Friday, July 9, 2010

Scooby-Doo and TV Mama

All along, I had intended to cover television on this blog. It’s not just how pervasive TV is, but I have been covering television for over a decade for an international syndicate.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed most A-list stars and several who should remain on the D-list. Wait, is there a Z-list? I’ve been on sets from “The Sopranos” to “Sesame Street” and am yet to confuse them. I’ve listened to wonderful stories from terrific actors, and have had the chance to interview some of the greats including Jack Lemmon, Beverly Sills and Chuck Jones (Bugs Bunny’s creator).

I’ll revisit some of those interviews in upcoming posts because I want to share what an incredibly nice guy Jack Lemmon was, how gracious Beverly Sills’ home was and what a riot Chuck Jones was. I’ll also write about the living.

For now, though, I want to talk about why I named this blog TV Mama. For the longest time, I was covering more children’s programming than any professional writer in the country. That’s not an idle statement; publicists representing the shows repeatedly told me this. And I talked with many of my colleagues at the Television Critics Association who bore this out.

Much of this is because there is so much television and so few employed TV critics. They are all writing a lot, and there is so much to write. Among my favorite assignments has been one called Report Card, which my editor and I devised over a drink some years back.

For the last six years, I have written a family-viewing column for Tribune Media Services. It’s been a delight, but after over 300 columns (and never missing a week) that assignment is being phased out in mid-August. I had also written a weekly column on TV kids for the Star-Ledger, more of a personal take on TV, with a weekly essay and recommendations, but that ended a year ago.

Still, I am delighted to remain a working journalist, 31 years into my career, so this is not a complaint. Rather it’s an explanation for why there will be more posts here about kids’ shows, and why this started as TV Mama.

Despite the usual refrain that there is nothing on; there is plenty on, particularly for kids. So, part of this blog is to remind us what shows are out there that are worth watching with kids or for kids alone.

Along those lines, I’m recommending “Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated” Monday, July 12, on Cartoon Network. Scooby is just a constant in life, and there are so few of those. I don’t take much for granted, but I expect Shaggy to have a permanent case of the munchies, Velma to be forced to suffer fools, Daphne to sigh over unrequited love and Fred to flex his muscles. I expect silly ghosts.

And, truly, those expectations are met in this new show.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Little League: The last games

I was a reluctant Little League mom.

My niche was always dance, not sports, so I understood ferrying my kids to theater and dance classes. Teams were foreign territory.

When my son wanted to play baseball, I figured it could be great, teach about team spirit, and get exercise outside; the usual benefits. But I was hesitant.

Naturally, I had heard all the stories of crazed parents berating kids, fighting with other parents. And, I was worried. I doubted I would restrain myself if someone attacked him for dropping a ball.

The pros outweighed the cons, and off we went to buy cleats. Soon, it was clear; it’s a great outlet, as anyone with young sons knows, they often have more energy than sense.

Practice started when the ground in the northeast is still frozen. I huddled in a down jacket, watching them first run the wrong way. It was so cold that their ears, sticking out from their caps, chapped red.

Eventually, they learned to run the right way. Some hit homers out of the park. In between several springs passed. The ground, which started frozen, turned to mud, and eventually to grass each season and each season the team improved.

First just mommies, daddies and grandparents milled about. This last season, girlfriends cheered them on.

Once during a practice the first year, the boys had stopped and were huddled in a corner of a park. Their ever-patient coach called, “Hey guys! What’s going on?” As one, they said, “Bunny!” A rabbit had hopped by.

Though this league is made up of kids from one town, it’s a spread-out suburb so my son made friends from different schools. Little League took him from third through sixth grade and gave him what I hope is a lifelong passion for the game.

He loves baseball with a zeal I hope he applies to other aspects of life. And he can talk baseball with others who know the lineup of the 1927 Yankees.

I never expected to feel much about it, but I can’t shake the sadness that set in last week. His Little League career ended – not with a grand slam or a tiebreaker. He and a bunch of his buddies aged out. The season was over.

During a family day picnic, the coach called up each kid and cited his accomplishments. Mine was noted for an amazing catch this year (it really was) and for being the “hardest working” on his team, first to practice, last to leave.

I felt myself misting up. I’d miss those early practices when a scarf and gloves were required and the later games when sunscreen and shades were. I’d miss cheering for his team, often the underdog, and marveling at the resiliency of my son who loved the game even when his team lost 21-0.

Mostly, I’ll miss just observing the easy camaraderie among the team, gear bags slung over narrow shoulders, standing in line to drown their loss, or occasionally celebrate a win, with blue Slushies.

There’s senior league to look forward to, and I’m delighted he wants to play, but I can’t help feeling melancholy that Little League days are over.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Buffet for bullies?

Now here's an etiquette question you don't get to mull over often: What to serve a bully and his dad trying to do the right thing?

Do I buy bagels and cream cream cheese? Is lox going too far? Put out fruit? Or take that extra step and make a fruit platter? Just grind some more beans to perk a fresh pot of coffee? By the time I came downstairs, a spread was out, courtesy of my husband, but that was for my son's pals who slept over. Now we're moving into foreign territory.

We've had our first case of bullying in our household. Much has been made of bullying since cyber-bullying was linked to several teen suicides. This was the old fashioned kind: a 10th grader, with the bulk of a defensive lineman, went after my son, a sixth grader who might as well have gossamer wings, since he has the hollow frame of your average wood nymph.
The incident happened at our local park, an exquisite piece of green with a rose garden, a memorial to our neighbors lost on 9/11, a playground, a pond and a community center. By day, it's moms and nannies and toddlers, by nights, idiotic teenagers who think parents and police don't know where they drink and have sex. After school, it's often a mix of older residents taking walks, and anyone who wants to enjoy this beautiful space.

From what I have been able to gather: the older boy grabbed my son's backpack and tossed it into a tree. This is impressive because his backpack weighs a ton. The backpack-heaver's buddy on a bike then went after my son.

Despite a high IQ and an annoying ability to deduce everything to logical terms, my allegdy gifted and talented son did not seek a police officer, go to an adult and ask help, run into one of the dozens of small mom-and-pop stores that line our downtown, call home or call the police.

Nope, he called his sister -- three times, each time more hysterical. She happens to be a clasmmate of backpack-thrower. My son assumed, correctly, that she was with her boyfriend, who is older and far tougher than bully and that he would teach bully a lesson.

Then matters devolved. Boyfriend and sister come to rescue. Just before sixth grade son amasses army of eighth graders to retrieve his backpack. Then, again not exercising keen thinking, he walks the mile or so home, alone.

But lack of straight thinking was contagious that day. Strapping boyfriend gets out of his car. His presence and anger alone would have scared most bullies into swearing off a life of bad behavior. But boyfriend grabbed tire iron from his car. Big mistake. He swears he just wanted to scare bully. He did not use tire iron. Daughter begs him to not take tire iron.

He does not get far. Within seconds, three police cars are on scene. This is one of those towns where not a lot of street crime happens. And the police know that Friday afternoons, the middle school pretty much empties in the downtown. Police know the kids and knew the boyfriend.

They confiscated tire iron, and let him go with a warning. Daughter and son come home separately and tell scarily similar story. My reaction is visceral: I want to beat up bully, not making me much better. And, I have to admit I love the boyfriend's reaction. I come from a notoriously tough neighborhood and when someone bigger has your back, you are okay. I had already liked this kid, now I adored him. But my husband, who comes from the sort of town in which we now live, did see the other side of this: grabbing a tire iron was evidence of poor judgment. We had a Serious Talk. We all agreed.

I thought it was over. Though friends insisted I had to call the principals of the middle school (to warn about this child) and of the high school (to turn him in) this was not done on school property, so it was not their concern. Just as I felt this was calming down, the detective assigned to the case called. Did we want to press charges? No.

Now, it had to be over. Nope. Father of the bully called the next day. He is a lovely man and insisting that his son do the right thing so he wanted to bring him over to apologize.

I genuinely hope if I ever find myself in his unenviable position, I would do the same. And as the mother of a teen and a tween, all I have learned is that I don't know what's coming next, but I have to try to meet it with grace and honor. Not always easy.

And so they came over this morning. We decided to not make this awkward situation worse or try to make it something it was not. No bagel buffet, no fruit platters, no freshly perked coffee.

We sat opposite one another in our living room. This boy who has about 150 pounds on my son, studied our scuffed wooden floor. My son, who was doing his best to shrink into the sofa, just sat there. The bully apologized, my son accepted. The boyfriend knows he can't settle disputes with a tire iron.

If I have this dad over again, and I would like to, I am putting out a nice spread.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Not all men in tights are superheroes

Everyone has played the wishing game, “If I won the lottery” or suddenly had a million dollars. Of course that doesn’t go quite as far as it used to, but if I found myself with enough money to repair my crumbling old house and pay for my kids' education, I wouldn’t splurge on a fancy car or diamonds, I would, though, buy two subscriptions to Lincoln Center, one for ballet and one for opera.

Not that they cost quite that much, but I can never let myself spend that money when I’m still paying orthodontists. Yet, I go to a fair amount of theater and ballet, thanks to a great job and friends.

Yesterday was one of those days. It was the perfect spring day at Lincoln Center, though I do hope that at some point the scaffolding, which feels as if it has always been there, comes down.

The performance of Herman Cornejo in “Don Quixote” was one of those magical moments. The sort where you leave a theater with hands, stinging from clapping, and voice sore from shouting “Bravo.”

I’ve seen ballet at Lincoln Center since shortly after it opened. I was, in the Dark Ages, a ballet student and a serious enough one to study at Carnegie Hall, get scholarships and spend every spare moment practicing. I was never good enough to make it as a pro.

But that never lessened my pure admiration of those who can, and Cornejo is among the most brilliant danseurs I’ve ever seen. I watched Nureyev and Fonteyn perform, and nothing may ever beat that. But Cornejo makes his own magic.

He springs from the stage as if he were doing martial arts leaps; he stays suspended in air. He pirouettes as if he were on ice. He’s a little guy, compact and extremely muscular, and catches ballerinas with one hand.

If anyone has the slightest chance to see him perform, do. For his sort of talent comes along perhaps once in a generation, and we can’t wait to win the lottery to see him.

Bikini vs. Tank; it’s all about age

If you want a quick primer on the vast differences between a teenager and her middle-aged mother, go bathing suit shopping.

I regard it as a torture to be endured only when my old suit has become more transparent than decency permits. My daughter, 16, tries on bikinis for giggles. If I had the discipline, I’d fast for a week before wiggling into Spandex. She eats a burger and fries on the way

Any real woman -- those among us who wear double-digits in sizes, have faced many of life’s hurdles and can balance a baby on a hip, while supervising homework, cooking dinner and fielding calls from work – find this particular shopping more humiliating than just about anything.

Let’s not even go into the psychology of the sadist who decided leg and arm holes should meet somewhere in the middle of your body. Except for the couple of dozen women from another planet who pose for “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit edition each year, let’s not pretend that anyone looks good in this little. And let’s not assume that everyone wants to wear your grandmother’s bathing suit with the skirt.

To be fair, I’m not circus-quality huge, just more ample than I once was, and wish that I had the confidence, though not the girth of these bikini-clad ladies.

The web, naturally, is loaded with buying online bathing suits, which may be what online porn is like – I think you need to be there to experience it. Still, among the places to try are Instyle.

As my lithe daughter settles on a sequined, strapless bikini, (I decided when she was 3 that she’s actually a very small drag queen), I opted for a black and white maillot with the basic underpinnings of chainmail.

She had a great time, came out with her shopping bag swinging on her wrist. I was looking at my wrists also, but for a different reason.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The real hunger

They are so hungry and this feels so meager.

They line up at the church’s side door, in a depressed city, where men congregate on the streets, waiting for anyone to drive by and offer them a day’s work. Many don’t even bother to look any more, they’re just hanging out. They know work isn’t out there.

The church has seen better days, yet it’s busy, with a day care center in the back, and locked doors heading to where I’m going – the food pantry. Once a month, women from my synagogue volunteer there. I just returned. My son, 12, went with me. And it’s impossible to work there, even for a few hours, and leave unchanged.

The worst part of this is the sinking reality that what we did, which is so little, makes a huge difference. This was only my second time, and I’m already planning next time, and how I can bring in more food.

Tuna, sardines, beef stew, beans, peanut butter, all forms of protein in a can are needed. Canned vegetables, fruit, soup, macaroni and cheese, cereal, and dessert, usually cookies, are also collected.

We unload grocery bags of donations, and stock them on the shelves, then pull from each category to make up a nutritionally balanced meal. No dietitian would love it, but it beats gnawing hunger.

Today was special, we had bread from a local bakery and until we ran out, each person also received fancy loaves, rolls and muffins.

My son, a skinny kid, who can put away astounding quantities of food, was put on bread duty, plastic gloves on hands, he concentrated on counting rolls and placing them in other bags. Then, he lugged flats of jelly, and sorted vegetables.

This was only shocking because I can’t recall the last time he volunteered around the house without asking for money. Today, I saw him change, and mature, and I was proud.

Yet what I mostly saw is how much change must be done, and how no pride could be involved. No one was turned away today, and that was great. But how the two grocery bags allotted for each person is going to sustain folks for two weeks is beyond me.

For those who may not have the time to work in a food pantry, they can donate to Feeding America.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Farewell to Law & Order

Maybe it’s because I started my career as a cop reporter in Manhattan, when the city was wild and cops like the toughest from “Law & Order” worked
the beat. Maybe it’s because Jerry Orbach and I used to go to work on Broadway at the same time – him starring in “Chicago,” me answering phones, and I marveled at how gracious he was with the public. Or maybe it’s just that as a New Yorker to my marrow, I love this show.

Tonight’s finale – which feels like an excellent sendoff for S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lt. Anita Van Buren, but not for the entire series – makes me reflect on covering “Law & Order” over the years. I was lucky enough to have an endless cup of coffee with the late, great Orbach, a lingering beer with Merkerson, and to do a set visit. I observed that Orbach always finished the New York Times crossword puzzle and Jesse L. Martin had a Marvin Gaye album cover on his dressing room wall.

Here are my top five favorite moments from behind the scenes:

Jerry Orbach had a long-standing poker game with Broadway buddies. And it’s perfect that he was in “Guys and Dolls” and “Chicago” because he could shoot a mean game of pool and lived the Damon Runyon life men of that era dreamed of. As a teen
ager, he was asked to give a starlet a lift. So what if he didn’t have driver’s license? The starlet was Marilyn Monroe.

S. Epatha Merkerson learned from Orbach to stop whenever a fan approaches. While walking with her for five minutes recently, she was approached four times. But don’t try this woman’s patience, as some racist contractors recently did. She’s renovating her Harlem home, and answered the door, dressed down, scarf on her head. “Is she here?” the contractor kept whispering to Merkerson.
“Is who here?” she asked, annoyed. “The lady of the house.” “Mother --- you are looking at her!” she proudly told him.

“Law & Order” was celebrating its 300th episode, which brought an envoy from the mayor’s office with a proclamation and the usual NYC event types – aspiring models and actresses who knew someone so they wrangled invites. Young, exquisite females were all but doing a bump and grind for Jesse L. Martin, who remained a gentleman. The next day, I asked him about women throwing himself at him. “It’s a tough part of the job, but someone’s got to do it,” he said, and then burst out laughing.

Orbach originated so many classic roles on Broadway and even shared the stage during a revival of “Gypsy” with none other than Ethel Merman. Irving Berlin (yes, this anecdote goes back a bit) was in a box seat and Orbach decided to sing like Merman (and Merman sang like no one else) to her face on stage at Lincoln Center. This bas
ically defines stones of steel. Berlin cracked up, so Merman, whom Orbach said could have had him fired on the spot, told him to do it exactly that way every night.

Everyone else in the world heard about Emilio Sosa because of “Project Runway.” Not Merkerson. He’s been her stylist for years, including when she wore that blue number to take home an Emmy for “Lackawanna Blues.” “He loves women size 12 to 16,” she says. “He says, ‘Mami, I like you curves!’ He just makes you feel good no matter what size you are.”