Wednesday, September 29, 2010


A few weeks ago in my posting about clichés, I questioned how original any of us can ever truly be, given the billions of people on the planet. What are the odds that any thought or idea or experience is truly original?

This idea came to me again this weekend when on vacation in Wine Country with my husband and girlfriend. We stumbled upon an outdoor festival on the main town square in Sonoma and wandered through the booths of jewelers, ceramic artists, and painters. As we passed one booth on the way to the wine tastings, my husband stopped me and pointed to a photograph that was framed on the far wall of a man’s display of European photographs. They were the type I’ve seen often – huge photos of quaint Italian hillside towns, French bistros with white awnings and pots of red flowers, cottages with doorways of blue peeling paint.

The photo my husband pointed to did look familiar. It was of a red shuttered window on the side of a house, with vines growing along the wall and exterior walls of blue and peach. The subject – this house - looked similar to a photo I had taken years ago. I walked through the man’s booth and saw that he had taken several shots of this same house, and they were all now framed for purchase prices of hundreds of dollars.

It couldn’t be the same house, right? I mean, what were the odds? Europe is filled with quaint old houses with peeling paint, shutters, and vines. But at my husband’s urging, I sought out the artist who was taking a payment from a customer and asked him where he took the photo.

“In Athens,” was his response.

“Oh, really? Where?” I had taken my photo in Athens, also.

“Anafiotika.” He probably figured he could throw me off by being specific, but I countered his reply.

“Yes, on the little walk between the Plaka and the Acropolis?” I told the man that I had taken a photo of the exact house, and he looked at me blankly and then took money from another customer.

My husband didn’t understand why the man wasn’t friendlier. He should have been surprised at the odds, right? But I understood the man. By telling him I had photographed the same house, I was stealing away a bit of his originality, his creativity. I didn’t tell him that my photo had also been framed and had won entry into a juried art show. That would have usurped even more of his “artist” stature.

Okay, so we took photos of the same exact house in a remote section of Athens. But instead of taking it as an insult, why not take it as a release of pressure? Why try so hard to be perfect? Why try so hard to be original? Instead, we should just do our best to seek out beauty, and if it’s not perfectly original, so what? Taking that same photo in Athens is proof of our linkage, our connection. We saw the same thing, paused in exactly the same place, and captured the moment to share with others. When we’re unoriginal, we’re connected to others, showing our universal human traits. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


This week a famous Las Vegas entertainer died. He was only about 15 years old but lived a full, long life – played to audiences of thousands of people who adored him and took photos and laughed and loved him. His name was JoJo, and he was a showdog.

I worked with many animals during my career as a singer/dancer. First was in Branson, MO where lions and tigers and leopards and a huge snake were used by my boss, magician Kirby VanBurch. Kirby may have been a little crazy, but he was a meticulous performer and took the safety of his animals and performers seriously. No one was allowed backstage when he used the animals during his act; no one was allowed to go visit them in their cages or mess with them in any way. Since I never saw them, the only time I was reminded there were actual animals in the show was when the magic assistant ran to the dressing room mid-show when the snake peed on her during the act. (Apparently, you have to wash it off right away or risk smelling like snake pee for weeks.)

In Las Vegas my first job was with Melinda, First Lady of Magic. While she didn’t use exotic animals in her act, she did have the requisite birds and rabbits. These animals’ cages were in our dressing room where we got used to the continuous soundtrack of the doves’ cooing, and we sometimes took the rabbits out to pet them.

Many years later, I worked in a show with the comedian/magician/fire eater/animal trainer Max Clever, whose act I loved to watch from the wings so I could laugh along with the audience. Somehow, he managed to merge all of his talents into one clever act (no pun intended), making it all work together seamlessly. The star of his act, besides Max himself, was a little white fluffy dog named JoJo.

At Christmas, JoJo wore a red Santa suit during the show, his white hair looking like a Santa beard. But his usual attire was a black tuxedo and dark sunglasses. I often saw him sitting in the wings before his first entrance. It was pitch black back there, except for the light coming from the stage and the small light clipped onto the backstage technician’s station. He sat backstage facing the lights as Max began his act, and he waited for his cue patiently. He was the most professional dog I’ve ever seen. In fact, he was more professional than many of the human performers I’ve worked with.

When the act was over, JoJo would often stroll into our dressing room to say hello. It was nice to pet him and have a little down-to-earth contact with an animal in the middle of our strange entertainer’s environment.

One Christmas, another performer and I made sweaters for JoJo, and he kindly obliged us by modeling them in the dressing room between shows. I worked in that show for seven years, and JoJo was as much a part of the family as anyone. He will be missed.

Back when I worked with Max, I jokingly told him that someday I wanted to have my own JoJo. And in a way, I feel I do. George looks like him, and I trained him using the suggestions Max gave me long ago. I can’t help but feel that I have the same bond with George that Max had with JoJo. When I heard JoJo had died, I truly felt sorrow at Max’s loss.

As a tribute to JoJo, I think I will teach George a few more tricks – pass on his legacy through the lessons of a showdog.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mrs. U, Get out your red pen

It was in high school that I first learned the word “trite.” Old Mrs. U, our quirky Senior English teacher, used to write the word in bold letters all over my papers, because my teenage brain obviously had trouble coming up with original thoughts.

In case you don’t know, trite means overused, or cliché. And now that I’m working on the first draft of my book, I often wonder how many trite phrases I’m unintentionally using in my writing. If Mrs. U read it, would it again be returned to me with the dreaded word written in her red pen? Surely I’ve matured in my writing – surely I have more imagination and more ambition? But then again, aren’t we just a world of clichés?

I mean, in a world of nearly 7 billion people, what are the odds that any of our thoughts are truly unique? Sure, we’re unique individuals, but aren’t we just made up of common experiences and common thoughts? What are the odds that this sentence has never been written before? Or thought before? Or spoken before? Just how unique can any of us truly be?

But back to clichés. Here are my two least favorites. I hate when people say “Everything happens for a reason.” People tend to say that to console others when bad things happen to them. My response usually is, “Maybe, but not necessarily for a good reason!” I mean, duh. Things happen because of life. Things happen because of the passage of time while we’re on this planet. Things happen because things just happen. I don’t need some stupid cliché to try to explain it.

And my second least favorite cliché is when people say that someone has “lost their battle with cancer.” Commentators on TV say it with requisite seriousness and it just makes me cringe. It’s the same feeling I get when people say that someone “passed away.” We seem to need trite phrases to soften the blow – to describe things that are difficult to talk about – to hide the reality in the comfort of humdrum words. I could never use that phrase when I talked about my mom’s death. She didn’t just pass away; she died – and glossing it over with an overused expression didn’t give her the respect she deserved.

But I don’t mean to be a Negative Nellie or a stick in the mud, so I’ll make a clean sweep and quit running off at the mouth. (Enough pearls of wisdom for today, even though I’ve only scratched the surface of the world of clichés.) So, back to my Pollyanna outlook that comes from growing up in the sticks. I’m now going to call it a day and get out of here. George and I are going to seize the day and head for the park. After all, the best things in life are free, right?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

This weekend I stood in the backyard with a hose over our back wall and watered the neighbor’s trees. I’ve been doing it faithfully for about two months, ever since we realized the neighbors were gone and weren’t returning.

As you know, the mortgage crisis hit Las Vegas hard, and the telltale sign of a foreclosed house is not the For Sale sign in the yard - it’s the brown landscaping. After all, nothing grows in Vegas unless you have a sprinkler hooked up to it, so of course when the water is shut off, the yard of a foreclosed house is the one brown rectangle in a street of green.

We never really knew our neighbors. Their backyard borders ours along a six-foot-tall back wall, and since their house’s entrance is on another street we never really had a chance to talk. Sure, I wish I could have known them – or any of our neighbors. I mean, I’m from the Midwest, where it’s ingrained to take a batch of cookies or a freshly baked pie to your neighbors so you can get acquainted. But I’ve never done that since my first try several years ago, when the couple next door to our first house looked confused when I showed up with a banana nut bread. People in Vegas seem to prefer their compartmentalized lives in their walled-in homes.

In spite of never actually meeting the family behind us, we did feel that we knew them. Every morning and every evening when we’d open or close our upstairs bedroom’s curtains we had a perfect view of their yard – of the pool and the little tiki bar they put in the corner, the potted plants that sat in the shade. We weren’t voyeuristic; we just noticed them as they lived their lives, in those brief daily glimpses.

On the weekends the husband worked out in the yard and slowly installed a stone patio by the back door while his wife sat in a lounge chair by the pool. Later he added a retractable shade awning and a small TV on a wall-mounted stand. After a few months of living behind us, a man appeared at their patio table every morning with coffee, cigarette, and a newspaper. We decided he was the in-law who came to live with them. He was there too long for just a visit. And he always sat alone.

Our favorite member of the family was their son, a little blond kid who was about three or four when we first saw him. He splashed in the pool with his dad or while the mom sat in her chair, unmoved. But mostly he was alone in the yard, amusing himself by playing superhero while wearing nothing but his underwear and a towel tied around his neck as a cape. He walked around the yard whacking plants with a plastic sword, and he and a big plastic Godzilla protected the world from evil, right there in view of our upstairs window.

Right now, the retractable awning is gone, Godzilla is lying on his side in the debris by their muddy pool, and all the plants are brown, except for the three trees I water every day. They are taller than our trees, so losing them would take away the privacy and shade they give our yard. And why should the trees suffer, just because the people moved on?

Watering their trees is the neighborly thing to do.