Friday, July 14, 2006
Nathan Englander's Novel Comes Out Next Year
Anyone read it? What's the word on the street? If you really love me, you'll get me an advanced copy.
'What Are You?'
I was hanging out at Rand ("Provides Objective Research Services and Public Policy Analysis...") this week, mixing with my fellow intellectuals Mickey Kaus, Rob Eshman, Evan Wright, Andrew Breitbart and discussing the great issue confronting Western Civilization and what one can learn from whores about the state of a society (the price of a rub and a tug in Baghdad is extortionate, there aren't any brothels, hookers are easy to spot in Afghanistan, read Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy).
The desserts were dreadful so I sought solace with the hyper-educated daughter of our speaker. With her oval face and long bare arms, she was the clear product of race-mixing. "What are you?" is the question she's asked most (not a good pickup line).
Every Rand employee I met was the director of something or other.
Whoever directs desserts should be fired.
My favorite employee was the fresh blonde director of outreach. She had a manly handshake.
I like that in a woman.
Total War On The Arabs?
Novelist Pearl Abraham
I interviewed her this week via email.
* What's the wildest, craziest, riskiest thing you've ever done (aside from murdering your protagonist 80 pages in)?
A: You mean other than leave home, family, faith to become me, and it seems I am still forever becoming, as are my characters. I've had some adventures, but writing The Seventh Beggar may have been my greatest one so far.
* The dominant emotion I feel when reading your novels is sadness verging on depression. Is this your dominant emotion? Is this how you feel when you write? Do you seek to evoke an emotional reaction from your readers, and if so, what?
A: Sad and depressed? This comes as a surprise. I think, and am confirmed in this by mail from readers, that my novels are often funny. I'm probably the least depressed (or maybe I should say least neurotic) of Jewish writers, and I think some of these Jewish writers will confirm this. You may be responding to something different (than the standard Jewish American writing) in my narrative voice or in the voice of my characters, or maybe your sadness is based in a preconception that has more to do with what you think of Hasidism. What do you think?
I look to engage my reader's interest, of course, but I'm not all that focused on the reader as I write. I'm largely immersed in my characters and they tend to grow and lead the way. When I start to see and love the characters for who they've become, then I know that they are alive, that the novel may yet live. My writing tends to be character driven, which may be why the death of my protagonist is so painful to readers. It was certainly a challenge for me, as the writer.
* What's the story of you and God? You believed as a child, but dropped this belief when you went to college? Did God ever speak to you?
A: I can't say that I believed in God as a child; I just never experienced that religious phase that most teenagers go through, that time when your classmates begin to sway and pray longer and harder than anyone else. Based on the absence of any such inner urge, I could only watch and wonder; I'll confess that I sometimes judged them as pretenders -- I thought they might be seeking a good reputation so as to beget a worthy mate in marriage.
I understood as a child that I ought to believe, but somehow, the love and fear of God missed me, despite my twice a day recitations of the O hear Israel. I knew even as a child that my Mom was very afraid (I'm not as certain of her love for God, as I am of my father's) and still is afraid of God, death, hell, and even as a child her fear felt childlike to me. I did, though, for a number of years, about 5-7, have a fear of going to sleep, which I think was a fear of obliteration. As an adult, though, I welcome sleep, and the kind of thinking I do in sleep and dream.
My interest in the concept of God came to me belatedly, and not on a religious level. I'm interested in the idea of divinity as an aspiration, a height or level of achievement, the ascetic mystic's interest, though I am not a mystic either. My goal is to attain as often as possible the divine knowledge or experience, intuitive and otherwise, that becomes available to the mystic. I may have had a few glimpses of it, in the course of my life, at work. Most people do, I think.
* When you participate in Jewish life, what encourages you and what discourages you?
A: Piety is a huge turnoff. And piety without rigor, without an intellectual grounding, is even worse. Growing up, I encountered a lot of that in girls and women who didn't have access to the education of their brothers. But I now meet grown Jewish men and women who have access to knowledge and prefer not to know. They seem to relish custom and ritual and law without quite knowing or caring what or whether it signifies. I was on a panel on Orthodoxy recently and I tried my best to set up a rigorous conversation about what orthodoxy means, and how and why it began -- it actually arrived late to Judaism, which had a long prophetic tradition, unlike its all-too-early arrival to Christianity -- and whether orthodoxy is still a viable way to live. I cited Maimonidies who said that orthodox piety is for the masses and wisdom is for the elite. Henri Corbin, the author of Alone with the Alone, writes that orthodoxy or dogma presupposes an end to prophecy, meaning individualism, an end to the possibility of an individual's attaining eternity. Who, in our day and age, would want that? Certainly no novelist. The audience and the other panelists did not want to or could not go there. They wanted to talk about the number of worshippers in Upper West Side synagogues, and they wanted personal confessionals. I should qualify this: it could have been my personal failure to communicate: I've been told that I perform better when I'm not sharing the stage with others, probably because then I take full responsibility.
I admire real scholarship. Hugely. I talk to my youngest brother approximately once a week and love hearing about the esoteric ideas he's thinking and writing about. He's a Hasidic scholar and writer, knows his way around the texts, and in tremendous contrast to most orthodox Jews I meet, he's open to the most honest and heretic conversations. Not that this is true of every Hasid, and the reverse is probably not true of every orthodox. It takes a well-read individual with an independent, rigorous mind to converse freely.
* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What crowd did you hang out with in highschool, college? Today?
A: It shouldn't come as a surprise that I wasn't the most popular kid. For one thing, I wasn't a team player. My achievements tended toward individual ones: I was a dancer and performed on-stage, solo and within groups. In my Junior and Senior years of high school (and also summer camps), I was head of dance and I choreographed for musicals and plays. We staged a lot of these then, for some reason (I didn't attend a Hasidic school). My school hired a professional pianist and director who taught me a modicum of ballet and modern dance which generated rumors that I'd taken ballet classes. I developed a passion for dance and wanted to become a classical ballet dancer. On days off from school, I would take the local minibus to a ballet school on Main Street to study the photos in the windows. Of course, my parents would never allow me to wear tights and leotards, but in my second year of college, I signed up for dance classes, soon learned that I was too old for classical ballet, and decided to drop it. Entirely.
In college, as an undergraduate, I found parties a huge bore since everyone was stoned and I wasn't. Ditto at those final-tour Grateful Dead and The Who and Neil Young concerts. I had a boyfriend who loved The Who. I shared Bill Clinton's problem: I didn't/couldn't inhale smoke, so I tried eating pot, and once drinking it as ganga tea, experiences that left me with no love for it.
Today: do I hang out? I'm in touch with various writers and friends, and we sometimes hang; we call it lounging. My Dutch friends are especially good at downtime. Most of my writerly relationships are conducted largely via email, with only a rare face-to-face meeting. The Jewish contingent has its own ghetto dynamic going and it's especially fun when we manage to get Steve Stern, Melvin Bukiet, Aryeh Stollman and I together, usually after another bad Jewish event where we are asked to speak on what it means to be Jewish. Melvin and I have our own standing specialties: we go café hopping (I think this started in Tel Aviv), drink and smoke; I should say, he smokes, I mostly secondhand smoke -- though I smoke biddies and cigarillos, when I can get them. Best source for biddies: bum them off Paul Auster, who carries whole little boxes of them. Excellent source for baby torpedoes: my Dutch editor, Pieter Swinkels. The label on the box, "Roken is dodelijk," adds flavor. Unlike the American warning, which manages to get the optimistic word health in it, the Dutch uses the word DEADLY loud and clear. Death, for better or worse, seems to have become a motif of this conversation.
I now spend quite a bit of time upstate where my social life seems to have taken off. And I'll be teaching at Western New England College, in Springfield, MA this year. There are more of us up here these days than in New York City. I have a friend in the area who is a painter and we get together for various adventures. And Aryeh Stollman and Steve Stern aren't far away.
Having said all that -- it makes me sound well-connected and social -- I should tell you that I'm really not. I spend most of my time alone, in the company of my dachshund, Emma P.
* I find a world without God and religion depressing. I'm curious where you find happiness and meaning if everything is just going to end in nothingness.
A: Oh God. I find meaning and happiness in Knowledge (gnosis). And in good literature, which tells us about ourselves, what it is to be human. And in trying to craft decent literature. And in teaching it, which I hope will create good readers of literature.
Meaning in God? Well, yes, since my concept of God is an abstract man-made idea of a perfection to aspire to. Re: Religion? Not if it means orthodoxy, or some other conventional form of it.
And nothingness? I can trace my beginning as a thinker back to the year in high school when I studied the commentaries on the concept of tohu va'vohu in Genesis. Every novel begins with a blank page; that's why writers are so neurotic during their year of publication. They have to go back to that blank page one. That, and also their publishers serving up the usual publishing debacles, and then the dearth of good readers. What will remain, when I have returned to NOTHINGNESS, are I hope a few of my pages. And an independence of spirit and wit that I hope to have imparted to friends and students.
* Being raised in a serious religion immunizes one from falling for wacky cults such as the Kabbalah Centre, I believe. Would you agree?
A: I do agree with you. When you've had the real thing, you don't easily fall for the fakes and wannabes. Indeed you remain quite discerning and you probably don't easily embrace anything else. I, for one example, had no interest in becoming an orthodox, modern orthodox, conservative or reform Jew.
* What do you think of the contemporary "spirituality" craze? It strikes me as cheap grace. People looking for the benefits of religion without paying the price that organized religion demands.
A: The Hasidic movement would not have survived if it hadn't made itself appealing to the masses. Perhaps you could say that about the novel as well. The ascetic lifestyle appeals only to the elite, the seriously rigorous. But the question remains: Is the form that survives worthy of survival? This is a painful question that writers and artists everywhere must ask themselves every day: To survive, to actually earn a living, one must make the work easy or accessible enough for the masses, but then is the art worthy enough to be called art, to engage in?
* I've heard the novel described as a bourgeois medium primarily suited for entertainment. Yet you make considerable demands on the reader in The Seventh Beggar. Do you think most of the readers of that book are up to that task? I notice that interviewers love asking you fancy shmancy questions about the various intricacies of the book and I can't help thinking that these intellectual concerns, stylistic concerns, otherness and being concerns, are miles removed from the average bloke picking up your book and hoping to have a good time.
A: Your question comes at a moment in which I am preparing for a lit class titled "The Development of the Novel," so this may come off as pedantry, but I don't mind joining the ranks of pedants such as Don Quixote and Charles Kinbote.
The novel as a genre began as an anti-authoritarian form, in reaction against the epic with its heightened language (verse) and false or idealized heroics, and also against the prose romance (chivalric or pastoral/Arcadian) produced for entertainment. From the romance, the novel took prose and refined it, from the epic it took worthiness, or a higher purpose. Yes, the form is based in the town square, it embraces the carnivale, or aspects of parody, but it is not and was never intended as mere entertainment. That remains the task of romances such as Harlequins and thrillers and mysteries and spy sagas. The word 'novel' still means new, though it's been around a few centuries now, and when all is said and done, the novel, to continue calling itself a novel, ought to attempt something new, to react against what came before it. Unfortunately the general public has not been informed of this. What's happened is that the publishers aiming to earn as much as possible have sold the literary novel as entertainment, which it can be, though it isn't mere entertainment or easy entertainment, and so has created a false set of expectations. Don Quixote, probably the first modern novel, was an immediate bestseller, sold as a parody of the chivalric romance, but the book isn't an easy read (it's over 900 pages long), and it isn't funny, though most readers who come to it expect it to be. Nabokov famously called it crude and cruel and it is that: it's filled with cruel prank after cruel prank. And with plenty of pedantry. But Don Quixote lives, both in and out of its 900 pages.
That said, The Seventh Beggar is entertaining -- my publisher forgot to tell you that. Its best readers are the ones who relax and go with the flow without looking so hard for meaning. The book is intuitively organized and intuitively coherent -- it is after all a mystic's story -- and it takes a relaxed, confident reader to allow intuition to do the work of understanding. Younger readers do well with it. Non-Jewish critics, especially from overseas, did better with it then Jewish ones, which means what? That American Jews are no longer the people of the book? But I think we've already established that.
* At what age did you begin to have an erotic interest in boys? I assume your family and religious community put a squash on this. Did you run wild with the boys when you got your freedom? I'm sorry to be so vulgar, but there's very little wank material in your works.
A: You're wrong about the "wank material" in my work: Joel engages in an orgy of wanking in the first third of The Seventh Beggar. And Rachel of The Romance Reader has her fantasy variations on love, if not sex. And Deena, of Giving Up America, well, she's in the mode of renouncing love along with much else. At the age of, maybe ten, I had a crush on a friend of my brother's, Ari Weinstock, who taught me to ride his banana handle banana seat bicycle. My parents didn't fuss about it. Then I fell out of love with Jewish boys and in love with fictional MEN. Oddly enough, I didn't read much secular Jewish fiction. I was reading classics, such as The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights and A Tale of Two Cities, as page turners! By the time I was in my teens I was spending most of my time with women and though I didn't develop a crush for anyone in particular, I was the crush object or crushee (a word?) of various girls, usually a few years older than I, usually at summer camp, where we'd sit in a gazebo in the dark, and look at the stars. I must not have been erotically engaged since I found it rather vapid, didn't know what to say. The value of these crushes, I think, was more in being beloved rather than in the act of loving.
* How do you feel about the chutzpah of people such as Steve Stern writing in English trying to imitate of Yiddish when they are neither literate in Yiddish nor Hebrew? Shouldn't there be a license to do this?
A: Thing is, when I read Stern and Horn and Krauss, I don't have to go beyond page one to know that their knowledge of Yiddish and Yiddish culture is based in books (Henry Roth) and legend, and in an immigrant culture long bygone. The nostalgia and cornpone alone is a dead giveaway. I hear that sort of corn from every upper westsider who had a grandmother or father who spoke some Yiddish. They distort and mispronounce words (see Isaac Bashevis Singer on the impossibility of writing Yiddish in America), for example, "patchkeying," an Englishing of the word "patchkeh" -- the most recent one I've heard. To them, Yiddish is sad and funny, though ask a real speaker of Yiddish in Williamsburgh whether his language is tragicomic and he'll think you're from the moon. If there's wit, it's in the speaker's skills, in succinct and witty phrasing, which is true of every language.
SIGNIFICANTLY, though, this immigrant nostalgic Yiddish is what general readers recognize, and the nostalgia and corn confirms them in what they already feel about Yiddish, which makes them feel good, and so they prefer reading this to reading a version that is unfamiliar, perhaps more than they want to know.
Non-Jewish readers, if they bother at all, come across all this nostalgia and corn and walk away confirmed in what they already think: that Jews and Yiddish are full of oy veys and other kvetches, that if this is art, it's art on a Chagall level. You'd never know that fine poetry, by say Yankev Glatshteyn, was once written in this language. At the end of the day, working in this nostalgic joking vein, keeping the Yiddish and Yiddish culture just light and funny and easy enough to please, is a kind of sellout.
* What did you think of Wendy Shalit's January 2005 essay in the NYT book review about Jewish novelists writing negatively and unfairly about Orthodox Judaism? I noticed she did not mention you.
A: Wendy Shalit was asking a valid question -- she asked whether this is art, and the answer is that much of it is merely entertainment -- but her conclusions were entirely obtuse, astonishingly confused. Good literature and bad literature have nothing to do with religion. Stereotypes, caricatures, and sentimentality are easy crowd pleasers, and make for easy reading. These writers are finding a market niche-Jewish Americans seeking entertainment disguised as literature -- and filling it. Even if the work shows some craft, it doesn't necessarily qualify as art. Enduring art features authentic characters that live on the page, and walk off the page and continue to live for 400 years, as Don Quixote and Hamlet have. Such characters come from the writer's ability to enter deeply and empathetically into these characters, from what Keats famously called "a negative capability," which is an ability to become the OTHER. Shakespeare's characters are particularized humans who can think and change, and, after Harold Bloom, "overhear" themselves.
The controversy helped the writers sell books. And they all took full advantage of it with responses. I like to think that I was excluded because I didn't suit Wendy's thesis. For one thing, I write with empathy and sympathy for that world. And I hope my characters aren't caricatures, and I hope they live. Only time will tell, and so we'll have to postpone the question for a century or so.
* What do you think of this? Ted Solotaroff's comment in a 1988 New York Times Book Review essay that "[a]s assimilation continues to practice its diluting and dimming ways, it seems evident that the interesting Jewish bargain or edge in American fiction will be more and more in the keeping of writers...who are anchored in the present-day observant Jewish community and who are drawn to the intense and growing dialogue between Judaism and modernity under the impact of feminism, the sexual revolution, and the Holocaust."
A: It's an attempt at prophecy but it's blinkered and in any case, has already been proven false. All sorts of unforeseen things happen. For one thing: Jews are no longer one of the interesting minorities and, I'll take a leap here, we, perhaps I should say I, aren't even all that interesting to ourselves, never mind to others, except perhaps to the Christian Right writers of the Left Behind series, who want to co-opt our biblical history. The sophisticated Jewish reader looking for something to read is skipping Jewish work that is too anchored in the subject of Jewishness. Irving Howe, btw, attempted some similar predictions re: Jewish writing, and was wrong since he also didn't foresee that there would be a new wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia.
In music, the crossing of genres and cultures has been extremely fertile. Think of Steve Reich, whose Tehillim takes the rhythms and chants and forms of African music and sets Hebrew texts to them. Or Osvaldo Golijov, who crosses Spanish and Jewish strains. I don't see why hybridity shouldn't do as much for literature. It already is doing it. Talented assimilated Jews will find ways of expression that reflect their varied influences. Hybridity makes for some of the greatest work: Don Quixote, which crosses the epic with the prose romance, is again a perfect example. The Seventh Beggar has something of this hybrid impulse, with, the bluegrass/Hasidic festival, with the golem and Cog, with a tale that crosses Nachman's Seven Beggars with the "sevens" of other fairy tales.
Whatever Happened To Michelle Goldberg?
Michelle was a delight. I wanted to talk to her all day.
I remember chatting to my friends about how adorable she was. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley (I believe), she had a 14 year old's voice and manner that made you want to open up to her.
I found she's now blogging on HuffingtonPost.com, where I found this bio:
July 11, I catch her on Dennis Prager's show discussing her new book. She now has an adult voice and manner as she argues her case. But I'm sure she can still be as adorable as a kid when she works her interviewing magic.
I find it interesting when those of us who can be charming interviewers are called upon to argue out our ideas. It's hard to do both things well. I have no doubt that Michelle and I are better interviewers than pundits. If you are primarily devoted to promoting your ideas, you're rarely going to be a good listener. If you are primarily devoted to listening, you are unlikely to be a good polemicist.
Aron Tendler Says He's No Longer A Rabbi
Aron Tendler sent out a single-page letter (which hit mailboxes July 10, 2006) to all the members of Shaarey Zedek, where he served as a rabbi for about eight years until he resigned earlier this year over charges of sexual misconduct, announcing that he was no longer a rabbi in any capacity and should not be asked to decide halakhic questions or to do marital therapy.
Aron has numerous supporters at Shaarey Zedek who've continued to treat him as a rabbi over the past few months.
I hear Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla is applying for the job of Shaarey Zedek's chief rabbi.
I met him outside of Sardo's Bar in Burbank one night. More specifically, I met his handlers. I didn't really get to meet Earl.
That came Friday, July 7, 2006, over the phone.
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Earl: "An NBA player. But realizing I am 6'2 and Jewish, that shot that one down."
Luke: "What were you expected to become?"
Earl: "My parents sent me to a seminary (San Fernando Missionary in Simi Valley) to become a priest but I had a premonition of what Catholic priests are all about, so I hightailed it after two days.
"It was just a weird vibe in there. I thought I was at the Tomkat [gay porn theater in West Hollywood] on a Saturday night. Even as a 12 years old, I knew something was running amok."
Luke: "Can you show me on the doll where it hurts?"
Earl: "The priests were too hands on. Backrubs at dinner, I wasn't jiving with it."
Luke: "Are you homophobic?"
Earl, who's straight: "Not at all. I live in West Hollywood on Larrabee, a cruising street. Believe me, you're not homophobic if you live on Larrabee."
Luke: "I thought you were Jewish."
Earl: "Back in 1950s, you had to convert to Catholicism to marry into the church. My Jewish mother converted to Catholicism. I'm like a unicorn - half and half."
Luke: "When did you realize you were destined to become a comedian?"
Earl: "Towards the tail end of highschool, 1986. Everyone told me how funny I was. I became friends with people who were agents. They said, 'Earl, get into comedy. You're funnier than any of our clients.'
"It took me a few years to build up the courage. It's nerve-racking getting up on stage. I don't know how porn actors do it. We're just telling jokes.
"To get up in front of a room full of strangers, I had to go to a therapist to get over the stagefright. We started with the comedy and then we got to sex and I had to stay a year longer. I'm not the best with girls. I had to overcome shyness in all areas of my life."
Luke: "How many women have you been with in your life?"
Earl: "Between 40-50. For a non-celebrity who looks like me, that's good. My friend Eric has been with between 600-700 and they're hot. I'm not going to lie to you. I've been with a few pigs out of necessity."
Luke: "How much sexual voltage does your career pack?"
Earl: "I do better now because they see me on stage."
Luke: "How old were you when you lost your virginity?"
Earl: "Twenty two."
Luke: "Why aren't you married?"
Earl: "I'm a very selfish person with my time. I don't think it would be fair. Marriage is the ultimate step and you have to be very sharing with your time and considerations. I'm a loner."
Luke: "What's the longest monogamous relationship you've been in?"
Earl: "Six years."
Luke: "With a woman?"
Earl: "As far as I know. In this day and age, you have to do an oil check before you put the dipstick down there.
"I was just starting in comedy. She wanted marriage and kids right away. I thought it would be unfair. I saw her a couple of years ago. She married an Asian guy, so at least I know my dick is bigger. He's smarter but I've got him beat in the ruler."
Luke: "Are you well endowed?"
Earl: "I've been told yes. I'm not Tommy Lee. But I've been told I'm big by every girl I've been with."
Luke: "How has that affected your psyche?"
Earl: "It helps a lot."
Luke: "Have you used viagra?"
Earl: "It's a great story. I hope this tape is at least a half hour.
"My friend's father passed away."
Luke: "So of course you popped a viagra."
Earl: "It interweaves with viagra.
"We go over to his house for the wake and he [the son] says, 'Hey Skakel, take these. My dad doesn't need them anymore.'
"It's this plastic baggie with about 40 horsepills of viagra.
"I had never taken viagra before. I'd never needed it. I jack off every day.
"I took one. It didn't really have an effect. I was expecting an immediate effect.
"I took three more. That night I was beet red from my forehead to my bellybutton and like a chinese noodle below that.
"The next morning I woke up and it worked. I had the Sears Trade Tower in my pants. And it wouldn't go down.
"I go to the doctor and his only advice was to just jack off until you come.
"Apparently my friend's dad was taking 100mg tablets. So I had 400mg of viagra in my body. The normal dosage for a guy 6' and 200 pounds is 20-30 mg.
"I had to jack off for about eight hours."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about your life now?"
Earl: "I love comedy and the people I get to meet. Clothing companies are now sending me leather pants and shirts and say that if I wear them on stage, they'll take care of me.
"I get to meet celebrities. Being a music fan, I get to meet some of my favorite rock 'n' rollers. They see me on stage and they treat me as an equal. If I just met them on the street, they'd probably be, 'Get away from me!'
"What I hate is that some of the celebrities I meet aren't nice. They give you an attitude. I met John Saxon who was in the famous Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon.
"I went up to him and said, 'Hi, Mr. Saxon, I'm a big fan. Can I have your autograph?' And he looked at me and in all seriousness says, 'I don't have the time.'
"I can understand if you walked up to Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks. They're busy. John Saxon hasn't acted in Nightmare on Elm Street 2 in 1984. He's got the time. That's all he's got.
"I hate girls who aren't nice to you because they don't know who you are, but after they see you on stage, they say, 'Oh, you're so funny. Let's go out.'"
Luke: "Where are you and God?"
Earl: "We're about as far away from each other as possible.
"You've got to understand that I went to a Catholic grade school, a Catholic highschool. I had religion shoved down my throat the first 20 years of my life. I do believe in God but I don't believe in the one presented to me in my youth. The God who is all loving but if you don't do what he says, He'll put you in Hell forever. That's a sadistic God."
Luke: "Where do you find meaning in life?"
Earl: "Through comedy. I take pride in helping people forget about their problems for an hour."
Luke: "You're like The Piano Man. Billy Joel."
Earl: "I love Billy Joel, but stay away from the booze. That guy's got alcohol face like I've never seen."
Luke: "Do you have addictions?"
Earl: "I've never had a drink or drug in my life. And I come from a family of indulgers in the liquid beverage.
"There are two reasons I don't drink. One. My mom said, 'Earl, if you don't drink until you're 18, I'll get you the car of your choice.' And she did. A BMW 318i with a red steering wheel.
"After I got to 18, I saw Gene Simmons from KISS asked, 'Why don't you drink or do drugs?' And he said, 'It impairs the blood flow to my pee pee.' I thought, 'Wow, this guy is the doctor of sex. I'm not going to touch booze.'"
Luke: "These are lonely habits for the world you live in?"
Earl: "I'm a loner. It doesn't take much for me to be entertained. So much of my life is writing jokes. I'm on the internet constantly looking at various news sites."
Luke: "Where are you politically?"
Earl: "Down the middle. I like Bush's stance on terrorism, but his economic policy is killing me. I drive an Expedition 1998 and we need to start bombing another country because these gas prices are killing me. If this is a war for oil, where's the oil?"
Luke: "Do you think it is true that in every joke there's a victim and that all humor is a channeled form of hostility?"
Earl: "Definitely. I try to make myself the victim in almost every joke. You can get people on your side fast if you make fun of yourself. The first 15 minutes of my act is talking about how I didn't get laid until I was 22."
"Two days after the Great White fire in Rhode Island, I did a joke about it. Someone in the audience knew the guitar player [Ty Longley] who died and got in my face afterwards. I felt horrible.
"You have to survey the room before you do any touchy material."
Luke: "What role has pornography played in your life?"
Earl: "I don't watch porn much because I don't like the close-ups, especially now that everything is on DVD. I really don't need to see Ron Jeremy's balls in digital clarity. The female body is the most beautiful creation on the planet but after it's been ploughed by three black guys for 20 minutes, it looks like a busted football down there.
"When I do watch pornography, I make sure it is a low-quality VHS tape."
Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
Earl: "I was the most popular guy in highschool because I was the class clown. I was friends with everybody. I was friends with the jocks, the cheerleaders because they knew I was harmless. My social life was like a buffet. Everything was spread in front of me. I just didn't eat all of it."
"I went to Erotica LA and interviewed people for that mobile TV thing I do. At Sardo's they told me, you can't have the girls talk about sucking cock all the time. You've got to come up with some better questions. We went back to Sardo's two or three times, and every question went back to sucking cock. 'Hey, what do you think about Tookie Williams getting executed?' 'Oh, I was in a bukkake film two hours ago...'
"I don't want to be known as the guy who asks the dirty questions. With that crowd, it's hard. They're nice people. Some of the better interviews were with the guy actors. They seem more with it. But who wants to see me interviewing dudes?
"My enthusiasm petered out because you can't really talk about anything else other than sucking... The girls are so sweet but if you ask, 'What do you think about Bush?' They say, 'I just ate some two hours ago.'"
Luke: "Why didn't you just ask them about their lives?"
Earl: "I figured that most of them had been molested, so I don't know that I want to go down that route. When you asked what got me into comedy, I envisioned making people laugh, getting laid, making money. I can't imagine what got these girls into sucking endless amounts of pee pees. There had to be a moment where they thought, 'Hey, that sounds like a fine job. I'd really like to get into anal.'
"Porn is something I could never do but I don't look down on them for it. It's sad. I think most of them come out here to be a legitimate actress and they end up meeting Ron Jeremy at the Rainbow and he's like, 'You should get into porn until your career takes off.' Then it's just an endless circle. After two years, no guy wants to jack off to the same girl. Then what do you do? Give out rub-outs in the back of the LA Xpress for $100. Believe me, I know."
Luke: "Have you ever hired a hooker?"
Luke: "How did it make you feel afterwards?"
Earl: "Like I wished I had my money back."
Luke: "How do you determine right and wrong?"
Earl: "We all have limits and boundaries."
Luke: "You just intuit it?"
Earl: "The guy I play hockey with has a beautiful daughter. At the time, she was about 15. Hottest body I've ever seen on any girl on earth. Skinny. Natural DDs. She was totally into me and sexually active and I just couldn't do it. Nobody would've ever found out."
Wall of Voodoo producer Richard Mazda phones me Friday afternoon, July 7, 2006. "I was like the fifth Beatle [with Wall of Voodoo]. Even though I was a producer, I was part of the creative process.
"Stan is proud of America. That sort of patriotism you don't see back in Europe, but that's more of an American thing than a right-wing thing.
"Although you had the Go Gos and bands like that [New Wave aka born out of punk rock] had hits, when a band like Voodoo or Devo had hits, it was more significant because the American audience was so conservative [in its musical taste]...
"Mexican Radio was one of the few things that I was working on [in the eighties] where I said, 'This is like a hit record. It's got a tune you can sing. It's got that sing along quality to the chorus. You can imagine half a dozen drunk idiots singing along. 'I wish I was in Tijuana, eating barbequed iguana.' You just knew that would become like a drinking song, which is ironic because Stan is a hugely intelligent lyric writer. He wasn't writing drinking songs for idiots, and definitely not drinking songs for right-wing idiots."
Luke: "You've been in the entertainment industry for over 20 years. What percentage of the people you've mixed with have been political conservatives?"
Richard: "I'm neither conservative nor liberal. I'm libertarian.
"Twenty five years ago, the creative types who went into music were more likely to be political than today. Paul Weller and the Jam were supporters of the miners' strike . Tom Robinson, who at the time was the second most famous gay man in Britain (after Quenton Crisp), and he had a hit record called Glad to be Gay.
"The only person who was conservative back in the day was Mark Smith, leader of The Fall. He had some potentially suspect ideas. You couldn't say they were out and out racist, but he'd say things that were jarring.
"Lyric-writing is weird. You could say that Ted Nugent back in the 1970s was right-wing. All he ever seemed to talk about was shooting, hunting and fishing. He was like an apologist for the NRA.
Well I heard mister Young sing about her
"Nei Young wrote that song 'Southern Man' criticizing the politics of the South.
"The majority of musicians tend to be left-wing. On the other hand, I've read people like P.J. O'Rourke who I find funny. I agree with him -- why should the Left wing be the only people who can satirize?
"I have an American friend who now lives in Britain. She used to be the girlfriend of Jackson Browne. Now she's married to a famous bone doctor. At parties, she'll say she reads the Daily Telegraph, a right-wing paper, and people attack her for it. She'll respond, 'Why can't I get all points of view? If you can't countenance giving a little thought to what is being said by the right-wing, how would you know what you believed?'
"I know I'm not racist. At the same time, I'm not for completely open immigration policies. It's bred problems in Britian. The July 7th, 2005 bombings is an example of how we've left ourselves open. When I lived in Britain, I couldn't believe that we allowed these fire-breathing Muslim preachers... Over here, what they were saying would be considered treason, but in Britain, we're so liberal, we allowed it to get out of control and July 7th was an example of how it came back to bite us in the ass. There could've been a time when the moderate Muslim leaders could've been encouraged to stand up.
"I'm not anti-Muslim. I'm anti people who are not supportive of the culture that is giving them succor and sanctuary.
"If you don't know what is being said in a radicalized mosque, you are allowing people to be brainwashed into potentially atrocious acts.
"This is politicizing society. We all became a bit apolitical in the past 20 years. I was amazed at the lack of student political protest. People don't seem to care that when the Republicans held their convention here in New York in 2004, hundreds of people were arrested, supposedly to keep things safe. The police were arresting people just because Bloomberg wanted them gone in case there was trouble. Twenty five years ago, that would've caused a riot. Now people just roll over and let it happen.
"I don't have any good theories other than that we are all a bit affluent."
Luke: "Maybe people have better things to do with their time?"
Richard: "Maybe. It's easy to protest when you're broke. When you have a lifestyle to protect, it tends to depoliticize people and makes you think about the material things in life."
Luke: "And people getting older. Old people don't march in riots."
Richard: "I have a 16 year old daughter. She's strident in her views. She's in a performing arts school. A helluva lot of her male friends are gay, which is the nature of being in a performing arts school. She's a member of the gay-straight alliance. She goes on AIDS walks. I'm glad she does.
"The political nature of the music business in the seventies seems to have disappeared. Black music is not throwing up enough consciousness in the lyrics like it was, like 'People Get Ready' and 'Innercity Blues' and 'What's Going On?' Paul McCartney wrote that song, 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish.' John Lennon was regarded as a political figure.
"Now it's all clones of 50 Cent and N'Sync. That's why I retired from music and went back to acting. There are no real rock stars anymore. Whatever it was that we thought about rock music's mission seems to be diluted, somewhere between consumerism and downloads... People have such wide choices for entertainment."
Luke: "Do you think the rock music mission turned out to be an illusion?"
Richard: "At the time I didn't think it was an illusion, but it didn't have any longevity. It didn't pass down through the generations. When you look back on hippies, they look a little bit pathetic. But at the time, hippies protesting the Vietnam War were important."
Luke: "I'm wondering if pop music, including the music you worked on, is primarily a form of entertainment and is not primarily a vessel for intellectual and political change?"
Richard: "It is primarily about entertainment but that doesn't mean a message can't be entertaining. Today you are less likely to hear something that will shock you. The Sex Pistols went so far, there's not much you can do now.
"If you take female politics, where are the women protesting the sexualization of fashion and music and everything else? I'm the same as any other redblooded male. I watch the Pussycat Dolls and it's hugely entertaining because they're scantily clad. I can think of a time, maybe 15 years ago, when I would've been told off by various women for that. Now there's a small percentage of feminists who would still be angry about it, but they're not making much noise. Where's the protests about the overly pumped image of Lara Croft in Tombraider video games? Nobody cares.
"That goes hand in hand with plastic surgery. Girls now want to have big tits. The majority of them would love to have a large chest and perfect lips. I don't know where it's all going.
"Back in 1980, if you told everybody you were going to get your breasts done, your fat sucked out, your lips done, a bottom reduction, you would've been considered a pariah, a freak."
Luke: "Is there anything that people told you when you were a young man that now looking back you realize they were right?"
Richard: "You probably touched on it when you said music is primarily entertainment. I'm sure a couple of people said to me, 'You won't really care about things in the same way you do now.' There's a big truth in that.
"I've got a 16 year old who's got to go to college. I'm not going to do anything to threaten my livelihood."
Luke: "Anything your parents told you?"
Richard: "This. 'You think this is really important now, but in the fullness of time, it'll be like nothing.'"
Mazda has been in a relationship with a woman for 13 years, married four years. "You don't need the madness to prove anything."
"I own a property in Britain. I own a theatre company (The Queen's Players) in New York. I'm not petit bourgeois but I am bourgeois."
Comedian Earl Skakel - Warning!!! Much of the following is inappropriate for children and the religious
I met him outside of Sardo's Bar in Burbank one night. More specifically, I met his handlers. I didn't really get to meet Earl.
That came Friday, July 7, over the phone.
Earl: "I have one love in my life and her name is comedy."
Luke: "How do you determine right and wrong?"
Earl: "We all have limits and boundaries."
Luke: "You just intuit it?"
Earl: "The guy I play hockey with has a beautiful daughter. At the time, she was about 15. Hottest body I've ever seen on any girl on earth. Skinny. Natural DDs. She was totally into me and sexually active and I just couldn't do it. Nobody would've ever found out."
Be Proud Of What You Do
One of the keys to my success is that I've never been shy announcing exactly how I make my living. Nor have I had occasion to hold my head in shame in this respect.
As H.L. Mencken said, you can tell the quality of a man's character by how he makes his living.
If you can't with pride tell people what you do for a living, then you can only slink through life burdened by shame.
At least that's what Rabbi Daniel Lapin says in his book, Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money:
I email Elisa Albert for the first time July 4:
After transcribing our interview of July 6, I email Elisa at 11:16 a.m. July 7:
Elisa responds Saturday afternoon, July 8:
I respond Saturday night:
Elisa responds Sunday morning, July 9:
This reminds me of my experience with Benyamin Cohen of Jewsweek.com in 2004.
Chaim Amalek writes:
Al Gore says it's a moral issue. In fact, it is a technical issue, a matter of engineering, not posturing. My readers may not know it, but in my free time I tend to read a great deal of scientific and technical literature. In the course of my readings, I have figured out how we can greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil, ease our contribution to global warming (if any, and assuming it exists), and help clean up the environment, too.
First a few facts.
1. Most imported oil ends up burned in the engines of our automobiles, trucks, and aircraft, with automobiles (unlike our mindless federal government, I include SUVs in this category) taking the lion's share. This demand makes us vulnerable to the politics of the mideast and other miserable third world regions, and it also pumps vast amounts of hydrocarbons and other sorts of greenhouse gases into the environment.
2. Most of our electricity comes from burning coal, which we have centuries worth on hand. In addition to the mining of coal being the cause of the deaths of tens of thousands of coal miners, both from accidents and from lung diseases, coal is a dirty fuel that kills indirectly by fouling up our air and water. We create mountains of waste every year from our reliance on coal.
3. Demand for electricity can only rise, even if we are efficient in our use of it.
4. Even with generous tax subsidies, solar power generates only a few tenths of one percent of our electricity. That's not going to change in any way that is meaningful to the discussion at hand. The same holds true for wind power, which the Walter Cronkites of the world seem to hate, as it often ruins the views that the rich enjoy of their world.
What we need to do is use the tax code to penalize those who buy gas guzzling cars (Hollywood, this includes you), and reward those who buy gas thrifty cars. I propose putting a floor on the price of gasoline at about $3.00/gallon, so that the House of Saud can't smother our efforts to cut our reliance on their crude by raising production. This is something that can have an immediate impact on moderating our consumption of oil, but is not itself a long term solution. For that, we have to move away from hydrocarbon fuels. Fuel cell technology has been suggested for this purpose, but hydrogen is too difficult to handle, and such a switch would take decades. Plus, the inept and shady managers of GM favor this approach, which should tell you it is suspect.
That leaves hybrids. While they have been overhyped, they at least don't make things worse, and they have the potential for making things much better. Hybrids rely on batteries: the better the battery, the more compelling the case for buying the hybrid. In time, as batteries improve under the competitive pressure to make the best hybrid, what we call gas-electric hybrids will become electric-gas hybrids, and finally electric cars. Hybrid technology is a bridge to the all-electric car, a shield behind which the necessary battery technology can develop.
And that would place enormous demands on the electrical grid. Here things get easy. Simply switch to nuclear power. The French get 75 - 85 percent of their electricity from clean, efficient nuclear power, and so too can we. If we use breeder technology, we will have more than enough uranium atoms on hand in the United States with which to provide all the electricity we need to power our cars with electrical power, and close down the coal - fired generators as well. Uranium produces no greenhouse gases and only small, relatively tiny quantities of radioactive waste that we know how to handle. Uranium leaves far fewer scars on the environment than coal, and doesn't claim a blood tax on those who mine it.
That's it. Shift to hybrid automobile technologies to encourage the development of a suitable battery for electric cars that don't burn gasoline, and build lots of safe nukes to power our cars and the rest of our economy. We would still require some petroleum for our aircraft, ships, trains and for the production of plastics, but we already produce more than enough oil for these more limited purposes and would continue to do so after we have shifted the automobile onto a nuclear energized electrical grid.
If you have any other problems of a planetary or national nature that you want me to tackle, just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will ask either Chaim or Rabbi Gadol to tackle them for you.
Defrocked Rabbi Cannot Violate Anonymous Bloggers' First Amendment Rights, Public Citizen Tells Court Subpoena to Reveal Writers' Identities Is Unconstitutional
Hollywood Does Not Know What To Do With The Black Man
Michelle The Sex Addict
Last week, she had promised me a full interview about her sex addiction.
Then I got an email from a coworker at the talent agency saying Michelle had been arrested.
Thursday evening, Michelle calls. "I was put on a 72-hour psych hold."
Luke: "Really? For sex addiction?"
Michelle: "Not necessarily that. But for wanting to act out and threatening suicide."
Luke: "I talked to you just before..."
Michelle: "Because I said, 'I just want to die,' they said, 'That's it!' It's a 5150 [violation of California's penal code].
"Apparently that's all it takes out here."
Luke: "You sounded fine when I spoke to you."
Michelle: "I was fine. I still am fine."
Toby Young - The Male Bridgett Jones
The two guys knew each other too well. Evan Wright would've been a better interviewer.
Toby reminds me of myself. He's established such a persona about himself through his writing that people are often disappointed when they meet him and he doesn't do anything over-the-top self-sabotaging.
I figure that the Mr. Big in his latest book has to be producer Joel Silver. Runner-ups on my guess list would be Scott Rudin and Joel Schumacher.
The LAT(?) did a piece on Toby's new book but they didn't finger Mr. Big.
It's sheer nonsense when Toby and Rob say on stage that this guy [Mr Big aka Joel Silver?] will make people disappear if they anger him.
I interviewed Toby Young June 16, 2003:
* I meet the charismatic high-energy high-octane author Aphrodite Jones who has a courier boyfriend who melts into the background.
* Andrew Breitbart came late. Luke Thompson came over and they started yelling at each other. Luke has blogged about Andrew in ways Andrew did not like, including an insinuation on his blog of Maia's graduation party that Andrew made a joke about two black men to Ann Coulter. Andrew had been talking about two of his favorite black scholars -- Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell -- and how great it would be to have them speak at some highschool's stupid diversity day.
* Conservative actress Leah Lipshultz wore t-shirts (she brought three and wore at least two over the evening) denouncing the LAT and NYT for their publication of how the U.S. government tracks terrorist money.
* The tall blonde who I thought was Mickey Kaus's date walked off with Michael Sonnenschein.
She calls me from New York Thursday afternoon, July 6, 2006.
Luke: "Could you give me the geography of your life?"
Elisa: "I grew up in Brentwood and then Westwood. I went to Temple Emmanuel for elementary school and Harvard Westlake for [8th - 12th grade, graduating in 1996]. I went to Brandeis, graduating with a major in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and I minored in Women's Studies.
"I worked for a couple of years in New York in publishing. Then I entered Columbia in 2002 and graduated with my MFA (masters of fine arts) in 2004."
Luke: "Where did you go to temple?"
Elisa: "My parents helped found a [Conservative] synagogue in Santa Monica - Kehillat Maarav [Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, who performed Elisa's marriage].
"My parents were incredibly secular. They married. They had my two brothers and me. Around 1980, they went to some kind of weekend at Brandeis Bardin [Institute]."
Luke: "Dennis Prager."
Elisa: "Who posed the 'Do you want your grandchildren to be Jewish?' question. They looked at each other and said yeah.
"My mother had an awakening and instituted Friday night [shabbat] dinners and kept kosher. My father went along with it but never cared that much. They split up in 1986. The split was a long drawn-out process. They divorced in 1995."
Luke: "When did you realize they were going their separate ways?"
Elisa: "I don't know. They didn't really talk to my brothers and I about it. It was one of those strange murky things about my childhood that I can't figure out even now.
"I was a happy kid. At 12, everything started to go insanely downhill. Adolescence was a complete disaster. I was a trainwreck. I was a rebel by default. I didn't have any friends. I didn't do well at school.
"Between 12 and 22, things were pretty rough.
"My older brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 25. I was 15. I was 20 when he died."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Elisa: "I wanted to be an actress. I wasn't particularly talented, but I didn't figure that out until later. I was huge reader. I don't know why I didn't think about writing. There's an old family movie my dad shot. My brothers are playing in the foreground. In the background, I'm about two or three, and I'm pushing a doll carriage back and forth in the backyard, but instead of a doll, there's a book in it."
Luke: "You were reading then?"
Elisa: "I was a huge reader. Being the youngest made me precocious. I talked early. I was trying to hold my own with my brothers who were six and nine-and-a-half years older."
Luke: "Do you think that part of the reason you wanted to become an actress was because you didn't want to be yourself? You wanted to play other characters?"
Elisa: "Sure. When I write fiction, that's the best analogy I can think of. I am inhabiting someone else."
Luke: "What group were you in or were you just excluded in elementary and highschool?"
Elisa: "Elementary school was awesome. In highschool, I tried to be a Drama person but I never succeeded. I was on the newspaper and I wrote a column called 'Phat Albert.' It was my own vitriol all the time. I excoriated everybody.
"I don't blame it entirely on L.A., but it is definitely a strange place to come of age. Harvard-Westlake was a stressful private school. I was considered the ne'erdowell of the century for going to Brandeis instead of Yale or Princeton or Harvard."
Luke: "When did you realize you were a writer who deserved to be published in real books by real publishers?"
Elisa: "I lucked out in college and fell into workshops by visiting writers. Jayne Anne Phillips told me I was a writer. Stephen McCauley. Poet Mary Campbell. Marcy Hirshman. Again and again, I got this incredible support from these disparate writers."
Elisa: "That essay [in the book Body Outlaws] says it all. I was a trainwreck as an adolescent. I was 50 pounds overweight. I was 5'10. I was a size 12 or 14. It was awful, especially in LA I was at this exclusive private school with all these Stepford people. I was not valued at all for my aesthetic presence. I was embarrassed all the time. I thought I was a blight on the landscape. I had a beautiful mother. That was rough.
"I grew up. I got some self-esteem. I became a vegetarian. I'm pretty normal now. It's definitely a contrast. I hated myself."
Luke: "Did you use make-up? Did you like to dress up?"
Elisa: "No, not at all. I was a combat-boots overalls kind of girl."
Luke: "And now?"
Elisa: "Whatever. Sometimes, for something special, I'll dress up."
Luke: "What were you expected to become?"
Elisa: "I had cool parents. They just wanted us to be happy and so something productive. They're lawyers. My father marveled at my verbal ability and said I'd be a great lawyer."
Luke: "What were the Jewish expectations?"
Elisa: "I definitely heard a lot from my mom about marrying someone Jewish and creating a Jewish family.
"Having lost a brother and watch my parents go through that led me to make a really stupid decision and marry young [at 25]. I'm 28 now but I'm appalled at my 23 year old choice of spouse. It was definitely influenced by my wanting to do the right thing by my family and give my parents nachas (joy) and have a gillion children to replace my brother.
"Luckily, aside from a couple of heinous years of going through a separation and divorce, I'm none the worse for the experience."
Luke: "Would it be fair to describe much of your writing as angry?"
I repeat the question.
Elisa: "Not if the word 'anger' has a pejorative sense."
Luke: "Forget pejorative."
Elisa: "I'd like to think of it as righteous anger. I was a huge Ani DiFranco [folk-punk singer] fan in highschool. She was this angry chick singer. There was a quote from one of her songs ("I'm not a pretty girl") that I wrote in a black sharpie all over the walls of my room. She had no interest in playing the part of the nice, placid attractive woman who makes everyone feel good about themselves. There's a verse:
"I remember relating to that.
"My goal as a writer is to tell it like it is, whether it is in fiction or nonfiction, to tell difficult truths, whether or not it is fun to hear or even feels good to say. I tell my students all the time -- you should not bother writing at all if you are not committed to being honest.
"I bristle at that word. I don't think of my stories as angry. As sentimental, and tender and rueful and quizzical, but anger definitely carries that pejorative edge to it."
Luke: "Did you ever get a response from Philip Roth?"
Elisa: "I sent him a little package with the book in it yesterday."
Luke: "Is he your favorite writer?"
Elisa: "He has been. I have a rotating cast of favorite writers. If I'm reading a book I'm really enjoying, that's my favorite writer. He's a pillar. I feel like I've eaten all of his books and they're a part of me. But I guess that metaphor doesn't extend because then I would have to s--- them out.
"Saul Bellow said that we write in response to everything we've read.
"When I read something meaningful, it goes into the stew."
Luke: "Tell me about you and God."
Elisa: "I definitely don't believe in some kind of bearded presence in the universe watching us. It's an evolving sense for me that life is precious. That my life is going to come to an end one day and while I'm here, I have many choices. Bound up in that thinking is a sense of 'god.' I'm a big fan of yoga. I consider that my synagogue/church attendance. I go to yoga a couple of times a week and I feel that I can focus and clear away all sorts of mental and emotional clutter and think about what is important and make contact with whatever is in existence. I don't talk about it that much. It's something between me and myself. I feel that whenever I try to articulate it, something crucial is lost.
"I definitely don't feel 'god' when I go to synagogue. I have enjoyed going to synagogue in the past but it's for a sense of community and ritual rather than a true sense of the divine.
"I never thought about it too much, or I didn't have the skills to think about it this way. As I get older, I think about it more.
"When I feel happy, that's the most that I can associate with a belief in god. When I'm surrounded by people I love. When I feel fulfilled. When I feel like I am doing something good in the world, or I feel good.
"I don't think I have too much of a concrete god belief.
"I believe that life is precious. That we are here for a reason. That we should respect nature and the earth."
Luke: "What's been your relationship with Judaism?"
Elisa: "It continues to evolve. The institutional Judaism with which I grew up -- the day school, Hebrew High School, Camp Ramah for 11 years (Conservative Judaism) -- I loathed all that stuff. I was miserable within that framework of institutional Jewish practice. I have a seething contempt for a lot of the people I grew up with in that milieu. I've tried to leave it far in the past.
"Brandeis was an odd choice for somebody trying to run away from institutional Jews but I had few Jewish friends at Brandeis. I prided myself on having nothing to do with Hillel and anything at all.
"Judaism is something I'm exploring for myself now in ways that make me feel good. I have respect for cultural religious institutions now in a way that I wasn't able to growing up. To this day, I get extreme heebie jeebies when I run into someone from Camp Ramah, which invariably happens whenever I set foot above 69th Street. USY (United Synagogue Youth) is an insular and provincial community. I can't stand it."
The USY website says: "The Department of Youth Activities, of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, inspires Jewish youth to explore, celebrate and practice ethical values, Zionism and community responsibility based on the ideology of the Conservative Movement."
Luke: "What specifically did you hate about it because every community is insular to varying degrees."
Elisa: "True. With few exceptions, there were a lot of people who seemed to have no ambition or curiosity or intellectual depth beyond getting together, trying to sleep with one another, and planning their big Jewish weddings as soon as they finished college. I felt suffocated and marginalized."
Luke: "How did you feel suffocated?"
Elisa: "I just never related to that. I could never play that game. It just felt empty. It felt divorced from any real religion. Judaism seemed like an excuse to have this little club and be shallow."
Luke: "Can you give me an example of a community where you've experienced the opposite (joy, safety, intellectual stimulation, passion, meaning)?"
Elisa: "Grad school. I felt so at home in graduate school, in workshops with fellow writers who became good friends. Different people from all sorts of backgrounds who all value the same thing -- humor, truth-telling, good writing, articulation of things that matter individually and globally. I felt like things mattered. It was a deeper experience. It's definitely an insular world too."
Luke: "The people in graduate school were smarter, more intellectually curious, and had better values?"
Elisa: "Yes. The people at Camp Ramah didn't seem to question anything. What value does anything have if it doesn't withstand questioning? When I grew up, I found people who knew all sorts of things and were adventurous and curious about many different things. Judaism can stand such iconoclasm and questioning.
"There is a great midrash about all the people in a village putting all their tsures (troubles) on the table in front of them and wrapped up in all their tsures were all their triumphs. You can take anyone else's package but you'll always take your own back.
"I don't begrudge anybody else's happiness or success and I don't begrudge it myself either.
"There was a girl a year behind me in grad school who was in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue. Of course I felt like, goddamn it.
"I don't wish the girl any harm. It was a fantastic story and deserved to be recognized."
Luke: "Regarding your essay in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt, how do you wish your friends would've reacted to your dissolving marriage? You write that you wished they'd have studied the laws of Lashon Ha Ra. How should they have reacted when they had a piece of juicy gossip?"
Elisa: "I'm referring obliquely there not to my friends, who are wonderful, but to the Jewish communal yentas (gossips). I read somewhere that when it's someone you know, it's not gossip. It's news.
"It was the element of schadenfreude that I found hard to take. I felt implicated everywhere I went. For a good year, I felt like I wanted to burst into tears every time I left my house. There was almost this glee - 'Oh, guess what happened?'
"I grew up among these people. My older brother works in the Jewish community. He loved Camp Ramah. Those are his people. My mom works in the Jewish community.
"Even the way people tried to console me made it clear that I was the object of a lot of pity.
"How should people have reacted? 'Good for her. She got herself out of a terrible situation quickly without having children or further ruining her life. How difficult. I'll send her a card.' But instead there was a lot of smirking.
"Something hit home for me after my brother died when I'd be out and about and running into people and people wouldn't mention it. It was as though they were afraid of it. It happens to this day. I run into people I haven't seen for ten years. Obviously they know my brother died and they just [say], 'Hi, how are you? Good? Great.' Or, 'That's a bummer. Oh. Have a nice day.'
"I've developed this real anger at that. It doesn't seem right not to acknowledge enormous tragedies in the lives of people around you. It's a lie that really bothers me. I felt the same thing around the marriage. My life is in tatters and people say, 'Oh, great. Everything's sunny. Nice to see you.' When real s--- is happening, it's important to [acknowledge it]. It's immoral not to acknowledge. So much of the sorrow we carry around is helped by simply acknowledgment.
"My experience of the Jewish community I grew up in was that a lot of times things did not get acknowledged."
Luke: "At the depths of your pain, you wish that people would observe some of the laws (Lashon Hara) of your religious tradition."
Elisa: "Absolutely. This isn't just about Judaism."
Luke: "But you chose to use the word Lashon Hara."
Elisa: "The point of religion is to make us better human beings. If all Christians were Christlike, this would be a beautiful world to live in."
Luke: "How often do you see religion making people better?"
Elisa: "I see it more often with people who identify idiosyncratically, who intellectualize it, people without blind faith, people who struggle with it."
Luke: "I don't think most people want to be challenged. Only a tiny percentage of people want to struggle with these things. Only intellectuals such as yourself."
Elisa: "I sadly agree but you can surround yourself with such people and you don't have to get frustrated or sad when you have to run into your old Hebrew school classmates at Whole Foods on the Upper West Side."
Luke: "Was your highschool like Lord of the Flies?"
Elisa: "I call Camp Ramah the Jewish Lord of the Flies. There were no adults around. There were adolescents playing adults. There were rampant inappropriate relationships going on between the 'adults' and the teenage campers."
Luke: "Between the counselors and the kids?"
Elisa: "Oh yeah."
Luke: "A lot of predatory?"
Luke: "What about staff and kids?"
Elisa: "That's what I mean. One person at camp was over 40.
"There's a great story by Ellen Umansky in the Lost Tribe anthology -- 'How to Make it to the Promised Land.' It's the definitive Jewish summer camp story. The place is hell on earth.
"My blood pressure goes up just talking about it."
Luke: "Did anyone get busted at Camp Ramah for statutory rape?"
Elisa: "Not that I know of. It was encouraged. Anything that resulted in a Jewish couple was encouraged. That was the goal of Camp Ramah.
"There's a wonderful, famous, respected [Conservative] kindly old rabbi who I like personally, but who is notorious for showing up at Camp Ramah and a few dayschools around town to give a little speech to 14, 15, 16 year old girls about how they need to prioritize getting married and having families as soon as possible. If they are late to do those things, not only will they die barren and alone, but the Jewish people will die out. It will be their fault. You can have a career later.
"It's completely outrageous. It's anachronistic. It's antifeminist and completely misguided and doesn't take individuals into account. I hated it because it encountered virtually no resistance at Camp Ramah. This is a line most people bought into.
"Camp Ramah puts out an alumni newsletter and like JDate, there's a whole corner of mazal tovs. 'We met at Camp Ramah.' This fetishized niche. That's what Camp Ramah is for. If you met your spouse at Camp Ramah, you get a crown of rubies. It's a sick little world."
Luke: "If you were talking to that same group about the same topic, what would you say?"
Elisa: "You have a lot of time. You need to experience the world and figure out who you are in it and take care of yourself and you'll know what you want and who the right partner for you is. You'll be able to create a life that is satisfying to you in the long-term."
Luke: "What should be more important to an 18-year old girl? Get a good education or get a good man?"
Elisa: "Obviously the former, though I don't deny that different people have different capabilities. Some people don't want an education."
Luke: "Would you rather have written a great novel or have a great marriage?"
Elisa: "That's a ridiculous question because one doesn't preclude the other."
Luke: "No, but we can't have everything we want in life. Which is more important to you?"
Elisa: "It's apples and oranges. It's a false choice. Write a great novel or become a great doctor? That you have to choose. I have every intention of having a family, if that is what I want, and continuing to write. I don't see the choice."
Luke: "Which part of your life have you been the happiest?"
Luke: "The reason is?"
Elisa: "I know who I am and what I want. I know how to honor myself and my feelings."
Luke: "What does it mean to honor yourself and your feelings?"
Elisa: "To know that my feelings are important and that if I feel happy or sad or uncomfortable, it's not me. If I'm sitting across the table from somebody and I want to stab myself in the eye with a fork, it's not because there's something wrong with me, it's that I don't like this person and I don't like the vibe.
"I don't beat myself up for things."
Honoring her feelings, Elisa starts crunching (on what I find out later are) raw, unsalted almonds.
"I live in an insular world of writers and sometimes it slaps me in the face that a lot of people out there don't understand, or willfully ignore, the difference between fiction and nonfiction."
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
I try to bring my questions to a close.
Luke: "What do you love and hate about New York? What do you love and hate about LA?"
Elisa: "I love about LA that my mom and dad are there."
Elisa: "I can go back now feeling great about life and revisit old places and not feel terrible about the awful years we discussed earlier. I hate about LA that it is a minefield. Without warning, I'll stumble into a weird feeling of being 15 again and not knowing that there's a whole world out there beyond this insular miserable community and just not thinking there's a place for me anywhere in the world. It's a place full of ghosts -- my grandparents, my brother, a whole family identity that just doesn't exist anymore. That can be empowering too if I don't let it penetrate and just live with it.
"New York I love because I feel completely at home here. I feel like the person I am is valued here. I feel like I found my place here. I found my people. I am allowed to be who I am and honor myself.
"I hate that it is far away from my parents. I hate that because I didn't grow up here, I don't have all those convenient associations. I don't know who the good waxer is. I don't know where you go to get the best manicure."
Luke: "What did your older brother most want for you?"
Elisa: "To be happy. I don't feel like I got to know him well. He was off to college when I was eight."
Luke: "Was he able to communicate with you when he knew he was dying?"
Elisa: "Not so much. It continues the theme of things not getting discussed or acknowledged in my family. He was really optimistic as was everyone. It wasn't until he'd had a second brain surgery, which diminished his personality, it took away the essence of him, that it was clear he was not going to make it. By that point, he was just a shell. We didn't get to mull it over too much.
"I remember saying at one point -- 'He's going to die.' And getting in trouble for that, getting admonished. 'Don't say that! How dare you say that!' As if my saying that is going to make it happen. That's where my penchant for honesty at all cost comes from.
"I'm approaching the age he was when he died (29)."
Luke: "How did your family and friends react to your writing?"
Elisa: "Really well. My dad is plainly thrilled and proud. My mom less so but only because she operates in this insular little lashon hara world. She gets worried about other people thinking X, Y, Z. She moves in this little world and everybody's sniping about everything. The first story [in Elisa's collection] is called, 'The Mother is Always Upset.' She says, 'People are going to look at that title and think it's about me.' I said, 'Mom, if they read the story, then they'll know it's not.' 'But people aren't going to read the story. They're just going to read the title.' 'Mom, if people are that dumb, then who cares?'"
Luke: "Did the people who you described in the Guilt book as gossiping about you, did any of them apologize?"
Elisa: "No. I keep my distance as much as I can from that crew. I can imagine what they think of me. What the camp people I skewer think of me."
I'd like to hear from these people what they think of Elisa Albert and her writing.
Luke: "Is there any pleasure in revenge in your writing?"
Elisa: "I hope not. I'm going to be honest with what I feel, but I think revenge is a bad reason for writing."
Luke: "How did your ex-husband react?"
Elisa: "It was pretty hard but he's a big reader. He understands. He's not thrilled. He wasn't touched by the essay in The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt. His happiness that I had gotten published..."
Luke: "So much of Philip Roth's writing is revenge."
Elisa: "You think? Sometimes. I think he's at his weakest when he does that. That stuff reeks from a mile away."
Luke: "How would the people you grew up with at Camp Ramah, Hebrew High, USY, Harvard-Westlake describe you?"
Elisa: "First there'd be an awkward pause. Then? Oh, I don't know. Weird. Loud. Ugly. Obnoxious."
Luke: "How would your closest friends you've made since grad school describe you?"
Elisa: "That's what friendster is for, no? Cool. Attractive. "Cheerfully acerbic," according to one friend. Smart. Funny. Good things."
Great Book Or Great Marriage?
Whenever I ask high-achieving women if they'd rather write a great book (or direct a great movie, etc) or have a great marriage, they usually take offense and maintain they can have both and there is no need to choose, and no, they won't rank which objective is more important to them.
One who did not take offense to my question was married novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum, who emails me that she'd rather write a great book.
Elisa emails me: "That book or marriage/family question is laughable at best. I'd love to see you pose it to a male writer, if only for a true realization of its absurdity."
I ask myself that question and answer that I'd rather have a great marriage.