Friday, July 18, 2014

A Week with Less TV


After weeks of excuses I tell myself it's time to better embrace the Weight Watchers program. This thought passes and I realize that I am eating a handful of crackers. My memory of grabbing them from the cupboard is hazy. I usually am careful about what's in the house to accommodate my ceaseless mindless eating but with the kids home the larder is embellished. My dog is dead. More writing, that I am particularly proud of, is rejected. A car breaks down. The new refrigerator is on the fritz. The kids are gone and I'm insane. The kids are here and I'm insane. My nails look like shit. I seem more and more to misappropriate the normal vicissitudes as a license to overeat and under-write.

My lovely and generous friend Dianna will not fix a ticket but, having scored jaw droppingly good seats, invites me to see Steeley Dan. I worry that they will perform new songs. They do not. I note that their own website classifies all of their post 1988 releases under “The Dark Ages.” I could quibble and say 1983. We are fortunate to have an excellent view of three absolutely “if I were a lesbian” back up singers. Their voices are incredible but I don't think it's a coincidence that they are all astonishingly beautiful. The last time I was at the Forum I think was for Bob Dylan and The Band in 1978. It is remarkable to think that while rock 'n roll is perhaps having its last gasp, across most of the popular musical genres the convention of the boys playing instruments and sexy chicks singing back up hasn't been much challenged. Women musicians pretty much, except in the classical milieu, are still a novelty.

I am fifteen when Can't Buy a Thrill is released. Steeley Dan is in the pantheon of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and when I'm particularly hormonal, Jackson Brown. These are performers that I never stopped listening to, albeit very selectively. It is weird being 56 and seeing The Replacements and again, at 57 even weirder attending a Steely Dan show. I feel very old and there is something pathetically “desperately trying to recapture lost youth” about it. I classify every person in my sightline as either older than I or the same age as I am but looking older than I do.

The concert begins. Mortality issues vanish. A lifetime ago I am smoking a cigarette in a crummy Hollywood bungalow. The record on the turntable makes everything but “that sound” stop. And in the swell of the mostly post-colonoscopy crowd it does again. Nothing has ever sounded better than My Old School or Kid Charlemagne. After the show I have a fierce craving for an unfiltered Camel.

I feel guilty that I have no interest in their recent material. Although they themselves disparage their own later output. Do they attribute the lack of interest in this work as mere proof of the writing on the wall for rock 'n roll in general? Do they blame abysmal sales on recording company marketing strategies? Or do they suffer knowing that all of the work for which they will be remembered was completed while they were in their twenties? The absolutely nothing I did in my own twenties at least make my meager current efforts seem a bit more substantial.

The work of my contemporary Richard Linkletter however, gets better and better. The Sunrise/Sunset Trilogy is exquisite and his latest offering (14 years in the making!) Boyhood is a wonder. Every writer I know who's seen it has been moved to wax effusively. There will be no “spoilers” here and I think it is public knowledge that Linkletter shot footage annually over the course of fourteen years and has whittled down the progress of a boy from kindergarten to college into, what feels like, three very short hours.

Joe College recently recounts a childhood trauma. We have no recollection of the incident but his is vivid. He remembers this as a time we let him down and carries this memory I did not share. Girl friend in-law is curious about his childhood and while he apparently has a list of every shitty oversight we were ever guilty of he also reminds us about funny and stupid things I probably forgot the moment they transpired. I scan old family photos these last weeks and suddenly my personal history is all topsy turvey and I've lost my bearings. So many long forgotten moments. Happy occasions suddenly there in Kodachrome. My arm around a girl. We look like best friends. I wonder who she is. My life feels different, my story, as I tell it to myself and others, is changed for having perused thousands of photos, deciding which to scan and which to simply box away.

This recent experience makes Boyhood feel all the more poignant. Linkletter balances earth shattering change with the humdrum everyday, while nodding to the significance of both. The trajectory of a boy, in the same range as my own two sons, from six to facial hair is heart breaking. It seems indeed that in my own real life it happened in about three hours. Linkletter is deft in depicting what people of all ages do when there's not much to do. Young kids fighting in the backseat of a car. Young teens smashing boards and drinking beer and bragging about all the sex they almost wish they'd really had. The cannabis infused earnest philosophical pontification of the college bound. The mother left sitting alone in the kitchen when her younger son leaves for college.

The triumvirate of a week of less television than usual, is complete with the New Yorker story Wagner of the Desert by Greg Jackson. I gripe a lot that The New Yorker has so many “friends of the magazine.” Folks who, like Steeley Dan show early genius so remarkable that they can coast on it for eons. Derivative leaden humor pieces by Woody Allan come to mind but there are others. Greg Jackson however seems to have come out of nowhere. I can find nothing about him on the web and his New Yorker bio says only that he's at work on a collection of short stories.

Wagner of the Desert perfectly describes Palm Springs and the surrounding landscape and the thirty somethings there to groove on a Mad Men sort of vibe. A group of friends are in a rental house, one couple, committed to compressing as many vices into a week as possible before they breed and have to clean up their act, and the others along for the ride. Jackson gets that whatever you think when you're high is the most profound thought ever thought in the history of the universe, or maybe it's the stupidest one. Jackson explores the blurred lines between how we earn a living and what makes living worthwhile. The pressure to constantly network often precludes real friendship. The hero helps his filmmaker host stalk a visionary, ala Richard Branson, through the Springs in order to get him to back a film. The great man is eventually located at a party where he sniffs the hero's remaining coke and then turns up his nose at it. Mr. Big it seems has scaled such heights that the only sensation he's able to trust is pain. A dominatrix stands at the ready. Our underachiever narrator however still trusts transcendent moments, even if artificially induced.

Most writers would sell a vital organ to have something published in a New Yorker. If there were some sort of guarantee of posthumous publication I would seriously consider that. Wagner of the Desert is one of the best stories I've read in ages and the fact that Greg Jackson seems to have popped up out of nowhere without a single publication credit is heartening after my spate of rejections, which if they didn't arrive by e-mail, would now be a formidable stack. On some level though, Wagner of the Desert reminds me that my fantasy of being published in the New Yorker is more than a little rooted in shit-headedness. Of course I would like my work to be acknowledged and read more widely but the gratification I imagine is mostly the pure “fuck you” that my name included in the contributors list would be to a long list of persons who don't know I exist. Most of the people who I like the most find something meaningful or amusing in what I cobble here each week. It is gratifying when what I write here provokes discussion or is praised. 

  In an interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Gteg Jackson offers, “Achievement is difficult, unstable, ephemeral, often tainted by unacknowledged luck. It is also, always, comparative: measured against other people’s relative “luck” of achievement or outright failure.” This, and that a an unknown, at least to me, writer is published in the New Yorker nudges me to again apply myself to some non-blog writing. If I can keep up my resolve and get on a roll with that, there's still the out of control eating thing to address. Unfortunately, Girlfriend in-law is making crepes. But I really plan to write. Really.