Body Surfing

This weekend while visiting San Diego, I hung out at a beach house that had access to the sand just across the street. I walked down the path and found myself on the exact same stretch of beach I’d visited one year ago with co-workers at my former company, when a car dropped us off after someone said let’s go see the water. This is in a densely populated area of La Jolla, not a place I ever went to during my 30 years in California. Absolutely no connection between the events that led me there. What are the odds of finding yourself, utterly randomly, on the same 50 yards of an 800-mile coastline exactly one year later?

We went bodysurfing the next day. The waves were strong and breaking close to the shore. One of them got me, and I went tumbling helplessly; it’s a terrifying and humbling feeling. I swam back out and took the waves more seriously and rode them fine after that, but it was a reminder that I’m small and insignificant, and forces are at work that are unimaginably bigger and more powerful than I am. They’re indifferent to me as a person.

Or, you know, are they? Why did they bring me back to that exact same little stretch of beach?

I knew why, right away: to show me how far I’ve come in the past year. To give me some reassurance that the huge changes I’ve been through are real, and maybe a reminder to be grateful… like a parent might draw a line on the wall for her kid and then stand him up to the wall a year later and say look how you’ve grown.

This is a metaphysical universe. The physical is showing us the spiritual, revealing it to us, all the time. But most of the time we don’t have the faintest idea what we’re seeing. And then when you do get a glimpse of those forces, it’s still like me and those waves… understanding them on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level. Watching them build and swell and come at me over and over, learning how to ride them and not get creamed by them. Understanding the subtle differences between the things I have power over and the things I don’t.

Sometimes it can seem discouraging to have to learn the same lessons over and over, but a surfer doesn’t look at waves that way. Surfers are the real metaphysicians. They understand that every new wave is an opportunity to try again, and maybe get it right this time.

 

 

 

Chef

Chef

In the wake of last week I’ve found myself reading everything I can find about Anthony Bourdain. His death hit me hard, and I’m still trying to figure out why… I wasn’t a regular viewer and I hadn’t read his book. I figured I’d always have time to get to him in a more major way. “I must have thought you’d always be around,” as Jackson Browne put it in “For a Dancer,” his classic song of coming to terms with grief and loss.

And I suppose that sense of him as reliable is a big part of the shock and disappointment. You knew he was out there, exploring new by-ways and finding new people to meet, new cultures to shine a light on. He seemed like an adventurer and an old-school hero, masculine, stoic, impatient with bullshit and foulmouthed and funny about it. But also new school: open, non-judgmental, unafraid to admit vulnerability and failure. A guy who, if he ever happened to have a suicidal impulse, would just tell you about it, make a wry face, and toss back some more oysters and beer with a shrug.

You try to make sense of a suicide, and of course you can’t know why for sure even if you’re close to the person, but there was a clue in the long New Yorker piece about him that ran a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked how he felt about being called “Chef,” and he said somewhat testily that he had earned that title, but then he went on to say that it did bother him to be called “Chef” by somebody whose culinary skills were way beyond his. It seems he was a decent, hardworking cook but nothing out of the ordinary. So maybe he suffered from a form of imposter syndrome.

We want a hero, no more than that we need a hero, that’s a deep yearning of humanity from our earliest days up to the present. But if you’ve ever been called one, or treated like one, you know how ridiculous it sounds. “No man is a hero to his valet” the old saying goes, meaning you can’t regard someone as heroic when you’ve gotten to know them well, seen them in the fumbling, gross, clueless, haggard, indolent ways most of spend the majority of our time. And if you can’t be a hero to your valet, you certainly can’t be one to yourself, knowing how often you feel and act like a crushed, sad, helpless victim.

But if you can’t really “be” a hero, you can act heroically from time to time. Try something new, go outside your comfort zone, face your fears. Reach a hand out to somebody who needs it, treat a “lowly” person with respect, give somebody some appreciation for what they’re trying to do even if they’re not quite making it. A simple act of kindness or consideration can make a life-changing difference to somebody, and in that moment you are a hero to that person. And in that context, “Chef” or any other nickname isn’t a title as much as a thank-you, a pat on the back, a salute. People were grateful to Anthony Bourdain, because in a world of posers and users, he talked and reacted and laughed like a person. We need more of those.

The Outsider

vl in color

 

“She was impossible. Every suggestion you made, she fought; you fought with her all day long,” said Mitchell Leisen about directing Veronica Lake in I Wanted Wings, her first film as a star. “She was a pain in the ass,” said Randy Grinter, the son of Brad Grinter, who directed her 25 years later in her last movie, Flesh Feast.

Ah, yes, Flesh Feast. A movie about a mad scientist, flesh-eating maggots, and Adolf Hitler. It’s nowhere near as good as it sounds. We’ll get around to it; there’s really no hurry. Let’s talk about Veronica Lake first.

She’s remembered today for two things. Her silky and suggestive teamings with Alan Ladd in a series of prototypical 40s films noir. And her hair, hanging down in luxuriant blonde waves and half-obscuring her right eye. In an era when movies wore a sexual straightjacket, this sultry “peekaboo” hairstyle caused a national sensation. Such is the enduring power of her star image that Kim Basinger won an Oscar for attempting to evoke it a half-century later in the neo-noir L.A. Confidential. At one key point in that film, Russell Crowe’s detective drops his tough-guy act for a second and tells her “You look better than Veronica Lake.”

Nice line. But really—not even close.

Veronica Lake was gorgeous. Not just the hair, which was indeed spectacular, but also the high cheekbones, the petulant lower lip, the wary narrowed cat-like eyes that could widen suddenly and knock you out. Okay, so Hollywood is lousy with beautiful women and always has been. Lake had more than beauty, she had the mystery of a real movie star—an unreadable something. An amused, distant quality, a withholding that made you lean closer in. An unstable mixture of vulnerability and toughness, empathy and contempt. Even her beauty seemed on the edge of disappearing in a cloud of childlike petulance. Then that would pass, like a child’s bad mood. Warm-cold-warm-cold… like somebody idly flipping a light switch on-off.

This quality reads wonderfully on screen. Off it, not so much. Few liked her; many loathed her. Her life story was an unending series of antagonisms, frustrations, poor decisions, tragedies, scandals and sordid headlines—until it did end, not too long after Flesh Feast. She herself got little respect, not just as an actress but as a human being. She was the original Lindsay Lohan: trainwreck first, performer second. A paranoid schizophrenic, according to her mother. A drug addict, according to her second husband. A bitch, according to many of her co-workers. And a raging drunk, by unanimous consent.

 

“I was never psychologically meant to be a picture star. I never took it seriously,” she once said. “And I hated being something I wasn’t.” What she was, fundamentally, was an outsider. Her best roles and most memorable performances all tapped into this quality. She seems most fully herself when she’s bending or subverting her era’s ideas of what a good girl should do. When she tucks her hair under a cap and hops a freight train in Sullivan’s Travels, when she drops out of government work into a noir underworld with Alan Ladd’s haunted hit man in This Gun for Hire, or when she travels across a garden in the form of a puff of smoke in I Married a Witch. “I’m a lot older than you think,” she tells Fredric March in that film, but in fact she’s a lot younger than you think: she was only 19 when Leisen’s movie made her a star overnight.

Too much too soon, maybe. After winning a few beauty contests as a teenager in Miami, she was pushed into show business by her mother Constance, who moved her and her ailing stepfather across the country to get her into the movies. In later years, Constance was the source for the claim that she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but who knows? When somebody has a biography as fucked up as Veronica Lake’s, it can be hard to sort through the layers of finger-pointing, lurid rumor, repeated gossip, and outright lying (Lake herself was a frequent, flagrant liar). Let’s just say that acting lessons seem a strange therapy for schizophrenia. Also that it’s a bit unusual for a mother to give her daughter the same name—Lake’s birth name was Constance Ockelman, and everyone called her Connie. And then they had a second name in common. “My mother and myself never got along too well and that was from early childhood,” she recalled in a 1969 interview. “My mother’s real first name, it happens to be Veronica. And of all the names they picked, it had to be Veronica.”

“A typical victim of a stage-mother’s dream turned into nightmare. From a miserable childhood packed with broken promises, shoved into the pitfall-littered labyrinths of Hollywood,” recalled her second husband, director André de Toth.

Whatever the truth, it was a brief leap from dramatic school in Hollywood to bit work in movies, to catching the eye of a producer who changed her name and gave her the plum role in I Wanted Wings, as a bad-girl cabaret singer. Leisen recalled that she couldn’t handle dialogue very well at this point and he had to give her very simple movements. In her first shot in the film, she’s seen singing (dubbed) in front of a band in a nightclub. She caresses her thigh as she’s hit by a spotlight that sets off her clinging, shimmering dress, her cheekbones, her glistening head of hair. Leisen, who usually preferred boys, seems entranced. It’s a wow moment, and his camera knows it; he moves it in and circles her slowly, erotically.

That shot made her an instant star. Billed seventh, she dominated the posters for the movie and the publicity. The hair got most of it, as the fan magazines shrieked about it and women across America crowded salons wanting the same style. Meanwhile back at Paramount, Lake had already managed to piss off the studio by leaving for Arizona without telling anyone in the middle of filming, after taking childish offense to Leisen’s persnickety personality. With hindsight, it seems her first willful rejection of stardom just as it was being handed to her on a plate… the first of many such gestures.

For the moment, though, there was no stopping her. The studio’s most successful and high-profile director, Preston Sturges, wanted her for his next film, Sullivan’s Travels. Sturges, a good-natured extroverted egomaniac, knew just how to handle her, as it turned out. The atmosphere on the set of his films was like “a carnival,” one actor recalled. When Lake revealed halfway through shooting that she was pregnant (she had just gotten married, probably to escape from Constance), Sturges didn’t fire her but instead laughed his head off and promised to dress her in baggier clothes. If Leisen is to be trusted about her inability to handle dialogue, Sturges must have taught her well, because she handles pages of his rapid-fire banter, firing back and forth at Joel McCrea in long, unbroken takes.

Sullivan’s Travels centers on McCrea’s character, a fatuous movie director who wants to move from comedy to drama, but finds the real Depression-era America a far cry from his privileged, rich-boy concept of it. Widely regarded as Sturges’ masterpiece, it’s certainly his most personal and probing film. Lake is rarely given credit for her contribution to it, but she’s the emotional center of the movie. Her character, called “The Girl” in a bit of meta inspiration by the filmmaker, is bitter and tough on the surface, but believably hurt by Sullivan’s repeated use of her as a guinea pig. Paired with the 6′ 2″ McCrea, she seems even more tiny than she was (4′ 11″), and she’s touchingly vulnerable and brave as she pretends to be a boy and tiptoes her way through a land of lecherous, threatening bums.

Sturges liked her and set up another comedy for her, I Married a Witch. He selected another fine director, the French transplant René Clair. A perfect choice for the film, as Clair was an expert in fantasy and offbeat humor. And for Lake, who spoke fluent French (the Ockelman s had lived in Montreal for a time) and responded to a director who believed in her talent more than she did. According to Clair, Paramount knew they had something special in Lake and didn’t want an ordinary role for her, and it was Sturges who suggested Thorne Smith’s sexy supernatural fantasy “The Passionate Witch.” She’s perfect in it—a believably wicked sprite motivated by hatred and revenge until she drinks a love potion, at which point she becomes “itchy with sexual frustration,” as Guy Madden puts it in his loving notes to the Criterion blu-ray. On the set, the sexual frustration belonged to her co-star Fredric March, a serial harasser who tried and failed to bed her, despite/because of his professional contempt… but at least he had the actorly good sense to use his own stuffy boorishness as part of his performance. There was some sniping on film forum boards when The Criterion Collection added this movie to its roster of Great Cinema… a curse on those mortals! The movie is full of subversive fun, and Lake’s funny, mischievous, completely charming performance is her best claim to immortality.

Between these two comedies came two more films that cemented her stardom and her legacy: This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key. They’re classified as film noir but they came early in that cycle, and so they’re compromised by the movie factory’s conventional efforts at morality and uplift. Just what audiences don’t want. But in both, the half that’s noir is still pretty terrific. In the first, Lake plays a nightclub singer engaged to a cop (Robert Preston), who is secretly recruited by the FBI to gather information on a ring of foreign spies. Contrived and absurd as this is, it leads to her involvement with Alan Ladd as Raven, an emotionally scarred hit man who’s been betrayed by the spies and is out for revenge even as he’s being hunted by the cops. Raven, the ice-cold killer who loves only stray cats, is the role that made Alan Ladd a star. And you can still see why: he’s a stray cat himself who’s been kicked around by life and has to run and hide and make his own snarling way in the world. He kidnaps Lake, and while they’re on the run they begin to develop an understanding. Ladd and Lake were both too cool as performers to be able to convincingly act “falling in love,” but here their tentative reaching out to each other feels emotionally satisfying, and the fact that it’s unexpected and transgressive (she’s engaged to his pursuer and he’s more than capable of killing her) gives their scenes a glamorous erotic tension.

Paramount knew they had something in this team—they just didn’t quite know what to do with it. A shame they weren’t given Double Indemnity, in which she particularly might have had a triumph. The Glass Key was the follow-up, and it’s not as good as This Gun for Hire. Dashiell Hammett’s plot machinations are always a chore to follow, and without colorful characters to be interested in, this movie is all machinations. We want Ladd and Lake, but we get too much of Brian Donlevy as the lead character, a crooked politician trying to get respectable, and she is wasted in the nothing role of the girl both men want. The real romance in The Glass Key is between Ladd and William Bendix, as a terrifying thug. Bendix keeps beating Ladd to a pulp, all the while calling him “sweetheart” and “baby” and insisting that Ladd likes it, which is intriguingly possible. There’s a faint streak of masochism running through Ladd, who in his private life had a house full of paintings of male nudes—less a reflection of his sexuality, perhaps, than of his lusting after size. He was famously short (5′ 6″) and Lake was one of the few actresses with whom he didn’t need to stand on a box.

She’d had four hits in a row, and the biggest hit of all came next. Unfortunately it led to her downfall. So Proudly We Hail was Paramount’s big patriotic wartime special of 1943, a tribute to the Red Cross nurses who served in Bataan and Corregidor. Claudette Colbert is the tediously sane and responsible head nurse, and Paulette Goddard is the wisecracking good-time girl. Lake, third-billed, plays a sullen, joyless wretch who all the other nurses loathe. You can feel the executives at Paramount patting themselves on the back for all this typecasting. The war department had asked the studio to pin up the famous peekaboo hairstyle, because girls working in wartime factories were supposedly getting their Lake locks caught in machinery. Going all dramatic, Lake has two big scenes in the film, the first when she breaks down and reveals that the Japanese killed her fiancé, the second when she sacrifices herself to save the other nurses. She appears in a doorway, hair down for the only time in the movie, and slips a grenade into her blouse before walking toward the Japs with her hands up. These should be big impactful scenes, but they’re muffed by director Mark Sandrich, a ticktock craftsman who was congenitally unable to convey emotion on the screen. Everyone seems to have decided Lake was nothing without her hairstyle, and Goddard got the Oscar nomination.

Paramount administered the coup de grace with her next movie: The Hour Before the Dawn. (It’s always the darkest, get it?) She plays a Nazi spy, complete with German accent. Skulking around Franchot Tone’s country estate, making shifty evil eyes with her hair up in braids, she’s borderline ridiculous and saves herself only by staying very still in most of her scenes. She looks utterly mortified. Her voice is soft and quiet and in most shots she looks like she’s physically restraining herself from running off the set. In real life, her personal difficulties were mounting as well. Miscarriage, divorce, squabbles with co-workers, and increasing drinking. Her contract had four years to run, but the studio had already given up. They tossed her into three brain-dead musical comedies with chinless, sexless comic Eddie Bracken, who later said “they called her ‘the bitch’ and she deserved the title.” But then, who wouldn’t be a bitch if they had to make three movies in a row with Eddie Bracken? Then they put her in a series of cutesy period pieces designed to show off co-star Joan Caulfield’s apple-pie charm, movies which effectively neutralized every single thing that had ever been special about Veronica Lake. Implicit in them is a heavy corporate rebuke for the difficulties she’d caused and the enemies she had made. She was 25 years old, and her career was effectively over.

She had married de Toth around this time, and he directed her twice for other studios. Ramrod is a tricky noir Western in which Lake plays a Barbara Stanwyckish role as the willful daughter of a rancher who uses her wiles to get all the men in the story to fight, betray and kill each other. De Toth called this character “a wicked, conniving lady, stronger than a man, with velvet balls,” but Lake really isn’t up to a part like that. As an actress she was soft and insinuating; she nails the bitterness but can’t convey the strength. In Slattery’s Hurricane, she has an unattractive part as the girl the hero doesn’t want while he chases after another man’s wife. Her character turns to drugs, but the censors made sure this one interesting aspect of her part was carefully obscured. Instead, she just seems jittery, forlorn, and all too believably washed up. It was her last movie in Hollywood.

The drug addiction was an unkind touch; de Toth alludes several times in his book to the “monkeys” on her back. He describes two Connies co-existing in one person: “One hurt, timid, and scared. Not many—if any—were more insecure, shy and vulnerable. She was afraid and lonely and lived alone with her fear. Too proud to call for human help. The other loud, bitter, boisterous, got lost in ‘tinsel town, the shit capital of dreams,’ where she drowned herself in blind hatred.” He goes on to say that “actually she, the real She, didn’t exist anymore. ‘That one was sold,’ she told me, at fifteen, as a down-payment for her mother’s dreams.” Around this time, her mother sued her for lack of financial support, as agreed when she’d become a star. Constance won her suit, but later claimed that Connie sent her nothing but rubber checks. The marriage broke up in a flurry of ugly headlines as the couple declared bankruptcy and blamed each other. He got custody of their children. Now there really was nothing, except the one friend who had remained loyal: alcohol. “She left,” de Toth said, “with the ethereal smile of a Kamikaze.”

Unemployable on the West Coast, she headed East, where there was still some work to be had. On stage and in early blurry television, where if you squinted you could still see “Veronica Lake” sometimes. For Connie, there was only drinking, more bad relationships, professional embarrassments and mishaps. She got tangled in the wires onstage as Peter Pan (another outsider role, and her reputed favorite). Her stage career came to a halt when a dance partner fell on her and broke her ankle. Eventually she found work pasting felt flowers on hats in a Manhattan factory, and then, more congenially, as a barmaid in a hotel for women, where the room was free and the booze flowed. She worked for tips in happy obscurity under the name Connie de Toth, until a reporter from a New York tabloid found her and made a story of it. People began sending her money, which she returned with great pride, all except a check for a thousand dollars from her one-time lover Marlon Brando (their paths had crossed in the early 50s), which she had framed.

She wrote an autobiography and revealed herself as still smart and tough, if a bit loose with the facts (“the most vicious thing I’ve ever read,” sniffed Mitchell Leisen). With the profits, she moved around and ended up back in Miami. Around the same time, a mutual acquaintance introduced her to Brad Grinter, who was looking for financing for Flesh Feast. She invested in it and was listed as co-producer. You can put this down to the shaky judgment of a woman who’d been an alcoholic for a quarter century, but it wasn’t a totally crazy move. A few years earlier, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had made a fortune in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, starting a vogue for horror films starring the aging leading ladies of the 1940s. And in fact, she made a profit, according to Randy Grinter. But then that may have been because the film’s budget was only $100,000—a pittance, even in Florida in the sixties.

And it looks it. The sets are Ed Wood-cheap, the locations are drab. Grinter doesn’t seem to know where or how to place the camera. The people on the screen (you can’t call them “actors”) stumble at times over their business and the banal, dead-sounding lines in his first-draft script. It’s a horror movie without atmosphere or suspense, just a few icky close-ups of flesh-eating maggots. The lead role is a lady doctor who has spent time in a mental institution and who is now working on a rejuvenation formula (thus the maggots). The star in this role is supposed to be Veronica Lake, but instead it’s Connie Ockelman—a petite, puffy-faced troll who looks 10 years older than her 47 years, and is unrecognizable as a former divinity of any sort. Her voice, once a “a tiny mellifluent purr” (Guy Madden) is now, thanks to years of smoking and trying to project on stage, a coarse rasp. Her exaggerated gestures and facial expressions show a drunk’s lack of control, and her grimace of a smile shows a mouthful of blackened, rotting teeth. The ruination she has visited upon herself is the only real, the only true horror on the screen.

And then they bring on Hitler.

It’s the movie’s big reveal. Some shady South Americans have invaded the house and the laboratory, seeking to have the doctor rejuvenate their leader, The Commander, so he can “take over zee world!” In the final, unforgettable scene, the doctor straps him to a table in her lab, and begins to administer the treatment. She speaks of her mother, whose portrait is conveniently on the wall. “She vas a good Cherman voman?” The Commander inquires kindly. “A servant of zee Third Reich?” The doctor sneers at this and growls “oh yes—as a guinea pig!!” The Nazis experimented on her mother, it seems… now the doctor will experiment on him. She brings out a Tupperware bowl full of maggots and begins applying them to der Führer’s face. As he begins whimpering and screaming, she tosses more and more of them onto him, laughing maniacally, uproariously. It’s revenge for mother, all right, payback for the stardom she didn’t want that was thrust upon her, for being reduced to a hairstyle and laughed at, for the talent that never got used, for the frustration of years of mediocre work and tabloid headlines and public shame, for a confused young girl tossed into a machine that chewed her up and spat her out. It’s what Connie Ockelman thinks of show business, of fame, and herself. Heil Hitler!

She died a couple years later at 50, alone and destitute, of acute hepatitis, kidney injury, and renal failure. An outsider to the last. Only one of her children, and none of her ex-husbands, attended her funeral. Her own ashes weren’t even there—they sat on a shelf at the funeral home for four years until a friend finally paid the $200 bill for the cremation.

But Veronica Lake had gone long before that. The last the world saw of that apparition was in The Blue Dahlia, one final Ladd-Lake film noir Paramount made at the height of her difficulties. A last chance, and a last hit for her. The original script by Raymond Chandler is spotty, but it has some nice ideas—none nicer than the scene when they meet. Ladd is a flier who has returned from the war to find his wife first unapologetically unfaithful and then dead. As the chief suspect and object of a manhunt, he takes to the road. Lake is the mysterious blonde who picks him up one rainy night. She’s the ultimate Los Angeles girl, materializing out of nowhere on the highway, a blonde vision behind the wheel, an outsider angel. She takes him to a hotel, and then they part. It’s hard to say goodbye, he tells her. Why is it? she asks. You’ve never seen me before tonight. “Every guy’s seen you before, somewhere,” he tells her. “The trick is to find you.”

What Difference Does it Make?

p213624_2aMy lifelong habit of reading the news every morning, especially the political news, has become a real issue for me. What are you supposed to do when every single day brings multiple stories that shock, depress or terrify you? I used to find some distraction in the entertainment news… but now that Hollywood has started exposing and confronting its bullies and predators (e.g. all the executives and half the actors), that’s out too. These days I look at the news the way you might check out a terrible breakfast buffet: lift the cover, shudder and put it back quick, move down the line, and finally give up. I’ll just have coffee, thanks.

In calmer and more reflective moments, I think maybe we need this, that it’s a necessary purging. The shock of 2016 was realizing how wide and deep the racism and sexism run in our society, the horror of discovering that your benign-looking neighbors and friends might be raging bigots, anti-Semites, homophobes or god knows what. Probably everybody who wasn’t a straight white dude had already figured this out, but I hadn’t. Now in 2017 it’s been like we’re turning over all the rocks and the vermin have been slithering out into plain sight. Nazis? What the fuck? I didn’t plan on dealing with Nazis as I entered my so-called golden years.

And really, what is up with all the hate? Well you know what’s up with it, because you feel it yourself. Your own tendency to notice differences, and to use them to make yourself feel better. To judge people, as a handy way to stop having to think about them, consider their perspectives, and accommodate them a little bit. Put them in a box, and you’re not only done with them but you get to feel superior at the same time. At least I’m not a [fill in the blank]. We all do it, and what’s really crazy is that women can be sexists, gays can be homophobes, people of color can be the worst racists of all.

Think of the bitchy, snarky, nasty comments you hear when anybody is trying to climb out of the box they’ve been put in. Oh, look at her. Who does she think she is? The friendly fire from your own tribe is the most painful of all, because it’s a reflection of your own self doubt and self loathing. Right, who am I to think I could get that job, or go to college, or cross a gender line, or just stand up proudly in public with my real face showing? I’ll just crawl back to safety and join the others taking shots at the people in the arena who are sweating and bleeding and potentially looking vulnerable.

Indeed, that’s what you see in the Comments section of virtually any article foolish enough to allow comments. The sniping, the tearing down, the trash talk. It’s the absolute worst of human nature. It’s also embodied by our current *president, who is a walking talking Comments section. In fact if a Comments section had a face, it would have that face: fat, pasty, perpetually scowling, and slathered in poorly applied bronzer. And again, once you could just ignore the comments, but what do you do when the Comments section has a megaphone and the power of the state behind it?

You “Be the Change,” that’s what. I am noticing some things about my own reactions this past year. On the one hand, I’m listening more. I find myself stopping and considering other points of view that I might have steamrolled past. I’m letting other people have their say, and trying to understand. I’m trying to see where I might be asserting privilege, at least unearned privilege. And sometimes I step back. But on the other hand, I have some earned privilege, and I’m getting very comfortable with that. I’ve been speaking up more: confronting bullying, openly promoting what I believe, being an unapologetic voice for my own views. Lately I find myself with zero tolerance for bad behavior. And you don’t have to be a bully in return; sometimes a quiet, assertive change in topic or tone is enough.

I run an arts event in Orlando and for the past couple of years, I’ve been using it with more intention. I’ve put speakers on the stage who strongly advocate for the things I care about: tolerance, equality, justice, conservation, everything that’s under attack at the moment. Sometimes I think, well I have a very tiny voice and what difference does it make? But as my friend Aquanza put it, each of us is an instrument and if we express ourselves in harmony with those around us, the accumulated sound can be very powerful. I felt especially powerless after Pulse last year, when I was 3,000 miles from home and my people were attacked. And I thought over and over, “what can I do?” until I realized: I can do my work. That’s what I can do. And the event we put on a few weeks later was the Anti-Pulse: a bullet of inclusion and pure love to the heart of Orlando.

So yeah, we’re living through an ugly moment. A roiling and tumultuous time, and something tells me there might be worse to come. But hasn’t it always been this way? Hasn’t humanity always been in a battle with itself against its own worst impulses? Haven’t people always had to suffer and sweat and even die to conquer hate and oppression? Is it so bad to be in this fight, especially when you know you’re on the right side of it? I happened on a quote from Franklin Roosevelt yesterday: “Calm seas never made a skilled sailor.” In my best moments over the past couple of years, I haven’t cursed my bad luck at having to live through this shitstorm. I’ve seen the light through the darkness, and to me the light is as simple as this: Just show up. Speak up. And don’t give up.

What Sort of Man Reads Playboy

Back in the late 60s, somebody gave my father a birthday present of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a Playboy centerfold of a playmate wearing nothing but argyle socks, and it was packaged in a little canister that he put up on a shelf above his suits and ties. If you were a boy of that era and you wanted to see a girl with her clothes off, and I’ll confess that I was one of those boys, you had to do things like make sure everybody was gone, take a stepladder into your dad’s closet, and give yourself enough time to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Parts of one, anyway.

You couldn’t just buy your own copy of Playboy (I found out later), because they were sold over at a separate stand that was presided over by a gimlet-eyed old coot who knew exactly what you were up to. You couldn’t even look at the cover, because the stack of copies was behind a wooden plinth with a bunny logo on it. Playboy belonged to Adult World, and it was separated very firmly from Kids’ World. You could peek through the fence sometimes, but it remained remote and tantalizing.

This was the very uptight, knees-together America that Hugh Hefner slowly pried open. Impossible now to recapture the guilty thrill of being a young boy looking at a Playboy centerfold. Not just the photo, but the fact that it was three times the size of the magazine, and if you were actually able to pull it out, you were making a statement. You weren’t just looking at pornography, you were holding a poster of it with both hands. No hiding it. Something about this act of assertion got into your blood, gave you a first taste of what it might be like to be that unimaginable thing: a man.

There’s a moment in the best James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), when George Lazenby is cracking a safe, and in this highly tense moment while he’s waiting for the decoder to finish working, he picks up a Playboy and glances at the centerfold. Just to be cool, you know. Sixties Bond was the Sort of Man Who Read Playboy, and I will risk branding myself as an old coot when I say we lost something when the Bond movies lost their blatant sexism. Yes, women had to endure the Male Gaze, but they were a lot wiser about it than you think. The blatancy of it looks faintly absurd now, but guess what? It was absurd then, too, but people had something back then called a sense of humor. Pussy Galore — that was a joke, son, and everybody was in on it. The joke kind of wore thin by the 70s, and nothing ages worse than a previous generation’s idea of what’s naughty, and of course for me like everyone else, the reality of becoming a man was nothing like the fantasy. Bond cried at the end of OHMSS, cradling the body of the strong, resourceful, beautiful woman he loved. That might have been a clue.

So yeah, we started reading it for the articles. And in fact the articles were often really fine: long, detailed, and informed by the publisher’s intelligence and taste, and Libertarian politics that now look leftist. Slowly and subtly things changed… life became serious and complicated and the forces of Puritanism that Hefner seemed to have vanquished just became meaner, more punitive, and more dangerous. I was reading Playboy on December 8, 1980, in the dim, cavernous basement of the department store where I sort-of worked the night shift. A young man by that point, I was having my own adventures, grimy though they may have been. I was drinking a beer and paging through an epic, exhaustive interview with John Lennon on the occasion of his first album in five years. I was halfway through when my friend Gary called to say Lennon had been shot. There were no cellphones then; he had to call the store and make them find me. The interview went from being a hopeful new beginning to a tragic remembrance right in the course of reading it; that long night of blood and sorrow turned out to be the overture to a decade of ugly new political realities. Culturally, psychologically, energetically, the 60s died that night. How fitting that I had a Playboy in my hands.

The President’s Guide to Being a Man

If you’re paying attention, the President is providing an object lesson in how to be a fine, upstanding, honorable man. Just watch what he does, and do the exact opposite. Call them Trump Tips:

  • Stay informed and be hungry for knowledge.
  • Work hard.
  • Think before you speak. Maybe don’t speak at all.
  • Let your reputation take care of itself.
  • Remember, you get what you give. Bullying and force will come back to bite you.
  • Be mindful about your diet and get regular exercise.
  • Watch very little TV. Never watch Fox News.
  • Value women for more than their ladyparts.
  • Pay your vendors in full, and on time.
  • Make sure people can rely on your word.
  • Cosmetics make you look like a fool.
  • Airing your grievances makes you sound like a fool.
  • Keep business and family separate.
  • If you plan on being successful, learn the difference between a reporter and a PR person.
  • Minimize your time on social media.
  • Never take on any role (father, boss, partner) unless you intend to totally fulfill its obligations.
  • The more bling, the less class.
  • Neither your adoring crowds nor your dick are as big as you wish they were. Deal with it.
  • Don’t be a racist.
  • Money isn’t everything.

 

Life After Irma

Some random thoughts on this first “real” morning for the past week in Central Florida, after Irma came through.

That was a trauma we went through here in the state of Florida. Knowing a huge storm was coming was like being forced to play Russian roulette. Like having a gun pointed at your head for a week. Sunday night, the last news I could get was that it had veered off track and was headed right for us. Then the internet went down. As a matter of fact, it seems to have come right over my house, but thankfully it had weakened enough that it didn’t flatten everything.

There’s a tendency after a traumatic event to push it away, to bury it in being busy (and now there’s a lot more to do, which makes that easier). The thought goes something like this: “well I didn’t die, I’m not even really hurt, so it must have been nothing.” But that’s the brain trying to heal so it can move on. I’m doing the opposite. I’m sitting with it. I’m honoring it by giving it some attention. I’m not denying that I feel roughed up, that my emotions are off-kilter. I’m moving back into my routine slowly and mindfully.

We drove around the immediate ten-mile area yesterday. If there’s such a thing as driving gingerly, that’s what we did. It was a gorgeous afternoon… nothing like a hurricane to make the air sparkle and shine. Storm damage generally got lighter as you traveled to the east. Not much damage in Sanford, the next town over, except for one street where an entire line of big trees was uprooted and lay fallen toward the south, like dominoes. A little micro tornado must have gone up the block. Those are the worst; I hate those little mofos.

This storm showed me that I’ve gotten complacent about the threat of hurricanes. I’m taking them more seriously now. Back when I lived in California I was totally prepared for a major earthquake, so it’s not like I don’t know how to do this. There’s a whole list of precautions and actions you can take. It’s not complicated. But I wasn’t ready for this, and I had to scramble, and it added to a feeling of powerlessness. I had a dream last night in which I was supposed to give a keynote speech at a dinner, and I had forgotten to print out my script and couldn’t access it online; the time of my talk kept coming closer and closer and I felt this dread of letting everyone down who was depending on me, this fear of total unpreparedness. Don’t need Freud to figure that one out.

I’m not specifically worried about the next storm, Jose. Right now that looks like it’s no threat to Florida. I’m not panicking about that one. But I do expect more big hurricanes will be coming through here more often. I’m not leaving Florida, in fact I’m planning to die here—of natural causes—so it’s necessary to start living differently. Be more on guard; have more contingency plans. If a micro tornado hits my house all bets are off, but I should be ready for a big, blustery old storm now and then.

Another random thought: for the past week, the furthest thing from my mind was Donald J. Trump and whether he might squeeze on a pair of jeans and come down to hand me and my neighbors some bottled water. The ins and outs of politics seemed very far away, and my concerns were exclusively local. I’m not reading the news in general. I know what I want to know, which is that the people I care about all came through this intact. The beauty of this post-traumatic moment is that we all know the same thing: with that gun pointed at our heads, we thought only of each other, and wished each other well. Something to ponder as we pick up the pieces.