Archive for December 2012

Fancy dress

I called my mom last night for her birthday, as you do, and we had a long chat that somehow veered into the topic of Christmas cards. My parents sent us a very nice standard card this year, and I was a little amused that it said “Happy Holidays” — I think that was probably intentional and a way of respecting Chip’s being Jewish. For years, I would shop with my mom for cards on December 26 and she was always looking for Christmas cards with a religious theme that said “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays.” (Think less “War on Christmas” and more of the old-fashioned “Keep Christ in Christmas.”)

Anyway, she told me that she had thought about doing a photo card for Christmas this year, but couldn’t make it work.

“Oh, of you and Dad? And maybe the cat?”

“No. Oh, no. I meant of all you children.” (Note: the youngest of us is 30.)

She went on to explain that she had found a really nice photo of my youngest brother and his wife, which gave her the idea, and then she had a cute photo of my sister and her husband and daughter, and she had plenty of photos of my younger brother and his family, but …

“You didn’t have any of me and Chip?”

“The last one I had was from your wedding! I guess you two don’t take many photos together.”

What I haven’t mentioned is that while I was talking to my mom, I was at my computer desk at home. And as she was going on about how she has no good photos of me and my husband since we got married in 2006, I pulled up Facebook and started looking at the photos I posted there. My mom is on Facebook — she uses it mostly to look at photos her children and children’s spouses post there.

“Mom, did you look on Facebook?”

“Oh yes! But I couldn’t find anything.”

“The top photo on my page is me and Chip. The one from our friends’ wedding in January.”

“Wait, did I miss something?”

“Yes! It’s a very nice picture of us outdoors, Chip’s got this green jacket and hat we bought at Goodwill –”

“Oh, that one. I wanted a good photo, where you all look nice. Not that.”

I think my mom is nuts (and I told her so). What did she want, Olan Mills and matchy-matchy sweaters? Both of us sitting on the couch with Rufus curled up between us? (As though that cat would ever sit still that long.) The two of us dressed up in very eye-catching clothes strikes me as the perfect photo for a holiday card — lots of personality. We don’t send photo cards, but if we did, that would be the photo I would pick myself. I don’t see how you can top it.

And now I’m fighting the temptation to send my mom a belated birthday present: a photo ornament with that very picture in it (and glued down so it’s unremovable).

Every year or two, I roast a turkey breast for a holiday occasion. Every time, I have to go find the post-it note on which I’ve written various instructions to myself. The post-it, which is stuck to my mom’s recipe for sausage-and-cornbread dressing, reads like this:

325 or 350
50-60s mins
175 meat therm
160 at least

sage
parsley
onion
pepper
thyme

This always necessitates a web search to refresh my memory about what to actually do. And someday the recipes I keep finding won’t be there, so I’m recording my own, right here. The only thing I’m not including is the obsessive scrubbing I do everywhere the raw turkey might possibly have touched because I’m neurotic about salmonella or worse.

  1. Buy a 4-5 lb unfrozen turkey breast or half breast, a few days before you want to roast it. (Whole Foods always has these behind the meat counter, although this year I got one unfrozen in a bag from the HEB.)
  2. Put the turkey in a gallon ziploc bag.
  3. Mix a tablespoon of kosher salt with some spices like parsley, sage, and black pepper. Rub this all over the turkey.
  4. Zip the bag and put it in another bag and put it in the fridge. Once or twice a day, shake the zipped bag around a bit (carefully).
  5. When you’re ready to roast the turkey, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  6. Cut up an apple or two, some celery sticks, and maybe half an onion. Lay most of this in the bottom of the roasting pan.
  7. Soften a couple of tablespoons of butter. NOT melt. Soften. (I always mess this up.) Mix in more spices. Maybe a little thyme.
  8. Get the turkey breast out of the fridge and rinse it off and pat it dry.
  9. Rub the turkey with the butter. Get inside the skin, in all the little cavities, and on the skin itself. (You could probably do this with olive oil, but I hate to mess with success.)
  10. Stick the rest of the apple/onion/celery slices in any possible cavity of the turkey.
  11. Put the turkey in the roasting pan. Put the pan in the oven, UNcovered.
  12. Cook for about 80 minutes, then check the temp with the meat thermometer. It should be no less than 160 and really about 170 before it’s ready.
  13. Once it’s ready, put it on a platter and tent it with foil for 15 minutes.
  14. Strain all the drippings for gravy. (I make awesome gravy. Recipe = roux plus drippings and maybe some stock.) Save out the apples and onions because they are very yummy with the turkey and sides.
  15. Voila! Turkey! Marvel at its lovely browned skin and juicy flavor.

Although, honestly, we haven’t yet eaten this year’s turkey, except for the Traditional Nibbling at the Edges that is absolutely mandatory for holiday birds. So I might have to come back here and update this. We’ll see.

Sometimes I worry I might have an obsessive personality … for example, after I’ve heard about 20 different versions of the “Heat Miser/Snow Miser” song.

Earlier in the week, I was listening to samples, trying to figure out which cover I heard in the office bathroom. Then last night it occurred to me to try YouTube. Then I could share my findings right here. (I love embedding videos.)

First of all, I finally figured out that the version I’d heard in the bathroom was, most definitely, from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. I had to hear the whole song, not the snippet on Amazon. Here it is, with a slideshow of images from The Year Without a Santa Claus for video.

If you don’t like the images accompanying the music, search on YouTube for “heat miser snow miser” and you can find any number of mashup videos using either the original version of the song or the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy song. I like this one with Coraline (although the picture quality is crummy) but you can also find a delightful one with Thor and Loki from the recent comic-book movies, as well as the X-Men and (for Debby) The Doctor and The Master.

I didn’t realize that The Year Without a Santa Claus had been remade as a live-action TV special in 2006. I haven’t seen it, but the cast sounds like fun: John Goodman as Santa (which he did so well in the Spongebob holiday special), Ethan Suplee as one of the elves, and Carol Kane as Mother Nature. Here’s the Heat Miser/Snow Miser number from that show, featuring Michael McKean as Snow Miser and Harvey Fierstein as Heat Miser. I’m amused that they took full advantage of live action and changed the backup singers from dumpy clay men to scantily clad young women:

But wait, there’s more. Apparently the “Heat Miser/Snow Miser” song is so beloved that choral groups enjoy performing it during the holidays, and you can find a bunch of these on YouTube. I like the Snow Miser in this 2007 performance from the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus (be patient and he’ll show up):

And then there’s this one from the Philadelphia Men’s Chorus in 2009 — the narrator is hard to hear and therefore a bit annoying, but the performances are enjoyable:

Are you sick of this yet? Because I’m saving the best one for last. But first, if you prefer those beefy horns over the singing in this number, you’ll probably like the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet Band, with the video footage from the TV show above them:

I got a little tired of the song after listening to dozens of versions, but I wondered why no one had thought of it as a male/female duet instead of two brothers. There’s a lot of possibility there. And apparently a morning deejay in New Hampshire thought so too — Greg Kretschmar, performing the song in a very much family-unfriendly way with Liz Armano as Lady Heat Miser. (I liked the idea of “Mistress Heat Miser” better, but no one else seems to have tried that one yet.)

I’d tell you to feel free to share your own audio or video versions of this song, but at this point I’m ready to take a break and go listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas instead. On the other hand, wouldn’t an a cappella version of “Heat Miser/Snow Miser” be great? Are The Bobs still around?

I have mostly been ignoring this whole “woo, the world is going to end tomorrow!” “woo, people who think that are soooo crazy!” thing that’s been going around, because it’s silly. But I do have a grudge against the Mayan calendar. It is because of the Mayan prediction about the end of the world — or someone’s interpretation as such — that I was once terribly rude in a theater during a press screening. I am still slightly embarrassed.

For some reason passing my current understanding, back in 2009 I went to the press screening for the movie 2012. I wasn’t reviewing the movie. Maybe I was just bored. Actually, now that I look at the release date, I do understand, because it was November 2009 and I was between jobs, and probably just wanted to hang out with film critic friends and go to daytime screenings while I had the chance. And of course there is always the chance that a movie that looks like it might be dreadful could surprise you. (Also, there was John Cusack and Oliver Platt.)

But 2012 was just awful. It wasn’t even an entertaining disaster movie in an Irwin Allen-ish way. The movie is about the epic disasters that occur in December 2012 when the whole Mayan calendar thing kicks in and the earth boils and collapses or whatever it does. The plot was dumb, the characters were dumb, the CGI-a-go-go special effects were implausible, and it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. I sat next to a colleague who she was shaking her head at me a little in a teasing way because I kept checking my watch, wondering if it would ever, ever end. It was 158 minutes long and I felt every second of those minutes.

Near the end of the movie, John Cusack is doing something heroic underwater — I honestly can’t remember what — and he’s submerged longer than expected. And his wife, who has done nothing at all of any interest throughout the previous two hours or so, just starts screaming and carrying on. And I was thunderstruck. Let me tell you, if Chip were underwater saving all of us and it was longer than 30 seconds, I would be diving down there immediately. No woman in that situation who wasn’t a movie character would just stand there and do nothing.

“Bitch, please.”

And then I realized that I’d said it out loud.

And then I realized I had probably not used my inside voice, either.

And my friend is sitting next to me trying to fight the urges to frown at the noise or laugh at the outburst or maybe even applaud, who knows, and I suspect had quite a struggle herself to remain composed. Press-only screenings are generally not lively affairs. My first press screening was Clerks 2 and I can remember worrying that I was laughing too loudly..

The wife eventually did go after the husband, although it took so long it was a miracle he hadn’t died and been eaten by a killer shark (not that there were killer sharks, but in this movie, I wouldn’t have been surprised if one appeared out of nowhere just for kicks) and they all lived happily ever after on a cruise ship, which made no sense at all, but oh joy, oh rapture, the movie was over at last.

My colleague teased me about it afterward, but no one else said anything. We were in the front row of people, so maybe the sound didn’t carry? Maybe it was drowned out by the industrial-strength soundtrack? Or maybe everyone else was asleep. Still, I am not proud of having shouted at a movie in a theater, any movie that isn’t Rocky Horror, and I blame the damn Mayans. Also Roland Emmerich, the writer/director who perpetrated this atrocity. And Amanda Peet, too, now that I think of it, for not protesting at the inanity of the character she played.

But mostly the Mayans. The world is ending tomorrow, is it? Bitch, please.

Someone at my place of employment decided it would be delightful to install satellite radio boxes in all the bathrooms. (All the women’s bathrooms, anyway — I can’t speak for the gents.) This frankly has bothered me from day one, when I escaped to the bathroom after a really extrovert-friendly first day of orientation and was bombarded with very very loud country music.

For whatever reason, the radio in the bathroom nearest my desk had been silent for months. No one wanted to figure out how to make it work. But someone has finally learned how to use it. Someone who likes mellow, easy-listening Christmas music. The bathroom has lost its feeling of respite and now I hurry up and get the hell out of there before I have to hear Justin Bieber or something. (Actually I don’t know who most of these musicians are. Not Bruce Springsteen or John Lennon, although I did hear Paul McCartney yesterday.) It is worse than the years I worked in The Domain and they played Mariah Carey holiday tunes outdoors. At least one could hide in the building.

(I realize now that all I have to do is to compare my current office bathrooms to the ones near my office in the Flawn Academic Center at UT, and everything is coming up roses. A bathroom heavily used by undergraduates is not a pretty sight. But I digress.)

I ducked into the office bathroom this afternoon for the usual reasons, and I found myself actually enjoying the background music. It was a cover of the “Heat Miser/Cold Miser” song from the 70s TV special The Year Without a Santa Claus, very familiar to those of a certain age and upbringing. I bet some of you could sing it. I bet some of you are singing it right now that I’ve mentioned it.

This was a lively cover, R&B-ish, not too goofy, the singer getting a little Tom Waits-y during the Cold Miser bit, but mostly letting the lyrics be the silly part. I looked at the satellite radio console to figure out who was performing it, but the console claimed the song was “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” I think that would come as a surprise to Bach.

So after dinner tonight, I started researching. We live in such a wonderful age, where you can go to Amazon or iTunes and type in “heat miser” and get a long list of covers of this song, listen to samples, and buy what you like right then and there. I prefer Amazon over iTunes because I like the MP3 format, and the site had 15 or so versions of “Heat Miser and Snow Miser” (there seems to be no standard title for the tunes), not counting the karaoke versions, of which there are about a half-dozen. I admit this would be a helluva karaoke selection with the right crowd.

Of course, first and foremost, you can buy the original rendition from the TV show. But you can also find rockabilly, big-band-ish, grunge, punk, hip hop, and reggae-beat-with-female-vocalist versions of the song. Some feature only the Heat Miser or Cold Miser half, some hit both. Artists covering the song include Bag of Donuts, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, The Badlees, Deizal Nuncia, and Lushy. (But not the Asylum Street Spankers, surprisingly.) I hadn’t heard of most of these musicians/bands either because my musical taste is stuck somewhere in KGSR circa 1998.

I couldn’t find what I thought was an exact match, although the samples I heard weren’t from the same part of the song I heard in the bathroom, so it was difficult to tell. My money is on Rich Chambers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, or Ernie Haase & Signature Sound. I may buy all three and see which one I like best. I’m tempted to get some of the other ones just for fun. I figure even if I go crazy and splurge on all the ones I like, it’ll still be under $10.

I recommend going to Amazon or iTunes or wherever you go and having a good listen. If you find a good cover elsewhere, let me know.

And perhaps I should figure out if I can hook an MP3 player into the satellite radio speakers, and subject my female coworkers to ten different versions of the “Heat Miser and Cold Miser” song, all day long. That’ll teach them to figure out how the damn thing works in the first place.

When you write about movies, you see a lot of movies. It’s hard not to feel jaded and cynical and sometimes bored by the predictable. It’s very hard to go into some movies with an open mind. But there’s always that little spark in the back of my head that remains eternally optimistic.

The best moment for film critics is the pleasant surprise. Perhaps we are too affected by surprises, even. But you might have noticed that critics get very very happy when a movie that for all intents and purposes looked like it would suck, or be dull, or just stupid, turns out to be wonderfully entertaining. I think it’s one of the reasons the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie did so well. A lot of my critic friends were thrilled with Madagascar 3, and I believe it’s because they dragged themselves to the theater on assignment, not pleased about it, and saw a better movie than they expected. (Which I didn’t think was all that wonderful, apart from the scene in which Frances McDormand since “Non, je ne regrette rien,” which was — again — very surprising.)

I watched Wreck-It Ralph because I needed to see more animated films for awards consideration. I figured I would give it maybe 15 minutes and half my attention. I hoped there would not be too many poop and snot and burping jokes, which is the kind of humor you get from kids’ animated movies these days. (Even Pixar, a little, in Brave. Tch tch tch.) I had very low expectations. I suspected it might be gamer/fanboy-ish and I wasn’t thrilled about that either.

And Wreck-It Ralph turned out to be a delightful movie. Well written characters, a story that was not terribly predictable, wonderful voice talent (Jane Lynch!), fun to look at, and one movie reference involving Oreos that had me nearly falling off the couch.

As a film critic, I have to think carefully about the effects of the surprise. If I had been hyped up for the film, would I have enjoyed it as much as I would have with low expectations? The other end of the spectrum was Holy Motors, which everyone was going ga-ga over when I saw it, and it took me about a week to realize that I had felt slightly disappointed because it wasn’t the best movie of the decade, it was simply a good movie. Very good. But I had to wait for the expectation effect to die down before I felt like I was having an authentic reaction.

I’ve waited several days for the Wreck-It Ralph expectation effect to wear off, but I still want to see it again, in a theater, hopefully this weekend if it’s still around (and not in 3D). Go see it and let me know if I’m right. A few silly-kid jokes, but a lot there for adults. Surprise!

Twilight of the Alamo on South Lamar

Today’s photo is not holiday-related but it looks festive. Again, however, this is one of those festive photos that makes me sad.

What you are looking at is the porch of Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar. I took this during Fantastic Fest this year, a genre (horror, sff, martial arts, etc.) film festival in Austin. The festival has been going on annually since 2005, takes place almost entirely at this theater, and I have been to it every year. It is the first festival I ever attended as credentialed press. It has a special place in my heart, which is a phrase I don’t use too often because it’s terribly sappy, but it’s the right thing to say here.

Between movies, a lot of us gather on this porch, which has lots of benches and convenient power outlets if you’re trying to write a review (which you can’t, because people keep coming up and being charmingly social). I do a lot of socializing on this porch, not just at Fantastic Fest but year-round. I’m watching a lot of movies right now for end-of-year awards consideration, several are at this theater, and afterwards we all go out there and argue about whether Zero Dark Thirty is better than Moonlight Kingdom. (Which is a completely stupid type of comparison unless you’re having to vote on awards, but I digress.)

And next year, when Fantastic Fest takes place, this porch will be gone. In fact, the porch will be gone in January. This Alamo Drafthouse and the surrounding strip mall are being torn down. The Alamo will be rebuilt (possibly using some of the existing building, but almost certainly not this porch) and will reopen around September, probably just in time for the film festival. But it will be an entirely new type of complex with sleek trendy condos (or apartments, I can’t remember) and a parking garage instead of the endearingly shabby thrift stores and shops and boxing gym around it. I’m not opposed to the new development but I’ll miss the old one nonetheless.

I was there yesterday for a movie and already, all the shops are closed and fenced off so they can be torn down. The Casa Garcia is halfway demolished. I didn’t take pictures … it was too sad. (Not to mention many familiar Alamo and Highball staffers losing their jobs because of the closure, which just breaks my heart, another phrase I don’t use lightly.)

I’m sure there will be a new porch or hangout; Alamo is very good about that sort of thing. It might even be better than picnic benches and concrete and at night, lights that would look at home on a Christmas tree. But of course I’m going to miss this porch.

Rockefeller Center

The problem I am encountering with Holidailies is that my goal was to post a photo and perhaps a few descriptive sentences about it. “A few” means three. “A few” does not mean three photos plus a long series of recollections that shift too suddenly from amusing to melancholy. But here I am wanting to tell stories about the location of my current place of employment, and what happened to me and my job status in the past year, and buying new ornaments for the Pink and Sparkly Holiday Tree, and the weird commercialization/exploitation of the Loop 360 tree-trimming, and who knows what-all else.

But I have to go see a movie about FDR, or something, so instead I am going to restrain myself and ask you to enjoy this very nice photo of Rockefeller Center that I took last December when I visited New York. Isn’t that nice?

Seasons Greetings

My husband is a brave man. On a daily basis, he fights spammers and evil monolithic telecom corporations. He eats scary foods like baked beans and green bell peppers. He was president of our neighborhood association. Twice.

But he has his weaknesses. Mushrooms seem to worry him somewhat and he is always sliding them over onto my plate. He runs out of the room whenever I start watching a certain type of indie film.

And then there’s Mr. Bingle.

I find Mr. Bingle to be a delightful character from my childhood — and my parents — as do many people who grew up in New Orleans. I could sing part of the jingle, but I won’t. I remember the Christmas display Maison Blanche, the department store where Mr. Bingle got as much shelf and display time as Santa. He has holly wings and an ice-cream cone hat! I mean, how can you not love him? Here he is photobombing our childhood Santa photo from MB:

Santa picture, 1978

Mr. Bingle scares the hell out of Chip. Every year, I take the little snowman down from the highest shelf in the linen closet and arrange him on the sofa, and wait for the reaction. This year, I brought him in on Sunday, but Chip was so busy working that he didn’t notice until this morning, when I mentioned it. I should have waited for him to have more coffee first. He jumped back slightly, looked somewhat shaken and darted out of the room.

Sometimes when I walk into our living room I notice that Mr. Bingle is mysteriously face down, or hiding under a cushion. Chip blames it on the cat. But the cat is perfectly fine with sharing couch space with Santa’s cutest helper, as you can see from the photo at the top, and would not dream of molesting this adorable holiday icon.

He says it’s the eyes that frighten him. Back in the day, Mr. Bingle used to have metallic eyes, not blue, but I suspect these are safer for children in some way. I would think that shiny silver eyes would be far scarier than cute blue ones, but I’m not the one who keeps asking when Christmas will be over so we can get “that devil doll” hidden away again. There is nothing demonic about Mr. Bingle. I mean, Chip has a Pets.com dog puppet in his office and that’s a lot scarier if you think about it.

On the other hand, I can’t see Mr. Bingle anymore without being a little bit sad. In August 2005, my maternal grandparents’ house in Lakeview was flooded — nine feet of water flooded — after the nearby levees broke. Chip and I visited the house that November with my mom (my grandmother didn’t even want to see it). We had to wear masks because of all the mold. The house had not yet been cleaned out or gutted, which would happen later … and much later, my grandfather sold it. They had been living in that house since the 1950s.

We walked into the living room, and I saw my grandparents’ sectional couch, completely ruined. And this:

Here comes Mr. Bingle

It’s a picture I can’t get out of my head whenever I see the little holly-winged helper. He’s not scary, he’s just a survivor. Battered and waterlogged and covered in mold but still looking oddly cheerful, for me Mr. Bingle is iconic of more than Christmas now.

Under the chandelier

The fact that the above photo looks like a fancy crystal snowflake is a lucky coincidence. It’s actually one of the chandeliers at Radio City Music Hall, taken from me standing underneath it and at a slight angle. I like it better than the photos I took of actual holiday decorations around New York from that trip.

Radio City Music Hall was one of the big reasons I went to NYC last year. My sister-in-law is a Rockette, and I had never seen her perform live as a Rockette. They put on a big spectacular Christmas show with a cheesy story and some silly laser effects, not to mention the live camels onstage, but the real reason to go is to watch the Rockettes, and they are pretty fascinating. Also, I liked trying to figure out how the huge pieces of scenery worked (they all ride in a very large bus at one point, and there are ice skaters onstage). Trying to figure out which dancer onstage was actually my sister-in-law was a challenge at first, but she’s one of the taller dancers and has a very distinctive smile.

I’ve got more photos from the afternoon but this is my favorite from that day. One advantage of having a Rockette sister-in-law is that I get to see some interesting behind-the-scenes photos of the costumes and the dancers and so forth. My favorite Rockette photos, though, are from backstage some years ago when my brother turned up and proposed to her. At intermission. How do you perform after that? She’s a trouper.