High school highs, and lows

High school was hell, but Eve Babitz makes me envious of those four ego-scarring years with her descriptions of life on campus at prestigious performing arts school Hollywood High, which is famed as much for its glitzy alumni as for its cameos in films like, uh, Jon Favreau’s “Made.” (Anyone?)

Babitz mentions her days/daze at Hollywood High School in “I Used to Be Charming,” a plump collection of essays and magazine articles by the cool, acerbic chronicler of LA’s kaleidoscopic contours which I happen to be reading. It’s the early 1960s and she “used to watch them, those guys in their maroon and white sweaters at Hollywood High, their handsome faces and their invincibility and the way they smiled and said Hi.”

Right, that sounds like many a teenage girl mooning over the jock block. But Hollywood High is different, a sort of Harvard of the arts, a Juilliard transplanted to the sunny, mountain-fringed SoCal coast. It’s where the likes of Judy Garland, Cher, Laurence Fishburne, Carol Burnett, Selena, Bruce Lee, Sarah Jessica Parker, Lana Turner, John Huston and a wad of other luminaries graduated from. 

For mere mortals, it makes you think: Well, crap.

My California high school was a miasma of mediocrity: Clorox-white, suburban, middle-class, filled with dullards and philistines and animated by cliquey teen clichés — jocks, stoners, nerds, punks, cheerleaders, et al. “The Breakfast Club” writ eye-rollingly real. 

This callow pimple-verse was of course dominated by the chest-thumping jocks, those entitled, vainglorious meatheads, who actually believed they were special and that anyone but them gave one goddam about a Friday night football game. In four years, I attended one pep rally. I’ve never been so mortified in my life.

I can’t imagine the boho Babitz — artist, writer, rock- and art-scene groupie — stooping to the synthetic glee of a pep rally. But who knows. She was a wild one, slurping up life’s rich cocktail, no matter how corny or queasy. Her eyes were wide open, and rimmed with an agreeable cynicism that gave her writing a feral pop.

51qpHkS8hyLThe trope goes that high school is misery for anyone who’s even partially cognizant. It’s political, hierarchical, mean, rife with crappy beer, unshackled lust and timorous gropes. It leaves burn marks.

Not so for Babitz. Beautiful and busty — “When I was fifteen years old, I bought and filled my first 36DD bra,” she writes — and talented to boot, Babitz cultivated hot style with her precocious female cronies, described as “preternatural high schoolers,” which groomed her for a young adulthood of exotic artsy adventures, including a famous dalliance with Jim Morrison. 

One observer writes:

“It’s very likely Eve Babitz’s high school experience bore little resemblance to her readers’, then or now. A graduate of Hollywood High, the LA-based writer and artist moved in a circle of young women who enjoyed the company of older men. They smoked with abandon, casually popped pills, made out with the boyfriends of famous actresses, and occasionally made it to class. Many of Babitz’s peers were achingly beautiful; more than a few became famous because of it.”

I had more fun in high school than I let on — a dash of Babitz’s decadence and a lot of standard teen tomfoolery, as well as the predictable sturm und drang (angst for the memories) and a streak of bleeding heartache. 

Despite my tight quartet of high school friends being creative, thoughtful and music-obsessed, we were no Algonquin Round Table, nothing as chic, daring and ambitious as Babitz’s band of pretty bright things. 

We felt we were treading water in a sea of douchebaggery, believing, as deluded teens will, that we had an edge on most of our classmates, that someday our low-key cool would be appreciated. We were most assuredly wrong. 

So, these many years later, I pine for richer high school days, ones more artistically rarefied and socially sophisticated; grittier, glammier, sexier and slambangier. Pathetic? So be it. If I’m viewing it all through a gauze of romanticism, turning the rearview mirror into a funhouse mirror, I blame Babitz, that bard of badassness, queen of cool and cynosure of sex appeal.

If only.

A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

Things are getting hairy

Like many people’s hair during these epic days of cyber-hibernation (cybernation?), when electronics provide disproportionate company, mine is doing its growing thing, filling out, fluffing, turning unruly and cruel and comical. It is mutating, rising like a very fine soufflé whipped up by a Michelin-star chef crossed with Vidal Sassoon.

A follicular brushfire is what we are on the verge of, and it needs to be extinguished before I’m mistaken for Angela Davis circa 1971. Obviously I cannot make a rendezvous with my hair technician — I do not reside in Georgia, thankfully — who I see once a month or so. I realize now in this moment of unsupervised hair — it plays in the street and gambols across the meadows without a leash — I could probably go longer between appointments without scaring the neighbor kids.

I worry. We are going to be locked up for a long time, indefinitely. Yet some facts. One: very few people will see me. Two: I’ll be able to join a Led Zeppelin tribute band. 

A home cut is out of the question. Just see what we’ve done to the dog. Unfortunate home-cut stories on the web give me mental razor burn. I could do the simple buzzcut, but just typing that makes me quiver. It smacks of capitulation, semper fi, and Velcro.

There used to be an extraordinarily smart and funny satirical magazine called Spy. It published for 12 years in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I liked it so much I bought a Spy baseball cap, black with a yellow Spy logo. I wore that thing all the time, especially on bad hair days or lazy hair days.

And so, the cap. A lightbulb dinged above my haystack of hair and I started hunting for a quality, stylish baseball cap to conceal the coming tonsorial torrent. No actual baseball team or any sports-themed cap would do. If they made writer caps — I’d kill for a Philip Roth topper — I’d be in hat heaven. 

Then I thought of publications I read devoutly, namely The New York Times and The New Yorker. Journalism merch is my catnip. I wore-out a vintage San Francisco Examiner t-shirt and, over some years, broke a set of Chicago Tribune tumblers. I still own a collection of newspaper coffee mugs, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

While noncommittally surfing the New York Times store the other day, mulling over handsome sweatshirts and t-shirts (all of them free advertising for the newspaper, I’m aware), I hit upon the black and grey logo baseball cap. A plush twill, it’s not exactly cheap; the price made me blink twice, hard. But I went for it. 

‘Cause I’m going to need it. The hair, growing like bamboo with no machete in sight, will be its own entity by June. It’s already talking back to me, acting up, not doing its chores. The modest cap should do wonders to muffle, tame and smoosh the mutinous tumble. 

Then of course a whole other nuisance will blossom: a little thing called hat head.

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                       A lot like the one I ordered

 

Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

The smart, tart prose of Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore astonishes, still, her writing shiny, poetic and brainy, the best kind of literature. It’s massively, richly human, striking each note, from humor to horror and all in between. She’s a blistering deterrent for ever trying to commit fiction. If I can’t be that good, I don’t want to be anything — that’s my thinking. My stabs at fiction have been leaden, lame, laughable. 

I am re-reading Moore’s acclaimed story collection “Birds of America.” On its release in 1998, a writer friend and I were both reading the book, and I told him that her writing made me jealous, defeated. “Oh, not me,” he said. “It inspires me.” (That from the guy who was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist in his early 20s.) 

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Today Moore’s ecstatic prose inspires me, too, provides oomph, a kick to my motivational motor, spurring me to tap the keys and say something, anything. That can be dangerous. If it’s any good, most writing is. (I know — that’s axiomatic.) 

What I mean is, I can write stuff so sloppy, witless and rancid that it’s actually toxic — it wounds and discourages. Then I can pick up a book by Moore or her peers (say, Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff) and be pacified by sheer beauty and slashing craft and get revved again at the possibilities — the old can of spinach. 

Moore’s written four story collections: “Self-Help,” “Birds of America,” “Bark” and the brand-new anthology “Collected Stories” from the prestigious Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classics. And three novels: “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”

I read the latter and liked it, but I don’t remember much about it. “Birds of America” is different. It’s stickier, droller, more dynamic, more prismatic. It’s spiky, empathic, bright and cynical. Though she’s no maximalist, less isn’t Moore: Her words contain worlds. (And her titles are often titillations: “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People”; “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”)

I forgot to mention the stories are also crackingly funny. Moore’s effortless humor, mostly of a mordant strain, ribbons through the dramas organically. She’s no stand-up comedian like novelist Gary Shteyngart, who’s forced and erratic. With sociological rigor, she locates the dark laughs baked in the everyday.

Lorrie-Moore.jpgShe is particularly good at the jolt-laugh of the unexpected:

“The next time Bill saw her, it was on her birthday, and she’d had three and a half whiskys. She exclaimed loudly about the beauty of the cake, and then, taking a deep breath, she dropped her head too close to the candles and set her hair spectacularly on fire.” 

And she’s bracing when she goes darkly wise:

“This is what he knows right now, with dinner winding up and midnight looming like a death gong: life’s embrace is quick and busy, and everywhere in it people are equally lacking and well-meaning and nuts.”

My next book purchase will be “Bark,” Moore’s 2014 story collection, which I find hard to believe I don’t already own. I’ve put it off, sure that it can’t touch the brilliance of “Birds,” that it’s a disappointment in waiting. But revisiting her masterpiece blots out doubt. How can it be weak or wan? It can’t, I say. It can’t.

Not much else to do but read (and read…)

Thanks to the collective corona cloistering, I’ve been ordering books online, greedily. With libraries and bookshops closed, I’m buying used books from third-party sellers on Amazon and new titles from New York indie institution McNally Jackson. 

Unquenchably, I’m ingesting words in the yawning vacuum of self-quarantine. Reading is nearly as nourishing as food. This is what’s on my literary plate. 

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I met “Birds of America” author Lorrie Moore at a book signing for that acclaimed 1998 story collection, and she wasn’t the most jolly person in the room. She was frosty to her gathered admirers, but I don’t hold that against her. Moore’s edge informs her tart, smart fiction, which is also infused with emotional immediacy and pocked with laughs. With stories like the award-winning “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the book is a contemporary classic that hasn’t aged a whit. 

Death looms these grim days, though mortality is always on the mind of this moody Cassandra. Long ago I read the updated edition of “The American Way of Death,” Jessica Mitford’s definitive 1963 exposé of the funeral racket, and I’m back at it, if not for the dazzling reportage and head-shaking stats — upshot: funeral peddlers are exploitative swindlers — then for purely great writing that makes a dismal subject pop. The book is not only essential muckraking, but lavish literary satire, nipping at a venal industry with the toothy, pit bull wit of Pauline Kael. This tangy volume is one big reason I will be cremated and thrown to the wind.

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51VIRgJYGcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While rereading books like the above, I’m also rewatching some favorite flicks, including “Casablanca,” the evergreen masterpiece in which every element of fine filmmaking miraculously falls into place. I love a good movie book so I clicked on Noah Isenberg’s “We’ll Always Have ‘Casablanca’: The Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie,” the gawky title of which tells you just what you’re delving into. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I’m hoping for historical Hollywood gold on par with the recent knockout “The Big Goodbye: ‘Chinatown’ and the Last Years of Hollywood.”  

Dreaming about Paris, I tripped upon the site for fabled English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, that grand, musty emporium on the Left Bank, where I scrolled staff recommendations for Paris-set stories. Never mind its racy cover, I was lured to Elaine Dundy’s cult comic classic “The Dud Avocado,” a romp tracing the libertine escapades of a comely young American woman in the French capital who yearns to exist out loud. Called a “timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living,” the novel seems unlikely to disappoint this thwarted traveler pining for Paris.  41efY3TglbL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_On the note of cult classics, “Airships,” Barry Hannah’s award-winning collection, promises “20 wildly original, exuberant, often hilarious stories that celebrate the universal peculiarities of the new American South.” The book hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s highly anticipated after being called “one of the most revered short story collections of the past 50 years, remaining a vital text in the history of the American short story.” And this snippet from it makes me sort of love it already: “What a bog and labyrinth the human essence is … We are all over-brained and over-emotioned.”

51hhyhVwywLRaymond Chandler’s crackling and complex detective noir “The Big Sleep” scorches with style. The novel, a total delight, introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, literature’s great existential antihero, a shrugging loner with a gun, cigarettes and devastating wit. Chandler crams it with so many ravishing lines, images, similes, he elevates pulp to high literature. Marlowe, all slow-burn aplomb, speaks and thinks like the consummate smart-aleck tough: “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners,” he grumbles. “They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.” Unknown.jpeg

“Death Comes for the Archbishop” is a western in priest’s clothing. Set in the mid-1800s, Willa Cather’s elegant epic about a gentle French bishop spreading Catholicism through Mexico and its southwest territories braids American history with lush spirituality and, at times, a mean Cormac McCarthy crunch. The title is a major spoiler, like Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” but Cather knew what she was doing, and the foregone conclusion hits hard — and beautifully. Her eloquence is breathtaking, and the glistening lyricism comes out of nowhere to stun. Here Cather describes two men running through the desert: “They coursed over the sand with the fleetness of young antelope, their bodies disappearing and reappearing among the sand dunes, like the shadows that eagles cast in their strong, unhurried flight.” 51qJIvsSX6L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_