Tuesday, May 30, 2006

My Weekend in Vegas

If you're looking for lurid details in this post, move on.

There's nothing to see here.

This is not a tale in which I get hopped up on Apple-tinis and hang upside down from a stripper pole at the Pussycat Dolls Lounge.

Nor I am asked to blow on the dice of a handsome stranger at the craps table, who then goes on to win big and to plant a grateful kiss on my lips and a thousand-dollar chip in my cleavage.

Does stuff like that actually happen in Vegas, anyway?

I go there every year and most of the folks I see wandering around the casinos are average-looking middle Americans in blue jeans and fanny packs, sometimes carrying very long-necked glasses of unspecified fruity, frozen cocktails. Oh, and a few women in bridal gowns on the arms of young men in tuxes occasionally stride through a hotel lobby or sit beside each other at his-and-hers slot machines. But all those "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" shenanigans happen somewhere out of my purview.

Some of what I DID experience in Vegas this weekend:

1) Good and Bad Weather
On Saturday, there were lots of clouds in the sky and LOTS of heavy, gusty wind. Ostensibly, the day's high was 75 degrees, but it felt more like 55! So much for spending the entire day at the pool. We went to Plan B: shopping the Forum Shops at Caesar's. Which was diverting enough, but OH how I wanted the sunshine.
Fortunately, by Sunday the clouds were gone and the sun shone bright. I spent most of the afternoon poolside, sipping a tasty Mojito from Neptune's Bar and reading "Elements of Style" by Wendy Wasserstein.

2) Celine Dion's show at Caesar's
I really wanted to love this show, because Celine Dion is just so darn nice. She's so sweet and genuine and down-to-earth - she's like that nice soccer mom from the carpool, except with a powerhouse pop-belter voice and designer gowns. (And when I allow myself, I can really wallow in the overblown romanticism of her hit songs.)

Unfortunately, her girl-next-door appeal is nearly drowned in an overblown, pretentious spectacle of a show with dancers and Cirque De Soleil acrobats all around her performing strange, embarrassing choreography that has nothing whatsoever to do with her songs.

Take for example, one number in which Celine sits in a comfy chair surrounded by buff, shirtless young men in tight pants who sort of writhe around on the floor while she sings. It's a supremely silly, overwrought moment, and the wonderful thing is - she knows it! A larger-than-life man-eater like Madonna would play this scene straight and serious as if making some powerful statement about female sexuality. But Celine finishes the number and strides tomboyishly to the lip of the stage, making a derisive, sputtering noise as if to say "Boy, that was really silly and embarrassing and way too much work!" And the audience laughs warmly in response, because we know that's how WE would feel if we had to sit in that chair with those boys wiggling around us in faux ecstasy. She's one of us!

The most bizarre moment in the show is when Celine decides to "funk it up," so to speak, ditches the Galliano gown for tuxedo pants and a ponytail, and hip-hops around the stage with a cover of Stevie Wonder's "You Wish." There is something SO wrong about a skinny, white French-Canadian woman singing about "when I was a leetle, nappy-headed boy." But you can't fault her energy and enthusiasm. Celine is there to please.

And even though she's done this show for over 3 years, she still seems genuinely astonished by and grateful for her audience's adulation and wild applause.

3)La Reve at the Wynn
Despite what you may think from the Celine review, I actually LOVE me some Cirque de Soleil. Their shows are the best thing in Vegas. LaReve isn't' technically a Cirque de Soleil show, but it was staged by CdS's former creative director and is indistinguishable from anything that the CdS does. An aquatic show performed in the round, it is very close to the style and spirit of "O," the long-running CdS show at the Bellagio. And ultimately just as mind-blowing.

What I love about CdS is this: as someone who can only express herself artistically through words (and, arguably, her choice of shoes), I'm in awe of people who can create moods and stories and dream landscapes through movement, music, costumes - everything BUT words. And these folks do it brilliantly.

And, finally -
4)You want to know what stays in Vegas?
What stayed in Vegas on Monday - about 3 and half hours longer than it was supposed to - was my plane back to Chicago. The lightning and thunder and hail around O'Hare kept the airlines from sending any planes there till late in the evening. As a result, I stumbled across my threshold around midnight last night, and I'm just about ready to nod off here. So no more Vegas tales tonight.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Farewell, Jack Bristow

On last night's final episode of "Alias," one of my all-time favorite television characters went to be with the angels. But not before ensuring - in his final, glorious, heroic act - that the most evil man on earth would spend eternity buried alive in a cave in Mongolia.

That sentence makes no sense whatsoever if you aren't an "Alias" fan. Otherwise you already know that: 1) Sloane is the most evil man on earth; 2) Sloane finally obtained his long-sought Rambaldi device, and with its power was made immortal; and 3) Jack Bristow blew himself up in the Mongolian cave where the Rambaldi device was found, leaving Sloane half-buried and doomed to live forever under the rubble.

OK, I guess you had to be there.

In four years of watching "Alias" (I missed the first season, but caught it later in reruns), I have never once understood what the hell was going on. I watched Sydney put on miniskirts and wigs and kickbox her way out of the bad guy's clutches again and again. I listened to characters yammer on and on about the mysterious Rambaldi and his prophecies. I puzzled over scenes that took place in Tibetan monasteries for no discernible reason. And I tried in vain to keep up with the evil-genius alliances that cropped up week after week, each with some scary new bomb or bio-weapon and a plan to take over the world. Couldn't make heads or tails out of any of it - not even for a minute. I do know, however, that not one of those evil alliances succeeded in their quest for world domination. Sydney, Vaughn, and the other cute, hot, young things of the CIA kicked the bad guys' butts every time. But those youngsters weren't the reason I was tuning in to "Alias" every week.

My "Alias" addiction was fueled by one man and one man alone: Jack Bristow.

Who is, of course, played by Victor Garber.

I first fell in love with Victor Garber when I was 13, and he was the rainbow-suspendered hippie Jesus of the movie "Godspell." He was all of 23 when he made that film, and he was the most beautiful young man on earth. (I think the picture above confirms this - in spite of the enormous Afro and the faux teardrops painted beneath his eyes.) But the years passed, I stopped obsessively listening to my "Godspell" movie soundtrack album, and I outgrew my puppy lust. Meanwhile, Victor was working mostly on Broadway. By the 90s, he was turning in memorable supporting performances in hit movies like "Sleepless in Seattle," "The First Wives' Club" and "Titanic" and I rediscovered the beautiful boy of my teenage crush, all grown up into a tall, handsome - well, let's just say it - HOT man. But he's never been as sexy as when playing the silver-haired CIA spy daddy/bad ass that is Jack Bristow.

But this isn't just about lust. (It is mostly about lust. But, really, there is more.) Jack Bristow is a fascinating and complex character: a double agent who dishes out torture and orders executions with expressionless sangfroid; a once-loving husband still obsessed with avenging his wife's betrayal and duplicity (she turned out be be a KGB agent); a father fiercely protective of the daughter he tried to discourage from going into his line of work; and, in the final season, a doting grandfather. Jack Bristow is a field day for an actor of Victor's caliber. He shows you every layer and nuance of Jack's inner torment, and yet for all the world remains deadpan, inscrutable, and often downright scary.

I remember one scene from season 2 (the best season of the series IMHO). Irina, in her jail cell, taunts Jack with her recollection of their brief marriage as a trial and a sham. The camera cuts to Victor listening, and on his face, you can see every emotion that the taunt elicits - hurt, betrayal, anger, contempt. The whole history of their relationship plays out on his face in just a few seconds. Moments like that are what kept me coming back to "Alias" week after week.

I just regret that they couldn't fit in one more face-off between Jack and Irina in that last show. It could have been dynamite.

(Photos from TV.com)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Working with the Night Ministry

On Friday night, I traveled into Chicago along with a group from my church. We spent a night volunteering with The Night Ministry, a group which - as their web site describes it - "serves homeless and runaway youth, working poor adults, uninsured and underinsured individuals seeking medical assistance, children who are unsupervised and need a place to gather in safety, and others who have "fallen through the cracks" of our social service systems."

We brought a load of sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, and bottled water with us - as well as several bags of new white socks. Along with members of the Night Ministry staff, we lined up along the curb near a busy Chicago intersection, and passed these out to people in need, many of whom were already assembled and awaiting us when we arrived. (This was a regularly scheduled event called "Beat the Heat"- ironic in this case, since it was a very cool May night. It takes place every Friday at the same time and same intersection.)

This was not a grim or depressing experience in any way. There was a boombox playing, and many people - from among those we served and our group alike - were dancing. People ate and talked and hung out - most of them knew each other. And many members of our group who had volunteered before knew people who had come to be served.

I'm going to be honest here. This was my second time volunteering with the Night Ministry and I'll definitely do it again. But before my first time, I was a little nervous about what I'd encounter. I had as many fears and trepidations about homeless people as any other privileged suburbanite. When I lived in Indianapolis, there was one homeless man we all referred to as the Quarter Man. He roamed the downtown streets, day in and day out, always in the same dark green polyester leisure suit, always smelling bad. Most days, he'd politely approach you and ask for a quarter - if you didn't give it to him, he'd just go on his way. But some days, you'd see him storming the sidewalks, ranting to someone only he could he see, raging and screaming obscenities. Although he never approached anyone when in this state- too lost in his own rage and despair to register the horror of those passing by him - he was truly terrifying. My co-workers and I talked about the Quarter Man - pitied him, wondered a little about him, occasionally made a crass joke about him. But mostly we distanced ourself from the Quarter Man. His plight could never be our plight. It was unthinkable to us that we could ever end up like him.

I'm sure Chicago has homeless people who are a lot like the Quarter Man- in fact, I've seen a few of them in the Loop over the years. But the thing that struck me most about the people I have served with the Night Ministry is that they are largely indistinguishable from the other people hurrying along the city sidewalks - those heading to jobs and homes and family, rather than to a handout of food and water and a (very possibly futile) search for a warm place to spend the night. They are very much like you and me. I am a fiercely independent person myself - reluctant to ask for help or admit my need. Seeing these people line up for sandwiches, and load bags with extra food to make it through the weekend, humbled me beyond words.

It easy to pretend that the Quarter Man is not me and could never be me. But what about those adorable teenage girls in the too-big fleece hoodies? Or the man to whom I served lemonade - the articulate, well-read man who graduated from the same university that I did? It's a lot harder to separate myself from them. We're all part of the same family, really. And if we are following Jesus, then it's our job to take care of our human family, while realizing that we, too, may be the one in need of help next time. And there should be no loss of dignity in needing or asking for help.

It was cold Friday night, and I was tired. But I was lucky. When the night was over and the sandwiches and socks had all been passed out, I got to ride back to the suburbs in a heated car. I got to go home - my own home -and put on my warm, fuzzy socks, crawl under a warm afghan, eat leftover spaghetti and watch a late movie on my 27-inch TV.

But I don't know where those men and women and young people I met ended up on Friday night. I don't know how or if they kept warm. Because I learned these startling statistics during my volunteer orientation:
1. The average age of a homeless person in Chicago? Nine years old.
2. The number of homeless people in Chicago? 15,000.
3. The number of beds available in shelters for Chicago's homeless youth? There is an unconfirmed maximum of 100 beds available nightly - the cofirmable number is 40. (The Night Ministry provides 16 of these.)

With such a staggering number of people in need, it is futile for a group like the Night Ministry to try to find everyone a bed. But what they can - and do - provide is a place to come for food, fellowship and medical care. And I'm very honored to have been part of their services for a couple of nights.

To find out more about Night Ministry, check out their website: http://www.thenightministry.org/home.htm

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Where in the World Has Joni Been?

As the devotees of this blog (tiny handful that they are) are aware, Joni's Window has been effectively closed for some time now.

Well, it's spring now - actually, it's almost summer - and Joni is throwing the window open again!

When last I blogged, I was spending inordinate amounts of time in my recliner, eating bad carbs and watching endless reruns of "The Sopranos."

I am happy to report that in the intervening months - as winter waned and the days grew longer and marginally sunnier - I got a bit of a life. I got busy, got out of my recliner, cut out the bad carbs (and have lost 20 pounds since February 1 - thank you South Beach Diet!), and started watching "The Sopranos" one week at a time like everyone else.

Over the winter and spring, I led an Artist's Way group at my church. For those not familiar, the Artist's Way is a 12-week program designed by Julia Cameron, described by the author as a "spiritual path for creative recovery." In other words, it's a way by which those of us who always wanted to write (or always wanted to paint, or to act, or to sing or what have you) can get back in touch with those creative desires and find a way to live them out. There are readings and exercises each week designed to get you in touch with your "artist child." (OK, stop sniggering. It may sound a little airy-fairy, but if you put aside your cynicism, it can be very enlightening, even consoling.) The two big assignments each week are Morning Pages and an Artist's Date. To do morning pages, you get up early every morning and before you do ANYTHING else, you fill 3 pages in a notebook with whatever comes into your head. There are no rules, no right or wrong - just keep putting words down. Because I am NOT a morning person (with a capital NOT), many of my morning pages begin by noting how wonderful it is to sleep and how wonderful it would be to get MORE sleep and how awful alarm clocks are and how wonderful coffee is. I have covered those topics extensively in my Morning Pages notebook.
Including myself, there were 10 people in our group - and they were all highly inspirational to me. We shared a lot of our hopes, dreams and fears - and quite a few good laughs - over the course of our 12 weeks together. I am looking forward to leading another group in the fall. I hope to touch on some of our Artist's Way experiences in upcoming posts.

About Julia Cameron: If you've never heard of her (many people haven't), she's a writer, songwriter, filmmaker, teacher and a sort of spiritual guru to creative types everywhere. Her book "The Artist's Way" has been in print since 1992, and has spawned bazillions of groups and classes all over the world. (Catty biographical note: She was also Martin Scorcese's first wife, who he dumped for Liza Minelli while he was making "New York, New York" in 1976. Interestingly enough, the final credits of "New York, New York," include a big "Special Thanks to Julia Cameron." We can only wonder what prompted this gratitude. Perhaps she was an exceptionally gracious dumpee?)I still have the original 1992 edition of the book - in which she sports a bad, frizzy 80s perm in her author photo. The other people in my group had the 10th anniversary edition of the book on which the author photo resembles a Glamour Shot, with Ms. Cameron airbrushed and glamorously coiffed. Quite a contrast.

But, anyway - back to MY life!

I've done a lot of other things over the past few months - visited friends in the Dallas suburbs(and miraculously managed to keep my views on George W to myself while visiting. As my friend said "Please don't say anything about the president. This is Bush country, and everyone has a gun.") Sang in my church's Good Friday concert of Faure's Requiem (difficult, somewhat avant garde music. If you put a gun to my head right now and said "Hum a few measures of "Agnus Dei" from Faure's Requiem or I'll shoot!" I'd have to tell you to pull the trigger. I've completely forgotten every single note in the piece. And it's not like I didn't spend a lot of time practicing it. Go figure.) Good Friday was a preternaturally summery day, and our non-air-conditioned sanctuary was a steambath that night, even with all the doors open. In my long-sleeved blouse and black winter slacks, I nearly keeled over a couple of times.

I've also been reading a bit, most recently "A Million Little Pieces." Two co-workers recommended it, so I tried to put aside the pre-conceived notions one might have about a work of fiction that has been (unsuccessfully) passed off as a searingly honest memoir.
I'm aware that my bullshit detector was turned up pretty high as a result of the notoriety surrounding this book, but I found it hard to believe that Oprah - or anyone else- thought this story was true, even before its untruth was exposed. You can always tell when James Frey is lying, 'cause that's when his book starts to sound like it was written by an inexperienced high schooler trying to sound tough and wordly - and getting every bit of it wrong. The particularly suspect parts are: 1)The opening scene on the airplane (Has anyone ever really been allowed on a plane when their shirt front is covered with blood, vomit, and snot and they're bleeding from a hole in their cheek?); 2) The "dental surgery sans anesthesia" scene (every pain cliche in the book - phrases like "white hot light" and that kind of crap); and 3)Lilly's rescue from the crackhouse (Detail after lurid, over-the-top detail - by the time he gets to the piles of rat feces in every corner and the cold, viscous slime on the stair railing, he is seriously gilding the lilly.)

Well, anyway - Since I have a life again, I plan to write about it much more frequently. I'm sure that will make the one, maybe two people who read my blog regularly want to jump for joy!!!