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My Antony September 30, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Artists, Music.
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Antony of Antony and the Johnsons

We’d Netflixed I’m Your Man, the documentary about singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. An amazing array of artists performed Cohen’s songs, but one artist stood out – Antony and The Johnsons. He had all the stage presence of Joe Cocker wearing a woman’s jogging suit, but his voice was sublime. Who was this angeI? I immediately Googled him and ordered several CD’s off his website. I found them so haunting, I’ve been playing them ever since.

Although he lives in New York, Antony performs mostly in Europe. So I was ecstatic when my husband called to tell me he’d just heard Antony and The Johnsons were performing at Disney Hall with the LA Philharmonic on Oct. 14th. This is being billed as his only West Coast appearance.

The last time we actually paid to go see a LIVE act was several years ago when we saw Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance at the Wiltern. I’m not big on shelling out big bucks for live shows, but Antony is THE exception. Okay, I admit. I still curse the gods that my friend Martha scored a ticket to see Muse, my second favorite band in the universe.

Antony’s X and Y chromosomes are aligned differently than yours or mine. He’s transgender, but who cares? His voice, a wilting passionate vibrato that alternates with a falsetto, can raise the hairs on your neck.

Antony has a cult following (Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed perform on his latest album, and he did a cover of John Lennon’s Happy Christmas (War is Over) with Boy George). Now that’s one cult I’m happy to claim membership in! Some of Antony’s songs are painful to listen to, so be forewarned – much of his repertoire is not G-rated, but this song is. To me, he has the voice of an angel.

Devil Dog September 28, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Pets.
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You need to know that the base word for terrier and terrorist are the same. This is no coincidence because terrorists are terriers at heart and vice versa. Trust me.  After three terriers, I know.  (When you’re writing a script, this is what’s called Foreshadowing).

My husband and I’d only been married a few months when we drove to Idaho to see his family.  We needed some camping gear and that’s how we made the fateful stop at a Salt Lake City mall.  We wandered into a pet store, where we saw The Dog (yeah, I know you should never buy a dog at a pet store). The Dog was a Smooth-Haired Fox Terrier with one black ear and a black patch over one eye.  We put down a deposit and said we’d think about it. 

A week later, we were driving back to Los Angeles with “Roo” (named after Kanga’s joey in Winnie the Pooh). A week after that, we were looking for a new apartment, as we’d knowingly violated the “No Pets” clause. But we didn’t care.  We were in love.  Dog love is a powerful thing.  But unfortunately this story isn’t about our wonderful dog Roo.  No, it’s about her evil stepsister – Annie.

Fast forward three years.  A vet told us there was another Smooth-Haired Fox Terrier at the Pasadena Humane Society.  This poor dog was on the home stretch (the doggie equivalent to death row).  Seized with compassion, we raced to adopt the dog.  It was only after we got home that we read the fine print. The previous owner had recommended that “Cindy” needed to be an only dog.   

Obviously, the previous owner wasn’t up to the challenge.  For starts, she’d named the poor dog Cindy.   We promptly gave Cindy a real dog name – “Annie” (as in Little Orphan Annie).  Annie was also a runt, but she was an alpha dog with a capital A.  So she already had two strikes against her.  But dog people don’t give up so easily.  In our heart of hearts, we were determined to make this work.  Ah youth!

Now Roo was the consummate dog.  She chased a ball, she chased her tail, and she buried ice cubes (only to be disappointed later).  Roo had a Sophia Loren wiggle to her walk and was hopelessly photogenic.  Then there was Annie.  Annie walked stiff-legged like a chicken across hot coals.  She was a neurotic Woody Allen in a dog’s body.  Her face was pinched, her expression worried.  Annie was the vivacious cheerleader’s homely sister.

This was the early 80s – long before Cesar Millan had his own show, The Dog Whisperer.  Cesar was only a young pup himself, and he should count his lucky stars.  I’m afraid if he’d taken Annie on as a client, he’d have opted for another career.

Two months later, we moved to New York City.  Annie almost didn’t make it. She wriggled out a crack in the window of the U-Haul in New Jersey and ran out into traffic.  If you know anything about New Jersey, this was not an entirely insane action.  It was Roo’s barking that alerted us to her escape. Do you think dogs ever have regrets?

We moved into the Hotel Chelsea.  Most people rented by the month, but there were still rooms that rented by the night, so we had a “house” phone. Every time the phone rang, Annie reacted like Pavlov’s dog. Only instead of drooling, she attacked Roo.  (Cell phones had yet to be invented, so there was no way to put the phone on vibrate).  This put a serious crimp in our home life. Things took a turn for the worse when Annie went into attack mode anytime someone knocked on the apartment door.  It’s not like people could call ahead to let us know they were coming.  

I tried to keep the dogs separated.  After our son, Taylor was born, I stooped to letting him crawl around the house while I kept Annie in the playpen.  I didn’t think this was all that odd until the cable guy showed up and I saw him looking at me in a not so funny way. I designed and handcrafted a muzzle for Annie, which she promptly chewed through. 

Desperate, we called a highly recommended animal behavioral specialist who came out to observe Annie and Roo interact.  After 45 minutes, he announced that he could get to the root of Annie’s problem.  All it would take, he said, was a team a graduate students and a $100,000 grant.  What? 

That’s when he broke it to us.  The only solution for Annie’s problem behavior was a “high speed cranial lead injection.”   He put it more bluntly – A bullet to the head.  We wrote him a check, and no, we didn’t buy a gun. We proceeded to bite the bullet instead.  For the next two years, Annie attacked Roo regularly.  I continued to break up the fights and began to dread hearing a knock on the door.

Once we gave Annie away to a woman upstairs.  But after Annie growled at the woman’s young daughter, Annie was returned the next morning. We were at wit’s end.  The solution to the problem, however, was one we never could have anticipated.  Our sweet Roo was diagnosed with bladder cancer and died before she turned seven.  Although we were devastated, she finally was at peace.  

Annie lived for another four years and was much nicer as an only dog, though she was far from perfect.  We used to come home and find her stuck inside the four-foot-tall industrial trash can in our kitchen.  She’d dive in head first and then couldn’t extricate herself.  I liked to leave her in there thrashing about for an extra few minutes, just for Roo’s sake.  But we did come to (dare I say it?) love Annie.

When Annie was 12, she died a peaceful death in my arms.   Unlike Roo, who was buried in Vermont, Annie was sent off to be cremated.  

Two weeks later, Richard was on the phone with an important client when he heard pounding on his office door.  A brusque voice with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent barked, “Hey, mister, I got your dog out here in a can.” Annie’s ashes were returned to us in a faux Americana tin can inside a white box with plastic flowers on top.  It looked like a prom corsage.  A pre-printed label identified the contents as “Beloved Pet.”  Later when we finally left New York, we packed “Annie” with the china.  For years, my husband swore whenever he walked past the can, it growled at him.  

We moved back to Los Angeles and bought a home only a few miles from the Humane Society where we’d adopted Annie so many years before.  We’d come full circle.  Eventually, we scattered Annie’s ashes beneath the lemon tree.  We hoped it might sweeten her disposition in the afterlife.

Cockroach Confidential September 20, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Life.
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There were cockroaches everywhere. A biblical plague had descended on the Holy Land – the Holy Land being our overpriced New York City apartment. (Yes, I realize that using the word “holy” in the same sentence as “New York City” amounts to blasphemy.) The final straw came when we found them crawling in the cereal that my sons ate. Cereal killers! Drastic times call for drastic measures. We decided it was time to call in the professionals. Who you gonna call? – (No, not them) – Lady Killers!

I can’t remember how I found out about Lady Killers, but the woman on the phone assured me she could take care of “the problem.” I envisioned a highly-trained entomological exorcist who could banish these six-legged demons that had turned our lives into a living hell.

We’d exhausted the traditional “final solutions.” We’d already sprinkled crop circles of boric acid around the apartment, and all of the Roach Motels had vacancy signs. We’d taken to wiping down the kitchen counter hourly and keeping all food in tightly sealed plastic containers. It was like we were living in a bomb shelter and dipping into rations when we ate.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of the Lady Killer. So I was a bit taken aback when a dowdy, overweight woman arrived and introduced herself as Elaine. This was the Lady Killer? She had an unusually firm handshake. That’s when I realized the Lady Killers were not just ladies, they were lesbians. Talk about a niche market.

As Elaine regaled us with tales of the German Brown cockroach’s superpowers, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the crusty old shark hunter Robert Shaw played in Jaws. All she was missing was the bite out of her forearm. She informed us a cockroach could live off a single drop of grease in the air for a year. And just like those starving Russians during the Siege of Leningrad, cockroaches could survive by eating the glue from book bindings. We had an entire wall of books, which I now realized was a virtual Hometown Buffet.

From her purse, Elaine produced several unmarked plastic squeeze bottles containing a mysterious white powder. Boric acid?  “No,” she scoffed. She informed us that eating boric acid only made THEM stronger. To be honest, I was afraid to ask her what was in the bottles. Although Elaine assured us it was non-toxic to humans, where was the label? This was obviously some home brewed concoction. But we were desperate. Sometimes it’s best not to know.

For the next two hours, Elaine ransacked our apartment squirting the white powder into every nook and cranny. The entire time, we raptly listened as she detailed the down and dirty habits of the German army that had been occupying our apartment and holding us hostage. She informed us the reason THEY were inside the kitchen clock is that they liked the warmth, and it provided an excellent base camp to launch their expeditions. If I’m ever a contestant on Jeopardy, I can only hope that one of the categories is Cockroaches. I’ll take Cockroaches for $500 please!

We wrote out a check for a couple of hundred dollars and waited. Elaine had said it would take a week before we’d see results. My husband was convinced the white powder was plain old boric acid and the “wait a week” ploy was just to give Elaine time to cash the check. He of little faith.

After a week, THEY began dying. Within two weeks our apartment was roach-free (knock on wood!). The down side was that every time we opened a file cabinet or drawer, a plume of white powder would rise up, leaving traces of white powder on our face and hair. This was New York City in the 80s, so I’m sure our neighbors just thought we had a serious cocaine problem. Any New Yorker can tell you that’s not nearly as bad as a serious roach problem.

We didn’t see a cockroach for six blissful months. Six months may not seem like a long time. But after eight years of daily hand-to-hand combat, this was a dream come true vacation. I actually began to relax. We still kept all of the food in plastic containers; but I no longer swatted anything that moved in my peripheral vision, including my children.

After six months, the clock struck midnight and the spell was broken. The roaches began straggling back. So Elaine returned once again with the magic powder. By then, she knew the most intimate details of our lives – as she’d been through every drawer and cabinet in our apartment.

By the time we finally decided to leave New York City, the cockroaches were back in full force. If I had any second thoughts about our flight from the Holy Land, these were put to rest when I saw baby roaches crawling inside the digital display on the microwave oven. Gross! We waved the white surrender flag and were escorted safely out of the combat zone aka New York City.

We were excited to be moving to Mexico. Little did we know that a welcoming committee was already forming to greet us – of scorpions.

Why I Love “Dexter” September 13, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Narcissistic Personality Disorder, TV/Film.
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Who wouldn’t love Dexter Morgan? He’s such a nice young man, and he’s got that CSI thing going too, what with his job as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. What’s that you say? He’s a cold-blooded serial killer! I’m sorry, but with his professional manner and that disarming smile, that’s a little hard for me to fathom. This is a guy who is so thoughtful, he brings donuts in every day for the office. It’s not like he has horns. And THAT is exactly why I find Dexter so fascinating. I, for one, am counting the days until Sept. 28th when Season 3 premiers on Showtime.

Least you think I’m one of those women who has pen pals on death row, think again. I’m happily married to the original model, have two grown sons, and teach adorable third graders, who think serial is spelled “c-e-r-e-a-l.” But after spending G-rated days with children who still believe in the tooth fairy, I’m ready to go to the dark side – of humanity, that is.

There’s another thing you should know about me. Just like Dexter Morgan, I too have a dark side. After I’d just given birth to my second son, my friend Wendy visited me in the hospital. What she remembers most is that I was reading The Stranger Beside Me, Anne Rule’s account of her friendship with serial killer Ted Bundy, as I nursed my newborn son.

But I have an excuse (or should I say alibi?). I may not come from a family of criminal psychopaths, but my family had more than a passing interest in them and crime. When I was a kid and we visited my uncle in a small town in Iowa, my brother and I unearthed his collection of True Detective magazines. All of the stories seemed to involve the murder of “nude coeds.” After reading the breathless and lurid accounts of these crimes, I ascertained at an early age that any “clothed coed” was a moving target.

My dad also liked to tell about how when he and my mom first married, the man who shared their duplex in Boulder, Colorado, was arrested for killing – you guessed it!  –  a college coed. (It turned out the one in the trunk of his car was one of many.) Years later, when my parents talked enthusiastically about where I should go to college, I couldn’t help but wonder if they might be trying to get rid of me.

When people gasp, “I can’t believe someone could do something so horrible!” I don’t bother to feign shock or surprise. I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior. As a teenager, when I wasn’t reading books about crime, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. So I knew that seemingly ordinary people are capable of doing unspeakable things. I know that there really is a bogeyman, and he looks a lot like you or me.

After college, I worked as a reporter at a newspaper in Hammond, Indiana in 1978. I was supposed to generate ideas for stories and, low and behold, I discovered that the Indiana State Crime Lab was located nearby. It was during that interview, I first learned of a new forensic technique – blood spatter analysis. I was in hog heaven. Cue that sound of snapping the latex gloves on (that’s music to MY ears!). But this was B.C. – Before CSI,  Before Court TV, and Before Cold Case – back when a cold case meant beer.

Which brings me back to Dexter. Based on the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter is brilliantly played by affable Michael C. Hall. Dexter is a real living breathing psychopath yet most of his co-workers, even his sister, and girlfriend, think he’s the proverbial nice guy. But seriously, how could they not know? This is a guy who has a Costco-size stock of black plastic trash bags and duct tape at the ready.

Hey, in Anne Rule’s book, she describes working side-by-side with Ted Bundy at a suicide hotline, never suspecting her “friend” was a serial killer. It’s not like serial killers have a secret handshake or froth at the mouth. Remember this – charm disarms.

I began watching Dexter when I was still reeling from my “friendship” with a person I later realized had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  (You can read about THAT experience in my 3-part Close Encounter with a Narcissist series.) NPD is one of the Cluster B Personality Disorders in the DSM-IV, which are often referred to as “The Drama Club.” Other members of this “club” include Antisocial Personality Disorder (sociopath) and Psychopathic Personality Disorder (psychopath aka Dexter).

I was surprised to learn that all psychopaths are narcissistic, while people with NPD aren’t psychopaths. Following this logic, psychopaths would be “Papa Bear”, sociopaths “Mama Bear,” and that would make narcissists the “Baby Bear” (Can you tell that I spend way too much time with small children? Don’t worry, I won’t bring the Three Little Pigs into play.) The Cluster B personality disorders share many similar traits. Unlike psychopaths, however, who derive pleasure from hurting people, narcissists hurt people due to their indifference.

The similarities though between these two personality disorders can be jarring. Dexter often worries that “his mask is slipping.” Just like a narcissist, Dexter, the psychopath, wears a social mask (his False Self) that he presents to the outside world to pass for “normal.” Dexter’s constant attempt to “read” human emotions, so he can react accordingly, is also painfully reminiscent of my friend with NPD.

In Season 2, Dexter met Lila, his “soul mate,” who exhibits strong NPD traits herself. But when Lila got too emotionally close, Dexter gave her the ultimate D&D – Death. So, I eagerly await Season 3 to find out what America’s favorite prime time psychopath is up to. Remember that knowledge is power.

Dexter is officially a psychopath. If you’d like to see how he stacks up using a diagnostic tool called the Psychopath Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), a clinical rating scale, you can visit the following link. Scroll down to Dissecting Dexter – it’s an interesting read. Dissecting Dexter – The Official Diagnosis

NOTE:  Since first writing this post, Dexter’s diagnosis on the official Dexter site has been softened, which I feel is a strategy to make the character more likable. From all of my reading, I’ve never heard that a traumatic event produces a sociopath. Make no mistake, Dexter is a psychopath. If they keep fiddling with his profile, before you know it, he’ll be Santa Claus.  Jan

As a public service, I also feel obliged to inform you that I believe clowning is the gateway drug for serial killers. Anyone willing to don a neon wig and red nose has already gone over to the dark side. (Cirque du Soleil clowns are exempt, but should still be monitored closely – just in case).

School Daze – First Impressions September 7, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Teaching.
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The first two days of school are done, and I feel a bit done in myself. Not once over the summer did I have to check the clock to see how soon I could use the bathroom or eat. Summer vacation is already a distant memory. But 178 days of “teachable moments” await!

As a kid, I loved going back to school. Okay, make that elementary school. You couldn’t pay me to repeat middle or high school. I loved the ritual of buying the new notebook and a new box of 48 Crayons (my parents were too cheap to spring for the box of 64 with the built-in sharpener). I loved wearing my new long-sleeved plaid “Back to School” dress, even though on the first day of school the classroom was a sauna.

I can also recite the names of ALL my teachers – up until the seventh grade. That’s when the hormones kicked in and their names and everything else got all blurry.

So I was shocked, no make that appalled, when my husband, Richard, told me he couldn’t remember the name of a single teacher he’d ever had. Was he raised by wolves? I told him I found this deeply disturbing. Richard did some serious thinking then bounded up to me the next day, all smiles. He’d remembered the name of his fifth grade teacher. “Mr Murray!”  he announced proudly. I wasn’t so easily placated. “What is it you remember about Mr. Murray?” I asked. “He was missing all the fingers on one hand,” Richard replied. “Actually, he had part of a thumb so he could pick up stuff. He used his hand like a pincher, sort of like a crab.”

Yikes! If that’s what it takes to make a lasting impression on a student, I’m in trouble. (I should mention that my husband was one of those kids who NEVER liked school, and he rode on a full-sized bus.)

The first day of school is a teacher’s chance to make a big first impression. Every teacher wants students to go home and tell their parents how GREAT their new teacher is. At the same time, you can’t be a push over. You want to make a big splash, but you don’t want it to be a belly flop.

A substitute once told me she would always remember her third grade teacher because of something she did on the first day of school. At the end of the day, the teacher told all of the children to stand on top of their desks. At first, the students were confused. You’re not supposed to STAND on your desk. But the teacher proceeded to help them climb up until all were standing. Now, this was before class size reduction, so I’m picturing 30 plus students standing atop their desks. (This image alone makes MY knees wobbly.) Not one child fell. The sub told me that as she stood on her desk, this thought came to her – “This is going to be the most amazing year of my life!”

No one could get away with doing that now. Actually, I’m surprised a teacher got away with doing it THEN. But it left a lasting first impression, and it was a positive one.

The first day is all about teaching the new students classroom procedures. How to sit. How to stand. How to walk in a line. How to raise your hand. (The common thread being – how not to drive your teacher crazy.) Sometime after lunch on that all important first day of school, I realized I was beginning to bore even myself. I’m easily amused, so this was a serious offense.

The air-conditioner in my classroom is there for one purpose – to mock me. When the students came back after lunch, I had the lights off to trick them into believing it was cooler inside than out on the blacktop. Then I flicked the lights back on and had them sit on the rug, so I could read them a story. Oh, it felt good to finally sit down.

I love to read aloud, and the children listened attentively. They raised their hands and made predictions and comments at just the right times. In short, we were having a good time. When I finished the story, someone mentioned something about being afraid of a snake. Someone else chimed in that they were afraid of bugs.

Now according to my plan book, the next thing we were going to do was write a paragraph about My Summer Vacation (I am seething with original ideas!), but I saw an opportunity. “Who’d like to sit and talk about stuff that scares us?” I asked. All hands shot up.

“Let’s pretend we’re sitting around a campfire on a cool night,” I said. I had the children form a circle. My mind was now racing. “We’ll need a campfire!” I grabbed some orange and red tissue paper and wadded it up so it vaguely resembled a campfire. Then I switched the lights off.  “I like this fire because it won’t make us hot,” I said. “But we can’t roast marshmallows either.”  The kids giggled.

Each child was to introduce themself:  Hi, My name is _________ and I’m afraid of __________. If someone didn’t feel like sharing, they could just do the introduction. They began. “I’m afraid of snakes.” “I’m afraid of the dark.” ” I’m afraid of bugs.” Those were the big three. One boy was afraid of heights, and then there was the kid who said, “I’m afraid of the movie Saw 3. Whoa! Who’s letting their eight year old watch THAT movie?  Three children said, “Pass.” One boy bragged that he wasn’t afraid of anything (there’s always one, but he had yet to see my face when you tell me you didn’t do your homework). One little girl, who only speaks Korean, had her friend translate.

When everyone had shared, we talked about our fears. One boy, one of those scientific types that I love, informed the other students that most snakes are not poisonous, and snakes are actually quite helpful because they eat garden pests. The kids were impressed. We agreed that everything is scarier when it’s dark, but agreed no one was scared sitting in our darkened classroom because we had each other.

“Do you know what scares more people than anything?” I asked. When the answer wasn’t snakes, the kids were stuck. I told them the thing that scares people most is getting up in front of other people and talking. And yet they’d just spoken in front of their classmates on the very first day of school. They were all smiles. They had good reason to be proud of themselves. This was just the first of many lessons they will learn in third grade.

Sometimes, the most important lessons aren’t the ones in the plan book. And first impressions DO count. I realized this year’s class was off to a good start. Then I turned the lights back on.

Quotation Rotation #7 September 3, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Quotation Rotation.
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“Freak on a leash”Kristina in Pasadena

Not to be confused with Korn’s 1999 song and video “Freak on a Leash.” No, this “freak on a leash” is someone you know, but would prefer not to know in public, due to their penchant for saying or doing bizarre things. These people have the uncanny ability to put both feet in their mouth – and still keep talking!  A leash often isn’t enough to restrain them, and it’s hopeless to try and retrain them. Worse case scenario – whip out the old Hannibal Lecter mask to silence them. Be prepared though to mop up puddles of drool.

September Mao September 1, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Monthly Mao.
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