese and Ramen noodles. Each drive we've sponsored has carried with it a "prize." The first hour class that brought in the most cans got a pre-Thanksgiving donut party. The fifth hour class that was the first to bring in a completed care package gets a pre-Christmas pizza party. The spirit of charity has seemingly been lost as students instead engage in a battle of one-upmanship. One class, in order to be the first to complete the care package challenge, even went so far as to deliver their care package to a teacher at her house the night before. This, of course, launched a huge spirit of protest amongst teachers whose classes were not the first (and I'll admit that I, whose class was technically the second one turned in since I "foolishly" waited to turn ours in the next morning, was among the disgruntled and the words "cheater" did cross my lips albeit jokingly). One teacher (not me) even went so far as to say, "Well, now what incentive do the kids have to do this?" Holiday spirit? The satisfaction of knowing that they've just brought a little happiness to someone who has put his/her life on the line on behalf of this country?

I'm not 100% sure what lesson the kids are learning from all of this, but my concern is that it's not a positive one. If charity does not come with a reward, will they do it? Would my fifth hour students have been scrambling around town to track down bottles of lotion and decks of playing cards if they hadn't been competing for some free pizza? Did donuts and donuts alone prompt students to bring in nearly 1000 canned goods? When they are adults, will these kids be willing to give to a charity (whether it's time, money, or goods) if there is no reward other than the positive feeling that comes with helping others? I don't know. When I explained to my fifth hour class why we had not won the care package challenge, I talked a lot to them about how proud I was of them for helping and what a wonderful thing they had done . . . but I also told them *I* would buy them the pizza I felt they'd been cheated out of. I fed the beast of competition again -- in the name of charity. I guess I'm just as guilty as they are for letting my competitive spirit loose.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Will You Do the Fandango?

I'm also thankful to have stumbled across this .

Thank You For Lettin' Me Be Myself . . . Again

(Sorry. I just couldn't bring myself to go the Sly and the Family Stone route in my spelling.)

Yes, friends, it's Thanksgiving -- or nearly so -- a day when we are to stuff our faces full of coma-inducing food, plot our shopping strategies, and take some time to reflect on life's graces. It is the accepted cliche that we should be prepared to identify all for which we give thanks.

Lest I come across as too cynical or flippant here, let me just say that Thanksgiving is honestly my favorite holiday of the year. I love to cook and for the past several years, I've really enjoyed holing up in my kitchen to put together a feast. I love the foods that are associated with Thanksgiving -- turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing. I love that it's a holiday where there is no gift-giving (or receiving) stress, that it really is just about the food and the thanks ... and the shopping the next day.

So for what am I thankful this year?

1. Having a Job: As I read more and more stories about people struggling in the face of double-digit unemployment rates, I am grateful that I not only have a job with a pretty high level of security (between tenure and seniority, I'm in very good shape), but I also have a job that I love. It challenges me in new ways every day. I love working with my students and sharing my love of literature with them, even if they're not always as receptive as I'd like. I am also thankful to work with some pretty great people. I have a nice group of friends at work who make me laugh, support me when I need it, let me vent when I need it, and are generally just great people. I look forward to lunch if only to spend 25 minutes or so visiting with them.

2. My Sister: It's been a tough year. My mom's death in May (on Mother's Day) was a blow that left me dealing with a lot of grief and regret. The fact of the matter is that my mom and I had a fractured relationship in the months leading up to her death and while I take some comfort in the fact that our last couple conversations with each other were positive ones, I still struggle with remembering the shouting matches and the hurtful words that we hurled at each other before that. What has gotten me through all of that, though, is my little sister. She is a pretty awesome person. Yes, there are times when we drive each other crazy, but there is no way I could have survived the month of May without her by my side. She's been my rock, even though I know it hasn't always been easy for her to be.

3. My Friends: On a similar note, I would include my friends in that. When my mom died, my friends flew to my side and held me up emotionally. My best friend Danielle came all the way from Ohio and played the Mel -- making sure things were taken care of, giving comfort, bringing booze. My friend Gary sat with me and my sis in the waiting room outside of the ICU the morning my mom died, showing up at 6:00am to sit with us. I would throw into this mix, too, my students who sent me encouraging notes, came to the visitation, and rallied around me when I came back. Talk about blessings!

As tough as this year has been, I have a hard time labeling it as a bad year. Life is about ups and downs, good and bad. With all that I have for which to be thankful, how can I think of this year as bad? The bad stuff played an important role in helping to illuminate all the good, and so I give thanks for the bad stuff, too. I've faced trials, and I've survived. Who could ask for anything more? (Oh, and a Wii. I'd like one of those, please.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

This Is Why I Do It

Yeah, this is going to be another "this is why I teach" stories. For those of you who don't cotton to those kinds of stories, just keep moving -- nothing to see here.

In the teaching world, some days are better than others. For every high of a class groaning when the bell to end class rings because they don't want the class to be over (yeah, that's happened to me), there is a low of a kid calling you a "bitch." There are days when I come home riding a natural high that comes from feeling like I'm truly making a difference, and there are days when I come home in the pits of despair, sure that I am failing my students. There is a lot about teaching that can be frustrating -- the miles of paperwork, the apathy of students, the ridiculous demands of parents, the lack of administrative support, the lack of funds to really do what you'd like to do in class.

And yet I admit that I wake up just about every day excited to go to work. (That's my big secret. And I should insert here the caveat that I am excited about going to work NOT about getting up at 5:45 to do so. I've long said that if my job could start at, like, 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning, it would be absolutely perfect.) When it comes right down to it, I made the decision to go into teaching because I wanted to help kids become better people. I saw teaching as my own little contribution to save the world.

This brings me to yesterday. I had a very long (but good) day at work. My freshmen are digging Romeo and Juliet, my Drama class has discovered the joy of Oscar Wilde, and my speech class was having fun with the challenge of creating speeches discussing the denotative and connotative meanings of the words of their choice. Add to that a pretty productive round of speech team practice after school, and I was feeling in the zone.

Who knew it would actually get better?

I got home, crawled into a pair of pajamas, and hit Facebook. There, on my profile page, was a message from a former student. Natalie graduated several years ago, but Facebook has allowed me to keep in touch with students like her. They find me and add me -- my policy is to turn none of them down. Over the past couple weeks, she's had a rough time as she was facing the likelihood that her college career was about to come to a halt because of financial problems. I had sent her encouraging messages, knowing how disappointed she must be but trying to remind her to hang in there. I knew she had been doing so well in college (and had been a strong student when I had her), so I sensed that compounded her frustration and grief as she realized all that she stood to lose. It was one of those times when I wished I had this huge amount of expendable cash to just send her, but, well, we all know how poorly teachers are paid.

Anyway, Natalie's wall post last night was one of those reminders for me that it isn't about the money. She wrote me to thank me and tell me how much she appreciated all she'd learned in my classes, how those skills have served her so well in college. It was a very simple, honest post, but it meant the world to me. Later that evening, I saw a status update from Natalie telling her friends that a grant had come through and that she would NOT be dropping out after all.

And that is why I do this.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Depth of Kindness

I think a lot of my regular readers (gee, that sounds rather arrogant -- "regular readers" -- like I'm Maureen Freakin' Dowd or something!) know that this has been a tough year Chez Mel. My sis was struggling to find work in a DOA local job market. Our mom died very suddenly and unexpectedly. Slowly, things have picked up -- my sis has a job that she seems to really love (or like a great deal), and we're working through our new status as orphans as best we can. My sis and I are from tough Irish and Swedish stock with some stiff upper lip British thrown in for good measure, and that genetic coding has gotten us through a lot. Another thing that has been a continual source of strength for us has been the love and support of our friends. We've been blessed with some pretty great people in our lives.

We were reminded of this last night in a pretty great way.

It was a typical Wednesday night. We had just finished dinner and my sis had headed back to the den to get ready for another installment of The Ford Show. I was in my holey but totally comfy sweats watching a DVRed episode of Melrose Place. (I had to see Amanda's return! And I have to say FINALLY -- age is NOT treating Heather Locklear so kindly. Either that or her plastic surgeon.) A friend of mine (Anne) popped online and asked if we would be home in about 15 minutes. I said that we would, and she told me she and her husband were popping by.

My immediate thought was, "Um, weird." Anne is a good friend that I've made through doing theatre locally, but not a friend that typically "pops by." When they arrived, both she and her husband came in. I grew concerned. Anne has faced numerous health battles in the past several years that often require surgeries and painful rehab. I worried that maybe something huge was going on.

Sort of. Anne told me that she did have to have a medical procedure done right after Christmas, assuring me that it was pretty minor although inconvenient. Inconvenient in that she and her husband had made plans for that day, plans they now had to change, plans they were instead gifting to me and my sis. It turns out that the plans they had made involved tickets to go see the pre-Broadway run of The Addams Family in Chicago, starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. I had mentioned the show to Anne about a month or so ago, telling her I was thinking of getting tickets for my sis and I. I had not yet had the chance to buy the tickets due to some logistical snafus like transportation and where we'd sleep. Anyway, Anne handed me an envelope containing two tickets to see the show. Her only caveat was that we go, have a good time, and tell her all about it. It was her gift to us. When my sis and I looked at the tickets, we were floored. We were holding two pretty pricey orchestra level tickets to see a show starring two people we've idolized for years -- and one of our mother's absolute favorite actors, which makes it seem all the more fitting. Anne said to us, "After the year you two have had, we thought you would be the perfect people to enjoy this and that it would be good for the two of you to go have just a great, fun time."

My sis and I were literally floored. It takes a lot to render either of speechless, but we truly were unable to speak. Crying -- now that was something we were able to manage. Of course the flurry of preparations now begins as we address the logistics, but suddenly, that seems meaningless. Because we don't have a ticket expense to worry about, the train and a hotel room seem much less extravagant. It will be a nice way for the two of us to wrap up our annus horribilis and hopefully begin a new annus mirabilis.

Friday, November 13, 2009


I'm in my ninth year of teaching. Over the course of those nine years, I've averaged roughly 100 students a year -- so 900 students have sat in my classroom and (I hope) learned a little something from me. It is sad to say that not all of those 900 students have left lasting impressions. There are many kids who I will see in the hall, I know I've had them in class before, and I cannot remember their names. There are, though, those students that stick with you long after they've left my classroom, long after they've graduated and headed out into the real world. Some of those students have stuck with you for negative reasons -- the first student to call me a "bitch" to my face, a student who left midway through the year to go to drug rehab, the student you KNOW came to class high as a kite and saw class as naptime. Most of the students I remember, though, have stuck with me for more positive reasons. Sometimes, it's whole classes that linger on even after they've gone their separate ways.

My second year of teaching, I had a particularly memorable class of English I students. It was a pretty small class -- 12 kids in all. The fact that there were so few of them allowed us to bond and get to know each other. I found myself a little more relaxed with them -- partly because I was more relaxed period as a second year teacher and partly because they were a more laid back group of kids. They were a lot of fun. They were eager, enjoyed learning, but also enjoyed having fun at the same time. They always found ways to insert a little humor into the proceedings, such as Justin who wrote an essay on the effects of not doing homework that ended up with him living in a cardboard box in an alley -- all because he'd blown off a math assignment. A year later, Justin would come home from a baseball game and drop dead of an undetected heart problem -- an event which shattered the school.

The most memorable of that class, though, was Jada. The best word to describe Jada was "spitfire." She was this tiny little thing, barely hitting five feet tall, but she had a huge personality to compensate for that lack of size. She had a voice with a permanent laugh -- and which could be heard clear down the hallway. Jada was sassy and opinionated. I knew Jada had escaped from a rough past that included being placed in foster care before ultimately being adopted by a single mom. You never would have known any of this, though, from spending time with Jada. She was constantly happy and outgoing, whether it was during class discussion or performing with the dance team.

There was a sort of happy-go-lucky air about her, best exemplified by the essay she wrote for me identifying her hero. Jada's hero was Spongebob Squarepants. She was OBSESSED with Spongebob. At first, when I saw Jada's subject, I was a little annoyed that she had, I thought, clearly not taken the topic seriously. As I read further, I not only saw that she had taken the topic seriously but that she had given it a tremendous amount of thought. Spongebob was heroic, according to Jada, for three reasons -- he was a hardworker, he was a good friend, and he always maintained a positive outlook on life. What isn't heroic about that? I realized, too, as I read that Jada had also described herself because the Jada I knew as a freshman was a hardworker, a good friend, and always positive. Over the course of the next several years, I kept in touch with Jada as she moved through high school, eventually having her in class once again her senior year when she signed up for Journalism. I was touched when she gave me a copy of her senior picture, a picture she had taken with her older sister that she admired so much.

After graduation, Jada took off for college out of state, and I didn't hear much from her. As a freshmen, she had dreamed of becoming a CSI investigator, so I assumed that she was off learning how to shine blue lights to find blood splatter.

I was wrong.

Last night, I logged into Facebook and saw a string of status updates from former students all saying roughly the same thing -- "RIP Jada." I noticed one of those students was online and we began exchanging messages that included her confirming that Jada had died and telling me to go check out google for the details. (She said a fellow classmate had called to tell her and she had done some investigating because she just could not believe it was true.) The details were shocking and heartbreaking. Not only had Jada died, but she had apparently committed suicide, hanging herself in her jail cell while awaiting trial for a double homicide. Jada had allegedly been involved in the murder of two men. If found guilty, she would have faced the death penalty. She didn't wait for a verdict.

I spent a lot of time last night crying, trying to somehow make sense of it all. How had that Jada I'd known, the girl who constantly was smiling and laughing, the girl who admired Spongebob ended up in a jail cell? What had happened? The fact of the matter is that we may never know. Her friends are left with all these questions that may be unanswerable. The fact of the matter is that we lost her somewhere along the line. That realization is maybe what hurts more than anything.

Today, I choose to remember the spunky little freshman who always made me smile and hope that wherever she may be, she's found some semblance of peace. I choose to remember the hardworker, loyal friend, and positive spirit that exemplified the Jada I knew. I will miss that girl -- no matter what her adult counterpart may or may not have done.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Tech Week

A little local news coverage for our upcoming play. Speech season starts Monday, but I hope to be a little more active here in the blogosphere.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Oh My God! I'm Part of the Problem!!

A couple days ago, I was on a bookworm cloud nine. I had discovered in my Internet travels that was offering Barbara Kingsolver's soon-to-be-released new novel for $8.99 with free shipping. Hardcover.... brand new .... $9. Needless to say, I quickly went to the Target website and put in my order for that as well as the upcoming John Grisham short story collection. I bought both books for less than $20 total. I was ecstatic.

Then yesterday, my happy book bubble was burst when I read this article in the New York Times. In short, the American Booksellers Association is charging Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon with destroying the book industry -- and I am their accomplice!

Or am I?

The gist of what the ABA is claiming is that this "predatory pricing" is devaluing books by selling them at bargain basement prices, at a rather significant loss to the retailers. The ABA's real concern, of course, is that people are flocking to Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon to get their books rather than independent booksellers who cannot afford to take that loss and instead charge full (or very close to full) price for these books. As a supporter of independent booksellers, I was wracked with guilt over the damage I was potentially doing to my favorite (and only) local bookstore Stone Alley Books.

Here's the thing -- chances are highly likely that, had these books not been so deeply discounted, I wouldn't have bought them anywhere -- not at Target, not on Amazon, and not at Stone Alley. I would have waited until they came out in paperback at a significanly cheaper price, or I would have waited to stumble across them used at Stone Alley, or I would have just bought the Kingsolver book and not the Grisham book. Regardless, both authors made a sale that they may not have made.

And because I was able to get the books for such a good price, I have a little extra in my monthly "book budget" (yes, I have a book budget....I'm geeky like that) to go to Stone Alley and spend a little more than maybe I would have. So my local bookseller will make an additional sale that he may not have had I not discovered the cheap prices.

Of course, I realize that not everyone is like me. I realize that not everyone is as obsessive about books as I am and that plenty of local booksellers have lost business thanks to Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Target. I don't think, however, that what has happened is criminal or merits a Justice Department investigation. What this shows is that there is a market for books out there, but that the market needs cheaper pricing in order to keep going and that publishers need to start finding ways to make it easier for local booksellers to compete and offer the kinds of discounts that will keep the market thriving. Keep books alive -- but keep them affordable.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reality Bites Back

I missed out on most of the fun surrounding Bubble Boy last week. When the balloon supposedly containing six-year-old Falcon Heene was soaring over Colorado, I was in the midst of rehearsals with the cast of Twelve Angry People with no internet access to fill me in. I learned about it only when I got home and saw a ton of tweets providing a nearly blow-by-blow account of what had been going on all afternoon. The whole thing seemed too fantastic to be true, and it turns out that that is probably the case. The local sheriff investigating the whole situation has reportedly found that the whole thing was a hoax, cooked up by dad Richard Heene (a veteran of that reality-tv gem Wife Swap) to facilitate getting his own extraterrestrial-themed reality show.

In theory, Heene had a great idea. How many times have we seen people turn a media frenzy into reality fame? Pop out a couple dozen babies, and it's a matter of time before TLC is knocking at your door, right? Be stupid enough to make (AND KEEP) a sex tape, and E! will fall all over itself to help keep your fame alive. So who can blame Heene for thinking that creating his own media frenzy would be his path to superstardom?

Heene made a couple crucial mistakes that may ultimately land him in jail if the felony charges the sheriff is seeking stick.
1. He should have put the kid in the balloon. First of all, it would have made for a better story -- the kid who survived the balloon journey and lived to tell the tale. Once word got out that little Falcon was never in the balloon, the talk began that the whole thing had been a hoax.

2. He trusted in the media's willingness to be duped. Heene was right in thinking that the media would jump all over the tale of the little boy stuck inside the balloon and the heroic efforts to rescue him. Hours of cable news coverage was devoted to Falcon's flight over Colorado. Once it was revealed to have all been for naught, that little Falcon had been safely at home the entire time, the media turned vicious. They had been betrayed, deceived, and, worst of all, made to look foolish. As they fed on each other in accusation, they turned on the person responsible, Heene, and became determined to prove their innocence at his devious hands. They gunned for Heene and now seem to be reveling in dancing their victory dance at his fall.

3. He entrusted an essential part of the plan to a six-year-old child. As angry as the media was over their betrayal, they may have had no choice but to sit and pout for a few weeks and put together self-flagellating stories about themselves had it not been for one little boy. Thursday night, little Falcon Heene joined his family on CNN's Larry King Live. When asked about the whole ordeal and why he had hid and not responded to his parents' frantic cries, Falcon responded, “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.” You could almost hear the collective "d'ohs" across the country. What parent didn't empathize, thinking of their own tales of secrets revealed by a confused child? Of course, most parents aren't engaged in a huge media scam, and so those moment of empathy quickly gave way to smug moments of triumph as everyone became convinced that Falcon's story was a hoax, and the charge was led by the media. Falcon's throwing up on two morning shows the next day only added fuel to the fire as it became sure "evidence" of his nervousness and guilt. Heene's fatal flaw was that he trusted a child to keep silent and keep a secret. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Wild Rumpus Full of Existential Angst

When I was a kid, there were few places I loved more than the children's room at the local public library. My mother and I would frequently walk from our home to the library where I would spend hours pouring the shelves to find a new assortment of delights to take home. Of course, there were several "standbys" that were checked out by me so many times I'm shocked the librarian didn't just GIVE them to me -- Eloise, Tilly Witch, The Lorax, and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are. What kid didn't identify with Max, the rambunctious young protagonist who is sent to his room for being rowdy and sails away in his imagination to a land where his rowdiness is cherished and rewarded? Who didn't want to preside over a wild rumpus?

A few years ago, word got out that Spike Jonze would be tackling what seemed to be an impossible task -- turning Maurice Sendak's slim, 45-page book (many of them wordless illustrations) into a feature-length film. Initially, I had visions of some CGI monstrosity ala The Polar Express or Shrek where the heart that lies at the center of the film would be lost in creepy animation or fart jokes. And then I reminded myself that it was Spike Jonze who is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers. His two previous films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, are two of the best films I've seen in the past decade or so -- films that were funny and thoughtprovoking, messing with your mind in a way no other films have before. When you take Jonze's neo-aburdist take and mix it with screenwriter Dave Eggers's deft touch, you are certainly guaranteed something good, right?

Thankfully, the answer is "right." The result of this collaboration is truly masterful. What Jonze and Eggers have done is find the dark underbelly of Where the Wild Things Are, allowing the book to grow up with the thirtysomethings who grew up with the book while still creating a film that will appeal to the new generation of potential rumpusers. They have found in Max (Max Records) a boy filled with existential angst seemingly fueled by an absent father, a thoughtless sister, and a mother (Catherine Keener) who's trying her darndest to keep it all together. Max's world is filled with typical childhood heartbreaks, like the destruction of his igloo, as well as the pain of a more adult world, like the "discovery" that the world is doomed to collapse in the face of uncontrollable natural disasters. He seems to stand in that odd world between childhood innocence and adult cynicism, and his realization of that status fills him with alternately with grief and rage. He can't seem to express his confusion verbally so that frustration becomes physical -- tearing apart his sister's room or throwing a tantrum as his mother prepares dinner. That his pre-dinner tantrum seems to be rooted in the presence of a man (Mark Ruffalo) in his home who does not seem to be his father makes his actions both understandable and sad.

After fleeing from his mother, Max ends up in a land populated by a community of wild things that seems to mirror the fractured home from which Max has fled. Wild Thing Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is destroying their nests in a fit of rage, fueled by the absence of KW (Lauren Ambrose). KW has apparently abandoned her friends to spend time with her new friends, Bob and Terry, sending her community into despair as they wish things would go back to the way they used to be. KW and Carol become stand-ins for Max's own parents, giving us clues as to the cause of Max's own grief and rage and perhaps even letting us know why things in Max's family back in the real world seem so fraught with tension. At the same time, the wild things become representatives of sorts of Max's fractured id and ego. Judith (Catherine O'Hara) is frequently snarky and passive aggressive, just as Max is when he tells his mother he prefers real corn to frozen corn. Her companion Ira (Forest Whitaker) is clingy and desperate for approval and attention, just like Max frequently is with his mother and sister. Like Max, Alexander (Paul Dano) frequently feels ignored. Max attempts to help the wild things build a community in which only what you want to have happen happens, where people who are unwelcomed are punished for their trespass by having their brains explode, but he soon learns that such dreams are impossible, that there are some fractures that can't be fixed. No matter how much he wishes it to be so, there is no fixing the relationship between KW and Carol, but Max also seems to realize that being apart may be better for KW, Carol, and the community in the long run. As hard as you may try, there are some things that just can't be fixed.

This all sounds really deep and dark, I know, and you may be wondering how this could be appealing to kids. The thing is that it is. The matinee audience with which I saw the film was filled with children who giggled and cheered and roared throughout the film. The subtext went right over their heads, I'm sure, but that didn't mean that they couldn't find joy in Max's adventures. Like those of us who read the book as a child and found more depth when we revisited it as adults, I'm sure these children will revisit the film in a few years and see the deeper meaning here, too. They will surely revel in the moving performance of young Max Records who instills Max with heart, intelligence, and angst with single looks. They will marvel at the intelligence and realism that fills the faces of the wild things. They will embrace the artistry with which Jonze captured this world, never once resorting to cheesy gimickry to give us a world that is at once real and imaginary, earthy and out-of-this-world. They will laugh as I did and cry as I did and walk away thinking how lucky they were to have spent that time at a beautiful, glorious, and truly wild rumpus.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

But What's My Motivation?

One of the reasons I've been not as productive on the blog front lately is that I have been swamped with work this fall. With the addition of a smartboard to my classroom, I've spent many afternoons and evenings working to put class lessons, discussion, lectures, and even reading material into smartboard format. Another big reason is that it is fall play season where I spend a couple hours every afternoon holed up in our school auditorium helping guide teenagers through this thing we call acting. Our production this fall is Twelve Angry People (yes, we're gender inclusive here if only because the eleven girls playing jurors would probably mutiny if I asked them to perform in Twelve Angry Men).

As I began working on the show this summer, I realized how difficult it could end up being. I was essentially asking 13 high school students to be onstage for an entire show -- no entrances, no exits, not a ton of lines in some cases. I was asking 13 high school students to commit to attending every single rehearsal. I was asking 13 high school students to play these blank slates of characters, characters with little background information that they could latch onto as characters to drive their performances. Could we do it? Could *I* do it?

The requirement that students attend every rehearsal was the first key to sort of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Of the 35 or so kids who expressed an interest in auditioning, only about 20 actually showed up. I know that a few kids were miffed at the "mandatory rehearsals" requirement, but the script sort of tied me to that. I did make an agreement that I wouldn't hold auditions every day after school until tech week. I'm not a TOTAL tyrant!

I managed to put together a cast of 13 pretty strong kids -- 2 freshmen, 2 sophomores, 4 juniors, and 5 seniors. Of those 13, we have two boys. Two. For our first read thru, I gathered the kids together and we talked a lot about character development. I have them all the assignment to create histories for their characters -- names, education, family, careers, et cetera. Many of the kids took to this almost to an extreme, but their choices are rooted in the script. The young woman playing Juror #8 (the Henry Fonda part) decided early in the process that her character, whom she named Julia, was pregnant and that provided her with the inspiration to "protect" the young man on trial. The actor playing Juror #5 (who talks about growing up in the slums like the kid on trial) decided that her character had turned to stripping to help her escape from the slums. The actor playing Juror #9 (the elderly juror) has created a detailed, tragic backstory full of sons killed in a war, suicide, and murder. It's been revelatory to see the kids attack this task with such zeal.

Of course, such zeal can present problems during notes. More than once I've given "jury notes" -- notes intended for the cast as a whole that deal primarily with reactions or filling silence with ad libbed chatter. Inevitably, an actor will raise a hand and explain why THAT note doesn't fit with the character he or she has devised. It's a challenge sometimes to bite my tongue and keep myself from screaming, "JUST TAKE THE FREAKIN' NOTE!" but I do. I don't want to squash their creativity -- until I have to.

The other nice thing about this rehearsal process has been the comaraderie that has developed amongst the cast. Because they're all there every day, they have really become a "company" that works well together. Even those with diva tendencies seem to have gotten it under control for the good of the company. We've done some company building exercises, some improv games to develop unity, and they seem to have worked. Yes, we still have some work to do -- we have some projection issues and we have one dear girl who just constantly looks like she's just waiting for her line to come and until it does, she's just going to fix her hair and twiddle her thumbs -- literally. Don't worry, faithful readers, we'll get her where she needs to be....or die trying!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Peace Out!

So Barrack Obama is this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. I have to admit that when I woke up to that news last week, I scratched my head in bewilderment. I mean, we all know I'm a fan of the man (a conservative friend of mine has referred to me as an Obambie -- like it rhymes with zombie), but this one left me very puzzled. I mean, the guy's only been in office for nine months, a time during which he has been accused by both sides of the political spectrum as seemingly stalled and lacking in any real accomplishment, particularly on the "peace" front. My real fear was that Obama was awarded this prize simply because he was the first black president, and I stifled a groan as I'm sure even he is tired of carrying that weight around. When NPR reported that the nomination would have come within the first weeks or so of the Obama administration, I was even more annoyed. Do conservative pundits really need any more ammunition in their attacks on Obama? I could already picture Glenn Beck crying his eyes out over this one.

As I read more throughout the day, it became apparent that the prize was awarded not for Obama's accomplishments (of which there are, admittedly, few) but for the promise he seems to hold. The idea was that giving him the award was about shedding light on the issue of peace (and more specifically, nuclear disarmament) and creating an incentive for Obama to pursue peaceful conclusions to our current skirmishes. By awarding Obama with this prize, he suddenly faces even greater expectations than before. Within seconds of his election in November, supporters expected him to instantly bring about change -- fix the economy, fix our health care system, save our schools, end racism. Now, he has to create world peace, too?


Here's where I have to ask the same question that my sister asked when she was hired as a speech coach at a nearby high school -- "Seriously? There was no one else more qualified for this?"

Don't get me wrong: I admire Obama's position on diplomacy. I believe that we should try talking to our enemies before we blow them up. But I also believe that we should reward people for their good acts not their good intentions. I'm not knocking the notion of good intentions. They're important to have, no doubt about it. It's admirable to enter any situation with the intention of doing something good. There is, however, a big difference between intending to do good and actually doing good. A student in my English class can INTEND to do his or her book report, but if he or she doesn't actually do it, I don't give him or her an A for the intention. An actor in one of my plays can INTEND to learn lines, but if he or she doesn't actually do it, the play is going to suck (or I have to find a new actor). The same holds true here -- President Obama can INTEND to initiate policies of peace, but if he doesn't actually do it, should he still be awarded a peace prize? Why not let the guy get his feet wet, give him a couple years to actually put his policies into action and see what happens rather than add one more boulder to the guy's shoulders?

Lastly, let's also remember that winning this award was not something Obama chose or pursued. It was not something that the Democratic party necessarily chose or pursued. And it's not Al Gore's fault either. Ultimately, the choice rested on the shoulders of the presumed non-partisan shoulders of the selection committee. (I say non-partisan because they are not American and therefore not a part of our party system, regardless of their personal political philosophies.) If Obama's choice is premature or, as some have claimed, a mockery of the prize itself, it is their fault and not President Obama's. For once, Glenn Beck, there is something that is NOT Barrack Obama's fault.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It's My Day, So Pony Up With the Prizes, Bitches

According to my friend Danielle, tomorrow (Monday) is World Teachers' Day, a day supposedly designed to recognize the hard work teachers put into educating the children of the world and the impact their involvement has upon the lives of those children.

Blah blah blah.....

My big question is where's my gift?

But seriously, we certainly spend a lot of time talking a good talk where teachers are concerned, but when it comes time to actually backing it up, we're a little less generous. The paychecks teachers take home rarely seems to truly compensate them for the hours they put in. It's a rare day when I don't leave school with work to do at home, meaning I am often working 10 or more hours a day. When we have issues with students, it is unusual to find much support from parents. We are constantly challenged, criticized, and called on the carpet for trying to do our job in the face of increased hostility and apathy. A few weeks ago, someone commenting on an article in the local paper actually had the audacity to say that teaching wasn't an intellectually challenging profession and therefore shouldn't be paid more in compensation for the additional hours many teachers put in.

If it sounds like I'm complaining, please ignore it because the truth of the matter is that I love my job even if I sometimes feel underpaid and underappreciated. For all of those moments when I get discouraged, there are so many more moments filled with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Maybe it's the sight of a group of freshmen lighting up when they realize that the prediction they made about the story is about to come true. Maybe it's having a group of students arguing over whether or not Hamlet is insane (and regardless of his sanity, he's a douchebag for the way he treats Ophelia). Or maybe it's having a student in speech class come to you for help in answering a reporter's questions after a tough volleyball loss. Or maybe it's the glee a cast of kids finds in learning about the ecphonesis "O" . Or maybe it's staying a little later than anticipated on a Friday afternoon because a senior needs some college advice....or having a student you helped find the right school last year e-mail to thank you for leading him to his dream school where he now has a leading role in a college production.

When I chose teaching as my career path, I knew I wouldn' t be pulling down big bucks. I knew I was kissing my dreams of a BMW good-bye. But I also knew that I was accepting a whole new dream -- one in which I get to help change the world by teaching our future how to read, write, act, speak, and think. It is worth a mountain of BMW's to hear a student just say "thank you" or tell you that, of all the teachers in the building, you are the one she'll miss the most. Who could ask for anything more?

But seriously...... I wouldn't turn down a BMW.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Friend of Bill G. (or is it Al G.?)

Thursday night, I left my happy home to spend a weekend in Oak Brook, Illinois, at the Illinois Speech and Theatre Association annual convention. ISTA is a tremendous opportunity for speech and theatre teachers like myself to connect, share resources, find new ideas, and even just have a good time. In addition to packing the usual stuff like, oh, clothes and shampoo, I also made sure to pack up my trusty ol' laptop. I figured that there would surely be some downtime during the convention (I remembered that being the case when I had gone before) when I could deal with e-mail and get some work done in terms of lesson planning, for which I would need the Internet. Surely the hotel would have WiFi, I thought, remembering the lovely hotel I visited for State last February and the hours I spent on Facebook one evening. We reached the very lovely Oak Brook Marriott (located conveniently right across the street from the Oak Brook Place mall) a little bit before 8:00, so I checked in and headed upstairs to get settled in. The first thing I did was sit down at the desk and plug in my laptop.

And that's when my world fell apart.

At first, my computer quickly located a network connection and I began my attempt to navigate my way to Hotmail, thinking I might spend a little time working on my farm in Facebook after checking my e-mail. Suddenly, my browser took me away from Hotmail and off to a site asking me to select my payment method. I found out that, if I wanted to use the Internet at this hotel, I would have to pony up $15 a night for the honor. Ummmmmmm, nooooo. $30 seemed a bit excessive, particularly since a large part of what I wanted to do on the Internet involved work. I was not going to PAY to do my JOB.

And so began the longest 48 hours of my life. While I managed to function without the Internet for those two days in Oak Brook (and it probably helped that Friday was so busy that I was utterly exhausted that evening and fell asleep within seconds of stating my intention to do so), the first thing I did when I walked through the door of my house was get the laptop out and get online. In that moment, I realized how integral the Internet has become in my life. It's how I communicate, get information, entertain myself, and even do my job. Fifteen years ago, I didn't even know it existed, and now, I have a hard time existing without it. Addiction may be a bit strong of a word to use, but it may be the closest to describing how I felt in that moment last night when I finally let out a huge sigh of relief as I checked email, harvested my crops, and downloaded a couple Phish shows. While I recognize the addiction, the problem is that I'm more than happy to wallow in that addiction because I also realized this weekend that life can get a little boring without the beautiful distraction of the Internet.