Saturday, February 18, 2017

Yellin' with "Ellen"

Waiting for my physical, one other person preceded me. An obese man in his thirties. T-shirt, shorts, sandals with socks. Resembling the character on "30 Rock" with the ironic trucker's cap. His hair, brown and wavy, hung down his back from beneath a UCLA hat with smaller letters my lenses could not make out. His lenses were standard hipster heavy plastic black frames. Which complement very few facial types. He stared into his phone, its smallness evident against his bearish paws. I chose to sit beneath the t.v. rather than face it, knowing from previous long perches the added aggravation of the daytime fare it peddled. At Loma Linda, where I had often taken my wife for dental work, Fox went on and on, and I endured the news cycle every half hour, repeating nothing in particular. At least in Burbank, it was tuned to one of the networks, with what used to be deemed housewife fare, "Ellen." She boasted of turning 59, amid her schtick. Canned or not, cheers followed every utterance.

I had snatched up a book before I dashed out. Traffic filled the 5. I took Riverside Drive along that concrete stretch, through Griffith Park. A few glimpses of the riparian and hilly settings that I have witnessed nearly all my life, usually from car windows. I got to my appointment just in time, not that it mattered. Still had three-quarters of an hour ahead, and then five others entered. All greyer than me.

First a solicitous yenta, showing the indifferent receptionist an ad from "one of your magazines." Then her husband, more rotund, on what used to be deemed a cane. He looked dazed and pale. She and he watched the television. So did another couple, a dark-dyed haired wife who looked happier than her dour tubby husband. Finally a stiff balding man walked in and took the chair next to mine, dragging it away from me towards the door. I felt a bit hurt, wondering what I looked like to him.

I dipped into a book I can drift in and out of. John Cowper Powys' 1934 autobiography is an odd work for its time, the kind of upper-middle-class account of nature, prep school, Cambridge, an allowance to live on sparely (if it seems always at ease) from father, and the first job teaching, in a girls' school. That's where I am about 40% in, not that much happens. His intent is rather to give the mental and emotional state of himself, curious even by English eccentricity. His measured admissions of sadism, and his decision to excise his mother, his wife, and any other female paramour except by vague allusions attests to his oddity. Apparently not to offend, but the imbalance given his preoccupation with keeping his savage impulses controlled leaves an strange impression. A muse, a magician, a would-be mage, JCP argued for a native, natural, and naive approach to life in its energy.

His erudition evident, but his preference for his attenuated "Celtic" wild quality makes his claims rather specious, he one of many children of a Derbyshire cleric. He wrote his life around the age of 60, and four years after his first major and of course heavily autobiographical novel was published.

He had lived as a lecturer in the U.S, and his turn to writing to support himself as radio displaced the appeal of the wandering entertainer indicates an era when the written word still commanded enough of an audience among the discerning and the curious to pay the bills in upstate New York. He might be a blog pundit now, with his own YouTube channel. He spoke of his own wish to fit in with the hardy folk as he strolled about Cambridge's flat fens, even if he stayed balanced enough to realize he resembled "a caricature of Taliesin." This reminded me of the scene around me, in everyday Burbank.

A city I had begun my childhood in, having moved there in pre-school and left after second grade. We lived two blocks from the 5 Freeway, where my parents ran a dog kennel on an industrial street. Now the world's biggest IKEA looms over "Beautiful Downtown Burbank," while a shopping sprawl with the usual big-box logos replaces the aircraft factory my mom had worked at as a secretary. Watching these streets for over five decades, it used to be mocked in my childhood on "Laugh-In" but now the Middle-American complexions of its residents had given way to the gray, in a place heavily Armenian and Latino, as much of the San Fernando Valley, now that Bob Hope was dead and gone.

I've related last November my conversations on the bus tour of Irish Montana with an anthropologist who had retired from the Army to live with her family off the grid near the northern border. She and I wondered where smart misfits fit in, who cannot handle either the earnest platitudes of the urban intelligentsia with its kale smoothies and NPR (ok, I listen now and then, when the classical station has a pledge drive) or the inspirational claptrap of the super-sized Wal-Mart megachurch heartland.

These dovetail with a decision of a colleague who relocated to Cascadia, weary of the academic betrayals and "misguided liberals" who thwarted her path in SoCal. How many share the quest of these two women, with doctorates, who dwell far from the "hot, brown, and crowded" sprawl (to twist a term from globalization shill Tom Friedman, used by a third Ph,D. to refer to her and our hefty sitter's UCLA thirty thousand aspirants, at our drought-plagued, charm-challenged alma mater)?

Around me, those at the doctor's waiting room gazed up at "Ellen." A woman with a vacant expression except of utter awe, grey hair like a hippie caricature, face pink and soft, eyes wide open, heard the celebrity and a singer named Adam who apparently replaced Blake as Nicole Kidman's arm-candy ramble about paying off an audience member's "wedding debt" to braying applause. And this was the "better" of the humbugs taking up the allegiance of the yearning masses breathing free.

Like JCP, if from a source far closer to the toilers than he, I'm a coddled holder of an elite degree among the masses. Unlike him and some of the Whole Foods contingent (ok, I have shopped there for their great beer selection, but I prefer a local-run place near work), I don't romanticize the hoi polloi.

The current fetish to laud "immigrants" regardless of their legal status as heroic reminds me of the folly of liberal rhetoric. You get Nobel laureates and shot-callers, Boston bombers and studious refugees, shady scammers and diligent toilers. The pitch made by progressives elevates all as if fleeing annihilation, when nearly all of the million-plus entering the country yearly come as part of a family chain, preferred over those with skills unmet by the American-born. For every twelve people we could aid in their own country, we pay for one to come here. I remain rarely moved by appeals to heartstrings, and this may betray my rational bent, as I'd like less immigration and fewer people overall. The more people in America, the heavier their environmental footprint. On the other hand, call me out as a father of two, and a hypocritical immigrant's son who burrows back into the oul' sod.

I know how corrupt, ecologically damaged, spiritually wounded, and socially unequal Ireland too remains, alas. There's no shelter for the pessimist, the cautious idealist, the searcher for solace. As JCP learned in his upstate hideaway, the world demands us back. He had to leave for England as the war loomed, and then fled to his dim ancestral Wales to claim his turf as if its lord. We mix our real and our fantasy lives, as he knew well, and we must endure as mortality looms and doctors await us.

Photo:"Celebrity Worship Syndrome"

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