Thursday, January 28, 2010

There She Is...

I’m posting this from Park City, Utah, where I’ve been consumed with an annual celebrity-studded tradition. Rife with drama, it’s one in which an unknown aspirant with brave creative goals stands poised not only to fulfill a lifelong dream, but to be catapulted onto the national – and perhaps even the world -- stage.

The Sundance Film Festival? Yeah, that, too. But I’m thinking of the Miss America pageant, which airs this Saturday night.

Like most little girls in the 70s, I dutifully watched the pageant each year, sighing with wide-eyed admiration at the contestants, with their hot-rolled feathered hair and powder-blue eye shadow. Armed with sheets of looseleaf paper, I sat in my parents’ bedroom and took notes. I cheered for the prettiest Miss Nebraskas and Iowas, and was aghast when the judges selected a Miss Texas with an unforgivable dress or a Miss Kentucky of only dubious talent.

The contestants – coltish baton twirlers who’d grown up on farms in Wisconsin and earnest, freckle-faced minister’s daughters from North Dakota – were nothing like anyone I knew in my insular, homogenous Long Island home town, peopled, as it was, with Marci Goldbergs and Shari Kopelowitzes. I was positively mesmerized by the unironic slice of Americana the pageant showed me.

But like an awkward teenager who still clings to a love of hopscotch or jacks, my affection for the pageant lingered long past the point at which most of my peers had let go and moved on. Throughout my 20s, I continued to watch alone, albeit with an increasingly sardonic eye for the pageant’s absurdities and anachronisms. Chief among them, of course, was the Miss America Organization’s steadfast insistence that the pageant's primary purpose was to promote scholarship. I won my fair share of college scholarships. Oddly, not one of them required my wearing a bathing suit and heels or playing Feelings on the marimbas.

The turning point in my pageant viewing experience came on September 22, 1996. I was at home in my Dupont Circle apartment reading the Washington Post when a story in the Outlook section jumped out at me.

It was a column by Amy Argetsinger, a college acquaintance who I had heard was working for the paper as a Metro reporter. I had known Amy since our freshman year, when we lived a floor apart. We had many friends in common, but we had never been particularly close.

Until that day.

Because what Amy did in that fateful column was confess to a love of...The Miss America pageant.

"Amy Argetsinger...likes Miss America?" I remember thinking in amazement. It was liberating to find another kindred soul. Another educated woman who would never in a million years
be in a beauty pageant, but just couldn't resist getting wrapped up in the delicious cheeseball spectacle that is Miss America.

As Amy wrote at the time:

"I know what some of you are going to say: The Miss America Pageant objectifies women. To which I respond: Who cares? These are not normal women. They're curious specimens of crisp professionalism and rehearsed charm and incandescent optimism, utterly unlike myself and most people of my acquaintance. They are exotic creatures, like thoroughbreds or chess prodigies or prize tomatoes, who have willingly subjected themselves to their years-long regimens of training and discipline. Thus, it is perfectly appropriate -- not to mention hugely entertaining -- to compare and judge them against others of their species."
I immediately called Amy at the Post and told her how much I loved her piece. We met for lunch. And became fast friends. In the intervening 14 years, we've even managed to even make it to the pageant four times, three times in Atlantic City and once in its new home in Las Vegas. (I was 12 weeks pregnant that time. For the record, morning sickness and Vegas are an acutely bad match.) A highlight? Our 2003 morning-after breakfast with my friend Fletcher Foster, a country music industry executive who had actually been one of the judges the previous night. We tried not to be too hard on Fletcher for his part in having given the crown to that ho-hum Miss Florida in the unfortunate yellow dress over our girl, Harvard-educated spunkmeister Miss Virginia, but loved getting the inside dish. (Oh, and that Amy has done alright by herself, by the way. She's now one of the paper's Reliable Source columnists. She just broke a story about a little couple named Salahi? Perhaps you've heard of them?)

Amy and I, along with a solid crew of annual regulars, have turned pageant watching into our very own version of Fantasy Football. Each year, we peruse the field, with its legions of graduates of academic powerhouses like Christopher Newport University, and its countless 21 year old contenders who look exactly like middle-aged local news anchorwomen. Our record for sizing up the competition and spotting comers is eerily impressive.

But like fans of a perpetual losing team, each year my girls and I gear up for another disappointment. We always pin our hopes on the rare real young woman – one with talent that would actually impress outside the pageant stage, or one who seems genuinely bright, not just what passes for smart in the pageant universe -- and once again wonder if this is her year to rise above the pack of "pageant patties." It never is.

In 2006, by then the mother of a young son, I invited some newcomers – most of them friends made on the mom circuit -- to watch the pageant, introducing a whole new legion of born-again fans. I still can hear my friend Natalie, upon watching the totally underwhelming Miss Oklahama take the crown from our favorite. “How do you DO this every year?” she asked with faux disgust.

The fact is that I really am at the Sundance Film Festival right now, supporting my brother as he promotes his film, 3 Backyards. So I haven't even had time yet to do my standard due diligence and make my Top Ten predictions. I hope Amy will understand. Regardless, we'll be watching Saturday night, cosmos in hand, doing our duty as Americans to support the nation's largest scholarship organization for women. Won't you do the same?

2010 Miss America Pageant Preliminary Competition

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Proper Kvell. For Jem, from Scout.

As some of you already know, on Tuesday I'll be headed out to the Sundance Film Festival.

A three day vacation! Without any kids! It's going to be great. I just checked out their website. And -- OMG! -- it turns out they show MOVIES there! How cool is that?

Excited? Me? Maybe a little. Enough that in an email about the logistics of my return flight, my husband did feel compelled to remind me that I "do have to come home eventually."

So yes, my brother Matt and I are going to Sundance to see 3 Backyards, written and directed by our brother Eric, and starring Edie Falco, Embeth Davidtz, Elias Koteas and Kathryn Erbe. It's our first time at the festival, but Eric's third; in 1999, he won the Directing Award for his debut feature, Judy Berlin. (A fine addition to your Netflix queue, by the way; it also stars Edie, and features the final, heartbreaking performance of the late great Madeline Kahn.) Since nobody could possibly be less of a horn-tooting attention seeker than my brother, who happens to be one of my very favorite people in the universe, I thought I'd take a moment to sing his praises and link to some of the pre-festival buzz on him and his film, which premieres tonight at 8.

  • LA Weekly just wrote an amazing piece about Eric and his singular artistic vision, not to mention a few fun tidbits about growing up Mendelsohn. (I even get a mention!) You can read it here.
  • A short video interview with Eric, talking about the film, here.
  • Or maybe you'd like to read Emmy-winner Edie "Carmela Soprano" Falco, who also happens to be Eric's best friend, on why it's a crime that Eric hasn't been able to make more movies. That would be here.
  • The New York Daily News wonders if 3 Backyards is this year's Precious; I'm going to go with, "one can only hope."
  • Indiewire did this interview with Eric, in which he talks about making the leap to shooting digitally, and in color.

I'm enormously proud of Eric. I don't care if he wins a thing at Sundance. I don't care if I don't get to any celebrity-studded parties. I'm just so pleased that in a cultural climate that prizes all things flashy and commercial and anything-but-subtle, a thoughtful filmmaker like Eric can make exactly the kind of film he wants, and then find a venue like Sundance where his work can be celebrated. I'm proud that he's managed to be so uncompromising and principled as an artist, and I'm thrilled to be there supporting him.

Oh, who am I kidding? I just want to meet Kristen Stewart and James Franco and look cute in my warm sweaters and fake Uggs.

No, seriously. Getting into Sundance -- there were 1058 submissions for the 16 Dramatic Competition slots -- is an extraordinary accomplishment in itself. Please join me in congratulating Eric and the hardworking cast and crew of 3 Backyards on this amazing achievement. Here's to a great time for everyone in Park City. I'll be the one with the enormous smile.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The One in Which I Take a Serious Turn...

Because it's not all fun and games around here, people. Actually, it is, but today I'm going to pretend to put on my serious hat.

In the five years that I have been a parent, I like to fancy myself a relatively reasonable sort. Though I am admittedly overzealous about carseat safety (we're devotees of Baltimore's own Debbie Baer, The Carseat Lady), and try my best to avoid stuffing my kids with junk food, I have a kind of reflexive cringe for those parents who treat their children like delicate hothouse flowers, hovering and helicoptering and worrying about every single thing their kids ingest, or play with or experience. It's not surprising that many of the philosophies of free-range parenting resonate with me. Or that our playroom boasts a number of -- the horror! -- plastic toys.

But there's a situation afoot I simply have to take a stand on.

My kids watch tv. (See aforementioned plastic toys. So shoot me.) And when my kids watch tv, 99.9 percent of the time, they use Comcast's On Demand menu to choose a show. Their tastes, I am happy to report, are very very mild. They watch Thomas. And Sesame Street. Zoboomafoo and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. (As an aside, I made the mistake of telling my five year old that the Kratt brothers of Zoboomafoo fame had a new show on the National Geographic channel that he might like. As *I* cowered in fear watching a crocodile devour an unsuspecting wildebeest, it dawned on me that he might not yet be ready for real nature programming.)

Anyway, as anyone with children knows, getting two children to agree on what they want to watch is never an easy process. So we linger on that On Demand menu as the boys change their minds about eleventy billion times.

And there's the rub.

For some reason, in this era of scarily intrusive direct advertising -- my friend Allie wrote a blog post about how much she hates Uggs, only to have all the Google ads on her blog immediately turn to ads for Uggs -- Comcast has not yet gotten with the program. Because while we're going through our daily exercise in exasperation, changing our minds for the umpteenth time from Caillou to Diego, promos continue to play in the corner of the On Demand menu. And these ads are not directed at children. In fact, these ads continue to show my children snippets of truly frightening horror movies, or violent ones, or plain old-fashioned inappropriate ones. (Try to explain what's going on in The Hangover trailer to a toddler, will you?)

If you doubt me, just ask my kindergartener. Who continues to insist that the movie he most wants to see is Nine. You know, the Fellini-esque Rob Marshall movie starring Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson. ("But Mom! It is NOT scary! It looks great!") Yesterday, my boys were treated to images of a wartime explosion and then, what appeared to be a dead soldier lying on the ground, courtesy of the promo for The Hurt Locker. Fine movie, I have no doubt. Just not for the Barney set.

I never thought I'd find myself in a position to *ask* that my children be marketed to, but there you have it. Comcast is missing a perfect opportunity to tailor the promos shown while perusing its Kids On Demand menu to, well, kids.

I have been in touch with Comcast -- specifically a woman named Kathy in the office of Rick Germano, Senior Vice President for Customer Operations -- and they are looking into the situation. If they are your provider, can you please take a moment and send a note asking for the same? It might just get it taken care of if I'm not a lone wolf on this. You can do that here.

And if you don't want to help, that's fine. I'm just going to make you take Ethan to see Nine.

Update: 4:50 p.m. Two things. One: I just learned from my friend Mindy that Ethan is more likely referring to this animated Tim Burton movie called 9. Fair enough. But as if to underscore my point, I just turned on Sesame Street. While choosing the episode, the boys were treated to the "Say hello to my little friend!" scene from Scarface. I couldn't make this stuff up, right? 'Nuf said.

Update: Saturday. So now they're saying the place to give feedback is here. Give it a shot? Thanks.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


With the almost incomprehensible suffering and devastation the world has witnessed of late, it's easy to forget that just two weeks ago, there actually had been tremendous jubilation in at least one teeny tiny corner of the globe.

The UK Welcomes In The New Year With Firework Displays And Parties

Partygoers dance in the street to Impala, a West A

Which corner, you ask? Oh. That would be the one occupied by, well, me.

Why? Because just days before the Haitian tragedy, I reached the stay-at-home motherhood equivalent of nirvana: I now have two children in school. At. the. same. time.

Yep, that's right. For six whole hours a week, I am gloriously, deliriously and entirely kid-free. And not at home with a sleeping child, mind you, but out in the world, with my station wagon revved and ready to like, go places and do stuff. OK, so between pickups and dropoffs, it's really more like four hours. But who's counting? Oh wait: I know. I am! Because that's four more kid-free hours than I had the week before. Actually, that's four more kid free hours than I've had in years.

Sigh. If I treat them really nicely, might they go forth and multiply, those four beautiful little hours? (I keep thinking of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, cherishing the two dollar bills that keep the Building and Loan from going under:
"A toast to Mama Dollar and to Papa Dollar, and if you want to keep this old Building and Loan in business, you better have a family real quick.")

I wish I could say I had grand plans. That I'm going to knit scarves for the children of a Romanian orphanage. Or volunteer at a medical facility for homeless people with cleft palates. Or that I'm going to...I don't know...meditate? Write that novel?

Nope. None of the above. It is a sobering reminder of the level of glamour in my life that what I am really most excited to get to do errands.

Yes, I'm going to run errands. Lots and lots and lots and lots of errands, in which I will be wholly unencumbered by the needs of the five-and-under set. (Picture me, if you will, in aviator sunglasses and a glamorous 1950s headscarf.) In fact, I think I'm going to target random strip malls and devise ways to go into every single establishment therein just to attend to a single piece of errand-y business. Perhaps I'll buy nothing more than some Tic Tacs or a box of Band-Aids at a Walgreen's. I'll go to Whole Foods just to purchase a single slice of organic Slovakian goat cheese. (Too narrow a focus, you say? Why no! I will have no children with me! I can do whatever I want! And quickly!) I'll bring a single shirt to a dry cleaners. Return an unwanted birthday gift to a Target. Pop in Starbucks for a latte. Grab a sandwich elsewhere. Get the oil changed. Go stock up on that frozen Pad Thai I like from Trader Joes.

I'm practically weeping with joy already. Because without my kids in tow, all of that will take me roughly 14 minutes, which still leaves plenty of time for the scarves for the orphans.

You see, one of those little things that nobody ever tells you about parenthood is that it puts a serious crimp in your errand-running mojo. The big tradeoffs? I long ago made peace with those. I get that I can no longer jet off for the weekend on the spur of the moment. (Not that I was really much of a spontaneous jetter off-er pre-kids, but I suppose it was nice to have the option, in theory.) And I'm pretty good with all of the rest: The wiping up of any number of bodily secretions. The endless recitations of godawful Thomas the Tank Engine books. The whining. Yes, yes, and yes. Got it.

But nobody ever told me what being a mother would do to my ability to do something as basic as run errands. It's the speed and efficiency I miss most, the quick satisfaction of a lightning-fast in-and-out retail experience. They slow you down, those kids, to truly agonizing, unbearable levels. Who knew that I would one day stare longingly at a grocery store, just thinking of the lone bunch of cilantro I would love to go in and buy, quickly and gracefully, like a gazelle stalking its prey. Without having to wrestle anyone in or out of a carseat. Without having a Hegelian discourse about which color racing car cart is best and who gets to sits where. Without having to lug three metric tons worth of coloring books with me or purchase roughly 516 unnecessary treats in order to broker peace. Nobody ever told me that I would one day chart a day's worth of errands based solely on the fewest number of egresses from the car required. (That drive-through at my all-time favorite soup and sandwich place, by the way? Heaven. On. Earth.) Nobody ever told me that I would one day have to plan a trip to pick up dry cleaning with the military precision of a tactical maneuver in Falluja. ("This is delta-charlie-bravo 41. I have a visual on the target. I'm going in with the stroller, do you copy?")

And so I salute you, my four little hours, for allowing me to take back a little piece of myself that I had long ago surrendered on the altar of motherhood. I only hope I do you -- and those orphans -- proud.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Dateline Haiti

Major Earthquake Hits Haiti
Because there literally are no words.

To add this or another (free) earthquake photo to your blog in tribute, please go here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Coincidence? You be the judge.

Two nights ago I put up a quick blog post about Audra McDonald, and how I was moved to tears by a performance of hers eight years ago.

Today, while looking through a box of old photos, something fell out of one of the envelopes. Mind you, the box was full of nothing but photos -- no other ticket stubs or mementoes.

This is what it was. A little freaky, no?

But then again, maybe not: Last week, while flipping channels, I noticed on the cable guide that This is My Life, the 1992 Nora Ephron comedy in which my brother Eric has one line as a waiter, was on. After much back and forth with my husband, who was trying to record something else, we switched to the channel it was on. And literally, at that exact moment, Eric appeared on screen, saying, "Can I get you anything else?" The movie is 105 minutes long, and I've never actually seen it before. What are the chances?

Does this mean I'm supposed to play the lottery or something?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Some Days

Just as the pregame for the BCS National Championship game began to wind down tonight, I noticed a stream of comments on Twitter about the television actress who sang "God Bless America." "Didn't know Audra Whats-her-name could sing," read a typical one.

Didn't know Audra McDonald could sing? Really?

For me, it was just the opposite. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I might have known that McDonald, a four time Tony winner, is on the ABC show Private Practice these days. But to me, she will always be a singer first and foremost. A singer of singular, almost otherworldly talent. A singer whose mesmerizing, lush voice so moved me during a concert at the Kennedy Center that I began to cry, something that had never happened to me before or since. It was a month after September 11, 2001, and she sang a song called "Some Days." It's a signature piece for her, with lyrics from a poem by the great James Baldwin, including this verse, which seemed almost unbearably poignant at the time:

Some days leave
some days grieve
some days you almost don't believe.
Some days believe you,
some days don't,
some days believe you
and you won't.
Some days weary
some days mad
some days more than make you glad.
Some days, some days,
more than shine,
coming on down the line!

Fearful that even a single person out there might think of McDonald as nothing more than a tv doctor, I leave you with this.

I'm not sure if I believe in angels. But this is what I hope they sound like.
(Double click to see best.)

Update: The world really does work in mysterious ways.