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We Are The World 25 Haiti

We Are the World—the original—was, in my opinion, one of the greatest artistic, charitable, spiritual and political events of the 1980s, a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, and a gang of other scoundrels. So it was with trepidation that I greeted the news they’d be doing a remake, this time to benefit Haiti.

Maybe I was just predisposed to hating anything that messed around with something I consider sacred, but when I saw the truncated version on opening night of the Olympics, I had a hot flash and howled, “I knew they’d wreck it!” But when I went to YouTube to watch the complete video, I calmed down: I don’t know what they did to the chopped-up version, but it made a big difference.

The best parts of the remake are the many background shots of kids in Haiti. I also love that this time Babs participated, hanging onto her headphones while belting out a solo. Of course, I didn’t recognize even half the performers, but Wikipedia lists them all, with links to each one’s story. (Wiki has a ton of information on both WATW versions; check it out.)

My 12-year-old grandson, who’s getting to be quite the critical thinker, prefers the original WATW: he informed me that people who “aren’t even musicians” are in the current version. As far as I can tell, the only ones in that category are Vince Vaughn, who apparently likes being wherever the action is, and Jimmy Jean-Louis, who plays ‘The Haitian’ on the TV show Heroes—I assume his nationality and star power gained him entry.

Besides the images of Haitian kids, the most poignant moment in this version is that upward motion of the camera slowly revealing Michael Jackson’s feet, legs, glove, and, finally, angelic face. His was the only solo from the original that was included, with sister Janet standing beside him singing along, through the wonders of film editing. It’s a heartbreaking moment, for obvious reasons—but that it’s one of the video’s highlights proves the original version is superior. That version bears the distinction of being the biggest-selling single of all time, with more than 20 million sold, raising over $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa and the US.

There are some additions and word changes to the new version, including a fairly lengthy rap section—which is what got me sweating and howling upon first view. Upon second view and reflection, though, it’s not bad, and modernizes the music, which is, I suppose, the point.

My nitpicking, though, is insignificant;  the goal and probable accomplishment of We Are The World 25 Haiti is to help that devastated country. Once again, Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie, and the ghost of Michael Jackson achieve magnificence, by using their art and talent and celebrity for good, and showing the rest of us how it’s done.


The People of The Book

Yesterday I visited the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. I’d been wanting to go there for awhile, and finally had a free day. It hasn’t been around that long–the new building just opened in 2008–and it’s a relatively small museum, which I appreciate–unlike most museums, you can actually cover the whole place in a few hours.

Current exhibits are A Portrait of Bay Area Jews; Sendak on Sendak; Jews on Vinyl; and As It Is Written: The Torah Project. The Bay Area exhibit includes an NPR StoryCorps booth, where people can record stories from their lives and families, by appointment; the stories are regularly played on NPR.

Predictably, crowds of people, including lots of little kids, swarmed through the Maurice Sendak exhibit–but the most fascinating thing I saw, and it will stay with me a long time, was the Torah Project. I’ve seen Torah scrolls, but it never really dawned on me that somebody had to have written the whole thing. As I learned yesterday, each Torah is painstakingly copied from another by an individual–all 304,805 words–onto parchment made of the skin of a kosher animal by a scribe using a feather quill. This particular Torah is being inscribed by Julie Seltzer, in public view (check Museum schedule); it will take her one full year to complete. We’re talking about Hebrew letters here: writing them is more like painting than writing the ABC’s. It’s focused, back-breaking labor, with a rule for every aspect of the job.

After watching a video of the scribe at work, and studying the information on exhibit, I could only conclude that I come from a tribe of lunatics–brilliant, but insane. What could be more neurotic than enacting hundreds of rules and regulations to govern the creation of a religious document, an already arduous task? And while other religions got on board the Gutenberg Express early on, my people are still, today, writing these things by hand. Is that not insane?

But also brilliant. I’m not religious, but I am, on occasion, ethnically proud–and this is one of those occasions. I love it that I come from the People of the Book. I love it that my people care so much about The Book that if a Torah is damaged, it must be ritualistically buried. After Katrina, many damaged Torahs were rescued by boat from the synagogues to receive their proper burial.

The Torah Project will be at the Museum until next Fall, so there’s plenty of time to catch it. You can find out more about the subject, and fill in the enormous gaps in my knowledge, on the website.

Jane Bites Back: Review

Jane Bites Back
by Michael Thomas Ford
Ballantine Books

Whew! Am I relieved! As I read the last page of Jane Bites Back, my heart rapidly sank—there were still a few ends left untied, one of them pretty significant. Then I turned to the back and discovered a sequel’s in the works. My spirits were immediately revived: I cannot wait to read Jane Goes Batty, “coming soon” from Ballantine Books. I wonder what “soon” means—the publishing biz can be maddeningly slow. Guess I’ll just have to ask the author. (Full disclosure: I know Michael Ford slightly.)

Following Ford and his twisted mind on this roller-coaster ride made for a rollicking good read—or should I say the rollicking read made for a roller-coaster ride? Either way, I had a blast, and it made me wonder why I’ve shied away from the vampire genre. Actually, JBB doesn’t fall into any genre, fang-related or otherwise. It’s a novel/romance/satire and even mystery all rolled into one. Ford pokes his knife-edged pen at all things romantic, generic, novelistic, and vampiristic, and does a side-splitting number on a pair of talk show hosts named Comfort and Joy. I especially loved his delicious satire of the publishing game.

Jane, by the way, is Ms. Austen, undead in a remote little town in upstate NY, where she’s carved out a fairly normal life, except for her proclivity to inflict in-depth hickeys on the townsfolk every now and then.  Prim and proper Jane hates having to do it, but she’s hunger-driven, having been turned 200-something years ago by none other than Lord Byron.  As Jane Fairfax, she runs her own bookstore and hangs out with the locals, writing a novel in her spare time. When it’s published, her little world bursts wide open, bringing more excitement and danger than the poor girl’s had in, oh, 150 years or so. Can she handle it?

How could she not? when the guy pulling her strings has a mind more imaginative than that of any writer I’ve encountered in a pretty long time (I’m thinking here of Katherine Dunn, author of the outrageous Geek Love). Ford is wickedly funny: I cackled my way through half the book, especially the vampire stuff. Still, I’m a writer reading a writer writing about writing, so the parts I related to best were of Jane as the Austenmeister. For instance, “She herself had become somewhat resentful of newly published books—much as childless women sometimes regarded new mothers and their infants with a mixture of jealousy and despair…” Talk about schadenfreude!

Ironically, a book as much fun as JBB is a good cure for schadenfreude. How can I possibly resent my friend’s success when it’s bringing me pleasure? I don’t—and I eagerly await Jane Goes Batty. Hm…I just remembered…Batty. Bats. Vampires. Ford hints towards the end that Jane needs to spend more time with “her own kind.” Methinks we’ll be meeting some of those creatures in the sequel.

Second Annual Culture List

Since I did a list last year, I might as well burden myself by turning it into a tradition. Unlike “Ten Bests,” mine’s just a compilation of most of what I’ve read, watched and listened to during the year, with best, worst and everything in between thrown about haphazardly. I must confess, I barely remember some of these books and movies. True, my memory isn’t what it used to be–but I think that if something is that un-memorable, it must’ve sucked—or at least I didn’t much like it.

Naturally, not everything here came out in ‘09, especially the movies.


Books (Fiction and Nonfiction)

True Compass. I took in Senator Ted Kennedy’s autobiography through my ears, and had to return the CD set to the library two discs short of finishing; I’ll probably take it out again someday. At times I was inspired; at other times beat myself up for doing so little in my life compared to Teddy’s huge accomplishments. My personal hangups aside, TC is an absorbing account of one of the most dramatic and fascinating lives in American politics. The assassinations, the big sprawling family he carried on his brotherless shoulders, the commitment, the scandals, joys, and sorrows beyond sorrow—all were so much larger than life. Surprisingly, the personal was more interesting then the political in this account, though some details were  glossed over—like the invisible life of sister Rosemary. On the other hand, Kennedy’s treatment of the Mary Jo Kopechne incident was surprisingly thorough, and I believe that it went down the way he says it did. He didn’t justify his behavior, but expressed regret, and apparently spent his life atoning for the incident. Too many people discount the great things this great man did because of that mistake; I wonder if they would’ve done any better under the same circumstances. I wish Teddy had lived to participate in the Great Health Insurance Sellout: things might’ve gone differently with the Liberal Lion leading the charge. ****

Indignation: The older Philip Roth gets, the faster he seems to write. In Indignation he offers up sociological observation as only he can do it, this time on the Midwestern college as experienced by a working-class urban Jew. The story goes along at a good clip, but about 50 pages before the end Roth drops a bomb: the narrator, it turns out, has been speaking from the grave all along. Not too long after this revelation he leap-frogs from college into the Korean War and his death, and it feels like Roth just got bored with the story. So did I.**

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. Another book I experienced through my ears, except I remember almost nothing about this one. It was, I think, about an ordinary marriage. I used to adore Anne Tyler; anyone interested in her work should read one of her earlier novels, e.g., Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, instead of this latest.*

Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore. Reviewed here. *****


The Position by Meg Wolitzer. Reviewed here.**


Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Reviewed here.*****


My Baby Rides the Short Bus.  Edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot. Full disclosure: I have two essays in this collection. See description here.

The Yankee Years by Joe Torre with Tom Verducci.You might have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate the gossip and glory in this book. I am and I did. ****

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant. Another novel experienced through my ears, this was actually the best book I read in 2009. A rich historical tale, it weaves together the desperate lives of an eclectic group of characters living in on-its-last-legs Dogtown; it’s based on a real place that existed in Massachussetts in the 1800s. This is a town where people scratch out livings in sometimes devious ways, and do ugly things to one another to make it through their hardscrabble lives. If you liked Diamant’s The Red Tent, you’ll love this one.*****


The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper. I’m still reading this story of upper-class Liberians forced by revolution to leave their country. Liberia has an unusual history: it was partly populated by newly freed African-American slaves after the Civil War, with blessings and assistance from the U.S. government. I’d read an excerpt in the New Yorker a few years back, and found it mesmerizing. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the best, possibly the only good part of the book. The narrator is a pre-pubescent girl, and the voice is immature, a common pitfall that occurs when using younger people as narrators. I may not even finish reading this—life’s too short to read bad books. **

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford. Full disclosure: Mike’s a friend, if you consider someone you met just once a friend, which I do. We’ve been communicating for maybe a dozen years, first via email and now on Facebook. I adore his wicked humor and full-throated imagination, both on ample display in this just published novel. He gives us Jane Austen as a vampire, living 200-something years and forced to witness post-modern Austen mania. I’ve read no vampire novels with the exception of Dracula as a kid, so I couldn’t swear that everything in here runs true to vampire lore—but it sounds authentic. Similarly, I haven’t read any of the Jane Austen wanna-be’s, so I couldn’t swear Ford’s satirical jabs are on target—but I’d bet my Austen collection   they are. Going along with Mike’s sharp and twisted mind on this roller-coaster read makes for a rollicking good ride. Or the ride makes a rollicking read? Either way, it’s a pretty wonderful book, and I’m not just saying that because Mike paid me to. (Joke, joke!) *****



Up in the Air. Loved the story, loved George Clooney (forever), loved the young trainee, awed by the girlfriend’s balls. *****

Avatar When I was younger I had zero interest in ‘special effects,’ and would never forgive a weak plot in favor of fancy tricks. I loathed Star Wars. I suspect I still would today…yet I was blown away by Avatar…and that’s without even seeing it in 3D!  If the story is weak and clichéd, as the critics say—who cares? Avatar is a feast for the senses and transcendent for the soul.  In fact, the story, though familiar, isn’t that bad, it’s even sort of sweet. Sigourney Weaver, still a hot babe after all these years, gives a standout performance as a chain-smoking scientist. I’m soooo glad I didn’t reflexively dismiss Avatar. I can’t wait to see it again, and in 3D this time.*****

Me and Orson Welles. A small, arty film that might get lost in the holiday shuffle. Absolutely delightful. ****

Grey Gardens: Based on the life story of the mother / daughter duo of Edith Bouvier Beale aka “Big and Little Edie,” the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie O. They were once Park Avenue débutantes but left New York society to live in seclusion at their Long Island summer home, and as they became poorer and more isolated, they lost their their grip on reality. Drew Barrymore, who’s fast becoming my favorite actress, gives an outstanding performance as Edie the Younger. Jessica Lange’s not half bad either. Rent it.****

Sugar: The true story of a Latino baseball player. See my review here.****

Burn Before Reading: I remember absolutely nothing about this movie. How is that possible?*

Pirate Radio: See my review here. ****

Cadillac Records: Another rock n roll movie, a genre I obviously adore. ****

Sunshine Cleaning. In order to raise the tuition to send her son to private school, a single mother starts a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service with her flaky sister. Mildly amusing. ***

Older (rentals):

Across the Universe. Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. The love story of Lucy and Jude is intertwined with the social movements and young people’s lives of the 1960s. Beatles’ songs are artfully woven into the plot; my favorite moment is when a strange girl climbs into the apartment via the bathroom window, and someone asks how she got in. With this music, what could be bad?*****

Music and Lyrics. Again, Drew Barrymore! And here she plays opposite the adorable Hugh Grant. He’s a recycled ’60s singer from a Loggins & Messina-type act, she’s a plant caretaker who comes over with her watering can and stays to help him write songs. The music is surprisingly good, the romance delicious, the plot quite clever. I saw this twice in one year. *****

Memento: This crazy-making movie is an enigma wrapped in a mystery etcetera. I’ve taken it on as a Zen koan to work at for the rest of my life. Google it and you’ll find a plethora of discussions and analysis; here’s one I particularly like (it’s #10 on his list).  It’s probably considered a cult film, so I suppose that makes me a cultist.****

The Ballad of Narayama (1983). I saw this movie something like two dozen years ago, and some of the images in it have haunted me all these years. I wasn’t disappointed by my second viewing of this story about a small Japanese village where, when a person turns 70, they must go to the mountain top to die. If anyone should refuse, he/she would disgrace their family. Orin is 69, and this winter is her time. Totally fascinating, visually transcendent.*****

Update January 1st, 2010: I saw my favorite movie of 2009 yesterday. It’s Complicated is (a) hilarious, (b) a great story, (c) has fantastic actors acting fantastically, (d) that rarest of Hollywood products, a sexy story about old(er) people, (e) all of the above. Alec Baldwin is a revelation. Meryl Streep is, as always, flawless. I laughed more than I remember doing at any movie since The Wedding Crashers. This points out the utter folly of “Best” lists–comparing It’s Complicated to Avatar is like comparing strawberries to bananas. For me, though, a great story and acting will always matter more than the most special of special effects.


The Playlist

All the music listed here is five stars or I wouldn’t be listening to it. This year I realized that music might be the only art form that hasn’t diminished in bringing me pleasure. Movies are getting predictable, it’s harder and harder to concentrate on books—but my joy in music has actually intensified, and the ever-changing delivery platforms add novelty. I love playing with Genius on iTunes, or making themed lists, sending CDs to friends–I made one on the occasion of Obama’s election, for instance. I am so in love with my iPod that, to paraphrase Charlton Heston, if anyone ever tried to take it away, they’d have to rip it out of my cold dead hands!






Peter Paul & Mary on PBS: Like many people my age, I love the old PPM songs—Puff, Flowers, Hammer, etcetera. Only serious folkies, though, stuck with them through the years. Then, in the wake of Mary Travers’ death this year, PBS did a special on them, and suddenly I heard all these songs I’d never heard before. “Light One Candle” brings on the goosebumps. PPM rules!

Joan Baez and the history of her political journey from 17-year-old idealist to 60-something respected activist also got a fresh look from PBS. With her long hair flowing over her guitar strings, she looked like a beautiful waif–but she’s even more beautiful today. Her voice too: unlike some women singers whose voices lose vocal range, Joan’s has remained as clear and beautiful as ever.

Old Man Mellencamp: John Mellencamp’s latest album is a serious elegy about aging and what’s a-comin’ down the pike, namely, the Grim Reaper. Songs like “Ain’t Gonna Need This Body” are validating to those of us who feel alone with such thoughts–but they’re not for the faint of heart.

Leonard Cohen revisited by a new generation: I rented I’m Your Man, a film tribute, and fell in love with some of the performers, like Rufus Wainwright and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. Distinctive voices, great music; of course, when it comes to Leonard Cohen, nobody does it better than LC himself.

Gil Scott-Heron: The first hip hop artist (c. 1978) and still relevant.



NEW to me

(Music I got turned on to through radio or podcast or the ether)

Cold Play

Alex Cuba


Negative is the New Positive Part II



Recent letter to Mick LaSalle, Movie Critic for the SF Chronicle:


Dear Mick: Pirate Radio is not a preview of what old-age nostalgia is going to look like for Boomers. It is old-age nostalgia for Boomers in their 60s. I make this point as a comforting reminder that, as younger Boomers, we’re not quite there yet.—Jim Ronningen, Albany


Dear Jim: Point taken. There’s a big difference between older Boomers (sad, drug-drenched hippies, mumbling about Woodstock) and younger Boomers (radiant, high-functioning epicures, who still own copies of Frampton Comes Alive.). Young folks can’t tell the difference, but we can spot each other with one glance.

Lest it not be obvious, I am of the older Boomer subset, and that exchange of letters explains a lot.

As mentioned in Part I of this thesis, a recent Australian study of personality types gives grumps like me the edge over shiny happy people: “While cheerfulness fosters creativity, gloominess breeds attentiveness and careful thinking, Professor Joe Forgas told Australian Science Magazine.” A mildly negative mood, the study found, promotes an improved communication style, particularly in “stating their case through written arguments.” Hah! That just happens to be my forte! Forgas has also done studies on the effects of weather, and says that dreary days sharpen memory, while bright sunny spells make people forgetful. I’m storing that tidbit away for my next thesis, in which I compare New Yorkers to Californians.

I also mentioned in Part I a new book by Ariel Gore, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. The book makes no case for either extreme of negative or positive; rather, it’s a luxurious meandering exploration of the subject as stated in the title.  (Full disclosure: I was one of the women who responded to Gore’s survey, and at least one of my answers pops up; an article I wrote for hipmama is also quoted.)

I’ve been following Gore’s career since she first launched hipmama, a zine for mothers living outside the paradigm of suburbia / 2.4 children / husband /  mini-van. The zine has since been passed to a new generation, even as Gore gave birth to her second child as her first one entered college. None of this has stopped her from writing interesting, unusual books, of which Bluebird is the latest. Always on the lookout for what isn’t being told by mainstream media, she noticed that in the burgeoning field of happiness  psychology, most of those in Happy Land were male, and, even more alarming, the women who opted for traditional stay-at-home roles were the happy ones.

She sent a questionnaire out to 100 women, asked a smaller group to keep diaries, attended a meeting of “happiness experts,” and in general spent her time studying, ruminating, meditating and cogitating on the subject. Like most books of this type, Bluebird has something for everyone. Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

“My mother,” Gore quips, “considered it a sin of dishonesty to let any negative emotion go unexpressed.”

Naturally, when addressing women’s happiness, the topic of motherhood is central, and this is Gore’s specialty. She has a keen understanding of the difference between motherhood as a fact of our lives, and motherhood as a social and political institution, and she never confuses the oppression of one for the other.

Gore even comes up with a few answers to the questions raised by her mental meanderings. But the most significant aspect of this gem of a book, to my mind, is the fact that negativity, or rather reality in its darker manifestations, is not ignored, spurned or judged. That’s my beef with all the happiness cults—the demand for eternal positive thinking and behavior, and the denial of anything remotely unpleasant.

Because journalists are reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich‘s book Blind-Sided, mentioned in Part I of this rant, there’s a lot of chatter in the media these days about the misguidedness of “positive thinking.” One I particularly like is Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal With Life’s Problems by Liz Langley, posted on AlterNet. In it, Langley interviews four authors for their advice on how to respond to the tragedies and crises in friends’ lives. I can only hope this will mean no more dismissing of real problems with some version of “Buck up!”

Lately I’m really zeroing in on California culture, and why it doesn’t suit me. I’ve lived here for over 22 years, and I’m still a stranger in a strange land. I haven’t lost my New York accent—if anything, it’s gotten more pronounced. I’ve become progressively more negative, more cynical, and more of a hermit. For a long time I believed my isolationist tendencies were generic, that I’d be this way even if I were on the East Coast, but I’m starting to see that the reason I don’t like to socialize anymore is that I simply can’t relate to Californians: I feel inadequate and uncomfortable around them.

Clearly I’m being tested by my circumstances. For complicated reasons, I absolutely cannot move back to New York, so I have to face up to the situation and make peace with it.  I seem to be making some progress. A few weeks ago I was reading a memoir in which the author said her life works best when she’s open to new experience, that she creates the conditions that will allow her life to flow in a positive direction. For some reason this resonated for me. I recalled with sudden insight all the times I’ve sabotaged myself by shutting out the new and scary. I glimpsed the deeper meaning behind all the positive chatter. It was a humbling moment. Ironically, it came at a time when everyone else seems to be tuning in to the darker side—or what I call reality.

Good grief! I can just see it now: as everyone decides to get real, I’ll be in positive thinking mode. I’ll run around smiling like an idiot, drawing happy faces and chirping Have a nice day, but I’ll get only scowls in return. People will lecture me about the falsity of my new persona. They’ll explain negativity to me as if I’d never heard the word or known a thing about it…and I’ll just smile and repeat, “Have a nice day.”