Point of etiquette

So I get a big fat envelope in the mail on Friday from the Pacific Northwest, where I have friends and family. What could it be? Then I notice the cutesy little bride-and-groom stamp on the back of the envelope. Ah ha! A wedding invitation! But from whom?


Ah ha.


My Christian conservative nephew.


The invitation was addressed only to me, not to me and Partner, by the way. And I have been informed that, back in 2004, this kid registered to vote solely because he wanted to vote to forbid gay marriage in Oregon.


I get it. He probably doesn’t want me at the wedding, but he figures I won’t fly cross-country for his nuptials in any case. But they’ll maybe get a gift out of me.


Okay. First question. What should I get them? There was a cute little note included with the invitation, cheerfully informing me that they’re registered at Target.


Terrific! I can just pick up a People magazine and a Three Musketeers bar and some batteries at the local Target checkout counter and send them along to the happy couple, now that I know they’re registered there.


But that would be too easy!


How about a gift in the names of the bride and groom to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation? Or ACT UP?


How about a year’s subscription to “Out”? Or “Lusty Bears Monthly”?


Second question. I wasn’t planning to go to the wedding, but maybe we should go after all. What do you think? Would drag be too much? Or how about if we show up dressed as Jesus and Mary Magdalene?


And third question.


Why are people so damned dumb?





Harry Potter and the box-office juggernaut

Partner and I (and most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere) saw the new Harry Potter movie yesterday. Now, I’m one of those people who read the ending of a book first, because I hate suspense. But I could not make head or tail of the ending of this book! (No spoilers here – but is there anyone who doesn’t know how this story ends?) But still. I mean, if Harry’s linked to Voldemort, that means he – but, wait a minute, Voldemort drank some of Harry’s blood, so he – and there’s the whole Horcrux thing, so they both – but they have the same wand, so they –


Anyway. This movie only gets us halfway through the book. We don’t have to worry about the face-off between Harry and Voldemort until next July. In three-D. It will be spectacular.


Partner and I liked this movie. It’s dark without being obscure. It breezes right along (mostly). It’s a whole Who’s Who of British cinema, too. (Colin Farrell, on Graham Norton this week, made a funny/sad observation that he hadn’t been asked to be in it, and that he was probably the only actor in the British Isles who wasn’t asked. It’s a shame. He would have been adorable.) There are a few jump-out-of-your seat scenes, which are pleasantly startling without being heart-stopping. The magic is beautifully depicted; it’s become so natural over the course of the past six movies, they don’t need to feature it anymore. When a newspaper photo turns and looks at you, or someone lights a lamp with a wand, it’s not even surprising, even for us Muggles. It just seems normal. (Also, now that Daniel Radcliffe is all grown up, he takes his clothes off a lot. It makes for a pleasant diversion.)


But there’s a long dry spell in the middle of the movie: Ron and Harry and Hermione wander in the woods and bicker with one another. Time passes. The scenery is very stark and lovely. Aren’t we on the clock here? Isn’t Voldemort doing bad stuff off in the distance? Why are you guys just kicking around through the dead leaves and pouting at each other? It’s exactly the same dry patch that the novel had, and I remember being very irritated with it. A couple of the novels gave me the sense that Rowling was just filling pages with words, to bulk up the novel – kids like their novels bulky! – and this was one of them.


The movie has a sad / ominous ending. Voldemort (what’s with that nose? Do evil wizards get their noses revoked?) is winning. Helena Bonham Carter is a cackling maniac. And somebody nice dies.


But don’t worry, kids. Stay tuned. All is not lost. There’s more to come.




Sunday blog: The revolutionary costume for today

For today: Christine Ebersole as Little Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens.” I never got to see it on stage, and am awaiting the revival. This number kills me every time I watch it.


“There’s more to living than Kelly green . . .”




Full documentation

Roz Chast has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about a man who kept track of everything he ever ate for dinner, on three-by-five index cards. No commentary, just the facts:


On Saturday, January 5th, he cooked Poached Bay Scallops in Marinara Sauce; Zucchini, Onion, Mushrooms, and Celery in White Wine Sauce; Rotelle Pasta. On Saturday, April 20th, he made Cooked Chicken in Tomato and Vegetable Sauce; Pasta. On Thursday, May 2nd, he didn’t make dinner.

Why did he do this?


The impulse to record everything, everything, everything, runs in my family too. My uncle Earl recounted his whole life, in minute detail, to my aunt Louise, who transcribed it carefully as part of our family history:


. . . The Yakima business agent called Pasco and they needed some carpenters on the Montgomery store being built on Nob Hill. I got a work permit and went to work the first work was building pallets with a man from Sunnyside by the name of Ben Franklin. We built several hundred of them and were able to pool rides with him and two others. Then another man came from Ellensburg. They partnered me with him. I have forgotten his name but he had experience cutting glass . . .


Believe me when I tell you that this is exactly the way Earl spoke. Read it aloud with a folksy Will Rogers twang and you’ll get the idea. I can just imagine him still chuckling over the man named Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin!


As for me, I’m an inveterate diarist. I even catalogue my dreams. Here’s the night of May 8, 2010:


President Obama was shipwrecked in the Caribbean with some other people, but we weren’t sure which island; there was an island with a town called Obama Town, but we thought that was too obvious; I think he was on Dominica; we saw people there.  Then an apartment in (I think) Tunis; a bunch of expatriate / sophisticated people I was trying to impress; the hosts’ dog, a big dark bullmastiff, kept climbing up in my lap and chewing on the sleeve of my suede jacket; it was actually very cute.


Why do I bother?


Wittgenstein said: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” People die, things are lost and discarded and destroyed. But facts remain.


Facts are never not true.


After I’m gone, my body will go to dust, and my possessions will be spread to the four corners of the universe. But it will still be true that I was here once. And that I did this and that, and that I made an egg-and-vegetable pie for dinner last night, and that I had a dream about Barack Obama on May 8 of this year.


Roz Chast said this of the man who wrote down all of his dinners:


Maybe it was just his way of keeping track of the passage of time, or of organizing his experience, just as other people sort their clothes by color, or alphabetize their books, or write down their dreams. For whatever reason, he felt compelled to do it. I respect that.


I respect it too. More that that: I understand it.



The biggest little state in the Union


Rhode Island is a funny place.


Everyone actually does know everyone. I remember buying a drink during intermission at a show at the old Ocean State Theatre (formerly Loew’s State Theatre, now the Providence Performing Arts Center), and looking at the guy morosely nursing a drink across from me, and realizing that he was the Lieutenant Governor.


And you know the dancing traffic cop? Of course you do. Well, that cop is my barber’s brother.


People seldom leave their own neighborhoods. People don’t like to cross bridges, or county lines, or state lines, if they don’t have to. Usually they don’t have to.


People talk funny. It’s not quite a Boston accent and not quite a New York accent. It’s got its own vocabulary, but a lot of the words are dying now; people don’t order “cabinets” anymore, they order milkshakes. But they still say “downcity” instead of “downtown.”


We choose odd emblems and symbols. Our state bird is a chicken. Our state drink is coffee milk. Our state shell is the quahog. The Tennis Hall of Fame is here, near where the the Croquet Hall of Fame used to be. Streets have the names of virtues and intangibles and qualities: Friendship, Benefit, Beneficent. Our state motto, endearingly, is “Hope.”


Everyone remembers where everything used to be. “Turn where the Outlet department store used to be, and take a left where the Speidel factory used to be.” I can point out the location of the Rhode Island Auditorium, even though it was torn down before I moved here. And anytime you want to go up to Federal Hill, I can show you where that vending-machine place used to be. You know the one. The Mob one.


We were “founded” by a renegade Baptist preacher named Roger Williams, with some help from an Antinomian preacher named Anne Hutchinson. (It was news to the Narragansetts that we needed to be “founded” at all.) Before either arrived, back in the 1630s, a man named William Blackstone built a cabin in what’s now Cumberland, and lived among the Native Americans, and grew apples, and once he rode up to Boston on the back of a bull. He preached under an oak tree that stood in Cumberland until the legendary Hurricane of 1938 toppled it.


Our neighborhood includes two houses where George Washington spent the night. One is vacant, echoing, badly renovated; the other is small, cozy, like your grandmother’s house. When you go up the narrow staircase, it occurs to you that you’re climbing the same stairs that Washington climbed on his way to bed, and probably the house didn’t look so much different then than now. It gives you a pleasant odd solemn feeling.


The ocean is never far away. Narragansett Bay is murky and usually choppy. The ocean off Newport and Matunuck and Westerly is wide and flinty and bright. You can pretend that you see Block Island and Long Island to the south. Sometimes maybe you can.


Winters are gray and cold. Summers are humid and stifling. Spring is brief and vivid and very beautiful. Autumn is long and bright and very beautiful.


A few months after coming here, back in 1978, I sat near a duckpond in Roger Williams Park and wondered if I’d made the right decision in coming here.


Thirty-two years later, I’m still here.




Island magic

Sam Sifton, the new food critic for the New York Times, wrote up a nice piece on Wednesday about a new joint in Manhattan called the Hurricane Club.  It’s a Polynesian restaurant.

Be still, my heart.

I checked my own reaction with that of a person less than half my age.  She didn’t know what a “Polynesian restaurant” was, but she brightened up when I mentioned Mai Tais and Scorpion Bowls.

Polynesian restaurants rate their own entry in the Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.  Their patron saint is Trader Vic, their hallmarks the Mai Tai and the Pu Pu Platter.  They specialize in sweet-and-savory Chinese-style food, elaborate sweet-and-sticky drinks (the Fog Cutter! the Luau Sizzler!), and over-the-top décor featuring volcanoes and palm trees.

It goes without saying that this is not Chinese food, not Japanese food, not Polynesian food.  What is it?  It is a Good Time.

The Polynesian trend followed the usual curve.  First the restaurants were fun and different; then they were commonplace; then every Chinese restaurant in America began offering Mai Tais and teriyaki skewers; then the Polynesian joints became run-down and tacky.

And now we have the backlash to the backlash.

Sifton mentions one local and well-preserved specimen: the Kowloon in Saugus, Massachusetts.  The menu has gone Thai/fusion, but the décor is still Bali Ha’i, and you still walk in beneath the feet of a giant Tiki god.  Downtown Providence had Luke’s Luau Hut (with the Volcano Room in the basement) into the 1990s.  Partner and I always hit the Tiki Port in Barnstable when we’re on Cape Cod.  And you can still find the Mon Kou in South Attleboro, though its palm trees are dusty and sad.

I’m glad to see the trend coming back.  Everything old is new again.  Save me a crab rangoon and a crispy shrimp, kids.

And maybe order me a Luau Sizzler.




The problem with Problem Movies

As I mentioned before, Partner and I saw “Due Date” with Robert Downey and Zach Galifianakis on Sunday. We’d seen the previews and were anticipating a vacuous little romp, and we both like a vacuous little romp once in a while.


About fifteen minutes into the movie, however, I began to sweat. Oh no, I thought. A Problem Movie.


This is my own pet category, which I define like this: “a movie, usually a comedy, that throws the protagonist(s) into one bad situation after another, each worse than the last, until you want to climb the walls.”


There are lots of these movies. “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” “Lost in America.” “The Out-Of-Towners.” “The In-Laws.” “Meet the Parents” (which spawned a whole Problem Movie franchise). In each one of these movies, every time you think the plot is beginning to ease up, you get hit in the face with another bag of doorknobs.


They keep making these movies, so I can only assume that people enjoy this kind of thing. For me, they’re like fingernails on a blackboard.


There are less venomous variations on the formula. Take “The Hangover.” The movie begins with four dimwits, and ends with four slightly happier and more self-assured dimwits. And the problems they encounter along the way are over-the-top and funny rather than gratingly awful.


Why are Problem Movies popular? Do they make people feel better about their own lives? “Geez, look at these simps. I’m stupid and unlucky, but I’m not that stupid and unlucky.” Or are we supposed to identify with the protagonists, and nod sadly and knowingly?


Either way, I’m not on board. If a movie gives me the sense that only bad stuff happens – that things just gradually keep eroding – then no thank you, please refund my ticket.


I think this is because of my own psychological makeup. I’m a nervous person with a moderately negative outlook on life; I expect things to get worse and worse. I don’t need to be reminded.


This is probably genetic. I remember my Grandma Boitano in the hospital, in 1975, the last time I saw her alive. She was lying in bed before heart surgery. I was 18 or so. “Don’t worry, Grandma,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “Everything will be okay.”


She looked at me with this wondrously woeful look and said, “Oh, honey, I don’t think so.”


And she was right.


And I should go see a movie that reinforces this point?


Oh, honey, I don’t think so.






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