Saturday, August 29, 2009

roses, sailboats, and the meaning of life

I recently had a mini health scare. It was just some wonky test results that turned out to be nothing, but it did give me a few days of unease. I'm not a hypochondriac and typically don't borrow trouble (i.e., I'm not fretting about swine flu or Lyme disease; my fears these days tend to veer toward getting clipped by a driving-while-texting nut job who's crossing the double yellow into my lane), but there are a couple of diagnoses that I have a particular fear of, and this was one of them. So when the lab called to tell me I had to come back in for more tests, I immediately tapped into a reservoir of otherwise carefully tamped-down panic and burst into tears on the phone with the poor technician, who tried to talk me down while I gasped about "I knew it, I knew it - I've been afraid this would happen."

For my second round of poking and prodding, I went to the big-deal fancy lab, where they can run tests from here to next Tuesday, guaranteeing that they can find something wrong with you, as my mother puts it. While I was sitting in the waiting area (which was rather spa-like: we were all in robes, listening to New Age music that had lots of chimes and wind noises, sipping ice water and waiting for our names to be called), I could hear the doctor down the hall as he delivered test results to each patient in the various exam rooms. He had a tendency to shout out things like "Everything looks good!" in a big joyful voice as soon as he got the door open, as if certain the patient wouldn't be able to stand the suspense for even the two or three seconds it would take for him to get in the room and shut the door behind him. I imagined he only did this early-warning approach when the news was good and figured that if he came into my exam room quietly and carefully shut the door before saying anything, I'd know I was in deep trouble.

My name was called, I went into an exam room, the tests were done, and then I sat nervously, listening to the doctor's oddly enthusiastic voice as he made his rounds, waiting for my turn. I was pretty sure that, once I got the news, I'd be an emotional wreck again, either because of the terror induced by an imminent death sentence, or thanks to utter relief at a stay of execution, but the doctor managed to pre-empt any display of emotion on my part.

He did his big entrance, booming out, "First of all, you're fine! Completely and absolutely fine!" Then he zoomed right up to me, hand outstretched. "Second of all, do you remember me?"

I was so dazed, I couldn't put two and two together. "I know you?" I said, trying to remember another time when I'd faced a life-threatening disease that brought me into contact with this particular genre of doctor.

"From college!" he boomed again. "Chris [last name withheld]!"

My god, I thought. Chris. Of course. Didn't we sort of date when I was a freshman?

"I saw you sitting in the waiting area and thought, 'Could that be Siobhan?'" he said jovially, clearly ready to kick around some memories and laugh over this bizarre coincidence. Then he must have registered the utter confusion on my face and settled down to give me a bit more detail on the test results, acting the part of a responsible and comforting doctor. Once he got that out of the way, he went straight back to old times, and then asked what I'd been up to in the past 20 years. I couldn't think of one thing, especially when faced with a walking, talking success story: a doctor in a ritzy hospital in Connecticut, married to a lovely classmate, if I recall, with a few bouncing babies to boot. It was all too surreal to me; the scene I'd imagined as a prelude to a Dark Victory story line instead turned out to be part Hail Fellow Well Met, part "Oh my god I'm a failure" freak-out (as if I need any more of those). So much for my big Bette Davis moment - though of course, ultimately I was extremely relieved.

Meanwhile, that very same week, a good friend had a terrifying and completely unexpected heart attack, out of the clear blue sky. He's young, exercises a lot, eats well, doesn't smoke, has a happy and fulfilling life - and yet, he had a very close call and is looking at a long recovery period. It's given him pause, as they say - given many of us pause, in fact. There's a lot of "You never know" being said, especially since he was so healthy up to this point. It reminds me of an old New Yorker cartoon, where a very self-satisfied man is strutting down the sidewalk, thinking proudly, "Less cholesterol! Regular checkups! No nicotine! No alcohol! Low sodium! Moderate exercise! No sugar!", unaware that a giant safe is about to drop on his head.

I bring up these two incidents because, after all, the heart of my blog is about trying to live life in the fullest and truest way that I can, and there's nothing like a close look at mortality to make a girl take a step back for some perspective. In the typical narrative, a brush with death (or even the thought of a brush with death) makes one toss out the junky parts of one's life and stop deferring the dream. However, I've already done a lot of the items on this particular list: quit the dead-end and depressing job (check), travel to wonderful places (check), spend more time with friends and family (check and check), buy a sports car (check! just this month! love it! want to drive across the country!), stop and smell the roses (and listen to the birds, and watch the sunset, and so forth - check), and not let the days just zip by (trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not).

It brings to mind a rather odd play I saw a few years back, an absurd (in a good way) monologue by Will Eno called Thom Pain (based on nothing). The character, who viciously skewers everything in sight, at one point says, "What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? That's easy. You'd be brave and true and reckless. You would love life and people with wild and new abandon. If you only had a day. What if you had forty years? What would you do? If you're like me, and - no offense - you probably are, you wouldn't do anything."

It's true, isn't it? We all think we'd scrap our boring old lives and go out and have mad adventures - jump out of planes or gobble down caviar at the Ritz or climb Machu Picchu at dawn or move to Paris or some such - if we knew our time on this planet was limited. But it is limited, isn't it? From the get-go? And yet here we all sit, not swimming with dolphins or blowing it all on red in Vegas.

This could be because we're all cowards, but actually, I think there's another, simpler, less dramatic reason: There's plenty of enjoyment to be had in the day-to-day. I've learned over the past year that I don't need to pack each hour with Experiences and Accomplishments, that there's a lot to be said for reading and hanging out and, even, drifting a bit. So I'm not sure how important the bucket list is, as long as your days bring more happiness than not. (Though you might take a bit of advice from Thom Pain and "love life and people with wild and new abandon" - but in a calm, sustainable way.)

For instance: Ted Kennedy. Here's someone who did get the tap on the shoulder letting him know that his time was almost up, and what did he do? Apparently, he went sailing a lot. Of course, he had a few other things on his plate (like, oh, I don't know, trying to create a system where all his fellow Americans would have decent, affordable health care - you know, little to-do items to cross off the list), but still, he made it a priority to continue with this simple pastime that he loved, something he'd done all his life, in the same waters he'd always known (in, may I point out, a truly gorgeous sailboat). He didn't feel the need to go out in search of new and bigger and more exotic adventures. He knew he had a certain amount of time left, and he just went on doing what had always made him happy.

{Antique botanical prints of "General Jacqueminot" rose, "Baroness Rothschild" rose, "Safrano" tea rose, and "Monthly" rose available from Lyons Ltd; bottom: Ted Kennedy's Mya}

Friday, August 28, 2009

6 days in NM: day 6

We had a split decision on the merits of the last supper in New Mexico (dinner at Antonio's in Taos), and since mine was the nay vote, and it's my blog, I'm going to draw a tactful curtain over what I felt was a sub-par meal.

So my final thoughts on New Mexico aren't on the food (!!), but instead on the landscape. Coming from New England, I'm always amazed at the sheer vastness, and the palette, and the quality of the light in the West - and those mountains.

We got up early on Tuesday morning, while it was still pitch black, and drove the two hours to Albuquerque to catch our flight home. The drive was so lovely, with the light gradually emerging, a pink glow spreading over all the desert, and dense pillows of fog trapped along the base of the mountains. Despite my deep and absolute loathing of having to get up before dawn, I must admit that it was worth it.

The day before, we drove outside of Taos a little ways, and caught some beautiful vistas as the light came in under the clouds (the first and only cloudy day!). Hope you like.

Monday, August 24, 2009

6 days in NM: day 5 - Chimayo

On the drive to Taos, we stopped at Chimayo to see the shrine and the sacred dirt, which was being avidly scooped up by believers.

The church itself is lovely - very rustic and rough. Nearby is a spot with the stations of the cross arranged to create a sort of mini-pilgrimage, and each has been decorated by visitors with handmade crosses, strings of Christmas lights, icons, and prayers.

Along one wall of the compound were some newer mosaics. I know it's sacrilegious, but this particular one looked so much like the South Park Jesus that I had to document it.

6 days in NM: days 5+6 - a referendum

Apparently, the state motto of New Mexico is Crescit Eundo, or "Grow As It Grows."

Bor-ing. I have a much better suggestion: "Smothered in Green Chile."

It seems as if pretty much every restaurant serving New Mexican food uses the word "smothered" on the menu when it comes to chile. This translates into a platter of some astonishingly delicious food which looks a mess and tastes like heaven.

For instance, in addition to the Los Potrillos breakfast described earlier, there was lunch on Sunday at JoAnn's in Espanola, across the way from the Rock Christian Fellowship. I had pork tamales (my goodness, I love tamales) with rice and beans and a blanket of green chile, along with sopaipillas that didn't quite match up to The Pantry's.

Then, dinner last night at Joseph's Table here in Taos, where it was too dark to document my beet, goat cheese and pinon salad, or my buffalo cheeseburger with green chile, both of which were wonderful. (By the by, I believe that was my first buffalo meal, though I may have tasted it during my foodie mag days back in the '90s.)

And then there was breakfast today, at Taos Diner, a restaurant to which I give a big stamp of approval: scrambled eggs with chorizo, positively smothered in green chile, served with potatoes and fresh flour tortilla. If I lived in Taos, I would eat here - a lot.

And there's a convenient pawn shop next door, in case you're in desperate need of green chile but are short on cash.

I'll be starting an online petition regarding the new state motto. Keep your eyes peeled.

6 days in NM: day 4 - I'm almost embarrassed...

...but we went back to Los Potrillos for dinner on Saturday. So in the span of four days in Santa Fe, we hit Los Potrillos three times, including twice in one day.

No regrets. I had to have the molcajete al pastor again, and this time we also ordered coctel de pulpo (chilled octopus served in a tomato/lime/cilantro sauce, with saltines) and a nopales (cactus) salad with avocado and cheese. I forgot how much I love coctels - I used to eat them in L.A., at a roadside stand on Lincoln Boulevard by Rose Ave called Mariscos, which also had fantastic fish tacos.

As you can see from the "After" photo, dinner was a success, thanks in part to a round of my favorite beer, Pacifico.

A commenter on an earlier post asked, in regards to my eating huevos rancheros for breakfast and at high-end Geronimo for dinner, if I'm bipolar. I was unaware that one is supposed to stick within one social category of dining; if so, I've been making gross errors of etiquette my entire life. I bring this up because the commenter will love this one: after dinner at Los Potrillos, we went to see La Traviata with Natalie Dessay at the gorgeous Santa Fe opera house. How's that for bipolar behavior?

6 days in NM: day 4 - Indian Market

Coincidentally, we were in town for Indian Market, which was an amazing experience - artists and craftspeople from all different tribes, selling beautiful pottery, blankets, paintings, carvings, beadwork, and so forth. The sun was brutal, but we persevered and wandered around for a few hours, nourished by our Potrillos breakfast, as well as a bag of delicious, fresh-out-of-the-fryer doughnuts.

I bought a few things - a retablo, a pottery bird, a present - and decided that of the pottery traditions, I like the Acoma the most. Unfortunately, the two pieces I liked the most were $2800 and $7000, so I decided to pass this time around.

Another future purchase, somewhere down the road, could be a nice ride like this one.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

6 days in NM: day 4 - back to Los Potrillos

I'm not one to mess with a good thing, so even though this is a quick trip to Santa Fe, we went back to Los Potrillos today, rather than trying some other place. This time, it was for breakfast, and it reinforced my conviction that living in Santa Fe is not an option for me because I would not be able to resist breakfasts like these, and they would eventually kill me.

However, in the meantime: Bring it on. I had chilaquiles (tortilla chips simmered in green chile sauce and topped with cheese) with scrambled eggs, pinto beans, outrageously delish fried potatoes, and a frosty mug of OJ. Yum. Gone.

In my earlier homage to Los Potrillos, I neglected to mention Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog, which is what sent me to the restaurant in the first place. Muchas gracias, Gil.

6 days in NM: day 3 - yes, more food

First off, for those of you thinking that all I do is travel and eat, I'll have you know that I spent four hours yesterday afternoon at the Santa Fe Library, working away on a project for a client on deadline. Four hours - can you stand it?

Clearly, I needed sustenance after such a grueling day. We went to the highly recommended Cafe Pasqual's, which serves upscale Southwestern food. When will I learn that I never like places like this as much as I like places like Los Potrillos?

The place is quite funky, in that quirky way that some restaurants have that can seem a bit precious. But it's got a good vibe and friendly waitstaff, including our waiter, who turned out to be the wine buyer for the restaurant and was verging on giddy when I ordered a bottle off his list (a Lagaria riesling from Trentino that was absolutely wonderful) that clearly doesn't get a lot of action.

I started with hamachi ceviche that was perfectly fine, but not amazing. Then I had chard and zucchini enchiladas with red chile and cilantro rice; the chile was too bitter for me, the rice was kind of dry, and the filling was good but felt a bit eh.

It was a good, solid meal, in a nice spot, but - especially considering the price difference - I'll take Los Potrillos, thanks.

6 days in NM: day 3 - Reader, this is it

I know it's shocking, but I actually skipped breakfast on Friday, but for a very good reason: a mani/pedi at the Inn at Loretto, which was très swish. Afterwards, I took my poor food-deprived self to my new favorite restaurant on the planet, Los Potrillos.

It's a no-frills local spot - looks like a Dairy Queen or Pizza Hut that's been reconfigured with a horse theme, and with a menu that's light years away from DQ or the Hut. For lunch, I threw caution to the winds and ordered molcajete al pastor: chopped marinated pork grilled with pineapple and onion, and served in a molcajete (typically used to make guacamole) with tortillas, pineapple salsa, roasted hatch chile, and grilled green onions. The best word to describe this glorious concoction is tasty. I couldn't eat it fast enough, and I can't stop thinking about it.

I had horchata alongside and greedily ordered a second glass, which nearly did me in. FYI, too much horchata can be risky.

But did I stop there? Hmm? Of course not. I absolutely was compelled to try the tres leches cake, which, as you can see, was a hit.

I have to say, despite the extraordinary amount of food that I put away, I felt great afterwards.

Friday, August 21, 2009

6 days in New Mexico: day 2 - earlier that day...

I was so eager to relive my meal at Geronimo that I neglected to post about my afternoon. We went to the St Francis of Assisi cathedral, which had such a fascinating hodgepodge of iconography, from amazing primitive-style Stations of the Cross,

to altar paintings that looked almost like New England folk art,

to a Crucifixion scene above the confessionals that I bet scares people into some serious "Bless me Father for I have sinned" moments,

to a lurid plaster statue of Christ on the cross that I couldn't even bring myself to photograph (something about the wig really freaked me out).

We also went to the International Folk Art Museum, which has an incredible collection donated by Alexander Girard who, with his wife, traveled all over the world buying up every bit of folk art he could find. You can clearly see what inspired his own designs.

When we left the museum, the sky was doing this.

6 days in New Mexico: day 2 - dinner at Geronimo

My "research" for my New Mexico trip consisted of not much more than an hour on Chowhound and some Googling. Reading between the lines of the Chowhound entries (a skill I picked up compiling blurbs for the New York Zagat guide), I whittled the list of restaurants of interest to about 10 - a mix of local cheap eats and Plaza-area upscale places.

Geronimo was the first place I made a reservation. The menu looked interesting and smart (sort of Frenchie Japanese), and I read good things from a variety of sources. It's definitely on the pricey side, but well worth it.

We sat on the porch, which was charming, especially as it was a typically lovely night - cool and breezy. Our waiter was delighted to talk about wine and helped steer me to the Drouhin 06 chablis, which was a superstar. (I may have to do a post down the line about the various types of wine conversations I've had with waiters and sommeliers, which range from completely satisfying and successful, like last night's, to unbelievably rude and hostile, like the coked-out sommelier at Babbo who asked Nicole and me, "What's it going to take for you to make up your mind?")

Anyway, the food was wonderful - appetizers of seared hamachi with salad and sticky rice (in a nice theatrical move, the hamachi arrives plated and raw, and then the server pours boiling hot sesame oil over it from a Japanese tea kettle, carefully shielding you with a napkin to prevent lifelong disfigurement), and a pear and butter lettuce salad that had ridiculously delicious miniature grilled cheese sandwiches made with bleu d'Auvergne.

Entrees were green miso sea bass with house-made ramen noodles and a rich lobster and miso broth, and quail with polenta cakes and marcona almonds. Both were delish.

The restaurant has that nice reassuring feel of a place that's got it down - friendly but not goofy waitstaff, comfy chairs, good timing over the course of the meal, lots of filling-of-water-glasses and replacing-of-cutlery and so forth.

Dessert was not possible, as we were stuffed, though I did make room for a glass of 20-year-old tawny port. I was going to have dessert wine, but the waiter talked me out of it by making a very good point: most restaurants that offer dessert wine by the glass don't go through it quickly enough to ensure that you'll get a glass that's still vivid and bright. Good to know. To prove his point, he brought tastes of an ice wine and the Beringer Nightingale, and you know what? He was right: both were pretty close to simple syrup. And as you can tell from the pic, the tawny (on the left) was a hit.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

6 days in New Mexico: day 2 - why I can't live here

First of all, it's so dry here that I can feel new wrinkles digging into my face as we speak.

Second, I would eat breakfasts like this every day, and I would be big as a house. This morning at the Pantry in Santa Fe - a local spot with the friendliest waitstaff ever - I polished off a trencher of huevos rancheros with scrambled eggs, green chile and cheese, along with potatoes, pinto beans, and tortillas. And for good measure, I ordered a sopaipilla, because I love fried dough, and because it's served with a squeeze bottle of honey.

I can barely move.

6 days in New Mexico: day 1

OK, so it's not 25 days in Paris, but it's lovely and sunny here in Santa Fe, the Indian Market and the opera (La Traviata with Natalie Dessay!) are on the agenda for the weekend, along with a jaunt to Los Alamos, and let me just point out that the food options here are nothing to sneeze at.

Case in point: arrived yesterday afternoon in Albuquerque (a name that I can never say without a Bugs Bunny accent) and headed straight to Frontier, a 24-hour joint with outstanding Southwestern food. I had chicken enchilada with chopped green chile, served with a puffy fresh flour tortilla, along with a 32-ounce lemonade. I would show you a picture of all this deliciousness, but as readers of the Paris blog may remember, I often get so caught up in the excitement of the food arriving at the table that all thoughts of blogging and photographing fly right out the window.

However, I did manage to keep my wits about me last night, at an amazing meal at La Boca in Santa Fe. It's a tapas restaurant that definitely puts together some creative-but-not-ridiculous combinations, like the outstanding rare hanger steak with smoked sea salt caramel. You can't even imagine. We also had grilled baby artichokes with soft goat cheese, mint, and orange zest; perfect boquerones served with avocado (such a great pairing); canelones stuffed with crab and sea scallops and covered with a Manchego cream sauce; and a mushroom crostini with a fried egg that was just eh. Everything else was wonderful, including my dessert: fig-anise ice cream, which I ordered with a glass of rich, dark Pedro Ximenez that I promptly dumped over the ice cream in my own inspired moment of brilliant combination-making.

Even though we're only here for a few days, we may try to hit La Boca again, if only to try the paella, which was so gorgeous.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

slings and arrows

"...Buddhism teaches that it is not how much you know about yourself, it's how you relate to what you do know that makes a difference.... The common tendency, Buddhism teaches, is to use whatever is happening to reinforce a distinct feeling of self: to take everything very personally. The alternative, as discerned by the Buddha, is to hold that very feeling of self up for critical examination whenever it arises. How real is this feeling that drives us, which we ordinarily take so much for granted?"
- Mark Epstein, Psychotherapy Without the Self

I needed to call in all my fledgling Buddhist resources a couple weeks back, when I got pummeled by various commenters for a blog post that I never imagined would offend so. In my short but sweet blogging career (three months and counting), I've had a pretty charmed life; I'm perfectly aware that there are all sorts of people who love leaving nasty comments, or hyper-critical comments, or way-too-personal comments all over the web, yet I suppose it didn't occur to me that any of those comments would come my way. After all, it's not as if I'm writing about wise Latinas, or Skip Gates, or what I think should be done to Bill O'Reilly, or gay marriage (yay, Connecticut!), or any of those hot-button topics that get people so riled up.

At any rate, my (admittedly minor) brush with the Dark Side of the Internet turned out to be a (how you say?) teachable moment. As laughable as it might seem, I was stunned when the negative comments started rolling in, and my first instinct (as always, when faced with any sort of conflict) was "Retreat." In this case, I considered hiding the comments, or deleting the post, or shutting down the whole damn blog.

And from the very first criticism, I was plunged into self-doubt about the merits of the post. "I knew that post wasn't any good," I thought. "That was so stupid of me to put it up, just because I couldn't think of anything else. Stupid stupid STUPID. This whole blog is stupid. I'm totally making a fool of myself. I'm not doing this any more. I quit." Round and round it goes.

Back on Planet Earth... One of the aspects of my attempts to figure out who I am has been to examine how I react in difficult situations. As you can see, I tend to react very emotionally, right off the bat - typically with either self-righteous anger or panicky self-doubt, in each case usually followed by a definitive shutting down and shutting out. For the most part, I spend my life coasting along, fairly happy and stable, but it feels as if there's a black hole of panic and rage and fear right below me, into which I can plunge at any moment with only the tiniest of pushes.

It's helpful for me to remember that "emotional" is pretty much the opposite of "rational," so if I'm swamped by an intense and overwhelming emotional reaction, chances are I'm not going to be making the sharpest of decisions. So the goal is to try to step back in these situations, not do the first thing that pops into my mind (usually along the lines of "I'm going to kill him!" or "Get me out of here!"), and give myself a little space to observe and note and breathe. To practice mindfulness, as they say. Since I'm relatively new at this, it does sometimes take a while for me to find the zone - in the case of the blog attack, it took a couple days to get to any kind of rational territory, where I could think, "Shockingly, not everyone is going to like everything I write," or "It's possible that the post wasn't so great, but I imagine I'll survive," or "Well, not bad: I wrote something that actually provoked a bit of a debate." (I'm omitting the stage between the panic and the calm - the seething-with-rage stage - in which I came up with all sorts of snarky responses to the commenters, most based on the observation that I was being slammed for being mean and judgmental and not-funny, by a series of commenters who were really mean and judgmental and not-funny. Fortunately, some tiny voice of sanity told me to hold off on reacting until I had calmed down, at which point I left it alone. I admit that I did toss one comment into the trash, but, honestly, it was just so crass and ugly, and I did leave all the other ones up, and, after all, it's my blog. Mine.)

It's all a tempest in a teapot, I know, but the hope is that, by practicing mindfulness in these everyday contretemps, I'll be better prepared to handle the big stuff when it comes. As it so inevitably does.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

soul food, the conclusion

I could be in the worst mood ever, and a good musical does just what it advertises: takes all my cares away. Putting together this list of my top-twenty movie musical numbers has given me quite a few hours of glee as I troll around YouTube, or debate with myself over just which Judy number is my fave, or pull yet another entry from the dim corners of my memory (which seems to be much better at retrieving song-and-dance numbers than it is at remembering people from my past including, I must sheepishly admit, old boyfriends), or plunk myself down in front of the telly to watch a Fred-and-Ginger classic for the umpteenth time.

I definitely cheated with this half of the list by including lots of runners-up, especially for my most beloved performers. Still, a few numbers didn't make my list, either for lack of space, or because of memory lapse: Jonathan points out that there's no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I neglected Dirty Dancing (how could I forget!), and then there's Rita Hayworth delivering "Put the Blame on Mame" from Gilda. James Wolcott puts in a plea for Ryan and Sharpay's number in High School Musical 3, but I admit to having never seen this undoubted masterpiece of (amateur) stage and screen, so I'll have to take his word for it.

Enough already with my eternal second-guessing. Here are my top ten.

10. "Rich Man's Frug," Sweet Charity

A fantastic number from a mediocre mess of a movie. Shirley MacLaine is, of course, charming, but the movie is just all over the place. But the "Rich Man's Frug"! Fosse packs so much whiz-bang choreography into this three-parter that your jaw just drops at the sheer inventiveness. Suzanne Charney (the lead dancer) does the most amazing things with her arms, and Ben Vereen struts his stuff in "The Big Finish." The first time I saw this movie, I made my friend Alex teach me "The Aloof," cigarettes included. Almost makes me want to start smoking again.

9. "Be Our Guest," Beauty and the Beast

I'm sorry, but it's true: This is one of the great movie musical numbers of all time. The sly homages (most obviously to Busby Berkeley and Fantasia), the wonderful tune (one of the last from Howard Ashman), the clever and charming lyrics (I particularly like "Life is so unnerving to a servant who's not serving"), and the late great Jerry Orbach, doing a delicious Frahnch accent - who can resist?

8. "Cabaret," Cabaret

Liza! I decided Liza with a Z didn't count as a movie musical, since it's really a concert; otherwise, "Bye Bye Blackbird" would have been very high on my list. But "Cabaret" - or, really, any of the numbers from this movie ("Money," "Wilkommen," "Maybe This Time") - is more than qualified to be here. In her Broadway show last year, Liza of course sang "Cabaret," with one small but significant change in the lyrics: "I made my mind up back in Chelsea / When I go, I'm not going like Elsie." From your mouth to God's ear, Liza.

7. "I Like Myself," It's Always Fair Weather

My choice for the obligatory Gene Kelly entry. Of course, one's first thought goes to "Singin' in the Rain," but maybe because I can't roller-skate to save my life, this is the number that leaves me gaping. (And wouldn't it be nice if the streets and sidewalks of New York were actually this smooth and clean?) Gene looks so handsome in his Fifties boxy black suit, skinny tie, and snappy fedora. Plus, he's got a mean arabesque.

6. "Barn Dance," Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

I love this movie: the fabulous Johnny Mercer lyrics, the thrillingly charismatic Howard Keel, and Michael Kidd's genius choreography - along with the very young Russ Tamblyn (blue) and Jacques d'Amboise (green) as two of the seven brothers. "Barn Dance" is by far my favorite number in the film; Kidd creates a believable dance vernacular for these frontier folk, and also tosses in some great stunts and acrobatics for the boys.

5. "Finale (Love Is in the Air)," Strictly Ballroom

Take that, Barry Fife. No one can stop Scott Hastings when he's decided to do his own steps at the Pan-Pacific Championships. I challenge anyone - except maybe Evil Warlords like Kim Jong Il and Dick Cheney - to resist the urge to dance once "Love Is in the Air" takes over. I admit, I get a bit teary at this point.

4. "The Lady is a Tramp," Pal Joey

A stunning number from a not-so-stunning movie. Note the gorgeous framing of the shots of Frank with the band in the background, and note the lit cigarette resting on the side of Frank's piano - so cool! No wonder I smoked for years. I'm a lifelong Frank Sinatra fan, especially this period (late 1950s); he was still a cute skinny guy from Jersey, but had developed one of the great swinging styles of any musician, ever, and hadn't yet started his Vegas-era self-parody. Another beloved Frank number is High Society's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," a duet with the incomparable Celeste Holm, who, in my opinion, is far more appealing in this movie than Grace Kelly, who lands with a thud.

3. "The Man that Got Away," A Star Is Born

Judy, of course. Where to start, really - "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis? "Get Happy," from Summer Stock? "After You've Gone," from For Me and My Gal (oh, her face in that close-up! heart-breaking!)? "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," from You Know What? I chose this one, because it's a killer song, because Judy radiates confidence and joy, because she was at the top of her game, and because it swings.

2. "Small House of Uncle Thomas," The King and I

If anyone has any doubt that Jerry Robbins was a theatrical genius, please, go buy this DVD today (I couldn't find it online, malheureusement, but I can lend it to you), and watch this number. Buddha make a miracle! Praise to Buddha. Further proof of Jerry's genius, in this same movie, is "Shall We Dance," with the lovely Deborah Kerr and seductive Yul Brynner dancing (and Marni Nixon singing, BTW). There aren't any other Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals on my list, not because I don't adore these musicals (hello! Oklahoma? Carousel?), but because the movie versions are typically pretty insipid. I admit that I probably would have included South Pacific if it weren't for the fact that I saw the Broadway revival last year, and it has simply erased all previous versions from my mind.

1. "Pick Yourself Up," Swing Time

I could easily have made my entire top-twenty list out of Fred Astaire numbers, but if I had to limit myself to just one, it would be this one, from my fave Fred and Ginger. You've got a perfect Jerome Kern song, you've got Fred at first pretending to be a bad dancer, in the way that only the best dancers can do, you've got Ginger doing her best jaded gal act in the beginning, and then you've got the perfect symbiosis of two lovely, tap-tapping dancers, in the smoothest, most delightful choreography imaginable. Plus there's the back-up team of Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, and Eric Blore - a '30s comedy trifecta.

Then again, I just re-re-re-rewatched Top Hat, and "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" bowled me over; Ginger looks so jaunty in her riding togs. And then, from the same film, there's "No Strings" (where Fred dances Edward Everett Horton, Ginger, and his own self to sleep) and "Cheek to Cheek." I admit that I also love "Bojangles of Harlem" in Swing Time, despite the (I know, I know) blackface. Other Fred runner-ups for me are "I'm Old Fashioned" from You Were Never Lovelier; perhaps the only golf-inspired dance number in film history, "Since They Turned Loch Lomand Into Swing," from the bizarre Carefree; "A Shine on Your Shoes" and "Girl Hunt Ballet" from Band Wagon... Oh, who am I kidding: If Fred danced it, I loved it.

That's all, folks. Hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into what makes me get happy.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

soul food, part one

Okay, then! It never occurred to me that some readers would get so riled up about a couple of innocuous stories about me fighting the good fight against the forces of evil (aka selfish, self-obsessed people who think either they're important enough to hold up all their fellow subway passengers and then bully someone smaller than themselves, or that their "faux friendliness" [thanks to I Am Not Star Jones for her comment, which gave me this phrase] is just what an overworked, underpaid immigrant worker needs to turn her day around and that it's perfectly acceptable to be deliberately rude about someone's home). So in the interest of turning the page to a bright, cheery subject, I thought I would put together a list of my favorite movie musical numbers.

Notice that I did not say "the best movie musical numbers." This is my highly subjective list, though I did spend some time thinking about parameters. To me, a musical number in a movie is just that: a scene that involves the characters singing or dancing or, preferably, both, without much dialogue - the scene must be structured around the music (though for some reason, it didn't seem right to include ballet numbers; I'm not sure why, but this accounts for there being no mention of The Red Shoes here, when it's possibly my all-time favorite movie). This definition is broad enough that I can include a couple no-dancing numbers, and a couple no-singing numbers. Also, the movie itself doesn't have to be great, but the number must be, and it can't just be that it's a great song, or a great dancer - it has to just bowl you over altogether.

The fatal flaw in my list is that I limited myself to one entry per star (and per movie), otherwise the list might have ended up all Fred, or all Judy. To appease myself and the musical gods, I've included honorable mentions with some of the entries (couldn't help myself, really).

I originally was going to have a list of 10, but that dream went all to pieces in a matter of moments, so I've put together a list of 20, which I'll post in two parts. I've included clips throughout, but as we all know, online clips have a tendency to disappear; if one of the links is a dud, please forgive me, and let me know.

There's a lot of entertainment below, so get yourself a cup of cocoa, and settle in. Without further adoooooo, in very rough (verging on arbitrary) ascending order:

20. "You Can't Stop the Beat," Hairspray

John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, first burning Velma Von Tussle, followed by his astonishing Tina Turner imitation... nevermind James Marsden's fab moves (put to better use in "The Nicest Kids in Town" - I'm still trying to master that funkiness) and Queen Latifah's big moment... The movie isn't perfect, by any means, but this number is a winner.

19. "I'd Do Anything," Oliver!

The songs in this movie are so damn catchy: "Food, Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself," "Who Will Buy," "Be Back Soon." Any one could have been on my list, but I chose this one because it features both Jack Wild (the Artful Dodger) and Ron Moody (Fagin), as well as the angelic-looking and angelic-sounding Mark Lester as little Oliver.

18. "I'm Going Back," Bells Are Ringing

Judy Holliday, comedic genius. Her timing, her expressions, her movement - and that voice. My favorite Judy Holliday moment is the beginning of Born Yesterday, when she's onscreen for three minutes, looking rather sleek and sophisticated, before delivering her first line, a pure Brooklyn "Whaaaaaat!" However, except for a little humming and sashaying, she's not working her musical chops in Born Yesterday, so instead, we have this eleventh-hour number from the Styne/Comden/Green delight.

17. "Adelaide's Lament," Guys and Dolls

Everyone always moans that this movie is so miscast. Meanwhile, I think both Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Skye Masterson are completely charming and natural, and Marlon even pulls off his big number ("Luck Be a Lady") with a lot of style. But even so, they can't top Vivian Blaine (another brassy broad, like Judy Holliday) as Miss Adelaide, doing a little pop psychology (courtesy Frank Loesser) to figure out why she and Nathan aren't yet married, after their 14-year engagement. The accent alone... and the medicine cabinet... (Note that in this clip - the only one I could find - the song doesn't start till about seven minutes in.)

16. "Ain't It the Truth," Cabin in the Sky / That's Entertainment III

In one of the great editing room blunders of the twentieth century, Lena Horne's bubble bath number was cut from Cabin in the Sky for being too risque. The fact that this amazingly talented performer was in fewer than ten movies is also a sin. I couldn't find a video of this number anywhere, but if That's Entertainment III is going to be on TCM or PBS, set your DVR, and enjoy.

15. "Down Argentine Way," Down Argentine Way

Speaking of underused performers... There's not much footage available that shows off the amazing talent of the Nicholas Brothers, but they do have this great number in a mediocre film. Their tap style is so completely theirs, and so thrilling - makes me feel lucky that some studio guy somewhere had the brilliant idea to include this number, and then the wisdom not to cut it in post-production.

14. "Think Pink," Funny Face

This number is a camp classic, with the Alexey Brodovitch-inspired fashion spreads, the legion of Quality Magazine editors in their Dior and Givenchy ensembles, and Kay herself, in an obvious homage to / parody of Diana Vreeland. Kay Thompson: Not only does she go and write one of the best "children's books" ever (Eloise), but she was a cabaret phenomenon as well; no wonder Liza Minnelli decided to do an entire show last year as a tribute to Kay (her godmother). This is old school show-biz star power. Watch and learn.

13. "With a Little Bit of Luck," My Fair Lady

I was tempted by the "Ascot Gavotte," as I love that song's blaséness (not to mention the over-the-topness of the Cecil Beaton costumes) and often quote the line "I have never been so keyed up," but Stanley Holloway is just too irresistible here. Like Kay Thompson, he's a pro, and attention must be paid. Also, considering my current career status ("funemployment"), I support the song's general philosophy toward the idea of work, introduced by Alfred P. Doolittle with this keeper of a line: "I used to that sort of thing once, just for exercise. Not worth it - takes up your whole day!"

12. "Ya Got Trouble," The Music Man

There are a lot of problems with this movie, namely Shirley Jones (the woman managed to suck the life out of the movie versions of some best musicals of our time), Buddy Hackett, "Ronny" Howard with an irritating lisp, and "Shipoopi." But then there's Robert Preston (also irresistible in Victor Victoria). Try to watch this one without smiling like a fool.

11. "Dance at the Gym," West Side Story

Of all the theatrical choreographers, Jerry Robbins is the one who most consistently thrills me. I could (and do) watch his work over and over and over again. Pauline Kael, in one of the great mis-hits of her career, called the choreography "simpering, sickly romantic ballet." Oh, come on. "Dance at the Gym" simpering? I don't think so. (Meanwhile, the woman goes on and on about Singin' in the Rain, which, I'm sorry, is all toothpaste and Technicolor.) And it's not the only fabulous set piece in the film: there's the opening sequence, and "America," and "Gee, Officer Krupke," and "Cool." And George Chakiris... he blows poor bland Richard Beymer out of the water in both the charisma and dancing categories. Then there's Russ Tamblyn, and Rita Morena.... *sigh*

This is a truly complex and character-revealing number, all told: the competition between the Jets and the Sharks at the dance (MC'ed by sad-sack John Astin as Glad Hand), where Bernardo and Riff and the rest are heart-breakingly alive and joyful, and then the dream sequence, when Tony and Maria first meet. I'm a sucker for the way real life comes back into focus at the end, intruding on Tony and Maria's somewhere.

{Coming up next: my top ten! Can you stand it?}