Thursday, January 31, 2008

Janis Frankenstein (American Idol 7 Miami audition)

If former American Junior, Julie Dubela, doesn’t know what “precocious” means, I doubt that she’s familiar with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” or even the Boris Karloff movie. Basically Victor Frankenstein cobbles together a bunch of parts from dead bodies to create super-humans. Something goes amiss with Victor Frankenstein’s project. He manages to give the parts life, but instead of it being “beautiful” he finds himself repulsed by his own creation. The creature then turns to murder and treachery.

This may have been the most memorable audition of the season for me. If you didn’t watch the Miami auditions, Julie Dubela is a 16 year old who made the top 20 of American Juniors four years ago. She opens with “Hey Ryan, do you remember me?”

She’s attractive, but dresses like something out of the movie “Clueless” meets “Austin Powers”. She has a pretty good voice and stage presence or at least confidence. The producers cue up footage from her promising turn on American Juniors as a cute and talented twelve year old with the voice and stage manner of a 16 year old. The now actually 16 year old Julie breaks out a very affected Janis Joplin (someone who clearly was never a cutesy teenager) filled with hand gestures and lounge act vocal flourishes as if she were some washed up second rate 42 year old. The judges hate her.

“It’s not good” they tell her. “Stop the acting!” Simon says.

“What acting, this is me,” Julie replies.

“You’ve got to be kidding. My God this is pitiful,” think the judges without quite saying it.

She’s devastated and clearly shocked by their negative reaction. She tries the slip in a second song bit used by the desperate and talentless. That irritates the judges even more. Simon tells her to go to the San Fernando Valley to make porn movies. Actually, he tells her to go to Hollywood to be an actress, but he might as well have told her the other thing.

Simon might be right. Julie Dubela would make a good annoying daughter or goofy friend on some sitcom assuming the writers’ strike ever ends. She’s basically Makayla Gordon with a more mainstream tv look. It also wasn’t that long ago when young singers wanted to be Britney Spears. Even Julie Dubela knows better. She likely chose Janis Joplin to distance herself from the bubble gum pop thing. That whole path to pop stardom is in serious rehab, yet she was made for it at least in part because of shows like Idol and American Juniors.

Perhaps the saddest moment comes when the judges accuse her of working on her schtick and mannerisms with some coach just for the auditions. Julie's near-tears protest goes, “No, I practiced them at home in front of the mirror.”

She leaves. The camera shows her brushing off the comfort of a motherly (maybe it was her agent) arm. The producers then cut to an extended clip from the 12 year old Julie Dubela, Simon makes some comment about being “over-indulged” something that’s never happened to him and Paula chimes in about “another one who’s never been told ‘No’ ”. (Shannon McGough, the butcher’s daughter who also dared to sing Janis, got hit with the same tag)

I’m not sure if the show or the judges pick up on the irony at all. They’re horrified by the 16 year old made for TV stardom monster. They think they’re teaching her a lesson by telling her “NO” for the first time in her life. Given Idol’s downward popularity spiral this year, they’ve missed what’s really poignantly tragic about the whole thing. Simon, Paula, Randy, and the producers are Victor Frankenstein. As much as anyone, they created Julie Dubela and Shannon McGough and now they’re filled with revulsion by them and disdain anyone who could be so mistaken as to think that these young ladies might have a “chance” at actual pop stardom.

It’s sad, but the real monster isn’t Victor Frankenstein’s creation, it’s Victor Frankenstein himself. Last year’s auditions might have been too mean in a snarky way. This is a mean that the show doesn’t even grasp and that’s what makes it even more tragic. I suspect the only way AI could redeem itself would be for Julie Dubela to come back as an 18 year old, assuming AI is still on tv, turn out to be terrific and thank the producers for working with her to find herself as a performer rather than some record producer’s pastiche for pop stardom. In the meantime, she maybe should work on vocabulary for the SAT instead of the potential dangers of stardom at too young an age.

That brings me to Syesha Mercado. Paula hears the big voice and the uber-Aretha bit and jumps out of her chair, points her finger, and says “That’s it. She’s the “One” “.

Before she can say it, the producers cut her off. Most of America missed “The One” a reality show that crossed American Idol with Big Brother. One of the judges was Mark Hudson and he sported a purple-pink goatee. One of the criticisms was that the actual performers who were supposed to be working but obscure professionals came off less like future stars than as individuals who were just short of making the final 24 on American Idol. The result was a mix that felt less like it might produce “The One” than the “Whatever”. I’m the only person who actually watched both episodes. At least I’m the only one who admits to it.

Syesha Mercado was on that show as an 18 year old and iirc she sang Aretha or something like it and sounded more or less the same. For her turn on Idol she also brought along her back story, a father who’d been a drug addict. It was kind of interesting because Dad seemed to have mixed feelings about being a prop for a reality show. I’m old enough to remember when wannabe celebrities tried to hide stuff like that (maybe not healthy in its way) rather than treat it as a career booster.

Anyway, Syesha Mercado, as Paula pointed out, can definitely sing. Still, there was something queasy and wrong about the whole setup. It wasn’t as disturbing as Victor Frankenstein, it was just sort of weirdly desperate. As a musical matter, I also worry about auditions where you hear about forty five seconds of big voiced vocal gymnastics and then a sudden drop off before the judges even tell her to stop. It made me wonder if that might be all she really has. In post-global warming times, we’re we seeing all of the iceberg that is Syesha Mercado?

The show slipped in a couple quick clips of Natashia Blanch (At Last) and Ilsye Pinot (Unfaithful) and neither got a backstory or even an interview. Did that mean that they’re both really boring or is the show just sort of hiding them? They spring yet another single mother, Suzanne Toon, who sings sultry and quite well. Do you remember how low key they were about Fantasia being a single mom? I do think Lakisha Jones would have done better if they’d given her more back story as a “Mom”. This year though there are so many single parents in the auditions, I imagine they’ll have to open a daycare center during the Hollywood rounds.

There’s a gypsy music guy from Venezuela named Ghaleb Emachah who sounds and plays something like a good street musician (actually they’re often better than actual Idol singers). Paula gets to act crazy then as she decides his fate gets this sudden image of maybe helping him out, buying him some clothes, giving him a few performing tips. The image is so overwhelming that she rushes over to hug him to deliver the good news. Simon then pretends to sniff Paula’s glass for alcohol.

I think that bit was to balance off Brittany Wescott and Corliss Smith, two plus-sized African America ladies with outsized personalities. Neither one looks twenty, but whatever. Ghaleb looked to be in his early forties. The producers do two shots of Ryan sandwiched between the ladies on the waiting area couch. One of the ladies claims to be “into” Ryan. I don’t thing Ryan made a point of getting her number. The ladies both sing surprisingly well and flirt exclusively with Randy and Simon while more or less ignoring Paula. I’d be surprised if they make it out of Hollywood though.

Robbie Carrico claims to have been in a boy band, yet ominously no one mentions which one it was (Boys and Girls United). He turns up as one of the few males who gets a golden ticket. There was also this strange interlude about Jasmine Trias's breakaway success since she finished four spots ahead of Jennifer Hudson which turned out to be a segue to Ramiele Malubay whom I gather sings really well for a short person, at least based on the judge's comments. Why is Natural Woman Aretha Franklin's song? I know she covered it, but didn't Carole King write the thing and make it a hit?

I should mention that I actually missed the Omaha auditions. My daughter had gotten control of the tv and was watching the DVD of Desperate Housewives Season 3 and didn’t want to see Desperate Famewhores Season 7 auditions instead. My wife told me that I was too obsessed with AI anyway. I went through withdrawal for about six hours and scoured google to see if there was some version of Omaha online. No luck, and by Wednesday night it occurred to me that my missing AI just isn’t that big a deal even with the gigantic blogging empire built on my reviews of reality shows. I suspect most people click, but don’t read btw.

While Miami was really pretty good TV, I think my realization that none of it matters just about says it all. The show’s producers are busily tinkering with the formula to fight off the ratings and interest slump, but the real fix is simple. Idol needs a couple actual stars this year. I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen them yet on this season’s auditions.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Deja Webber (sports)

What kind of odds would you have gotten on this ten years ago? Don Nelson and Chris Webber not only reunite with the Warriors, Nelson turns out to be the catalyst for getting Webber back. I already sent Satan a down parka and a space heater. Even if they don’t get near the NBA championship, the Warriors might be the best theater in the NBA. If the team is some sort of morality play, the running theme seems to be redemption.

Always a champion in his playing career, Don Nelson the coach has proven repeatedly that he can rebuild a team and get it to the brink of serious contention, but... In his first go round with the Warriors back when America was saving Kuwait, Nelson hit on a way to play entertaining even winning basketball with Run TMC. In his quest to get to the NBA final, Nelson gave up the M (Mitch Richmond), lost the T (Tim Hardaway) to injury, and began looking for ways to get bigger while still playing "small ball". He traded up to get Chris Webber, a sophomore forward from Michigan, who was the rare power forward who passed and ran well enough to play in Nelson’s breakneck offensive system. The only problem was that in his rookie season, Webber had to play center most of the time. Nelson traded Billy Owens, a friend of Webber’s, to get Rony Seikaly, one of the league’s few true centers who could play offense from the Miami Heat.

Suddenly, it turned out that Chris Webber didn’t like the way Don Nelson coached. Before Webber’s second season and his ascent to elite status in the league got under way, it turned into “him or me” between Webber and Nelson. Within a few months, the Warriors lost both Webber and Nelson. “Him or me” degenerated into Donyell Marshall and twelve straight losing seasons.

Nelson eventually rebuilt the Dallas Mavericks, but couldn’t quite get Nowitzki and Nash over the championship hump. Critics often insisted that the problem was that Nelson couldn’t develop a big man who played near the basket.

Webber went to the Wizards who managed to not win with Rasheed Wallace, Webber, and Ben Wallace all on the roster at the same time. He then turned up in Sacramento where he had the best years of his career with former Warriors coach, Rick Adelman.
Some insisted the Kings couldn’t get over the hump because Webber didn’t go inside enough. For the last couple years, Webber’s been trying to be the missing piece on a championship level team. Injuries and chemistry kept it form working in Philadelphia. He played relatively well for the Pistons, but they fell short last year as well. At 35, Webber’s legacy is that of a good big man who wasn’t quite good enough to carry a team really deep into the playoffs.

There you have it. Nelson and Webber have parallel reputations as coach and player. The irony, of course, is that thirteen years ago Webber was going to be the star big man who could flourish in Nelson’s style. Now it appears that the Warriors are the only contender with much of an interest in the older-slower version of Chris Webber.

A year ago, I wrote that Don Nelson’s would be considered a genius in his return to Golden State if he managed to make the playoffs in his first two seasons. He’s well beyond that. Now he wants to up the ante and show that he can take a team to at least an NBA final. Most fascinating of all, Chris Webber is not the guy who’s going to play offense under the basket. He remains a terrific passer, medium range shooter, and has terrific hands. If he gives the team an inside presence on offense, it’ll be because Webber helps other Warriors get looks down there not because Webber backs anyone into the key.

One look at the Warriors and you see a bunch of individuals with something to prove. Baron Davis was supposed to be too injury prone and egocentric. Stephan Jackson was a principal in the Auburn Hills brawl who now serves as this team’s captain. Matt Barnes is a player whom no one wanted. If the reunion of Nelson and Webber works, it’s going to be one of the great redemption stories in sports. The only thing that would top it would be for Latrell Sprewell to sign with the Sonics and play with P.J., assuming that P.J. Carelissimo keeps his job through the all star game.


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Friday, January 25, 2008

Ringers (American Idol 7 San Diego and Charleston)

David Archuelata

I’m glad that they didn’t make the San Diego and Charleston auditions two hour shows. Two days later, I don’t much remember either of them. For one they didn’t show anyone from Charleston who looks to have much of a chance to make the final three. They framed the episode with Phil Stacy 2, Oliver Highman, a dad to be who learns that his wife is in labor on audition day. Unlike Phil Stacy, this Dad decides to go to the hospital with AI limo and cameras accompanying the big moment then returns as the last auditioner on the second day. If you remember, Phil Stacy who skipped his kid’s birth to audition was a little rough but the judges sent him to Hollywood so he could reunite with his brother the Bat boy from the Weekly World News. I imagine that Oliver Highman was thinking geez they gave me my own camera crew, if I don’t suck too bad I’m in.

As it turned out, the guy had a nice voice even though he did a bunch of this falsetto stuff that made me think glee club solo. There is the small matter that he’s also one of these twenty somethings who looks and acts like a forty five year old loan officer at the bank. The judges wind up telling him, “Sorry Mr. Highman even with the cute baby as collateral we can’t offer you a loan for the trip to Hollywood. We like you, but your whole image thing is sort of sub-prime for becoming a pop idol. Besides, you’re like the whitest contestant we’ve ever had on the show who didn’t sing country music. Go forth and live in your own backstory.”

He good naturedly shakes hands with the judges then lets them coo over the baby who has somehow gotten out of mom’s womb and gotten on national television in the first twenty four hours of her life. I’m sure Oliver's graciousness was included to balance off some of the other Charleston hopefuls who got to the auditions just after their 5150 holds had expired. I could talk about Aretha (voice wasn’t terrible, it’s just that just about everything else was) and whoever that guy was who cursed out the judges after her, but I won’t. Let me also ask,”Even if there were such a thing as a black Clay Aiken, would the world need or want one?”

Okay, let’s get even weirder. Suppose Albermarle, North Carolina is special in some weird way so you have perky and funny Kellie Pickler waiting on restaurant customers on one side of town and dark and angry DeAnna Private waiting to put arsenic in the Sunday all you can eat buffet offerings over on the other side of Albermarle. Now that both have sung their own version of that anthem to prostitution, “Fancy”, (Kellie did hers in honor of her grandfather iirc) has some mysterious balance been restored to the Idol universe?

The rest of the non-montage of suckitude part of Charleston seemed to consist of individuals who were just barely good enough to get to Hollywood or not quite good enough to do the same. They had a very attractive C17 pilot who sang pretty well in Lyndsey Goodman who didn’t make the cut. They had a sixteen year old cheerleader for sexual abstinence who didn’t sing nearly as well as Ayla Brown (semifinalist from season 5) in Amy Catherine Flynn, who surely got sent to Hollywood so Idol could homage all the homeschooled kids who show up on Wife Swap. The show really should have matched her with the other chastity guy from Dallas whose dad literally kept the key to his heart on a locket. They could have made them roommates, insist it was just a mistake that they'd clear up in a couple days, and then just kept that camera running around shower time.

There was London Weidberg who sounded no less cabaret than Lyndsey Goodman who somehow got to Hollywood despite Simon noticing that they already had several dozen nice looking blonde women who could sing some. Personally, I thought they should have told her to dye her hair and go to flight school. Btw. Lyndsey Goodman’s line about all the female C17 pilots who look like pageant queens was probably the single best military recruiting pitch I’ve ever seen on reality tv. Seriously, you going to join the Navy to hang out with Phil Stacy and talk about his wife and kids or you want to find some air force base that looks like a casting call for the Bachelor?

The one really interesting act in Charleston were the Lampkins. If the black Clay Aiken didn’t hack it, I guess they figured they would try to make like a black Donnie and Marie. Only this Donnie kind of babbles, wears a tie around his head, and probably doesn’t date a lot of women. Marie or in this case Michelle was also different. She too didn’t sing all that well, but in this case didn’t faint in front of the judges and she’s considerably bigger. Of course, the interesting thing about Jeffrey and Michelle turned out to be that they could actually sing some even if it was about your sister being your “angel”. To be accurate, Jeffrey could sing some and they sent Michelle to Hollywood to keep him company and maybe room with Amy Catherine Scott or at least smack the girl around if she got really annoying. Come to think of it, maybe they're grooming Jeffrey to be this year's answer to Sanjaya Malakar.

San Diego was a bit better than Charleston. Interestingly, they showed some places that were very close to the fires from a couple months ago yet never mentioned them. Simon kept breaking out his signature line for the season “You’re not as good as you think you are.”

In the meantime, I’m hoping the writers’ strike ends soon. It takes talent to come up with tag lines like “Dynomite”, “Sock it to me”, “Would you believe” and that sort of thing should be left up to the professionals who’ve been lowering our cultural IQ for two full generations now.

They had a single dad named Perrie who made it sound like his wife had died in a gang shooting. He sang well enough to meet the affirmative action Idol standard for being a contestant with a good back story. I figure, they’ll pair him up with the single mom who’s daughter has RETT’s syndrome for a very special Idol installment all of America will remember. They won’t make the final six, but they’ll get to sing a duet during the finale, break out the kids, and they announce their impending double wedding with the other Idol lovebirds Scott Savol and Jessica Sierra.

Three of the San Diego contestants were “ringers”. Michael Johns is sort of like Nick Lachey had he been born into the Gibb family. Johns once had a recording contract, but things broke down just before the release date. David Archuelata, the 16 year old with the paralyzed vocal cord, won junior star search. I could swear the kid appeared on Idol in season 5 as David Radford :}. Carly Smithson, the Irish woman who had the visa problem and the husband who does tattoos for the Yakuza and the Russian Mafia, actually had a commercial record debut. It just happened to tank.

I know the rules just say between 16 and 29 and no current major label recording contract, but I’m not sure what Jorey Steinberg thinks of Idol recycling all these musical reality show survivors and A and R launch failures making like “undiscovered instead of discarded" talent. With Smithson and Johns, I also wonder if one of the themes for Idol 8 is going to be illegal immigrant singers stealing all the Itunes time from American singers. Personally, I think that homeland security should erect a wall around all the audition sites and that Smithson should have gotten ten years in prison instead of a new visa. That would put the American back in American Idol. You know what, I’m going to send Simon Cowell an e-mail to tell him exactly that. And Randy what the hell was that about with “The South will rise again”? Dawg, do you have any idea what that means? What next? Are you going to produce the musical version of Birth of a Nation on Broadway?

Here’s my take on the "once discovered" talent thing. Frankly, I don’t care just as long as the show lets us know their stories. If they’re going to pretend that Michael Johns just stepped off the boat and happened to try out for the show in San Diego, that’s not okay. It wouldn’t be fair to be comparing him in my head with some nineteen year old from the Seven Eleven who sings along with the background music between drawing slurpees from that big stainless steel machine with that nice couple who met on the Idol message boards. Before I dial a number at the end of the show, I need to know “Hey, this is where this guy’s at after ten years as a professional” vs. “That wee lass surely sings lovely even if her husband tattooed her tongue.”

In the meantime, this year’s “ringer” scandal seems to be Idol’s version of the steroid controversy in sports.

While we’re at it, I don’t really care if Blake Boshnak (the guy who once auditioned as the Statue of Liberty with the even crazier mother) wants to audition another 127 times in addition to the 11 he’s already done, just don’t put him on tv again. If you do, the audition rounds will just become even more of a parody than they really are and we’ll be stuck with even more examples of the show’s “biggest fans” like Albert Hurtado. I know it’s a bit of a straddle, but the sister sitting on Simon’s lap while Samantha Musa did sort of a discount version of Katharine Mcphee in all senses was good audition material. Ranaldo Lapuz was fun too. With Blake Boshnak and Albert Hurtado , I say a little bit of singers channeling Divine and other John Waters characters goes a long long way.

Okay, I lied. I did remember some of Tuesday and Wednesday after all. I’m just not sure I want to.

Interesting Carmen Rasmussen link

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Sir Linksalot American Idol articles


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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Airports and Long Drives

Lima Chinatown photo by Paul Brandon-Bravo

About two months ago I promised my mother and stepfather that I would pick them up at the airport when they got back from their trip to Peru. The plane was due to come in at 11:15 PM but I forgot about two things: rain and customs. They actually got out of the gate at 12:15. I then drove them home to the Sacramento area from the Oakland Airport in heavy rain. We got in at about 2:30 AM.

During the three weeks they were gone, I decided to try out my mother’s Toyota Prius which was quite fun to drive. I liked the keyless door system and the Prius is very stable and quiet for such a light vehicle. I got something like 45-48 miles to a gallon according to their monitoring system. It’ll be interesting to see who seriously challenges Toyota in this market sector. I’m looking forward to the Chevrolet Volt, but I fear that we won’t see one for at least three years.

Over the weekend though, we had all sorts of frustration. I got a parking ticket for staying too long in a yellow zone on a Saturday (50 bucks). My daughter’s volleyball tournament didn’t go well for them from a won-loss standpoint. On the night before I was supposed to return my mother’s car, a truck threw up a rock and it left one of those lovely spider cracks in the Prius windshield. I spent the first part of Monday morning seeing if there was anyone around who could fix the thing before I had to go the airport.
Auto glass places apparently don’t do Martin Luther King day, but they still had to get the windshield from another county.

I suppose the big surprise/shock though was seeing my 84 (soon to be) year old stepfather coming out of the international gate in a wheelchair. I quickly learned that he’d caught bronchitis while in Lima and they had to cancel their side trip to Argentina. He’s had lung issues for the last several years. He used to joke about not wearing a mask when he used pesticides while farming for most of his adult life. I have no idea though if that played any role. Of course, if you make it to 84 and you’re still flying to South America, you’re doing pretty well.

Much to my shock, my parents didn’t want to get a hotel. Having flown for 11 hours and stopped in San Salvador along the way to change planes, they were perfectly happy to drive home in the rain at what was about four in the morning Peruvian time. Maybe they got used to the lifestyle there. Apparently the parties frequently run until six in the morning. It’s a little strange to have your 78 year old mother send you cellphone pictures from a Peruvian nightclub.

We got home, I expected them to fall asleep. Instead, my mother spent the next couple hourse unpacking. After doing my usual fiddle with her compute thing, I went to bed. I woke up at 7:30, later than I’d wanted to but still early. I walked out to find my mom awake. Apparently she didn’t go to bed because she was intent on making sure that I had breakfast before I left. I guess I should have taken her up on the offer to make bacon and eggs at three in the morning.

They’re apparently planning to drive to somewhere near Bakersfield (6 hours) to pick up their dog today. When they get back, their Peruvian hostess’s pre-teen non-English speaking sons are coming to stay with them for the next 3-4 weeks. There are days when my mother talks about thinking about assisted living and how various parts of her body are failing her, then there are days like this where I just scratch my head.

In between, I got to hear about the world of relatively wealthy Chinese in Peru. Peru, like Argentina and Brazil is much more heterogeneous than most Americans imagine it. Alberto Fujimori ran the country for many years. My parents were hosted by a Chinese family friend who grew up there. Her family has been there for three generations. Interestingly she had never heard of the Chinese slave trade brought to Peru for guano cultivation and railroad construction. I remember a similar thing meeting Mississippi Chinese who knew nothing or claimed to know nothing of Chinese laborers being brought to the Delta to replace black slaves after emancipation. I do wonder if families bury these stories, because they’re embarrassed or that it reflects badly on their new country-state.

Somewhere between talking about fruit and seafood they have there that we don’t get in the United States and the general lack of wood for furniture and home construction there, my stepfather who was interned during the war started talking about the Peruvian detainees during World War 2. It’s one of those odd bits of history, but when the West Coast Japanese were put in camps after Pearl Harbor some South American countries sent their Japanese to the US to be interned too. The largest contingent came from Peru.
At the end of the war, they weren’t returned to South America. Instead some of them had to live as stateless individuals left in the US without either Peruvian or US citizenship. At the end of the story, he then said “You know, you can make it all sound really bad if you want to, like camp was for us. Still, in some ways it wasn’t all that bad.”

As nice as life sounded in Peru, there’s the rather significant issue of the constant fear of being kidnapped. Apparently it was much worse when the Shining Path was flourishing in the country. Still, our friend has had two family members kidnapped. Her uncle was kidnapped and murdered in a plot that involved his own attorney and the local police. The attorney was convicted, did his time, then returned to the practice of law within five years of the murder. The second was her sister who was grabbed in front of the university. She escaped by jumping out of a moving car on a country road and running up to the next car to come by who fortunately took her in and returned her home. One result is that the homes have high walls around them and people take care not to drive fancy cars or dress ostentatiously. As much as there is wrong in the US, I don’t think we live like that quite yet.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all is that it occurs to me that this might have been my parents last big trip. Getting them at the airport turned out to be worth it in its weird way.


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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rocky Horror Idol Auditions ( American Idol season 7 week 1)

When I was in my twenties, the local second run movie theater in most college towns used to show the Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturday at midnight. Basically Rocky Horror showings were an excuse to dress up in a costume, get seen, and recite the campier lines from the movie in unison. You weren’t going to a movie, you were participating in an event.

American Idol auditions are essentially that. Relatively speaking, there really aren’t that many people who seriously expect to make the final 12 or even the Hollywood rounds. The producers have discovered a sort of show within a show that showcases the Idol Audition rounds as a handful of people who can really sing, a few other folk who sing pretty well and have interesting back stories, and the modern equivalent of a giant-televised Rocky Horror party where instead of throwing rice at the screen the object is to get time with the judges and maybe get on tv. At the Philadelphia and Dallas auditions, the Rocky Horror types included a woman dressed as Princes Leia, a chunky man who removed all his body hair and sang “Don’t You Wish Your Boyfriend Was Hot Like Me”, a Paula fan who sang about caulking and Falking her, a young man who spent most of his audition doing weird vocal exercises, and an Asian man in a white cape who wrote his own song and expounded on Simon Cowell’s greatness.

The game is simple enough for the home viewer. We get to figure out how “in” these folk happen to be on their own jokes. My favorite moment thus far was the tractor riding parks and rec guy who announced, “Simon didn’t get down on me…..He goes down on just about everybody.”

At that point, I was waiting for the guy to take off the rubber body suit and reveal that he was really Sascha Baron Cohen with his new post-Borat character. The only thing missing was the reaction shot from Ryan Seacrest. The theme for Idol Season Seven has been the ultimate failure of Season Six to maintain the relentless building of the juggernaut. Jordin Sparks didn’t sell a lot of records. The finale found itself competing for viewers with Dancing with the Stars and the Bachelor. Equally significant, Idol got caught in a double bind with Sanjaya Malakar (btw if your remember, he had a perfectly normal promising audition). In any case, ratings were very good while Sanjaya stayed on the show yet much of the point of the phenomenon was that it was a protest against AI’s tendency to tell America who it should be voting for. When Sanjaya got voted off in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, interest in AI leveled off.

Because of that, there was a lot of talk going into this season about “fixing” Idol. Some people mention that they’re making sure that they have more “proven” performers seeded into the round of 24. That remains to be seen, but clearly there seemed to be more folk with extensive professional experience this year, including Angela Martin whose daughter suffers from RETT's syndrome. Last season one of the complaints was that the audition rounds spent too much energy stressing snark over story. For one thing way too much time was spent creating back stories for entrants who would never make the final 12. Does anyone remember how much camera time they gave to Sundance Head and Bailey Brown? I’m pretty sure that Kady Malloy, the blonde who could do a Britney Spears impression without rehab jokes, won’t get the build up then the early exit. Still, the low point was the Bush Baby thing with Simon Cowell seemingly making fun of two disabled young men who actually were decent singers even if they weren’t top twelve material. There was a similar thing when the judges started laughing mid-audition at a young woman who took offense to the way they were treating her.

Fix number one was most evident this year with the kinder gentler Idol audition rounds with a 16 year old Temptress Brown from Philadelphia who plays middle linebacker and spends much of her time taking care of her very sick mother. She didn’t do well with “I Am Telling You” from Dreamgirls that has taken on a strong American Idol association with Jennifer Hudson repopularizing it, then Lakisha Jones using it as her statement song in the semifinals right in the wake of Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar, and now several hundred young women a year seeing it as the Idol anthem for anyone large-black, and female. Instead of snarking it up after the young woman broke into tears the size of Delaware, the judges were all “Be proud of yourself for trying. Let’s go tell your family how much we like you.”

Simon even got to say, “Let’s go talk about the kitties.”

Given that the girl is sixteen, it’s the sort of line you’d use with someone who is developmentally delayed. Basically, it was a gigantic do over for the whole Bush Baby thing.

A lot of people forget that before the “hair” thing, the bit that made Sanjaya stand out wasn’t really that he didn’t sing at a professional level yet (that wasn’t evident until the semi-finals), it was that Sanjaya was so compassionate on camera with his sister Shymali, who turned out to be a Hooters waitress with a marijuana arrest in her past. With the mean spiritedness of last year’s audition footage, Sanjaya stood out as the “character” to root for. I suspect that the producers are well aware of the fact that they brought Sanjaya mania on themselves.

This time around, they’re going out of their way to show how hard Paula Abdul works to say at least one kind thing, how the judges can separate being likable and being musical or bankable, and how Simon Cowell has a gentle thoughtful side. There’s still snark, but it’s being played at lower volume, like the bit with the young man who had made an oath with his father not to kiss any woman until he married her. At one point, Ryan jokes about the boy maybe getting corrupted in Hollywood and the dad says he’ll look for Ryan to keep an eye on him. Ryan then winkingly acknowledges his own semi-closeted celebrity status by telling dad, “No, I’m probably not the guy for that” and saying “I already kissed a girl today.”

It was said. Those who got the joke got it, but the producers didn’t run voiceovers or replays of the moment to rub in the dad’s possible cluelessness.

I know that Oprah worked for Obama, but I’m honestly not sure that marrying the Oprah spirit to Idol is going to bring the show front and center to American culture again. Fwiw, it isn’t so much that Idols ratings fell and that Jordin and Blake didn’t sell, it was the fact that post-Sanjaya people stopped talking about the show at the water cooler, in the cab, and on radio talk shows.

Personally, I thought they had roughly the right mix of snark and sentiment a couple years ago. While it was fun seeing Paula dance again, Randy with facial hair, and more scenes of Simon being goaded into hugging contestants, I sort of wonder if this “You are my brother, my best friend forever” version of Idol has about as much chance of flying as that guy in the white cape, Ranaldo Lapuz, who bowed for Ryan does.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles


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Monday, January 14, 2008

My New Computer

I came to bed last night at three in the morning. My wife woke up when I plopped down on the bed and grunted “Where were you?”

“I was building a new computer.”

She grunted again and went back to sleep. For the last eighteen months, I’ve been accumulating the parts for a new computer off of E-bay, Fry’s sales, etc. The catch is simple enough. Whatever you buy eighteen months ago is either obsolete or dramatically cheaper by the time you do sit down to put all the parts together. In the meantime, you learn all sorts of fun stuff like AGP video card slots have disappeared even though you were just getting used to them a couple years ago. Also even though the ram looks the same, it’s actually not configured the same way any longer.

Along with that, there are all these little mechanical things one forgets. For instance, I didn’t remember that in addition to plugging in the 24 pin power supply on one part of the board, the ATX power supply has a second 4 pin spot for the positive 12 volt rail. Until I did that, it would turn on then stop completely. Before I figured it out, I rearranged the RAM four times, fiddled with the microscopic pins that connect the reset button and the power button (they go in line not across), and even took off the CPU fan and reset the CPU at least once. I’m pretty sure that no one has ever designed a CPU fan that attaches easily or actually fits easily.

I used to watch the techs at the computer fairs (remember those?) put together a system from scratch in about 45 minutes. It takes me about twelve hours. When you only do something once ever couple years, you basically have to relearn everything. I should also mention that the Antec Sonata in the name of noise reduction uses a screw free system for mounting hard drives and DVD rom drives.

I now have a working new computer, but it’ll take me another twelve hours minimum before I get it working at a software level. I’ve always been amazed that a new system that’s supposed to be four times faster boots up just as slowly if not slower than the old one. I did change over to a sound card with the Envy chipset and would say that it’s dramatically better with my MP3’s and FLAC files. Also, the new video card does play movies much more smoothly.

Bottom line, I paid probably an extra couple hundred dollars and will spend something like thirty hours after haggling, assembly, and re-setup just for the privilege of rolling my own instead of just running down to Fry’s and saying “Here’s five hundred bucks, do what you can to set me up.”

Why do I do this? My wife’s answer is simple. She’ll tell you that I’m insane and that I waste far too much time dawdling over things like this. My answer is that I spend much of my life at my computer and I like knowing how to make everything go together even if I’m a below average computer technician it's like this big problem solving exercies. I learn the names of the various parts, about the changes in the i/o system, and get to ruminate about how they put all those strange looking things into the case. I build speakers for the same reason. My computer speakers were built out of an old cabinet, a pair of amplifier modules from Alesis (I was interested in the 3886 amp on a chip), a pair of linaeum tweeter modules from a closeout at Radio Shack, and 8” peerless woofers leftover from a home speaker project. They take up half my desk and my study looks like an electronics garage rather than a place a writer might hang out. I guess the whole point is to say “It’s mine and nobody else has a setup quite like this one.”

Now if only I can find the driver for the Hauppage A/V digital tv card I got for thirty dollars off of Ebay. I guess I’m saying that even if what I write isn’t all that original, whatever I’m using to write it all on is or at least it’s unique. Of course, it's also one of the reasons I didn't blog for a few days :}

What I wound up with:

1) Antec Sonata 2 Case 50 dollars on Craigslist
2) ASUS motherboard with high definition audio and on board heat sink
3) AMD dual core processor 4800X2 mb and CPU were 155 together at Fry's
4) 3 gig memory 27x3 81 dollars
5) Chaintech sound card with Envy Chip 14 dollars on EBay
6) Nvidia 512 mb memory video card 39 dollars on Ebay
7) Hauppage A/D video card w/ on board processor 30 dollars on Ebay
8) 120 Gig Western Digital Hard drive 70 dollars from old computer from Fry's. (just in really to test the system)

for 500 dollars, I probably could have bought an assembled computer that works much better and I could have spent the 30 hours or so writing.


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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Beginning at the Beginning

Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart, Edmund Muskie are all former Democratic presidential candidates. Like John McCain and Pat Buchanan on the Republican side, they all won the New Hampshire primary. Yes, it’s important, but it’s not the end of the nomination process. The press has been trying to make a story out of Hillary Clinton’s crying incident by comparing it to Edmund Muskie in 1972. Back then the largest media outlet in New Hampshire was the Manchester Union Leader which was run by a sometimes outrageous and very conservative editor, William Loeb. Loeb printed some allegations about Muskie’s wife and the candidate was seen crying in public. Supposedly, that was the beginning of the end for Muskie’s candidacy because he seemed too “soft”. Somehow no one mentions that Muskie actually won the primary. Oddly, it’s since come to light that Muskie was targeted by Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign. One of the items that led to Muskie’s crying was an alleged letter in which the Senator from Maine was made to appear to use the word “Canucks” to refer to French-Canadians who were well-represented in states like New Hampshire. It’s an interesting combination – dirty tricks, media with an agenda, and artificially-raised expectations for a candidate fed by that same media.

The story is that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is now supposedly in trouble because she didn’t do well in Iowa, a place where I wouldn’t expect her to do all that well, and that she’s probably not going to win New Hampshire, another place where her appeal might be limited. For a day, I read reports of the crying incident that ping-ponged between “Good God, do we want a President who might have PMS” and “Did she do this on purpose?” First, we’ve had a President who’s somewhere between divorced from reality and incompetent. Being momentarily emotional seems like an awfully small thing compared to that. After endless manipulation of photo opportunities, town hall meetings, and press conferences by the current administration, if she did plan it (I doubt it) shouldn’t we be saying how Presidential that makes her? My take is simple. Have we all gotten this stupid?

I think one of the great things about the modern era is that it’s so easy to get a direct look at the candidates. The days of William Loeb magnifying his role in the Presidential nomination process should be over. It’s now possible to see debates, speeches, and read position papers pretty much at your leisure. That is, unless you happen to be Ron Paul and the Fox Network refuses to invite you to be part of a televised debate. Where’s the FCC or the Federal Elections Commission on that one?

If you miss a debate or major speech live, they show it two or three more times on broadcast tv and if you miss that it’s available either through youtube or you can get the transcript from some other source.

The biggest shame of the modern political era is that we still rely so heavily on “bumper sticker” versions of our candidates. John Edwards is much more than a guy who got a haircut who has an outspoken wife. Barack isn’t just a racial symbol for the future who talks about hope. Hillary Clinton has a long history in public life and there are hundreds of hours of footage of her over some thirty years that you can look up and make up your own mind about her laughing, crying, talking, etc. If you vote based on those “bumper sticker” reductions, you’re an idiot.

They moved the California primary from June to February 5 this time so that voters in the country’s largest state, as in you can win ten New Hampshires and still not get as many electoral votes as winning one California, have some actual say in the matter. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to choose between all the candidates on their own merits as future leaders. I’m not going to have the media tell me that New Hampshire and Iowa decided it for me yet again.

It’s encouraging that so many people are voting in the Democratic primaries. This may be one time when the nomination isn’t determined by party regulars. I do think one of the most interesting, though not always valid, tests of a candidate’s ability to handle pressure come in the ability to make it through the primary season. It’s good for everyone to let the thing go a few innings before we make any judgments. I’d happily vote for any of the remaining Democratic candidates in November. I can’t remember an election where I felt that way. So here I am thinking about something just beginning and there are all these other people blathering about “How the process or some candidate is finished”. One thing I love about sports is that you play all the innings or you keep playing until the final whistle. Primary season shouldn’t be like sex where they try to declare it over before it even gets going. Last time I checked, “primary” meant the first step not the last.

Call me crazy, but I happen to think there is some happy medium between a bunch of people in these caucus sites in Iowa and a bunch of insiders in a back room of the party convention choosing our candidate. Yes, I know other people have said all this five thousand times before, but we still have some say in all this. It drives me nuts that so many people are so anxious to say that we won’t.


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Sunday, January 06, 2008


This isn't our fence btw.

I woke up in the dark on Friday and realized that I couldn’t read the alarm clock. When you get to a certain age, you stop assuming that it’s just a problem with the alarm clock. I checked to make sure that I could still make out at least a few shadows. It had been raining all night and the big storm that hit Northern California had brought winds that closed all three major bridges around San Francisco. Our power was out.

I spent half the day at work and got a call from my daughter in the afternoon complaining that the power was still out and that she had heard from my wife that it might be out for two to three days. We didn’t know it when we moved in sixteen years ago, but our street sits on an odd patch of the electrical grid. It’s common for houses within a hundred yards of us to have power hours and even days before we do. That was the case when I came home that night after stopping to buy candles and firewood. One stoplight and a couple stores downtown were in darkness, but pretty much everything but our street seemed to have gotten power back. Actually, there’s one house three doors down from us that seemed to have power. Perhaps they have a generator or perhaps they’re tied to the grid in some other way.

I got inside. My wife had built a fire in our woodstove and was lying beneath a blanket in front of it along with two of our cats and one of the dogs. We found a bunch of old flashlights, listened to the radio, and my palm-treo still had enough battery life for me to surf the web for a couple minutes. We read some by flashlight and I fell asleep near the fire. We still had no power the next day. We had no lights, no internet, no television, no refrigerator, and no stove. The wind blew down a thirty foot section of our fence which meant we had to keep the dogs in the garage. Our daughter also put her chickens in a rabbit cage in the garage as well.

We made it through the day then prepared for another night of candles and flashlights. Fortunately, my neighbor’s nephew who also lives nearby also happens to be a lineman for Pacific Gas and Electric. Around eight at night, he pulled by our house in his truck. He’d been on a thirty six hour shift fixing everyone else’s power only to come home and discover that he didn’t have hot water. He pulled together a crew and made it a thirty eight hour shift. Our lights came back on at about ten. If we didn’t happen to have the neighbor, I suspect we still wouldn’t have power.

So much of the way we live is so fragile. In this case, a couple power lines came down. It’s still raining and there’s another larger storm headed this way in two days. I liked the reading by the fire with my family part, but I’d just as soon do so by choice. It’s amazing how little there is to do late at night when you don’t have electricity.


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Friday, January 04, 2008

Mike Huckabee Delta Force

I got home last night and happened to turn on MSNBC just in time to catch Mike Huckabee’s victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. The governor was talking about how the president doesn’t lead, he serves. He went on to reference the founding fathers by quoting from the Declaration of Independence and talked about not hating those who oppose you but loving those behind you. Somewhere in there, he also managed to mention God a couple times. It wasn’t a bad victory speech. Where George Bush Jr. did a good job in 2000 of convincing or conning enough voters that he was indeed a compassionate conservative and someone with a history of working in bipartisan fashion, Huckabee is quite good at his lambs before the lions bit. I don’t know what to make of the fact that he thinks that God helps him shoot both the lambs and the lions, but you can’t have everything.

I did sort of wish Governor Huckabee had been at the San Francisco zoo a week ago. It would have been fascinating to see whether he brought out the hunting rifle or if he made like Daniel and lay down before it. Of course, this is the crux of the matter with Governor Huckabee. How can someone who seems so nice and sweet have views on so many topics that are so extreme? With Dick Cheney the answer’s simple enough-the guy is nuts. With Huckabee, I think that’s a possibility yet I want to believe there’s something more interesting happening. Back when it was George W. telling national audiences that he was the guy who believed in the ultimate civil right of being able to read good, there was always a kind of empty-eyed quality to it. The President has always had this wafer thin presence on television that made the story about implanting a black box in the back of his suit during the 2004 debates more than a little plausible. Maybe the people who make Republican right wing candidates found some ways to improve the firmware to make it all seem more lifelike and heartfelt. Maybe there is something different about this guy. Where Bush seemed to play Christian in order to serve the interests of big money, Huckabee may actually be sincere in his Christianity. In many ways, I find that even scarier. In the meantime he’s the most interesting show going on the red side.

As I continued to watch the Huckabee show, I did start looking for another floating cross in the background. Instead of a cross though, there was Walker Texas Ranger standing there the whole time right in frame. I think when you’ve been on tv for eight zillion episodes staying in the frame becomes sort of instinctive but Chuck Norris? Well it was Chuck Norris and an attractive blonde woman who I assume was either Mrs. Chuck Norris or the next Dana Perino for the Huckabee presidency. I’m just trying to connect a couple dots here. Hillary has Bill hanging out with her on the podium. Obama brings along Oprah. Is Chuck Norris going to be his Secretary of Defense? Does this explain why Governor Huckabee actually didn’t know anything about the National Intelligence Estimate less than six weeks ago (you know that minor document that let America know that the Iranians weren’t nearly as dangerous as the administration was claiming they were)? Is it because he’s being briefed by Mr. all the Great News from my heavily vetted visit to Iraq, Chuck Norris? I do think it would be cool though to have Chuck as Secretary of State maybe. Instead of meeting with the Iranians, he’d just put a bunch of karate moves on them and make them turn over all their enriched uranium. Perhaps too, he could go on a secret mission to Iraq and free everyone who’d ever been kidnapped by terrorists there. I live in California, I’ve had George Murphy as a senator, Ronald Reagan as a governor, and Arnold as my other governor. I’m used to these things. Still, Chuck Norris? Isn't that the sort of bit they'd do on South Park or the Simpsons to remind us how absurd it's all getting?

Apparently Chuck Norris is a very serious Christian. He endorses prayer in schools and the teaching of creationism. Obviously, I shouldn’t make so much of the fact that he mostly makes his living by solving all problems with his fists and feet. That’s just the movies. Judging someone’s politics based on the kind of movies he/she makes would be like voting for someone because you like the jokes he made on Jay Leno.

Okay, this is what I don’t get. I hear all these conservatives complaining bitterly about Democrats raising money in Hollywood and Oprah campaigning for Obama. What’s up with their down home-regular guy candidate hanging out with Chuck Norris and Jay Leno?

Bill Clinton, the other guy from Hope, Arkansas who made good, has a sort of grudging respect for his fellow Arkansas governor. He told Chris Matthews that he’s not surprised at all by Huckabee’s “surge” (I hate it when the media plays cute and mixes phrases associated with the war into its campaign coverage) because Huckabee is the only Republican who can make a speech and tell a joke. Clinton, as he generally is, is right. Huckabee plays the electric bass. He lost a hundred and ten pounds (who in America doesn’t love talking about diets?). He’s a Christian who doesn’t make God sound all that scary. Does it really matter that the guy knows little to nothing about foreign affairs and that he supports some strange things like not believing in evolution, abortion, or gay rights? After all, George W. Bush knew little to nothing about foreign affairs until 9/11 made him the expert on how to keep America safe.

Now that I’m done with the one week a year where Americans celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ along with Governor First Amendment Mike, is it fair to ask what this guy really thinks?


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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Seeing Relatives

photo by Flo Oy Wong

I drove in to visit my mother the other day. When I walked in the door, she announced that my cousin had just called to say that she was coming over with her grown children and her granddaughter. I’ve seen my cousin K less than half a dozen times since we grew up. Both of my parents came from families that fought frequently. While there really weren’t any disputes among the younger generation, it was just safer not to have too much to do with my relatives. I never knew who was supposed to be speaking to whom. I also have two cousin K’s, one on each side of the family, so I was confused until my mother mentioned children and grandchildren. The other cousin K is from my father’s side of the family and like several of my cousins on that side, she never married.

My mother makes me sit down to lunch. She throws a rack of lamb with mint sauce in front of me that she tells me that she got from Costco. She tells me, “You just throw it in the microwave for two and a half minutes and it’s ready to serve, isn’t that great?”

Like many Chinese mothers, mine has a food obsession. She was born in 1930 and still has memories of not having enough to eat. It’s actually a complicated story. My mother was the eight child in twelve years and my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. She sent my mother to live with a woman she knew who had two kids of her own. The woman used the money intended to feed my mother for her own children and my mom got rickets. I don’t know how much of this event my mother directly remembers, but the story of her experience shaped her adult personality in ways that run deeper than I can grasp at times.

In any case when I visit, she has this obsession with feeding me sort of frenetically. One result is that along with the rack of lamb she insisted on including guy lan, a kind of Chinese broccoli only more bitter than the western variety, salad with feta cheese, and as always rice. My stepfather is Japanese and one of the differences between Chinese and Japanese food is that the Japanese prefer short-grained sticky rice and the Chinese eat the long-grained variety. For many years they compromised. My mom would put some of both in the rice cooker which actually worked pretty well. On my last few visits, I noticed that she’d shifted over entirely to the sticky Japanese variety. I don’t think this is what Costco had in mind.

Throughout the lunch, my mother alternated between insisting that I eat more of whatever she was serving me and trying to give my cousin directions to the house. Every three minutes she would say, “I’m glad they’re a little lost. It gives us time to finish lunch.”

Still, we ate in about twenty minutes at most while I savored the fact that I still have a mom who wants to feed me like this. So much of Asian culture is based on gestures. When I grew up, it was nearly impossible to figure out which rules applied at any given time. There were things you said and did among Chinese. There were things you weren’t supposed to do among non-Chinese. It was just that my parents who both grew up in California had also grown up between the two cultures. They never really knew all the rules for either American style socialization or traditional Chinese visiting customs.
Probably the most bizarre manifestation of this was that when my mother was a teenager she went to a white classmate’s birthday party. The family served spam. My mother didn’t like spam, neither do I even in Hawaii. Before I went to any non-Chinese household she would warn me,”Make sure you eat whatever they serve you and pretend to like it even if it’s spam.”

No one ever served me spam. After I was about fifteen or so the only unwanted substances at parties I went to tended to be either marijuana or alcohol. I didn’t follow my mother’s advice. I generally refused the offer of either. Looking back, maybe that was my own weird way of rebelling against parental authority. After all, no one ever offered me a combination of pork shoulder and ham so I never had to meet my mother’s test for following Caucasian rules.

I’ve still never asked her whether she refused the spam at that long ago birthday party. I think I prefer having this image of my mother hearing all these mean white children saying, “Wow, what a weird Chinese girl. They eat dogs and cats, but they won’t eat spam. Well, that just means there’s more for the rest of us. We’re never inviting her to our birthday parties again.”

I figure it’s just as well that it happened. I couldn’t imagine coming to see my mother and having her serve me spam for lunch and telling me that it would help me stay popular.

My usual out from having to eat several meals worth of food at my mother’s table is to go work on her computer in the family room. I know this is simply anti-social, but I do it because it keeps me from having to yell at my mother that I don’t want a fifth piece of lamb or half a chocolate cake. I figure that’s better than telling her something like “Why is it that you never make me Spam?”

I don’t do that, because she likely would. Equally strange, my mom who’s never really been overweight often makes these five thousand calorie meals then pushes me to eat while she eats a pre-packaged meal she got from Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. One of my tasks on her computer is always to get her back into the Jenny Craig website because she keeps forgetting her user ID. This time though, I had the brilliant idea of finally installing the Powerpoint slide show I did when my stepdad took us on an Alaskan cruise after he beat lung cancer nine years ago. I got the file transferred, then realized that I’d forgotten to bring in my copy of Powerpoint. I go out to my car and naturally find myself greeting my cousin K, her two sons, her granddaughter, and her daughter in law.

For the last two years, my cousin’s son and his wife have been living about eight miles from my mom. Her son A is very sociable. Her son S is younger and shyer. Cousin K is somewhere in between. They sit down in the dining room. My mother brings out pumpkin seeds, drinks, and an assortment of dried persimmons. She spent two months drying seven hundred persimmons in her dining room Japanese style. In this method, you massage each persimmon a couple minutes a day so the sugar comes out gradually in the process. I don’t think my cousin or her family understand quite how obsessive my mother is about these things. I also doubt that they’ll ever find out. Cousin’s son A who is 6’2” is not at all shy. A and his wife are in their last year of their residency and while the career path of two anesthesiologists can be mildly interesting, it’s also the sort of talk that I think of as “middle seat” hell on an airplane. In the meantime, Cousin’s son S eats about three hundred pumpkin seeds after explaining that he’s about to apply to dental school and my Cousin K surprises me by informing me that she’s taken a part-time job teaching at the county jail.

“It’s not scary?” I ask.

“There are two guards there. I met a woman on one of my trips and she got me into it. You work seventy days a year and it’s as flexible as you want it to be.”

“But it’s not scary?”

“A lot of the prisoners are getting their third and fourth GEDs. It gives them something to do. If I say someone needs to leave, the guards take care of it. You get used to it.”

Most of what I’ve known of my cousin is that she travels a lot, lives well, and devoted her life to raising her kids and learning how to do feng hsui. I then remember that her mother, my aunt, who spent much of her adult life convalescing from tuberculosis caught when she volunteered in a hospital as a teenager, once marched against the War in Vietnam in Golden Gate Park. My aunt also insisted that she was psychic.

I relate the story about my aunt in a peace rally forty five years ago, one of the few times she ever ventured outside alone. Cousin K doesn’t seem to remember it. Cousin K’s kids have never heard it. In fact, A seems to really want to know about his grandmother who died when he was very young. I don’t have much more to say. My mother stopped talking to her sister for a while. Before I graduated college, my aunt wrote me a letter inviting me to come visit. I never answered her. I don’t tell them that story nor do I understand exactly why I never acknowledged her letter other than the fact that my mom wasn’t speaking to her for reasons that never got explained to me.

A asks a few more questions and it’s time to break out the stories. We go over the stranger bits. I have one cousin who married seven times. His last wife was his stepdaughter at one time. Stranger yet, one of my uncles dated his own nephew’s ex-wife. I then break out the strangest story of all. My uncle G was one of the first Chinese-Americans to go to UCSF Medical school. My uncle W then followed G there. Uncle W was extremely sociable and liked chasing women. Uncle G was the one who had to grade Uncle W’s pathology exam. G found himself having to fail his own brother and essentially be the one who flunked him out of Medical School. Uncle G told me that they solved the matter by getting someone else to fail Uncle W in another subject.

Uncle G never told his brother what he’d had to do. Uncle W then apparently erased any evidence of his having attended Medical school and successfully went through dental school. A generation later, Uncle G’s son despite enormous pressure from his father doesn’t get into medical school out of undergraduate. He decides to take the long route and gets a doctorate in micro-biology then applies to medical school. My cousin’s wife who has wanted to start a family then divorces him because she doesn’t want to be married to a student through their thirties. At my grandmother’s funeral I tell Uncle G “You must be really proud of W for going to medical school like you.”

Uncle G tells me, “It doesn’t mean anything. He’s already thirty years old.”

Fast forward a few years and one of my mother’s sisters suggests for some reason that Uncle W, now divorced, have dinner with cousin W’s ex-wife. They start dating and a bizarre psychological cycle plays out. Uncle G leaves a rather large fortune to his grandson who turns out to have Asperger’s.

We piece all of this together at my mother’s dining room table. I also learn that Cousin’s son A made a point of inviting all of her mother’s family to his wedding three years ago. It was the only time I’d met him before this as an adult. I begin to realize how curious he is about his mother’s side of the family and just why they didn’t get along. He asks “What started it?”

My mom gives a general answer, then I tell him what I know. One of my aunts married a man against my grandmother’s wishes. My mother was in junior high when my grandmother disowned her daughter and threatened to disown any member of the family who even spoke to her now non-daughter. My grandmother turned out to be exactly right about my aunt’s husband being a hot-headed womanizer who gambled too much. They were married for forty years nonetheless. My grandmother kept her word and never spoke to her daughter again even though they frequently ran into one another in Chinatown. This started the pattern in the family of not talking to one another for long stretches.

Much to my amazement Cousin A’s son has never heard this story despite his many attempts to learn about his mother’s family.

Eventually, it turns dark. They get up to leave but not before Cousin K's daughter in law shares the story of her parents leaving relatively comfortable lives in China after being harrassed for violating the state's two child policy (her mother had to disappear to the country to even find someone who would safely deliver a third child , twins as it turned out) My cousin K says she wants to have a family reunion. I say, “Sure.”

Mom tells her, “Make everyone go Dutch. In this family, if anyone pays more or less, it’ll just cause resentment.”

Everyone laughs. Oddly, I don’t know if I’ll see Cousin K or her kids again. My mother is 78. I realize that K’s sons see her as one of the last repositories of the family history even though I’m the one who for some reason knows many of the stories. I still have no idea why Uncle G told me about having to flunk Uncle W out of UCSF. Apparently, I’m the only one he told, yet it didn’t occur to me how perversely intertwined Uncle G and his brother were until I shared the story with the last member of the family to follow them to UCSF. Sadder yet, my wife and daughter aren’t with me. They’ve never heard these stories. I don’t exactly know why I’ve never shared them with my own kid.

Of course, now it’s on my blog and maybe someday somebody will send it to her via e-mail out of the blue. I think they call it “spam”.


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