Thursday, March 25, 2010

Only so much to go around

Tonight, I've been confronting the realities of how a nice tax refund really can disappear without even trying.

When we did our taxes this year, we got a very hefty sum back in a refund - I won't say how much because my Midwestern sensibilities won't permit it - but let's just say that it was several thousand dollars. This is due almost entirely to the fact that I over-withhold from my paycheck like nobody's business. This stems from the first year that both Heidi and I were working and we both claimed each other on our W2s and we ended up owing several thousand dollars. Since I don't desire a repeat of that scenario, I have gone against the advice of many friends who said that I shouldn't let the government use my money for free for a year when I could be investing it and making money off of it. That's all fine and dandy but it would require me to actually invest it or save it versus blowing it on iTunes or something equally frivolous. I don't trust myself enough to do that and, honestly, I kind of like that big check coming to me in spring when we're trying to recover from Christmas.

We went into this tax season knowing full well that we were getting all the gutters replaced on the house in the spring. As Heidi is fond of saying - if we weren't already getting new gutters, after this winter, we would be. There were icicles BEHIND the gutters. We're actually doing a pretty significant upgrade by getting LeafGuard, which will come in handy especially because in our heavily treed neighborhood, I get up on a ladder and clean the gutters out at least 3 times a year. They come next Thursday to install it. I, of course, am right on schedule and have completely freaked myself out by reading some of the complaints on the web. I'm comforting myself with the fact that my neighbor has LeafGuard and likes them and at any rate, it's too late to worry about it now.

Anyway, we never planned on paying for all of it outright. Instead, we decided to pay the lion's share of it out of the tax refund and then finance the last little bit. Well, I was filling out the financing forms tonight and something makes me nervous about it, even though the financing is through WellsFargo and they already own our soul. A part of me wants to just pay for the whole shooting match, using the money I had set aside for my iMac just so I don't have to worry about payments, no matter how manageable they might be. Doing that puts off my iMac for quite some time, but it would probably be worth it for the peace of mind it would bring.

There was also the matter of the completely unexpected surgery that our cat Mia had to have to remove a malignant sarcoma from her back. Those of you without pets would scoff at the amount we spent on an animal (it was less than a thousand), but that's what you do when you're a pet owner. She is home now and hopefully cancer-free, although there's no guarantee the tumor won't grow back. We kind of debated the point of surgery in a 16 year old cat, but the consensus was that removing the tumor was worth doing once. If it buys her even another year, it was worth it because without it, she had a life expectancy of months and at the rate I saw that tumor grow, I would be willing to bet it would have been weeks. So there went some more of it.

We also gave into Apple's PR machine and pre-ordered the iPad which comes out on April 3rd. Heidi actually could use this professionally, and it's really the eReader that she wants plus it's something we can all use and enjoy, so there you go. Even when you're dirt poor, you still have to have your luxuries. And the iPad definitely falls into the "luxury" category. That's where I think the Dave Ramsey plan falls apart. Nothing would set us up for failure financially more than a "You can eat nothing but rice and beans for the next 8 years. You can take no vacations. You can never splurge on yourself." approach. Eventually, we'd just rebel against it and that would be that.

So who knows what we'll do. I just know that it sure is easy to spend money. But the good thing is that we are not charging any of this, which is really a shift for us. For so many years, I just figured that the money would be there. And while we're far from destitute, we're also in significant debt. Some of it is through no fault of our own and some of it, yeah, we made some bad decisions. In years past, I would have just bought my iMac knowing that the money from the tax refund would be there to cover it. But when I decided to do this, I decided to do it differently and not purchase it until I had the cash in hand. What ultimately pushed me to that decision is that I don't want the experience of a new computer to be marred by anxiety about whether or not I had the money to buy it. I would prefer most major purchases to be done like this from now on, but I'm also not so naive as to think I'll never charge anything ever again. Sadly, you really do still need a credit card.

I don't know what the point of this post is. I'm home alone tonight and I'm feeling kind of restless. Perhaps this was my attempt to turn that restlessness into something with purpose rather than letting it turn into anxiety that goes nowhere. It pretty much worked.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

It's just a feeling

After a winter of nearly constant snowfall and cold temperatures, we've finally managed to thaw out. A solid week of 50 degree weather has pretty much decimated our snow cover and I don't think you'll find anyone that has a problem with that. Spring really feels like it's in the air, and while we're not out of the woods yet as far as the freakish April snowstorm goes, we're all breathing a little bit easier.

I was headed to a late afternoon appointment the other day when spring really hit me. It was a combination of things - the smell in the air, the lack of snow, and the feeling of having been released from prison. Yesterday, as I was leaving work and it was 58 degrees outside, it hit me again. The warmer weather is part of it, but it's more than that. It's a feeling that I can't describe.

Naturally, it made me want to listen to Bella Donna, which is exactly what I have been doing.

Stevie Nicks is such a "spring" artist to me and of all her albums, nothing says March or April more than Bella Donna. I've told the story of how, in the fall of 1987, I became infatuated with Stevie Nicks. The reason for this was twofold - Fleetwood Mac had released their first album in 5 years that spring, Tango In The Night, and Madonna was headed into a year long dry spell which would end with Like A Prayer in the spring of 1989. As a consequence, Stevie pretty much had my undivided attention. My mom had the Rock A Little record album and I bought both Bella Donna and The Wild Heart in October or November of 1987. I listened to them throughout the winter to the exclusion of so many other things I shudder to think of what I might have missed. I remember coming home from school and going up to my room to soak up the music and ponder the impossibly high heels that Stevie was wearing on the cover of the album. But even with those heels, she probably would still only come up to my chest.

So by the time we got to the spring of 1988, I was a goner and completely obsessed with Stevie's music, particularly Bella Donna. Is there any better album for a shy and introverted teenager with a streak of unnecessary melancholy? Stevie pushed all the right buttons. With her vague lyrics that could be applied to nearly any situation, she seemed like a kindred spirit, like the wiser and older aunt that was so much cooler than your own parents. I must have listened to the song "Think About It" a zillion times that year alone, always entranced by the lyric "Even when you feel like your life is fading/I know that you'll go on forever, you're that good/Heartbreak of the moment is not endless/Fortune is your life's love." It reverberated inside my 15 year-old head like nothing else, when the world seemed to be crashing down (it wasn't) and my teenage angst felt as big as a mountain, even though it really could have been measured in angstroms. 23 years later, it still resonates, for no other reason than it's true. Heartbreak of the moment is not endless. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The thing about Stevie's music is that you're on the ride with her. To truly have the Stevie experience, you have no other choice but to feel what she does. I feel Bella Donna contains her most vivid examples of balls-out honesty (pardon the expression) in a career littered with what from other artists would have amounted to an uncomfortable overshare. You experience her disillusionment with fame on "After The Glitter Fades" and her internal struggle with relationships on "Leather & Lace." The album really is her, something that is only hinted at in her work with Fleetwood Mac.

But it's the title track that I've been coming back to over the last week or so. The opening 5 piano chords are part of the soundtrack of my life. The structure of the song defies conventional description. There's really no bridge and no concrete refrain. But the melody is very strong and it doesn't take 30 bars to complete. Stevie talks about how the song "Bella Donna" is "about getting a little bit of my normal life back." I also liked this interpretation I found online:

I definitely see how this song is kind of a letter to yourself. "Bella donna...my soul..." This song conveys sort of an understanding and compassion with the lowest parts of yourself and presents a sort of crossroads mood; you've taken stock of your situation and now you're ready to take a step towards a direction.

Well, no wonder it hit my teenage self like a ton of bricks. Talk about a time in your life when you're making steps in new directions.

I also find it telling that they should mention writing a letter to yourself, because there are so many times over the years that found myself wishing I could either write to or go talk to the 15 year-old version of me. In years past, I have wanted to go back and slap him silly. But the older I've gotten, the more at peace I've become with that part of me because, like it or not, that adolescent me is still in there. And what I've found is that I have to treat that part of me with a liberal dose of kindness. It's nowhere near as equipped to deal with the world as my current version is, which probably makes me less equipped than I think I am.

But I'll always have Bella Donna, and I doubt that even 25 years from now it will resonate any less. It's just a feeling I have.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Evidence of brilliance

Well, it isn't exactly the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but here's the audio blog post/podcast that Jeff and I did on Sunday. I was going to try to be all cool and put in intro and outro music, but clearly I need a remedial lesson in how to run the software because I couldn't even do something as simple as that.

So as a consequence of my technical (in)abiity, it's pretty bare bones, but it's what we have. Instead of all the fancy bells and whistles, you get Jeff and me going on for an hour about how we became Madonna fans and what we consider the highest points of her career. As with most things, it didn't quite go in the direction I thought it would, but I still think that it will be appealing to Madonna fans and possibly to people who know us. And I like it because it's a sliver of who I am.

I want to apologize in advance for the fact that Jeff and I talk all over each other. See what happens when you let two huge egos in the same room? And you also can see that even though we might both be fans, we don't always agree on everything.

Download this insanity here
.

If you like it, let me know! If you don't, please consider my fragile ego before providing feedback.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

By the gods

I remember seeing the trailer for the awkwardly titled Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief before the fair-to-middling Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. It looked intriguing, but given its February release date, I figured it to be a stinker. So last night when Heidi and I were trying to find a movie to go to and we had it narrowed down to Percy Jackson and Avatar, both of which were at the dollar theater, I almost said that we should just forget the whole thing and stay home and watch a movie on TV. Instead, we went to Percy Jackson and what a wise decision it was.

Based on the book of the same name, the movie introduces us to Percy Jackson who appears to be just another unmotivated, ADHD-battling teenager. But unbeknownst to him, he is actually half ancient Greek god - his father being Poseidon, the god of the sea. When Zeus' (Sean Bean) lightning bolt goes missing, Percy is accused of stealing it in order to start a war between the gods. What follows is a great blend of the classic stories of Greek mythology superimposed over the modern world as Percy tries to clear his name and save his mother from the clutches of Hades.

As a kid, my dad told me the stories of Greek mythology and I was spellbound by them. The story of Medusa especially appealed to me - a woman so ugly that she could turn any living thing into stone. I loved the monsters - minotaurs, Furies, the Hydra, among others - that were so liberally spread throughout the myths, as well as the stories of heroes beating nearly insurmountable odds to win the day. It didn't hurt that Clash of the Titans came out when I was 9 which brought so many of these monsters to stop-motion life. At more than one point during PJ&TO, I found myself smiling like that 9-year-old, completely wrapped up in the coolness of seeing the 7 headed hydra or Uma Thurman's completely unexpected appearance as a certain snake-haired woman. Sure, some of the effects pushed up against Van Helsing bad, but overall, they were passable and, more importantly, were used to help tell the story rather than take the place of the story. (Alice In Wonderland, anyone?)

The movie was criticized for being too Harry Potter-ish, and I can see where the criticism comes from. Both storeis have a misunderstood boy with great power and legacy who is whisked away to a magical world where he truly comes into his own. As Madonna says, I've heard it all before. But it's the incorporation of the ancient Greek myths and where the story goes with what could otherwise be a rather derivative plot that earns my forgiveness.

There's a remake/rehash of Clash of the Titans coming out in 3D (what's NOT coming out in 3D these days?) the first part of next month, but as far as I'm concerned, that movie is completely superfluous. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief made me feel like a kid again and had a healthy dose of respect for the Greek myths, which is more than I think the dirty, overblown CG-filled Clash remake will be. For that reason alone, Percy Jackson is the true heir to Clash of the Titans' throne. More than worth the premium Saturday night dollar theater pricing of 2 dollars each.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

And now for the audio portion of the program...

My friend Matt has produced a podcast with his friend Lance for nearly a year now - I was even a guest on it once. Sadly, it's on hiatus right now as Matt is basically working the equivalent of two and a-half jobs, but I'm hoping that they pick up with podcasting again once his life settles down again. I fell off the listening bandwagon late last year, but I always enjoyed it - even when the topics were only of tangential interest to me. Knowing one of the podcasters personally certainly helped - you really can't say that about most podcasts.

I always told Matt that my friend Jeff would be a great guest on his podcast - and it's true. I knew that Jeff would be a natural, so for the Oscars this year, our friend (and his significant other) Caryle suggested that we record our own podcast, in which we detail our picks for the films that were "snubbed" by Oscar in years past. So that's just what we did. We sat around the MacBook and prattled on for 40 minutes. I finally sat down today to listen to it and I will never post it anywhere that can be found. It's not that I am embarrassed by its content - far from it - but we are clearly amateurs at this. But for a first try, it wasn't bad. It entertained me and I sent it to all the podcast participants (Heidi, Jeff, Caryle and Mary) but it's not really fit for other people's consumption. Most of the jokes are long standing in-jokes that would just make most people think we were on drugs while we recorded.

But that was enough to give Jeff the podcasting bug, and he e-mailed me this week to see if I would be interested in doing one with him. The only trouble is that he lives in Indianola, which is an hour or so's drive from here. The distance pretty much rules out getting together to do anything semi-regularly. Plus I didn't have any idea what we would talk about. And who in their right mind would listen?

Well, he convinced me and we're going to record something tomorrow when we rendezvous with Heidi's mom to collect Anna from a weekend at Camp Grandma. It's going to be Madonna related and the details have yet to be truly hashed out, but I can think of no more natural topic for us to discuss, as he has been my partner-in-crime for all things Madonna for 20+ years now.

This will definitely not be a regularly produced thing. My schedule (and Jeff's) simply doesn't allow it. If it happens even once a month, I'll consider that miraculous. I still don't think that I have the technical know-how that Matt has to do this with even a tenth of the quality he and Lance do. But it feels right and rather than call it a podcast, I'm viewing it more in terms of it being an "audio blog post." If I feel like it goes well, I'll be posting a link here. I may or may not pimp it on Facebook.

A significant portion of the credit goes to Matt who proved that this kind of thing can be done and done well. I know that something like this would never have even crossed my mind had it not been for his blazing of the trail.

So we'll see what happens. One thing is for certain - I shouldn't lack for things to say.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

This stinks

If ever a picture begged to be either 1) captioned or 2) turned into a LiveJournal userpic, it's this one.


It's kind of got a what-if-Streisand-had-done-the-Sex-book-instead-of-Madonna vibe about it.

And if you don't find that disturbing (or hilarious, depending on how you look at it), check your pulse.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #4 - State of Mind

Everyone around here knows that I read every last word of Heidi's m/m fiction - featuring a great plenitude of man-on-man action. What you might not know is that hers is not the only m/m fiction I read. This comes as a result of having a non-paying side gig of proofreading galleys for Dreamspinner. And to be 100% honest about it, I really enjoy reading this genre more than I ever thought I would. I blame 5 seasons of Queer As Folk (and one laughably bad season of The Lair) for causing me to be completely "eh, whatever" when it comes to the sex. And seriously, it's just sex and the sex is but a mere portion of it. It doesn't threaten my masculinity. To paraphrase a friend of mine, I don't need a hetero-proving empty seat between me and a friend at the movie and I've only gotten huggier as I've gotten older.

And what a story I would have missed had I let the m/m aspect of State of Mind turn me off. State of Mind is Libby Drew's first book for Dreamspinner, and if this is any indication, it'll be the first of many many more.

Set in a non-specific future, the book is equal parts X-Men, James Bond and Jason Bourne. The book opens by introducing us to Grier Crist, a "Gifted" who has until recently worked for The Organization, a global outfit that basically uses the Gifteds' special powers for the good of humankind. Only Grier has reason to believe that the Organization is not all that it appears to be and severs his ties with them. So The Organization sends one of its best men, Alec Devlin, after him. Together, they untangle a complicated web of of deceit and intrigue.

There were so many things I loved about this book. One of my biggest beefs with m/m fiction is that so often, the protagonists do not act like men would act. As another of my friends has told me, they may be gay, but they're still guys. I felt like Drew had a really good handle on both Grier and Alec as men. Although they didn't start out as friends, I completely bought the eventual camaraderie that developed between them. Her mix of barbs, sarcasm and a liberal sprinkling of sexual tension made their interactions very believable and a joy to read. I found myself saying to myself, "man, if only I could be half as witty as these guys!" I guess that's what happens when you have a writer like Drew providing you with your lines.

As a rule, most of my interactions with the thriller genre - whether it be a James Bond movie or a one of the Jason Bourne novels - I feel like the stupidest person in the room. It seems like I am perpetually the last person to put the pieces together and easily lose track of who is chasing who and why I'm supposed to care. Most of the time, I feel like I need the Cliffs Notes. Not so with State of Mind. Drew is a masterful storyteller, dropping plot points like bread crumbs - just enough to keep us following her but never revealing too much too soon. I admire someone who can weave a complicated story and never really leave us confused, except for the times when we're supposed to be. When you arrived at the end, it all made sense - even the things I didn't think made sense while I was reading it.

And yes, there is sex. It is very well done sex. I get really pissed off at people who just presume that romance novels - and especially novels in this genre - are nothing more than cleverly disguised porn. I'm fond of saying that either those people haven't read many romance novels or haven't watched very much porn because nothing could be further from the truth. Heidi says that the sex in a book always has to move the plot forward, ALWAYS. There's not tons of sex in this book (less than in others I've read), but what there is passes The Heidi Test and is always crucial to the plot. It's never gratuitous or sex for the sake of a sex scene. It is, honestly, a relief after the carefully laid build-up. It is in that respect that the comparison between novels in the romance genre and porn breaks down. Show me a porn in which there is no sex scene for the sake of having a sex scene and I'll tell you to come back when you've found porn.

The payoff for me in these books is always the relationship. I've heard it referred to as "emotional porn" and if that's what it is, so be it, but I think that tragically oversimplifies it. It's no secret that I am very interested in masculinity and how it's evolving and I can't understate the role that gay men have in this evolution. The emotional openness that I've seen in these books just reaffirms for me that straight men should be reading these books. We have so much to learn from each other.

I won't be reviewing (or even counting) every book I proof for Dreamspinner in the 2010 Book Challenge, but State of Mind was too good to not include. I can't recommend this book enough to fans of the genre and to sci-fi/thriller fans as well. Go pick up State of Mind from Dreamspinner in paperback or eBook and help this book skyrocket to the #1 spot on the Dreamspinner bestseller list which is where it belongs.

And yes, that is me on the cover of the book.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Taxing no more & a follow-up

The 2009 taxes are done! In the end, she came up with almost identical numbers as I did, and I got to pay 300 bucks for the privilege. But at least I know they're done right AND we have a good place to jump off of for next year which promises to be a little more interesting as hopefully Heidi's writing will not operate at a loss.

I'd like to address the previous post as well. I know that it came across as that which I hate the most and for that I'm almost a little ashamed. Heidi chewed me out for it and told me I couldn't quit blogging until I reviewed Libby Drew's new book for Dreamspinner (which I will be doing.)

I think that what I'm mostly doing is just trying to find a different direction for what I write. Sometimes I'm very frustrated because as much fun as it is to talk about divas (I've been thinking about writing something about Mariah Carey's first album lately), I do crave deeper subjects. I think it's possible to talk about them without barfing your insides all over the place or emptying your purse out for everyone to see, but that fine line is difficult and it's one I struggle with.

Basically what I need to remember is this: this is who I am, you can like it or not. You can love me or leave me, but I'm never gonna stop.

Waiting for a change of heart

UPDATE: Obviously this blog will go on. I would be lost without it. But bear with me as I work through some conflicting emotions and feelings about what direction I want to take it in.

If there's any one thing that I DESPISE with every fiber of my being, it's bloggers that come on and, in a desperate attention grab, announce that they're quitting or thinking of quitting.

That said, I'm giving some serious thought to being done with this. Or at least taking a break. As other blogger friends of mine have said to me over the years, who doesn't think of hanging it up at least 2 or 3 times a year? But then what would we do with all our time?

The reason I'm even going there at all is that I don't feel like my mindset is very much in line with the tone of the blog right now. I'm having a hard time bringing myself to write the posts about cheesy pop music. It's just not where my brain is these days. This leaves me with topics to write about that I think push up to the edge or what's ok to discuss in a public forum such as this. It's hard to write (and, conversely, not to write) about those things. If something serious is moving me or if I'm feeling something intensely, it's hard to write about Madonna's plastic surgery. But it's also hard to write about the undercurrent because, well, it's just too much exposure for this little introvert.

I suppose one option is to take out all personal stuff and just write about music and TV and books when the spirit moves me. But when I think about doing that and how it basically amounts to neutering the blog, I just can't bear to do that to what really is one of the few things in this world that I've created all on my own. Another option is to take my toys and head over to LiveJournal where I can control who sees my content a little more. Wordpress also offers password protected blogs, but I've been through that before and have decided against it. The thought of making friends and family log in to read stuff kind of turns my stomach, especially since I know a lot of my friends are pretty entrenched in Blogger.

As usual, it comes down to balance and how much do you want to expose of yourself? Whenever I do a post that is even semi-personal, I feel like I've put my heart on my shirt sleeve for the whole world to see. The reality is that it's probably only a sliver, but even after all these years, I'm still uncomfortable with people seeing anything of me that is not explicitly controlled. I'm like Madonna - I need handlers or something! I'll admit that I want pretty much everything on my terms so that I can control it and ultimately exert some control over the outcome, but the truth of the matter is that I control only a very teeny tiny portion of what happens. The sooner I get that through my thick skull, the better off I will be.

So right now, I'm on the fence I guess. I honestly can't see myself going through with it, but I also am seriously at an impasse right now. My gut instinct is to save this in draft form and not publish it because in 2 days I probably won't feel this way, but I think that writing it has been part of processing it. But even that is dangerous because, as a friend of mine once said, isn't blogging about the blog one of the surest signs of its imminent demise?

Time will tell.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Taxing

I met with a tax person at H&R Block today after the Great Frustration of Monday afternoon which saw me trying to get answers about Schedule C from the IRS. Spending two hours on the phone being transferred from person to person an infinite number of times taught me that there is a department for a portion of every line on every form and no one department can answer any of your questions fully. All was not lost as I did kind of get a kick out of how all the IRS people introduced themselves as "Mrs. So-and-So." I don't know why that struck me as funny - probably because I pictured them all as Lily Tomlin as Ernestine.

After getting nowhere fast, I finally gave up and called the local H&R Block branch office here in town. I was bowled over by the fact that I could go in there and ask questions at no charge, so I made an appointment and told Heidi that this is what we're doing.

I went in to ask questions. I walked out with another appointment that will have them doing 2009's taxes for me. I imagine that this was part of the plan in letting me come in and ask questions for free, but I really don't mind.

For so many years, I've had nothing but a couple W2s, some mortgage interest, a few charitable contributions and the child tax credit. I over-withhold like crazy (a result of one year of under-withholding that saw us paying in a shitload) so we always get a sizable refund. But this year, with Heidi's writing actually making money, I had to fill out Schedule C and I found myself in over my head pretty quickly. I thought that I could do it - I even bought the Turbo Tax Home & Business edition this year and got all the way through the personal tax part, but when I got to the business section, even having the tax software was not enough

So Monday, for the first time since probably 2001, I will have someone doing my taxes. With all that's new and different with our tax situation this year, it's basically about peace of mind knowing that everything will be done correctly. I just want it to be done right. Sure, it's going to cost a bit more (and I kind of flushed the price of TurboTax down the toilet) but I figure that it was worth it to learn that it was more than I could do. And it's not like Heidi's going to stop writing just to make tax filing easier. (And with the way Special Delivery has taken off, I am not about to wish for that!)

In my life, just like the Boston song says, all I want is to have my peace of mind. It's hard to find in so many places, but this is one area that spending a little money to have a professional do the work I would have normally done will buy just that. I'll sleep a little better tonight because of it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The place where nobody dared to go

Xanadu references are all over the place these days. Between XO's post about Sharleen Spiteri's "gonad shrinking" cover of the song and multiple references across the blogosphere comparing the new Goldfrapp songs to "Xanadu" (they say that like it's a bad thing), you really can't escape it.

There are certainly worse things in life.

I went searching for the Xanadu finale on YouTube, which was harder to find than I thought it might be. As I said over on Facebook, it's 8 minutes of cheese at its absolute finest. You owe it to yourself to watch it. Wait for Mrs. Ming the Merciless at about 6:50.



I saw Xanadu at the Carroll theater when I was probably 8 years old. My mom took me to it and I remember nearly nothing of seeing it, but I do remember it being played about a half a million times on HBO, which is where I consumed it in exceptionally large doses. Forced to be totally honest, the movie really is pretty awful. Olivia Newton-John is not an exceptional actress (although she acts circles around Michael Beck as her love interest) and the story features just about every recycled Hollywood cliche there is. But for some reason, it's better than it should be. Panned at the time, it's somehow managed to become a cult classic.

I maintain that if it weren't for the music, this movie would be completely forgotten. We had the Xanadu soundtrack on 8-track cassette tape and for years that was the only version of the soundtrack we had. I purchased it on cassette tape in 1991 and it was eaten by my Walkman about 2 weeks after I purchased it. A year later, I found a used vinyl copy of it in a record store which I still own today. Finding the soundtrack on CD was a quest that seemed nearly impossible until I found an import copy of it in the Iowa City Best Buy. The sound quality was fair at best but it was on CD! It was ultimately properly released in the U.S. with pristine sound quality and that's the version I have today.

But one of my favorite (and most enduring) stories of Xanadu is how I subjected Heidi to the movie very VERY early in our relationship. We'd probably been dating a couple of months and I very excitedly - probably too excitedly - invited her over to watch Xanadu with me. Bless her, she tolerated it with great finesse and I think she actually liked it a little bit. Although looking back, she was probably just enamored with me. That was also the night we looked at my French copy of the Sex book. If you're looking for a moment where the deal was probably sealed, I think that was it - Heidi would probably agree. In who else's life besides mine would that happen?

The good news is that Olivia can still sing this song. Although her voice is showing some signs of aging, she's a great live act - one that I would go see again in a heartbeat. She appreciates her role as nostalgia act and milks it for every last bit that she can. For you, Xanadu.


Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #3 - Life With My Sister Madonna

In hindsight, exactly why it took me a year and a half to read Christopher Ciccone's Life With My Sister Madonna is something that I really can't explain. I think it was because I heard all the juiciest bits when he was doing the talk show circuit right around the time of the book's release. And really, I didn't find those juicy bits all that juicy - certainly not juicy enough to plunk down 26 bucks for the hardcover. But it arrived rather unexpectedly in a package from a friend this Christmas and I knew right then and there that I simply could ignore it no longer. And wouldn't you know it, my initial reaction was right. For something that's billed as a scandalous tell-all about the world's most famous woman, there's precious little scandal and not a whole lot of tell-all, at least not of anything that we didn't either already know or strongly suspect.

The book starts out on opening night of The Girlie Show, when Christopher and Madonna are at their closest. He hints at the trouble to come by describing the five stages that "everyone who works for [Madonna] inevitably goes through." Describing her as a sun, they start in disillusionment, then travel into being in her "warmth and attention." Stage 3 is closer yet, while stage 4 is the "coldest place of all, the place right up close to her." And from there it's not long till they reach stage 5 - "no more sunlight, no more closeness, no more Madonna." From there, he heads back to their youth in Michigan, recounting his formative years, including the loss of their mother (which affected Christopher to a much smaller degree than it did Madonna.) Madonna leaves for New York and he eventually follows her, where she becomes a pop superstar and he becomes, well, her brother. This makes for a pretty fascinating tale of a man caught up in his own insecurities, all the while basking in the white hot fame of Madonna.

As a long-time, dyed-in-the-wool Madonna fan, this book was an interesting combination of "yeah, I kinda already knew that" and titillating voyeurism into Madonna's inner circle. So much of Madonna's life has been laid bare, both literally and figuratively, that it seems like there's nothing that could possibly shock me. And mostly, that was true. Madonna smoked pot? GASP! You mean to tell me that Madonna is kind of a bitch and she discards people when they cease to be of use to her? I NEVER would have thought that! And seriously, despite the fact that she has been world-famous for 25 years, she still deals with massive insecurity and significant control issues? Who'd have thought it?

The book is hardly an exhaustive look at Madonna's career - it is, after all, Christopher's story as it relates to his relationship with Madonna. Still, that was one of the book's disappointments. It glossed over so many important Madonna moments - the making of Evita, for example, is barely more than a footnote - that it seems like there's no way we're getting the whole story. I did, however, enjoy his account of Blond Ambition and the filming of Truth or Dare. By his account, the movie is hardly a documentary. Rather, each scene was meticulously crafted by Madonna. Again, interesting to hear, but nothing that most fans didn't already assume was at least partially true anyway. But he saves his harshest words for the scene at their mother's grave, accusing Madonna of "relegating [their] mother to the role of mere extra in her movie."

The deterioration of their relationship plays out like a bad car wreck - painful to watch, but you can hardly look away. Madonna is portrayed in an extremely unflattering light, refusing to pay for his services as a designer, accusing him of drug and alcohol abuse and virtually shutting him out of her life and the lives of her children. Her disregard for her own brother stands in stark contrast to the teachings of the Kabbalah which she claims to support so completely. On the other hand though, Christopher does himself no favors. He frequently comes across as whiny and entitled, dropping names of celebrities he's met or worked with throughout the book like we're supposed to be impressed. And the question of his drug addiction was never really answered to my satisfaction either. Perhaps he is not an addict (he admits to recreational drug use), but I would argue that many addicts take years to fess up to their addictions.

In the end, what surprised me most about the book is how Christopher and Madonna have a relationship much like most siblings, only filtered through the prism of her mega-fame. They fight, they compete, they know each other's weak spots by virtue of knowing each other from the very beginning. They might go years without speaking. They disagree on one thing and but agree on others. But through it all, they love each other pretty much unconditionally, even when they can't stand each other, because that's what family does.

Despite the fact that the cover of the book features one of the worst photos of Madonna I've ever seen, I still heartily recommend it - especially to fans. They won't be shocked by accounts of her bitchiness and really, if we're really honest about it, we like the bitchiness.

The book also features some great candid shots of Madonna - this one of Madonna, pregnant with Lola, is my favorite:

Dig that harvest gold dishwasher! And is that Jell-O mold in the background?