Saturday, November 29, 2014

Great Moments in Ballsiness

What I said the other day about my writing career having been one uninterrupted long ride on the gravy train, with adoring crowds meeting me at every station with bouquets, fruit baskets, and virgins in black lace pushup brassieres? Irony. The fact is that by mid-1982, when I got home from running around Italy for three months with my future first spouse, I was writing reviews for the Los Angeles Times’ weekly book section at $15/pop (and all the review copies I could carry, which was a great many), weeping inconsolably a lot, and going out only at night to elude my creditors. I swallowed my pride, wept some more, and accepted a job typing address labels at the very university from which I’d acquired an extremely useful (more irony, you see!) bachelor’s degree in sociology many, many years before.

My supervisor was a hyperofficious black woman who seemed to have no appreciation whatever of my having been The Boy Who Disliked Led Zeppelin. I fixed her wagon — oh, did I! — by not typing a single middle initial correctly my whole time as her charge, in part because I have always regarded middle initials (except for those with extremely common names) as pretentious.

Once having survived that humiliation, I moved onto a worse one, processing words at a bicoastal direct response (that is, junk mail) advertising agency, though I literally didn’t know how to turn on an IBM Stylewriter when I started. I very quickly came to loathe and disdain the pompous windbag whose words I spent most of my time processing. He was an awful writer and a wearer of bowties in which I think he imagined he’d have looked right at home at the Algonquin Round Table. But boy, did I like the art director, Mr. Sid H—, who was unimaginably ancient (closing in on 60, I think), talented, wry, and as disdainful of Mr. Bowtie as I, if much more gently. He had a faded hottie wife from somewhere Scandinavian, and flabbergasted me by confiding that he was glad he’d become too old for sex, as it became a nuisance after a certain age. He attended my birthday party in 1983, and my wedding, and I, jerk that I was, imagined myself ever so cool and wonderful for not allowing his ancientness to diminish my great fondness for him.

I am, as I write this, several years older than Sid was at the time.

I have almost always gotten along wonderfully with art directors, none more than Peter W—, who oversaw ABC Records’ designers during my short time there. Peter shared my enthusiamn for Monty Python, of whom few Americans had heard at the time (one week, he forbade anyone in his department to answer to anything other than Bruce), and agreed with me that there was something fundamentally…unjust about some of the most horrible music coming in the most gorgeous album covers. He shared my view that I should be granted the ability to make recording artists I detested cede their pretty covers to the more deserving. He drank — oh, did he! — and commonly took the whole department and me to multi-hour lunches at the Korean restaurant on nearby La Cienega Blvd. where I once ate something so hot that I literally ran into the men’s room, filled a sink with cold water, and plunged my lovely still-unlined-at-that-point face into it. I learned later that I'd have been better off stuffing my mouth with plain rice or drinking milk, but I wasn’t thinking clearly.

Back in the LA Times Book Review days, I would regularly take armloads of promotional copies to Pickwick Books on Hollywood Blvd., claim to have received them as gifts, and exchange them for store credit. By and by, they caught on. One afternoon, an assistant manager confronted me about the boxful of very disparate new books I'd brought in. “Were these really all gifts?” he demanded. “Every last one,” I said, glowering back at him evenly. He blinked first, sighed, and wrote out a credit slip for everything I’d brought in, including Self-Pleasuring for Christian Girls. I have not often been so ballsy.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Letter to Me From a Coackroach That Got Away

Well, aren’t you the hero? You come into the kitchen and see some of us Periplaneta Americana looking around, minding our own business, and suddenly you’re Vin Diesel or Arnold Schwarzenegger, exclaiming, “Die, fucker, die!” as you crush us to death, bare-fingered. I’ll bet you feel almost as powerful as when, as a lonely, miserable eight-year-old, you’d spend whole afternoons crushing black ants in the driveway of your parents’ house on Earldom Avenue in Playa del Rey. (What, you don’t think we didn’t notice that the subtitle of your ghastly 1995 autobiography I, Caramba, is Confessions of an Antkiller?)

Our running for our lives when you switch on the kitchen light really gets your genocidal juices flowing, doesn’t it, you unspeakable monster? The sight of us trying to scurry to safety really brings out the action hero in you. And they’re exactly the sort of odds a dickweed like you likes — a 167-pound, 73-inch-tell man against a 10-gram…cockroach.

Yes, I used to hate that name. I think we all did. But we’ve come to embrace it, as many gays have embraced queer. It simultaneously evokes both sex and recreational drug use, and I happen to think that’s pretty cool.

You find our having come to share your apartment disgusting and upsetting. Well, how exactly do you suppose we got here, genius? Do Mexicans try to cross the border into Guatemala? Of course they don’t, and we don’t infest — to use the word people like you love so much — kitchens in which lots of delicious edibles haven’t been left out for us. A crumb to you is a banquet to us. If you want to see the real culprit, look in a mirror.

I know where your hatred comes from — the knowledge that long after you and your kind have blown each other to bits, or poisoned your own water supply, we’ll still be around. Some of us can go a month without food — good luck getting and then keeping your kitchen so immaculate that we starve, genius! You’ve probably heard about that trick some of us used to do, subsisting on the glue of postage stamps. I know your kind probably thought it was really clever introducing glue-less self-adhesive stamps, not that anybody actually mails anything anymore, but let’s see which of us is the last creature standing, or, in our case, scurrying.

Some of can go without air for 45 minutes. Think you can drown us? Don’t be sosure, In one experiment, half an hour’s immersion in water didn’t do the trick. Freeze us? Probably not, sunshine. Our Japanese cousins (P. japonica) can survive for twelve hours at -5 °C to -8 °C. Behead us? Well, you’re getting warmer, but experiments on multiple species cockroach species hav shown that lots of behavioral functionality, including shock avoidance and escape behavior, remains even after you decapitate us.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know very well that Vladimir Nabakov, a bug expert as well as writer, believed that the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis wasn’t actually one of us, but a beetle with wings under his shell. Believe what you like, brighteyes. You don’t even have an agent. Which of us would you say is nearer to literary glory?

In closing, I’d like to urge you to contemplate the following. We communicate to each other where to find food and water — and where to hide from genocidal monsters like you — by leaving chemical trails for each other. Some of the trails form when we emit airborne pheromones. But a lot of the others we shit.

Bon app├ętit, you genocidal motherfucker.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Special: Renaming the Teams of the NFL

While watching the Detroit Bankrupty, or whatever they're actually called, play the Chicago Pizza, or whatever they're actually called, in their traditional Thanksgiving professional football game this afternoon, you may find yourself wishing that more NFL teams would dare to jettison the corny animal, fish, and bird names under which they've heretofore done business, and renamed themselves for their distinguishing characteristics of their respective cities, or at least imaginatively. 

Motoring back and forth across the American Southwest this week, I decided to invite the ideas of an innocent, and invited my bride, a Brit, to rename all 30 teams of the National Football League, though her idea of football is young, often very slight, men in shorts kicking a round ball back and forth. I’m sure that you will find many of her suggestions as delightful as I. Lou Reed fans, for instance, are apt to tremble with pleasure at the Seattle Lights of Love, while those who remember Dynasty will certainly chuckle at the Dallas Shoulderpads. 

Puns, obviously, abound on her list. I am especially fond of the Minnesota Fountain and the Baltimore Poppadoms, which you are more likely to appreciate if you are yourself a Brit, preferably one from the Midlands, home to the most delicious balti (curry served in a wok-like bowl) in the United Kingdom. (I pause, self-congratulatorily, to note that, on espying a balti joint in my bride’s old neighborhood, Rayners Lane, I thought immediately of suggesting that it be renamed Balti Towers.)

Many of her suggested names refer to actual characteristics of the city involved, or to something for which it is celebrated, as witness the Tampa Bay Humidity, the Philadelphia Cheese, the San Diego Zoo, the New Orleans Voodoo, the Carolina Rednecks, the Washington Politicians, and the Chicago Pizza. In such cases as those of the Cincinnati Sugarplums and the Green Bay Mollusks, sheer whimsy seems to have seized the steering wheel. 

Pop cultural references rear their lovely heads in the Kansas (City) Dorothies, the Miami Vice,  and the New York New York. Speaking of the Big Apple, get a load of the Jacksonville Heights. 
My own favorites are those that take the greatest chances, such as the Houston We Have a Problem, the Pittsburgh Er With Fries, and the Cleveland Of The Free. I am also enormously fond of the Tennessee Williams and the Oakland Furniture. Are you honestly able to tell me that you wouldn’t prefer living in a world in which not just one (the Baltimore Ravens, as in Edgar Allen Poe), but two pro football teams’ names are derived from literature?

Having derived such amusement and diversion from her NFL replacement names, I invited my bride to rename the National Basketball Association teams in cities that have no NFL team. My favorites here were the Brooklyn Canolis [sic], the Oklahoma City Is Oh, So Pretty, the San Antonio Burritos, and, best of all, the Memphis Elvis Has Left the Building. I appealed to her to change the Utah Polyamorists to the Utah Polygamists, but her mind was made up. I asked if she would like to include the Charlotte ‘sWeb, but she was steadfast in her reluctance to accept credit for something that I had in fact come up with. 


The Bible pooh-poohs false ones, he noted sacrilegiously, but there was nothing false about my boyhood idols. I never cared that much for Davy Crockett, but a few months after his popularity peaked, I was gigantic on Robin Hood, as depicted on television by the British actor Richard Greene. The opening theme (He called the greatest archers to a tavern on the green/ They vowed to help the people of the king/ They handled all the trouble on the English country scene/ And still found plenty of time to sing) was of course the corniest in the history of popular entertainment. The guy who went on to become The Beatles’ music publisher sang the closing theme, but that meant nothing to one who wouldn't hear The Beatles for nine more years. 

By 1957, I’d transferred my allegiance to the pop/folk singer Jimmie Rodgers, who sounded like a cross between Burl Ives and Buddy Holly, and had actual Elvis’s Jordanaires velvetly exclaiming, “Doo-wah!” on my favorite of his hits, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” containing what I thought at the time must be the most heartbreaking line in the history of Western music in Now that I’m old and I’m ready to go. (Admissions of mortality always fog me up.) I’d walk over to the grocery store near where I lived with my parents in Playa del Rey and stare for hours at the photograph there depicted, wondering if I’d ever achieve a cigarette, big guitar, and greasy kiss curl like my idol’s.

By 1960, I’d abandoned Jimmie for Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Norm Larker, though all I knew about him was that he was a good clutch hitter. I died a little bit when, on the last day of the season, he lost the National League batting title to Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, finishing .002 behind. I have since learned that he was from Alabama, of all places. I would like to think he wasn’t a redneck, but there are no photographs of him kissing John Roseboro, as there are of Sandy Koufax.

Pop music was largely dreadful in those days, unless you knew where to find the good stuff, and I had no inkling, so my 1962-1963 idol was another athlete, basketballer Hot Rod Hundley. In college, he’d been the Pistol Pete Maravich of his (earlier) era, the most exciting white guy in sight, but wound up as the Lakers’ team clown. At the end of a game in which they were very far ahead or very far behind, they’d put him in to perform dribbling and other stunts — presumably, when the Lakers were ahead, to the other teams’ intense annoyance. He lived one street south of my family’s place just outside Pacific Palisades. I walked past it an awful lot hoping that he might invite me in for a beer or some sunflower seeds, but never actually glimpsed him.

I came to adore The Beatles, after almost a year’s staunch (and misinformed) resistance, but never idolized them as I later idolized Pete Townshend, for being ridiculous and brilliant and hilarious and scary and funny-looking in a perfectly wonderful way, and for not being much of a guitarist, but playing his guitar as no one else on earth had ever thought to. I idolized Wes Wilson, the (West Coast) Fillmore Auditorium’s Beardsley-influenced poster artist, and Tom Wolfe, and maybe Philip Roth for a while there, and Johnny Rotten, until his schtick got really stale. I idolized Mick LaSalle, the best movie critic in America, and Meryl Streep, the best actor ever.

In 2014, the closest I have to an idol is my friend and mentee Arturo Lima, whose implacable good cheer humbles and inspires me. I hope you get a chance to meet him one day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Heroes and Villains

It has been my pleasure to know several of the sweetest people on the face of the planet. My former de facto brother-in-law Bigscreen, to name someone I don’t often talk about, but always think of with the utmost fondness, is a paragon of kindness who devoted his professional life to helping others, most recently the — what do they call it now? — developmentally challenged. When we used to play tennis in Ham, my best friend in England, Rod, not only lent me one of his posh racquets, but also brought me bottles of chilled water. Also in England, the noted actor and music teacher Stiofan Lanigan-O’Keeffe always gently backed me up when a fellow member of the cast of a comedy revue I’d written tried to drive me crazy, by, for instance, accusing me of sexual harassment in response to my asking her to turn up for performances on time. I have Facebook friends on whose encouragement I’ve come to count, and of whom I'm correspondingly very fond.

I have also known at least one of Modernity’s Great Assholes.

Twenty years ago, when I was itching to leave writing behind (as it had left me years before!) and become a full-time graphic designer, my friend H— recommended me to a guy in San Francisco who needed one. This guy, whom we’ll call Stan, because that was his name, was in the business of advising retail businesses, for which he would prepare lavish booklets featuring prose composed in the hip, cynical, much-imitated style Stan Cornyn had developed for Warner/Reprise print advertising two decades before. It was never clear to me exactly what he was getting at, but a succession of deep-pocketed clients seemed to think they’d better take a chance on his pronouncements eventually making sense, and paid him enough to be able to live in a very nice apartment and buy expensive gifts.

He commonly had to buy such gifts to try to appease those, like myself, to whom he was unspeakable. A voracious adrenalin junkie, he’d wait to give me the text he wanted to use until maybe 12 hours before his prospective clients had been promised their lavish booklets. Then it would turn out not to be the text he wanted to use, not exactly, as he tweaked and tweaked and tweaked it even as I was trying to get the booklet designed. I felt constantly as though dancing on quicksand. We’d finally get the thing to the printer with 41 milliseconds to spare.

Two hours later, my phone would start ringing. In Call 1, Stan would tell me how much he appreciated my having stuck with him. In Call 2, 10 minutes later, his tone would be much darker, as he’d have discovered typographical errors (that resulted from his changing things up until the very last minute (and from my being a rotten proofreder)). By Call 3, 5 minutes after Call 2, he’d be screaming at the top of his lungs because he’d found further booboos. “How can you do this to us?” he’d bellow, though his little company was only him and the poor elderly secretary he sometimes importuned to scream at me when his own vocal cords needed a rest.

The next day, he’d call to say he’d bought me and my girlfriend front-row center seats to The Phantom of the Opera or something as his way of apologizing. Because I so wanted to get my design career off the ground, and because saner clients weren’t exactly lined up outside my front door, I’d accept them, on the condition he not put both himself and me through a comparable ordeal ever again.

A week would go by, and the whole cycle would repeat.

Monday, November 24, 2014

God, Coach Todd, and the Stadium Snipers

As you know, I believe every major college and professional sports arena should hire snipers as part of its security force. I used to believe that said snipers should put a bullet between the eyes of any athlete who, after doing something notable or heroic — scoring a touchdown, say, or hitting a home run — points heavenward or drops to one knee with head bowed in acknowledgment of The Divine’s role in the accomplishment. I have now come to recognize my earlier view as extreme, and to believe that the mere threat of assassination might suffice to discourage such appalling displays of self-aggrandizement masquerading as humility. If only one in 20 pointers-at-the-sky is cut down in the prime of life, I suspect it might be enough to put the fear of God (did you see what I did there?) into the other 19.

Only last week Arizona State University football coach Todd Graham, clearly one of the Great Assholes of our age, attributed his team’s last-minute victory over Notre Dame to something very much like “God’s having been with us down there [on the playing field],” presumably as a result of the boys all having gotten down on one knee and mumbled a prayer for victory before the game.

How, I wonder, do such persons not recognize this as obscene?
The God I believe in doesn’t care in the slightest if Arizona State beats Notre Dame. But let’s posit that I’m the one with an inaccurate conception of God. When so many innocents die in agony every day around the world, it it not disgusting that Coach Graham and his players would be distracting Him or Her from their suffering? What sort of person would rather see Arizona fucking State win than see juvenile leukemia eradicated?

I'm well aware of there being another explanation: that God is content to put Her feet up and read the sports section while innocents die in agony because She wants to see how much horror we'll endure before losing our faith. But why didn't She simply create us exactly as She wanted us to be in the first place? A psychotherapist would, between sips of herbal tea, call this dysfunctional. 

Look at it this way. If you had a friend who, in preparation for an interview for a job he really wanted, didn’t shave, didn’t shower, didn’t Dress Appropriately, and showed up reeking of cigarettes, alcohol, and a junkie hooker’s cheap perfume, would you feel lots of sympathy for him? As one who is himself emotionally dysfunctional, I might empathize with him, but i'd more likely just think him a jerk. 

God is believed by the faithful to be omnipotent and omniscient. His or Her having created mankind, by which He or She has been sorely disappointed at every turn, looks to me like the divine version of showing up for a job interview stinking. If you don’t respect your friend the self-sabotaging jobseeker, how can you respect God, who, being omniscient, ought to know better?

My experience with Major Collage Football consists solely of being taunted by the UCLA team for my long hair ("Which one's the girl?" they would wonder loudly as I walked past with my girlfriend), and there are probably around a trillion places I’d sooner have seen Her holy, healing hands than on Coach Graham's goddamned football team.

As one who tutors half a dozen persons who grew up speaking languages other than English, incidentally, I applaud did you see what I did there? having recently replaced the very ambiguous get it? as a request for affirmation that the listener or reader realizes that a joke has just been made. Make a joke or let fly a pun and ask, “Get it?” of one who has grown up speaking Spanish or a West African dialect, and he or she is almost guaranteed to look at you blankly. And there is no more disheartening a sight for a tutor in English than that.