Dear Carla Fran,

I saw Wicked tonight at a theater with my Mom. A dragon with neon eyes glowered down from the upper part of the stage where I watched the surtitles with my dad when he took me to operas as a kid. (Have I told you that we went to operas a lot? One of the kids’ dads would prep a group of us music-nerds for each opera by arranging themed evenings where we’d talk about the plot over a period-piece dinner, after which we’d watch the movie version from start to finish. When we it was time for Die Fledermaus, we had fake beer and duck. The host offered me the duck’s heart, explaining that at the time it was considered an honor. His older daughter was a model, and thought we were losers.)

The model-daughter made me feel pretty lame about enjoying those dinners as much as I did, and I remember trying to tone down the enthusiasm whenever I remembered she was there. Not unrelatedly, there’s still a version of me that regrets loving musicals as much as I do. Sometimes I even manage to convince myself that I don’t, that I find criticisms of the genre true, and that it is uniformly mawkish, overwrought, unnatural, bourgeois, obvious, sentimental.

You can convince yourself you’re over something, but you can’t always convince the people you love. My mom, for instance. Thanks for the ticket, mom! To my dismay, Mr. Millicent has discovered that whenever I’m moved by a bit of story, my legs and arms break out in goosebumps. (I know this at some level, it’s part of why I gravitate toward jeans and long sleeves.) These days, when we sit down to watch Scrubs reruns, there’s the totally predictable moment when the music goes soft and Something Moving happens. I watch with a steely eye, but lately Mr. Millicent has taken to hitching up my pajama legs. Without fail, the uncool goosebumps bear silent witness against me and my claims to a more discerning taste.

When it comes to musicals, I know I’ve never been able to fool you, and one of the beautiful things about our space here is how has been not even having to try. Your love of the thing and your writing about the thing has given me permission—hell, monkey bars, a trampoline, a language—to have one musical-loving face instead of two, one of which scorns them for the maudlin qualities you’ve given us a way to prize. It’s thanks to you that I have a way of thinking, of putting words to a reaction I’d consigned to hair follicles. I’ve had fewer faces since I’ve known you, and there’s no way to measure that relief.

Anyway, about Wicked.

I spent tonight awash in goosebumps.  Like I’ve said, it’s hard to trust them, because they’re just stupidly easy to manipulate. I know they’re wrong sometimes in the way sentimentalism is wrong when it goes unchecked. If I think over and through them I can see the flaws. I can note that the speaking-animals-going-mute subplot is underdeveloped in Wicked. That it’s an awfully easy way to make Elphaba good and the Wizard ungood because there are no counterarguments. Elphaba’s clearly right, everyone else is clearly wrong, and as moral stances go, this one manages to evoke a spectrum of arguments that apply to vegetarianism and the Civil Rights Movement without ever really committing. Fiero’s change from party-boy to activist feels thin. I had to look away during the love scene between Elphaba and Fiero out of embarrassment both for its excess and for the weird logistics that go into singing incredibly loud and not particularly good lyrics directly into someone’s face. Talk about sentimentalism going unchecked—I couldn’t take it. Every time I tried I started suffocating from discomfort.

All that’s true, and if someone asked me what I thought I could say those things and I wouldn’t be lying. Not exactly. But the other, meatier truth is that I got goosebumps from the crazy deep-green set of Emerald City, from the astonishing Victorian steampunk costumes that made almost every chorus scene an improvement on Annie Leibovitz’s Vogue covers. From the jarring shade of Elphaba’s skin, from the intense physical comedy of Glinda’s makeover—her first kind act. And from the incredible singing that musicals always have, but maybe I’ve just been away long enough that it blew my socks off to hear it live.

Speaking of singing, I still like opera, and pretty much the way I did as a kid: it makes silly utterances majestic and makes sexuality consumable as art (cf. Carmen). It gives amazing music a veneer of story that will make it go down easier if you can’t be there for the music alone. But I rarely get (or got) goosebumps at the opera because opera librettos are almost magically vapid, the stories tend to be both melodramatic and staid, and the singing, while technically brilliant, doesn’t quite square with my sense of how music and human emotion intersect. (That said, I love The Marriage of Figaro to death, even if it leaves me bumpless, because of its unflagging sense of humor.)

What forced me wrap my coat around my bumpy legs tonight in an effort to calm them down was that Wicked was a story about friendship. I had no idea. I’d listened to the soundtrack several times because my sister loves it. She and I can holler our hearts out to Disney songs and musicals for hours when we’re at home; it’s one of our favorite games and it’s so habitual that I sometimes forget to treasure it. Still, when she told me how great it was a part of me suspected that her goosebumps, like mine, were too easily roused. I just didn’t expect much out of Wicked. I’d been so sure Glinda would be torn down in order to raise Elphaba up in a dumb contrarian way that I didn’t think it was worth seeing. (Whyyy do I think I’m automatically smarter than the story? Or that my taste has any reason to be better than my sister’s, or anyone else’s, when I have ample evidence to the contrary? Unconscious Hubris, meet humility.)

I guess I just didn’t expect the friendship to survive the musical. I didn’t expect to see an incredibly smart portrayal of female friendship to the near-exclusion of other more traditional musical relationships. I didn’t expect it to honor both witches’ motivations and choices, or to saddle them both with losses. Most of all, I didn’t expect the story to refuse to make either friend learn a lesson.

But it did, and their leave-taking from each other is a really raw ode to friendship, and goddamn if it didn’t make me think about how lucky I’ve been, and how you’ve changed me for good.



This is What It Looks Like to Be Chased by a Squirrel

Dear CF,

I spent Labor Day noodling around the Oakland botanical gardens, taking pictures of cacti, when a very small (rabid?) squirrel decided he was Mr. MacGregor and I was Peter Rabbit. Here’s what happened next:

On your marks!



Get set!







That’s Entertainment Friday and The Aquamusical

It’s Friday! Watch this! It will make your life better. It has giant plumes of colored smoke, and seahorses.

That’s Entertainment is a big giant love letter to the musical, from Hollywood, to Hollywood. I had the original VHS of it, and watched it, oh, about a thousand times.  This clip came up because I watched Esther Williams’ first aquamusical, Bathing Beauty, and was getting itchy sitting through two hours and to wait for only 1 scene of actual aquamusicality. That one scene does satisfy, but I recommend just fast forwarding to the end to see all the fire, water, and women in large chartreuse hats.

The other really quite astounding moment in Bathing Beauty is this, which you should watch for the shoes alone:

By the way, there is more organ (heh) in this movie than swimming.  There is more everything in this movie than swimming. But, maybe Hollywood hadn’t figured Esther out yet.  I forgive them. They made up for it eventually.

And the movie does start with this charming card, which I would like as a bookplate on my one day bestselling, scandalous autobiography (ghostwritten, of course): Cheap Seats: Who Says Sequins Aren’t a Girl’s Best Friend!:


May you dive from a trapeze swinging out of purple smoke into a small ring surrounded by smiling couples this Labor Day weekend,





Modess, Because…The Blood and Ballgowns Edition

Dear M.,

The glory of your recent post on Maidenform bra ads (does the name “Maidenform” mean “we will make your breasts look maidenly and not matronly? Forget your sagging dugs of today…”) made me think of the glory of the famous Modess ads, where all menstruation was alluded to by pounds of taffeta and the vaguest motto ever, “Because…”.

How to explain biology away in one word…because. The italics are important. The italics mean something special, something relaxed and leaning.  They are the verbal form of gownery and diamonds. In the world of Modess, menstruation is the stuff of soap operas and royalty. Even the brand name simultaneously brings forth ideas of modesty, models, and being de mode. It was a genius aspirational brand.

I have a stack of old magazines I scored from Goodwill, and every time I come across a Modess ad, I gasp. They are just lovely. And insane. They also make me want to be a sanitary napkin model for a day. How could you not? Take a look:

Ah, the glamour of menstruation! I didn’t know it meant you could have pink satin streaming from your behind like a great beacon of fertility.

But let’s get more pensive.

 Hydrangeas! Taffeta! Cursive!

My period always makes me feel like a starlet who ran away from a movie premier to feel the morning dew on my skin. I particularly love the knowing look on her face. As she sweeps her wrap towards us, you know she’s thinking “oh, if you only knew what my uterine lining was doing right now…that’s right. Bleeding all over the place.”

Or, sometimes, menstruation makes you want to sit down in your ball gown, and have a cup of coffee:

Again, do not, whatever you do, associate that red triangle of fabric with blood. And really, how can you chafe when you are so arranged? How can you chafe when you’re swaddled in a pad ballgown? Because, again, your period is pretty much like going to the fanciest dinner of your life, every month.

This next lady kind of looks like she needs our help. I think her elbow has been super-glued (accidentally) to the harpsichord!

Or, you can start shedding, just like your endometrium!

Modess went in a different direction here, where the news is pretty much sunshine and lollipops:

Doesn’t this look exactly like Helena Bonham Carter?

Here are a few more just…because…

Hail to the V!

With the Maidenform ads, I kept thinking what a strange statement it was to wish for a grand (semi-grand) life in your basic undergarment. Who cared what you dreamed in your bra, because you still have to mop the kitchen floor. The ads don’t promise deliverance from a shitty, bra-wearing reality. They just promise that you will dream about being other places when you wear their product, which doesn’t seem like a compelling reason to don their underwires. With Modess, it’s a similar paradox. If Modess means high fashion, high living, and extreme elegance, then how funny is it to aspire to those things with a disposable product that is the opposite of fashion. You want people to see your cutting edge fashion platery. You really really don’t want people to know you are doing that covert monthly activity of bleeding in your pants.

I guess menstruation is pretty damn feminine, as are these ads. And I can see the allure of insinuating that a pad is something like the ballgown of your dreams.  A dream instantly deferred upon use, but, well, I can see what the admen were thinking.

But really, it all really boils down to this Peep Show clip:



Images via Clotho98 on Flickr

Things That Might Happen While You’re Asleep

Monkeys could rob you, strip you and bite your butt:




(Image is a close-up of Pricke’s (?) pedlar robbed by apes, after Van der Borscht, 1680-1700. Full image available through British Printed Images.)

Maidenform Ads: Inside the Madness

Dear CF,

I’m speechless at your news of this Hail to the V handpuppet campaign. Handpuppets! It got me thinking about the marketing campaigns of yore; specifically, the Maidenform ads of the 50s and 60s, which are a strange, wonderful amalgam of glamorous surrealism and post-brainstorm despair.

Here are a few to start us off:

“I, suh. Gar?”

(was approximately my reaction).


Knockout! Ha!



So far, wild awesome dreams that double as euphemism. Knockers that box! Charioteers that arouse! Pink elephants that… well.

Then there’s this:

We can be Tarzan and swingers. Yes. Yes indeed.

Then there is this, which is what happens when a euphemism goes into overdrive and makes the leap from fantasy to vaguely suicidal.

Okay, but maybe it’s about risk-taking in general! Like this!

YES! goes this ad campaign. SEXY MATADOR BRIDAL BULL-WRANGLER! Hints of bestiality! Bra-armor! GO!

That might seem hard to top. Don’t worry:

But then the Don Drapers behind this whole thing start to slow down. The ads get a little more … prosaic:



If you’re getting depressed, don’t! You could, um, dream of being creative!

Or of playing Cleopatra! (We’ve downgraded from actually “being” her as we barge down the Nile.):

How about … no. We already used up our elephant. But maybe another circus reference. I know!

Height! Height is exciting. Where else can we use it? A bridge? No, that takes us back to suicide… How about … no. Or? Um … a construction site?

A lift! Get it? Travel. Travel is good. Let’s run with that. Instead of adventure, let’s go with scary but glamorous travel!

Or just, you know, travel!

Exhausted, bankrupt of ideas concerning what one might do with a bra that will thrill and inspire, the ad execs hit on an amazingly appealing concept:



(Images via the Smithsonian)

Oh, the Apologies

Dear Millicent,

Maybe this is everywhere, but I just found it today over at Splitsider, and instead of even working out a comment, I’m gonna leave it right now at this: uhhhhhhhh….



A Woodcut of a Devil Pooping an Iron-Monger

Just in case you were having a normal day.


Revisionist Graffiti

Dear CF,

I caught a graffiti artist on video the other day. She was working on the only woman on the whole building–a buxom blue-skinned lady with no face and a theoretical bikini. I’d seen the blue gal many times and scowled a little at her faceless boobage.

Here’s the artist at work. She let me film her after she put on huge sunglasses:

I came back later to see what she did:



Some Magic

Sasha Frere-Jones just tweeted this clip in an effort to describe what it’s like to sing karoake with Neko Case (oh how I want @humblebrag to sweep in here). And, the lighting, the makeup, all of it, well, I will stop talking:

Gutswingingly yours,