Sweet Pam at book reading

Beauty is Sheer Masochism

 

As a result of a year-long flirtation with an interesting man at work, I was waist-deep in a self-improvement makeover by the time I discovered that my “new friend” was years younger than I was. The age difference caught me by surpirse, but it was too late to back out. I was already hooked.

Having long ago succumbed to two of a woman’s greatest fears–growing old and getting fat–I had recently expanded my mail-order purchases to include a scar-removing ointment for a 20-year-old incision and a tube of belly-slimming cream to tone up my stomach during and after weight loss.

What weight loss? The minute that I clapped eyes on a piece of pound cake (now there’s an appropriate term) the jig was up. I even bought a three-month supply of carbohydrate inhibitors but consistently forgot to take them.

I was determined to reverse this downward trend and reinvent myself with cell renewal, rehydration and age-related weight-gain products. I spent a week’s pay every month on rejuvenating creams, potions and pills to reduce, tone, un-wrinkle, un-feckle, delay, extract, suppress and inhibit my body’s natural aging process. I considered myself a real upfront gal; I put it right out there. But apparently not until it had been enhanced, harnessed, concealed, colored and preened.

I decided to change my diet to include low-carb shakes and protein bars and I even began a half-hearted regime of sit-ups. When I added a daily heart-pounding walk around the lake near my home, I started to see results, although not what I intended. I literally walked my butt off. My derrière now hung flat, looking less like a candidate for a pair of crotchless panties than an adult diaper.

In the 13th century, a Persian scholar postulated that a body of matter is able to change but is not able to disappear. Through my own experience, I proved his theory true; the three pounds of fat I dropped off my caboose now hung underneath my chin, a necklace of fat anchored by the onset of my dropping jowls. Regrettably, there is no exercise to remove excess skin from that area of the body.

Having never been at a loss for words, I kept my opinions to myself for fear of calling attention to my neck, unless I happened to be wearing a turtleneck sweater or sitting in a dark restaurant.

After culling through the rogue’s gallery of facial surgeons listed on the Internet, I took the plunge and made an appointment. My apprehension receded after meeting Dr. Harvey, but the relief was short-lived. The amiable doctor pointed out a series of facial imperfections that I never knew I had. He followed this critique with a dozen photographs–taken from unusual angles, which he mailed to me a few days later.

“I dont feel like these pictures really resemble me,” I explained at my next appointment. “I don’t see these flaws when I look in the mirror.”

“People only look you in the eyes about 15 percent of the time,” he continued. “They are usually viewing you from one of the angles shown here.”

The statement was hard to swallow. Was I really the ugly duckling these photos portrayed? How come nobody ever told me? One thing was obvious: youth was on the run and had taken my sexuality as hostage.

That my inusrance wouldn’t pay for this was no surprise. It would have been a lot cheaper to see a psychiatrist for an attitude adjustment. At least that would have been covered. While I was in the admitting department filling out forms, I was assisted by a man in his 60s, wearing a rhinestone earring.

“When I lost my looks, I left town,” he said.

I admired his honesty but didn’t like the implication, although I had to admit that the idea of leaving town was one I’d yet to consider.

Although I was given a daunting packet of pre-op dos and don’ts, I was eargerly looking forward to the surgery. I felt as if I were being admitted into a secret club. As it happened, I wasn’t far off the mark. Several acquaintances revealed similar experiences. It seemed to be a conspiracy of the beautiful people–they’d all had work done.

The ultimate testimonial came gushing from the mouth of a medical technician during the pre-op EKG. She’d not only had her chin and forehead lifted, but her upper arms liposuctioned as well, all on her “Katrina money.”

My surgery was cushioned with an overnight stay in the hospital, but I awoke sick to my stomach and unable to open my eyes. The phrase “there may be some minor discomfort” was printed somewhere on my papers, but at no time did anybody mention the word pain.

I planned to enjoy my recovery during the three weeks of vacation time I’d taken from my accounting job. Unfortunatley, I was experiencing a little more discomfort than I expected. I couldn’t even see to write. My glasses rubbed against the stitches above my ears, so I took a pair of needle-nose pliers and cut off the stems. Technically now a pince-nez, the device kept slipping down my nose until I taped it to my forehead.

My hairdresser sternly warned me against looking into the bathroom mirror. Driven by a comulsive nature, I broke two taboos at once. I first took a gander at Dr. Harvey’s handiwork. I looked frightful, but I could take it. Then I stepped on the scale. There it was. Unable to open my mouth wide enough for solid food, I’d lost another 2-1/2 pounds. Oh, God! Where would the extra skin go? With my neck as taut as a drum, it would have to be the belly.

My friends took the news along the lines they felt most comfortable. One sent out a reproachful email asking a mutual acquaintance if she’d seen what I’d done to myself. Another wickedly announced that I’d decided to lop off one chin for each of my ex-husbands. There was only one person whose opinion mattered to me and he knew nothing of my surgery.

When I returned to work with my chiseled neck, a few coworkers were reticent to acknowledge it at all, but others couldn’t wait to register an opinion. One chubby salesman pulled a chunk of skin away from his ample neck and said, “I’m going to have this removed and see if the doctor can reattach it someplace else.”

At long last my future beau arrived and he greeted me warmly.

“You look great,” he said. “Have a nice vacation?”

He hadn’t noticed! I was aghast and felt foolish. Was this age drama only in my own head?

The two of us have been together for three years now. His hair is turning gray, and we’ve both put on a few pounds but aren’t worried about it. Would I do it again? No. Was it worth it? Absolutely! Nothing is as sexy as self-confidence.

(Published online AOL/MyDaily 5/9/11 as I Got a Chin Lift to Impress a Younger Man)

sundance3

Film Fetish

As the sun blazed through the windshield of our car, I donned a pair of shades for the exhilarating drive up the wintry slopes to Park City, Utah. The old mining town was located 7,000 feet above sea level and set deep within the pine-covered Wasatch Mountains. It glistened like an opal, buffed shiny by the thriving ski trade, which brought with it new money and trendy boutiques. The western flavor of the 1860s architecture looked like the back-lot at Warner Brothers but the quaint facades housed thriving businesses like The Noodle and Pizza, art galleries, tea shops and chocolate confectioners. On Main Street the curbs were covered with a foot of frozen snow. Eager out-of-towners braced themselves against the frigid wind. In hooded parkas and designer boots they scurried along the slippery walkways to afternoon screenings and celebrity press parties. Due to the thin air and our close proximity to the pinnacle of the independent film world, my head was reeling.

For ten days each January, this tiny hamlet swells to capacity as thousands of filmmakers from every corner of the globe gather for a chance to showcase their work. Although artistic achievement is valued above commerce here, Sundance award winners have little trouble finding enthusiastic distributors; crowded restaurants are filled with agents trading offers over lattes or corned beef on rye. Besides the talented newcomers, Hollywood personalities stream into town to attend the premieres. Major stars from Matt Damon and Nicole Kidman, to quirky fringe players like Benicio del Toro–who arrived to accept the Piper Heidsieck Tribute–mix freely with filmmakers and movie fans. To add to the inherent allure of such an event, an old friend and I were being featured in a documentary titled The Cockettes, which had been entered into competition. Nothing could have kept us away.

Fayette was all-atwitter when she met my plane. She brought with her a much-coveted festival pass, which she hung around my neck. This exceptional prize–an ordinary-looking plastic badge on a cord–had hidden powers. It was the key to the city, allowing us to mingle with the creative elite at Hospitality Suite, the House of Docs, and other restricted venues. The Cockettes was showing at the Yarrow II and in anticipation of attending the question and answer periods that followed each screening, Fayette and I rented a condo near the theater. Here we housed our drag and made frequent pit stops to change into elaborate ensembles.

I purchased an official Sundance catalogue and devoured it, right there in the lobby. To my delight, the film schedule surpassed my wildest hopes: international cinema, celebrity premieres, engrossing documentaries, animated shorts and much more. And, it was filled with pictures! The sheer number of movies being screened added another wrinkle to our already-tricky schedule. Like kids choosing colored gumdrops, we snatched up as many as we could, in between the screenings at the Yarrow. This last-minute maneuvering cut our time perilously close as we skidded all over town in a rented car. With Fayette wearing her black monkey fur coat and me sporting a silver-dyed fun fur, we made mad dashes through the frigid air to claustrophobic tents where we waited in line with other film devotees for the “no-show” seats to go on sale. Afterward, nestled in the lodge, we sipped hot cider, excitedly critiquing the day’s flicks.

At night the downtown strip was a mass of colored lights. Parties and midnight cult screenings like Hollywood Hong Kong kept the town open all night long. The entire trip seemed like one endless day-broken only by brief periods of rest when I took off my makeup and lay sleepless in the dark–fearful that I might miss something. When I finally nodded off, my fears were realized. Fayette burst into the room with an armload of swag from Shadow Ridge and the news that she’d just met and posed for pictures with Gena Rowlands! I am a huge fan of John Casavettes’ films and bounded out of bed like the sheets were on fire.

The Cockettes co-directors, Bill Weber and David Weissman, were popular and sought out by high-profile characters like Robin Williams who stopped by the Yarrow just long enough to give his blessing and to kiss the top of Bill’s bald head. The Mayor of Park City–Dana Williams–was a high school chum of David’s. After his appearance at one afternoon screening he was amused when Fayette and I posed for the cameras with our arms around him. It would be a far cry from his scheduled morning meeting with the straight-laced Attorney General, John Ashcroft. The President’s advisor was coming to Park City to scrutinize security for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

With eyes swollen shut from over-heated accommodations, lack of sleep and too much makeup, we kept up the relentless pace. We finagled tickets to see How to Draw a Bunny, the story of the enigmatic life of pop artist Ray Johnson, and spotted film critic, Roger Ebert, seated in the back row. We immediately introduced ourselves and invited him to our next screening. The Cockettes caught the imagination of a number of other reviewers. Articles about the film were currently running in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. We had also made the cover of Film Print. Fayette and I were soon recognized around town and asked to pose for pictures, which seemed surreal, as we in turn were chasing much larger fish.

A trip to the library the following morning got us into a quirky James Spader film called The Secretary before we squeezed onto a standing-room-only shuttle bus to catch Tilda Swinton in Teknolust at the Eccles Theatre. Regrettably, I faded along with the dimming lights. I slunk down into my seat totally exhausted, and caught a few zzzs. When I finally stirred, the film was over. Karen Black was speaking from the podium and Fayette was on her cell phone making arrangements to get our names on Universal’s party list. At Deer Lodge we waited for Andie MacDowell’s dinner party to break up and for a car to be sent down the hill to collect us. In groups of four we were escorted to the palatial Chrysler House Lodge where outside, a contingent of parking valets huddled around a flaming brazier to ward off the arctic night chill.

Nearing the final weekend, Fayette’s trunks exploded and we were forced to make an unscheduled trip to the post office to mail boxes of her drag home to L.A. That evening, The Cockettes played Salt Lake City in a midnight showing at Sugartown Mall. Fearing a tar and feather party, we were delighted to find a contingent of local hipsters who regaled us with their stories of wild nights at the Palace Theatre.

On closing night the Awards Ceremony was held at the Park City Racquet Club. Tickets were harder to come by than hens’ teeth, which left most of the eager crowd watching the monitors in the spillover room. Fayette and I–dressed in velvet and feathers–obtained two of the coveted seats, joining David and Bill in the auditorium. The room was completely dark except for the stage. It felt like the Academy Awards. When they announced the winner for best documentary we held our breath.

The prize went to Daughter From Danang, a dramatic telling of the evacuation and subsequent U.S. integration of orphans and Amerasian children following the Vietnam War. Old friend John Waters, along with Patricia Arquette, were on a separate jury evaluating dramatic competition. Waters stopped outside to five me a hug and put an acerbic spin on the evening’s events. “You were robbed!” he joked. Everyone knew there were no losers at Sundance. The evening ended gaily when the entire Cockette entourage retreated to Renee’s to enjoy an intimate vegetarian dinner by candlelight.

The thrill of going to Sundance as a member of the Cockettes was matched only by the awe I felt being surrounded by so many innovative storytellers. I was a goner form the first night. In a makeshift auditorium, Fayette and I sat on folding chairs–squeezed shoulder to shoulder with a roomful of intriguing strangers. My pulse pounded as I tried to sit still. The opening trailer featured a close-up shot of pursed lips–lipstick red and wrinkled with age. An arthritic finger raised to cross them and a “Shhhhhhh” hissed from the speakers. As the music rose, the screen went black, then the 2002 Sundance Film Festival Logo suddenly appeared. I knew there was no place on earth that I would rather be.

Boarding a plane for home I reflected on my inadvertent benefactors, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. After twenty-five years of gracing the back wall of my closet, their matted and numbered images were sold on eBay to make this trip possible. I’m sure they would have enjoyed the party.

(Published in After Life by David Klein 2005) 

Lynn Ruth Miller

The Ha-Ha Sisterhood

Cutting-edge, stand-up comedienne, 78-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller, is now staging her outrageous floor show from a wheel chair—refusing to let surgery from a broken heel keep her sidelined, since coming off of a four-day run at The Punchline in San Francisco.

Just 5’ tall in feather boa, padded brassiere, and now, Day-Glo leg-cast, Lynn Ruth is an unabashed raconteur and the embodiment of the gamey one-liner. Reprising offbeat characters such as Granny’s Gone Wild and The Stripping Granny, she has been lauded as the darling of the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals and was presented with the Audience Choice and Originality Awards at the 2012 Texas Burlesque Festival. Despite her recent injury, Ms. Miller is performing her brassy cabaret routine in clubs throughout the Bay Area, keeping up a performance schedule that would hobble a race horse.

Her predecessor, Phyllis Diller, is well known for being the first female stand-up comedienne to play Las Vegas. She was a trail-blazer, and like Lynn Ruth, her talents were multifaceted. Both of these daring dames hailed from the Midwest, where they were born in Ohio, barely 70 miles apart. Sharing a love of music and creative arts, they bucked the traditional times in which they were raised, fleeing the kitchen for the male-dominated world of journalism, and later, the stage. These funny ladies had brains. Ms. Diller played piano and studied at the Sherwood Music Conservatory at the Columbia College in Chicago before transferring to Bluffton College to study liberal arts. Lynn Ruth (also a pianist) attended the University of Michigan where she got her BA in Education, following up with a Masters in Creative Arts at the University of Toledo and finally receiving an M.A. in Communication from Stanford University.

Phyllis Diller worked as a journalist for the San Leandro News Observer after transplanting to California. After she appeared as a contestant on the Groucho Marx Show, she was offered a gig at San Francisco’s comedy club, The Purple Onion, where her off-the-wall humor and outlandish costumes propelled her into a comedy career that spanned decades. The irrepressible Ms. Diller toured for 10 years as a concert pianist (under a pseudonym) and penned 5 best-selling books, including “The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them”.

Lynn Ruth Miller followed a similar path, working as a free-lance columnist for the Pacifica Times and becoming a regular contributor to local and national

magazines. A prolific writer, she has written 11 books, of which two novels and two selections of short stories have been published. To promote her first novel, Starving Hearts, Lynn Ruth began an arduous tour of the U.S., reading excerpts from her book in dozens of states. While promoting her short story collection, Thoughts While Walking the Dog, she toured convalescent homes for Jewish holocaust survivors, and in the process, advanced to the next phase of her kaleidoscopic career.

“What our people really want are jokes,” a woman from the JCC Senior Center told her.

After a few years, the joke-well ran dry and at the age of 71, Lynn Ruth enrolled at San Francisco Comedy College. Before long, Lynn Ruth’s acerbic wit focused on debunking her favorite fallacy: society’s attitude toward aging. At crowded late-night venues, (The Purple Onion was one stop along the way) Lynn Ruth now appears in one-woman cabarets, such as Aging is Amazing, and Alzheimer’s, Alzheimer’s, Cha Cha Cha, where she lashes out with rapid-fire jokes, sings, prances and strips down to a fringe and feather covered, over-stuffed corset of 1900s vintage, with the mannerisms of an outspoken B-girl and the ribald humor of a female Lenny Bruce.

Rave reviews and spot appearances on radio and television talk shows gave Lynn Ruth the push to audition for Americas’ Got Talent, where she made it to the third tier, being chosen to appear before the judges in Las Vegas where she was selected as one out of four finalists in comedy. After an appearance in Scotland, a rep from Britain’s Got Talent approached her as well. In May, Lynn Ruth hosted a daily U.K. television review called Festival! , which covered the antics of the annual Brighton Fringe Festival. She is currently vetting an offer for another daily show in England. Europe is a favorite destination for Lynn Ruth, where she has made appearances in Scotland, Dublin and Rome. Her next stop is Russia where she will be doing a stand-up comedy stint in Moscow next month.

It’s been decades since women were confined to the audience. Phyllis Diller was a gutsy pioneer and every funny lady owes her a nod. Lynn Ruth Miller is another. Both are brash, uninhibited and delightful. We may continue to enjoy the antics of Phyllis Diller on film. And if Lynn Ruth has anything to say about it, she’ll be with us for a long time.

“If you want to write my biography you’d better take your vitamins.” she recently told me. “Everything before 80 is just a prologue.”

(Posted in Redroom Pick of the Week 8/12)

bicycles

Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat

Songwriter, Johnny Mercer wrote “Any Place I Hang my Hat is Home”—and for me, that’s San Francisco. I’ve been lucky enough to revel in this carnival metropolis since newspapers captivated readers with bristling exploits of the Zodiac Killer, and Herb Caen wrote his daily columns for the San Francisco Chronicle exalting life in “Baghdad by the Bay”. My attitudes have ripened over the decades and I’ve put away the bell-bottom pants, but I recently decided to take a fresh look around this town where parking tickets can cost a week’s salary, and vehicles haphazardly compete with pedestrians in weaving competitions similar to the blind road races once held through the streets of Calcutta.

New buildings have drastically altered the SF skyline. One Rincon Hill, a green-glass, 60-story, condominium high rise, stands unparalleled above its south of Market Street neighborhood. Its modern construction raised little opposition, unlike the erection of the Transamerica Pyramid, which once caused quite a stir. (In 1972, the fracas culminated in typical San Francisco fashion when an Egyptian parade led by pranksters dressed as Nubian slaves, dragged stone slabs through the streets of the Financial District.)

Other neighborhoods keep reinventing themselves. The Mission District has long been a thriving kaleidoscope of people and commerce. Once an enclave of inexpensive clothing emporiums and burrito stands, it’s now a crowded pastiche of ethnic cafes, peppered with stores offering out-of-print books and hand-made bric-a-brac, all colorfully cloaked within this vibrant Latin community. Near the Roxie Theater, across from the jam-packed Pork Store Café, you’ll find collections of unusual wares from Clothes Central (Vintage by the Pound) to the Five and Diamond, where unique jewelry is made from watch pieces and tiny WWII battlefield replicas.

La Cumbre Taqueria is a staple eatery on Valencia Street. Serving burritos since 1968, their expansive walls are adorned with huge murals, including the renowned machinegun- toting Adelita—one of Pancho Villa’s many girlfriends. Posters for the metrosexual theater company, The Thrillpeddlars, can be seen on light poles advertising their latest production Shocktoberfest- Kiss of Death. The attitude of these revivers of Grand Guignol, Parisian horror and gore, is summed up by their cheeky motto: “Sissies Stay Home.”

Across town on Clement Street, in the Richmond District, the open-air produce markets are still thronged and in abundance, as are Trading Companies and Variety Shops. Unlike the disappearance of many of The City’s book nooks, Green Apple Books, the age-old reader’s goldmine is still thriving. Adding an annex to their flagship store, a couple of doors down, they purchased Revolver Records and now include the sale of vintage albums and CDs.

I passed a darkened club called the Rockit Room. I ducked inside and found the new manager holding court at the bar upstairs. The ambience was familiar to me from wilder days. It was the former Last Day Saloon where I’d once shared a joint with Etta James before a show.

Some old haunts have been razed or transformed. Along the water’s edge, workers tore down the amusement park, Playland at the Beach, and more recently moved the mechanical oddity “Laffing Sal” and the Musee Mechanique from underneath the Cliff House to a hanger at Pier 39. These antiquated, funfair devices now sit surrounded by innovative buskers and creative moochers, eager to delight you with more than your penny’s worth. (The only street musician to ever pry a quarter from my deceased father worked this area in 1982. Known as the Automatic Human Jukebox, he crouched inside a decorated cardboard box and delivered a song for the price of a quarter.)

As ever, poignant displays of human drama await every turn: a bottle and can collector carrying her booty in Luis Vuitton luggage walks by, and across the street, a silver-haired American Indian, attached to a portable oxygen machine, faces oncoming traffic holding a tiny, ragged sign that reads: “Help me!” Ageless children (boisterous and reeking of cannabis) share stone benches with the tattooed and toothless. Life still bustles in this odd mixture of the joyous, licentious, and the desperate.

On 6th Avenue, in the heart of the foggy Sunset District, a shop window crammed full of oddball items leaps out at me. Jeweled pendants, military memorabilia, Egyptian deities, Day of the Dead statues, and Dungeon and Dragon amulets, dragons and gargoyles crowded the entire showcase. I peered into the darkened Oriental Art Gallery, and was about to leave when an elderly woman, hunched over in classical garb and an ill-fitting wig, welcomed me into her shop.

She moved about the glutted store animatedly displaying her t, which included 45-caliber-bullet key chains, baseball cards and statues of Quan Yin, the goddess of mercy. In broken English she enlightened me on Chinese hierarchy then proudly pointed out a few hundred pins that boldly displayed slogans that were lewd enough to make a sailor blush.

“Of course I carry them most– they are my best sellers,” she boasted.

With the influx of the dot com brigade, designer coffee bars and the politicization of almost every nonsensical suggestion by our Board of Supervisors, life here is rarely dull. Instead The City has morphed into a unique hybrid. Overwhelmed by high rents and the stressful pace, I sometimes wonder why I stay her. Then I unexpectedly uncover a San Francisco treasure.

Gutsy 77-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller interviews local writers on an independent TV station for a show called: “What’s Hot Between the Covers”. She also writes and performs her own risqué material in a brassy, cabaret act at venues like The Punch Line. The postcard for her routine at the Actors Theatre: Alzheimer’s, Alzheimer’s, Cha Cha Cha, brazenly proclaims the advice: “Catch her quick, before she croaks!” Lynn Ruth’s vitality (as well as that of every kindred crazy) embody the spirit of this city and keep the freak flag flying.

Satori strikes and I know I belong here. I doubt I’ll ever leave.

 (Published online Huffpost San Francisco 8/31/11)