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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spike Lee vs. Madea

If you find it impossible to keep track of all of the celebrity feuds, let me draw your attention to one that's gained my attention - that between director Spike Lee and Madea, actually the creative spirit behind Madea, actor/director/empire builder Tyler Perry. Spike Lee has accused Tyler Perry of peddling the worst in racist stereotypes of African American culture, calling Perry's Madea movies tantamount to the old "Amos and Andy" routines. And at a recent press conference to promote the latest installment of Madea's misadventures, when asked about the criticisms leveled against him by Lee, Perry answered, "Spike can go straight to hell!!" Not the level of discourse you'd expect from a man who has Oprah on speed dial!

The war of words between the two directors has placed many people on the fence. As the box office receipts tell it, audiences have a soft spot for Tyler Perry's movies. His films have grossed half a billion dollars, a testament to the loyal, mostly African American audience who flock to his films. But while Perry spins hard knocks inside of sentimental sweetness, Spike Lee has always been more art-house in his approach to the dilemmas of everyday existence for African Americans. Perry will give you a lump in your throat, but Lee will give you a bump on your head. Tyler Perry writes in the language of R&B, while Lee gives you a symphonic tone poem fused with Charlie Mingus.

I grew up watching Spike Lee's films. They were events and my generation remembers the day that we waited in line to see Do the Right Thing, School Daze, and Jungle Fever. His films made us angry, yes, but they also made us think about race in a way that was different from how our parents thought of it. He managed to make poetry out of the violence and frustration of a generation. When you left the theater after a Spike Lee movie, you felt introspective and reflective. There was no happy Hollywood ending, there was only the beginning of a new day. We'd spend hours in the dorms dissecting his films, looking for the moral and ethical threads that tied the characters together, and confronting the myriad ambiguities that Lee seemed to throw in our path at every turn.

I first learned about Tyler Perry at the hair salon when someone popped in a bootlegged performance of one of his stage plays (back in the days before camera phones and YouTube, the bootlegged concert tape was how things went viral!). The whole shop erupted in squeals of laughter and "oh no he didn'ts".  Tuning in to Black radio stations, I'd hear the commercials blaring the upcoming performances of the latest Tyler Perry production, but I was resistant to his charms. I held out until 2001 when Diary of a Mad Black Woman hit theaters and my mother insisted that I see it with her, my sister, and the aunties. It was the craziest roller coaster I'd ever ridden, from a pot-smoking, gun-toting, mumu-wearing six-feet-tall transvestite named Madea to the final scene ripped straight out of An Officer and a Gentleman, with the Richard Gere character swapped out for the hunky Shemar Moore. I was hooked - but I had to keep my affections on the down-low.

Both of these men tell the truth about the African American experience because there isn't just one Black experience. If the British, with their nobility, can still make room for the low-budget sci-fi world of Doctor Who and the dirty-minded slapstick of Benny Hill, then why can't I have my Spike Lee and my Tyler Perry? If the French, with their haute couture and haute cuisine can barely suppress a chuckle when confronted with the antics of Jerry Lewis, then why can't I have a little Brooklyn and the ATL?? And if Utah's biggest export of Donnie and Marie can be both a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll, then I declare that both Mr. Lee and Mr. Perry have dual citizenship in my heart and head. There - case closed! I'm just saying:)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Passages: Goodbye, "All My Children"

This week, ABC made major headlines with the announcement of the cancellation of 2 of its longest running daytime soaps - "All My Children" and "One Life to Live". ABC's not the first of the networks to shed its daytime line-up of the decades-old soap opera. In the past few years, NBC has taken the knife to its daytime dramatic series, and CBS has cancelled both "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns." Now, instead of "love in the afternoon", daytime viewers can choose from roundtable current events gab-fests fronted by minor celebrities, pseudo-health information talk shows where one can see moles removed (and, yes, that DID happen), or cooking shows. Well, as a lover of the daytime soap opera I say ENOUGH!!

As my tone might suggest, I am a longtime fan of the soap opera, having spent my childhood watching the antics of Kay Chancellor and Alan Spaulding (from CBS' "Young and the Restless" and "Guiding Light" respectively) with my Grandmother. Grandma would always talk about her "shows", as she called them, and every week day, from 12:30pm until 4:00pm, the TV in the family room belonged to Grandma. During her "shows", she didn't answer the telephone, and you dared not speak to her. She'd knit or crochet during her shows, and over the years, her output of hats, scarves, and blankets was phenomenal, a testament to her many hours spent watching the misadventures of the citizens of the mythical towns of Genoa City, Oakdale, and Springfield.

By the time I got to college, my life revolved around the real-world drama of campus life, and I didn't have time for the make-believe world of soap operas. But it would be my Grandma who would bring me back to soap operas. Grandma was sick and not getting better. When she ultimately succumbed, it was the soap operas that started to bring me out of my haze of grief. I remembered our happy memories, watching our "shows", and I'd smile and I'd laugh.

I know that the clock is ticking on my "shows", and that someday soon, CBS will lower the boom on its last two soaps. So for now, I'll revel in the implausible story lines, the over-wrought acting, and the seemingly ageless stars who portray these forever broken characters. I'll delight in the baby switches, the evil twin plots, the disembodied announcer's voiceover telling the viewer the name of the new actor now portraying your favorite character. I'll jump for joy over the bed hopping, secret trysts, and convoluted family trees. You see, theirs is a make-believe world, the "Barnum and Bailey world" sung about in old standards, and, as every child knows, it's fun to play make-believe. Never in my childhood did I fear that a baddie like the fictional Victor Newman would cross from the picture tube and into my living room in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" fashion. But, I tell you this, I'm more fearful of the armies of NeNe's and other wannabes modeling themselves on the badly-behaved stars of reality TV. I'm just saying:)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Day He Put a Ring on It:)

My left hand and I have had an extraordinary relationship over the years. When I would hang out with my grandmother, she'd let me play in her jewelry box and I'd adorn every finger of my left hand with one of many rings - some real, some costume. I felt like a little Lana Turner with my bejeweled and elegant hands, but instead of holding a glass of scotch or a champagne flute, my little hands would artfully grip a plastic tumbler filled to the brim with apple juice. As I grew older, so did my left hand and her maturing taste left no room for mere baubles. This sartorial shift coincided with some major events in my life - teenage birthdays, high school graduations, etc. - and gifts of gold and pearls and diamonds from Mom and Dad, and Grandma.

In college, though, silver had become all of the rage, along with grungy flannel, jeans with intentional holes at the knees, and a hippy-chic that put a permanent stench of musk oil and hemp in the halls of the campus dorms. Caravans of merchants descended on my college campus, filling the campus center with their cheap treasures, and soon, my left hand was overloaded with silver trinkets, channeling a latter day Stevie Nicks and her gypsy toughness.

In the years after school, my left hand told the stories of my life, from first big job (gold signet class ring), to evenings out with my girlfriends (silver black onyx ring), to symphony orchestra concerts (gold dome ring), and first dates (chunky polished silver band paired with silver garnet ring). I changed my rings as I changed my moods, until, one day 10 years ago, I was given a ring unlike any other I'd had before. By now, you must have guessed that this was an engagement ring, and this week I and the man who gave me that ring will celebrate that day, and all of the days since. If the stories of my life can be told by my left hand, then the story is a love story. I may not be able to dance in a onesie, a la Beyonce, but I'm so glad he put a ring on it:) I'm just saying!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Single in the Suburbs??

Recently, a single friend of mine hinted that she might be looking to relocate to the Washington, DC area. When I asked her where she was thinking of settling, she said she didn't know yet, but, she did know that she'd be living downtown in DC, and not in one of the Maryland or Northern Virginia suburbs. I asked her why, and she said that as a single person, there just wasn't much for her out in the 'burbs. I didn't have the heart to tell her that as a married person, there's not much out here for us, either!

Don't get me wrong, I mean I love all of that open parking, large closet space, and lower taxes, but if I as a married person find suburban living to be a bit confining and isolated, then how must it be to be single in the suburbs? Let's be frank, the suburbs were set up to be places where one slept before having to go back to the city to work the next day. Their mission was clean, affordable housing for families, with a backyard for everyone. Social networks were formed through your children and the activities that brought them into contact with your neighbors' children. Fast forward to 2011 and while there have been noticeable upgrades in the suburban experience, the family still remains the locus for most social networks.

Recently, some of my single suburban friends have described to me the perils of life in the cul-de-sac. From having to "work it" at the supermarket or the lame bar at the Uno's Pizzeria in order to find the man or the woman of their dreams. My single women friends have told me of the frustrations of feeling somewhere between ostracized and pitied in their family-friendly neighborhoods, of getting the stink-eye from the soccer mom when she catches soccer dad showing more interest than he should in the single female neighbor.

And if you think that living single in the suburbs is hard, dating single in the suburbs is even more of a challenge. Long before their more urban brothers and sisters turned to online dating and made it hip to log-on for love, singles in the suburbs were trading in their tired happy hours for a computer and a WI-FI spot. Why? Because the suburbs are the least friendly place on earth for adult singles. The families who inhabit the suburbs have a social radius that tracks their children's activities and interests - that means their social circle includes their children's friends, and the parents of those friends, as well as those they meet at their child's school and church. If you're a single adult with no direct connection to these families, then there's simply no room for you. To make matters worse, suburban singles are usually in the suburbs due to proximity to work, and so they become workaholics, thereby not only sealing their single fate, but seriously curtailing their ability to enjoy life, in general.

So what to do?? Well, you know I'm going to suggest moving to the city. City life is not going to instantly get you a mate - I'd be lying if I said that. So why the affection for the city?? There's simply more to do. City life doesn't revolve around family life. There's no Red Robin or Chuck E. Cheese downtown, and the big cultural highlight on a Friday night isn't the pan flute trio and face-painters at the parking lot of the Panera Bread. There are a greater depth and breadth of things to do in the city, and if you want to be happy and be single, variety is the stuff of life.

Of course, I have to acknowledge that for a lot of my single friends, the city is out of the question - because of cost or commute times. So, here are a few survival strategies that I've heard from some of my more happy suburban single friends:

  1. Vacation, not stay-cation: If you have vacation time, then use it to go somewhere cool. Travel with your BFFs from grad school to the Bahamas or take a solo safari and see the riches and beauty of Africa. In short, don't wait to see the world until you've found Mr. or Mrs. Right - go forth and earn those travel miles and redeem them for an iPad!
  2. Saturday morning. Supermarket. Be There: Want to know the marital bliss that you're missing out on? Just travel to the supermarket on Saturday morning and I guarantee that you'll be glad that you're single!! 
  3. Daytripping: Just because you don't live in the city, it doesn't mean that you can't visit for fun, does it? So get that passport stamped, and bring enough change for the parking meter, and hang out downtown. Find a great outdoor cafe and bring a book, or, better yet, browse for a book at a funky city bookstore - extra points if it sells used books and coffee!
  4. Don't get a dog: It's tempting to get the dog. They're great company, and you can meet people when you walk the dog. But, here's the deal - you're living in the suburbs so you know who you're meeting while you're out walking your dog?? People who are not single!!! You also have a million and one reasons to cut short your wonderful evening in the city so that you can get home before Pete the Dog has a piddle party on your living room rug. Need a pet?? Get a cat if you need one!
  5. Throw a party at your home: Invite your single and mated friends over to your pad and get your host on!! Why should the married folks have all of the fun of people eating their food and drinking their booze? OK, that sounded more bitter than I'd intended, but hear me out. Wanting to show your friends hospitality is only natural, so do it. You've got all of that space and free parking, so why not put it to good use? 
  6. Don't forget the flirt: One of the problems with online dating is that it can quickly become all about getting a result (a date, a ring, a station wagon filled with adorable kiddies), so don't forget the skills that Mother Nature gave you!! The art of flirting is one of the best things in life, so don't forget how it's done and when to do it (e.g. not with the soccer dads).
 So for all of my suburban singles, I wish you a life that is full of good friends and good times. See you at the Applebee's - I'm just saying:)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Cleaning House: How a Hoover and some Lysol Brought Me Back to Sanity

I'm typing this post with achy arms, a sore back, and a sense of satisfaction because yesterday I cleared my calendar and took the day off from work to clean my house. I know, it sounds crazy and a bit backwards to hear a woman praising her domestic side, but I'm not writing this as a woman craving to bring back the days of "Leave it to Beaver" and the high-heeled pump posse who vacuumed the living rooms of yester-year, rather, I'm writing this as a human being who finally had it up to here with my mess. The catalyst for this wasn't a specific event, nor was it the result of a marathon viewing of "Hoarders" or "Clean House." It was, instead, a call to order the disorder that's surrounded me.

For the record, I've always liked certain aspects of the housecleaning experience. Dusting the furniture was always cool because of the shine and the lemony scent of the wood polish that was left behind. The best was walking back into the house and getting two nostrils full of Lemon Pledge - it was like all was right with the world. I took to mopping for the same reason because who doesn't dig the fresh clean scent of Lysol. Growing up, Saturdays were devoted to Mom, my sister and I cleaning the house. Out would come the bag of dust rags - mostly old t-shirts - the vacuum (in which I once caught my dead dog Tory's tail - go figure!), the brooms, dustpans, mop and bucket, trash bags, and all of the liquids and polishes needed for the tasks at hand. We would pick our desired area of dust-busting and hop to it, with the Metropolitan Opera broadcast blaring on the stereo. A few hours later, our work complete, we'd head out for some fun, and, returning home, we'd be greeted by the smell of clean.

Cleaning the house wasn't a political act when I was growing up, but it easily could have been. My maternal grandmother earned her living cleaning the houses of others, and my paternal grandmother was still cleaning office buildings well into her 70s. For these two women, cleaning for money was what they had to do for their families' survival, but there was also personal pride and peace of mind in keeping their own homes spotless.

By the time I got to college, though, a clean house was the last thing on my mind. I blithely made piles on top of piles, creating a mighty tower of shirts, skirts, and pants that was architecturally impressive but structurally unsound. When my parents visited me on campus, the state of my room was tops in all of our discussions. Fueled by the feminist thinkers who demanded an end to the rituals of cooking and cleaning that had imprisoned women, I made my mess my mission.

My rebellion continued through graduate school, and, by then, I was joined by several of my girlfriends, all of us questioning the value of Windex in our post-grad lives, but already cracks were beginning to show in my hardened stance. In an effort to reduce parent-child tensions, I'd taken to cramming my clothing piles into a bedroom closet whenever Mom and Dad visited. After they'd leave, though, I started to notice the extra square footage and I liked what I saw. Soon, I started thinking of making my temporary solution a permanent state.

Bit by bit, I made my way back to a clean house, until I got married. It seems that somehow, through some freak hiccup in the Matrix, I, a former maker of piles, had inadvertently fallen in love with a serial stacker. Backsliding was inevitable, and epic. My husband suggested getting a maid, but I resisted, and not because I like my mess, and not because I had come to believe that it was my duty as the lady of the house to clean. No, I resisted because getting into the habit of having someone else clean up the mess that I've made is a dangerous habit. It can produce a thoughtlessness, an unconcern for the consequences of my actions.

We give children chores because it teaches them responsibility and shows them the value of contributing to group living, but as adults we shirk these duties. In the nuclear family, it's the woman who cleans while the men folk and the children make the mess. I have lots of friends who, in order to keep their sanity, happily fork over money for a cleaning lady. They figure it's better than the argument they'd have with their husbands. And maybe they're right, but it still doesn't solve the underlying problem of the mess that your mess leaves behind.

Which brings me to my clean-a-thon the other day. When I finished cleaning, I walked from room to room, inspecting my progress and I felt calm. My mind wasn't racing, I was relaxed and I cracked open a book. My physical connection with my space had resulted in peace of mind. I could smell the Lysol and the memories of my childhood, and I was home:) I'm just saying.

Friday, April 8, 2011

An 18th Birthday To Do List

When my God son turned 18, I started to remember my own 18th birthday.  On my 18th birthday, the most thrilling thing I did was register to vote. That may sound boring, but for a kid born with Potomac Fever, I was majorly happy. I felt like I knew it all, although I had seen nothing. But after waiting so long to be 18, I also found myself asking, "so now what?" There were so many questions that I had, then, about life and the world, and my life in the world. Looking back, I wish that someone would have given me some rules for living, so here are my 18 Things that every 18 years old should know:

  1. Always say please and thank-you, no matter how cranky you are, no matter how bad of a day you're having, and no matter whether or not the recipient of your good manners is deserving.
  2. Always have a camera with you and take photos of the places you go and the people you meet because one day those experiences will be fuzzy memories.
  3. Keep your mouth shut about your romantic entanglements. True intimacy is built on trust so zip those lips!
  4. Volunteer! Even with a full college course load, and fraternity parties and intramural football games, don't forget to give your time and energy to those in need. It will remind you that it's not always all about you.
  5. Call your mom and dad just to ask how their day is. That means no asking for money for that spring break trip to Cabo or more gas money.
  6. Treat the friends that you've made and the friends you will make as if they will be your friends for life.
  7. Read one book a month that has nothing to do with your studies and listen to music that you've never heard of  - these things will stretch your mind.
  8. Travel, travel, travel, while you're single and free because it's much harder to do when you're married with children and mortgage and job!
  9. If your friends are headed down a wrong or dangerous path, tell them. They may be angry with you and give you the silent treatment for a while, but they'll also know that you love them enough to be honest and that's the true mark of friendship.
  10. Learn to waltz - it'll come in handy when you least expect it!
  11. If a relationship with a girl, or a friend or a school or a job is making you miserable, and talking it out doesn't help, then don't be afraid to leave. Sometimes it takes more courage to walk away from a bad situation than to hold your nose and remain.
  12. Take naps!
  13. Always keep a $20 bill - you never know when you'll need it for cab fare, gas, or a meal.
  14. If you don't understand something, then speak up and ask a question. Don't let your pride or embarrassment prevent you from learning.
  15. Attend as many family events as you're able - baptisms, weddings, birthday parties - because this is how you will deepen your connection to your family.
  16. Don't watch so much TV or spend too much time on Facebook or Twitter or whatever the social media flavor of the month! Go out and live life instead of observing it from the safety of your sofa.
  17. Make frequent visits to your school's career counseling center and make a plan for life after undergrad.
  18. Say what you mean. It might make your life harder in the short term, but it will also make your life richer in the long term.
There you have it!  I'm Just Saying:)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Top Chef: The Grandma Edition

This week, we saw the end of another season of Bravo's Top Chef, with a new Celebrity Chef wannabe crowned as winner. The romance of the chef lives on, and on and on. It's a world of foul-mouthed, tatted-up boys unleashing their vast mental stores of culinary whoop-ass on each other. There's trash-talk, moments of self-doubt, and triumphant, tasty brilliance. I've seen the chef-testants (Bravo's word, not mine) make a dish from the contents of the lowly vending machine. I've seen them fashion potatoes into pasta, and magic fois gras hamburgers. But for all of their creativity and ingenuity, the best Top Chef I've ever known was my Grandmother.

Grandma was a visionary. Long before we started praising those daring French chefs and their use of organ meats, Grandma was serving up her own Southern-fried charcuterie - basically, whatever was on sale at the grocery store that week. The dish made its debut at the Sunday family dinner. If there was a sale on whole chickens, then chicken it was for Sunday and chicken it would be for the rest of the week!

Sunday - chicken, mashed potatoes, and vegetables
Monday - chicken and potato pancakes (made from Sunday's mashed potatoes)
Tuesday - chicken and dumplings served with Sunday's vegetables
Wednesday - chicken soup with biscuits
Thursday - chicken casserole
Friday - No chicken (Grandma was a pre-Vatican II RC, so no meat on Fridays, ever!!!)

My sweet little grandmother managed to do all of this in her floral, zippered house dress and scuffs, instead of chef's whites and expensive clogs. Instead of bravado, she served up daily brilliance with a smile and we were all well fed and happy. She didn't "stage" with the likes of Eric Ripert, but she learned her killer culinary techniques from some of the best cooks she knew: from her sister, Alice, she learned the art of the bundt cake. From her sister, Hilda, she learned how to make the best sheet cake I've ever tasted. From her sister, Lucille, she learned to make the fluffiest and most buttery dinner roll on this earth. And from her mom, she learned everything else. In her younger days, she had been a line cook, actually the cook, for my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen's small luncheonette. She'd occasionally work there when I was a little girl, and during my summers, I'd accompany her there and watch her in action.

Having never attended The Culinary Institute of America, my grandmother learned by holding her feet to the fire, or should it be the meat to the fire (I know, bad pun! Bad pun!!). She may not have been able to tell you what a brunoise (food cut into a very fine chop) is, but she had the technique to execute it.  Her only kitchen knife, which she used for cutting vegetables and butchering meat, wasn't anything you'll see in a Williams-Sonoma catalogue.

As for food and wine pairings, well just forget that. My grandmother only liked one wine and it was Manischewitz (with one ice cube added). Even now, when I have a bit of port after dinner, I think of Grandma with her juice glass of Manischewitz, and the sound of the lone ice cube clattering to the bottom of the glass as she finished. And so here's a toast to you, Grandma, for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner that you cooked with your own hands just for me. Yelp and Zagat's may have overlooked you, but you have 3 Michelin stars in my heart - I'm just saying:)