Saturday, October 11, 2014

Yet Another Meditation on Manliness

My band, which will ultimately be called The Vexations, Caviar on a Ritz, Please Stop You’re Too Big for Me Why Are You Stopping?, or Joey Stalin & His Totalitariennes, has had a world of trouble finding a lead guitarist. The most recent may have been the most talented of the three who’ve lasted longer than one rehearsal, but then proved lackadaisical and unreliable. When I posted on Facebook about how much I’d enjoyed our first rehearsal without him (specifically, without his showing up late, taking forever to get his amp plugged into the wall and his guitar plugged into his amp, and taking his guitar back off every 10 minutes to go enjoy a cigarette or get himself another cold beer), he responded furiously, even though I hadn’t referred to him by name. His view was that my having aired our dirty laundry in such a way was the action of a little girl.

Don’t I just love when misshapen dwarves who’ve boozed and exercise-aversed themselves into physically evoking Jabba the Hutt play the masculinity card? Don’t I just love misogyny — characterizing allegedly offensive behavior as girlish — in general? Little girls: the most evil, contemptible people on earth! You know what they eventually become if given half the chance, don’t you? Women!

If it’s unmanly to express disgust at another’s lack of consideration or other malfeasance, I’m nonetheless OK with being unmanly. I don’t sky-drive or bungee-jump either, or get into fistfights in bars. I don’t change my own oil or enjoy talking about cars (I much prefer talking about where one can go in one). I was neither a Cub Scout nor a Boy Scout, did not serve my country in Vietnam or elsewhere (except by voting against Republicans and scrupulously recycling), and am hopeless at knots, both tying them and untying them.

You are well aware of the Internet having been the greatest thing to happen to obnoxiousness since farting. Even the most imbecilic can get on line almost effortlessly and assert with complete impunity that this thing or that thing…sucks. But there’s no obnoxiousness like that with which sports fans denigrate each other, and there’s very commonly a taint of implied misogyny to the denigration. If, for instance, a Dodgers fan asserts that a particular umpire seemed to be a lot more inclined to calling a strike a pitch thrown by a Cardinals pitcher, many Cardinals fans will pause from rubbing ointment into their abraded knuckles (they scrape 'em while walking, you see) and accuse the Dodgers fan of…crying. And you know who in the world is most prone to crying, do you not? Little girls, by virtue of the fact that little boys are taught to try to suppress their own emotions.

Nothing, of course, is more manly than high blood pressure, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, or one of the other physiological manifestations of suppressed emotion!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fish Tacos With Sides of Guilt and Shame

The Best Fish Taco in Ensanada isn’t in Ensanada, but in east Hollywood. ‘Twas there I first broke bread, or at least ate fish tacos, with No. 1 Friend when our 20-year estrangement ended 23 months ago. It’s shabby, and the restroom, shared by the two sexes — as, presumably, by the T part of the LGBT community — sometimes suggests a rather more relaxed approach to hygiene than one would prefer in a dining establishment. Leaving it last night, I found myself opening the door with the paper towel I’d just used to dry my hands, which of course led to feelings of guilt and shame.

My dad, for whom my mother always been openly disdainful, died in a convalescent hospital because of her catastrophic expectations. His stroke had left him unable to walk, and she was certain that if she “allowed” him to return home, the house would catch fire and she’d be unable to drag him to safety. When he died, I put myself in charge of avenging him posthumously, and treated her as she’d always treated him. When I got wind of the fact that she always used a paper towel to open restroom doors, I gave her a very hard time about it, as I did about everything.

Now, twelve years later, seven after her passing, it is I who opens restroom doors with a paper towel, and who shivers with self-disgust when I remembr how dreadfully I treated both parents.
And the one grandmother I knew. And how I failed to be a sufficiently good friend to my uncle Marty.

Walking home from the Target on the corner of La Brea and Santa Monica late this afternoon, I passed a place that had for sale a gorgeous 1930s radio, and remembered how, even in the late 1960s, my grandmother always spoke of listening to, rather than watching, television programs. I remember giving her a hard time for conflating Jane Fonda with Vanessa Redgrave, whom she thought to be anti-Semitic because of her denunciation of Zionism. I could always be counted on to give those who loved me most and most generously a hard time about one thing or another, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never forgive myself for it. When the psychotherapist I consulted in New York told me I had to forgive myself, I told her that it felt only fair that I should suffer for having been a horrid little shit.

It troubles me enormously to think that when I am gone there won’t be anyone on the planet who remembers my grandmother, or her ill-fated son, once the handsomest young man in the world, who killed himself at 35, or her beautiful, ill-fated younger daughter,  who died of complications of rheumatoid arthritis, or was euthanized, when I was around 10. She’s the only member of my family I don’t feel I let down terribly.

I used to get one fish and a couple of shrimp tacos, but N1F believes that most of the shrimp served in America these days comes from Thailand, and is raised by virtual slaves. TBFTE offers several big tubs of salsa, but the only one I ever get is the bright pink radish relish, which is as tasteless as pretty. The others look pretty watery.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Did the Decrepit Old Jew Cross the Road?

I was on the northwest corner of 3rd and La Brea, where a Buick dealership stood for many years, and where a Trader Joe’s stands now. It was my ambition to perambulate across 3rd to the southwest corner. I am not a patient person, and was made less patient by the presence of a quartet of orthodox young Jews in their distinctive attire photographing themselves with one of the policemen who’d been dispatched to the area in anticipation of Barack Obama’s motorcade passing by. It took forever for the light to change. When the little green walking man lit up, I headed south, only to have to stop because a motorist who wanted to turn left onto 3rd from the northbound side of La Brea decided to try to pull a fast one. But he turned out to be the less of my worries, the far greater being the bigger jerk who decided that he too hadn’t the time to wait for the next green light. I celebrated his audacity by bellowing, “Asshole!” at him as he reluctantly slammed on his brakes. Then, fight-fire-with-fire type as he was, he showed me his middle finger before stomping on his accelerator and screeching through the intersection.

Reaching the opposite shore, if you will, unscathed but furious, I became more furious at the sight of two motorcycle cops, right up on the sidewalk in front of CVS, enjoying a lovely fraternal chinwag, as the Brits would say. “I nearly got hit by someone turning left on a red light,” I advised them with great indignation, inspiring the nearer and wittier to shrug and say, “Sorry, chief. Didn’t see it.” Which made his fellow peace officer chuckle appreciatively.

“Why,” I mused aloud, “don’t you open your fucking eyes?”

How times have changed, I thought as I reached 4th Street and my indignation began to ebb. There was a time when expressing my dissatisfaction so vividly might well have resulted in their beating me into unconsciousness and dragging me into an alley to be devoured by homeless cannibals. Behold the benefit of being ancient, decrepit, and short-haired now, rather than the wild-haired firebrand of my student radical days.

I’ve had more than my share of humiliating, infuriating interactions with the LAPD. The closest I’ve ever come to a satisfying one was in 1977 when my and Marie’s next door neighbors phoned the cops to report, quite accurately, that I’d pushed my way into their apartment with the apparent intention of strangling them. (They had a tiny dog they’d leave locked in a bathroom a cheap apartment building wall’s thickness from our bedroom. The dog would yap frantically all night while they were out dancing, or whatever it was they were doing, and if their inconsiderateness didn’t make me homicidal on its own, their disdainful refusal even to consider my grievances certainly did.) Not being as enlightened in those days as I would later become, and far from my best owing to several successive nights of patchy sleep, I played the sexuality card and invited the cops to consider that the complainants were gay (not “faggots,” mind you, or “queers,” by gay), which information inspired them to sneer disgustedly and abandon their investigation.

I’m a little ashamed about that, but it wasn’t I whose little dog made it impossible for them to sleep. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Wednesday Night in My Life

Thinking of making myself linguine and clams tomorrow night, I traipse west to the bigger of the two 99 Cents Only stores within a literal stone’s throw of each other, one on Wilshire, just past the coffee shop in which that scene from Pulp Fiction was shot, and the other on 6th and Fairfax, just south of Molly Malone’s, where Terry Reid played a couple of weeks ago. I pass the La Brea Tar Pits. I pass that alleged work of art in front of the LA County Museum of Art comprising a great many old street lights, arranged symmetrically. Real men don’t eat quiche or read the poetry of Mallarme, and real artists disdain symmetry because it’s boring and obvious. I pass the magnificent old May Co. building, which continues to make empty promises to become a museum of Hollywood costumery. It was tres elegant decades ago, and my mother used to love to shop there. I, both boyish and a boy at the time, sometimes accompanied her.

In 99, a middleaged black man who resembles the Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Pedro Baez, whom I enjoy thinking of as Joan, is having a spirited debate with someone he alone can see, his voice a garden gate that badly needs WD-40. The yuppie music (Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, that sort of thing, and I detest it) plays soft, and there is indeed something to turn off — the accursed yuppie music, which I can’t fathom the store’s largely Third Worldy clientele much enjoying. Which isn’t to say that one doesn’t regularly glimpse luxury automobiles in the parking lot. 

I am astonished to discover that there isn’t a single clam on the premises, albeit much, much canned tuna. I had also hoped for some radishes — radishes having enjoyed a special place in my heart since I had to grow some my first months in junior high school, in Agriculture. The Los Angeles Unified Public School District seemed to assume that a boy should learn to grow his own vegetables, as well as to make a napkin holder in Wood Shop and a decorative trivet in Metal Shop. Were those the days, or what? But there are no radishes either, nor any MSG, which I read this week isn’t bad for you after all, unless you consume a great deal of it, and I am a person of staunch moderation and irrepressible frugality.

I used to much prefer the dismal smaller store on 6th because of the long lines at the big posh Wilshire one, but the place’s manager seems to have streamlined the process. With some linguine, some garlic salt, a big avocado, and two bottles of the grapefruit juice with which I like to mix vodka when it comes time to self-anesthesize in mid-evening, I get in the shortest queue, behind a tall, skinny young woman in cowboy boots and incongruous long drop earrings of the sort one might wear to a gala awards presentation. She has ear buds in her ears, so we do not exchange pleasantries, but on the other hand, we say nothing unpleasant to each other either.

I had intended to spend half an hour on my exercycle enjoying the new Dave Eggers book I like so much, but decide that lugging my purchases home has been sufficient exercise. I fire up Netflix on my iMac and watch Peaky Blinders, marveling at the enduring prettiness of Cillian Murphy, whom one might think of as the Irish Johnny Depp, and who I believe to be miscast as the cold-hearted gang leader. It is very reminiscent of The Sopranos, though set in the British Midlands of the 1920s, and very good. I ingest some medical marijuana, think of trying to put together a twist band to be called Joey Stalin & His Totalitariennes, and retire, having survived another day.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I Suffer for My Fiction. Now It's Someone Else's Turn

Sometimes I’m not at all sure that it’s really myself I loathe. Often I think it’s actually the rest of humanity, or at least that portion thereof that (with lots of help from me, of course) keeps me lonely, frustrated, and bored senseless. 
I loathe with particular ardor the 185 of the 186 literary agents I laboriously emailed individually 10 days ago regarding my latest novel, the comic masterpiece Who Is Keri Fetherwaite? One said yes. The rest either sent me emails advising that the book Didn’t Seem Right for Them or ignored me entirely. 
Maybe I should count my blessings. If a dozen had agreed to have a look at the manuscript (on which I worked especially hard, more about which in a paragraph or two), I know from past experience that at least 10 would have written back by now  to say that they didn’t like my writing. Better to be ignored, probably, than to have one of my core beliefs about myself placed in mortal jeopardy. I’ve always thought I could write, except during the days of my wealth ’n’ fame, when I lived in perpetual dread of someone jumping out of the shadows snickering, “You didn’t honestly imagine you were going to get away with this, did you?”
As for having worked especially hard on Keri…When writing fiction, which is huge fun around one percent of the time, and lonely drudgery the other 99, I very commonly ask myself, “You don’t honestly imagine you’re going to get away with this, do you?” Forcing myself to write a couple of thousand words per day, I commonly feel that maybe 1800 reek of the boredom I felt while composing them. And yet, when I’ve bled enough words for a book, I typically remind myself that I’m John Mendelssohn, whose brilliance is such that three or four perfect (or perhaps deeply flawed) strangers request my Facebook friendship each month based on something I wrote 41 years ago that Changed Their Lives (like a record review that introduced them to a group they wound up enjoying). 
What’s more, I can’t trim the rotten parts very well, not in view of the endless hours of forcing myself to sit here at my laptop, writing a sentence, checking Facebook in (usually vain) hope of someone having liked something I said, checking my email, filing what’s left of my fingernails, checking Facebook and my email again, revising the sentence, deciding that the sentence is unsalvageable, and then repeating the process 400 times per hour. I suffered awfully to get those words down on paper, or into computer memory. Now I’m supposed to discard them?
I used to think that the next stap — editing — very pleasurable compared to the actual writing. Here pick an even better word. There reconstruct a sentence to enhance its comprehensibility (and let no one muse aloud, “He does that?”). Burnish the wit. Lately, though, I’ve found the editing stage no less grueling than the writing. Nonetheless, I reworked Keri no fewer than three times, a new land record, and excised a couple of paragraphs. And where did it get me, my dears? Where? One kind, prescient agent’s tender accession. One! Of 186!

Stop hurting me, world. This instant! Stop it, I say!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Sometimes I Almost Feel Just Like a Human Being

I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Being looked up to and knowing things others don’t feel good to me, and how deeply rewarding my students’ appreciation. The most reliable source of joy in my life at the moment is the pro bono tutoring I do through the Los Angeles Public Library’s adult literacy program. 
E****, who recently relocated from Korea to LA with her urologist husband and three sons, loves Sex and the City and the music of Jason Mraz, is extremely smart and frustratingly inscrutable, and effectively refuses to address me by my first name, as doing so feels disrespectful to her. Fair’s fair, as I’m nowhere near pronouncing the first vowel in her own first name properly. 
Arouna, whom I’ve come to love like a son, is from Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in West Africa, and is sometimes almost impossible to understand, as English requires him to make a lot of sounds not present in the dialect he spoke with friends and family when he wasn’t speaking French at the university he attended.  The fact of his often being incomprehensible has made it hard for him to find work. If prospective workers only realized what a thoroughly wonderful person he is, and a diligent worker. 
The eldest of the bunch, 51-year-old Arturo, grew up in El Salvador stepping over the bodies of neighbors killed in that country’s civil war, and sneaking up to the top of the local Mayan temple with his girlfriend (later the mother of his three children, and later still the breaker of his heart) to get high and fuck to the music of Pink Floyd. I originally thought Art a cholo (a thug), and he had indeed spent too many years abusing substances and alcohol, but he proved as sweet a person as I’ve ever been known, implacably buoyant in spite of myriad awful problems, not the least of which is chronic insomnia. I would like to go the hospital where he works as a switchboard operator and punch in the nose all those who give him a hard time for his accent. 
Can you imagine the satisfaction I derive from his having recently read both The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men, and enjoyed both? If he’s still trouble with periods and commas, his punctuation isn’t much worse than that of many of the smug little yuppie attorneys whose words I processed 29 years ago when my little girl was very little, and I felt duty-bound to bring home a steady paycheck..

The other day at the beach, to which Arouna had accompanied me before I helped him apply for serving jobs in Japantown West, he asked why I do so much for him. I explained that I actually do none of it for him, and all of it for myself.  In the words of Elvis Costello, “sometimes I almost feel just like a human being.”