Saturday, September 25, 2010

Happy Birthday, Brigitte

When I tell new acquaintances that I have a daughter I adore, but who hasn’t spoken to me in eight and a half years, they are invariably surprised to learn that she is now apparently a committed Christian. How, they wonder, can she have embraced a faith that venerates forgiveness while herself remaining so staunchly unforgiving? What I dislike enormously about this is the presumption that I require forgiveness. I am a badly damaged and profoundly flawed person, and was a profoundly flawed parent — one who can think of 1001 things I wish I’d done better. And if someone told me today, on my daughter’s 26th birthday, that we could be in each other’s lives again if only I would ask her forgiveness, I would decline.

I can think of 1001 things I wish I’d done much better, but there wasn’t a millisecond during my daughter’s first seventeen years that I didn’t love her as much as it’s possible for a father to love his child. She might not have been much impressed at the time — don’t all of us, as kids, take the good stuff (and the horrific, for that matter) for granted? — but she’s now officially been around more than long enough to understand how extraordinarily devoted to her I was.

I remember being in Trader Joe’s in San Rafael with her maybe 12 years ago, and noticing a young dad wheeling his little girl around in a shopping cart. As they progressed through the store, the guy seemed to have only the most rudimentary sense of where he was and what he was doing; all his attention was focused on his daughter. He pointed things out to her, and encouraged her to do the same with him — to point out what she found interesting. He made little jokes with her. He touched her lovingly, and gave her an occasional kiss. He was unmistakably crazy about her, rapturous about getting to be her daddy. “See them?” I said to Brigitte, by then into her ferociously surly midteen mode. “That’s us a few years ago.”

I know, from her writings on line (she’s blocked me on Facebook) that my daughter resents my having ridiculed Christianity — at least the theatrical evangelical sort — when she was a kid. That isn’t one of the 1001 things I wish I could do over; I continue to believe that the people of whom I was making fun are indeed charlatans, as I continue to believe that the Catholic church is deeply corrupt. What I marvel at is how my daughter has forgotten that, even while ridiculing the faith-healers, I fervently encouraged her to be humble, tolerant, and kind.

As I understand Jesus to have been.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Boy Who Wore the Hell Outta Sports Coats

I have never spoken of this before, but there's no use continuing to pretend that I wasn't briefly involved in organized crime when I was four years old and living with my parents near what was later renamed Los Angeles International Airport, but then called Ballona Creek Field. In those days, parents weren’t so obsessive about exposing their children to great art, music, and literature before they began their formal educations; there were no such things as preschool enrichment programs, and my parents, living on the modest salary Hughes Aircraft paid my dad, wouldn’t have been able to afford to enroll me anyway. Indeed, rather than spending money on me, they liked the idea of my making money for them. When they saw a Help Wanted advertisement in the Westchester News-Advertiser, a biweekly throwaway that I later delivered, for “boys who wear the hell outta a sports coat,” they nearly knocked each other over grabbing for the phone.

I have been able to surmise, retroactively, that my employer was what would later be called a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization that was losing some of its key leaders to attrition, and wanted to appear vital by being seen to recruit “fresh blood”. At my job interview, with organization human resources capo Alfredo D. Pugliese, I had to show myself to look really good in the attire they provided, and to be able to mumble in a way that members of rival mobs would find disarmingly adorable. I was one of three children the Organization wound up hiring, the other two being three-year-old Ronald Siegel and his cousin, 20-month-old Caroline Siegel-Weiskopf.

We almost immediately began accompanying various senior executives of the Organization to such public events as Teamsters Union cookouts, and “meets” with the senior management of other organizations like our own. I rarely understood a word of what the men said to one another, as much of it was in either Yiddish or Italian (the forward-thinking Organization welcomed both Italian and Hebrew members), but I didn’t really have to. At the beginning of the meet, they’d stand me on a table in my Italian white linen sports coat and I’d mumble, “Maybe you don’t unna-stan’ so good. We ain’t askin’, pally. We’re tellin’.” Everybody would chuckle and agree that I was adorable, swarthy men with gleaming hair and pinkie rings would pinch my cheeks approvingly, and then actual negotiations would begin while I played with an Etch-a-Sketch or colored in a coloring book. Ronnie was usually content to suck his thumb, and little Caroline to nap or play with a doll.

I am obviously in the center foreground of the accompanying photograph, taken outside Zucky’s, a Santa Monica delicatessen popular at the time with organized crime. Directly behind me is consigliere Harold Finkelman (father of the noted artists’ manager Manny), with Ronnie on his lap. Organization capo di tutti Giovanni Spaventevole, in the sunglasses, maintains a firm grip on an oblivious Caroline even while gesturing menacingly at the paparazzo who snapped the photo.

I think the guy in sunglasses at the far left of the image was named Gino. I can’t remember the other bodyguard’s name. I do remember, though, that right after this photo was snapped, the two of them shoved the paparazzo’s camera up his…well, you know…after removing the film.

Within a year, I was in kindergarten, and my career in organized crime was behind me, unless you count the six months of human trafficking I did in 2003. I didn’t have to wear an Italian sports coat for that, or put grease in what remained of my hair, as it was all done on line.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Without Cynicism

My mordant sense of humor has gotten me in trouble yet again. A couple of week ago the  town in which I live unveiled its new Welcome Center, built entirely by volunteer labor. Confident that the event would present ample opportunity for mischief, I took Claire’s video camera, and recorded little interviews with the artist who’d done the mural on the back of the building, and an admiring friend of the artist, and a local woman who seemed, for reasons not clear to me (the failure may well have been my own!), to have soup on her mind. Without getting up to shoot them from the front, I recorded little snippets of local dignitaries celebrating the wonder of the new Welcome Center. I put theremin music on the soundtrack because the use of wildly inappropriate music has always amused me hugely; when my best theatre company, the enlarged Spandex Amazons, debuted in San Francisco in July 1995, I played Christmas music as the audience came in.

With tongue slightly in cheek, I entitled the resulting little video The Unveiling of the Beacon Welcome Center. My doing so, it seems to me, was very much in the same spirit as my friend painting straight-sided ovals in the exact center of familiar (or, in the case of his mural, unfamiliar) images and calling it art. But then I posted a link to my video on a site on which locals discuss things, and what a tempest in a teapot ensued! One woman denounced me for my cynicism. One guy said the volunteers' stalwart efforts deserved a far better tribute than my video — as though I'd kept anyone else from making his or her own little movie! Another guy said the whole thing reminded him of the dark days of a mysterious, maybe apocryphal, local provocateuse who was forever letting the air out of our more self-congratulatory locals’ balloons. When the guy said he’d hate to see a return to people being allowed to express views that upset others, I rubbed my hands together in glee and emphatically agreed that it was imperative that dissenting viewpoints be suppressed, lest anyone’s feathers be ruffled. Yes, I was being sarcastic.

The question before us now is whether my little film was cynical. I don’t buy that it was. I think all those volunteers working on the Welcome Center was a terrific thing. I have myself been working without pay on behalf of the restoration of the big local theater. But I am constitutionally unable to resist the temptation to satirize even mild pomposity. Self-righteousness and earnestness unleavened by a bit of humor, of the sort so much in evidence in my little corner of the Hudson Valley, invariably make me yearn for a whoopee cushion, or to be able to fart resonantly on cue.

I’m honestly not so sure I mind being accused of a bit of healthy cynicism every now and again. In the words of one of my favorite American writers, the late Frederick Exley, “Without cynicism, there is no wit.” In the words of Dorothy Parker, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, sit next to me.” If I were to watch my little video with an outsider’s eyes, I like to imagine I would be amused by the filmmaker’s having missed the whole point of the festivities. Honestly, though, it pokes no fun whatever at the brave men and women who gave their time and labor to make the Welcome Center a reality.

Could I be trying, in some twisted, neurotic way, to spare myself hurt by always staking out a position of ironic detachment? Well, not exactly spare myself hurt, but be more in control of it; I’ll do something to make you think ill of me, but that will be less painful than your thinking ill of me, which I presume you’d do, without provocation. Don’t imagine it hasn’t occurred to me.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John Ned Kaufman

I never actually met my maternal grandfather and namesake, John Ned Kaufman, but that by no means is to suggest that I’m unaware of the considerable debt I and my siblings all owe him.

What I know about him for sure is that he was born near the Ukrainian city of Odessa, and came to this country with his parents when the odds started favoring their being butchered in a pogrom if they stuck around. He and his young bride settled in Minneapolis, of all places, and he began failing in a succession of business ventures. The family, which came fairly quickly to include my mother and her two younger siblings, got used to having to flee rented accommodations under cover of darkness when John Ned lacked the money to appease landlords. At one point, they had no hot water with which to bathe, and my mother, the most sensitive person on earth, was sent home for smelling bad. Thereafter, and until the dementia transformed her, she was not only the most sensitive person on earth, but also the most fastidious. (The first time I noticed a large spot on her clothing, it was as startling and heartbreaking as when she assured her doctor, a couple of months later, that she was 35.) At one point, the Kaufmans came out to Los Angeles, and my grandparents ran a sandwich shop in the Wilshire District, but it too failed, and they returned to the Midwest, where my argumentative grandfather got in the habit of being brought home bloodied or even semi-conscious.

And then, after Prohibition was repealed at the end of 1933, he suddenly got rich in the wholesale liquor business. The family moved to one of the most fashionable parts of Minneapolis that would abide Jews and my grandmother began wearing ermine. Four years later, John Ned was in his grave, and his three gorgeous children were all on the verge of disastrously unhappy adulthoods, presumably owing in considerable part to his having been alternately distant and tyrannical.

It’s common knowledge, though, that people are commonly much kinder toward and more supportive of their grandchildren than their own children. Given his having exited well before any of us entered, that wasn’t quite the case with John Ned Kaufman, but as noted above, we kids have ample reason to be grateful to him retroactively. Every time we got in serious, or even semi-serious, trouble as kids, it seemed that an unnamed former friend of our grandfather from the liquor business would step in on our behalves.

Take the time my elder brother Corky, as a freshman, failed to make his high school swim team. By the time he’d begun his sophomore year, an unnamed benefactor had given the school the money to build an Olympic-sized pool, and the coach came to our home personally to invite Corky to anchor the backstroke relay team. When Carla’s ninth grade boyfriend was involved in a tragic fall from the fourth floor of the Henshey’s department store building a few weeks after telling her he thought they should both be able to date other people, it was widely assumed that someone from the upper Midwest liquor business might have been visiting Santa Monica at the time.

Does the name Dorsey Keswick ring a bell? It will if you’re one of those whose idea of a pleasant Sunday morning is buckwheat flapjacks and the New York Times Book Review; his book The Apostrophe Catastrophe, about how Americans ceased en masse to understand the most fundamental rules of grammar beginning in July 1986, won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2001. “Dorsey Keswick” is in fact the pseudonym of my younger brother Hillel, who hadn’t even been shortlisted, as I understand it, until the Pulitzer nomination committee heard from certain beverage interests in St. Paul, which of course is half of the Twin Cities.

As for myself, I could barely get arrested as a screenwriter until the Wm. Morris agency signed me as a client in 1991. Since that time, no fewer than three of my scripts have been produced, one of them featuring Bryan Batt, who later became so popular portraying the closeted gay art director Sal in Mad Men. There are those who believe my belated success has much to do with Bill Himself having been held out of a helicopter by his ankles, but I of course would prefer to believe that it’s all about the world finally having realized my brilliance.

[The second and third paragraphs of this are God’s truth, at least as I understand it.]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Forever Stubbly

Yesterday at the gym, attentive readers will recall, I worked out a few bikes away from a red-faced obvious steroid abuser who, at irregular intervals, would start shrieking along in the key of H with whatever he was listening to on his iPod, with the result that I had to read two or three times several sentences in the Scott Spencer novel I was starting because I honestly didn’t find Sue Miller’s account of her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s nearly as engrossing as I’d hoped to. If I were half a man, I’d have leapt off my own bike and gone over to tell Mr. Steroids to put a lid on it, but I am only around 45 percent a man, so I just kept pedaling. Of course, if there were any justice in the world, someone from the gym — which describes itself in its marketing materials as the No-Judgement [sic] Zone, and which has a bunch of signs up urging fellows not to make the exhibitionistic sounds of exertion that are so popular at Gold’s — would have come over and confronted the guy for me. But of course there is no justice in the world.

Once having completed my brief strengthening regimen, I headed over to Idolatry for some dishwashing liquid, soy milk, and razorblades, the last because it has come to my attention that I have now officially become one of those unpleasant-smelling old men who’s forever stubbly, and I have resolved to shave on the 4th, 16th, and 27th of every month that I can remember to do so, but of course I will forget as I publish this.

As I was heading back to my car, I heard a man and woman shouting at each other. My first, reflexive, reaction was to determine if I could reasonably claim not to have heard them; I am big on both plausible deniability and avoiding danger. Realizing that my deniability wouldn’t have been very plausible, I next glanced around, hoping that someone with bigger testes might want to get involved, but there was no one. The man, who seemed to share my disaffection for shaving, and who wore a New York Giants baseball cap with which he’d apparently mopped up a small puddle of cooking oil, called the woman a skank and a ho, though they were both white. The woman, of the sort who does all her shopping at Idolatry, rather than just for supplementary odds and ends, called him a dickwad and a fairy, which I found interesting because I haven’t heard fairy in that sense since well before repatriating to the UK, where Fairy, coincidentally, was both a brand of dishwasher detergent and a post-modern crooner with lank hair.

I actually interviewed the latter once, and was fascinated to find him the single shyest “rock” star I’d ever met. Throughout our time together, he stared at a spot on the floor midway between us. Given that he’d dated famous beauties (Jerry Hall, later Mick Jagger’s woman, Ava Gardner, Katy Perry, and others) and been on Top of the Pops, I found this surprising, but not so surprising that I wasn’t, at the end, able to slip him a demo tape of one of my own songs, “I’m Still Not Over You,” which was very much right up his alley. Though I never heard from him again, I can tell you that some of song's wistfully melancholic lyrics were inspired by my study of Italian in advance of my and my future first wife’s visit to Italy in 1982, which, coincidentally, saw the release of the best Roxy Music album, Avalon, which the future missus and I listened to implacably on her Walkman while traveling. I had encountered an Italian proverb translated as Pride arrives on horseback, but leaves on foot. For my song, I changed it to Pride arrived in a limousine, but then later on was seen departing on a moped.

I hoped you might enjoy knowing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Dad, The Swordsman

I have spoken here repeatedly of the tension my dad’s implacable amorousness caused in my parents’ home when I was just starting school. He would rarely come home from his office without lipstick stains of various hues on his shirt and even necktie, and sometimes he didn’t come home at all for days at a time. My mother would try to distract herself with the latest edition of Photoplay magazine, wallop me for reminding her of my dad, go into paroxysms of self-loathing because she’d let him hurt her so badly as to wallop me, and then drink herself stupid with gin, though it’s well known that the Jewish don’t drink, not unless they’re rich and famous and prisoners of their own wealth and fame. Finally, a few weeks before my seventh birthday, she left him for the widower Harry S—, a widowed instructor at a technical college.

My dad’s being what other fellows called a swordsman in those days of Frankie Laine’s “I Believe” in the hit parade created a lot of problems for me and my brothers, of course. Stability and I knew each other well enough to nod hello in that nearly imperceptible way the very masculine or autistic have; I had no fewer than five stepmothers between the ages of seven and 16, and attended more schools than I could keep track of. I wouldn’t wish such a childhood on anyone.

Well, actually, that isn’t entirely true; there are a great many on whom I’d wish it, retroactively — Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, that whole crowd of loathsome scumwagons. And it occurred to me this afternoon when I was at the gym — finding it difficult to concentrate on my book because this big red-faced steroidal monstrosity a couple of bikes over from mine kept shrieking along with whatever he was listening to on his iPod — that it’s foolish to imagine that God is subject to the same temporal constraints we humans are. I mean, who’s to say for sure that the Bubonic Plague wasn’t Her (God’s) way of chastising Europe for Sarah Palin’s daring, several centuries “after” the fact, to claim to speak for Her. I submit that, as far as God is concerned, past, present, and future are all nonsensical terms, and there is only an all-encompassing Now.

So I didn’t have a stable upbringing, and I thought a couple of Dad’s later wives — the cocktail waitress he brought home from Reno, Nevada, for instance, and Jeanne, the manicurist — were an idiot and a bitch, respectively. It was always fun to watch the cocktail waitress, whose name I honestly don’t recall, when it rained. My brothers and I would make bets about whether she would gape uncomprehendingly so long up at the sky as to be drowned.

The good news was that I learned all about women at a very early age, was always perfectly comfortable with them, and, like my dad, always assumed I could have my pick of them. Where my classmates in high school were losing theirs in the backs of ugly American sedans to whose vinyl back seats they and their girlfriends stuck if they got each other's tops off, I lost my own virginity to a lady bartender at the Playboy Club, at which my dad was on a first-name basis with everyone from the parking valet to Ner himself. (It’s only tourists and bridge-and-tunnel types who know Hugh Hefner as Hef; those in his real inner circle call him what Dad used to call him.) She had large breasts at a time when you had to have large breasts to have large breasts, rather than just enough to pay some plastic surgeon who’s a disgrace to his profession. But who am I, who have not walked a mile in their handmade loafers, to think ill of prospective healers  of African orphans who devote themselves instead to implanting silicone into women’s chests? 

Even at my advanced present age, I am seldom glimpsed without a starlet on my arm — or a pair of them, on both arms. Sometimes, in fact, I have no less than a trio, one attached to a leg. For this, I have both my Dad’s swordsmanship, and the smoldering Semitic good looks I inherited from him to thank.  

Sunday, September 19, 2010

My Parents' Marriage in 67K

Here is the one of the saddest sequence of photographs in the world, the story of my parents’ marriage in 67 kilobytes.
In the first image, with my paternal grandmother Rose on the left, and my mother’s mother, Celia Kaufman, on the right, we see my dad, as ever, reveling in the attention of others, hamming it up for the wedding photographer. What’s remarkable is that my mother has hooked arms with him, and seems to be pleased by her handsome young groom’s shenanigans.
My impression is that she ceased, in spite of the fact that they got pregnant with my sister nine years later, to be pleased with anything about him within a few weeks of that wedding party. They lived together in Washington, DC, with Rose and my apparently very passive paternal grandfather Louis, the butcher. My mother, a woman of fervent vengefulness, would hate Rose probably more than anyone else she ever met. 
In the blue-tinted middle panel, we see the happy couple in neighbors’ living room in the San Fernando Valley in around 1953. My dad, as usual, is being irrepressible. But note the expression of disdain on my very tanned (as she would take pains to remain well into her seventies) mother. Around this time in their marriage, I, at six, knew they would never go out for the evening together without my mother ravaging my dad the next day with her tongue for having either embarrassed her or been so intent on being the life of the party that he left her, terribly shy though she was, to her own devices. It wasn’t pleasant to listen to.
By the time I took the third photograph, in 1963, in back of the new tract house they’d managed to buy above Pacific Coast Highway, my mother had ceased to make any attempt to conceal how much she disliked having my dad anywhere near her. He was crazy about her, and remained so, but the more of her contempt he suffered, the more she detested him, and the more vocal she became about it.
I have, in the family archives from which the component of the above sequence of photos comes, a letter written by my uncle to my mother in the spring of 1962, imploring her to be a bit gentler with my dad, if only not to discomfit those around them. It fell on deaf ears.
There’s a photograph not represented here that made me burst into tears when I saw it at the convalescent hospital at which my mother died three years ago. It was taken in the late 1980s, in the living room of the house above Pacific Coast Highway. My parents are seated together on the love seat in the living room. As I was preparing to click the shutter, my dad put his arm on the cushion behind my mother, and my mother reflexively leaned forward, refusing even the slightest physical contact with him.
I have obviously wondered a great deal about what kept them in such a miserable marriage, beyond the fact that divorce was rare for persons of their generation. My mother had no marketable skills, and was generally terrified of the world, and must have derived a certain perverse pleasure out of ruling the household. But I honestly don’t think it ever even occurred to my dad to leave her. I suspect that in many ways my parents’ interaction mirrored my paternal grandparents’, and that for my dad, bullying disdain just felt like home. How to feel sorry for a man who never gave any indication that he had anything other than exactly what he wanted?