Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gone Daddy Gone




Squirrels race across my roof, squeezing in late-season shags before their winter nesting. Years ago, before the blog, deep in custodian hell, I joked to the wife about writing quick humor books a la Lewis Grizzard or Dave Barry, just to get back in the game. Two titles possessed me: Buy This Book Or I'll Poop In Your Yard, and Squirrels On The Roof Vex Me So. The first cover featured me pants down, flashing a thumb's up while attending to business, the neighbors looking on in horror, crossing themselves, their dog covering its eyes. The second showed a crazed me shaking a fist to the ceiling as the squirrels threw a roof party, drinking chestnut martinis, indifferent to my protest.

I stopped short of pitching these to my old literary agent in New York. What if I actually sold one of these ideas? Did I really want to write humor for white suburban coffee tables and Glade-freshened bathrooms? I could fake it, sure, even parody the form while making some dough in the process. But in the end I simply didn't have my heart in it. So deeper into janitorial life I sank, mopping rural office stairwells at 1 AM.

The squirrels remind me of this, and I thank them for it. Had I gone that route, I seriously doubt The Project would exist. What The Project is at the moment is another question, for which there are no wrong answers. Now that I've started the book, written and spoken words overlap as hazy figures begin take shape. Humor permeates it all, but in what proportions I've no clear idea.

I'm about to fly through the rain to NYC, where tonight I have a set in the East Village. This promises to be an interesting trip as I've prepared almost nothing for the stage. I have plenty of ideas, concepts, jokes and observations, but I'm letting myself fall without nets or cushions. My last set at the Teneleven revealed much to me, and I want to explore that feeling some more. This could spell disaster, and I confess a little nervousness. But that's what it's all about: facing the fear while creating something new, even if it's based on old emotions and experiences.

As always, I'll file reports, so you won't have to wait a week to read fresh copy. See you from my man cave at the hotel.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Courtesy Cough




"Jeez! Is that blood?"

Caught a breath between heaves.

"No, son. It's V8."

Crimson vomit filled the toilet, pale head bent, sweating. Blood would've been Bukowski territory and a trip to the emergency room. But it was simply a failed attempt to get something heavier than seltzer into me, which my angry stomach rejected. Red spray from a graying face. Suitable for HD.

I rarely get sick, but when I do I go Method. Nothing left behind. I toss through claustrophobic nights, drenched in sweat, teeth grinding, head throbbing, dreams frenetic, unsettling. A nether world between meat and mind. There I see death from a distance, feeling its pull, its final promise. I had similar visions after my sister died, lying in our once-shared room, child ghost blending with low ceiling. So this routine has legs.

Days I writhe on the couch, channel surf for something stupid, anything to distract from the pain. Problem is, there's too much stupidity to choose from, and I'm in no shape to make aesthetic decisions. Scroll and randomly stop. Turn on my back, close my eyes. I listen more than watch. When you strictly focus on TV sound, its poisonous features crystallize. Images soften you up for the thrust. Sound spreads the bile, repeating itself every few minutes, relentless, merciless. You can almost hear them laughing. They have you by the throat, and you smile as they squeeze.

Jealousy. Envy. Narcissism. Cheap enthusiasm. False love. This is where they steer you, confident that you'll acquiesce. They're still in business so their confidence is sound. They insist that we're free, wipe their asses with it and shove it in our faces. More evidence that we're trapped. Zoo keepers sweet talking the apes.

Brainwashing is delusion with teeth. How else to endure another day of lunacy? Turning it back on them would mean turning on ourselves, a break so severe that lunacy seems the softer option. That I wallow in this while sick shows how deep the sickness runs. Surf to forgotten sitcoms. Dead people howling at faded jokes. This time you definitely hear the laughter. They call to us and soon we'll join them, those of us not already there.

Sitting outside my son's high school, fifteen minutes before final bell. Pop off the seatbelt, recline and listen to old music, much of it from my high school years. I tell myself it's unintentional, that I'm not trying to re-live earlier days. But that's bullshit. After a certain age, that's all anyone does. The older you get, the further back you go.

I study the students as they exit. Teens still cackle, shout, tease, flirt, trash talk. Wannabe Alphas grunt and flex as if time has no meaning, their baby strength forever present. I try to keep my jaded eyes from categorizing, but the forms are too rigid and obvious to ignore.

Most of these kids will age into terminal surrender, locked inside cubicles, fast food their escape. I've seen it and I've seen it. I've rubbed right up against it, the stench a bitch to wash out. A few will break loose and go as far their energy and imaginations will take them. It could be any one of these kids. Impossible to say at their ages. But they are there, and I root for them.

Many girls dress in tiny clothes, emerging adult bodies open to perusal. Literature has touched on this; criminals and con-artists too. They take me back to Wawasee, senior year and sophomore Mitzi. She was too experienced for her age, but played it pretty well. No one took advantage of her. Mitzi was in charge.

At Halloween we were allowed to wear costumes to school. I don't recall if I participated, but I sure remember Mitzi. She wore a little girl's dress, little white socks, saddle shoes. Hair in pigtails. She carried a teddy bear through the halls, sucking on a lollipop. The male teachers became Humberts, stressing nonchalance. But in their eyes lay the thin line between fantasy and felony. I laughed and felt sorry for them. And now I'm older than they were then.

Mitzi and I hooked up late in the year. She asked me to the prom, shoved sex notes in my locker. I stood out from the farm boys which was all she knew. I also lost my virginity to her archrival Tammy, a rural dropout who worked for my Dad. So Mitzi's attraction to me was based on evening the score. Whichever one fucked a guy, the other had to answer. And this being a small town, there was no hiding your identity. In fact, up to this point, I'd been shunned by most of the school as too weird and arrogant. Fucking Tammy and Mitzi was assimilation, however brief.

We never did go to the prom. My crazy stepmother prevented that. But we drove around in my '66 Buick, right arm around Mitzi as she fondled my balls and licked my neck. She was wild and fun. I rarely saw her after graduation. Working on a garbage truck took up most of my time. She flirted with me at a county fair, slowly eating cotton candy. But I didn't go back. Until now.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Under The Influence




Another Woman is Woody Allen's Ron Howard film. It features one of Allen's dramatic obsessions -- supposedly smart people making bad choices and paying dearly for them -- but unlike his other films (with the dark exception of Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors), Another Woman's main character learns her lesson and starts on a fresh path at story's end. She smiles and feels whole. Happy Days seem a brisk walk away.

Gena Rowlands plays Marion Post, a cold intellectual who teaches philosophy. Marion is revered and respected, but not really loved, not by those who matter or should matter, her underachieving brother most especially. She's married to Ken, an equally cold doctor, rigidly played by Ian Holm. They may as well be crash test dummies for all the emotion they share. Their intellect serves as a Berlin Wall against deeper feeling.

Marion once had a loving option: Larry (Gene Hackman), a novelist who better balances intelligence and passion. He's the only man to penetrate Marion's bunker mentality, her raw emotions reflected in Larry's warm eyes. This frightens her; the Wall shoots back up. Larry pleads with her, his reasoning too perceptive to deny. Marion pretends not to understand, doing an intellectual version of plugging her ears and drowning Larry out with "Can't hear you! Can't hear you! La la la la la!"

While renting a room to write a book, Marion discovers that she can overhear patients in a therapist's office through a vent. She's transfixed by the story of Hope (Mia Farrow), a pregnant woman whose inability to know true love reminds Marion of herself. Marion gets to know Hope somewhat before she terminates her therapy and disappears without a trace. In a sense, Hope never really existed. She's a projection of Marion's inner-desire and fear, her pregnancy symbolic of Marion's rebirth and a reminder of Marion's decision to not have children, which included an abortion while in college.

It's with Hope that Marion learns of Ken's affair with one of her friends. The combination of Hope's openness, the stress of suppressing emotion, the resentment shown by those close to her, and her husband's infidelity tears down Marion's Wall, exposing her to light for the first time since childhood. She leaves Ken, reaches out to her brother, and begins to mend other fences. Marion's only remaining loss is Larry, who married and moved to New Mexico. Marion finally reads his novel where she is portrayed in a loving, wistful way. Looking up from the text, Marion is at peace.

Another Woman has its problems, as do most of Allen's dramas. And there are the requisite Bergmanesque close-ups and silences. But this is minor compared to overall power of the film, which is largely sentimental. It's the only Allen film other than Manhattan's opening and ending that's made me tear up. Watching it again recently, these feelings were compounded by the present state of my marriage.

Nan and I aren't anything like Marion and Ken, though I do see aspects of us in Marion's remoteness and Larry's desire to break through it. We've each played both parts throughout the past 16 years. When we connected, it was beautiful and fun. But too often one of us was walled off, the other shut out, pounding on the door.

It could be worse: what if I found parallels in Fight Club? Apart from Nan slinging the massive Evergreen Review Reader at my head, Tyler Durden is nowhere in our marriage, Project Mayhem reserved for the night club stage.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Punched Lines

Part Two of my comedy chat with Doug Lain is now yours for the listening. I defrosted a steak in my pants while talking, but it doesn't audibly translate. That's the last time I steal from Joey Bishop.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Next Things



You may have noticed fewer but longer posts. This is not a cosmic accident. I'm writing the first volume of the The Project's book, which is dragging me through deeper waters, though not as deep as I would like (pull me down). Naturally, this affects bloggy time, but what are blogs anymore? They seem old fashioned at this point. Jim Wolcott and I discussed this over lunch recently and agreed that blogs have had their day. Mere echoes of the Bush/Cheney years.

I'd like to believe that the printed page is the new avant garde, which it was with the oral tradition's collapse, but it seems unlikely. At least in my lifetime. Technology has shattered attention spans, leaving young minds in pieces, which is evident in their emerging language. Books? Narratives? Page upon page of black specs on white backgrounds? If it can't be YouTubed, it's not worth the effort.

Oh, what a reactionary I've become. I confess it. But how could I not? I better understand earlier generations of elders bemoaning the end of creativity and intelligence, for in a sense they were right. Each new technological advance further sapped creative initiative, distracting minds from self to machine. Probably inevitable. And now distraction is everywhere, leaving us exposed and powerless. Or at least giving us that impression. Anything can happen, but for that to occur, something has to happen.

I'm not crazy enough to claim that The Project is any answer. I'm still trying to figure it out for myself. Yet something tells me that old forms like books and live performance are a way out, if not a way back. Fading clouds in an aging mind? Could be. But what the fuck do we have to lose?

There's video making the rounds featuring a young man apparently having a bad acid trip at LA's Egyptian Theatre while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. The main video, which shows the whole thing, has been made for private use. The few others are either too dark to see or begin well into the episode. In short, the kid met some hostile resistance, including getting sucker punched by some asshole while being restrained.

Tripping at Kubrick's 2001. Very retro. I never saw this on hallucinogens; smoked a lot of reefer before going in, though. So did pretty much everyone else. No fear of reeking. We all stank. And we all watched Kubrick's film without freaking or causing commotion -- those of us who remained awake, that is.

But that was back in a more open time, when people took a different attitude toward public drug consumption. If someone freaked, he or she wasn't punched, tackled or pushed around. It was commonly understood and usually dealt with in a peaceful manner, but not always (the late-70s took an anti-hippie turn). Clearly, the guy in the video needed help, and if he was tripping, hostility and physical violence were detrimental tactics. It only increased his paranoia.

Personally, I don't know why anyone would drop acid in public. Alienation, anger, hatred, and fear are everywhere. American culture is having an extended nervous breakdown, which is somewhat reflected in pop culture (though the dominant narrative remains big happy smiles, everything's great, keep consuming you lucky Americans you), but is much darker than our better artists have yet to fully translate.

Trip in this environment? Your call, but as Bill Hicks said about psilocybin, go back to nature and let your mind roam openly-hidden reality. Booze, not hallucinogens, is better for the slaughterhouse.

Weed may work, but as Louis C.K. demonstrates on his very funny FX show, the new shit can be problematic for us old timers. Never hit a young person's bong unless you're ready to travel.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Laughy Boy

Going on and on about comedy, courtesy of Doug Lain and Diet Soap. This podcast has been played to the trapped Chilean miners, and they're still alive. So it should be safe for work.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Duck Duck Noose




Mad Men is to smart folk what Twilight is to teens: a chance for fans to trade thoughts about fictional love and horror (MM has the clear edge on the latter). In the last year there's been an explosion of online analysis of every Mad Men moment, pushing it into Star Trek territory. Imagine what a Mad Men convention would look like. Probably more Petes than Dons. And having to smoke outside would doubtless dent the vibe.

While I love Mad Men, I wouldn't want to write about it every week. Friend Jim Wolcott has that covered, his reviews the best of the lot. But the recent episode stirred up some thoughts I've had about Duck Phillips, the journeyman ad exec wonderfully played by Mark Moses.

Duck is a very angry man. When he first appeared at Sterling Cooper, Duck was eager to please and prove his worth, but even at his most jovial, that dark anger was evident. Duck never seemed relaxed. Sitting and smiling was demolition control. Duck's fuse was always lit. He tried to extend it, but it proved little more than a delay tactic.

It's hard to tell which is chicken and egg: Duck's anger or his alcoholism. When we first met Duck, he was on the wagon. And like many recovering alcoholics, Duck took a dim view of Sterling Cooper's open, excessive drinking (primarily Freddy Rumsen's, who lost his job after pissing his pants and passing out before a client meeting). But soon, the ad walls close in. Roger Sterling informs Duck that he's not pulling his weight. Desperate, Duck goes for broke and tells his former colleagues at London's Putnam Powell and Lowe that Sterling Cooper can be bought. PPL's acquisition not only saves Duck's job, he's made president of the new company.

And that's when the drinking resumes.

Clearly, Duck shouldn't drink. Booze fuels his anger, destroying whatever self-control he possessed. Even in casual conversation, a drunk Duck seethes with pain and resentment. His divorce feeds part of this; his failures in advertising, too. But it's Duck's second-class status to Don Draper that truly twists his pickled brain. On the surface, Don is everything Duck is not, driving Duck further into the bottle. When the acquisition is agreed upon, a meeting is held to formalize the new arrangement. Finally, Duck gets to stand above Don.

Once again, booze destroyed Duck, his brief moment in the sun burnt to cinder (as the world nearly was at that moment, with JFK threatening nuclear war over the missiles of October, to which Don refers before walking out). Now, you'd think that a colossal fuck up like this would tie Duck to the wagon for good. Not on Mad Men. Duck's descent was just beginning.

This season reveals what Duck has become -- a mean, bitter public drunk who can't hold a job in advertising. Last week's episode further twisted the knife in Duck's belly, showing him scarcely able to function, one sip away from oblivion. When he drunkenly wanders through the new Sterling Cooper offices, prevented by Peggy Olson from taking a dump on Roger Sterling's chair, Duck confronts a shit-faced Don, fresh from puking his guts out in the men's room. A pathetic sight all around. As the two grapple, we learn that Duck has some martial arts training, most likely Jiu-Jitsu. He pins Don to the floor, right hand raised for a palm strike.

"You know," says Duck, sounding like Clint Eastwood, "I killed 17 men at Okinawa."

Don surrenders, sparing himself a broken nose and teeth. More importantly, we finally get to the root of Duck's pain, assuming he's telling the truth.

Duck has taken lives. More than most serial killers. He's haunted by ghosts and violent memories. He probably suffers from PTSD, back when it was called "war stories." Whether Duck takes pride in this or is confessing guilt is unclear. But it helps explain the anger and heavy drinking. For all of Don's private hells, he can't compete with Duck's bloody past. It's the one area where Duck surpasses Don, though both share a cocktail cup of loneliness. Sad men.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Go Deep



Michigan football is back, which means many Saturdays of maize-and-blue drunkards clogging the roads, tailgating every few feet, the Michigan fight song in heavy rotation. You'd think the utter disaster of Rich Rodriguez's reign would dampen festivities somewhat, but if anything, it's made loyalists even more determined to will their team to at least a .500 season. The locals have little to cheer about as it is. A shitty football team with a storied tradition is better than nothing.

Man, how Michigan football has fallen. When I first moved here, they were one of the top teams in the country, having won the national championship two seasons before. They were ranked in the Top Ten for years, sometimes as high as Two or Three. They boasted serious talent, many of whom went to the NFL: Jake Long, LaMarr Woodley, Steve Breaston, Mario Manningham, and Braylon Edwards, who I saw, from field-level seats, shred Notre Dame's secondary, making gymnastic deep-field catches. Their rivalry with Ohio State was serious, each year's game up for grabs. Now, they're not even in the Buckeyes' rearview mirror, eclipsed by Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State. They might be better than Indiana, but I wouldn't bet serious money on that.

I've made relative peace with Wolverine madness, mainly because I have little choice. I live only a mile from the Big House, so my neighborhood serves as an extended parking lot for fans. This used to make me nuts, but then much of the past decade drove me crazy, so I can't pin it all on the football culture. Besides, I love football, more the NFL than the college game. My favorite team since I was eight years old is the New York Jets. Living in Michigan put a dent in my Jets' viewing, as the hapless Detroit Lions are the local team. I don't have satellite TV, so I can't buy an NFL season pass which would bring me every Jets game. And this is the year to watch them, if the Super Bowl hype has any validity.

I've been enjoying HBO's Hard Knocks with the Jets. They're an entertaining bunch, led by their animated head coach Rex Ryan. The Jets are loaded with gifted players, but based on this show, they aren't maximizing their potential. The defense looks solid, though settling with All-Everything cornerback Darrelle Revis would decidedly help. The offense is shaky, not lighting up the pre-season scoreboard as it should. But then the pre-season Indy Colts looked pretty bad too, and they're the defending AFC champs. I doubt they'll have a losing season, nor will the Jets. At least I hope not. Jets' fans are used to serious letdowns. Not winning the Super Bowl this year would be a big one. Still, I suspect I'll survive.

Given my views about violence, hierarchy, and nationalism, you'd think I'd despise football. And in many respects I do, especially the fan culture. Arrogance, desperation, and idiocy lubricated by binge drinking is rarely a pretty sight. If you have any hopes for some kind of significant social or political change, one glance at an NFL tailgate party will depress you. In a sense, the NFL is a subdivision of US imperialism, further conditioning consumers to internalize militarist concepts.

This becomes more explicit during the playoffs and Super Bowl, when fighter jets streak over stadiums, Marine color guards march on-field, and fans stand at attention, waving American flags. If it's true that a majority of Americans oppose the terror wars, you won't see it expressed at an NFL game.

For all its theatrical flourishes, Nazi Germany could never compete with NFL nationalist displays. Plus, the Nazis bankrupted and brought destruction on Germany. The NFL is making record profits, building new stadiums, expanding the regular season, and is a marketing juggernaut. Compared to this, Joseph Goebbels was a derivative hack, though given time, he might make the Lions a respectable team again. Detroit and Weimar Germany share many features, so Goebbels would be working on familiar ground.

If I feel this way, why do I love football? It goes back to my childhood when I played the game for a brief time in pads, then a lot in backyards and open fields. Football strikes a primal chord in me. When I see a running back break loose for an 80 yard score, or a receiver catch a ball with outstretched fingers, his feet barely in-bounds, my brain's pleasure center clicks on.

There's a rough physical beauty to it all, however destructive it is to human bodies. I can't explain it, won't defend it, nor apologize for it. As I've told certain critics of mine, who think my anti-imperial views mark me as treasonous, I'm thoroughly American. Couldn't shake it if I tried. Drain a few beers with me while watching a Jets game and see if you agree. Hell, I get emotional just watching this early history of the team.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Savage Rules




"Technology is great, but it is killing us."

A tech-savvy Iraqi, Afghan, or Somali? No. This is Frank Palkoska, a West Point fitness instructor, telling the New York Times of the lousy physical shape many Army recruits are in. A generation raised on video games, texting, and computers can barely do sit-ups, their endurance sapped by a walk from the couch to the fridge. The imperial brass are concerned that young Americans are too fat to fight, and with more wars being planned, this is seen as a national emergency.

Obesity is indeed a serious problem, but if it helps slow the killing machine, then Super Size us. Lenin said that capitalists would sell the rope that revolutionaries would hang them with. Little did he suspect that the rope would be used to hold up pants on expanding waistlines, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease serving as the noose. It's fitting in a way. Americans are literally eating themselves into oblivion. Who needs 9/11s when dollar menus do the trick?

Obama's plea that Americans "turn the page" on Iraq, while predictable, is unnecessary. Apart from those families directly affected by the terror wars, most Americans really don't give a fuck about Iraq and haven't for some time. It was massive destruction in plain sight, yet few in the heartland showed any anger, concern, or active resistance. Iraq was a shadow war at high noon. And it hasn't ended, nor won't for some time, pious PR to the contrary. Many political observers concede this, but again, it doesn't register on a national level. Besides, there's the other holy war in Afghanistan to "win," plus the dire Iranian threat to our existence to defend against. Iraq is soooo Bush/Cheney. Move to the next Kindle file.

I've said it ad nauseum, but it remains true: If liberals didn't have the Beck/Palin distraction, they'd scour reactionary America for comparable villains to boo and hiss. Anything to prevent a wholesale defection from the Democrats, or their beloved (if compromised and disappointing) President Hope. There are prominent exceptions, Glenn Greenwald among them. But so long as lunatic Americans air their bizarro conspiracies and political ignorance, liberals will insist on general fealty to the mule, primarily at election time. The Dems may not be perfect, but they're not insane. So goes the mantra. This naturally allows Dems ample room to rob, cheat and slaughter with minimal dissent. Not that they want to rob, cheat and slaughter, mind you. They simply need more grassroots love and understanding to reveal their true selves.

Wait -- which was the insane party again?

At one time, Tom Hanks was a solid comic actor who could pull off dramatic roles, the dreadful Forrest Gump aside. Now he has a new, award-winning career humping World War II. After receiving an Emmy for his HBO series The Pacific, Hanks delivered the standard Greatest Generation speech, thanking those "who helped save the world, which has to be done every now and again."

For one of the most barbarous wars in human history, WW II has become a soothing alternative to present day imperial destruction and decline. It's the last Good versus Evil narrative around, which is why reimagining it over and over again is big business. The reality of what led up to it is of lesser interest. It may have been inevitable, as I believe it was (its seeds sown in the utterly avoidable First World War), but it was far from "great," much less "noble."

WW II was, at bottom, a major shift in global power arrangements, with the US receiving the fattest slice. The genocidal theatrics of Nazi Germany muddled this reality somewhat, at least to the mass population. Those in power knew exactly what was going on, and on a certain level appreciated the Nazi show, hiring as many of its scientists and theorists as they could at war's end.

The Pacific front was much more transparent, its origins pre-dating Pearl Harbor. There was simply no way that the US and its British subordinate were going to cede imperial Japanese control of Asia, especially with its lucrative oil reserves. The Japanese knew precisely what their war was about, and they gave it all they had. But history and technology were against them, Hiroshima and Nagasaki twin exclamation points to their demise. US elites also understood the war's geopolitical reality, but whipped up racist emotions on the home front to keep the populace murderously vengeful. It was a brilliant, bloody effort that reaped unprecedented rewards.

Did crushing imperial Japan help "save the world" as Gen. Hanks claims? Recall that in Korea and Vietnam, the US sided with Japanese collaborators and sympathizers against the nationalists who resisted and helped repel their occupiers. Again, the reasons were obvious: if we weren't going to allow Japan to control Asian markets, we sure as fuck weren't handing them over to Japan's victims. The US didn't expend nukes so that Ho Chi Minh could seize power. So, contra Hanks' contention, the Pacific war didn't "save the world." It led to subsequent phases of imperial violence and mass murder throughout Asia.

Give me Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima over The Pacific any day. That a Hollywood conservative was less celebratory about war than a Hollywood liberal might surprise some, but as our current wars expand under a Democratic president, I don't know why it would.