Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Bully Pulpit

I was significantly bullied only once, a few weeks after enrolling at Santa Monica High School, where I knew no one. I was still a pipsqueak, and timid, as I’d been through childhood. Waiting for PE to begin, a kid who exuded menace, an auto shop type with greasy hair and tobacco on his breath, threw handfuls of sod at me. I, with colossal injudiciousness, threw them back. He chased me, and tried to feed me the sod.

It was only a few months ago, 47 years after the fact, that I realized I’d had the option of biting off one of his fingers. I’d surely have been ridiculed as crazy and a dirty fighter in some quarters, but I suspect no one would have thought to fuck with me ever again. (Not that anyone really did, largely, I think, because I was too much a wallflower even to be noticed.)

Some people fight back reflexively, without hesitation, using whatever weapons are at hand, and some don’t. Regardless of how bright or charming or gorgeous they may be, those in the latter group get bullied. The only thing common to all bullied kids the world over is simply that they allow it.

In this regard, I’m in awe of Keith Richards, who's tiny and frail — and apparently absolutely fearless. There’s a wonderful YouTube video of him unstrapping his guitar and using it as cricket bat against some idiot who’d somehow gotten on stage and was making a run at him while he was performing with the Rolling Stones. You or I might have thought that the idiot might have a knife, or be on PCP or something, and let a security guard or roadie handle it. But Keith looks delighted by the prospect of braining the guy. And wasn’t it his kicking a mouthy fan in the face that precipitated the riot in Glasgow from which the Stones barely escaped with their lives early in their career? You or I might have thought, “Well, the guy’s taunting me, but there are about eight of us, counting roadies, and a few thousand of them, so taunt away, Jock.”

So now the US Department of Health and Human Services has a Website devoted to bullying, and what a lot of perfectly disastrous advice it offers! “So you're being bullied, huh? That can feel pretty awful. But, no matter how bad it makes you feel sometimes, you should know you're not alone. That's right...there are plenty of kids all over the world who go through the same things you do every day.” Whoopee! Can you imagine what an enormous consolation that must be to a kid who’s being humiliated every day at school?

“Always tell an adult. It's hard to talk about serious things with adults sometimes, but they can help put a stop to bullying.” Oh, great idea, Department, except for the fact that probably the one thing worse than being seen as a punk is being seen as a punk who snitches.

“Stay in a group. If you spend more time with other kids, you may not be an easy 'target' and you'll have others around to help you if you get into a difficult situation!” This would work only if the group you make yourself part of comprised a couple of bloodthirsty badasses. When my daughter was in fourth grade, and I was volunteering a lot at her school, I encouraged three of her timid boy classmates to stick together for self-protection. What a rotten idea it turned out to be. Confident that none would actually offer any physical resistance, the school bullies began tormenting the trio far more than they would have any one of the three on his own. Look how bad I am, intimidating three at a time!

"Tell the person bullying you that you don't like it and that they should stop! Keep it simple. You might just say, "Cut it out, Miranda!", and then walk away." Boy, that would solve the problem, wouldn’t it? Miranda probably wouldn’t show her face again after learning that you “don’t like it.”

Our tax dollars at work!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

One Thing You've Got to Hand the Federal Government

One thing you’ve got to hand the federal government — and I was surprised by this as you’re about to be — is that they really know how to throw a party. And who among us temporary employees of the Census Bureau, we doorbell-ringin’, personal-information-solicitin’ enumerators, would have guessed that there’d even be a party this soon after we went into The Field, and countless months before the job is done? But there, in our respective emailboxes, the invitation was, saying You’ve worked hard for two weeks. Now it’s time to chill! There was to be food and music and a fully hosted bar, and a fleet of Department of the Interior limousines on hand to transport safely home anyone who spent too much time around the latter.

And the entertainment! As we were arriving and ordering our first cocktails to lubricate ourselves socially, a steel drum band that would have been welcome on even the swankiest cruise ship was playing Bob Marley’s greatest hits. After a short break, Huey Lewis & The News did a short set that was much enjoyed by all, followed — and I was as surprised by this as you’re going to be — by none other than Pink Floyd, with whom special guest Jay-Z sat in during “We Don’t Need No Education,” or whatever that old disco hit of theirs is called.

During the first break — during which a sumptuous buffet, more about which in a moment — was laid out, I chatted with one of the steel drummers, who was intrigued to learn that I’m something of a musician myself. I was surprised by his reaction to my comment about the greatness of the Marley oeuvre, though I didn’t use that exact word because I didn’t want him to think I was French or putting on airs. He said he, like most Caribbean musicians, wished poor Bob had never been born, because his songs were all anyone ever requested. He said he hadn’t minded playing “One Love,” for instance, the first million times, but that playing it in the 21st century almost made him wish he’d taken his parents’ advice and moved to London to become a bus driver or scam artist.

I hadn’t seen a comparable buffet since my days as a music journalist. There were lobster and prime rib, mountains of fresh oysters and jumbo shrimp, buckets of caviar and truffles, endless mounds of fresh fruit. To one side of the stage on which the entertainers entertained, there was a sushi station. On the other, two beaming latinos in toques were making omelettes to order.

In between the Huey Lewis and Pink Floyd sets, none other than Muhammad Ali appeared. If you wanted, you could spar a round or two, and then have your photograph taken with him. But a lot of my fellow male enumerators were a lot more interested — and I hope I’m not going to get any married men in hot water by saying this — in the remarkable array of prostitutes that had been recruited for the event. In the case of those for us heterosexual guys, we’re talking 8s and 9s, graceful young beauties with real breasts and few pockmarks, rather than the immoderately implanted sluts the country’s frightful indebtedness might have led one to expect. You could far more easily picture these women getting $2000 for an evening’s cavorting with traveling CEOs than standing on street corners in circulation-impairingly tight fuchsia hot pants.

A woman enumerator with whom I became friendly during training assured me — I’m obviously no judge of this sort of thing — that their male equivalents were no less attractive and classy. Indeed, she was sure she recognized the one she took up to one of the rooms in the Fishkill Holiday Inn, where the wingding was held, from a Hugo Bass ad in Vanity Fair.

You should have seen how some of the dowdiest and most hopeless among us were transformed by the whores’ flirting. We seemed to become 15 pounds lighter in the wink of an eye, crowsfeet-less, whiter of tooth, straighter both of tooth and back. Props and kudos a-plenty, then, to the Department for recognizing that everyone needs to be made to feel attractive every now and again. I shall myself return to The Field as soon as I’m over my hangover — foolish me, believing that Dom Perignon would be less apt to induce such discomfort than $6.99/bottle pinot grigio with which I ordinarily content myself! — feeling 10 years younger.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ethan, Meet Alyssa

I was flabbergasted to discover that, according to the Social Security Administration, the third most popular name for newborn girls in the year of my daughter’s birth wasn’t Ashley, but Jennifer. At least 80 percent of my daughter’s female classmates in elementary school were Ashleys. I’m amused to note that in the UK, Ashley is a boy’s name, as it was in Gone With the Wind.

Having resided half a decade in said UK, I am able to tell you that lots (loads!) of extremely popular names there virtually never make it across the Atlantic. When I was trying to recruit theatrical casts in London, I received headshots and resumes from veritable armies of Tamsyns, Gemmas, and Natashas, but when was the last time you heard of one here? Likewise, you can go years here without encountering a Nigel or a Simon, but the UK’s crawling with ‘em.

To what may we attribute Jacob having been the No. 1 name for American baby boys in 2009? Cleveland Browns quarterback Jake Delholmme’s career hasn’t been nearly spectacular enough to have inspired fathers to want to name their sons after him. The only Jacobs who come to what’s left of my own personal mind are Javits, a prominent Jewish politician in New York a million years ago, and Dylan, Bob’s boy, and the latter spells it with a k instead of a c. (If it were I, it would be Jakov, though I suppose schoolyard thugs might pronounce it Jackoff.) I would be able to understand the resurgence of William, which was No. 4 in the year of my own birth, and No. 5 last year, if it were spelled will.i.am, a la the guy in Blackeyed Peas, but it ain’t. Brad, George, Tom, and Johnny, as in Pitt, Clooney, Cruise, and Depp, the era’s biggest male movie stars, are nowhere to be seen on the list of most popular boys’ names.

Schoolyard thugs find a way to make miserable the lives of the meek whatever their names may be.

That the yuppies are reproducing in droves now is evident from the relative popularity of such names as Ethan, Noah (No. 9), Aiden (No. 12), and Logan (No. 17) for boys, and Isabella (No. 2), Madison (No. 7), Addison (No. 12), and Alyssa (No. 19) for girls.

Addison? Madison? WTF? As a past resident of a Midwestern city with the latter name, I can say with a high degree of confidence you wouldn’t want to name your daughter after it, or even to spend longer in it than it takes for you to fill your fuel tank. How’s that bratwurst workin’ for ya?

I’ve never understood the gentile practice of naming a boy after his father. What colossal narcissism! What appalling lack of imagination! And have I railed lately against the use of middle initials? I can understand if you’ve got the same name as 125,000 other people, like Juan Lopez. For everyone else, though, a middle initial suggests an attempt to sound more important. That’s one thing I liked about the Democratic presidents between Johnson and Obama; you can’t get less pretentious than Bill and Jimmy.

It occurred to me the other afternoon that if I were to have children now, I would very much enjoy giving them names like Jamal, Tayshawn and Sheniqu’a. This represents a dramatic sea change from the era of my daughter’s birth, when I hoped to name her Nimrod (as in the Biblical hunter) if she were a boy. Why should Jacob, Joshua, and Noah be popular and Nimrod not?

One thing strikes me as pretty fishy about the Social Security accounting. Latinos make up 12.5 percent of the population, but there isn’t a single latino name on either of the lists — no Jose, no Maria, no Refugio or Raquel? Are we to believe that latino parents are striving so hard for assimilation as to be naming their kids Aiden and Alyssa?

I was always amused by the prospect of the halls of the nation’s convalescent hospitals being lined one day with ancient women called Debbie and Heather, Lisa and Tiffani, Ashley and Jennifer. But this year’s list suggests that the names of 2090’s dementia sufferers will in many cases be identical to 1970’s; Emma, Emily, Abigail, and Grace were all among last year’s most popular girls’ names. Gertrude and Edna stubbornly refuse to make comebacks.

They Say It's My Birthday

When I turned six-and-twenty, my girlfriend Patti gave me a TEAC-3340 four-track tape recorder, on which, for the next 19 years, I recorded countless hundreds of demos. It was probably the most generous gift anyone has ever given me (in 2010, it would cost around $4000), and that which I’ve enjoyed most and longest. I felt so loved.

When I was nine-and-twenty, my girlfriend Marie threw a wonderful surprise party for me in our apartment high above Sunset Blvd. I was shocked at how many people liked me enough to attend, but the best part was the proud, adoring smile Marie gave me from across the room at one point. I felt so loved.

When I turned five-and-thirty, future First Missus and I were in Siena, Italy. After traipsing around a variety of open-air markets in the morning and having a wee lunch, she invited me to make myself scarce while she went up to our pensione and put on the scandalous attire in which I loved to see her, and laid out an array of Coca-Cola-related gifts (I was a collector, you see) she’d bought for me a few cities back, and manage to gift wrap artfully when I wasn’t looking. I felt so loved.

When I turned 40, by-then First Missus and I and our daughter went to Yosemite (which I’ve always wanted to spell Yo, Semite!), and had a heart-ripping screaming match en route. I felt pessimistic about our marriage, which in fact was finished within 60 days of our return home.

Turning 50 was even worse. I’d told and told and told Life Partner 4 how much I hoped she’d make a big deal of the event, but it was Mothers Day too, and she made no fuss at all. Hurt and angry, I drove home alone from her mom’s, guzzled a great deal of vodka, and leapt on my rowing machine, hoping to exhaust myself physically. Then she and my daughter arrived home, and I quit snarling long enough to learn that a bunch of friends from my first design job were waiting, at the instigation of my friend Kathleen, to surprise me at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset. I felt so loved — and such an asshole, for being so drunk when we arrived at the restaurant that my little girl burst into tears of embarrassment and alarm.

When I turned five-and-fifty, Claire gave me a UK mobile phone and took me to dinner at a tapas bar in Hampstead. I felt so loved, and six days later we were bride ‘n’ groom. When I turned six-and-fifty, she took me to Paris. We saw persons of African origin peeing quite unashamedly in broad daylight against the sides of our hotel, and she showed me where her handsomest early boyfriend had once attracted a mob of young Parisiens who imagined him to be Keith Richards.

We flew to Cyprus the day I turned seven-and-fifty. While she donned the sort of attire in which the birthday boy most enjoyed seeing her, I trudged over to a little market near the hotel to buy her a bottle of wine. Trudging back through a field, I wondered which mythological figures’ footsteps I was walking in. We had at it and then listened to Al Green’s greatest hits, which sounded like the best music in the world. I felt so loved.

When I was 60, Claire took me for a birthday getaway to…London. We saw Spamalot in the West End and went to bed dreaming of the Hilton Breakfast that awaited us the following morning. (I’d believed the Hilton Breakfast to be one of the best things in all of life since our visit to Malaysia the previous year, when I’d been able to say things like, “Another huge trayful of smoked salmon, if you please,” to beaming servers who were delighted to oblige.) I felt so loved.

Today I will celebrate my birthday without Claire for the first time in 10 years, and it feels as though I’m lacking a vital organ. But a great many who are dear to me — and some I wouldn’t know from Adam — have conveyed their felicitations electronically or even through the post, and the best new friend I've made in the past several years has sent me a gift of flabbergasting generosity, and I will dine tonight with my two best friends in New York. And I feel so loved, and blessed.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Toughness of the Times

As Johnny Census, I think I’ve acquired an especially clear vision of the extraordinary toughness of the times. Would you not have shared my amazement during training week to discover that Nicolas Cage, the second worst actor of his generation, but one who’s been in a lot of big-budget blockbusters, was in your midst, in dark glasses and a hairpiece that rendered him unrecognizable until he kept excusing himself to take calls from Wm. Morris? During a break, we were able to chat for the first time since working together on Peggy Sue Got Married, in which he was spectacularly awful, in 1985. He claimed that he did indeed remember me from the high school reunion scene in which I portrayed one of Kathleen Turner’s character’s classmates.

I was no less surprised to recognize Barry Bonds, the controversial home run hitter and human growth hormone abuser. He’s lost a lot of mass since he stopped playing ball, and was very much more cordial than various biographies had led me to expect. On the second morning of training, he brought homemade cornbread and preserves to share with everyone. I asked during one of the breaks during which I wasn’t chilling with Nick if he wanted to arm-wrestle, but he declined. Punk.

Alanis Morisette, the Canadian songbird whose screeching and yodeling made the early 1990s so unpleasant for anyone with a car radio and ears, was there. Her hair was no more attractive than at the height of her fame, and she got very snippy when one of our fellow trainees asked if she would reveal at last whom “You’re So Vain” was about. The now-jowly Morisette pointed out that “Vain” wasn’t hers, but Paul Simon’s, or Carly Simon’s, or Simon Cowell’s, or somebody’s. I didn’t see why she needed to be so scabrous.

Philip Roth, the novelist, was there, jotting down frequent notes for the latest in his Zuckerman trilogy, which now numbers 27 books. I guess in this era of electronic publishing, poor Phil isn’t making the money he used to make back before the Kindle and iPad and what-have-you. I wasn’t surprised, given his reputation for wanton priapism, to see him trying to lower the boom on our pretty, young crew leader during one of our breaks, her wedding ring be damned.

That Monica Lewinsky was the one female trainee Phil didn’t try to hit on over the course of our training hardly surprised me, as it would ill become one who’s written so eloquently about Jewish self-loathing to try to get into the panties of another of The Tribe. I personally had never been able to ascertain Lewinsky’s appeal, but over the course of our training it became clear that she has an unusually bubbly personality, and I know that for many men a combination of a bubbly personality and mad fellatial skills make up for a lack of blonde hair and perfect implanted breasts.

I noticed that Lewinsky spent most of her breaks with Lorena Alice Hickok, the late Eleanor Roosevelt’s late alleged lesbian lover. Heaven knows what they found to talk about. I had always expected Lewinsky to be given an afternoon talk show on TV.

My impression, from her constant longing glances, is that Hickok would have been happier talking to Jessica Rabbit, who was of course voiced by the odious Turner. I would love to know if, when she’s out ringing doorbells, Jess (as she invited us to call her) makes the eyes of male respondents fly out of their skulls as though spring-loadedwhen they open the door. But it could be that she’s dressing no less modestly in The Field than she did for training, to which she commonly wore baggy sweatpants with sweatshirts or pullover sweaters that revealed not an inch of her remarkable d├ęcolletage.

I wish I had more to tell you.

Hear my album Sorry We're Open.

Johnny Census with J— in The City

Sometimes people are their own worst enemies (as who would know better than I?). This morning I made the mistake of knocking on the door of someone I’d called on already in my Johnny Census mode, a crabby old (a couple of years older than I) black woman who lives alone at [withheld]. You might have imagined she’d have welcomed a little company, but when I first gathered the requisite facts ‘n’ figures last week, she gave me approximately the look she’d have given a case of food poisoning as she allowed me into her living room. A very large number of respondents have been watching TV, even in the gleamiest part of a gleamy early afternoon, while I’ve interviewed them, but she was the only one content to glare at the static graphic you get with one of the digital radio channels, in this case the easy-listening soul one.

In other news, J—, now officially my best friend in New York now that Claire has gone, drove down to The City yesterday to buy clothing. On the way down, J— became gently incensed with me for disputing many of his views about British fashion and imperialism and fashion imperialism, but the rain stopped just as we began looking for a parking place in what may be described as (Much) Lower Hell’s Kitchen. We walked hastily to Daffy’s in Herald Square, but it wasn’t one of those weekends when they were selling stylish Italian attire for peanuts. J— nearly bought some $4 Florsheim socks, but my noting that I commonly get three pairs for a dollar at Idolatry (as I enjoy calling Dollar Tree) took the wind out of his sails.

We repaired lickety-split to Conway, home of the ghastly fluorescent lighting and an escalator that hasn’t worked since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. J— marveled at the low prices and post-apocalyptic Third World gloom, but there wasn’t time to buy anything; not with an expensive parking ticket itching to be left under my windshield wiper.

We went down to Soho. I drove around and around and around looking for a free parking place while he conferred and conferred and conferred with the manager of the gallery at which he exhibited back in March. I got pissed off, but enjoyed the fantastically nutritious sack lunch he’d made us. I actually welcomed the friction; much as I believe you can’t really know whether you and a lover have a future absent a screaming, door-slamming fight, and that you don’t really cease to be acquaintances with someone and start becoming friends until the relationship has been stressed. We talked a lot about sex not only as we munched our sandwiches, but even at the Monet show on 21st Street. I’m not a huge Monet fan, but I’ll take his water lilies over Robert Rausch’s blank canvases any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

I’d warned J— that Uniqlo, which had stores in both of the big retail areas between which I lived in the UK, is pretty much a (very slightly) livelier Gap, but he needed to see for himself, so we headed for the West Village, absolutely swarming with frantic consumers — many of whom, J— thought, seemed to imagine I was Karl Lagerfeld, the 76-year-old German fashion designer. J— could hardly wait to get out of Uniqlo, no easy undertaking in view of the frenzied mob. We headed for Trash & Vaudeville in St. Mark’s Place, which turned out to offer pretty much the same fetish, goth, and punk staples as your local Hot Topic, plus a wide selection of T-shirts depicting Sid Vicious, The Clash, and other late-70s icons, and the usual whimsical footwear — pink winklepickers, and so on. I found sobering the realization that all this — and the T-Rex album they were playing — must seem wonderfully quaint to younger people, rather than nostalgic, as it seems to me, and sat outside phoning my pornographer friend in Florida and resting my perpetually (since that girl knocked me down with her car in September 2008) aching left knee.

After a restorative pit stop in Starbucks, we walked back to Vandam Street, where we’d parked, through a hurricane. Boulders kept getting under my contact lenses and blinding me. As we began the long drive home, we agreed that The City can be pretty exhausting, and that Beacon was likely to seem gloriously tranquil in comparison. I had never before heard politesse in a casual conversation.

I had intended to go to the big jamboree on Main Street last night in hope of adding to my scanty list of local friends, but found myself too exhausted for anything other than staring numbly at the Lakers-Jazz game. I was in bed by 10, and got through only the first seventh of my nightly prayers.

Hear my album Sorry We're Open