BEN TANZER

Welcome.

Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you about my new essay collection Be Cool—a memoir (sort of) from Dock Street press.

 

Well, great, congratulations, truly, should we get right into the questions?

Yes, of course, soft ball questions, right, I hope.

 

Yeah, sure, anyway, so, navel-gazing…?

What?

lena-dunham-girls-TVAttention people in your twenties: I strongly urge you to elect Lena Dunham as the voice of your generation. She knows what she’s talking about. Trust me. Get out your journals and start taking notes. Let go of everything your mothers and your grandmothers taught you about physical beauty. Silence the self-critical voice that you so carefully nurtured, the one that still dominates the conversation late at night when you’re trying to fall asleep. Reject all that brainwashing media nonsense you were bombarded with during your formative years. Stop those stupid diets. Do not buy a juicer. Gluten is not your enemy; it’s time to wise up.  Just hit the reset button, ladies and gentlemen, sit back and watch the TV show Girls. Lena Dunham is talking to you. She doesn’t have all the answers but I think she does have the solution to one of your biggest problems if you will just listen to her.

At some point in Hello I Must Be Going, Amy (Melanie Lynskey) trips on a beach and asks, splayed flat on the rocky shore, “where the motherfucking fuck is motherfucking bottom!”  In the aftermath of a surprise divorce, she’s moved back into her parent’s house, and in the way of their home renovations and retirement plans, when she begins a fling with a younger man (played by Girls’ Christopher Abbott).  And it’s Amy’s seemingly bottomless, endless sense of stasis that director Todd Louiso and screenwriter Sarah Koskoff navigate with such care … and a little humor.  I recently spoke with Louiso and Koskoff via phone about Hello I Must Be Going, the cast, the Marx Brothers, and defying the status quo (and the weather) to create a candid, female-centric film.

In Part I we discussed KISS’ Love Gun Tour as first man on the moon, Paul Stanley’s sackfuls of cash, Frankenstein Dynasty, and psychoanalysis and personality theory as it pertains to the downfall/saving grace of Coca-Cola KISS.  Read it here.

In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy argues that women have been duped into embracing “raunch” culture, wherein women and girls objectify themselves and other women in crude, sophomoric ways. Levy argues that “raunch” culture pretends to be about women liberating themselves, but is really about keeping women in their place as objects for the male gaze.

In recent years we’ve seen a similar trend, where women have been encouraged to buy into “asshole” culture. While some may argue that we have always tolerated certain types of male bad behavior, it seems there has been a cultural shift in recent years where we actually applaud watching male characters behave like jerks.

Grading the last seven days in End Times culture…

This week, Girls’ writer/director/actress Lena Dunham went on NPR’s Fresh Air to address criticisms that the show is a particularly whitewashed view of entitled twenty-something women emotionally adrift in New York City.  Even before the show aired on HBO, Girls had garnered a tremendous amount of buzz as a series helmed, for a change, by a woman.  Just a few episodes in, the buzz erupted in debate on Girls’ representations of gender, class, and race as well as its worthiness of being the focus of so much debate to begin with.

 

First Contact

By Rob Williams

Essay

Her name was Nedelia. She was a skinny, shy Hispanic girl, with enormous glasses (just like me) and a faint mustache whispering across her upper lip (very much unlike me—but more about that in a second). In my memory, she is always wearing a light blue skirt, knee-high white socks and a white blouse. She looks lovely, although I never would have said that about her at the time.

Chapter 38

 

Crunchy and Creamy made tea in the lodge, and all the People assembled to drink it.  How did we all know to go there?

I had a pulse in the back of my head, the soft dark spot where tendon meets bone, that roused me from where I lay with Laurel, like a pair of lizards waiting out the afternoon heat.  And I caught Laurel’s fingertips to bring her along, although, I let go her hand before we had gone far.  Not so much to hide that touch from D-, who knew all about it anyway, but.

Until I was eleven, I figured there was no reason why anybody would want pain.  I had no notion that pain, given the right light and the right smile, could be something extraordinary.  Not big pain no, just petty, action hero pain that looks good on camera.  Yes, that kind of pain can be instructive.

Isabelle of the dark brown fists, the smartest girl in seventh grade, was my first punch.  She let me have it and I deserved it.  Why her fists were so dark is a question my memory will never answer. Is it because they rose up in the shattering light of desert asphalt?  She was part Chinese and part Mexican, blue-black hair pulled back taut like a crossbow, glasses slightly askew on her angular face, skinny and fierce and smarter than any one of us.

I was a bad kid at a Catholic school run by nuns, some of them ex-military, others working second jobs in hospices and drop-in centers and clinics.  To them, we were loathsome suburban shit unfit to drink God’s blood. But in our own eyes we were holy outlaws looking for cheap thrills.

It was a vanilla white stucco school tucked away in a scorching valley of inland San Diego. There was a rose garden in front of the church and a little alcove behind it where you could hide in the shade cast by a stone statue of the school’s namesake, St. Theresa, the patron saint of O-faces.

Past arcades of pink tiles inlaid with blue stars and silver crosses, a line of palm trees trembled in the light, their tops promising parrots but never delivering. They reminded me, and still do, of props in a video game landscape. Nothing in that light looked real.

Most of my school consisted of an asphalt parking lot divided into spots by shimmering white lines.  This was where morning recess was held.  Everything at my school was laid on thick and bright, from the stucco to the asphalt to the paint so that every inch of space reflected light.  The effect was torturous but you got used to it if you were in motion.  The breezes from other bodies would cool you down too.

Morning recess was a time to play but often we ran out of ideas about how to amuse ourselves on this sweltering black field that lacked playground equipment and shade. Not to mention that all we had was a paltry twenty minutes to get our nerves shaken out before heading back in to the wall-to-wall carpeted classrooms.

Parking lots were a hard nut to crack if you wanted to play. They’re fit less for schoolchildren than for convicts who walk in circles and mull over their crimes.  I had crimes too, minor ones, like untucking my shirt at lunch, burning toilet paper, writing poetry about shit and Satan and deliberately getting grass stains in the most unlikely places.  Like any strong-willed convict, I wanted to embrace the parking lot and tap its hidden potential.

We devised various forms of tag that would attempt to exploit the smooth space at hand. There was TV tag, freeze tag, squeeze tag, ball tag, etc.  (The act of touching and becoming “it” forecast more dangerous petting as the years wore on.)  Most of these games wore thin rather quickly so we racked our brains for better variations.

And so we considered the brilliant white lines on the asphalt, how they connected and marked off territory, how that basic geometry was something we could relate to and thus line tag was born.

It turned out to be the most exciting version yet, as well as the most physically demanding in that it necessitated pushing, shoving, clothes lining and grappling, even if these were against the rules.  It also became, as I would discover, the game that gave the most vent to female aggression in an arena once dominated by Huck Finnish boys with their skinned knees and bony little asses.

The idea was that you were supposed to stay on the white lines by any means necessary short of choking or crotch kicking. The moment you were cast overboard into the oceanic blackness of asphalt you had thirty seconds to get back on board the white line before you were declared “OUT!”  People could physically prevent this from happening and you could equally prevent them. In short, the game was violent but within acceptable bounds.

It soon developed into a riotous and heavily attended event for those precious twenty minutes of morning recess. In the afternoons, our much longer lunch break was in the upper playground, where there was grass and swings and things you’d expect to entertain barely pubescent children, like tetherball mock executions.

Line tag marked a true turn of events, from our harmless, nun-approved playfulness to a ritualized game as serious as any Aztec sacrifice.

I think the heat bouncing off the pavement turned us into temporary lunatics who had just discovered that touching was indeed only the iceberg’s teasing tip.

And that sometimes hurting was as neat as kissing, especially if you looked tough when it happened.

The girls loped along in their short plaid skirts, their flimsy white shirts, their hair tied back in buns and pigtails.  There was nothing eye-catching about the plaid: it was brown and yellow, our scatological school colors but, in the frenzy of line tag, we gazed more wildly at those skirts and the strong legs that shot out of them and carried those overheated bodies along shining white lines.

We boy-men gallivanted around in short beige shorts and white golf shirts.  Truly they were short shorts and our skinny legs looked like they were dangling helpless and pathetic off a tar paper roof.

In the heat of the game, people would make alliances and fortify certain rectangles of lines and lay in wait for some bold adventurer to stumble into their territory.  The best team-builders were the girls who would all count to three and come charging at some unsuspecting boy and push him flailing into the asphalt out-zone. The sight of three or four girls, arms interlocked, faces dead set in rancor, about to charge you and thus disqualify you was both supremely annoying and unspeakably tantalizing.  Many a boy braver than me surrendered just at the sight of that unified display of long, damp, peach fuzz arms.

I, however, was determined on outwitting and out leaping my competitors, whether they were girls or boys, nuns or teachers.  One word on my mind: glory. I wanted it, if just for twenty minutes and even if it wasn’t glory at all.  I shimmied from line to line, veering and hip thrusting and pirouetting just out of reach of lunging hands and many a recess proved me the smarmy victor.

But one day, I got sloppy or she got determined, I can’t remember which but Isabelle of the dark brown fists was out for blood.

I had heard she had had a “crush” on me but I wasn’t interested because she was clearly a quiet, academic show-off who cared more about homework than new rock music. She was no Kate McGalliger, a nectarine blond of Irish extraction who had failed both math and science. Regardless, Isabelle’s feelings had been hurt by something I had said or not said and she apparently had vowed revenge.  Perhaps also the fact I attributed so much importance to forever winning at line tag set me up as a preemptive loser in her mind. She would oust me from my petty throne and show me just how little I was.

I never saw it coming. Rather surprising for her, and with only four minutes left of recess, she spontaneously leaped into pursuit of me down a trapezoidal boulevard of lines (you could go for a long time on the lines without stopping, mostly because the school wanted to accommodate as many cars as possible for the weekend fish fries and social events) and chased me down some winding side-lines until we closed in on the frosting of the chapel doors.

The chapel had the thickest possible coating of stucco on it, forming wave formations at its edges.  This is where she cornered me and there were no more lines and no more asphalt but a whole other territory that was forbidden to us kids.

But I was stubborn, ridiculously so.  I figured if I could distract her, do a pump-fake like in basketball, then I could somehow angle my way around her on the line we were both standing on and trot back in the opposite direction to a safe harbor where the bell would ring and the game would be over.

But her pursuit was twisting up my insides with fear and excitement.  Nobody had closed in on me like this before.  No girl for that matter.  I was thinking only in game-terms but something deeper was thinking way past that to the overly complicated man I am today.

In the raw light, I saw her sweat-fogged glasses, her clumsily buttoned shirt and the damp strands of hair breaking out of the bun. Everyone was idling on their lines, awaiting my defeat. She snaked forward, grinning with unbearable delight. I swayed left, then right, thinking I might just make a break for it but knowing also this was it. I was cornered and I felt very small and baby-like and unreal.

Her hand made a dark brown fist.

She smiled with clenched teeth and breathed through flaring nostrils.  And in a second she was as close as a kiss, while letting fly that brown fist into my ribs.  Another fist, all wet knuckles, just grazed my jaw and she cursed something in Spanish.  I was stunned into submission.  I fell back against the stucco, appalled and momentarily winded. Falling, the sharp wave of stucco ripped a piece of my elbow skin off.  Blood oozed forth, almost black in the light.  Immediately I wiped it on my white golf shirt while tears welled in my eyes.  Her face was overheated and satisfied while it inched slowly away from me. Her fists retracted, she wiped sweat from her glasses.

And then she ran back as the bell rang.  People laughed but they also didn’t.  Nothing like that had ever happened.

Isabelle knew she’d be in trouble but it didn’t matter.  She had broken through an unspoken barrier and done to a boy exactly what should have been done. I was satisfied but couldn’t say why. I was convinced it wouldn’t matter who hit me once the stories started circulating.  I had blood on my pristine white shirt and that wouldn’t come off no matter how much bleach was spilled.  It was a true mark of glory. And I would get in even more glorious trouble with all the Homeric poems I would write about that bloodstain.

But I was wrong. For weeks afterward, all that was jeered at recess, shouted at lunch or intoned in church was: Michael got beat up by a girl.

Yes I did.

But I liked Isabelle a lot more now, so much so that it disturbed me to no end. For her part, after the furor of line tag died down, she was too interested in violin lessons and high school application to give a second’s thought to what she had done.

Yet towards the end of eighth grade, right before we all graduated, her friend Theresa, after a hasty whispering session with Isabelle, went up to me in the parking lot when I was bragging about something or other and slapped me in the face for no reason at all.

Isabelle laughed and laughed and a few weeks later we all graduated and went our separate ways.

supercool1

Here they are in Disney World with matching princess-mouse hats. The sun shines warmly on their painted faces this November afternoon.

Grace, eight years old, loud mouthed, freckled, athletic, proud, and protective, stretches her arms across the railing behind her. Her chin is high, and the blue sky stretches into eternity behind her as she gazes thoughtfully into the distance, but out of the corner of her eye, she checks you out and sizes you up. The star on her forehead marks her as a visionary.

I went red-eyed and messy-haired to my kitchen this morning to make coffee wherein I saw a large cockroach lying upside-down on my breadboard writhing in the throes of Death. 


I had laid poison last night and it was now taking effect on this roach’s entire system, his whole way of Being. And here I was to actually witness it. Christ. Face-to-face with the big consequences. On my breadboard. First thing in the morning. Jesus.

He was flat on his back, pedaling his legs in a medicated slow-motion Hell dance; his verve, his quickness, a bleary memory from another time– yesterday. I’m pretty sure this was the same commando roach I would see on reconnaissance missions in the pantry between the plastic bags of tomato ramen. I bet that just a few hours ago, he was wheeling and ruling in his headquarters under the refrigerator, telepathing suggestions to his underlings and just doing his ‘survival thing’. Now here he was, dying and double-clutching on my breadboard. This was all so very disconcerting to me…and utterly fascinating.

I ambled quickly to my bedroom to get my deluxe Swiss Army knife with the 10X power magnifying glass. I hurried back and flicked the magnifying glass out so that I might fully examine this Socratic insect on his final deathbed, choking on the Hemlock I had thusly administered. Amazing detail, I thought, as the eastern sun filtered through the kitchen window, conveniently illuminating this Stygian peep show. In one way, I felt slightly morbid and a bit sadistic doing this, as it was I who had plotted to kill him, to extinguish his fire, to effectively block his Life Path. It was I who had gone to the Thrifty on Vermont and Hollywood and picked out the most expensive roach bait traps, the shiny black boxes, the ones with the cartoon renderings of the little purple bugs with the Xs in their eyes.

I was faced with what I viewed as ‘personal enc-roachment’. I actually didn’t mind the little guys all that much but I was tired of girls saying how gross my kitchen was, they shrieking at the crawlers and stabbing at them with their high-heeled shoes. I had had enough. And I admit, I did this all with forethought and malice, moving with blinders past the ‘guilt factor,’ as I realized I was somehow bearing justice and wreaking truth. So there I was, bearing justice and wreaking truth and peering like some Cyclops god through the looking glass at this beautifully ugly hi-tech insect passing onto his reward on my crumby breadboard. Some reward, I thought. This was all so fucking disconcerting.

So I pull in nice and tight right up to his translucent orangey-brown face and Socrates looks me right in the eyes and curses me with his churning mandibles: One day, all this will be yours, Sonny boy. That’s right Mr. Curious, Mr. Pious, Mr. Cyclops God, Mr. Mercenary Jester who hath poisoned Gregor Samsa, King of the Roaches, you too will have your day under the glass, under the sun, under the gun, under the scrutiny of your malevolent peers. And hopefully you’ll be in that predicament before you’ve had a chance to leave a real legacy behind and then you’d be sorry that you had procrastinated so long and you’d fight to hang on and pedal your skinny legs so that you could continue to live and strive for glory but it would be too late by then because you would be paralyzed by the Anti-forces dripping coagulants into your nostrils and making you breathe noxious molasses until you choked on your own blood.

Well, I thought, today is Gregor Samsa’s day to die, and I am sorry for this, but I suppose I should grasp this opportunity to thoroughly examine his cephalothorax and the dwindling state that he’s in. And so I did, moving my monocle down past his hair-hinged V-legs to his abdomen, which was twitching and heaving with much melodrama. Lean and ridged and slightly pointed but rounded-off oh so elegantly. Pure precision design.

Looking closer still, his abdomen metamorphosized into the face of a woman before my very eyes. A moon-faced woman with a little Flip Do from like, the 30’s, and she had a beauty mark on her cheek, on both of her cheeks actually, perfectly symmetrical beauty marks, and she closed her eyes as if she were listening to some strange music that she had never heard before and she cooed and pursed her lips and moved the back of her hand over her forehead and she sighed and batted her lashes until they came completely open and just then it struck me, she looked just like Anais Nin, 

 

 


 

Anais_nin

perky and beautiful and classic and avante garde in a totally new Silver Lake kind of way and she poofed her cheeks out and then she sucked them in and became pouty like a French postcard girl who had so much laundry to do that she didn’t know what to do and because she had absolutely nothing clean to wear, she had to do her laundry in the nude, bending over, lathering and squeezing and rubbing her garments down into the soapy water, then pulling them up, letting them drip, and then she would push down on them again and they would bubble out of the water like the lively little breasts that she herself possessed and she would clutch at them and scrub her fine garments clean and careful not to get her forehead wet with soapy water, she would take the back of her wrist and dab the sweat from her brow and sigh and bend over again and then come back up and then go back down again and then come back up to wring them out. She shuffled in her woodblock slippers across the hardwood floor like a veritable white-faced Geisha, bobbing and delicately swaying in front of the plate glass windows where she looked out to her garden to see Juniper bushes and Japanese Sand pear trees and Japanese water and Japanese stone and Japanese lifeblood and Japanese bone and Japanese beauty and Japanese pain and Japanese sunshine and Japanese rain.

The light through the kitchen window dimmed behind a cloud and the room darkened down a bit so I pulled the magnifying glass to the side and viewed the cockroach once again whole with Naked Lunch eyes and I could see that he was now through trying. He was a bumming boy, obviously in a great deal of pain. He was bushed, he was whipped and I didn’t blame him. I mean, how could I, after all that we had been through together? He had put up a formidable fight and for this I admired him. I looked down at him and sort of wished that we could be friends, colleagues, drinking buddies or some such stature of equal footing, as I was now uncomfortable and feeling terrible pangs of remorse for inflicting the Death Penalty on a being who was guilty of no crime except natural cohabitation. Was this sentence of Death a mortal sin or could this be classified as venial?

I mean, he was always pretty considerate of me, skittering out of the way when the kitchen light came on to make way for me, just doing his thing like anyone else in Los Angeles, fending for himself and basically getting what he could get. Was I too fucked-up and desensitized to realize that this being was no less important than me, or a CEO of some massive corporate enterprise of for that matter, a revolutionary spiritual leader? What had I been thinking? Had I gone too far with my paranoia and glossy pride? Where had my values gone? I didn’t normally prescribe to hierarchies or human constructs. I’d like to think of myself as being a peaceful, justice-oriented person. Laissez-faire. I’m from San Francisco, for God’s sake. I’m into Fugazi. I revere the principles of Dr. King and Gandhi.


 

Mlkghandhi

 

I am not built upon a foundation of hubris. I am not a killer. Jesus, I am a vegetarian, a martyred protector of my animal/fish/bird/insect brethren and now this because I briefly considered this living being not worthy of sharing my space and placing importance on what other people might think. Who the fuck am I to do this? Who the mother-fuckin’ fuck am I? I mean, I relocate spiders, don’t I? Why is this different? Fucking shit. I had no idea of the repercussions involved. I thought roaches were somehow omnipotent, able to withstand a nuclear blast where humans would melt into ash. I didn’t realize they could experience real pain and suffering. Yet my selfish whimsy was halting a formidable Life force. Who the crappin’ Hell am I to do such a thing as this? Shit. I might as well be a power-drunk occupational jar head.

At that moment of my consternation and self-immolation, the King seized. Gregor Samsa ceased to live. Anais Nin was still. Socrates closed his eyes for the final time. I touched his V-leg and he did not respond. I flicked his ribbed antennae and it was limp. The cloud moved past the sun, bringing full illumination to the cutting board. Long shadows cast upon him summoned the brittle body of Jesus. I, a societally-pressured Pontius, swallowed a stone and grabbed one of his legs between my forefinger and thumb and lifted him gently up. I took one last look at him from another angle and then I dropped him down into the brown paper garbage bag underneath. I asked God to bless him, and to forgive me, and then I put on some coffee.


 

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