Friday, June 22, 2012


Himself gets screwed with Father's Day, his birthday and our anniversary occurring within a week. This is his 19th Father's Day as a father and his 4th being fatherless. The birthday is the 51st so the shocking AARP membership card arrived last year and even the most lenient senior discounts won't hit until 55. Last year's big 20th anniversary and 50th birthday were celebrated quietly. This year's festivities will also be understated as Himself has always preferred. It's the 21st anniversary so perhaps a card game is in order.

I hosted a surprise celebration for Himself upon the completion of his PhD. He was miffed that I'd sprung for paid parking and was carping at me when we walked into the restaurant. Not learning my lesson, I planned an elaborate surprise birthday shindig for his 40th birthday at the Museum of Death. I forget what we were screaming at each other about when the guests appeared and yelled “Surprise!”

It is disgraceful how long it took me to put two and two together. I realized finally that Himself was not being an asshole. As an introvert, he prefers to eat at home. The anticipation of a large social event is absolutely excruciating for him. Whenever I refer to Himself's affliction he posts a link to an excellent article that sheds light on introversion. I admit that my reading of this piece has improved our marriage. So, when he inevitably posts the link it would be a good idea to read the essay because there are probably people who you think are assholes but are just introverts. Of course, there are genuine assholes too but I know of no particularly pertinent literature that would shed light on this topic.

We'd typically build up to a froth of toxicity as I prepared for a party. We'd snap out of it when the guests arrived. I can't remember having a gathering that I haven't enjoyed. Himself too has never not risen to the occasion but often voices had been raised and doors slammed minutes before the arrival of guests. It took me nearly two decades to hone a survival strategy. I plan mostly smaller events these days. I let Himself know I'm having company about five days before the event, even though I often issue invites up to 6 weeks in advance. It isn't really lying but I guess it's ethically in the gray area. This is a tolerable amount of time to endure him moping around in the anticipation of people arriving at the house. If I wait any longer to drop the bomb, there is the chance of a big freakout, hence the five day strategy.

With regard to party preparations, I ask him only to assist in the capacity of unloading groceries. He does this anyway, along with emptying the wastebaskets, feeding the dogs, and taking out the trash cans. Sometimes he sweeps, unbidden. There is a heavier than usual shopping load when we entertain. Normal weeks he is often testy about schlepping in provisions so the price of hosting a party is having to endure even more of his muttering. The day of the event he is assertively banished to the bedroom and provided with reading material. I proceed with cooking, arranging flowers and setting the table. We are both in our happy place. During the party Himself is outgoing and charming but he is taxed. He clears dishes and busies himself with little tasks that give him momentary breaks from human interaction. I love having parties and he doesn't. It's taken a long time to forge a plan of compromise and to accept that our opposite inclinations have no bearing on our love for each other.

I am fussy and hate the way he makes a bed, folds a towel or sets the table. He is always certain that wherever we go there will be no parking. We have an infinite capacity to annoy each other but we have been together so long I can barely remember my day to day existence before we met. Even the early years of our relationship have become a blur. What endures are memories of reading out loud to each other and road trips to Northern California listening to Mogwai. On a very early date, twenty five years ago, I was watching from the window of my hilltop cottage and spotted Himself below, heading up to my tiny walk. He took the bus in those days. He was carrying a bunch of flowers. When I saw him there was a rush of the sweetest sensation I had ever felt. We are gray now and I have lost track of all the birthdays and anniversaries. This year we will celebrate quietly in the little cabin we love in the heart of the redwoods. Memories and hair have faded but when I hear his car on the drive I still feel the same burst of pure love that startled me so many years before.

Shabbat Shalom and happy birthday and anniversary to JLM.

Friday, June 15, 2012

My British Bicentennial

I went off to college at age 17 in order to get out of the house. Living quasi independently was an improvement but it was years before I had a viable blue print for building relationships. My mother used her looks to reel people in. My dad, even though what he did in essence was no more glamorous than selling schmatas, relied on his position in the film industry as social currency. Neither of these enticements were viable for me. I didn't recognize or value my own unique attributes until much later in life.

I was thrilled when my eldest was admitted to my Alma Mater. I think it's a great program that nurtures intellectual development in a brainy/quirky kid better than a traditional institution. I never made the most of the offerings there but what I absorbed inadvertently or by osmosis at least planted a seed. What I wanted more than to build the foundation for a lifetime of learning was a boyfriend. I had a few miserable connections but it seemed like everyone else was blissed out and paired up. My anecdote to this was to arrange independent off campus study. I spent a semester in Mexico, one in London and another in L.A. working for a film distributor.

My nineteen year old is exactly the same age as I was when I arrived in London 36 years ago. I managed to master foreign currency, weird phones, the subway and bus system. I rented housing and was able to keep fed and healthy. I am pleased this week when my own 19 year old is able to make a medical appointment by himself. I decided to major in film studies although there was no formal film program at my college. There was a visiting professor who helped a bit but I was pretty much on my own and there was no one really in a position to evaluate the integrity of my work or the meaningfulness of my choices. I was drawn to silent Russian films. Eisenstein. Dovzhenko. Podovkin. This was probably inspired by some sort of commie is cool thing but I was truly captivated by the extreme closeups, painterly framing and powerful montages that were the hallmark of early Russian film.

I happened upon a listing for the London School of Film Arts in directory of film studies programs. The school offered courses in Film History and Aesthetics and specialized in Eastern European and Russian Cinema Studies. I applied and was accepted. The tuition was reasonable and I took out a student loan. I found a room in a shared flat on Bishops Road in Fulham and reported for my first class. The school was on the third floor of a ramshackle building in a woebegone section of Earl's Court. There was a tiny office and a closet sized classroom with a set of rewinds, a projector and a small shelf of books. I was introduced to Max Benedict, my instructor for Intro to European Film. There was only one other student, a guy about my age from Hungary who barely spoke English. Max showed us British documentaries. My dad had Night Mail in his library but it never occurred to me that British wartime propaganda glorifying the postal system would be of interest. The film is actually a little masterpiece, directed by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, with music by Benjamin Britten and framed around a poem by W.H. Auden.

I expected that the rest of the students would show up for the next class but even the Hungarian kid was absent so it was just me and Max. I figured out that the school, with its purported emphasis on Soviet film, existed to facilitate student visas for kids from Eastern Europe. Tuition was paid. Visas were granted and students disappeared into London, never attending a single class. Max, and a couple other down on their luck film professionals were employed merely for the sake of appearance. Nevertheless, I really was eager to learn. Max was a successful editor with a long filmography including The Magus and Whistle Down the Wind. He had a dry spell in the late 70s and the fake school gig helped pay the bills and required very little of him. I'd helped at my dad's and seen a lot of movies. I professed to prefer a lot of pretentious crap I didn't really understand but I was at least conversant and I guess he enjoyed my company.

Max was shocked at the huge gaps of my knowledge of American film history and took me to screenings at the National Film Theater just about every day. We saw retrospectives of Val Lewton and John Ford. We ate at the theatre cafe, on the banks of the Thames, at the foot of the Hungerford Bridge. He drank lager but never permitted me anything stronger than Shandy, a vile mixture of lemonade and beer. When Max was excited about something he'd bang his fists together and get a twinkle in his eyes like a kid on Christmas morning. Sometimes he's make me dinner at his Earl's Court apartment. His 19th century flat was filled with books and oil paintings. Even the stained, chipped china enchanted me. Max was born in Vienna in 1921 and exuded old world courtliness. He alluded once to being part Jewish, perhaps because I gasped when he noted that, “of course the Jews killed Christ.” Otherwise, he steered conversation away from this subject and never accounted for how he spent the war.

I brought Max once a hostess gift of a bottle of Mateus Rosé which I thought was incredibly swanky. When he didn't serve it I assumed he was going to stash it away for a special occasion. He was long divorced and had an amicable relation with his ex-wife. In fact, Debbie, Max's ex-wife's daughter by her subsequent husband, lived with Max sporadically and he was incredibly fatherly toward her, referring to her as his “backwards stepdaughter.” I visited Max in London just about every year after our semester together. Twice he had work in Los Angeles. He didn't drive and I felt wonderfully grown up chauffeuring him around. We exchanged letters regularly, commenting about all the films we had seen.

There are a number of adults who befriended me when I was young and even a handful who are still alive and remain important to me. The thing, in London, and everywhere else, was I never quite knew how to form relationships with kids my own age. I had friends but never felt part of a group and romantic liaisons were pathetically scant and awkward. My friendship with Max was life changing. How magical to have essentially a full time private tutor. I think I was aware at the time of my good fortune and flattered that such a sophisticated, erudite person actually chose to spend time with me. But I was also terribly lonely. I answered a personal ad in Time Out and made a date with a guy who wore a leather jacket and had short hair. He said he'd been recently been made redundant and it took me a long time to figure out what that meant. He asked me if I liked punk and as my only association was short hair and leather jackets, I said I liked Jackson Browne. He took off and never called me again. The Sex Pistols played every Tuesday at the 100 Club but I sought our long haired folky bands who played treacly sentimental sets on acoustic guitars with embroidered straps.

I was visited in London by a couple friends and relatives and was proud to be a knowledgeable, efficient London tour guide. My friend Kris from college stayed a couple of weeks. We took the ferry from Dover to Calais and stayed in Paris in a dirty little hotel with deep scratch marks on the wall over the bed. I was amused by the turnover of housemates at the Fulham flat. There were some jocular New Zealanders, a serious but pleasant grad student named Jane and after she moved out a fragile, loose cannon of a girl by the same name who we called, “New Jane.” A distinctly fishy odor exuded from her pores and the smell lingered in the flat long after she'd mysteriously moved out.

There was a freakish heatwave and air conditioning was found only in movie theaters. I decided to attend a double feature in the West End, selected based on the longest running time. I got through Easy Rider just fine but five minutes into Ken Russell's The Devils, I was driven out into the street. I slept one night in an ancient bathtub filled with tepid water, the glaze peeling off in sharp little shards. I secretly watched the tall ships on the Hudson commemorating the 1976 U.S. Bi-Centennial on an ancient TV in the parlor and felt homesick, even though I was probably still spelling America with a “K” in those days. When I heard the New Zealanders come in I switched channels real fast.

When I slog down Memory Lane I am usually able to remember my motivation for embarking on even the stupidest of endeavors but I remain completely clueless as to why I enrolled in courses to become a licensed massage therapist. The license was only valid in the UK and I planned to return home in a few months. Plus, I've never been crazy about touching people. The practical part of the course was taught by a hippie named his mom's council house in West Kilburn. There were two other students, Asta, a gorgeous German girl and her Lebanese boyfriend who called himself Chakra, although I noticed his certificate of completion for the course that his real name was Habib.

Jerry taught us the basics of massage in a bedroom that was empty except for a dirty Indian rug, a Woodstock poster and two massage tables. He said that usually the class was taught in the nude but we could do whatever we were comfortable with. He and the other two students removed their clothes and I went with the flow. Somehow though in the course of the first session I noticed Chakra had put his underpants back on and then that Jerry had too. Asta remained in the buff so for the sake of parity, despite being miserably embarrassed, so did I . Asta and I practiced on each other and she found that the way my stomach jiggled was hilarious and had Chakra check it out and he laughed hysterically too. Chakra said he could read auras. He said that my aura showed him I had gastrointestinal and sexual dysfunction.Jerry said it was sexist not to massage a woman's breasts and he demonstrated on Asta and then let Chakra practice on her. Jerry's mom walked in, unperturbed by our lack of clothing and announced that she had made us lunch. We got dressed and dined with her on beans on toast and Orangina. There was a tiny TV on the kitchen counter and I got my first look at Black and White Minstrels a popular British variety show that paid tribute to traditional American minstrel shows, authentic right down to the blackface.

The second part of the massage certification was an anatomy course and exam. This was held in a classroom off Shaftsbury Avenue. There were tons of charts and a huge shelf with aromatic preparations. The instructor was Dr. Sedgewick. He wore old fashioned wire glasses and a white lab coat. He taught us the names of the bones and muscles but he also espoused his theories about healing massage oils and told us which oils would work for different ailments. He pointed at me and said, “You shouldn't ever apply any sort of oil to your skin. It will just make you fatter.” He recommended a concoction of pure mint to slim me down and pushed aggressively other oils and tinctures in blue and green glass bottles to the rest of the students. I passed the written exam and was given a sheepskin diploma which conferred on me the title of AF Phys which as I recall meant Associate Fellow of Physiognomy. After returning home I received catalogues of curative herbal products for many years, addressed to Layne Drebin AF Phys.

I never got a boyfriend in London. I did have a crush on a guy named Nick I met through a friend who knew his family. I think his parents instructed him to be nice to me. He had long curly hair and was a teacher in Brixton. We went to a couple of movies and for a walk in Richmond Park that was so brisk I was unable to conceal my sweaty exhaustion. The romantic chemistry existed only in my head. Nick came to L.A.a year later. He'd quit his teaching gig and was en route to a spiritual community outside of Taos. I arranged to take him to Disneyland with a group of friends from college, to whom I had implied Nick was my boyfriend. We picked him up and he fumbled in his backpack. “I have a drum!” he announced, pulling out an African instrument. He banged it and chanted for an hour in traffic on the Santa Ana Freeway. I could see my friends in the backseat through the rear view mirror snickering. I was notified in 1986 in a letter written by Debbie, that Max had passed away. Once in a while I give Himself a back rub.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Volvo Nation

Spuds, after his first attempt at the exam, is licensed to drive. The following day he leaves in my car to self transport to school. I run out into the street to take a picture. “No!” he wails. “You just want to post it on Facebook.” Spuds logged off Facebook about six months ago and feels real superior to the more needy of us who live to amass “likes.” “I'm proud of you,” I whine. He doesn't give the finger like he's done at other times I've fixed my camera on him but he begrudges me a shit eating grin and comes off looking vaguely smug. He drives off to school and obediently texts me when he arrives. Losing my chauffeur gig of nearly two decades means I can sleep an hour later but I never remember being more exhausted.

Knowing that the kids are going to require less and less of me and that Himself dislikes chit chat, I need to find some extra fulfillment that will ward off empty nest induced psychosis. I enroll in a workshop to hone the art of performing personal essays. I have never presented any of my writing to an audience. I cobble out a pretty good piece but I step on the stage and find that my mouth has forgotten how to form words. I bomb out abysmally reading for my classmates. I am determined to redeem myself on my next attempt but the actual sitting down and creating a piece hasn't happened.

My exacting editor returns the full length remembrance of my childhood of which I'd been very proud. Virtually a full rewrite is required. I know how much stronger this will make the book and even have in my head what I want to do. I open the file and fool around a little bit with a few paragraphs but soon feel overwhelmed. I take a break and poke around the net. I run accounts receivables reports in Quickbooks which induces a state of pure catatonia and I am unfit then for anything but watching pet videos on Facebook.

I see kids I've known since nursery school who have returned from college at a party. My boys complain that every adult they meet says the same thing, “You're so tall,” and “How do you like college?” to Murphy Major or “Where are you applying for college?” to Spuds. I am just as unoriginal when I see my friend's kids although I guess noting their adult height or asking about college is preferable to, “I remember when you wet your pants in my car.”

Spuds has decided to apply for early admission at Wesleyan. When he discovers that two very accomplished friends of his brother, who landed at prestigious colleges, had been rejected by Wesleyan he is downcast. One of the rejectees is home from college. Instead of telling Spuds, like I probably would have, “Yeah, it's a really tough school. You should apply to _______ instead...,” he encourages Spuds not to lose hope and gives him some practical advice. I am pleased that the kids my kids have grown up with have become so mature and generous. I am pleased too that Spuds is able to recognize strength of character when he sees it.

Spuds, having archived some material at my library that generates a sale, has been promised a car. The apoplexy induced by the fruits of my loins driving around hither and yon is minimized a bit by knowing they're driving vehicles that are as close to Sherman tanks as you can get and stay street legal. I peruse Craigslist for Volvos. There is a brand new posting for a 1990 240 DL which is the car Spuds has already indicated he would like. Actually he indicated he wanted a “cool old Volvo with slatted headrests” and this fills the bill. I e-mail immediately asking the seller if he'd be willing to bring the car over to my mechanic. Used Volvos sell pretty quickly so I expect to be ignored or refused but I get a polite note back saying that this is fine.

I show our mechanic Jimmy the description of the car. Jimmy is from Thailand. He's trustworthy, affable and loquacious. But, even after having taught ESL for over a decade I only understand about 1/3 of what he says. “Buy it Momma!” is pretty clear though. Jimmy is the same age as I am but has always called me “Momma.” I have gotten over feeling ancient at this and now accept it as a sign of respect although he's probably just stymied by my name. Eric, the Volvo seller, meets me at Jimmy's. He is around twenty, a white blonde beanpole with a haircut that riffs on a Mohawk, a number of piercings and a tattoo on his neck. Eric is leaving Saturday to serve for a year in the Finnish army. He is heartbroken about selling the car which he's lavished love on but he needs some pocket money. He tells us that he's half Finnish and that his dad was a Volvo mechanic. Finnish military service is very different than ours. The emphasis is on peacekeeping. He'll only be required on the base during the week and will have lots of free time to explore Europe. The DL is in good shape for a car that's over twenty years old as Eric has really kept it up. Jimmy notices an oil leak though and in his usual flawless English, tells Eric, “Needs work. Make it more.” I ask Jimmy if he doesn't actually mean “Make it less.” He accedes and we are able to negotiate a fair price.

Eric and I complete the paperwork at my office. Spuds arrives unexpectedly. I introduce him and tell him that Eric has a surprise for him. We present that car. Spuds is usually moderate in his expression of emotion. When he processes that the car is actually his car he whoops and gushes, “It's exactly what I wanted.” We decide that Spuds will drive Eric home to Pasadena. I hug Eric and warn him that Spuds has been licensed for less than a week. Spuds hears the history of the car and reports that Eric is enormously cool, and except for telling him to “watch it” a few times, chill about his driving. I receive a note from Eric later that evening thanking us all for being so nice and wishing us luck with the car. Spuds thanks me about every ten minutes and goes outside to look at the car again and again.

We are a four Volvo family now. The kids drive themselves where they want to go leaving me free for what I hope becomes something. Spuds is with us for just another year and then it's college, followed by the rest of his life. And the rest of mine. I wonder if it will ever be in my power again to make him so happy.   

Friday, June 1, 2012

Break on Through

The federal appeals court in Boston ruled Thursday that the portion of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that refers to federal benefits is discriminatory to gay married couples and is therefore unconstitutional. May 31, 2012 will be noted on the chronology of events significant to the inevitable codification of gay marriage in the U.S.  Pew Research reports that the strongest opposition to conferring the equal right of marriage is among voters over age 65 and only 48% of that particular population are opposed to gay marriage. The vast majority of voters under the age of 35 support gay marriage. Most of the legislators who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1966 later expressed profound regret. In 2010 I noted to my kids that Robert Byrd, who had filibustered against the Civil Rights Act, still served in the Senate. They were amazed that an elected official who demonstrated such backwardness and prejudice was actually still in office. I hope it's a short list of politicians who supported the Defense of Marriage Act and continue to serve when my kids tell their kids about when gay marriage wasn't legal.

Jane Cantillon, a long time Silver Lake resident and major player on the local cultural front has been laboring for over six years on what at the office we call a credit card film. My company is providing archival footage for the project.   Jane's documentary is about The Other Side, L.A.'s last piano bar, a long time watering hole for elderly gay men. Old standards are performed and the lively crowd sings along. Many customers remember World War II but there are a surprising number of men in their twenties and thirties at the bar too. The older customers describe gay life in Los Angeles in the 40s, 50s and early 60s. The fuzz! A raid is imminent.  A light-bulb flickers. Everyone switches partners. "Grab a girl," they yell, “Dance with a Dyke.” Gay men are entrapped by plain clothes cops in bars and charged with lewd conduct.  They're roughed up in jail. “He was drunk and he fell down,” the constabulary claim.  

The interviewees aren't Stonewall veterans or Act Up radicals. Hairdresser Guy Richards is a hybrid of Paul Anka and Warren Beatty in Hairspray.  He sings in French and accompanies himself on the piano. He remembers tooling up to a secret club at the end of a Malibu dirt road in his Rolls Royce.  "First you give it away.  Then you sell it. Then you buy it all back," he sighs.  Guy Richards seems naturally forthcoming but Cantillon is remarkably adept at coaxing subjects who don't even consider themselves out of the closet to comfortably share very intimate details about how one went about having a sex life at a time when homosexuals were widely demonized.

Cantillon sets out to document the history of the gay bar but the film, like the subjects interviewed, transcends this often grim and degrading scene.  The Other Side is less about the corrupt LAPD, fear and ignorance than it is about the transformative qualities of love and connection.  These life stories won't be recorded for having changed history but they memorialize a handful of men who managed to navigate a meaner, harsher time.

Tom Gibbons and Robert Clark sit close together on a couch in a living room filled with stylish 1960s art. Tom surmises their relationship.  "I wouldn't be alive." He pats Bob's hand.  Bob responds in a stage whisper, "I would."  They crack up with wonderful gusto at humor they've honed together over  54 years.

Duncan Donavan worked for gossip columnist Louella Parsons.  While Duncan lazes on the beach in Laguna reading Das Kapital a self confident swell named Thomas Patrick approaches him and invites him to dinner. Duncan declines, having another date that night. Thomas Patrick shows up where Donavan and his friend are dining and sits down at the table.  Donavan tells him to leave.  Patrick continues his pursuit and connives his way into Donavan's apartment.  Donavan is outraged. But a seconds later the pair are kissing. “We were together 27 years" notes Donavan.  He adds, "Men are unreliable."

It is noted that while there are customers in their twenties and thirties in addition to the senior set at The Other Side there are very few men in their fifties.  The AIDS plague caused unspeakable grief and suffering but nearly twenty years after 1995 when AIDS related deaths peaked at around 42,000 in the U.S. we realize how the attenuate hysteria led to a huge setback for the gay rights movement. The case of Loving vs. Virginia which removed all legal impediments to marriage across the races wasn't decided by the Supreme Court until 1967. The marriage of the parents of the President of the United States would have been considered a crime in 16 states at the time of his birth.  While there remained vocal opponent to the Civil Rights Act of 1967 and Loving vs. Virginia most people weren't surprised by these decisions.

The guarantee of civil rights, regardless of sexual orientation is long overdue in this country. The voices of many who would have advocated for this were silenced too soon. Jane Cantillon's film documents the experiences of the generation before, now dying off.  Many of the subjects of the film have passed away since being interviewed. These men lived secret lives and endured countless humiliations, yet they found love.  The few elderly customers left at The Other Side sing together with young men who probably feel no need to conceal their sexual orientation but can only legally marry in a handful of states.  I have faith that in my lifetime homosexuals will have the right to marry throughout the nation.  The Other Side sadly will close its doors on June 24.  Artifacts of a time when gays were deprived of basic human rights will some day be studied like relics of the Holocaust and Jim Crow are now. Jane Cantillon's rich commemoration of gay history will endure longer than the piano bar and documents not only the struggle but also a few quiet triumphs and the sweetness of enduring love.