Tuesday, June 30, 2009


I haven't offered up any thoughts about the deaths of Farrah Fawcett or Michael Jackson because...well, what's left to say, really? So many words have been written about their work and the choices they made in life, I can only wonder this: Did they ever regret allowing their very existences to be nothing more than one big photo op? Fawcett, who tried so desperately to maintain her celebrity even when her time had passed (nothing smacks of desperation more than a Playboy spread), and Jackson, claiming he sought anonymity even as he wandered around in public in a series of goofy outfits and masks from the Eyes Wide Shut collection, must at some point have looked around and wondered what the hell they were doing.

Or maybe not. In any event, they were for a time the biggest things in the world. Jackson lived his whole life as a superstar, thanks initially to his awesome talent and eventually, mostly, for his flair for showmanship. And yet he let that showmanship, those carefully-cultivated eccentricities, define him. Fawcett became a phenon mostly because she had big hair, sparkly teeth and perky tits, which, back in the seventies, was enough. She wasn't famous, her image was, her poster briefly as iconic as any image of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean. We know all too well how these people lived and died, but we'll never know who they really were, if they even knew themselves.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Given his deteriorating health, the death at age 86 of Ed McMahon, TV's most beloved second banana, isn't exactly a surprise. And we've seen the end coming, too, for the form of showbiz he represented: Pure entertainment, free of irony, aimed at the largest audience possible.

That second death has been on the way since 1982, when Late Night With David Letterman went on the air. It immediately followed Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, the very program on which McMahon had labored for so long, and was in fact co-produced by Carson. But Letterman's program, while seeming to function as a standard TV talk show, dripped with sarcasm and irony, its very existence seemingly bracketed by air quotes. It was absolutely brilliant, but it made no pretense of being aimed at a large audience. It specifically targeted the hipsters of Gen X, and it largely invented the new rules of the game. The roots of virtually all great modern comedy, from The Simpsons to Mr. Show to Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be traced to Letterman's efforts.

Many of us, in those pre-internet days, felt a rush knowing there was someone out there who viewed the world through the same skewed prism as us. And by "the world" I specifically mean "showbiz": Letterman may have been on network TV, but he reveled in its very cheesiness, mocking the very notions of celebrity that a show like Carson's worked so hard to enshrine. Carson made sure guests on his show came off well; Letterman frequently laughed at them.

And where did the dawning Age Of Irony leave poor Ed McMahon? He still had his Tonight Show gig, of course, but in the era of cable and VCRs, the audience shrank alarmingly. He tried to roll with the punches, and allowed his name to be used in the very title of Ed McMahon's Star Search. Though the show was part of a long TV tradition from Talent Scouts to American Idol, it was, if not post-modern, then at least post-Letterman: It tended to be a little too aware of its own silliness. (I mean: Spokesmodels?)

Was McMahon in on the gag? To some degree, sure; as a former carny barker, he knew full well that all entertainment was a form of selling lies. But what did he think of Phil Hartman's hilarious but mercilessly cruel parody of him on Saturday Night Live, which seemed to imply that McMahon's very existence was a joke. He'd flown combat missions in Korea, for God's sake. He'd boned more women than Sinatra. Who did these young bastards think they were?

In between Star Search tapings, McMahon teamed up with Dick Clark for those endless blooper and practical joke shows, and even post-Carson, still had a regular second-banana position as Jerry Lewis' foil every year on the telethon. He clung to his peculiar form of celebrity into the new century, still faking sincerity, still trying not to let the seams show, still hoping Alpo and Budweiser would call up with endorsement deals, and it would be 1975 all over again and all would be right with the world.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


The same observation over and over, each time phrased in nearly the same way: "I didn't expect you'd be here today."

All the clients I dealt with were senior citizens, and seemingly every one of them listened to the obituaries broadcast on the local radio station. They knew my father had passed away the day before, and apparently expected someone else in my place. Their words held a slightly accusatory tone: Why was I there? Why hadn't I taken the day off?

Why, indeed? Why didn't I go ahead and spend an entire day dealing with...whatever my feelings were. Grief, or something? That's what I was supposed to feel, right? Problem was, Dad and I weren't that close. No animosity, just a distance, a realization that whatever bond was supposed to be there just wasn't. So I felt bad, but I didn't feel as bad as I should, which of course made me feel worse.

I tried to reflect, to seize on some happy moment as a point of focus, but there just wasn't much in my memory. Most of what I knew about him came later, as I tried to assemble the bits and pieces I learned from Mom or from his sister. I began to have some admiration for the man Dad had been long before I was born, but by that time, by the time I longed to talk to him and get to know him better, he had become paralyzed due to a series of strokes. He couldn't walk, he couldn't talk, he just sort of existed, most of his time spent sleeping. When he died, I--to be brutally honest--mostly felt relief, grateful he had passed from the dreadful shadow land he inhabited for so long.

Again, though, relief at his passing made me feel somehow heartless, and I didn't want to confront my thoughts and feelings. Better to go to work, to take comfort in the routine of familiarity. Soon enough there would be an official grieving process, family and friends gathered, the time-honored rituals enacted. But that would be for tomorrow, and the next day, and the rest of my life. There would be plenty of time to process the feelings I couldn't quite understand. For the moment, there was my job, and as I heard the words over and over--"I didn't expect you'd be here today"--I stood numbly, wondering how to respond.

Friday, June 19, 2009


If anybody even bothers checking this space out anymore--and really, why bother, since I announced a month or so ago that I was taking an extended break--this unnamed hypothetical reader may have discovered (GASP!) actual new content appeared yesterday.

And while this content may have seemed familiar in a way--another trip down Dead Marriage Road--it might serve as a portal to a new way of doing things around here. I've noticed that when I spend brief periods of time alone, primarily at work, my mind wanders until it lands on a random, but still vivid memory. These moments out of time are usually nothing dramatic, which makes the extreme detail stand out in sharper relief. Why do I remember the exact moment I ran to the bathroom when I saw Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze at the local drive-in, or my mom dragging me out of the house to look at a rainbow, or the odd mix of anxiety, relief and contentment when first meeting my ex-girlfriend's family at her son's birthday party?

I suspect recreations of moments like these, and attempts to sort out what they mean, may come to dominate this site. Yes, this does sound awfully me-centric, and whether this could be of any interest to anyone else, I have no idea. But hopefully, the larger feelings these memories represent are universal. You, the theoretical reader, may not share my specific history, but maybe there's some larger shared human meaning in all of this we'll discover together.

Or not; honestly, that previous paragraph was a load of pseudo-pretentious hogwash, more suitable as ad copy for a new Mitch Albom book than anything you're likely to read around here. But it's the best description I could cobble together of where I'd like to take this space. Long-winded political screeds are a thing of the past, and though I'm sure I'll still write about movies and pop culture (I'm itching to write something about Up, and my sincere belief that Pete Docter could become a truly great filmmaker), my take on these things will probably become even more subjective, more personal. Also, hopefully, fewer clip jobs, although I'm sure Lynda Carter will still make ocasional appearances here because, hey, why not?

The point is, this site is again open for business, at least temporarily. Daily posts will almost certainly not resume, but I hope to at least get back on a weekly schedule, or something. Where all this will wind up I can't say, but as I said back when I first started this site, if you're reading this, you're already part of the journey.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Me, alone, driving.  Monday night, six-thirty, maybe seven o'clock, already dark on a nondescript late winter evening. After a quick doctor's appointment, I'd hopped onto I-270 for the drive from Germantown back home to Montgomery Village.  Usually I'd take Frederick Road, but I thought I'd do something different.

The whole evening was different.  Most trips like this, my wife would've been with me, a nice drive together, maybe stop for something to eat.  A quick and cheap mid-week date, always fun.  But she was tired this evening, and just wanted to stay home.  Her job, she said.

Fine.  The solitude gave me a chance to listen to some music. I'd bought a bunch of sale cassettes at Tower Records a week or two before, and I popped one in, The Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. The side kicked off with a campy, needless cover of Cabaret, then got down to business: Teddy Pendergrass acing If You Don't Know Me By Now. What a voice, what a sound, what a song, Philly Soul at its absolute sweetest.

And most troubling. Just trust in me like I trust in you/As long as we've been together it should be so easy to do/Just get yourself together or we might as well say goodbye/What good is a love affair when you can't see eye to eye. Then the chorus, musically gorgeous, lyrically devastating: If you don't know me by now/You will never never know me...

Blood ran cold in my veins. Since moving out here, things between us had been...different.  Was this it? Was this song about my life? We hadn't fallen out of love, that wasn't it. Then what?  No real passion, merely routine, one thing after another to no particular purpose. Sometimes it felt like we spent too much time together, but couldn't stand the loneliness of being apart.

The love, though--it was still there. I could still recall our first date, and the exact moment I fell for her. And the feeling never left. Maybe the fire died down, but that's inevitable. Nothing could take away the memory, which was always there, always, always. And surely she could remember as well. We were still together, through all the good and bad. Neither one of us was going anywhere.

I popped the cassette out, no longer in the mood for The Blue Notes, and exited, turning onto Quince Orchard Road, passing Food Lion and 7-11 and Lake Forest Mall, no cars, barely any lights on, all nearly deserted for so early in the night.

Mellow sounds poured from the radio, Washington's classic R&B station being the default setting. The DJ paused in between songs, dedicating all the music this hour to everyone who's ever found that special someone, or anyone who ever will. Because, he said, everyone finds love sooner or later. Sometimes you just have to work at it.

Yeah, I thought. Yeah, you do. But you know what?  It's worth it. The DJ threw it back to the music--Stevie Wonder's Ribbon In The Sky--and joy washed over me, the realization that I had found it, that everything I wanted, I had. It had been tested lately, betrayed and bruised, but at that moment, I loved my wife as fully and passionately as I ever had, and my heart raced with anticipation to get home, to see her, to tell her.

Still. At that moment, too, a voice sounded somewhere--you will never never know me--telling me love alone couldn't save me, or this marriage, or anything else.