Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Crash Course

If ever there was a party I'll forever regret not crashing, it was the one held last weekend in Crawford, Texas.

Granted, it was a small affair, as crash-worthy affairs go, boasting 100 revelers at most. (If the Secret Service, assorted functionaries, faithful retainers and fondue-makers can be counted as "revelers." If they can't, the number's closer to 12.)

And, yes, there probably wasn't much to wash the aforementioned fondue down with, either. (At least, not "much" by this and every other part-time party-crasher's standards; how could there have been? The host himself has been dry for decades. One needn't be a Mensa member, or even a Densa member - known, varyingly, as a typical Palm Beach voter; any O.J. Simpson trial juror; Carol Mosely-Braun's campaign manager, etc. - to reckon that neither "Drain pool and fill with Mezcal" nor "Stock up on Stoli jigglers" was on the host's pre-party to-do list.)

And then there's the matter of the guest list, which was so lacking in luminaries that even the treasurer of the Norman Fell fan club would've been underwhelmed.

So why all this morning-after regret?

Because the two VIPs that WERE in attendance, George W. Bush, President of the United States, and Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Prime Minister extraordinaire (extraordinairio?), are my kind of VIPs. With a bullet! With two bullets, right where their word-mincing contemporaries' mouths are!

The Duke and Il Duce, Cowboys-in-Chief. One likes to wear boots, the other lives in a country that's shaped like one. And both are quite often accused of putting their boots in their mouths. Boy, the two of them together in one room would be all the hoedown I'd need. Even the flies on the wall must've felt like extras in a live action spaghetti western. Oh, to have been one of those lowly flies!

See, I happen to like spaghetti westerns. Well, I like spaghetti. And I like western things, if not the dusty old west itself. And I really like Clint Eastwood, the former king of the spaghetti western. Heck, I like all of Clint's roles (save for that sniveley, Alan Alda-ish guy he played in "The Bridges of Madison County." Ew; go ahead, Clint, make me puke.)

Dirty Harry Callahan, now that's quintessential Clint. And while I realize Mr. Eastwood's only been "pretending" to be all these diplomacy-challenged tough-but-upright dudes, I can't help but point out how well he plays them. Not to mention how consistently.

Indeed, there's an element of the "hooker with a heart of gold" in our very own president - and a more than whopping element of it in the Italian Prime Minister -which I, for one, have always been attracted to.

It's why I like Harry Truman. John McCain. The person that pulls you aside and tells you you've got toilet paper on your shoe (Dubya, you'll recall, pulled the world aside to tell it that the Little Dictator of North Korea was a whack-o, and though he was right, the world just wasn't ready to hear it put quite so, what's the word? Oh yeah, HONESTLY.)

Berlusconi can't conduct an EU meeting without being interrupted by a guy who clearly resents the Prime Minister's immense personal fortune. Berlusconi could offer the guy a Lamborghini and it wouldn't shut him up, so he (wisely) doesn't bother. Life's too short, one can almost hear the Prime Minister sighing, to bother with fascists - oops, did I say fascist? I meant to say people who would make a good fascist in a movie about fascism. Or a good concentration camp guard in a movie about the Holocaust.

I suppose it's a good thing that this country's leader has an immense personal fortune of his own. If he ever decides to write his memoirs, he'll have to pony up some big bucks to somebody who knows how to write the kind of memoirs that sell.


Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Keeping it Surreal

On the first day of class, my eighth grade English teacher breezed in on a cloud of patchouli, hopped up on the desk, assumed a half-Lotus and introduced herself. "Greetings, everyone; welcome to English and Composition. My name is Mary Something-really-long-and-Eastern-European, but I'm cool with 'Mary.'"

Wow, I thought; a real, live hippie.

Mary went on to say we could read whatever we felt like reading and write about whatever we felt like writing about, "as long as we kept it real."

But it turns out old "maryjane" (what most of us called her behind her back) hadn't meant "whatever" as I'd always understood it to mean, and that keeping it real was serious business - no place for potboilers, S.E. Hinton, J.D. Salinger, Tom Robbins, or even Ray Bradbury.

She approved of Pablo Neruda, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, and Carlos Castaneda, "but I don't want you reading these authors just because I approve of them."

Phew, I thought.

"I want you to want to read them," she said.

And all I wanted was an "A," not to have my head shrunk by this Woodstock refugee.

"What about biographies?" I asked.

"What sort of biographies?"

"Oh, only real ones, about real people - no celebrity exposes or rags-to-riches stories." Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she spoke. "I think that's an excellent idea. Especially at your age, when you're shaping your worldview and are at your most inspirable. Why, I'm still drawing a lot of inspiration from a biography I read about Gandhi..."

At that time, I didn't know what, exactly, a worldview was, and even if I did, I certainly didn't give a hoot for shaping it. I just wanted to keep it real enough to get my "A."

But a funny thing happened on the way to that "A": I discovered I really liked biographies, maybe even more than fiction.

By the end of the semester, I was much more in awe of Thomas Jefferson than I was the TV Jeffersons (even if they did manage to break the cursed White Ceiling and get themselves a "deluxe apartment in the sky") and would have, given the choice, rather spent an hour with the enigmatically one-eyed Moshe Dayan than collected a week's worth of one-eyed Peter Falk's "Columbo" residuals.

I've had short-lived crushes on everyone from Che Guevara to Teddy Roosevelt over the years; I've been uplifted, inspired, moved, and occasionally enraged by people I only "know" on paper.

But no one has shaped my worldview quite like the Honourable and eminently quotable Sir Winston Churchill, whose, "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire" just about made me fall off my chair.

I thought about calling old maryjane and telling her, but somehow I don't think she'd see the humor in it. After all, keeping it real is serious business.


Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Get on the Microbu

Stuck in traffic the other day, I found myself behind a chartreuse VW microbus, its back windows festooned with vintage Flower Power decals. "This," I recall smiling, "must be Heaven sent."

For what better traffic-induced tension defuser could there be than getting a front row seat to the back end of a VW microbus?

Argue such disco era abominations as the AMC Pacer - looks, or rather, "looked," seeing as how Pacer sightings are about as common as Jimmy Hoffa sightings, like a cross between another disco era abomination, the Ford Mastadon, er, Matador, and George Jetson's company car - all you want. As far as this beleaguered motorist/savage beast is concerned, nothing soothes more than the microbus.

Even when stripped to its primer and sitting on blocks in your (preferably not immediate) neighbor's yard, Volkswagen's finest has the power to soothe. It is, bar none, running or not, the most viscerally pleasing vehicle around.

Think of it: You're going wherever it is you're going and, whether morning commute, trip to the market, or cross-country junket, you're either going to be following, traveling alongside of, or overtaking a bunch of other cars going wherever it is they're going. (This is, after all, America. We burn rubber the way, well, microbus drivers once burned bras and draft cards.)

"Where," you grumble, failing to see the irony in same, "are all these cars coming from?"

The more cars you see, the more irritated you become. Little old ladies in perfectly preserved Dodge Darts cease being cute when they're going 50 mph in the fast lane and you're late for work. All minivans and SUVs must be overtaken, of course, so you can determine if, indeed, they do contain large families and/or sports lovers, and, if they don't, silently curse them. Especially if you had to pass more than three other cars to make such determinations! And the sports lover one, believe me, isn't at all easy: Is the driver's face craggy, tan, recognizable from a Chapstick commercial? I tell you, it better be at least one of those things if I'm going to risk a speeding ticket or, worse, a fender bender finding out. (And please stop that "well, aren't you being a little judgmental?" business right this minute. For what are cars if not rolling book covers, their occupants the pages?)

People who want to scare us drive rap music-blasting Cadillacs. And, at night, with no other cars around for miles, they very often succeed in doing so. Beige, four-door sedans are driven by people who still haven't quite gotten over being the last one picked for every sixth grade team; white ones by people still smarting about the time they walked out of a public restroom with toilet paper trailing behind them. Naturally, I respect these drivers' silent pleas to "be left alone."

Then there are the bumper stickers, those mobile samplers that tell us who voted for whom; whose kids are honor students; who wants to beat up those kids; whose other car is a Porsche; ad infinitum. I once found myself driving between a "Darwin" bumper sticker-sporting '71 Volvo and a late model Volvo wearing a "What would Jesus do?" sticker on its rear window. The driver of the former car, I guessed, was a Berkeley grad, and from what I could tell about the back of his head, just plain not my type. The driver of the other Volvo, however, was only marginally less annoying; I mean, I wasn't in the mood for a pop quiz, and yet I found myself answering her question with, "well, I'll tell you what Jesus wouldn't do, and that's put a bumper sticker in his rear window."

And that brings me to the VW microbus. No matter how miserable the road conditions or how irritated I might be about having to go out in the middle of the night for cough syrup or poster board for some project one of the kids suddenly remembered was due in the morning, a microbus sighting works wonders. "Now there's a person I'd like to play 'Trivial Pursuit' with," I'll think. "And I'll bet they're not the least bit embarrassed to describe something as 'groovy,' either."

Some things, you know, just can't be described any other way.


Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Thoreau-ly Fed Up

One of the things that set me apart from my gum chewing, eight-track blasting, Clearasil worshipping contemporaries - the only thing, in fact, that I wasn't then ashamed of - was my choice of wall hangings. Sure, I had the requisite poster of Robert Plant or Lou Reed making like a total fox (where my male counterparts had posters of Led Zeppelin and the Velvet Underground actually playing music), but I devoted much more square footage of bedroom wall to babes like Thoreau, as in Henry David.

Man, the author of "Civil Disobedience" just did it for me. I verily swooned at such passages as "...any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already." Right on!

For most of my formative years, I exacted my own forms of civil disobedience, knowing that Hank (as I affectionately called him) would approve.

Yet Hank, as became increasingly clear to me, was dead; consequently, he wasn't much help with all the bureaucrats, technocrats, and a host of other crats who'd have their way with me. By the time I was in my mid-20s, it seemed to me there had to be an easier way to effect good than (and I paraphrase) "to transgress unjust laws at once; withdraw my support, both in person and property, from the government of California, etc."

Well, I don't know if there is, but there certainly is a more modern way. I call it "civil obedience," but don't let the name turn you off. Being dutifully civil can be every bit as romantic as being an outlaw - at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Rule No. 1: Start tattling. This isn't to be confused with the "he said I was a jerk" sort of tattling that my own kids know not to let me hear. They've been able to quote my position on this form of tattling since they were old enough to speak in complete sentences: "Do not come in telling me what someone else has done unless that person has pulled your arm off or has threatened to pull someone else's arm off."

No, tattling is, in its adolescent form, taking someone of "authority" aside and telling them you're worried about so-and-so's drug use, unsafe sexual practices, rumored gang involvement, etc.

Tattling in its adult form is taking someone of authority aside and saying, "I think you should know that so-and-so didn't pay for that item she's just now leaving with." Or, "I think you should know that those guys at the head of the line aren't really at the head of the line." Or, "I think you should know, and, shame on me if you already do know, that your kid is way into drugs/unsafe sex/gang warfare."

Note that, with respect to the last example, one must have documented proof of such behavior if one doesn't wish to be branded an old busybody; sued for defamation of character; flipped off 'ere she goes; or, worse, called "Mrs. Kravitz."

Rule No. 2: Confront indecencies head on (and be prepared to run).

I know from whence I speak. I've recently scaled a backyard fence - and I'm no Spider-Man - to get away from some suburban racecar drivers who didn't take kindly to my admonishing stream of garden hose. I've been poked in the chest by the (still unwashed) fingers of a food worker I'd followed out of a public restroom to tell her she'd forgotten to wash her hands.

Rule No. 3: Even the purest of motives will backfire; don't be discouraged by poor timing. My husband, for example, a firm believer in the good old Protestant work ethic, once made the unfortunate mistake of saying to me, "since you're not doing anything, why don't you come in to the office and help me type these invoices?" Despite the fact that I'd just given birth to my oldest child 72 hours earlier, I have to admit I was flaunting my newfound life of leisure on the day in question: I hadn't even showered or dressed, and it was nearly noon!

Presuming to know what's best for others will always be a crapshoot. I mean, telling people what's best for them will always be a crapshoot. I mean, the woman who once approached me outside of a local surplus store to tell me "it was environmentally unconscionable" to smoke had no way of knowing I'd respond by saying it was culturally unconscionable of her to not to shave her armpits. Yet she took the risk, anyway. Shouldn't we all?


Wednesday, October 3, 2001

The Man

The Man, his regime, and assorted powers that be exhort America to work, play, and generally carry on with the business of being American. And I'm all for that. The airwaves broadcast a similar message, as does the mainstream press. And this very newspaper's management urges, ever so diplomatically, much the same thing.

Such solidarity bowls me over.

But hopefully not to the extent that I might've missed some subtle subtext or tactfully embedded "find a new subject, already," because, well, there is no other subject for me. Not now, at least, not when the nightmare that was Sept. 11 has itself become much less the subject than the predicate from which many subjects arise. And will no doubt continue to arise. (It's a bit like being pregnant in that, despite a woman's best efforts to keep the gazillion or so musings she has about the wonders of gestation to herself - assuming, of course, that said woman wants to keep her friends - every thought she does share is, inevitably, shaped by what's taking shape inside her.) Still, if I missed my cue, all apologies. I'd rather argue, oh, say, the merits of a Stradivarius versus those of a low-end boxwood fiddle (especially since I know squat about violins) than marvel over the nothing-short-of-historic solidarity between Media and Government (especially since I know what led to such accord.) But I can't. I'm too bowled over.

The fact that this meeting of minds is on only one point, and a loosely defined point ("the business of being American") at that, doesn't escape me. Neither does the fact that solidarity between Media and Government, no matter how sensible the unifying factor or factors may be, is an almost unnatural state; Elysium's a nice place to visit, but few have the stomach to live there.

That would explain why this unlikely alliance is already showing signs of strain.

For example: though the atrocity that was Sept. 11, 2001 flatly defies rationalization, many of us are already playing the blame game. And, while I understand that grief knows many stages (see: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross), pointing the finger at the CIA or the FBI or the airline industry for a crime against humanity also makes me understand why the late Spiro Agnew, at the height of the Vietnam War - I can't say "conflict" with a straight face; what will the government, I wonder, end up naming this as-yet-begun war? A "donnybrook?"- condemned the media as a whole, calling its talking heads "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Heaven knows that outrage has provided me with some temporary solace over the years (and Hell knows that a full-and-frankly-embarrassing 50 percent of those times my outrage was born of anger, not anguish.)

But the media, for decades regarded as a faceless and mammoth monster too insidious to tame, much less intimidate, is really only as mighty or meek a bogeyman as we'll let it be. A good friend of mine lost her brother in the Sept. 11 nightmare. Yet she hasn't once shown any of the typical anger that is a natural part of the grieving process. She's devastated, of course, but claims that her loss is much easier to bear knowing that the nation grieves with her. She's found the purest kind of strength that numbers can provide, I guess.

I'm just glad I was here to witness the miracle, however fleeting it was.


Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Don't Offense Me In

Everybody but the Unabomber, Howard Hughes in his twilight years, and whoever else makes seclusion a way of life knows that Politics and Religion shouldn't be parleyed about during parties. Or during pep rallies, pinochle games, polite conversation, et cetera. Which isn't to say that they aren't - parleyed about, that is - and mercifully so: Surely no other subject matter is as interesting.

Come to think of it, Politics and Religion is the ONLY subject matter. The world would be a mighty quiet, not to mention scarcely populated, place if it weren't.

But try convincing those who steadfastly play by society's rules, those who'd rank a mixed-company discussion about stem cell research as horrifying a prospect as attending a funeral in a getup borrowed from Pamela Lee Anderson of that. It simply can't be done; I know.

See, for close to a decade now, circumstances beyond my control force me to hobnob and mingle with two of these very sorts of people: we happen to have certain pals in common. And, while I understand that it's important to certain individuals that they cultivate the company of people they can safely take anywhere, I can also understand what it was that made Greta Garbo, J.D. Salinger, and countless Dungeons & Dragons fiends "vant to be alone." Those poor hermits must've met one-too-many of the easily offended.

I, on the other hand, am myself offended by the easily offended. Sure, they always know what fork to use and the exact thread count of Regis Philbin's newest necktie. What they don't seem to know, however, is that their rabid aversion to talk of all things "provocative" betrays more of their views, or lack thereof, about such things than any offhand, "Jeez, that Bush is really an imbecile" or "I hope they find Madalyn Murray O'Hair" ever could. They don't seem to know that all social commerce is, at its heart, political and/or religious in content -from the bully who routinely beats up the new kids (playground politics) to the dinner guest who recounts every minute of the three-and-a-half weeks she spent in Tibet (newfound religion).

I'm offended by the sorts who appoint themselves Social Director, believing that they alone know what's suitable fireside chat. They'll interrupt a spirited debate about, say, the extremely close presidential election of 1960 (when Kennedy operatives stole enough electoral votes to keep Dick Nixon down for another eight years) with an amusing account of a recent "Will & Grace" episode, confident that, once again, certain unpleasantness has been successfully averted. Still, rather than leave in a huff (and perhaps miss dessert), I usually try to be a good sport about such things. I'll even ask pertinent questions like, "so, why do you think that "Ellen," probably the wittiest sitcom ever, was yanked? Is it because mainstream America only laughs at make-believe gay people? Tired old gags and stereotypes?" Most of the time, however, my good sportsmanship just makes these people bristle all anew.

And I'm most offended by the sorts that take themselves so seriously they'll out and out snub anyone with a conviction or two different from their own. Methinks these sorts spend so much time despising the misconceptions of others that they fail to realize that they get about as many party invitations as Saddam Hussein.

Then again, maybe they like it that way. I've heard that the "highly evolved" have no use for the lesser of us (which would explain why so many of them, given a choice, would take an all-expense paid trip to a monastery over one to Disneyworld - Epcot Center and Busch Gardens tickets included.)

As for me, some of my favorite people are indeed my ideological opposites. I've had more fun with a card-carrying Peace and Freedom backer than I could ever have with somebody whose idea of a stimulating evening is exchanging recipes over an intimate dialogue about what constitutes the "right" preschool. I've spent many a delightful weekend in a snowy cabin with a strictly vegan family, the head of which would rather go sledding in the nude than wear the fur coat I once offered him. (Fortunately, his wife rememebered a sarape she'd thought to tuck under the backseat of their VW microbus.) These weekends have been as entertaining as any others spent in close quarters with friends, maybe even more so. I mean, I don't get that many opportunities to argue the virtues of a razor with other women I know, nor do I socialize with anybody else as willing to argue the merits of hemp as these people are. But what I find most refreshing abiut these people is their open-minded, anti-kneejerk approach to Politics and Religion; they're about the only parents I know who seem to realize that blaming Marilyn Manson for the ills, the Columbines even, of society's youth is pretty stupid. Apparently, no one else from my generation remembers listening to Alice Cooper. If we're not careful, we'll forget how to laugh at ourselves, too. (Famed theater critic and dipsomaniac George Nathan feared such a thing for his own generation: "I drink," he said, "to make other people interesting.")

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to my pappy's clear-cut property to shoot some birds with my new Chuck-Heston-approved rifle. Just as soon as I finish this cigarette.


Wednesday, April 11, 2001

To Insurance, with Love

Once, with feeling, please, to the tune of "The 12 Days of Christmas:"

On the 13th of December my pipes they sprang a leak; then just for fun again the next week.

(And each "remedy," I might add, required the use of a slab-slicing jackhammer, destroying living room carpeting and wall on Occasion One, and bedroom carpeting and wall on Occasion Two.)

Yet, because I'm fully aware of all the "but at least you've got your health" - not to mention a slab and/or foundation upon which to enjoy such robustness - lectures that a plaint about plumbing is apt to incite, the focus of THIS plaint shall be, "What's Happened Since..."

Subterranean shifting is one of those things a homeowner cannot control. Neither can he control where, exactly, the builders of his humble abode will decide his plumbing shall be placed. Since my house was built circa 1970, and I'm not clairvoyant enough to know that I'd one day be purchasing this very shag-and-swag dream home, I never presented my indignant little 10-year-old self before this house's contractors to beg: "Hey, try and shoot the pipes through the attic, wouldja; I'm buying that joint in 18 years and underground plumbing is a nightmare to maintain." Nevertheless, my homeowner's insurance was curtly, without so much as a please-you-may, thanks for 12 years of timely remitted premiums at my current address; another seven years' worth of dutifully paid premiums were remitted for other addresses - canceled. Effective two weeks from now. (Note to potential thieves: all my Faberge eggs, maps to the Holy Grail, and Confederate money are locked away in a safety deposit box. So don't start thinking I'm easy pickin's.)

Heck, it's not as if "State Charm" has been dealing with a problem client all these years. I don't make a habit out of smoking in bed, leaving all the doors and windows unlocked and open, or storing oily rags in the garage.

On the contrary, every time my "good neighbor" agent invited me to obtain extra coverage for incidentals, which, in underwriter-speak means everything from a clumsy, litigation-happy Fuller Brush salesman to catatrosphe-by-Hale Bopp, I accepted. Yet even though it's the overly cautious sort like me who help big business like State Charm get rich, my sort seems to get the poorest service.

Consider the claims adjuster assigned to my second incidence of bubblin' crude. Forget the fact that, two days after Christmas, the day he was due to make an appearance here in Waterworld, he called to say he was lost, running "way behind schedule," and "Could I come over tomorrow?"

Forget that he came by two hours later that same day anyway, unannounced. Did he think he'd catch me unawares, wielding my own jackhammer and making a bigger mess of things than they already were?

Forget that, during the course of his inspection, this socially retarded adjuster enlisted me, the unsalaried one, to move a heavy piece of "stopgap measure" furniture away from a gaping hole in the wall - a hole that permitted anyone occupying the toilet a full view of anyone occupying the bedroom (and vice versa.) The unexpected Bekins duty wasn't so bad; it was the adjuster declining to help me move said stopgap furniture back I took issue with. It seems he'd had "...too hard a day."

Forget, even, this clod's running commentary: "Was the carpet always like this?" (Yes, sir. I have this peculiar affliction, causing me to slice out squares of year-old Berber, re-lay it over wet cement, and call on gentlemen like yourself to come view my handiwork.) "Things could be worse; I was recently at a NICE house that had a slab leak." (Okay, considering the source - Please; the man was dressed in bow tie, starched white shirt, and slacks cut from the same material as his hairpiece - I wasn't all that offended. I mean, PeeWee's Playhouse was probably his idea of a "nice house.")

What I can't forget is how, several days after this clown's visit, he called my good neighbor agent to cry, "Hey, did you know that she" - that would be me - "just submitted a similar claim!" as if I'd tried to "pull a fast one" on him . (Which, had I been so inclined, wouldn't have been too difficult, when taking into account Pee Wee's complete ineptitude. Did I forget to mention that I - again, the unsalaried one here - had to retake all the pictures he'd taken during our face-to-face? His own, he lamented by phone, had been "inexplicably lost.")

Pull a fast one? Color me naive, but what would I stand to gain by sharing my holidays with a bunch of gluteus maximus-baring plumbers? Since decorating the house with raw sewage instead of yule logs last Christmas has yet to yield any big payoff, I'm glad I didn't "plot" a raging inferno.

I'm beginning to think the middle classes/Jane Q. Citizen/your average Joe et al have been unfair to lawyers. I propose that the new butt of our jokes be agents of insurance: They're there for you, all right, so long as you don't have a claim.