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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Apr032014

In Which We Write In Very Small Handwriting

at her usual table in the Café de Flore, 1945

Her One Reality

by ELLEN COPPERFIELD

What is an adult? A child blown up by age.

Young Simone de Beauvoir shared her room with the maid. Outside her family's Paris apartment was the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard du Montparnesse. At the age of three she threw her first conscious temper tantrum. To her credit, she stopped when she no longer required the attention.

Her parents spoke to her only in a reproving tone during those difficult years. Simone reserved her true conversation for her sister Hélène. They made up a language their parents would not understand, full of winks and sounds, intimate gestures that they alone could understand in the presence of their parents. Together they created a fantasy world based on the lives of the saints. Simone would play the martyr almost exclusively.

She wrote of Hélène that "she was my accomplice, my subject, my creature. It is plain that I only thought of her as being 'the same, but different', which is one way of claiming one's preeminence. Without ever formulating it in so many words, I assumed that my parents accepted this hierarchy and that I was their favourite."

the sisters aged three and five

Although Simone's father was engaged in the slow process of falling out of the upper class, he would not send his children to the public lycée, fearing contamination. One of her father's favorite remarks was, "The wife is what the husband makes of her: it's up to him to make her someone." The pressure he puts on his wife Francoise extended to his precocious young daughter, who he expected would discuss books with him. Simone de Beauvoir had a library card at the age of four.

The de Beauvoirs fled Paris in fear at the onset of the first World War, but soon returned. Georges de Beauvoir was called to the front and returned to his family after a heart attack. Back in the presence of his young daughters, they could not help but be antagonized that his moustache had gone as well. The sound of gunfire could be heard every night. The family was forced to subsist on a corporal's pay, and Simone imitated her mother's frugality.

In her 1990 biography, Deirdre Bair recalls Simone's younger sister Hélène telling her, "In our games when she liked to play the saint, I think it must have given me pleasure to martyrize her even though she was so kind. I remember one day reaching the summit of cruelty: she took the role of a young and beautiful girl whom I, as an evil ruler, was keeping prisoner in a tower. I had the inspiration my most serious punishment for her would be to tear up her prayer book."

Most of Simone and Hélène's classmates had left the city. Walking the grounds of their school was most eerie, almost like visiting a graveyard. The date was 1918. Paris had always disappointed her; it was too familiar, and she had nothing else with which to compare it. Simone de Beauvoir was ten years old.

She wrote in her memoirs that "I had made a definite metamorphosis into a good little girl. Right from the start, I had composed the personality I wished to present to the world; it had brought me so much praise and so many great satisfactions that I finished by identifying myself with the character I had built up: it was my one reality."

Her father's law practice had faltered, and a job with his charlatan father-in-law also dried up as soon as the company's military contracts vanished. The family moved into a middle class building at 71 Rue de Rennes. The fifth floor flat had no elevator, and Simone now shared a bedroom with her sister. Seeing the small room, their friends could not contain their looks of shock. Her father wanted to give the girls bicycles, but her mother, in view of the family's finances, could not allow it.

She did not understand sex, although she was determined to flirt with men, to do anything impetuous or brazen to attract their attention, not knowing what any of it meant. When she was very small she had thought her parents bought their children in a shop.

Until her adolescence began, she was her father's favorite. The entire family had listened to her stories with rapt attention. But acne interfered, and soon she was clearly the less beautiful of the senior de Beauvoir's two daughters. It was not simply her new appearance that so disgusted Georges de Beauvoir, it was that his daughter's education had not stopped in the place that his had. She was becoming an intellectual, and he hated that sort. He called her ugly.

At school she fared no better. Her classmates ignored her, bullied her, mocked her. She told Bair, "Of course it bothered me that I was not popular. But when I compared all to the satisfaction of reading and learning, everything else was unimportant. Those slights meant very little, and soon I didn't even think about it." Even as a lie, it was a good one.

The last time Deirdre Bair saw Simone de Beauvoir was on the afternoon of March 7, 1986. It is difficult to imagine her at this age, so small and frail. In the introduction to her biography, Bair describes the last tiny embrace Simone gave her, hugging her lower body. Bair towered over Simone by several feet.

with sartre and others in 1951

Her first attempt at writing was titled, "The Misfortunes of Marguerite." She abandoned it when she realized, after consulting an atlas, that the crossing of the Rhine where she had set the story did not in fact exist. Her parents had a low opinion of cinema; they regarded Charlie Chaplin as completely silly, even for their young daughters.

When she found that despite her Catholic education, she was both willing and eager to discard God, Little Women entered her life. Of course she was Jo. She fantasized about her own death, imagining her funeral, the weeping mourners.

with sartre in china

Her first real friend was Elisabeth Le Coin, an emaciated little girl with a dark scar on her left leg, suffered at her own hand. Elisabeth replaced Hélène in Simone's life, much to the younger de Beauvoir's chagrin. The two became inseparable. Simone's mother would tell her nothing of becoming a woman, so Elisabeth and Simone were forced to figure out the particulars together.

Sexuality scared her more than anything. Once a young clerk in an antiques shop exposed himself to her, and she had no idea what to make of it.

with Richard and Ellen Wright on her first trip to New York City, 1947

Her prettier sister had no such conflicts with men. They both had heard their parents engaging in rowdy sex through the thin wall in the tiny apartment, but Hélène alone was normalized by relationships with her peers. Although she was at the top of her class, her parents' only wish was that she meet a man and get married.

Simone found an article in a magazine about a woman who had become a philosopher and was now teaching the subject. Her mother was completely disappointed by Simone's lack of interest in her Catholic faith. To hide from her mother's frequent invasions of privacy, she wrote in handwriting so small it could not be detected by any eyes other than her own.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the first marriage of Gregory Peck. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Collapse" - Vancouver Sleep Clinic (mp3)

"Flaws" - Vancouver Sleep Clinic (mp3)


Wednesday
Apr022014

In Which We File And Catalogue And Study And Store

My Name Is A Secret

by NATHAN JOLLY

I was about to hurt a person I could have grown to love. It wasn't like ripping off a band-aid, and it wasn't self-preservation, and it wasn't her, it was most definitely me. It was just cold and cruel and necessary. I was wearing a red woolly Cobain jumper that I knew she hated, as if that would be the comfortable crash-mat that softened the fall. My hair was an unwashed nest, my eyes were blurry from the coffee that had kept me up most of the night and exacerbated my anxiety, and I had swallowed so much Extra chewing gum to counteract my coffee-mouth that I was afraid the warnings on the packet of a laxative-type effect would be realised on the 423 bus that was slowly steering me towards the sad scenario I had sketched for myself.

In the sunlight, when her eyes squint and those faint lines crease in that way that always sends me stupid, maybe when she laughs at one of my dumb fucking jokes with her entire body, and accidentally whips me with her hair while doing so, maybe then I will realise this isn’t what I want, and that I actually am happy with Mickey, and that it is just the rest of my life that isn’t sitting quite right. Maybe if we go to that café near the train station and I eat something not meaty and not bready that sits right in my churning, burning stomach, maybe everything will finally be in place, and I will be able to see that I need Mickey, that I love Mickey, that I don’t need to watch her face crumple, her eyes well up, and her voice quiver.

Once I watched a couple break up in a crowded café courtyard, and I was stunned by the callous cruelty of it all. The ingenuity of breaking up in a neutral zone to avoid the lengthy, lumbering, desperate debate was whitewashed by the awful humiliation; this strange girl’s quiet resolve, and this strange guy’s stung anger was impossible to watch without wanting to weigh in, but of course this wasn’t a movie and therefore we weren’t allowed to watch, comment, or judge — at least not openly. This is why I was traveling to Mickey’s place and not a shaded courtyard, taking a bus the eight or so blocks that separates us in order to limit the amount of time I could to and fro inside my head before having to face up to the decision I had long ago made, and was about to finally play out.

Life isn't so bad these days, I often decide during the brief moments I can think about it softly. I am writing at a rate that I can finally be proud of, and I'm placing insignificant articles in significant publications. I'm quickly tucking away a few pieces each month that I am happy enough about now to feel they won’t slay me when I revisit them at a later date, like an old photo taken at a party where I seemed happy and had incredible hair for a split, stolen second. I have always been aware I’m just collecting memories to be studied and missed at a later date. I’m forever envious of those people who seem so thoroughly in the moment that they aren’t even aware that these are the times they will miss. I have had these moments, I’m sure, but I recognize them too quickly, and in one quick shot, all is ruined. I file and catalogue and study and store. I miss the way things are now.

This is Mickey’s bus stop, so I swing around the businessman standing unceremoniously in front of the door, the kind of guy who will tread on toes and block doorways because he is arrogantly unaware of the space he occupies and where his body is at any given time. Those guys are worse than tourists digging sharp, lumpy backpacks into strangers on a crowded train, swinging and hitting some poor old woman as they talk with their entire bodies. I am outside of Mickey’s house now; she isn’t aware that I am coming around but I know that she is home, because she is an analogue clock I learned to read months ago.

Mickey likes clean-shaven, buzzcut, buttoned-up boys who study law but have no sense of justice, who watch cricket because it is on, who travel in packs, and hold their girlfriends like accessories. I have never gotten over the shock that Mickey was interested in me, and have been waiting for her to realise that not only am I not the one, I’m not even in the correct bracket of ones. There are guys built for her, and she should let one find her. I studied my appearance in the rearview mirror of a scooter parked out the front of her apartment, and decided I looked sufficiently not-the-one. I did feel a strange buzz looking in the mirror of that scooter, but decided to shelve that particular feeling for my inevitable mid-life crisis. It’s sometimes nice to know what lies ahead, even if it is tired and well-traced and ultimately embarrassing.

It was too late to lean on gin, I was too close to leave now. I held my breath, clenched my stomach muscles and knocked on her door, for the final time.

+

Sydney, you are a wonderful lover. I’m swaggering up lanes that belong only to me. My red-tinged sunglasses — bought for $7 at a discount store that sells postcards of the harbour, dubious drug paraphernalia, and long-expired lollies I haven’t seen or thought of since primary school — are painting everything with a Polaroid-perfect tinge, and I am taking photos, shaking photos and putting them in my jacket pocket to look at when I am old and no longer broken. I have freed myself from the only relationship that had ever caused me to stay up at night out of fear that I was circling too close to the sun, only I never felt in danger of being burnt, only of melting into her until I was wandering glass-eyed through farmer’s markets and nurseries, picking baby-names from books, and designer fruit from identical designer buckets. I was destined to be poor Charlie Brown, never quite getting to kick the football.

Now, I was walking back to the bookstores and dimly-lit second-hand shops which hold all that I love about this town. You know the feeling when you exit the cinema and are pierced by the blinding sunshine? That’s how I am feeling at the moment, and in a quick flash I decide that today, on this beautiful September afternoon, with the church bells singing a melody too perfect for religion, the streets sliding like a travelator under my feet, and everything bathed in a $7 red haze, that the deep depths of second book stores, the sad history and discontinued board-games no longer drew me in. Today was a day to sit in the dog park overlooking the courtyard of my favourite inner-West pub and squint into the sun. Today was a day to look forward.

Mickey would bounce back soon — of this I was sure. We were tourists at a colonial-style amusement park, getting our photos taken behind those old-timey wooden characters with the face-holes cut out. This wasn’t a whippable offensive. Nobody was drawn and quartered. If someone else was in the photo, Mickey would still put it on her fridge, and it would look perfect, like a family you would want to be in. I am happy for us to remain undeveloped, one of a host of blurry memories living in a film canister in a sock drawer.

I wanted to call Penelope — the girl I should have been with — to share the news: that we could start our new lives together, assuming of course that her block-headed boyfriend slept with a face-painted babe he met at one of the loud, sweaty clubs I assume he goes to on a Saturday night, with lines of fake tan and fake everything snaked around the block and two burly bouncers letting in one guy for every six girls. Obviously, I can’t call Penelope. Sunday afternoons are for boyfriends and road-trips to cousin’s backyard BBQs, and plonking on lounges to watch films that intersect those few commonly shared interests that most mismatched couples cling to. They weren’t for phone calls from people she’d never had to explain, and I knew this, and she knew this, and everywhere I looked this afternoon there were girls that I could start an entirely new life with right this moment. I could crawl into their townhouses, and meet their housemates, and flick eagerly through their book collections and DVD shelves, and stacks of street press I had written for months ago that hadn’t been thrown out yet, because the little hidden ledge under the coffee table is as good as thrown out anyway. I could wear her jeans, and try on her t-shirts, and drink beer with her in the morning because that’s the quickest way to get to know someone, and I always wanted to know everything right now — so eager to catch up, like a television show I had discovered when the sixth season was winding to an end.

But all these women seemed to cruelly pass me by today, with their dogs and their men, and their Sunday shopping lists, and their mobile phones. Sydney is a great lover, but it is also an ocean, which either propels you towards the shore, or drags you out to die. It lifts you, and dumps you, and fills your lungs when all you want to do is paddle. It blocks your sonar with seaweed and blinds you with saltwater. It is hard to see somebody in the ocean, and harder still to get to them before they have been scuttled across the shoreline, or dragged below the surface. In Sydney, when two people get together quickly, one of them is always being rescued.

+

Does love get in the way of life, or does life get in the way of love? I have spent months comatose and nesting, letting life whir by in the background like a carnival scene from a teen movie I’ve only ever seen posters for. Inside the rollercoaster capsule, there are only two to a seat, the background is blurry, and we seem motionless in the midst of it all: not scared, not screaming, and happy to stay where we are — until the ride kicks us off, and we are propelled back into the carnival, squinting into the sun, looking around like lost tourists.

After the type of breakup that makes me want to stay indoors alone, I often find that instead of locking myself away, I fling into the world, searching for a purpose that isn’t attached to a girl and her smile. I work more, I write lists and buy diaries, and plot and plan. I get things done. Free of the numbing calm that a relationship can provide, I am alone and against the world. I find myself ignited with a flame that burns so brightly it distracts me from the fact that I am on fire.

Being in a big city makes you acutely aware that anything is possible, and not only possible but probable —big things are expected of you in a big city, and the more people swarming in and out of high rise buildings and warehouses that store indie musicians, the more sense you get that it’s all important, that all the photos and art exhibitions, and banks and big money, and boats on the harbour are all working in service of something bigger, and all you need to do is tap into this, and start stacking, start spreading the news —however quickly that news changes from day to day. Every new hour is both a fresh start, and an extension of this thing that will exist here long after you leave. It’s comforting when you are alone, and only depressing when you are lonely.

I moved into a new house in a new street in a white, blind rush a few weeks ago for reasons too tedious and technical to recount with any sense of artistry. The constant scaling down of my realty expectations and a previous, grueling ten-hour day of holding open heavy doors with legs and torsos, while arms tried to Tetris heavy boxes through security grates — back and forth and up and down — meant that this time I hired a removalist (and felt guilty for not helping out, despite the very good money I was paying him) and took the first house with hardwood floors (all the better to spill you with), a gas stove and a bathtub I could live in. The moving process was, for the first time, quick and painless. Of course this disregard for detail meant that in these past few weeks I had found many displeasing elements were alive and squeaking in my new home: hooks that bled down the walls whenever you hung anything heavier than a hope on them; scarcely scattered powerpoints seemingly placed by architects or electricians who had never owned more than four appliances at a time; sinks too small to wash your hair in; and all the rest which I will discover soon. Still, I am settled and content for what feels like the first time in years. Until this feeling passes, nobody can touch me. I am white light.

A few weeks earlier, lying on a mattress in my packed-up house, after deciding to leave both this sleepy street and my sleepy relationship, I realised I ultimately felt tied down by my possessions, and that all you need is a good book, a soft bed and a head full of hope. And a microwave. And housekeys. And did I really pack away my deodorant? I hoped my television remotes were in the same box as the television — in my haste I wasn't quite sure where I had packed anything at all. I hoped I hadn't left anything behind — some trinket or memory hiding in a high kitchen cupboard. I needed everything I had ever owned and I needed to know where everything was at all times, or I could not sleep.

I paced the empty house, seeing new shapes in carpet stains, old dust in the sunlight, letting my pupils dilate as I stare into the uninviting fluorescent kitchen light. The kitchen was always too cramped and impractical to be satisfactory to anyone but a divorced dad lovingly dividing Chinese food into three mismatched bowls on 'his weekend’. I would probably be that guy in ten or so years, I sighed inside my head, vowing never to have another one night stand, never to fall prematurely in love and be too lazy and in the moment to safeguard against such a scenario. I knew a daughter would probably be able to fix me, but I saw that particular movie all around me, in sad little kitchens like these, and I knew that it never ended the way anyone hopes it will. Fourteen boxes and a suitcase filled with papers — this was everything I had collected, all the things I hadn't yet forgotten why I’d kept. All the things that would define me if they found my body in this empty, sad house.

I cannot wait until the main thing I look forward each evening is a glass of red wine, the kids finally fast asleep in their Disney-painted bedrooms, and me and my girlfriend (never a wife, that word belongs with consumption, castles and kingdoms best left in the past) watching 60 Minutes and tutting at the state of the world: a world long left behind for the everyday reality of child-care centres and kindergartens and Spongebob band-aids and packed lunches and soccer games and all the banal brilliance that I fear may never be a part of my life, until of course on bin day, when it all comes spilling out into the street. Right now, the only way to form this cosy future is to soak myself in gin, go to the loosest bar in the inner West and indiscriminately fling myself at anyone who looks like they may one day love me. It's five dollar drinks until dawn, it's meals from vending machines, it's unprotected everything; it's cold and cruel, and necessary. All the promises to myself: quietly, quickly broken and shooed out of the room by her lips and her hips and what they could hold over me and my future just by being there and being available. It sure feels like being alive, but right now I cannot remember any one way I have felt, any former aches or joys. I gun my drink, check my hair in the reflection of my phone and look around. Hi, my name is a secret. Would you like to have a daughter with me?

Nathan Jolly is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Sydney. He last wrote in these pages about the one. He tumbls here and twitters here.

Paintings by Isca Greenfield-Sanders

"Light at the End of the Tunnel (live)" - Cloud Cult (mp3)

"We Made up Your Mind For You (live)" - Cloud Cult (mp3)


Tuesday
Apr012014

In Which We Have Fond Memories Of Almost Nothing

Amplification of the Senses

by ELEANOR MORROW

Growing Up Fisher
creator DJ Nash

Is the idea of a blind person doing something with difficulty that other people do with ease somehow amusing to you? If so, you are in for a treat. At one time, it seemed like the only reliable source of blind jokes was the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but Monica has moved on, I have moved on, most blind people presumably have moved on. The one exception is the creators of the situation comedy Growing Up Fisher, who seem to derive great joy from watching Mel Fisher (a way too goofy J.K. Simmons) do such sighted people tasks as standing on a roof in the middle of the night, cutting down a tree, or walking without assistance.

Based on a true story crows the opening chyron of this NBC multi-camera affair. The least plausible part of the entire show is the sex-crazed 11 year old son (Eli Baker) of the blind man constantly asking his dad how he can best get intimate with a woman. The entire arrangement is a bit unorthodox, but perhaps not as orthodox as the fact that Jenna Elfman's face has not aged in any way over the past twenty years.

Joyce Fisher (Elfman) is a lovely woman who the show takes great pains to point out what a pathetic mess she is. Even though she's a charming blonde with a questionable interest in the works of L. Ron Hubbard the only date she can get is with a grocery store clerk. Meanwhile, her blind and ancient husband has his pick of the local women.

He never let the fact that he couldn't see prevent him from doing anything. These words are uttered almost a million times in Growing Up Fisher. Mel's wacky shenanigans seems enough to merit a separation on their own - once, he actually drives a car with his daughter as a passenger but the reason Joyce really ended the relationship was to "find herself." You will not be surprised to learn that the most entertaining/offensive part of the show is young Henry Fisher's Asian best friend, who is named Runyen and is strangely a preteen homosexual caricature. I guess kill two birds with one stone?

The success of certain family oriented comedies like Modern Family and The Middle has increased the demand for the portrayal of children. The breeding kennels on which such child actors are produced have become regrettably depleted. Fred Savage had a certain ethnic flair that is lacking from these roundly nondenominational homes. Since representing any specific background with its own idiosyncrasies would be theoretically alienating to some viewers, everyone is just a WASP.

Growing Up Fisher lapses into a Jason Bateman voiceover at every opportunity, which is exactly what no one ever asked for. Moreover, there is not even any nostalgia being recalled the show basically takes place in the present, which means the disembodied Bateman voice is from the future. Instead of telling us what the world has become decades from hence and what happened to North West, he has to continually inform us about how zany his dad is all the time.

Writing for children is very difficult, and although it is somewhat plausible that an 11 year old could be obsessed with the older girls in his apartment building, it is very unlikely he would know what to do with them should they consent to his plans. Even less realistic is the idea that he would rely on his father for advice every step of the way.

Growing Up Fisher was originally conceived with Parker Posey playing Jenna Elfman's role, and publicity photos were even shot with the two as a couple:

Somehow, this throws everything into further doubt. The same boy's mother could be a striking, tall blonde woman who loves terrible science fiction, or she could be the original Party Girl and nothing else in the world would be any different. It is indeed something of a mystery how a bald lawyer and a blonde woman could father two semitic looking children. I believe that anything that comes out of Parker Posey is wonderful.

Looking back, I sometimes tongue a scone and think of what The Wonder Years was actually about. Like Growing Up Fisher, the voice-over really sucked, the lessons and moralities were incredibly blase and obvious, and the setting was nondescript and Midwestern. What actually made The Wonder Years interesting was that despite the central dullness of American life, events of great tragedy and depth surrounded the mundane: Winnie's brother was KIA in Vietnam, fathers got in financial trouble, couples broke up unexpectedly and the repercussions were completely real.

In comparison, these vapid family sitcoms deal with nothing in the real world that might alienate their audience; Growing Up Fisher feels like sketch comedy in comparison. Now Winnie has a Maxim spread, Dan Laurila was arrested after beating up Dan Hedaya for stealing his look, and Fred Savage straight up murdered that guy.

That's not all that is different today. Children aren't even really children they're just adults-in-training, and the training extends almost interminably, until the day they make television shows about how fucking precocious they were. You shouldn't have let your blind dad fix that satellite dish, buddy. For Christ's sake, Winnie's brother was only a child.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"Stranger" - Skrillex (mp3)

"All Is Fair In Love And Brostep" - Skrillex (mp3)