Friday, March 6, 2015

I Caught a Good One. It Looked Like It Could Run.

When I was 12, I just loved Marty Robbins’ spectacularly corny "El Paso," and for the past four years have been performing it at karaoke at the slightest provocation, once (in Ramsgate, Kent, UK) so successfully that a member of the audience offered to buy me a drink.  

Let us consider this towering work of cowboy kitsch together. As the song opens, the Narrator [hereinafter Narry, unless I forget] has fallen in love with a Mexican girl named Felina (though no Mexican girl in history has ever been named Felina), who dances at Rosa’s Cantina. In the film version, had there been one, she'd have been played by Rita Moreno, whose surname I suspect should have a tilde that some studio head talked her out of. The beautiful maiden’s eyes are “blacker than night…wicked and evil while casting a spell,” but Narry falls in love with her anyway, though it was always my understanding that life was harsh enough in the Old West without somebody being masochistic in the bargain. 

Still, I can understand where he’s coming from. In high school, I secretly lusted after the sinister-looking chicana girls with Ronettes-ish hair (in which they were said to conceal razorblades) and immoderate eyeliner.

Everything presumably is just peachy between the happy couple until one night when “a wild young cowboy” who is that irresistible combination of dashing and daring comes in and buys “wicked” [though there’s no mention of what she’s done other than have very dark eyes] Felina a drink. This so infuriates Narry that he “challenge[s] [Mr. D-‘n’-D’s] right for the love of this maiden,” and winds up gunning him down, which was apparently illegal even in westernmost Texas. Narry is shocked by “the foul evil deed I had done,” but has the presence of mind to get the hell out of Dodge, or at least El Paso. “Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran,” he sings, “out where the horses were tied. I caught a good one. It looked like it could run. Up on its back and away I did ride.” When I was 12, that good one/could run struck me as the absolute pinnacle of lyric-writing brilliance. I have spent my career as a songwriter trying in vain to surpass it.

Poor Narrator’s so hopelessly in love with Felina, her wickedness and improbable name notwithstanding, that he returns to El Paso, only to discover “five mounted cowboys,” presumably deputies of some sort, waiting for him. And that’s only to his right. To his left, there are a dozen or more! We pause to marvel at El Paso’s apparently bottomless financial resources. Imagine the expense of keeping 17 mounted cowboys on high alert, waiting for our hero to return to the scene of the crime! Maybe Narry's victim was the mayor's son, or even the governor's. 

Woefully outnumbered though he may be, Narry makes a dash for Rosa’s Cantina, and comes quickly to feel “a deep burning pain in [his] side” which precludes his continuing to ride. But Felina, who’s apparently forgiven Narry's having killed Mr. D-‘n’-D in the meantime, materializes, and here there isn't a dry eye in the house.
From out of nowhere Felina has found me,kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side. Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for,One little kiss and Felina, good-bye. 
I think we can agree that if Narry had been a lot less impulsive — if he hadn’t become so deeply infatuated with Felina just on the basis of her being exotic, and apparently a bad girl, and then hadn’t been possessive, and finally had sent her busfare to meet him in Albuquerque or somewhere, rather than returning to the scene of the crime, he might have lived to show his and her grandsons how to ride and shoot and kill Injuns.

It seems to me that the song might very well be updated to appease those in the Middle East who hate us for our freedom. Felina might become Fatima, an Iraqi, rather than Mexican maiden, though Yemeni would work better rhythmically. “Felina,” by the way, was the title of the final episode of Breaking Bad, whose creator was as big a fan of the song as I. My affection for the song has withstood my having just learned that the song was often performed by the Grateful Dead, whom I loathed even before discovering that they were big favorites of the yuppie crypto-nazis for whom I processed words in my daughter’s Gymboree days. Lead vocal by Bob Weir, with harmony by Jerry Garcia? Not Johnny's idea of a great time at the concert hall!

I wish I hadn't found out that Marty campaigned for both Barry Goldwater and then the segregationist demagogue George Wallace. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A New Shoulder to Cry On

I have told you until it’s coming out of your ears what an avid little athlete I was as a kid. Baseball was my favorite sport, and that at which I was best was throwing. I had a reasonably strong, accurate arm, but the wrong genes to revel in it. Throwing too much, I condemned myself to a frightful case of arthritis by my mid-40s. It got to the point at which I could barely walk. One swings his arms slightly while walking, and the slightest movement of my right arm made me yelp in pain. I consulted Dr. Curtis Kiest, the world’s nicest guy, and an eminent northern California orthopedic surgeon. He gave me a series of injections. None helped. He said the only remaining option was to replace the shoulder. I have had a titanium joint in there since July 1995.

My understanding — deeply flawed, it turned out — was that it would last me the rest of my days. But then, three years ago, intent on retaining the slim, subtly muscular physique that has long driven the gals wild, I had the bright idea of buying myself a weight bench. I did bench presses and — presto! — felt as though someone had stuck a knife in my shoulder.

Living, as I was, in the United Kingdom, I consulted the National Health Service. “Sorry,” the NHS said, albeit in a cute Brit accent, “we don’t do shoulders.” I returned to my semi-native Los Angeles and saw a guy at UCLA Health. He recommended physical therapy. It didn’t help in the slightest. The therapist thought I had a torn rotator cuff. This gave me very little comfort. I made an appointment with UCLA Health’s Shoulder Guy. He kept me waiting for nearly an hour, and swept into the examination room with a small entourage, but charmingly. He said I needed a new joint.

I foolishly switched to Kaiser Permanente, whose Shoulder Guy I hoped would say there was nothing wrong with the existing joint. He instead said I would require two operations. “Nope,” said the UCLA Health one. “I can do it in one.” The problem being that I wouldn’t be able to switch my insurance back for eight more months. Sometimes I went days without pain, and other days just raising my hand to my computer keyboard was enough to make me whimper and yelp. Trying to avoid pain, I began holding myself in such a way as to give myself lots of muscular pain. My UCLA GP was alarmed by the curvature of my spine, and I by her alarm.

As you read this, I hope I’m waking up in the recovery room with a new shoulder, a catheter precluding my bladder bursting, and a gigantic sense of relief. The last time, they had me on a morphine drip afterward, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. Dr. Kiest came in to see how my recovery was progressing and asked, “How you doing?” I, floating in a thick, warm cloud, replied, “I’ve never felt better,” without a trace of irony. I intend to implore the anesthesiologist to give me enough Versed to make me forget the past month or two. Why take chances? I have also asked Dr. Petrigliano to keep for me the joint that he replaces, as I hope to make of it an objet d'art, or perhaps a necklace. Orthopedic bling!

If I’m able to lift my hand to the keyboard, I’ll relate the whole story in numbing detail upon my return to Tower 46. You might want to pencil this in on your calendar.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Today I've Made for You Goat's Brain-Filled Gnocchi

At my advanced age, cooking has become for me what baseball used to be a million years ago — something that I just love in spite of the fact that I seem to have no discernible aptitude for it. As a 12-year-old, I used to watch baseball voraciously — everything from actual games, broadcast in black and white, without instant replay or any of a thousand other enhancements that younger fans take for granted, to Home Run Derby. I will admit to having discovered an ancient edition of HRD on YouTube a couple of weeks ago, and sat spellbound as Mickey Mantle beat Ernie Banks 5-3, the low score indicative of the competition being fantastically boring, with only eight home runs, but a million revelations from the two stars along the lines of, “I sure hope I can do better my next time at bat.” I didn’t find it nearly as pleasurable viewing as my new favorite Food Network show, Chopped, on which chefs frenziedly cook a three-course meal with weird ingredients for a $10,000 prize.

And I do mean weird. Two nights ago, the competitors had to feature rattlesnake in their appetizer. A few weeks back, their main courses had to feature goat brains. They’ve had to work with emu eggs and grasshoppers, fruit leather, canned brown bread, and cheese puffs. Indeed, one of the most fun moments of every show is seeing the looks of horror on the chefs’ faces as they open the baskets they’re presented before each stage of the competition. And yet you almost never see anybody failing to spring into action the moment the moment the show’s MC, the very flavorless, if gay, Ted Allen, shouts, “Go!” Make an appetizer with  baby octopus, bok choy, Dijon mustard, and gummi bears? What could be easier?

And I do mean springing. As the food writer Michael Pollan, to whom I have no allergy, has pointed out, many TV cooking shows are geared these days to fans of sports and action films. Something is forever bursting into flame. Watching some of these people julienne vegetables is like watching a point guard drive the lane in an NBA game. Their technique takes the breath away. As they race against the clock, always to the accompaniment of blood pressure-raising music, the veins in the chefs’ necks throb Springsteenishly. They almost invariably glisten with sweat. They are 21st century gladiators.

Naturally, the program shamelessly plays up every possible human interest angle. There’s almost invariably a much-tattooed dese-‘n’-dose sous chef who wants desperately to demonstrate to those who love him — ideally, an estranged child — that he’s really gotten his act together at last, is not only clean and sober, but a hell of a cook. There’s very often an immigrant, who can’t stop talking about how wonderful this country has been to him or her. Very often too, there’s a stuck-up young prodigy three years out of some top culinary school who clearly regards himself or herself as God’s gift to cooking. How we love it when he or she loses in the end to the self-taught former dishwasher from Palookaville whose technique’s a little iffy, but whose soulfulness is apparently evident in every forkful of his bok choy and gummi bear compote!

Very often, there are special editions of the show, in which, for instance, the four cooks are all under 12, or all stars of reality shows. To see four 11-year-olds cook with the imagination, confidence, and dexterity of Top Professionals is to believe that the world might survive for another generation.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Attack of the Yes, But People

Want to make a depressive want to strangle you? Tell him how good he’s got it compared to many other people. It feels so dismissive, so unempathetic — and, on the other hand, is of course exactly what he needs to hear. I realized this during my best year of the present decade, 2010, when I managed to live gratefully more consistently than during any other in recent memory.

The world is full of inexplicable horror and heartbreak. I see now that the only way to get through it is to pretend that you see only the good stuff, the beauty and love. God knows it’s true that in every life, some rain must fall. But it’s no less true that there’s some lovely gentle warm buttery sunshine in everyone’s life too. As I said in the best song I ever wrote, the one to console myself at the beginning of my and my daughter’s ongoing estrangement, you can torture yourself for what’s lacking, or revel in what you possess. The former is a mug’s game.

As too, of course, is being a Yes, but person, one who, reminded of all he has to be grateful for, reflexively says, “Yes, but…,” and then tells you in detail why the glass is in fact half empty. To my own incalculable detriment, I have always been that person. As an alcoholic has to struggle every day not to drink, I have to struggle not to look for reasons to stay miserable.

Why would one want to stay miserable? Well, I, with the help of some of the more on-the-ball psychotherapists I’ve consulted, have developed a theory or two over the decades.  There’s a weird, dysfunctional sort of comfort in the familiar. Misery might, by definition, not be much fun, but at least it’s not terrifying. It’s the devil one knows. And we damaged types feel threatened by the prospect of happiness. If it were to be snatched away, wouldn’t that be worse than never having had it? Would one who’s never tasted caviar pine for it?

I “spoke” on line the other day with a friend who was miserable about having had to move recently from an apparently gorgeous neck of the woods. I pointed out that he’d very much landed on his feet romantically, beginning an apparently fulfilling relationship almost immediately. "Yes, but…," said he. I observed that, even while he bemoaned the lack of his former home’s natural beauty, he was regularly glimpsing something of comparable magnificence — a woman who loves him looking delighted at the sight of him.

I can be rich or destitute. The choice is my own to make. While living in Ramsgate, Kent, England, a couple of years ago, I was about to strike out on my afternoon traipse one day, after I’d reconciled myself to the BBC not calling to say they wanted to produce one of the several radio comedies I’d submitted to them, and no magazine editor calling to commission a piece, no literary agent calling to say he or she wanted to market my fiction, and no video or graphic design client calling when I realized I didn’t know the whereabouts of my wallet. A person doesn’t very much like that feeling. When I found it, and began walking, I composed a little song of praise in my head. Oh, I found my wallet, and I can walk.  There were people with hotsy-totsy literay agents who couldn’t have made that claim.

I choose today to be rich, to revel in the fact that I’m in pretty terrific health, and am loved, and admired. I know where my wallet is, and my keys, and even my sunglasses, and I can still walk.

I’m going to try to make 2015 2010 Jr.