Monday, September 26, 2016

Hell, Glory, and a Butter Baron: a Dysfunctional 1% Family Through Time

At some library I was at I came across this book, and instantly loved the title.

It reminded me a little of how Harry Crews lifted some E-Dick, a common practice of authors to get titles, for his All We Need of Hell. Pat Montandon's Oh the Hell of It All is a kind of response book to her son Sean's memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. To be honest, I felt a little mad at Pat for coming up with that title, because it's a good one and I would like to have used it (but come up with it originally). I guess I still can, since there are multiple, different things with the same name (what we call in philosophy a type of "multiple realizability," perhaps?).

I did a little research and it's an interesting story, these two memoirs from two different perspectives about a shared experience (mother and son).

The son, Sean Wilsey, wrote his first, a memoir of growing up in an uber-wealthy (think 1%) San Francisco family that, when he was 9, fell apart at the seams. Mom (Pat) was a dirtpoor girl from Oklahoma who as a child was sometimes hungry, and sustained one of the most bizarre injuries I've ever heard of: she peed on hot coals, and the hot steam gave her a lifelong vagina injury.

She did the thing I've now seen so many Southerners do, which is to leave their Southern upbringing for the California experience (I almost feel I should put a copyright/trademark symbol after that term). My gf Claire did this; the band Brightblack Morning Light did this. Hell, I left New Jersey to go to California. Ah, mythical, golden California.

In San Francisco, Pat worked her way up the ol' social ladder by writing for a local newspaper, having a talk show, and working in a fashion store. She then met and married a butter baron (not making this up), Al Wilsey, who had lots and lots of money from the dairy business. That's where Sean comes from. They lived in a big fancy house on a big hill in San Francisco and mom was a socialite. She wrote a book about some strange experiences she had after an astrologer came to the house and cursed her and the house (must've been the 70s, when the pseudoscience of astrology was a national obsession) called The Intruders. After the cursing, the house was vandalized, always felt cold, and sealed-from-within windows were found open. It sounds like an interesting read, but also sounds like a book for people lacking critical thinking skills and who are prone to superstitious/psuedoscientific thinking, since it combines two of 'em: astrology and the supernatural. The house was probably vandalized because it was a target (I lived in Oakland and worked in San Francisco for five years, and the area has long had a high crime rate); cold because San Francisco is notoriously cold, even in the summer; and the windows? I dunno, but Occam's Razor dictates there is most likely a rational, explainable reason (sorry).

So ol' Al falls for family friend Dede, and it breaks the family up. It devastates Pat, who asks her son if he wants to commit suicide with her. (This is a whole 'nother story, but the stuff parents got away with back in the 70s and 80s compared to today is just astonishing. O how the pendulum has swung.) Pat is left "penniless"* and has a spiritual epiphany that involves going around the world, meeting with world leaders, and promoting peace. It's a "rags-to-riches-to-rags" story, like Steve Martin in The Jerk. Or, for that matter, Donald Trump, who inherited a million and then somehow fucked it up and went broke for a spell.

Al dies in 2002 and not too long after, as memoirs so often go, it clears the way for son and ex-wife to tell their tales. Sean's memoir comes out first, and then mom's. Mom's even riffs on her son's memoir's title and uses the same graphic, which I thought was cool, because, combined, it's two books about glory and hell. I do feel for all involved: divorce is hard on everyone, no matter how insulated or spoiled one is by wealth/power, and, as Iris Murdoch notes in her philosophical magnum opus Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals**, even the wealthiest and most privileged people can suffer just like anyone. (I also agree with Henry Chinaski in Barfly that "nobody suffers like the poor.")

Sean grows up bouncing around different schools and somehow spends time in Italy. He returns to the Bay Area eventually, pursues writing and photography, and becomes -- oh, what a surprise! -- an editor at the hip publishing outfit McSweeney's. (Disclaimer: I got into the inner circle (sort of) of the McSweeney's world, or what people call the "Eggersverse" after founder Dave Eggers, when my gf worked for them and I volunteered for them. I have mixed feelings about both the people that comprise McSweeney's and the stuff they put out, because some of it/them is amazing and some is hipster drivel. But overall I like how Dave put his Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius money and fame into humanitarian projects, and I've met the guy, and he's very nice.) I have a feeling Sean Wilsey's name and money had an influence on his position at McSweeney's, not just the strength of his writing and photography alone. Just a hunch. (Not surprisingly, the evil gold-digger stepmom stepped down from a local SF fine art museum Board of Directors position over allegations of money mismanagement and using her power and influence to get her stepson a showing at the museum.) I'm ready and willing to be wrong about this; perhaps he clawed his way up from the bottom to where he is today. But is it really the bottom if you weren't born into this world at the (very) bottom?

I do feel for children who grow up in wealth: they are sometimes really cool, like the Johnson & Johnson family member who exposed the 1% with a biting documentary, and often growing up wealthy and privileged is a curse, like how so many child stars in Hollywood end up with horrible adulthoods of addiction, poverty, and death. Savannah smiles.

But the ultra-wealthy also really bother me, because even if/when they suffer the normal/natural ups and downs, fortunes and misfortunes of life, they are generally infinitely more prepared and privileged to surf those waves, since they have better support systems, wealth, resources, lawyers, etc in place. All of human society's economic activity pretty much caters to and seeks the money of the middle class (what's left of it!) and above; a blogger recently wrote about how there's even a class below the proletariat, the "unnecessariat," who aren't even really involved in economic buying/selling, but are a burden on the entire system.

And the main thing that bothers me about the 1% -- besides tax evasion, total loss of perspective, ultra-spoiledness, the randomness of how some children are born into the horrors of poverty and some are born Kardashians, etc. -- is that they tend to only really interact with and breed with other 1%ers, thus keeping wealth, privilege, and power elite and protected. I'm from a Dutch family, and there's a dark side of Dutch people that believes "if you ain't Dutch, you ain't much" and that Dutch people should marry within the Dutch population only. Yes, in the case of Pat and Sean and Al, Pat was able to infiltrate the ivory tower of the 1% from her far more humble beginnings. It can and does happen. But I wouldn't say it's the norm. The rich get rich, the poor stay or get poorer, and this has only been happening more and more in recent history. Humans are incredibly and sadly class-conscious of where they fall on the ol' social pyramid. (And there ain't enough room at the upper levels for everyone, folks.) But life is fundamentally unfair. I think this fact should be included in the 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Mom is still kickin' at age 88: I found her on twitter and she doesn't like Trump, which is a good reminder that not all the 1% are raging Republicans, and that Trump has split and alienated the Republican Party like a champ. Sean is alive and well -- haven't read his work or seen his photos, so can't judge his talent or lack thereof (but he certainly has entered the world of aesthetics with an advantage over others). Dede still lives. San Francisco is as run by special interests and the 1% as ever, and is currently experiencing an acute housing crisis and takeover by Silicon Valleyers who have gone north. I'm currently out of butter and unemployed, and recently became so disillusioned with California that I went South. I feel like an early adoptor of the 1849 California Gold Rush wearily and dejectedly coming down the path, gold-less, and saying to fresh-faced hopefuls just arriving: "Don't bother." Golden State? Nah, Tarnished State. Call me a carpetbagger.

All in all, these two books capture a seedy and dark side of an affluenza-ridden San Francisco that is just as alive and well, and historically has been, as the more stereotypical notions of SF as progressive, tolerant, cutting-edge wonderland. Working there for years, I actually found the former to be more truthful than the latter. (Yes, yes, I know, SF pioneered gay marriage, banning plastic bags, raising the minimum wage, etc.) It's interesting to me when two people (or more) write about a shared experience and the ways in which facts (those slippery things) and memories (notoriously unreliable) line up or, more interestingly, don't. I just finished Ted Geltner's biography of Harry Crews -- the first biography -- and am wondering if there will be fall-out for its both sympathetic but also unflinching look at the man. Memoirs from different perspectives show the parallax effect or Rashomon effect. And, of course, every person is entitled to their side of the story -- no matter how rich or poor they are.

* I haven't read either memoir, but I did read that she eventually got $20,000 A MONTH FOR EIGHT YEARS, so I'm not sure how penniless she was, unless it was a period of pennilessness before her alimony kicked in. I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it makes a better story if she's "left penniless," and I just don't trust 1%er notions of "pennilessness" vs actual pennilessness.
** Penultimate chapter, "Void"

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Looking back on Oakland, CA

PGR's "Requiem" is one of my favorite songs ever. I first heard it on a compilation that had spoken-word interludes between the various contributors' songs, so I'm not sure if the man speaking at the beginning of the song is part of the song proper or it got included because the song is from the compilation. Either way, it works. There's also this funny background blurb about PGR on YouTube:

'PGR started life as an industrial group in mid '80s under the Poison Gas Research moniker. Their studio was in a rough area in Oakland. To deter dubious people they affixed a sign with "Poison Gas Research" written on it at the front door.'

I lived in Oakland for about 5 years, and can definitely see this happening. It's also coincidental that the man speaking about "dis-learning" things about music (I love the concept of "dislearning") took him 28 years -- that's the exact amount of time I was in California (southern, northern, Oakland, etc) altogether. Even tho this is labeled as "dark ambient industrial," which I can see, it's one of the most beautifully soothing songs I've ever had, even pretty in an odd way. Enjoy. (Btw I've always wondered who the man speaking in song's beginning is-- if you know, please contact me and let me know!)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sunshine Pop

I've been listening to some sunshine pop lately: that sorta goofy genre of music from the mid- to late-60s that was the precursor to the straight-up psychedelic rock of the later 60s and into the early 70s. It's not my favorite overall, and as Henry Rollins notes, the punk scene can raise eyebrows if you deviate too much from the punk world (depending on how open-minded your punk scene is), but it's a world I don't know much about, and I like to find interesting worlds and get into them.
Peppermints obviously played a large role in the sunshine pop cum psychedelic rock/pop evolution. There's also Peppermint Rainbow and The Strawberry Alarm Clock's famous "Incense and Peppermints." Was LSD put into peppermints back then? When I think of peppermints I think of depressing restaurants and old ladies with little candy dishes. Sometimes I think of old ladies at depressing restaurants taking peppermints home and putting them in their candy dish.

But despite the goofiness of some of the music, and the band names emphasizing color and non-sequiturs (oooo, edgy!) -- the formula seems to be: take ______ and combine it with ________ (and make sure the two have little to nothing to do with each other)* -- there's some nice vocal harmonizing in these songs, cool keyboard playing (the legendary Farfisa keyboard), and I like that the average song length is about 2' 45", which some people have noted is kind of a magical number/song length, in that it's just right.

* Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, etc.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Dirty Old Southern Strippers

Met some of my girlfriend's classmates from her Master's in Social Work program at a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta last night. We were planning on checking out a lantern parade going on: I could see from the restaurant a cool procession of people with different types of lanterns. It kinda looked like people going to a deadmau5 concert. But by the time we finished at the restaurant, the parade was over, so when we tried to figure out our next move, I haphazardly suggested Atlanta's infamous Clermont Lounge, a dive bar/strip club in the grand Southern tradition, but featuring....uh, older strippers. We went there, a place that symbolizes the carnivalesque aspect of Southern gothic in an urban setting better than anything, and a venue frequented by celebrities from time to time. I ended up watching actor William Fichtner walk right past me, so I reached out and fistbumped him. He's been in Black Hawk Down, the tv show Prison Break, one of the Dark Knight movies, etc. Kinda an actor you might not known by name but he's been in a lotta shit. The Clermont is located somewhat bizarrely below an abandoned/condemned building with boarded-up windows, and it's a quintessential Dirty South-type place: loud, smoky, ridiculously strong drinks, and strippers way past their prime -- we're talking C-section scars, belly pudge, gimmicks (one lit birthday candles that were in her nipples*) -- who were kinda feminist in a way because they didn't give a fuck, were able to get over themselves, and challenged the notion that strippers need to be young, nubile, and Barbie Doll-esque. One stripper seemed to be in her 60s and she had this glowy rave thing in her hand that she used to illuminate her lady parts. Another stripper was in her 20s (she was definitely in the minority) and my gf pointed out she appeared to have a vestigal tail in her backbone that'd been removed, a little scar tissue-y bump that stuck out. The male customers were a combo of hipsters, frat boys, Indian men, and dirty Southerners, and there were a lot of women there, too. It definitely had elements of an old-fashioned freak/sideshow from the carnival days, and I talked with one person who fully planned to go to (Christian) church the next morning. Once the strippers had danced, they circulated among the crowd, but not in the way I've seen them do in other strip clubs, where they're trying to drum up private lap dance business and using insincere words for the male customers like honey, sweetie, good-looking, etc. These ladies just hung out, walked around half- or fully naked, and in the South, words like dear, honey, sweetie, etc. are used sincerely, because it's the friendliest people I've ever met in the world. (If I recall correctly, the gf and I were called "sugarbun" in Mississippi by an older Black maid.) The strippers were not bad-looking or grotesque**, but one person described the Clermont as "where strippers go to die," and the place reminded me a bit of Reno, Nevada. I wondered if the place just happened to once have strippers who were past their prime and then that became something people wanted and told others about, so The Clermont went with it, or if they'd had older strippers from the start, or what. But it was a very fun, memorable experience, and despite the Dirty South-ness of it, there were no fights, no rude creepy/sleazy behavior from men, no coked-up idiocy, etc. And apparently they have bands there: Brent Hinds from Mastodon's side project band Fiend Without a Face plays there a few days before Halloween this year. I can only imagine what that is like, but perhaps it's a more traditional experience than the geriatric strippers. If you get to Atlanta, I would definitely put The Clermont high on your list of to-do things, but be prepared for no cameras, cash only, and if it's the summer, it gets pretty darn moist in there. Sorry. Had to throw that pun in. 

* Don't ask me how she accomplished this. But she did.
** Remember the old whore in the film Barfly? The Clermont isn't quite at that level, but...close.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


I took in the Decatur Book Festival recently (Decatur, GA) and experienced a fantastic panel and reading about the first biography of "grit lit" Southern author Harry Crews. I've been a longtime Crews fan and from what I've read, this (authorized) biography is very well-written, authoritative, and moving. Check it out.