Saturday, May 21, 2011


I've been on a bit of a Stephen Sondheim kick lately, maybe because of his longtime connection with Anthony Perkins, one of my perennial preoccupations/happy obsessions. These two were similar in that they were both intricate, impossible, brilliant, and (in spite of their vast creative contribution) essentially unknowable.

Though Perkins was prematurely snatched at 60, Sondheim is still with us at 80-some. One of his many legendary shows was Company (1970), in which T. P. almost played Bobby, the still point at the centre of a comedy of couples. When it comes to relationships and love, Bobby won't commit, but committed people (or people who should be committed) swirl all around him.

Somehow Tony Perkins wasn't available. Another commitment, you see. Or he didn't really need to "play" Bobby; he was too busy being him.

I tried to find a really good version of an incredible song, Being Alive, Bobby's final soliloquy/aria/heartsong. I went through Bernadette Peters, whom I've always loved; Patty LuPone; Barbra Streisand; even Julie Andrews. Nada, naynay, nonenonenone, can't get into it and am almost at the point of giving up.

Then I stumbled on. . . this.

It's Dean Jones, yes, that Dean Jones from the Love Bug series and innumerable other Disney flicks. I didn't even know he could sing. It's a recording session, probably the original cast recording judging by the fact that Sondheim looks like a middle-aged juvenile delinquent. But what Jones does here is beyond singing. He opens his mouth, his eyes soft with a frightened vulnerability, and releases this hymn, this almost unbearable paean to the aching neccessity of love.

Jesus! He can't just sing: he can fly. Where has he been all my life? I don't know if I've ever heard a song turned inside-out like this. Along with flat-out artistry, he possesses a soaring technical brilliance, the ability to sustain a phrase in a clean, steady arc for an impossibly long time. He builds and builds the drama as the orchestra crescendos and begins to thunder at the end. . .and when it's over and he stands there with a tense, "was that any good?" look clearly visible on his face, there's an eerie silence in the studio. Sondheim mumbles something about it being adequate. Then, almost like at the end of Laugh-in, sparse applause, the sound of a few hands clapping.

When I hear something this good, which is never, I want to do something really extreme, like throw all my manuscripts on a bonfire, committ suttee or whatever it is (but my husband would have to do it first, damn it). When I hear something this exalted, I want to just chuck my ambitions and go take a long walk in the park (ten years ought to do it). But at the same time, it goads me to be better than I know how to be.

This song is about someone who can't fully live until he learns to open himself wide to the splendors and catastrophes of love. I wonder why I have such a visceral response to it. Love is at the centre of my life, and in fact, I know it is my central purpose. Of this I have no doubt. But what does it mean, what does it really mean to love? Do we ever get it right?

Grog Grows Own Tail

Can't say just what started this, but maybe it was my daughter-in-law saying, "By the way, I sent away for the Sea Monkeys."

"The. . . the. . . (gulp)". . . (I was already being dragged into the past, and all those summers at the cottage with the Jimmy Olsen Annual).

"Oh yeah, but there's only one problem with them. They only come with a year's supply of food. So what are you supposed to feed them after that? Rubber boots?"

So you could still get them. It was hard to believe, in this age of cynicism and truth in advertising, but there it was. And kids still wanted them. My own grandkids wanted them. It was all a little hard to absorb.

The sea monkeys, along with so many things we yearned for in those old comic book ads, were the stuff of legend. We never actually sent away for them or for anything else, though I considered the 100 Dolls for $1 (not having any idea what they meant by "Lilliputian cuteness": would 9-year-old girls be likely to read Jonathan Swift?). It all had to do with American-ness, the American dollar looking nothing like the Canadian dollar. We just knew it was Different. You had to send actual dollars, because no one had heard of a money order in those days, plus all these things only cost about a buck.

Anyway, back to the sea monkeys: it was a very long time before I actually saw any, and I don't recall whose house I was in. There was a small plastic tank full of cloudy, smelly, slimy water, with little multi-legged things squirming around in it. Doing tricks, I suppose. No sign of a castle or royal sceptres.

The rest of the story wasn't filled in until about 10 years ago, when my husband and I made a trip to Utah and saw millions of brine shrimp, the only creatures who can withstand the thick saline waters of the Great Salt Lake.

Oh, OK then (choke), but there was still the Onion Gum ("Tastes like. . . like. . . ONIONS! It's too funny!" This was one of our favorites. I devoted a whole post to this tiny ad, riffing on it with all sorts of different photographic/photoshop effects.) And there were the hundreds of strong man ads with pictures of nearly-nude, wildly overdeveloped men flexing every muscle at once. These seemed to interest my brother Arthur, though I have come to wonder about it since.

Comic book ads were all tied in with summers at Bondi, a resort in Muskoka that qualifies as a little bit of heaven on earth. (The fact that Bondi is still there, preserved by my friend Nancy and her brother Brian, is even more of a marvel, and somehow gives me hope). For two weeks we were absolutely free. And of course we didn't fully appreciate it: we rampaged through that time like wild horses, and before we knew it we came to that miserable moment when we began to count the days we had left.

I wonder to this day how many live chihuahuas were delivered to kids willing to sell photo-finishing door to door, or unload tubes of salve. Or that poor monkey: how would it survive, and wouldn't it be so full of fear that it would bite everyone? Attitudes towards animals were different then (and the word chihuahua wasn't even used: but for God's sake, if we were supposed to understand lilliputian, what was so hard about chihuahua??). They were freight to be shipped. I wonder how many kids just didn't tell their parents.

I used to wonder about Grog, until I saw a Hawaiian ti plant at some sort of horticultural display. You just stuck it in the ground, and, voila! a shade tree in minutes. Whether Grog kept producing another tail, and another and another and another, was anyone's guess. But what can you expect for a buck?

Seeing these again gives me that queer feeling of deeply-buried deja vu. Many of the ads have been so enhanced that they look a thousand times more vibrant than the original grainy, 2" square things, usually plastered together on a great exuberant wall of ads. (These make great wallpaper, by the way.) And I even solved a few mysteries. For example, I found out exactly what you got if you sent away for the 100 dolls.

These looked like very chintzy Monopoly tokens, all of them made of pink plastic. There were maybe 30 different designs, but the thing is, they were 2" high and about a billionth of an inch thick, standing up on bases like those farm animals I used to have. I saw a collection of them on eBay, where they are now worth a lot of money as collectibles (though only if the 100-piece set is intact: people do count them).

I don't know, I get the strangest feeling seeing these. Paradise Lost, then found again. Not having, of course, and not just looking, but coveting. We wanted these things, we ached for them as only a child can ache, a child with no money and no power and no parental approval. I know a buck meant a lot more then, but why go to so much effort for such a lousy return? And wouldn't most people want their money back?

I don't look at comics now, they're all different, though I guess you can snoop around and find vintage ones if you're willing to pay top dollar (and I'm not). We don't put 15 cents into an envelope to get Onion Gum, not when there's PayPal and the like. I don't save Kellogg's box tops and send away for little plastic submarines that you fill with baking soda. It's a whole different game.