One Last Roll of the Dice

Working a big conference several years ago, I had the bad luck to stay in Las Vegas for a whole week. When you’re organizing large meetings, you’re the first one up and often you’re downstairs dressed and ready while other people are still asleep. So every morning at The Mirage, I’d leave my room in the tower and take the elevator down to the conference center at 5 a.m. To get there I had to walk through the casino. And it seemed I wasn’t the only one awake after all.

There they were, sitting at the slots or the bar, always with a cigarette burning and a drink next to them, not so much greeting the new day as sucking on the butt end of the night. Hopeless, exhausted, but with just enough energy left to throw away a bit more money in the hope that some magical turn of events would transform the lives they had so far completely fucked up. Hoping just this once to be “winners,” and tragically blind to the fact that this wish was, more than anything, what made them losers. It made me uncomfortable to look at them, frankly, and I hurried past without lingering on their pasty, sick-looking faces.

If you want to experience the very worst of human nature, step inside a casino. No matter how luxurious and elegant the surroundings, you can feel the energy: desperate, powerless, greedy. Deeply depressed. They say depression is anger turned inward, and you can feel the anger too. It’s no wonder that booze and cigarettes and stale food abound in these buildings—if you’re going to destroy yourself, you might as well speed things up as much as possible.

And so it seems to me that of all his sleazy business ventures, Donald Trump’s owning of a casino is the most appropriate of all. Because his promises as a candidate for President are the same as the promises of a casino: magical thinking combined with bad behavior will do wonders for your self-esteem. You’ll feel great about yourself by giving in to the worst in yourself. Through no fault of your own, you’ve been a loser, and here’s your chance to feel like a winner. Just give up all your real power, give up what really matters, and feel the rush as you toss it away!

This is what so many of our fellow Americans have come to. They believed in many things that turned out to be mirages, but mostly in a consumer culture that long ago learned how to push their buttons and promise them fulfillment in a new possession, a new experience, a new President… a new anything. The ego knows nothing but clinging and craving, and if you let it run amok it just strives to pour whatever it can into the gaping empty hole at the center of it.

There’s one thing the ego doesn’t know, can’t know by its very nature. That selfishness leads to self-annihilation. That the only way to get—to really get—is to give. That empathy and love are the only paths to salvation. That making someone else happy, improving someone else’s life, is the fastest way to improve your own. And that defending yourself, putting up a wall around yourself for your own protection, may feel like power but is really the most powerless thing you can do.

The Democratic Party is flawed, like every other human institution, but it has this going for it: it’s full of people who want to help other people have a better life. Often, the ways they go about doing this aren’t all that helpful. Often, they don’t live up to their own ideals. Hillary Clinton, who will almost certainly be their candidate, is a flawed and compromised human being who has made a lot of mistakes in her life—a life that has nonetheless been all about public service. Many people hate her for that, it seems. Or they see her as a phony who is all about personal ambition. Or someone whose presumption to know what is in the public good is deeply arrogant. Some of them, whether they know it or not, whether they are men or not, hate her for being a powerful woman who is completely unapologetic about it.

Many of those same people prefer the Republican party, with its “greed is good” ethos and its survival-of-the-fittest outlook. A party of government that does not believe anything good about government except its ability to recruit and train soldiers, and build weapons. A party that exalts triumph and “winning” above all other values. And large numbers of them prefer the party’s apparent standard-bearer Donald Trump, a man whose life has been about surrounding himself with the appurtenances of success. Fistfuls of money and tall buildings and gold lettering and porn-quality women on his arm. It’s the image of success on a billboard outside a casino, and it wouldn’t be there if it didn’t draw a crowd.

But there are other crowds. Huge numbers of legal and illegal immigrants who had the courage and willpower to leave their homes in search of a better life, and who have found it harvesting your food and cleaning the mess you left in your hotel room. Groups of people gathering in poor neighborhoods doing free repair work on weekends. People in support groups helping each other past their addictions and their trauma and their sheer loneliness. These people could be Republicans or Democrats, because individuals have more savvy and compassion and complexity than large organizations do. There are people of both parties who find themselves repulsed by Trump’s narcissism, his crudity, his lack of ideas, and his bullying that seems to shade more into facism every day. I’m talking about the rest of us, in other words, who haven’t given up hope just yet.

And so for the rest of us, hating on those Trump voters is not going to help us get past this grim national moment we’re having. These are our brothers and sisters, our friends and neighbors, who feel they’ve come to the butt end of the night and want to throw away civility, compromise, and maybe democracy itself in one last desperate throw of the dice. We have to stop them, of course. But somehow, we also have to help them. Not try to hurry past and ignore them, because they feel they’ve been ignored already and that’s part of the problem. Look them in the eye, talk to them, attempt to understand them, and then point out that there are better ways to “win” than this.

 

 

Bowie’s in Space

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One of the funniest and most lovable tributes in music is the live version of the folk duo Flight of the Conchords singing “Bowie’s in Space,” aka the Bowie Song. There’s some sweet banter at the start that makes clear how much they love the guy, and then they go into the call-and-response song that’s a perfect mimicry of Bowie’s style: the bitten off diction, the severely affected vocals, the allusions to space and drugs and a strangely divided mind. Both Bret and Jemaine are Bowie, one at Mission Control, the other out in space. “This is Bowie to Bowie. Do you hear me out there, man?” “This is Bowie back to Bowie. I read you loud and clear, man.”

I’ve covered this song with my friend Derek and it’s a blast because I get to do my Bowie impression, which I’ve been doing mostly in the privacy of my car or shower for about 30 years now. I always felt a strangely personal relationship with David Bowie, and the outpouring of grief this week makes it clear that a whole lot of other people do too. Suddenly on social media there’s all this Bowie love, from so many different friends, some of them a surprise. The grief is more widespread, and more profound, than I’d have expected. It hit me harder than I expected, too. And I’ve been thinking about the reasons.

Well for one thing, he was so fearless. Looking like he did, David Bowie could have had a career like his one-time bizarro duet partner Bing Crosby… just coasting on looks and voice and a series of identical-sounding hits. Instead he boldly threw away styles and modes and set off in new directions. Sometimes those new directions were actually alienating — I didn’t always have the courage, openness, or patience to follow him. The fine pop culture writer Mark Harris tweeted something very apt: that Bowie was the first artist to make him feel scared.

Of course, he was also cool. Literally cool, with his bone-straight hair, cut-glass cheekbones and wiry frame. He used theatrical devices like makeup and glitter and wildly fashionable clothes, but not the way most people use them, to get some kind of cheap immediate response. He was removed, distant. He didn’t seem to give a fuck what you thought. But then he’d turn and give you a wink or a smile, and it always seemed like it was just for you. He learned a lot from Marlene Dietrich, who used the same aloof kittycat tools of audience seduction.

Like Dietrich, he had a tantalizing androgyny. He flirted openly with gender bending and gayness, and he did it in the early 70s when nobody else dared. Actually very few male performers dare to do it now. There’s Prince, but what’s interesting is that a lot of men casually despise Prince in a way they don’t despise Bowie. Again, he seemed to be dedicatedly following some internal compass, and that sense of personal integrity was so strong that he wasn’t subjected to the usual disrespect that keeps most bisexual men quiet about it.

Beautiful people get a pass, of course, and he knew he was beautiful. But like everything else, he was distant from his own vanity. He threw it away sometimes, with crazy haircuts or masks or disfiguring outfits. In his final, amazing video for “Lazarus,” released last week, he’s lying on a symbolic deathbed, his eyes wrapped in bandages. There are little metal studs where his eyes should be. It’s disturbing, and it’s frustrating, because we want to look at him. He knows it, too. You watch and you know he’s doing it on purpose. He’s teasing, like he always did.

Then you get to see him without the bandages… he looks ravaged but still beautiful. The voice is thinner, and rougher. The song and the video confront his own mortality very directly, but without a trace of self pity. There’s nothing maudlin; he isn’t trying to make you feel anything, or rather he isn’t trying to make you feel anything simple, like sadness. He’s staring at death the way he used to stare into space with his glassy faraway eyes. He’s seeing something the rest of us aren’t. It might be something terrifying, or it might be something wonderful, or it might be both. He’s not afraid. He’s reaching for it.

It takes a true warrior to make dying look cool. Maybe somehow I could be that strong, that honest, that self-assured and brave. I read you loud and clear, man.

 

 

No One is Safe

I got the message early, standing on the roof of our house as a boy, holding a garden hose and helping my father water down the wooden shingles as a huge fire burned all around us, the air black and full of cinders. And later, as earthquakes ejected me from the shower or shook the contents of my house into a heap. Huddling in the core of a hallway as a hurricane bore down. Holding a rag to my face on 9/11 so I wouldn’t inhale the pulverized dust of the World Trade Center as I ran through the streets of Manhattan.

I got the message: no one is safe.

We all want to be safe; it’s at the core of what it means to be human. We want safety for ourselves, for our loved ones. And yet it’s an illusion, safety. It’s temporary. Our passage into this world is dangerous, our time here is fraught with violence and threat, and our inevitable exit causes pain to ourselves and those we love. So we need to remind ourselves that safety is not the highest value.

I don’t want to be safe. I want to be strong. I want to be strong enough to know I can look into a fire or earthquake or hurricane without flinching. I want to be strong enough to look straight into the eyes of someone who does not love me and be unmoved. I want the peace of knowing that whatever happens, I’ll be alright because while I was here and while the power was in me, I stayed true to myself and did my best and loved the people I love with my whole heart.

I don’t want safety. I want wisdom. I want to have wisdom enough to see that the desire for revenge and more violence are deeply powerless stances, no matter how “tough” they look on the outside. I want wisdom enough to acknowledge that terror and violence reside in my own heart… and while I can’t eradicate them there any more than I can eradicate them from the world, I can overcome them. Time and again. Though false ideas of loss and indignity and offense keep coming back and fanning the flames of my own resentment and anger and hatred, I can put those flames out. Somewhere inside me I have the wisdom to know that’s all I can do that will make any real difference. Really living peace and love… not just saying the words, but living them when your soul cries out for justice and meaning and there doesn’t seem to be any… these are heroic acts.

The world seems to fall apart with increasing frequency. The world outside me, and the one in my head. What can I do about it, today or any other day when it seems so hopeless? Only the small, little heroic things that we all can do, the only things that matter in the end. Put out the flames. Sweep up the debris. Walk back out into the sunshine. Hand the rag I’m using to cover my mouth to someone else who hasn’t got one. Put my arm around somebody who’s even more broken than I am. Tell them No one is safe… but you’re safe with me.

Paul Prudhomme, I Love You

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In New Orleans for the first or second time about 15 years ago, I was walking down a street in the Quarter when I saw a line of people on the sidewalk. It took a second to realize they were waiting at the door of a restaurant. This was still mid-afternoon, but the line was longish already.

Then I recognized the third person in line: Billy Payne, the piano player from Little Feat — a man who is an idol of mine. I doubled back and said hello to him and garbled out some fan talk, just thinking “wow, Billy Payne.” I said something that made him smile, and that was sweet. All that day I was overcome by the encounter itself… but then later, I got to thinking: what the heck was that restaurant? Evidently so good that even somebody of Bill Payne’s caliber of awesomeness is patiently waiting in line to get in.

It was K-Paul’s. I hunted it down later — it’s hard to find, just another storefront on Chartres St, half obscured under the wrought iron. The inside is also fairly anonymous, just checkered cloth-covered tables and a big brick wall, ending at a kitchen with a huge window where you can see the chefs at work. There’s no fuss about anything, absolutely no sense that you’re anyplace special.

But oh, holy god, the food. Gumbo, etouffee, bread pudding, and a blazing hot cajun martini, that’s what I had. Everything perfectly proportioned, everything incredibly simple. And every single bite was mind-blowingly delicious. All the attention that other restaurants put into the decor and fancy menu and waitstaff performances, K Paul’s puts into the food. I’ve had some great meals in a lot of cities over the years… but that was the greatest dinner of my life.

Read Paul Prudhomme’s obituary and know the reasons why: not just his inventiveness and skill, his generosity and openness, but his commitment to the basics of good cooking. Think about that window into the kitchen: something you see in pizza parlors but never, ever in a fine restaurant. It’s indicative of the man’s whole attitude of transparency and inclusion. This sentence of the obit hit me hardest: “In keeping with Mr. Prudhomme’s gospel of fresh ingredients, the restaurant had no freezers.” I mean, what restaurant has no freezers?

The same restaurant that Billy Payne would line up for at 3:30 in the afternoon. The best damn restaurant in America.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/us/paul-prudhomme-creole-cajun-louisiana-cooking.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1

Getting into Cars with Alex

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A business trip took me to San Francisco this week, which gave me the opportunity to look up my old friend Alex. He drove all the way out to where I was staying to have dinner with me, but when he arrived I didn’t get his text right away. So he circled the block and waited until I got it and I hurried out to the nearest corner, where he stopped and picked me up quickly at a corner.

We’ve all had déjà vu, that sense that something happening now has happened before, but you can’t remember what. This was like that except that I did remember: countless other times I’ve stepped into Alex’s car over the last 40 years came rushing to my mind all at once.

We met in 1974, in high school. I was a freshman and he was a senior and at that age, those years are a chasm. He could drive and I couldn’t — a stick shift I might add — he had relationships and I didn’t, he’d experienced controlled substances and I hadn’t, though he took care of that eventually. He liked me and more to the point he approved of me, and that meant the world to me at a time when I was struggling with huge family issues that had rocked my self esteem. We were on the school paper together, and when I’d write something he’d take it into the room where the seniors were and read it to them, laughing and putting it up on the board and telling them I’d be the editor of the paper someday… the first time somebody saw something in me. I didn’t see it until he did.

Alex was this impossibly glamorous figure: whippet-thin, blond hair parted in the center and hanging to his shoulders, handsome in a fierce hawklike way, with piercing blue eyes. He played rock guitar like a star, could write well enough to make a career of it if he wanted to, was gifted at math and science, but disdained and minimized all of his own gifts. I remember one time in the late 70s when he picked me up, he took me to the lab where he was working, because he wanted to show me something. I was itchy and impatient to go start partying but he insisted that I look at this tiny thing on a small sliver of glass. “That’s a microchip,” he said. “Someday that’s going to change the world.” One of many conversations I should have continued but didn’t in my headlong rush to go waste my opportunities.

Another conversation that always sticks in my mind is when we first bought a house. I was still in my 20s and in way over my head with a wife and baby, just a kid trying to be a man. The place was the only thing we could afford, a cool little Art Deco bungalow in a terrible neighborhood, a fixer-upper in need of just about every kind of repair. He came over to check it out and we sat cross-legged on the floor of the empty living room, the cool desert air of Los Angeles blowing in through the open windows, the night sky dark beyond them, and he said “your house is beautiful, man.” Just a small thing but again that glimpse of hope and that seal of approval for a step I wasn’t sure of yet. Awesome.

Alex loved David Bowie and he had Bowie’s offhand indifference to himself, the same chilly remove and distance. Actual, real cool. It can’t be faked, or acquired. I’ll never have it, but I sure do know it when I see it. We can be heroes… yeah. He would have laughed then, just as he would now, at the idea of himself being any kind of hero. Every time we’ve met up since high school, he’s talked about me and my accomplishments and acted like I was the somebody.  Talking cynical and intellectual and pretending he doesn’t have the biggest heart around, like he never saw a suffering mess of a boy and put a hand out. Like it was nothing.

But it was everything.  Thanks, man. I hope you never stop picking me up.

 

The Pope Smokes Dope

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Click here to read Pope Francis’ encyclical
, released last week. Let’s start with my frank admission that I have not had time to read it in its entirety… yet. But the parts I have read are blowing my mind. It’s what the hippies were saying in the 60s, basically, but it’s coming from the Pope.

His points about climate change are getting all the attention, but really this is a stunning critique of modern society and its completely wrongheaded values — consumerism, capitalism, over-reliance on science and technology, social injustice, violence and war, and the destruction of the Earth.

And he shows how those wrong values all spring from the same source. He knits everything together, showing how all of the major troubles of the world can be traced back to us… to individuals… to people like you and me, who have lost (or never had) a basic attitude of humility, of wonder, of gratitude. People who view the world as something to be used and discarded. He brings it all down to selfishness, basically, and shows the irony of how placing yourself above everything else destroys not only you, but others.

This is a deeply spiritual document, and a lodestar of wisdom and guidance. Personally, I’m not a Catholic, or a Christian, but so what? No human being really knows the nature of God (as the Pope has admitted), so we’re all making guesses in the dark there. In the meantime, we live in a physical world, and we’re fucking it up and we all know it, and he shows just how we’re doing it. And why we feel so lost, so alienated, so afflicted.

What’s wrong with humanity and society is what’s wrong with us. The global crisis is our crisis. The answer isn’t even that complicated. It’s love, for ourselves and others and our planet and everything on it. Not conceptual love. Love in action… which is actually not easy. If you don’t find it painful and difficult, you’re not doing it right. Because love in action means subjugating your ego, and recognizing that you’re one among many, no less no more.

I’ll be reading the whole thing. I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll be trying, again, only harder this time, to live it. I hope you will too.

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