Madonna at Verizon Center

Madonna at Verizon Center:  I’m Too Old Or And She Is

If, like me, you occasionally watch Fashion Police, there is a pattern to the critiques that Joan Rivers and her crew make of celebrities’ bad outfits, especially when the celebrity is someone they seem to like personally.  They all start with the positive – “first of all, she is so beautiful, I mean look at that body, and her hair just always looks flawless, and maybe there was something about how it played on television, but…” – and that’s when you know this person’s latest red carpet look is about to be served up like a meatball over home plate. 

So, let me say this about Monday night’s Madonna concert.  She is Madonna.  Four decades of enormous success.  “Ground breaker” is too trite but spot on accurate.  Her music has formed some part of the life soundtrack of everyone from the age of, I don’t know, 18 to 45.   I don’t need to google her record sales or the number of top 10 singles to know she’s in the pantheon of extraordinary performers, deservedly so.  And I mean, look at that body.  You can’t not look at it, and no amount of surgery could produce what she has:  strength, agility, sexual energy, all carried with much deserved pride.

Since attending a concert is a two way street, I’ll also take responsibility for not bringing my A game.  I had no time to change after work, and ended up attending in my black turtleneck and wool pants.  Amit was so aghast that he took off his Hanes undershirt and made me put that on, with my denim jacket over it, to try to salvage the family rep just a shred.  It was also a Monday, which I could right well have appreciated by looking at the calendar when we were invited to the show.  But after the very first song, that much, much, much anticipated first glimpse of this icon staging her craft, I checked out.  Over the next 90 minutes, Amit heard more expletives from his wife than a Yankees fan in the Fenway bleachers.  Because this show left me baffled, then annoyed, occasionally bemused, but eventually just pissed.

Madonna, though you are not likely one of my six or seven readers, I will still speak frankly.

First, we all know that you can afford to buy several small countries and have sat with (or on) kings, but girl, you can’t start your stadium show at 10:30 p.m.  Just can’t.  If Jay Z and Kanye can forklift their ten ton egos onto that stage and serve up a powerhouse concert between the respectable hours of 9 and 12 – encores included – so can you.  There’s a great venue in DC called the 9:30 Club, and when you go there to see – oh, I don’t know, the Lemonheads (that’s the sound of Amit’s hand hitting his forehead) or SuperDiamond (They rock.  Deal with it.) – you understand that with an opening act, the headliner isn’t coming on til 10 or 11.  You plan accordingly.  But with rare exceptions, nothing about staying up that late improves things, particularly here, when just about everything you decided to do on stage screamed only for improvement.

Let’s start with the opening sequence of you wielding several firearms, and the 50 foot screens flashing the attendant blood splatters?  I’m lost, absolutely lost, but ready to duck for cover rather than watch this play out.  As for what you were singing as you emptied those many clips, the best I could make out was a lyric as inspired as “dead…shot him in the head.”  As Amit said, “if I wanted to see a Tarrantino movie….”

Moving on from there, you’ve got at least three dozen too many men dressed in monastic garb and white Smurf hats moving around the stage at any given minute.  I can’t keep up with all the symbolism, and I’m sure none of it is solicitous of the Catholic Church – I’m with you there – but the bigger problem is that I can barely find you.  Is that your shadow in the gilded confessional in the back?  Are you under the chanting monk pile?  Are you the monkey in the middle in that Billy Elliott-meets-Lord-Flatley industrial stepdance action?  I can’t see you, girl!

Oh!  That’s because a whole bunch of the time, you’re not there

Yep, this was a show in which you could watch a whole lot of video of Madonna, including rapid fire montages of the various eras in which you should have forked up money to see her live, but for at least an appreciable segment of this concert, the woman simply wasn’t on stage.  You can’t explain it away with costume changes, either.  The entire track of Justify played while 30 guys dressed like mimes in white mittens writhed around on the stage.  At this point, sick to death of hearing my griping, Amit pointed out that it had a cool Cirque du Soleil feel.  To which I said, yes, there’s a Cirque du Soleil show featuring Michael Jackson’s music too, and it’s true you never see him, but his promoters waited til he was dead to go in that direction.  So he gets a pass on the whole “live” thing.

[By the way, having all those drummers velcro’d to the curtains 30 feet over the stage?  That just feels like you’re courting disaster – one of these days you’re not going to need to simulate those big blood splatters.  At a minimum I’m pretty sure it’s an OSHA violation.]

The title to this piece was not meant in any way to suggest that this woman, or any woman, should play it safe, or tone it down, or stop getting half naked on stage when you look better than a 20 year old supermodel, or – god forbid – pack it in at 54.  Madonna has taken such phenomenal care of herself, she’s put in the work, and she’s a legend.  What I could not get over, though, is how damn insecure this woman seems in spite of all that.  Two examples:  the PSA from Nicky Minaj incanting:  “There is only one queen……and that is Madonna….”  Do you need this generation’s pop icons, however much they owe to you, to instruct your own audience that you are great?  Or are you just fearing irrelevance, after fending it off better than almost anyone since the 1980’s?  I’m just imagining what Nicky’s agent thought when they got this request:  “Let me get this straight, you want her to what?  So in the middle of a Madonna show everyone sees a ten story image of Nicky saying how Madonna is still the queen?  Uh, yeah, I guess we could do that.”

 Worse yet, what you may have intended as a playful dig at Lady Gaga, by peppering some lines of Born This Way into the middle of Express Yourself, just came off as petty and – I’ll just say it  – beneath a woman of your age and accomplishment.  We get it.   She stole your sound, in that song and probably countless others.  She’s a hit anyway.  It’s not just in your imagination that she’s cutting in on the gay club scene.  Deal with it.  The entire genre of hip hop was and is grounded in sampling, mixing, and downright copying others’ music.  If you can’t own your legend at this point in your career, then that is really a shame.  One of the best things I’ve found about my 40’s is that each year I care a little less about how others view me.  I care, of course, but my self-regard certainly doesn’t hinge on it.  In sum, you’re too old for this crap.

There’s certainly more I could say.  The majorette costume.  The pom pom’s.  The tattoo of Obama across your back and – since this is DC after all – your endorsement, laden somewhat inexplicably with several “motherf—-r”s.  I can’t do it all justice.  [But I will say this:  Michelle, do not let this woman within ten miles of your husband.  Hear me now, and believe me later, you didn’t see her snake across the stage singing “Like A Virgin” with the letters of Obama’s name undulating across her lats.  You’d be safer sending him to film a movie with Angelina.]

Finally, I confess that Amit cut through the majority of my criticism with one major and obvious reaction:  if you thought you were coming here to hear her rattle off 20 top ten hits, you should have known better.  He’s right, I guess, and it’s up to Madonna to decide what her current incarnation is and how she’s going to share it with the world.  It’s up to the ticket buying public laying down anywhere from $60 to over $200, plus babysitter money, to decide whether we want to buy. 

Springsteen has a philosophy about the contract – literal and figurative – between performer and fan, and I venture to say it has served him well.  As he told David Remnick in a fabulous New Yorker piece: “Remember, we’re also running a business here, so there is a commercial exchange, and that ticket is my handshake. That ticket is me promising you that it’s gonna be all the way every chance I get. That’s my contract. And ever since I was a young guy I took that seriously.”  

In so many ways, Madonna’s show convinces me she doesn’t share that view.  That is her right, I suppose, and who knows?  Maybe her next tour will feature more of what has made her compelling all these years.  Because one thing is for sure:  this woman shouldn’t need assault weapons, or even a single Glock, to know she can still kill it.

It All Depends.

Even before a now-infamous, table’s eye video of a man who purports to want to lead this country went viral, I had been reflecting in a very immediate way about the idea of dependency.  A little over two weeks ago, Amit woke feeling lousy.  The chills were setting in, his head hurt.  It was a Wednesday, and I was leaving that night for a 2 day business trip to Chicago.  Our extraordinarily dependable nanny, an Indonesian immigrant with a green card, would of course ensure that our children would be fed, clothed, girl to kindergarten, boy to speech therapy, and – because she is indeed extraordinary – loved.  She loves them.  I love them.  We need her.  She needs her job.  And Amit, as it turned out, needed to go to the hospital.

Without reliving each hairy moment that ensued, Amit’s condition worsened.  His headache not only didn’t let up, it was only controllable with regular doses of oxycodone.  The fever never went away.  And after head CT’s, a spinal tap, and blood tests confirming only what we could have guessed – dude is sick – I called in some of his dear friends, who as luck, good fortune, sacrificing families, better math SAT’s and government loans would have it, became doctors.  I also called our dear friend and mentor Bill, who is in his 60’s.  I called my parents, though there was little they could do from Cape Cod.  Eventually we called Amit’s parents.  It was one of those uncomfortable moments when, despite being a fairly competent forty-one year old, I assessed the situation and thought, “S–, I need a grown-up!  Where the hell are the grown-ups??” 

Oh.  Right.

We spent about four days at Georgetown Hospital, where Amit was lucky to be cared for by talented doctors and nurses.  He started to improve.  In the meantime, a whole lot of other people with busy lives and schedules, with deadlines and bills and untamed children all their own, stepped up to help us through it all.  Between our nanny, my in-laws, the fabulous aunt Patty, and friends willing to arrange play dates, our children didn’t really miss a beat.  Through an email chain of friends and their referral sources, we had smart people all over the country studying Amit’s blood counts and trying to think through what his disease might be.  Other than my nanny, I certainly didn’t pay those people, and some who stepped in didn’t know Amit or me personally. 

I guess you can either celebrate or fear how much we depended on them.   For me, even though we take plenty of responsibility for our lives and our family, I’m ready to celebrate the fact that lots of people wanted to give us – and this may sound familiar –  food, health care, and housing for our kids, even though it was against their rational self-interest.  And not one of them called us victims.    

No one doubts that humans need other humans.  Everyone has seen examples of stranger helping stranger, and a sense of shared responsibility for one another.  On 9/11, the clinics in Washington and New York had to turn people away who wanted to open their own veins for fellow citizens they’d never met.  Why?  Because our dependence on one another is simply a fact, and we consciously or subconsciously recognize it as core to our humanity.  At least I sure as hell hope we do.

This next election will depend in no small part on how millions of people who make up a polity view this notion of dependence.  It may depend ‎on our Rorschach response to the other video that went viral last week, in which a pig saves ‎a baby goat from drowning.  (I try not to do this, and I promise I would be a repeat offender, but ‎you do have to see this one…)

‎ Why would that pig do that?  What was in it for him?  Do the pig and the goat belong to the same church?  Does the pig owe the goat some debt that he now gets to call even?  Did the pig just see a need and say, “I can do something about that?”  What if the pig had stood by and said, “well, 47% of goats just didn’t take swim lessons at private summer camp like I did, and now look where it’s gotten them?”  Or maybe the pig would simply never view the zoo the same way if he knowingly let that goat die.

And now to that other video. 

What Mitt Romney so “inelegantly” expressed in that elegant room is that he as president would define the limits of which humans should need which humans, and under what circumstances, all driven by a belief that we are better off as a polity if those most in want are left to fend for themselves.  He dismisses the notion that the most powerful civil tool by which humans in this country have organized themselves – the government – has any role to play in addressing needs, or at least the most basic ones like food and shelter.  He does so from ‎the most rarefied post of any human:  he appears never to have wanted for anything. 

But of course, even parked within the needle’s eye of the 1%, there are things Mitt needs from our federal government.  For the happy state of affairs to persist among his set, he needs our government to protect and enforce a tax code wherein the sweat of human labor is taxed far more than passive and enormous gains to investors who, by definition, had enough wealth to invest.  So it’s not that government shouldn’t address anyone’s needs; it should go on addressing the needs of those who don’t need much at all.  It just depends on who is ranking these needs, and it certainly depends on how those with the power to keep all that going depend on the folks in the chiavari chairs in Boca.    

The question, and it is a fair debate, is what is the best way to help the neediest in this country.  But I pray we haven’t reached a moment where both that question and our national character has devolved to whether to help them at all.  At our darkest economic hour, we had a leader who recognized that freedom from want was worthy of being considered primary to our collective purpose.  Nobody even called him a socialist for it.  We need a leader like that now.

‎Sometimes need hits you from out of nowhere.  Sometimes you didn’t even think you were vulnerable, and yet even your best laid plans have left you, well, dependent.  Everything depends on what happens after that.     

 

Kindergarten.

In the days leading up to your first child starting kindergarten, there are rituals that serve dual and somewhat contradictory purposes – first of getting you off your ass, and then having it handed to you, at unexpected moments, and with a dose of your heart as a side dish.  The former category of tasks started some weeks ago, when Devan and I were ensconced on Cape Cod, spending idle time and pricey hours buying her a fall wardrobe of dresses with just the right amount of twirly-ness.  It continued last week, when I took both Devan and Kian to buy shoes.  If you want to spend, in the fiscal and emotional departments, just take two small kids shoe shopping.  It wasn’t so much the clerk’s measurement of my ample son – confirming that his sausage casing feet require the rare “double wide” shoe size – but the shoes for Devan, emerging from impossible amounts of tissue in an even more impossible size, that stopped me short of breath.  They looked like boats – sequined, by turns illuminated, or patent leather, or just sublimely pink boats.  Yet into those boats went her five year old foot.  And it fit.

 

Maybe it took the good people of Stride Rite to send me a sign:  pay up, and get with the program.

 

The tasks are, in fact, largely finished.  There was the lengthy public school supply list, most of which could be procured at the grocery store, the remainder of which turned into a scavenger hunt through stores that seemed very likely to sell, e.g., a clipboard, but in fact, do not.  To be honest, I relished shopping for every last item on that list.  Give a person trying to fend off heartache a long list of busy-making chores, and she will love you forever.  I can’t grieve over this, I’m still short of glue sticks!

 

But long before that, there were the forms – so many, many forms – from the dutiful repetition of basic bio-data about our family, to the selection of emergency contacts, to the ten dollar checks written to the pediatrician, the dentist, that they might fill out checklists to confirm that – at least on some clinical, measurable level of potential f—-up – we’ve done what we were supposed to do.  In this humbling and anarchical business of being a parent, I dare say they could charge a multiple of that fee for meting out one precious dose of validation.

 

We have attended the information sessions, the open houses, the pre-meet and greet to the meet and greets.  It’s all done, except for filling her lunch box early tomorrow.  She’s asleep and – as she ever has been – undaunted, unconcerned, unwilling to reveal her final wardrobe choice for the First Day.  The best I got was, “Mommy, I promise you, it’s one of your favorites.”  It’s hard not to feel managed out of a job, at least in some part.  But if I’m honest, part of that job was the bewilderment of meeting a girl who was almost nothing like me.  A big part of that job was getting over the notion of how you always thought you’d feel with your baby, when that baby happened to pick up the somewhat alarming habit of wailing her head against hard surfaces from the age of 16 months. Another big part of that job was waking up and facing a day of work after nights of ungodly wails as that baby ripped through three Tots In Mind crib tents – Andy Dufresne style –  but without the sunny promise of Zihuatanejo, which Andy promised Red was a warm place with no memory.   At least for us, a very big part of that job was believing that when the days felt too long, the force of her will unmanageable, that eventually it was going to get easier.    

 

Now it’s so much easier.  What a ridiculous moment to hurt, but I do. 

 

If you’re looking avoid emotional pile-on, the days leading up to your child starting kindergarten are also not a wise time to sell all the stuff in your garage.  But for reasons not worthy of digression, this week saw our foray onto Craig’s List.  For sale, and at a bargain price I should add, is the double stroller in which Devan and her best friend Leah first saw the world outside as small babies, pushed through the streets of Washington by the beloved Miss Freddie.  There is also the rainforest jumparoo, which went from Devan, who loved its loud, bright, chaotic action, to Jonah, who felt the same, and back to Kian, who rejected it outright.  There is the snap n’ go base, universal to any car seat, which was purchased last night by a very sweet couple from Mount Pleasant whose baby is set to arrive on October 3. 

 

Then there is the armoire, which sold tonight to Hilary from Woodley Park.  Its multiple incarnations included housing what we all used to call “flat screen” TV’s, which were roughly 35 inches deep, first in Amit’s first DC apartment, then his first condo, and then our condo (which, for the official record, Amit did not move into until we were legally married).  Then it came to our first house, and I can’t remember where we originally put it.  But I have a photograph that I treasure of Amit and our friend Tom moving it upstairs to our second floor, having to take it outside amidst a snowfall because various door frames were too narrow.  Up it went to what became our nursery, and I was fully pregnant, and we needed a place for the impossibly small and beautiful little clothes that this idea of a girl named Devan was going to wear.  To cover the big hole cut into the back, where cable and VCR cords once needed to protrude, I bought a piece of lavender silk fabric at one of DC’s last fabric shops on K Street.  I used a staple gun to put it in, and then I installed a metal rod across the inside cavity.  I remember the surge of joy as I hung all the clothes lovingly washed in Dreft, and then I sat in our new glider and thought about the girl she would be. 

 

But like every parent, if I have learned a single thing, it is to give way to the girl she is.  And that girl is fearless, and proud, and looks nothing like me, and loves me despite every misstep I could name if I had a year of days to do nothing else.  That girl climbs door frames like a spider.  She wears size 11 1/2 shoes.  She knows a few too many Katy Perry songs, but delights her father by singing along to some Foo Fighters.  She drinks only seltzer water and eats frozen waffles only if they remain frozen.  She is bewildering, and beautiful, and there is not a force on this earth or any other planet that stands a chance against her certain triumph. 

 

She’s also in kindergarten.