Thursday, July 30, 2009

Shopping For Niceness 7/30/2009

Give or take the odd earthquake or two, my life here is quite undramatic.

Imagine my shock, therefore, when I was walking back from the gym this week, and witnessed an outburst of such uncharacteristic abuse, I nearly licked my ice-cream scoop clean from its cone.

Standing outside Whole Foods (I am seriously considering getting therapy for my addiction to that shop – it has easily replaced alcohol in my life), I was just minding my own business. I had just purchased a Baskin Robbins 50% fat-reduced vanilla cone, having tried the full-fat variety and instantly thrown it in the trash for being too sweet and creamy.

But I digress. So there I was, licking away, when I heard a commotion coming from the car-park opposite. Suddenly, a man with a red face emerged, shouting back at whoever had caused him such distress. “You homosexual!” he yelled. “Your mother’s a whore!”

The horror! The horror! Having spent most of my life in the UK, where insults are traded on a daily basis, and in just about every conceivable circumstance, I hadn’t realised how immune I had become to abuse. Since arriving in LA, I haven’t heard one person swear, much less raise their voice to another human being.

In fact, apart from the sound of my own screams when I am told how much I owe at the end of my daily shop in Whole Foods, noise of any kind is pretty absent from my life.

So, hearing the word “homosexual” being hurled with such venom (something I do not think I have ever experienced, even in the UK, although doubtless it occurs – probably in kids’ playgrounds) rather upset my equilibrium. And as for “whore” being used in conjunction with anyone’s mother, well, that was straight out of Cagney and Lacey, I was sure; and when did that come off the air? About 110 years ago?

You just don’t normally get this kind of behaviour in Beverly Hills 90210, the home of the TV series of beautiful people and even more beautiful Chihuahuas who everyone wants to make movies about.

Everyone here is so incredibly, wonderfully, nice, nice, nice. In Whole Foods, they ask me, every day, when I arrive at the cash register: “Did you find everything you wanted today?” and I always answer, very politely: “Yes, thank you very much.”

They are so nice to me, and I am so nice back, I have taken to helping pack my own bags, a gesture that has impressed them so much that they this week offered me a job.

But the man in the suit temporarily put me in a different frame of mind and reminded me how good it can feel sometimes just to let rip. I decided that next time the cashier asked me if I found everything I wanted, I was going to answer:

I wanted yoghurt and found it reduced to $2.69, and also white peaches at $2.49 a lb. I picked up cinnamon spiced bread at $7.49 a loaf which, quite frankly, is a joke – not least, because I didn’t want it until I saw it.

And besides: what do you mean by “want”? I want to find the meaning of life, but did I find it hidden among the packages of Vindaloo sauce at $4.99 a pack? If I bought a pot of your ridiculously priced water melon at $6.99, would I find the meaning of life in there?

I want to find a man who prefers to collect Marriott Rewards points than save money by going camping (fat chance, as I am discovering, among LA’s rather keen outdoor enthusiast males); or, failing that, any man.

I want to be able to play the piano to classical concert standard. Heck, I want to have a piano, which I think would help me in trying to accomplish this.

So, when you ask me if I found everything that I wanted today, the answer would have to be No.

Calming as all this LA niceness is, I’m still rather suspicious of the whole upbeat thing. I’ve always been a fan of what we call “healthy scepticism” in the UK, and have found the endless flow of LA goodness rather indiscriminate. How do you know what’s good or bad, if you don’t have some kind of scale by which to measure things by?

I mentioned this to an LA friend, who oozes kindness and generosity in his relationships with each and every person he meets. But how can you judge anything, if you don’t place the bar somewhere, I squealed across my salad, desperately trying to goad him into non-niceness.

His answer was that he doesn’t think we make the best judges, and he has no desire to acquire scepticism.

You see what I mean? Nice, nice, nice. God, I could have tipped his fish in Bechamel sauce over his head.

When I heard my car-park man in the suit ranting his rather feeble insults, it awoke in me a very strange desire: I suddenly wanted to hear someone say “You f*****g c**t” – just briefly; anything to remind me of who I once was and where I came from. So I phoned a British friend, who duly obliged.

The truth is, though: all this niceness is rubbing off on me. I realise how little time we Europeans spend in saying thank you to people for past and present kindnesses. We operate as individuals, often struggling against the tide, angry, and wondering why things are so against us. We are permanently suspicious, and not just sceptical, but often cynical to the point of nihilistic-induced depression.

Is it so bad to try to see goodness where you can? There’s more of it around than I realised. I may be suspicious of it, and probably, to an extent, always will be; I am, after all, a European at heart.

But no heart needs to be set in stone: the notion of its having the capacity to melt is not an utterly meaningless one. And I am finding that my suspicions are, to a large extent, unfounded.

So next time they ask me in Whole Foods whether I was able to find everything I wanted, I will acknowledge the truth, if only to myself.

For the reality is, that slowly, I am finding everything I wanted. I just hadn’t realised how long I’d been looking in the wrong aisles.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Living In The Now 7/25/09

This self-improvement lark is becoming a bit stressful.

I can just about manage the four mile round trip to the bookstore to buy the materials for my transformation, but it’s putting what they contain into action that is proving more difficult.

The major stress is deciding which books are going to be the most helpful. My non-drinking lifestyle now means that I can happily pass the “You’re a pisshead, nobody likes you” rows; I am never tempted to stop at the “Madonna’s into it so you can’t afford it” section; and I automatically reject any book written by a man sporting a full-grown beard in his bio pic.

I am a big advocate of the adage “A man with a beard is a man with a secret”, and although I think that all men have secrets, it is my experience that men with beards have bigger ones than most – or, at the very least, they are better at hiding them. Probably because of their disguise.

I made a semi-exception in the case of the latest addition to my ever-expanding shelves of rejuvenation print matter in the case of Eckhart Tolle, but only because his books come highly recommended by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have gone near him; his beard lies in a half-crescent at the bottom of his face, as if he was caught mid-shaving when the doorbell rang and forgot to return to the bathroom mirror.

His basic premise is that we spend too much time dwelling on the past and the future and miss the joy of living in the present. Quite why it takes him 236 pages to say that is anybody’s guess, and nothing contained therein really gives any indication as to quite how difficult his idea is to implement.

I manage quite all right when I go out for a walk. The streets around my apartment block in Beverly Hills are particularly beautiful as the sun goes down, and when I go for my evening stroll, I can really feel as if I am in a presence of nature. NOW.

Alas, the arrival of dusk then reminds me that everything fades, and I’m back to square one – worrying about losing the moment, when I’ve only just started to experience it.

But I am nothing if not persistent in my Californian optimism these days and looked to other ways in which I might put The Bearded One’s ideas to good use.

I thought that with my dwindling finances, the chapter headed “Mind Strategies for Avoiding the Now” might prove particularly useful.

“Tomorrow’s bills are not the problem,” states Mr Eckhart. If I make them so, I am apparently holding on to a “core delusion” and turning a “mere situation, event or emotion” into a personal problem, which is the real cause of the suffering. Not the fact that I can't afford two boxes of $5.99 muffins at Whole Foods.

I tried it out with my bank manager, who is curious to know when my overdraft might be paid back.

Right, the thing is, I explained: what we have here is not a problem, it is a mere situation, and if you were to free yourself from yours, and the bank’s imprisonment in psychological time, you would start to see my debt in a different way. In fact, you would begin to see it as something in which to be joyous, because it is of the moment, the now; in losing the Now, you are losing your essential loss of Being, which is a common problem the egoic mind faces when it takes over from presence being your dominant state. Okay?

He said I still have to pay back my overdraft.

Mr Eckhart also says that waiting is just a “state of mind” and that if you find yourself doing it, you should just “snap out of it”. Given the distances everyone has to travel in LA, just to pop in for a cup of tea, that’s an awful lot of snapping, and to be honest I’m finding the snapping more stressful than the waiting.

When my friend turned up late for tea this week (I have taken to having English tea, which I never did in the UK), I had been drumming my fingers next to the muffin tray for nearly an hour.

“Sorry to have kept you waiting,” she said, when she finally arrived.

I did what the book recommends and replied: “That’s all right, I wasn’t waiting. I was just standing here enjoying myself – in joy in my self.”

Well, that’s what I thought, but the words didn’t come out that way. They came out more along the lines of: yes, you bloody well have kept me waiting, and I’m sick of it. It’s what everyone does in this damned town, and I’m tired of everyone making an excuse about the traffic, when they’ve damn well lived here for long enough to know that it’s going to be bad, and that’s why they should have set off earlier . . . “ Happy just waiting in the joy of myself? Bollocks to that.

I’m giving up on The Power of Now halfway through, as it has just denounced modern art, architecture, music and literature as being devoid of “inner essence” and beauty. That’s a fairly broad statement, so I’ve decided that my NOW could be better spent in exploring things other than books whose inner essence wouldn't fill up one side of a postage stamp.

I am already regretting having bought his follow-up book, A New Earth, which promises an “Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose”. I’m just not optimistic. My bank manager’s life’s purpose seems to be to get me to pay back my overdraft; my life’s purpose is not to do so.

You see what I mean? Stress, stress, stress. Sometimes I wonder whether all this enlightenment stuff is just leading me in a new kind of darkness. But I’m already too far gone on the journey to turn back.

I’ve already forgotten what it used to be like to be me.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ready When You Are, God 7/21/09

The road to spiritual enlightenment is a bit like Bank Holiday traffic: one minute you’re zipping along on the motorway, hardly able to believe your luck that it’s all so easy; the next, you’re stuck on the hard shoulder with an overheated engine, wondering why you ever bothered setting out in the first place.

Everyone in LA is out to make the best of themselves, whether it be physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. It’s what fills the place with so much optimism.

I feel rather refreshed, having taken such a long break from the cynicism that informs so much of life in the UK, and although no fan of organised religion, am continuing to re-explore the interest I developed in all sorts of spirituality when I was younger.

But it’s a bit of a stop and go journey.

My return to the Transcendental Meditation I learned nearly 20 years ago has done wonders for my blood pressure. I just have to make sure that I time it right with the consumption of my detox teas, which can have me taking up residence in the bathroom for anything up to an hour at a time.

I can get through the whole of Psychology magazine and make good head-road into Oprah’s, too, on a particularly enthusiastic cleansing day, so have to ensure that my whole meditation is not spent repeating the mantra “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to hold this in for 20 minutes.”

My enthusiasm for Deepak Chopra, who I came across when I learned meditation, hasn’t diminished, either: The Book of Secrets is an inspiring book that makes you truly grateful to be alive and part of a remarkable universe.

I quickly made it through Buddhism for Dummies, too, but was less successful with Judaism for Dummies, as I got a little more enthusiastic about the kosher breakfasts I started to prepare than the actual text.

I don’t rule anything out on this quest and have done what the books recommend and asked the cosmos for a bit of support. It’s not going well. Maybe I’m a bit deaf. Maybe the cosmos isn’t taking me very seriously. Maybe I’ve tuned in to so many different wires, they can’t help but get crossed.

Whatever, it is: at the moment, confusion reigns.

I thought that perhaps in my desire to keep sober, I might try AA. I had always been put off by the God aspect that seemed to be quite central to it, but had been assured that it had nothing to do with organised religion, but God “as we understood Him.”

Well, I didn’t understand him as a him that warranted a capital letter, for starters; come to that, I didn’t understand him as a him. But I liked the otherwise broadness of the statement.

I remembered the film The Player, in which it is said that AA was where all the best deals were done in LA, so that was all right, then: my understanding could be that God was going to help me meet someone who would put me on the path to my first Oscar. Like I said: it was a broad statement.

So, I looked for a sign as to which meeting I should go to, and felt drawn to one a couple of miles away in an unfamiliar postcode. I walked there, full of hope that this was yet another step towards a goal I had to define.

I arrived at the address: Molly Malone’s Irish Sports Bar. I kid you not. Given that it was in an Irish Sports Bar in Dublin in 2008 that I had finally decided to curb my out of control drinking habits, it was hard to see how this was a step forward.

So I went to the 99 cent store a few doors down and bought a muffin. As I now understood God, he/she/it was a bit of a piss-taker.

I’ve signed up to so many spirit-enlightening sites, my name is turning up on Google as a sort of pathologically obsessed, certifiable nutcase, who is making so many demands on the cosmos, it doesn’t have any time for anyone else (so, sorry if you’ve lost your job/marriage/house, but the cosmos has bigger things on its plate right now).

This week, I had an e-mail from “Ganeesha speaks”. Goodness knows when or why I signed up to that (or even what it is), but it sounded rather hopeful, as it promised to tell me how the forthcoming solar eclipse was going to change my life forever. Now that’s what I call a sign.

A solar eclipse, it said, has the power to “turn your life upside down”. Well, having already come 6000 miles across the Atlantic, I was ready for anything.

The sun, it explained, was about to become overpowered by the moon; “this rare event”, it told me, was going to “increase your problems manifold”. And they weren’t just going to be problems; they were going to be “problems of astronomical proportions.”

Blimey, this cosmos lark wasn’t exactly working for me, was it? I remembered that the last time I had asked, in deepest contemplation, for a “sign” as to the way my life should go, the editor of the Mail on Sunday rang up the next day to say that he was axing my column. These latest signposts seemed equally wonky.

“You, in particular,” Ganeesh spoke on, “will be grossly out of luck.” Blimey, this just got better and better. There would be a series of “unfortunate incidents” (not quite managing to co-ordinate the actions of the detox tea with the meditation, perhaps?), even more “misfortune”, and my relationship with my siblings (I have one brother) might suffer.

Gee, thanks. You have a good day, too.

I am wondering whether, in requesting assistance from whatever power is out there, I have inadvertently tapped into the one that fancies itself as a bit of a joker who is just using me to gauge its material before taking it to the Comedy Store.

But I’m going to persevere. I may be on the hard shoulder at the moment, but I can sense a service station coming up. There always is. And not knowing exactly when, is all part of the thrill of the journey.

Maybe there will be muffins.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Not Helping Cops With Their Enquiries 7/14/09

There are many times I have wanted to resort to violence while standing in line, waiting to be served in Vodafone; but in Beverly Hills’ AT & T phone shop, today a man really did threaten to come back and shoot everyone.

I was standing patiently, waiting to make my own complaint. It’s become something of a habit there. The first time I complained about my i-Phone, which I still think is the worst toy ever to have been produced. I swopped it for a Blackberry, but had to take that back, too, because the red message indicator didn’t light up.

I was supposed to have received a $100 rebate after buying the Blackberry, but when it never arrived I went back to complain. That was six weeks after the purchase. They told me to come back after eight, hence my presence in the shop.

The violent man, who must have been about 103, was quite well dressed, speaking with a German accent, and wearing a hearing-aid. He was also shouting very, very loudly. They had been happy enough to take his money, he screamed, but now they wouldn’t do anything to help him. Nein! (Okay, maybe I imagined that bit).

The female assistant was nonchalant, to say the least. She never even looked at him, didn’t seem to be listening and, as his voice escalated, just fingered his receipt.

Then she called the cops.

Oh, yes. They really don’t mess around in Beverly Hills. Apparently, if you ever want to get anyone off your back, you just have to say four words: “I’m calling the cops.” Not only is your botherer gone within the first five seconds, the cops arrive within the next five.

And there they were. Already outside. But my war criminal (naturally, I had built up a little story around him, in which I had made a citizen’s arrest on a Goebbels-type monster hiding in the Hollywood Hills) had fled.

The cops started asking the assistant questions, and by now I was at the front of the queue and able to eavesdrop. How old was he? She reckoned in his seventies; no, sixties, contradicted the male assistant. Weight? She reckoned 190 lbs. No, no, no, said the male: 160.

They were hopeless! Whereas I, who had been watching the whole scene, had taken in every single detail. As I would in the UK, I felt it my citizen’s duty to add my two penneth.

“Was he bigger than me?” the very plump cop asked.
Yes, said the assistant.
“No, no he wasn’t,” I chirruped. “He was actually quite slight . . . And nowhere near 160lbs even . . . And . . . “
“We’re askin’ them,” said the cop.

I was crestfallen. In the UK, the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker would, by now, all have gathered from neighbouring shops, each to give their own account of what they had heard (or not) or seen (definitely not).

En masse, we would have retired to a bar to mull over the details, united in citizen solidarity against the ever-increasing tide of violent crime.

Yet here I was, being told to keep my nose out: I, the only proper witness, who had taken in every single morsel of the man, and who, for goodness sake, as a writer, did this for a living.

The cops weren’t like this on CSI or Law and Order. Witnesses were forever stepping over barriers they had been told not to cross in order to fill the cops in on missing bits of information that might prove useful. Next thing, they were dating the cop they had spoken to, before being shot in the chest and dying, ensuring that the cop continued to live out the rest of his days in loneliness and misery. But I digress.

The assistant went on to say that the man had said he would come back and shoot a couple of people; then, that he would definitely come back and shoot her. What had been his complaint, the cops asked.

Wait for it: the phone his friend had bought the day before did not have Bluetooth and was incompatible with the equipment in his car. Oh, ye gods! Hand me that Magnum.

My own complaint took just five seconds, as I was handed a phone number to call about my rebate. “But I was told to come back to the store,” I tried, as a delaying tactic, hoping to chip in again with a bit more info.
“No, just call that number.”

I thought I had better apologise to the cops for what was clearly a breach of criminal etiquette. “I’m really sorry,” I said, “but I saw it all when nobody else was looking . . . “
“That’s fine, ma’am.”

They just weren’t getting it, were they?

“And he had a hearing aid in his right ear!” I whispered conspiratorially on my way out, just in case the man’s name, address and phone number in their hands was not enough to lead them directly to him.
“Hearing aid, right ear,” said my cop to his partner. Ha! Result.

To date, my only other brush with the law took place in the five star Beverly Wilshire Hotel, when I was witness to a local hooker throwing a dish of wasabi nuts (“That’s W-A-S-A-B-I”) at a man who had accused her of, er, being a hooker. Naturally, I had had a front row seat and saw everything. At this rate, I might soon have to ask for witness protection.

Or maybe not. Instinct tells me that next time, I should keep my gob shut and let the cops get on with their job. I just don’t envy the staff in Cardiff next time I visit my local Vodafone shop, as I’ve picked up a lot of tips to get myself to the front of the queue.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Victoria's Secret Is Out 7/6/09

I’ve always wondered exactly what Victoria’s Secret was. Now I know.

She has never worn any underwear.

Having just visited the LA store of the same name, it is the only conclusion I can reach. Had I been a hippo in the bra section, or a weasel in the knickers section, there is a chance the garments might have looked halfway decent on me; but as a relatively normal shaped woman, I could not have looked more ridiculous had I strapped myself upside down to a giraffe on roller skates.

I confess to not having worn a bra for over 20 years, and no knickers for 10. It’s not that I’ve been trying to make a statement; just that owing to my broad back, bras always felt uncomfortable and left me with scars; as for knickers: well, did they get smaller, or did I just get bigger?

I suspect that my aversion to bras is because my first one was so small, a couple of contact lenses would have done the job just as well. It was a 28AA white lace doily thing that Mum bought from Marks and Spencer, and I was utterly embarrassed.

My friend Pat had been the first girl in the school to need a bra, and we had all gathered round at break to admire the aircraft hangar it undoubtedly was, so I knew that I was painfully inadequate in that department. I felt rather sorry for Pat’s mother, who must have spent an entire week’s grocery bill on the monstrosity needed to house her daughter’s growing mammaries.

I stopped wearing them round about the age of 30, but as I have been contemplating having a boob job in California, thought I might try something a little less drastic first. Having lost over 2 stone, and now weighing just 7 stone 6 (104 lbs), I fantasised about slipping into the sexiest cups that would instantly transform my 50 year old chest into that of a buxom, desirable 23 year old, and set off for the Victoria’s Secret sale with high hopes.

The last bra I bought cost about £2.99, so a $19.99 reduced price tag didn’t seem much of a bargain to me. Heck, a boob job suddenly looked like the cheapest option. I didn’t even know what size I was. The last time I was measured I was a 36B, and thought that with my weight loss I must be down at least to a 34B.

I rummaged around in the 34B section and came up with a corset type thing, a camel type thing (the animal, not the colour), and a tiger print thing (ditto). I have to call them things because they bore no resemblance to any bra I have ever seen. When I went to try them on, I had to perform my own manual surgery just to cover myself; even then, I looked like two ladles left to melt in a pan of boiling fondue.

I called the assistant, who suggested I try 36B; that meant I would be back where I was 20 years ago, which really depressed me. Not as much as when I asked her to measure me, though, and she declared me to be a 34C: not, it transpired, because I had grown in cup size, but because half my cup had transmogrified and was now well on its way to my back, via my underarms. Only the promise of a dam in which to contain it again seemed likely to convince it to return, and so off the assistant went in search of 36C.

The not very nice bras on offer at 34B were a veritable Impressionist exhibition up against the Salvador Dalis available at 36C. God, they were gross. Gross colours, gross fabrics, gross shapes. Had they been breathing, you would have taken them to the vet to be put out of their misery.

I had been contemplating a D cup, if and when I decided to go under the knife; but as I gathered up my underarm flesh and scooped it into the C cup, I thought that if I could just push a bit up from my now rather loose stomach, I would have enough not only to compensate for a boob job, but top-ups that would sustain the illusion for about the next ten years.

I didn’t even bother looking at the knicker sale, which looked to me like a dental floss convention.

I’m rather depressed about it all. When I was fatter, I had a great, smooth bottom; now, it has so many folds and creases, I could re-market it as a book. My once quite decent breasts are now barely bigger than my ears, and not anywhere near as pert. The reason I stopped wearing underwear in the first place was because nothing fitted me; now I’m thin, and it still doesn’t.

If Victoria has a secret, I’d like to know about it. Because from where I’m sagging, there’s no mystery.