Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dracula Is the Reason for the Season
A Halloween Sermon by Simon

If you grew up in the '60s or '70s, Halloween triggers a certain, shall we say, fervor that simply can't be matched today.

Don't get me wrong — nowadays the jack-o-lantern celebration is more seamlessly exploited than ever, making tons of money as children shell out for Harry Potter costumes and adults shell out for Britney Spears costumes and everyone buys those bags of "fun-size" chocolate bars that weigh as much as a sack of topsoil. There are Halloween fairs and Halloween stores and sexy Halloween parties for the grown-ups and Halloween promotions and Halloween movie marathons on AMC.

Then, at the stroke of midnight, it's full tilt toward Thanksgiving.

Wearing costumes, being spooky, eating so much candy that your molars sing like Zatoichi's sword ... America loves it all.

And I'd be the last person to bemoan the "commercialization" of the holiday. But when I was a kid it had a certain, well, religious intensity.

Y'see, I was one of those kids who dreamed about Halloween all year long. This was in part because I was the weird kid who spawned the weird adult I'm proud to be today. But I believe it's also because I grew up in the Second Golden Age of Monsters.

The greatest monster movies of all time were made in the '30s and '40s. I'm talking about the Universal classics, natch: Frankenstein and at least a few of its sequels, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and assorted lesser-known treasures.

Why have monster films been so underwhelming of late, despite massive effects budgets and the doting attention of "serious" filmmakers? Because the desire to either shock with gore or tickle with kitsch (I'm looking at you, Stephen Sommers) has overshadowed what made the Uni monsters great: feeling.

The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man are tragic, dude. They're outcasts, exiles, prisoners of cruel fate. They feel longing and love, regret and even ennui. And yes, rage — but that wild destructive power has a context. Feel me? Lycanthrope Larry Talbot desperately seeks a cure for his nightmare condition. The Monster wants a friend. Dracula feels the dread weight of immortality crushing what little joy he can still feel. The Mummy wanders forever in search of his lost love. And the Hunchback? Don't even get me started.

For me, the Golden Age monsters were the highest of high art. I soaked it all up: the shadowy cinematography, the innovatively grotesque makeup, the vaulting score music and, most of all, performances that blended pathos and irony, melodrama and melancholy.

These flicks were hits when they came out, but when they were re-released in theaters and shown on TV in the '50s and '60s, they were welcomed into the cultural mainstream. They became domesticated into comedy, into music, into pop art; they were part of the family.

On the other side of the coin, Disney opened the Haunted Mansion when I was a kid; Famous Monsters magazine was a must-have subscription for geeky boys; and William Castle's amazing spookfests were making the TV rounds. Floating candelabra, wheezing pipe organs, walking skeletons, sinister laughter and portraits with moving eyes were the apotheosis of the form.

All of which is to say that for me Halloween was a time for the exaltation of all things creepy. I set up elaborate "haunted houses" to frighten the local kids, with demon claws descending on fishing line and mangled corpses fashioned out of old clothes. I had extensive collections of plastic fangs, tubes of "Vampire Blood," top hats and cloaks, which I donned to distribute mini-Snickers as ominously as possible to the courageous Spidermen and ballerinas who dared to ring the family doorbell.

Long after the Halloween decorations were gone from the neighborhood houses and local drugstores, my surroundings remained monster-friendly. An array of posters and photos from classic fright films adorns my office even now. Today might be the day I share my monsters with everyone, but where I live — by which I mean in the cobwebby corridors of my eternally eight-year-old imagination — it's always Halloween.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Dear Very Hot Crazy Bitch, SURPRISE!! You're Normal After All.

This is still not the illuminating second half of my post on dreams. Just hold on, my very hot readers. I'll get to it. Something tells me I'll soon have lots and lots of time to blog. That something is my TV show's strike captain, who has yet to bring me any news from my guild that doesn't strongly imply my writing skills will soon be applied solely to large squares of posterboard on sticks.

So, yeah, a strike may hit my industry as soon as November 1st. I don't have much ranting to do on the issues. Plus, more to the point, I don't have any control over the sitch at hand. Therefore, I apply my brainpower to something I can actually have an impact on: the entertainment of you.

This post is about the brain juices stirred up by the raging So Cal fires. I live in Santa Monica, which is close enough to the Malibu fires that my boogers are sooty. (By the way, this post will likely be only tangentially Jewy. So if you need a direct hit o' Hebe, tune in later. We got some in the proverbial hopper. Till then, shalom.)

This disaster really hit me upside the head with the feeling that bad shit can rain down upon my house at the whim of the gods. The worst moment of the week came when I heard a chick on NPR say a fire is headed toward the San Onofre nuclear power plant (you know, the one that looks like two perfect boobs with erect nipples?). Nothing like knowing you're close enough to soak in a nice dose of radiation to really put your life in perspective.

Which, as you know, I live for. Not radiation - things that put my life into perspective. This may be a sign of fantastic narcissim. But, you know, I write a blog wherein I constantly call myself wildly attractive, so I doubt you're shocked to hear I managed to make the latest natural disaster ever so slightly all about moi.

So, the last few days have been crazy hectic at work, aka impending strikeland. Ordinarily, I have a couple of built in pressure-valves in my day.

1. My commute. My car is basically American Idolville. By which I mean, I sing my ass off all the way to work, and all the way home again. It never fails to make me feel awesome, if not sad for the world at large that I am not a pop star so you can all enjoy my rendition of "Dance Dance" by Fall Out Boy.

Honestly, it's kind of embarrassing.

2. My walks with Mojo. Something about watching his buff, dwarfy self painstakingly sniff out patches of grass worthy of his poo just calms me right down.

The Mojo in question, looking all cute on purpose.

But, this week neither activity was all that relaxing. I listened to fire news in the car. And on walks, the air quality was noticeably post-apocalyptic. All in all, the cortisol has really been pumping. Perhaps it is the fact that my anxiety dial is already turned up that led me to a long sleepless night of obsessive rumination and... crafting.

Am I the only one who does this - channel my inner on-crackness into craftness? I have a friend who told me that when she's on coke she likes to decoupage. Perhaps it's the same with me, except that my natural brain chemistry is plenty jacked enough that I've no need of nose candy. Such is the way it has always been, since I was a wee poetess languishing in the suburban wilds of Redlands, California, up at 3 a.m. and consumed with worry over school or - let's be honest, it was never school, it was always over some stupid boy. It was only a matter of time till the bedazzler came out. Put it this way: I am really stoked not to have bipolar disorder. I know people who suffer from it, and they would roll their eyes if I called myself manic. But. When the stress hormones are running high, I find myself standing in my living room grooving to some livid chick singer who doesn't shave her legs, a spray paint can in one hand and a jar of glitter in the other. It ain't pretty.

So, I created some can't-quite-call-it-art work, I baked some cookies that come in a tube in the milk section of Vons, and lo - the night was still young. Sleep seemed like a distant ship unlikely to let me aboard. The TV said the fires had consumed one billion dollars in property, a writer friend emailed me to say he'd be less offended by the producers' negotiating tactics if they just out and out asked him for a blowjob, Mojo gave me this look that said, "Sera, put down the paintbrush and back away slowly from that ugly-ass thing you're making"... and suddenly, I was fifteen again. By which I mean: fuck the facts, this felt like it all had to be the fault of Some Stupid Boy.

That is when I had the following sudden totally on-crack inspiration: hey, I should google all my ex-boyfriends! This requires momentary utter retardation because... I don't know about you, but the gentlemen who are no longer invited to the party that is my world (or, you know, have revoked my evite to theirs) are absent for substantial reasons. I'm actually close friends with a couple of my exes, but there are also a couple who inspire me to never, ever take the freeway exit closest to their house, no matter how much time it would save. Shit does happen between people. Especially when they spend a large amount of time together, banging. Banging, especially exclusive love-filled banging, is a prime indicator of future problems, like the end of said banging arrangement, or relationship if you'd rather go with the classical term.

This would have been so much easier in, like, 1835, when there was no internet. But now, when my mood is already fire-stoked and strike-authorized, I check them out. See if they're famous now. Like, maybe they're really famous and rich, and they bought a giant house... in Malibu, oops. Or, I will hereby admit publicly on a forum read worldwide (if not, and I sincerely do hope not, by one or more of my actual exes, to whom I can only say with a smile: you're so vain, I betcha think this post is about you), see if their myspace says they're In A Relationship. Which, if so, would possibly lead me to click on their "friends" until I found the lucky new chica currently experiencing that experience I experienced back in the day (she wrote neutrally and with admirable self-restraint) when I was all young and sincere and flibbertigibberty and would never have dreamed the dude in question would one day be nothing more than humorously self-deprecating blog fodder. And then I look at her pictures and judge her. What can I say. I'm not the Dalai Lama.

Here's the part I associate with being Jewish. After I do this, I feel massively guilty. It probably isn't merely Jewy to feel that way. But guilt is just so Jewrific, and I do sometimes say "oy" when I feel it. I know that googling the non-dearly departed isn't technically stalking so much as the internet-age equivalent of poking yourself with a sharp stick. Yet it scores on the guilt scale: above the guilt I feel for not having set foot in schul in eons; below the guilt I would feel if I, say, actually spied on someone, with like binoculars or whatever. So it scores about at "sneaking a look at your dad's Playboy collection when you were seven" guilt level.

I consulted a friend (not the Cocaine Decoupager; a different Very Hot chick) who tells me she never, ever googles her exes. A second friend (male and gay, to try to get a cross-section here) tells me the only people who never, ever google their exes are Amish.

Yet I surely do wish I didn't ever feel like raising the binary ghosts of my Hanukahs past. Because no good ever comes of it. At best, it's like scratching poison ivy rash; doesn't quell the itch, really, and usually makes it spread. You click closed the search window and feel that quease in your pit, like you ate too many raw cookies. If you are me, you think, Shouldn't I be above this? I mean, I go to therapy. I read Jung. I keep a journal. I exorcize my inner demons for a living by naming the bad guys in my scripts after my stupidest ex-boyfriend! My friend Raelle even occasionally assists by naming the bad guys in her scripts after him! I should have this shit in check, yo; right?

And then this morning I went to coffee, and I got to eavesdrop on two nice Jewish ladies at the next table. I knew they were Jewish because one was conveniently labelled by her gold Chai necklace and the other, well, she kinda looked like my long lost cousin from back in the shtetl, except blonde and carrying an Hermes bag. They were talking about Hermes Shtetl Lady's sister, whose house had just burned in one of the many fires. I gathered the house was pricey and also the object of dispute in the sister's divorce. And then a highly fortuitous thing happened - the sister called Hermes Shtetl Lady's cell phone, and I got to eavesdrop on that convo too.

So, guess what? Yes, having to flee from the burning house sucked huge ass for this woman. Yes, her kids were in a tizz. No, it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor; having something happen to your home shakes you to the core, to the root chakra or whatever it is in your body that needs to feel some security in this snarly world. But here's the bit that interested me: within moments, the conversation drifted over to the woman's ex-husband. The classic "You don't know for sure he's dating her, and even if he is, it doesn't necessarily mean blah blah blah" kind of stuff. As though the world were not on fire. And then Hermes Shtetl took her turn, wallowing in boyfriend indecision to her sister on the phone, then hanging up and wallowing some more with her coffee date.

This brought to mind a passage in the Oprah-worshipped memoir lite, Eat Pray Love. The author says she heard an anecdote about traumatised evacuating boat people - how even though they'd just lost everything, all they really wanted to talk to a therapist about was how they liked this guy, and the guy seemed to like them but then dated their cousin instead. Or, as Sime commented when I sent him the draft of this post - it has always been thus. When Mount Vesuvius exploded, someone in a nearby town surely commented, "It was so horrific, what happened to those people in Pompeii. And it really made me think about my life, and, like, how I felt when Lvcivs left me. Man, that was emotional lava."

I don't know about you, but I need to be reminded of this. Because I am just so damn lucky. No, seriously. I have my dream career and live by the beach with the best dog ever and, knock on wood galore, my home was spared by the fire. So I feel pretty petty when I think about the icky past that seems too small to cause such nasty blisters on my overworking brain. So it is nice to be reminded: Yo, neurotic Jewish lady with the little dog ... You're normal.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Very Hot Top Five List.

The Very Hot Jews are today's special guest stars at Susan Henderson's LitPark, "where writers come to play." We have composed a Top Five list to edify and inspire you in these dark times. So won't you clicky-clicky, you hot little thang?

And as long as we're here, continued good wishes and best hopes to all the folks fighting and fleeing the flames in SoCal. One of our "top five" entries notes the power of the Net; here's a perfect example: You can help folks out just by clicking here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fire and Rain
by Simon

The sky is grey and creepy. Fires are consuming multiple corners of our state, and we Jews are hiding indoors. It's pretty terrifying to think that in these techno times we're still about as helpless as our primitive ancestors: only a change in the winds can stop the devasatation.

Needless to say, our hearts go out to everyone in the path of those flames.

Even if you don't cleave to magical thinking (and that includes "The End Times"), it's tough to resist the pull of apocalyptic narratives. I mean, Cali's burning, Nawlins is flooding, ice caps are melting, the Constitution is being eaten by political termites ... seems there's very little in the way of good news.

Which is why we take our joy where we can get it.

photos by Josh Pickering

I had a blast of communal pleasure so powerful this weekend that I'm still recovering. And since I was a co-producer as well as a presenter/performer, I'm now feeling a kind of bummerific post-partum low that isn't particularly helped by smoky air and particulate matter. But man, have I got some new memories to cherish.

I'm speaking of The Classic Rock Singalong, which had its club debut on Saturday night at M Bar in Hollywood. With the help of musical director and mensch supreme Josh Pickering and an array of wonderful guest players and singers, I translated what had once been a house party into a public gathering.

The band played hits from the past several decades (you name it: Beatles, Monkees, Neil Young, Carpenters, Journey, Bad Company, Cheap Trick, AC/DC, Blondie, Bon Jovi, Human League, etc.), and the audience sang along, with the assistance of lyric sheets.

I warbled a few lead vocals, as did wonderful guests like Mary Birdsong, Quinton Flynn, Maureen Mahon, Josh and others. But the most magical moments were when the person on the mic stopped singing and all you could hear was the crowd. I walked to the very back of the room a couple of times and saw nothing but ecstatic pleasure on people's faces as they wailed along. I'll never forget it.

There were several highlights, but "Total Eclipse of the Heart," that dazzling epic of pop sturm und drang, may have been the apex of the evening.

Accolades have been pouring in ever since, but this note was perhaps the most satisfying — and most relevant for the purposes of this blog: "Weird as this might sound, the whole thing reminded me of Chabadniks singing songs around the Shabbat table. Same sort of joyful, communal abandon. Or maybe we were just a bunch of drunk 40 year olds belting out songs that reminded us of being in junior high."

I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who helped put this unforgettable experience together, and to everyone who was there holding a candle aloft instead of cursing the darkness.

We're going to do another one in December; if you're in L.A., please join us. In the meantime, stay cool — and let's hope for a quick and decisive change in the winds.

You can pitch in to help victims of the Southern California wildfires by going here.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

My Neuroses: Collect 'Em All!

(by Simon)

How's this for a non-bombshell: I hate going to the dentist.

No, I mean really. I have sleepless nights beforehand. And despite an oral-hygiene regimen (I brush and floss regularly and even go after the plaque every now and again with a tiny, steel-tipped implement of torture) that is a vast improvement on the days when I munched peanut brittle in bed and used the toothbrush exclusively to clean my voluminous collection of die-cast Civil War figurines, I always anticipate the worst news from the cheerful octogenarian of the Tribe who's been my mouth-care specialist since I was a lad.

When I say "the worst news" I don't just mean an expensive and painful (and painfully expensive) new procedure that will entail drilling, bleeding and cement.

I mean news that comes in a glowing red box borne by a phalanx of winged demons who reside deep in my psyche. News like "We will be knocking out all of your teeth with a sledgehammer today, and you will wander the streets mumbling like Gabby Hayes," or "We will be replacing your lower jaw with a hinged piece of balsa wood, so you might consider never being photographed again."

Do you get the picture? We're talking about neurosis here, the kind of phobic tumble into unreality that (unlike, say, voices that tell you to kill) generally seems quaint and funny to others.

Perhaps it's because I go to the same dental practice (and pretty much the same aforementioned cheery practitioner) I've seen since I was a tot, when inspection of my choppers was so darkly terrifying that I had to be pried from the family sedan with a crowbar. The walls of the children's practice were then (as they are now) plastered with happy cartoon stickers. The kiddies who'd had their cavities drilled were invariably led to the "treasure chest" of toys, where their swollen faces hovered over a sea of plastic doodads from which they were to select a consolation prize for the oral invasion they'd endured.

Back then, I'd have preferred to climb inside that chest and hide until it was time to go home. If claustrophobia hadn't been one of my other neuroses.

Anyhoo, I went to the ol' Riverside-Coldwater Medical Building yesterday under a particularly ominous cloud of trepidation, as I'd been experiencing some pain in a tooth and I hadn't had X-rays in a year.

Oh, perhaps now's the time to explain that I have such a powerful gag reflex that I can't even look at a tongue depressor. So dental X-rays are, for me, about as appealing a prospect as waterboarding would be to a housecat.

In fact, I had to interrupt the dental hygienist repeatedly as she made the rounds of my molars, what with the ol' reflex kicking in.

You would think, from all of this nightmarish anxiety — prompted by an experience most people consider routine (and some even find pleasant) — that I were going to see this doctor:

...instead of this one.

Okay, so it was a LOT of worry over nothing. No X-rays required. No work required. And here's the real upside, and reminder of why I still go to see Doctor N after all these years: What a mensch! Gentle, patient, good-humored, he always manages to disarm my closely guarded, ancestral horror with a few deft and haimisch words, the last of which are usually, "Please say hello to your family for me." He is a very cool Jew.

But of course, our neuroses are always doing push-ups in the corner, aren't they? They have at least six months to get me geared up for my next visit.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sincerely Yours, The Very Hot Jews.
(by Sera, flying solo while Simon jetsets through... Michigan, I think.)

This is not part two of the post on Dreaming About Kissing Hot Writer Man. That will come soon, i.e. when I can muster the level of concentration necessary to write it.

This is, instead, a sweet little post about sincerity. No, really. Stop laughing.

I was a teenager in the 90s. The age of grunge, and the Scream movies, and just generally a time in which deep emotion was expressed through eye-rolling, sarcasm, and the layering of flannel shirts. Occasional whining was also allowed (think Winona Ryder in... every movie she ever made). If you were actually yelling about something, you were advised to look down, whereupon you'd doubtless discover you were holding an electric guitar and the yelling was singing and the guy standing next to you was Stone Gossard.

I get the sense irony hasn't exactly gone out of style. So allow me to be way, way uncool and step over that steaming, java-scented pile of cynicism and over to the frolicing happy gnomeland of sincerity.

Not that I haven't been known to affect a fairly convincing Sylvia Plath glower when the weather turns crisp. There's something about fall that's innately depressing. I chalk it up to the influx of cold, the sooner sunset, and the traditionally Holocaust-heavy Yom Kippur sermon (with special bonus discussion of how the current Israel situation is shittastic) that you have to sit through when you're really, really hungry. Summer's all bye-bye, and with it that lazy feeling of entitlement: of course you're doing something - you're enjoying the weather!

I live across the street from a non-descript apartment building that seems to house a large number of Orthodox Jews. I suspect it's some kind of co-op situation, with a synagogue/preschool on the ground floor, lots of yarkulka'd men and women in long, unflattering skirts, and ancient big wheels in the yard. If I could read Hebrew without the vowels, I'd be able to tell you what the sign over the door says, but alas. Let us live in the mystery.

The thing about the Jews across the street is that they sing their asses off at the slightest provocation. Friday night, Saturday night, mysteriously important non-Sabbath-related nights, holidays, and potentially also just for the fuck of it. Classic, nasal Chazan type singing. LOUD. Till, like, midnight. And lately there's also been some bangin' and some poundin', and I walked Mojo by their place the other day to discover a nice plywood Sukkah in their yard. Ah, yes, of course, Sukkot. Forgot about that one. The redheaded stepchild of Rosh Ha'Shanah and Yom Kippur.

Sukkot makes me happy. Why? First, because it carries itself with charmingly little gravitas. Build a tent, shake a palm frond, sniff a thingy that's not quite a lemon. In Day School, Sukkot always called for lots and lots of crafting. Long construction paper chains fashioned to hang from the rafters. Plus drawings involving glitter. It wasn't about a New Year in which you were kindly advised to do way fucking better than last; it wasn't a Day of Atonement marked by endless crazy praying of the beat-your-chest variety and, in my family's case, Mom fainting from low blood sugar. It was about making fun art.

So, the sight of that Sukkah stoked me. Shook me out of my traditional High Holiday snit. Gently coaxed me to notice the general yumminess of Santa Monica in fall. October (sorry, rest of the world with your shitty weather) is Indian Summer here in Los Angeles. Balmy in the sunlight, curl-up-chilly at night. I think of it as flavored-Starbucks-latte-appropriate weather. Perfect for walking. And so last Sunday I took the opportunity to do my own hemi-quasi-Jewish ritual.

In fairness, it's only really Jew-adjacent. Well, call it Jew-inspired. It's this simple yearly thing I do right after the High Holidays, aka those Holy-ass Days I don't particularly enjoy. What I do is get through the HH one way or another. This year, I skipped services and instead helped throw a disco. I recommend that for all of you who, like me, are made jaw-achingly depressed by the HH. Yeah, I know, apples and honey, fresh start, blah blah. Some of us find the HH as viable as the Hannukah/Christmas season when it comes to lying on the couch feeling all Jean Paul Sartre about the world. So - I wait till they're over, and then I do all the contemplation. I'm a good little contrarian. Here's what I did:

Got up, tossed my laptop in a bag, leashed Mojo, and took an early morning walk to the Mom and Pop cafe five blocks up. I passed the plywood Sukkah, and actually gave it a happy little wave. And then I counted my blessings.

Yep, that's the yearly post-HH ritual:

1.take walk;

2. count blessings

(3. now with special bonus French Bulldog!)

Mojo, enjoying quality time with his bone. We know: he's hot.

I know, counting blessings sounds so lame-alicious. I'm with you. I'm kind of embarrassed to even write it, because I know all you bitches are sitting there with your ironic glasses and your ironic haircut and your vector-line-drawing tattoos, judging me for my cringe-worthy Chicken Soup for the Soulness.

I can only deal with it myself by keeping things really simple and not at all Oprah-y. So: no gushing. Just: I am stoked to live in Santa Monica. I am stoked to have such a great writer job. I am stoked to not have a traumatic brain injury that knocks 40 IQ points out of my head, thereby ending my great writer job which would cause me to lose my apartment in Santa Monica. That sort of thing.

Mojo and I took the patio couch. The weather was fantastically room-temperature. The coffee was just bitter enough. (Yes, fine, I'll go ahead and quip it, "like my men." Happy?) The horror script I was working on hummed right along with pep and vim and an appropriate number of eviscerated corpses. The other patrons were using their indoor voices, which I appreciate. The fountain in the center of the patio tinkled soothingly, as if to say, "I am rocking the ace feng shui, my brothers." Mojo curled up next to me and fell asleep, and I thought: I want for nothing. I'm totally blessed up to my eyeballs. Whatever comes my way from here on out is pure, sweet icing. The irony coiled deep in my bones, in my darkest proteins, somehow deactivated, and I just sat there, sincerely liking my life in the way you like someone in grade school that inspires you to work on their valentine for two whole weeks. Wow, I thought, I'm feeling so happy. I'm so... sincere. This is awesome. Also, I'm really glad no one's here to see it.

Later that day, things kind of devolved, but that's to be expected. (What can I say. I'm not just Jewish, I'm Polish Jewish. I'm never surprised by entropy.) Sometimes you get a perfect moment, and when you do, I think you should at least blog about it. Especially when your secret motive is to subtly start a revolution of sincerity that's not syrupy or fake. More like wabi sabi sincerity. Caffeinated sincerity that occasionally falls off the wagon and smokes half a pack of cigarettes in four hours. You know: no-bullshit sincerity.

Up with no-bullshit sincerity, people! Try it for a week. Report back.