Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year-End Mashup

My friend B. posted the above on his Facebook page, with his opinion that 2008 was a bad year for pop music. While I also have extreme Rihanna/T. Pain/Leona Lewis fatigue, I've been out of the record industry's coveted demographic for eons. Besides, I legally downloaded some fine singles in 2008, and one of my favorite albums of the year, Coldplay's gorgeous "Viva La Vida," landed on a lot of critics' best-of lists. As a longtime Tom Petty fan, I'm looking forward to hearing that Mudcrutch CD. B.'s kids own the Jonas Brothers' "A Little Bit Longer," which was cranked to Wembley Arena levels one evening. And you know what? It was pretty damned good — very Cheap Trick, as Entertainment Weekly noted. This is a long way of saying that the music of 2008 didn't suck any more than the music of 2007, and it certainly had its bright spots. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Comic (Re)discovery: 'Fast Willie Jackson'

I'm happy to report that every member of my household now "reads" (quote marks are for our 4-year-old) at least one comic book a month. But reading Betty & Veronica comics to C. left me with a nagging question: Why, after all these years, do Chuck and Nancy appear to be the only black kids at Riverdale High School? (Valerie of Josie & the Pussycats doesn't count, because she is a resident of neighboring Midvale. I'm just saying.)

While I don't remember much about the shenanigans of Willie and his friends, I recall quickly losing interest — maybe because no one in my family used phrases like "Can you dig it?" or dressed like a pimp. I must have sensed that it was knockoff, one certainly not approved by Fawcett Publications. (Then again, I read Spire's Christian-themed Archie books, so I had a pretty high tolerance for sketchy comics concepts.)

Given the iron grip of the Archie brand at that time and "Fast Willie's" apparent over-emphasis on jive-talking, it's not surprising that it only lasted for a few issues. In any case, it did bring some diversity to a monochromatic corner of the comics world. It also serves as a reminder of how much can change in 30 years. Despite Chuck and Nancy's token status, I doubt Archie Comics would have them speaking in outdated slang or turning Dilton on to the new Jeezy CD.

Read a more authoritative analysis of Willie & Co. here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Good Read: 'Revolutionary Road'

I just read "Revolutionary Road," (1961) which is as beautifully written as it is draining. In other words, very. Richard Yates' novel about a young married couple in the 1950s is difficult stuff, and anyone who has been married for a few years will find some of his themes uncomfortably close to home. Even if your marriage is good, it probably requires far more compromise and work than you imagined - especially if you have children. There's a reason that this book holds up almost 50 years later.

April and Frank Wheeler are not sympathetic characters, and yet, I felt great compassion for both of them at certain times. Trapped by circumstances and limited (by 2008 standards) options, they're both struggling with the disconnect between the life they imagined and the one they actually have. Suffice to say that they do not handle the creeping despair well. Grasping at a vague idea of manhood, Frank indulges in alcohol and young women in the office typing pool. April is either emotionally distant or radioactive with contempt. The ending? Crushing. When I finished the book on the way back from Atlanta, the look on my face prompted my husband to say, "That bad?"

The above may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but "Revolutionary Road" is a lyrical masterpiece - that rare book that I want to re-read. As soon as I recover.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Welcome, Brando

One of the nicer Christmas gifts this year was our new Ragdoll cat, Brando. Like the young Marlon Brando, Ragdoll cats are known for their great beauty. They also get bigger and fluffier over time (up to 20 pounds), as did the late, great actor. So the name is perfect.

It is no small thing that my son loves this cat. He is, to put it mildly, not a cat lover. Yet, he gets a kick out of playing with Brando, cuddling with him and generally enjoying his 6-month-old cat antics. Last night, he actually got upset that the cat didn't seem inclined to sleep in his room.

Like all Ragdolls, blue-eyed Brando has a sweet disposition. He is friendly without being annoying, and dignified without being haughty. He's a keeper.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tut Tut

Since my father-in-law and his wife live in downtown Atlanta, we're always within walking distance of a concert or an exhibit when we visit. On Monday, we went to see the King Tutankhamun exhibit at the civic center, and it was fantastic. I remember what a big deal it was when the King Tut artifacts came to the U.S. in the 1970s, so we dragged our less-than-stoked children across the street to check it out. Most memorable was a tiny bed, mostly intact, that the Boy King slept in. I don't particularly enjoy thinking about my own mortality, but there is no getting past it when you're looking at the belongings of a long dead pharoah.

Like most of the boys his age who were wandering around, my 8-year-old was more impressed by the fact that Harrison Ford was the voice of the audio tour. At one point, he actually said that he'd rather be watching the Crystal Skull, an Indiana Jones movie that he hasn't even seen. I figure that he'll thank us one day for taking him to museum exhibits against his will. One day.

The exhibit ended in front of an awe-inspiring statue that used to stand some 17 feet tall, and then we were dumped into the gift shop. That's fine, but after gazing at ancient statuary, jewelry and other artifacts, I wasn't prepared to see this ...

Or this ...

There were King Tut baseballs, "Mummy Mints," neckties and "Tutlanta" t-shirts. Yes, Tutlanta.

I wonder what the High Museum will have in the gift shop when we see this exhibit.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Road Trip, With Children

After four and a half hours in the car, with many (many) bathroom breaks along the way, we made it to Atlanta without anyone being tossed out of our moving vehicle. Somewhere between Tifton and Macon, I wasn't sure it would be possible.

How did my mother take three children - me, my brother and sister - on road trips without killing any of us? Could we have been as petty, argumentative and just plain annoying as my children were after about 90 minutes in the back seat? I know the answer is yes, and I ought to call her right now to apologize.

It's partly our fault - that is, mine and my husband's. We didn't bother charging up the portable DVD player, figuring that some books and a fully juiced iPod would keep them sane. That was wildly optimistic. Books? Why read when you can beg to hear "S.O.S." again? Once boredom set in, our daughter decided to test how far she could stretch her arm without actually touching our son, which, of course, pissed him off. Eight-year-olds aren't known for taking the high road, so after about 10 minutes of this, he swatted her a little harder than he needed to. Which led to howling and shouts of recrimination. Which led to parental threats to "pull this car over and make someone VERY sorry." There's a reason this scenario is a cliche.

People my age are fond of saying that children don't need to be distracted from the journey of travel, and that "we managed just fine without movies on the road." Yeah, but we "managed" because the technology didn't exist. Sometime in the mid-'80s, I finally got a Walkman, which I used to drown out my much-younger siblings' prattle and my mother's gospel sing-a-longs with my Aunt M. They are lovely singers, but back then, I just wanted to hear lots of Wham!

Anyway, we made it. Now all we have to do is drive back.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Barbie + Comics = Almost Perfect

Mattel's new line of DC-inspired Barbie dolls combines two of my favorite things: Comic book super-heroines and Barbie Millicent Rogers. When I saw the Black Canary doll in a Toys R Us recently, I had to admire it on the shelf and just walk away. I was shopping for the kids at the time, and $49 is a lot of money when you're paying preschool tuition, soccer fees, etc.

But what bummed me out more than my financial limitations was the realization that DC doesn't have any major African-American female characters. Vixen doesn't count. A fashion model who channels animal powers from a magic totem? Seriously? I tried to get into the current six-part "Return of the Lion" series and almost fell asleep. It's cool that DC tapped ex-cop Renee Montoya, a gay Latina, as The Question, but that isn't exactly a marquee character. Besides, she doesn't have a Barbie doll modeled after her!

While I stand by my opinion that Beyonce should not play Wonder Woman on the big screen, she made a good point about it being time for a major, nonwhite superheroine. I wish that Halle Berry had made a stronger impression as Storm, because she might have gotten more mileage out of the role.

Maybe I'll buy the Supergirl doll and put the outfit on one of my daughter's brown Barbies. They must have had some black and biracial people on Krypton.

Best Toy(s) Ever: Flip Wilson/Geraldine Talking Doll

Fourth in a series
The late Flip Wilson was the first cross-dresser I saw on TV. Wilson was the host of a popular variety show in the 1970s, and the best part of his act was his sassy, hair-flipping alter-ego, Geraldine. Naturally, this had to be put in (talking) plush doll form. On one side, you had the natty Flip. Turn the doll over, and you had Geraldine. But the real fun didn't start until you pulled the string to hear phrases like, "What you see is what you get, honey!" I pulled the string so much that it broke.

The Flip/Geraldine doll taught tolerance while annoying the living hell out of parents nationwide. Can any toy from the '80s make that claim? I think not.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best Toy(s) Ever: Weebles

Third in a series
To appreciate the genius of Weebles, you need to know only one thing: They wobble, but they don't fall down. Maybe you couldn't get the damned Slinky to walk down the stairs or make Farrah roll on her little plastic skateboard, but Weebles were idiot-proof. The perfect toy. I'm guessing that many '70s stoner teens amused themselves with their younger siblings' Weeble sets.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ultimate Shout-Out

As a longtime DC Comics loyalist, I'm a little surprised that my favorite monthly comic of late is a Marvel imprint. I ignored "Ultimate Spider-Man" when my husband started getting it a couple of years ago, and now I'm totally hooked on it. I think it's that rare comic that would appeal to non-geeks, or people who haven't entered a comic shop in years, or ever.

Penned by Brian Michael Bendis, USM is a modern retelling of the classic Spidey story, which takes place during Peter Parker's high school years. Bendis clearly remembers what it's like to be a teenager — all that angst and self-doubt, plus the burden of being a superhero with a secret identity. A lot of bad stuff happens to Peter, which is part of what makes him such a sympathetic character: He's lost his beloved Uncle Ben. His Aunt Mae has serious cash flow problems. His friends sometimes wind up dead or overtaken by monstrous, alien symbiotes. Few people, including the cops, appreciate his masked crusade against crime. The one bright light is his romance with Mary Jane Watson, and even that comes with all kinds of adolescent drama.

First, the action. The recent storyline with Venom is one of the most chilling things I've seen in comics in a while. Peter's onetime friend, Eddie Brock, is literally consumed by this monstrosity, and he needs human flesh the way junkies need a heroin hit. One comic in this arc opens with Eddie talking to a series of strangers on a park bench, and it isn't until the end of the book that we realize he's been eating them, one by one. Don't buy this for the kids.

Of course, the action would be meaningless if I didn't care about the characters. Bendis writes Peter and Mary Jane's relationship with tenderness, and in a way that seems true to their age. In the most recent Annual, for example, he managed to make me care about a familiar fork in the road of teen relationships: Like, since they were in love and stuff, should they do it? Normally, I'd have fled from this kind of After School Special storyline, but Bendis not only presented it well, but also resolved it in a sweet and unexpected way. (However, I could have done without learning they're only 15, which made me a tiny bit queasy.)

I'd be remiss not to mention Bendis' longtime collaborator, artist Mark Bagley, who departed after Issue No. 111 — an almost 7-year run. His successor, Stuart Immonen, has turned out to be a fantastic choice, IMHO. Pick it up.

Best Toy(s) Ever: Growing Up Skipper Doll

Part two of a series
The Growing Up Skipper Doll is one of those toys that has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, I didn't keep mine, and it is now an expensive collector's item. I'm so glad there is proof of its existence on YouTube, because my husband once doubted the veracity of my claim. Here's how it worked: When you got tired of flat-chested, tween Skipper, you just wound her arm in a circle and — Bam! — instant, pop-out boobs and a little extra height. I was only 7 at the time, so I was completely unaware that this doll was controversial. I'll have to ask my mom what she remembers about it, and what convinced her to buy me this cockamamie (but totally awesome) plaything.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best Toy(s) Ever: Mego's Wonder Woman Doll

Part one of a series
Now that the millennials are all over the place, we're seeing a surge in nostalgia for '80s toys. Transformers. Smurfs. Lame. Everybody knows that the '70s were the best years for toys. There is no room for debate about this.

With Christmas approaching, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to the most awesome toys of my youth. My kids are all about the Wii and High School Musical crap, but they will never know the joys of items like the Mego Wonder Woman/Diana Prince doll. I played for hours with this thing, and I contend that it kicks Polly Pockets' ass.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Deele (sic)-Breaker

Having witty friends makes Facebook a joy. My friend B. recently dedicated his status to his intolerance of singers who pronounce angel "ain-GEL. Think Steve Tyler, Juice Newton, etc. This led to a discussion of other pronunciation tics that can ruin an otherwise good song.

"Exscape" and "Ecstablish" are not words, but they have cropped up in many a song. While R. Kelly's "Real Talk" is unacceptable for a number of reasons, the deal-breaker was the line: "The only thing I'm trying to ecstablish with you is not who's right or who's wrong."

But no vocal sin is worse than a singer saying "witchoo" instead of "with you." Back in the late '80s, Babyface sang in an R&B outfit called The Deele (yes, it was spelled that way), which had a hit with "Two Occasions." It would have been a perfectly respectable ballad if not for the offense contained in the refrain:

I only think of you on two occasions
That's day and night
I'd go for broke if I could be witchoo
Only you can make it right

No, Babyface. Only YOU can make it right by issuing a public apology.

Friday, December 5, 2008

I Think Barack Wants To See Other People

At first he used to e-mail me every day, sometimes twice a day. While he never used the L word, he told me he needed me. Repeatedly. But now that he's gotten my vote, Barack's acting all distant. No more late-night infomercials and soul-stirring monologues; just a quick shout-out here and there, which is the presidential equivalent of "I'll call you." I know he's busy appointing Cabinet members and looking for a hypoallergenic dog, but I feel like the 11th grade girl who's being left behind by her Harvard college freshman boyfriend. I'm even still wearing the T-shirt, like a varsity jacket.

I hope it's not too awkward at the inauguration.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fun With My Children's Toys

Before my daughter launched Barbie Theater, she played with the cute little "My First Dollhouse" family from Fisher Price. Frankly, the first family was pretty boring, and the dialogue needed work. We were potty training at the time, so they were on the little plastic toilet a lot.

She happened to have a little Dora the Explorer grocery store set, too, and since Dora was roughly the same size as the first family, she visited often. When C. wasn't looking, I couldn't resist mixing things up a little. I decided that Dora was trouble, and that Dad was a lying bastard. I should mention that this was around the time R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" had become a pop culture sensation.

I'm particularly proud of the wronged woman's "Oh HELL no!" expression in the first frame.

I don't really have as much time on my hands as this suggests.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bad News All Over

Because so many of my friends are current or former newspaper journalists, every other conversation I've had lately contains the word "layoff." Things have been bad for a while now, but now they're really bad. When I was in the D.C. area two weekends ago, I talked to a friend who had just been to a going-away party for his former colleagues at the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. That paper has cut 40 percent — four, zero — of its newsroom staff. The bad news hit close to home this week, as the Tallahassee Democrat reported it had let 16 staffers go. Yesterday, a friend at the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent an e-mail saying her paper had just laid off 27 people, though she was safe for the time being.

This should be obvious, but a vital press is so important to our society. I am a fan of many good blogs and online information sources, but Gawker is not going to tell you if your school system is hiring uncertified teachers or if a county commissioner is greasing the wheels for a lover's rezoning request. It's not going to tell you what up-and-coming local band is playing this weekend, or if a beloved community outreach program is shutting down for lack of money. The New York Times can tell me what's happening in the Kinshasa, but it probably isn't going to tell me what the water management district is doing. That's a job for the local press.

That's why it's so galling to see the statements from newspaper publishers saying they're going to "continue providing high-quality news and information for our readers." Newspapers have been pretty lean and mean for a while now. Please don't tell me that gutting your staff isn't going to hurt your ability to put out a decent newspaper. That's just insulting, and no one believes it anyway.

While some of the comments about this on are mean-spirited and unfair to the good people who are still at the paper, there are some thoughtful posts about the value of local journalism. At least some readers are concerned, and rightfully so.

Times are hard everywhere. I hope someone comes up with a business model that works, and soon.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Valley Of The Dolls

One of my favorite things to do lately is to eavesdrop on my daughter while she plays with her Barbies. It's increasingly apparent that C.'s toybox is a cauldron of melodrama that would put "The Hills" to shame.

I got roped into a round of Barbie Theater this evening, and here is what went down: There are three main players, all female, who appear to be related and living under one roof. There are many, many arguments over dresses, territory and household responsibilities. The Alpha Barbie was naked for some reason, so I created a makeshift, one-shoulder dress out of a black knee-high. I thought the look was very Donna Karan, but the dress was immediately deemed "kind of stupid." C. insisted that this wasn't her opinion; she was merely serving as the voice of Alpha Barbie's disapproving (and passive-aggressive) sister. She conveyed this information with a straight face.

Shortly thereafter, the lone Ken doll entered the picture. When I asked C. why his shirt was missing, she said it was because "he is working out." I should point out that Ken was also clad in purple knickers and draped in gold, plastic beads. (My daughter has not yet figured out that a pretty male doll who likes to work out while wearing beads is not interested in dating Barbie, not that there's anything wrong with that.) Alpha Barbie then proceeded to depart on a date with Ken, but not before taking a parting shot at the left-behind Barbies as "losers." More squabbling. Finally, mercifully, Ken was ditched and the three Barbies declared a truce over imaginary pancakes.

I, for one, am emotionally drained.