08/26/2020

As I write this, late in the summer of 2020, Santa Cruz is on fire. The UC Santa Cruz campus was evacuated earlier this week, and photos showed the Boardwalk glittering against a backdrop of ominous orange, with a setting sun of otherworldly magenta.

Santa Cruz was a major character in the first half of my life, and has been an occasional correspondent since. Watching it suffer feels like visiting the hospital bed of an old but no longer dear friend.

Frank and I met when he was a sophomore and I was a freshman at UCSC: I saw a card posted on the dining hall bulletin board, from three people looking for a fourth for bridge. Given that I’d spent most of the year vacillating from depression to terror and back (the serial killer Edmund Kemper was picking off girls my age and leaving them strewn in pieces around the campus’s many forests, crevasses and ridges), the idea of an occasional bridge game was compelling. But I had no idea what a big part of my life the game, and the three of them, would become – we wound up playing cards more nights than not, often piling into a VW Beetle to go downtown at 2am and eat fresh donuts from Ferrell’s, a local haven. Sometimes we came back and played more cards after that.

Scott, our informal leader (and the owner of the Beetle), was tall and slim, with wavy sunbleached hair and an engagingly crooked smile. When you asked Scott what his goals were, he said “getting rich”[1]; last I looked, he was the Chief Technical Officer of a huge national media empire. Maureen, dark-haired and easygoing, was one of the campus’s very few female math students. Scott’s roommate Frank was taciturn and wry, and was majoring in chemistry.

I made a move on Scott, who gallantly pretended not to know what I was trying to do. (He knew.) So it was Frank who wound up in my bed – his first time, my eighth or ninth. And when I realized that another year in the dorms would be hazardous to my mental health, it was Frank who I invited to share a large off-campus room with me, near a campus bus route.

We lived together for a pleasant, if very stoned and sloppy, year. Then he changed his major to Civil Engineering and transferred to UC Davis, back in his hometown. I stuck it out in Santa Cruz for a year, working as an “usherette” in a movie theater and going to classes when I felt like it, which was seldom. Then I dropped out and moved to Davis, where we found an apartment together.

But Santa Cruz wasn’t through with me yet. Frank’s family owned[2] a huge old beach house on the west side of town, overlooking the vast stretch of the Pacific. So for all Frank’s and my decade and a half together, we spent nearly all our vacations – first with my big crazy standard poodle Mac, then with Mac and Miles, then with Miles and Ben – in that house, along with a shifting cast of a dozen or more grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. (Those vacations spurred my earliest impulses toward extended family: there was no question that both the kids and the grownups were calmer and saner with a lot of loving company to blunt the harsh edges of any particular relationship.)

It was also in Santa Cruz that Frank and I decided to end things. We left the sleeping kids with his folks, drove far enough out of town that we were unlikely to be seen by anyone who cared that we were sitting over coffee with tears running down our faces, and together sketched out our separate futures.

I was no longer welcome at the Santa Cruz house after that, but the kids were still spending lots of long weekends there with Frank and his family. Today, they both adore Santa Cruz in the way that any kid loves the site of repeated fun and affection: Miles had hoped to have his wedding to his wife Destiny there, although the logistics proved impossible – they ended up marrying in Long Beach, Southern California’s closest analog to Santa Cruz.

I tried, once, to vacation in Santa Cruz myself, building a few days’ break around a speaking gig at a downtown sex shop. But the topography of the town had shifted after the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, so many of my haunts and landmarks were gone; those that remained all carried a ponderous weight of memory. I drove home in an odd, sad, might-have-been mood, wondering if what I’d gained was worth what I’d given up.

Les Dudes continued to report back to me about the doings in Santa Cruz. Their great-grandmother was there and then she wasn’t, and then their grandmother, and then their grandfather. Cousins I remember as infants came, played, went to the Boardwalk and for walks on the beach, left for college and other towns, and their kids came back to Santa Cruz.

Over Labor Day weekend of 2006, Ben heard a noise from Frank’s room. When he went to investigate, he found Frank on the floor in the throes of what turned out to be a major stroke. But a few months later, he drove Frank back to Santa Cruz, where the deaths of the family elders had left the wheelchair-accessible bedroom available. The family, its topography changed by the earthquakes of life, still gathers at the house several times a year.

I’ve had one more visit to Santa Cruz. When Edward and I got married, we spent as little as possible on what was at our ages a fairly unexceptional rite of passage (the County Clerk’s office, then later a modest gathering in a church meeting room, with some cheeseboards and some champagne and a cake). With the money we had left, we took a “honey-asteroid”[3] at a place in downtown Santa Cruz that billed itself as a “bed, bud and breakfast,” run by a pair of dyke cannabis activists who turned out to know Edward already from the queer and activist communities.

Santa Cruz, on that trip, was the end of another story: the site of the last full-on kink scene I ever did, and also of the last time I had genital sex (making the place a Bed, Bud, Breakfast, Bondage and Blowjob). Another landmark, I guess.

By the time I get back to that part of the world, it will have shifted yet again: the fires are still uncontained, and whatever remains of the town and the campus will be irrevocably changed. But you can’t change the past, and Santa Cruz is a permanent part of my brain and my heart.


[1] Contemporary college students might not recognize how startling a statement that was in 1972, particularly at “Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp.” For comparison, imagine asking a fellow student in the 2020s what they want to do after college, and having them say “I dunno, man, just hang out, smoke a bit, figure out who I am, you know?”

[2] Still does.

[3] Too small to be a honeymoon.

08/17/2020

Cinema Avec Dudes #1

I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time, but Miles was the kind of calm baby that invariably falls asleep while nursing. So I took him to his first movie at the ripe old age of three months: Allegro Non Troppo, a charming Italian animation set to classical music (yeah, Disney did it first, but Bruno Bozzetto did it better – or at least more wittily).

I picked a matinee with a starting time that coincided with his usual naptime. Any parent can tell you how seldom that actually works, but he was the exception to the rule – as soon as the house lights went down, I opened my shirt, stuck him on a breast, and enjoyed the movie with a warm armful of slumbering infant. It should be noted here that this is an excellent strategy for making sure you have several rows to yourself.

During that first year, when I was struggling to adapt to life as a stay-at-home mom, we went to a lot of movies. The first time we chose a movie for him, though, was when he was three: Frank was out of town, and the drive-in was playing The Muppet Movie.

Did I turn my child into a puppeteer that night? Perhaps. All I can report, over the intervening four decades, is that he adored every minute of it. (Except the moment when a newly gigantic Animal burst from the roof of a house. That made him cry – but maybe the trauma served to cement the film into his brain. Ask your favorite psychiatrist.)

I’d gotten a little cocky with my cinephile toddler, though. When Ben came along, I was expecting another child with Miles’s placidity.

Hah.

Ben was resistant, wired and easily overstimulated. Once in a while, he’d react to the loud sounds and flashing lights by going to sleep. (That tendency persisted for quite a while: at seven, he slept soundly through all but the first five minutes of Die Hard 2.) More often, he’d twitch and then start screaming, and I’d have to carry him out of the theater – which didn’t go over well with a school-aged Miles.

Fortunately, in the five and a half years between Miles’s birth and Ben’s, the VCR had become affordable for young families like ours. If there was a movie Frank and I wanted to see, we’d take the kids to their grandparents’ and send a couple of their favorite tapes with them – which was nice, because if I’d had to listen to Pinocchio one more time, I was going to reach into the television and tear that little fucker’s nose right off.

Before too long, though, they finally matured enough that I could take both of them to movie theaters. After the divorce, movies, and later live theater, became part of the small new family we were building together – and remains so to this day.

After I’d seen The Princess Bride in New York, I couldn’t wait to get home and take them to it. New flicks were slow to come to Sacramento back then, but finally it showed up and I took them to a matinee. I made it into a bit of a special event, talking up the movie and its wonders, and even springing for two small popcorns instead of making them share a medium one.

When the lights came up after the credits, I looked over to see how they’d responded. They were both dazzled. Four-year-old Ben was so mesmerized that he’d completely forgotten to eat even a bite of his popcorn, so we took it home for him to eat it later. And for months afterward, ten-year-old Miles compulsively drew ROUSes[1] that we hung all over his door, the refrigerator, and anywhere else in the house that had room for a portrait of a mutant capybara.

The Muppet Movie and The Princess Bride have an elusive quality in common: they offer a plot and characters that are simple and engaging enough for kids, but they also work at a meta level, commenting wryly on themselves in a dog-whistle that can be heard by the adults in the audience. Rocky and Bullwinkle was the pioneer of the form, although most of its topical humor from the early 1960s flies far over the head of contemporary kids.

If you think that’s easy, try writing a story like that yourself – I think you’ll find that walking the tightrope between “too juvenile” and “overly earnest” is work for virtuosi like William Goldman and Jim Henson.

I spent most of the Dudes’ childhood seeking out entertainment like that, and rarely finding it. As a result, I wound up sitting through a lot of dreck (Problem Child, oh my god, comes to mind), and they wound up watching a bunch of stuff that was far too adult for them. On the other hand, now that they’re grown, they’re finding it useful to have seen a lot of cultural touchpoints that their peers missed out on, even if they didn’t quite understand them at the time.

Every now and again, even at their ages, we’ll watch a classic, and all of a sudden they’ll understand some joke from The Simpsons that went way over their heads at the time. Which is not the best argument for cultural literacy, but it isn’t the worst, either.


[1] In case you’re one of the four people on the planet who have never seen The Princess Bride, that stands for Rodents of Unusual Size.

08/08/2020

My friend Paul hates going to the movies alone. He’s spent more of his life single than he’d prefer, and soloing at the movies feels to him like he’s failed somehow; he’ll miss a flick rather than go by himself.

I, on the other hand, have generally had much less solitude than I wanted – between my partners and my children, I haven’t spent as much as a year living alone. And I’ve never quite understood the logic of a movie date: I want to spend time with you talking and getting caught up and enjoying each other’s company, so let’s go somewhere where we can sit silently side-by-side in the dark… how’s that again?

I love going to the movies alone. I don’t have to stand outside glancing at my watch and trying to decide whether to wait or give up, I get to eat all the good buttery popcorn from the top of the bag and throw the rest away, I can sit in the third row where Benedict Cumberbatch’s sexy sneer is the size of a Volkswagen. And, most of all, I don’t have to do that thing where, as you’re walking out, you quickly assess whether or not your companion enjoyed the movie more than you did, and immediately readjust your “man, I should’ve burned a $10 bill and saved the two hours” to “hmmm, not sure this one really worked for me.”

A few decades ago, I had forgotten what solitude felt like. I was 32, writing high-tech ad copy in Sacramento, raising two grade-schoolers, going through the motions of a friendly but passionless marriage. I struggled to figure out the narrative of my life: was I doing this, I wondered, because it was all I was able to do? Or was I capable of something else, more creative, more glamorous, more outrageous?

So I went to New York – by myself, just for a week. I went there to get acquainted with the single, talented, successful advertising genius I thought I might have been in a different lifetime. I have family in New York, but I didn’t tell them I was there; instead, I stayed alone in a cheap little tourist hotel uptown, the kind of place where you don’t have to worry about rapists but you may have to worry about roaches.

I figured out the bus and subway maps and rode where I wanted to go. I browsed in bookstores, drank cappuccinos, sat in the park and watched pale New York children climbing the monkey bars. I transformed myself so convincingly into my single urban doppelgänger that tourists asked me for directions.

And on my last night in New York, a Friday, I did what the other me would probably do: I went to a movie. I’d heard about something that was opening that night, a new movie with pirates and giants and other things I liked, so I took the bus downtown to see The Princess Bride.

It was mobbed. “Single seats only,” called the cashier. Hah! I was single!

I shoved my way to the front of the line, handed over my six bucks, and found the only seat left in the enormous, packed theater, in the second row next to the left-hand wall. The film was weirdly distorted by my seat position, and the crick in my neck was to persist for several days, but I didn’t care. I was enchanted – the flick was sheer romance, with just enough of a satirical gloss that I could immerse myself without embarrassment. I swooned over Inigo Montoya, fell in love with the sweetness of Fezzik the Giant, roared with laughter at the tail-turning cowardice of sinister Count Rugen.

A few times in a lifetime, you see a movie and at the end of it you say, “This was my movie. They made this movie for me.” Well, of course, a few million other people feel the same way about The Princess Bride. But as far as I was concerned that night, both of us – the Sacramento wife and mom, the brilliant New York copywriter – had just seen our movie.

And after an experience like that, neither of us wanted to clamber back onto a dirty crowded New York bus. So we – I – walked all the way back to the hotel. It was a crisp, starlit autumn night in New York, and the walk was some forty blocks up Park Avenue, past some of Manhattan’s ritziest real estate. Every building had a doorman, and it seemed as though all of them were smiling; I said “hello” to each one. At one building, limousines were pulling up to the curb, spilling out slender men in dinner jackets, women in furs and diamonds. I could hear piano music, laughter, the clinking of glasses inside.

Perhaps the other me would have been invited to that party – after all, she’d won a couple of Clio Awards by now and was probably making six figures. This me smiled and said hi to the doorman, strolled the rest of the way up Park Avenue, let myself into my hotel room, and began packing to go home to my husband and kids.


There are certain foods that you just don’t want anyone else to see you eating. This is one of them.

Solitary Decadence

One slice whole wheat bread

Crunchy peanut butter

Brown sugar

Toast the bread very lightly and let it cool. Spread with peanut butter. Cover with a thick layer of brown sugar. Broil the whole thing until the brown sugar darkens and bubbles and turns crunchy.

Resist temptation: let it cool a couple of minutes before you eat it, or you will inflict third-degree burns on the inside of your mouth.

This must be eaten, of course, with a tall cold glass of milk, while wearing your most reprehensible shabby-comfy clothing. Then tuck yourself into bed all alone with a trashy novel, and cherish your solitude.

Ben was not about to give up his ramen when he didn’t have Edna around to cook for him anymore. He was tall enough and responsible enough by then to use the stove, so he started fixing his own.

Back then, the only ramen most Americans knew about was Top Ramen, which as far as I can tell has not changed an iota through the decades: noodles boiled and softened in a broth of artificial meat flavor, herbs and a heaping helping of MSG. Not health food, but quick, tasty and filling (25c/serving back then – tough to beat!).

As soon as he learned that he could add other foods to his ramen, he started asking for ingredients: eggs to poach in the broth, greens and peas for flavor and texture, leftover chicken and pork for protein.

Ben had always been fascinated by food preparation – as a toddler, he would pull each of the pots and pans out of the cupboard and announce its purpose – so as soon as he had access to the fridge and stove, he began inventing his own food.

A decade or so later, when Ben was living with me and attending community college, my mom came up from LA to visit. I had a pre-existing commitment to teach a spanking class, so I suggested Ben cook dinner so the two of them could spend some time together. Mom valiantly soldiered through a big bowl of stew á la Ben ­– which included many chunks of tripe, which she loathed. What a trouper!

Ben’s Ramen

1 egg

1 package Top Ramen (Ben preferred the pork flavor, but Top Ramen doesn’t seem to make it anymore – substitute Oriental flavor, or the pork flavor of a similar inexpensive brand of instant ramen)

1 handful raw spinach

1 handful frozen peas

1 oz. chopped cooked meat – chicken, pork, ham, etc.

Bring water to a boil according to package directions. Drop noodles into the water. Loosen them with a fork until they are separated and flexible. Add the flavor packet and stir it in. Break the egg into the simmering broth. Lay the spinach leaves on top and simmer, until the egg is cooked and the spinach is wilted. Add the meat and peas and simmer for a moment till they’re hot. Serve. Don’t forget to make extra for Grandma Sue if she’s visiting.