My goodness, how Madonna has evolved over the years!  “Material Girl.”  “Papa Don’t Preach.”  “Celebration.”  Warren Beatty.  “Sex.” Sean Penn.  “Vogue.”  “Truth or Dare.”  Pointy bra. “Like a Virgin.”



A true original.



And a true pain in the ass.



Then she married Guy Ritchie and moved to England, and became, apparently, the Duchess of Absolutely Everything.  Even her accent changed.  (She’s from Michigan, for god’s sake!)



Now she’s a sophisticate.  She is a director, and a tastemaker.  She is unbearably pompous. She made a fuss last year because someone gave her hydrangeas.  Everyone! knows she hates! hydrangeas.  Then there were some of her comments at the Golden Globes this year: “Foreign films,” she intoned in a Dame Edith Evans voice, “are not foreign to me.”



Oh, honey, yes they are.



The Financial Times just reviewed her new directorial attempt, “W. / E.”, about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII.  They praised the actress who plays Wallis, but described the movie as a “jewelled dustpan.”  (“What?!” my old friend LaRue shrieked at me the other night over drinks.  “You read the Financial Times for the movie reviews?”  Yes I do.  So sue me.)



Anyway: Madonna depicts Wallis Simpson as a brilliant wonderful intelligent woman, who takes a stupid easily-led man – the Prince of Wales, soon to become King – and enthralls him. 



Hm.  Is Madonna doing autobiography here?  Not sure.  Probably.



Haven’t seen the movie.   Prepared to hate it, though.



Funny: I used to like her so much.



Downton Abbey


I have strenuously avoided writing about “Downton Abbey” before now.  Like many others, I learned about the show after it had begun, and Partner and I started late, but we directly fell under its spell.  We finished watching the second season the other night, and – whew!  Affairs, murder, sudden death, imprisonment, scandal, the Great War, Spanish influenza, amnesia!  I need to lie on my chaise longue for a few moments so that I can catch my breath!



Seriously, the show’s terrific.  It has everything: a beautiful setting (Downton Abbey is actually Highclere Castle in Hampshire, one of those unbelievably beautiful English country homes that seem only to exist in dreams), a brilliant cast combining fresh faces like Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens with familiar ones like Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern, and brilliant writing by Julian Fellowes (who also wrote “Gosford Park”).   It’s a pleasure to hear a witty line of dialogue delivered by someone like Maggie Smith, wearing perfect 1920s couture, in a beautiful room full of beautiful furniture.



I was alive way back in 1971, when “Upstairs Downstairs” debuted on American TV.  It covered much of the same ground as “Downton,” and we were mesmerized by it as well: the serene Bellamy family upstairs, the turbulent servants’ quarters downstairs.  It even used a lot of the same plotlines (or is it the other way around?): relationships between the gentry and the servants, the Titanic, the Great War . . .



Oh, who cares?  (Well, maybe Jean Marsh cares.  She worked for a long time to bring about a new version of “Upstairs Downstairs,” which came out at almost exactly the same time as “Downton Abbey.”  “Downton” blew her show away.  She was publicly bitter about this, and I don’t blame her; it must have been a great blow.)  But, you see, “Downton” has such spectacular production values: the scenery, the sets, the cast.  And no one except dinosaurs like me remembers “Upstairs, Downstairs.”



This is not to say that “Downton” is perfect.  There was, in the second season, a perfectly ridiculous plot concerning amnesia, which reminded me of something out of “Guiding Light” or “Days of our Lives.”  It only lasted a single episode, thank god, but it was pretty ridiculous.  Also there have been some less-than-satisfactory character shifts; the precise and efficient Cousin Isabel (Penelope Wilton), who was such a perfect antagonist for the stuffy Lady Violet (Maggie Smith) in the first season, became insufferable in the second season.   (And, speaking personally, I could have lived perfectly happily without seeing Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in bed together after their wedding; they’re perfectly nice people, and I’m all for them, but they’re a little on the pale and pudgy side when they’re unclothed.)



New York magazine did the most beautiful set of paper dolls of some of the characters recently.  Their readers howled for more: they want the whole cast, the house, the car, the dog!



I think that would be just fine.



(I hear, in season three, we’re going to meet the American grandmother of the family, Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley Maclaine.)



(Levinson? Jewish? Lady Cora’s Jewish? Oh my.  It will be difficult to wait this one out. Lady Violet will have a fit.)



In the meantime: if you haven’t seen the show, seek it out.  You are in for a treat.



Tell them Mr. Pamuk sent you.



For Presidents’ Day: “Mark Twain as a Presidential Candidate”


This little gem from the Library of America came along in my email yesterday morning, just in time for the Presidents’ Day holiday.  I have to admit that Mark Twain is not my favorite writer, but this piece is pretty funny; it is brief, and savage, and it has not aged a bit since it was written in 1879.




I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history, so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate, to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.




In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is char­acteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his night-shirt at the point of a shotgun, and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850. I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Wash­ington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home. My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.



My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great funda­mental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.



The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency? The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why should I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?



I admit also that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the cannibal islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recom­mend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausages.”



These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.



For Sunday: Lady Gaga sings “Bad Romance”


I cannot believe I haven’t posted this video here before.  It is spectacular.



Ladies and gentlemen: Lady Gaga singing (and performing, in multifarious ways) the song “Bad Romance.”






Home remedies for kidney stones


´╗┐Ever since my diagnosis with kidney stones, I have been a very good boy.  I drink coffee only until noon each day, and water thereafter.  I have stopped drinking Coca-Cola altogether, as one of the websites I consulted recommended discontinuing “dark beverages.” 



And then there are the home remedies.



Here’s one: six cans of Coca-Cola, twenty minutes apart.  Then puree one can of asparagus and drink the result, followed with two large glasses of water.



One of the cures recommends asparagus all by itself.



The funniest of all recommends kidney beans.  This is a great example of sympathetic magic: if a plant resembles a body part, it must be good for the health of that body part.  (See “liverwort” and “lungwort” for further examples of this.)



Here’s the thing: kidney stones hurt.  So I am tempted to try all of the above silly cures (which seem to be at least non-life-threatening), just to see if they’ll work.



But I know they won’t!  (The kidney-bean one especially.)



And the simple course recommended by my doctor – hydration, i.e. drinking lots more water than I had in the past – seems to be working, because the pain is considerably less than before.



But if the pain gets worse again, I may well try the six-Coca-Colas-and-a-can-of-asparagus cure.



It can’t possibly kill me. And who knows?  It might work.



(But probably not.)


Why I should learn to swim


I don’t think anyone in my family really knows how to swim.  I think my brother Leonard can swim a little, but that’s it.



We didn’t have a pool when I was a kid.  Nor did we live near placid clean bodies of water.  The local swimmin’ holes – the Lewis River, the Columbia River, Battle Ground Lake – were either too brisk or rocky for swimming, or big bowls of tepid water and bacteria. 



During Peace Corps training in Puerto Rico, I tried to learn.  There were fifteen of us in the training group: twelve other guys going to Morocco, and two women going to the Turks and Caicos Islands.  One of the women was a very nice happy lesbian and didn’t care about the guys at all, except as friends; the other was straight and moderately attractive and was being peppered on all sides by offers of sexual congress from fellow trainees.  She and I liked each other, and I think she found my company peaceful, as I wasn’t trying to get her into bed.  Anyway, she tried to teach me to swim in the Caribbean, with the barracudas darting around our feet, and the straight guys in our group were very envious of me as I was being held in the water by my ladyfriend.



But I can’t really swim, to this day.  (They tried to teach me to float.  Depending on what I happen to be wearing on any particular day, I may be able to float.)



Years ago, when I was a kid, my family went to Copalis, Washington, to dig clams and play on the beach.  I was left alone to play.  Apparently the tide came in very rapidly.  I remember (vividly) playing in the sand.  I remember the water coming in rapidly, but I wasn’t worried about it.  Then I heard screaming, and my family ran through the rapidly-deepening water and scooped me up – and then I was concerned. 



My memory is in black-and-white, but very sharp.  I wasn’t scared until I heard the screams and the people running toward me.



Ah well. Here I am today.



Let the chips fall where they may, kids. 



Here’s to another hundred years of foolish heedless living.




RuPaul’s Drag Race, season four


I just need to check in with you on the new season (Season Four!) of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”



Okay.  You know I love it, and I would love it even if it were awful.  So read on.



This season is different, in a lot of ways (and I’m only writing this after the third episode!).  The contestants are edgier, less pretty. Ru is exploring drag, I think; he’s exploring what it says about culture in general.  He mixes it up gloriously.  One of the celebrity judges on the first episode was the wonderful and very funny Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; on episode two we had two basketball players, Rick Fox and John Salley.  What does that say about drag and popular culture, to have two straight athletes judge a drag-queen show?



One of the contestants this season uses a man’s name for a drag name: Chad Michaels.  One of the contestants is a skinny queen with a “meth look,” with the piquant name of Sharon Needles.  We have Latrice Royale, a gigantic (and very nice) black man who’s been in prison.  We have Madame LaQueer, and you really have to be a gay man over fifty to understand how the reclamation of the word “queer” has been refreshing.  Ten years ago I had trouble listening to younger gay men use the word “queer”; now I think it’s wonderful.



A friend has told me that he doesn’t know if he likes this season yet or not.  Too early to tell, I told him.  But you know what else?  The winner of Season One, the very beautiful Bebe Zahara Benet, won $20,000.  This season’s winner will take home $100,000. 



Does the increase in the prize money tell you anything?



RuPaul is, in his very sneaky way, doing two things at once.  He is exploring drag and its relationship with popular culture; he is also creating a funny messy all-over-the-place reality show that anyone can watch, and that people (and sponsors!) are paying attention to.



And, ladies and gentlemen, that takes a lot of brains and skill.



And now it’s time to lip sync for your life!


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