Saturday, March 6, 2010

Thinking About My Dad

When I was around four, my dad, whose clumsiness I inherited , somehow managed to give himself a black eye in a mishap involving our garage door. For someone like my dad, who reveled in attention, this wasn’t entirely unfelicitous, as it made everyone notice him. When one particular neighbor asked what had happened, my dad said I’d dropped the garage door on him. The neighbor understood this to be a joke, and pretended to scold me. Far from amused, I was filled with confusion and shame. I wouldn’t have been able to reach the cord for the garage door even if I’d wanted to hurt my own daddy, and why on earth would I have wanted such a thing?

A few months before his death, he dictated a sort of goodbye letter, in which he spoke briefly of all the people who had mattered most to him. My mom, his wife, topped the list, though she’d hadn’t been anything other than viciously contemptuous of him for the preceding 40 years, with my sister and I also prominently mentioned — if no less prominently than the young woman who took the dictation, whom he’d probably known for 10 minutes.

That the approval of complete strangers was as important to him as the affection of his own family was one of the things about my dad that hurt and infuriated me.
Nearly 18 years after his death, I haven’t forgotten the maddeningly frustrating aspects of being Gilbert Mendelsohn’s son. But the older and wiser I become, the more I see how blessed I was to have had him as my dad.

When I was 14, I got a paper route, delivering the Westchester News Advertiser. Geographically, it was the wackiest paper route ever; I’d have had to get up two nights before to cover the whole of it on my bicycle. But there was never a millisecond’s question that my dad would get up at five two mornings a week right alongside me, and deliver to the farthest-flung of my customers while I attended to the distant western half of the route.

My dad could no more conceive of spending money on his own pleasure than of walking fly-like on the ceiling, but there was never a moment in my life when I’d have expected him to refuse me a “loan” that he invariably wouldn’t allow me to pay back in full.

When I was 37 and a new parent, I told my parents that I intended, because of my hatred of LA, to move to northern California — that is, to take their new granddaughter 460 miles away. It must have broken their hearts, but do you suppose either of them hesitated for a heartbeat to urge me to do whatever I thought would make me happiest?

One of the few psychotherapists who’s actually done me some good over the years was a San Francisco-based specialist in the problems of adult children of alcoholics; my parents might have gotten through half a bottle of Manichewitz Concord grape wine (absolutely the worst wine in the history of the cosmos) in a year, but lots of the problems were the same. In the course of my therapy, he told me I needed to, well, vent the enormous anger I’d felt toward my parents since my largely miserable childhood.

While my mother had been a volunteer at a counseling center. my dad had been mortified years before, when I’d first sought psychotherapy, at the mere thought. Thus, I’d expected he would try immediately to change the subject when I told him how some of his actions (and lack of action) had hurt me, but it was actually my mother who went immediately into denial mode, my dad who listened patiently and apologized.

All kids give their parents a certain amount of shit; it’s part, I think, of what psychologists call individuation. Because I blamed him for a lot of my immense early unhappiness, and because it was how I saw my mother — the dominant member of our household — relate to him, I’m deeply ashamed to have given my dad enough shit for 20, but he never stopped loving me, not for a moment. The more time passes since I lost forever the chance to tell him how sorry I am, the more I miss him.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Razing the Salad Bar

On relocating to New York’s Hudson Valley in mid-2008, I was delighted to discover that two of the giants of American technology and popular culture in the 20th century were born right here in Vacationland. Frank Lloyd Wright, with his cousins Orville and Wilbur, invented the aeroplane and the prairies, and the oceans white with foam. Orson Welles was famous for his hit movie — you know, the one with the sled — and briefly batted leadoff for the old Brooklyn Dodgers before they broke every right-thinking Brooklynite’s heart by moving to Atlantis for a few bucks and a bottomless bowl of nachos. Serves them right the continent got lost!

But I was most thrilled to learn that my own favorite recording artist, Frank Sinatra, whom listeners younger than 80 will remember for his duet with Bono — not the one who was married to Cher, but the one who saved Africa — was also born right here in Dutchess County, down the street in Beacon, in fact, from Orson Welles, with whom he wasn’t childhood friends because Orson went in for such stereotypically masculine pursuits as fly fishing and strip mining, while his younger, smaller-boned neighbor preferred to spend his time foxtrotting to the timeless melodies of, for instance, George and Ira Gershwin, who are not known even to have visited Beacon, but whose affection for cheese, Monterey Jack in George’s case, grated Parmesan in Bono’s, is well documented.

Frank got his first break singing with Lawrence Welk, himself a former accordionist for the Poughkeepsie Pups back in the dead ball era and later discoverer of the Lennon Sisters, of whom John was not a member for obvious reasons. Their version of the Bob Marley classic "No Woman, No Cry" topped charts throughout the state in the fall of 1946 in spite of its suggestive syncopation, which was denounced by everyone from the Archbishop of Dutchess County to the Archbishop of Canterbury to best-selling author and shortstop Geoff Chaucer, whose own tastes ran more to Maytag blue, and who spelled Geoff the weird old way, which probably made sense in light of his living in the 14th century.

Sinatra’s fame grew to the point at which he was offered a part in the Denzel Washington vehicle The Manchurian Candidate. He recorded a duet with his overly made up daughter Nancy that raised more than a few eyebrows, was the subject of an unflattering autobiography by Sammy Davis Jr, petulantly cozied up to Nancy Reagan and her husband What’s-His-Face after John F Kennedy declined to name him Secretary of Cruel and Unusual Punishment, wondered if this sentence would ever end, and married the tempestuous Ava Gardner, about whom no laudatory comment could be derogatory. The union produced no offspring, but a couple of on, and an album – recorded across the river in Newburgh in 1953 with local favorite Pete Seeger on Hawaiian guitar. Many critics regard it to this day.

By the time of his death in Los Angeles in 1998 of something fatal, Sinatra had established himself as Beacon’s favorite musical son, this without ever having recorded or even sung "The Beer Barrel Polka", a song for which Billie Holiday, among others, didn’t consider herself too good. It’s instructive to remember that during the lifetimes of many current inmates of Dutchess County convalescent hospitals, the clarinet, so prominent on many versions of the song, was considered quite sexy.

My original intention when I moved here was to open a papal supplies store on Maine Street, but I soon came to understand that there are relatively few Catholics in the region, and that those with delusions of grandeur are more likely to imagine themselves Pete Seeger than whatever the current, you know, pontiff calls himself.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Abrasive Desktops: The Intellectual LIfe of a College Town

You might suppose that living in a college town, as I did in 2007 and 2008, in Madison, Wisconsin, would have been intellectually stimulating. You might imagine, for instance, that in such atmosphere, one would want to have one of Proust’s novels or Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul on his person, pack animals being illegal within the city limits, to whip out as a sort of intellectual evidence of insurance. But no such thing was the case. Madison’s streets were clogged with pimply underclassmen in ill-fitting red sweatshirts wantonly braying the words awesome and like and gross at the slightest provocation, eating hot dogs on a stick with no apparent regard for their moral and nutritional indefensibility, and generally inspiring the observer to question his or her own earlier reservations about the potentially cataclysmic consequences of global warning.

But what of those charged with molding their young minds? Well, there were a few low-level professors on view at the local extremely overpriced organic food store buying ethical drinking water from New Zealand and the like, but for the most part they were in their ivory towers shopping on line for tweed sports jackets with fake leather elbow patches. And you should have seen the men!

It has always intrigued this observer that a great dread of wearing out the elbows in one’s sports jacket seems to go hand with scholarship. Do academics have abrasive desktops or something?

Oh, occasionally you’d see them at the opera or the ballet or some other pretentious highbrow event. But you could tell from their pursed lips and furrowed brows, puffed cheeks and implacable sighing that they didn’t enjoy this stuff any more than you or I, and the last time you and I went to La Boheme, or whatever it’s called, you made your own nose bleed so we’d have an excuse to take a powder and I fell asleep.

When all us salt-of-the-earth types had made our excuses and dashed for the parking lot, do you suppose the show continued? Of course it didn’t. The cast breathed a mass sigh of relief and got on the phone to its agents while Mr. or Ms. Associate Professor and their spouses sat around sipping sherry and talking about how art is wasted on the rabble.

Noting my disdain for college students, some will surely have dismissed me by now as an old stick-in-the-mud, but the fact was that I hated college students most when I was one myself, years ago back in California, a state not known, as Wisconsin is, for its cheese, but how to explain Sonoma jack?

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

10 Months in America's Dairyland

On first relocating to Wisconsin from the UK, where I’d accepted a position in 2002 as an unemployed depressive, and where the Labour government offers tax incentives to the vocal fed up, I was at first discombobulated by the unnerving cheerfulness of the mostly bulbous locals. At a coffee shop in Kenosha, our waitress, who probably weighed as much as our rental car, waddled back a minute or two after serving our breakfasts to wonder, "How are those pancakes workin’ for ya?" Later, when we left the Olive Garden, our server, who in London would have been placed under police custody for his own protection, wide-eyedly exulted, "Have a great rest of your night!" It was almost enough to put my reserved British bride off pasta drowning in cheese-enriched sauces.

Let us make no bones about the importance of cheese to the Wisconsin economy, and the dairy farming that makes it possible. Rich, flavorful, nutritionally indefensible for the most part — cheese is as much the backbone of the Wisconsin economy as breast augmentation surgery is Los Angeles’s and homosexual ecotourism San Francisco’s.

As much as by the locals’ reverence for and reliance on the solid foodstuff made from the coagulated milk of cows, goats, sheep and other mammals, I was struck by the local male populace’s fascination with men named Bret. The works of the writer Bret Harte were almost impossible to find in any of the state’s more than 100 public libraries, and had to be reserved up to one year in advance. Head coach of the University of Wisconsin’s beloved Badgers football team Bret Bulimia, namesake of the fashionable eating disorder, was regularly hanged in effigy, as well as in Waukesha, Sheboygan, and other municipalities with odd names, among which one could not reasonably count Green Bay, for whose professional football team yet another Bret, Favre, then plied his craft with fast-diminishing distinction and a perpetual 72-hour stubble in spite, one imagined, of his at-least-tacit endorsement of particular shaving products. America's best-loved little television scamp, Bret Simpson, had been named spokesperson for the state's beef industry, and was seen everywhere above the caption Have some cow, man.

Like their countrymen in Washington and West Virginia, Montana and Mississippi, and the News, Mexico, York, and Jersey, Wisconsin men seemed only too delighted to define their own masculinity in terms of the performances of mercenary athletes who probably knew as much about Milwaukee or Green Bay as you or I do about Zagreb, and who were as a matter of course offered free bratwurst by fawning restauranteurs who imagined that actual paying customers might flock to their establishments on the off chance of eating off the same plate, or with the same cutlery, albeit washed to the exacting standards set forth in the Wisconsin Food Code.

The noted British humorist and depressive John Cleese, it might be noted, would today be known as John Cheese if his father hadn’t gotten sick of the same old jokes and exchanged the h for an l sometime before young — and I mean very young at the time — John’s birth. It is entirely possible that Bret Favre didn’t…get Monty Python, but Packers fans adored him no less for it, and, indeed, gauged their own fitness on fathers on whether or not he was able to lead the Pack to victory or humiliation on any given Sunday.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Most Swollen and Purple of Sore Thumbs

Randy used the word pitchy a lot, and addressed you as dawg, man, dude, and baby. Though his mixture of ghetto and surferdude patois was nearly unintelligible, it's safe to say he found your performance sorely wanting.

Kara said, “Listening to you sing was like being hurled, with wrists and ankles bound, into a enormous vat of pus. It was by far the most unpleasant experience of my life, one I dread reliving in my nightmares for years to come. I curse you for having made me suffer in this way. I curse your progeny, and your ancestors.”

And Simon said, “It wasn’t really the right song for you, but of course there couldn’t be a right song for anyone so devoid of talent. Your performance made me wish that as a child I had plunged newly sharpened pencils point-first into my little ears, making myself deaf.

America has voted, and agrees with Kara and Simon, and wants you to catch the first plane home.

I'm paraphrasing, of course.

My guess is that what happens next sends countless tens of millions either reaching for their fast-forward buttons or dashing into their home offices to check their email, for what happens is that the disgraced, newly banished contestant is invited to reprise the very performance that made America want never to hear him or her again! In a show that’s generally shrewdly put together, one in which every milliliter of poignancy is wrung from every situation, this miscalculation is the most swollen and purple of sore thumbs. Far better that they should show the banished contestant's reunion with his heartbroken family. Look at me, boy! You know we don't have health insurance! Look at me, boy! We were counting on you, boy, to pay for your baby sister's bone marrow transplant! Is that really the best you could do? Look at me, boy!

I also found intensely cringe-inducing — until I learned to derive great pleasure from it — the big mega-cornball show-opening group performance, in which the contestants, in groups of three, do little dance steps while singing a line or two each from a song you won’t have heard, and will hope never to hear again. Brave Crystal Bowersox, managing to smirk bravely through her embarrassment! Brave Andrew Garcia, he of the cholo tattoo on his neck! Brave Casey James, the Jesus-haired blues singer! It occurred to me I might not have witnessed a comparable display of good-sportsmanship since The Byrds’ October 4, 1965 appearance on Hullaballoo; the real agony begins four minutes in!

I’m reminded of a wonderful caption in Melody Maker in late 1971, beneath a photograph of the outlandishly attired new glam group Chicory Tip: Right, lads. Just don’t ever let us hear the words “serious musicians” out of your mouths.

I’m only slightly astonished to discover that Chicory Tip, now looking like three supermarket managers, are still at it. But then I remind myself that in the UK, nothing is ever thrown away. If you had a No. 17 hit in the spring of 1969, you can still make a living playing pubs, and Tip’s (excellent!) "Son of My Father" was No. 1 for three weeks.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

In Stitches

Say what you will about my relationship with Audrey Mendelsohn — which, following my dad’s death in 1992, became ever more fractious until Alzheimer’s claimed her. We could make each other laugh so hard as to nearly split open.

Four of my five life partners have been funny. M— could do a remarkable trick with her face, making her little Norwegian features nearly diagonal. Missus the First, a voracious and enthusiastic consumer of comedy — one able to find amusement even in ABC-TV’s spectacularly unamusing Fridays — did wonderful imitations of Mr. Blackwell, dour old New York Jewesses, and cigar-chomping old school theatrical agent types. My imitation of her imitation of the latter may be viewed here, and figured prominently in a two-person play I wrote and performed in London with the celebrated Indian-born actress Somi Guha, Eva-Gina Jones: A Life in Bad Poetry.

Nancy, the San Francisco Zoo koala keeper, did an hysterically funny impression of Mike Tyson. Neither she nor anyone else in her family was well attuned to my sense of humor — it actually got me banned from her sister-in-law's home! — but it was actually with Nancy that I did the most laughing of the sort I’d done with my mom, a sort so intense as to be silent. She had only to set up a Pope, rabbi, and African witch doctor joke — So the Pope, a rabbi, and an African witch doctor are out in a rowboat on the middle of a lake...— for me to start laughing so hard as to nearly hyperventilate. It started out as ironic — as my pretending to be amused — but doing so made me genuinely wild with glee.

Claire, Missus the Second, has been my co-star in the entirely improvised The Wallingtons, as well as in a wide range of around-the-house impromptu sketches, and has a glorious dry wit, of the sort the British wrongly believe to be characteristic of them, as witness her formulation of the Four Fundamental Existential Questions out of the blue while we were walking through a square in Bath in 2003.

Who am I? Why am I here? Who are you? Why won’t you go away?

Forty-eight hours ago, after going without for years, I finally had another life-threatening laugh when Claire sent me a link to this. Nancy always accused me of being most amused by things that reminded me of my own jokes, and here’s your proof! Her Toyota MR2 was the first car with power windows I ever drove, and how I adored tormenting her when she foolishly asked me to drive. Looking straight ahead, seemingly preoccupied with the road ahead, I’d subtly roll her window all the way down. She’d shake her head at my childishness as I burst into laughter. Two seconds after she'd rolled it back up, I'd roll it right back down again. Not once — not once! — did this fail to delight me.

A big part of me will never cease to be 3-1/2.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010


You don’t miss your water, William Bell observed in his 1961 debut single for Stax, ‘til your well runs dry. If he’d been here in the Hudson Valley the past several days, he might have put it slightly differently. You don’t miss your Internet connection until so much snow has fallen that huge tree branches begin to snap under their weight, pulling power cords down with them, plunging the whole region into chaos, and cruelly thwarting those who’d intended to make a new entry in their Web journals every weekday of the year. Damn you, nature!

Lacking electricity yesterday, I had to compose the day’s little essay by hand, and how old-fashioned and weird it felt! I kept reaching down for my little electric space heater, which just snickered at me. Downstairs it was heading toward noon, at which Claire traditionally enjoys a sandwich and soup while watching on TV one of those programs on which members of the American underclass shriek at each other for being unfaithful or shiftless-and-no-account, and the host, who apparently used to be one of the big guys in charge of keeping guests of The Jerry Springer Show from tearing each other limb from limb, browbeats them for being rotten parents and so on. Noontime just isn’t the same without it. What a feeling of helplessness.

We walked the greyhound on the road leading down to the recycling center. It was incredibly bleak, but the camaraderie in the air reminded me of when power was finally restored to Lower Nob Hill in San Francisco a couple of nights after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Everybody on the street seemed to be trying to dig his or her car out, and was cheerful and gregarious in spite of his exertions, marveling at the storm’s ferocity, shaking his head at the fantastic unreliability of our local utility company, Central Hudson — whose secret motto I have long believed to be You’re just the customer. Fuck you.

Once home, bored to death and shivering, I could think of nothing more diverting than to try to make myself useful, and dug out a narrow path for between the garage and the street, a distance of maybe 25 yards. It was grueling, but when I finally reached Wolcott Avenue, what a rare sense of accomplishment! Too bad, that a state of emergency had been declared in Beacon, and only emergency vehicles were allowed on the road.

I’d phoned the ever-generous, ever-gracious Names (that is, Naomi and James) just to find out if their neck of the woods was blacked out too. Not only was it not, but they kindly offered the use of their downstairs apartment, which they commonly rent out to tourists until our power could be restored. We loaded our laptops and contact lens solution and a change of clothes, attached the greyhound’s leash, and headed through the snow to Brett Street. On several occasions, groaning beneath the weight of our suitcase and my own laptop, I found myself thigh-high in snow, and I have long legs. On Center Street, we had to pick our way through a thicket of downed power lines. It took as long to trudge up to the converted gymnasium that Names call home as it might have to drive down to New York City. They gave us a nice dinner and invited us to watch a DVD with them, but the day’s exertions had made me weary, and we were in bed by 10.

This morning began with deliberations about to how to spend the day. Having failed to get on line at Names’, we thought we’d go to the nearest Panera and take advantage of their free Wi-Fi while having lunch. For that, of course, we’d need the car, so I trudged home, blissfully unburdened by suitcase or laptop, while Claire walked her greyhound. I unlocked the front door, flicked the light switch, and, as the lights came on, felt for a moment — a very fleeting one — that I might have judged Central Hudson too harshly.

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