Tuesday, December 29, 2009

San Francisco, We Finally Meet

I'm 41-years-old. It has taken me a long time to visit San Francisco. Well, I'm in San Francisco right now as I type. I'm here for the first time. San Francisco, we finally meet.

It had become a running joke with some of my friends, the fact that I had not yet been to San Francisco. After all, I am known for being a traveler. I've been to 20 foreign countries. True, it's not 100, but it's more than the average person has visited. And in these countries, I've usually visited multiple cities.

For example, in Holland, I didn't just go to Amsterdam, as most tourists do. I also went to Rotterdam, Delft, Utrecht, The Hague, Dordrecht, Haarlem, Gouda, Leiden and Kinderdijk. In Spain, I didn't just go to Madrid and Barcelona. I also went to Segovia, Toledo, Alicante, Malaga, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Caceres, Zaragoza, Avila, Salamanca, Burgos, Valladolid, Santander, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Girona, Sitges and Montserrat. And don't even get me started on Italy. In Italy, I even went to Fanna. FANNA. Have you ever heard of Fanna? Well, neither have most Italians-- not even those who live in the northeast, where Fanna is secretly located.

Si signori, I had been to Fanna, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Ljubljana, Slovenia, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Bucharest, Romania, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Haifa, Israel, but not to San Francisco. I had been to Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, but not to San Francisco... My friends were really giving me a hard time about this, especially after I had gone four years living in Los Angeles, neglecting to visit San Francisco (in favor of San Diego and Las Vegas).

Last year on vacation, did I go from L.A. to San Francisco? Nope. I did, however, go from L.A. to Morelia, Mexico. And Patzcuaro. And Janitzio. And Tapalpa. Have you heard of those Mexican towns? Probably not. I hadn't before last year. But I had heard of San Francisco. Everyone has. People travel from all over the world to visit San Fran. Not I. Not until this week. Finally.

San Francisco, we finally meet.


What the fuck was I thinking, waiting until age 41 to see this city, which is basically a concrete-covered roller coaster of merciless, mountainous hills? The sidewalks here aren't sidewalks. They're walls. You turn a corner and see a wall. You have to crane your head up to see the top of the sidewalk. You don't walk the sidewalk. You scale it. They shouldn't be called sidewalks in this city. They should be called sideclimbs.

Let me explain. I get to know new cities by walking. I'm a major walker. Even if I have taxi fare, when I'm exploring a new city, I walk it. A bus is passing by? So what. I keep walking. It's the only way to really get to know and feel a city, in my opinion.

So: Visit here at age 41? Why didn't I visit here at age 21, when my younger bones put a real spring in my step?

Here's another question: Why am I sitting here writing in my blog, when I am only here for 10 days and should be out seeing the city? Here's the answer: Because my 41-year-old legs can't take it. My ankles and knees are kill-ing me. I'm taking a break.

San Francisco has given me a rude awakening: I am aging. This is my first vacation where I can't walk and walk and walk for hours and hours and hours, then go back to my lodgings, take a shower, change clothes, and experience the nightlife.

Nightlife? That requires more walking up or down hills--prohibitive hills. My body needs to recuperate. I'll just sit here and type...

My first encounter here with a steep, sidewalked hill was quite deceptive. It was on Christmas Eve, when I arrived in town. I'm staying in Nob Hill, and decided to go to Grace Cathedral for Christmas Eve mass. Wow. What a beautiful cathedral, and what a lovely mass. And it gave me a good intro to walking in this city...

You see, on my way to Grace, I was walking along Pine Street, following the map from my Fodor's guidebook. I could see that it was a short walk to the cathedral. Just turn on Taylor Street, walk a block, and you're there. Well, I turned on Taylor Street, and saw an uphill climb so steep, that the sidewalk actually had steps carved into it. As I huffed and puffed my way up the eternal steps, I thought, This isn't so bad. At least the sidewalk has been turned into steps. Steps are easier to climb. If all the steep sidewalks are like this, it won't be so bad...

They are not all like that. In fact, that stretch of Taylor Street is the only stepped sidewalk that I've seen.

Let me just say, so I don't sound like a whiner, that this city is really beautiful. The word that keeps coming to my mind is "wow." That's because, in these few days that I've been here, as I huff and puff my way up a hill, feeling like Shelly Winters in The Poseidon Adventure, I always get a reward once I reach the sidewalk's summit: The view. And the only word that seems to come out of my mouth when I behold the view is, "Wow."

Uphill I'll go... Walk. Up. Hill. Huff. Puff. Sigh. Breathe. Creak. Damn. Climb. Huff. Puff. Ow. Up. Up. Ouch. God. I think I can. I know I can. Pause. Breathe. Fuck. Sigh. Walk. Up. Hill. Up. Up. Step. Step. Huff. Puff... you're at the top. Turn the corner, take a look, and..... "WOW!"

The bay! What a beauuuuutiful view.

Does any city on earth have a more beautiful natural setting? Barcelona, Florence, Lisbon and Quebec City, among the cities I've seen, are runners up. But really, they don't hold a candle to the bay of San Francisco, and views of it, and the sea of roofs below, from the city's hilltop sidewalks. True, I've never been to Rio de Janeiro or Vancouver, but I can't imagine their cityscape blending so seamlessly with the geographical setting as San Francisco's does.

I guess I should just leave it at that. I'm tired, but I really do need to go out there and see more of this charming city. I should stop writing, gather my strength and tackle more of those hills. They're a bitch, but it's because of them that I can turn a corner and say, "Wow!"

All of this beauty comes at a price.

San Francisco, we finally meet... and you are kicking my ass.

Over and out. Out I go.... Huff. Puff. Huff. Puff....

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Never Judge a Teen by His Cover

This week, I started tutoring school-aged kids in English language arts as part of a federally-funded program. I'll be tutoring the kids in their homes or at public libraries.

Today, I had my first student, and I've already learned a lesson. Yes, it was the tutor who learned the lesson.

I arrived in the apartment to find my student's guardian, his aunt, alone. She informed me in Spanish that the boy, Antonio, would be arriving shortly.

The family is from Guatemala and they live, 6 people, in a tiny studio apartment-- the one room being about 12' x 12'. The apartment is not located in a "nice" part of town.

All I knew about Antonio was that he is a 17-year-old who is in the 9th grade. Knowing this, I assumed that he had failed a few grades, since most 9th graders are 14 years-old. As a result, I was worrying that perhaps he'd be a gang guy type.

Soon, two teenage boys entered the apartment. One looked quite clean-cut, neat haircut, wearing a sporty zip-up sweatshirt and nice jeans. He looked like a good kid. The other boy was wearing a big baseball cap tilted to the side, with the bill of the cap straight and uncurved. He wore a T-shirt that was several sizes too big. He wore extra-baggy jeans that were so over-sized that he had to "cinch" them with a belt, his boxer shorts being the only thing that were covering his ass. He had several gold chains around his neck, bracelets and rings, and had piercings. He looked like a Chicano gangsta to me.

Instantly I started hoping that first boy would be Antonio, my student. He was. Whew, I thought.

Well, the first lesson with all of my students is actually not a lesson at all. It's a test. They take the test, which takes them about an hour. Then I grade it, and figure out what are their strengths and weaknesses, and plan my lessons accordingly.

Antonio sat down and started taking the test. I sat and waited. As I did, the other boy (he of the baggy jeans, gold chains and piercings) started to engage me in conversation, in his thick barrio accent. He was very friendly and respectful, to my surprise. He showed me a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth and asked me if I had ever read it. I told him I had. He then started discussing the play with an enthusiasm which quite frankly stunned me. I am paraphrasing a bit, but this was our conversation...

"We're studying it in English dramatic lit now. It's pretty short for a Shakespeare play, so it didn't take me very long to get through it. What do you think of Macduff?"

My mind drew a blank. I scoured my memory to remember who the hell Macduff was. I hadn't read Macbeth in ages. I said, "You mean the Scottish king that Macbeth kills?"

"No, that's Duncan," he said, "Macduff is the man who suspects Macbeth of killing Duncan, so he goes to Malcom and convinces him to join him in taking revenge on Macbeth."

"Oh," I said, feeling quite inadequate.

"Do you think that Macduff is the personification of morality in the play? 'cuz it's like Shakespeare is using him to represent what is moral, in a play full of immoral people."

At that point my head was spinning. I never thought, when I first laid eyes on that kid, that a word such as personification would come out of his mouth, much less a name like Shakespeare. I felt such shame for having prejudged him as I did, and I simultaneously was wondering how he ever got interested in Shakespeare.

You see, he wasn't some teenager moaning that he has to read Macbeth for English class. He was a teenager who was actively interested in the story, enough so that he wanted to converse about it on his free time with a 41-year-old man.

I said, "I'll be honest with you, I only read it once, in college, and that was back in 1991."

"Whoa," he said, "that was before I was born."

"Yes," I muttered, grimacing at that fact, for the boy was almost as tall as I.

"How come you've never re-read it since?" he asked.

"It's not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays," I said, "Julius Caesar I've read about 5 times, but Macbeth only once."

"It's not one of mine either. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both don't have a struggle of good and evil in them. They're just plain evil. I think it's more interesting when the evil wins over the good, then it's more tragic, you know?"

I marveled at him and asked, "You really like Shakespeare, huh?"

He said, "He's okay. I really-really like Goethe, though."

GOETHE?! This boy reads GOETHE?

He got out one of his school folders and pulled out a few verses of Goethe's Faust. It was covered with yellow highlights and pencil marks, in which he used modern synonyms to define the more obscure words.

"You don't find this too hard to read?" I asked.

"It's hard, but not too hard. I like that it's hard. It's like a puzzle or a code. When there's a word I don't know, I look it up, and when I get all the words together and it all makes sense, it's really cool."

I suddenly realized that I had forgotten all about Antonio, my student, even though he was seated at a table right in front of me taking the test. I asked him if everything was okay and if he had any questions. He shook his head and continued taking the test with great concentration.

From behind me I heard, "Do you like opera?"

This is too much, I thought, I have got to be on Candid Camera. He likes opera, too?

"Yeah," I said, "I like opera. I'm not an aficionado, but I like it. Why? You like it?"

"Well, I've only seen one, but that got me interested in it. Me and a bunch of kids from my school went downtown to the Disney Concert Hall to see La Boheme."

"That's one of the few operas that I know well. I love it. What did you think of it?"

He said, "At first I didn't think I'd get it, because it's in Italian, and I can only speak Spanish and English, but after a while I realized that if I just took in the visual things and opened myself up emotionally to the music, it would all sink in, and it did. I cried when Mimi died. Really."

He not only liked the opera, but he admits that it made him cry. Wow, I thought.

So finally Antonio finished the test, and I said bye to them and left. As I drove home, I couldn't stop thinking about what had just happened. I had caught myself being prejudiced. I am always disdaining prejudiced people, and there I was, being prejudiced.

Sure, he's Guatemalan, and lives in a bad neighborhood, and wears huge, baggy T-shirts and jeans and he piles on the gold chains, and shares a one-room apartment with 5 other people, but that doesn't mean that he can't read Macbeth and write about Faust and cry at La Boheme.

Conversely, there are many white kids living in big houses in the suburbs, who dress like preppies, and, if assigned to read Macbeth, would only read the Cliff Notes. They would hire a nerd to write a paper about Faust, and would have to be dragged to La Boheme, most likely falling asleep in the middle of an aria. Yet, would I have winced at the thought of tutoring them at first-sight? Of course I wouldn't have.

So today, the tutor learned a lesson.

Never judge a teen by his cover.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Today I went to the Pier 1 in my neighborhood to do a little shopping for my apartment, and before I could even enter the store, I saw on the windows the image of a Christmas tree, and the image of a Christmas stocking, and the words, "Make Christmas magic. Kick back & celebrate."

Today is November 2, 2009.

It is only two days after Halloween, and already the Christmas onslaught has begun.

I am so sick of this. Every year it gets worse and worse, earlier and earlier.

As I walked into the store, I could hear Christmas carols blasting over the sound system. The first one that I heard was the one that I hate the most: "It's the most wonderful time of the year... there'll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near...!" Why is it that they never play the carols that I like, the lovely church carols, like O, Holy Night or Hark, the Herald Angels Sing? Could it be that those songs aren't conducive to buying?

I tried to tune it out, and looked for the things that I need for my apartment. The colors of my living room are earth tones, yet it seemed to me that the only colors that I could see today, at the usually earthy Pier 1, were red, green and gold. I got so annoyed by the premature yuletide assault on my senses, that I grabbed a couple of somewhat muted earth-toned cloth place mats, and went to the cashier to buy them and get the hell out of there.

As she was ringing me up, I said, "I know it's not your fault, but the Christmas decorations and music are really unbearable. It's not even close to being Thanksgiving yet, much less the day after it. It offends me so much that I don't want to spend more time browsing. I just want to leave after 10 minutes." She said something like, "Believe me, I know. I've been having to listen to these carols for over a week, and there's still two more months 'til the Christmas season is over." I looked at her with compassion and said, "You mean they were playing Christmas carols before Halloween?!?" "Oh ya," she said, rolling her eyes. I told her to hang in there and left with my place mats.

As I walked home, I thought about what she had told me. They were playing Christmas carols before Halloween. My heart sank. The situation has become more dire than I had imagined. Before, I had felt that Halloween had become the last firewall that shielded the rest of the year from Christmas consumerism.

When I was a child and a teen, the firewall was Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was a unique and separate holiday. It wasn't Christmas, Act 1. Thanksgiving had its own little season, which lasted from November 1st to Thanksgiving Day. I distinctly remember seeing autumn colors as the November color scheme. Cornucopias, turkeys, Pilgrims and Indians were what were seen in November, not elves, reindeer, stockings and boughs of holly. We used to make turkeys out of pine cones and decorate the dinner table with them during the month of November.

I have photos of Thanksgiving 1973. I was 5. I had made a Native American vest from a brown paper grocery bag, and painted tribal symbols on it with watercolors. I made a headband with paper feathers. I dressed as an Indian rather than a Pilgrim because, even in kindergarten, I was a bleeding-heart liberal, and I intrinsically sensed that the Indians had gotten a raw deal from Whitey. But I would have easily dressed as a Pilgrim before I ever imagined dressing as a North Pole elf. Why? Because it was the Thanksgiving season, naturally. Once Thanksgiving Day was over, then the Christmas season began.

I find it curious that Bill O'Reilly, and other right-wing nuts, rail against the "War on Christmas" when the real war has been against Thanksgiving, and Christmas has won.

Perhaps I'm being partial. I love Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday. There's something very simple and beautiful about it. You partake in a feast with family, friends and often acquaintances and strangers, in thanks for the blessings of life. There are so many rotten aspects to life, but on Thanksgiving, you focus on the blessings, as you feed your body with hearty, delicious food. To me, there is no greater way to express the bounty of life than with a really big, satisfying meal.

In addition to recognition of thanks via eating, there's also the friendship of the opposites, of the unknown. The Pilgrims and Indians were like oil and water. They really didn't know, understand or trust each other, but they were able to gather together for one meal, in peace and brotherhood, because they shared a common thanks for a good harvest.

Unfortunately, that one meal did not symbolize the relations between the European settlers and the indigenous Americans in general, but hey: for one meal, things were as they should have been.

I can identify with that first Thanksgiving. For most of my life, my family has lived in Houston and Miami. During the years that I've lived in New York City and Los Angeles, I've often not been able to go home for Thanksgiving. But it hasn't really mattered, because there were always others who couldn't go home for Thanksgiving either, and we would band together and make a big feast. Usually at these expat gatherings, I'd be friends with a few of the people, and the rest would be strangers. I liked eating Thanksgiving with strangers. That sense of breaking bread with people whom you don't really know, it made it feel more like the Pilgrims and the Indians, back in 16-whenever-it-was.

Another thing that I like about Thanksgiving is that anyone can celebrate it. It doesn't matter which country or culture you come from, what your religion is, or if you even have a religion or a belief in God at all. The recognition of the good things in life knows no borders and has no specific faith.

But perhaps most importantly, what I like about Thanksgiving, is that it cannot be tainted by consumerism. Besides buying the turkey, or the yams, or the green bean casserole, or the pumpkin pie, there's really not much else that you can buy, besides a bottle of wine or some after-dinner cognac. Thanksgiving has not been contaminated by capitalism, like Christmas, nor does it seem like it ever will be.

Capitalism has forever changed Christmas. I don't mean to start sounding like Emma Goldman, but it's a holiday that has been marketed to the masses to the extent that the very seasonal parameters of the holiday have been pushed back two months. We start the season earlier because we start hearing the carols in restaurants and shops earlier, the malls are decked with decorations earlier, we start seeing commercials on TV earlier, and so we start trimming the tree earlier and earlier and earlier.

Let me give you an example of how out-of-touch modern society has become with what Christmas was traditionally in the Anglo world. You of course know the famous song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Well, do you know what those 12 days are? What days on the calendar are the 12 days of Christmas? Is your mind drawing a blank? Give up? Well, the first day of Christmas is December 25, Christmas Day, and the twelfth day is January 6, Epiphany. Do you even know what Epiphany is?

In the West, Epiphany celebrates the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus. According to Christian legend, the Magi (or Three Wise Men) arrived 12 days after Jesus was born, although you'd never know it, because most modern Christmas paraphernalia shows them arriving on Christmas Eve. Anyway, for this reason, the trimming of the Christmas tree was done on Christmas Eve, because the Christmas season began the following day, and lasted 12 days, ending on Epiphany.

Today it is very rare to see a Christmas tree that is still standing by January 6th. In fact, last year on my block, I saw several discarded trees on the curb on December 26th. Not that I blame them. By the day after Christmas, they had had their trees up for almost two months. They were probably sick of the sight of them.

Please don't think of me as Ebeneezer Scrooge. If people want to have a Christmas season that lasts longer than 12 days, fine. In some non-Anglo countries, it lasts 40 days, but it begins on Christmas day, and ends on February 2nd, which is the Christian feast of Candlemas.

But not in America, baby! If we're gonna prolongate the holiday, we're gonna make it buyer-friendly! You need time to buy gifts before Christmas Day, not after it, so from now on the holidays will precede Christmas, by two months! Screw the holy aspects of it. Christmas day is the finale, not the opening act.

Halloween is the kick-off to BUY BUY BUY season, Thanksgiving is incorporated into the monster, and we are bombarded with images that have nothing to do with Christ, but have everything to do with Santa.

By New Year's Eve, most Americans have spent an pretty huge sum of money, and spend the month of January tightening their belts and trying to recuperate, completely unaware that January is, in fact, the traditional Christmas season according to the Christian calendar, and that Christmas is not the holiest Christian day (Easter is).

But who am I to complain? Although I was raised Catholic, I am no longer a believing Christian. I am a happy Agnostic. I'll let my Christian friends try to pry Christ out of Santa's arms, if they care to. He's their god, not mine.

I'm writing this manifesto in defense of Thanksgiving, which is everybody's holiday, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic or what have you.

I want to save Thanksgiving from the Christmas of the Capitalists, not the Christmas of the Christians. The Christmas of the Christians begins a month after Thanksgiving. The Christmas of the Capitalists begins a month before it, the day after Halloween. The way things are going, within 20 years, it'll begin the day after the Fourth of July. To prevent that, though, we must first save Thanksgiving. Save Thanksgiving!

I've had it. This war.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Very Important Death

Do you recognize the young lady in the portrait above? Of course you don't. Perhaps you'll recognize her name, Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales. Does that help? Of course it doesn't. What American knows who Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was? In fact, I'm wondering, what average Briton knows who she was?

It's not surprising that she's virtually unknown today. The poor girl died at the age of 21, back in 1817, before she was able to achieve anything. She could have achieved a lot, had she lived. After all, she was meant to be the queen regnant of England. Had she lived, she would have assumed the throne in 1830, when her father, King George IV died.

Had Princess Charlotte lived, Queen Victoria would never have been born, and therefore, Queen Elizabeth II would never have been born. For that matter, the English kings Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI would never have been born. Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry would also, never have been born.

A lot of the royalty of other European countries would never have been born had Princess Charlotte lived... Kaiser Wilhem II of Germany, the czarina Alexandra of Russia, King George II of Greece, King Alexander I of Greece, King Paul I of Greece, King Constantine II of Greece, King Olav V of Norway, King Carol II of Romania, King Michael of Romania, King Harald V of Norway,
King Peter II of Yugoslavia, King Carl XVI of Sweden, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and King Juan Carlos of Spain.

All of these crowned heads are descendents of Queen Victoria. I looked on a royal website and saw that Queen Victoria, at present, has 1,056 descendents. None of them would have been born had Princess Charlotte lived, because again, Queen Victoria would never have been born had Princess Charlotte lived. There never would have been a Victorian Age.

The story behind the birth of Victoria, the world's longest reigning female monarch, is very interesting to me. But to even approach her birth, we must start with the death of her cousin, Princess Charlotte, because although Charlotte was her first-cousin, she was old enough to have been her mother.

Here's the story. Princess Charlotte's grandfather was King George III. He was the English king who lost the American colonies, the king whom our founding fathers rebelled against. It's kind of great that he was such lousy king to the colonists, because had he not been, the USA may never had been born.

But I digress. Back to George III.

George III had 15 children.With 15 children, one would assume that the succession to the throne would be secure. Surely 15 children would eventually produce 30, 45, even 60 grandchildren. Well, 57 grandchildren were produced, but all of them were illegitimate, except one: Princess Charlotte Augusta. So for royal purposes, George III's 15 children only produced one grandchild.

Princess Charlotte was produced by George III's oldest son, the Prince of Wales, also named George. As the heir to the throne, he did his duty and produced an heir, or rather, an heiress. The Prince of Wales had a hideous marriage with his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. No male children (who would knock Charlotte out of the line of succession) would be produced by the couple, because after Charlotte was born, they promptly stopped having sex with each other, due to an intense, mutual loathing which lasted decades.

So Charlotte was it. The only legitimate heir of her generation of the family, a princess with no brothers or sisters, but with 56 illegitimate first-cousins.

From girlhood, the common people knew that one day she would be their queen, and she was adored, the darling of the nation. The young, virtuous princess offered a sharp contrast to her royal uncles, who were known for their financial debts, public scandals, bastard offspring and disreputable private lives.

She married a dashing and handsome prince, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and the lovely couple were the pride of the kingdom. Then came the joyous news that the princess was pregnant; the next generation's monarch could be produced in a matter of months. True, she had suffered two previous miscarriages, but this time it should go smoothly. Her doctors closely monitored the new pregnancy, putting her on a severe diet, and performing on her the questionable practice of bloodletting.

Well, the due date came, and Princess Charlotte went into labor. She labored. And labored. And labored and labored and labored. She labored for 50 hours. Two full days of labor. Finally, her laborious labor produced a 9-pound baby boy. The boy would have been king one day, had he not been born dead. The plump, stillborn baby was taken away, and the exhausted Charlotte lived for another six hours, and died.

Princess Charlotte, dead!

The nation descended into a maelstrom of mourning. Do you think the Brits were overwrought by Princess Diana's death in 1997? You should have seen them when Princess Charlotte died in 1817. After all, Diana's death did not affect the succession to the throne. There was Prince William, Prince Harry, and the two daughters of Prince Andrew. But when Charlotte died, that was it. Her father and mother were still married, but estranged, and they were old. They would produce no more children. Charlotte's uncles were all that was left. The throne was destined to be inhereted by dissolute uncle after dissolute uncle.

UNLESS... one of those dissolute uncles could produce a legitimate heir!

There were six of them, and three of them were married. Of the three married uncles, two were married to women who were too old to have secure pregnancies, and the third was in a morganatic marriage, meaning their offspring could hold no royal title.

Of the three unmarried uncles, two were involved in long-term relationships with their mistress, and the third seemed to have little interest in women.

So it was up to the two uncles with mistresses to dump their mistress, marry a princess, and produce an heir that would save the crown from oblivion.

The elder of the two mistress-involved brothers was William, Duke of Clarence. The younger was Edward, Duke of Kent.

William had been in a 20-year relationship with a well-known actress of the day, and together, they had 10 bastard children and happy family. After Princess Charlotte's death, he left his happy bastard family and married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen.

Edward on the other hand, had been in a 27-year relationship with French Madame. After Charlotte's death, he bid her adieu and married the sister of his dead niece's widower, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld.

Within two years of Charlotte's death, both brothers had pregnant wives. In March of 1819, William's wife gave birth to a baby girl, whom they called Charlotte, in honor of her dead cousin. In March of that same year, Edward's wife also gave birth to a baby girl, Alexandrina Victoria (or as she was simply called, Victoria).

William was the elder brother, so it was his daughter, Charlotte, who would one day become queen, except for one problem: Charlotte died on the day of her birth, so Victoria, the daughter of the younger brother, was heiress presumptive-- for the time being. William and his wife would not let one dead infant stop them from having others, and William's wife was soon pregnant again. In December of 1820, little Victoria was knocked out of the line of succession by the birth of her younger cousin, Princess Elizabeth.

Little Elizabeth would have grown up to become Queen Elizabeth II, had she not died three months after her birth. As a result, the world would have to wait another 132 years for a Queen Elizabeth II.

What the world got in her place was Queen Victoria.

I imagine that Edward would have been awed by the fact that he, the fourth-youngest son of George III, would one day become king, and that his daughter, Victoria, would succeed him. It would become inevitable, as time passed without his older brother producing any living children. But the inevitable didn't happen to him. Edward would not see time pass, because he died 8 months after Victoria was born. He would never become king.

Upon the death of George III, his eldest son, George the Prince of Wales, became King George IV. He reigned for ten years and died. The next in line for the throne would have been his daughter Charlotte, but she was dead. Next in line. His brother Frederick, but he was dead. Next in line. Frederick's children, but he had none. Next in line. His brother William. He was alive, and he became King William IV. He reigned for seven years and died. The next in line for the throne would have been his daughter Charlotte, but she was dead. Next in line. His daughter Elizabeth, but she was dead. Next in line. His brother Edward, but he was dead. Next in line. Edward's daughter Victoria, and she was alive.

Victoria, the 18-year-old girl at the end of the line, was alive and well, and she reigned as queen for 63 years. She resided over an empire that spread so far across the globe, that the sun never set on it. Her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren have become kings and queens that have greatly influenced modern history.

Yet none of these monarchs would have been born, had Victoria not been born. Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V would never had led Germany and the UK through World War I, had Victoria not been born, and been their grandmother. There would never have been a Victorian era, had there been no Victoria. We wouldn't even have the tradition of Christmas trees outside of Germany, had Victoria and her German husband Prince Albert not introduced them to the Anglo world in the 19th century. These, and so many other historical and cultural effects would never have happened, IF....

...Victoria's older cousin Charlotte had not died in childbirth, changing world history irrevocably.

I believe that the death of the forgotten Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales is one of the most important deaths in world history.

Food for thought as you decorate your Christmas tree this holiday season.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oh Boy, Balloon Boy!

I'm hearing in my head, the first few notes of the song Love Story..... "Where do I begin, to tell the story of...."


Well, perhaps not tell the story, because pretty much everybody in the USA and a few other countries knows the story inside and out.

What I'll attempt to do is tell you how the Balloon Boy circus has affected me personally. Aren't you oh-so interested?

I'm hearing another song in my head... "Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon? Would you like to glide in my beautiful balloon? We could float among the stars together, you and I, for we can fly, we can flyyyyyyyy, UP, UP and awayyyy in my beautiful, my beautiful balloooooooooon......"

I've been humming that song intermittently for... how many days now...? Since last Thursday, when the Heene family of Colorado blew into my life on the autumn breeze.

I was at home, listening to The Randi Rhodes Show on the radio. She stopped talking about politics for a minute and said something to the effect of, "If you're near a TV set, turn it on, you've got to see this. There's a little boy alone in a balloon and it is soaring across the sky. This is horrible. I sure hope he gets down okay."

I rolled my eyes and thought, Oh God, the news will now be canceled for the rest of the day until they get this little boy down.

It's not that I didn't care about the boy. I of course hoped he'd be rescued. But I instinctively knew that CNN, MSNBC and FOX would be carrying it live, milking it for all it was worth, and that maybe even ABC, CBS and NBC will have interrupted their regular programming to carry the balloon chase.

None of those news channels give a rat's ass about the boy's life. I mean sure, the news anchors, the reporters, and other employees care, they're human after all, but the news channels themselves were covering the story live, because it was dramatic television viewing. A 6-year-old boy whose life is at risk in a more mundane way would not have attracted continuous live coverage on channel after channel.

Let's say that a normal child, not the son or daughter of a celebrity, just a normal suburban kid, a boy, named, say, Falcon Heene, had accidentally swallowed some poison and had been rushed to the hospital with doctors fastiduously trying to save his life...

Do you really think that all the news channels would be planted outside the hospital with their cameras pointed at the building, canceling all other news coverage for two hours straight? No. A normal boy's life in that case, is not worthy of the coverage, but a boy in a BALLOON, well, that's a different story!

It was on all the channels for the thrill of it.

After hearing Randi mention it a couple of times more, I gave in, and turned on the TV.

The very first thing I saw was what looked like a giant, inflated Jiffy-Pop popcorn pan, zooming across the sky. My jaw dropped. I had expected to see a typical, classic, hot air balloon with a basket underneath, like the one that the Wizard flew away in, at the end of The Wizard of Oz. I expected it to be loftily floating in the sky, quite placidly, with the boy in basket, clearly visible. Instead I saw this foreign-looking object soaring through the heavens at great speed. What IS that, I thought, and where's the boy? Inside it, like Jiffy-Pop popcorn?

I sat down and became immersed in the spectacle. The more I looked at it, the more it began to look like a silver chef's hat... then like a flying saucer... I started to wonder if there could really be a boy in there. The wind was blowing that balloon effortlessly, it was traveling like a bullet through the air. That boy must be as light as a feather, I thought.

I got on Facebook, wondering how many comments I'd see about it on the news feed of my homepage. I remembered how when Michael Jackson was dying, there were lots of comments on Facebook as the story unfolded.

There were a few about the balloon boy. Most of them saying things like, "Pray for that poor, air-borne child." I wrote something like, "How many of you are watching the boy trapped in a UFO-looking balloon which is flying across the country? It's dreadful!"

I hadn't been watching for long when the balloon began to make its inevitable descent. Within a couple of minutes of my writing that Facebook status, the balloon descended slowly, and not in a free fall. It was gliding softly down onto the ground. Whew, I thought, if there's a boy in there, he'll be okay. That was a gentle landing.

Well, the moment that balloon touched terra firma, there appeared a man, then a crew of men, on the ground running towards it. The last thing they seemed to have on their mind was saving a trapped child. They treated that balloon as though it were a wild animal that they were trying to rope into submission. They actually threw ropes over it, they wrestled it, they dragged it, it almost looked as though they were kicking it.

I said out loud to my TV screen, "Uh, are you guys gonna like, look for the boy? Isn't the point of this recovery mission to recover the boy, not the balloon?" I wondered if maybe someone should call one of those guy's cell phones and say, "Perhaps you haven't been watching TV, but there's supposed to be a little boy in there, that's why half the country is watching you, live. I suggest you gently but quickly open that balloon and look inside."

After a few minutes it dawned on me that there was no boy in that balloon.

I got on Facebook and wrote, "THE BALLOON BOY IS A BOGUS STORY!! FOOLED US!!

My two statuses garnered me about 20 comments in 20 minutes. Many people were transfixed by the story.

I looked at the TV again, knowing what would come next. THE SEARCH IS ON! WHERE'S THE BOY?

Ah shit, I thought, all my political talk shows on MSNBC are gonna be canceled today because they're gonna be looking for that missing boy. He's probably hiding somewhere in the house, because it's his fault that the balloon blew off, and he's afraid of getting a spanking. I turned off the TV in disgust.

A few hours later, I heard on the radio that the little boy had been found. He had been hiding in a cardboard box in the attic. I should join the Missing Persons Bureau, I thought. Then I heard that the boy's name was Falcon. Falcon? I thought, Who the hell names their kid FALCON?

That night, I was flipping though the TV channels, and saw that the boy and his family were being interviewed for the full hour on Larry King Live. The Heene family exclusive!

I was not going to watch it, but within a minute of having it on, I became drawn in. There was something "off" about that family. I have an ingrained bullshit detector, and it went *BEEP*BEEP*BEEP*

The father. It was the father. I honed in on him. His demeanor, his voice, his eyes, everything about him made me suspicious. He seemed like total bullshit artist who knew he was skating on thin ice. The wife raised my eyebrows, too. I couldn't put my finger on it, but she seemed compliant and complicitous. It was just a gut feeling that I got from watching her. In between the couple were their 3 sons. There was something bizarre about them, too. The boy in the middle kept coughing. The coughs seemed fake. "Are you okay?' the mother kept asking him. Yes, he'd nod, then he'd keep coughing, passively. It's an act, I thought, he wants to be the center of attention. In this family, it's all about attention.

I was beginning to think that maybe I was being too harsh on the Heenes, that my imagination was running away with me, UNTIL... little Falcon blew the lid off the story.

Wolf Blitzer, who was substituting for Larry King, asked if, when Falcon was hiding, if he heard anything, if he heard his parents screaming his name. The boy didn't have an audio feed, so his father asked him if he heard them calling for him. He said yes. He was then asked why he didn't come out then, and Falcon said,

"You guys said that, um, we did this for the show."

I leaned forward and thought, WHAT did he just say?

I could see the father's heart sinking. He looked suddenly full of dread. The mother said, "No," in a helpless, nervous voice. Neither of the parents asked him to elaborate. They tried to skirt his remark. Wolf Blitzer went on blithley asking them other questions. I said aloud to the TV, "Uh, Wolf, didn't you just hear what that kid said?!? 'We did this for the show,' so how about a follow-up question, like, 'Mr. Heene what did your son mean when he said you did it for the show? Will you please ask him that?'" But Wolf didn't! I was going crazy. The whole hoax could have been exposed right then and there by asking the boy that question at that moment. Wolf blew it.

As the interview continued, I kept focused on the father. It was so obvious to me that his mind was elsewhere. He was superficially answering the remaining questions, trying to keep it together, while in the back of his mind he was thinking things like, Shit, we are so busted. I can't believe Falcon said that. I told him what he was supposed to say. Now what? The whole nation has heard it. I wonder if what Falcon said was really audible or noticeable. Shit what am I gonna do? Thank God Wolf didn't notice it and ask me about it. We're exposed. What will we do to cover it up...?

The whole thing was so transparent to me, and as the show dragged on, I resigned myself to the fact that that idiot Wolf Blitzer was not going to confront the Heenes on what Falcon said. But I was wrong. E-mails had been coming in to CNN, and obviously many viewers were asking about Falcon's comment, because in the very last segment, due to being prodded, Wolf Einstein Blitzer finally asked what Falcon meant by saying, "We did this for the show." Mr. Heene gave some bullshit reply, and so Wolf asked him to ask Falcon directly why he said that.

The father paused, with a look of panic. You could feel his panic. It was palpable. He hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Falcon, they want to know why you were in the attic..." then it looked like he was about to ask him the question, but that he just couldn't bring himself to do so, because he feared the boy would tell the truth. He paused, and asked Wolf, "Say--say it again...?" and Wolf repeated the question that did not need repeating: what did Falcon mean by "We did this for the show"?

And then, the father refused to ask his son the question! He changed the topic, telling Wolf how appalled he was that their story was being questioned, that he didn't even want to do this interview, and look how he was being treated, with suspicion, of all the nerve! There was such tension in Richard Heene's voice. He sounded like he was unraveling. He looked like he was unraveling.

After expressing his indignation, Wolf apologized, basically told them how wonderful they were, and ended the show.

After that, I was so sure that the whole thing was a hoax. I had heard that he had been involved in reality TV. The man is obviously an attention-whore. The kids were his tools, his wife, his accomplice.

I thought about the boy, Falcon. He was so jittery, he couldn't sit still for more than a minute. I know he's only 6, but still, even for a 6-year-old, he seemed a bit wacky. I thought about what he said. "You guys said we did this for the show." I became convinced that, in addition to being an attention-whore, the father was an idiot. I mean really, if you're going to pull a hoax on national TV, you don't choose for your accomplice a goofy 6-year-old boy. Children have loose tongues.

When I watched a replay of Countdown with Keth Olbermann later that night, I shot a video of the Balloon Boy segment with the volume turned off. I played The 5th Dimension singing, "Up, Up and Away" in the background, as I was filming. I laughed. I thought the whole story so hilarious. Then I uploaded the video onto YouTube. I gave it the title, Up, Up and Away, Balloon Boy! It's the first time that I've ever uploaded a video onto YouTube.

That was Balloon Boy, Day One. The next day, was to be even more bizarre...

Once again, the noon hour had arrived without my having turned on the TV. Once again I was listening to my girl Randi Rhodes talk politics on the radio. Right away, she started talking about Balloon Boy. What she was talking about initially though, was not about the Wolf Blitzer snafu.

She spoke about the vomit. Yes, the vomit. The family had been on two morning shows, Good Morning America and Today. He had vomited on both shows. On camera. He had vomited. He had vomited on both shows, on camera. I couldn't resist. I turned on the TV to see if they'd be showing video clips of it. Then I looked on YouTube. Eureka!

I can't describe how hard I laughed when I saw Falcon vomit, while his father tried, in his yeoman manner, to trudge on in their charade. How can I express the way I laughed? Let me just put it this way: I scared my cat. That's how loudly I laughed.

But back to Richard and Mayumi Heene and their three sons.

I don't know which of the shows they did first. I think it was Good Morning America, because, if memory serves me correctly, on the Today show, they had a Tupperware container at the ready for him to puke in, whereas on Good Morning America, the boy was sent off to the bathroom to do his puking.

This strongly suggests that they were caught unawares on Good Morning America, and that on Today, they were prepared to deal with the vomit to come. My conclusion: Good Morning America first, Today, second.

The up-chuck drama truly fascinated me. First of all, didn't the father say that he didn't even want to do Larry King Live, and that he only did it because it could be the first and last show they'd do? So okay, he says that, and the next day, bright 'n early, he's doing Good Morning America AND Today? Isn't he proving himself to be full of shit then?

It was actually kind of sad to watch. As his son vomited, Richard Heene could see the narrative being stolen from him again, second day in a row. His 6-year-old accomplice was becoming his worst enemy. His face looked pained as his son's puke interrupted Daddy's talking, but the pain was not for Falcon, it was for himself. The whole gig was unraveling on live TV. Again.

The mother's behavior seemed to be lacking in all maternal instinct. They were on TV, that's all that mattered. Her boy could have been having an epileptic fit, and she would have ignored it, and soldiered on the with interview. Of course she would. Cameras are rolling.

This was Mayumi-as-mother on TV that day...

On Good Morning America, Falcon kept saying he wanted to vomit. It was Dianne Sawyer who finally suggested that the boy go to the bathroom. Off to the bathroom he marched, all alone, while his mother obliviously sat in her chair. Dianne Sawyer said something like, "Mayumi, perhaps you want to go with him," and Mayumi said, "It's okay...?"


Perhaps I'm being too hard on poor Mayumi. After all, by the time they sat down for Meredith Vieira on the Today show, Mayumi was prepared with that Tupperware container, plus a handful of toilet paper. She was equipped. That's motherly of her. It's not as motherly as saying, "My son has been vomiting, so he's going to sit out this interview. He'll be in bed, not on TV," but still, it's motherly in a way.

So they're doing the interview, and Falcon is sitting next to his father and starts writhing his body. He closes his eyes. He leans forward. Whatever words are coming out of the father's mouth are completely immaterial, because all I could focus on was that boy and if more vomit was going to exit from mouth.

The boy delivered. He said, "Mom, I'm gonna vomit." Mayumi immediately held out the Tupperware container, Falcon puked, his brothers said, "Ooooooh!" and Mayumi wiped the vomit off his mouth with a long trail of toilet paper. Meredith Vieira kept asking the questions oblivious to the puke fest, Falcon vomited again, and Richard kept answering them, saying again how offended he was at the idea that this was all a hoax. Meredith suggested that they take a break, seeing as how little Falcon was not feeling well, and cut to commercial.

That was day two. Do I even want to write about day three? I'm not sure.

(To be continued...?)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Friday, September 14, 2001

Three days ago was the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. I lived in New York City then, about 2 miles from the Twin Towers. Sadly, it takes the anniversaries to get me to seriously think about that day and the months after, and to delve into my mind and relive it via my memories.

When I do think about it though, I have more than my memories to draw upon. I have my photos. I took so many photos of those days. I have my scrapbook, in which I keep mementos of my time volunteering for the Red Cross at the Pier 94 Family Assistance Center, from October 2001 to January of 2002. Above all, I have my journal. I started writing a journal in July of 2001, and man, did I ever continue writing once September 11 came along.

Each day since this past Friday, I've been reading a journal entry per day, the entry for that day, 8 years ago. Today I read my entry for September 14, 2001. Even though I wrote it on the 14th, I was describing the events of the previous day. My journal entries were so long, that I was always writing a day behind. What I wrote on the 14th was about the 13th.

Anyway, I've decide it to type it in below...

Friday, Sept. 14 2001--

Yesterday the wind changed directions, and rather than blowing Mary Poppins our way to magically solve all our problems with a metaphoric spoonful of sugar, it instead brought us noxious World Trade Center smoke. The air downtown had a brown haze, and everywhere, a stink was in the air.

I couldn't think of a more unwelcome and depressing addition to our trying times, but there WAS one-- the fliers that began to appear all over town that had on them photos of people who are missing-- people who went into the Twin Towers on Tuesday, and haven't been seen since. How I wished that there weren't so many. How I hoped to see on the news, Saint Vincent's Hospital, flooded with survivors who needed medical treatment. How I wished to see a convoy of ambulances rushing the multitude who had been pulled out of the rubble to treatment. This however was not the scene at the hospitals. Patients were only trickling in, and those who were, were rescue workers who had gotten injured. I began to realize that the vast majority of those missing, on those fliers, perhaps all, were not actually missing, but dead.

It was a morbid day... the smoke in the air, the silence in the streets, the fliers, the people walking around with masks made of cloth over their mouths and noses. I wondered if I should go back to the apartment and get that mask that they gave me Tuesday afternoon, and wear it as I walked around town. Almost everybody else had them on. Could there be asbestos in the air? And if so, could those simple cloth masks actually keep it out of our lungs?

I walked up to Beth Israel hospital on 17th Street to see if I could donate blood there. They said no. While there, I could see this big cardboard "wall" that they had erected, with a concentration of photos and personal information of those missing. So many faces, so many, so diverse, all ages, races and social levels.

This was one thing that struck me later in the day, when seeing all their faces and their short "bios"-- all the different jobs that they held in the Twin Towers... an executive, next to a trader, next to a line cook, next to a salesman, next to a security officer, next to a janitor, next to a secretary... and I was particularly struck by the number of young people, many of them younger than I, people, guys and girls born in '76, '77, '78... people who were younger than the Twin Towers themselves. For the first time, the emotions started to hit as my eyes scanned the plethora of diverse faces of the missing. Tears started to well up in my eyes.

I crossed the "border" back into the forbidden terrain that is Manhattan south of 14th Street, flashing my ID to prove I live on 1oth Street. But I didn't go home, and the further south I walked, the more I saw people wearing masks. The air really was bad, it smelled awful, like burnt plastic or burnt tires or something. I've never smelled anything like it in my life.

I overheard someone on the street saying that they were taking blood at at some place on Avenue B, so I headed east. When I got to 10th Street and 2nd Avenue, I saw a woman in a white van who had stopped, and was answering questions from pedestrians. She had information on blood donation. She said that there was no more blood donation in Alphabet City, but that at Webster Hall they were going to set up a volunteer center later in the afternoon.

I decided to walk over to the Hudson River to see if there was anything that I could do closer to the disaster site. Who knows, I thought, maybe they still have civilian volunteers for search & rescue still camping out in front of that skyscraper with the lawn, just like on Tuesday when I was one of them. I walked downtown along the West Side Highway until I wasn't allowed to go any further. So much for search & rescue...

Luckily enough, right there I saw a large group of people lined up in a sort of assembly line, making sandwiches for the rescue workers. Another option was simply standing alongside the highway, clapping and cheering for the rescue workers as they enter and leave the scene in their trucks. It made me so proud to be a New Yorker-- those people standing by the road, waiting in the sun for the opportunity to applaud emergency vehicles. However, I preferred to help-out by making sandwiches. Well, they didn't need me to make sandwiches, but they did put me to work by putting muffins into plastic baggies. There were like six large cardboard boxes filled with big, plump, gourmet muffins-- the expensive type that sell for $2 a piece or more.

Two women and I organized ourselves for the bagging of muffins. There were so many donated items-- bread, mustard, meats, cheese, jars of peanut butter, milk-- so many items, donated by restaurants, groceries, gourmet shops... also plastic wrap and plastic baggies.

As we wrapped and bagged items, we realized that the generic brands of plastic wrap and baggies were not as good as the name brands. Saran Wrap really DID cling much better and was easier to maneuver. Ziplock baggies really did seal more easily and better. We found ourselves discarding the donated boxes of generic wrappings in favor of the better name brands.

"Ziplock baggies really do seal better, and they'll keep the muffins fresh for many days", said one woman who was in front of me, to the woman who was next to her. I started to wearily laugh. Here these two women were, saying this, and behind their shoulders, close-by in the background, were the smouldering ruins of the World Trade Center... the persistent column of smoke drifting up into the sky, emergency vehicles on the highway behind them... my God, what a TV commercial that would make. They were basically saying a commercial script impromptu, endorsing Saran Wrap and Ziplock.

Smiling, I imitated them to them, using a velvetty commercial voice: "When YOUR city has been attacked by airliners hijacked by fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, there is no better plastic wrap for your rescue workers' sandwiches than SARAN WRAP. And ZIPLOCK baggies seal better, and keep gourmet muffins fresh for many days." They laughed. We needed to laugh.

After having bagged the muffins, I helped with the ice. It had arrived, and it was my job to gather all the sandwich meats and put them on ice. Then I gathered up all the bread. The sun was moving westward, so we had to move the canopy-tent over so that the food would still have shade. After that, there didn't seem to be anything else to do. I had already taken pictures of the sandwich-making, so I took some pictures of the people cheering along the side of the road for the rescue workers.

After that, I walked north along the Husdon, all the way to the Chelsea Piers, to see if there was something that I could do there. I had heard that they were accepting donations there. Maybe I could help by sorting out the donations, or by moving boxes of donations, I thought. Well, I never even got to inquire. The police wouldn't even let me near the Chelsea Piers. When I arrived, they shouted, "Everybody head east! Out of this area! Go east!" Go east? There was nowhere else to go BUT east; we were at the Hudson River.

I did as I was told and walked into Chelsea. Since Chelsea was north of 14th Street, it had private vehicles on the street, like newspaper delivery trucks, so I checked to see if I could find any foreign newspapers like El Pais or La Repubblica on the newsstands. There were none. Suddenly it dawned on me: the airports are still closed. Delivery trucks are a moot point when delivery PLANES can't land.

I stopped at the Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue and bought some postcards of the Twin Towers, because soon THEY'LL no longer exist, either. Then I bought a T-shirt that had been printed before the disaster. It had an image of the Twin Towers on it. It's still hard to swallow, their absence. I really did love those buildings. I don't care that they had been criticized architecturally. I always thought they were stunning, beautiful-- the way they would change colors with the color of the light in the sky. I'll miss them.

I put on my Walkman and listened to the radio as I walked east. The Chelsea Piers didn't let me near, so maybe I could do something at the Armory on 26th and Lexington, I hoped. I listened to a lot of talk radio as I walked. It was very disturbing to hear so many budding jingos, calling in with comments. Xenophobia littered the airwaves. We're better than this, we Americans, I kept thinking. We're better than this. We are.

I've seen a lot of marvelous, lovely things from Americans these past few days, both on TV elsewhere in the country, and here in New York. But one fault that Americans have always had is this: the inability to see the difference between patriotism and jingoism. It seems to be a fine line that Americans always walk, often falling into the jingo side. Patriotism is fine. I'm moved by the patriotism that I've seen, and I've never felt so patriotic in my life.

New Yorkers I've never really considered to be especially patriotic, if at all. It seems to me that they are citizens of the nation of NYC, and then of the USA. Even on Tuesday, I didn't feel so much that the USA had been attacked. I felt that WE had been attacked-- we New Yorkers. It wasn't until the day dragged on, and I had time to think, that I thought of it as a national thing.

In these days though, I've seen New Yorkers wearing the flag-- people who at first glance, would never seem the "patriotic type". It feels good, but God, it's a fine line, and I fear that jingoism, as always in the USA, is showing its ugly face. I hope that this time, we can keep it under control and not let it consume us, as it did when German-Americans suffered in World War I, and when Japanese-Americans suffered in World War II.

When I got to the Armory, I was totally shocked. There, along the walls of 26th Street, from avenue to avenue, were photos of the missing. The number of photos assembled at Beth Israel Hospital was nothing compared to this. These were hundreds of photos--HUNDREDS--face after face after face after face after face after face after face... I read as many of them as I could (their date of birth, for which company they worked, in which tower, on which floor, and maybe a few sentences describing them personally), but after a while, it became too overwhelming, too numbing. After a few yards of reading each flier, the faces started to just pass in front of my eyes as if my eyes were a movie camera scanning the faces, or, as if I were a talent agent or casting director, flipping through an endless stack of head shots. Every once in a while, a "head shot" on a flier would catch my eye, and I'd pause to read the info, as if it were an actor's resume'. It was terrible, horrible.

I was finally able to grasp, to begin to comprehend, the magnitude of this tragedy, of this hideous crime. I got that burning sensation on the back of my neck, the same one as I used to have when I was a kid waiting for Dad to give me a belting. I hate that burning sensation in the back of my neck; I haven't felt it in ages.

I stopped looking at all those missing faces, and looked at a chain of people passing boxes along person by person, from a delivery truck to the interior of the Armory. I started to walk over to them to see if I could volunteer, but then I realized with a glance to my watch that it was nearing 5:00, and I had to be at work by 6:30. I walked quickly to my apartment, showered, changed, and walked to work.

I was very tired, especially my legs. I had walked a lot during the day. I passed Webster Hall, and assumed that the volunteer center never materialized. There was only a big flag hanging there, with "God Bless America" written on the marquee. On the way up Park Avenue South, I saw that a lot of businesses and restaurants had put up American flags. They seemed to be all over town. It was strange and heart-warming to see.

Not surprisingly, things were dead at work, and I left early. As I walked home, I passed by Union Square. It was around 10:30, and my God, what a metamorphosis... it was so unbelievably beautiful, so sad, so rich with creativity. Around the huge papier-mache' candle, there was now on the pavement a vast congregation of real candles, all lit, with flowers strewn among them. The glow, the colors... I can't express how lovely the scene is, how touching. I continued on home, changed into more comfortable clothes, grabbed my camera, and headed back to Union Square.

I can't explain how surreal it is to walk around my neighborhood with it being so "still". It's so quiet, so vacant, so dark, like an empty movie set. Walking from my apartment up to Union Square, I walked on 10th Street, passing 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, up to 12th Street, passing 3rd Avenue, 4th Avenue, Broadway, and up Broadway to Union Square. During the entire walk, I didn't see a single automobile. I walked smack-dab in the middle of the street, not using the sidewalk, no cars in sight, barely a soul walking, even-- at 11:30pm on a Thursday night! Has New York EVER been like this? EVER?

On Broadway, I crossed the 14th Street "border" checkpoint, and suddenly: people. Movement. Sounds. Life. As I approached the square, I could see a group standing almost in a perfect circle, and in the center, a few guys were shouting at each other in a political debate, tossing blame back and forth... "the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Americans, the Saudis, the Taliban, imperialism, socialism, zionism, blah blah blah..." I saw the same thing happening at Union Square the day before, and it disgusts me. Do we need to be shouting at each other and fighting at a moment like this? The victims have not been dead for more than two days! Can't we just reflect on the tragedy and on those who died? And will shouting at some guy whom you don't even know in Union Square solve any of the problems that we're going to face in this new conflict, that we are facing now? SHUT THE FUCK UP.

"Shut the fuck up" was what I felt like saying to the musicians who were showing up at the square with guitars, drums, etc. and playing hippie songs from the '60s. I always liked those songs, but here they seemed banal. They represent another time, another polemic, another world. When they started singing Kum-bai-ya, I rolled my eyes. The '60s ended almost 32 years ago. Let go. Let go and find your own generational identity.

I went up to the main part of the memorial where the sea of candles and flowers were, and knelt down. I wish that they'd cut the music, because SILENCE is much more powerful and eloquent. I tried to mentally shut it out, all the music and reverie from the other said of the square. It was distracting. It felt like Haight-Ashbury circa 1968, not Union Square 2001. The glow of the candles calmed me and awed me. There were so many.

Bordering all the candles along the edges of the circle, were people sitting, kneeling, gazing at the glow, their faces softly illuminated by the flickering lights. Many looked very introspective, immersed in their own feelings. I was very curious to know what thoughts, reflections and emotions were going through their hearts and minds. They just sat there, for such a long time, staring out at the candles. Once I got settled in there, I did the same.

What I saw inspired me to remember all the times that I had visited the Twin Towers, and all the masses of people that I always saw within. I remembered how once, on my first visit there, in February of 1990, I asked myself how many telephones there must be inside the two towers, and how many swivel chairs, and light bulbs, and desks, and how many personal photos on those desks, and how many people sitting behind those desks. Now I thought that again, but with the knowledge that all of those things, and more, came crashing down in maelstrom of destruction on Tuesday. My heart ached as I reflected on this, and so many different things.

Time passed. I saw that some candles had blown out. I grabbed a discarded lighter and started to re-light as many candles that had blown out as possible. Fliers with photos of the missing were placed among the candles. Their faces seemed to look at me, as I did my re-lighting.

I came across a photo that had fallen underneath two candles, and was in danger of being covered by dripping hot wax and ruined. It was the photo of a young man with sandy brown hair, maybe 21 or 22-years-old, squatting down and holding three small children in his arms, posing for the camera with a big smile on his face. In the background are some middle-aged people (his parents and an uncle?) also smiling.

On the back, it said something to the effect of, "Quinner, I pray for the day when you annoy the shit out of me again... I love you and my heart goes out to your family..." Was the young man killed in the Twin Towers? The caption really moved me. "I pray for the day that you annoy the shit out of me again." When someone you care about is forever gone, we appreciate the minute details of their personality-- even the details that annoy the shit out of us. I placed the photo back among the candles, fastening it to the top hat of a wooden Uncle Sam doll, thinking that there, it would be safe from hot candle wax.

Next to me lay a blond girl, no older than 20, using her handbag as a pillow. She stared out at the candles, her eyes wet, her face red and puffy. She was totally engrossed in her thoughts, still and deflated, unaware of the marijuana music that was playing nearby and the debates that were raging on a few yards away. The image of her really sticks with me. She was the personification of mourning to me, that girl.

I walked over to the "Wall of Hope", as it was called, which had on it yet more photos of those who were missing. I started to choke up with tears again, and walked to the western side of the square. I saw on the square's sidewalk near the George Washington statue, comments written in chalk defending Arab-Americans from attacks in recent days across the country. One comment said, "ARABS AREN'T THE ENEMY. TERRORISTS ARE."

Well, a skinny brown-haired guy started to furiously rub it off the pavement with his shoe, and a blond girl with her hair in bun saw him doing it, grabbed his arm, and said, "STOP that! What the hell are you doing?!" He shouted at her, "They're fucking pigs! They're scum! They should be wiped out!" and she said, "You're disgusting! YOU'RE the pig. You're revolting, repulsive--" He blurted, "They're--" and she cut him off: "They're HUMAN BEINGS! Why do you think they come to this country? To escape those Islamic regimes! You are sick."

The night was progressing and Union Square was becoming a public forum of sorts, complete with a microphone and speakers. Crowds were gathering around, listening to people speaking like voters listening to a politician. Most were speakers railing against the idea of war. Some off-handedly blamed the USA for the attacks, saying that our foreign policy has bred these terrorists due to our missteps in the Middle East. It was so much hot air... "Peace!" "We want peace!" "Give peace a chance!" "Peace on Earth!"... well OF COURSE we want peace! Who the fuck doesn't want peace? Wouldn't virtually everybody on the goddamned planet except the irretrievably insane want peace on Earth, and think of it as an ideal to be wished for?

The question is, HOW do we attain that peace? By singing '60s songs and coming up with touching, moving artwork? By writing on posters and debating in some city square? I don't want war, but nobody here is giving any feasible alternative to stop terrorism, besides simply intoning the refrain "Peace peace peace."

Then a blond frat-boyish kind of guy stood up, grabbed the mic, and, with no evidence that PLO was behind the attacks, said that we should retaliate right away and "turn Palestine into a parking lot". People booed him. He said, "Hey, I have friends who are missing in those ruins!" Something inside of me snapped, and I shouted out to him, "So you're going to be as bad as the terrorists themselves? Kill ALL the Palestinians just because they're Palestinians, just like the terrorists killed Americans just because they're Americans? They're diverse, too, just like us! I was there, and I got warm treatment from them--"

I then shut my mouth, not being able to go on. I was way too altercated. I just wanted to get the hell out of there and cool off. Then a black man with the most beautiful complexion put his arm on my shoulder and soothingly said, "Go up there and speak. Finish what you were going to say. Go on. Speak." I refused, but he kept convincing me. He took my arm and led to the steps where people were speaking. "Go on," he said gently. He finally convinced me. I had to wait for like three people to finish speaking, which gave me time to gather my thoughts, and then I spoke.

I basically said, "Who is THEY? Who is THEM? I was in Israel, and I went to the West Bank, to Bethlehem, and I left the Manger Square area, and when I met Palestinians, the reception was always warm: 'You're from New York? I have cousin in Brooklyn', 'You're from America? I have a sister in Baltimore' 'in Chicago' 'in Philadelphia'... We got lost and were helped to find our way by a Palestinian woman who was raised in a convent and speaks Italian. THOSE Palestinians are not cheering right now, the way the sick-minded ones are... In these days, I've heard a guy say, 'Burn down the mosques', I've seen xenophobic graffiti pointed at a mosque in my neighborhood. During World War I, German-Americans and their businesses were attacked and looted. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were interred in prison camps. Let's not let the same mistakes happen in our country again."

I got a good round of applause for my comments, big deal. I had thought that all this speaking that is going on in Union Square is just a lot of mental masturbation, and probably really is, but I wanted to say what I said because there are a lot of things that are troubling me right now, and this nascent brand of xenophobia is genuinely frightening to me. If it's this bad in Manhattan, imagine being an Arab out in the heartland.

So anyhow, after I finished my lil' speech, it started to pour down rain, thunder, et al. I ran home in the rain-- it was easy, with no cars on the street at all. But the only thing that I had on my mind as I ran home drenched in water, was that the rain was going to make it extra-hard for the rescue workers down at Ground Zero to do their jobs.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Dance with Miss Universe

Last night I was writing about how I have gotten very forgetful about this blog, and I thought to myself, I must write something tonight... or tomorrow.

Then later, as I was watching TV, mindlessly flipping through the channels, I saw that the Miss Universe pageant was on. I watched it in its entirety. Miss Venezuela won, for the second year in a row, the first time a country won for two years straight.

I used to watch the Miss Universe pageant as a kid. And although the pageant has changed for the worse (last night's pageant was a horrible, vapid, rushed spectacle-- the whole format of the show sucks compared to the suspenseful, involved competition it was in the '70s and '80s) some things never change: the final 5 are always dominated by Latin American super-contestants (last night it was Miss Venezuela, Miss Dominican Republic and Miss Puerto Rico) just as they were when I was a kid. Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, be damned.

Anyway, last night's Miss Universe pageant gave me an inspiration. Why write a new post? Why not just copy and paste?

You see, last February I met a former Miss Universe, and I wrote a long, loooong piece about it. It has been sitting in my Windows documents for 6 months now. I figured I'd dust it off and paste it below. So here it is....

Friday, February 13, 2009--

Before I write about my brush with Miss Universe yesterday, let me start out by saying that I am not a star-struck person. In addition to living in Los Angeles for over 3 years now, I lived in New York City for 15 years, and during all this time, I've seen, in person, a large number of celebrities, usually with me in a service capacity... presenting them with a tray of hors d'oeurves, waiting on their table, assigning them a table to sit at, checking their coat... but also on "equal-footing"... walking past them on the sidewalk, in line with them for coffee, eating at a table near theirs, waiting with them for the "walk" sign at a corner... even marching slightly behind them in a parade.

I've seen in person Woody Allen, Kathy Bates, Alec Baldwin, Uma Thurman, OJ Simpson, Anthony Hopkins, Tony Bennett, Donald Trump, James Franco, Drew Barrymore, Tobias Wolf, Claudette Colbert, Ethan Hawke, America Ferrara, Ice-T, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Brendan Frasier, Leonardo Di Caprio, Judge Judy, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Sean Leonard, Martha Stewart, Kyra Sedgwick, Gloria Steinham, Adam Sandler, Lee Grant, Julie Haggardy, Michael Douglas, Spike Lee, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Smits, Benjamin Netanyahu, Glenn Close, Maggie Smith, Ann B. Davis, Kathleen Turner, Richard Dreyfuss, Salman Rushdie, Marsha Mason, Al Franken, Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Jackie Chan, Patrick Swayze, Andy Garcia, Eric Dane, Bernadette Peters, Rick Moranis, Chris Farley, Mary J. Blige, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rudolph Giuliani, George Pataki, Ed Rendell, Rick Perry, Chuck Schumer, Chelsea Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Laurence Fishburne, Roscoe Lee Brown, Christina Aguilera, Kristen Chenoweth, Barbara Walters, Marni Nixon, Astrud Gilberto, Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, Bob Dole, Mariah Carey, Lauren Bacall.... and many, many more who have slipped my mind.

I never was that awestruck by seeing celebs, even at the beginning. Only thrice have I ever asked for an autograph. Only once did I tell one that I admired his work. And as time passed, I became so not-awestruck that I wouldn't even look thrice at them. Sure, when Lauren Bacall handed me her coat to check, I thought, Holy Christ, that woman has had sex with HUMPHREY BOGART, but it's not like I waited with baited breath for her to return later and claim her coat. Lauren Bacall? She's another person, that's all... a rather legendary one, but still, just a person.

I don't say this to brag. Rather, I say this so that you won't think, as you read what follows, that I am some star-eyed hick who freaks out at seeing a minor celebrity, if even a celebrity at all.

Well, I think that former Miss Universes fall under the category of "if even a celebrity at all". Yet to me, being Miss Universe, and Miss USA, is a very big deal. You see, I'm originally from Texas, and in Texas, beauty pageants are a very big deal. I don't mean to use that as an excuse. There are many Texans who don't give a shit about beauty pageants. It's not an excuse, it's a reason.

When I was a teenager in the '80s, five--count 'em--FIVE Miss Texases won the Miss USA title. Not only that, but they won the crown five years IN A ROW. Back then, I thought it a very big deal that my state was winning Miss USA every year, and during those five years, I was profoundly disappointed on an annual basis that none of them won the Miss Universe title. Miss Chile won it one year, Miss Thailand another year, Miss Holland another… but never the five annual Miss USAs from Texas--not once--five years in a row. Winning Miss Universe, I learned, was no easy feat.

As a kid, Miss Universe was always my favorite pageant. There were many pageants... Miss Texas, Miss USA, Miss America, Miss World... but Miss Universe was the one not to miss. My family used to gather in the living room every year and watch it as a big event... my mother, father, sister and I. There was always a finalist or two from a Spanish-speaking country, and as Cubans, I suspect my parents felt a sense of pride, because if Miss USA was not in the finals, we'd root for Miss Venezuela or Miss Colombia or Miss Puerto Rico or Miss Spain or Miss Quien Sea.

I remember once asking my mother why there was never a Miss Cuba in the competition, and she said, “Because Fidel Castro is a cruel dictator and will not let Cuban girls compete.” My heart sank just thinking of this injustice. “That’s Communism for you” added my father. You may think my parents’ reply silly, but you will notice that Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, a commie Fidelista if ever there was one, has not stopped Venezuela from competing in the Miss Universe pageant. There would be an armed uprising from the masses, and Hugo knows it. Stereotypically, Latin Americans take beauty pageants very seriously, and my family fit the stereotype.

The earliest Miss Universe pageant that I remember is from when I was like 6 years-old. The first runner up was Miss Haiti, and the winner was from one of the Scandinavian countries; I forget which. I just remember being shocked that Miss Haiti, a black woman, and very black at that, made it so far in the competition. When it got down to the final two contestants, I thought, Miss Haiti CAN'T win! She can't! Miss Blond HAS to win, she's BLOND! Not Miss Haiti… not Miss Haiti… not Miss Haiti.... Then the emcee said, “And the first runner-up is…. MISS HAITI!” and I felt relieved. Whew. Miss Haiti didn’t win. Then I felt guilty for feeling relieved. It was my first encounter with racism, and it was self-induced. Gimme a break: I was 6.

A couple of years later I redeemed myself, because a black contestant was in the finals, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen. I guess I evolved from age 6 to 8, because I didn't care about her race. She was Miss Trinidad and Tobago. I remember this because I asked my mother how one woman could represent two countries. To me, a “Miss Trinidad and Tobago” was the same as a “Miss France and Germany”--nonsensical. My mother told me that Trinidad and Tobago was one country, not two--two united islands in the Caribbean. Well, whatever her national status, she was absolutely lovely, like an angel. I wanted so much for her to win, and was thrilled when she did. We have a black Miss Universe! Hooray! I was cured of my beauty queen racism.

The following year, Miss USA was in the finals, but it didn't matter. I thought Miss South Africa was more beautiful and I wanted her to win. She was white, though. I couldn't understand why a contestant from an African country would be white. So I asked my mother, "Mom, why is Miss South Africa WHITE?" and my mother said, "Because in that country there are a lot of whites, and the whites rule the government, and they don't let blacks have equal rights. The blacks have to drink in separate water fountains and go to separate bathrooms, just like here in this country before you were born. So the blacks probably aren't allowed to compete in beauty pageants South Africa".

When the coronation came, the previous year's Miss Universe, the black woman from Trinidad and Tobago, put the crown on the white woman from South Africa's head. I wondered if she knew how people of her race were treated in South Africa, and if so, how she felt about crowning a white representative of South Africa. I also wondered if the new Miss Universe would have wanted the old Miss Universe to sit in the back of the bus.

Yes, the Miss Universe pageant figured large in my youth. It was anticipated annual event, like the Oscars.

Which brings me to yesterday's audition...

I had an audition for a Target Commercial at Casparis Casting on Beverly Blvd. I had had one of these before some months back, where I walked down an imaginary runway to the beat of some hip music. Well, when I got there, I asked if there were any sides ("sides" are sheets of paper that have the dialogue that you will be saying in the audition). The guy told me that there were no sides, no dialogue, that I would just be walking down an imaginary runway to the beat of some hip music. Huh. Like the last time, I thought.

With no sides to review and attempt to commit to memory, I was free to sit in the waiting area and read my current book. However, I was unable to read more than a few pages, because soon my name was called.

I went over to the guy. He gestured me to sit on one of two stools, along with the girl I was to audition with. He also told me to do something that was unusual. He wanted me to hold one of my headshots AND one of the girl's headshots, and she was to do the same with one of hers and one of mine. Usually, you just hand your one headshot to the person running the audition, and never handle another actor's headshot.

"Hi" I said to the girl, and handed her one of my headshots as she handed me one of hers. "Hi" she said, and sat down. I sat down next to her. There we sat, side by side, alone in the hall, waiting to go in and audition.

Normally, it would be during this waiting time that the two actors assigned to audition together would go over the sides and rehearse. But since there was no dialogue, there was nothing left for us to do but kill time with small talk.

I've noticed over time that pretty female actors generally don't like talking to male actors at auditions. They usually seem rather reticent to engage. They're friendly and cheery, yet stand-offish. I think it's because after so many auditions with so many actors, they are probably used to having actor guys talking to them in an attempt to give or get a phone number, and really, what could possibly be more unappealing to a young woman than a struggling actor? So they keep their distance a bit and tend to keep extended personal conversation to a minimum. The prettier they are, the more stand-offish they seem to be, and understandably so.

Well, this girl was very pretty, so I didn't want to bother her by engaging her in conversation, for the aforementioned reason. She was pretty in an innocent, Emmy Rossum way... perfect complexion, high cheekbones, with very exotic yet wholesome, innocent good looks. There was nothing intimidating about her beauty. She also had a nebulous ethnic look to her. She looked like she could be Spanish mixed with Amerindian, or Polynesian mixed with Italian, or Filipino mixed with Korean, or Persian mixed with Arab... perhaps her ancestors are from India or Sri Lanka... or they could be Eskimos... the ethnic role casting possibilities for this girl were endless.

I had her headshot in my hands. Unlike most headshots, she didn’t have her name printed on the photo or under it. I wanted to turn the headshot over so that I could look at her resume', thinking that perhaps her surname might give me a clue to her ethnicity. But I didn't, for fear of looking nosey.

We sat there, silently staring off into space for a few seconds. The silence was awkward. I ventured to speak.

"I think I've auditioned for this casting director before," I said, "I remember an identical Target commercial at this very office a few months back."

"Yes, she does Target", she replied, "This is like my 5th audition for Target here. There's never any dialogue. Just walking down the runway, then dancing"

"Yeah, that's what I did the last time, too. As though I were a runway model"

"Target is trying to save money. Models are more expensive than actors, so they've been cutting costs by using people like us, who are not that beautiful"

I turned and looked at her. Not that beautiful? How could she say that about herself? She was really quite beautiful. Sure, she wasn’t sexy-beautiful, but she was My-mom-will-love-you beautiful, and how. I gave her a perplexed look, but I guess she misunderstood my expression, because she said,

"Oh, I didn't mean that you are not beautiful. It's just that you and I, we're just not as unrealistically and absurdly beautiful as fashion models are. We look like real, normal people, not perfect."

I shrugged and looked across the hall. There were three tall, thin blond girls waiting to audition for a Virgin Atlantic commercial. I said,

"Those girls over there are models, huh?"

"Gee, d'ya THINK?" she said, "Whatever gave you that idea? Could it be that they are 6 feet tall and weigh about 60 pounds each, or could it be that they are hardly dressed, despite the fact that it's only 60 degrees today?"

I chuckled. Then I sighed. Then I said,

"I hate commercial auditions"

"Really? Why?" she asked, with a tone of surprise.

"Because it seems so little to do with how I perform. It's so much more about how I look, and if someone else is more of what they're looking for physically, my performance becomes irrelevant"

"Oh, okay. I know what you mean"

"I've given great auditions and not gotten a callback, and then I've given lousy auditions and gotten callbacks, on-avails and even bookings"

"It's a lottery" she said, "It's totally like playing the lottery. If your number's up, it's up. It's an odds game--the lottery."

At that point I started to get the feeling that I had seen her somewhere before. This happens often at auditions, because the actors may have been in commercials that you have seen, or have had a one-day role on a TV series. That's how I was feeling with her after talking to her-- I knew her from somewhere, but where? I wanted to hear more of her voice because it seemed to be her voice that gave me the impression that I knew her from somewhere.

There was a woman down the hall holding a newborn baby in one of those cloth slings. I said,

"Aw, look at that baby. It looks so comfy in that sling"

"I could never carry my son in one of those" she said.

She has a son? She looks so young, I thought.

"You have son? You look so young" I said.

"Well, he's only a year old"

"And why can't you carry him in a sling?"

"Because I'm paranoid. I need something made by a manufacturer,” she said dryly, “so that if my baby falls, I'll have a company to sue."

I laughed. "So how do you carry him then?"

"Oh, I don't carry him anymore. The kid can walk, so no more carrying. That’s it. No mas. But when he was little, I would carry him in one of those backpacks that goes on your front instead."

I think she sensed that I was totally ignorant of the real names of baby-carrying devices. I said, "Well, you women have nature's baby carrier: your hips. You can perch a baby effortlessly on your hips."

"Yeah, that is true."

"I remember being at the zoo when my younger niece was a baby. I tried perching her on my hip like my sister did, but she kept sliding off. We men have non-existent hips. It's nature's way of saying that women should be the ones to carry babies"

"A lame excuse" she said.

And then the chit-chat abruptly ended, because we were called to go in and audition.

We handed the guy running the audition our headshots and stood on the line made of masking tape on the carpet, to the right of her.

He pointed the camera at me and said, "Slate your names".

I looked into the camera and said, "Larry Nodarse, and I’m willing to shave", referring to my goatee.

He said, "Left profile. Right profile” and I turned to my left and my right.

Then she slated her name: "Brooke Lee" she said, and then showed her profiles.

Suddenly, a bell went off in my head. Brooke Lee... Brooke Lee... Brooke Leeeeeee..... MISS UNIVERSE! She was Miss Universe! THAT'S where I've seen her before!

It kind of freaked me out that I knew her name, because while I used to watch the Miss Universe Pageant annually as a kid in Texas, I've rarely watched it again after leaving Texas in 1990. Maybe three times, tops, in the 18 years since then.

After we slated, the guy started telling us what to do in the audition, but I didn't hear a word he said. Instead, I looked at her, and saw a humongous crown on her head with 80 international beauty queens who lost, standing behind her, clapping with forced smiles. I saw her walking down the runway, with a bushel of flowers in her arm, waving at the crowds as the tuxedoed has-been emcee grandly announces her prizes and new responsibilities as the new female representative of the universe. She was the girl from Hawaii, wasn't she? The one who at Miss USA or Miss Universe made the radical feminist comment that beauty queens can gain a lot of weight and still be beautiful? Wasn’t that her?

"Larry..?" said the guy, "Did you get that?"

SHIT. What am I supposed to be doing when the camera rolls? I missed everything he told us because my mind was elsewhere. Stop thinking about Miss Universe... "Yeah, I got it, but could you repeat it though, just to be sure that I got it right?"

He sighed and said, "Okay. AGAIN: this is the 'runway', you are a runway model at a Target fashion show. She'll do it first, then you. The first time you do it sly and sexy. Stop at the first mark on the floor, look at the camera. Walk to the second mark on the floor. Stop. Look at the camera. Walk to the third mark on the floor. Stop. Look at the camera. Walk back to the second mark. Stop. Look at the camera, and then walk directly to it. Then walk back to the second mark, and then to the first mark without stopping. Then SHE will go a second time and do the same thing she did before. Then you go a second time and do the same thing you did before, but this time with a spring in your step and to the beat of the music, and with a big smile, just like her. But at the end, instead of walking out-of-camera, stop at the second mark. She’ll come out and join you, and you two will dance together for a minute, and that's it. Got it?"

"Can we walk through it first, rehearse it?"


"Okay, I got it. I can do it."

Miss Universe and I stood against the wall side-by-side as we waited for him to tell us to start. She’s not very tall… she’s barely taller than my shoulder… aren’t all Miss Universes supposed to be very tall...? She elbowed my arm and whispered, "Don't worry, it's easy. You’ll be okay. You'll see."

"Yeah, it's the same as the last one I did here. No sweat."

The music came on and she started her fake runway walk. How times change, I thought, looking at her. A few years ago, she was walking down a real runway in a glamorous evening gown, and a mountainous crown on her head, and a hedge of flowers in her arms, in an immense theater full of applause, with an international television audience watching her. Now she's here, in this harshly-lit little room, in a gray sweater with her hair in a ponytail, walking to masking tape marks on the dreary carpeting, with mere ME. How times change...

My turn. I went. I walked down the imaginary fashion runway. Sly and sexy, sly and sexy, sly and sexy, cool cool cool....

I finished and stood against the wall, and she did her runway walk a second time. I watched her and thought, How can she say that she's not that beautiful? Not so 'absurdly and unrealistically beautiful'? 'Real, normal' looks? She was Miss UNIVERSE. Doesn't that mean extra-ordinary beauty? Not even Miss World, but Miss UNIVERSE... meaning she’s even more beautiful than women on OTHER planets. Miss UNIVERSE of all people has low self esteem when it comes to her looks? And what year did she win, anyway? I've only seen like 3 or 4 Miss Universe pageants since 1990. So is she my age, then? She looks so young...

She returned and stood against the wall. My turn again. Out on the 'runway' I went. A spring in my step, beat of the music, big smile… spring in my step, beat of the music, big smile… spring in my step, beat of the music, big smile… playful 'n cool, playful 'n cool, playful 'n cool....

I stopped at the second mark, and she came out and joined me, and we danced together. I'm dancing with Miss UNIVERSE, I thought. Then out of nowhere, I heard a loud female voice, seemingly coming from Heaven:

"Can you have him do it over again? He's walking way too fast, and I'd actually like to SEE him. All I see is a blur. He needs to slow down."

I looked around, trying to find where the voice was coming from. Miss Universe said, "It's her" meaning the casting director, who was obviously watching from another room on a TV set, and speaking on an intercom, like Charlie in Charlie's Angels. Wasn't Farrah Fawcett a former Miss Universe? Or was it Jaclyn Smith…?

The guy said, "Let's do the whole thing over again. Man, you gotta slow down. And another thing, both times you didn't stop at the first mark, and walked right past the camera's focus to the second mark. Stop at the first mark, like I said."

"Okay, sorry" I said, but he kept talking...

"You know, I teach a commercial audition class, and the first thing I tell my students is to LISTEN. That's why mistakes are made, because actors DON'T LISTEN. The simple key to a successful audition is LISTENING. You weren't listening. Stop at the FIRST mark before stopping at the subsequent ones, okay?"

I felt like telling him that I normally DO listen, and I never flub the directions, but this time I did because was distracted by imagining Miss Universe here, in her towering crown. Did you know SHE was Miss Universe? I did not tell him that, however.

“Slate your names again” he told us. Miss Universe walked back to the camera to slate. I felt like an idiot being the cause of her having to do it again.

After re-slating, we started the whole routine again. She did her walk, and I did mine, this time without a hitch. I watched her as she did her “runway” walk and thought, She surely won the swimsuit and evening gown competitions, no? That’s runway modeling, and yet she may not even get a callback for this lousy commercial. Some girl who has never even competed in a local beauty pageant may book this gig over her. I am such a geek. I need to get a life. Why am I even thinking these things? It was my turn to do my second walk. When I finished, she joined me in front of the camera and we danced. I’m really dancing with Miss Universe. No big deal--not the waltz or the tango, we’re not even touching, but still, I’m dancing with Miss Universe. I never would have dreamed this as a child in Texas... Jesus Larry, big deal. Get a life.

“Thanks guys. That was fine. That’s all” he said.

“Okay, thanks, bye”, she and I both said.

She walked out of the room, and as I was about to walk out, he stopped me by saying, “Hey man, I’m sorry if I got a little harsh with you about listening. Nothing personal.”

“No, no problem” I said, “You must have to put up with that a lot. I understand.”

When I walked out into the hall, I was surprised to see that Miss Universe hadn’t gone off already. She was there waiting for me.

She said, “Don’t worry about her telling to repeat what you did. If she stopped the audition like that, it means that she liked you and wanted to make sure you came out well on tape. She’ll call you in for future auditions, you’ll see.”

I tried to act cool, like I couldn’t have cared less, and jokingly said, “Woo, I’m thrilled”

I think she took my sarcasm the wrong way, because said flatly, “Okay. Well. Bye”.

“Bye, Brooke” I said, “It was nice to meet you” and without looking back at me, she put on her winter coat, walked out the building very quickly, and was gone.

She MUST have originally been Miss Hawaii, I thought, looking out the front doors where she had exited. Why else would she be wearing a thick coat like that in 60-degree weather? Only a Hawaiian could think it’s cold today.

On the drive home, I listened as usual to liberal political talk radio on AM 1150, but I wasn’t really listening, because I was too busy thinking, lost in my thoughts… Michelle Pfieffer competed for the Miss California crown, and didn't even win. Halle Berry won Miss Ohio, but didn’t win Miss USA. She was first runner-up... She didn’t even get to compete for Miss Universe, and now she’s Halle Berry, an Academy Award winning actress, a top box office draw, starring in major motion pictures… Laura Harring did win Miss USA… yet she didn’t even get to the finals of Miss Universe, but she starred in Mulholland Drive, one of my favorite films ever… she was directed by David freakin’ LYNCH, for God’s sake… and Brooke Lee… well, she won Miss USA and Miss Universe… and now she’s auditioning for TARGET COMMERCIALS…? Not pre-cast, but auditioning for a sans-dialogue commercial…? It shows you just how little these pageants mean... Well, give her a break… maybe she’s not even pursuing acting. She could be pursuing commercials and the hosting and emecee-ing of television shows… she’s probably not an actor, so how can I compare her to Halle Berry? Why was I so impressed by meeting Brooke Lee, anyway? It’s absurd… I’m such a dork… I’ve seen so many real celebrities in person, so what’s the big deal about auditioning with Brooke Lee…? Hmm… it’s childhood. Childhood is a hard thing to shake off, isn’t it? If, as a child, something is a big deal to you, you can be 40-years-old and it still impresses you… after all, of all those big celebrities that I saw in NYC, I only asked three of them for an autograph, all three of them after I had seen them perform on Broadway. The first was Maggie Smith, the second was Glenn Close, and the third, and most important, was Ann B. Davis… of course she was the most important of them all… of course she was… she was ALICE in The Brady Bunch…. I adored her as a child… I didn’t know who the hell Maggie Smith and Glenn Close were when I was in 3rd grade, but I sure knew who Alice and Miss Universe were… I’m surprised I didn’t get into a car accident on the drive home, so distracted was I by my thoughts.

Of course when I got home, the first thing I did was sit at my computer, get online, go to YouTube and type “Brooke Lee” in the search box. The first thing I noticed was that her name is spelled Brook not Brooke. That surprised me. I had just assumed that every female with that name would naturally spell their name like Brooke Shields. With an “e” on the end, the name brings the lovely Brooke Shields to mind… without an “e” it brings to mind a creek or marsh…

I watched clips of her winning the Miss USA crown and of her winning the Miss Universe crown. I watched clips of her in the interview competitions, and saw that funny, smart, somewhat sassy woman that I saw at the audition an hour before. I realized that what won her those crowns was her smarts more than her beauty; good for her.

I realized that for all the glamor and swirl of winning such a competition, it only represents a moment in time, and the one consolation for the probably 200 women that she defeated for the Miss Hawaii, Miss USA and Miss Universe titles, is that, like them, today she's a normal mom, living her life pretty much un-noticed, going out for interviews when a job possibility arises. I learned that winning one of those crowns, really, amounts to pretty much nothing (unless you are Venezuelan, where they make you a senator for life).

I guess I didn't realize that because I haven't given the topic any thought since my youth, so I was thinking as a youth... well, until I met the lovely Brook Lee yesterday.

That was loooooong, huh? Anyway, it's funny that I mentioned what happens to a Venezuelan Miss Universe winner, because last night, Venezuela got a new, pretty, senator for life.