Saturday, December 12, 2009

I've Been Where Tiger Is

I can understand that Tiger Woods probably isn’t hugely enjoying being exposed as what the British tabloids call a love rat. But he should look at the bright side. All his Other Women seem to agree that he’s a fantastic swordsman, as wags of my dad’s generation might have put it, and has a great big one.

I’ve been where Tiger is, though on a much smaller scale, and without my own personal Rachel Uchitel even being offered the opportunity to affirm my immensity or great skill. I attended a concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium one evening in the spring of 1977 with my second live-together adult girlfriend, M—, and shortly thereafter received a phone call from P— saying she’d found me terribly attractive from a couple of rows away and hoped we might meet.

I suffered badly at the time from what I’ve read may have ailed (or still ail) Bill Clinton. My sense of my own attractiveness was so abysmal that I found it nearly impossible to turn down a reasonably presentable woman who said she fancied me. We agreed, P— and I, to meet for lunch. I liked her lipliner and her pushup bra. I loved her liking me. I said we’d have to get together soon.

The following Saturday, I phoned her after my weekly impromptu basketball game at Fairfax High School. I, who until the age of 17, would have been as capable of asking a pretty girl out as of swimming from Malibu to Maui, asked if she might be interested in licking the sweat off me. I honestly don’t know what had come over me; I think the decent, responsible part of me was going for self-sabotage. But she gasped, “Yes!” And when she greeted me at her front door, it was in a corset — out of whose top she seemed about to burst — garters, black stockings, and high heels. I seemed to have left the decent, responsible part of myself back at Fairfax.
After we’d cemented our close new friendship, if you will, she pointed out that there was a mirror with two nice lines of coke on the bedside table to my immediate right, and would I excuse her to finish making my gourmet lunch?

I started skipping basketball on Saturday mornings, and heading right over to her. It was the highlight of my week, at least until I was overcome by guilt, and said we’d have to stop. She was beside herself. She phoned me every 45 seconds. When she threatened suicide, I told M— I was going to go see a friend. I gave him P—‘s number and asked that he phone me immediately if M— called looking for me. Naturally, he forgot to, and when I got home from telling P—, in the sexiest outfit I’d seen her in to date, with the most delicious smells wafting out of the kitchen, that we really did have to pull the plug, M— jumped me, pummeling me hysterically. I let her wear herself out, and begged her forgiveness. I told her, truthfully, that I’d decided it was her I loved more.
We staggered on, M— and I. She kept bringing the affair up, and I kept imploring her to try to forget it, for her own sake no less than my own. She asked one evening as we watched TV if my mother, to whom I was very close at the time, had known about the affair. M— (correctly) took my hesitation as affirmation, and was so crazed with humiliation that she tried to put her cigarette out in my face. It didn’t hurt much more than had seeing the hurt in her eyes every time she looked at me.

Eighteen months passed. It became ever clearer that, for reasons that hadn’t anything to do with P—, M— and I didn’t have much of a future. I had in the meantime taken myself in hand and learned to suppress my heretofore-immobilizing shyness. Beginner’s luck: the first woman I ever approached stone cold — a pretty would-be blonde model we’ll call D—, in a Century City boutique called Heaven — eagerly agreed to go out with me. I continued to lack the courage just to break it off with M—, and instead suggested that each of us have a couple of nights a week when he wasn’t accountable. She said OK, but when I got home from my first date with D—, she attacked me even more ferociously than the first time.

A few more months passed, tensely. I finally worked up the nerve to tell M— we were done. Doing so made me feel so guilty that I told D— we too were over. I moved into one of the many bedrooms in an art hovel on the western edge of Koreatown, and suffered great loneliness for several months. It seemed only fitting.

When it felt as though I’d suffered enough, I phoned D— and said no obstacles remained to our becoming the couple she’d so wanted for us to be. Now, though, she seemed no longer to want it. I got the impression my already having a girlfriend had made me more attractive to her. I had several more months of loneliness ahead before “meeting” (I’d known her eight years before, when she was dating another member of Christopher Milk) my future first wife. What had gone around had come around.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Friday, December 11, 2009

Toil and Trouble - Part I

My friend Handsomeboy, the intellectual thug (he reads Nietzsche in German on the bus on his way to brawls) recently observed that there are few existential ills that hard work can’t cure, or at least mask. I, who have been out of work (the somebody’s-official-employee kind) for all but 11 months of this decade, wholeheartedly believe him to be right. I can subsist for the time being on the money my parents left me, so the hardest part isn’t paying for groceries or shelter or a fast connection to the Internet, but making sense of each day, feeling purposeful in a world that, until a few weeks ago, felt fervently indifferent to everything I do.

For instance, on losing my most recent job in March, I, brave little soldier that I am, immediately undertook to write a commercial Stephen King-ish novel, with lots of characters, thrills ‘n’ chills by the crateful, wit, topicality, and far lovelier prose than King's. I worked hard on it, was pretty pleased with what I’d come up with, and invited around 120 literary agents to consider taking the project to market. Around 45 responded. Of those 45, 39 lamented that the book Didn’t Sound Quite Right for [Them]. The other six, to whom I sent the first 20,000 words, and a synopsis of what was to follow, thanked me for my interest and declined to represent me.[Want to see for yourself? Email me.]

It’s been like this for decades. Since co-winning the PEN Syndicated Fiction Contest in 1986, the only fiction I’ve actually published was what I sneaked into the two music biographies, of Kate Bush and The Pixies, I wrote for a UK publisher earlier this decade. In both cases readers were too incensed by what I said about their heroes (I love around a tenth of La Bush’s work, find around 70 percent of it unlistenably self-indulgent, and loathe The Pixies) to notice how sublime it was.

I’ve had a great many jobs over the years, from assisting a guy who drove around Playa del Rey peddling fruit off the back of a big truck when I was 12, to being one of the first designers hired by Deloitte & Touche San Francisco’s ultradeluxe (and ultra-ill-conceived) Web Division 122 years later. The ones I enjoyed most were assisting the fruit truck guy, taking money from motorists who sought to park at Zuma Beach, parking cars at the Tonga Lei restaurant in Malibu, and designing phone cards and other, you know, collateral for Destiny Telecomm (an elaborate pyramid scheme overseen by a charismatic evangelical) in Oakland in 1996. Those I hated most included washing dishes at the Malibu Pharmacy, busboying at Ted’s Rancho Restaurant in sort-of-Malibu, senior-editing Larry Flynt’s Chic magazine for three months that probably lopped five years off the end of my life (stratospheric stress, you see), and processing words for a big fascist law firm in San Francisco, where I was condescended to, at nearly 40, by 25-year-old recent bar-passers who couldn’t write a grammatical English sentence.

Nor was my most recent job, in New York City, from a year ago tomorrow to the beginning of this past March, a day at the beach, though I mostly loved (honestly!) having to get up early, trudge down to the train station through snow and ice (on which I took more than a few spectacular pratfalls), ride, ride, ride down to Grand Central Station, and then hurry through the armies of fellow employed people to my office a couple of blocks from the Empire State Building, all of which took no less than two hours. The job itself wasn’t much fun — I’ll tell you about it tomorrow — but for 13 hours a day, I didn’t have to confront any agonizing choices about how to make sense of the endless hours that loomed accusingly before me, and was only fleetingly beset by existential doubt ‘n’ dread.

I’ll mention briefly in closing today that I’ve gone back — at my age! — to wanting to be a rock star, toward which end I’ve just made a new album that you’ll just love if you give it half a chance. Smirking emoticon.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Poetic Justice

At our gala pre-Xmas get-together last weekend, we played Stack o’ Questions. After one guest revealed that, as a victim of childhood sexual and other abuse, she greatly envied anyone raised by sane, loving parents, we began to debate the relative importance of nature and nurture. I noted that my wife and her brother, only 30 months apart, and thus products of pretty much the identical home environment, could hardly be more different. Where Claire is sweet-natured, hard-working, and gregarious, my brother-in-law is corrosively cynical, implacably indolent, and misanthropic, quite happy (in his profound unhappiness) to sit in his gloomy bedroom playing video games and cursing the world for failing to recognize his brilliance as a musician, which he never actually puts on display.

The divergence between me and my younger sister is nearly as great — and great enough for us to have been completely estranged (as in not speaking) for the past year, after not being able to stand one another for most of the present century.

In at least one key way, each of us has embodied the personality of one of our parents. My mother was shy and self-conscious, my dad — to my mother’s infinite discomfort and disgust — an implacable back-slapper and flirt. I can’t remember a morning after they’d gone out socially together that she didn’t slice him to shreds with her razorblade tongue for having either embarrassed her or left her to fend for herself while he did his life-o’-the-party routine.

I’m my mother, and my sister’s my dad. It has often felt to me, when we’ve gone out together, that my sister’s far more interested in being seen as the soul of vivacity by third parties than in her companions’ comfort. We’ve entered restaurants together, and half the wait staff and a couple of fellow diners were her new Best Friends Forever even before our menus were presented. I, meanwhile, wanted to duck under the table. She’s mortally offended when I tell her she’s embarrassing me — to the point of not having invited me to her (third) wedding last year, or even told me it was going to take place.

But maybe poetic justice of the sort responsible for the situation with me and my daughter is to blame. I honestly feel, even while wincing at the thought of a thousand things I said, or did, or didn’t do, that over all I was a fairly sensational dad to Brigitte. God knows I couldn’t have loved her more than I did, and do. But every time I feel like bewailing the hideous unfairness of our ongoing estrangement, which will enter its ninth year next spring, I remember, wincing, how brutish I was with my own parents in the final years of their lives. Am I not getting exactly what I deserve?

Close to 40 years after the fact, I’m consumed by shame at the memory of taking my sister, than 14, to her first concert, the Moody Blues at the Forum in LA, and acting embarrassed about her, rather than a jaw-dropping blonde actress or model, being my date. If I’d had even the faintest sense of self-worth, I’d have been able to revel in her excitement and delight, but all I could do at the time was exactly what my mother, for whom appearances were ever paramount, would have done in the same circumstances — think the world was looking at me and thinking, “God, what a loser, having to come to this with his kid sister.”

I’m so sorry, Lori.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Whores and I

I have never paid for sex. God knows there’ve been stretches, such as after the crumbling of my first marriage, when I thought that, at 40, I’d lost my looks and would never find another gal to love me. It certainly isn’t that I didn’t consider paying for it, but that I figured I’d wind up feeling a chump, as I had on those few occasions when I’d ventured into strip clubs, or whatever they were actually called. The girls there were invariably slightly misshapen, several had bad skin, and all of them leered accusingly, as though to say, “I hate you, and I hate what I have to do here to feed the child I had at 15, and I’m really a lesbian anyway, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

When I was a teenager, my dad had offered to introduce me to sex by taking me to a prostitute. I found the prospect terrifying. I had every reason to believe that he would embarrass me terribly, flirting up a storm with her before finally leaving us two lovebirds alone together.

My zookeeper girlfriend Nancy took me to the Mitchell Bros.’ famous San Francisco porn emporium for my 43rd birthday. (It had turned out that I’d only just begun to lose my looks!) She was the only woman patron there, and we got lots of daggers stared at our throats. As we sat down to watch a succession of surgically enhanced young women behave lasciviously on stage, another girl came by offering lap dances. The guy beside me asked for one as Guns N’ Roses’ "One In a Million," in which Mr. Axl Rose condemns “niggers” and “faggots,” began to play. I’d read about the song while researching my ill-fated David Geffen biography, but never actually heard it. I was surprised by what a blatant ripoff of a Stones song (“Sympathy for the Devil,” if memory serves, but it might not) it was, and said something to Nancy along the lines of, “What a piece of shit!” Whereupon the girl on the lap of the guy beside me launched into a passionate defense of the group even as her customer began to moan pre-orgasmically beneath her. I don’t think I’ve ever debated the merits of a particular artist or group of artists in more unusual circumstances.

I have never paid a prostitute for sex, but I briefly dated one, during the days when I would go to the Starwood, the West Hollywood nightclub popular with those who found the atmosphere at the Whisky a Go Go too rarefied, drink black coffee for alertness and vodka for courage, and swagger through the place letting promiscuous young women observe how much like a rock star I looked. When one on whom I lowered the boom late one weeknight confided that she was a call girl, she immediately became very much more attractive; I found exciting the idea of getting free what others had to pay $250 for. But I soon discovered that her company made me feel more, rather than less, lonely, and broke her heart. Of gold. Actually, I think she found me weird, as did so many of the maidens I met at the Starwood. I used big words they didn’t know and hadn’t much interest in cocaine.

In 2001, I wrote a song for the Mistress Chloe album Like a Moth to Its Flame called "The Prostitutes of London," which I later dusted off and rammed manfully into the repertoires of two of the sketch comedy revues I directed while living in the named city. There isn’t a single mention of prostitutes, though, on my forthcoming Sorry We’re Open album.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Woody Allen Effect

I once heard Woody Allen speaking on the radio of going through several stages in the making of a movie. At the beginning, he’s all a-tremble with the possibilities of a new idea. By the time he actually finishes it, though, all his early exhilaration has long since been washed away in a river of stress, and all he wants is for the suffering to end.

It’s very similar with me and my music. Virtually all my songs begin with a melody. It’s quite exhilarating to sit down at the piano and discover a new one. Having become more fluent over the decades, I now find that if this doesn’t happen within the first 90 seconds of my sitting down, it probably won’t happen. After that, I cease to be instinctive, and start playing more with my head, going in predictable directions, doing the “right” thing. This is fine if you’re a Brill Building piecework-type composer, one expected to churn out a certain number of songs per week, but I strive at all time to be more about inspiration than craft. Which isn’t, of course, to pretend that craft doesn’t eventually intrude.

Once having composed a melody (actually, at least two, and probably more like four melodies — at least one for the verse, and another for the chorus), I must next write lyrics to ride atop them, and here it begins to get tricky, as often the rhythms of the tune make for tricky, constraining arrangements of syllables.

At this stage, a song is often completely transformed. Several months ago, for instance, I wrote a wistful little melody that fairly cried out for words about love or its loss. It wound up as Xenophobia, an angry, often sarcastic salsa-flavored denunciation of America’s hostility toward Latino immigration, after these words hopped, for no good reason, atop the tune I was reviewing in my head one afternoon.

Underneath the interstate
Refugees are sleeping. Wait!
That’s forbidden. Let’s destroy their camp.

This Supermodel began life similarly, with the first two lines, Endless shoots for French Vogue in the sun/ In these boots, be assured, aren’t much fun attaching themselves to the tune in my head. Imagine my surprise, given my low opinion of those I’ve dated, to find myself writing an apologia for supermodels.

In writing lyrics for the other 12 new songs on my forthcoming album Sorry We’re Open, I did something I’ve rarely done before – allowed the songs to tell me what they wanted to say. To sound less pretentious about it, I let what I’ll call a scrambled-eggs idea (Paul McCartney’s Yesterday was famously called Scrambled Eggs between his composing the melody and deciding what the lyrics should be) dictate the lyrical course of at least a portion of a song. In this way, the chorus of We’re Golden came to open with Put your little hand in mine/In Timbuktu and Palestine…, as it seemed to want to, and the title line of Nights of Cinnamon to be preceded by days of sulfur. Swastikas in Drag, a little diatribe against Republicanism, pretty much insisted on having All these four-leaf clovers starting to bloom in the chorus, though they had in the end to settle for Line 3, rather than Line 1.

In a few cases, I had the words first, and had to compose melodies whose rhythms would accommodate them. I wrote the whole of the chorus of I Followed My Bliss on my way out the door of a local amateur gospel concert at which a very well dressed local clergyman sang just dreadfully while a great many church ladies heaped their plates with one another’s cooking and ignored him, and didn’t it look and smell scrumptious?

I wrote the first verse of Dancing About Architecture on the train home from Manhattan one Friday night in the very early spring. Working on a short story would have made me feel less guilty (yes, I'm driven!), but writing lyrics was a step up from watching an episode of Friday Night Lights on my iPod. (I hate when TV shows or movies ask us to believe that 26 and 27-year-olds are in high school.) The Field I Want to Plow, featuring a defiantly clumsy metaphor to express heterosexual lust, was also written mostly on the 6:45 to Poughkeepsie, albeit with an existing melody in mind, as too was the song that was provisionally entitled Waltzing With An Architect until I remembered that vainglorious bully Frank Zappa’s famous and spectacularly inane suggestion, almost certainly in response to a bad review, that writing about music was like dancing about architecture.

But back to the Woody Allen Effect. Over the course of recording a true solo album, one on which he plays, sings, or programs everything, one ceases to be able to hear the song’s original promise, and begins to hear only the flaws in his own performance. For someone such as I, who doesn’t sing very well, hearing his own vocals over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over in the course of mixing becomes downright excruciating. Every iffy note, every trace of strain, starts to leap out of the mix bellowing, “You’re not really going to leave me in, are you?” You start pushing the voice farther and farther down, and of course wind up only with a rotten mix, making it necessary to start over — and to hear every iffy note and trace of strain another million times. By the time you’re finished, there is no music in the world — not Kiss’s or Motley Crue’s, not Madonna’s or Barry Manilow’s, not even Frank Zappa’s — that you hate more than your own. When finally you whimper, “Enough already!” and burn the CD that you will send the Library of Congress's copyright office, it’s with no assurance whatever that you’ve actually done your best work, but rather with the feeling that you simply can’t endure any more.

I think this may be why people hire producers.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Monday, December 7, 2009

What's In a Namath?

My wife Claire is from London, and baffled by American football. Why, she wonders, must they wear helmets and all that padding when English (and other) rugby players wear none, and are no less intent on dislodging one another’s internal organs? Why, more annoyingly, do they keep interrupting the game to show Budweiser commercials?

During our recent excursion to Cape Cod, I tested her knowledge of the NFL, and found it predictably scant. But in the course of seeing how many teams she could identify by nickname, she came up with some sensational new names for several of them. Instead of the Jacksonville Jaguars, for instance, she suggested the Jacksonville Fives. The Miami Dolphins, rather less inventively, became the Miami Vice, and the Denver Broncos the Denver Colorados. My two favorites are the Tennessee (presently Titans) Williams and the Houston We-Have-a-Problems, followed closely by the Dallas Shoulderpads, which I gather is a reference more to what Joan Collins and Linda Evans wore in the 80s TV series than what the current Cowboys wear to preclude shattered clavicles and what-not. For the country’s biggest city’s NFC entry, she suggested the New York, New York, and the New York, New York (with the New Yorks in different order, you see) for the AFC entry, presently known as the Jets.

Trying to get into the spirit of the enterprise, I came up with the Detroit Alarming Crime Statistics, which I readily acknowledge has little of the panache of the Tennessee Williams. I suggested further that, rather than the Tornados, the Kansas City Chiefs consider renaming themselves the Dorothies, though Claire’s idea would probably be slightly more intimidating to opponents.

What the heck. While we're here, how about the Seattle Coffeebeans, the Oakland Theres (honoring Gertrude Stein's famous putdown of the place, you see), the San Diego Illegal Aliens, the Arizona Cacti, the New Orleans Flood, the Atlanta Humidity, the Washington Special Interests, the Cincinnati Inbreds, the Minnesota Hypothermia, and the Buffalo Boredom.

I have in the past bored Claire to tears marveling at how several professional sports teams over the decades have moved to different cities without changing their names. For every Baltimore Ravens (wonderfully renamed in honor of the Edgar Allen Poe poem after they fled Cleveland, where they’d been the Browns, in the dead of night), there is, for instance, a Los Angeles Lakers. Lakers made a world of sense when the team originated in Minneapolis, the biggest city in a state with more lakes than people, but makes no sense at all in my semi-native LA, where there are no lakes whatever, unless you count the fantastically hip Silver Lake, which is actually no lake at all, but a man-made reservoir.

The city’s baseball team, the Dodgers, were originally the Trolley Dodgers, but by the time they relocated from Brooklyn before the 1958 season, there were no trolleys left in Los Angeles, the public transit system having been effectively dismantled at the behest of the oil and rubber companies and automobile manufacturers who stood to profit from its dismantlement. But my favorite absurd holdover is the Utah Jazz, who came from New Orleans, where the music was born, to the unfunkiest state in the country, one in which 1.32 percent of the population is black. It’s like having a team called the Las Vegas Understatements or the Tuscaloosa Urban Sophisticates.

In the UK, football (that is, soccer) teams wear jerseys that have their sponsors’ logos on the front. Thus, a fan (or, as they prefer it in the UK, supporter) of Chelsea, say, will pay bucks galore (all right, pounds aplenty) for the privilege of walking around with the Samsung logo across his chest. I can’t imagine why this concept hasn’t caught on yet in America. Just give it a couple of years.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

The Most Depressing Place in the Mediterranean [January 2006]

Sardinia is one of those Mediterranean destinations that’s comically cheap to visit during the winter (RyanAir will pay you 79p to let them fly you there, but no meal is served, and there’s a 20kg/person baggage allowance, and I was only joking about the first part) because no one in his right mind – or who wants to get away from Blighty’s arctic chill — would visit when vengefully frigid winds are still chasing budget-minded Brits and Germans with chattering teeth through the narrow streets of the picturesque Centro Storico, or Old Town.

When visiting any Italian destination, it is imperative to keep in mind that the whole country, islands and mainland alike, stops dead in its tracks every weekday afternoon at around 13.00. There is no more depressing experience available to the foreign visitor than to arrive in a new place half an hour after everything has shut down and everyone pissed off home. My bride and I – I, who live, but seem never to learn! -- managed exactly that when we took the bus down the coast to Bosa, which, on our arrival a few minutes before 14.00, seemed the most depressing place in the Mediterranean, if not on earth, with no sign of life anywhere.

Of course, the town’s desertedness might have been a blessing. The winding, narrow coastal road that links Alghero and Bosa had seemed to make our approximately 95-year-old driver imagine himself behind the wheel of a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti rather than an Iveco City Class CNG bus. Having spent the entire journey from Alghero gasping prayers and gripping our hand rests hard enough to render our knuckles translucent, we needed a few minutes to collect ourselves.

Once having done so, we then had three hours (the next bus back to Alghero wouldn’t leave until early evening) to wander the deserted streets wondering if Bosa would be where we would finally find the Holy Grail of refrigerator magnets, one both depicting Jesus and including a tiny thermometer guaranteed accurate to within 20 degrees Celsius.

No luck.

We visited the spectacular cave at Neptune’s Grotto. Because the boat doesn’t start operating until later in the year, we had to walk down 654 steps along the edge of a very steep cliff behind a tour guide in a Nike (that is, I Condone Slave Labour) baseball cap. He asserted in a Swiss German accent, the least lilting on earth, that the Grotto is even more spectacular than the Cheddar Caves in Somerset, and we had to concur. After our tour, we ascended the same 654 steps we’d only recently descended, and our quadriceps wailed in protest.

There isn’t an awful lot else to see in the environs of Albergho. As in other Italian locales, there are, nearly everywhere you look, quartets of old men sitting together mumbling into space, and graffiti, at which, given that their painters kick-started the Renaissance, the Italians are remarkably awful. Because I would prefer to live in a world with very much less American cultural imperialism, I was no more pleased to see Red Hot Chili Peppers and Korn artlessly spray-painted on the side of an ancient building in Alghero than I was to see Bon Jovi on the side of a hut in central Borneo last autumn. It is troubling and incomprehensible to me that a McDonald’s can apparently thrive in a city in which it was difficult to have a non-delicious meal, but I suppose I should be heartened by Pizza Hut’s absence.

I become woozy with pleasure at the memory of the pizza romana I was served at the Bella Napoli in Piazza Civica, the contageious melancholy of our server notwithstanding, but very nearly weep at the memory of my dinner at Trattoria Al Refetterio in nearby Vicola Adami. My spaghetti with sea urchins wasn’t better than sex, but it was as good, and my bride had to restrain me from trying to get into the kitchen at meal’s end to kiss the hands of the chef, a genius, a wizard, a superstar. It was her view that I would only embarrass everyone, and she is commonly right about such matters.

Leaving Borneo [October 2005]

When the immigration officer at Gatwick asked me how long we'd been gone, I'd told him, without trying to be funny, 10 years. It felt as though we'd spent around nine years on planes, as coming home from Borneo involved nothing more than a 90-minute flight from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur, a six-hour stay at KL's airport, a six-hour flight to Dubai, a two-hour layover at Dubai's airport, and a seven-hour flight from Dubai to London Gatwick. We intend to be recovered from our jet lag some time before the New Year.

We observed orangutans — mobs of 'em — in their native habitat. We rode up a very Apocalype Now river to longhouses inhabited by the indigenous Iban people, gave them gifts of festively packaged junk food (our guide's idea!), and danced with them — a fact that, thanks to the miracle of digital video, I am able to prove. We nearly swooned from the heat and humidity, and spent lots of time in air-conditioned rooms in the Kuching Hilton and Hilton Batang Ai Resort. At the former, I ate around £35 worth of smoked salmon every morning. Buffet, you see. I'd also get a couple of platefuls of tropical fruit, scrambled eggs, hash brown potatoes, teriyaki fish, fried noodles, and vegetable sushi, and washed down with freshly squeezed melon, watermelon, and carrot juice. I left with a 32-inch waist, and came home barely able to get through our front door.

Everywhere you turned, there was unbelievable food at extremely low prices, the problem being that, until it rained late every afternoon, it was too beastly out for turning; we became unhappily accustomed to the unnerving sensation of sweat dribbling between the cheeks of our bums. In the basement of a shopping mall, I found a sushi place where little dishes of my favorite food paraded past on a conveyor belt. For the equivalent of £3, I gorged myself. And we're talking very fresh, very delicious, and very unusual. Naturally, the missus, a vegetarian whose idea of exotic is Italian, was miserable. Indeed, when she saw what was on offer at the buttet the first night at Batang Ai, she snarled, "We might as well be in Poland," where she is famous for having subsisted on cabbage and potatoes for four days when she visited in the early 90s to view Europe's last surviving buffalo herd. I am not making any of this up.

Coming back by (inadequately air-conditioned) motor coach from Batang Ai, we stopped in an extremely Third World little backwater to put air in the tyres and use the toilets (virtually none of which was anything other than appalling, the ladies' reportedly being two inches deep in urine), and I espied a local in a bin Laden T-shirt. I asked our Malaysian Muslim tour guide Masri if the locals think highly of old Osama, and learned he's generally perceived as a friend of Islam, and highly preferable to George Bush. I bought myself a vile canned soft drink in which little bits of jelly seemed to be floating. An unnerving experience!

Masri was relentlessly informative. We learned, for example, that Malaysian motorists are taxed according to the size of their engines, that littering is a capital crime, and that the Chinese are not allowed to buy homes in the Malay sector. I was joking about littering, though, in the afternoon, grizzled persons with nets on poles collected debris and rubbish from the muddy, crocodile-laden Sarawak River. I wish the Richmond Council would institute a similar policy for the stretch of the Thames near which we live, as the locals seem to regard it as a good place into which to hurl empty plastic beverage bottles and the like.

I was disheartened to see Bon Jovi graffiti on the side of a hut near where we boarded the (motorised) canoes that took us to the Ibans, and horrified and incredulous to see a great many locals bypassing the glorious local food in favour of KFC and McDonald's. I kind of wished American basketball and British football hadn't been on TV. I much preferred music videos featuring what appeared to be Muslim boy bands in songkoks.

Our first Saturday night in Kuching, we went to an otherwise deserted (drag!) club called Cat City, where a group comprising six little Filipina foxes in inconceivably short leatherette skirts and platform boots, led by a boy who later told me that his idols are Tom Jones and Engelbert and that he himself was 35, were scheduled to perform. They were so delighted to have an audience that they all came over and shook our hands. They sang (phonetically!) such favourites as Tina Turner's Simply the Best and that horrid Ciccone woman's La Isla Bonita, all to the accompaniment of a Casio keyboard. Their choreography was ragged, and three of the little foxes couldn't get anywhere near their high notes. As you might expect, we adored them, to the tune of planning to go back the night we realised at the last possible second that we were actually expected on the bus back to Kuching Airport. Claire had hoped to promote their first British tour.

After having been out to the Ibans', there wasn't much to do at Batang Ai. One morning we went on a nature hike that involved traversing a flimsy suspension bridge high above the jungle. I found doing so considerably less terrifying than Malaysia Airlines' Flight 2526 from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Once back in our habitably cool room, I annotated the first draft of my novel-in-progress The Mona Lisa's Brother and read The Da Vinci Code while Claire, who'd ingested something that disagreed with her, devoured Bill Bryson's A Brief History of Nearly Everything. Later, I enjoyed playing one-on-one water polo in the swimming pool with a stiff upper lip British colonel type. It was the first time I've been able to throw right-handed repeatedly since I had my right shoulder surgically replaced ten years ago. He was remarkably spry for his age, and trounced me, though I bellowed a lot more exultantly at my few goals, this to the considerable displeasure of the corpulent Prussians arrayed around the pool.

We were surrounded by middleaged British couples, including a gay one that didn't seem to like me. As usual, I felt much younger than nearly everyone there, a rock fan among crooner fans. (While waiting in a restaurant (luscious black pepper squid, RM8, a Malaysian ringgit being worth about 16p/25¢) for one afternoon deluge to end, we heard Mr. Sinatra's really swinging version of Jim Croce's Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, which I believe to be one of the three worst pop songs ever composed) For the first time, I realised that I was probably actually older than about half of them.

Praying for Those Departed [January 25, 2007]

A few months back, while celebrating my own inability to suffer fools, it occured to me that he who’s proudest of such an incapacity is almost invariably the biggest fool of all. It's kept me underemployed through most of my adult life, dependent on the generosity of family and the kindness of strangers. In very large part because of my perennial lack of an income, I’ve suffered enough depression for half a dozen lifetimes. At one point in my life, of course, I thought the (self-) tortured syndrome was pretty chic and groovy. The last 25 years, though, as it’s grown ever more life-threatening, I’ve come to see the hopelessness and self-loathing at which I’ve always been so good as simply ugly and boring.

Now, as I approach 60, I’m desperate to be rid of them at last. As I write this, I’m going through one of my rare buoyant periods, during which I can not only recognise the wisdom of such advice as Try to see the glass as half full, but actually act on it. I need look no farther than the missus to know that I have been generously blessed. Even in my darkest moments I like to think that I will feel a duty to remain alive to praise the memory of those I have failed most egregiously. Every night I pray for my dad, my aunt and uncle, assuring them that their memory is a blessing to me. I like to imagine it would please them to know that they’re ovingly remembered. I like to imagine that, especially in the cases of my uncle, who killed himself at 35, and his elder sister, my aunt, who I believe to have been euthanised a year or two before that, it does please them, in a way that’s no less genuine because of my inability to conceive them. As that physicist mused on TV the other night, why is it so hard for us to imagine time going backward as well as "forward"?

We’ve just subscribed to yet another DVD-by-mail service, imagining that, because they’re in cahoots with my favourite daily newspaper, the unusually beautifully designed and left-leaning The Guardian (which, like the rest of the United Kingdom's newspapers, would prefer that I not contribute, thanks so much), they might be slightly less devious than the competition. Fat chance. Just like all the others, [Name Withheld] sends you all the most sought-after, recent stuff during your honeymoon period. Then, when they’ve got your credit card details, all you get is obscurities you can barely remember having added to your wish list -- and then only because [Name Withheld] sent you a succession of shrill emails reminding you to keep at least 350 films on your wish list, just in case they happened to be out of the stuff you really wanted to see. The Johnny Cash biopic, for instance, has been out on disk now for what…six months, and we still haven’t seen it.

Speaking of Cash, I’ve had it pretty much up to here with his posthumous deification. Mumble a Nine Inch Nails song in your mid-60s and the next thing you know, you’re looming large in the legend of a whole generation that had never heard of you before. I have reason to believe The Man in Black's heart was in the right place, and I revere Ring of Fire as much as the next fellow (not until I recorded the Mistress Chloe album with the missus in 2001 would such sublime backing vocals be heard again), but the whole Live at Folsom Prison business really annoys me. The whole event was meant to be an affirmation of the indomitable spirit of The Revolution or something -- we’re meant to believe, I think, that he was performing for political prisoners – victims of racism and Nixonian fascism – and the odd kid who’d been busted for dealing something spirtitually elevating, like pot or peyote. How about the rapists and murderers and arsonists and thieves and meth dealers and sociopaths — they were all asked to stay in their cells that night? And that roar of delight at the line about shooting someone just to watch him die! How not to find that very disconcerting indeed? One word to those who would romanticise sociopathy: Altamont.

Getting back to DVDs, ore and more of them seem to start with 15 minutes of commercials for upcoming, uh, releases, and very often there’s no skipping through them. And here the whole idea of renting movies, at least in my mind, was that they offered a more exalted experience than ordinary broadcast TV, with its relentless advertising.

I propose that, on a designated day, every subscriber to a DVD-by-mail service take a nail file to any rented DVD that starts off with unskippable advertising, and then send it back complainingt that the disk was defective. The [Name Withheld]s of the world then receive a flood of anonymous emails pointing out that the disks that lack or let you skip the advertising seem to be less prone to defect.

You want a revolution? I got some revolution for you right here.

Trust No One Over 35..In a Ramones T-Shirt [January 26, 2007]

Nothing could be less hip than something intended to confer hipness automatically. In the Summer of Love, I, in the long hair for which I'd had to suffer (threats and taunting, but still), I seethed with self-righteous indignation when teens in the backs of station wagons flashed the peace sign at me. Now, many years later, I hate persons of A Certain Age (I've Goggled it until my guitar calluses cracked and bled, and still been unable to discern the origin of this phrase; can anyone help?) wearing Ramones or Iggy Pop or CBGB's T-shirts as emblems of their inextinguishable young-at-heartness. If The Ramones' or Iggy's was the last music to change your life, your young-at-heartness was extinguished a long time ago, pal; you're every bit as with-it, arty, and cultured (43 years after the fact, I still can't stop quoting A Hard Day's Night) as your old man was in 1969 when, in his matching white plastic belt and loafers, he insisted through the smoke of his menthol cigarette that Al Martino was the living embodiment of Real Music.

I was joking about the calluses. I haven't any, having realised early on that I had no aptitude whatever for stringed instruments (an ineptitude that sharp-earred listeners to my recent recordings will surely notice). But the other day at the gym, it dawned on me how it must feel for someone with genuine aptitude to realise he or she has it. I was on the Seated Leg Press machine, the only one in sight on which I'm likely to impress anybody, and decided to see if I could max it out -- do the exercise with the greatest resistance possible. I strained. I strained. I strained. And damned if the 335 pounds didn't ascend. It occurred to me that the sensation was probably very much like that a good musician experiences at some point in his early development. He tries to play something tricky, and his fingers rebel. He tries to play something tricky, and his fingers rebel. He tries to play something tricky, and plays it. And thinks to himself, "Whoa, I can do this."

It isn't a pleasure I've known often in my life.

It's All Downhilll From Here [February 10, 2007]

It’s occurred to me the last several mornings that my day never gets nearly as good again as within the first few minutes of waking, that, in terms of sheer, pleasure, nothing for the next 16 hours will even begin to compare to lying there semiconscious beside the missus in the heavenly warmth of our bed. I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since I had my right shoulder replaced in 1995, and they put me on a morphine drip. When doctors and nurses periodically stormed in to breezily demand, “How we doing?” (isn’t it heartening how recovery is always a team effort?), I, feeling as though sinking slowly, ever sinking, into a big warm cloud, would invariably sigh, “Never felt better.” I suspect they thought I was being sarcastic, but every syllable was true.

As noted in an earlier entry, I’m trying with all my might to train myself to see the glass as half full. My revelling in the sublime comfort of our bed suggests that I might be making some progress, Not so long ago I’d have gnashed my remaining teeth and tortured myself thinking that I wouldn’t be able to so revel if it weren’t for my unemployability.

As recently as the spring of 2000, I was earning the equivalent of £40K per annum not designing Websites for the San Francisco office of a multinational consulting firm – not designing them not because of any recalcitrance on my part, you understand, but because the big multinational consulting firm had hired a Web design team expecting that they’d be able to keep it very much busier than was actually the case. I spent most of my days alienating my immediate supervisor, of course, and exchanging emails with the missus, though at that point she was just someone in whom I confided ever more profoundly in emails. We hadn’t even met face to face yet.

Within a few months of moving to the outskirts of London, whose editors I’d wrongly supposed would trample one another trying to offer me commissions, I was applying for a minimum-wage job at an off-licence (that is, wine-seller) in Teddington just to try to keep my boredom and feelings of uselessness at bay. My application was unsuccessful (at this time) because of my lack of experience. I later applied to become a bus driver, and for my trouble received a nice letter from the transport company advising that they didn’t want me, and were under no obligation to explain why.

At least they didn’t say "at this time,” a phrase that to me is like the squeaking of Styrofoam (that is, the worst sound in the world). It is always — always! — intended to mislead. I’ve received around 4 million emails in this country advising me that my application for employment has been unsuccessful at this time, from which I suppose I’m meant to infer that if I try again in a few months, the outcome might be very different – this in spite of my having not even been invited in for an interview, let alone made it onto The Short List.

Don’t start me talking, as Mr. C crooned. I could talk all night.

How many times over the course of my non-career has a might-have-been employer told me, lying through their corporate teeth, that they’d like, assuming it’s all right with me, to keep my details on file? Just to amuse myself, I have taken in my old age to always replying, “No, you most certainly may not! I would appreciate my details’ immediate return.” But not a single might-have-been employer has yet emailed back a copy of that remarkable work of fiction, my CV.

In Praise of Older Women (In Contempt of Younger Men) [January 31, 2007]

31 January 2007 |

Beauty changes as you get older. A lot of the little blonde hotties I know would have got my private parts all engorged with blood (yet another self-reference, you see — my 2002 song Love Lumbered In begins, “You get my private parts all engorged with blood,” which I prefer to imagine to be that rarest thing in Western popular music, a unique expression of lust) do nothing at all for me. I can see the small imperfections in their momentarily taut, unlined faces, and anticipate how the years will amplify them. I can’t recall the last time the cover of any of the so-called bloke’s magazines inspired me to do anything other than snort with derision. And I will admit that seeing GQ cover stories on the likes of Lindsay fucking Lohan takes just a wee bit of the sting out of the fact that their media darling editor, could never be troubled to respond to any of the many query letters I sent him, even when they contained mentions of mutual acquaintances who’d encouraged me to invoke them. Would I want to write for a men’s magazine that would put a 20-year-old dimwit with implants on its cover? (Yes, you’re quite right: of course I would.)

Truth be told, I’ve come to feel more and more lately that you can’t accurately judge the beauty of a woman much younger than 40, before which nature grants a whole raft of concessions. The beauty of a beautiful woman over 40 seems more deserved somehow, more genuine.

I’ve come to understand further that it isn’t necessarily self-neglect that ruins the physiques of men in late middle age. Take me (please!). The mind is willing, to the tune of my going to the gym six days a week, but the body resists. After a year on the Nautilus machines, I recently began to work with free weights, and oh, what a price I paid, feeling as though a spike were being driven into my right shoulder, the one so precociously arthritic as to have to be surgically replaced in 1995. So it’s back to the machines, though everyone’s agreed that they make for a much less gorgeous physique. Ditto with running. God, how I used to love it when I lived in West Hollywood and Santa Monica; there’s absolutely no antidote to depression to match it. But for me to run at my present advanced age would be to ask to feel as though the nail were being driven into my left knee or ankle, both operated on so fruitlessly a couple of years after my stainless steel shoulder was installed.

During my short flirtation with free weights, don’t imagine I failed to notice how the lips of the gym’s 24-year-old regulars curled with disdain at the sight of how little I was lifting. They clearly feel, as I used to, that becoming middleaged or older is what happens to the unforgivably uncool. I get some small satisfaction from the realisation that the sexpots at my junior high school who didn’t know I was alive are all close to 60 themselves now, but none from the realisation that that the sneering 24-year-olds at the gym will one day have arthritis, male pattern baldness, and receding gums of their own. I won’t be around to see it, you see, and doesn’t the world begin and end with Johnny?

Choosing the Laughter [2 February 2007]

At last week’s group therapy, Young Chef (he and I were the only ones to turn up) revealed how furious he’s made by his mum and stepdad advising him to Just Get On With It (life, that is) rather than allowing himself to be ravaged by the memory of his biological dad brutalising him while Mum pretended it wasn’t happening.

I know the feeling. As one who’s been depressive since around age seven, I’ve always wanted to shriek at anyone urging me to see the glass as half full. “Don’t you fucking think I fucking would if I fucking could?”

But damned if I didn’t hear myself noting that brilliant advice lurked inside Mum and Stepdad’s impatience and seeming lack of empathy. One does indeed have to pull his socks up, as the Brits say, stiffen his upper lip, and Get On With It. Things look very different when you’re sane.

As I’ve been the past six weeks or so. I’m not quite sure how I got to this place of feeling able to fight my demons off, though I’m positive it’s nothing to do with Prozac, since I quit taking it several weeks ago. My best guess is that sometimes I just get so fed up aching all the time, finding absolutely everything in the world painful, that I begin to ascend in spite of myself. That’s very much what happened on Xmas Day 2000, as it became increasingly clear that I would neither see nor even hear the voice of my then-16-year-old daughter, though she was domiciled (with her mother, my first wife) only a couple of miles away. By around noon, the pain had become nearly overwhelming. I thought, of course, of ending it all, but then, thank God, suddenly recognised with great clarity that the whole thing was in my hands – that I really could, if I took a deep breath and kicked myself smartly in the arse, choose to enjoy my day in spite of what life was hurling at me. I set about writing the most optimistic song in my canon — or, more accurately, letting it write itself, an experience I’d had only once before, glowing with pride as I wrote, among enough other verses to have made the song 10 minutes long:

The water gets murky sometimes
but I can refuse to drown
Gazing into the mirror
I can stare my accuser down
Any day you can nearly die laughing
or curl up and ache with despair
I choose the laughter
I accept life’s dare

I find that my natural vindictiveness, of which I’ve so often been advised to rid myself, can actually be an asset in this regard. As I will point out to Young Chef at next Monday, when we live in barely endurable anguish, we’re very much letting our tormentors win. Young Chef can most eloquently bellow Fuck you at his dad’s memory by being happy.

I’ll note in closing that, while I never forget a slight, I never cease to cherish a kindness either, to the tune of sending my first wife, for whom I have few but the least tender feelings, an email last May telling her that I hadn’t forgotten my birthday in Siena in 1982. She’d bought me a variety of Coca-Cola-related gifts (I collected between 1971 and 2002) in the Italian cities we’d visited the preceding two weeks, and lugged them around with her from place to place, never letting me glimpse them. As all the shops closed, as they do, maddeningly, early every afternoon in Italy, I went for a birthday passagiatta while she donned the sorts of garments a fellow wants to see his bride in on his birthday (and at all other times), pulled the curtains of our little pensione room, and lighted candles. After our fervent birthday lovemaking, she directed my attention to where she’d carefully laid out my array of presents, all artfully gift-wrapped. (She’d studied art in college.) All these years later, it still makes me mist up a bit to recall how loved I felt that afternoon.

The Case for Elitism [February 4, 1997]

Someone famous (albeit not quite famous enough to be linkable with his or her quote by Google in 2007) apparently once observed that the public is a pig.

Apologies, I think, to the pig.

The Brits, among whom I have resided for nearly five years now, would prefer to imagine that they are less swinish than Americans, but one need only stroll along the Thames between our home in Ham and Kingston, where I think Eric Clapton attended art school, to see that English swinishness takes some beating. The riverbank is absolutely strewn with litter --- empty Lucozade and Coke bottles, plastic carry-bags, crisps bags, and the inevitable, uh, fag butts. (The world is their ashtray!) In the actual Thames, Her Majesty’s swans glide gracefully among hideous plastic flotsam. It makes you want to cry, or to pull your own hair out.

Or to pull out the hair (if not vital organs) of the local litterers. Wait a few minutes for a bus in Kingston and you’ll see half a dozen teens asserting their burgeoning masculinity, openly disdaining the notion of anyone as hard (in American English: tough) as they being constrained by the rules before which others cower, by blithely letting their KFC boxes and Burger King cups and wrappers fall where they stand.

And the boys, as Bob Hope would surely have said, aren’t much better. Ta-da-DUM!

Last year, while unsuccessfully trying to pitch an idea for a TV documentary series called Rubbish!, I came up with the idea that every resident of the UK should be issued three plastic bottles, and that all beverages should, after a certain date, be sold from the tap. Lose your bottles; die of thirst. This, I thought, might substantially cut down on the amount of plastic flotsam fighting it out with the swans. Also, since savourers of fast and junk food seem by far the most prolific litterers (I cannot recall having glimpsed even one Tesco’s Finest container in the woods across the road from our little house), it seems to me that such food should be taxed very heavily, to enable the local councils to hire enough cleaners to pick it all up. A Big Mac and a Coke, sir? That’ll be £27.30.

Which, of course, isn’t that much more than it is already.

I have often wondered how many person-hours are wasted each year in the production of signs, made to be displayed in shop windows, reading Now Open. If such signs were simply to decree Open, would passers-by scratch their heads and mumble confusedly to themselves, “I wonder if that means right now, or at quarter past eight this evening, or next July.”

Oh, I’m so much cleverer (in American: smarter) than everyone else, aren’t I?

Several years ago, outside a big do in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park sponsored by Absolut, I was trying to get the attention of people to whom I hoped to hand flyers advertising a performance of my scripted sketch comedy troupe, The San Francisco Hysterical Society. I found that bellowing, “Absolut vodka shown to cause intoxication in mice!” got lots of people turned round smirking. Disdaining the flyer I tried to hand him, though, one not so easily duped snorted, “Well, duh!” One apparently had to get up a lot earlier in the morning than I had to fool this, uh, dude. Whom I recognised a few weeks later at my local polling place, where he was accorded exactly as many votes as I, prodigiously clever though I yam.

I say all this by way of prefacing my admission that I have lost my faith in democracy, especially as it’s practised in America. I have quietly believed this since George W Bush was re-elected in 2004, and came to believe it even more passionately after seeing The Guardian’s online coverage of last November’s midterm elections. I acknowledge the possibility that the filmmakers were probably tacitly encouraged to depict as many geeks and yahoos (both in the pre-digital sense) as possible to make Guardian readers feel all lovely and warm and superior, but still. The rampant stupidity of most of these people – including those who were going to do the only sensible thing and vote against the Republicans, mind you – made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

And now today’s entry’s money shot: I can’t bear the thought of having exactly as many votes as the guy in Golden Gate Park, or some Dairy Queen waitress in Fungus, Nebraska, who regards George W Bush as a rilly, rilly great man, and am hoping that someone can explain why the vote shouldn’t be reserved for those who have a rudimentary grasp of history and political science. Can’t say which Middle Eastern country is largely subsidised by America, to the intense displeasure of its neighbours? Can’t identify the country in Southeast Asia in which America was involved in a controversial war in the 60s and 70s? Can’t identify the martyred leader of the American civil rights movement? On your bike, pal.

Martyred. Controversial. I was only trying to see if you were paying attention. Minimise bias by having the prospective voter’s test devised by people from across the political spectrum. And don’t dare tell me that’s impossible, that even Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky, say, couldn’t agree on the neutralness of a question like Iraq in the 90s was involved in a long war with its neighbour (a) Venezuela, (b) Kenya, (c) Iran, or (d) North Korea. I’m not talking about needing a BA in Poli Sci here, but about having slightly greater socio-political sophistication than that of an empty Lucozade bottle.

Absent this change, it will continue to be less and less about what a candidate believes in, or even about his or her character, and all about how much money he or she has to spend on television advertising, and the deftness (and ruthlessness) of the ad agencies he or she hires. (Have you no decency left, sir, indeed!) In many areas of life, we all recognise that the only ones who come out ahead in the end are the lawyers. Well, in this, it’s only the image consultants and ad agencies who come out ahead, and just marginally at that, since they have to live in the world they’ve helped create.

Speaking of character, I gnash my teeth at its mere mention in regard to political candidates. If someone’s an effective politician, and committed to decriminalising drugs, say, or implementing free universal health care, why should it matter if she enjoys looking at photographs of men with hairy backs, has deficient personal hygiene, or loathes cats?

Oh, yes, yes, it would cost an awful lot of money putting in place a system to disenfranchise those whose IQs are lower than the air pressure in their tyres. Probably a few bucks less than the war in Iraq, though.

The Devil She Knew [February 15, 2007]

Hoping not to be slaughtered in a pogrom, Celia Kaufman’s family brought her to Minnesota from the environs of Odessa, Russia, sometime around the turn of the last century. By age 20, she’d married her cousin John Ned Kaufman and had my mother, the first of her four children, one of whom died in infancy.

The Kaufmans were pretty nearly penniless through the first two-thirds of their marriage. They commonly had to vacate rented premises in the dead of night to elude impatient landlords to whom they owed more money than they had. They came out to Los Angeles in the ‘30s and opened a diner in what is now the heart of the barrio. I have no more clear an idea of what drew them to LA than what had made their immigrant parents trudge nearly halfway across the American continent, rather than pitching their tents in New York’s Lower East Side, for instance. I do know that the diner failed and that they were soon on their way back to the Midwest.

Being a penniless failure at everything he touched apparently made John Ned Kaufman an angry man, one commonly carried home bloody and semi-conscious from brawls. But then, right after Prohibition was rescinded, as I understand it, he made a quick fortune in wholesale liquor, and moved his family to the swankiest part of Minneapolis that would have Jews. His three children attended the same high school as the Andrews Sisters. He was dead at 42.

Celia Kaufman was effectively my only grandmother. My paternal grandmother, Rose Bishop (presumably the over-anglicised version of her real surname), the daughter of Latvian immigrants, had made an enemy for life of my mother when, right after their marriage, my parents lived briefly with my dad’s parents. My mother had fewer and fewer compunctions as the years went on about telling me what a jerk my dad was, and never had any at all about assuring me that Grandma Rose didn’t deserve my affection.

Not that I was crazy about having to go over to Gram’s (as I called Celia). Her younger daughter, the gorgeous Doris, had developed a crippling psychosomatic condition (and had a child out of wedlock, I think) before I was born. Doris’s and my mother’s kid brother Marty, the eventual suicide, kept to himself. Gram and my mother spent the whole of our every visit speaking ill of their mutual acquaintances, my mother very much more energetically. I lay on the floor reading Gram’s Readers Digests while they ridiculed and reviled, reviled and ridiculed — and then argued heatedly about money. My mother would invariably have brought something or other for Gram, who would try to insist on paying her back for it. It went on for hours. There was no perceptible trace of affection between them.

When I began university I went over to Gram’s to study a few times. She was invariably delighted to have me. I visited her occasionally in early adulthood, and divined that the biggest part of her identity as a Jew was paranoia. The Yiddish I heard her and my parents lapsing into for a couple of syllables at a time every now and then was apparently a dialect of their own invention; no Yiddish speaker I’ve ever met knows any of the words I remember them using. She got it into her head that Jane Fonda was anti-Israel (it was actually Vanessa Redgrave who’d spoken out against Zionism), and I couldn’t change her mind.

I didn’t make much secret of the fact that I found visiting her rather a chore. She often rewarded me anyway with a package of delicious homemade blintzes and knishes. Savouring them, I’d resolve to try to be more patient with her, more solicitous. By the next time I saw her, my resolution would have ebbed away.

She got Alzheimer’s. My mother moved her into a nursing home not far from my last home in Los Angeles. Visiting, I found her frightened and confused. She took her empty handbag with her everywhere, and seemed to believe she was in legal trouble. She would ask, tremulously, what she’d done to be put in “this place”. I found it heartbreaking, and my visits became less and less frequent.

The last time I saw her, she was in a snake pit of a convalescent hospital in Santa Monica. I was visiting another resident of the place -- my dad, who’d had his stroke by then, and ceased to be able to walk.

Always expecting a catastrophe, my mother wouldn’t “let” him come home from the hospital. Throughout my boyhood, we only ever patronised one restaurant, the Chatam on Westwood Blvd, not because it was any good, but because my mother felt that it made more sense to be assured of a mediocre meal than to risk a worse one, and my dad couldn’t bring himself to challenge her. In the late 80s, when she and my dad finally got around, after 25 years, to landscaping their back yard, they hired a landscaper with whom several of the neighbours had had problems.

There was no breaking the devil-she-knew’s stranglehold on my mother. It only made sense that she’d stick my dad in with my grandmother. Forget how it must have demoralised him, being surrounded by patients his mother-in-law's age.

Gram looked bedraggled and completely befuddled that last time I saw her, and I, already in considerable emotional disrepair from my visit with my dad, thought trying to chat would be to open a can of worms probably best left sealed.
I can’t begin to calculate the shame I’ve suffered as a result of that decision.

Of course, it pales in comparison to having allowed my dad to die in that snake pit. Yes, yes, it was my parents’ decision, rather than my own. But I should have intervened. I knew full well that my dad was no more capable of spending an extra dime on himself than I was of waterskiing on the ceiling. I wheeled him over to other places (my mother’s unflinching expectation of catastrophe precluded his actually coming home; what would happen, in view of his incapacity, if there were a fire or something?), but even the cheapest was a few bucks per month more than the snake pit. My dad had never played golf, which he loved, on anything other than the most threadbare public course. He’d denied himself even a small lathe when, in early retirement, he discovered he enjoyed pottery. And he was intent on dying exactly as he’d lived, with minimal fiscal consequences.

But this is meant to be about Celia Kaufman. You have to wonder about the parenting skills of one whose sanest child was my mother. Did she fail to defend them from John Ned in the days of his pennilessness and implacable rage? Was she in considerable part responsible for my mother's inability to live happily in the world -- and thus, responsible iin smaller part for my own incapacities? (It is my bitter experience that, no matter how hard and how consciously we may try to protect our children from the horrors to which we were ourselves exposed, we invariably wind up replicating some of them. I can easily picture my Brigitte being no less miserable accompanying me to visit my mother in her sheltered housing in Santa Rosa every Friday afternoon after school than I'd been reading Readers Digest while my mother and her own dished and dished.) I nonetheless cherish Celia Kaufman's memory, and hope every night that somewhere in space and time my loving thoughts will somehow find and cheer her.

Fields of Play [February 17, 2007]

Watching television, I very often find myself thinking that I’m very much funnier than whoever wrote what I’m watching, even though I haven’t even had an agent since I parted paths with that numbskull who was excited about the prospect of optioning my Kate Bush book to a producer who had in a development a biopic about the celebrated American actor Judge Reinhold. I’m not making this up. Looking at the Websites of prospective employers, I commonly expect that they’ll be on the phone to me within minutes of my responding to their advertisement for a designer, pleading with me to join them. As a songwriter, I think of myself as consistently combining more agile, inventive melodies with more sophisticated, expressive lyrics than nearly anyone else I can think of. And not since 1979, when my former best friend’s little New Wave foursome added I’m Going to Jump to its live repertoire, has anyone else seemed to concur.

I worry that I may continue to suffer from my weird childhood sense of entitlement, which went something like this: if I wanted something with all my might, wasn’t it only fair that it should be ceded to me? Though I was dismal at them, I adored sports, and desperately yearned for aptitude. Wishing (and practising until there was no daylight left by which to practise) didn’t make it so, but I was forever pointing out the world’s unfairness to me. When I was 14, I went out for Colt League baseball. Sixteen boys were vying for 15 available uniforms. When I was the one urged to spend the summer doing something else, I railed shrilly against the unfairness of another boy who couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield having been chosen instead of me.

I think back to that experience with even more embarrassment than that which most of my other boyhood experiences evokes. I tried to compensate for my inability to get the ball out of the infield by being the most spirited boy (temporarily) on the team.Tradition dictates that it is the infielders who chant their encouragement to the pitcher, but there was little (very little at the time, mind you) Johnny Mendelsohn out in right field hollering to be heard from deepest right field. I remember the pitcher looking out at me in what may well have been disgust or embarrassment; I was too far away to see, of course.

Same thing happened when I abandoned my dreams of playing second base for the Dodgers or shooting guard for the Lakers and decided instead to be a rock star. I was approximately as good at drumming as I’d been at hitting a fastball, but bristled with indignation whenever anybody pointed it out. Couldn’t they see how much I wanted it?

And then it got even worse, as I allowed myself to be coaxed (not by the others in the band, certainly, but by one of our endless succession of managers) to the fore, to the role of lead singer. I’m a worse singer than I was a drummer, but when anyone arched their eyebrows at me, or put their palms over their ears, I would righteously invoke such much-beloved stars with pitch no more reliable than my own as Ray Davies and Mick Jagger and Lou Reed and Neil Young. Very much the same logic, you see, as when I bewailed another boy’s having been awarded the last of the Colt League team’s uniforms not because I was any good, but because others were nearly as rotten.

One of the principal (and very, very, very few) pleasures of getting older is reconciling yourself to who you really are. It’s taken the fiction of Ian McEwan to give me hope that I may no longer suffer from my earlier sense of entitlement. I read it and laugh aloud at the memory of having ever thought of myself as a writer. There is no level on which he isn’t so superior as to seem to be writing in a different, much more expressive language. And for once I see it!

But back, if you please, to the field of play, where my triumphs have been so few that I savour the memory of feats a less clumsy boy would have forgotten within 45 seconds. At 15, I scored in Orville Wright Junior High School’s annual 9th grade all-stars vs. faculty all-stars game. (If they showed up reliably enough for after-school intramural sports, and did their share of officiating, even boys whose specialty was dribbling off their own feet, such as I, were included on the team, on which everyone was required to be allowed to play, at least briefly.) Late in the game, our coach, sighing from deep in his bowels, probably praying that none of my teammates would pass me the ball, put me in. I was loitering under our basket, praying to be spared humiliation, when a teammate’s shot bounced off the front of the rim into my hands. I looked around frantically for someone to saddle with the awful responsibility of figuring out what to do next, but my teammates were all otherwise engaged. I tossed the ball up. It bounced off the backboard and dropped down through the hoop. Our centre, the precociously tall (6-4, and bigger than any of the teachers!) Somebody Thomas, marvelled, “Way to go, John!” I nearly swooned.

Sometime that same year, some of us boys were playing basketball at a sportsnite, as Orville Wright’s weekly dances were called, for reasons that no one knew. (What a concept: Get all sticky with sweat playing hoops while working up the nerve to ask a girl in the other room to slow-dance with you to Percy Faith’s A Summer Place or Mr. Acker Bilk’s Strangers on the Shore.) Two alpha boys assumed their natural roles as captains, and took turns picking the other eight of us for their respective teams. Picking me eighth, Mr. Jim Bristow took pains to blurt my name almost before the other captain could intone that of the seventh player drafted, making it seem as though he were eager to have me -- an act of gallantry and kindness for which I have wanted to thank him for nearly 45 years.

And now I have.

Remembering Martin Jerome Kaufman [February 7, 2007]

That he was the son of my namesake John Ned Kaufman and Celia Kaufman probably meant that my uncle Marty was doomed to be damaged, as my mother, their eldest surviving child, certainly was. John Ned was a brawl-prone ne'er-do-well who commonly moved his family out of rented premises in the dead of night to avoid having to come up with the rent, but when Marty was probably around 10, John Ned suddenly made a fortune as a liquor wholesaler. The family didn't have to move anywhere under cover of darkness anymore, and had nice furniture (lots of which survived into own childhood, some of which, since re-upholstered, now belongs to my sister). But there is no evidence that wealth made any of them any happier, though I know my mother, who'd once been sent home from elementary school for smelling bad (the Kaufmans apparently couldn't afford hot water for baths) to have revelled in her ability to dress very modishly, a fact celebrated in her high school yearbook. John Ned was dead at 42. I never met him.

In the drawer of the elegant coffee table that survived into my childhood, my grandmother kept a photo album in which Marty was seen, hand-coloured, walking through the woods and enjoying archery with John Ned, but my mother said my grandfather never had a moment for any of his three children, that never was heard an encouraging word in their household.

In his late 20s, Marty studied psychology at Loyola University in Los Angeles, still lived with my grandmother, and apparently suffered fierce depressions. The medication his psychiatrist prescribed made him an inattentive driver, and he was in a terrible accident, after which he lost part of his chin and the use his right hand. He sued the psychiatrist and lost. The depressions got worse. Feeling– quite wrongly – that the accident had left him too hideous for decent folk to have to see, he became ever more reclusive, eventually persuading my grandmother to relocate to the desolate Antelope Valley. He discovered and fell in love with the fiction of Thomas Wolfe, and set about becoming a writer himself. Having read that Wolfe was fantastically demanding as a teacher, Marty jeopardised our relationship by demanding an awful lot of me. I'd just won the creative writing prize two years in a row at my junior high school, and didn't think there was much anyone could teach me.
He was funny. He invented a comical form of speech that my sister and I, when we're not pissed off at one another, use to this day. He distorted words for comic effect, pronouncing little, for instance, as yiggle. I named my first production company Yiggle. He beat me mercilessly at chess. I became fascinated with abnormal psychology looking through his textbooks.

He tried to kill himself with an overdose of barbituates. Los Angeles County General Hospital emergency room doctors managed to resuscitate him. Encouraged by my mother, I, 15 years old and expert on how everyone should behave (yes, yes, as I remain), wrote him a letter cruelly castigating him for his selfishness. Didn't he realise how much he'd hurt Gram and my mother? I shudder at the memory of my presumptuousness, which, to his enormous credit, he didn't hold against me.

They moved to an even more desolate part of the Antelope Valley, but my grandmother couldn't bear it anymore, and returned with him to West LA. He took pains to walk his dog only very late at night and very early in the morning, when it was least likely anyone would catch sight of his truncated chin and throw up in revulsion. He sent his short stories to everyone he could think of. Nobody published anything.
He squirreled away enough meds for another overdose. My grandmother found him too late this time. He was trying to make handwritten additions to his carefully typed letter of farewell, a letter of rare viciousness and palpable agony, to the very end. When I saw the letter a few years later, and saw how his handwriting became ever less legible, I burst into tears` imagining him trying to strike out with the last of his strength at a world that had hurt him so grievously. When I first learned about his death, though – my sister, then around eight, told me, "Marty died," as I arrived home from high school -- I was the very picture of tough-guy taciturnity. "Yeah, so?" I was in an awful lot of pain of my own. And that's no excuse at all.

And don't imagine that I learned anything. Almost 30 years later, when my dad died, my mother asked me to phone my cousin, whom I wouldn't know if I sat next to him on a bus, to tell him the news. He said how sad the news made him, in view of what a great guy Uncle Gil had been. I vigorously refuted him.

Can there be any question that if anyone has ever deserved to be self-loathing, it's me?

I'm further ashamed of myself for having lost track of what happened to Marty's stories, of which I only ever read a couple. (At 15, I found them off-puttingly self-conscious and laboured; it might very well be that I missed something). It'll only be poetic justice if all the unpublished work I'll leave behind gets lost.
I like to imagine it might please Marty to know that someone cherishes his memory 43 years after his death. God knows there wasn't much pleasure in his actual life.

Another Intellectual Thug [17 February 2007]

I recounted a few days ago how, 45 years after the fact, I remain grateful to Mr. Jim Bristow, then of Los Angeles 45 (this was before the ZIP Code!), for seeming eager to have me on his team for an impromptu basketball game at my junior high school. Nearly 40 years after the fact, I remain siimilarly beholden to Mr. Ralph Oswald, now one of the pre-eminent piano tuners in the Rockies, then the guitarist in Christopher Milk, for never sneering at my drumming. And even as we speak I am grateful to my occasional tennis opponent and friend Mr. Rod McD—, of Richmond, Surrey, for never rolling his eyes in exasperation when I hit yet another backhand off my own ankle when we play tennis, for always complimenting me for any deft play, for always downplaying his own. I appreciate that it’s a graciousness borne of the incontestability of his being around 4000 times better than I, but I cherish it no less for that.

We met, Rod and I, while walking our (that is, his and the missus's) dogs in the Ham Lands, right across the road from where I and the missus live, a couple of hundred metres from where his own house has one more storey than our own, and a Mercedes parked in front. As I understand it, the Lands were a flood plain for the Thames until the authorities decided to fill them with rubble removed from the East End of London after the Luftwaffe stopped bombing it. They are now, between my birthday (12 May) and the beginning of July, nearly the death of me, as they spew a prodigious amount of pollen, most of which I’m majorly allergic to. And this a country that doesn’t believe in desensitising injections, which have worked wondrously for me in California!

At the time of our first meeting, the Lands were a gigantic bog from the rains, and Rod, in the sort of attire one might wear to walk his dog in inclement weather, looked fairly disreputable. But he was very friendly, and even remarked on my accent (or, more accurately, lack of an accent, but let’s not split hairs), the small satisfaction of which most of the British populace denies me. (Who among us, having gone to the trouble and expense of moving 6000 miles, wouldn’t prefer to be perceived, if not exotic, at least as interesting?) Season 6 of The Sopranos was finally about to be shown in this country, and I asked, in that arch way of mine, if he were excited. He confided that he left the TV-watching in his household mostly to his loud, opinionated Eastern Eurpopean girlfriend, and that he generally preferred the pleasures of reading. Sinc the month before in Tenerife, I’d been reading insatiably myself, as I continue to. I slipped into the conversation that I myself am an author. I left out the part about Waiting for Kate Bush being one of the two most detested books offered on, but he still wasn’t much impressed. You can’t have everything. He amazed me by telling me that he loved his life, even though he finds being a lawyer specialising in telecom contracts pretty dull. At the time we met, I passionately loathed most of my own life.

We played tennis, for which we’d discovered a mutual affection. He murdered me. He murdered me slightly less after insisting I try one of his spares, rather than the Head racquet I got for Christmas in 1976. In early 1977 I once served four successive aces with it, making Mr. Ralph Oswald so angry that he stormed off the court without saying goodbye, but having an artificial right shoulder turned out to have reduced my 21st century serve to a source of great embarrassment. My backhand looks up to my serve. But still Rod invited me and the missus over for dinner.

It was delicious; Rod’s good at everything. The dogs frolicked. There was much laughter. I didn’t feel that either I or the missus had tonnes in common with his 24-year-old Lithuanian girlfriend, who was indeed obnoxious, but it seemed to me that a reasonably splendid time was nonetheless had by all. In this, I was apparently mistaken; she effectively forbade him to have anything more to do with us. and too to snarling at the missus when they encountered one another on the soggy Lands.

He defied her. We went to dinner a couple of times. He told me about his history of brawling, reminding me of my former friend M. Fitzgerald, quoted in this journal’s masthead; another intellectual thug, you see. Rod observed that I didn’t seem the sort to walk away from a confrontation myself. It might have been the nicest thing anyone other than the missus said to me in 2006. (I have long hated my reflexive walking away from confrontations, even though I’ve come to recognise that could hardly have been otherwise. Rod grew up in a family of four brothers, the son of a brawler. I grew up smothered and over-protected from my extremely submissive father by a mother who was domineering only with him; I knew what bullying was, but had no idea what somebody’s standing up for himself looked like. 'Tis my impression that his distaste for my disinclination to lliterally butt heads is chiefly responsible for my and M. Fitzgerald's estrangement.)

I had come to regard Rod as The Nicest Guy in the World even before he purported to love my unpublished 2005 novel The Mona Lisa’s Brother, and continue to so regard him even though he apparently hasn’t read my unpublished 2000 novel The Total Babe and Other Wine Country Yarns, which I (who can never be praised enough) hurriedly attached to an email several months back when he said he liked TMLB. I have managed to forgive him for offhandedly scoffing, “You’d never keep up, mate!” after I suggested I come along on one of his late-afternoon bicycle rides around Richmond Park. It turns out that he sprints, and the fact of his umbilical cord having been snipped around the time I was graduating from university was bound sooner or later to have reared its ugly head. I believe I may have succeeded in training him not to apologise when one of his serves nearly takes my arm off. He gave me a book about the teachings of the Dalai Lama for Christmas, and some of it seems to have sunk in.

I am blessed by his friendship, as by that of others whom I will write about here. I am blessed. I am blessed. I am blessed.

Punching Myself in the Face [February 20, 2007]

When it comes to things about which I feel great regret and shame, it’s very much pick a card, any card. Name a subject at random, and within 10 seconds I’ll have tied it to a painful memory.

Take cards, since we’ve already mentioned them. My daughter Brigitte has (or at least had, up until five years ago) a dry, fairly acidic sense of humour much like my own. Several years ago she and I and my girlfriend/her de facto stepmom Nancy and I went for a look-around at UC Cal, and wound up, because Brigitte wanted a sweatshirt depicting the campus’s bear mascot, in their campus store. She spotted some in a corner of the store – all in little kids’ sizes. “Well,” she sighed triumphantly, sorting through those that might have fit a two-year-old and moving on to those for their three-year-old siblings, “now all I need is to find my size.” I laughed so hard I thought campus police would be summoned to escort me off campus.

Not long thereafter, we went to visit my mother after I picked Brigitte up from school. My mother had got hold of a carton of oragne juice that had mysteriously exploded when she opened it. (Can you blame her for her catastrophic expectations? (Yes!)) She’d told me about it on the phone, and I’d relayed the information to Brigitte on our way over. When we walked in, Brigitte picked up the orange juice carton on the counter and quite seriously mused, “So this would be the offending orange juice?” I laughed so hard I could barely breathe.

But I don’t laugh remembering how, seeing that Nancy had left a deck of cards out, I asked Brigitte one Saturday afternoon when she was around 10 if she wanted to learn a new card game called 52 Pickup. She said sure. I tossed the deck of cards in the air. They fell all around us. “OK,” I said. “Pick ‘em up.”

I thought she’d smirk at me censoriously in that way those of us with acidic senses of humour do at one another. Instead, she burst into tears and wailed, “I’m so embarrassed.” I felt like two cents waiting for change.

I took her to Disneyland alone when she was around four, and insisted we go on the Matterhorn because my own mother had unwittingly taught me to be afraid of everything, and I’d paid a very high price for it. I remember pretending to be ill one Saturday afternoon when I was 11 because my pals wanted to see the very mildly scary The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and I couldn’t handle anything much more intense than the sort of Disney stuff that inspired rides in Adventureland. I so wanted Brigitte to think of the world as a joyful, unscary place, and felt sure she’d find the Matterhorn exhilarating if she gave it a chance. When we got off it, she was literally trembling with terror. I remember that and want to punch myself in the face.

I could easily spend the night recounting memories from her childhood that make me want to punch myself in the face. And yet I always imagined, hugely flawed though I was, that I was a fairly terrific daddy.

The fact that she hasn’t spoken to me in five years – hasn’t allowed me to attend her high school graduation, hasn’t responded to invitations to my wedding, hasn’t acknowledged any of my countless emails or letters, didn’t enquire if I were alive or dead after the London terrorist bombings of July 2005, suggests that she feels otherwise.

Goodbye, Group Therapy [22 February 2007]

Goodbye, Monday morning therapy group. Goodbye, witty, vivacious 45-year-old self-harmer with forearms polka-dotted with the scars of cigarette burns. You complained of an inability to manage your own finances. You spoke of hurrying out when your welfare payments arrive each month to buy yourself nice bottles of wine or novels you’ve been looking forward to reading. You spoke of never having had a job, or being able to sustain a romantic relationship for longer than a few weeks. At first I worried that you were going to remind me of that poor woman in my late-80s therapy group in San Francisco, Ms. Inappropriate Laughter, who’d recount some unspeakable horror, and then giggle gaily, in the nonsexual sense. Pity you didn’t turn up more often, 45-year-old self-harmer, as you were one of the two I liked.

Goodbye, 64-year-old woman who attended only two of the sessions at which I was present, and barely spoke at either of them. We hardly knew ye, but what eloquent torment in your eyes.

Goodbye, poor 35-year-old depressive still living with your parents and unable to utter the simplest declarative sentence without swiping your hand nervously back through your hair and making strange faces, wincing, gaping, glancing suddenly up at the ceiling. It was painful to witness, and you were never audible, but when I gave you a lift home that one time, your core sweetness was unmistakable. I wish you relief, bro.

Goodbye, babyfaced young chef with thumb rings and many fetishy bracelets. The friendliest of the lot, and the most inconsolably, palpably miserable, you spoke at one session of how your depression had driven all your mates away, and of how there was no one to whom you could turn when the blackness became unbearable. When I said you could always phone me, the psychotherapist actually woke up for a moment, pointing out that communication outside the group was against the rules.

You’d been brutalised in childhood by your dad, and Mum didn’t defend you. In young adulthood, the woman with whom you were in love left you because she knew she was dying, and then did indeed die, if you’ll forgive the alliteration. You were set upon by a pride of skinheads outside a pub in Kingston, and suffered injuries that precluded your ever regaining your earlier form in the kitchen. You didn’t necessarily want to commit suicide, but often could just barely endure being alive, a feeling I know too well. I told you what’s been working so well for me the past couple of months — call it denial! — and in so doing pissed off the hideous 50-year-old Gothic self-harmer.

We’d already had a bit of a moment, she and I, at a session you didn’t attend. She talked about how, when there was an angel whispering into one of her ears and a demon in the other, it was invariably the demon’s excoriations she took to heart. I asked why. She went into a convoluted anecdote about her childhood. I politely (it seemed to me) noted that she was getting off track. We repeated the whole process. The second time I interrupted her reverie to insist, “But why is it the demon you listen to?” she went into a frightful rage. Her eyes bulged. She trembled. “If I fucking knew why,” she demanded loudly enough to move the little travel alarm clock the psychotherapist keeps on the little table before her so she can stop us at exactly 10.30, “do you think I’d still do it?”

She apparently thought I was rebuking for not doing the more sensible thing. Not so. I was asking because I do the same – discount any praise I might receive (though I am surely the world’s most implacable praise junkie) and experience every faintest criticism as a knife in my throat. It was the self-sidetracking to which I objected.

Fair enough. I very commonly get things very wrong, very commonly manage to say very stupid things even with my foot securely in my mouth. I often say that the reason I’m so good at apologising is that I have so much to apologise for. But no apology from our hideous Gothic self-harmer, who, in subsequent sessions, became more and more openly contemptuous of my practical cognitive-therapy-style suggestions to Young Chef, suggestions to get him through the day. I was trying to put a plaster (Band-Aid, you see) on life-threatening wounds, she accused. I was being insufferably masculine and – let it be said! – American.

Well, goodbye then, hideous 50-year-old self-harmer. Keep talking it out, gal. Keep imagining that the wealth of insights you might achieve in the course of psychotherapy is going to have the slightest effect on the way you actually feel. See what effect your intellectual breakthroughs have on your own ravaged forearms. And a pox on ye.

Finally, goodbye, psychotherapist. I appreciate that detachment is necessary, but not since the Warren Beatty lookalike I consulted in my early 20s, at the height of my wealth ‘n’ fame, have I encountered one who exhibited so few signs of life, let alone compassion. I didn’t even find your insights very insightful

A note on denial. Guilty as charged, madam, and for no reason other than that I find it works better than anything else I’ve tried. When I begin feeling glum and hopeless, I say to myself, “Yo, Johnny, this makes no sense in view of your being a happy person,” or literally force myself to smile as hugely as my crumbling old features can manage. Either way, a neurological signal gets sent to my brain, which, if things are going well, then cancels, or at least postpones, its order for nearly unendurable despair, and Johnny survives another day, often even joyfully.

The boy can function; it’s a meerkle!

Dissed-aster! [February 22, 2007]]

Yes, I am sulking, and no, it’s hardly becoming. (But do what you do best, says I!)

After a gap of around 12 years, I recently got back in touch with one of my dearest friends, the one who originally got me thinking (mistakenly, as it turned out) that I had, you know, a gift for writing, who started me on the road to wealth and fame, who got me through Annie leaving me, who got me through Patti leaving me five years later. He was the wise elder brother I didn’t have, probably the principal architect of my worldview as a young adult. I apologised for a great many cruel or stupid things I’d said way back when, under the influence of my culture’s homophobia or the great, discombobulating acclaim I felt myself not to deserve, and it seemed as though we might resume being big pals, the physical distance between us being enormous, but the world having shrunk.

But then he – the very same person who all those years ago introduced me to the idea of aspiring to being loved for who I am rather than what I do – committed the great crime of showing little interest in what I do. And I’m not talking about my novels, reading which would involve a major investment of time. but about this journal, for instance, which constitutes maybe 15 minutes’ reading at this point. I simply couldn’t get him to read it, or at least admit to having done so. When I pointed him at the music video I recently did with the missus, he said he couldn’t hear it, apparently because he doesn’t have Broadband at home. I pointed him at some little films I’ve made the past couple of years. Same thing.

I can’t understand how someone like he, a major critic for a major newspaper, doesn’t understand how much his praise – or at least consideration -- would mean to me. I am not esteemed much by the world, not even published anymore, except by myself. In the absence of my ability even to earn a living, a bit of praise is really the most I can hope for.
(A bit of praise, that is, and the joy of the work. I adore what I do, and acknowledge that if I were a better, more mature man, the joy of the work would be sufficient compensation. But what do you expect at 59-1/2?)

Lately I haven’t quite been earning a living, but at least keeping at bay the boredom that was trying so hard to crush me, by designing Websites, mostly for diffident or novice entrepreneurs who’ve never had one, are prepared to spend as much for one as they might on lunch for two with wine at a reasonably nice restaurant in London, and can’t speak English terribly well.

I do the work, put it on line and send Mohammed or Shahid an email saying where to view it, and wait, and wait. Sometimes they write back and say they don’t like what I’ve done, and I want to rip their tracheas out with my bare hands. Other times they say something like, “It’s nice,” and I…want to rip their tracheas out with my bare hands. There is only one response that doesn’t plunge me into a frenzy – their being ecstatic beyond words.

With my Web design clients, at least I can count on my work being considered. I find anyone ignoring my work (and I’m speaking here not of Websites, but of the important stuff, the self-revelatory labours of love, the fiction and the music and so on) even more excruciating than their disliking it. A few years ago, the missus and I got chummy with a well-known London writer and his girlfriend. So high were my hopes for our becoming major friends that I gave them one of the last remaining copies of my 1995 autobiography, I, Caramba, which I regard as some of my best work (write about what you know!), and certainly the most revealing of who and what and why I am. Some days passed before we spoke again. I asked if he’d read my book. No, he assured me cheerfully, but he had made time to…power-browse it.

I wanted to pull out his trachea with my bare hands. It didn’t, as it never does, feel like a denial of my work, but of me as a person. Dissed-aster!

I so want everyone to tell me that I’m OK. I so want everyone to tell me that I’m not only OK, in fact, but really good at something. My work is me at my best, my most vital, my most interesting. Ignore it and you’re telling me without words that I’m a worthless piece of shit.

If Mohammed or Shahid is indeed ecstatic far beyond his ability to express, of course, it makes me feel good for a couple of milliseconds, tops, which leads to the realisation that I coulda been somebody -- Robbie Williams or Kurt Cobain, one of that lot. Surely, having lusted with all my might for the millions’ adoration, I too would have found it valueless. I am as unfillable void as you’ll meet.
But I’m still willing to give it a try.