Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Big Thaw

Today a man stopped me in the street, complimented my hat, high-fived me, told me he had just been released from prison, and asked if I was on my way to BART. I told him I didn’t have any money, which was true. I’m not asking for money, he said, offended. I was trying to ask you where the BART station is.

The thing is, asking for directions doesn’t involve such elaborate strategy. Information, unlike money, is generally freely exchanged between strangers. Our instinct, if someone simply asks, is to give directions to the train station—even if we don’t really know exactly where it is.

Money, on the other hand, tends to be frozen, and thus involves some thawing: flattery (I like your hat) or the instant creation of a bond (High five!) or of sympathy (I just got out of prison). Another—ingenious—tactic, of course, is to begin by asking for information:

Hey, do you know where the ocean is?

Yeah . . . Seven or eight blocks that way, then take a right at the Best Buy.

Thanks. Do you have a dollar?

While sob stories and undue respect may actually put potential donors more on guard, the opportunity to freely exchange information warms them, unwittingly puts them in a generous mood, softens up any previously frozen cash. Springtime in Moneyville.

I’ve noticed an increase lately in this tactic. We are, after all, in the midst of the Information Age; maybe what was already a generous instinct—the free exchange of information—has only quickened with the invention of the Internet. It’s hyperbolic, of course, yet strangely true to say that information has come to be almost as essential as air. From the protests sparked by BART’s suppression of cell phone use to the discussion around keeping the Internet regulation-free to Wikileaks to the Arab Spring to the rapidly spreading Occupy Wall Street movement, even institutions are increasingly being held responsible for withholding information—it only makes sense that these phenomena would color our daily interactions in the street.

Money, however, both on an institutional and individual level, seems to be growing ever more frozen, concentrated in the pockets of the wealthy few. It would follow that it’s probably only gotten harder to get passersby to give you spare change. Thus people—desperate people locked outside those glacial stores of wealth—are learning to take cues from the customs that have formed around that essential-as-air commodity: Information. A commodity that, however valuable, won’t buy you shelter or food.

Money is an object used to get you more objects. Information is something more abstract. Yet is this really true? Money’s worth seems so arbitrary to me, so far removed from the needs of those whose lack of it impedes their ability to survive. As cash becomes rarer, and information more free, perhaps this arbitrariness grows more apparent. Information access for all, yes, of course, but what the hell are we standing on right now? Maslow’s pyramid has been built on melting ice.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Name a Bitch

Just finished reading Gavin Lambert’s The Slide Area, which is a collection of short stories (some call it a novel) about 1950s Hollywood. While it covers a lot of familiarly bizarre territory, there are plenty of moments all its own, such as this (titular) one:
On one section of the highway a crowd has gathered. An ambulance stands by, winking red lights. A sheriff directs operations. From a great pile of mud and stones and sandy earth, the legs of old ladies are sticking out. Men with shovels are working to free the rest of their bodies. Objects are rescued first, a soiled tablecloth and a thermos flask and what looks like a jumbo sandwich, long as a baby eel. Then an air cushion and more long sandwiches, and a picnic basket, and at last the three old ladies themselves. They are all right. They look shaken and angry, which is to be expected. A few minutes ago they had been sitting on the Palisades, in a pleasant little hollow free from the wind.
The prose is consistently this great and there are several unforgettable characters, including Julie Forbes, an unabashed bitch of an actress reportedly modeled after Joan Crawford.

Like Joan, Julie Forbes has undergone a variety of identity reinventions during the course of her career: from the “chorus girl with a jaunty grin and busily tapping feet” in 1927 to 1933’s wholesome and victimized country girl to the cigarette-smoking, frivolous sophisticate to the noble humanitarian, where “(s)he played a famous woman doctor who went blind, and a member of the Norwegian resistance.” After a slump and a false retirement announcement, she reappeared:
Mature but unravaged, she presented a ruthless schemer in For Pity’s Sake, a woman who didn’t care how many lives she destroyed in her quest for … what? She stole other women’s husbands, became rich and feared and famous, drove her enemies to drunkenness or suicide, yet she never seemed happy.
And this is the Joan I know, and the one who seems to remain today, her lifelong ambition rewarded: a Hollywood legend, albeit one recognized mostly as an archetype she embraced for only a fraction of her career. I have to admit, before reading “The Closed Set”—the story that focuses on Julie Forbes—I didn’t realize the extent of Joan’s shape shifting. While I knew she had a long and varied career, it’s always been those shoulders and that malevolent mouth that stuck.


As a child of the 1980s, it makes sense I came to know Joan through Mommie Dearest—as unfair to her as that may be. Faye Dunaway’s “Joan Crawford” fuses so melodramatically well with the roles Joan played during the Cutthroat Bitch phase of her film career; thus, Joan’s most iconic roles remain the ruthless ones.

Anyway, it’s always the villains who get remembered. Survival takes ruthlessness, no? Well, yes, but maybe more importantly, it takes adaptability.

Lucille LeSueur—who was born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, and commonly went by “Billie”—had a birth name with an implied exoticism that defied her small-town roots. She used this name to appear in three films before an MGM publicist decided she should change it. Not only did the name sound fake, the justification went, it also sounded like “Le Sewer”. A contest was held to decide the starlet’s new name; the winning moniker was “Joan Arden”. Because another actress was already using this name, an alternate surname was employed: “Crawford”. So Joan, in a way, was christened by the public, which is funny, as the public is the only boss Joan ever had.

Joan, nee Lucille, initially preferred the first half of her stage name to be pronounced “Jo-anne”. She also turned her nose up at“Crawford”, saying it was too few letters away from “Crawfish”. Years later, after she had been well established, “Joan Crawford” began to take on an aura of security for the actress. Perhaps it was a reassuring constant behind the array of personalities she found herself circulating through.*

Which brings us back to Lambert and his decision to disguise Joan as “Julie Forbes”. For me, while “Crawford” and “Forbes” are pretty much interchangeable, “Julie” is a far cry from “Joan”. Once again, though, maybe this is generational. Earlier this year, I read the autobiography of character actress Mercedes McCambridge, who famously clashed with Joan both onscreen and off.** After dealing with some diva-like behavior, McCambridge insists that Joan was much more of a “Lucille LeSueur” than a “Joan Crawford”. I really had to think twice about this one. Until that point, “Joan Crawford” was so “Joan Crawford”, I had never once attempted to separate her from her name. “Joan”: something about it sounded like a woman who takes no prisoners. It was a name that was brutal in its simplicity.

I realized then that maybe Joan had managed to alter the implications of her own name. If people weren’t going to pronounce it “Jo-anne”, well, then she was just going to have to make that name her own.  Before Joan (and this was so unbelievably fortuitous for the actress), perhaps "Joan" was simply some bland sort of comfort,*** upon which any sort of desire could be projected.  Something more like “Julie”, in fact.

This doesn’t explain, though, why Lambert decided on Julie Forbes’s birth name. He writes that the actress came to Hollywood as “Julia Katzander”, a name with a vulnerable awkwardness that’s far removed from“Lucille LeSueur”. Was this perhaps Lambert’s way of humanizing a character who acts so monstrously? In a story that often flirts with  misogyny, the enigmatic narrator of“The Closed Set” relents for a moment, offering a view of Julie that—while not quite sympathetic—is less condescension and more awe:
Regulated as time itself, she was a source of power, energy, habitual purpose. When she entered the brightly-lit set, it was as if somebody stepped up the current. From every side the light glared white-hot.
During “The Closed Set”, Julie Forbes is attempting to transition her public image from Cutthroat Bitch into something hearkening back to the roles that jumpstarted her career 20 years before. She even dons the original top hat, tails, and fish nets that first launched her career, items that—like her face and body, whose preservation portends the soon-to-come plastic-surgery age—she has literally kept behind glass.

It’s hard not to think of Madonna here, the logical heir to Joan’s career strategy: when the public gets sick of you, simply shift your image. In the past few years, rather than dramatically depart from what came before, Madonna has been employing the crucifixes and lingerie that first brought her to our attention. She’s even made her daughter over in her own early image. Like Joan, she’s also been upping the Bitch factor: witness her recent hydrangea moment, which, deliberate or not, she has used to harness the attention offered by the viral video. Madonna’s bitchiness has been intensified by the meticulous British accent she’s been using for years now.**** Is she perhaps taking a cue from Joan? Does she realize she must now present the full extent of her ruthlessness if she wishes to remain immortal?

But Madonna, contrastingly, is just one name (Is this contrast, though? Or distillation?).

Let’s pause for a minute and look at them all, that staggering number of names that exist just outside of the acting roles Joan took on:

Lucille LeSueur; “Billie”; Joan Arden; Joan Crawford; Joan “Crawfish”; Jo-anne Crawford; Christina Crawford; Julie Forbes; Julia Katzinger

Whether or not Joan was really the Bitch she has come to represent (and she is represented as such in The Slide Area), it’s hard not to give her some credit for reaching such a mythical state. Besides, how can you fault someone so tough, her dying words were Don’t you dare ask God to help me?

God, too, has been called by many names; but God, as vindictive as he may have been in his Old Testament phase, suffers from abstractness and undefined shoulders. When it comes down to it, at that moment between this world and the next, if we choose to call on someone to lead our way through, what else can we possibly call that someone besides “Joan”?

* Joan actually gave her adopted daughter (the one who would later write the tell-all that sealed Joan’s reputation as Cutthroat Bitch) the same name as her own adopted persona: Christina Crawford spent the first several months of her life as “Joan”. This gets really weird when you remember the events portrayed in Mommie Dearest: Christina, a regular actress on a soap opera, falls ill, and her famous retirement-age mother weasels her way into playing her 24-year-old daughter’s character on the show.

** It’s a book worth reading for a lot of reasons, one of which is an anecdote McCambridge tells about working with Joan, and the threatening way the actress insists on the dainty size of her feet.

*** Although, as harmless as the name may have seemed in the mid-twentieth century, when you think of Saint Joan, you realize there always must have been some balls involved.

**** Joan, throughout her career, devoted hours a day to purging her diction of its Okie accent.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Wedding Review.4

The wedding blessing began, Father, you have made the bond of marriage a holy mystery. True words in the name of the Lord? Truer were never spoken. But wait, lest we forget the blatancy of marriage, the drunken bursts of color that throb just beneath the fondant. In this sacrament, the soul is worn like a veil, a pellucid, shimmering veil, beyond which it’s all BAM and POW and multi-colored panels.

Crunch time: the ceremony was underway and still no sign of desserts. A rumor began to circulate that the driver had crashed and half the tarts she was carrying were destroyed. What are we going to feed the rest of the guests? This we asked as we walked between the tables and poured both water and wine.

The groom was a giant—oafishly sturdy—and during the toasts, jokes were made about having to live in his shadow. By contrast, the bride was brittle, unappreciative, more tightly wound than most. A question over the mechanics of consummation hung in the air.

One group of guests became hysterical when, after calling a cab, it was slow to arrive. Arguments started, tears began to flow. They somehow became convinced that they'd be stranded at this wedding forever. Had the mysterious nature of marriage robbed them of reason? I’ve experienced the same sinking feeling myself.

Late that night, as we were tearing down the aftermath, I went outside in the moonlight to throw some things away. I opened the trashcan and screamed as a raccoon, snarling, leapt out. Its fur grazed my skin. This, for me, was the night’s central mystery: how did the raccoon get inside that lidded can?

Another mystery: why were there so many leftover tarts?

I went home with three, and they were lemon curd.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Some More Items in Memory of Super Longs

I've been drawing some more merch for the shelves of my upcoming tribute to the legendary Oakland drugstore, Super Longs. For more information about the tribute, check out this post.

Friday, September 16, 2011


I’ve lately been sinking all my creative energy into a project of destruction: trying to get my psychopathic boss fired. I’m not a naturally vindictive person, so this process is draining. I am, however, into survival. I’m also okay at organizing my thoughts on paper—or in emails—and so I’ve been fine-tuning incident reports, narrating wrongdoings, and assembling general cases for insanity. This is war, I guess, and writing—for me, at least—is strategic.

The first day he shows up, Boss looks like he wandered in from People’s Park. It’s okay: we don’t deal with the public, but Jesus, it’s your first day on the job. Maybe wash your jeans or something.

He immediately rearranges the office so as to minimize its functionality—including turning his desk to face mine. Foolishly, I decide to let this slide in the interest of establishing rapport; I reason that it will be fine as long as Boss doesn’t turn out to be a prick.

A deceptively un-pricklike gesture: he hands me a letter opener with a quarter taped to its back, and tells me the Chinese do this when giving each other something sharp (No one involved, by the way—the quarter included—is Chinese). Keep an eye on this object, coin piggybacking on a blade. It will make an appearance again, you’ll see, as a weird little weapon of justice, a foreshadowy, lackluster back-to-bite-you-in-the-ass.

His ineptness becomes increasingly clear. I constantly have to argue with him about whether we’re going to meet deadlines. This isn’t like me; I tend to take my time. I also tend to take the path of least resistance. But look: This is a magazine we work for. It’s an industry that uses time-based words like periodical and quarterly. People are expecting their magazine during the month that’s printed on its cover.

Rather than subscriptions, though—which are a sort of contract, and a shitty one to break, nothing being sadder than a lack of mail—rather than subscriptions, Boss wants Lists.

And so my job description shifts to include spending hours on end generating Boss’s Lists. Boss means BUSINESS. He may be one big hippie mess, but he sees some numbers out there beyond the ether, and those numbers WILL become subordinate once they attach themselves to Lists. Despite the fact that the magazine is nonprofit, we are out to make some money.

Lists, he tells me, I need more Lists.

Boss proceeds to take over payroll, and tells me my check will be ready on the evening of the 1st. Special trip in at 7 pm, only to open the drawer and see no check. Where is it? I email him, having spent my last four dollars on train fare.

Now it’s the 2nd. Where is it? I email again, and call him, my bank account overdrawn. It’s there now, he writes without apology. Another special trip and yes, there it is, finally, and now it hits me that this uncashed check won’t pay for my train ride home. I rummage around in the bookkeeper’s drawer for some nickels, do an under-the-furniture scan. I’m almost there, I think, clenching the coins in my fist. All I need is one more quarter.

I think you can guess the rest. Why does this feel like a victory, though, the loosening of the coin from the blade? I’ve just left my pride under the desk where I scrounged for spare change.

Things are deteriorating rapidly. No magazines mailed, no renewal notices sent, no letters thanking donors. An unnecessary printer has landed in the middle of my workstation. My inbox now perpetually contains the same two items: a useless highlighter and a tub of gummy bears (I don’t ask). People call to complain about not receiving their magazines. The traces of tape on the letter opener turn yellow, then darken with grime: abandoned hope. Boss, who has always behaved as if on a sinking ship, increases his demands for Lists. Lists are his white whale.

Rather than Lists, I work on my opus: that collection of incident reports that need to be worded just right. This is creative writing. I’m not exactly making things up, but as with fiction, it’s important to know which details to include. Bring to the surface the worst of his offenses, leave out the ones that are simply my own overblown pet peeves. Pour my heart and soul into this, because this is Important. At last—as sad as it may be—at last, I’m writing something that will make or break whether I can pay my rent. So this is what it feels like when people get paid to write.

And my readers? A personnel board, unfortunately: a meeting of easily flattered egos. In my literary frenzy, I forget the importance of sucking up. This is how Boss got where he is: servile lies and bland reassurances. I’ve seen him at work on the phone. A propagandist, not a writer.

Resulting in MY termination.

Of course. Suck-ups are always bestsellers.

Wield that letter opener, I guess, and be grateful for small, pointless victories.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Parsing a Sentence Overheard on the Bus

The sentence:

We’re kind of like bff’s a little bit.

The speaker:

A college student on a “crazy lesbian” she knows.

Now parse:

First get inside the prepositional object, which here serves as a sort of nucleus, the first b (best) and second f (forever) both such superlative qualifiers, one referring to the highest possible quality, the other to the vastest amount of time. Now unpack them both and send them sprawling out into perfection, only to hit those two mediocre, tempering walls: kind of like and a little bit. You now hold in your hand, like an eggshell with its guts blown out, the brittlest sort of f, which stands for friend.

In essence:

We’re friends(?).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Well, middle class was fun."

Thus speaks Rosanne Conner in the seconds after her power’s shut off halfway through Season 5 of the classic sitcom Roseanne. Who else on TV would bring up such a taboo topic as class but good old Roseanne? She had to choose between water or electricity, she tells hubby Dan, and well, you can only live for two days without water.

The Conners find themselves in the darkness of their living room, their TV down for the count (ironically enough), and they’re forced to entertain themselves.
Dan: You know when I was a kid, my grandpa used to tell me about when he was a kid. Before there was TV, they used to sit around and tell stories.
DJ: What kind of stories?
Dan: I don’t know. That was his best one.
Roseanne: (after some thinking) Ok, I got one. Well, once upon a time there was these four princesses, and they lived in this great big house all together, and they never left. Ok, and uh, and they just sat around all the time, talking and talking and yammering and yammering, and they killed every single man who ever came over there, except for one who they kept as a pet. And then one time these two princesses left and these other two came on and they and they really stunk and—
Darlene: Mom, that’s Designing Women. 
Roseanne’s story is probably my favorite, her delivery, as usual, perfectly timed, and Darlene’s punchline is funny on several different levels of meta, my favorite being Roseanne’s almost instinctual attempt to cover for the now silenced TV.

DJ’s story is equally hilarious:
DJ: (serious, thinking hard, interspersed with lots of glazed looks from his family) Ok, um, there was this guy … and he was walking down the street … and he kept walking … then he found something … and then he lost it … and there was this car with a guy in it … then he got something … and there was this dog … and he was barking because the window was open … not so much he could jump out, but, ummm …
Darlene: The end.
I like that he begins to realize that his story is too abstract for anyone to follow, and so tries to save it by adding more specific detail: the exact position of the car window.

Roseanne tells one more story before the scene ends:
Roseanne: (trying to bond with Darlene by asking her to go with the mall with her to “soak up some electricity”) Aw, come on, it’ll be a lot of fun, you know. Uh, Becky and I used to go down there, ok, and this one time (laughing) we were over at Rodbell’s, you know, and, uh, we went in and, uh, stuck all the mannequin’s skirts right up their butt, you know. (grinning devilishly, slapping knee) And then we went over to Hickory Farms and we squeezed all the cheese logs and ran. (cackling) What do ya say?
(knock on door)
Darlene: Please let that be Child Welfare. 
Darlene really gets all the good punchlines in this episode.

The next morning, the power still out, the Conners are at the breakfast table when in comes Aunt Jackie, played by Laurie Metcalf, who’s such a great physical comedian.
Jackie: (looking worn out in club clothes from the night before) Hi guys. Oh, you guys are not going to believe the time I had (putting bread in toaster) at that singles dance last night. I haven’t even been home yet (pouring milk in blender)—not that I met anybody or anything, but Nancy and I had a few so … I just decided to crash at her place for awhile, you know, just, uh, for the night (getting something out of freezer) You ought to, uh, turn the freezer up, it’s getting kind of warm in there. Anyway… 
Roseanne: Um, Jackie, let me make you some breakfast, ok, because—
Jackie: (putting something in microwave) Roseanne, I’m right in the middle of a story here, ok? Anyway, the second we walk in the door, it’s like Nancy starts throwing herself at any jerk who’s wearing Old Spice (picking up and dialing phone), which like leaves me completely alone having to fight off this whole parade of losers (pouring powder in blender). One guy actually said, ‘You’re under arrest for stealing my heart,’ it was quite, it was so … pathetic, ahem, I just wanna (still holding phone) … see if any of ‘em called. Hey, uh, there’s a message from you on here, Roseanne. What do you need candles and flashlights for? (hitting blender button, turns and looks at everyone) Oh.
Roseanne: Well, we don’t have any lights but now we know the speed of stupid.
Jackie: How was I supposed to know they cut your power?
Roseanne: Well, we thought maybe the lack of electricity might tip you off.
Dan: (answering ringing phone) Hey, you wanna shut down that blender? I can’t hear.
Roseanne has been making the rounds again this year, promoting a new book and reality show, and it seems like she's starting to get some of the respect she deserves. Read her article in New York Magazine and check out her interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Dream That Ends Like a Wedding Review

Looking at dreams from waking life, motivations become unclear. Our reasoning in dreams is intuitive, based solely on emotion or something thereabout: something we don’t have the luxury of understanding while awake, what with the constant grind of logic. And so in this dream I found myself wrapped up in Scientology.

I was in a red brick plaza and wanted to see a psychic; the one I chose entered as part of a procession, carrying a cross. She was an elderly white woman in a cloak, and something about her was untrustworthy from the start. Her fellow psychics flanked her: one had a horned headdress, the other was a pathetically friendly young man.

This psychic held a power over me, like a boss or a parent, and I continued to take long, confusing bus rides to see her in her office at the edge of the red brick plaza. Her fellow psychics—all Scientologists, I discovered—were always somewhere nearby. I continued to give her money, hating her the entire time. Part of this relationship was based on fear, but there was something else unnamable between us.

At one point, my psychic required me to attend a wedding, which took place in the plaza. I stood at the very back of the crowd and had trouble telling what was going on. I took out a fine-point purple pen and began to doodle on the red brick. One of my psychic’s fellow psychics—the pathetically friendly young man—told me that drawing on the brick wasn’t allowed. It comes right off, I told him, and spit on what I’d drawn, and rubbed it clean with my finger. It’s still not allowed, he said, and I exchanged an eye roll with one of the other guests. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011


How do I reconcile my longing for whimsy with my extreme hatred for it?