Forgetfulness of things past
This is (I think) the third installment of Like I Really Care, my unpublished novel about an advice columnist/blogger named Etienne Shurdlow who gets fed up and starts handing out bad information. It is calculated to offend, even though the bar for what’s offensive is pretty much made out of smoke these days. In any event, it’s guaranteed to make me ineligible for a judgeship some day. Enjoy. (And thanks to some of my friend who contributed letters.)
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Dear Etienne: Whenever I go for a job interview, I psych myself into being the most positive person in the world. Even if it’s raining, I persuade myself that it’s sunny. If I have trouble parking, I pretend that I enjoy the walk to the appointment. If the interviewer is in a gruff mood, I act super-upbeat to try to cheer him up. The result is that, even if the interview goes well, I feel like an asshole. Shouldn’t I be myself at such occasions? -- Audition Anxiety
Dear Audition: Play the game if you want the job. What you are selling is not only your competence but your composure. The main reason people are hired is so their boss will never have to worry about them doing their job or protecting his. In fact, during your job interview, you should scope out the person who’s asking you all the questions and try to ascertain if he or she is doing the same thing you are: faking it. Job interviews work in two directions. Have you accidentally landed a job interview with a cult-like company? Do they insist on their own argot (e.g., saying “challenge” instead of “problem”)? Do they go away on retreats? Have motivational speakers? Have they instituted TQM (Total Quality Management), which is a way of forcing people to accept bad decisions by asking, “Have I answered all your questions adequately?” (To which you should say No just to ruin their day.) If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t take the job. If you have to take it, remember not to blame yourself.
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Dear Etienne: I did something awful many years ago. My friend and I broke into the basement of an apartment building and made a secret hideaway among the pipes and the foundation. In order to get there, however, we had to cut through somebody’s storage locker. The person who owned the storage locker had canned tomatoes in Mason jars and, when I stepped on a box thinking it would support me, my foot went through and I broke several of the jars, spilling their contents. I don’t know whose tomatoes they were, and of course I said nothing at the time, but every now and then I worry that the woman (if it was a woman) probably went down to her storage locker expecting to find the vegetable she had put up the summer before and, instead, found the spillage. It’s too late and too impossible to make amends now. What can I do to assuage my guilt? – Ashamed in Arkansas
Dear Ashamed: Try forgetting it. What’s done is none, and no life was damaged. You can never make proper restitution to the person whose property you trashed, however accidentally. Consider your letter to me as your first step toward absolution. The next step might be a donation to, or volunteering at, a local food bank. I suspect that many of the good deeds done by adults are in some way to compensate for some of the shit they pulled as kids. If those are the roots of altruism, so be it. The important thing is to grow up in ways that honor ones past without repeating ones mistakes. (On the other hand, I don’t know what selfish adults are compensating for.)
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Dear Etienne: My husband takes an extremely long time to climax during intercourse. This allows me to enjoy multiple orgasms, but it takes a toll on him. I have tried helping him in every way that either of us can think of, but nothing works. We’ve been married for three years and the imbalance is starting to affect his self-confidence. Lately I become sore and he becomes fatigued. Despite what it may sound like in this letter, it is not arousing or even charming. Where should I go? -- Burned in Bermuda
Dear Burned: It’s not an “I” problem, it’s a “we” problem. I gather than you have already discussed this situation with your husband and are satisfied (so to speak) that he is not purposely delaying release. The next step is for your husband to see a licensed sex therapist. His problem may not be physical, it may be psychological. An inability to climax might mean that, despite his assurances, he may be thinking of something or someone other than you in order to delay release. He might even have a phobia of his own bodily fluids. If this is the case, the solution may be a routine of CBT (no, no, no, not that; it stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to desensitize his mind in order to sensitize him elsewhere.
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Dear Etienne: My young son gets into the usual amount of trouble that any ten-year-old can be expected to get into, from giving his younger sister a hard time to neglecting his chores around the house. Lately, however, he has been talking back to his school teacher. The first time he did this he was sent to the principal’s office, which I didn’t learn about until the second time he was sent there a week later, after which I was summoned to school for a parent conference. Naturally, every parent takes her child’s side in such matters, although I was curious about why my son misbehaved a second time so soon after the first. When I got to the meeting and met the teacher I was stunned to see that she is a control freak, a martinet, and something of a harpy. I wasn’t expecting a female version of Mr. Chips, but I was gobsmacked when I found myself staring at Miss Gulch from The Wizard of Oz. I don’t mean that she was unattractive; that had nothing to do with it. It was that she had a foul-tempered, impatient, confrontational personality that had me losing my polite demeanor within five minutes of her harangue. I have since learned from other parents that, so far this semester, she has sent every single child in her class to the principal’s office and that the children consider it a badge of honor. The school refuses to fire her because of her union seniority, but I’m concerned that my son’s grades will depend on how well he survives this harridan rather than how he does on his schoolwork. – Distraught in Detroit.
Dear Distraught: You didn’t say whether this was a public school or a private school, but in my experience private schools are more sensitive to the desires of their paying parents than are taxpayer-supported public schools. If this is a public school, send a letter recounting the incidents, including the dates and names, to the Superintendent of Schools in your school system with a CC to your son’s Principal. Specify a written reply. Get other parents to do the same thing. This is no longer a simple matter of discipline, it speaks to the larger issue of whether the teacher has lost control or respect of the class. When I was in seventh grade our third period English teacher was new in the profession. Our classroom was fifty feet down the hall from the door to the cafeteria, yet when the lunch bell rang she took pleasure in keeping us in our seats until, I swear, half the school was in line ahead of us. She called this punishment “slenderella,” thinking she was being funny about forcing us to diet like she was. Our class felt differently. There were thirty of us in the class and every day one of us would purposely misbehave so he or she would get sent to the Assistant Principal’s office. After a while, the Assistant Principal (whom we called “chrome dome” because he was bald) was astonished to see so many discipline problems. Let me cut to the chase: Miss Slenderella’s contract was not renewed for the next school year. So there’s hope for your child’s bête noir.
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Dear Etienne: When I visit my elderly, widowed mother, who lives in another city, I am buoyed by how spry and alert she is, but then when I look around her house I am appalled at the amount of dirt and dust she allows to accumulate. I am not a clean freak, but spider webs in the bathroom and encrusted grease on the stove are something even a pig wouldn’t accept. The one time I mentioned this to her she got defensive and I quickly changed the subject, but that night I stayed up scrubbing and cleaning. I’m dreading my next visit. Is it normal for older people to say What the hell, or is there something deeper? – Blinded in Birmingham
Dear Blinded: Many older people have diminished sight for a number of reasons: cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, or simply normal failing eyesight. Rejoice that your mother is still alive and alert. If the dirt doesn’t bother her and it isn’t life threatening – and if she doesn’t do a lot of home entertaining where others might notice – there are three things you can do that immediately come to mind. 1) Leave it alone as long as she’s happy; 2) Secretly clean it yourself on your visits, or; 3) Hire a housekeeper. Either way, shut up and be happy that she can still live on her own.
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Dear Etienne: My middle-aged, unmarried uncle thinks that every conversation is a song cue. He lapses into ballads, show tunes, and godknowswhat else every time he hears something that reminds him of one. He also dresses above his income level and, on those occasions when we talk about our personal lives, he is unusually careful with pronouns. On the other hand, he likes to come over to our house and watch figure skating with my wife. The kids are starting to ask about him. What gives? – Nephew in Newark
Dear Nephew: Unmarried, show tunes, and vague pronouns? Do the math.
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Dear Etienne: I have a friend who has lost her sight. Whenever we’re together, I am careful not to use words like see, look, or watch. This is because, the first time I said, “It’s good to see you again,” she shot back, “That’s nice, because I can’t see you at all.” She didn’t mean it to embarrass me – it was simply her way of responding – but I still felt like a ogre. Should I keep watching my language around her or just let it rip? – Picky in Phoenix
Dear Picky: She seems to be dealing with it better than you are. Keep using normal language. The more you worry about offending her, the more you actually will offend her by holding back. Trust me, she will know.
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Dear Etienne: When I was twelve, I built a tree fort with a friend. It was in the woods down a hill from a construction site and the workmen had dumped lumber and materials into the gulch from the old building they were tearing down. We built the fort out of these discards, thinking ourselves highly moral, not only for not stealing materials, but for not illegally dumping the trash in the woods. We also found a couple of rolls of tar paper and some ventilation conduits and commenced to built a tarpaper fire that got so powerful that it shot out of the top of the vent almost three feet. It doesn’t take Smokey the Bear to figure out what happened next. We started a forest fire and, when we couldn’t beat it out with tar paper, we beat it out of the site ourselves. It was muddy and I lost a shoe in the mud. Fortunately, the fire department was called and arrived in time so that there was almost no damage, but for weeks afterward I worried that someone would find my shoe and reconstruct what I looked like the way paleontologists reconstruct dinosaurs from a footprint. This was over forty years ago and I still have nightmares in which I am barefoot and running from some unnamed pursuer. I feel the cold mud, I feel my mud-soaked sock flopping at the end of my foot, and I feel the twigs and rocks that I step on while racing away. My friend and I never discussed it (he died several years ago) and this letter is the first time I have ever told anybody about what we did. Will I feel like this until the day I die? – Ashamed in Ashland
Dear Ashamed: You ought to talk to the kid who smashed his neighbor’s tomatoes (see above). What you did was worse, and let’s not kid ourselves. You might have caused major damage, even injured somebody (including yourself) by your dangerous act. Didn’t your mom ever teach you not to play with matches? Wow have times changed. Remember the days when the worst thing a kid did was steal a watermelon or try cow-tipping? As Peter Pan said, “Children know such a lot these days.” Many of us do things we’re ashamed of. The point is to grow from them and change one’s life for the better. The statute of limitations for tree fort crimes must have passed by now, and I’m sure your letter has probably touched a reader who has done something similar and needs to know it’s time to let himself off the hook. Or perhaps – and I’m just saying this to pull your chain – he’s the one who found your shoe in the mud.
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Dear Etienne: I am in a pickle. Several months ago I committed to attend a friend’s wedding across the country and, as the date approaches, I find that I am unable to afford the trip, not to mention a gift. Is there any graceful way out of this? I don’t want to destroy the friendship, but I also don’t want to let on how my fortunes have plummeted. -- Pickled in Philadelphia
Dear Pickled: Money or not, the hell of modern air travel makes it understandable that you would want to bow out of dealing with the TSA, the airlines, and the great unwashed (a.k.a. your fellow passengers). But that won’t let you off the hook inasmuch as you have already given your word. You might lie and send your regrets explaining that you have just been informed of an important business conference or retreat on the nuptial date that you cannot change or avoid at risk of losing your job. It’s a small lie and will hardly distract your friend given the overwhelming nature of the event. If you bow out early enough, the caterer can deal with it. (The worst thing one can ever do at a wedding is to be a no-show or, worse, to show up without having previously sent an acceptance.) As for the wedding gift, etiquette says you have a year to send one, and perhaps your income will improve in that time. If not, you may want to make a small contribution to a charity in the couple’s name. The charity will send them an acknowledgment, the exact amount will not be mentioned, and you’ll be thanked for such a meaningful gift rather than for yet another set of candlesticks. Keep in mind, however, that breaking a social commitment of this nature may affect your friendship.
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Dear Etienne: I have noticed that when a pet enters a room where a group of people are talking, several things happen. If it’s a cat, it wanders around rubbing against everybody’s ankles prompting people to reach down and stroke its back until it determines who among them hates cats the most, then it settles at that person’s feet. If it’s a dog, the person who likes dogs the most will be the first one to notice and call it over, scratching it behind the ears and invariably prompting the owner to say, “You’ve got a friend for life.” I have a theory that guests treat the owner’s pet the way they themselves would like to be treated by the the person in the group to whom they’re attracted to the most. An animal is a surrogate for the person whose stomach you would prefer to be rubbing or whose ears you would like to be scratching behind. I wonder why nobody has done a study of this. – Animal Lover in Albany
Dear Animal Lover: I’m not sure they would know what to put on the grant application. There certainly seems to be something to what you say, although we need to consider it from several angles. The first is the now-familiar institution of “therapy animals,” usually dogs, who are provided to the elderly, people who have recently gone through trauma, or those whose grip on sanity is loosening. No one knows exactly why it works, but merely holding a docile animal on ones lap has a calming, centering effect. Humans also favor animals over their fellow humans when it comes to violence; studies comparing crimes against people and crimes against animals show that animals win paws-down in the sympathy department. Speculation is that humans regard animals as defenseless, as anyone who follows the slaughter of wild animals by so-called “sportsmen” can see. Taking all of this into consideration, it’s understandable how people would use animals in the place of other humans. (This presumes that these are consenting animals.)
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Dear Etienne: My parents are getting a divorce after eleven years of marriage. I am twelve. For some reason I think I may be the cause of it because I have a cleft chin and neither of them does. What does this mean? – Orphaned in Omaha
Dear Orphaned: You are not the cause of your parents’ failed marriage but you may be the result of it. Either you are adopted and they haven’t told you, or, if neither of your parents has a cleft chin, there’s a good chance that your father does, and he is not the man who is married to your mother. The fact that you were born out of wedlock suggests that one of the above must be the case. In either event, you are not the cause of the divorce; the cause probably began before you were born. In due course, probably in family court, you will be asked which of your parents you want to live with. If you choose your mother, you should keep in mind that she probably cheated on your father. If you chose your father, keep in mind that you will always remind him of his wife’s unfaithfulness. Sucks, doesn’t it? I’m not suggesting that the following is the best course of action, but if I were in your shoes, I would decide who lets you get away with the most, from playing computer games to staying out on school nights. Don’t be bashful about discussing this with both of them (separately, of course). They are going to start competing for your affection very soon and you don’t want to blow it. Meanwhile, you may want to ask your school guidance counselor for advice of how to handle what may be a difficult period for you until you turn 18. If you have a close friend who is growing up in a stable home, spend time there. You have my sympathies, honest.
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Dear Etienne: I attend a state university and I am constantly being bombarded by micro-aggressions. From T-shirts to ring tones, and from posters for events to words spoken casually in conversations, I am always being assaulted by comments that could be construed as racist, sexist, ageist, or xenophobic, In class there are trigger words that make me uncomfortable or angry about subjects we’re discussing in history, social science, psychology, and English. College is supposed to be a place where it’s safe to learn. Why can’t they pass laws to punish people for saying things that are so offensive? – Challenged in Columbus
Dear Challenged: How about this for a trigger word? You’re an idiot. College is a place to learn, not censor. The way you’re complaining, you’ve probably never had to face any opinion other than the ones you already have. Even if you weren’t sheltered up until now, you probably grew up thinking that your views were the only ones that exist. They are not. There is a whole world out there and college is the best place to learn about it. If you fail to accept the simple fact that the world is full of people who not only don’t share your views, they dislike you for having them, you are going to be at an immense disadvantage. You are going to be one of those people who only watch one TV channel, who only read one newspaper, who listen to one radio station, and who only associate with people who share and reinforce the opinions you already have. This applies to Liberals and Conservatives alike, so don’t be smug. Not only will this make you someone who loses out on the greatest part about being human -- the ability to learn -- it will make you a drag on society. Forget trigger words. Forget micro-aggressions. Forget political correctness. Instead, go outside and play. Embrace the world. Sure, you’re going to find things in it that upset you and that you don’t like. Fix them. But first you have to know that they’re out there and you can’t both away from reality and make informed contributions to society.
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Dear Etienne: When I turned thirty I made a resolution not to make fun of my friends. You know the kind of badinage I’m referring to: calling people names in fun, belittling someone for a clumsy mistake, telling someone to F-off. I used to think that such remarks solidified an existing friendship. But when I stood back and thought about it, I was no longer so sure, so I stopped doing it. I didn’t suddenly go all Fundie -- I can still cuss up a storm or take strangers to task -- but my friends are sacred. Now I am more aware than ever of the wisecracks that they throw at each other and that they still throw at me. It’s like I’m “it” in a verbal paintball contest. I’ve chided them about being so negative, and I keep hoping they’ll see my example and stop, but the coin hasn’t dropped for them yet. How did Gandhi pull it off? – Benign in Benin
Dear Benign: Good on you. There is so much negativity in the world today that you have created your own oasis of civility. There is nothing you can do about people who treat others poorly. You can say, “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that around me” and gauge by their astonished reaction when they don’t understand that they just said something wrong. Gandhi had a point: if you act the right way, others will eventually realize the error of their way. Okay, maybe it worked better in the days of the Raj than it does in the age of Twitter, but as long as you treat others well without being insufferable about it, you’ve got a good thing going.
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Harlan Ellison died yesterday, Thursday, June 28, 2018 in his sleep. The most surprising aspect of his death is that it was not at the receiving end of an assassin's bullet, as the victim of an enemy's fist, as the toll of an anger-induced coronary, or as the result of his own driving. This unquiet man had a quiet death. He had said a number of non-goodbye goodbyes over the past few weeks (I was the recipient of one), and bridled at being the prisoner of a stroke-struck body in a full-bed prison. Musing on death with me as we began our interviews for A Lit Fuse, he said that the one thing he did not want was to wind up in bed in a pool of his own goo. God having a perverse sense of humor, that is precisely, ironically, and sadly what happened.
I suppose I should feel cheated in that he and I never had one of those massive fights that some others have talked, even bragged, about. We always got along, probably because we both prized professionalism and knew we could fling back each other's shit. The only time we came close, and it was merely a snit, was when I insisted on sending him a birthday card against his wishes, doing so after his birthday had passed. He saw right through me and issued an Ellison fatwa in the form of a hand-lettered parchment warning me (with words I had to look up) never to do it again.
When he asked me if I was interested in writing his biography I gave an immediate Yes. It took us a long time to find a publisher, driving home to me the sheer stupidity of the publishing industry about the validity and popularity of speculative fiction (not to mention science fiction) and those who create it. Sure, they'll make feature movies and TV series in the genre, but if you dare tell your story with words instead of pictures, forget it. The fact that Harlan published 1,700 stories without ever getting a notice in the New York Times is a gopher-worthy crime of omission.
By four paragraphs in, I should be writing about how much I'll miss him, how much love I have for his wife Susan, his niece Lisa and her husband Michael, their assistant Sharon, his many friends and colleagues who valued him, and his fans who enjoyed his work and will keep his legacy alive. But I can't. I have no tears. Harlan wouldn't have wanted them. Like Joe Hill who famously said, "Don't mourn, organize!" I think Harlan would have said, "Don't mourn, fight!" If you want to know how I feel about Harlan, buy my damn book. If you want me to know how you feel about Harlan, leave word on this blog (and if there's a second edition, this means you'll allow me to quote you).
But f'r'Chrissake, don't cry. Harlan Ellison had a good, long life. He left an undying legacy. He was one of the few writers who was as well known as a person as was his work. It was a hell of a party. He won.
The ongoing letters and answers between disgruntled advice columnist Etienne Shurdlow and his readers oozes out of his psyche in a blog he calls "Like I Really Care," which can be taken any way you want to say it.
Dear Etienne: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and He will guide your way.” This letter has been around the world three times and has brought good luck to all who have not broken the chain. It started in the Netherlands. Make twenty copies and mail it to twenty people, putting your name on the bottom of the list and removing the first name, sending him $20. In a few weeks you will be amazed at the amount of money you receive. But do not break the chain or you shall have bad luck. This really works!
Dear Chain Letter Writer: Go fuck yourself.
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Dear Etienne: I have uncontrollable fear for my child’s safety. My family lives in a good neighborhood, we have fine medical care, we earn a good living, etc. so I know it isn’t a matter of security. It’s just that every time my child leaves for school I worry that she won’t return. When I tuck her into bed at night I worry that she won’t wake up. Whenever my husband and I go out and leave her with a sitter, I call every hour. I’m not one of those helicopter parents who hovers over their child – I don’t do this when we’re together, only when I’m not. I also know that this isn’t normal. What should I do? – Hovering in Huntington
Dear Hovering: Stop watching Nancy Grace. Kidnappers and perverts are not patrolling every shopping mall and supermarket aisle. Most child endangerment comes from a friend or relative, not a predatory stranger. Since your letter wasn’t postmarked Syria, you may be over-reacting to perceived local danger. Concern for your child is a good thing, but so is trusting that you and your husband have raised her well enough to know that he or she will do the right thing. Your paranoia may very easily transfer to your child. Since you have admitted that you think this has gotten out of hand, you need to seek counseling to gain perspective. Talk to your child, too, and explain that love also works from a distance.
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Dear Etienne: My best friend from college got married seven years ago to a great woman. I flew to their city a few weeks ago for a visit and stayed in their guest room. At some point during the night I woke up saw my friend’s wife standing across the room staring at me. At first I thought I was dreaming, but blinked a few times and realized to my discomfort that I wasn’t. I guess she saw my eyes and she left. The next morning she acted as if nothing was wrong, but I felt creepy and violated. I listened for clues that the two of them weren’t getting along, but no. Maybe I was dreaming, but I don’t think so. How do I bring this up with my friend? -- Dreaming in Denver
Dear Dreaming: Don’t. Maybe she was sleep-walking. As long as nothing happened, leave it alone. But next time stay in a motel.
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Dear Etienne: My husband is the walking definition of passive-aggressive. I ignore him most of the time, but when he tells me to do something that I’m already doing, it drives me up a wall. For example, I can be clearing the dining room table and he’ll say, “Clear the dining room table.” I can be folding laundry and he’ll say, “Be sure to fold the laundry.” At first I thought it was a joke and I laughed, but now it’s no laughing matter. How can I get him to stop? – Irritated in Iowa
Dear Irritated: Have you tried saying, “Honey, please don’t tell me to do something that you can see I’m already doing”? If that’s too confrontational for you, try the sarcastic approach: “I’m sorry, honey, I couldn’t hear you tell me to clear the table because I was busy clearing the table.” It’s hard to see passive-aggressiveness as a form of spousal abuse, but if it bothers you this much, it probably is. Start by having a nice, pleasant sit-down with him to express how you feel. He may not even know he’s doing it, so make notes (mental or otherwise) of specific recent examples. If they can all be summed up by saying, “Honey, please don’t tell me to do something that I’m already doing,” then you may be dealing with a control freak in whom this behavior is so ingrained that it will take effort for him to stop doing it. Can you manage to discuss it with him in a non-threatening manner? Would it help if you turned the tables and told him to do things that he’s already doing? He may become irritated or he may realize what he’s been doing and stop.
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Dear Etienne: I own a condo as well as a house. I rent out the condo. To make a long story short, my current tenant has destroyed the place. She has pets, she doesn’t clean up after them, and I instituted eviction proceedings against her. That was a year ago and our lawyers are still wrangling. Even if I withhold her security deposit when she eventually moves out, there isno way I can ever recover all the repair costs, not to mention the lawyer and court fees associated with getting rid of this terrible tenant. I’m not asking you for legal advice, but what can I do? – Condoed in Columbia
Dear Condoed: It’s a good thing I’m not a lawyer because my advice is to send guys over. In a situation like this where you are clearly in the right, nothing works like physical intimidation. Sure, a city health inspector can stop by – they always tip off the tenant first, don’t they? – but nothing says “move out now” like two guys with astonishingly unsympathetic personalities. My lawyer tells me that I have to make it clear that this sort of thing is illegal. There. Now I have.
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Dear Etienne: My husband never picks up after himself around the house. When he makes his own coffee, he leaves the pot dirty. After he finishes the cup, he leaves it empty on the table, which is only six feet away from the sink. Rather than take out the filled garbage bag, he balances his empty soda can on the pile. He leaves wet towels on the bathroom floor and every morning I have to shave the sink to clean up get his beard cuttings. We have different work hours, and many’s the time I’ve come home exhausted from my job after he’s left for his and find I have to clean the entire apartment. I tried letting it all pile up so he’d see the point, but he’s content to let the filth fester. I truly love him in every other way and we’ve spoken about it time and again, and he insists that it’s my problem because I’m the one who’s bothered by it. What should I do? – Nursemaid in Nevada
Dear Nursemaid: As in The Odd Couple, it’s hard for a tidy person to accept that a sloppy person can live that way, and if a sloppy person ever thinks about it, he probably wonders why a super-neat person is knocking himself out over nothing. In school I shared a place with two roommates. One of them was sloppy and nothing the other roommate and I said or did made any difference. We even tried to ignore him and let him live in his own filth, and he seemed to love it. We finally got him to toe the line was by pointing out that his habits were attracting cockroaches. He freaked. It was blatta orientalis that did the job, not us.
People like this do not change. In fact, they take pride in not caring about minor matters such as orderliness. They may even be artists or rebels who feel that they are striking a blow for independence by flouting cleanliness and ignoring the mental toll it takes on you. Bottom line: either get used to cleaning up after him or think about what you are otherwise getting out of the relationship, and see which one outweighs the other. If you then decide to leave him, do it with style: let the shit pile up for a week or ten days (preferably in an August heat wave), nail the windows shut, leave an open can of tuna fish for the cat, and bolt.
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Dear Etienne: I have a friend whom I’ve known all my life. Well, not really a friend-friend, just a close acquaintance. The sort of friend I never think to call, but she always calls me. I don’t mind speaking with her for a little while, but then I get bored. She seems to feel very close to me but I really don’t care that much about her. I’d tell her the way I feel but I know it would needlessly hurt her feelings, yet I get neither comfort nor joy from the relationship. It’s like wax beans. They’re okay, but my life wouldn’t be over if I never had them again. Is this cruel? -- So-So in Sandusky.
Dear So-So: If this person doesn’t matter to you and doesn’t take a hint, the next time she phones, tell her you’ll get back to her later, and don’t. When she calls to say you never got back to her, tell her you’ll have to get back to her later, and don’t. Repeat if necessary. If nothing else, you’ll have fun at her expense (since you don’t care about her anyway). Like love, friendship is sometimes lop-sided. Is this someone you’d have to invite to a wedding? Is she a menace or just a time vampire? I recall a story about Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the Hollywood super-agent, who was talking with a friend and asked, “What are you doing for dinner?” The friend named the person he was having dinner with and Lazar, ever mindful of show business ranking, said, “He’s not a dinner, he’s a lunch!”
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Dear Etienne: When I have dinner parties I never put salt, pepper, or ketchup on the table because I am a good cook and I season the meal properly before serving it. Occasionally someone will ask for salt or pepper and I cringe, and if anyone asks for ketchup I never invite them back. Am I being arrogant or overly sensitive? -- Seasonable in Seattle.
Dear Seasonable: You’re not being arrogant. Most people add salt or pepper to their food out of habit, but if they add it to food they haven’t tasted yet, it’s insulting. It shows a closed mind and a disrespect for your craft of cooking Admittedly, some people’s tongues are less sensitive to sodium. Older diners may have had their taste buds atrophy. Do as you have been doing – cook the food right, and if someone wants to screw it up, let them do so. The point of food at a dinner party is to encourage conversation, not stifle it. Incidentally, many companies, after an executive job interview, will take the candidate out to lunch. This is not a courtesy, it is an audition. Do they have table manners? Do they know how to order? Can they hold up their end of the conversation? One of the things they look for is whether the person adds salt and pepper before tasting the food. Doing so may indicate someone who is not open to new ideas or, at the very least, asserts himself before assessing the situation.
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Dear Etienne: My family never sends thank-you notes. I do. This irritates me no end. No matter what I give my nieces, nephews, or cousins for birthdays they never send a note. Maybe I’ll get a call or an e-mail, but not always; in fact, I have never seen a sample of their handwriting. This lack of simple courtesy may hurt them in later life. What should I do? – Thankless in Tonawanda
Dear Relieved: More importantly, here is what you should not do: don’t send them any more gifts. Just because they are members of the post-literate social media generation, it does not excuse them from being in the human race. The most direct solution would be to tell them that you expect a handwritten thank-you note when you give them a present. If you want to be defensive about it, say that it may make you sound old-fashioned, but when you remember their birthday and take the time to shop for a gift to give them, the least they can do is thank you for it properly. Here’s another suggestion: I had that problem with a young cousin, and when it came time for his bar mitzvah, I sent a donation in his name to a charity and they sent him an acknowledgement. I didn’t give him a thing. He got the hint—I got a thank-you note—although relations chilled between us, even though I know I did the right thing. Come to think of it, I haven’t been invited to any more family functions, but on the other hand I haven’t had to buy any more gifts. I have no regrets, and you shouldn’t, either. Your ungrateful family should.
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Dear Etienne: My fourteen year old son has finally shown an interest in doing his own laundry. Every couple of days he changes his sheets, runs them through the washer and dryer, and makes his bed. One morning I even offered to do his linens for him and he wouldn’t hear of it; in fact, he practically grabbed them out of my hands. To what can I attribute this amazing change? – Impressed in Indianapolis
Dear Impressed: Puberty.
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Dear Etienne: My pet peeve is people who use the expression “pet peeve.” A pet is something you love and take care of. A peeve is an annoyance. Yet a “pet peeve” is defined as a minor annoyance. If that’s the case, my pet peeve is people who use the term “pet peeve” to describe something that really isn’t a pet peeve, but which just pisses them off. What’s your pet peeve? -- Peevish in Pittsburgh
Dear Peevish in Pittsburgh: Pointless letters like yours. Get a life.
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Dear Etienne: What is it with children and food? One day my eight-year-old loves lasagna and my six-year-old hates it. The next time I serve it, the eight-year-old says it makes him puke but the six-year-old, whom I cooked something different for based on last time, changes his mind and wants seconds. Do kids get together somewhere to plot against their parents’ sanity? – Chef in Charlotte
Dear Chef: Buddy Hackett used to say, “as a child, my family’s menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it.” Children’s taste buds may be more acute, probably because they haven’t smoked enough. Some people, both children and adults, may have a genetic predisposition against the chemical make-up of certain foods like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. But most kids take their dining cues from their parents. Whatever we found on the table while we were growing up forms the baseline for what we will consider “normal” as adults. Even for those kids who later claim that their mothers could burn water, or that Pygmies came and dipped their darts into their mother’s cooking, most tastes are formed at home. That’s why junk food advertisers push kids to get their moms to buy their product, and why kid-friendly sugared cereals, drinks, and treats are placed on supermarket shelves at a child’s eye level. If you want your child to eat healthful (not “healthy”) foods, serve them properly cooked. Don’t make a big thing out of it. You’re right that tastes change over time, and the lasagna that little Jimmy rejects today may become the lasagna that he craves in six months when he sees his big brother loving it.
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Dear Etienne: At what age should parents stop buying a birthday present for the sibling who isn’t having a birthday so he or she won’t feel left out when his brother or sister gets a present? -- Birthdays in Buffalo
Dear Birthdays: You should never have started, but the fact that you asked this question tells me that you’re already on the way to doing something about it. Sibling rivalry is tough enough to defeat without fueling it with gratuitous presents. If you don’t start off right from the beginning giving a present only to the birthday boy or girl, you will be stuck giving them to your other children until each of them develops a false sense of entitlement. This practice is as counterproductive to building character as giving the losing Little League team a trophy. I’m sorry, kids, you lost. Go out and learn to play better and maybe next time you’ll get the prize. This is especially true for birthdays when all you had to do was cry when the doctor slapped your ass. Note: Nothing in the above answer prevents the non-birthday sibling from trying to con the birthday boy or girl out of his or her present.
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Dear Etienne: I am an uncle who occasionally child-sits for my nine-year-old nephew. He is bright and we have a terrific relationship, but when his parents are out and I tell him to do something that he doesn’t want to do, he says, “You’re not my parents, you’re not the boss of me.” I tell him that I am their proxy – god help me, he understands what a proxy is – but we still have this impasse. Any ideas? -- Proxy in Potrzebie
Dear Proxy: Most kids will back down if you tell them, “Because I said so” and even the most intransigent of them will yield when you look them in the eyes and say, through clenched teeth, “because I fucking said so.” Rather than get to this point, however, have the parents explain to the child ahead of time that you are looking after his best interests and that, in their absence, your word is law.
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Dear Etienne: I have a friend who is terminally ill and wants to commit suicide. My religion stands against this. It would hurt so many people, plus I am not sure he is in his right mind. How can I save him? – Hopeful in Hollywood
Dear Hopeful: Place your friend’s wellbeing ahead of your egotistic, moralistic religious views. No amount of praying will relieve him of his pain. Suicide is a terrible choice but sometimes it is the only choice. Yes, it is selfish, hopeless, and permanent. But sometimes it is the only dignified thing to do. There was a newspaper in conservative New England that never used the word suicide when it reported a self-inflicted death. Instead, it wrote, “died following a sudden illness” because the old Yankee publisher could not conceive how a sane person could possibly take his own life. Nowadays we know better. Existentially speaking, rational suicide is the only truly free choice we have in our lives, that is, deciding to end it. Rejoice that your friend will no longer be suffering. Work to let go of your own selfishness for wanting to keep him alive and in torment just because you don’t want to let him go.
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Dear Etienne: My grandfather is the one who, at a family gathering, can always be counted on to tell the smallest child in the room, “pull my finger.” He and the chosen conspirator laugh uproariously at the result while the rest of us cringe, and worse. I say “worse” because, at first, it was just a matter of giggling at the toot and pretending to be offended. It was cute. As he’s grown older, however, he has acquired that “old people smell” which, combined with his changing diet, fills the room like a paper factory built on top of a brewery. I’ve driven past abattoirs that smell nicer. I’ve tried asking Gramps to take it outside, or at least into the powder room, but he pooh-poohs me (bad choice of words) and tells me how much I used to like pulling his finger when I was younger. Yes, and mulch used to be called fresh vegetables when it was younger, too. I’m sorry to go on like this, but you have no idea. Even Mitch, our golden retriever, leaves the room when Gramps enters, and golden retrievers aren’t exactly Glade® air freshener once they get going. He is a widower -- Gramps, that is, not Mitch -- and I’m not altogether certain that his wife (my mother-in-law) didn’t die of asphyxiation. When, on occasion, he does deign to use our bathroom, after he flushes we have to send in a canary. The kids, of course, think it’s a scream and playfully queue for the privilege of pulling his finger. They even ask if they can pull my finger when Gramps isn’t around, just for practice. I’ve got a monster on my hands. How can I put a cork in it? – Bloozers in Beverly Hills
Dear Bloozers: First, chill. Second, Chill some more. Clearly he knows that he does it; saying “pull my finger” is a dead giveaway. You might give him bottle of Beano or a similar over-the-counter gas remedy, although I’ve never found any of them to work. Does he have a gastro-intestinal problem? Ask him which foods give him gas, and then avoid serving them the next time he visits. At the very least, you need to tell him to stop asking the kids to pull his finger.
Now let me tell you about “Safety.” When I was a kid we had a warning system called Safety. If you farted, you said Safety to warn everybody around you that there was a big wind coming from Winnetka. If you failed to say Safety and your friends found you were the flatulizer, they had the right to hit you. This led to the reassuring phrase, “Safety first, Safety last, Safety after every blast.” Safety was especially crucial when an SBD (Silent But Deadly) was launched. And no fair trying to cover for failure to say Safety by pretending that it was someone else’s fart; the rule was, “He who smelt it must have dealt it.”
Getting Gramps onto the Safety wagon may be less interactive that letting the kids pull his finger, but I promise you that it will give everybody something to laugh about. The “old people” smell, by the way, is decay.
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Dear Etienne: I’m an un-tenured instructor at a Midwestern college. Among my students are several members of the school’s football squad. Last semester, I caught two players cheating on their final term papers; they both copied several paragraphs, amounting to more than two hundred words, from the team’s publicity materials and passed it off as their own work. When I informed my superiors of this and asked that the students be brought up on plagiarism charges, I was astonished when the school sided with the players and said that they “didn’t mean it,” must have “misunderstood the assignment,” and argued that “the press releases are for people to copy” anyway. I accept the fact that schools use their athletic teams to raise money from alumni and that players are usually accorded special privileges, but this team had a 0-10 season and probably couldn’t even get laid with a hooker. As a result, I am being made to look like the guilty one. I can’t hire a lawyer because our faculty contract has an arbitration clause, and the arbitrators have already sided with the cheaters. What can I do? – Baffled in Boston
Dear Baffled: Welcome to the world of commercial higher education where alumni donations are more important than ethics. You could, of course, take this to the newspapers (being careful not to name the students because, guilty or not, they could sue for libel) . I presume, for the moment, that you are less interested in having these miscreants punished than you are in restoring the integrity of the school and removing the onus from yourself. Well, forget it. Everybody knows that college athletics are corrupt to some degree, whether it’s creating gut courses so the athletes can keep their GPIs up or slipping them financial incentives. Fortunately, people are waking up to the problem that colleges generally try to protect their athletes from prosecution for rape, DUI, fights, cheating, and other “boys will be boys” crimes, but ethical violations often get swept aside unless they involve point shaving, which affects the gambling industry so of course it has to be stopped. The scandals, of course, reflect poorly on those athletes who have integrity and seldom take into account the teachers, staff, and administrators who try to fulfill a college’s primary goal, which is teaching. My advice for you is to write it all down and eat lunch off the story in the years to come.
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A little while ago I wrote a book about a newspaper advice columnist who got fed up with his job and decided to start handing out bad advice to see what happened. His name was Etienne Shurdlow and he expressed my frustration with what I call the "victim industry" that has arisen in America - people who blame others for their problems instead of looking in the mirror. Typically, I couldn't get a publisher interested. They said the book was too offensive. Offensive to whom? Whiners? But it had another problem. It turned out that some of my fake advice was actually pretty good.
So I'll leave it up to you. I'll be posting excerpts from time to time. Tell me if you think it's worthy of publishing. NOTE: This is a humor book. Don't take the advice seriously. If you do, you're on your own.
Dear Readers: My name is Etienne Shurdlow. I’ve been a journalist for twenty years covering all manner of human folly, stupidity, ignorance, and cruelty – in other words, the news. Now my publisher, the daring and brave Rick Petrione, has asked me to start an advice column that tells it like it is. Like you, he and I are sick and tired of all the idiots out there. We are angry that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, that liars win elections, and that people who cheat come out ahead.
I have begun this column to take all those people to task in your name. I’ll also try to give some helpful advice along the way, but mostly I want to call out those who make trouble for the rest of us. We all know who they are.
I promise you bullshit-free advice. No kid gloves, no bleeding hearts, no vague or fuzzy language. Some people are going to be offended. Tough shit. Many more people are going to say, “Right on!” There are some things that simply need to be said, and some people that need to be told off. Even if you disagree with me, take a moment to think about where my beef is coming from.
Please send me your letters about the slob-next-door or the relative you hate. I want to hear about your evil ex-husband and the bully who picked on you. If you let it hang out, so will I.
-- Etienne Shurdlow
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Dear Etienne: It’s been my bad luck that there is always a crying baby on every airplane flight I take. I can’t afford to fly first class so I am stuck in coach. I understand that the change in air pressure hurts their little ears and that the confinement makes them antsy. But a crying baby takes up the flight attendants’ time, is annoying and distracting, and just plain inconsiderate on the part of the parents. If an adult acted the way a crying baby does, air marshals would take him off in handcuffs as soon as the plane landed. Why can’t the airlines put all the families with babies in one section of the plane? Why can’t I sue parents who can’t keep their children quiet? Why should 200 people suffer because of one ill-behaved child and its selfish, inconsiderate parents? Put ‘em in baggage with the poodles. – Annoyed in Albuquerque
Dear Annoyed: Like you, I have been trapped on flights with noisy children. My first thought at the time was that they should be put into the baggage compartment with the poodles. Then I came to my senses and decided that it would be enough to jam them in the overhead compartments with their mouths taped, and every couple of hours have the flight attendant slip them a double Bourbon. We have all been in similar situations too often to think that these incidents are aberrations. It’s a systemic problem. While I accept that there are times when it’s necessary for parents to tote children along on trips involving air travel, they shouldn’t bring them unless they can behave. Wait till they’re older. (The same applies to movie theatres, churches, posh restaurants, and other public gathering places where those present have implicitly agreed to keep decorum.)
The problem – and the solution – rests with the airlines. Passengers are a captive audience, and not just when it comes to making them watch Adam Sandler movies. I have spoken with flight attendants who would rather slip the kid a mickey than field complaints from other passengers, or find themselves providing extra service to the child’s helpless (and sometimes unconcerned) parents. One trick I learned: if a baby is crying from the change in altitude, put a few drops of sugar syrup on his tongue so he’ll swallow and equalize the air pressure on his ears.
Airlines insist that they cannot corral baby-carrying families because they don’t know in advance that they’re coming, but this doesn’t wash. Infants under two travel free, must be held in arms, and the airline must be notified ahead of time. Children over two must travel on a regular ticket and have to sit in an approved safety seat.
Gate agents ought to be able to allow customers to switch seats before takeoff. Finally, parents traveling with children should be advised that they will be held responsible if their child causes a disturbance. Parents sometimes have the courtesy to remove their children from movies, weddings, and restaurants if they become. This isn’t possible in an airplane, of course, so plans and alternatives should be required. If theme parks can bar children from rides based on age or height, why can’t airlines look after the comfort and welfare of the majority of their passengers who aren’t babies?
This is an unpopular position. Given the innumerable offenses to passenger comfort that the airlines now inflict on their customers, it’s hardly near the top of the list. Privately, the airlines will admit that dealing it would be a public relations catastrophe. But it bears talking about.
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Dear Etienne: I try to be polite to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who ring my doorbell even though I post a sign saying “no solicitors or religious proselytizers please” in three languages. What gives them – or anyone – the right to force, flaunt, declare, or foist their religion on me? -- Private in Poughkeepsie
Dear Private: Nothing gives them the right, but arrogance makes them think that they can ignore the rights of others. Such people believe that their bible empowers them to spread the “good news.” Most people do not. As an atheist, I believe that, if I ever had an imaginary friend, the last thing I’d do would be to tell anybody else. On those occasions when proselytizers ignore my polite posted request to move on and they insist on ringing my doorbell anyway, I leave it up to my mood at the time. If I’m busy, I’ll say “no thank you” or “God told me he doesn’t exist.” If I’m in a playful mood, I will invite them in. I’ll tell them I am not of a mind to convert, but if they need to use my bathroom or if they want some bottled water I’ll be happy to provide them. This confuses these people, as they are trained to expect rejection (how sick is that?) because they have been brainwashed. My brief encounter is not going to change anything, but I am genuinely fascinated by their zeal. (I have a friend who says, as loudly as he possibly can so the neighbors can hear, “A motel?”)
It’s easy to see how the Religious Right gets the idea that Christians are being persecuted. It’s like criminals claiming that they are being persecuted by the police. No, they just cannot accept the fact that they are being rejected by strangers who are offended by their presumptuousness.
Here’s a trick that really shakes them up. If the missionaries look particularly young, I might ask them in a confidential and serious voice if they are being forced to go door-to-door or if they will get punished for failing to convert people, and that I am ready to call the police to rescue them. Then they go away. Fast.
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FROM: Rick Petrione, publisher
TO: Etienne Shurdlow
RE: First columns
We’re getting some nice responses to your first columns, Etienne, and also some flack. Seeing it in print is sure different from when we were tossing the idea back and forth over drinks at Barsanti’s. Do you think we’ve unleashed a monster? – Supportively, Rick
Dear Rick: As we said between our third and fourth scotches, fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. We tell the truth on our news pages, why not tell them the truth on our features section? I appreciate your support. Fondly, Etienne
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Dear Etienne: I have a friend who always phones me when I’m sitting down to dinner. I tell her that I’ve got hot food on the table and ask if I can call her back, but then she says, “Oh, I only want to ask you one little thing” and I feel guilty begging off. I would love to simply hang up on her but she owes me money and I don’t want to give her an excuse to default on the loan. -- Hungry in Hartford
Dear Hungry: Nothing says that you have to answer the phone when you’re about to sit down to dinner. If you have Caller ID, make the decision. Let her go to voice mail. You can turn up the speaker to screen the call and if it turns out to be Publisher’s Clearing House telling you you’ve won, pick it up. Beyond that, you already have the solution: if the phone rings and it’s she, tell her, “I’m just about to sit down to dinner. Let me call you back.” If she insists, “it’ll be quick,” say, “thanks, I knew you’d understand” and hang up on her.
As for the money, kiss it goodbye. She knows a sucker when she phones one.
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Dear Etienne: My neighbor’s cat insists on visiting me. She (the cat, not the neighbor) scratches on my door at 6 in the morning until I wake up. I don’t let her in, but she won’t take “no” for an answer and starts meowing outside my window. I don’t hate cats, but this one isn’t mine and she’s a pain in the ass. Any suggestions? -- Cat-Neutral in Cleveland
Dear Cat-Neutral: You really expect a cat to listen? Try talking to your neighbor first. If the neighbor doesn’t listen either, the next time the cat wakes you up, phone your neighbor and tell her that her cat is there. If that isn’t passive-aggressive enough, get a water pistol, fill it with lemon juice, and let the cat have a dose right in the face. It will irritate her but not harm her, and she will get the message. If the cat doesn’t get the message, squirt your neighbor.
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Dear Etienne: I have a male friend who criticizes his wife in front of guests. When I’m visiting them and he starts up, I don’t know where to look. I have spoken to him privately about it and he insists that she doesn’t mind, but I have seen her eyes well up with tears and I know she feels otherwise. When, if at all, do I have the right to intervene? – Uncomfortable in Utica
Dear Uncomfortable: Publicly berating someone is abuse. If your friend feels comfortable enough scolding his wife in front of you for whatever reason, it is your responsibility to tell him that you don’t think that this is appropriate behavior. If he says, “She’s my wife and I’ll treat her as I wish,” you need to assume that the wife is unable or unwilling to protect herself and it’s time for you to leave the house and call the police. If he shamelessly treats her like this when you’re there, how does he treat her when they’re alone?
If you can somehow speak to the wife privately, ask her if she wants help. She may say No or, worse, may say, “I deserve it.” Tell her, “no woman deserves it.” Advise her that if she ever wants help, call you and you’ll call the police. Let her know that there is a way out. Many women are so browbeaten that they are afraid to leave an abusive situation. Some genuinely think it’s their fault. Many abused women would love to leave a violent home environment but they have children, or have nowhere to go, or both. For my part, I have intervened in such a domestic dispute. It was unpleasant but, luckily, I defused it.
Tragically, some domestic disputes cannot be solved by this kind of intervention and the police must be summoned. This is the most dangerous kind of call a police officer can receive and they arrive armed and primed. All you can hope for in such a situation is that they shoot the husband because, frankly, this is likely to be the only solution that works.
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Dear Etienne: My eight-year-old has suddenly decided that he doesn’t want me coming into his elementary school class any more. I asked him if it was because he thought I was giving more attention to the other students than to him, but all he will say is, “you have more important things to do.” I’d like to respect his wishes, Etienne, but I happen to be his teacher. How can I do my job as a parent as well as be his teacher? – Baffled in Binghamton
Dear Baffled: Maybe this is his way of asking to be home schooled or, as most people call it, uneducated. But it’s why most large school systems don’t allow teachers to teach their own children. You need to assure your child that you love him without reservation but that it’s also your job to work with other children. The more secure he feels at home, the less he will feel conflicted at school. Do any of the children in his class complain that you are giving him special attention? Do they accept him as a peer? A lot of grade school children act as though their teacher is a celebrity so that, when they bump into one away from the school environment, they get nervous and giggly. (By the way, this problem also affects children of celebrities.) It is important for you to help your child understand the difference between home and school even if you are present in both places. It’s a good lesson.
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Dear Etienne: I live next to a drag strip. No, not Indianapolis, a suburban neighborhood whose main drag has become exactly that. It’s a stretch of street about two blocks long unencumbered by speed bumps, stop signs, or traffic lights. On any given night – and sometimes during the day – cars will rev their engine and race from one end to the other at high speed. I keep praying that one or more of them will die in a fiery crash because that might bring attention to the problem. So far the police haven’t been able to do anything because, duh, every time they stake out the road, the hotrodders see the cop cars and call off the races. My neighbors and I have discussed everything from using spike strips to firing rifles at their wheels. What do you think? – Cop-less in Chattsfield
Dear Cop-less: I favor spike strips, but a high-powered rifle also works as long as you’re a good shot. Otherwise you’re better off calling the police, as we know how good they are when it comes to dealing with races. If the police cannot do it for whatever reason, talk to your local City Counselor. If that’s fruitless, lobby your State Representative or Congressman. They have staffers who deal with this kind of neighborhood thing all the time. Post lookouts to copy license plates, shoot videos to establish a record, and, as a last resort, petition the local roads department to put in speed bumps. (Speed bumps seldom do what they’re intended to do except bend bumpers and trash exhaust systems, but it’s a start.) Bottom line: the community has to come together and stop relying on the police.
(Just between us, once you get the tag numbers, drive around the neighborhood looking for the racing cars parked in driveways. Don’t get noticed. Do what you need to do. The police are too busy, remember.)
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Dear Etienne: My husband and I live in an apartment building with our two children and a set of noisy neighbors. Not noisy. Sexually active. Several times a week the man and woman go at it and their bed pounds against my children’s bedroom wall. The boys – ages 7 and 8 – have asked my husband and me repeatedly what the sounds are and so far we have told them it’s some little kid bouncing on the bed. They can relate to that, except now they want to bounce on their beds, too, just like the little boy we have lied to them about upstairs. This straw that broke the camel’s back was when our youngest, over breakfast, said, “Please pass the Cheerios and what’s a love too?” How can my husband or me possibly discuss this with our neighbors since they aren’t doing anything wrong, just annoying? – Too Early in Tonawanda
Dear Too Early: You said you live in an apartment; ask your landlord. Many apartment rental agreements require tenants to cover a certain percentage of their floor space with carpeting. If this provision needs to be enforced for your lovebirds, lean on your landlord to do so. As for the sounds of love making, this becomes a matter of discretion (yours) and indiscretion (theirs). They might not be aware of their noises in the heat of passion. Then again, they might be exhibitionists. While their sex life is unquestionably a private matter, the fact that they are sharing it with you and your children makes it public. You might try leaving a restrained anonymous note on their door (in an envelope) letting them know that they can be heard several apartments away. If that fails to do the trick, the morning after it happens next time, hang a blue ribbon on their doorknob and a sign that says “First Prize Hide the Salami Contest.” Under the concept of disturbing the peace, you might also call your local police or Sheriff’s department for advice.
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Dear Etienne: I spend a lot of time keeping my front and back yards neat. Mine looks like a well-manicured golf course; my neighbor’s yard looks like the jungle ride at Disneyland. We live in a nice neighborhood but we have neither laws nor covenants governing cleanliness of property unless there is a clear and present health danger and, fortunately or unfortunately, this is not the case. It’s just a pig sty. What, if anything, can I do? – Grossed Out in Grosse Point
Dear GO in GP: Have you put up a “Winner, Filthiest Neighbor Contest” sign on his front lawn, or perhaps a “For Sale” sign? That always gets attention. It’s hard to force a messy neighbor to clean up his yard unless there is a clear and present health or fire danger. If there is garbage that may attract vermin, call your Board of Health; if there is scattered dry garden detritus or combustibles, you should contact your local fire inspector. Report the conditions and ask for an inspection (you can usually do so anonymously, which is the American way). Although your neighbor may have the right, under law, to refuse to admit an inspector, the advance notice often goads such people into cleaning up. Consider this, however: the resident may be too old or infirm to clean up his property by himself or be able to pay someone else to do so. Have you thought about asking him if he’d like a hand? It might be an activity that could pull the community together. (I’m ashamed I didn’t suggest that first.)
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Dear Etienne: My brother-in-law is a pack rat. Not only does his house look like the last scene from Raiders of the Los Ark, he has rented three storage lockers to hold the overflow: small household appliances, bicycle and engine parts, furniture, and boxes of old lamps, office supplies, and dishes. It’s a fire hazard. He can’t have people into his home any more. I have asked him time and again to clean up his act, but he tells me to mind my own business. I swear there are things living in the stacks of newspapers. I thought I had him ready to clean the place out a few months ago, but then his garage door broke and he just happened to have a spare spring in one of his storage lockers to fix it, and this validated his pack-rattiness. I have checked with the Board of Health, the Fire Department, and the Police, and none of them can do anything because he’s not a danger. – Cluttered in Cincinnati
Dear Cluttered: Hoarding is a disease (and we didn’t need a cheesy TV series to tell us that). The only thing that will work for such a person is an intervention, and this places stress on friends and family as well as creating rifts that may never heal. First you need to determine if your bother-in-law’s man-cave is genuinely a threat to himself or others. You didn’t say whether he was married to your sister or if he is your wife’s brother, but have you tried involving his spouse? Yeah, you probably did. But you’ll need her help to bring a legal challenge to his mental competency. This is pretty serious way to go to bring down on a guy who never learned to clean up his room. Just remember that he is sick, not evil, and if he is ruining only his own life, it’s none of your business.
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 This may not apply to Marine drill sergeants.
I never intended to go into radio. Nevertheless, I racked up some 2,000 broadcasts when I was the Entertainment Critic for CBS’s Boston station, WEEI-FM, from 1977 to 1981, and another couple of hundred for WITS-AM, also in Boston. I fell into it when Clark Smidt, who’d just been made Program Director of WEEI-FM, bumped into me in Harvard Square and asked me if I wanted to be his film critic. It was as simple as that. (Clark also invented the highly successful Softrock music format for which he has never been given credit or residuals; thank you, CBS). I’ve written about my adventures in radio in Screen Saver Too: Hollywood Strikes Back ()www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product/search&search=screen%20saver%20too
But here is the first time I’ve written about what radio meant to me. It wasn’t about the music. I didn’t care about rock ‘n’ roll (I was whelped on Patti Page). It was about the talk.
As a toddler living in Washington, DC -- I was blessed that we didn’t have TV until I was six -- I would listen to whatever my stay-at-home mother had on the radio. In the mornings, doing her chores, it was the venerable Eddie Gallaher on WTOP-AM (no FM in those days). Everybody listened to Eddie Gallaher, so much so that when my Aunt Helen got him to dedicate a song to me on my fourth birthday, my mother got phone calls all day from friends who’d heard it. His show was followed by “Arthur Godfrey Time” and “Art Linkletter’s House Party” on “many of these same CBS radio network stations.”
By the time I was in high school in the early 60s we had moved to nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, which was then the nation’s largest unincorporated city (100,000 people and nobody talking out the garbage). I had plenty of school friends, but they were daytime friends. At night I had the radio. Correction: I had a crystal radio, a little plastic Remco number the size of a pack of cigarettes with a pull-out antenna that would break the first time you used it, and you listened on a single earphone the size of a hockey puck because transistors hadn’t yet made it to the toy market and transistor radios were bulky and expensive. Cristal sets worked on their own power. You could make one in Cub Scouts by winding .22 gauge copper wire around a toilet paper tube and finding a 1N34A crystal diode (if memory and research serve) that would rub against it to make a tuner.
Am I going too fast for you?
My crystal set was freedom. Sure, it only picked up one or two stations, but I could slip the earphone under my pillow and my parents would never know I was listening all night in bed. These were the early days of talk shows and the one I listened to with perverse fascination was Steve Allison, “The man who owns midnight” on WWDC-AM. Allison operated out of a restaurant -- one source says it was the Black Saddle Steak House but I recall it was Blackie’s House of Beef -- and interviewed politicians, celebrities, and others of interest who came through the Nation’s Capitol. He also took phone calls, except you only heard his side, so half the time he would summarize what the caller had just said, such as, “You say your neighbor burns leaves” or “Why don’t you think Kennedy is doing his job?” The other half of the time he was fielding insults with, “You’re an idiot” or “same to you.” Allison had come to WWDC after stints in Boston and Philadelphia where it was said that he was chased out of town on a morals charge involving an under-age girl.
Allison was a political reactionary but vastly entertaining. He blazed a trail for Joe Pyne, Wally George, Morton Downey, Jr., Jerry Springer and all the other pre-Rush Limbaugh radio and TV talkmasters who killed polite discourse on the airwaves.
Once I got my fill of Allison, my crystal radio and I sought other bedtime companions. In this, the ionosphere became my friend. We remember, from geometry, that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. Because radio waves bounce off the electronically charged upper layer of the atmosphere called the ionosphere (“ions” being charged particles), I discovered that I could pick up Boston radio station WBZ-AM, some 450 miles from my Silver Spring, Maryland bedroom. This fascinated me. Starting around 10 at night, depending on the weather, I could hear ‘BZ as clearly as any station in the Washington market.
My high school friend and radio mentor Chris Telladira (air name: Chris Michaels), who worked on suburban Maryland station WINX (with Larry Cooley as head DJ), told me about a talented Boston announcer named Dick Summer who, fortunately, was on WBZ, 103-AM, a 50,000-watt clear channel station. This meant that his signal was powerful enough to bounce off the ionosphere and not interfere with any lesser stations of nearby frequency.
Summer had a soft, seductive voice and a manner that was so easy he sounded like you were at a friend’s house and he was putting on records. In that regard, he was a forerunner of FM radio programming. He read letters from listeners (from girls especially) and wrote poetry (for girls especially). He supposedly had a pet Venus fly trap named Audrey. But mostly he worked the radio medium as a one-to-one communication system.
There were other people who used radio as Summer did, and some of them became nationally known: Jean Shepard (a forerunner to Garrison Keiller on WOR in New York), Chicago’s Ken Nordine (the Word Jazz innovator) and, more recently in Los Angeles, Joe Frank “In the Dark.” But for me, it was Dick Summer who led the way, talking into my ear, making me wait for the announces rather than the songs he played.
When I became a movie publicist in Boston in the early 1970s, I briefly connected with Dick. He didn’t do interviews so we never brought him celebrities or hung out, but I had the pleasure of meeting one of my heroes. Then time passed. When I became a journalist instead of a press agent, I even worked for WBZ, but by then Dick had moved on.
Now I live in LA, and the past is well and truly in the past. But not always. A couple of months ago a colleague back in Massachusetts, Hartley Pleshaw, who has a show on WCAP-980 AM in Lowell, mentioned that they ran Dick Summer’s podcast, and we got to talking about him. Hartley re-connected me with Dick who was gracious enough to pretend to remember me. I told him how much he and his work had meant when I was a kid -- I tried not to jam the obvious age difference down his throat -- and we struck up an e-mail correspondence. He is still doing commercials and recordings and sounds as great as ever. I told him that was about to skewer our mutual ex-employer, WBZ, in my forthcoming book (here it is on Amazon in case you missed the Bear Manner link above: https://www.amazon.com/Screen-Saver-Too-Hollywood-Strikes/dp/1629331996/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1516728947&sr=1-1&keywords=screen+saver+too%3A+hollywood+strikes+back) and I sent him a copy.
He returned the favor with a CD he’d made called “Bedtime Stories.” Here’s a sample and it bears listening to for the same reason you’ve just read this far in my blog: https://www.dicksummer.com/mp3/Bedtime%20Stories%20-%20Nothing%20Happened.mp3
Dick is both a visionary (make that “audiary”) and a traditionalist. He is an unabashed romantic about the woman in his life, and if he sounds out of step with political correctness -- he calls her “my Lady Wonder Wench” -- I will stay that he is always respectful and attentive.
I remain fond of hearing people who use radio as intimately as Dick Summer. No, I don’t like Ira Glass (over-produced) or David Sedaris (too precious). I prefer the fantasy of almost accidentally picking up the signal of a lone guy who’s stuck in a radio station doing the all-night shift with nobody calling in, so he free-forms with records and talks about whatever is on his mind.
That kind of radio is long gone. It’s been replaced by blogs. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to miss it.
By the way: https://www.dicksummer.com/
I seldom remember where I see films, only the films themselves. This has as much to do with the bland multiplex theatres where they’re now shown as with the increasingly generic nature of the mainstream movies that now mostly get made. They say that, once the lights go down, the film takes over from the surroundings, but that’s not true, not with the disruptive presence of texting, iPhones, noisy candy wrappers, food smells, and subhuman audiences talking to each other and at the screen.
My friend David Kleiler, who has taught film and run theatres, is different. He can remember, for practically everything he has ever seen, where he was sitting, what he ate beforehand, and whom he saw each film with. That said, certain of my filmgoing experiences do linger in my mind as freshly as my fondness for the movies connected with them. I can’t explain why, but they do. Understandably, some were part of my formative years. Others involve an ineffable combination of time, place, and content.
When I was a film critic in Boston from the early 1970s to the early 1990s -- arguably a period that saw American movies surge and then suffocate -- I saw thousands of films, mostly in the company of colleagues. We were a convivial bunch. If one of us had to leave a screening to go to the bathroom, when he returned, he’d routinely ask, “What did I miss?” and, out of the darkness, twelve of us would answer, “the car chase.” This disrespect drove the publicists crazy but it always brought a big laugh, especially if the movie being screened was some austere foreign film.
Time and place were more important to me when I was young. As a kid attending regular shows at the Langley Theatre in Langley Park, Maryland, I loved sitting close to the screen. The projectionist had the habit of starting the show with the house lights up, then lowering them at the same time he parted the auditorium’s heavy red curtains. Each show began with a newsreel and I remember jumping when its theme music blasted out from behind them.
It was at that same theatre that I bored my way through the 1964 general release edit of Cleopatra (1963) I was 16 at the time and had heard so much about it that I felt I ought to see it. The story made no sense -- it wouldn’t until decades later when it was restored to its full 192-minute length -- and I spent half its running time in the back of the house sipping an orange soda (you couldn’t bring drinks to your seat in those days or the usher would brain you with his chrome flashlight), stalwart to the end.
I fared no better with Lawrence of Arabia which I caught, not on its initial roadshow release, but in a last-ditch summer run at a drive-in theatre on Cape Cod where my parents and my oldest-friend-in-the-world Andy Hoy were vacationing. At some point the fog rolled in and we watched Peter O‘Toole lead the Arab revolt through a misty windshield. We probably left early and I didn’t revisit the film until the 1970s when it showed up in Boston’s revival houses in a 35mm Technicolor print that had scenes cut from the pan-and-scan TV versions then in circulation. As many times as I’ve seen it restored in 70mm splendor, I miss hearing the fog horns
Memories of other screenings click through my mind like a random slide-changer:
Opening night of Cabaret in 1972 where the audience applauded the musical numbers. It was just a normal showing, but we felt compelled to show our approval.
Watching Enter the Dragon (1973) from the closed-off balcony of the Savoy Theatre in Boston during lunch hour with the equally young theatre staff, eating sandwiches and passing joints. When Enter the Dragon closed and Magnum Force opened, it was even better. Heh heh.
Seeing the 1967 reissue of Gone with the Wind at the Apex Theatre in Washington, DC. This was the version that MGM decided to “modernize” by cropping the top and bottom of the image to make it widescreen stereo. Instead, it looked and sounded awful and it took me (and Ted Turner) years before the original version was restored.
Being awed by 2001: A Space Odyssey opening week in 1968 in Cinerama before Kubrick made his cuts. I saw it straight and sober and remember the curtains opening and opening and opening and suddenly we were in deep space. I was mesmerized by it. Still am.
Speaking of Cinerama, my first three-camera Cinerama experience was Cinerama Holiday in 1955 at Washington, DC’s Warner Theatre. The film was unmemorable but the process was captivating. The Cinerama shows that I recall -- all of them at Washington, DC’s Cinerama-equipped Uptown Theatre -- were How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Magnificent. Distorted, overblown, and staid, but the experience was unequaled.
I also took in Doctor Zhivago at the post-Cinerama Warner with my Aunt Helen. It was our favorite movie together. When she was sick in bed toward the end of her life, I gave her a VHS copy. Every time I watch it now, I think of her, and I watch it a lot.
Sometimes the movie transcends the setting. The picture I cite for this phenomenon is Mad Max which I watched practically alone in the decrepit Pi Alley Theatre near Government Center in Boston. Its distributor, American International Pictures, for whom I had once worked, had just been sold, and Mad Max was orphaned with scant advertising and no publicity. I wasn’t expecting much from an AIP motorcycle picture but, within ten minutes, I knew I was seeing something remarkable. I’m not saying that I discovered Mad Max, Mel Gibson, or director George Miller. They discovered me. But it was one of those moments you pray for in a screening where ones expectations go from zero to sixty and keep rising.
Another epiphany was seeing Apocalypse Now at the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown Manhattan prior to interviewing the filmmakers on a United Artists press junket. We had been told that editor/sound designer Walter Murch had personally set up the theatre. The effect was physically and emotionally overwhelming. so much so that it wasn’t until halfway through the press conference the next day that someone was able to tell Francis Ford Coppola was a masterpiece it was.
On the other hand, the Boston press screening of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange was physically painful because the sound levels were set so high it was hard to think, let alone enjoy, the master’s work. When several of us complained, we were told flatly that that was how Mr. Kubrick wanted it. The next day Warner Bros. sent an apology; they had misread Kubrick’s instructions.
Those were public screenings, Trade screenings are different. They used to be where exhibitors got an early look at an upcoming film to help them decide what deal they would offer the distributor for the right to show it. They don’t really exist any more because film companies and theatre chains are so interlocked, but when I was starting in the business they were de rigueur -- and noisy. Looking to knock the price down, exhibitors would rank on the film worse than Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Two stand out for me. One was Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend where several bookers locked arms and tap-danced out of the screening room as the picture ended (probably to lower their bids). The killer, though, was a screening of Sam Peckinpah’s uncut Straw Dogs before the censors got to it. It was intense beyond belief but the intensity was undercut by several exhibitors discussing, quite loudly, where they were going to have lunch as soon as the movie was over and what they would like to do to Susan George in the movie. I’m not a big Peckinpah fan, but if he had been there he probably would have shot the men who made those comments and I would have testified in his behalf. Susan George probably would have, too.
In December 1970 I was an assistant publicist at a special pre-release screening of Love Story at the Circle Cinema in Brookline, Massachusetts hosted by producer Robert Evans and theatre owner Sumner Redstone. It was a private showing for the Harvard students and faculty who had appeared in the movie as extras. Evans had just taken over the Vice Presidency of Paramount and word was that his low-budget production would save the studio, which was wallowing in the failure of several huge-budget pictures. In their welcoming remarks Redstone, a few years away from owning Paramount, expertly jawboned Evans into giving him the studio’s upcoming release of Plaza Suite, a tactic that Evans finessed with charm and skill. Then the lights went down and the picture rolled -- except the lights didn’t go down -- the theatre kept blue lights on the screen framing the picture. This triggered an outburst from Evans, who ran around the lobby screaming, “Get those lights down! You’re ruining my movie!” Finally they went down, and so did Evans. The Harvard audiences ate it up. Remarked one attendee after it was over, “this is the only screening I’ve been to where they applauded the buildings.” Needless to say, the $2.1 million Love Story was the first modern blockbuster grossing over $100 million.
As I think back while writing this blog, one movie experience leads me to another. And then they stop. The wonder is gone. At first my mind was awash with moments at the grand Savoy and grander Music Hall in Boston, the Warner in Washington, DC., the classic Fulton in Pittsburgh, the Radio City Music Hall in New York, the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, and a handful of other survivors. The films I saw in those palaces are forever joined in my memory with the grandeur of the theatres themselves. For me, going to “the movies” used to be a total experience. Now it’s a chore, and I seldom go. Nine years of monitoring audiences (four in college theatres, five in PR) and another sixteen as a critic, then twenty more as a producer have sadly made me immune to being impressed.
At first I hesitated to re-watch on video the movies that had first impressed me. Then I discovered that they possessed the power to draw me back to when I first made their acquaintance regardless of the medium. They are a testament to the showmanship that has practically vanished from today’s business of show. I would still rather watch Lawrence of Arabia in the fog than on a two-inch iPhone screen. But maybe that’s just me.
As I watch Los Angeles burn (December 5) my mind is drawn inexorably to Nathanael West’s 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust. Its protagonist, studio artist Tod Hackett, concludes that Los Angeles is made of people whose eyes are so full of hate that its only fate is to fall in a holocaust. The happenstance that West’s story was published in 1939 – Hollywood’s most acclaimed year – and articulates the the bitterness of America’s first Great Depression of 1929 seems relevant today.
Whatever caused the fires – lightning, power cable, arson, accident, or -- who knows -- spontaneous combustion – they have destroyed the hopes of rich and poor, citizen and non, all races and religions, Left and Right. Some will be able to rebuild, others will not. At this writing there is no indication whether Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has asked Republican President Donald Trump to declare LA a disaster area or whether, if asked, the President will accede.
There is always the chance that he will tell the city, with several layers of irony, “you’re fired.”
What shall become apparent as the skies clear, however, is that LA may rise again but it will not recover. The reasons have to do with the nature of urban development, and they are not yet being publicly discussed. Hints can be found in how San Francisco recovered from its disastrous 1906 earthquake and its 1988 and 1989 encores. Where, throughout the 1800s, San Francisco grew from a ganglia of tangled streets, haphazard structures, and gold-rush-flimsy housing, after it fell and burned in ’06 the city and its wealthy class were determined to rebuild for permanence and status. This meant getting rid of slums, erecting offices and tony residences, and, in short, making it too expensive for the workers who rebuilt the city to live in it. The suburban exodus began as the surrounding communities now reflect. When the 1988 and 1989 quakes did their damage, the banks, financiers, and dotcom millionaires once again rebuilt in a manner that flushed the rabble out of the better parts of the City by the Bay. The same plan emerged when Los Angeles fell to a quake in 1994. Huge areas were redlined by the banks and some blocks remained rubble for a decade. This was no different from what what urban renewal had been doing anyway all across America since the savings & loan bubble of the 1980s, it’s just that the natural disasters allowed developers to leapfrog over such obstacles as planning boards, licensing commissions, and social service watchdogs.
It’s easy to see how a similar wave can now realign Los Angeles. Although the governing and mercantile parts of the city – Old Los Angeles, it’s called – is untouched by flames, pretty much every surrounding community has been devastated. From the ultra-rich gated enclave of Bel Air to the tract homes in the Simi Valley, from the hills lining the essential 405 freeway to the mountains of Ojai and tens of thousands of acres connecting them, Southern California is poised to shift character. Rents were already too high for average people to afford. The immense costs of rebuilding will make them even more so, and with the tax base shrunk by properties that no longer exist, city services will likewise suffer. The over-arching question is whether the insurance companies can withstand the hit of multi-billion dollar payouts. On the positive side, there will be a building boom that will put contractors and their crews in the driver’s seat. There might even be a need to welcome an immigrant labor force. Talk about irony.
Dorothy Parker once wrote that Los Angeles is seventy-two suburbs in search of a city. What she meant was that LA grew up neighborhood by neighborhood with only the slightest effort to yield to a governing body (the City Council). You can bet that the Los Angeles City Council will soon be besieged by residents, businesses, builders, and industries looking for deals to rebuild with tax benefits instead of relocating. It’s the beginning of a free-for-all that will reshape the city.
In Day of the Locust, Tod Hackett, in his spare time, painted a mural that showed the city in flames. Now that images of the LA fires have been spread across the internet in all their hypnotic reality, Nathanael West’s theme is even more powerful. Will Los Angeles become a city of hate or will its eyes be opened to the needs of all its residents? Will it make a fresh start or become myopic? I don’t have the answer, but, given that Los Angeles is a mixture of desperation, fantasy, greed, and hope, I’m expecting the fires to continue burning, not on the land, but in the people who live on it.
The great songwriter Sammy Cahn wrote a lyric for the movie Robin and the 7 Hoods: “Some people dress ‘cause they dress when they dress, but he gets dressed ‘to get dressed.’” The song, “Style,” was sung about a fellow who simply threw on clothes rather than taking the time to outfit himself “like the swellest of swells.”
I can relate. I can’t dress for shit. It’s not news, it’s something I have reconciled ever since I got a note from my first boss, Harvey Appell, who wrote, “Professor Higgins says shine your shoes.”
I was notably reminded of this tragic character flaw the other day when my nephew Adam said to me, in that way children have of being innocently judgmental, “Is that the way you’re dressing to go out to dinner?”
I consider it unbecoming to be defensive around young people, but this is a young man who takes twenty minutes in the morning to do his hair, has just started wearing as suit to dinner, and had me teach him how to tie a Windsor knot to make the neckties look shorter that he borrows from me. That’s right; I am the uncle of a nine-year-old fashion plate.
I may not be Mrs. Astor’s pet horse, but I do have a closet full of nice duds that I purchased when I was younger and thinner. Trouble is, I’ve gained so much weight over the last two years that I can’t fit into most of them any more. Because of this, I have adopted the modern informal style of wearing an open sports shirt over a T-shirt, which is fine for casual wear but not, obviously, if the dress of the day is professional. This gives me three alternatives:
1. Buy new clothes
2. Lose weight
3. Never leave the house
I do not need any prompting to drive the uselessness of those three suggestions home. Nevertheless, last night, when I tried to leave the house wearing blue jeans and a “Family Guy” T-shirt that my friend Emily gave me for my birthday, I was merely thinking about going out with friends for Chinese food. It wasn’t the Cotillion.
Adam thought better. Although he is gentleman enough not to comment on my girth, he does enjoy being the style maven of the family. “You can’t wear that,” he insisted, heading into my bedroom. “Let me choose something better for you.” I followed him in as he was just beginning to sort through my hanging dress shirts.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“I’m trying to find you something to wear,” he threw back over his shoulder.
“Stop it. Get your hands off my things. You’ll get them soon enough when I die.”
Ignoring me, he said, “I think this might work,” and started to pull a blue-and-white shirt off the hanger.
“Do you mind?” I said, stopping him. “I can’t button it any more. Which reminds me to hit the store and get some new shirts.”
Not to be mollified by such a promise, Adam moved over to the suit section. “How about this blazer?” he suggested.
“For Chinese food?”
“What about this?” he said, running his hand along the sleeve of a charcoal grey suit. “How long since you’ve been able to get into it?”
“I outgrew it even before I got fat,” I said. “When you grow up, you naturally fill out.”
“Then why did you save it?”
“To inspire me,” I said. “Besides, see where the painters dropped white paint on it?” A white streak on the upper sleeve looked like Sherwin-Williams bird poop.
“I bet a drycleaner could get it off,” Adam said.
“Forget it,” I told him. “As soon as you’ve grown enough to wear these, they’re yours. By then I’ll be so old, I’ll be like one of those men who wears his trousers pulled up to his armpits.”
By this time he was stroking an expensive camel hair jacket.
“Too heavy,” I said, “and too warm outside. Besides, it doesn’t fit either.”
At that, Adam gave up and went to watch TV, leaving me to stare at my wardrobe. “Well, fellas,” I told them, “I guess we have to do something save face.”
Five minutes later I stopped by the main house to say goodnight to Adam, Ami, JB, and Ivanna. I had changed out of my “Family Guy” T-shirt into a medium-blue one and found a long-sleeve tan sport shirt that still fit, wearing it draped and unbuttoned to show off the blue-tan contrast. When he saw me, Adam could barely be torn away from the TV screen, but, as I began to leave, he did manage to say, “That’s much better.”
I may not get defensive around children, but a compliment from someone of any age, even a nine-year-old, is still highly desirable.
Do you have foods that died with your mother? You know what I mean: meals that only she knew how to make and, try as you might in all the years since she passed, you can never get it quite right? Maybe you can’t find the same ingredients, or – more probably – you can find them but modern agrabiz has rendered them tasteless.
Is there one dish above all others that she used to set in front of you and that you wish you could try just once more?
When my mother died, long after my father, she left me the usual house full of furniture, clothing, and a lifetime collection of tchotchkes and memories. She also left me a freezer full of her cooking.
First I need to explain that my mother was a good cook. Not a great one, but a solidly good one. Mostly – in the way of the era in which she was brought up and lived -- meat-and-potatoes. For her, a breaded veal chop was adventurous. She was a master of our family’s spice-rubbed roast chicken (which I still make for my nephews and over which they go nuts), and she turned out a splendid rump roast, although her brisket was so salty that it made your head shrink.
My mother’s specialty was soup: potato soup made with an old prime rib bone, chicken noodle (not matzo ball, for some reason), and vegetable soup. Especially her vegetable soup. It was her stand-by, and everyone she served it to became addicted. I grew up to the sound of a pressure cooker sputtering its cargo of future vegetable soup. It began with marrow bones, canned tomatoes, onions, and one of those tubular store-bought packages of soup mix with barley, dried vegetables, and powdered bouillon, only she threw away the powdered bouillon because her soup didn’t need it. It also had a layer of fat floating on the surface of the bowl that burned your mouth even before the soup itself went down. It was her signature dish.
Every meal at our house began with soup, even in the middle of summer. It was always hot soup, too; none of this chilled gazpacho or vichyssoise for my mother. And a salad -- a plain lettuce salad -- served first, like we do in America, not last, as in Europe. .
My mother was a school teacher but she still found time for the kitchen. And if she loved anything in the kitchen, she loved her freezer. I guess this happens naturally if you were born in an age when the ice man still cameth, then her family worked its way up to a fridge with a condenser on top, and finally to the kind where the freezer unit is inside the refrigerator part, about the size of a shoe box, and it could barely freeze an ice cube tray let alone keep ice cream hard. The progression was such that, when my mom, late in life, got a refrigerator with a separate freezer on top, a new world opened up for her.
From that point on, everything she cooked went into the freezer. Sometimes it didn’t even get to touch a plate. She would get into a cooking frenzy and cook two or three things, then pack it up in Reynolds Wrap to freeze for later. (After all, it might go bad in the ice box, but not in the freezer. And, yes, we still called it an ice box.) Her freezer looked like a tin mine and she never labeled anything. She alone could tell the chicken legs from the leftover corned beef. I always wondered if it was by the wrinkles. “Smooth? Oh, that’s chicken. Bunched and wrinkled? Salted brisket. Hey, how did that spaghetti casserole get in there? ”
She had lived through the Great Depression and knew that banks could fail but her freezer would not. As long as there was food in it, she would never starve. She would rotate the stock by cooking something fresh, freezing it, and then removing something old from the freezer to thaw and serve. Her way of thawing something (this was before she had a microwave) was to dump it into a pot on high heat until just enough of the outside got warm enough to serve. One night I brought a friend over and she decided to bring out a duck she had cooked anywhere from three to six months ago. She threw it in a high oven and, when she brought it to the table, the first quarter inch was hot but the inside was still ice. We had ducksicle. My friend was too polite to complain, but I did (nicely) and we all had a laugh on it before going out for Chinese.
I was living in Boston when my mother died living in Maryland so, naturally, I came home to take care of things. All my memories of home were of my parents being there. Now it was cold and empty and devoid of the family smell that always greeted me. Does that make sense? She had taken sick and died quickly, in hospital, and never came home again. The night after her funeral, I sat alone in the house, just me and Jack Daniels, awash in memories. When it occurred to me that I was hungry I opened the fridge. It was still stocked and—like guys do – I kept closing it and opening it thirty seconds later thinking that its contents would have changed. Then I realized that I wasn’t very hungry. Finally, on a hunch, I opened the freezer. In it – once I cleared away the half-chicken and used brisket -- was a Tupperware container of her vegetable soup. I didn’t have the heart to eat it, not just then. Instead, encased in ice packs, I carried it with me back to Boston and, a year later, on the anniversary of her death, I thawed it and had it for dinner. I set the table for two as if she was there and pretended she had just made it for me, enjoying, for the last time, the taste of my mother’s vegetable soup.
It doesn’t matter that I have the recipe and that I can still buy the ingredients she used. It’s no surprise that I’ve tried making it and it doesn’t taste the same. Not even close.
She cooked other things, too, but it’s the vegetable soup that lingers. I miss it almost as much as I miss her.
Now I ask you: what are the foods that your mother cooked for you that remind you of home and your youth? Have you tried recreating them yourself? What happened?
They say that if you go from one room to the next looking for something and by the time you get there you’ve forgotten what you were looking for, that’s normal. But if you go from one room to another and completely forget that you were looking for something to begin with, it’s time to start worrying.
Supposedly memory loss comes with age. “Memory is the second thing that goes,” somebody told me. Like a fool I asked, “What’s the first?” and he said, “Um, I forgot.” Ha effing ha. It’s happening to me now.
I forget names and faces, but that’s no big deal. I’ve never been much good at remembering them. That’s why I took to calling people “kid.” It sounds familiar when, in fact, it’s a cover-up. I also strove, in earlier years, to become famous because nobody expects a famous person to remember their name. I didn’t become famous, and I still forget names. That’s why I use “kid” a lot.
Perhaps it walks in my family. Not runs, walks. My gene pool forgets just enough to be charming. My own mother kept calling me by the wrong name for years and I was an only child. She used my cousin’s name and he was 21 years older than me.
I no longer sing in the shower because I keep forgetting the words. Sometimes I even forget whether I’ve already taken a shower. If the towel’s wet, I did.
What brings this to urgency is that tonight I was putting the dishes and silverware away and I forgot which tray the forks go in. What alarmed me was that the drawer was open and I’m staring at the forks and I can’t decide which are the salad forks and which are the entree forks while I’m holding onto some of each.
Tell me this is normal. They tell me that the human brain is like a computer hard drive and that after a while it gets so full of stuff that it slows down. These are the same people who say that humans use only ten percent of our brains. Okay, how do you defrag a brain? Can you back it up? If you can, where do you stick the firewire?
Suddenly all the Alzheimer’s jokes, which I have neither made nor liked, are haunting me. Will I soon get lost driving to the store? Will I forget to pay the utility bill or, worse, pay it twice? Will I hold a two-hour conversation with someone and the second hour is a complete replay of the first? I have gone through all of those and more with friends whose memories have begun failing and, while I was trying not to show my concern, I was also wondering how long it might be before I was on the other end of the blank expression.
If it helps, tonight I knew where the soup spoons went and didn’t confuse them with the teaspoons.
Last year I started calling my nephew Adam by the name “Alan.” So far I’ve done it six times. I have become my mother. It gets worse. When my mother turned 80 she went through the family album and tossed out any photos of people she couldn’t identify, her logic being that if she didn’t know who they were neither would I, so why save them? She kept her wits right up to the end. To test myself, a year ago I, too, went through my photos labeling who was who. Instead of throwing away those that I couldn’t ID, I held onto them to give myself a second chance a year later. Recently I looked at them again, and this time not only couldn’t I remember the people I forgot last time, I couldn’t remember many of the people I had remembered. I won’t be 80 for a couple of years.
Fortunately, I live with people who have never seen the movie “Gaslight.” But I still have to endure them insisting that they have told me something when I know – or at least think – they haven’t. So far it’s been nothing more serious that forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning, and I do my best to weasel out of that by saying, “Then why didn’t you give me the claim ticket?” and not listening when they say, “It’s under your name, Nat.”
“You mean it’s my dry cleaning?”
The way things are, I am purposely avoiding Chinese restaurants. With a cuisine where you supposedly get hungry again an hour later, forgetting that you had any in the first place could be a liability.
I wonder if this applies to having sex?
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.
Copyright © 2018 Nat Segaloff