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There’s a tarantula that follows me around. When scads of elongated thoughts plague my sleep, I feel it crawling up the sheets of my bed. A looming work deadline that depends on the cooperation of flakey coworkers is when I find that tarantula atop my showerhead, ready to pounce. It scurries behind me on the couch as I wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . for Netflix streaming to load The Lady Eve (1941) so I may continue my Barbara Stanwyck education. Even now, sitting outside at a lovely café in San Francisco on an early summer evening, lending letters and words to this tarantula brings it to life, and I sense its presence on the plant bed behind my table.

This menacing spider doesn’t appear often in the daylight, and it prefers my bed to most environments. Its presence jolts me out of that subconscious state that borders true deep sleep, but like most sanely rational people, I blame The Brady Brunch. If memory serves, despite my attempts to block such horrors, the Bunch once vacationed in Hawaii, where one of them finds a cursed tiki idol. Assumed to be a good luck charm, instead it leads to several close-call catastrophes, one of those being a deadly spider that winds up in someone’s bed. Full disclosure, if I’m off slightly on this storyline – this one of the few times when I absolutely refuse to do any form of online fact checking.  Suppose I stumble upon an image or, heaven forbid, a video of the Brady family and this repulsive creature?  Why on earth would I want feed the beast?

I have no knowledge of the tarantula’s diet, nor will I begin to research such grisly information. I do know that when my company was sold a few weeks ago and the final sliver of job security vanished, my tarantula not only increased in size and speed but also felt the need to up the frequency of bedtime disruptions. Whether it stems from a 1970s family sitcom or a deeper psychological scar, evidently my fear manifests itself in arachnid form. If we need to climb on the therapist’s couch for a moment, perhaps a useful aspect of fear is its scrawny little finger that points us towards the areas of our lives where there is room for growth . . . (insert “blow a raspberry” here). But what about those other nagging fears that told us not to swim out too far from the beach or take deliciously tempting candy from that smiling stranger? If some fears exist solely to keep us from physical and, perhaps, emotional danger, how do we know which fears serve as our friendly lifeguards and which are the stalking tarantulas?

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Horror movies. Suspense flicks. Carol Burnett in Annie (1982). They provide us with the thrill and adrenaline of fear, all without any true physical threat to our person. For decades, filmmakers in the suspense genre have used one single plotline to perturb their audiences, forcing us to shut our eyes or hide under the covers for a few extra seconds – the possibility of offing the children. Director Fritz Lang opens the film M (1931) with a group of children playing a counting elimination game while singing a song in German about a child murderer. More haunting than “One, Two, Freddy’s Coming for You” in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the tune virtually summons the murderer from the shadows, and within minutes, the latest in a series of a young victims is declared missing.

While the petrified town grows suspicious of any single man who so much as glances towards a child, the frustrated murderer whistles his own little tune, as he writes a letter to the newspapers announcing to all that he has not “finished.” A reward of 10,000 Deutsche Marks is advertised immediately following the letter, and soon both the authorities and the farmisht underworld on the trail of the whistling murderer played by the talented and abundantly eyed Peter Lorre (who, it turns out, could not whistle). Marked with an “M” on the back of his coat by one of his trackers, our murderer flees from both the good guys and the bad guys, a welcomed break in cinematic formulas. Gradually the level of suspense shifts; we move away from attempts to predict the actions of this monster and begin to wonder if ever he will be apprehended. It is during that shift orchestrated beautifully by Lang that we began to root for this villain, smashing our moral compasses with the final scene . . . in those unnerving 15 minutes, I took not a single breath.

And my tarantula? Oh, it never watches old movies.

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Add M to your queue.

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My apartment is dazzling. Mom was here for a few days and between meals, she relaxed in the best way she knows how – she gave this little home of mine a much-needed deep cleaning. The phrase “deep cleaning” brings back painful memories of sitting in the dentist’s chair over the span of two appointments and having each tooth and gum area poked and scraped and swabbed until my mouth sparkled. True, the blessed nitrous allowed me to meet a certain menacing needle with a temporary smile, but even a drugged grin is no match for the mental image of where, when, and how that needle would penetrate through my body and turn the soundtrack of my world into nails on a chalkboard. No one “likes” going to the dentist, and while the deep cleaning appointments were especially sinister for this guy, in the long run it turns out that they were necessary. Mom felt the same way about my bathtub. It, too, went through a couple of deep cleaning appointments along with the rest of the apartment, and now we all shine brightly having been scrubbed to perfection by experts in the field.

My goal of moving the mountain of books off of the kitchen floor required new bookcases, a purchase long overdue. If there’s anything more loathsome than a trip to the dentist, it’s the frustration that comes with the task of putting together those confounded shelves so they don’t lurch from side to side. In an email that I debated printing out and laminating before her arrival, Mom promised that she would take charge and put the bookcases together. No need for a notary; she stuck to her word, and over the course of two Madonna concerts and one Cher concert playing in the background, the shelves began to take form. As we stood up the first bookcase (yes, with that much, I would help), we saw that the unfinished side of the espresso-toned shelf was facing out. At some point during production, a portion of the shelf had been flipped, resulting in lighter shades of tan running parallel to the dark espresso tones (Target’s description, not mine), and I thought Mom was going to have a stroke.

Taking apart this beast of a bookcase and putting it back together was not an option, nor was my gently delivered “Well, I can live with it” (ooo, you should have seen her face!), so we came up with another solution . . . the shelves would have to be painted. Painted, they were, and they look fabulous. Thanks, Mom. But sometimes it happens that way; sometimes your boat simply isn’t big enough. Complications arise; sometimes they’re devastating beyond repair, and other times they arrive draped in those clever little disguises that blessings often wear. Bookcases that could have been a decorating disaster turned into an original combination of colors that now brighten up the entire room. As soon as the paint had dried and the books placed snuggly in their new home, my mind flashed on one complication in the world of film that ultimately worked out for the best. The most frightening musical scores ever composed resulted from three mechanical sharks that responded unfavorably when they interacted with water.

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All irrational fears may be blamed on composer John Williams. If those mechanical sharks hadn’t malfunctioned to such an extent that the film crew nicknamed the 1975 film “Flaws,” the tunes that announced the musically cloaked great white may have existed only the head of Mr. Williams. The opening scene in which a young lady swimming at night is thrashed around and pulled underwater by an alternating pattern of musical notes is perhaps the most frightening scene in all of film history (all due respect to Baby Jane and Norman Bates). I still love my parents’ pool, the pool of my childhood where I spent hours of my life fantasizing that I was Daryl Hannah from Splash (1984), swimming through the romantic waters of love in search of New York City map. But Daryl Hannah’s ocean was friendlier than Steven Spielberg’s, who, together with John Williams, created a film that made me question whether the deep end of my pool was free from danger and indeed a safe place for recreational swimming. The Pacific Ocean was only 20 minutes away, and there was no reason a great white shark couldn’t swim up on to the beach, into a sewer drain, through the pipes down Interstate 5 (before merging on to Interstate 8), find its way into the lake near the house, transfer to another pipe that led directly to the drain in the deep end of my parents’ pool, and drag me down to my death in its gaping jaws. If that shark in Jaws: The Revenge (1987) could follow Mrs. Brody from New England to the Bahamas, we’re not dealing with any ordinary species here, and thus my childhood fear of pool sharks continues to defy the portrayed logic of adulthood.

Ultimately the flaws led to Jaws, which, in turn, led to an Academy Award for Best Original Score along with two additional Oscars (the young Mr. Spielberg did not receive a directing nomination, but I think he survived). More than 20 years after my first time to Amity Island, Jaws will never lose its grip on me – the terrifying journey of Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper keeps me out of the ocean and in the shallow ends of the pools, where I belong. It’s only a movie, we tell ourselves, but when that growing intensity of the music and the shrieks of its victims are cut off instantly by the silence of still waters, the only sound remaining is the chattering of own my deeply cleaned teeth.

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Academy Awards for Jaws (1976): Best Music (Original Dramatic Score); Best Sound; Best Film Editing

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Life has been brimming with theatre. Both March and April have chaperoned me to plays, films, live concerts, the beautiful pipe organ of the Castro Theatre, and that man on the street attempting to cover “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.” One lesson that I carry with me from a high school drama history course is that when one has nothing else to cheer, one applauds the performers’ courage to walk out on to the stage. My sister and I attended a local production of Evita, a soundtrack and film that we hold near and dear to our hearts. The matinée performance was perfectly fine, but regrettably Evita is cursed, and my ear expects those glorious songs to be performed in a certain way by a certain woman. That stubborn ear of mine triumphed over the logical “give it a try” attempts of my mind, and following the lament, courage was politely applauded . . . goodnight and thank you.

An equal, if not greater, challenge would be straining to hear another woman sing “Cabaret” or “Maybe This Time.” If my friends are unfamiliar with the film Cabaret (1972), fortunately they are familiar with the name “Alan Cumming.” When I sing the praises of Mr. Joel Grey and his Oscar-winning, Godfather-besting performance as the Emcee in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, my body would shut down if I entertained the thought of another man playing that role with such wizardry. And then I think of Alan Cumming – the man whom I would consider stalking if stalking was a tad less creepy and a tad more legal. Cumming has returned to the Kit Kat Klub for a new run of Cabaret, and a few nights ago, I think I convinced a chum of mine to join me on a “Life is a Cabaret” trip to New York City. But again I was thinking, “Who else could possibly play the role of the Emcee? No one could top Joel Grey, not with all the rehearsal time in the world. Oh . . . wait . . . yes, Alan Cumming could do it. Alan Cumming, and maybe Tracey Ullman.”

But Sally Bowles? How could the universe possibly allow room for another Sally Bowles?

On the 28th of March, Fortune decided to smile upon the Bay and brought back the 68-year-old Liza Minnelli to San Francisco. Taking my cue from Fortune, I hopped online and put a dear friend and me in Liza’s second row. I was going to make eye contact with that woman if it killed me. Immediately I prepared the syllabus for my prosperous friend’s Minnelli education, and by sundown a mixed CD was in her hot little hands. Hours before the concert, it warmed my heart when she told me at dinner, “I hope she sings ‘Ring Them Bells’ tonight.” She did. Devoted to her audience, Liza managed to get not one, but two standing ovations after performing “Cabaret” sitting in a chair. No, she was not running around, reaching a bedazzled hand for the skies; Liza was parked comfortably in an extra wide directors chair that she dragged all over the stage. When she finished the hallowed song, predictably the San Francisco audience erupted into applause, many of us unaware that our initial clapping had catapulted us to our feet. When we calmed down to take our seats and our breath, Liza turned to her soul mate of a piano player and asked if she could try that last note again – she knew she could get closer to the bull’s-eye of “Cabaret,” and hit it she did. We were back on our feet and had a divinely decadent evening in that second row of Davies Symphony Hall.

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For years I’ve been trying to get on the San Francisco Symphony’s payroll. Ever since I was first enchanted by their performance of The Wizard of Oz, I have returned for Casablanca, Psycho, and Singin’ in the Rain. Somehow they managed to work The Matrix into their rotation, I imagine in an attempt to attract the younger audiences. They don’t seem to have a problem selling out, but if only the Symphony would give me a phone, a desk, and a laptop (okay, I don’t really need the desk), I guarantee that I can get those young kids in there for the classic films. It is my mission in life to keep these films alive, so, dear Symphony; I insist that you help me help you help me with said mission. Why, it was only last weekend when I helped you fill four seats, two of which were from out of town.

My last three birthdays have been spent somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. My 33rd was celebrated in Seattle with another old friend from college who could whip my derrière in a game of movie trivia. When I gushed over the San Francisco Symphony’s past performances of film scores, she insisted that I let her know when the next performance schedule was posted. In the moment I figured it was one of those times when people say, “Yes, let’s do it!” just to humor me and perhaps soothe my overenthusiasm. A few years ago I underestimated a buddy of mine when discussions led to our taking a road trip to Dollywood, and I underestimated my friend in Seattle just the same. When I discovered that the Symphony was planning to perform Charlie Chaplin’s classic, City Lights (1931), the website link was on its way to an Inbox in Seattle. A couple of months later, a plane carrying my friend and her mother was on its way to San Francisco . . . for underestimating you, dear friend, I apologize.

Each and every experience at the San Francisco Symphony has been nothing short of radiant, but on this windy April night, it was a silent film that left us absolutely speechless. Every February Academy Award winners inundate my Netflix queue, and after the seats for City Lights were safely secured, I rented Wings (1927), the first film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Although a tad lengthy, this historic feature was a new and enjoyable experience for me, as my silent film exposure is pretty limited to the world of Norma Desmond, roaming around her mansion on Sunset Boulevard. It is the music that pilots these films, pulling the strings of the actors’ every movement. When it comes to the magic of City Lights, however, we know there’s only one person back there pulling the strings of the strings.

We join the musicians in saluting Charlie Chaplin – actor, writer, director, composer, genius, control freak. And once again we solute the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, whom we applaud for much more than their courage to walk out on to the stage.

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Add City Lights to your queue.

Clarissa Dickson Wright, right, with Jennifer Paterson

After a brief ride around my blog, oftentimes newcomers ask me to provide a reason why I love old films. A follow-up question revolves around why, for heaven’s sake, I don’t have a job working for Turner Classic Movies. I have no gratifying answer to the latter; it’s all I can muster to respond, “Well I don’t know, but my résumé and I keep tryin’ once a week.” But a single reason why I love old films? One needs only to look at my nightstand to uncover a glaring answer to that multilayered question. Always within eyesight from anywhere in the apartment, I can see on that nightstand my Liza Minnelli concert tickets leaning up against my Cher tickets. A ceramic cat that paces from coaster to candle holder, ensuring the safety of these precious documents, has guarded both ladies staunchly for months. Yes, perhaps that nightstand reveals a few other things about my personality, but trust me, I thought of all those jokes before you did, so let’s settle down, shall we? A friend once asked me, “Is there anyone you like who’s under 50?” A shrug and a half-smile was the best I could do before offering up, “Judy only made it to 47; does that count?”

So why do I love those old films? Simple – because they just don’t make characters like they used to.  Liza’s voice may not reach the heights that it once conquered with ease, but after all these years, she’s still such a character, old chum. Her charm, humor, and, oy, that laugh of hers all shine like her red sequins, allowing her to captivate her audience the second she dazzles herself on to that stage. And Cher . . . well, come on, it’s frickin’ Cher! The rest of the world is unaware that it is, in fact, my father who is responsible for Cher’s long career. One day at the farmers’ market in Los Angeles, Sonny, Cher, and (at the time) Chastity were crossing the road in the parking lot, when Dad almost ran them over. His eyes locked with Cher’s as he slammed on the brakes, and I can only imagine what kind of dirty look her face muscles were able to assemble in those days. Had it not been for Dad’s catlike instincts, the universe may have had a distinctively different entertainment landscape.

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Today we lost another character, quite unlike the glittery ladies mentioned above, but a character just the same. Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the two chefs who made up the dynamic duo on the cooking show, Two Fat Ladies, died this week at the age of 66. Riding in the sidecar of a Triumph Thunderbird motorbike driven by Jennifer Paterson (who passed away in 1999), Clarissa and Jennifer were two of the most entertaining characters a young boy could hope to discover. In its infant days before the reality game shows took over, the Food Network brought Two Fat Ladies into my living room, and immediately I was setting the VCR timer to record as many shows as I could capture. Today the DVD box set occupies a top shelf of mine, also within the ceramic cat’s jurisdiction and watchful eye. While other young men papered their teenage bedroom walls with pictures of thinner but equally buxom women, I was ripping up my Two Fat Ladies calendar and filling an entire wall with 12 hilarious photos of Clarissa and Jennifer, compulsory viewing for all passersby.

As they motored from place to place, often cooking in the U.K.’s most beautiful cities and kitchens, they were hardly shy about offering their personal opinions when it came to the culinary arts. Singing the praises of using real cream in the first episode, Jennifer teaches us, “Yogurt is perfectly fine for your breakfast . . . or if you have a poor tummy . . . or if you’re a vegetarian or something.” Clarissa was equally prepared with humorous zingers about vegetarians, always delivered dryly as she packed her pheasant and pickled walnut terrine with layers of bacon. While preparing her cake pan, Clarissa offered as guidance, “You really want to get it well greased. You know, did you see Last Tango in Paris? Something like that.” In one episode while Clarissa was off camera preparing a Welsh lamb pie, Jennifer took over and prepared a tartine sandwich . . . it was “Be Kind to Vegetarians Week,” as long as they could eat an anchovy. When Clarissa’s pie was ready, she and her lamb shuffled back into the shot, while Jennifer welcomed her with, “Here comes Madam.” The funny bone is not without its curiosities, but by golly, that tiny play-by-play comment of Jennifer’s and the sisterly tone that she lends to the word “Madam”give me the giggles every time. From venison medallions with blackberries to devilled kidneys and lamb in filo pastry, these two characters embraced everything sweet and savory about their lives, both in and out of the kitchen.

Therefore today we say cheers to Clarissa Dickson Wright! Cheers to Jennifer Paterson! And cheers to the characters that have survived all these years with drivers like my father out there on the road.

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Add Two Fat Ladies to your queue.

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What do I do for a living? I spend my weekdays fixing mistakes. When book publishers enter their data into my company’s system, it’s my job to adjust their misplaced prefixes, remove the first names that they entered into the “last name” field of an author record, or correct the despicable mistreatment of “too” or “your” in their online copy. I provide my publishers with suggested word counts for areas of their descriptive copy; I advise on categorization for their upcoming titles (no, you need to be more specific than NONFICTION: GENERAL); and I beg and plead with them to use the Spelling and Grammar tool on their word processors. Yes, these are book publishers who (or . . . um, is it “that”?) are making these grammatical errors, and although I’m guilty of the cursed typo here and there, I would never provide a marketing point that tells consumers, “you’re mother will love this book, and it makes a great gift to.”

However charming it is to anticipate and eventually witness our publishers’ seasonal bloopers, equally baffling to me is the amount of communication lost between a publisher and its art designer. Certain online accounts (one in particular seeking world domination, but here will remain nameless) turn into incredibly grouchy ladybugs when a cover image we supply does not match the title line word for word. Therefore my job demands that I scan every cover before it is sent out to the accounts, making sure the title, subtitle, and author name printed on the image match the title line that the publisher entered into our database. Either the publishers are failin’ to communicate with the designers, or these bullheaded designers are trying to tell the publishers something about the poorly worded subtitles . . . after your eye is trained to spot them, mismatches are everywhere you look. I’m no stranger to a breakdown of communication in the workplace, and several of my clients have published books on the subject, but oh, if only I could figure out a way for the data entry side to mend fences with the designers and match a title line and its cover! You Should Feel the Wrath of the World Domination Account Only Once, publishers; I warn thee about Capitalization.

Speaking of wrath, the data manager side of my personality showed up at my house last night. He’s supposed to sleep at the office, but in these I-can’t-lose-this-job days that we live in, who doesn’t work remotely?

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“Youth has its hour of glory, but too often it’s only a morning glory, the flower that fades before the sun is very high.”

Every winter we trudge through the Hollywood awards season that we all love to hate and hate and hate (but, oh, of COURSE I’m going to watch; what, are ya nuts?).  There is quality entertainment and rewarding validation to be gained from community grumbling, and the Academy Awards may be the official grumble-athon. Always the professional blogger, I was browsing what has replaced the video stores of our childhood, in search of any Oscar winners that should be placed snuggly into the queue. Never will there be enough time to experience the work of every artist who was once deemed “the best,” but my heart rests easier knowing they sit patiently in my own Netflix waiting room. This year, however, as I scrolled through the assorted lists of past winners, my well-trained data eye stumbled upon an unforgivable atrocity, one that I am unable to fix; one that jolted that aforementioned resting heart of mine.

Let us all take a breath and prepare ourselves – Netflix has the wrong cover image posted for Katharine Hepburn’s first Academy Award–winning performance, Morning Glory (1933).  In 2010, another film was produced bearing the same name, and during the 2014 Academy Awards, its stylish, perky poster will hang on Netflix’s wall where Ms. Hepburn ought to be.

During Oscar week . . . Hepburn . . . record-setting number of wins . . . wrong cover image . . . Hepburn . . . now I must spend my weeknights fixing mistakes.

With no other obvious methods to report content errors, I found on Netflix a “Call Us” option on its contact page, boasting a wait time of less than a minute. As much as I appreciate the word “curmudgeon,” was my love for the four-time Academy Award–winning Katharine Hepburn strong enough to turn me into such a bellyacher? My universe froze. I could be speaking with Mr. or Mrs. Netflix in less than a minute . . . should I? Having worked retail, ordinarily I am a very kind and polite customer, but could I trust myself to behave if I made such a phone call? I felt the eerie presence of a Fairy Godmother – but one who looked less like Grandma and more like Archie Bunker – and he was lingering quietly in the corner of the room, eager for the chance to transform my fitted tee and jeans into a cranky old man’s flannel bathrobe. The phone stayed on the other side of the room, having been switched to silent mode hours earlier. This, my friends, was a defining line in those pesky sands of time.

Perhaps I was not ready to cross it, but I could sure feel my toe on that line, grinding it brutally into the ground.

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Academy Award for Morning Glory (1934): Best Actress in a Leading Role

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Full disclosure: I have very little memory of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). On the last two Sabbath days I hunted for what those of us in publishing habitually call the physical copy (“pbook” when I’m in the office . . . feh!) of this film so I could schedule a revisit. My reliable used DVD shop is on its last leg these days, so it’s slim pickings over there. I hacked into Mom and Dad’s Netflix to see if I could do some streaming, but I knew that was an even riskier gamble to take. Two routes fruitless, the third was to explore other online options available to me, but those were certainly not to occur without a coupon or a gift card. Eventually I called off the hunt and accepted God’s honest truth – in a modern world divided between the physical and the digital, The Ten Commandments were nowhere to be found.

My search for Moses started a few days after a long weekend in Chicago. Many will agree that the bloodiest conflicts tend to revolve around religion; it’s true of world history, and it seems to be true of families. One of the greatest wars in family history involved getting me to Chicago in the glacial month of January to attend a distant relative’s bar mitzvah. Battles were fought on many fronts, and perhaps even a few were won, but in the end my troops forced to retreat, and I found myself in a window seat on United Airlines headed for O’Hare International Airport. Judaism felt like it been a part of my life three or four lifetimes ago, but it got me thinking . . .

My Jewish summer camp in Santa Cruz, CA, was being swallowed up slowly by the earth. As kids we were entertained by the fact that camp was built on a fault line, and the cabin floors were noticeably slanted. Left untouched, a laundry bag resting on the floor could very well end up on the other side of the cabin without any human interaction. Eventually the site was shut down, but not before generations of camp alumni were invited to revisit the grounds and walk around the sections that were not closed off with barricade tape. A five-minute walk from main camp was a beautiful building constructed as a Holocaust Memorial, and fortunately it was safe enough (or so they said) for us to visit. I remember walking up there alone and standing in the main room where I had spent many summer hours being educated on the rituals and customs of Reform Judaism.

The main room of the Holocaust Memorial building was primarily windowed; to the left I could see the trunks of the surrounding trees, and to the right I could see the tops of the trees. Beginnings and ends; young and old; growing and grown; I’m sure its point was drilled into my head at an age when I refused to accept any point made by a superior, but standing there that day looking left and looking right, I felt more spiritual than I have before or since. It was a connection to nature, a connection to my past and future, and a connection to the soul mates I was fortunately to have had in my life. The “camp” parts of camp were priceless, and I wouldn’t trade those days for all the Mae West DVD collections in the world. When it comes to the organized “stand now; sit now, pray now” aspects of Judaism, however, I’m afraid we have long since parted ways. And as it turns out, we were never that close. Spiritually comes in many forms, but for this guy, it never came from a scroll or a prayer book. An equally powerful moment returned years later, when Madonna performed “Like a Prayer” dressed as Joan of Arc, and for those seven minutes, I can guarantee that I was more soul than body. But would you like to know what experience has practically no amount of spirituality whatsoever? That would be Chicago in January.

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At 33 years old, my attention span in synagogue is essentially where was it was when I was a lad, possibly worse. A service that starts with a song is lovely, but to those of us who have seen the political sides of organized religion, we can’t help but snicker at an opening song that is simply a melodic repetition of the word “lie.” I’m sure the song book just leaves off the “e” in the transliteration of the soothing song, “Li, Li, Li.” Later on while the rabbi was jabbering on up there on his stage, I had a good Footloose moment and grinned slyly when I found myself examining my nails. I didn’t go as far as the minister’s daughter in Footloose and break out my nail polish during the sermon, but let’s be honest; we all know it crossed my mind. For two decades rabbis were the adults from Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts, just an avalanche of incomprehensible noise that only they could understand. This particular rabbi didn’t seem like he wanted to be in the office that day (seriously, this guy should have been holding an “I Hate Mondays” coffee mug), but he did manage to get my attention at one point during the service – he brought up an old movie. Yes, I should have been paying closer attention in synagogue that day. I think my mind was more present when I was in Texas weeks earlier and a friend took me to church so she could take Communion. Now that was fascinating to a former-ish Reform Jew from California.

With Moses holding a gun to my head, I couldn’t map out the exact path that led us to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments during that bar mitzvah, but there we were: temple movie trivia. The rabbi’s get-their-attention moment of his sermon called out the unresolved debate over who supplied the voice of God in The Ten Commandments. Some list Charlton Heston, while others claim it was DeMille himself who lent voice to the Almighty. Without a film credit (and who needs those, right Mrs. Hitchcock?), we can never know the true voice of God. I would have cast Katharine Hepburn, myself, but that’s just another one of Hollywood’s missed opportunities. I tuned out as quickly as I had tuned in, but for a brief moment there, the rabbi was speaking my language.

In college I was taught that a legend is a traditional tale handed down from earlier times and believed to have an historical basis. My beloved folklore professor, who looked a bit like Cecil B. DeMille, and to me, was the voice of God for three years, assigned a wonderful book that examined the Bible as one would a piece of folklore. And wouldn’t you know it; he turned out to be the author of said masterpiece. Accepting with gratitude any text he handed me and absorbing it as my religion, I powered through Holy Writ as Oral Lit, as it points out folkloristic aspects found in multiple translations of the Bible. I’m fairly certain that following the publication of certain works like these, my professor received death threats . . . God bless Your followers. I remember being at a house party in Orange County with some of those old soul-mate friends from camp around that time, and someone asked me what I was studying at school. When I mentioned the subject of my professor’s book to one young lady, she refused to continue the conversation and walked out of the room. It made about as much as sense to me as the thought of a gun-toting Heston playing the role of Moses. But it’s all just a movie, right? Right? Of course right!

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Academy Award for The Ten Commandments (1957): Best Special Effects

Add The Ten Commandments to your queue.

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While working her way through the novel for the first time, my dear friend advocated strongly to host a little To Kill a Mockingbird evening. She would provide dinner for me and a few others; in exchange I would provide one life’s practically perfect pairings – a bottle of wine and Gregory Peck on DVD. Although I had seen the film years ago but remember enjoying it, my memory of the Finch family wasn’t as sharp as I’d have liked. Regardless of their quality, once again I’m guilty of remembering very little when it comes to the books I was forced to read. Stubborn little bugger, I was.

I was well aware of Mr. Peck’s Academy Award-winning performance of Atticus Finch, every film list’s number-one hero, but when it came to the 1963 Oscar race, I was more familiar with the ladies of 1962. From the Coke versus Pepsi battles on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? blossomed equally enticing rumors about Joan Crawford’s “Anybody but Bette Davis” Oscar campaign. As a morphine-addicted matriarch withstanding the judgments of her alcoholic husbands and sons, Katharine Hepburn reached unbelievably new highs and lows in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Eventually on Oscar night Anne Bancroft’s name was announced for The Miracle Worker, an award that Miss Crawford graciously accepted on her behalf while those famous Bette Davis eyes threw daggers. While the world celebrated Mr. Peck and Mrs. Bancroft-Brooks, toasting the good-hearted lawyer Atticus Finch and Anne Sullivan, the strong-willed tutor of Helen Keller, the remaining drug addicts and alcoholics on the Oscar ballot gathered together their empty bottles and went home with nothing.

According to a few sources, Gregory Peck did not expect to win for his performance in To Kill a Mockingbird. His money was on his good friend Jack Lemmon for his chillingly stunning performance of an alcoholic in Days of Wine and Roses. Always the shrinking violet, Bette “Baby Jane” Davis expected to be the first woman ever to win three Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role but admitted, “Miss Remick’s performance astonished me, and I thought, if I lose the Oscar, it will be to her.” Lee Remick joined the above women on the list of nominees for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jack Lemmon’s wife; a woman who matches and eventually surpasses her husband’s drinking habits. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer were awarded golden statues for their song of the same name, but the Days of Wine and Roses couple, who gave two exhausting performances that caused me to reflect on more than I cared to, were forced to drown their Oscar sorrows.

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Do we all have the capacity for alcoholism?  Is there a “potato chip factor” we should factor in during a first round of happy hour cocktails? Along with scrunchies, slap bracelets, and eventually flannel shirts, my Thanksgiving tables were made up of mostly passive drinkers who passed out on the couch after dessert every year. You can only sell that “turkey makes them sleepy” jazz to a kid for so long, but truthfully I was relieved to see some of the more unpleasant members of the extended family settle into unconsciousness. Perhaps they weren’t particularly kind people, but as far as I remember, they weren’t angry drunks. Anger, it seemed, was reserved for the sober; the drinkers just figured out how to get away from it. Watching Lemmon and Remick dive into the roles of two alcoholics who spiral out of control, together and separately, implored me to consider my own youthful days of adulthood when life’s vices were everywhere, our bodies were indestructible, and no one gave a second thought to opening another bottle. Physical and emotional consequences were for old people who had lost some sort of battle with life’s hourglass, a battle we were winning during our days of wine of roses.

Strolling through North Beach with a bottle of Coppola Chardonnay and Gregory Peck in my bag, I made a point to walk by an old theatre where I used to work as an usher. Often I’m able to catch a few old friends between or after shows for a quick hi-there-and-hello hug and a few drinks. I ran into one old buddy that evening and bragged about the fact that I was on my way up the hill for a To Kill a Mockingbird party. His face lit up (at first I wondered if he thought I said “Tequila Mockingbird”), but then he started asking if I remembered “this part” or “that part” of that glorious film. Unfortunately I was running a bit behind schedule and still had three uphill blocks of North Beach to conquer, so I had to leave behind what may have been a wonderful chit-chat. Next time, my friend. Yes, I was on my way up that hill to a dignified, adult dinner party followed by a relaxed viewing of a classic black-and-white film. I continued down the block, and before I started hoofing it up that hill, I had a quick glimpse into my own days of wine and roses and beer and Jägermeister – a blessed little bar next to the theatre was a clubhouse to us all, and yes, there was wine. Lots of wine. And Rose was servin’ it.

When she wasn’t swamped with customers who were crazed with thirst, Rose and I had some pretty gratifying discussions. The two of us had a little five-minute book club that would meet immediately after my shift but before the bar filled up with audience members, cast, and crew from the show. Although we never had the same book on our nightstands at the same time, we were able to catch each other up quickly on what each of us was reading. When Rose was working, magically a glass of Sangiovese would appear on the bar without my ordering it . . . and when I say “glass,” I mean that thing was filled to the brim. If I hadn’t been such a gentleman, I’d have leaned down on the bar and slurped up the first few sips just to keep from spilling. Eventually the bar would fill up with new and old friends, we’d all drink until we fell off our stools and before anyone had time to pass out, we’d hop in cabs and go dancing. It was splendid; it was simple; it was a wonderful year in the toddler years of adulthood . . . and if I hadn’t left when I did, I think I may have died in the bathroom of that bar.

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Days of Wine and Roses is a dark and emotionally draining view into the world of alcoholics, addiction, love, and survival. When Joe Clay (Lemmon) meets Kirsten Arnesen (Remick) at the beginning of Days of Wine and Roses, he’s as boozy as they come, while the only addiction she reveals is one of the chocolate variety. A harmless Brandy Alexander ushers Kirsten into more and more binge drinking with her new husband, and the two begin to create a life free from the perils of sobriety. If that one cocktail could unleash a beast of an alcoholic in Kirsten, is it possible we all go through an alcoholic phase in life, a time when we could all benefit from a Step or Twelve? The dangerous edge of that cliff – Mount Mid-20s, let’s call it – was treacherous, and I was eager to peer(-pressure) over it. When you’re a happy drunk and choose to drink yourself up to that edge, nothing can touch you, nothing can hurt you, and everyone loves you, whether they do or not. Somewhere in my mind, the immortality that I felt I had been promised would allow me to fly if ever I did leap off that blasted edge. But poor Kirsten . . . she hadn’t been promised a thing, and it turns out, neither had I.

Like Dad always says, everything in moderation. I loved my time at the bottom of that hill, and I had a wonderful evening when finally I made it up those three steep San Francisco blocks with Gregory Peck in tow. Last time I checked, Rose was still going strong, pouring generous glasses only to those who deserved them. My days of wine and Rose and roses may not be behind me completely, but they have certainly mellowed out over the years. My edge was at the bottom of that hill, not the top, but today I’m able to look both down and back without regret. Cheers!

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Academy Award for Days of Wine and Roses (1963): Best Music, Original Song

Add Days of Wine and Roses to your queue.

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On any land but mine grows a greener grass in every shade. In matters of both the heart and the bank account, we all at one time succumb to that all-too-common thought; a collage of despair, desire, and fear. Some choose forever to wallow before they accept the truths of their realities, while others, well . . . it don’t take no nerve to do somethin’ when there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about moving out of San Francisco. Out of California. Out of my eternal adolescence. I went through the teenage years twice; once as a straight kid, and once as a gay man in his 20s, navigating gingerly through a revised set of social rules and regulations. The Bay Area has been more than kind to me during that second leg of the journey, but a distance has started to form, and the city and I are beginning to outgrow one another. I said these very words to a friend who has listened to me grumble for months about the details of my self-inflicted stagnation. After flunking yet another round of job interviews, it was with a heart full of love when this person said to me, “You’re doing everything right, so maybe you just don’t belong here.” Those final six words ricocheted back and forth in my mind for days, until I did what any other red-blooded American man would do when he demands a moment of mental clarity. I went shopping.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) had been sitting in my queue at position five for about a month, only to be demoted continually due to the release of critically important television shows (I’d blame Jessica Lange, if I weren’t so affectionately terrified of her). While shopping for the above mentioned mental clarity, I happened upon a DVD of John Steinbeck’s banned and burned tale, reduced to $4.99 for surface scratches but guaranteed to play. The film felt more or less compatible with the CD I held under my arm – I considered turning to Jesus after hearing Dolly Parton’s Golden Streets of Glory, but it would have to be Dolly’s Jesus, not the Jesus who sits in on the Fox News weekly board meetings. I have a fairly good memory when it comes to the novels I was assigned to read in school, and I believe the only Steinbeck that ever cropped up on my syllabus was The Pearl. My Steinbeck background is regrettably limited, so purchasing a used copy of The Grapes of Wrath was a prudent decision in more than one way.

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I’m in no position to compare my life to those who endured the Great Depression, for I have not even a sliver of their strength or survival skills. I’m extremely fortunate never to have known hardship the likes of an Oklahoma man who is released from prison, hitchhikes back to his family’s farm, and finds it deserted due to dust storms and eventual foreclosure. When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda wows us again) reunites with his family, they load their lives into a rickety old truck and head for California in search of employment and a sunnier future. The nomad in me who’s screaming to break out of his Golden Gated cradle cheered with enthusiasm for Tom and his family’s journey down Highway 66. As if I were watching a 129-minute “Oregon Trail meets NASCAR,” I needed desperately to see Tom cross whatever he deemed his final finish line.

The family’s stops at various migrant camps yank at the heartstrings, especially when the children come running up to the camera, hunger in their eyes. On the road they meet a man who is on his way back from California, a temporary dashing of Tom’s hopes for what awaits him on the coast. Regardless of the cards dealt by my past (or by my future), the authenticity of the Joads’ intertwining of hope and frustration brought this audience member, at least for a moment, right into the back of their truck. In all likelihood, Highway 66 is filled with cars that travel for miles and get nowhere, delivering its passengers to nothing.

The road to opportunity is paved with, well, nothing, because our state has no money for infrastructure spending. At times we kneel and thank our lucky stars; at times we can’t help but kneel on the greenish grass and pray to . . . where, oh, where is Dolly’s Jesus?

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Academy Awards for The Grapes of Wrath (1941): Best Director and Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Add The Grapes of Wrath to your queue.

We had another minor earthquake in the Bay Area last week. When the little ones hit, I have a quick poke around online, just to make sure it was an actual quake and not the rumbling of some drunken neighbor falling down our stairs. Earthquakes, drunken neighbors: same recording studio. My first stop tends to be at Earthquake.usgs.gov, but I guess I’ll never know the true story of what rocked my world in October of 2013:

“Due to a lapse in Federal funding, the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program has suspended most of its operations. While the USGS will continue to monitor and report on earthquake activity, the accuracy or timeliness of some earthquake information products, as well as the availability or functionality of some web pages, could be affected by our reduced level of operation.”

The U.S. federal government has been shut down for two weeks. Rachel Maddow told me a few nights ago that we have never had a government shutdown during a time of war (aren’t we always in a time of war?). That was when I realized yes, it’s possible to be shocked and at the same time not one bit surprised that it’s come to this. For years now, hearing politicians deliver those lines that come wrapped in a pink bow provides me with little comfort or hope for the future; I think “Mission Accomplished” broke every backbone in that camel. I used to have a neutral, non-reaction to those let’s-all-hold-hands political pep talks, but now “There’s more that unites us than divides us” and the rest of those carefully worded slogans make me want to go toilet paper the Capitol. I have idolized Margo Channing for years, and it turns out I too detest cheap sentiment.

How I wish I could shut down the office when I don’t like a decision someone else has made, but doing so would get me fired immediately, and I like having money to buy old movies. If I don’t answer an email within five minutes, people are poking their heads in at my desk asking if I received it, read it, and what I’m going to do about it. If the email was marked as urgent or sent on “high importance,” chances are I already moved it to the bottom of my to-do list . . . so, yes, naturally I have a disagreement with someone almost every day. And why? Because I have a number of people – direct superiors and those who believe they are my superiors – making decisions about my job, and therefore my livelihood, without understanding 90 percent of it. Demolished is my doe-eyed, 20-something vision of a Utopian workplace where my coworkers and I find charming ways to work together and accomplish our goals (while wearing pink bows). Now in my 30-somethings, I see that work is a battlefield of manipulation where the new question is “what can I get him to do for me?” It’s all a part of growing up, I’m told, but I weep a bit for the team-building camp counselor in me who is becoming more and more cynical towards my leaders . . . my leaders in the workplace and my leaders in D.C. If only more people like Mr. Smith would go to Washington and hire me to help him save the world.

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An adult boy scout in the form of James Stewart is selected to fill a junior senator’s seat, only to discover that corruption exists in the system that his bright eyes have long viewed with such respect. Used, abused, and smeared when he attempts to battle the powerful power of Senate corruption, Smith launches a filibuster with the help of his witty secretary (an enjoyable Jean Arthur, who received top-billing over the young Stewart). I’m shocked, shocked to find Claude Rains playing such an unethical senator! Shocked and delighted, for no matter how evil, corrupt, or malicious his character, Mr. Rains never betrays his audience. So we have a good man naively challenging the bad machine. Is there any group that didn’t protest, boycott, or object to something about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, some before they even watched the film?

From politicians, D.C. insiders, and the press corps to the Boy Scouts of America, and my personal favorite, the Production Code Administration, everyone’s good name was on the Hollywood chopping block. The PCA chief Joseph Breen urged “most earnestly that you take serious counsel before embarking on the production of any motion picture based on this story. It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large.” Perhaps it was an unflattering portrayal of government, but eventually Breen changed his mind, and – get ready for it – the American public seemed to enjoy the film!

There are a few brutally wonderful films that hold up a mirror to Americans and magnify the most horrid of flaws on our faces. I’d argue that Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976) remains one of the most frightening films ever made, followed closely by Inherit the Wind (1960), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington could very well appear on the same brutal list. Nominated for 11 Oscars and taking home one for Best Writing (Original Story), Mr. Smith faced some fierce competition from Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ninotchka, Dorothy Gale and her pals, and the ailing Bette Davis in Dark Victory. The silver screen and its onlookers were much blessed in 1939. It’s hard to believe those devoted to the Code let the witchcraft of Oz slip through its cutting room, but the suspension of disbelief is a moviegoer’s best friend.

Living in a country where the acceptance of disbelief has become our default, it can become increasingly difficult to suspend it for entertainment purposes. They wouldn’t really shut down the government, would they? They wouldn’t hurt their constituents on purpose, would they? They wouldn’t waste millions and billions on throwing a national temper tantrum, would they? They wouldn’t send the earthquake people home, would they? I just can’t believe . . . sigh, yes I can.

“Frank Capra’s movies have happy endings, but you have to pay for them to get them.” — Frank Capra Jr.

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Academy Award for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940): Best Writing, Original Story

Add Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to your queue.

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On the September morning that heavy rains and flooding hit Colorado, I was scheduled to fly home from a two-day meeting in Boulder. Fortunately we made it out with few problems, aside from the obligatory one-hour delay that all frequent fliers seem to tolerate these days. Once I’m up in the air and cruising to my “Stay Calm” playlist of Billie and Ella, my flight anxiety decreases slightly, but the Colorado winds are especially cruel to my irrational fear of flying. Looking back, it was perhaps my overenthusiastic Lamaze breathing during the bumpy ascension that got me such strange looks from the Ohio State football fans sitting next to me. I began to distract myself with thoughts of the past two days that I spent cooped up in a windowless conference room, all of us unaware of the biblical rain clouds gathering above.

In this data-friendly and unfriendly world, where we’re bombarded by the baby pictures posted by old friends we haven’t seen in 15 years, it’s no surprise that I was summoned to Boulder to discuss the future of metadata in the book publishing industry. Once an upbeat copy editor armed with my faithful box of red pens, I have evolved swiftly into some version of a data manager for my publisher clients. Instead of making sure letters combine to form words and words combine to form sentences, these days I spend my workweek validating data to ensure any company that begins with the letter “A” doesn’t reject it. Although I can’t exactly recall when that shift in my job description was discussed and then implemented, there I was at a conference table in Boulder, cracking jokes about things I didn’t understand to a group of people who couldn’t admit they didn’t understand either.

What I did learn and thought about a great deal as I soared above the storms of Colorado was one of the company’s many number-one goals. In this unstable economy, having a single number-one goal only reveals a lack in motivation and poses immense threat to one’s job security, but there is one e-task that reigns supreme: to get our publishers’ websites and books to appear as the first result in any Google keyword search. The blood, sweat, and programming involved in pulling off such a feat is over my editorial head, which is probably why I have had such trouble finding a new job (although I point the finger at Bush and Cheney for my perpetual feeling of “stuck” more than I blame my own lack of computer savvy, but there you have it!).

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If such manipulation of data is possible, and these days it should surprise no one that it is, I’m left with a few questions – why was Greta Garbo’s Camille (1936) not the first result in certain databases when I plugged in its title? Who can I talk to about moving that result above someone from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills? Where’s the metadata team in charge of Greta Garbo, and are they hiring? I know, I know, my inner cranky old man reveals himself more and more as I actually, you know, become one . . .  but seriously with this, Internet people? Reality shows over Garbo? Now that’s a data management upgrade project that piques my interest. C’mon, IMDb, let me at that metadata and then get out – we want to be alone!

From screen to stage, The Lady of the Camellias by Alexander Dumas, fils, has been adapted into every version of performance a writer could possibly drag poor Marguerite Gautier. A self-made, rags-to-riches woman who becomes a member of Parisian high society through the generosity of men, eventually Marguerite experiences the misfortune of falling in love with Armand Duval, played by the dapper Robert Taylor. Tossing an extra bundle of problems at our heroine is her ongoing battle with tuberculosis, but it never slows her down from delivering quips as sassy as, “Cows and chickens make better friends than I’ve ever met in Paris.” Find me a Real Housewife who can top that! My generation may believe Camille to be a 1982 metamovie created specifically for Annie to attend with Daddy Warbucks and Miss Farrell. Actually it’s pretty riveting scene for me; to imagine children being exposed to Greta Garbo at such a young age and enjoying it so much . . . let’s all go to the movies! As I got older and realized the black-and-white movie within the funky 80s color movie was superior (well okay, except for the electrifying Carol Burnett, another Oscar snub), eventually I tracked down Camille on old VHS tapes of my uncle’s or cable networks, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. While visiting the family in Southern California, I let an old VHS tape copy overnight on to a DVD so I could take it back home for my overflowing personal collection. Like creating a mix tape, one has to be precise about the timing of pressing “Play” or “Record” or both at the same time, thereby eliminating any risk of disrespectful imperfection.

Quality may not have been the film industry’s top priority back when this cranky old man was a cranky young man, and that bootleg DVD held out for as long as it could, but eventually I knew I had to find the great Greta Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier appearing flawlessly on DVD. I’m hardly a stickler for perfection when it comes to my old movies, but I’ll admit that once I had a version of enhanced quality . . . well, why shouldn’t one have fancies? The technology changes on us every week, either improving or complicating our lives, but as long as we continue to reach for metadata stars, we’ll find a way to make Garbo appear at the top of every list.

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Add Camille to your queue.

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Let’s take a break from film for a moment and ask ourselves one of life’s most important questions. Excluding your graduation ceremonies, have you ever taken off your hat and tossed it in the air in front of a bunch of strangers?

The motives for vacationing in Seattle are many, and although I try to spend as little time as possible in front of the television, a week with cable is one of the trip’s minor perks. During this last visit, I happened upon a channel called Me-TV (Memorable Entertainment Television), and this matchmaker of a network reintroduced me to the lovely Rhoda Morgenstern. We had met a few times throughout my life, but this was the first time we really got to know each other, and frankly I’m quite smitten. Decked out in my finest B&B bathrobe, I spent a few enchanted hours with Mary Richards and Rhoda, often falling asleep to the shenanigans of Rob and Laura Petrie. Throughout the week, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and The Dick Van Dyke Show each became a perfect recliner for me to relax in after those busy hours of hunting for Seattle oysters or clam chowder in a bread bowl. Like a San Francisco happy hour, Me-TV provided a carefree atmosphere of beautiful fashion, witty one-liners, feisty broads, at times their feisty mothers, all at two-for-one prices.

It was also on this trip that I made an important discovery about my cell phone. A burden we all bear in the work world when we deal with clients . . . or coworkers . . . or bosses . . . or, you know, people . . . is that everyone believes he or she should be the exception to the rules. When I create a schedule and send it out into the digital world, immediately I get at least three responses demanding to know, “So, when’s the real, drop-dead deadline?” While many get away with it due to office politics or the delusion that they happen to be the most important client on the client totem pole, there’s one work environment where no exceptions are made. If you miss breakfast at a B&B, you go hungry, buster. You don’t have to go home, but you ain’t gettin’ breakfast here! It pains me to do so while on vacation, but drastic times, people . . . when vegetarian Eggs Benedict are at stake, one has no choice but to set an alarm.

Does everyone know that if you have music on your phone, you can wake up to the song of your choosing? And if everyone already knows this, weren’t you amazed on the day (five years ago, right?) that you figured this out? The clock radio on my nightstand may be as outdated as my taste in film, but overall it’s treated me well, in spite of the hateful words it’s received from me over the years. When I needed an appropriate “I’m on vacation” alarm clock song, predictably I went to all my favorites who need not be mentioned. Tougher than it sounds, I’ll have you know. What soothing voice could guide me out of bed with its gentle lyrics, gradually building up energy without blowing the roof off the joint before I had my first sip of coffee? And then . . . Ton. Of. Bricks! Like the millions of young men before me, and probably a handful of you ladies, I found my wake-up call in “Love Is All Around” by Sonny Curtis, the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

So . . . ever taken off your hat and tossed it in the air in front of a bunch of strangers? Yeah, well, me neither, but Jesus, Mary, and Rhoda, it looks like it feels pretty darn fantastic!

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