February 27, 2012 § Leave a comment
I once had a friend who was a famous child star. I will protect her identity out of respect and call her Amy. We both worked at a restaurant, and every now and then, super fans would appear to gush and beg her to sign an old lunch box or record.
Amy had retained the cheeriness of a child star though she was now in her mid-thirties. She had a haircut that was more fit for a ten year old in the 1980’s. I kept trying to help her brush up her image, and wanted her physical looks to match her dynamic personality.
Being Catholic she wanted to save herself for marriage, but it stunted her sexual maturity to a great extent. She avoided it by only being physical with her gay costars from Broadway shows, and had a hopeless crush on a married actor.
I realized to a great extent, Amy retained age ten because she peaked at age ten. She could never let go of the hope that she would eventually find success as an adult, but the problem was, she just wasn’t believable as an adult.
Sometimes she’d score a part in a show and be out of town for a month or two. But more often than not, there were endless auditions, and the self-sabotage of drinking too much the night before and losing her voice. She had a condo she could barely afford because she’d purchased it in a more successful moment. The life of a creative person is extremely difficult with constant ups and downs, drama and rejections.
For a long time Amy was my closest friend. We had all sorts of adventures and got into plenty of mischief. But then I introduced her to straight men – a bunch of raucous musicians to be exact. Amy wanted to make a husband out of the first one that slept with her. I tried to protect her from the obsession, and warned her that he was seeing other people and wouldn’t change. But Amy told me I was a horrible friend for saying so, and that she picked the wrong guy (as in, she should have picked the guy I hooked up with every now and then).
I was hanging out with her love obsession one day at the bar, waiting for her to show up from another dive with my every now and then guy. Love obsession turned to me and said, “I have this feeling that right now the two of them are stabbing us both in the back.”
He was right. I couldn’t believe it. Amy and I never talked again. Well, except for one night when I was too drunk and left her a nasty message at 3am. For months I felt an immense pain in my gut. I’d expected that sort of thing from the guy, but not from her. I still regret that we never got over it. Who doesn’t go crazy for a minute when they lose their virginity at 34? But if we really want to dig into what was going on – I think she couldn’t handle that she wasn’t the star of the show.
When we first met I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. And then somehow I passed her up along the way. She was so charismatic, and chipper and extremely social. But in certain circles, I took the lead and she accepted the supporting role. Competition destroyed our friendship. And on an astrological side-note, being an Aries, I have noticed my friendships with Cancers always follow the same pattern – intense and combustible.
This week I read Fame Junkies – The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction by Jake Halpern. In three sections he covers aspiring child celebrities, celebrity entourage, and celebrity worship.
Increasingly, children want to become famous for fame itself. They don’t see the importance of having a talent or something to give through fame. They feel that fame will fix everything that is wrong in their lives.
“In fact, one could argue that the desire to be famous is simply the desire to alleviate pain – the pain of being bullied, the pain of feeling like a nobody, the pain of not getting the dates you want, and the misery of being below the people who inflicted the pain on you (Halpern, 34).”
Who isn’t more driven towards fame than the lonely child who wants to prove to everyone that they are worthy of the love they never received. This child is more apt to watch five hours of TV a day and become absorbed in the celebrities that appear to be receiving the adoration they so long for. Here Halpern sums up the research of psychologist, David Elkind:
“… teenagers are prone to believe they are destined to live exceptional, celebrity-like lives… by their very nature, adolescents are unable to grasp what other people are thinking or feeling, so they exist in a sort of egocentric daze, assuming that everyone else is as obsessed with their lives as they are (Halpern, 16).”
If this is true, then celebritydom is the ultimate extension of the adolescent mind. Promising an entourage and fans that buzz around you like peons, non-entities that meet your every whim and serve up admiration on a platter. Halpern reflects on Dennis Hoppers Personal Assistant at the time:
“And yet even when she emulated a friend or a family member, it wasn’t exactly a realistic scenario because on principle, she was refusing to talk about herself or even to recognize her own emotions. The result was a pseudo-friendship, in which one person did all the talking and feeling, while the other deftly maneuvered to stay out of the way (Halpern, 95).”
As taxing as the job is, and though she and other personal assistants are unable to have personal lives due to the constant beck and call of the job, she loved being within the inner reaches of the famous. If she could be a part of their lives, she didn’t need to have her own. But many assistants eventually wake up to the fact that their lives have passed them by with nothing to show for it.
“Some research psychologists have come to believe that the need to belong is every bit as urgent as the need for food and shelter (Halpern, 112).”
It’s an ancient survival tactic to emulate the alpha to gain success in the group. In return the alpha can teach skills to the protégé and gain power through numbers. But what are the returns for celebrity worship, especially when people become famous for nothing. It’s a large-scale machine, completely distant and remote from real life.
“Celebrities are probably of less interest to people who live exciting, fulfilling lives – people who are involved with their family and community. But how many people do you know who live exciting, fulfilling lives (Halpern, 144)?”
Every year, thousands of children join scam agencies, where parents fork out thousands of dollars for the miniscule chance that their kid will be discovered. They often put more stock in a chance at fame than in a college education.
Before my prefrontal cortex had fully developed logic, I myself was gullible enough to go into credit card debt for classes and a modeling portfolio at a fake agency. I thought I could make some extra fast cash. But the owner and her assistant took all the real jobs and tried to get us to work for free.
Amy said that she wasn’t sure she would have been an actor if her strong willed mother hadn’t pushed her into it. It struck me as insane. Most people don’t come to conclusions about what they will do for a living until they are in college, or even sometime after. But here she had been told that she was an actress before she had even fully become a self.
February 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
In my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to tour Western Europe in a student group. We traveled through Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Normandy, Paris, and London for three weeks, and I chose to extend my stay for two more weeks in Paris, London, and Edinburgh. At one point, we hit four cities in 24 hours, and I experienced culture shock in each new destination.
The energy was frenetic in Rome. Vespa’s buzzed between lanes of traffic and came inches away from our feet in alleys. Buildings loomed majestically and echoed with centuries of history. Sexy people were everywhere in tight pants and bright colors. My fellow classmates made embarrassing comments like, “The women here dress like whores.”
They taunted me for checking out the men and I started a running joke, “I’m admiring the architecture.”
When the men approached us, “American girls! Where are you from?” One of the girl’s snapped, “Don’t talk to them! They’re probably in the mafia!”
I desperately wanted to talk to them, but every time I made an attempt, the girls pulled me away. The boys at our school looked nothing like Italian men, didn’t know how to dress, and never acknowledged us as sexual beings. It was thrilling to be noticed, even if they noticed everyone. I didn’t care.
I felt as I usually did, that my classmates were from the backwoods, and had no compass for reading other cultures. I began to completely disassociate myself from the group entirely. I did not want to be identified with them, and started doing whatever I could to blend in wherever we went (something I have mastered so well over the years that in foreign countries, people ask me for directions).
Though the others were amazed at religious sites, I felt sick over the obsessive power of the Catholic Church, and the awe instilled for the church through art. We were told that the foot on the statue of Saint Peter had been replaced because it had been worn away from too many kisses of the devout. I watched as people broke down in tears, so moved to kiss a stone foot.
I never quite got over how much I loved Italy. I’d been so excited to see the other cities, that I failed to grasp completely, the place I was in. Austria was beautiful, while Germany was the exact opposite of Italy. We went from anarchy, passion and wine to precision, sterility, and beer.
In Bavaria, amidst the opulent rooms of Kind Ludwig’s Hunters Palace, I actually passed out on the floor. Once again, the history of squandered wealth, over-consumption, and insanity overtook my psycho-sensitivity.
On the outside, I managed to put on a happy front, and had a song to sing for every place and time. But I felt increasingly alone, and recorded my thoughts privately in a journal. I figured out how easy it was to get lost on purpose and lose the group. In Paris I lost them in the Metro, and realized I hadn’t been keeping track of how to get back to the hotel. I stared cluelessly at a metro map when a little man approached me, “Come with me! I can take you where you want to go!”
“No thank you. I’m fine.” I learned quickly to make it look like I knew what I was doing and spent the afternoon wandering the Champs Elysees.
When the tour ended, the other students went home or broke off into small groups that I met up with now and then. In hostels I was suddenly exposed to the sort of people I’d been kept away from all of my life. Aimless wanderers hoping to hook up with someone, bragging about how many bottles of wine they’d finished off in a night, solving the mysteries of humanity through astrology. Before this, under the scrutiny of our group leaders we’d been lucky if we could sneak off and drink a glass of wine.
In Paris I stayed in a crappy hostel and caught something, possibly from brushing my teeth in the tap water. I was later diagnosed with a strange combination of virus’s that resembled a cross between Mono and Hepatitis. My neck swelled up to the size of Rocky Balboa’s, and I needed to sleep all afternoon.
By Scotland I was very weak. I walked through the ruins with a girl from Quebec. On her first day in Scotland a guy on the street yelled cuss words at her for no reason at all. She hated it there, but I kind of enjoyed the grittiness of the culture.
The day before I met her I had a fit of extreme anxiety and depression (a common occurrence back then). I realized that if I took a walk without my ID, and got hit by a car and died, no one would have known my identity. Insignificance and immortality hung over my head, and I fingered my laundry cord, trying to think of a place to hang from. Preposterous, since I didn’t even know how to tie the knot.
I had met someone in a nightclub in Portland before the trip, a trombonist whose band was #2 on the pop charts in Paris. It was strange to hear their music on the radio. He had a golden look about him, and was everything I’d ever dreamed of – intensely creative, passionate, and most unbelievable of all, attracted to me. In every city I kept seeing his face over and over – in the server in Austria who winked at me, in the Englishman who gave up his seat on the tube for an older lady, in the sexy dancer who stole the show in Fosse. I was so obsessed that I bought tickets to see the show again, but an understudy filled in for my dancing man. I was afraid that being gone for so long, the trombonist would disappear, just like the dancer.
For the last few days of my trip, I left my hotel where I’d had breakfast with stamp collectors and workingmen, and took the tube into a wealthy neighborhood to stay with an American couple that could put me up for the weekend. When I arrived there was banana bread and tea waiting for me on the table. They gave me a large room with a queen size bed, sink and vanity in my room. It felt like a luxurious paradise after all the dank empty rooms and nasty beds with springs poking up into my back.
I was painfully shy at the time, but as my trip progressed, I began to talk to people more and more. The desperation of traveling alone with little contact stretched me out of my comfort zone. I was about to come into a new place in life of empathy. And my journey through Europe would change me, most noticeably after I returned home.
That following summer I would fall in love with the trombonist, or think I did, and begin to write obsessively about everything that I felt. I learned that in order to truly experience people, you have to take risks. I didn’t want to be like the other girls on my trip, constantly shying away from life out of fear.
This week I read one of Henry Miller’s lesser-known works, The Colossus of Maroussi. As World War II broke out, Miller left Paris and went to Greece where he found a spiritual place, uplifted by the history of gods who share our humanity. He was stunned by the white lightness of the landscape, the generosity, the poverty, and the women who resembled queens, even in such a harsh way of life.
“To live creatively, I have discovered, means to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak (Miller, 206).”
Europe was really the beginning of my life as a writer – learning to breathe into the world, awakening to my senses.
February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Growing up, I never really talked to any boys until I slept with one. And by that time, they were no longer really boys – especially since I was twenty-one and I gravitated to older men.
In my senior year of college, there was a speaker at chapel who seemed more suited to Junior High students. He neatly categorized the different stages of a relationship through a ladder analogy. The bottom rung was eye contact. The second rung was conversation. The third rung was holding hands. The further up the rungs you climbed, the more dangerous it became. He told us it was best not to go past the third rung before marriage.
I turned to the girl next to me and said, “I started at the top rung and worked my way down.” She gave a nervous laugh. But I knew plenty of people who followed the ladder rule – my sister for example. She and my brother in-law never kissed until a month before their wedding. She was disappointed that they didn’t quite make their goal of waiting. Their friends however, did.
At my college the divorce rate among the alumnus was huge. Years after, I heard women complain that they didn’t enjoy sex with their husbands. From birth onwards – girls and boys were taught that sex is dangerous, taboo, disgusting, perverted, depraved, sinful, dirty. And then one day you find ‘the one.’ You get married and then all of a sudden – sex is beautiful. But actually, often it isn’t. Because how do you shake all of those old perceptions that are ingrained not only in your mindset, but in your body.
Growing up in Christian schools, education on sex was extremely limited, and friends offered silly stories that had no bearing in actual life:
“If you don’t have the gene for curling your tongue, then you can’t French kiss properly.”
“A woman is a rose. To each man she sleeps with, or gives a part of herself, she gives away one of her petals. If she sleeps with too many men, soon she’ll have no petals left.”
This conveniently excludes the fact that a rose is a perennial and comes back every year. There is no direct experience in these ideas. Admitting direct experience is taboo. Denial even sometimes remains after a girl appears to have swallowed a watermelon. And of course, denial is also the reason for the failure to buy condoms or birth control in the first place.
The dangers of repression became glaringly obvious one day when a group of girls decided to streak through campus. Every year it was the tradition for guys to do this, and it was always at a very public event. The first year it was while we were all on the lawn watching ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’ in 3-D. All of a sudden naked guys were streaking past the screen – odd because at first it seemed like part of the movie. The next year they rode their bikes through a festival. And the third year, some girls from the Basketball team wanted to join the tradition.
They went streaking through the canyon by the dorms – and strangely enough, guys started chasing them down, driven by mad lust. Something comical and bonding and freeing turned into something horrific. Most of the girls darted down a gravel path, trying to get away. They dove into the bushes to hide, getting scraped by stones and branches. Only one saintly fellow came and offered clothes to get them back to safety.
This all reaffirmed for me my distrust and lack of interest in the guys at my school. I had a long list of issues. For every six girls there were only four guys. Overall, they were unattractive, lacking in life experience, introverted with women, hypocritical. Basically, they were a direct reflection of myself, and I did not want to be who I was. Up to that point, I had always been at the hands of environment and religion – ingrained to think the way I thought.
Among many girls at my college there was a celebration of the infantile. My friends sported the same haircuts they’d had since the third grade. They liked to wear t-shirts and sweatshirts with cartoon characters emblazoned on them – most popular being Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse. My roommate insisted on putting up hideous posters by Ann Geddes of babies in flowerpots and dressed as pea pods. They favored the pastel colors of a baby nursery – pink, lavender, lime green, baby blue. Bedspreads ranged from candy-colored stripes to polka dots. Their binders had pictures of puppies and kittens in the front. And yet – they were adults between the ages of eighteen to twenty-two.
These women preferred to remain in an infantile state because it was easy. One year I asked all the girls on my floor if they would rather marry for passion and adventure or for comfort and security. Every girl chose comfort and security except for my roommate and I. They went to college to get their M.R.S. degree and I listened to them complain if they didn’t get that ‘ring by spring.’ Marriage was protection from the dangers of being out in the world. A husband would take care of them, protect them, control their lives and make the decisions. They would spend their time scrapbooking sentimental memories, making banana bread, volunteering at church. They would mistrust any environment not labeled ‘Christian.’ They would attempt to repeat the entire system by ingraining their children with the same unrealistic worldview. They would secretly acknowledge that their husband was not a prince. They would feel trapped, but the world without a husband is the great unknown. They’d never been in it, and never wanted to be.
I just finished reading Carlene Bauer’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl. Maybe I was too excited to read a book that seemed comparable to my own developing memoir. But she failed to draw me in. I spent the entirety rolling my eyes, just wanting her to get over herself. Was it because I relate in all the parts of myself that I don’t like, or because I saw so many of the girls that I grew up with? Probably, a little of both.
Bauer grew up in the Protestant church, attended a small Catholic college, and then moved to New York to become an editor, still clinging to her virginity. She eventually leaves religion behind, but not prudery. She excuses it by saying that she is a perfectionist.
“Used improperly, said church, sex could addle you beyond repair. If someone who didn’t love you saw you naked, you would become Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass, eyes gone wild and trembling, wanting to drown yourself in the bathtub because your awakened appetite could not be satisfied (Bauer, 176).”
God wasn’t really the reason Carlene Bauer didn’t get out there and throw herself into the depths of life like she really wanted too. It was only herself holding her back – her fears, her introversion, her lack of confidence.
“Maybe my body was what was weighing me down, not God, and if I could just learn to forget about my body, my mind could finally, finally be free (Bauer, 62).”
The title of her book is ironic. Not That Kind of Girl. For the entire memoir, it is strikingly obvious that she has always longed to be that kind of girl – the kind of girl that lives a wild life, with passions and loves, throws caution to the wind, a real bohemian. She relates to Sylvia Plath and looks up to Edna St. Vincent Millay, and chides herself for not being nearly as interesting. Though I am happy that she is a success as a writer and has found her way outside of the beliefs that held her back, I wanted her to become what she always dreamed of being. I saw more potential for her, and I hope she finds it for herself.
February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments
In Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, set in 19th Century France, Frederic is obsessed with Madame Arnoux, the wife of his friend. It takes him years to gain her confidence and she eventually grows to love him too, but refuses to give herself to him out of propriety. He takes on her husband’s Courtesan for distraction and attains the closest he ever comes to marriage with Rosanette. But he can’t worship a woman who isn’t respectable, and her habits eventually annoy him. His mother tries to arrange for him to marry a neighbor girl from the country for money and property, but he is too distracted by Madame Arnoux.
“For some men, the stronger their desire, the more difficult it is for them to act. They are hampered by mistrust of themselves, daunted by the fear of causing offence; besides, deep feelings of affection are like respectable women; they are afraid of being found out and go through life with downcast eyes (Flaubert, 174).”
The enormity of their love grows through Madame Arnoux’s refusal to consummate it. Only through consummation can love take its natural course and eventually balance out or dissipate. But instead, their desire builds over the span of many years until the woman that she was is gone, her white hair shocking him beneath her bonnet. His ideal of her cannot hold up in reality.
“Frederic suspected that Madame Arnoux had come to offer herself to him; and once again he was filled with desire, a frenzied, rabid lust such as he had never known before. Yet he also had another indefinable feeling, a repugnance akin to a dread of committing incest. Another fear restrained him – the fear of being disgusted later… partly out of prudence and partly to avoid degrading his ideal, he turned on his heel and started rolling a cigarette (Flaubert, 415).”
By this point, Frederic’s confused desires have bungled his chance for a marriage into high society. He squanders his money away on women and gives loans to friends that are never repaid. All of his opportunities go flat, his life consumed by the illusions of love, money and power.
In old age he recalls his fondest memory as a naïve young man, running from a brothel in embarrassment when the girls laughed at his bewildered stares. Our lives are filled with failed aspirations, but our finest memories are spontaneous and wild; we fall into them carefree, and then realize we have no grasp, carried away beyond ourselves.
Years ago, I was talented at upholding and building the illusion of love. The best way to do this is to have a long distance relationship. I became obsessed with a guy that moved to LA two days after I met him. He was an older artist with a chiseled face and a body like a whippet. He lied to me that he was only going to LA on business. But everyone else knew that he moved. He was afraid of losing me, and his lies only got worse.
We had intense chemistry. I felt connected to him not only physically and spiritually, but psychically. I had mystical, symbolic dreams about him, and he would call right after I’d had them. When he visited things never matched the dream of what I thought it could be. But even so, we cried to be in each other’s arms and clung to each other with an intense fear of loss. Years went by like this. I told him that I slept with other people, and kept hoping that someone would make me forget him. But all the parties and wild nights couldn’t dislodge him from my brain.
Eventually I had the opportunity to fly out to Venice Beach for a week. I thought that maybe if it went well, I would move there. But he called me two days before my flight to tell me he had a girlfriend. Apparently it was okay to see me across the country, but not in his neighborhood. When I got there we had breakfast and I did my best to charm him away from the other woman. Later on, I blew up at him over the phone and had to pull my rented Mustang over to the curb, crying for half an hour. Towards the end of the week we had another much more stunted breakfast where he showed me his ideas for a cartoon show.
I stayed in a depressing hostel. The bright sun bothered me and I kept the curtains closed. There was no mirror or even a picture on the walls, just a bed in a box-like room. It felt like a prison. I heard people talking distantly down the halls. But I felt stuck on the mattress with springs poking into my back. I cried for a full day. Then roamed in solitude. A creepy guy tried to seduce me with a massage on the beach. I watched dolphins on the hazy horizon.
A trio of film people ate brunch at the same place and time everyday. Three days in a row I watched them draw attention in whatever way they could. I saw the Dali’ exhibit at LACMA and found it was easier to walk away from LA Man than to walk away from The Metamorphosis of Narcissus. I was drawn into the storm of color in a surreal existence. My life felt surreal, and I felt guilty of being like Narcissus, in love with a man who I’d made into my own reflection. I didn’t really know him at all.
I met a handsome guy at a bar who rambled about his job as a set designer on some show I’d never heard of. He complained about how flaky everyone is in LA. A friend of his turned up and he ignored me for a half an hour, showing off. When I gathered my things to leave he acted shocked that I wasn’t going home with him. I couldn’t wait to leave that city with all the people it had ruined through too many illusions of grandeur. Proximity to fame blew up their egos making them blind to the people all around them. And when dreams become a reality they are never really what we think they will be. Fame and wealth can be extremely isolating.
“In every parting there comes a moment when the beloved is already no longer with us (Flaubert, 415).”
When LA Man turned on his heel and walked away, I knew I was better off without him. But the sadness overwhelmed me. Three years later he called to say that he’s not really with his girlfriend anymore and they’re seeing other people. Then he added, “Whatever happened with that guy you were living with?”
“We got married last September.”
Stunned silence. He had thought that my life could fall to the wayside to make way for him, that all of his lies would be forgotten. He had his own illusions.