Monday, August 18, 2008

SAY, UNCLE



The San Jacinto Mountains rise almost nine thousand feet above our desert paradise, sheltering us from the elements and, in many ways, the cheaper strains of popular culture; since the median age here is roughly one hundred and nine, the dubious charms of the various Lohans, Simpsons and the instant porn heroes of the internet age, all of whom seem to get their own reality shows before their sheets have even dried, hold very little sway over our town. We are more interested in the important things in life: denture adhesive, for example, or how to get the most mileage out of your colostomy bag.

However there is one thing the Jacintos CAN’T protect us from, if my sixteen year old nephew, known affectionately by his inattentive uncle as Benmont-



- (owing to some confusion over his actual name during the first eight weeks of his existence) and his comrade-in-charms Senor Crane -



- are to be believed:

Yes, high as it may be, this mighty mountain range is, according to them, an extremely ineffective barricade against the dreaded Chupacabra.



At least, this is what they told each other while they were sleeping “under the stars” on the back patio of 801 during their recent visit.



Why they decided to try to terrify themselves with a mythical Mexican goat sucker when any number of the local snakes, spiders and scorpions lurking unbeknownst to them beneath their chaise lounges would have been more than enough to do the job is quite beyond me, but then one could go mad trying to understand the mental state of the current adolescent.



How my Sister, the one Still Up In Canada, does it I cannot fathom, any more than I can figure out why she dragged herself out of the comfort of her private guest suite every night around one a.m. to supply these two with their bi-hourly frozen pizza and burrito feedings.



I suppose it’s one of those “parenting” things that I’ve never really grasped, and it certainly goes a long way toward explaining why there’s no danger of me wrestling Madonna for the last remaining orphan in Malawi.



They've been relatively unobtrusive houseguests, for the most part , although my housboy Panton has been sulking out by the pool since they arrived.



Apparently my Sister insulted him by suggesting that perhaps using detergent and a scouring brush would be a more effective way to clean the barnacle-clad pots and pans in my cupboards than to just leave them in the sun and pray for rain. He made some sort of strange hex sign with his fingers which may have been Peruvian in origin - we've still never quite determined Panton's lineage, and his paperwork was rather conveniently "lost" during the rather dubious "boat wreck" he claims to have survived before entering my employ, so Peru works as well as anywhere - and hasn't come back inside since.

But despite my inability to entirely understand her, I applaud my youngest Sister, this deceptively sturdy little blonde girl I’ve watched grow from a tiny pink bundle in a crib into a fully self-sustaining, utterly ADULT woman.



Frankly, with her grasp of how human beings really work blended with her empathy and compassion for all creatures great and small, she puts me and The Other Sister -



- the one known in some circles as The Black Widow of Toluca Lake, to shame.

We make quite a trio, us three; all quite dissimilar and yet so very much the same in many ways.



We are slow to anger, but quick to forgive - unless you make us angry again right away and then we just slug you.

We love loud, boisterous gatherings but are always delighted when they are over and we are left alone to our books and music and lovers, preferably in that order and only if the lovers have cleaned up the kitchen before they come to bed.

And in spite of having no real hereditary home in the sense of a place of brick and mortar where, when you go there, your parents HAVE to let you in, we are ferociously protective of the family we have created ourselves, cobbled together out of ex-boyfriends, ex-enemies and the extraordinary people in our lives who have laughed with us, cried with us and sheltered us against the storms that we have, all of us, faced.

Yet, oddly, the events in our lives that one would expect us to attend as a “family” - weddings, births, the Annual White Sale at Macy’s - have always been rather catch-as-catch-can. And as far as funerals go, we’ve gotten off rather lightly; so far, as a family, we haven’t had any that really warranted the plane fare.

There was a cranky and not terribly well-remembered paternal grandmother who always scared the crap out of me as a child with her sinister Anglican faith and the fashion sense of Frankenstein’s Bride.



When she went to that big Salt Lick in the sky, I was enlisted against my will to be a pallbearer and, although I swear it wasn’t intentional, I somehow managed to get the location of the church wrong, and showed up at the baptism of a newborn baby dressed as if I was there to bury him. By the time I arrived at the cemetery the cars were already pulling away and I had to endure the cold glares of my father’s rather rustic side of the family, a group of people for whom coon hunting was an actual career choice, for the rest of the day.



“You missed Grammy’s funeral, asshole,” muttered a generously tattooed cousin I’d never met before. Spilling his beer down the front of his faux tuxedo t-shirt, he looked at me through narrow eyes red-rimmed not from crying, but rather from the smoke of the unfiltered Camel dangling from his lips. “Grammy was a great lady you know, a GREAT LADY.”

I tried to explain about the confusion and how bad I felt, but he just shook his head, sat down on a sofa which seemed to be upholstered in dog-hair and promptly passed out, which was certainly understandable; he’d probably had half a dozen bottles of beer already, and everybody knows twelve-year-olds can’t hold their liquor.



As I recall, my mother glided through that entire day with a smile of sheer terror frozen on her face. In her mind she had always been the wife of a country gentleman, spending her days dressed in jodphurs and velvet jacket, never actually riding the half dozen horses my father kept in the barn behind our low slung ranch house nestled deep in central Ontario, but just happy to know they were there in case a Steeplechase broke out.



Despite her pretensions, my mother does not have a cruel or thoughtless bone in her body. She can, however, be just a little delusional at times. This is, after all, the woman who insisted on dressing the five year old me in a blazer and ascot tie any time we traveled more than ten miles from the house. She always imagined we were the long lost heirs apparent to the Kennedy Clan, and the fact that the late, much-lamented John Kennedy Jr. and I were the same age only reinforced this in her mind.





It’s been a defense mechanism, I suppose; as a young girl she was on her way to be a Ballroom Dancer in New York City -



- but suddenly - in one version of the story - met the man of her dreams, a Rockabilly Singer and minor celebrity at a local dance and that, as they say, was that. In another version of the story, likely the truer one, she got cold feet, bailed on her soon-to-be-gay dance partner, and stayed within spitting distance of her control-freak parents for the rest of her life.

So the only way to survive the disappointment of giving up her dreams was to imagine herself living in New Rochelle, next to Rob and Laura Petrie perhaps-



- or just down the road from the Ricardo’s that season when they bought the big farm house in Connecticut and Lucy tried to raise chickens. It would never occur to her that she had spent her entire adult life in a community where having all your own teeth AND indoor plumbing is considered showing off.

In truth, of course, my father was nothing more or less than a mildly successful musician turned businessman who spent himself into a chasm of debt in order to fuel his beloved wife’s fantasies, and the sudden bracing splash of cold reality my mother felt at my grandmother’s funeral - the realization after all these years that she had married into a family of Hillbillies - was, I believe, the beginning of the end of their marriage.

So I suppose we come by it naturally, my sisters and I, this disregard for “events” that others seem to think are so important. That’s why it was such a big deal for my Still-Up-In-Canada Sister, my nephew and his pal to come all the way down to California to attend the screening at the Los Angeles OUTFEST Film Festival of my latest movie “ON THE OTHER HAND, DEATH”.



We might not make it to Christmas or the last rites at one another’s death beds, but by god we wouldn’t miss a Premiere for the world!

“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” I told my Up North Sister on the phone as I tried to explain that the desert weather in mid-July wasn’t just hot, it was the kind of hot that made housepets explode upon contact with the sidewalk. “Having you guys come down here for the screening is....well....it’s...”

“Will Shannen Doherty be there?” she asked, putting it all in perspective. “The boys want to see some real live stars.”

Given that their idea of “stars” seemed to be the cast of “The O.C.”, a show I had thankfully not seen until they arrived armed with season 4 of the series on dvd which they watched on the poolside television between bouts of roughhousing and Facebook-



- I felt pretty sure we could provide, at the very least, something just as good.

As I mentioned earlier, we don’t get a lot of “popular culture” oozing through the protective ficus lined walls of our desert paradise at 801. So it was somewhat illuminating to spend ten minutes watching dvd's of the now dead tv series “The O.C.”, a beachfront car accident of a show, laden with chemically tanned 20 somethings spewing the kind of dialogue deaf-mutes must write in their sleep.



While it was a truly ghastly program, with performances and production values on the level of a high-school drama class, my nephew and millions of other television viewers had made it into a massive hit.

I on, on the other hand, with my heartfelt and socially charged genre movies, will clearly die a failure.



Perhaps, I thought, I while watching them glued to the set as An Angst-Ridden Girl, who in any other universe would be a hundred dollar a day prostitute but in the world of the O.C. is “The Star”, I should do a little field research to expand my understanding of just exactly WHAT is entertaining the lower classes these days. And so, accompanied by the Boys - both of whom have the kind of physiques one normally associates with athletes and porn stars -



- (the difference between the two being slight when you really think about it...) - and The Sister, we made our way to the legendary Venice Beach.

The problem with public beaches, of course, is that they are frequented by the public who - in terms of their physical aesthetic - generally shouldn’t be allowed to set foot out of their double wide trailers in anything less than a full Beekeeping suit. However, the liberal application of several Mimosas at a beach side boite-



- combined with a few sightings of that increasing rarity, the authentic California Surfer Boy -

-

- helped the ocean view considerably and I was able to sustain what I believe was a respectable level of tolerance while Benmont and Senor Crane soaked up the local color.

Sadly, local color wasn’t all they absorbed; against my direst warnings, they decided to venture into the Pacific surf which, as is well known to all but the most naive tourist, harbors bacteria so ambitious they make Tony Robbins look like a slacker.



But the iconography of the California Coast holds a powerful sway, even to two boys for whom the Beach Boys are nothing more than crazy old guys who hang out with “the ex-husband of that babe from X-Men”. So into the waves they dove, splashing around amongst dolphins and grim-faced Eastern Europeans on package tours until, exhausted from holding their stomachs in every time a pretty girl passed by, they collapsed into a pile in the back seat of the car and slept the rest of the day.



Of course it was less than twelve hours before their ears began to hurt, as the various microbes they’d allowed into their bodily cavities began to work their magic, and for a little while anyway, it looked as though they were going to miss the screening altogether.

But after a bit of rest at the fabulous Magic Castle Hotel, where they were spoiled silly by the staff -



(can anything be better for a teenage boy than staying in the heart of Hollywood with a pack of Cheerleaders in the next room AND an endless supply of junk food at your beck and call?) they had recuperated sufficiently to make it to the theater and watch the film.

When I was my nephew’s age, suffering through what seemed to be an endless Hell at a small town Ontario high school so homophobic that tying up the laces in your work boots meant you were “a fag”, I once found myself inexplicably at the mercy of a very angry young man who decided I needed to be shown who was “the boss”. From out of nowhere, and entirely unprovoked, he grabbed my teenage self and shoved my face against a brick wall, demanding - in rather an old fashioned way I remember thinking - that I “Say Uncle”.

It was a small indignity in a long line of small indignities suffered at the hands of fools throughout my life in the public education system - the Wal Mart of learning, really, in that it provides a rather cheaply made version of the higher end product - and while it hasn’t necessarily scarred me for life, I did not inherit my mother's remarkable ability to reimagine small town hicks as noble savages, so it has resonated enough to be a painful memory through all these many years.

And so, several decades later, when I heard those words again, coming out of the mouth of a young man of the same age as my high school tormentor, I couldn’t help but recall that moment with a certain bittersweet sense of deja vu.

“Say, Uncle,” Benmont said, when he and Senor Crane had finished watching my movie, detailing the adventures of a gay private eye and his boyfriend investigating crimes against a woman who helps gay teenagers. “You know, THAT was a good movie..!”

“Yeah,” agreed Senor Crane. “It was great...”

The reviews for ON THE OTHER HAND, DEATH have been almost uniformly positive; some, as in the case of the Los Angeles Times and New York’s EDGE magazine - “a fantastic noir masterpiece” (!!) - are positively glowing. But I’m not too proud to admit that the effect of these laurels pales in comparison to what I felt when my two young house guests gave me the proverbial “thumbs up”.

Hearing those words again - “Say, Uncle...” - spoken not with undisguised rage but rather admiration and love, I could feel the teenager I carry around inside my deepest heart pull his face away from that long ago wall, brush himself off, and for the first time in more years than I’d care to recount, get on with things...

It’s funny about memories; good or bad, they can sometimes suck the life right out of you. But if you’re lucky, it only takes a couple of soggy teenagers to show you that the past is nothing more than a Chupacabra - a make-believe monster, scary in the dark perhaps, but only really dangerous if you’re a goat.