Saturday, May 29, 2010

Walking the Dog With Nick and Ruth

So the other night at our weekly get-together, my friends Nick and Ruth and I discussed something that earlier in the day had greatly upset Nick so much he’d declared himself a convert to my alleged misanthropy. The two of them had been walking Agnes and Boo down by the river, as they do daily. It’s Nick’s custom on such occasions, as it used to be mine when I’d join Claire and her rescued greyhound, to nod almost imperceptibly or to grunt, “How you doing?” at fellow dogwalkers or others they encountered, leaving Ruth to do the heavy lifting charm- and sociability-wise. They passed a guy whom they often see walking his Rhodesian ridgebacks, and Nick grunted a soft greeting. A moment later, they heard the guy furiously bellowing, “Dude!” and turned to try to ascertain the provenance of his fury. It turned out he'd been outraged by Nick’s not being very solicitous. He rebuked Nick for making what he described as a sorely inadequate two percent effort. Nick recounted being on the verge of hitting the guy for pointing bellicosely at Ruth while saying, “It isn’t you I’m pissed off at, but him.”

We each had another slice of an unusually delicious Brothers’ grandmother’s pizza — so named, apparently, because it’s inventor’s grandmother used very little cheese, and a great deal of tomatoes and garlic — and considered what Nick should do the next time they encounter the guy, as they almost surely will. I, in that zany way I have, wondered if it might be fun to discombobulate him by whooping, “Dude!” at the sight of him, and offering a hand for him to high-five. Or the two of them could even jump in the air and bump chests or bellies, in the manner of modern football players. Ruth’s idea was that Nick claim the moral high ground by telling the guy, before the guy has a chance to say anything, how sorry he was to have seemed unfriendly.

That seemed a sure winner to me. If the guy rebuffed him, he would be showing himself to be a vengeful asshole. On the other hand, if the guy were gracious and accepted responsibility for the unpleasantness of the earlier exchange, the two of them might well go on to become fast friends. On one level I would dislike that, as I much prefer my friends to no friends other than me, but the nobler part of me (it’s in there somewhere!) would revel in Nick acquiring another potential source of succor and encouragement.

In other news, I watched an ancient video of Eddie Van Halen playing a solo — a real solo, without any accompaniment — yesterday, and thought about the traditional gap between what critics and audiences like. It's my perception that audiences enjoy remarkable displays of virtuosity — in much the same way that sports fans enjoy great catches or long punt returns for touchdowns — while critics generally view such displays as freak shows. I know that I, watching the Van Halen solo, thought it expressed only his delight in his own dexterity. I wish I could play like that, but like to imagine I wouldn’t if I could.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Great Show!

I know, I know. Most of the actors playing 16- and 17-year-olds are obviously closer to 25, and all the young white male characters are apparently coached to speak as though heavily sedated or newly lobotomized. And I’ve never seen so many people with tiny noses in one series (the tiniest of all belonging to the preternaturally pretty Minka Kelly, the daughter of someone who used to be in Aerosmith, of all things!). And it never seems, even though Dillon is supposed to have one of the most successful high school football programs in a football-crazy state, as though there are more than 46 people watching. And in every third or fourth episode like clockwork the staunch rectitude of Coach Taylor — a good and decent man prone to shooting himself in the foot — causes a mass desertion by his players, who then reappear, eyes full of wariness and recrimination, only at the last possible second. But boy, do I love Friday Night Lights — possibly more than I’ve loved a dramatic TV series since NYPD Blue in its David Caruso and Jimmy Smits years.

Watching Season 2 on Netflix this past week, I’m consistently brought closer to tears than any TV show has brought me since Jimmy Smits’ character died in NYPD Blue by Julie’s being a perfect little bitch to Mrs. and Coach Taylor even though they clearly adore her and are doing their damnedest to spare her the pain she seems so intent on bringing on herself. And all the football stuff brings back painful memories of when my own son Jared was playing for Montgomery High in Santa Rosa 10 years ago.

One week I was just a poor old sap constantly being told by sandwich makers at Subway and restroom attendants at Ross Dress for Less that I looked exactly like a character on Seinfeld, by which I was never even a little amused, and none of whose characters I had even the slightest interest in resembling. The next, after Jared scored those three touchdowns against Rosa Parks, there wasn’t a filling station in town that would take my money, nor a Subway, and it was profoundly discombobulating. As I have probably mentioned here, my own high school athletic career was undistinguished; it was as captain of the debate team and male lead in the drama club’s presentation of a “daring” (according to the Santa Monica Evening Outlook) musical adaptation of Judgment at Nuremberg that I had finally been able to escape wallflowerdom. And here I was being treated like a hero or bull stud because of accomplishments not my own!

It got to the point at which Nancy and I couldn’t go to the Sizzler for fear of being besieged by locals wanting either that I personally autograph ATM and supermarket receipts or whatever else they might find in their billfolds or pockets, or take them home for Jared's autograph. I knew he would never get around to it — between his studies, gaining carnal knowledge of an endless parade of coeds in tight cutoff jeans and halter tops that bared their lovely flat young bellies, and being fellated by prospective agents, he hardly had a moment to call his own. And when many of the coeds Jared simply didn’t have time for began offering themselves to me instead, Nancy hit me with a rolling pin and insisted, in that way she had, that we seek out couples counseling, though we couldn’t afford it on the money she was earning as the koala keeper at the San Francisco Zoo.

At the plant, guys who’d previously glared at me menacingly when I tried to seat myself near them in the canteen at lunchtime suddenly wanted to play golf or go bowling with me, or at least buy me a couple of cold ones after work. I think in most cultures, persons with both an X and a Y chromosome are presumed to just love it, but because of the way it tastes, I’ve never been a big drinker of beer. I spent many sleepless nights either worrying that my co-workers perceived me as thinking myself too damned good for them, or being kept awake by the ecstatic howling of whomever Jared happened to be dating that night. Even through three interior walls, I could tell most of it was affected.

I know this will sound awful, but I actually felt some relief along with great sadness when Jared was paralyzed from the waist down in the big game against Oakmont.

Cheap Vodkas of the Heartland

After my chart-busting glam rock combo Christopher Milk broke up, I thought briefly of enrolling in law school, and even more briefly of cooking school, but in the end just spent most of my time standing in the bedroom window of my apartment on Sunset Blvd. smoking Sherman cigaretellos and thinking I ought to write a song called “How Did I Wind Up Here?” After better than four months of this, I allowed our agent to talk me into going back on the road, this time as a solo performer, singing CMilk’s most beloved hits to the accompaniment of my own acoustic guitar.

It was a living, but a lonely, unfulfilling one. I might have had a girl in every port, but appeared only sporadically on the coasts. I developed a fierce loathing for the inoffensive art one finds in budget motel rooms, and for the endless driving I had to do. My agent suggested that I become an alcoholic to get through it, and I became expert on cheap vodkas of the American heartland, my favorite being Volga Boatmen, distilled from asphalt and available in the Tri-State area (Kansas, Montana, and Wisconsin). For good measure, I also became addicted to Benzedrine. You may recall some of the more ghoulish rock magazines began predicting the date on which I would drop dead.

But then, in Albert Lea, Minnesota, at a special concert for the 100th anniversary of the birth there of Eddie Cochran, I met Mariline, a good woman who loved me for who I was, for a change, instead of for my glamorous past associations with David Bowie and Bev Bevan. As part of her campaign to save me from myself, she appointed me de facto stepdaddy of her autistic teenage son Bob, whom I called Bobby because it was more in character. When I had to get back on the road after three wonderful days with them, it like to broke my poor heart, and I hit the bottle harder than ever. I’d phone Mariline every night before I staggered on stage, and she would cry because of my obvious inebriation. It made me feel a heel, which of course only made me thirstier.

I finally collapsed in the middle of a show in Eau Claire. When I woke up, I was in a hospital room, also, presumably, in Eau Claire, and a doctor with male pattern baldness was telling me that if I didn’t change my ways, I might be dead by 75. I felt pretty sorry for myself, and hoped Jesus or somebody might appear to me in a vision, as you often hear about, but it was Mariline who eventually appeared, tearfully, at my bedside. She begged me to imagine how my death would hurt her, Bob, and my tens of thousands of loyal fans, some of the loyalest in the world.

I got clean and sober — for her, and for them. Some folks might have told you it was the AA meetings that done it, but the truth is that it was because I started showering a lot more conscientiously, and avoided both bars and liquor stores, which are called package stores in some parts of the country. Mariline and I even discussed marriage.

Bob, who previously had spent most of his time laboriously writing poetry — remarkably good poetry, mind you, of the sort you’d expect from someone with neurological problems — on an Etch-a-Sketch, came on the road with me while Mariline got her masters in Library Science. I was unable to divine how there was anything especially scientific about library work, but she'd never teased me when I’d drunkenly sing the same song three times in a set, or have my proverbial flag at half mast when I took the stage, so I didn’t tease her none, nor her nun sister.

Bob developed an amphetamine problem of his own — it’s nearly inevitable for anyone doing the sort of touring we were doing together — but it seemed to cure his autism. The doctors told Mariline that her choice was between the boy’s being a productive, not-very-weird member of society — albeit one who gnashed his teeth a lot, and picked at scabs he alone could detect — or reverting to the private, unknowable hell of autism. She told me through tears it was the hardest decision of her life, and I done wrote me a song about it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I Am the Villain

God knows I’ve had my heart broken. When Mari left me when I was 20, I pretty nearly didn’t live through it. Two years later, when Annie fled home to San Rafael after we’d lived together for a couple of weeks, I pretty nearly didn’t live through it. Five years later, when Patti declared that she loved me, but was no longer in love with me, I pretty nearly didn’t live through it. There are times when I still wonder if I’m completely over that one, and it was a million years ago. But I’m here to tell you that no lover can hope to fracture your heart as your own child can.

I think back to a Friday afternoon in 1999. At exactly the same time she’s become extremely interested in boys, my daughter has comfort-eaten herself into a state of greatly diminished attractiveness to them. We’re sitting side by side in the car I inherited from my mother in the driveway of our home on Pierce Street in Santa Rosa, and my daughter, who’s made a practice of telling me nothing at all about her life in the past several months, can’t help but burst into tears. She reveals that there’s a big dance that night at her high school, and she hasn’t been invited to it. She’s pretty sure she’s the only girl at her high school who’ll miss the dance.

If I could take her pain and endure it for her, I’d do it in a heartbeat, but that’s not an option. I grope instead for a way to give her hope. I point out with the utmost gentleness that she seems to have gained some weight the past few months, and that the boys in her classes would probably would line up to ask her out if she got back in shape. I work out daily at the YMCA around the corner, and invite her to come with me. The look she gives me makes clear that the only part she heard is the one about the boys not being interested in her. I am the villain, the cause of her agony. I feel as though someone’s pulling my heart out without an anesthetic.

We go back a few months farther. Although the main reason Nancy and I have moved all the way up to Santa Rosa (a 100-minute drive from Nancy’s job at the San Francisco Zoo) is to accommodate her, my daughter has effectively stopped having anything to do with us. There’s a dance at her high school (the earlier one, from which I later helped her transfer because she was so miserable) to which everyone comes stag. She doesn’t want me to pick her up at the end because she wants nothing at all to do with me, but her mother apparently decides to stay late at one of the groovy clubs in San Francisco at which she so loves being noticed by much younger men, and my daughter finds herself with no recourse but to phone me for a ride “home.” She doesn’t deign to speak to me as we head back to Pierce Street. She doesn’t speak to Nancy when we arrive.

The next morning, Nancy and I leave a glass of juice and a muffin outside her bedroom door, with a note from me saying I love her. Then we make ourselves scarce so she can leave without having to speak to us. She drinks the juice and eats the muffin. She leaves no note.

This sort of thing is repeated over and over and over again. She’s furious at the world for hurting her, and aims her anger at me. Though her actions very eloquently say, “I hate you,” I continue to adore her, and spend most of the two years between 1999 and 2001 feeling as though I’ve got a knife in my heart.

In 2010, I read some of the writing she’s done for her church newsletter. She speaks of her inability to hold a grudge — against anyone except her dad. She hasn’t spoken to me in eight years, and there is no end in sight.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Definitive Proof That Obama Is a Muslim, Lady Gaga is Transgendered, and That They're Both Communists

People have always looked at me and thought I had it made. Psychologists have demonstrated over and over that the very good-looking are almost universally perceived as more intelligent, more competent, and better in bed, but sometimes it’s a curse. Those on whom God didn’t smile so warmly — those with coarser, less symmetrical features, or stumpy legs, or lank, lifeless hair, or blotchy skin — have always viewed me with naked resentment, and on occasion attacked me with bricks and mortar.

In elementary school, no one wanted me as a square dance partner because they assumed God couldn’t have made me both gorgeous and light on my feet. I ate my lunch alone at the end of the playground that didn’t smell so good for reasons that no one was ever able to ascertain, at least before my promotion to what was then called junior high. There the PE teachers, rabid sadists every one, took delight in making me try to perform gymnastic feats that my congenital inner ear problem made quite impossible.

Later, in high school, the football team used to urinate into my locker because Donna Brisbin, the homecoming queen — who lied so baldly to the local newspapers about the impressive range of activities in which she was involved — had eyes only for me. Worse, Mr. A— D—, the journalism teacher, fell in love with me (I could see it in his very dark eyes) and gave me a B+ rather than the A- I deserved to spite me for having eyes only for Gail Hickey, who wore bright green contact lenses to dazzling effect, and yet somehow didn’t seem affected.

The biggest PR firm in Hollywood dispatched two women employees to try to seduce me in tandem when I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, and I have always liked the idea of a threesome, but not with them, thanks so much, though I’ve been a sucker for false eyelashes and immoderate eyeliner since the heyday of the Ronettes. Be my little baby indeed!

When I went to work for Larry Flynt Publications, a succession of female fellow employees came into my office and offered me the use of their reproductive systems, but I had eyes only for Tomasina L—, who reportedly thought anyone as gorgeous as I must be stuck up and shallow, which of course was only half true, or maybe five-eighths. One night on Sunset Blvd., a woman stopped in the adjoining lane scrawled her phone number backwards (forwards to me, you see) on her passenger window as we waited for the light to change, but she of course wasn’t my type. At that time I imagined leggy New Wave chanteueses in spandex to be my type, but heartbreakingly few of them shared my view.

I was nearly relieved in the early 90s when my looks began to fade, as it meant that people would finally start judging me on the basis of who I was, rather than what I looked like. But during all those years I’d gotten by on my looks, I hadn’t developed much of a personality, and boy, was I sunk! After my first marriage collapsed, my psychotherapist urged me to take a Learning Annex flirting class. There was a young woman there who’d have been on the cover of every magazine in the world if she hadn’t weighed 280 pounds; she had the most gorgeous white skin you’ve ever seen, but exuded self-hatred, and I wound up trying to lower the boom on a little French woman with a wonderfully Gallic nose I found huddled afterwad in a doorway on California Street because her boyfriend had thrown her out for reasons I was never able to claim I knew. In the produce section of Cala Foods, most of whose windows failed to survive the Loma Prieta earthquake some months later, I tried to lower the boom on a New Zealish blonde with a sexy updo. Her name was Kepi, though it sounded a lot more like Kippie in her accent, and we didn’t get along at all well.

Sometimes late at night (well, late for me, who gets up really early these days) I realize I haven’t written anything for the next day, and have to dash something off. On these occasions, I resort to an old literary device called “stream-of-conscousness”. Your indulgence gets mine.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Worst Humiliatin of My Professional Life

I walked right into it, and had no one to blame but myself.

After the dissolution of my second serious performing band, The Pits (whose lamentable name derived from my song You’re the Pits, inspired by Cole Porter’s You’re the Top), I contacted Rolling Stone, which was pretty pleased about my willingness to write for them again. I suggested a profile of a gloriously original young comedian I’d first seen on Saturday Night Live, Andy Kaufman. They liked my piece, and published it. I felt pretty self-confident again.

Listening back to my interview with Andy, it occurred to me, when I heard that he was about to join the cast of the popular sitcom Taxi, that I might be able to wring a second piece out of it. I sent it to Oui, at the time a slightly hipper version of Playboy, for slightly younger readers. Finally I heard back from Oui editor Peter Something, who said he’d rather see the magazine go out of business than publish my little piece. I thought that was a little harsh.

A few months went by. Rolling Stone ceased to be fond of me, and no one else seemed in any great hurry to publish my work, but I was years away from realizing that I’m a better graphic designer than writer, and that I enjoy the work more, so I kept writing to editors. Things were very different in those days before email. If you were a freelance writer who hoped to write for a particular magazine, you schlepped down to the photocopy shop with a mittful of your clippings, copied ‘em, mailed the copies to an editor, waited to hear from him or her, didn’t hear from him or her, phoned him or her, and was advised that he or she was in a meeting, but would get back to you. A guy from Oui, of all places, finally invited me to come in and talk about what I might write for him. I was thrilled to the marrow.

When I turned up, though, Mr. Ed Dwyer’s secretary advised me that the great man had decided to go to lunch with several of his fellow editors. When I told her we had an appointment, she frowned at me and phoned him at the restaurant. If I wanted, I could come find him there.

I should have asked her to give him a note inviting him to eat my shorts, but boy, was I desperate, and boy, did I want to write for Oui, so I trundled sighingly over to the restaurant, where I discovered that Mr. Ed Dwyer and his colleagues — among them the sneering Peter Something — were a bunch of giggling preppie potheads. Over 30 years after the fact, I kick myself for shaking Something’s hand rather than unzipping my Chemin de Fer leather-look jeans and peeing all over his salad.