December 11, 2009 – L.A.X.

In general, I feel good about this. Three months isn’t such a long time, and I certainly wasn’t accomplishing anything in L.A. So what if all anyone has told us about Brazil is that it’s dangerous, and we’ll be beaten and robbed within seconds of landing in Sao Paulo. Just because everyone has a third- or fourth-hand account of a girl who was slashed or a guy who was shot doesn’t mean we’ll be slashed and shot. Never mind that story in the Times about how Brazilian police kill hundreds of innocent people a year. Just don’t ask the police for help. And just don’t think about that other story in the Times that said gangmembers in one of Rio’s favelas just shot down a police helicopter. That was Rio.

Everything’s going to be fine.

 

December 15 – Sao Paulo

On Sunday, Day One, it was raining, so after breakfast we went to a nearby mall. I don’t see how Sao Paulo can be dangerous. At the entrance a man stands with a machine gun strapped to his bulletproof vest, the cuffs of his black cargo pants tucked into his army boots. That seems to be the hip look for scary paramilitary types. When a man tucks his pants into his boots, you can just assume he has no problem with cold-blooded murder. Think about it: those Blackwater Nazis? Tuckers, to a man.

Inside, there are five security guards for every civilian. Men in dark jackets stand about thirty feet apart, watching every move we make.  When I take my wallet out of my pocket to pay for some cheesebread, I do it very slowly.

Yes! We successfully ordered cheesebread! We communicate with the natives via pointing at what we want. As a result, we tend not to get exactly what we want, but we are adaptable and our stomachs are strong.

 

December 16

Stomach pain!

Shouldn’t have gone from being vegetarian straight to eating chicken wrapped in bacon.

Also, Portuguese is hard. It shares words with Spanish, but Brazilians pronounce the Rs like Hs at the beginning of words but like Ds in the middle of words. They pronounce Ds like Js, and Ts like CHs (as in “Chanukah”), except when they don’t, and I have no idea when that is. Basically I have to rely on context to make a guess about what people are saying to me.

Have discovered local Starbucks. Emotions: conflicted.

 

December 17

Karen is jealous that I get to hang out all day while she has to work. I sympathize, but hey, I’m working. These crossword puzzles aren’t going to do themselves! I mean, I’m trying to plot my novel, but well, it sucks. And right now, someone is using a circular saw right on the other side of this wall, and the sound is like a demon screeching inside my head. I would leave this place, but I’m waiting for coffee. Still learning the local customs. I’m relying wholly on tone and context here, but I think the barista just said to me, “Sit down, bitch! I’ll bring you your goddamn coffee when it’s ready!”

I miss my dog.

 

December 18

Brazilian greetings are complicated. Before noon, it’s “Bom dia!” (but you say, “Bong gee-a”). Then, “Boa Tarde!” (“Ta-ch-jee!”) and then at night, “Boa Noite” (“Noichee or Noich.”) But you also might get, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” which are apparently interchangeable. If someone says “Tudo bem?” your response is supposed to be “Tudo bom!” and vice versa, but so far all Karen and I have been able to do is smile and repeat whatever they’ve said to us, or lapse into a lame “Hi.”

I’m at a mall. I flew six thousand miles to sit in a mall. Next to Starbucks. But in my defense, it’s an outdoor mall, and it’s the only place in like a three-mile radius where you can be outside without suffering the noise and air pollution from the cars that clog every street.  And I’m not at Starbucks. Just next to it. At Fran’s Café, which, I’ve been told, is the Brazilian Starbucks.

There are security guards everywhere. The patrons of this mall are professionals and the super-rich. I’m the sketchiest-looking person here.

 

December 19

I did our laundry for the first time yesterday. It’s a complicated business, that begins with my calling housekeeping and saying, “Posso reservar a lavanderia?” and the housekeeper’s saying, “Que?” and my trying again and her saying something unintelligible that goes on way too long but ends abruptly so that the silence extends into awkward territory until I say, “Um…” and she says, “Agora! Agora!” and I say, “Oh, now? OK!”

I took the elevator down to the stiflingly hot basement where the laundry room is and where the housekeepers all marvel at the gringo man doing laundry. I don’t know much about Brazil yet, but I’m guessing they don’t have house-husbands here. I think of saying in Portuguese, “A woman’s work is never done!” but my courage fails me.

The machines are slow and stubborn, and the dryers don’t actually dry. I used up my entire allotted three-hour window, and still had to hang clothes from every possible place in the apartment to dry them. I managed to hang all of Karen’s undies on hangers, five each, which I then hung from our dining table chandelier. If all else fails, I will become a panty-mobile maker and sell my crafts by the roadside.

 

January 4, 2010

New year, old shit. Trouble sleeping. How can I detach the critical part of my brain?

I’m in the penthouse common room of the hotel. The view is 360 degrees of high-rise buildings, beautiful in a sort of tragic, pre-apocalyptic way. Every now and then a helicopter flies by and keeps going or lands on one of the office buildings in the neighborhood. Those guys — the ones who take helicopters around the city — just have to be all-star douchebags. There’s just no way around it.

There are security cameras in here. They’re also in the hallway outside our room, and in the elevators. Do they make me want to adjust my scrotum and pick my nose more than usual, or am I just more aware of these urges?

 

January 7

The housekeeper is messing with me. I leave the room at the same time every day to allow her to clean, but today I leave for two hours and come back, and she still hasn’t been here. What do I do? I am a home-person. I’m the roommate about whom other roommates moan to their friends, “He’s always home!”

I can only sit in so many cafés, and the hotel roof gets too hot in the afternoons. Where can I go?  Who will care for me? Is this how my ancestors felt? Would building a golden calf make me feel any better?

 

January 8

No.

 

January 9? 10?

I’ve lost track. Feeling a bit… low. I’m working at the juice place I’ve been going to so the servers at the cafés don’t think I’m stalking them. It’s pouring rain. It’s rained every day that we’ve been here, which is fine with me. I could go back to the room, switch the green Favor Arrumar o Quarto card on the door handle back over to the red Favor Não Incomodar, but then the room won’t be cleaned! What if we should want to shower again today?! The towels will be — gasp! — damp!

Karen says she doesn’t think the room needs to be cleaned every day — we certainly don’t have a housekeeper in real life — but I’m afraid of setting a precedent. Skip a day and the housekeeper may never come back. Or skip a day, and then I’ll skip two, and then three. Before we know it, we’ll be living like animals.

Also, I just left the hotel, and I can’t run that gauntlet again. On my way out I had to walk past the front desk, where no fewer than four blue-blazered hotel staffers milled around, all smiling fakely and saying, “Tudo bem?” or “Tudo bom?” or “Bom Dia!” Then there was the stoic security guard at the door, his deep “Bom Dia,” and then the three valet parking attendants. I just nodded and kept walking, like someone who is busy, very busy. No time for chit-chat, I have places to be, people to order coffee from!

No. Can’t go back to the hotel.

 

January 11?

Why can’t I get my shit together and get some work done? What’s my problem? Why won’t the housekeeper be consistent? Why doesn’t this hotel have a back door?

It’s too hot to think in this climate.

Stomach pain is back. Yesterday we accidentally ordered a stew that had at least four different animals in it.

When we get back to the States, I’m going vegan.




Mamarazza!

By Jeremy Resnick

Memoir

My mother has a photography addiction. She just has to take pictures of her family, or, if we’re unavailable, other people’s families. It’s been going on all our lives. She says she takes so many pictures of us because she loves us so much that she just has to capture any moment in which we’re all together, and she takes pictures of other people’s families because they’re always happy when they get them from her afterward. But I think it’s more of a compulsion. Whenever her mind is allowed to rest, whenever she doesn’t have something pressing to do, she thinks, I must take a picture! I must capture this, whatever it is!

For almost thirty years, every December she managed to get my sisters, brother, and me to sit and stand and crouch and kneel in a hundred combinations, grinning like idiots while she clicked her way through dozens of shots. Then she’d agonize over them for a week before selecting the best one for the holiday card.

When we were little, it was cute.

But later, like for instance when puberty was totally fucking with my complexion and my features and I had braces and was asked to wear my sister as a backpack, it wasn’t so cute.

Over time, these yearly photo shoots engendered some hostility among the children. We would groan and protest, but she always wore us down, and we’d end up throwing our arms around each other (or hopping on each others’ backs, I guess) and smiling.

“Come on, a real smile, Jeremy!”

“How can I smile for real when I don’t feel like smiling? Any smile I give you is going to be fake.”

“Well, fake it better! One, two, three! One… two…”

“Mom — we don’t need the count.”

My mom’s 25-year streak of posed holiday photos was broken when my brother Michael and I were living in New York and were thus unavailable for the holiday photo session. She was forced to choose from vacation photos, and the process was so much less painful that we decided this was how we’d do it from now on. This also forced her to learn how to use Photoshop, to, I think, great effect:

 

*

In the summer of 2004, my mom and dad took all of us to Europe. My mom had recently gotten her first digital camera, and it was too much for her to handle. Without having to reload film, with the ability to take so many pictures so quickly, she lost all self-control. Every moment seemed ripe to her for a possible holiday card picture.

In Brussels she got us everywhere: waiting at the baggage claim, sitting in the taxi, lying on the hotel beds, eating, standing on cobblestones in front of old buildings, sprawled on the steps of old buildings, staring at paintings inside old buildings, posing tiredly (and to the annoyance of onlookers at left) in a beer garden.

“Michael, don’t make a face. And open your eyes. Both of them!”

“I have a lazy eyelid. And I’m sensitive about it, so thanks a lot for pointing it out.”

In Bruges she took pictures of us chewing waffles, glaring at her in front of the Belfort, walking away from her in front of some cathedral. (”We’re Jews, mom,” Rebecca said. “We don’t give a shit about churches.”) The pictures are a time-lapse study in the disintegration of patience.

Back then my mom still clung to these outdated ideas in her head of how we should look, and she hadn’t yet found a way to reconcile that with the sad fact of our actual appearance. On the platform waiting for the train to Amsterdam, she whipped out the camera. “Rebecca, take off your glasses. I want to see your face.”

“My glasses are part of my face. Deal with it.”

“Jennifer, why don’t you ever wear your hair down? Let it down. Michael, look at me.”

Michael looked at her for a second, and looked away before she was ready.

“Oh, come on!”

She took the picture anyway. She couldn’t resist.

At this point Jennifer was the only one who seemed to have any good will left. But she’d always been the sweetest of all of us. And the most willing to humor my mom:

 

Our first morning in Amsterdam, my mom took pictures of us outside of Anne Frank’s house. Fortunately it was so crowded inside that she didn’t try to get us to pose in front of the false bookcase or act like we were sneaking around the attic.

She took pictures of us at the Jewish Historical Museum, on canal bridges, at Rembrandt’s house, in front of the museum of film and television. By the afternoon, we kids were burnt out, and our highs from a quick coffeeshop visit had faded into dull headaches.

My mom and dad wanted to go on a canal-boat tour. It sounded nice to me. The guidebook said you hadn’t really seen Amsterdam until you’d seen it from the water. My sisters complained, but they didn’t know how to get back to the hotel their ow

n. Damrak, where you could catch the boats, didn’t look that far on the map, and we were too many for a taxi, so we walked as the sun came out from behind the clouds. We walked and walked.

By the Amstel River, my mom, who’d started to lag behind a little, shouted, “Wait, guys. I want to take a picture. Come on, get together.”

There were some scruffy backpackers sitting on a bench right behind my mother, and I didn’t feel like putting on a show for them. I tried to keep walking, but my mother just shouted louder, “Come on! Jeremy, where are you going? Come back!”

I made the mistake of looking over my shoulder. She was waving frantically at me. I despised her for a few seconds, and then I despised myself, for causing exactly the scene I didn’t want to cause. I walked back.

We stood near each other, but that wasn’t good enough. “Take your sunglasses off.” The sun was directly in our eyes, and there was grumbling, but we complied, squinting. “Come on, open your eyes!”

Now Michael started to walk away. Jennifer grabbed him by the shirt. He called her a bitch for stretching out his shirt. She told him he was an asshole. We stood together, but my mom couldn’t get the camera to work. The people on the bench stared at us like maybe we were street performers. We were so loud and petty and American, surely one of us was going to end up in the canal and then my brother was going to take off his hat and pass it around for donations.

Sweaty and exhausted, we finally made it to the canal-boat ticket window just as a boat was leaving. We had to wait in the sun for a half-hour, and a line of about a hundred people formed behind us. I was behind my brother and my dad, so I didn’t see what happened next.

According to Rebecca, one of the boat guys had finally lifted the rope to let people board, and she began walking forward behind my mom. Rebecca didn’t see the official photographer perched next to the gangway, and so when my mom stopped suddenly, saying, “Oh — a picture! Come on, let’s take a picture!” Rebecca accidentally bumped into her.

“I mean, who needs a fucking professional boarding shot for an hour boat ride?” she said later. “Does this moment need to be recorded?”

So she just sort of bumped my mom. And my mom, overheated, her legs shaky from hours of walking, stumbled. One of her legs slipped into the gap between the boat and the dock, and she went down. Then the boat swung closer to the dock, acting like a vice on her thigh. She screamed.

My dad and brother rushed forward to pull her up. The photographer and a deck hand pushed against the boat with their feet. They got her back onto the dock, where she sat, shaking and rubbing her leg. All of the people lined up to get on the boat had pushed forward and gathered around us so that they could get a look at the spectacle.

“What happened?” my dad asked.

My mom pointed up at Rebecca, “She pushed me!”

Rebecca shifted on the fly from concern to indignation. “I did not! You tripped! She tripped!”

“No!” My mom shouted as my dad helped her to her feet. She tested her leg and winced. “You pushed me! I just wanted to stop and take a picture and you pushed me!”

“Mom!” Jennifer hissed. “Why would she push you? She loves you. It was an accident.”

“No,” my mom insisted. “No. No. No.” She’d peered into the abyss, and it had terrified her.

“I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose,” my dad said. “Can you walk?”

I was still speechless, but I thought, Nobody died. Let’s get the hell out of here. Grab a couple taxis, go straight to the airport and get on the first plane. We can send for our luggage.

But no. My mom had paid for a boat ride and she had waited in line for a boat ride, and she was going on a goddamned boat ride. And now that she had suffered a near-death experience for it, there was no way we could abandon her. She hobbled onto the boat with my dad, and did they go to the back of the boat, or at least the middle, to hide among the crowd?

No. They took seats in the second row, because they have no shame. My sisters led the way to seats six rows behind them. I followed my siblings, hoping that maybe if we didn’t all sit together, people wouldn’t recognize us as That Family.

That hope was crushed by mom’s shouting over people’s heads at Rebecca, “I can’t believe you pushed me! And no one even asked me if I’m OK.”

That wasn’t totally true, but she’d forfeited a lot of sympathy. You just don’t accuse a family member of assault in public.

Rebecca’s face was ashen. “I didn’t push her,” she said. “Maybe I bumped her a little, but it was an accident.”

“Of course it was,” Jennifer said.

The other tourists stared at my mom and dad, and then at us, as they walked down the aisle. Then, as if trotted out by God expressly for our benefit, a group of blind teenagers boarded the boat. They smiled faintly as they took small, shuffling steps behind their guides.

I envied those blind kids. They never knew when people were staring at them, had no idea I was staring at them.

It turned out that the blind kids didn’t see much less on that boat than we did. The windows were so foggy and water-spotted that the gabled houses were just blurry shapes looming over us. A crackly recorded voice described what we were seeing in five languages. One might have been English, but the speakers were so poor I couldn’t tell. Meanwhile, the blind kids sat serene as Buddhist monks, their guileless faces turned up toward the sun, their badly cut hair blowing in the cool breeze that came off the water.

When we returned to the dock, my mom hobbled off the boat with my dad. By the time the rest of us made it onto the sidewalk, she was waiting, camera in hand.

“Well, that sucked,” she grinned and pulled her camera up to her face. “Come on, you guys. Get together!”

 

If one loves language, if one loves its power and beauty, isn’t it pretty stupid to spend all of one’s time reading writing that butchers it? That steamrolls it, shoots it a hundred times, hacks it to pieces with machetes, and then napalms it? And wouldn’t it destroy one’s spirit to repeatedly subject it to this torture?

By this torture, I mean this torture:

“Anyone who has seen or not seen a building can always enjoy looking at one.”

Or this:

“Our bodies enable us to get out of bed every morning, build ancient pyramids, or even watch our children play a game of soccer.”

Or this:

“When art was first exposed to the world, it was used to portray the significance of the Roman Catholic Church and slowly evolved to a tool to recapture events and emotions of the artist.”

After a couple years of teaching writing to first-year college students, I began to doubt my fitness for my job. It was far and away the best job I’d ever had, but at the end of every semester I had to fight the urge to quit. Sometimes it was the glacial pace of faculty meetings that got to me. One can only tolerate so much discussion of Program Learning Outcomes, Program Assessment Practices, and the results of the Assessment Committee’s Assessment of Program Assessment Practices, before one wants to start an ad-hoc committee to banish faculty meetings forever. But mostly what got to me were the papers I had to grade. By the time I handed them back, they’d be splattered with wine or whiskey and creased and torn from my throwing them across the room.

My girlfriend Karen says I dwell too much on the negative. I should try my best to help my students, and I should be proud of any little good that comes of it, even if that little good is just that I feel I’ve done my best. This is called “Success Beyond Success.” It’s about focusing on the things you can control and leaving the rest of the world to do what it will do whether you try to control it or not. She learned it at Communication College. I don’t really know what that is, but she works at Google, and they sent her there.

Karen reminds me that I like teaching. I like talking about stories and essays and trying to explain exactly why I love a piece of writing. I like hearing what other people think about it. But it’s hard not to be disappointed when you look up from the book and see people texting under their desks or nodding off, or, on some days, glaring at you like the sound of your voice is driving them slowly but inexorably insane and they’ll probably have to cut out your larynx to get that sound out of their heads.

After my fourth year of teaching, I finally quit and moved to L.A. I was just starting to worry about how to make a living when I learned about a job at a private Jewish middle school. I am Jewish, but I’m not very good at it, and I had little interest in teaching middle school. From what little I remember of seventh and eighth grade, I spent most of my time applying acne cream and masturbating. But I needed a job.

On the morning of my interview, standing nervously in my only suit in the cramped middle school office, I plastered a smile on my face and vowed to keep it there for as long as it took. Students bustled in one after another, begging the receptionist to staple their papers for them. When she finally got around to me, without returning my smile she handed me a thick folder and told me I should fill out the application.

I scanned the forms while students whirled around me and bumped me with their backpacks. Why were they all so short? How do you talk to someone that short? Why, when they have your resume, do employers still need you to copy out your entire work history on their form?

I negotiated with myself: I’d stay, but I would not fill out my damn work history. Sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand.

The form had a box for me to fill in my minimum salary. I had no idea how much this job paid. I wrote down “50K.” Papa’s got expenses.

The receptionist said to me, “You’re still here? You should go to your class.”

“OK,” I said. “Where is it?”

With a sigh she dropped her pen and led me down the hall and opened a door. There were banners on the walls. Paper streamers. Posters with words on them in upbeat font. About fifteen kids sat scattered along the back of the room at individual desks. I squeezed into an empty one and listened as the teacher talked about the huge increase in income disparity in the U.S. “If you use the Washington Monument as a scale,” she said, “the average CEO’s pay is at the very tip-top, and the average worker’s pay is only 14 inches off the ground.”

When she introduced me, I stood up and made my way through the desks to the front of the room. “So,” I said, “since you all have been talking about immigration, today I thought we’d talk about the ethical issues that come up in the immigration debate.” You all? Ever since I lived in Arkansas and people constantly said to me, “You’re not from around here, are ya,” when I get nervous I start talking like I’m from Arkansas.

The kids stared blankly at me for a few minutes, but once we defined “ethics,” and talked about real-life ethical questions, they seemed to perk up. In no time they were talking to each other, getting in little arguments about what was right and wrong. I was thrilled. None of my college classes ever went this well. I bounced from one group to another, smiling, interjecting, joking, answering questions while grimacing thoughtfully. I even rested an ass cheek on one of the desks, affecting casualness, until I noticed a swath of my hairy leg showing between black sock and slacks. I stood up.

Things started to go wrong. The discussion became an argument. The talk became shouting, and quickly the class descended into chaos, with kids leaning over their desks, getting up in each other’s faces. The noise was deafening. It was like a prison riot. I watched paralyzed, half-expecting someone to lob a burning roll of toilet paper at me.

Finally I shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!”

Nothing happened.

Then the teacher shouted, “Everybody, be quiet!” and everyone was quiet.

At the end of class, the principal introduced herself to me. She was younger than any principal I’d ever seen, but it was clear she was in charge. She told me I’d be having lunch with a few students, the assistant principal, and the rabbi. The rabbi was not an old guy with a beard, but a youngish woman with wet looking curls.

Lunch was in another classroom, where some desks were arranged in a circle. The kids got pizza, but I got a salad with a scoop of tuna salad on top. Tuna salad is an odd thing to just hand someone for lunch, especially when you know he’ll be spending the rest of the day talking pretty closely to people.

I opened up the napkin the rabbi handed me and found two little plastic forks tucked inside. I looked at the salad: big pieces of lettuce, thick slices of cumber and tomato. It was clearly the kind of salad that requires a knife. And I had these two plastic forks. Was this some weird interview mind fuck? Was I being videotaped? As I wondered this, the kids began firing their questions at me.

“What do you think makes for a great middle school teacher?”

“How will you adjust to teaching middle school after teaching college students?”

“What’s your position on extra credit?”

“How might you handle working with students of different abilities from various backgrounds?”

I stuffed a Texas-sized leaf of lettuce in my mouth only to have it catch in my throat as I tried to answer a question. It was stuck there, and they’d given me no water.

“Where did you grow up?”

“Are you married?”

“What kind of car do you drive?”

The assistant principal asked me if I had questions for the students. I didn’t, and I couldn’t think of anything, so I fired their questions back to them.

“What do you think makes for a good middle school teacher?”

After lunch, I was given a fifteen-minute break, which I spent on the playground, staring longingly through the chain-link fence at my car.

Then, my meeting with the principal:

“So, how did you feel the class went?”

“I thought it went pretty well,” I said. “They participated more than my college students ever did.”

Her mouth said, “Uh-huh,” but her face said, “Nuh-uh.” Then her mouth said, “Can I tell you what I thought?”

No?

“Sure?”

“I thought you had pretty good rapport with the class, you had a creative and interesting lesson plan. But –”

“I know, I sort of lost control at the end,” I said.

“Yes. And, you lost a few students. They shut down, started staring at the floor. One of them put her head on the desk.”

She elaborated further on my shortcomings in the classroom, my lack of experience with this age group, my need — if I worked there — to read up on middle school pedagogy over the summer. She asked me why I wanted to work there.

I said, “Well, I’m not sure that I do.” A true statement, but I followed it up with some serious bullshit. I told her how disheartening teaching writing to college freshmen could be, how it seemed too late to reach many students, and how I thought I could make a great difference in the lives of middle schoolers, how I could use my humor and empathy to really touch them. I stopped talking when I realized I sounded like a pedophile.

After that meeting, I waited in the upper school office for the assistant head of the school. There was a kid waiting next to me, a hipster in training with tight pants and Twilight hair checking out some record he’d pulled from his messenger bag. A guy walked out from the back. He looked like a gym teacher, with gray buzz cut, goatee, white polo shirt, and black pants. He said to the kid, “Vinyl? Sweet!” and I decided I didn’t like him, and therefore he must be the assistant head of school.

He was.

He led me back to his office, sat me down at his round table, and asked me the same questions the principal asked me. He asked me if I had any questions for him.

“Well,” I said, “nobody’s mentioned anything about pay.”

“Oh, no!” he practically leaped back in his chair. “It’s way too soon for that. Pay is based on experience and education, and that’s something we talk about much later. Much later!” He leaned over the table, conspiratorially, “It’s a good thing you asked me that, and not the Head of School. Any other questions?”

Yes. Does being the assistant head of school make you feel like a big man, or just like an assistant to a big man?

When he was done making me uncomfortable, the assistant head escorted me back to the waiting room to await my meeting with the head of school, the Emperor to the assistant’s Vader. I stewed in my seat. How uncouth of me, asking about money when applying for a job.

I waited for 45 minutes, long enough to decide that I didn’t want to teach at this school. I texted Karen, “can i just leave?” She texted back, “no.” There were negative vibrations all around me. No doubt some came from the 405 freeway, which was in spitting distance and backed up to hell on both sides. But plenty came from the school itself.

Finally, I asked the receptionist if the head of school was in his office. She left and another lady came back in her place.

“I’m sorry, but he had a family emergency and he had to leave.”

Thank God! I take back all the negative things I thought about You. You totally exist!

I raced back to the middle school office to meet with the teachers who’d be my colleagues. They asked me the same questions the others asked me. They asked me if I had any questions for them. At this point, with my mind made up and my grin a rictus from this long day, all I could do was turn all of their questions back on them:

“Why do you want to work with middle school students?” I asked.

“How do you think it’s different from high school?”

“Do you want a glass of water?”

When it was over, I didn’t stop by the office to turn in my application, which I hadn’t filled out anyway. It didn’t seem important. What was important was that I take off my coat and pull my shirttails out of my pants. The sky was blue. Dappled sunlight fell through the trees that ringed the parking lot. On my way home, I crossed a bridge over the clogged freeway and felt strangely ecstatic. Why? I still had no job, no prospects. But I’d shown up when I said I would, and I stayed until the end. It wasn’t exactly success in worldly terms. But who cares about the world? This here was success beyond success.

The course actually begins with the words, “Location! Location! Location!”

Since teaching jobs are both hard-to-get and low paying, I’ve decided to think about pursuing a career in commercial real estate brokerage. The two classes you have to pass before you can take the salesperson license exam are “Real Estate Principles” and “Real Estate Practices.” You can take them online through Allied Schools.

The “Principles” class begins with a Welcome page featuring images of golden hills, redwood trees, rocky coastline, and flowers blooming in the desert. What follows is mind-numbing, soul-withering flapdoodle.

You read me right. Flap fucking doodle.

From “Location! Location! Location!” the text continues:

Most of you have seen this phrase in a real estate ad describing the perfect neighborhood. All of you reading this, no matter what city you live in, are experiencing the perfect location. No…we are not referring to your specific street, town or county…we are talking about California. California has everything, and usually it is the best! Whoever said, “Less is more” just never lived in California.

Oh, snap! Take that, hippies! And other 49 states!

Too bad, as my tax returns and spotty resume clearly demonstrate, I’m one of those people who think less is more.

After the introductory chapter, which is basically a commercial for California — diverse climates! varied geography! gargantuan economy! — there are chapters explaining property, estates, ownership, encumbrances, contracts, etc. This material is so soporific it needs to be read in the morning, with coffee and a hard chair. And someone holding that hard chair menacingly over your head, lest you start to nod off.

Though it took me a few weeks, with several breaks for unintentional naps, bathtub soul-searching, and applications to other jobs, I managed to make it through the first class and pass the (open-book) final exam. Now, in “Real Estate Practices,” I seem to have hit the wall.

In this class the authors tell you how to get started in your career. First, they offer this inspirational photo and caption:



Real Estate salespeople come from many different backgrounds.


[Interactive Feature: Can you find the black person?]

Then, the section “Dress for Success” suggests that the same qualities that made people popular in seventh grade will make you tons of money today:

The image you present helps you build rapport with prospective clients. When connecting with a client, if you remind them of someone they like or mirror their own taste, they are more likely to respond to you positively. When considering how to dress, the best strategy is to mirror the style of your clients.

Got that? Whatever you do, don’t, for the love of God, be yourself. Rather, study your client, and then mimic his/her speech and dress. People don’t think that’s weird at all!




These styles of dressing are not recommended if you want a successful career.

I can understand why head-to-toe denim isn’t recommended, but I’ve been a denim hater since 1986 when I woke up to the fact that my Ton Sur Ton jacket was totally lame. But the floral-print cowboy hat? That’s festive. That lady’s a closer, you can tell. And I’ve got no complaints about the Asian woman. I would totally buy a house from her, or at the very least take a tour and fantasize about impromptu kitchen sex.

(Me: “So… these granite countertops pretty durable?”

Hot, Inappropriately Dressed, Asian Real Estate Salesperson, hoisting self onto counter: “Come over here and find out.”

Boom chicka wah-wah...)

As for the punks in the bottom right corner, get real, Allied. No true punk would sell real estate. Anarchy and escrow don’t mix.

So how should we aspiring real estate salespeople dress?

Employees who dress appropriately leave a lasting impression of professionalism.

Ah, yes. I think I’ve seen these people before, hanging out at that bar I always walk past. You know, the one that sucks.

I’ve just about had it with “Real Estate Practices.” Life is hard enough without having to present a completely false exterior to the world. And I’ve always prided myself on my honesty and integrity.

This, according to Allied, is completely wrong:

You must always project a positive, professional attitude regardless of the circumstances. Everyone has good and bad days; however, real estate sales associates have to smile every day, no matter what is going on in their personal lives. The moment you allow your personal feelings to influence how you interact with clients, your undisciplined behavior will suggest an unprofessional sales associate.

They have a point. You won’t close any sales if you spend your time with clients bitching about your sciatica, but that seems like common sense. And that’s what bugs me most about this class. The authors obviously have no faith in their students.

And really, is their advice even good? When you, dear reader, are looking to buy or rent property, do you think, “I must find a broker who dresses impeccably and smiles all the time”?

You know who else smiled all the time?

This guy:


And this guy is still smiling:

I wonder if my reaction to this course material a sign that I should not pursue a career in real estate. That I’ll fail due to my inability to “project a positive, professional attitude” and wear my shirts tucked into my pants.

But would another job be any better? Am I not just clinging to a childish refusal to accept the world for what it is? Basically, a place where everyone’s a whore of one kind or another, and our discourse is spiraling ever downward into an abyss of stupidity?


Maybe I should quit and become a guidance counselor.


One summer when I was in my mid-twenties, I visited my friend Jeff in New Mexico. We were going to do some hiking, but all the trails were closed due to extreme fire hazard, so we spent my visit on his couch, playing the video game Grand Theft Auto. Two grown men with master’s degrees, we couldn’t tear ourselves away, so addictive was the action, the anarchy. In what other world could you hijack a city bus and drive it the wrong way through a one-way tunnel, or trick a cop into getting out of his car so you could steal it and be the subject of a high-speed chase?

Three days of this had a noticeable effect. When we drove into town to get dinner, we passed a Porsche, and I thought, “Ooh! Let’s take that one!”

It was a brief impulse, but obviously some neural connections had been formed. I don’t know anything about neural science, but I picture nanoscopic tentacles reaching from one part of the brain to other, from want to take, from aggression to joy, from mayhem to happiness, each bridge strengthened by each robbery, each mauled pedestrian, each electrical pulse.

The Tibetan Buddhism scholar Bob Thurman once suggested that all that consumption of violence, even in the form of entertainment, has a profoundly negative effect on our perception of the world. Media critic George Gerbner came to a similar conclusion in the 1980s. He found that people who watched a lot of TV had wildly inflated notions about the frequency of crime in their cities and the likelihood of personally encountering violence. They were also more likely to think women should stay in the kitchen, and black people and white people shouldn’t mix.

In my youth I watched what in retrospect is way, way too much cable TV, most of it violent. I loved the Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Beverly Hills Cop, and Die Hard trilogies, the first two Rambos and Terminators, the two 48 Hours movies, Commando, Bloodsport, American Ninja, Delta Force, even the Timothy Dalton Bond movies. I got a Nintendo when it first came out, and I spent months shooting pixilated ducks out of a pixilated sky with my plugged-in gun two inches from the screen. Maybe that was why, when my friend Bobby came over with his brand-new pellet gun, we immediately went outside and shot a pigeon. Actually, he shot the pigeon. I watched, and even though I’d told him to do it, when I saw the puff of feathers and the bird disappear over the wall, I turned on him: “What’d you do?!”

And there was my lily-white, 60% Jewish tennis camp the summer before seventh grade, when I first heard Eazy-E’s Eazy-Duz-It. What Eazy duz exactly, or did, was rap about armed robbery, “bitches galore,” killing “muthafuckas,” and “sippin’ eight balls.” I had no idea what most of it meant, but it blew my mind. When someone else had the Eazy tape, I listened to Eddie Murphy. He said “fuck” every third word, told stories of his mother throwing shoes at him and getting in fistfights, and he described in great detail what it’d be like to be raped by a “faggot” Mr. T.

Despite all of that, I don’t think of myself as a violent person. My life has been ridiculously peaceful by modern American standards, which puts it in the 99th percentile for most peaceful of all human history. And my instincts tell me it was ridiculous for people to blame Columbine on Marilyn Manson and for Dr. Phil to blame Virginia Tech on video games.

But I also can’t forget that fleeting moment in New Mexico when I wanted to car-jack someone. Or that time, at sleep-away camp, when I threw a kid to the ground and did my best Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka impression, which involved jumping as high as I could into the air and then landing on him with both my knees. His offense? He’d squirted me with a water gun, after I’d told him not to.

There was also the time in eighth-grade P.E. when we were on the field playing Bloodball, a combination of soccer, football and team handball. The coach allowed us to play “aggressive tag,” but not tackle. This kid Andy needlessly knocked my best friend Dougie to the ground. Dougie was very small, and I vowed revenge. While the ball was on the other side and Andy was trotting down the field minding his own business, I came up behind him, got next to him, stuck my leg out and gave him a shove. He slammed facedown, harder than I’d wanted him to, on a rock-hard patch of dirt, and I felt the same mixture of nausea and regret I felt after landing on the kid at camp. Andy looked up at me with shocked eyes, his freckled cheeks burning, and I said, “Maybe now you’ll pick on someone your own size!” like I was some divinely certified karmic repairman. Of course, as the words came out of my mouth, it occurred to me that I was much bigger than him.

Who did I think I was? The Lone Ranger? Zorro? The Fonz? Where did these impulses come from? I don’t know, but the rest of my teenage years were without incident. That might have had something to do with the fact that the other kids were catching up to me in size, and many of them lifted weights and studied martial arts. Also, I played football, and maybe the organized violence satisfied any desire I had to hurt people.

In college I didn’t play any sports, but the significant increase in my drug and alcohol intake left me docile as a lamb. Also, instead of watching movies full of explosions and blood spatter, I read Erasmus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman. Eazy-E had long ago been replaced by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine.

But sometimes the violence finds you. One night in my senior year I happened to arrive at the front door of my house just as some hooligans from the “hockey house” were hassling my friend Robert, a smallish guy who wore loafers and rolled his own smokes. One of the hockey guys pushed him into some bushes, and the next thing I knew, I’d stepped in front of Robert, and the guy grabbed me, and then he and I were tumbling over some bicycles and thrashing around on the grass. Due to a broken thumb (intramural flag football injury), my right hand was in a cast that stopped just before my elbow. Due to the fact that it was dark outside, I was drunk. When I got to my feet, I just saw shapes. I aimed for the closest one and flung myself at it. He ended up being one of the guy’s friends, and he went down easily enough, but then the guy, or a third guy, was punching me in the back of the head. Then people were pulling us all away from each other, when, just to put an exclamation point on it, I wriggled out of someone’s grip and threw a lumbering right hook with the club that was my cast. It connected with a dull smacking sound against the cheek of — no, not of the guy who’d started it all — but one of the guys who were holding him back. Now this guy wanted to fight. I apologized, and he made gorilla-like noises while he let his friends talk him out of it.

That was the only time I ever hit someone in the face, and it put to rest any notions I harbored about being able to handle myself in a fight. It seems fitting that I fought idiotically, starting a second fight while losing the one already in progress, then using what in court could be considered a deadly weapon, and missing with that weapon the person I was aiming for.

Since then, it’s been smooth sailing, with nothing more confrontational than a “Get the fuck away from me!” to a Manhattan con artist or Amsterdam junkie. Despite that Grand Theft Auto moment, and the occasional, brief revisit of my fantasy of leading a band of guerrilla fighters in a heroic and hopeless revolt against invading Russians (thank you, Red Dawn), I don’t try to solve my problems with violence. Maybe I’ve grown up. Maybe it’s the yoga and vegetarianism. Or not owning a TV and not playing video games.

Even now though, I wonder if the negative energy that streamed into my eyes and ears for so many years is still affecting me. I have no desire to hurt anyone or anything, but maybe in a much subtler way I’m giving it all back. “There is no free lunch,” as my high school physics teacher always said. Actions yield reactions. I release the violence I’ve absorbed, not in a killing spree, but over a lifetime, in bits and pieces, arguing with lovers or relatives or customer service representatives, acting cruelly toward smaller or weaker people, cutting people off on the highway, cursing the people who cut me off….

The mythologist Joseph Campbell argued that human beings need to move beyond the notion of tribe — local, racial, religious, socio-economic — and think in terms of the tribe of humanity. Technology has shrunk the planet, provided us with the means to confront the truth that people in the next town, or the next country, or an ocean away, are just as human as we are. We’re making progress on some fronts. I suppose we should be proud of our civilization because we’re playing violent video games instead of going down to the coliseum to see the virgins take on the lions. (Lions: 11,202; Virgins: 0.) Maybe we’ll get our act together in time to avoid burning out in the great climate change, nuclear holocaust, or water and food shortages that await us.

But I doubt it. Our violent instincts are stubborn. They’ve even been naturally selected for, in that if you whacked the other caveman first with your club, he couldn’t whack you. We probably won’t learn to work together, and we’ll continue to bicker with each other even as we destroy our planet.

And every now and then someone will come along, like Jesus, like Martin Luther King, Jr., like John Lennon, and he’ll say, “Hey, we should all be nice to each other.”

And we’ll know what to do with him.