Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Elgin Baylor of Showing Up Reliably

An American boy wants nothing more than to be viewed by his peers as “coordinated,” whch is to say athletic, but I surmised early on that my body and mind didn’t see themselves as a team. I would aspire to one thing — hitting a pitched baseball, for instance — and my body, tiny [see photo!] until the age of almost 17, would do quite another. I didn’t learn to ride a bicycle until eight. I was 15 when I began to swim, to whatever extent I can be said to swim.

For years, I hoped in vain that my incomparable enthusiasm might be perceived as adequate compensation for my ineptitude. I’d be the first boy on the local baseball diamond of a summer morning, and the last picked for a team. (There were more inept boys than I, to be sure, but they had the sense to stay in their bedrooms with their stamp collections, microscopes, Erector sets, or slim volumes of Mallarme.)

At 15, I tried out for a Colt League baseball team. Attempting to make up for with zeal what I lacked in ability, I shouted so much encouragement from right field — chattered, in the spicy argot of the diamond — that the pitcher whom I was encouraging gazed out at me incredulously. Elsewhere, though, I enjoyed a brief reprieve from the humiliation that followed me onto every field and court of play when my junior high school announced a school-wide table tennis competition. Maybe 18 months before, my dad had bought us a ping pong table (a rare thing indeed in view of my parents’ fervent disinclination ever to spend money on pleasure), and I’d found that I had a knack for the game. I wiped the floor with my opponent in the first round. My second opponent, the sort picked maybe second for every team, sneered delightedly at the sight of me, and snorted, “Well, this shouldn’t be so hard.” I wiped the floor with him, and advanced to The Final Four, only to be unable to compete owing to an allergic attack of the sort I’m enduring a million years later as I write this.

Not long thereafter, or maybe a little bit before, I played in two all-star basketball games. (One made the team simply by showing up reliably for after-school intramural sports. I couldn't dribble, pass, or shoot very well, but was the Elgin Baylor of showing up reliably!) In the 9th grade all-stars vs. faculty game, I was held (LOL) scoreless, and nearly trampled by my one-time art teacher, Mr. Selleck. Who’d have guessed that he was such a beast on the court? In the game against the mid-year 9th grade all-stars, though, I actually scored a basket, and my gentle giant teammate Tim Thomas, 6-2 at 15, marveled, “Way to go, John.” I will never forget his having done so.

All of which leads up to a particular sportsnite (that is, sock hop) at which, typically, some boys played basketball in the gym between dancing with actual girlies, who no doubt just loved being shoved around the dancefloor to Percy Faith’s "Theme From A Summer Place" by boys drenched in sweat. Excruciatingly shy as I was, I spent most of my time in the gym, where, at one point, an impromptu four-on-four basketball game shaped up. Of the eight players involved, I was chosen eighth, but will never cease to be grateful to Mr. Jim Bristow for making it seem, as it came time for him to make his third selection, that he was eager to have me. A (very) rare moment of empathy and graciousness! 

As I recall, I was held scoreless. A decade and a half later, though, in an impromptu contest at Hollywood High School, I drove the baseline as fiercely as Mr. Selleck had all those years before, and scored, prompting the guy who was supposed to be guarding me to shake his head and rue, “Big Man (I was the only one in the game over six feet tall) drives hard!”

One of the best moments of the '70s for me!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Shop Talk

Other, manlier (or would it be boylier?) boys had fathers who would frown at recalcitrant small appliances, Gary Cooperishly declare, “Let me take it into the garage and tinker with it a bit,” and then return a few minutes later with the goddamned thing working better than when it had left the factory. These fathers had table saws, and jigsaws, and personalized soldering irons. My own dad didn’t tinker, and had a couple of screwdrivers. When something would cease to work, the best we could hope for was that his cursing it under his breath while my mother stood over him saying, “Well, do something!” might somehow rehabilitate the appliance. I entered junior high school ill equipped to compete with the sons of jigsaw owners.

Mercifully, a boy of my vintage didn’t take shop classes in Westchester until he’d learned to grow his own vegetables — specifically, radishes. The first week in Agriculture, my classmates and I harvested those planted by the previous mob, and then spent the balance of the semester growing a crop of our own. I could dig and water just like a real boy, and got through the semester unhumiliated.

But then: eighth grade. I took wood shop. The scions of table saw owners snickered incredulously at my reticence, born of feeling confident that I’d cut off a finger or two, and ineptitude. In addition to the napkin holder, I made a skimboard on which I was never able to skim.

Metal shop was next. I made a trivet that was recognizable as such only to those willing to squint, and a chisel, though mine, as noted earlier, wasn’t a household in which much chiseling (in the literal sense, smartass) took place. I was gratified to note that mine resembled a spoon less than that fashioned by John McWilliams, my principal tormentor (and intermittent best friend) in elementary school.

In electric shop, I made a little motor that actually worked. I hadn’t been as excited since the day I made a little radio, following instructions provided in the World Book encyclopedia. I don’t think I’d ever been more excited than when I took it into the bathroom (as I recall, touching a wire to a faucet improved reception) and heard Buddy Holly singing “Peggy Sue.” But my favorite shop by far (all right, the only one that wasn’t pure torture) was print. I loved the way the ink smelled. I loved the huge trays of letters that had to be placed one at a time. I printed some cocktail napkins that said The Mendelsohns. I managed to leave the l out, but my mother, who’d earlier feigned delight at my napkin holder, once again pretended to be thrilled. As a graphic designer, I’ve loved working with text to this day.

At Santa Monica High School, auto shop was the province of taciturn badasses with 1950s coiffures, tobacco-stained fingertips, and much crud under their fingernails. I felt about as well qualified for it as I would for military service a few years later, and thanked God that it wasn’t compulsory. As though PE, my sole class not segregated in terms of academic aptitude, wasn’t bad enough!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Daze in Court

My first day of jury duty, the Santa Ana winds were blowing, so I arrived soggy with sweat at the hideous 19-story office building in which Los Angeles County justice is meted out. It appeared as though we couple of hundred prospective jurors were about 60 percent Latino, 10 percent Asian, and maybe 99 percent bitter and resentful about having been wrenched from the glamour and excitement of our everyday lives. We were shown an inspirational film whose narrator droned on about the responsibilities of those residing in a democracy. Oceans white with foam and the Statue of Liberty made their expected cameo appearances. An officious County employee droned a little oration in which she used the phrase “at this time” repeatedly, and explained that there was nothing anyone could do about our waiting room being cold enough to store meat in, even though the hot Santa Ana winds had raised the temperature outside to 90° F. Nor did the water fountains work, but we were to derive solace that they didn’t work on any other floor of the building either. Defying dehydration, I occasionally ducked into the men’s room for handfuls of water. In a blind taste test, I would have been able to distinguish it from Pellegrino 10 times out of 10.

At last my number was called. I was to report to Dept. 126, presided over by Superior Court Judge Mildred Escobedo, up on the 15th floor, where, as advertised, the drinking fountains didn’t work. Fifty-five of us waited forever in the corridor outside her courtroom. I didn’t know anyone still named unsuspecting female infants Mildred. It seems a cruel practice.

We were finally allowed into the actual courtroom, surely the most depressing place in North America, with ultra-dismal fluorescent lighting that rendered even Prospective Juror 2, who’d looked quite sexy out in the corridor, gray and miserable. The defendant, accused of having tried to murder a fellow Latino, was a rotund little guy in a wheelchair. All we saw of him was the back of his head.

The last time I was summoned for jury duty — in San Francisco in the mid-90s — I was sent home almost immediately, seemingly because of my black leather motorcycle jacket and sneer. It wasn’t so easy this time. I hoped that glaring at the prosecutor might suffice, but it very quickly emerged that I had very stiff competition for his and his opponent's peremptory challenges. One young woman said that, because the defendant was in a wheelchair, she’d find it impossible, regardless of the evidence, to convict him. It seemed not to occur to her that he might have been injured in the course of trying to kill the other guy, or molesting schoolchildren. Another, who a couple of years ago had been convicted of grand theft, said he’d be unable to believe anything a prosecutor said. A retired firefighter, on the other hand, promised not to believe anyone who looked as though he might be in a gang, which I understood to mean:  any young Latino. 

Several said they could never find innocent a person who didn’t speak up in his own defense. A few said that a single witness’s testimony could never be sufficient. I could see the DA, whose dismal nausea-colored dress shirt was especially ghastly in the fluorescent light, wanting to roll his eyes. I have never enjoyed the company of the very stupid, and in that dismal courtroom, you could cut the stupidity with a knife, though all weapons had of course been confiscated downstairs, at the building's entrance.

A former fireman didn’t use these exact words, but essentially said he was prepared to take as God’s own truth any testimony by a cop. A fat, neckless prospective juror seated in front of me had four very distinct folds in the back of his head. It occurred to me that addressing Judge Escobedo as Your Highness rather than Your Honor might get me sent home, but might also get me locked up for contempt of court. They’d need 12 jurors and two alternates. I was Prospective Juror No. 22, and it appeared certain that at least 10 ahead of me would be banished either for being delusional or hopelessly dimwitted or for not speaking English. It wasn’t looking good. By the time Her Highness dismissed us for lunch after the DA’s 50 minutes with us, it was looking perfectly awful.

I got myself Japanese at a restaurant on Hill Street in which all the employees seemed to be Latino. It wasn’t at all good. The California rolls were approximately the diameter of a Frisbee, and who ever heard of cutting a piece of California roll, rather than putting the whole thing in your mouth? I returned to the courthouse in an ugly mood.

The defendant was nowhere in sight. We seated ourselves. Her Honor said she had bad news. The trial was now projected to last into December. Around 48 prospective jurors groaned or wailed or rent their garments. Only those who didn’t understand English did not. Her Honor turned out to be kidding. What a cutup, Mildred! She delivered a little oration about how we should be grateful to live in a country with Our System of Justice (I suspect that’s largely true), and how we shouldn’t have groaned and wailed and rent our garments, and sent us on our way.

Free at last. Good God almighty! Free at last!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Unbreak Our Hearts, Bruce

My efforts to this point have apparently been in vain. Today’s obscene Concert for Valor, co-sponsored by Chase, the bank that brought you the near-collapse of the American economy in 2008, will apparently go ahead as planned, with artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna, and Eminem saying thank you to our heroes in uniform with their beautiful music — or, in Eminem’s case, rhythmic bloviating.

The prospective recruit of the American War Machine, on the other hand, is told he or she will be Defending Our Way of Life. A great many return from their tours of duty in the Middle East  without having lost a limb, or their eyes, or their soul, and even those who do are likely to be bumped up to First Class if they wear their uniform onto the plane, and to be accorded standing ovations at any ball games to which they accept free tickets for courtside seats. Complete strangers are likely to murmur, “Thank you for your service,” at them in line at the bank. Sometimes there will be tears of gratitude running down their cheeks as they do so. Often  everyone in line will let the Young Hero go before them.

All of which, the War Machine knows, is likely to look sufficiently terrific to a 19-year-old without prospects to make him forget about being maimed beyond recognition just to keep the War Machine humming along profitably.

Damned good thing that we whom the jihadists hate for our freedom, as that exemplary patriot George W. Bush saw it, wouldn’t dream of stooping to the jihadists’ underhandedness.

When I was a teenager, a square-jawed, blue-eyed guy in a dashing uniform came to my high school to tell us that anyone who didn’t sign up for the War Machine’s noble adventure in Vietnam was a country-betraying coward with definite homosexual tendencies, although the last part was only implicit. Nowadays, they accentuate the positive — the parades and standing ovations and getting to cut in line at the bank —but the message is essentially identical, and identically vile.

Do you suppose having blood on your hands will make it easier to play your iconic Telecaster, Bruce? My guess is much harder, but I’m only a drummer.

But what glorious opportunities you have to redeem yourself! When you come on stage, before you play a single note, announce that your performance is dedicated to the ideals of universal brotherhood and peace, and to America’s conscientious objectors. Then, as you perform, have the word DESERT! displayed prominently on the video monitors behind you, or “Imagine there’s no countries — John Lennon”. Then, at concert’s end, bring all your fellow artists back on stage with you, join hands with them, and together sing Buffy St. Marie’s eloquent condemnation of militarism “Universal Soldier.” 

Do it, Bruce. Unbreak our hearts. Show us you’re not just the pawn in their game you seem to have become.

Fag Music

At my high school, the auto shop boys referred to what I liked as "fag music."

I’d actually loved a fair amount of the pre-Elvis pop I’d been exposed to around the time I started  school. I was a sucker for melody from around six, when I regarded "Where Is Your Heart (The Theme from Moulin Rouge)" as the most beautiful song in the world. When rock and roll came along, it wasn’t Elvis whose music spoke to me  most eloquently, but that of the prettier-voiced Jimmie Rodgers, who had a lot more in common with Burl Ives than with Big Bill Broonzy, let’s say — not, of course, that Elvis himself didn’t occasionally evoke the universally reviled Perry Como more than Arthur Crudup.

Half a dozen years later, all the British Invasion artists I loved most had started out playing black music, which was typically a thousand times more exciting than white music, passionate and, just as it said on the tin, soulful. The problem was that a fair amount of it was a little too passionate for my taste. I thought James Brown’s live show was breathtaking, but had no interest in his records. The words often seemed even more puerile than those in white pop. (I feel nice like sugar and spice, indeed, and he liked it so much he sang it twice!), and his screaming put me off.

There used to be a black radio station in Los Angeles. I stuck with the white channels. Better, I thought, to endure something as defiantly insipid as Chad & Jeremy’s "Willow Weep for Me" than to take a chance of hearing someone shrieking as though just lowered into a tub of boiling oil. And to be fair, there was lots of black stuff in the white Top 40 (or, in KHJ's case, Boss 30) — Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, The Impressions, Motown, even Slim Harpo at one point.

(I am well aware of the argument that Motown wasn’t really black music. But there was Motown, and Motown. The Supremes’ "Baby Love" might have been only marginally less treacly than Patience & Prudence’s "Tonight You Belong to Me," but don’t tell me that "Bernadette," for instance, with Levi Stubbs hollering as though in church and James Jamerson redefining the electric bass guitar, wasn't great black music.)

I have wondered, in my old age, especially after getting wind of Pete Townshend’s admission that he once lusted after Mick Jagger, if there might have been a homoerotic component of my preferences. I didn’t specifically want to put my procreative organ into any particular English boy, and God knows I didn’t want them to put theirs into me, and it was invariably someone like Brigitte Bardot or Elke Sommer I envisioned when I restored by hormonal equilibrium in the only way available to me in my pre-girlfriend days, but I see now that I had something resembling a crush on The Beatles and The Who — or at least wanted to be them, very much more than I wanted to be Wilson Pickett, say. In my first semi-serious group, the 15-year-old wunderkind guitarist would want to do Ray’s "Unchain My Heart," while I’d push for "Ferry Cross the Mersey." The great irony being that the groups I loved would have opted for "Unchain My Heart" without a millisecond’s hesitation.

All these years later, I notice that Jimmie Rodgers' guitar was open-tuned, and that he played barre chords with his thumb. I wonder if Richie Havens got it from him. I know I didn't. I got it from Dennis CastaƱares, and don't use my thumb. There's such a thing as dignity. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

I Don't Love My Country

I don’t love my country. I love my friends. I love the oceans, white with foam, and the Grand Canyon. I love New England in October, and the way the Santa Monica Mountains look in the morning and at dusk from my 10th floor bedroom window. I love that there have always been a great, great many kind, brave, altogether wonderful people in my country, but do not accept on faith that the proportion of such persons is higher in my country than in anyone else’s, and I suspect most countries have their own beautiful scenery if you know where to look for it.

I don’t love my country. It’s my country through geographical happenstance. I’m American because I happened to be born here to parents who’d happened to be born here, to parents who’d chosen for reasons unknown to me to immigrate here rather than another of the more salubrious countries of the late 19th century — England, say, or Australia, or Canada., or one of the Scandinavian countries. I have come to understand that whole Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free thing was essentially a come-on intended to attract cheap labor at a time when the country was industrializing.

I don’t love my country. Countries are artificial, but the horror their armies visit on each other quite real. Five hundred years ago, an imperceptibly short period of human history, my country didn’t exist, as it surely won’t even 100 from now. How many countries have arisen and how many ceased to be in the past three centuries? How many borders have been redrawn?

I don’t love my country’s having pretty much wiped out its original inhabitants. I hate my country’s xenophobia, a remarkable trait for a country populated almost entirely by the descendants of immigrants. I hate that when political candidates lie through their teeth in my country, an appallingly high proportion of the electorate eagerly believes them.  I hate that many of my neighbors are at best gullible and childlike and at worst defiant in their stupidity. As a Jew, I hated being told when young that I was among God’s chosen. I hate no less being told the same thing now, as an American. I hate that when someone in my country declares, “My country right or wrong,” he or she is actually widely applauded.

I love that I can say these things without fear of thugs kicking down my door and causing me to disappear, and that to this point the thugs have been confined to my country’s airports. I do not love my country trying to make me believe that freedom of expression is exclusive to my country, though. I don’t love their apparent belief that one educated in its public schools and at a state university is really that stupid.

I hate that my country is very rich, but that poor people are shivering and cowering at night on its streets. I hate that the weak and infirm are told by so many in my country that their predicament is a consequence of their own laziness. I hate that my country is unable to remove weapons of mass destruction (that is, semiautomatic weapons) from the hands of madmen (the obscure domestic ones, rather than the prominent international ones whose photographs appear on the news) because my country’s legislators tremble at the mere mention of an organization of men with small penises and big machismo.

I don’t love my country’s being an international bully, and I loathe its pretending that the wars it fights to keep itself rich and powerful are about Noble Ideals.  I don’t love my country’s having taught me, 10 minutes after compelling me to pledge my loyalty to the flag under which so much horror has been perpetrated, that the Communist countries brainwashed its young. I don’t love my country’s scoffing at the jihadists promising prospective recruits 72 virgins and Paradise while in the next breath promising its own young “heroes” (that is, veterans) standing ovations at ball games, and maybe even parades. I don’t love my country’s getting those young people to put themselves in mortal jeopardy to advance the agendas of venal motherfuckers, be they “our [political] leaders” or corporations. Indeed, I hate it, passionately.

I hope you share my love of kindness and compassion, and my perception that no nationality has a greater tendency to those things than another, just as no nationality suffers more profound grief than another when its sons and daughters are killed or maimed only to make richer and more powerful a politician or his most important donors. I hate the tribalism that keeps us from recognizing our common humanity, patriotism being tribalism’s shifty-eyed little nephew. If you don’t love your country to the extent I don’t love my own, it’ll make it a lot easier for us to be brothers.