Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How freelancing is like sales…or dating

 “It’s only been one day, honey.”
—my girlfriend Victoria, on Jan. 2, 2018

As many or most of you know, I opted to leave my staff newspaper job late last year.  The reasons for this were numerous and perhaps uninteresting to go into here (though I may indeed expound upon this at some later date), and it was an absolute leap into the unknown.  It was the third time in my career that I left a job without another lined up, but unlike my two previous sallies into the void, another full-time job did not avail itself readily.

It was a huge risk, and I basically put all of my chips down.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  No guts, no glory.  Fortune favors the bold.  Audentes Fortuna iuvat (thank you Google translate).  I gave up health insurance, a steady income and the access to entertainers and various other cool shit I’d worked on curating over three years as a culture and entertainment editor.

I had to move on.  I was unappreciated, underpaid, insulted and basically doing the jobs of three people for the price of one.  I had a month’s worth of vacation that I was paid out for and some savings.  I took December off to travel to California and spend a leisurely time in New Jersey for Christmas with my family and girlfriend and friends and loved ones.

Then the bills started piling up as my savings dwindled.  The District of Columbia decreed I did not meet the minimum standard for unemployment compensation.  In short, I couldn’t afford to just loaf around on the couch all day catching up on “Game of Thrones” (which I swear I’ll get to at some point, Chris). 

Sink, swim or weep. 

I write now as the first month of 2018 has come and gone.  It’s the first month since June 2016 that I haven’t been on an airplane, although I have in fact been to the airport many times in January to pick up the lost luggage stuck at the Delta counter as one of my side jobs.  For those who don’t know me well, and have seen photos and Facebook posts of me traveling the world over, it might seem ostensibly that I have a perfect life.  Actually, I cannot deny that I’ve been privileged to do some really amazing things in my nearly four decades on this planet, much of it thanks to being a member of the press corps.  I could have been content to be a copy editor on the night desk of a Top 10 market newspaper with a “side job” as the Lifestyle editor.  But I wanted more.  Ambition has always been my albatross and my north star.  No rest when there’s more to be done. 

That said, I have done pretty much every menial job you can imagine over the years—and I say this to illustrate that in January 2018, I’ve had to put back on my hustling cap to get whatever income I can while simultaneously chasing the ephemera of freelance writing.  I gave myself December off with the vow that come January, I’d hit it hard, send out tons of resumes and try my damndest to get articles published in as many outlets as possible.

While, if not paying the bills, bringing in at least a little bit to eat and help Victoria with the rent and groceries.  (That she believes in me is a miracle, and that she is patient with the intermittent remuneration is once again proves she is the greatest woman in the world.)  Thirty-one days hath January, and in the past month I’ve hit it day in and day out, giving as little shrift as possible to self-pity and angst that I’m on the edge of 40 and more or less in the exact same spot I was at at ages 23, 24, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34 and 35. 

I’ll admit, I thought I’d be farther along by now.  Maybe with an Oscar or two or a book published.  Maybe on talk shows.  Or at least maybe, just maybe, not being once again in the gig economy.

But it’s OK.  I can do it.  In the past 31 days I’ve driven around once again delivering people’s lunches and dinners for DoorDash and Postmates (whom I stopped driving for in 2016 when they only revealed the commission after the job was completed, but hey, times are tough), gotten back on the church singing circuit, worked a daylong gig interviewing people at the National Archives courtesy of an old buddy and, thankfully, gotten in a few bylines.

I’m gonna pause here to say that for anyone who wants to be a writer or thinks “gee, I got stuff to say, I can do this, why can’t I make it as a scribe?” let me be the first to dissuade you against any notions of easiness.  In the past month I have sent out hundreds of queries to editors seeking to get into their stable of writers.  Fortunately, thanks to persistence and luck and a rather hefty backlog of bylines from my Times portfolio, at least a few of them were willing to give me the time of day.  In January I got two bylines for a subsidiary of the Los Angeles Times with more to come, as well as a few other publications that have said yes, they’ll take me.

But being a freelance writer in the 21st century is not what it once was.  I recall the glory days (they’ll pass you by) of $1 per word or more.  Now I’m lucky if I get $150 per article.  Some still will give you a byline “for credit” or building up your portfolio.  It’s fortunate that writing gives me a thrill, and more or less during my Times days I was basically an unpaid freelancer.  There’s nothing more thrilling and invigorating than when you find the lede and when you discover an in and a way to make what is interesting to you not only palatable but exciting to an audience.  Martin Scorsese once said “Your job is to get your audience to care about your obsessions.” 

One of the final interviews I conducted as the entertainment editor of The Washington Times was with the great Aaron Sorkin, whose directorial debut, “Molly’s Game,” is still making the awards circuit.  It’s a fine line, I’ve found, between fawning over an interview subject while also bringing in the atypical questions.  As a writer, I can’t help but worship at the altar of Sorkin’s brilliance, but as a professional journalist, when I got to sit down with him in a hotel conference room in DC back in November (with another journo, so we had to take turns on questions), I found I had to ask the “right” questions.  I could have inquired of his writing process for hours, and maybe when I was in my twenties I would have fawned over his success and his awards.  But I found, over the course of several years on the celeb interview circuit, that it was best to approach my subjects—even those whom I came into wide-eyed—with the right combination of admiration and inquisition.  (Sure, I had nerdy questions about who “asked” William Sadler to do his kata naked in “Die Hard 2,” but all of these I leavened with inquiries about the craft.)

So back to Aaron Sorkin.  I got in questions about shooting in Washington thanks to the film adaptation of “A Few Good Men” and if Paddy Chayevsky was one of his influences (it was!), but towards the end of our chat, he gave I believe the single greatest bromide about writing in a succinct axiom that bears repeating:

“When I’m writing, I don’t try to get a show of hands to see what everyone wants and then try to give it to them. I write what I like, I write what I think my friends would like, I write what I think my father would like, and then I keep my fingers crossed that enough other people will like it that I can keep doing it.”

This is an Oscar and Emmy winner basically saying he writes to please himself, his friends and his pop.  It just so happens that his work has had the fortune to be recognized by the greater public and his colleagues.  Oh, and millions of dollars.

But back to earth.  I may fancy myself a writer—and I do—but I find in Mr. Sorkin’s humble assertions an object lesson: Don’t write like you’re out for awards and fame.  Write because you must and you have no other choice.

It’s nice to get paid to write, I assure you.  And I’m fortunate that at least a few outlets are giving me a shot at it, even if the pay is not what it once was.  But I’ve also found that, inasmuch as the byline is the reward, the chase can also be the thrill.

Remember “Wall Street,” that ‘80s flick with Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas where Gordon Gekko basically says it’s not about what he does with his money but more that he “wins”?  On a far lesser scale, writing as a freelancer is similar: You pitch and pitch and hope someone bites.  You make a “sale.” 

This is just like dating.  Now, I’m in a loving, happy relationship, the best of my life, but I wasn’t always a man off the market.  I remember well my time “on the scene.”  I was using three different apps to “meet” people.  Occasionally you’d meet someone in person.  And of all those in-person meetups, some would end successfully.

It’s about the game.  Just like freelancing.  Pitch, pitch, pitch until someone—or more than one someones—says yes, we’ll pay you for your words, kid.  When I drive around now as a delivery boy, I use DoorDash, Postmates and Roadie simultaneously.  Jobs come in and I grab them or let them pass by.  The more I work, the more I make.  It’s a numbers game.

You hear sales guys talk about chasing the high.  When I was doing standup comedy, you heard about comics talking about chasing those laughs.  I remember the best audience I ever had, who were eating up my jokes like they were cocaine candy.  It was never that good again (truth be told, I wasn’t that good anyway), but I always hoped it would be.  That’s the little bit of positive reinforcement that keeps you going: in dating, in sales, in comedy, in the gig economy.

There’s one more pile of gold just over the hills.

But in my current “occupation,” it’s also the way to stay afloat.  Because, invariably, then comes the pitfall.  Earlier this week I took my car into the shop for some routine maintenance, only to discover that my Scion tC needed a ton of work—so much, in fact, that it would cost me more than I made freelancing and hustling the entire month of January.  (I’ll spare you the numbers because it’s both uncouth to discuss and because they’ll make me cry.)

So why do it?  Why keep at the game?  Why not go back to being a full-timer in Corporerica?  Because, frankly, I like it.  Because it’s fun.  Because it’s adventurous.  And, most of all, because I’m a writer.  This is what I do.  I have things to say and stories to tell and the lives and projects of the famous to distill into 1,000 words or less.  I could be selling insurance or back being an office drone.  I could be struggling less.  I could be less in the red.  

It’s fun chasing the “win,” just like in dating or in life.  The world will not come to you.  I’d love for it to be not so and for fortune and success to fall into my lap.  But I know better. 

And so I continue on.  Through struggles and trials and tribulations and setbacks and low bank accounts and rejections and, more often, hearing nothing at all after hundreds of inquiries.  Don’t get into this business if you can’t take rejection, McFly.  Do it because you love it.

Persistence is key.  In life, in love, in the professional world.  Don’t give up and keep going.  Allow for epic self-pity but then toss the drink aside and move on.  The world needs good stories and great journalism more than ever now.  People want to buy it; I want to supply it.

I’ve always said I’m the world’s worst salesman.  I can’t sell anything I don’t believe in and wouldn’t presume to push it upon you.  I was the world’s most insecure teenager and twentysomething, but finally in my thirties I found a product I could believe in: myself.  I’ll sell the shit out of it and be the professional writer editors dream of.  I was on the other side of that table as an editor and now I’m here selling.  But I wouldn’t presuppose to sell you anything you wouldn’t want.  I’ll only bring the gold.  I’ll only bring a good job. 

I bring only the stories that need to be told.  Fuck all the rest. 

I am a writer.  This is my gift I share with you.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

That time I met the 45th president

It was over in about 60 seconds, but I had the chance to ask one question — just one — of the incoming 45th president of the United States. Here's how it went down:

At the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner on April 25 of that year, despite not having the proper credentials, I managed to finagle my way from The Washington Times “party” and downstairs to the back of the red carpet press receiving line, where I got in a few minutes with Al Roker, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, all of whom were friendly.

Then I saw him coming, unmistakable as an exploding volcano on a glacier. 

My boss Cheryl was there, and she managed to catch the first photo of me as Donald Trump came down the receiving line — my face a mixture of drunken bravery and “can I really do this?”

It was getting near time for everyone to go inside the ballroom for dinner — off-limits to anyone except guests and employees of the lone media outlet allowed access: C-SPAN. (I tried every door to get into the dinner itself but was rebuffed at each.)

Pressing up against a phalanx of other journos and a general stream of gawkers, I managed to get to within about 10 feet of the New York billionaire when a tall woman with perfectly coiffed hair stopped me.

“Who are you with?” she asked in a tone that meant business.

“The Washington Times,” I responded.

Her face brightened.

“Oh, he loves The Times. I'll make sure you're his last interview before he goes into the ballroom.”


“But you will only have 30 seconds, so one question.”

One question. Just one to ask of the star of “The Apprentice.”

I had it.

As he got closer, I made photos behind his back, mocking the famous sourpuss visage. Mocking the powerful is not just fun, it's more or less a necessity.

Unsurprisingly, as I was on deck, Trump and Melania were accosted by another reporter, with her final query the predictable: “Are you going to run?”

Remember, this was months before Trump descended that escalator at Trump Tower to proclaim that he was going to shake up the system the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to “pump up” California and “hasta la vista, baby” Gray Davis.

Both office runs seemed improbable (and I lived in L.A. at the time of the Ahnold contest and voted in that election too), yet here we are.

Anyway, in quick reply to the question about running for president Trump said, “We're looking at it.”

His handler, the lady who had stopped me to learn who I was with, then shuffled The Donald and Melania over to me.

Now or never.

“Hi, Mr. Trump, I'm Eric from The Washington Times,” I said. “I'm from New Jersey, so I'm really curious about your thoughts on removing your name from your casinos in Atlantic City.”

Maybe I imagined this, but I swear I saw just the hint of a twinkle pass over his eyes, almost as if the guy, who has never been a stranger to microphones, was thankful to finally be asked something different.

“Let me tell you about Atlantic City,” he began. “They made a lot of mistakes down there, and a lot of people told me I was smart to get out when I did.” (You can hear the entire exchange here.  Apologies the audio quality ain't that great.)

He barely looked me in the eye, seemed distracted, perhaps even annoyed at being the center of attention…but that can't seem possible. I put on the plastic patient reporter's smile as he talked up how thoroughly brilliant he was for getting out of AC when he did. (However, those pesky facts must intervene, as a report by The New York Times shows that while Mr. Trump indeed made out like gangbusters on the Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Marina Hotel Casino, his employees, investors and, let's be frank, the city of Atlantic City itself were all left hanging out to dry.)
After my 30 seconds, I thanked Trump and reached out to shake his hand, which he proffered.

He and Melania then disappeared into the ballroom, where President Obama would spend much of his speech that night ribbing his eventual successor.

It's probably unfair — and certainly unscientific — to think you can get the measure of a man in only a half-minute of interaction, and I won't even pretend that I “know” Donald Trump any better than I did in the moment before we spoke as reporter/interviewee. But, having been there, I can offer what little I was able to gather in impressions:

While the WHCD is certainly a big to-do, and it is an absolutely public event, my feeling in the moment was that he was seemingly, uh, more subdued than one might expect. I expected him to scream at me in a loud voice — you know, with me being “dishonest media” and all — but to reiterate, he seemed to present a certain disinterest in the proceedings, as if this were one more lily pad he had to hop in order to leap to the White House.

While I wouldn't precisely classify our interaction as friendly, he certainly wasn't mean either. I had a question that was of interest to me given that I'm from the state where Atlantic City is located, and here I had a chance to ask a man whose decisions have shaped that sinkhole by the sea (sorry, but it's true) for decades, rightly or wrongly.

He gave me a straightforward answer, which is about all I could hope for — and yes, one certainly tinged with braggadocio.

Never mind that it was nearly identical, word for word, to a response he gave to Chris Wallace of Fox News at one of the first Republican debates less than four months later. You can watch the fireworks here, including a moment where Trump rips Chris Christie for presiding over such a mess.

I'd ask how we got here, but the evidence is everywhere.

(The article I wrote for The Times about that interchange is here.)

For Christmas 2015, Cheryl gave me a four-panel photo frame of four of the photos she took of me with The Donald that night.  I hung it up over my desk at home last year, where it would be either hilarious when he ran and lost or a source of journalistic pride that I once got to ask a president a question.

Now, actually, it's both.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

My Best Times at the Movie Theater

Some of my fondest memories are of the movies—going to them or watching them at the homes of friends.  It remains a communal experience unlike any other, and still relatively new in the history of the world, combining elements of theater, live music, communal religious experience and even vicarious emotional relevance.

To put it in a less high-falutin' way, it can be a shit-ton of fun to laugh along with fellow cineastes.  Even if the films aren't the best sometimes, they're the worst!—the inter-mutual participation in a common event like a film viewing is a rapidly decreasing phenomenon in the age of Netflix and social media, where every exigency is hyper-articulated to one's own solipsistic narrative.

I'm both extremely social and extremely self-secluded, but still, there's almost nothing like being in a raucous movie theater that has cast a spell—inadvertently or otherwise—upon the collective.  Here then now are some of my most incredible outings (and yes, for these purposes, it requires that I left the home) in my cinemagoing career.

(seen at the University Village 3, Los Angeles, California, spring 1997)

Anaconda, by even a liberal definition, is a terrible movie.  It is one of those films that tried so hard to be a quasi-Jaws ripoff but failed so spectacularly, on almost every level, that it achieved camp par excellence.


Two words: Jon Voight.  While the talented thespian is now known mostly for being the estranged dad of Angelina Jolie and belonging to a right-wing fringe group, there was a time when Voight was considered a serious actor, most notably in his amazing turn as a haunted Vietnam vet in Coming Home.

Wouldn't know it by the time the "script" for Anaconda landed on his desk, however.  Employing some kind of head-scratching accent that is part mumbly Marlon Brando, part Latin Lothario and major part WTF, Academy Award-winning Johnny V. chews up the scenery with a squinty-eyed creeper showcase as snake-hunter Paul Serone—not only growling at the titular serpents but also creeping on J.Lo, who apparently was out to prove that her performance as Selina wasn't a fluke or something.

I heard or read somewhere that no one sets out purposely to make a bad movie, and I believe that was true of Anaconda.  But that's why, on my elementary school report cards, there were grades for both results and effort.  I'm going to go out on a limb and bet that all of the established cast members of Anaconda—Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight—did it for the cash, while second fiddles Kari Wuhrer, pre-Frat Pack era Owen Wilson and Danny Trejo all likely did it for a free lunch.  They even snagged a halfway-decent director in Luis Llosa, fresh of the success of Stallone's The Specialist.

Which leads to my own entry into this miasma of ludicrocity (yes, I made up a word, sue me).  At the tender age of 18, in my freshman year at USC, I would pretty much go to see whatever was playing at the University Village 3 as it was right across Jefferson Ave. from the campus and, having no car in notoriously spread-out L.A., it was the only theater within walking distance.

Also it was cheap.

Also, it was a good place to get outside the college bubble and mingle with folks from "the neighborhood" (just so we're clear: that's code for the poor people, typically of color, who lived in the area surrounding the insanely wealthy private university to which I still owe thousands of dollars for my English degree, which was worth "every penny").

So on a Saturday afternoon, plunking down my 4 bucks, I laughed my way through Anaconda with an audience that was pretty much all in sync.  The film tried so damned hard to be scary, but succeeded only in repeatedly scraping the funny bone.  Owen Wilson gets a pretty decent onscreen demise, but what truly caps it is the ensuing scene showing his outline in the snake's belly.  Not horrifying, just stupid.

Then in the climax comes a scene of such pure poetry, words cannot describe it fairly. I will leave for you to watch what happens after Johnny V. falls victim to the main snake, only to then...well, just watch...

Needless to say, the entire theater went bananas at the gag-capper, applauding voraciously at the callback to Johnny V.'s having winked lasciviously at J.Lo the entire film prior.  It was one of those moments of unsullied communal joy that simply cannot be recreated at home.

Sadly, University 3 is no longer there, as USC bought up the entire property in an expansion effort that also vanquished such stalwarts of my college years as the 32nd Street Market, my old video and DVD rental shop and the hilariously downmarket liquor store that warehoused hilariously named knockoff brands like Bad Frog and Howling Monkey.  This move will, in my un-humble opinion, further isolate future Trojans from the overwhelming poverty of nearby Los Angeles and keep them in that bubble of academia that promises so much with a degree in hand.

Oh, and those who don't have cars will now have one less place in which to take in their afternoon camp.  Just sayin', SC.

The Big Lebowski
(seen at Burbank 12, Burbank, CA, spring 1998)

All we knew was the Coen Bros. were coming out with their follow-up to Fargo.  Jeff Bridges and Coens regulars John Goodman and Steve Buscemi were in it.  It was about bowling.

What we got was a neo-noir about a stoner inadvertently thrust into a Raymond Chandler-esque L.A. detective thriller.  That and the single greatest cinematic treasure trove in modern times.

If you've never seen "The Big L," I won't even try to explain either its plot or its appeal.  For my purposes here, on that spring 1998 evening, it was about seeing something new.  Something different.  Something incredibly special.

Something no one had ever fucking seen before.

I've since seen "Big L" well over a hundred times, and it continues to get better with each repeated viewing and each new gag or subtlety uncovered, but the freshness of seeing it for the first time on a spring night in Los Angeles with Steve and my Men's Chorus buddy Ryan was a unique evening.

Of that outing two things stand out in my mind, with the first being the Dude trying to explain away his lies in a rambling soliloquy before the "Big Lebowski" that ended with the eponymous millionaire asking, echoing the audience's thoughts, "What in God's holy name are you blathering about?"

Sometimes moviegoing is as much, if not more, about enjoying your pals' reactions than it is about the movie itself.  Never was this more true than during the climactic parking lot brawl that pitted the Dude, Walter and Donny versus a trio of German nihilists.  When John Goodman bit off Peter Stormare's ear and spit it to the sky, Steve was laughing so hard that he slapped his knee, which was something I thought only happened in knock-knock jokes.

Lebowski-fever was a slow burn.  The film itself did rather poorly in theaters.  Steve and I first spread it to our circles, and it soon became "our movie," the little film that we thought people should know about.  Over the years it became like a secret handshake when you found someone to swap lines with out in public.  Getting onto a plane a few years back with my Big L shirt on, a guy sitting in the aisle seat tossed a line at me, which I gleefully volleyed back until I passed...just a little moment of joy between strangers in the secret Lebowski society.

Nowadays there's a fucking festival!   (Yes, I've gone...twice...on two coasts.)

I like to think that Steve, Ryan and I started the phenom ourselves, but truth is that almost certainly there were little pockets of acolytes just like us all over the country who, like a virus, spread the evangel of Lebowski to the world.

It's now as much a part of popular culture as the Beatles and the Kardashians.  But it had to start somewhere.  And I feel extremely fortunate to have been there on the ground floor in that darkened theater as a 19-year-old college, sophomore.

Grease (re-release)
(seen at Mann's Chinese Theater, spring 1998)

I'm a choir nerd, and in college I was that annoying subspecies of choir geek known as the a cappella dork.

Naturally, the choir geeks and I (mind you, this was a MEN'S chorus, so not a single breast amongst us) had to go out to see Grease when it was brought back for its 20th anniversary, and what better place to do so than the famous Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.  (For those of you unfamiliar with this Tinseltown landmark, it's the place with the hand- and footprints from famous people out front.)

I was there with two of my buddies from the USC Men's Chorus and our a cappella group, the Hangovers (what do you want, we were all 18-22 when this happened!) plus one of our number's boyfriend in the days when a great many were still closeted.

The event briskly became a theater-wide singalong and quotefest.  But what turned this outing into a transcendent memory was that during the movie's penultimate song, "You're the One That I Want,"
audience members congregated in the front of the house to dance and sing alonga party that continued through the finale, "We Go Together."

Ryan, who had come along to The Big Lebowski not long before, and who was due to transfer back to Ohio at the end of the semester, said as we drove back to campus, "That was the most fun I've had since I came here."  Interestingly enough, just the other day I had lunch with Ryan and his wife, our first meeting since that spring 17 years ago!

There's Something About Mary
(seen at the Bridgewater Commons Mall, Bridgewater, New Jersey, summer 1998)

While home from school in the summer of 1998, I was working two jobs to have spending cash, get some experience in the film biz as an intern at the New Jersey Film Commission, and also to keep my mind off some unpleasantness going in my the final months of my teenagerhood.  At the time I often worked overnights on Thursdays, so on Fridays, after a nap, my buddies and I would typically check out the new films, including such turkeys as Lethal Weapon 4 (don't even get me started).  

One particular Friday, we planned a "hop" for a double feature of The Mask of Zorro and There's Something About Mary.  For those of you uninitiated, a hop is where you pay for one movie but then, slyly or otherwise, walk from one screening to another without paying for the second (or third) movie.  I'm pretty sure God couldn't have foreseen such a modern version of thievery when he handed Moses those "commitments," but it's been quite a while since I was in Sunday school, so...

Anyway, having barely slept the night before, I dosed off several times during Zorro (not that I missed much), and it being an early Friday afternoon, there was little need for subterfuge as we walked down the hall for Mary.

And then...holy fucking shit!!!!

I must interject here that I am not one for the subgenre of gross-out comedies.  For one, they require little to no sophistication and, to be frank, almost no virtuosity with humor.  They aim low, for the scatological, for the most base laughs possible.  I couldn't get through the Farrelly Bros.' breakthrough hit, Dumb and Dumber, stopping off when the cop drank pee from the soda bottle, and thus my expectations for Mary were rather bleak.  However, just days earlier, my buddy and current film producing partner Dave called me and said, "Let me tell you, it earned that R-rating."

You can't just leave a 19-year-old with a tease like that.

Now, There's Something About Mary is far from a perfect comedy.  In fact, in perhaps the greatest bit of irony, the film procures three of the biggest laughs in cinematic history interspersed with lengthy passages where almost nothing funny happens.  But man oh man, are those three gags epic!

Mind you, this was waaaaaay before social media, back in the days when you could still reasonably catch a flick after opening weekend without having the entire plot or the best gags entirely spoiled for you...except of course, be it for those loud-mouthed "friends" who liked to tell you ahead of time that the DeLorean gets smashed at the end of Back to the Future Part III (thanks, Jason, haha, love ya, man!).  We knew going in only that the Farrellys enjoyed their fart and piss humor, not how it might be applied in their latest effort.

In the first act of Mary is the "zipper gag," wherein Ben Stiller gets his junk caught in his fly, which the Farrellys take to the next level, with ever more humiliation foisted upon hapless Benjamin as more and more townsfolk attempt to help out.  What could have been a one-line joke is stretched out over multiple minutes, with the tension, and the laughter, ratcheting up quickly.

Need I say much about "the hair gel scene" that hasn't already been said?  Well, for one, there was a time when absolutely no one knew about it...nor was expecting it!  It wasn't enough that Stiller masturbate while gawking at the women's clothing section of the classified ads, which in and of itself is chuckle-worthy; it wasn't enough that his jizz "vanished" into thin air; it wasn't enough that it be revealed it's on his ear when Cameron Diaz shows up at his door for the door.  Nope, she then takes it from his ear and, thinking it's gel, runs it through her pate.

This is comedy brilliance, layering and layering upon a gag until you're feeling beyond uncomfortable just for beholding it.

But my god, what laughter!  It's almost difficult to relate the horrified guffawing of a roomful of grown adults enjoying an unexpected semen gag, particularly in the days before Seth MacFarlane made any and all bodily functions fair game for comedy.  The shocked laughter took several minutes to wear off, which is just as well as almost nothing funny happened again until the end of the film.

Which brings me to the dog attack.  Left alone with a roomful of cocaine, Mary's roommate Magda and her terrier, Puffy, get a little too much booger sugar up their nostrils, leading to Magda engaging in a herculean cleanathon and Puffy losing his dog-mind and going to town on Stiller's genitals.  Now even though the gag was alluded to in the preview, the buildup it to was masterfulas the camera dollies in toward a closed door, Puffy's pounding upon it from the inside in rhythmic doom becomes a laugh in and of itself.  

You know what's about to happen, but it still has to happen anyway...and you're absolutely helpless to turn away.

Then Puffy attacks.

The Farrellys don't even try to disguise the fact Stiller is so obviously wrestling a phony dog, but he does it with such gusto in that way only Ben Stiller can be humiliated (his crotch once again a target) that it unleashes a hurricane of laughter then amplified to 11 with a Three Stooges joke in which Stiller's attempt to poke Puffy in the eyes is countermanded by the dog's finger-block.

I have never, before or since, laughed that hard in a movie theater.  Honestly, I somewhat hope to never do so again, such is the joy of the memory.

It was a special, special day.  And for a few fleeting moments, I forgot about the teenage angst I was feeling toward the world...and, naturally, toward a few select females whom I felt had "wronged" me.

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
(seen at Cinema Plaza, Flemington, NJ, summer 1998)

How many times can Michael Myers (the serial masked murderer, not the recently spotlight-eschewing comedian) die and be resurrected for another killer spree?  Well, by 1998, the magic number had been six, but for the original Halloween's 20th anniversary, the filmmakers figured it was time for one "final" go-round with the silent slasher and brought back Jamie Lee Curtis for the occasion.

(Didn't quite work given Halloween: Resurrection in 2002, again with Jamie Lee Curtis, and then Rob Zombie's reboot of the franchise in the aughts.)

There was really no way this was going to be any why did my group of four decide to go and see it?  Boredom?  To laugh at it?  Maybe a combination of the two.  Whatever the case, me, Chris, Steve and Don started talking at normal conversational volume as soon as the opening credits rolled...and never stopped.

Funny thing was, nobody ever yelled at us, shusshed us or even asked us to stop.  Most likely because they too realized this was a piece of shit and that the best way to get through it was to chuckle.

I mean, c'mon, within the first few minutes a big title card comes up that says "October 31..." [dramatic pause] "...Halloween."

Never mind that LL Cool J somehow got shoehorned into this sad exercise in franchise-milking.  Or that twentysomething stars of the day Michelle Williams, Josh Hartnett and pre-in-every-other-movie Joseph Gordon-Levitt winds up on the wrong end of a butcher knife.

But then, ho ho, Janet Leigh—yes, mother of Jamie Lee Curtis—shows up for a cameo with her daughter and offers the wink-wink line "If I might be maternal for a moment..."

See, that's funny because...

Thirty-eight years after getting slashed to bits in Psycho, one of Hitchcock's most famous starlets is reduced to self-parody in a vehicle exploiting her own progeny's nostalgic retread of a 20-year-old low-budget horror classic.

Hooooooollllllyyyy sheeeeiiitttt!!!!

Oh, and just for shits and giggles, here's a fun tidbit courtesy of the IMDB:

"Halloween: H20" is the seventh film in the series. H20 is the chemical symbol for water which has a pH balance of 7.0."

As Wayne Campbell proudly proclaims when Alice Cooper tells him the history behind the city name of Milwaukee, "I did not know that."

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later is pretty dreadful, not only as an attempt to reignite a rather decent late-'70s slasher classic but also as a too-knowing exercise in the era of self-referential horror fare like Scream (whose writer, Kevin Williamson, was initially tapped to pen H20).  It went wrong on almost every level, but in an honest way in which you could tell the filmmakers really, really thought they had something, if not good, at least halfway decent on their hands for the popcorn crowd.

So drop a quartet of Jersey boys into the mix, talking at full volume, and you have the recipe for a rather fine evening.  Wouldn't trade it for a "good" movie given the chance, I assure you.

(On a side note, the Flemington movie theater has also gone the way of the dodo, closed forever in 2011.  It was the site of many, many high school and college-era moviegoing experiences, and it was the only place I ever paid less than $4 to see a movie.  Now the town where I went to high school has not a single movie theater, providing one less venue for local teensand the young at heart—upon which to exercise and exorcise their energies.  What is this world coming to...?)

(seen at Burbank AMC Town Center 6, Burbank, CA, Jan. 27, 2008)

Nineteen years since John Rambo had graced the silver screen.  Honestly, what were we expecting?

In a few words: not this.

I grew up on the '80s action genre, but let's be frank: Attempts to revive and/or reinvigorate the formula had largely failed in the late-'90s onward, thanks not only to the aging of its heyday stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but also due to increasingly tired, cliched rehashes of old revenge formulas and "I'm too old for this shit," self-aware audience winking that forgot the crucial fact that action movies could be both fun and gruesome.

So along comes the curiously misnomered Rambo, the 4th film in the First Blood franchise.  (Never mind that the third film, in 1989, was called Rambo III.)  The lone-wolf former Green Beret-turned-reluctant warrior had been shelved for the better part of two decades, left behind as the Reagan-era Cold War mythos that had given him ascendancy faded ever more in the rear-view.  Russians as bad guys had long since become beyond passe as villains (Russian mobsters, on the other hand...), leaving Rambo without a clear enemy to bring him out of retirement.

And plus, Stallone was 61 by the time of Rambo's Jan. 2008 release, well past retirement age for any cinematic avenging angel not played by Clint Eastwood. was Rambo, and Stallone had done a fairly decent job with reviving another of his classic characters in the self-written and -directed Rocky Balboa in aught-6.  Could it work?

Well, the first positive sign was the R-rated trailer that began churning up bloodthirsty appetites on the web a few months out.

What was gleaned from the trailer was that, if nothing else, Rambo (then still titled John Rambo) promised to pull no punches and, most importantly—and this is key—to play it without irony or self-reflexivity.

The deal was absolutely sealed when someone took the time and the imagination to make a Rambo "kill chart," detailing not only the body count in each of the four films, but the average kills per minute and number of bad guys killed with Rambo's shirt off.

This gem I forwarded on to my buddies, and...

...that was it.  Game the fuck on!

So me, Steve and Chris, old chums from New Jersey (and who also had been with me at both There's Something About Mary and Halloween H20) made the pilgrimage to downtown Burbank on a Sunday night, flasks of contraband hidden in our jackets (because, yes, it does get chilly in Southern California in wintertime).

It was clear from the first minute that the audience, though sparse, was all entirely on the same page.  A rice paddy full of innocents is slaughtered in the first 3 minutes, followed immediately by the title card in blood-soaked red—met with thunderous applause.

It is a special, rare magic when an entire theater is immediately in sync, especially on the unlikely evening of Sunday.

For a good hour-plus we sat in joy at the carnage, but then came the film's final battle, a gorefest drenched in unabashedly overblown violence that I can only describe as pure cinematic ecstasy. Despite some incredibly awful low-back pains (long story) I was jumping up and down in my seat as limbs were severed, heads exploded and mofos eviscerated with recently smelt knives.

To put it another way, it was, as Steve put it, "pure bliss."

After it was over, the only thing to do was retire to the nearby BJ's for a beer and a chat.

"Fellas," Steve said over the first round, "I know the year is only a few weeks old, but I'm calling it: best film of 2008.  I can't imagine having more fun at the movies this year."

What made Rambo so special was its complete lack of cheese.  Stallone, for all of his perceived and/or real lack of acting chops, played it with a straight face.  And as director and writer, he went completely for broke and so over-the-top as to verge on grisly camp.

For whatever reason, it worked.

I couldn't put it any better than how Steve summed it up:

"They're finally making movies for us again!"

Although Rambo failed to usher in an era of neo-action films, it did provide for likely the most fantastic evening at the movies of my life with great friends who grew up with me watching those same types of films on Friday and Saturday nights in darkened living rooms while drinking Gatorade and eating chocolate bars.  Its replay value on DVD remains undiminished.

Sly, wherever you are, bravo and thank you!

(seen at the New Beverly Cinema, Beverly Hills, CA, March 2014)

Spring 2014, and a good portion of the old Jersey crew reunited in L.A. for a long weekend of drinks and movies and burritos and In n' Out burgers.  Ryan hadn't been back to California since moving away in summer '99, and I'd move back east in fall 2011 and was, at that time, living in the Midwest.  The three of us probably hadn't hung out together in over a decade.

Going to a midnight movie was never in question, but WHAT?  And, this being L.A., WHERE?

Incredibly, during my 15 years as an Angeleno, I had never been to the New Beverly.  It was saved from the scrapheap thanks to one Quentin Tarantino, who also serves as the artistic director and programmer.  Little doubt, then, that that foremost consumer and purveyor of "junk culture" would exhibit a midnight show like Pieces.

Pieces is perhaps the zenith of the '70s and '80s Spanish splatorama cinema.  Directed by Juan Piquer Simon, it is a cheaply made, poorly acted exercise in "splatter porn" more than two decades before the term was ever coined, involving a serial killer who murdered his mother as a child and now is making mincemeat out of unsuspecting college personnel and students at a thankfully unnamed Boston university.  It's terrible exploitation cinema made without any aspirations toward artistry whatsoever.

It is also unquestionably watchable with the right mindset.  And the right friends by your side.

Here is how it begins.  Mind you, this is the very...first...scene!

This is the type of bad film that was made to be enjoyed with a crowd of irony-conscious cinemaphiles—an exercise in movie-making that is so far beyond redemption as to be laughable for even daring to be made.  It fails so utterly and consistently as to become a ne plus ultra example of how camp cinema can actually nourish the soul as much as "legit" film.

Exhibit A: At about the halfway mark the "main" character and the lead female have just discovered a horribly severed human body...which is pretty much the most awful sight one could ever hope to not encounter.  So how does actress Lynda Day George play a scene requiring the character to express such revulsion?

Rather than try to put it into words, I'll show you:

Going to see Pieces at midnight in Beverly Hills with my childhood buddies, all of us now in our mid-thirties, was a holy outing that I doubt will ever be topped.


The English Patient
(seen at Bound Brook Cinema, Bound Brook, NJ, Dec. 1996)
Bound Brook was an old single-screen cinema where I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid (and screamed my head off when the spirits came out of the ark), Rocky Horror at midnight and also where Dave and I went to see The English Patient one very, very cold winter's afternoon in 1996.  The staff warned us as we entered that the heat was Dave and I sat through a three-hour epic in our coats and hats shivering like a couple of washed-up winos. Fortunately, Dave had some old ratty blankets in his car under which we warmed ourselves like we were at a 1980s Times Square porno theater or something.

The Brook, like so many other classic theaters, is gone now, having been in a state of perpetual disrepair for years and now used only sporadically for "special events."  The last time I was there, entire sections of seats were roped off and the roof leaked.

And did I mention the heat didn't work?


All of these instances are now astern. In a way, maybe that's a good thing.  My buddies and I still love to talk movies, and we love our camp (I'm looking at you, Death Wish 3!) like nobody's business.  But there's something to be said for acting like buffoons in a movie theater while you're young.  I'm no longer quite so young, and most of my cinemagoing buddies are spread out in multiple cities and time zones, and we seldom get together anymore.  We all have "real" jobs and careers.  Most of them are married now.  Middle age ain't far off.

It's really the memories of being there in those darkened theaters with good friends that made these seven moviegoing outings—combined with our youthful exuberance and approaching film with the precise elixir of irony and excitation that increased severalfold the enjoyment of collective experience and the distaste for often-ludicrous filmmaking—so memorable, so fun, so irreplaceable.

Of their times and places.  Other locations and in the past.

I sure hope we can enjoy more like this.  For it truly reminded me of why it is we go to the movies in the first place, for not only the taking in of art (or flotsam) but its digestion and regurgitation with fellow cinemagoers.

In the end, that's really what it's all about.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Man versus "Jaws"

In honor of my annual July 4 viewing of Jaws, here is part of an essay I wrote in my (failed) attempt to get into grad school as an English/film studies doctoral candidate.  Eventually, I hope to turn all of this into an academic film book called Men With No Names about masculinity in cinema from 1968 on.  For now, here's a taste (no pun intended):


Men can be at war not only with themselves and with other men, but also with some external force that tests their mettle and resolve.  Such is the case with Benchley’s Jaws, a potboiler of a novel that posits that a giant, killer great white shark stakes out a New England summer town’s beachfront for its human meals.  (Interestingly, the term for this in the scientific literature is a “rogue shark.” )  

In the novel, Martin Brody, the town police chief, is in a fading marriage with his wife, Ellen.  Then the shark shows up, and all havoc is wrought lose.  If the beaches are closed, the town will lose valuable revenue.  The mayor owes money to the Mob and needs the beach business in order to settle his debts.  The town will basically die if people stay out of the water.

Brody is but a workingman with little in the way of intellectual capacity.  Sharks at the time of the novel’s writing being, well, pre-Jaws in the level of public consciousness, the police chief enlists a scientist, Matt Hooper, to help with the problem. 

Hooper, a rich college graduate, and Ellen, Brody’s wife, embark on a heated affair.  Brody inadvertently brings more grief into his life than the shark has already provided. The final corner of the triumvirate of maleness in Jaws is Captain Quint, a grizzled, modern-day Ahab with a particular distaste for shark-kind.  After several more deadly encounters, the final chunk of the book is devoted to the three men embarking on Quint’s boat in order to hunt down and destroy the beast.  This results in Hooper’s death at the hands (or rather, the teeth) of the shark, and Quint is killed when a rope attached to a harpoon used to spear the shark encircles his leg and drags him into the deeps with the
dying killer.  Brody is left alone and swims back to shore. 

So we have three different representations of masculinity: Brody, the blue-collar policeman; Hooper, the rich intellectual and virile outsider; and Quint, the unsophisticated fisherman who traffics in profanity and street jargon.  It takes all of them collectively to take down the shark; in this situation there is no such thing as a one-man army.  It is a problem that is larger than any one of them could face alone, and each brings to the task his unique gifts and abilities to overcome the monster. 

The film version of same keeps the general story intact but makes remarkable departures in tone and timbre.  The film version is sexless.  The young woman killed in the surf by the shark at the outset, while still skinny-dipping in the film, does not engage in sex on the beach with a male prior to her swim (which would in fact fall into the slasher film axiom of sex equaling instant death).  Also elided is Hooper’s affair with Ellen Brody; he and Martin Brody are more or less a tag team.  The only sex in the film at all is obliquely referenced in Quint’s various blue jokes, such as “Here’s to swimmin’
with bow-legged women.”

But the triumvirate of Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) in their extended passage of hunting the shark on the Orca is intact—however, unlike in the novel, the Orca never returns to port after each individual day at sea.  Each represents a different kind of man and representation of masculinity. 

Hooper is a wealthy college lab rat and pleasure sailor who has never had to work for a living, and naturally Quint despises him.  Brody falls somewhere in between them in temperament: cautious and reflective, observant without being overtly incisive, but quick to act when the situation dictates. 

(On a side note, Jaws may in fact be in the only film in history that has a double three-act structure.  The entire section of the three men on the Orca hunting down the shark stands on its own as a entire sub-story and follows all of the beats and formats in three acts.  E.g., Act I of Jaws ends when the body of the first swimmer is discovered on the beach and Brody knows that there is a problem; Act II ends when Quint is killed by the shark and Brody must face the monster on his own.  In the “mini-movie,” which begins with the first shot of the Orca at sea an hour in, Act I ends with Brody chumming the water (“I can go slow ahead; come on down and chum some of this shit!”), at which
point Jaws makes his first full appearance, and Brody tells Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” As in the macro-movie, Act II concludes with Quint’s death, and Act III has Brody going mano-a-tooth with the shark.) 

While the shark itself is absolutely an external problem for the three men, Brody is also afraid of water—a major problem for a character who will have to tangle with a tiburon malo.  This phobia draws instant empathy for the audience as the danger of the situation becomes ever more palpable: To be in the water means to vicariously be in the drink with the shark.  Brody is aquaphobic right from the get-go, which will serve to only complicate his plight (and ours) as the film progresses.  Spielberg and his cinematographer, Bill Butler, heightened the sense of apprehension for the audience by
filming the action at water level.  This makes the anxiety that much more alarming for the audience: We too are swimming with the shark!  Spielberg humorously explained away his reasoning in a supplementary interview as to how the water-level camerawork puts the audience off-kilter, by saying, “Very few of us have ever actually been in the water with a shark, but we’ve all gone swimming.” (emphasis added)

The audience’s empathy and identification with the simple activity of swimming not only creates a bond to the frightening scenario of swimming with a massive, hungry shark, but it allows the viewer to vicariously share in Brody’s elemental terror of the water itself.  

Jaws gives us a main protagonist who has an unreasonable phobia, the
comeuppance of which is essential to the thematic throughline of his character.  For all
his marksmanship with a gun, his levelheadedness as an officer of law enforcement, his
ability to see that the response of the mayor and the town council to the shark problem is
untenable, his entire character makeup as a strong, perceptive man...Brody simply will

This is refrained throughout the film in various ways, such as Ellen telling Hooper that Brody refuses to even leave his car when they take the ferry over to the mainland.  In a more subtle visual gag—one of Spielberg’s abiding strengths as a director—both times that Brody is first seen on Hooper’s science
boat and later on the Orca, he is actually wearing a life preserver.  While on Hooper’s boat, he is not only clearly intoxicated but is also drinking straight from the bottle!  (That Brody is an alcoholic is not in doubt.)  To further underline his fear, the shark’s first major appearance immediately follows his “Come on down and chum some of this shit!” line while on the Orca.  Even getting close to the water for Brody is met with dire consequences, which only reinforces the terror of the beast. 

And yet, in the final minutes, Brody succeeds in blowing up the shark...from water level as the Orca sinks; Hooper resurfaces after being thought dead; he and Brody have a celebratory chuckle...and then paddle together back towards shore. 

At its most thematically basic level, Jaws is about a guy who is afraid of the water.  The very last thing he is seen doing in the film is swimming: fear faced and conquered. The large shark chowing down on his townmates is entirely incidental to the theme and only serves as a vessel to make his fear of the water far more terrifying. 

So it can seen that our heroic males overcome not only external forces but also irrational internal fear and neuroses.  The deepest films and novels and stories feature protagonists who must do both.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hollywood Days and Night(mare)s: A Leading Question

“Hey, New Guy,” HUSTLER’s then-music editor, Tom Farrell, called from his office down the hall.  “Do you want to go do a band interview for me on Monday night?”

It was my first assignment for Larry Flynt’s flagship smut rag.  I’d been on staff in the Beverly Hills oval-shaped (some say vaginal-shaped) building at Wilshire and San Vicente for only a few months.  Tom had been the first officemate to invite me out for lunch, and had done so not less than twice.  We chatted about music and his run-ins with KISS over the years.  He’d lived in Japan as a kid, picking up the language as the son of a U.S. serviceman.  While he wasn’t one to let someone else get in a word edgewise, he was perceptive enough to realize that I was interested in getting my feet wet beyond my “official” duties as the HUSTLER copy editor.  I was a writer, after all, and this would be my first chance at a national—rather than regional—byline. 

(Tom called me New Guy for my first three months on the magazine.  Then he was fired.)

The assignment was simple enough: Go to the Avalon Theater on Vine St. in Hollywood to interview the band Sparta and then watch their performance. 

A band I’d never heard of and knew absolutely nothing about.  In those mid-aughts I hopped onto MySpace (remember MySpace?????) to listen to some of their cuts and did as much digging as my research-hungry and curiosity-prone mind could on the upcoming release of their new album, Threes.  I spun Threes many times leading up to the interview, read the lyrics, read the liner notes, sought out nuance and thematic arcs in the album. 

Satisfied that I was prepped, I made my way to the Avalon one late November Monday in 2006, tape recorder and notepad in hand.  I’d mostly only ever done phoners with architects and general contractors for a construction mag and then some occasional set visits for movie-related articles gratis.  This felt new and exciting.  And also, scarily like I was out of my depth. 

I phoned my contact, who met me at the backstage gate and led me upstairs to a private area in back of the house.  Lead singer/guitarist Jim Ward was ushered into the room.  A slim, genial fellow from El Paso, Ward greeted me warmly.  If I was, to quote Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, “the enemy, a rock writer,” Mr. Ward certainly didn’t show it. 

Setting my tape recorder on a table between us, I settled into what I could only guess was my best reporter’s pose and mode.  Pressing record, I began by date- and time-stamping the interview…ya know, for posterity. 

I’d taken standup comedy class a few years prior.  My teacher, Bobbie Oliver, always said put your best joke as your opener and your second-best joke as your closer.  While I wasn’t trying to make Ward laugh, I was desperate to show him that I hadn’t spun the CD once an hour prior, that I had actually put some time and effort and thought into this assignment.  And so I led with the most ostentatious—one might say pretentious—question on my printout list, one I’d carefully crafted and rewritten for days leading up to this.

“I really like this album.  There’s a duality to it, like there’s a relationship that’s ending but simultaneously there’s a hopefulness about it.”

To my immediate delight, Ward’s eyes beamed and his voice quickened.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” he enthused.  Then, the most amazing words a cub reporter could hope for: “That’s interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody quite put it that way before.”

Rock stars and other celebrities endure the same tired questions over and over and over again.  (Have you ever noticed that when a star is promoting his latest film, he’ll pretty much follow the exact same script and reiterate the same answers verbatim from talk show to talk show to talk show in the week leading up to release?)  What I learned that day was the ultimate value of coming into an interview with something as close to original as possible.  Find a fresh angle.  That and do your homework ahead of time.  The more prepared, the more informed you are about your subject, the more interested you will seem to be in the interviewee, who will then almost certainly open up with better, more revealing, answers. 

I knew ZERO about Ward, his band, their album.  In the days leading up, I made myself a self-professed expert, such that I could discuss individual tracks in detail as well as the album’s overarching themes and connections to the band’s work at large. 

And, sure, a little ass-sucking goes a long way.  But in this case, I wasn’t blowing smoke up his.  I genuinely did—and do still—like the album.  It was crafted in the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections, when much of the country was at odds with the Bush Doctrine.  My interview with Ward was conducted not long after said midterms, when the Democrats took over the Senate (one of the cuts on Threes is even called “Taking Back Control”). 

One of the most amazing things he said was that he actually felt sorry for Donald Rumsfeld in the wake of his resignation as Defense Secretary following the midterms.  “I naturally cheer for the underdog.  It just felt like the tide had turned so much that I felt bad for him.” 

(Note: I am writing this eight days following the 2014 midterms.  Flip the script and the players, and the same could now be said for Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid.  The script never changes, only the cast.) 

From that lengthy interview I got 450 words in HUSTLER’s April 2007 music section…published in December (it’s best not to ask), which you can read below (apologies for pasting in the text below the image, which is difficult to read). 

Eight years later, on my way to interview Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller in D.C. yesterday, I tried to apply the same principal of leading with a killer question.  That story will follow after my article is published in The Washington Times in the days ahead. 

Or, to quote the close of The NeverEnding Story, “But that’s…another story…”


Tom Farrell, who gave me the Sparta assignment, died a few years back.  I never saw him again after his firing, but I’ll always be thankful for that little push he gave 28-year-old me.  

Listening to Threes, Sparta’s sophomore
release for the Hollywood
Records label, you’re not sure
whether you’re being gently lulled to
sleep or jolted awake for battle. The El
Paso quartet finished out 2006 with a
headlining tour to promote the album,
which vacillates thematically between
expectation and anxiety.
“It’s about my life in a weird way,
both fiction and nonfiction,” says singer/
lead guitarist Jim Ward. “I sort of live on
the edge of hope and desperation, and
that’s the cocktail that makes me an
artist. I do my best to destroy everything
around me, and then I work so hard to
keep things together.”
The songs “Atlas,” “The Most Vicious
Crime” and “Without a Sound” convey a
palpable sadness—a sense that a bond
is ending.
“I was in kind of a dark place,” Ward
continues, “and I wrote songs [thematically]
in the form of a woman or a relationship.
I felt that that way people could
relate to what I was [going through].
‘Atlas’ is about my hometown—if I made
my city a woman. Sometimes I feel that
the city deserts me.”
The affable Ward, who pens a column
for an El Paso alternative newspaper,
cautiously praised the Democrats’
midterm victory. “Now we better do
something with it. We better! You have
to realize that the way the rest of the
world sees our country right now is diabolical,
fucking diabolical.”
Although a harsh critic of the Bush
Administration,Ward expressed sympathy
for the President when former Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned.
“I’ve said a lot of mean things about that
guy [Bush], but I naturally cheer for the
underdog, the one that everyone else is
mad at. It just felt like the tide had
turned so much that I actually felt bad
for him. It was a weird feeling.”
—Eric Althoff

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

36 and Counting

 Every year—or as much as I try—on my birthday I sit down and write unimpeded and without pause or editing for one hour.  It is now 1:03 a.m. EST as I sit down with my faithful beirstein next to me to begin typing away in my apartment in Washington, D.C., a city I have never quite loved but that is now my current home.  My exercise every year on my birthday is to just simply sit, expound upon my thoughts, see where my pen…er, keyboard…takes me, reflect, meditate and otherwise turn inward upon myself in an attempt to see where I am, whereupon I have been, where I may yet be going.

To say that year 35 was one of great transition, change and uncertainty would be putting it mildly.  In the past 12 months I have moved twice, once to Illinois and now here to the nation’s capital.  My time in the Midwest was both excruciatingly testing but also far more fulfilling than I might dared have imagined.  After a quarter of unemployment, my career took me to the college town of Champaign-Urbana, certainly no place I had ever dreamed I’d be, nor one that I expected could hold me for long—which proved to be the case.  But perhaps it was fitting that my life took me to the middle of the country.  As a Jersey boy and creature of the east, I am thoroughly a Northeasterner, no matter that 15 years saw me as a California resident.  But half of my family is from the Land of Lincoln.  My mother grew up on the west side of Chicago, and many of her relatives remain there still. 

Living in Champana was unlike anything I’d ever known, and before moving, my mother said to me, “Eric, you’re going to meet the ‘real’ people.”  I freely admit to being an East Coaster and an urban snob.  From the land of Chris Christie I went directly to Los Angeles at age 17, and had lived in a major city or greater metropolitan area ever since.  To move not just to the Midwest, but the middle of the Midwest…well, that was a premise heretofore uncountenanced. 

Quite honestly, if I’d had any other possibilities, I would have gone elsewhere.

But as fate and necessity dictated, to central Illinois I went.  I’d made many, many trips to Chicago over the years, especially as a kid when my grandparents were living and still in reasonably decent health.  But Chicago, for all its promise and urbanity and populace, comprises just one small sliver of the overall area of the realm of the all-but-vanished Illini.  Below and away from Chicagoland are millions of areas of corn.  And wind. 

Oh, the wind.  In my memories of Champana, it is always there—howling in background, swaying the slats of my Urbana apartment windows to and fro, awakening me from naps and demanding attention as the gusts scream across and down the Great Plains.  It is, as its name implies, the “middle” of the country, if not the geographic center.  Many times during my five months as an Urbanian did the words of a Neil Diamond strike me:

“Nowadays I’m lost between two shores.  L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home.  New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” 

Fifteen years was I an Angeleno.  One summer, in 2011, I was a New Yorker.  Neither do I reside in now—or then.  My snobbishness needed some humility.  My sense of urbanity as the true nature and epicenter of American existence was in dire request of modesty.

My mother was right: My experience in Illinois indeed taught me that there—as in, hell, most of America—is where the “real” people live.  The salt-of-the-earth, down-home, conservative (although not necessarily politically so), traditional folks who are the backbone of this experiment in democracy.  Not only that, but the most welcoming, wonderful people a wayfaring stranger from the east by way of the west could ever hope to encounter. 

From week 1, I was welcomed.  I went to a Meetup for bar trivia at the Blind Pig in Champaign on a typically blustery, shivering December Sunday night.  Joe was there, the “grand poobah” of the CU Social Club (operating then under another name).  The categories of trivia that night fell into my wheelhouse, not the least of which was a round of Rolling Stones questions—all of which I aced.  Our team won the evening…the first time the CU Social Club had ever done so. 

I was told I was never allowed to miss trivia again.  By week 2, I was one of them. 

A professor friend of mine, briefly an instructor at the University of Illinois, told me that life in Champaign-Urbana revolved less around “going out” than it did involve hanging out at people’s houses.  This I found largely to be the case.  If the gang wasn’t out at a bar, we were chilling at someone’s home.  More often than not, mine.  I had the largest apartment, the biggest TV, perfect for hosting. 

I liked hosting.  As Walter White said, I was good at it.  I did it for me.  As much of a recluse as I can be, I get off on throwing a good party, on having the place that people come to for a good time.  That was my stead in Champana: I hosted the Super Bowl, the opening of the Winter Olympics, the Oscars, movie viewings, general getogethers. 

Sometimes, I’d just say to my peeps, “Come over and get drunk and high and watch movies until we pass out.”  Sometimes that’s the best.  It’s fun just having folks over to get stupid and watch TV until the sun comes up.  It reminds me of the good times I had as a teen with my buddies where we’d do all of that minus the substances. 

I didn’t need to be popular, but it was nice to be wanted and included.  The circle peeps would call me several times a week.  They found out about things in my life before I’d told a soul!  For a large campus town, it was remarkably closed and close.  Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business.  There were no such things as strangers. 

The town’s most famous son, Roger Ebert, founded a film festival there, which screened “overlooked” films at the amazingly antiquated Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign.  Ebert left right after college for the Sun-Times in Chicago, but he never forgot where he was from.  No, not Chicago, but Champaign-Urbana was the natural choice for his festival: his hometown, his alma mater, the place that gave him rise.

“Remember where you came from.”  That’s something my sensei, Ray Salapka, always used to say and imparted to his students in Jersey Bushido Kai.  It’s something I’ve kept with me always…a mantra that is applicable in nearly all situations.  Sensei meant it mostly in terms of how higher ranks in the dojo should treat inferior and less experienced karatakas.  “You were once a white belt too.”  “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I can’t do myself.”

In January Sensei Salapka passed on after a lengthy illness.  It was my first trip back to New Jersey since moving west.  When my father picked me up from Newark, I remember being so awestruck by the hills of my home state in gross contradiction to the flatness of my then-current living situation.  The funeral was difficult.  Sensei had been a giant in my mind.  Not only was he a formidable man physically, but his spirit seemed indomitable.  When I first saw him cry amidst a painful divorce in 1991, part of my young world shattered.  But he recuperated and moved on.  He fought on and put off the cancer as best he could until there was simply nothing left to give.  I spoke to him one final time just before Christmas last year, his voice weak and broken.  I wanted to thank him, to say anything other wishing him a merry Christmas, but my words froze.  We spoke for less than a minute.  It was goodbye and I knew it. 

He taught us to adapt to any situation.  I could whine and push back against the flatlands of the Midwest with what I saw as an “uncultured” backwater vibeology, or I could go along with it and just be with them rather than trying to be above them. 

I am from the East Coast and I lived in California.  This is all beneath me…

Never once was I made to feel an outsider, yet doubtless I projected that upon everyone else, if inadvertently.  Joe, the grand poobah, offered to loan me money within my first two weeks in town when I feared I might not make bills.  My relatives three hours north in Chicago, whom I had heretofore seen once a year if lucky, were now accessible several times a month.  My visits to Chicago were finally unrushed.  I could see as much as I wanted to on an easy time scale stretched out over however many weekends it might take to enjoy. 

Furthermore, with map in hand I was able to visit Springfield, the state capital, working home of Senator Abraham Lincoln and final resting place of later President Lincoln.  There was a trip to St. Louis to see a Cards game; Milwaukee for same. 

Above all, the friends.  They were my circle and my world and my source of joy, of arguments, of sorrows and reconciliations.  Never before in my life had I experienced such a close-knit social circle.

And yet I left.  Yes, I left.  Partly, my pride and my provincial attitude had been seeking a way out from day 1.  I hungered desperately for a city and a coast.  I pined for the ocean—Atlantic or Pacific.  I missed topography: mountains and hills and valleys. 

That fucking wind.  Ever-present and hounding me at every turn, indoors or out.  Even as the worst winter in decades faded and gave way to a tenuous spring, the gusts blustered on.  Lake Michigan howled and furied its way south across the Plains.  All was ice and snow and subzero chill for months on end.  Then the wind would blow me sideways as I biked from Urbana to nearby Champaign in spring. 

I missed good sushi and “culture.”  Rather, sophistication…or as such as I defined it.  As welcomed and at-home as I was made to feel, still I knew I did not belong. 

The Washington Times came crawling back.  I’d interviewed for a job at the Universal Desk back in October.  There was a hiring freeze.  Then a budget cut.  Then layoffs.  Finally they were ready.  Would I still be interested?  Yes, I said, but the payoff would need to be well worth my while to uproot again within the same six-month period. 

They made it worth my while.  Very quickly it came together.  I had an offer in hand to come back to the eastern seaboard.  To come to the nation’s capital.  To be a newspaperman.  To engage in work I would actually enjoy.  To be closer to New Jersey.  Within striking distance of three major airports. 

It was an easy decision professionally.  It was the right move.  It was the logical next chapter.  No matter that my increased salary would be swallowed whole by the District’s inflated rents and taxes.  No matter that I’d still have to work a second night job just to get by (forget getting ahead). 

I’m a Libra, and all life is a tradeoff.  I left behind my friends of the Midwest for the relative anonymity of the Beltway.  It’s a larger city, yes, and has far more going on…but I work swing.  My nights are occupied by my job.  I have made few friends.  Most of my non-work hours are spent in solitude. 

My friends from Illinois call and text regularly to check on me.  I get home to New Jersey once or twice a month.  Airports are proximate for trips elsewhere.  But the lion’s share of my day is spent alone.  I am beginning not only to feel more at home in solitude, but protective of it. 

People bore me more nowadays.  I get impatient quicker with pointless anecdotes and self-interested narrative.  At work I listen to my headphones and only take them out at the end of the day when we need to make final corrections to page 1 of tomorrow’s paper.  I have an absolutely amazing boss who fought hard for me to get the gig, who treats me like a fellow professional and not as a subordinate, who is a colleague first and foremost and a friend outside the office.  I’m lucky.  I found a great situation professionally and an atmosphere that not only do I not hate, but where the hours melt briskly away. 

And I get to write for them sometimes too.

All life is balance and tradeoff (again, I’m a Libra).  My move here was great for my career but a kick in the teeth of my social life.  To date I have had less than 10 visitors to my apartment whereas my Urbana apartment was patronized by dozens.  I enjoy my work here in the District of Columbia of a magnitude beyond my work in Illinois that is difficult to express. 

But I miss my friends—both those in Illinois as well as those in New Jersey and California.  I haven’t yet “found my way” here.  When I’m not working, which is seldom, I’d just as rather have several drinks and watch TV.  Or read.  Or just be alone.  Even dating has gotten tedious.  Most of the time I long for silence and solitude. 

Last year at this time I thought a lot about my own death.  Not in terms of wishing it or hurrying it, but rather in the scheme of I felt like I had done most everything I’d ever wanted to do, so might this not be a good time to check out?  Alas—or nay alas—I remain.  I regret not that I’ve “survived” yet another turn round this mortal coil.  I’ve learned much and experienced so much more.  Moving to the Midwest got me out of my comfort zone.  “Adapt,” Sensei would have said.  And I did.  Now I’m in yet another unfamiliar place with few friends.  I am adapting…mostly by working.  Because I’ve been broke for well over a year.  Because every dollar I make belongs righteously to a bank or a creditor.  Tomorrow I will pay off my 2010 Scion tC, which I bought in July 2010—my first new car.  That money can now be spent elsewhere, toward paying down my burdens.

Or, more likely, toward fixing the fucker.  An estimate handed down from a local mechanic calculates $440 for a busted water bump.  At least now, if I can’t pay it, they’ll come after me and not the bank for the lien.

The depression remains, albeit in moderation.  This past summer I am positive I received a bad batch of my antidepressant.  I was not myself.  I thought of suicide frequently.  I knew my brain chemicals were off.  A later batch evened me out, and I have been better.  The anxiety is far less than it used to be.  More often I get down in the dumps than anxious.  I spend more time alone.  My Achilles’ heel was hoping too much—setting my sights too high, setting myself up for disappointment.  I’m working on it.  I’m better at it, but that leaves, as the inverse, the notion that I don’t hope or care as much.  It’s a shitty place to be sometimes: in betwixt the death of hope and the futility of aspiration. 

I know nobody cares about things that I do.  I know my friends don’t yearn for the company the way I do.

So I remain silent, more isolated, more alone.  Doing things for myself and making plans for one.  It’s sometimes better that way.  I don’t care about disappointing anyone else, only myself.

I don’t believe in regrets per se, but I have a few.  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  Personally, I believe that every negative experiences teaches us something.  So while there might be a few things I’d do differently given the chance to do over again, I don’t “wish” to be back there in those younger years.  You couldn’t pay me enough money to be 18 or 24 again.  I like where I’m at…life really does get better after 30.  You know yourself better, you appreciate yourself more and have less patience for the moronicity of others. 

But…although I don’t believe in regrets, as I say, there are some things I’d do differently.  Or rather, that I still carry around as the yoke of guilt.

In 5th grade, back in 1988-1989, I remember once yelling at a girl named Michelle in gym class for some foolish reason.  She had hitherto been nothing but kind to me in school.  I lost my temper and screamed at her.  She said, “Well, soooooory,” and, to the best of my recollection, we never spoke again.  I wish I could apologize to her, although I’m sure she’d have no recollection whatsoever.  But I carry that with me.  It was uncalled for and unneeded.  And cruel.

In 1987 my mother took my neighbors and I to see the (horrible) Spielberg film Empire of the Sun.  For some immature reason I was furious that she brought alone the next-door neighbor girls, so much so that I refused to sit next to any of them, moving myself up five rows ahead of the pack.  When the film ended I excoriated my mother for wasting several hours of my time.  It was childish and stupid.  And she rightfully said, “You couldn’t even sit next to me.”  Mom and I have seen countless films in the intervening years, and yet still that experience haunts me.  I’m almost too embarrassed to bring it up with her.

The only other regret I can countenance is not going to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles on The Last DJ tour.  Jim Ladd, he of the eponymous title and nightime jock at KLOS, had been playing the songs for weeks in the fall of 2002.  I loved it and wanted to go…but simply couldn’t spare the expense.  I was broke (duh) and had already purchased Stones tickets.  A few weeks later, while out jogging, Mr. Ladd broadcast live from the Wiltern as Petty and the boys played the album front to back followed by the classics.  Never so much in my life had I wanted so badly to be in a place I could only hear. 

I own the album, given for Christmas two months after the fact, and played it so often that I feared the laser would no longer read.  It became my favorite album of all time, and one that seemingly few else cared for or knew about.  I’ve seen Petty not less than four times now, and he has never once played a track from that album.  I wish I could have been there.  I wish I could have heard The Last DJ live. 

Regrets are nothing more than anger turned inward.  I harbor too much anger.  I wish for too much instead of accepting what is. 

We all have work to do.

I’ve done OK.  I’m getting better.  Women like me, yet more often than not I prefer to be alone.  Like now.

It’s 2:04 a.m. on September 25, 2014.  Today I am 36 years old. 

Today is another day.