Thursday, May 14, 2015

What I've Learned About Myself From Clickbait Quizzes

As you have of course noticed (my assumption is that, because I’m endlessly fascinated by me, you are too), I very often pretend to have taken those clickbait quizzes on Facebook that propose to identify which province in Luxembourg one should be living in on based on his or her responses to questions like, “Would you rather have been the young Brigitte Bardot’s lover, or Claudia Cardinale’s?”

I invariably assert, to the limitless amusement of all, that the quiz revealed that I should be living in Joe Strummer, Joe having been one of the possible answers to the quiz question Which punk rock star are you? Ever since resisting the temptation to take that test (and join in the fun!), I have amused myself by using poor Joe — may he rest in peace! — as my all-purpose answer, even though I must admit that on the two occasions I met the great man, I didn’t much care for him.

The first time was in Manchester, Lancashire, UK. I had been hired to be the compere (host, if you prefer) of a music documentary being made for Australian television. I and The Clash confronted each other in the foyer of the Manchester Apollo, where they would perform later that evening. We all shook hands, they limply. There was a lot of sneering, all of it theirs. I was to understand that they disdained me because I was American, and had long hair (though not much longer than the lovely and talented Mick Jones’s), and was probably a fan of Fleetwood Mac, the living embodiment of uncool. As the cameras began a-rolling, I posed an inoffensive question to break the proverbial ice. Paul, the bass player, snorted, “Boring!” and stormed away. Take that, longhaired American Fleetwood Mac fan! My intuition was that it was a ritual our heroes, fervent disdainers of all show-biz artifice, had enacted many times before. But I suppose I could have taken some small solace in the knowledge that phony Beatlemania had bitten the dust.

I later chatted with Mr. Strummer after the Jones-less 1984 clash performed in Santa Barbara, California. On his own, he was slightly less obnoxious, albeit still pompous and self-inflated.  In my view, his group at both shows was a musical trainwreck, and one I derived no pleasure whatever from witnessing.

But back, as ever, to me, glorious me! I have realized, with the help of the clickbait quizzes, that I’m not at all sure who I really am, as there are and have been so many versions of me. Am I the kind, generous old guy who until a few weeks ago delighted in tutoring for no pay persons hoping to improve their English, or the one who, when a hungry homeless person on the street asks for money, either pretends he doesn’t hear or mumbles, “Sorry, no cash,” and keeps right on walking? Am I the person of vast, vast love who raised Brigitte Mendelssohn (on weekends and holidays after her mother and I divorced) to the age of 17, or the hateful, entitled little bastard who treated his parents so awfully in their last years in retaliation for their having been something other than perfect during his own childhood? Am I the friend who wishes the very best for all those who love (or can abide) him, or the one who, behind closed doors, absolutely can’t bear seeing a peer do much better than he? I don't know if we hate it when our friends become successful. I know I do. 

Can you see the real me, doctor? Damned if I can. And there haven’t been 30 seconds in my life when I could have been described accurately as a fan of Fleetwood Mac.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Flying With Mr. Fuckhead

I agreed to meet Mr. Fuckhead [not his real name] regarding my having responded to his help-wanted advertisement for a…content provider on the Saturday morning before Easter at a mediocre-looking Jewish deli in Marina del Rey. He turned up late. His handshake was firm, his smile imperceptible. I’d met him in front of the place. As we entered it, he mumbled something about its being his de facto office. I asked, as we waited for someone to come lead us to a booth, if they’d named a sandwich after him. He didn’t seem amused. “You know,” I said, “like on that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“One of my favorite shows,” he noted, grimly. We were led to a booth. I liked that he was around my own age, as it’s embarrassing being interviewed for a job by someone whose diapers you might have changed under very different circumstances, like having begun…seeing his or her mama decades before. It turned out that there was no complimentary breakfast in it for me. He had a breakfast meeting at 11, and would eat then. In the meantime, I was welcome to order some juice. 

He said, “Tell me about you.” I said a few words about having begun my career as an unjustifiably celebrated music critic. He listened for perhaps four seconds, and then began talking at (not to) me, exuding self-importance, exuding arrogance, never smiling. His eyes didn’t twinkle. I thought to myself he might be the most charmless person I’d met this decade. 

He’s a well known travel writer. He has a Website, contributors to which he proudly noted don’t get paid. I was to understand that they should be grateful for the wonderful exposure. I’d told him, when he was still letting me speak, that I love travel. Now he pointed out, a little bit disdainfully, that everyone loves travel. He bragged that he flies 400,000 miles per year. “First class, I imagine,” I mused when he paused to sip his apple juice. No, I was mistaken about that. Intent on knowing what it’s like for The Rest of Us, he flies first class or business only to destinations farther than 2500 miles. 

Except that he really doesn’t. He’s so well known to all the, uh, carriers that he actually spends far more time in the galley schmoozing with the flight attendants than trying to figure out a way to be comfortable in a narrow Economy seat. Kind of, I thought, like someone who might have his chauffeur get a bagful of fast food at a drive-thru en route to a swanky little bistro whose chef writes bestselling cookbooks. He claimed to subscribe to some unfeasible number of newspapers and magazines, and, of course, to read them all, as is typical of the breed.

He told me that people who use words that ended with st — superlatives, I think he was trying to say — didn’t last long working for him. He gloated for a while about how airlines and others don’t offer him freebies because he’s known to be incorruptible. He was very pleased with himself. I got some small, fleeting pleasure imagining knocking my orange juice over, toward him, and his being all sticky for his important breakfast meeting. He couldn’t tell me how much the job paid. I would have to ask his business manager. 

I asked if he’d read the writing samples I’d sent. He claimed he had. All he had to say about them was that I would need to adapt a far less “cute” style if I wanted to work for (not with, of course — for) him. By cute, I think he meant wry. God forbid, I guess, that one should be anything but solemn when talking about something as serious as leisure travel. I resisted the temptation to point out that, after 35 minutes together, I wanted to work for him about as much as I wanted to be diagnosed with testicular cancer. But I need a job.
We spoke of Madison, where he’d attended the University of Wisconsin. I hadn’t much enjoyed my 10 months there. I’d found the typical Midwesterner parochial and duplicitous, prone to grinning hugely and asking, “How’s that brat[wurst] workin’ for ya?” in a Palin-esque chirp while sticking a knife in my kidneys. I didn’t let on. When he told me he would watch the Wisconsin vs. Kentucky NCAA semifinal game, I told him I would too, though I didn’t point out that I’d be rooting for Kentucky.

“Tell him you can’t stand him,” a little voice within me said. "Retain some small vestige of self-respect." But then another one said, “You need a job, brighteyes, and it isn’t exactly as though you’re being invited in for lots of interviews.” I managed a smile and told him I thought we could work together very effectively, though my sense was that I should have said something about how honored I’d be to work for — for! — him. I finished my orange juice. We said our goodbyes, and I walked out to my little car, hearing just one voice now. “How’d it come to this?” it wondered.

Content provider. The glamorous modern way to say “hack.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Birthdays I Have Known

When I turned one ‘n’ forty, my little girl, then three, and I went for one of our extended traipses on San Francisco’s Nob and Russian Hills, making up jokes and noting the interesting architecture. Dinnertime, of course, found us eating Korean barbecued chicken at our favorite restaurant down on Polk Street. Being with her was the best gift I could have requested. She now hasn’t deigned to speak to me since I was four ‘n’ fifty, but every year her failure to wish me a happy birthday hurts just a little bit less. If I live to be nine ‘n’ ninety maybe I may be able to say it doesn’t hurt awfully, but I make no promises.

When I turned one ‘n’ twenty, no friends took me out drinking, or to a brothel, in substantial part because I didn’t really have any friends. I was reaping as I’d sowed! I sat at length in front of a multistory office building near to the university I was attending because it seemed more salubrious than fighting in Vietnam, and felt sorry for myself, something for which I’ve always had a knack.

None of which is to suggest that I haven’t had more than my share of wonderful birthdays, or that I don’t feel blessed by love. The fact is that I have been loved far more than I deserve.

When I was six ‘n’ twenty, First Major Life Partner gave me a TEAC 3340 4-track recorder on which I could record demos of the songs I’d begun composing.  In 2015, it would cost $6300. I was still using it 18 years later.  Before Macintosh computers, it gave me more pleasure than anything I’d ever owned.

When I was nine and twenty, my second major adult Life Partner took me to dinner at the San Fernando Valley’s pre-eminent French restaurant, or at least the best French restaurant in the Valley tramps like us could afford. I got drunk and began bemoaning the world’s not having yet recognized my brilliance, something else at which I’ve always been very good. “I think we should go home,” The Nib, characteristically patient, fretted, impatiently. I humored her, and on opening the door of our 12th story apartment overlooking the actual Sunset Strip, discovered that it was full of people of whom I was fond, all shouting, “Happy birthday!” The best part of that wonderful evening was the sublimely loving look The Nib gave me when she saw that I, who earlier that year had applied for a patent on social awkwardness, was enjoying myself hugely.

My best birthday with First Wife was the one in Siena in 1982. After lunch, as the city shut down for its afternoon break, she shooed me away from our pensione and transformed herself into the spitting image of Elvira, Queen of the Dark, after whom she knew me to lust. Afterward, she revealed a wealth of Coca-Cola-themed gifts (I was a collector then) she’d been hiding in her luggage the past week. She kept the wig on to go to dinner, and an Italian teenager called her a strega, but not to her face, so I didn’t have to start any unpleasantness.

Many, many years ago, I advised 4th Life Partner, the zoo keeper,  that I’d really love her making a big deal of my forthcoming 50th birthday. Fiercely resentful of expectations (one never got an actual Xmas or birthday gift from her, but only a coupon entitling him to one at some point when she wouldn’t resent bestowing it) as she was, she essentially told me to take a hike, and we wound up spending most of The Big Day at her mother’s house. (My birthday falls on Mothers Day every three or four years.) By early evening, when we got home to San Francisco, I was seething, and began pouring vodka down my throat. My friend and former work colleague Kathleen Guneratne to the rescue! She’d organized a glorious surprise party for me at a restaurant in the Inner Sunset. I remain in awe of her generosity.

Last year, The Little Brit and I were a few days home from Ibiza when she presented me with a Moroccan-style dinner — and a card to which was attached the details of our forthcoming surprise trip, in honor of my birthday, to Marrakech, to whose best restaurant she took me for another celebration. She’d taken me in earlier years to Paris for my birthday, and to dinner in Burlington, Vermont, but Bernie Sanders had long since ceased being its mayor. I’ve rarely felt more loved. We were on Rhodes for my birthday three years ago, and she took me to the best restaurant on our part of the island. She gave me a birthday card that said, “Let’s grow old together.” With tears in my eyes, I pointed out that I already had. Don’t pretend you don’t see what I mean.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Poor Excuse for a 15-Year-Old Boy

I was a poor excuse for a 15-year-old boy. While others my age were shouting at their parents about the unreasonableness of having to be home by 10 on school nights — during which they smoked cigarettes and made a big display of combing their hair a lot, or even, uh, petted with girls (in the vast majority of cases) — there was Johnny watching Mr. Novak with my parents and little sister, perishing of loneliness and self-loathing.  (My own hair was too short to comb. At my parents’, uh, urging, I wore it in the manner of the television children's show personality Soupy Sales, whom not a few of my classmates at Westchester High School had made no secret of thinking I resembled. Lucky me!)  I had never tasted beer. I felt as likely even to talk to a pretty girl as to be picked to be an astronaut. Some months before, I’d been the smallest member of my junior high school class’s all-star touch football team (membership on which was guaranteed to anyone who participated sufficiently conscientiously in after-school sports). I was shorter than my mother, and my mother wasn’t 5-2, and apparently exuded meekness, which of course is the bully’s catnip.

In my PE class, taught by a gruff old asshole who openly resented having to “teach” PE when all he wanted to do was coach the goddamn varsity football team and be recruited to do the same for one of the major colleges. He made no bones about identifying with the badasses, the boys who stank of the cigarettes they sneaked in the lavatory between classes.

The first day of my second week at Santa Monica High School, at which I knew no one, and was pretty sure I never would, one of the badasses in PE smelled my testosterone deficiency, virginity, and never having tasted beer, and decided, just for the fun of it, to try to make me (more) miserable, tossing a handful of turf at me.

The 2015 version of myself would have acted as though the whole thing was a joke we were both in on. I might, for instance, have chuckled, offered him my fist to touch his own against, and said something streety. “What up, dawg?” That sort of thing. But it was a much less shrewd and forward-thinking version of myself that had to respond to his affront. If I hadn’t been 5-1 and testosterone-deficient, I might have tried to punch him, but that seemed suicidal, so I contented myself with responding in kind, throwing a handful of turf back at him.

Foolish boy! His expression was that of a child who’s come downstairs on Xmas morning to find a pony-shaped package with his name on it under the tree. He let out a little whoop of delight and came for me with brandished fists. I fled. I was approximately as good at eluding predators as at going up to pretty 12th-grade girls and saying, “How about we meet up at lunch for some petting behind the Languages building?”

He tried to feed me turf. I resisted, to the extent of keeping my mouth shut (a skill I would almost immediately forget). A couple of our mutual classmates arched their eyes in disdain, but then Coach Asshole waddled out, reeking of his own cigarettes and seething with resentment, class began formally, and my ordeal was over almost before it had begun.

It’s literally only a couple of months ago that I realized what I should have done — taken a lovely huge bite out of his fucking hand. In one fell swoop, I’d have gotten a reputation as someone not to be messed with. Not, mind you, that anyone ever messed with me like that again. I had a little growth spurt, ceased to be conspicuously tiny, and became invisible to all — badasses and prospective petting partners alike — until halfway through my senior year, whereupon I became the object of univeral admiration that I have ever remained.