A couple of years ago, when I was fresh out of college and living in my first apartment, my parents came to visit from Hungary. Opening a kitchen drawer, my Mom was surprised to find months’ or even years’ worth of Hungarian snacks, spice mixes, and other food stuff stashed away.
“Why do I keep sending you all this when you don’t use them,” she asked me. I didn’t really know the answer — or didn’t want to admit — that it just felt good to have all those familiar flavors right at hand, even if I didn’t want or need to use them. The shiny packages of meatloaf mix, the crinkle of the chocolate pudding powder package, all reminded me of home.
Eventually I began to understand that all of us immigrants are hoarders in a way. We might be well-adjusted, we might fit in, and there might be nothing about us that screams “I am not from here.” But I bet that every immigrant in every part of the world has a drawer like mine, packed with stuff from home.
It doesn’t have to be food — I also hoard magazines from Hungary, crossword puzzles, a package of tissues my childhood friend’s mom gave me when I had the sniffles during a visit to Budapest, and a sweater that was last washed in my parents’ washing machine at home. I haven’t worn it — or washed it — since in hopes of keeping some of that familiar smell intact. It’s fading now, but if I burry my nose in it for a couple of minutes, I can still get a faint whiff of the detergent and the room where it dried on a clothesline.
Another characteristic of this behavior is buying common, everyday things in your home country and smuggling them in to the U.S. because you believe that your country’s product is superior. Now that my parents are living in America, I think they are slowly beginning to exhibit traits of this secret immigrant behavior as well. They just returned from a visit to Hungary and they brought back things like pots, dessert forks, shower gel, and deodorant. Because, you know, there are no dessert forks in America.
OK, I admit — the deodorant was for me. (So what? The American stuff is just too flowery for me!) That, along with bags full of Hungarian cookies, chocolate, and spices all made the trip in suitcases only to be stuffed into secret drawers and cabinets for weeks and months.
I suppose there is nothing wrong with this hoarding. But I feel silly admitting the melancholy I feel when I eat the last cookie from Hungary, or when I run out of my favorite deodorant. So I try not to eat or use everything. And I think this is how the hoarding starts: I purchase and transport products because I truly believe that I will use them. But then the emotional attachment to these products prevents me from actually enjoying their existence. So I end up with expired chocolates and spice mixes, three-year-old magazines, and sweaters that don’t fit anymore.
It feels odd that my identity and how I define who I am are somehow tied to such ordinary objects. I mean, what does an old plastic grocery bag from the Kaiser grocery store chain has to do with who I am? But somehow, it does. I have bunches of them hidden in the bottom of my closet in a big, comforting pile.
I try to treat my secret hoarding drawer and the stuff in it matter-of-factly: it is there, it serves a purpose, it makes me feel better to have one, and anyone who doesn’t like it can get over it. All right, so I am a little defensive about it. Maybe it’s because I know that there’s only a very fine line between keeping things for sentimental reasons and having to cut a path from the door to the bed through piles of old plastic bags.
In 1988 I was fourteen years old, five-foot-nine, skinny, flat-chested and at least four more years away from any proper evidence of puberty. To compound all of this luminous adolescent joy I was also morbidly shy and horrifically self-conscious. In short, I was a child. A bloody tall child, but a child nonetheless.
My hair was long and brown, my eyebrows heavy, my cheeks full. I was so thin, and so tormented by my thinness, that I ate as much as I could to try and gain weight. I ate all sorts of crap. Nothing happened. I remained, despite all efforts, a wisp of skin and bones, stumbling when I ran, blown hither and thither by gusts of strong wind and glances from strangers. The sad truth is that I come from a family of stick insects, and the physique I would later be grateful for was a thing of shame and sadness in my formative years. Victimized and scorned, I was teased mercilessly about my stature by other children. My nicknames were, amongst others: Olive Oyl, Bean Pole, Stick, Twig, and, my personal favorite, Inverted, a name given to me by the boys in my neighborhood in honor of my invisible breasts. Humiliated by my non-existent chest, I covered my body as much as I could and engaged, whenever possible, in the bust-increasing exercises I read about in Judy Bloom books.
These were not my glory days.
As an only child growing up without television I sought solace in books and art. I wrote and drew and ate up words and pictures with my heart and mind and soul. Aesthetics and language nourished me. I wanted to be an architect, an artist, a writer, a filmmaker, a designer of things. I had dreams and ambitions that most parents would be proud of, at least any parents with artistic persuasions.
But then something happened, something my mother had known was going to happen for some time, something she allowed but didn’t necessarily want, something my father had dreaded and detested, and something I would never have expected.
They came a-calling.
Model agents are a curious bunch—always on the lookout for young girls they can take on and “protect” and “nurture” while at the same time pushing them into a hyper-sexualized and shallow world where they will earn money for being blessed with good looks, without having to use their brains or their creativity, and where they will be rewarded for being a glorified clothes hanger who knows how to work a camera (and maybe, if they’re really good, a room).
These agents I speak of have eyes and instincts that can see beyond the shyness, the scrawny exterior and inverted bosom. They have minds that add the numbers, do the math, envision the war paint and see, through slitted eyes, the finished product.
Click. Whir. Click.
The photographer who shot my mother’s loft for a spread in Vogue Living requested to take a picture of me as I skulked in the corner in my ill-fitting, unflattering, blue-and-white checked school uniform, with ink stains on my fingertips, a snarl upon my youthful lips, and daggers in my diamond-eyes.
A vicious little virgin was I.
She took the photo and, when she left, took it with her, changing my life in an instant in ways I will never be able to digest without feeling a cocktail of conflicting emotions.
The phone rang.
Will you come down and see us?
My mother, reticent but loving, conversed with me as she would an adult. Her first mistake.
In a matter of hours we were sitting in an agency. This was nothing very new to my mother. As a designer and semi-retired fashion icon herself, she was clued in to the scene. But, as a disciplinarian, she was a tad… elastic. Either that or I was an uncontrollable hellion, given an inch and greedily taking a hundred miles.
Conversations were had. Things discussed and mulled over. The nice people who wanted to represent me were comfortable with the restrictions my mother placed on the arrangement.
I could only work on weekends, in Melbourne, and only, only, ONLY if it was a high-profile or high paying job. Considering that the majority of all modeling/fashion industry work in Australia stemmed out of Sydney this seemed like a perfectly tight arrangement. Enough to keep me quarantined while also allowing me to feel special—something a gangly girl in the art department with a funny, foreign accent had a hard time feeling in a school full of righteous upper-middle-class bitches with a knack for cruelty.
Unfortunately for my mother (and my ego), something else happened that changed the course of our lives.
I booked a job.
Two days after that first meeting we got the call.
Vogue magazine was flying their entire crew down from Sydney to work with me on an eight-page editorial. Over the weekend.
I was off and posing, and nothing in my world would ever be the same again. Over the next few years my grades would suffer, my ego would soar, my belligerence double. By 15, I would be living in Tokyo alone over the holidays; by 16, in Paris and Milan. I would leave school. I would be hit on by vile cretins, assuming me to be stupid or willing to advance my career with sexual favors. I would be punished with no work when I didn’t play the game. I would see strange things, do even stranger things and sometimes even do strangers. I would meet wonderful people and terrible assholes. I would make lots of money and spend it all. I would look like a young girl but live like a woman while I behaved like a princess and partied like a devil. I would move on and on, traveling for the better part of twelve years, never finding a home but always seeking one. Eventually I would find it in America in the least likely of places. But that’s another story. At this point my life was still a vague, uncertain, exciting future, and I was just a kid with dreams. And, two months later, when my first editorial in Vogue hit the stands, I looked like a prepubescent, innocent, wide-eyed virgin-child caught playing dress-ups in her mother’s most expensive evening gowns and stiletto-heeled shoes.
It’s an ugly reality that those pictures appeared in a magazine targeted towards 35-to-40-year-old women, and higher. This magazine became one of my regular clients and frequently used me to sell clothes, style and a physical ideal to middle-aged women more than twice my age. Even as a kid I thought this was weird and somehow inappropriate. I didn’t understand it but nor did I question it, and I still willingly danced with and followed the piper, for he played a most enticing and seductive tune.
It’s a strange, strange world, and we’re in it.
I decided I was mentally ill when I was seven years old. I had just seen Sally Field in Sybil, and I agreed:
It was all green. And the people!
[Later, when I performed this scene for my acting class at the performing arts high school I attended, much to the chagrin of the real actors there, my teacher, Heloise Jones, insisted I reached octaves only discernable by dogs.]
Everyone always said my dad was crazy, so I assumed that I was, too. Figured it was like inheriting his brown eyes and Cherokee skin.
With a loco padre lurking around the hacienda, I learned pretty early to hide as much as possible, so I used to spend a lot of time watching television in my dad’s room. Dad had converted the garage into a dance studio, so he spent most of his time out there teaching lonely old women how to foxtrot.
His bedroom was a ghost town during the day, so I’d hide on the floor in between the bed and the wall and watch cable all day, sometimes with the sound off, just to be sure no one would find me.
[It’s no surprise to anyone in my family that I turned out to be a filmmaker.]
Dad got cable before anyone else in our neighborhood. He loved technology and always had to have the biggest and best of everything, whether he could afford it or not.
Sybil was on cable all the time, and it was one of my favorite movies. It was the most honest thing I had ever seen on television. Kermit and Miss Piggy had nothing on Sybil, and Sesame Street was for babies. I was seven, and I was already grown up.
I didn’t feel especially crazy. I didn’t hallucinate or hear voices or scratch myself all over. I didn’t drool or stutter or even fart all that much. But I knew I was crazy nevertheless. Like how people know when they’re poor (which we were, too.)
Problem was, I didn’t know how I was crazy.
Crazy people have designated crazy skills. Sort of like superheroes. Batman has all the cool gadgets. Wonder Woman has the Invisible Plane and Lasso of Truth. Aquaman has badass underwater chops. These skills are specific to the superhero.
It’s like that for crazy people, too. Berkowitz had voices; Frances Farmer had psychotic rage, Woody Allen has…well, he has a lot of things.
My sister’s crazy was a little red diablo named Rage. She used to chase my brother around the kitchen table with a butcher knife when he wouldn’t get up from the piano fast enough so she could practice The Theme from E.T. before her next piano class. My brother tended to hog the piano, and he didn’t take either of us girls very seriously, which further infuriated Sister.
The first night she broke out the butcher knife, I let her off the hook and didn’t tell Mom. After all, no blood was shed. By the third time, I told Mom I thought Sister should be put in an insane asylum. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone lost a limb. Probably my brother. Mom thought I was being funny.
In elementary school, the principal could always discern the fighting climate by the placement of my sister’s shirtsleeves. Rolled up: there was big trouble brewing. Rolled down: smooth waters.
My brother’s crazy was pretty easy to identify, too. He played the piano for monster stretches at a time. On the weekends, he practiced up to eight or ten hours at a time; hence my sister’s predilection for butcher knives.
My brother had the piano, and my sister had her knives.
What about me?
Sometimes, I’d feel like that little bird from that kid’s book, “Are You My Mother?”
“Are you my crazy? What about you? How bout you?” I’d wonder as I ate my meals one section at a time, hopped over sidewalk cracks, or reorganized the kitchen cupboards at midnight.
Soon however, the anxiety over finding my brand of crazy was usurped by the fear of getting my ass kicked by one of the neighborhood girls, usually Cora Rodriguez.
Cora and the rest of the girls hated me because one night, I made out with Cora’s older brother Max behind the skating rink. Apparently, he had a girlfriend he forgot to disclose.
When all the other guys at school were wearing skintight Jordache jeans or those ridiculous parachute pants, Max wore baggy Levi’s with holes in the knees. He drove a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, and he smelled like bacon, maple syrup and marijuana, an intoxicating combination, I assure you.
If we had been making out in his car, I’m sure I would have given him my virginity. To this day, I spread for Mopar. But on that particular evening, his car was in the shop getting new brake pads, so he had to settle for third base.
(I did eventually lose my virginity in a 67 Camaro to Max’s good friend Diego.)
But on that pivotal evening, behind that broken down skating rink, underneath a sycamore tree that flanked a field of fertile corn, I made out with the most popular, most beautiful, most badass guy at the high school. It was all too Sixteen Candles.
And just as all movies come to an end, so did my affair with Max. By the next morning, it was all over my junior high school as well as the high school. I was officially branded a slut, and therefore guaranteed an ass whipping.
As I played pick-up sticks by the flagpole, trying to pretend I didn’t hear the whispers, Cora and her minions jumped me. They jumped me again at morning recess, stole my lunch, followed me home, whipped me in my own yard, and then scattered like chickens when my little sister came to the door.
This was my routine for the next three months.
Then one night, I sat down at the piano to practice Bach. I had a concert coming up, and I was working on Invention #13. It wasn’t coming along. In fact, had Heloise Jones heard my rendition, it would have hurt her ears, too. My fingers stumbled for the notes. Tripped on the tones. I’m sure our dogs were barking.
Brother dashed into the room. Sister gave chase, waving a butcher knife over her head.
“Don’t think I won’t do it,” Sister yelled.
“I know you will!” Brother replied as he darted through the swinging door then dodged into the den.
“Just stop it,” I screamed. “Just stop it!” Neither of them gave pause to notice me. Around and around they went like Tom and Jerry.
And that’s when it hit me like a golf bag full of lightning bolts. Sitting there at the piano, screaming as loudly as possible for the madness to stop and banging on the keys like a lunatic toddler, I realized they couldn’t see me, hear me or even smell me. I was invisible. And I thought that was way cooler than being crazy.
I figured it must somehow be related to Evolution, like I had learned about on cable. According to this program, over time, the more an animal needs a certain trait to survive, the more likely it is that Evolution will grant the request. Like a fairy godmother, Evolution had bestowed upon me a special power, not unlike that of the cuttlefish. To protect against predators, cuttlefish can alter their skin color at will. Because of this evolutionary gift, it has survived for eons.
Maybe I could be like that. Like the cuttlefish – an ever-changing ebb and flow of translucent colors. Maybe if I practiced being invisible and got really good at it, I could survive junior high school and Cora Rodriguez.
Maybe I could survive Dad, too.
It would mean hours of dedicated practice. I’d hide in my room or by the side of my dad’s bed and work on it for hours, usually while Sybil was playing. I’d get super quiet, and I’d close my eyes and imagine the cuttlefish, its shifting colors, its three hearts pumping turquoise blood to its nether corners, willing a disappearance.
I knew there were Buddhist monks who could change their body temperature through meditation, so I’d practice all the time. I just knew if I trained hard enough, I could harness my power and use it to protect myself.
My training ended one spring morning when Cora Rodriguez and her cohorts ambushed me in an alley of blooming dogwood trees on my way to school. Cora pushed me to the ground. I fell into a pool of pink petals. For a few suspended moments, I watched her laughing, until I remembered my special power.
I’d show her.
I closed my eyes, centered my breathing, and summoned the cuttlefish.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp bite, like a cold snake snapping his fangs into me. It was working! The transformation was painful, but it was working!
When I opened my eyes, Cora stood with a knife in her hand, blood dripping onto the spent dogwood blooms. It took me a few moments to realize that the blood was mine. I reached down to the side of my belly where I felt the wind cooling my insides. My shirt was ripped. I lifted it and saw the wound, milky blood and bones.
“Hey!” I said, then burst into tears, probably because I couldn’t think of anything clever to say.
Cora and her friends howled then scampered off when a burgundy Crown Victoria turned into the alley. I stumbled to my feet, and I noticed it was Mr. Ruper, the retired mechanic who lived on the corner with five Chihuahuas. Sometimes I took him extra blackberries when we came back from the country. I inched a step towards him, my bloody palm held up.
But Mr. Ruper didn’t stop. He didn’t even wave.
Mr. Ruper hadn’t even seen me.
“Fine time for my special power to work,” I thought, then stumbled home, cleaned my wound with mercurochrome, and taped my stomach back together with a box of Scooby Doo band aides.
That night, Brother and Sister played Scrabble while I watched “Love Boat.”
The following weekend, I moved in with my grandparents on the other side of the lake, though that was not the last time I would tangle with Cora Rodriguez or turn invisible.
But it was the last time I ever saw Max.
Does anyone worry about the Seven Deadly Sins anymore?
I don’t mean the machinations of the lunatic featured in Se7en, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman…
…or the Seven Deadly Sins computer game (Partial description from the Kongregate website: “Enter the quiet English town of Gorpsdale and use your skill, guile and ingenuity to find suitable ways of breaking each sin” — suitable?)…
…or the rock group Seven Deadly Sins…
…or songs of the same name by the Traveling Wilburys, Flogging Molly, Lotte Lenya or a dozen groups you never heard of.
No. I don’t mean a trivial expression dripping with convenient irony — intended or otherwise. The Seven Deadly sins — ha ha. They’ll send you You Know Where — wink wink.
No no. I mean the real deal, the Cardinal Sins — those one-way tickets for the express train to that station with the warning over the door. You know, the sign about all who enter abandoning hope? That one. And, while we’re on the subject, that creak you hear in the tunnel ain’t coming from the train.
I’m talking about THE Seven Deadly Sins, defined seven hundred years or so ago as:
Do any of these sound familiar? Ah, so you’ve dabbled in them, have you? Not to worry, just an oversight. You’ll clear it up right away.
Perhaps you’re now recalling that time you came home two hours past curfew and were so stoned you left the car running out front all night — and mom gave you a chance to explain before dad came home from work. No, friend. That’s Judgment Day you’re thinking of, where righteous pagans and the like get to explain that it’s not their fault they didn’t pray to Jesus, since He hadn’t yet lived, and the angel says, “You’ve suffered enough. Next!”
The Deadly Sins are not that. Put yourself in the attitude of Deadly Sin and die before repenting and you already got your Judgment Day, honey. That E ain’t for Effort, it’s for Eternity.
Is it getting hot in here?
From the Union of Concerned Scientists website: “Earth’s surface has undergone unprecedented warming over the last century, particularly over the last two decades. Astonishingly, every single year since 1992 is in the current list of the 20 warmest years on record.”
Now that I have your attention, please notice something about these Deadly Sins. Murder is not among them. Why? Because these aren’t an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments, baby. They’re not things you do so much as the way you do them. They’re not mere acts. They’re what you are — yourbeing.
For example, your very existence in modern America creates oceans of waste. In an article in Mother Jonesmagazine, Bill McKibben notes that we dispose of 80 million water bottles every day. Recycled, you say? At any given moment, “More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean.”
McKibben also notes the 426,000 cell phones we toss every day, the 170,000 Energizer batteries born every fifteen minutes, and the 60,000 plastic bags we use every five seconds. Most of this stuff doesn’t float on the oceans. We send it out of sight, underground.
Which brings me to Dante Alighieri.
In The Divine Comedy, according to scholars, Dante depicted the eschatological views of Thirteenth Century clerics. And, with literacy on the rise, he did so in the common tongue, so everyone could understand. In other words, he was just a really talented reporter about the state-of-the-afterlife art.
But what if it turns out the scholars who claim this are whistling past the graveyard? What if Dante is less a recorder of our past and more a man with a vision of our future? Kinda like Nostradamus with a mean streak. Well, then, we’re on the moving sidewalk to the wrong terminal, folks.
The Union of Concerned Scientists adds: “In its 2001 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, ‘There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.’”
Dare we revisit those Seven — you know:
So this gets me thinking: What if hell isn’t a place we’re sent to, but rather a condition that comes to find us?
Another infernal observation from the scientists: “Measurements show that global average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 100 years, with most of that happening in the last three decades.”
Dante envisioned nine Circles of Hell:
Speaking of which…
At the height of the Roman Empire, people lived on average just 25 years. By 1985, worldwide life expectancy was 62 years. Today, a child born in the United States can expect to walk the planet nearly 78 years.
In fact, according to the National Institute on Aging, “The number of centenarians in the U.S. is growing rapidly… During the 1990s, the ranks of centenarians nearly doubled…” Analysts at the Census, they say, are projecting the population of American centenarians “possibly reaching 834,000 by the middle of the next century.”
But science works apace, and some believe that in a hundred years we may overcome senescence entirely. Hmm. It could be that we’re all going to Hell.
If you’re looking for a silver lining, remember the theory of a particular John Milton character in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”
Then again, those thoughts belonged to the biggest sinner of all, didn’t they?
When my sister and I were still young, our dad would sometimes take us on a long walk through the woods that started right behind our house in a small industrial suburb in Northern Germany and seemed to stretch forever, even though forever ended at the road to Frankenbostel, a village that was important only to its farmers. I can’t recall how long these walks really lasted, but they seemed dominated by silence and small whispers, so as not to disturb the animals and the overall atmosphere of making our way through brush and over small, secret meadows, where small prints on the ground told stories we were unable to read. We knew they were stories, we’d read all the Wild West novels by Karl May, and were familiar with noble and not so noble Indians reading the ground in front of them, but we could only guess. Still, we didn’t realize how little we knew, and felt just like our heroes Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, the Chief of the Apaches.
I was two years younger than my sister, and sometimes given to imitating bird calls, mostly owls, whether or not that was appropriate. My sister was a calm girl, matching my dad’s solemnity on these occasions. I however did not fit in. I wasn’t able to keep their peace – I was bubbly, impulsive, and irrevocably they would start to shush me and cast angry looks at me.
As a young man my dad had wanted to emigrate to Australia or Canada. He never got farther then looking at pictures of endless forests and the wide open desert, yet he treated every forest as though it could lead him to the Bering Strait, if only he would walk long enough.
On better days we found that small ditches running through the woods – who had dug them and when? – had filled with water, which was running clear and shallow. “A stream,” I’d crow and imagine that I could some day catch fish. I wanted to live by a river, be able to go on canoe trips, but the closest river was three miles away and too shallow in the summer to allow for canoe trips.
Sometimes we’d find a freshly dug foxhole, and my dad would cautiously approach us, waving us slowly closer, with a face that expressed awe, interest, and importance. And on other days we found colorful bird feathers and collected them in our pockets.
These were the early 70s and people often got rid of their trash by dumping it in the forests. We saw our share of house trash, savaged by raccoons and other rodents. My dad always tried to find a letter with an address, in order to call the police about it, but he never did. Those trash heaps we found close to the road to Frankenbostel. Whenever we got there, our expedition reached a point of crisis. It was a letdown to reach ‘civilization’ again and there were only two things to do: turn back and march home, a disappointing prospect; or cross the road and enter the area of the small landfill.
The landfill, though surrounded by trees, bordered on farmland. It was an open space, the seclusion of the woods was gone, and yet it had its own special joys. When it was first dug, the pit seemed like a canyon in a rugged and remote mountainous region (Zeven was as flat as you can imagine it. The highest elevation was about 90 feet). You could enter it and watch the heavy machinery like some relics from a long lost civilization, you could climb the large heaps of yellow and reddish sand outside the pit and imagine to be near the beach, on a dune. I was a cowboy, trapped by vicious Comanches, I was an archeologist digging for skeletons, I was reaching the ocean to become a whaler.
Soon, water collected at the bottom of the pit, and strangely, it seems that when the first trash was deposited there, the water levels rose. The water turned a strange, intensive blue-green, opaque and reminiscent of laundry detergent and shampoo. Refrigerators sometimes broke the surface, little white, rusty islands, and we would throw small stones at them. In the winter we skated over the frozen surface here, trash covering the sides of the pit, a barbecue trapped in the middle of the ice.
On one of the walks we found trash of a different kind. It was an overcast fall day, winter announcing itself with a certain chill in the air. We were dressed in dark colors, in our outdoors clothes, which looked nothing like the fancy lifestyle clothing that is so popular nowadays. Back then, at least in my memory, nobody wore trekking gear and bright-colored trail shoes. Hikers had hiking boots, and that was that. Our outdoors clothes were our old clothes, not good enough to be worn to school or church, but fitting okay to be still worn.
Only oaks still had their browned leaves on their branches, and we fought our way through some scratchy underbrush and dying pines, when we came, in the middle of our forest, onto a small clearing. A bit of moss was left of the ground. Yes, there was trash, but these were not household items, but clothes. Mostly women’s clothing. And magazines, which my dad opened with the tip of his shoe to reveal gigantic, large-nippled breasts, and men with sideburns, long hair, no clothes and long penises.
My sister knew she wasn’t supposed to look and didn’t, and I gawked until my father closed the pages again. The ground was soggy from recent rain, and so were the colorful magazines. Soggy too was a book which lay among the pants and bras on the ground, it’s title Süßes Flittchen, Sweet Hussy.
It was very quiet among the trees and I was awed by our find, and my dad paced about, lifting a jacket here, panties there. There were so many clothes – how many people had gathered here, and in what state had they left? Even shoes, high-heeled yellow sandals lay on the ground. What had happened to the feet wearing them?
We breathed in the cold air, stood, giddy with our find. My dad must have been thirty-five, and he examined what I didn’t dare touch, and then we left. The woods though changed that day, and the lonely adventures of trappers and Indians began to fade. My forests became populated with people who parked their cars by a landfill, and dragged their friends into the trees, to clearings where no one else could hear the rustling of clothes being discarded.
He’s dead. We get it. The parade will go on for another month or so and then new evidence will surface surrounding his death. A month later someone will come forward with some story that opens up more controversy that can be talked about for two more weeks after that. Like Reagan or Anna Nicole, celebrity deaths annoy me. Another body in the ground. Let it be.
North Korea is still acting crazy and Iran is in the middle of an amazing revolution. We lost a good one, now let’s get back to the real news.
He had an amazing solo career that spanned four decades. He donated ridiculous amounts of money to more charity organizations than I could ever begin to list. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. He invented the moonwalk. He also may or may not have molested a thousand little boys and he slept with a monkey for part of his adult life.
None of that swayed me either way. I have had his entire discography on my iPod for a long time and neither his past nor his death will make me listen any more or less. I just like the music. Now that he’s dead though, everybody seems to want to voice their opinion in his defense. This is my plea to stop that.
It’s not that I think its okay to joke about the death of a human being, but this is Michael Jackson. I don’t mean it’s okay because he was weird, and he WAS weird. That part I get. I’m guessing that fame can make you lose it a little bit, especially on his level. Independent studies show that I have somewhere between 12 and 15 fans, and that makes me turn my phone off and hide for a week straight sometimes. I get the weirdness.
But he was MICHAEL JACKSON.
The jokes don’t make fun of a person, the jokes make fun of an idea. A character. The concept of “Michael Jackson”. On the inside most people have a little kid that loves to tell tasteless jokes. How many Dead Baby jokes can you rattle off right now? I’m guessing more than one. I’m also guessing that you can dish out an even longer list of Michael Jackson jokes. My personal favorite:
Why does Michael Jackson like to sleep with twenty nine year old boys?
Because there’s twenty of them…
I’m sorry, but that’s hilarious.
Not one person was ever upset by that joke prior to yesterday. Nobody stepped up to defend him before June 25. So please, please, please don’t act incensed now. Let people get it out of their systems if they want to be childish. It is ultimately a victimless crime. I promise that Michael doesn’t care.
But, Slade, you should have some respect for the family for God’s sake! How do you think it makes them feel?
The family is dealing with the hurt that comes from losing somebody close to them, not the injury of a few words uttered by the faceless millions that have never met the man. Whatever his shortcomings were, Michael Jackson changed lives. Certain songs of his will always have a very important place in my life. I still correlate the Dangerous album with particular memories of my father, and I will never get a chance to say thanks for that.
In the meantime, a joke or two from people you know that comes across as tactless should be tolerated. It doesn’t make them bad people. It makes them human. That’s how we cope with a loss sometimes. But it’s not directed at Michael himself. It’s directed at the media-created caricature that we knew as Michael Jackson. It wasn’t really him. He wasn’t just oxygen tents and ferris wheels and face masks. Those things are funny. Those things deserve to be made fun of.
As for the rest of him? Well, I didn’t know that part. It is intact and lives on in the memory of those that did.
I, however, will go on the way I always have. The only thing that has changed for me is that it is now official that I will never see him perform live. Nothing else will change. My childish friends and I will still tell immature jokes about him and I will still play Remember the Time at full blast when I am in the privacy of my own car on long road trips when no one is watching.
Now can we please let it go?
June 24, 2009
Let’s start with the Twitter advice for you, since the majority of you fit into that category. If you’re Johnny Depp or Mary Lynn Rajskub, you can skip to the relevant section.
Scenario: You are you. You’re on Twitter. You’re not totally lost, but you still aren’t sure why you’re there.
Well don’t worry. Because Twitter is a site where people type what they’re doing into the Internet and then nobody reads it because nobody cares.
Some day, I like to think, I will write Important Books¹. My Important Books probably won’t spark revolutions, or shine the light of justice on the unseen foundational weaknesses of the free market, or inspire a united industrial front against global warming, but they will capture, completely and for all time, the frailties and follies of the human condition. Yes, people will say after reading them, yes, this is exactly what this means. My God! How could one Australian of above average height have grasped – and so easily – the deeper meaning of the subtle movements of life?
Also, the books will sell well, and I will be very rich.
At this point the apologetic emails from women will start to trickle in, becoming a flood when I take my band on the road (somehow, in this avalanche of success, I have learned how to play guitar. And write music. And gotten myself a band. Probably in the space of one weekend).
For me, the critical response will be the most enjoyable element of my literary triumph, as academics from around the world and keen observers of the zeitgeist alike write intelligent and considered columns about the subtextual meanings of my work². They will marvel at its intricacy, they will point to the synergies that run between my novels, my short stories, and my variety show, and they will be jealous of my bank balance and A-list parties.
No matter how collegiate or New York-abiding they may be, they will repeat the same refrain: ‘Amazing! Why, not long ago, this author, this well-dressed stallion of a man, this flying king of us all, was writing pieces about how Hollywood actress Clea DuVall had super-powers and continually refused to sleep with him!’
And in response I will say ‘Fuck you, publishing industry. Give humour writers a bigger shelf in bookstores, and then maybe I’ll let you into my stylish bar.’³ (I also own a bar. While I’m going for broke here, in the future, I’ve also found true love, or, as is more likely going to be the case, it has found me. Jesus. I make such a terrible boyfriend.)
Because I like to write humour (whether the end result is funny or not is something that’s up to the taste of the audience, and by realising that, I can neatly get myself out of trying very hard, or, really, at all). I enjoy making up fictitious animals with vaguely threatening-sounding names (the Himalayan strangler tuna was one of mine). I delight in coming up with names for new illicit substances (the formula I use here is to just pick an existing country and a colour and combine them. Bolivian Red, Peruvian Gold, Yugoslavian Blue… the only time I have deviated from this approach is with the substance ‘Russian whomping sauce’, mainly because I liked the sound of it). Sometimes I invent new and terrifying countries, and, let me tell you, if you ever wake up to find yourself under a signpost that says West Namaliba, make escape your number one priority.
I got into writing humour when a friend, years ago, loaned me a copy of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I turned to the table of contents and saw pieces like I Have Slept With Five Hundred Women, I Am Friends With A Working-Class Black Woman, and Why Am I So Handsome? I knew I was onto a winner.
‘I felt vaguely ill, like the time my ex-girlfriend’s brother was brutally murdered by a sadistic graduate student at Yale. But as then, the feeling quickly passed, and I began to think about my own unhappiness.’
–Introduction to the New Slavery, Neal Pollack
From there I found my way to Pollack’s website, which in turn led to my discovery of the sadly gone and much-lamented Haypenny, the humour site which in turn introduced me to the likes of Matt Tobey, Kittenpants (whose line about the correlation between the rising crime rate in her underpants and the recent influx of illegal immigrants to the same place is, hands down, one of the funniest things I’ve ever read), Gladstone, Ian Carey, G. Xavier Robillard, Christopher Monks, and Jason Roeder.
And Christ, how I hate them all, those talented sons of bitches.
‘How about a cheque for some sex that I can cash at the First National Bank of Your Underpants?’
–Superpowers and How I’ve Used them to Get Sex, Matt Tobey
How can I not be envious of that?
From Haypenny I graduated to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Cracked.com, Yankee Pot Roast… really, this could have kept going forever. But I found some inspiration in these guys. I started writing some of my own humour fiction, and, to my surprise, found myself enjoying it.
Admittedly, the early attempts weren’t very good. Still. It was fun.
Somewhere along the line I stumbled across Dave Barry and David Sedaris. Briefly, I contemplated changing my name to Dave.
‘The most precious gift that a parent can give to a child – more precious than material things such as diamonds, or gold, or a big mansion – is a big mansion filled with diamonds and gold.’
-Dave Barry’s Money Secrets, Dave Barry
For the record, if you ever write to Dave Barry and ask to become his apprentice, his secretary will respond firmly, but politely, in the negative. By contrast, you won’t get an answer from Chris Carter’s representation at all, even if you include a wad of Monopoly money and a pack of Tim-Tams along with a note stating ‘There’s plenty more where that came from.’
Bookstores were a big help. Not only in widening my reading material, but also in making me think that my dreams of fabulous riches⁴ and humour-publishing success weren’t mutually exclusive. That idea got a big boost when I, out of nowhere, found Fierce Pajamas, an anthology from The New Yorker, in a second-hand bookstore. Enter James Thurber, E.B. White, Steve Martin.
‘Lying here in these fierce pajamas, I dream of the Harper’s Bazaar world, the vogue life; dream of being a part of it. In fancy I am in Mrs. Cecil Baker’s pine-panelled drawing room. It is dusk. (It is almost always dusk in the fashion magazines.)’
–Fierce Pajamas, E.B. White
Don’t get me wrong. I, like many other people, enjoy laughter. And I like the written form of humour (I’m not going to go into the science of it too much, as, to quote White again, from Some Remarks on Humor, ‘Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.’ Although I will deviate from my self-proclaimed opacity to say that a very-well-placed profanity can be just about the funniest thing in the world). I even like the guys who are writing this stuff; I’m in contact with some of them. Luke Rhinehart, who wrote The Dice Man, has become an internet friend. Pollack helped me with a university assignment a few years back, Robillard offered fantastic critique on a manuscript I’m working on (and didn’t even ask for money!), and Gladstone… well, Gladstone just makes fun of me for being Australian.
The only problem is that they’re so damn good at what they do. I mean, I could probably take their skill as some kind of inspiration, but I’m just too in love with my own gnawing and petty small-mindedness. And I’d have to rewrite my revenge list.
Pitching humour writing to agencies and publishing houses, as I’ve found out, is hard work. It’s not impossible, but it’s not the kind of thing they leap at, either. However, as long as I’ve got the deep fires of envy burning in the pit of my stomach, I’ll keep trying.
‘Let me just say this-that with a shovel and a packed lunch, determination, and an up-to-date map of the sewer system, a man can get his hands on a surprisingly large amount of his de facto wife’s car’s gasoline.’
–A Second Letter to Cecilia, Simon Smithson
¹ I’ll write the dick out of them.
² While simultaneously noting I have also single-handedly created a new genre: sub-sub-textuality.
³ But not you, Wyatt Mason. Never you.
⁴ First you get the money. Then you get the power. Then you get Chelsea Handler.
June 22, 2009
I jog around five days a week.
I have two routes.
One route is my neighborhood and it consists of a giant square through a few neighborhoods that are infested with chihuahuas, faded houses, and small apartments.
The other is Sunset Park. A large park loaded with baseball fields, volleyball and basketball courts, etc, and a jogging/walking trail that weaves around a lake. One lap, one mile. Two laps, two miles. You get the idea.
The park is right down the street from Wayne Newton’s house. He calls his house—or rather, his estate—Casa de Shenandoah.
From what I hear it’s packed with horses and a whole slew of other creatures. It’s like a zoo. On the outside of his compound, on the corner of Sunset and Pecos, he has this giant sculpture/mural-type thing announcing where he lives.
It consists of a giant pair of bull horns and some black-eyed horses jumping out of a concrete wall.
Before I started running Sunset Park I was lapping my neighborhood. It’s not a pretty run. No beautiful trees or running rivers to look at. Just a bunch of old houses, singed grass, and cracked sidewalks.
But it’s an entertaining run because of the chihuahuas that harass me. There are two packs in particular that do a stellar job in giving me batches of crap for passing their yard.
The first pack, Team One, is a three-man outfit. Cute and mean as fuck. They live right around the corner from my house and smell me putting on my running shoes. They know my every move before I move.
They come at me like bullets from their carport and run along the fence showing their teeth and barking like hyenas. It’s hilarious. Sometimes I’ll hear someone scream at them from inside the house. I scoot by them and hear their last barks popping off like firecrackers.
Team Two is made up of five pure killers that live on the last stretch of the run. They prowl an ugly backyard full of rusted appliances, ants, garbage cans, and hard Vegas dirt.
These little bastards don’t come charging after me but wait at the fence and when I hit their sights they raise all hell. It may sound odd, but I think they’re offended by me. They don’t care for me on a personal level.
I stand for something that pisses them off.
They think I’m an asshole, a punk.
One of them just looks at my shoes and gnashes his teeth. Another has some spring in his legs and snaps through the air like a shark.
One day their owner (some fat guy with eyes the size of large chicken eggs) was with them. The dogs saw me and started a riot. They kicked up dirt and bitched.
“I think they like you,” he said, smiling.
Sunset Park is a pretty run. Beautiful pine trees and thick green grass line the jogging trail. A lake dotted with geese and ducks. Big Nevada sky sweeping to Utah, Barstow. Sparks to New Mexico. It’s always pleasant.
There are no packs of crazy dogs there.
But there are people.
That’s where the shows at.
The running culture is an interesting one. The runner’s mindset. The sleek shoes. The lightweight shorts and fast sunglasses. The stretching, the technique.
Running is a lifestyle.
And one hell of a good buzz.
“I got in twenty-five miles last week. Light week. Ankle was acting up,” I heard one of them say.
“The other day I was in the zone, bro. I hit that far corner, coming down, and was just chugging,” another said, jumping from foot to foot and shaking out his hands, getting ready to nail another bout of miles.
The corner he was referring to is on the backside of the trail and has a mild decline. If you hit that turn running at a good clip you’ll get whipped into a straight away like a train, the pine trees flashing by in a blur.
For all you 440 relay people who ran the 3rd leg (the turn), this is the same push you get if you hit that turn kicking. Bam. Zip. Gone.
Sunset Park has its regulars. I have names for them. Like Frankenstein and the Trucker. Like the Bee Lady and Silver. Like the Big Mexican Dude and the Woman That Doesn’t Smile.
They’re always there, always putting in the miles.
Frankenstein is a big man with longish hair. He straps these huge weights to his angles and lurches when he runs. He’s a slow mover, but he gets it done.
The Bee Lady is a walker. She wears a large beige hat that casts a long round shadow on the trail. She dresses real cute, looks like she has some money, and wears too much make-up. She might be a celebrity. Regardless, she laps the lake like a machine and hauls ass.
The Trucker is a stocky dude with bushy eyebrows and fat hands. He sweats like a lineman and cuts the sleeves off his shirts. Yeah, one of those. He might be Russian.
The Woman That Doesn’t Smile? Well, she doesn’t smile. What can I say? She has a very aggressive running style, wears a fuzzy brown baseball cap, and gets it done in a nice pair of running shoes. We’ve ran what seems like a thousand miles together. She’s never said hello to me.
I think the Big Mexican Dude is gay. He hasn’t said so, but I get the feeling that if we sat down and talked about some of the cute girls running along side of us he’d want to change the topic and talk about some of the pecker kicking up dust.
By far the most impressive runner out there is Silver. Silver is this dude somewhere in his sixties. Maybe his seventies. Who knows. But he runs without a shirt, has tanned muscled legs, silver hair, and glides around the lake at a controlled meditative pace.
He’s a serious runner.
He’ll jack you up.
“Sloppy,” he says, looking at us floundering around the lake. “Fucking rookies. I’ll bury all of you.”
Or something like that.
Tomorrow will make it thirteen miles so far this week. If I get off my ass I’ll strap them up tomorrow and get in fifteen, maybe sixteen.
Got to keep going.
Arms pushing from the hips.
Foot after foot.
Mile after mile.
Got to get Silver.
Got to get Franky Baby.
Got to get myself.
June 22, 2009
If Mom were a superhero, she would be The Piddler.
When she needs to wash her hands, she’ll look through coupons first. If she needs to pick up the dry cleaning, she’ll stop at the antique store on the way. And when she needs to go to work, she’ll watch a rerun of Ab Fab, then show up half an hour late claiming, “Traffic was just awful today,” which, turns out, is every day.
I’d like to say that old age is responsible for this poking trait, but Mom’s always been a world class stoner without the weed.
When I was a Sid-and-Marty-Kroft kid, we’d always roll into church during the second hymn. I can still recall Birdie Cullen’s glass eye popping over to sneer at us as we inched down the red carpet to an open pew in the front (always in the front!) while the congregation sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” completely off key.
[Church was where I first realized that God hated me, but we’ll get to that later.]
My sister, clever mother of five beautiful children whom she manages with aplomb via color coated folders and spreadsheets, often gives my mom the incorrect time for family functions so that mom is sure to arrive on time.
“I gave her an extra hour,” my sister huffs as she opens the door for Mom who is now thirty minutes late for the event (an hour and a half if you go by the time she was told to be there.)
My brother, a staunch Libertarian who spends most of his Saturdays cooking tenderloin on his Smith and Hawken grill while wearing his sherpa-lined Crocs, bellows to his Belarusian wife, “Expecting her to be on time is like expecting Bill Maher not to cuss. Ain’t gonna fucking happen. Have a radish, monkey?”
“Thank you, Puffin,” she coos before turning to adjust a place setting, most likely from Williams-Sonoma.
They make me sick with their love.
But I’m happy for him.
One time, The Piddler made us late for a funeral.
Somebody’s uncle had died, and we never missed a funeral. They served bar-b-q beenie weenies afterwards, usually with cellophane toothpicks.
On this occasion, we made our way down the red carpet to a pew near the front (of course), right behind the weeping mistress who outed herself that day.
She was the widow’s best friend.
There was a slapping fight in the lobby afterwards. The wife lost her wig. The mistress lost her dignity. I permanently lost my appetite for beanie weenies.
[Why do friends fuck each other’s husbands?]
[Why do Protestant churches all seem to have red carpet? Isn’t red the color of Satan? And whores? And fire? I contend there is evil envy in the church, but we’ll get to that later, too.]
(So many questions, so few acid trips.)
Once again we had to pass Birdie Cullen, always a fixture at any church function, which included funerals, weddings, baptisms and bingo.
Birdie’s face never moved whenever we passed her. She would be transfixed on the pulpit, seemingly entrenched in the pastor’s words, but then that glass eye would whip around to find us, like the Weirding Way fighter training module in David Lynch’s Dune; and boy, could that eye shoot daggers faster than a pissed off carnie.
It was just a matter of time before Birdie’s eye started killing. Of this I was sure.
“Don’t stare,” The Piddler reprimanded, then waved to the church organist, Randy Butterman, the first closeted gay man I ever met.
(Mom and Dad were professional dancers, so I only knew the braggart kind.)
Incidentally, we were late for the funeral because The Piddler wanted to deadhead her geraniums.
Another time, The Piddler made me late for a concert I was supposed to play in high school. I was fourteen, an especially sensitive age.
We arrived at the auditorium fifteen minutes late (in retrospect, not too bad for The Piddler) because Mom wanted to make a quick stop at the drug store to get a new pair of pantyhose since the ones she had on had a run. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and The Blue Law forbade her from buying pantyhose on Sunday.
[You were also forbidden from buying washing machines or frying pans, which I found ironic since most religions like to keep their women cooking and cleaning, preferably barefoot where I’m from. The Blue Law seemed counterproductive. But life is full of these wonderful paradoxes.]
Though Mom was a practicing Presbyterian, she didn’t conform to a lot of religious hoopla, especially if it meant she had to go anywhere with a run in her stockings. After a meaningless but heated conversation with the pimple-faced clerk, she left without a new pair of nylons but did manage to procure a new romance novel, which she read at all the stoplights on the way to the concert, much to the chagrin of neighboring drivers.
When we finally arrived at the concert hall, the orchestra was already deep into the Summermovement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and I had to creep through the violas during the simulated thunderstorm.
To add fuel to the fire, The Piddler kept snapping my picture as Sammy Black, my super duper badass crush, watched me stumble with my cello through a maze of moving elbows. Flash after flare, The Piddler seemed to capture every nanosecond of this bright red moment. At least the flash was in time with the music, and it did add to the stormy atmosphere of the movement.
When I finally arrived at my chair, my nemesis, Sandy Ween, grumbled, “Figures.”
I jabbed her in the head with my bow.
The Piddler snapped a picture.
Later that evening, I asked The Piddler, “When will you develop the film?” I wanted to relive my magnum opus with Sandy Ween over again.
“You know what’s funny?”
“What?” I replied.
“I completely forgot to put film in the camera.”
June 20, 2009
If I’d been with David Foster Wallace on the last day of his life, I might have offered him a chocolate bar and put some Prof. Longhair on the CD player. Chocolate’s always good for getting the Dopamine flowing and enlivens the “reward center” in your brain. As for Prof. Longhair, well, who can be depressed after hearing his Rum and Coco-Cola or Big Chief?
The two teenagers are making out on the sofa to my left, not two feet away. They kiss, then speak to each other in Spanish. Fabiola, my 3rd grade student, sits at the table with me, to my right, hunched over a word search for ‘winter.’ She’s never seen snow, a blizzard, or sleet. I tell her about snow storms in Buffalo, and the ‘Zero Visibility’ ice-cream. Her friend, she answers, who moved to L.A. from Colorado, has seen hail the size of Chicken McNuggets. Which are Fabiola’s favorite food.
In Spanish, the boy asks, “Does he speak Spanish?”
“No,” I say, “but I’m not stupid.”
I don’t know if he is Fabiola’s brother, I haven’t been introduced to any of the family members who walk through the room in which I tutor, the first one you enter when you walk through the front door. There’s a back entrance, and it’s only me who comes in front. I’ve seen Fabiola’s mother in the driveway, but she never leaves the back of the apartment, doesn’t come out to greet me or even take a look at me. I haven’t shaken her hand. I’m dealing only with Fabiola’s stepfather, who keeps toy cars on the shelves in the living room. They are models of souped-up Hondas and Toyotas and they come in all sizes. The biggest is operated with a remote control and has big ‘Toyo Tires’ decals on the sides.
The boy grins now, the girl looks scared. This might be the living room or the dining room. There’s not much dining or living in it, this is the first time Fabiola and I are not alone. I’m 42 and have had three accidents in three months, and I don’t have collision, so I’ve tied the passenger door shut with some rope. I drink cheap red wine, eight dollars a 1.5 liter bottle at California Market, no vintage. My wife’s and my teeth are turning blue.
Fabiola asks if she can go to the restroom. She takes her time while the teenagers giggle again and kiss. The boy is squat and wears a white hat backwards, the girl is short and has the face of a china doll. The boy puts his hand in one pocket and extracts a condom in a red wrapper. He holds it out to the girl but she won’t touch it.
Fabiola comes back and resumes her work on gloves, mittens and snow. It’s January. Outside it’s 80 degrees, and soon the boy and girl leave, and Fabiola is moving on to word clusters with animal names. In front of our table is a small altar for La Flaca, Santa Muerte. The Skinny One smiles, her bones clad in a red robe. A candle burns behind her, a matchbox-sized Ford Mustang stands at her feet.