Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One Hot Tamale

When you relax under the palapas on the beach at Puerto Vallarta, your reading or dozing or drinking is constantly interrupted by approaching local vendors. They tramp the hot sand all day loaded with beaded necklaces, woolen textiles, embroidered tablecloths, carved pipes, toys, and cheap sunglasses. If they're selling pipes they'll offer to sell you something to smoke in them; if they're selling paragliding sessions or rides on the banana boat they'll offer to get you the drug or massage or sex worker of your choice.

So one day when a portly shadow fell across my book ("The Three Weissmans of Westport," an extremely light novel appropriate to beach reading) I assumed it was another vendor and murmured "No, gracias," without looking up. It turned out to be the accomplished American comedienne, actress, and jazz musician Lea DeLaria handing out promotional leaflets for her show.

Real entertainment is hard to come by in vacation settings. If you can find any at all it's usually of the cruise ship variety, some local expatriate warbling Don Ho-type cover songs to drunken tourists. But DeLaria is the real deal, and my friends and I were surprised that a performer with her credentials had to sell her professional wares on the beach under the hot Mexican sun. Among many other things she's an established Broadway veteran, known for her unforgettable interpretation of the tom boyish cabdriver Hildy Esterhazy in the late-90s revival of On the Town. She also toured as the insomniac princess in Once Upon a Mattress, the breakthrough role that established Carol Burnett's career. And DeLaria is no stranger to controversy, having famously announced, at the beginning of the first Clinton administration, that at last there was a first lady she would want to fuck.

The room DeLaria was performing in was intimate to say the least, really just part of a bar or lounge seating fifty people at most. Accompanied by a pianist, she came out in a black curly wig and and a sort of gown in opposition to any expectations we might have had about her legendary androgyny. Both were shed pretty early on, and we were treated to a line-up of beautifully modulated standards. DeLaria is a belter and a crooner, able to shape and mould a Big Band or Jazz standard to her unique interpretations, and probably one of the few performers of her generation who even attempts scat singing. She's also hilariously funny, savagely picking on members of the audience but rewarding them for their suffering by calling them up to the stage and serving them large helpings of Tequila. Like any great performer she knows how to work her audience, sharing industry-insider stories, like the time she had to share a dressing room with the incomparable Elaine Stritch, whom she described as "beef jerky in a teddy." It seems that when the actress and singer Jennifer Holliday stopped by without her makeup and wig, Stritch mistook her for a maid and said, "I'm so glad you're here. We're out of toilet paper." Who doesn't enjoy good celebrity dish?

And as if to break her own magic spell at various points in her act, DeLaria would switch over to a little sing-song number reminiscent of PeeWee Herman's act that she called "What's Going On In the Street," where she would amble playfully over to the balcony that looked out onto the cobble-stoned street below, mic in hand. "Hey!" she'd bellow at someone below. "What's going on in the street?!" And because it was a Mexican vacation resort, usually it was someone on their way to get laid, which she was happy to report back to the audience.

I'm sorry to say the show was only about an hour long, but it reminded me of what a unique performer she is, and to be sure to pick up one of her CDs. Her comedy albums include Bulldyke in a Chinashop and Box Lunch; her jazz albums are Play It Cool, Double Standards, The Very Best of Lea DeLaria, and Lea DeLaria -- The Live Smoke Sessions. Check them out.

Monday, March 29, 2010

An Eye on the Sky

One of the few advantages of advanced age is the ability to torture the young. It's easy when there's a young designer in your office who has something of the worrisome nature I had at his age, a quality I admire in a generation that tends to be rather unreflective to say the least. So occasionally in passing I'll call out, "Hey, J----, don't make any plans for April 19th."

While he knows I'm kidding, he also knows that I religiously monitor NASA's Near Earth Object website (, a veritable font of tantilizing end-of-the-world scenarios for a fatalist like myself -- disaster porn at its finest. It lists every known asteroid, comet, meteor, or foreign body currently being tracked in the shooting gallery that is our solar system. The intention, I suppose, is to alert us to any potential collision prior to the fact, but given the dearth of options available to us at present, it would function more as a countdown to extermination. Still, it's a fascinating site.

The objects are tracked six to nine months ahead, and a quick scan of the list shows that there are days when we're threatened by as many as four or five at a time. The site estimates the size of each object as well as its relative magnitude as viewed from the earth, and speculates on the distance by which each will miss our planet. Misses are given in moon units, the distance between the earth and our moon, about 240,000 miles. So an object with a "2" rating should miss us by about half a million miles -- a hair's breadth in celestial terms.

The object I mentioned to my young friend, who is probably digging a shelter in his back yard at this moment, is an asteroid that may be a quarter mile wide. It's slated to miss us on April 19th by 5.9 units, or much more than a million miles. The site allows you to click on the object to see its trajectory through the solar system, and the tiny margin by which it will slide by the earth. July 31st looks like a pretty busy day for space traffic as well; there are three known objects passing us at a safe distance, although one of them may be more than a half-mile wide.

But for every near Earth object being tracked, there are likely to be ten more we haven't spotted. There's something powerfully exciting about the inevitability of a collision of the type that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It's a reminder of the grand scale of the universe, and the tiny role we have in it on a minute blue dot at the edge of the galaxy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Holy Moley

I wasn't always an atheist. As a child growing up in a large French Catholic family, I embraced every bit of dogma and pomp and arcane ceremony that came my way: the Blessed Trinity (which included God in the form of a pigeon!), the mysteries of the Sacred Heart (which my best friend Paul navigated as surefire loopholes that could get you into heaven no matter what sins you'd committed), the Ascension of Mary (the only human, according to the nuns, who wasn't required to die to reach Heaven), and even the Stations of the Cross with its droning dirges that solemnly recounted Christ's progression through a long series of humiliations and atrocities toward his ultimate demise.

The rituals of Catholicism provided a comforting platform for a child besieged with ugly images of a distant war and constantly reminded of an impending nuclear annihilation. I loved the smell of the incense and the empty thrum of the church when I arrived in the morning to serve Mass as an altar boy, where I also "served" at funerals of people I'd never met -- becoming overwhelmed with sadness regardless -- and attended weddings where grooms in the know tipped each altar boy a whopping five dollars. The priests were all red-faced alcoholics who would insist on an extra splash of wine from the cruets even at seven a.m., but I learned the entire Mass by heart -- fortunately no longer read in Latin -- and rang the huge altar bell at all the right times. I even believed that I really did have a guardian angel whom I named Tony, and because he never seemed to get even a Sunday off I took pity on him and would sit to one side on any chair in case he needed to take a load off for a few minutes.

There was something amazingly reassuring about prayer -- you could pray for a good grade on a test or to find your geography book and because things couldn't always turn out for the worst, once in a while when something went your way you could choose to believe that your prayer had been answered. I'm sure that today's Bible-belters who pray for their football team's victory experience the same sense of justification when Bubba scores a point, never considering that a real God might be a bit more concerned about the housing crisis or the Haitian earthquake victims.

For someone so comfortably entrenched in a religious culture that was also a fundamental part of my ethnic background, it all got left behind pretty easily. Our parish church was within walking distance so our parents let us choose which Mass to attend (as long as we did go), and one Sunday when I was 11 I passed my friend John's house (a family of Down East Yankee, non-practicing Methodists). It suddenly occurred to me that I could stop in and hang out with him as I often did, then return home in time for our usual huge Sunday dinner (which was actually lunch) and then no one would be the wiser. It was as though my very ability to frame that thought shattered the dream I'd lived in up until then...suddenly I knew I was in charge of my own destiny, and it was up to me to develop my own moral compass rather than depend on a mythology that did it for me. At that instant all the powdery myths and hoary legends fell away like so much gosamer and cobwebs, and I never believed in any of it ever again.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Fly In the Urinal Has Flown

Over a month ago I wrote about this strange workplace phenomenon where amazingly lifelike images of houseflies began appearing in men's room urinals. It turned out to be an actual product aimed (ahem) at improving restroom cleanliness, a sort of by-product (fly product?) of a successful campaign to achieve pee-free floors in the Amsterdam airport. The fly decals were applied to the porcelain at a supposedly strategic, splash-free point within the fixture so that men -- inherent hunters, after all --would focus their urine streams at the flies in an effort to dislodge (or shoot them down).

Well, just as an update, when I left for my vacation on March 9, the flies were showing serious signs of fatigue. Targets of urinary assassination, most were coming unstuck from the walls of the urinals, flapping ominously against a relentless tide of workplace pee-pee. On my return to work today, the flies are gone, an idea, like many, that might have sounded good in theory but in practice just didn't deliver.

But the question is, during their brief tenure, did the flies make the restrooms cleaner, the floors urine-free? Not a bit. It would take a lot more than a plastic decal to train most men to clean up their elimination acts, as evidenced by the used paper towels that litter the floors by the end of the day, let alone the disgusting state of the floors themselves. And really, is it so hard to lift the seat when you pee in the toilet? It's an office building, not an Exxon station on the turnpike. After all, you may want to use it yourself a few visits from now.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dressed to the Gills

One of my earliest memories had such an impact on me that it's retained its crystal-clear vibrancy down through the many years since it occurred some time in the very early '60s. My parents had taken us to the Maine sea coast -- a sixty-mile drive from our home in a small town in the central part of the state -- and we ventured out onto a long pier. This was unusual, as my mother liked to go places but wasn't so keen on actually letting us do anything once we arrived. I guess she felt it was too hard keeping track of all six of us, so often after a long drive that was likely to have resulted in at least one of us getting horribly car sick, we would sit and stare at the scenery through the windshield as though viewing a drive-in movie. Then we'd turn around and go home.

Anyway, as we ventured out on that wharf, we came upon a small crowd. At its center a young woman with short curly blonde hair was sawing the head off a freshly-caught 600-pound tuna. The incident stayed with me all these years, not because of the amazing size and shape of the fish or the gore pouring out of its innards or the rust that speckled the saw. It made an impact on my four-year-old self because the woman was wearing blue jeans.

It's hard to believe that in the span of one person's life what passes for acceptable fashion could change so completely. As far back as the '30s women like Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball had been flouting convention with their slim, tailored slacks, but even decades later in my early childhood skirts and dresses for women were still the norm. At about the same time, people spoke of Mary Tyler Moore's signature pegged slacks and toreador pants as though she had personally redefined the look of the suburban wife and mother, and in a way she'd made such a visual impact that she had; I was so young I confused MTM with Jacqueline Kennedy, the true trend setter of the time, and whose husband didn't trip over hassocks when he entered their living room. My own mother wore dresses until her fifties, when varicose veins took their toll and she finally realized pants were easier anyway.

Since that long-ago day at the coast our society has weathered a lot of cultural change and churn that sped up the evolution of modern fashion. The hippies had us all wearing floppy bell bottoms and gauzy Indian shirts and Nehru jackets, which was mirrored in a more casually-tailored business dress, which then evolved into the hideous excesses of the '70s -- cuffed flaired plaid pants and double-breasted suits, ties as wide as flounders, and chunky women's shoes like hooves. Soon fashion was reflecting the New Wave movement with skinny suits and skinny ties, on and on through shoulder pads and power ties and acid wash, until the last truly fashion-killing epoch of the dot com boom, when grown men began wearing shorts and sandals ("mandals") to the office like overfed, idiot toddlers. They even rode scooters.

That last strata of the fashion ages has set into cultural limestone and may never be chipped away. My closets are filled with beautiful clothes, but I tend to rotate the same sets of jeans and t-shirts and sweaters, and on the rare occasion that I wear real trousers, shoes that aren't sneakers, a shirt with a collar, and a nice jacket or blazer people ask me if I have a job interview or, worse, glare at me on the street as though I'm a source of riches to be had for the mugging.

I often think that if you took a random, middle-class person from, say, 1940 and set him down just about anywhere in the United States of 2010, he'd be appalled not only by the extreme casualness but the lack of self reflected in the sloppy t-shirts and baggy shorts. It's inconceivable to us to imagine a world of hats and gloves, of suits and ties, and yet newsreels attest that generations of people garbed themselves in ways that mattered to them. Clothes are, after all, an expression of our self-value; they give clues to who we are and who we think we are. And though much is said and written about our obesity epidemic, I truly believe that if people took some degree of pride in how they dressed they'd be more likely to manage their bodies so that they could properly outfit them. How can a nation of billowing, midriff-baring tattooed yahoos get its act together to maintain a functional society, let alone cure AIDS, halt global warming or achieve peace?