Friday, October 7, 2011

I'm One of the 99 Percent, and Am Committed to the Greater Comfort of Somalians

Twenty years ago today I was working on my ill-fated (as never-to-be-published) biography of the entertainment mogul and dickhead David Geffen, and pondering whether his having given $1 million to a gay charity whose identity I’ve forgotten constituted generosity. Having just sold his record company for $800 million, he had months before been ordained as a billionaire. Is one who donates one one-thousandth of his fortune, and in the process quite mindfully positions himself to save a bundle on his taxes, truly generous?

Yesterday, I got involved in a little Facebook shouting match regarding Steve Jobs. One of the many Facebook friends I wouldn’t recognise as such if he sat down beside me on the bus to Margate groused that many hi-tech gadget fetishists seemed to think of as the newly deceased Steve Jobs — an industrialist, the CEO of a corporation known to use Asian subcontractors who don’t always treat their employees with the utmost tenderness — as Lennon-like, almost as a martyr. I asserted that Jobs’ integrity may well have exceeded Lennon’s, and that Jobs didn’t only make himself and his shareholders rich, but also created great beauty. (I have been using Macintosh computers with the utmost delight since shortly after my Geffen book got quashed, and am in awe of the whole Apple product line’s gorgeousness. Even the Styrofoam in which my latest iMac was braced in its box seemed to have been designed with loving care!)

Another person commented that Apple products might indeed be much prettier than Microsoft’s, but that, unlike Bill Gates, Jobs wasn’t known for his philanthropy. Which led me to infer that, before one can revel in the beauty of a work of art (or a computer), he or she must first examine its creator’s tax returns.

But that’s another question. The one I really wanted to consider today is that the Occupy Wall Street movement, about which I’m intermittently very enthusiastic, seems based on the reasonable notion that it’s unfair for a microscopic minority of Americans to own a huge percentage of the country’s wealth. The idea seems to be that those, for instance, who got rich betting on the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2007-2008 should voluntarily hand over their ill-gotten megariches to the rest of us.

I do very much like this idea (I believe, in fact, that those who encouraged people to invest in things they were themselves betting against should be publicly disemboweled and fed to rabid mongrel dogs), but another Facebook comment I encountered this morning has me in a quandary. If we down here on street level have the right to demand a greater share of the country’s wealth solely on the basis of the current arrangement being patently unfair, doesn’t the entire Third World have a comparable right to demand from America a greater share of global wealth? Once having persuaded the financiers and Masters of the Universe to hand over their multimillions because it’s outrageous that anyone should have both a penthouse overlooking Central Park and a nine-bathroom mansion in the Hamptons while someone else can’t make his monthly mortgage payment, will we be prepared to help Somalia, say, attain the same average standard of living that Nebraskans enjoy? Some of the Masters of the Universe have their nine bathrooms in the Hamptons because they bet against large numbers of American homeowners being able to maintain their mortgage payments. Most, if not all, Americans benefit indirectly from our forebears having stolen our resource-laden hunk of the continent from the Indians. Are we, when the domestic playing field has been levelled, going to pretend there’s a big difference between the two?

If my giving away a thousandth of my worth isn’t generous, then what is? A hundredth? A tenth? How can I justify having any food at all when children in the world are starving?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Way It Should Be

[Please read yesterday's entry first!]

The bride’s father, who, after all, is the one out of whose pocket the band’s deposit came, gets on the phone with the bandleader, though he is at first too furious to speak coherently. As she sputters and hisses, the bandleader is tempted simply to break the connection, but instead becomes lost in a reverie about an earlier bride’s father he made furious. It was about a year before, and the happy couple’s guests were getting on the bandleader’s tits by requesting nothing but songs he loathed playing. They asked for Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, for instance, and for several Abba favourites. Instead of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, he sang Ike & Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High, complete with an uncanny recreation of Tina Turner’s orgasmic screeching. That shut them up for a while; the bandleader took particular delight in noting that someone’s auntie actually required fanning. He liked to imagine she’d fainted, though he hadn’t actually seen it. But his respite was short-lived, as someone’s uncle came up and slipped him a fiver to sing Abba’s Fernando.

There were many problems with this. First, the song’s fatuity -- Swedes conjuring a Latin American freedom fighter — had always made him itch. Second, as one who’d had a deal with Sony not that long ago, five pounds was an insult. He could imagine that when Elton John played private parties for billlionaires, people would give him the keys to Ferraris to sing particular songs, or the deeds to beachfront homes with nine bathrooms, not bloody fivers. So what he did was sing Carly Simon’s That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be, a feminist meditation on the fact that a bad marriage can be a prison.

People stopped dancing two verses into it, and the bride scampered from the dancefloor with mascara streaming down her cheeks. Both the groom and his new father-in-law converged on the bandleader and wrestled his hand-mic from him before he could sing, "You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds, but soon you’ll cage me on your shelf. I’ll never learn to be just me first, by myself." But the damage was already done.

“What’s your bloody game?” the bride’s father demanded. The bandleader said someone had requested the song, and showed the bride’s father the bedraggled fiver the Fernando man had slipped him. The groom demanded that the bandleader point out who’d done the slipping, but the bandleader wasn’t one for grassing, and tried to get his two antagonists to consider that the song might have been one of the most exquisite of the second half of the 20th century, along with the Linda Ronstadt-popularised Long Long Time — which he and the band also knew, in case the groom and his father-in-law fancied hearing it. “Will it stop everybody feeling miserable?” demanded the groom, whose own taste the bandleader guessed ran more to heavy metal bands from the Midlands, and who obviously had never heard it. The bandleader said all he could guarantee was that it was gorgeous, and that he loved singing it.

The father of the bride, meanwhile, sought an alternative solution. He asked the guitar player if anyone else in the band could sing, and the guitarist said the girl keyboard player could. Indeed, she’d been singing harmony vocals all along. The father of the bride said there was an extra 50 quid in it for everyone in the band if, for the balance of the afternoon, they told the bandleader to sod off, and let the girl keyboard player sing. The guitarist got him up to an extra 65 quid for each of them. The girl keyboard player, who was overweight, though with luminous smooth skin, thought this might be her big break, and the other musicians, who included a compulsive gambler and an alcoholic, welcomed the extra dosh. Only the bandleader, who realised he would now have to put together a new band — he had no intention of sharing a bandstand with turncoats — was miserable.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Diciness of English

Surmising, from the indiscreet utterance of one of her bridesmaids, that the band isn’t going to turn up, the bride herself gets on one of the bridesmaids’ iPhones to say WTF. It isn’t that one of her bridesmaids has multiple iPhones — imagine how expensive that would be! — but rather that several of the bridesmaids have them, and one, Tamsyn, has offered the bride the use of hers. English can be dicey in such matters, and simply isn’t very good on pronouns. Two sentences ago, for instance, we had Tamsyn, the bridesmaid, offering the bride the use of her iPhone, but it’s impossible to ascertain from that whether the phone is the bridesmaid’s or the bride’s.

The bridesmaid’s, and the bride, who should be primping and getting increasingly nervous, uses it to phone the leader of the band, at whom she howls indignantly. How can he even consider ruining what should be the most wonderful day of her life? To what does he expect her family and friends, and her handsome groom’s, to dance? A boombox? When was the last time anyone even saw a bloody boombox?

It isn’t half-one yet, but the bandleader has already downed nearly as much alcohol as the National Health Service recommends for an adult male to consume over a week. (Predictably, it recommends that children consume rather less.) He is, as usual, trying to placate his demons, to render unintelligible the cruel voice in his head that demands to know if he isn’t fatally embarrassed or even ashamed playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and what-have-you to keep himself in lager, fags, and ready-meals (Iceland’s chicken tikka lasagne being a particular favourite) when only nine years ago he had a deal with Sony.

Yes, of course, he is mortified, as who could fail to be? The A&R person (talent scout) who signed him predicted he would be The New George Michael, though neither gay nor a native Cypriot), and here he is not a decade later not singing his own songs at Wembley Arena, but Elton fucking John’s at weddings. Occasionally, the over-perfumed divorced 46-year-old aunt of the bride or groom will notice the charisma that attracted the Sony talent scout in the first place, and spend the rest of the afternoon making his life a misery, leering at him as he sings, chatting him up when the band takes its hourly ten-minute break, but mostly everyone’s too busy dancing and being joyous for the happy couple even to notice him. He might as well be a bloody CD!

“Why don’t you just hire a bloody DJ?” he asks today’s irate bride. “Google or something. I’ll return your deposit on Monday.” In fact, he’ll do no such thing, as he’s already drunk and smoked her deposit. And she’s not having the idea anyway. She doesn’t get shrill in her increased indignation, but actually lowers her voice. She says, “Actually, with only 42 minutes before I’m to exchange bloody vows, I’m not going to go on the bloody Internet. What’s going to happen is you and your band are going to get out here now.”

The bandleader loses the ash of his Marlboro — he’ll revert to rolling his own when he’s spent the last of her deposit — down the front of his Adele T-shirt and plays the alcoholism card. Does she really want him to drive out to the wedding site in view of his being well over the limit, and thus constituting a threat to other motorists and especially pedestrians? Would she really want an innocent’s death or dismemberment on her conscience?

“Listen, mate,” she says, in a register beneath that of the chainsmoking actress they brought in to voice the demon inhabiting Linda Blair, “you’ll honour our bloody contract or I’ll hire unemployed Albanians to come break your bloody arms and legs.” One of her bridesmaids, Prim (as in Primrose) bursts into frightened tears at this. Tamsyn and another of the bridesmaid, older, better acquainted with the bride, and thus more familiar with her (the bride’s, not Prim’s) penchant for threats, go all maternal, consoling her, stroking her lustrous strawberry blonde head and murmuring, “It’s just rhetoric, love. There, there.” English to the core, poor Prim finds all the attention upsetting, and is sick.

There are lots of unemployed Albanians in the UK these days, but of course there are lots of unemployed everything everywhere.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Audrey Mendelsohn lived out the final couple of years of her life in a thick fog of dementia in one of those old folks’ depositories with an incongruously cheerful name and meticulous landscaping, in Gurnee, Illinois, a state I suspect she’d never visited while sentient. When I visited her there for the first time after not seeing her for six years (during which she’d essentially ceased to be herself), I exploded in tears. In my profound foolishness, I’d always imagined I’d have a chance to apologize for how awfully I’d treated her during her last years in California.

There was never a question that my mother adored me. Nor was there ever any question that, the meagerness of my accomplishments notwithstanding, she was hugely proud of me. But when my father died, I lost both of them — her because it suddenly dawned on me how she’d made me her mouthpiece for her ever-growing contempt for him. Thinking it would make her and me closer, she’d always encouraged me to share her low opinion of him, and I was overcome with shame when I realized how avidly I’d done so.
I’d realized in the last months of my dad’s life how my mother had always wanted me to be weak. We would pick my dad up at the convalescent hospital to which she’d banished him (because if she “allowed” him to come home after the stroke that left him unable to walk, the house would inevitably catch fire, and she’d be unable to pull him to safety) and drive somewhere for a little outing. When I’d get his wheelchair out of the trunk, she’d frantically try to persuade me not to try to do it without help. Reflexively thinking myself unequal to every physical task, imagining myself always to require the intervention of someone stronger, I’d been regarded throughout my early life as a hopeless wuss, and I blamed her. Oh, did I blame her.

I visited her regularly in her last months in California, and she was always delighted to see me, even when I put my back into being as sarcastic and disdainful as possible — to treating her, in other words, exactly as she’d always treated my dad. I shall take to the grave the shame of the way I treated the two people in the world who loved me most.

So there I was with my mother in northernmost Illinois in the early autumn of 2007, weeping prodigiously at the realization that I’d lost my chance to apologize, when a very shrill fire alarm went off in the convalescent hospital. A voice on the PA system said it was a malfunction, and that there wasn’t really a fire, but the alarm couldn’t be placated. I could feel my mother tense; she, the most fearful woman on earth, remained enough of herself to experience panic on some very primal level. And still the alarm kept shrieking. And still. And still.

I could leave her alone in her panic while I ran through the place, trying to ascertain why no one was turning the goddamned thing off. Or I could hold a pillow over her face until she had never again to panic.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

It Wasn't Bartman's Fault

In my own childhood, I suffered from what might be seen as a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. Though I was awful as sports, I identified myself in terms of them. I spent years foolishly telling myself that if I wanted it badly enough, I could somehow will myself to much greater athleticism than I had it in me to achieve. In so doing, I condemned myself to years of cruel disappointment or even humiliation. I wonder if a person ever completely gets over years of being chosen second- or third-to-last (there was, thank God, always at least one boy even more hopeless than I in my classes) for every team?

At Loyola Village School, teams were never chosen for spelling, reading comprehension, or art.

The remarkable documentary film I watched on ESPN America last night reminded me how sports bring out the worst in people. At a 2003 National League Championship Series game in Chicago, whose Cubs appeared to be about to make it to the World Series for the first time since something like 1831, a Florida Marlins batter hit a fly ball down the left field line. The Cubs left fielder might have caught it, putting his team within only a few outs of victory, had not the bespectacled 26-year-old Steve Bartman tried to catch it himself — as several other fans to either side of him tried to do as well, and as you or I would surely have done in the same circumstances. The Marlins went on to score a great many runs, and to win the game, and then to win the next evening’s too, and with it a trip to the World Series.

Fans outside the stadium watched a replay of the Bartman mishap over and over on a portable TV, and began chanting, “Asshole!” Their counterparts actually inside Wrigley Field took up the chant, and some of them came over to throw beer at Bartman, who had to be rescued by security guards. And there weren’t 10 of them among the 40,000 in attendance who wouldn’t have reacted to the foul ball exactly as he himself had.

A local TV channel thought its ratings might be enhanced by their making known not only Bartman’s identity, but also the location of the home he shared with his parents; it was a wonder one of them wasn’t killed. I suspect there were moments when Steve and his parents almost wished they would be. I’d bet the whole thing haunts him to this day.

The Cubs shortstop, who made a crucial error shortly after the foul ball, and pitcher, who suddenly lost the ability to get a Marlins batter out, weren’t threatened, nor were the Cubs batters who failed to produce sufficient runs to overcome the Marlins’ big inning. But that’s hardly to suggest that the fans always cut athletes all the slack they need. It was over 20 years before the good folks of Boston “forgave” Bill Buckner for the fielding error that contributed to the New York Mets’ winning Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and then the Series itself the following night.

I had a small dog in that particular fight, as, back in the days when I was a fervent LA Dodgers fan, I saw then-Dodger Buckner make the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen in person, sprinting from left-center field to make a diving, skidding catch of a fly ball down the left field line.

I’d imagined, given their reputation for orderly queuing and for murmuring, “Sorry,” if you bump into them, that the Brits might be rather less beastly in this regard, but it turns out that they are actually even beastlier — given, for instance, to shouting, “I hope your kids get cancer,” at David Beckham after he failed to lead the England team to victory in an important international game.

I'll confess it anew. I watched sports nowadays mostly in hope that players I know to be narcissistic jerks or worse will suffer painful injuries.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Piggy on the Beach

The weather here is spectacular, and we have walked down to the beach just west of the port the past two afternoons to bask in the sunshine. Today a saddening tableau unfolded before us. In the age-old universal tradition, a boy of around 20 hurtled from behind us into the sea, daring it to be too cold for him One of his pals followed. Then a slight kid wrestled his corpulent, protesting mate into the drink after them, though the corpulent one probably outweighed his tormentor by 75 pounds. I thought immediately of Lord of the Flies. I thought too of my own junior high school days, during which I observed that only Billy Snyder, the spastic, and Walter Daniels, the Negro, had it worse than Dale Jensen, a small mountain of a boy, but a gentle, timid sort, who quickly gained a reputation for being disinclined to use his immensity to his advantage.

The three alpha boys at the beach today swam out to the end of the jetty, and then climbed atop it to launch themselves into the North Sea from an altitude of maybe 10 feet. Finding this insufficiently thrilling, they then took to leaping from atop the guardrail (which added another three and a half feet of altitude) at the jetty’s tip. All the while Piggy, as we’ll call him, played by himself, bouncing a football (that is, soccer) ball against the side of the jetty.

His estrangement reminded me of the late summer of 1962 when, after convincing my parents to let me use some of my paper route money to buy our next door neighbor’s surfboard (because to not surf was to not exist in the eyes of the maidens of Orville Wright Junior High School), NDN invited me to accompany him and two other neighborhood boys on a little surf safari down to Palos Verdes.

I was beside myself with pleasure during the long drive down there, which might have been the first time I was ever a passenger in an adult-free car. What wonderful camaraderie the four of us had. How glorious the music (the Beach Boys’ Surf Safari, appropriately enough, and Bryan Hyland’s Sealed With a Kiss) sounded! But then we finally reached our destination, and the facts that the waves were big and I a very, very tentative swimmer (having grown up afraid of the water, as of most things) kicked in. As my mother’s son, I was also given to catastrophic expectations, and was pretty sure that if I actually tried to ride a wave, my surfboard would fly into the air and come down on my head.

I spent the afternoon sitting on the beach watching my…buddies, trying to think up a credible excuse for my non-participation. It was an excruciating lonely feeling, but hardly an unfamiliar one. To a large extent that feeling was the story of my childhood.

Once having got bored with the tip of the jetty, the three fit boys today returned to the beach. Getting dressed, a couple of them playfully walloped and kicked Piggy in a way that simultaneously affirmed their fraternality and reminded Piggy of his place at the bottom of their pecking order. He, naturally, tried to act as though the kick and wallop were much more the former than the latter.

No one was fooled.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Ticker-Tape Parade Down the Broadway of My Psyche

Decades ago, after I’d performed with my little rock group at the world-famous Whisky a-Go-Go, someone asked if I’d been a professional dancer, and my girlfriend related having heard a young woman in the audience observe to her friend, “All he’s got going for him is his looks.” On the last night of 2010, I was nearly that flattered again when my friend Janet asked me to make a lasagna for the intimate New Year’s Eve potluck dinner she and Nathan had resolved to host. It turned out that my lasagna was the main course, and two of my four fellow diners seemed to like it well enough to request a second portion. A glorious ending for an altogether glorious year!

In 2010, all I did was achieve sanity. After spending most of my adult life either nearly immobilized by despair or bracing myself for the next visit of what Winston Churchill called the Black Dog, I suddenly found a way to keep depression at bay. As I write this, it’s been about nine months since I was seriously despondent. I’ve never gone that long before. When my daughter got married a few weeks ago, I wasn’t even told about it, much less invited. I rebounded from the news — and from the realization that I probably won’t get to meet my grandchildren — in hours. You can’t keep a good man down, or me.

Or maybe I’m giving myself too much credit saying that I found a way. Maybe it’s the citalopram that deserves a ticker-tape parade down the Broadway of my psyche, or the kindness and wisdom of Ms. Rita Ovens, whom I consulted during the first half of the year at the local mental health center. Anyone and anything who feels entitled may take as much credit as she or he can carry! There’s plenty to go around.

I’d long imagined that being in emotional agony a lot of the time at least helped make me who I am as an artist. That turned out not to be the case. My sunny new disposition has made me no less brilliant, and no less driven. I achieved my goal of writing 300 little essays over the course of the year, over 200,000 words. My efforts didn’t make me the toast of multiple continents, or even of my neighborhood, but I’m fine nowadays thinking that my genius may be recognized only after my death, or not at all. A world in which, for instance, Mark Ruffalo keeps getting hired to act in movies and John Grisham keeps getting paid fortunes to write fiction obviously makes no sense whatever, and one can only drive himself crazy imagining otherwise. Hey now, hey now, Crowded House sang, don’t let them win, presumably referring to the forces that try to demoralize all of us. Words to live by!You do your damnedest, take pride in having done so, and let the rest take care of itself, or fail to take care of itself.

My gal moved back to her own country in the spring, but my love for her only grew, and when we spent a couple of weeks together in the autumn, ‘twas blissful. It doesn't get better than being loved so much by one you love so much. I made a good new friend in 2010, and give myself a rowboat full of credit for having done so, as she, a fellow Census trainee, didn’t give me much encouragement in the early going. My friendship with Nathan and Janet got deeper and stronger. After 20 years and an excruciating false start, my best male friend of my adulthood and I managed finally to get back on track after 20 years’ dormancy.

I went to the gym 320 times over the year’s course. The unrelenting pain in the knee that was mangled when an inattentive teen driver ran me down in the middle of Beacon’s Main Street and my failing hearing and vision aside, I remained the picture of what Tom Wolfe has called rude animal health. Nathan thinks I look buff, Janet that I look lanky.

Everything’s coming up roses, my friends. May your 2011 be as happy as my 2010 has been, and all your Xmases white.