Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Life in Pink - Part 3

The next couple of years, I became increasingly aware that I wasn’t being invited to the sleepovers and birthday parties and so on the girls in my class were invited to, and when it came time for the boys to choose teams for sports, I suddenly became invisible. I can’t remember a single time I was actually picked for a team, rather than the teacher saying something like, “And so Chris will be on [So-and-So’s] team,” after all the boys in class had been chosen. Once the game started, I would resume being invisible.

It was all right, though. It wasn’t as though I took any great pleasure from boys’ games. I’d have very much preferred to play with the girls, or for me and another girl to brush each other’s hair. But the girls were hardly more welcoming than the boys. It wasn’t until fourth grade that I made a really good friend, Shanika. I’d never seen anyone who was so happy all the time, and there wasn’t a single person in class she wasn’t nice to. When she phoned one night to invite me for a sleepover at her house with two girls from our class that weekend, I actually burst into tears of happiness, which in turn made Mother burst into tears of her own. By this time, Pop had joined AA. When neither at one of his two jobs nor asleep, he was at one of his meetings.

My tears of happiness soon turned into a more traditional type of tear. I could tell from the look on Shanika’s dad’s face when Mother walked me to their front door that there was going to be trouble. He asked Mother if the two of them could speak in private while I went into Shanika’s room to play. Not very long thereafter, Mom knocked on Shanika’s door. She couldn’t have looked more unhappy. She said she had to take me home. I must have looked pretty heartbroken. She explained that Shanika’s dad was concerned because Mother had had the flu recently, and was worried that I might give it to Shanika. That didn’t make sense to me — I couldn’t even remember Mother’s having been ill, and I was the healthiest kid on the planet — but I could see there was no use arguing. Mother could barely speak on the drive home. All she could say was how sorry she was.

By the time I was in fourth grade, both my brothers had gone onto middle school, Pop had had a stroke that left him unable to speak — which is to say slightly less expressive than he’d always been — and the latent sadism in a few of my classmates had begun bubbling inexorably back to the surface. But I’d been become a sort of honorary member of the little clique to which the three most desired girls in sixth grade belonged, and they made clear that anyone who wanted to get close to them had better be nice to me. I trusted no farther than I could have thrown them the boys who’d earlier seemed so intent on shaming me, but I appreciated not being taunted at every turn.

Friday, July 23, 2010

My Life in Pink - Part 2

It was about halfway through first grade that I first got harassed. A boy in my class named Josh suddenly took considerable offense at my My Little Pony lunchbox and took it on himself to snatch it from me and throw it in a garbage can. When Mother heard about this, she was fit to be tied, and tried to demand that Pop accompany her to my (and my brothers’) school to make clear that we wouldn’t tolerate this sort of thing. Pop said, “Oh, for crying out loud, Linda!” and proceeded to yell so long and loudly at her that even Scott and Magnus were frightened. Hadn’t all This Nonsense (which I understood to mean Mother’s encouraging my femininity) gone on long enough? If she thought Pop was going to confront the principal of my school with her, she must be smoking something, whatever that meant. Starting the next day, Pop said, he wanted to go back to having one daughter. Mother would cut my hair to a boy’s length and put together a wardrobe for me of clothes Scott and Magnus could no longer get into.

The sound of Mother crying made me and Magnus cry too. Only Scott, taciturn even then, remained dry.

The next day was a Saturday. Pop took the boys to their Little League baseball practices, and Mother cut my hair, but not very much. When Pop and the boys came home, she had to retrieve what she’d cut from the garbage to prove she’d cut anything at all. When Pop fumed, Mother reminded him he’d specified only a boy’s length. That could mean anything from really short to the length at which the grunge rockers Karen liked to watch on MTV wore theirs. Pop asked Mother why she was busting his balls. I had no idea at the time what that meant. I don’t think any child should ever be looked at by his father as disgustedly as Pops looked at me.

On Sunday night, with Karen actually home for a change, we had a family meeting at which Pop laid down the law. Starting the next day, Scott and Magnus had better plan on coming home bloody every afternoon as long as I continued to be given a hard time. Pop would prefer that the blood all over them be my harassers’, but if it were their own, that was OK too. Whatever else we may have been, we were, by God, a family that stuck up for each other. Karen’s pointing out through angry tears that we hadn’t seemed to be such a family a few months earlier, when a bunch of girls in her PE class beat her up one morning in the locker room, got Pop so exasperated that he stormed out of the house. He was doing more and more such storming lately. Karen yelled at Mother about never defending her, and always making clear that Karen was an embarrassment, and then stormed out herself. It felt as though all the trouble had started with me, and that was very upsetting.

The next day at school, Scott bloodied the nose of the boy who’d insulted my lunchbox, and got suspended. Mother and Pop had to come in for their meeting with the principal after all.

Nobody made fun of me now. They did something a lot worse — gave me the cold shoulder. I had no one to eat my lunch with. Neither Scott nor Magnus wanted any part of me.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Life in Pink - Part 1

I know when read the sentence after this one, you’re liable to roll your eyes and say something like, “Somebody call the cliché squad.” I wouldn’t blame you, but that doesn’t make untrue the fact that after three sons and a very tomboyish daughter (who was better at sports and knot-tying and tree-climbing and wrestling and all the other favorite recreations of young boys), Mother was very much hoping for a girl when she learned she was pregnant with me. My understanding is that all Pop was hoping for was some clue as to how he was going to support so many of us on what he earned as a high school basketball coach and drivers’ ed teacher. A wife-and-mother having a paying job in those days was seen as an admission of her husband’s deficient manliness.

I’m male, but don’t remember a time in early childhood when I wasn’t perfectly content to let Mother present me as she pleased. I remember once going to the supermarket with her and Karen, my older sister, and getting in a shouting match in the car on the way home because a fellow shopper complimented Mother on what a gorgeous little girl I was. Karen was terribly embarrassed — and probably terribly hurt too, now that I think about it. At almost 13, Karen was the eldest of us kids, and probably entering a stage in life at which you really want for the first time to be found attractive. I can’t remember a single instance of anyone telling Karen she was pretty, whereas, judging from the photos I’ve seen, I really was an extraordinarily pretty child. All children have large eyes, of course, but mine were huge even for a child, and the color of the sky on the happiest spring afternoon of your life, which made them a good complement to my sunshine-colored hair, which Mother of course would allow no scissors to approach. I wore a great deal of pink. It may very well be that I wore nothing but pink.

I played with dolls, of course. It always amuses me to note how some in our culture imagine that, just because they’re referred to as action figures, little boys don’t play with dolls just as avidly as little girls do. Of course, it wasn’t GI Joe I was playing with, but My Little Pony, and later Barbie.

None of this caused any great concern in our house. By the time I was four, Karen was 16, and had declared her lesbianism, loudly, and wasn’t actually around very much. Scott and Magnus, nine and six, respectively, didn’t seem to think about my gender one way or the other. They didn’t involve me in their rough-housing or games, but I had no great interest in being involved. Father, meanwhile, was working a second job, as a line cook at a chain restaurant whose folksy name belies its being owned by a huge mutinational corporation, and wasn’t around very much. I was Mother’s gorgeous little girlboy, and reveled in being so.

I have no unpleasant memories of kindergarten. I think that most children spend their first year in school too bewildered by the situation in which they find themselves to even think of being awful to one another, and my teacher, Ms. Hennessy, was nice. I had her for first grade too. It was only years later that I discovered that her great solicitousness might have owed to her having entered adulthood as Mr. Hennessy.

What very interesting times we live in!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Always the Bridegroom, Never the Bride

For the past six months or so (or maybe it just seems that way), we in the Hudson Valley have been enduring very high temperatures and punishing levels of humidity. Everyone’s lawn has turned brown, and neighbors who would ordinarily be taking one another jars of homemade preserves are instead poisoning each other’s cats. This afternoon, the heavens seemed finally to agree that we’d suffered enough, and let fly the hardest rain since Nancy and I, in Seattle on January 1, 2000, turned to each other and burst out laughing at how hard it was raining. Of course, in my neck of the woods, a thunderstorm almost invariably means a six-hour loss of electricity. I have written our local supplier of power, Central Hudson, suggesting that they adapt the slogan You’re only the customer; fuck you, but have not yet heard back from them.

Unable to use my computer or even watch TV this afternoon, I headed with my new iPad to the nearest Panera, over in Fishkiill, but decided on the way, strictly on a whim, to apply for membership in one of the local outlaw motorcycle gangs that have proliferated in southern Dutchess County since it became the crystal meth capital of the American northeast. I considered both the Senseless Violents and the Gazin’ Lesbians, but decided in the end to apply for the Multiethnic Miscreants because their policy of inclusiveness spoke to my own high regard for tolerance, because I’d heard that they didn’t compel their members actually to ride motorcycles (which I’ve always understood to be even more dangerous than exhilarating), and because I was pretty sure the Gazin’ Lesbians would dismiss my application out of hand by virtue of my sex. Only words, you know, have gender.

The club’s membership secretary was called Hank. We met at his place of business. He was in the business of removing tattoos with lasers. He’d missed the same spot under his chin that I commonly miss shaving, but it didn’t make me feel a greater kinship. I suspected he liked a lot of music that I wouldn’t like at all, and, conversely, that he didn’t regard the Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas as a work of sublime genius. The teardrops tattooed under his right eye suggested he’d killed a couple of fellow prisoners at one point. He had an unusually gentle handshake.
I told him I hadn’t actually been on a motorcycle since the late Ron Reinberg gave me a ride to class from the dormitory in which we shared a room, platonically, in the late 1960s. It seemed to delight him to be able to tell me he hadn’t even born then. I hate when people make me feel old, or short, or fat.

He asked if I’d ever killed a man. I had to admit that I hadn’t, though if Dick Cheney or George W. Bush stepped off a curb right in front of me while the light was amber, I wasn’t so sure I’d have braked very convincingly. I admitted I didn’t hold with Johnny Cash’s posthumous canonization, or Lester Bangs’. I shared my negative views on people over 55 who try to demonstrate their hipness by wearing Ramones T-shirts. His own T-shirt celebrated Korn. He yawned and fondled the human skull ashtray on his desk.

I told him this wasn’t shaping up as much of a blog entry. He told me not to be so hard on myself. The important thing was that I was on my way to achieving my goal of writing 300 new little essays over the course of the year. Who cared if almost no one was reading them? Steve Crawford was reading them, and others not employed by the federal government.

He asked if I had any weed. He didn't even pretend to need it for medical purposes; that's how badassed these people are. I admitted I did not. He said the recruitment committee would contact me within 72 hours with their decision regarding my application for membership. It’s now been 144, and I haven’t heard a peep.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grateful for the Glass

It feels as though my extended flirtation with sanity might be drawing to a close, and what a very dreadful feeling.

I’d expected when the missus moved back to her native country that I’d be desperately lonely for at least a few weeks, if not forever, but I actually rebounded very quickly, and for the past three months have been as resilient and happy as I can remember being. Whereas I’d normally wake in the morning dreading the hours that lay ahead of me demanding to be filled in some meaningful or at least pleasurable way, I bounced right out of bed in the noisy front bedroom feeling sure that something good would come my way. I was only fleetingly plagued by the horrible feeling that everything I did was in vain. Write my daily essay in spite of the fact that in over six months I’ve attracted 18 followers (including myself!)? No problem; I’m tickled pink to have as many followers as I have. Don’t hear back from any of the prospective employers to whom I send my resume and portfolio? No problem; their loss! Spend about 95 percent of my time alone? No problem; I found myself very agreeable company.

In March, if I found myself during the day looking forward to watching something or other on television, it would make me feel terrible; was this all I had to look forward to? More recently, though, I felt no shame whatever about my anticipation of pleasure, however mild, whatever its source. And here’s the piece de resistance. When I’m in the abyss, I commonly yearn for the oblivion of bedtime, and hate myself for doing so. The past three months, though, I’ve been thinking that it’s perfectly OK to look forward to the pleasure of laying down my weary bones. If death is a part of life, why should retiring for the evening not be a respectable part of the day, one to be enjoyed on its own terms?

One day a few weeks ago at the gym, the following actually happened. As I was leaving, one of the place’s employees called, “Have a nice day,” and I thought to myself, “Well, don’t I always?”

As per the suggestion of the very good psychotherapist I was seeing, I practiced gratitude. I didn’t demand that the glass be half full, but was grateful that I had a glass. I felt so well adjusted, so sane.

Maybe it was the citalopram.

And maybe now it’s the citalopram wearing off. I’ve been so agitated today that I’ve twice had to try to meditate myself back into the tranquility that’s been coming so naturally. I don’t feel that whatever work I’ve managed has been very good, or even particularly worth doing. It’s too early to go into the home theater to turn the TV on in resignation, and far too hot to go for a walk of the sort that almost invariably improves my mood.

In the word of Terry Sothern, writing in Candy, fuckashitpiss.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Gamboling With Hogs

Television in the UK can be pretty diverting. If there isn’t a brat show, in which a plucky nanny will transform an incorrigible little monster into Mummy’s Lovely Little Gentleman, there’s often a medical marvel one with a title along the lines of The Boy Who Gave Birth to Himself. There are the Gordon Ramsay Unhinged shows, in which himself screams at failing restauranteurs or young chefs who aspire to work at one of his 7500 restaurants around the world, and other, kinder/gentler fix-it shows in which, for instance, a purported expert explains to a hotelier why he’s going bankrupt. On a slow night, you might have to settle for marveling at how poorly other Brits eat, or how filthy their homes are, or even try to content yourself with a real estate show in which disgruntled couples from Scunthorpe are shown properties for sale in parts of the world where the sun actually shines for more than 20 minutes at a time some days.

‘Twas in the UK, among all the above-referenced riches, that I first saw Wife Swap, which I remember now is available in this country too, and more than diverting enough for an evening on which you’d planned to watch the latest episode of Friday Night Lights, but NBC didn’t broadcast it for reasons no one bothered to convey to you.

The idea’s very simple — and, I’d have thought, apparently wrongly, deeply offensive to feminists. For two weeks women of very different styles and circumstances, live with each other’s husbands and children. During the first, the transplanted wife is required to act as a surrogate for the departed wife, and to abide by the husband’s rules. In the second week, she theoretically gets to rewrite the house rulebook as she sees fit. As you can well imagine, what almost invariably happens is that, after a week of having things pretty much as he’s accustomed to having them (except, in many cases, for Surrogate Wife’s frequent expressions of horror and disgust), Hubby snorts, “No [bleeped] way!” when presented with new rules. At this point, he and Surrogate Wife start slamming doors and calling each other names and making the children whimper piteously, and we out in Videoland are wonderfully entertained.

Commonly, the two hubbies are able sometime after the second commercial break to glimpse some small trace of wisdom in what their Surrogate Wives are telling them, and the kids come to love their stand-in moms nearly as much as they originally loathed them. Finally, the two couples sit down face-to-face, the two hubbies — meeting for the first time — give each other looks that say, “If you so much as touched her, I’ll pull your fucking esophagus out through your fucking ear,” the two wives bristle at each other’s suggestions that they’re imperfect mothers, and everybody snarlingly denies that he learned anything at all from the experience.

In this past week’s episode, a snooty rich black woman social climber who gave her two terrified daughters a daily grade on, for instance, how expeditiously they got from the car into the house after school, moved into the home of a body shop owner whose womenfolk liked to roll around in the mud. Meanwhile, White Trash Mama, at the home of her snooty rich black temporary husband, had to wear pantyhose for the first time in 20 years for dinner, and later to teach a class in ladylike deportment. Over at White Trash Towers, Mr. Body Shop was literally burning in the fireplace the Nice Clothes Ms. Snooty had tried to insist he and his two fat daughters wear to dinner the second week. Sparks a-plenty flew, and make no mistake!

Are you thinking what I’m thinking — that the whole thing would probably have been a lot more interesting, and maybe even led to actual bloodshed, if white folks had been the snooty ones, and the blacks those who enjoyed gamboling with the hogs? But the actual football scenes in FDN are comically unconvincing, and the main character in Breaking Bad — the meth-cooking chemistry teacher just trying to do right by his loved ones before the cancer finishes him off — is aloof and humorless. I’m finally learning, after all these decades, that it’s a chump’s game to expect perfection from even the best TV.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die!

There I was looking for my beloved Pesto Genovese in my nearest Trader Joe’s, in Danbury, Connecticut, and just as I figured out they’d moved it to a lower shelf since my last visit too many months ago, the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” started playing on the store’s sound system. Someone behind me started humming along with Jeff Beck’s guitar line, and wasn’t it jolly to know I was in the presence of another immersed in rock culture? Then I turned, looking for wide, flat rice noodles of the sort I’d like to use in my Thai-style dish, and saw that the hummer was hairless except for a few sad gray wisps, saggy, prolifically creased, and around a million years old (that is, around my own age). And once again it occurred to me that rock and roll is now officially the music of geriatrics.

A recent report reveals that more convalescent hospital patients in 2009 listed Huey Lewis & The News as their favorite recording act than any other, and my understanding is that Eric Burdon has just signed to appear in a series of infomercials for a particular brand of walking frame. One of the two living ex-Beatles just turned 70. Even brash upstarts like Def Leppard, leaders of the great British Metal Revival of the early 80s, are in their fifties now.

Through the miracle of the Internet, I have been corresponding recently with a young band in, of all places, Liverpool. Back when I was writing for Creem in the early 80s, I thought it my principal mission to try to shame acts like Motley Crue into retirement. I found deeply nauseating their combination of brazen derivativeness — their bass player, one of a type of would-be rock star you regularly see swaggering around in Hollywood, exuding entitledness because he dares to look ridiculous, had stolen even his stage name — and misogynistic narcissism.
But my young friend in Liverpool thinks Motley Crue the greatest group ever, and has no inkling of their being an imitation of an imitation (Aerosmith’s) of an imitation (the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, approximately to pop/metal what Dick Clark’s Frankiebobbies were in 1959 to Elvis — a laughably fraudulent proxy.

It’s cute in its way, how attentive to detail his band is, in the way the English often are when they get nostalgic about American pop culture. With no inkling as to how corny it all is in its own way, they lovingly reproduce every detail of their chosen genre, down to the cowboy boots and sneers and Jack Daniels.

During my brief, unhappy sojourn in Wisconsin, I became friendly with the terrific guitarist in mostly terrific group called Blueheels, who absolutely couldn’t be talked out of going on stage looking as though they’d driven all night across the prairie in the clothes they’d worn to their jobs as school custodians. All things being equal, I will confess that I prefer a musical act brazenly appropriating someone else’s visual style to asking the audience to see their stylelessness as proof of their singleminded devotion to their music. Comparably, while we’re here, I refuse in retrospect to see grunge as somehow more noble than the awful hair metal that preceded it. Both had their strictures and conventions. Both produced a few terrific tracks and a great, great deal of crap. I believe that the absolute entertainment value of a group dressed up as the sort of girl they hope to meet backstage is inherently greater than one dressed to sleep under freeway overpasses or on park benches.

My young friend’s aping of Motley Crue ought to make me feel younger, since it makes it possible for me to have a dialogue with a 20-year-old, but it only makes me despair. If my cohorts had, in the same way, faithfully reproduced the music of the years of their births, we’d have gotten a lot of second-hand big band swing in the 60s, instead of, well, having our minds blown. It feels as though rock and roll ran out of ideas 25 years ago.