A Regular Guy: For Peter Brayman

I’ll start by asking you as a personal favor to read this whole thing. I know that the Internet is TL;DR, but it’s important to me that everyone read this. Thanks.

This is about my friend Peter Brayman.

Pete grew up in a small rural town in New York. He was a New York State firefighter EMT, an amateur radio operator, a graduate of SUNY Buffalo, and a computer nerd. It was in that last capacity that we met. We were both “Guides” on America Online, a half-paid half-job, half cop and half tech support. Pete and I hit it off immediately. We shared ham radio, computer nerding, and medical jobs. Partly because of the medical background we shared also a dark, dark sense of humor: the slang of those who see death and injury, the shocking little jokes, the deadly funny banana-peel stories

We were close friends for years. We spoke daily, sometimes almost all day over instant messaging. After our AOL activity, we went into parallel careers connected to the Internet and its technologies. We helped each other out learning new things, gave each other tips and leads, hosted each others’ projects. I can think of at least five running gags that we shared over the years that no other person on Earth would have appreciated.

Our closeness was deepened by our differences. I am verbal, a natural writer, knowledgeable about many varied things, judgmental, snobbish, hypercritical of myself and others, and sexually frustrated. Pete was a terrible speller, very focused in his education, tolerant, accepting of others’ faults, and successful with women. Our politics differed, but he listened politely to my little rants and never offered anything in response but what we shared. Especially in those days I flew into little rages too often, and his anger was rare and not much spoken.

Pete died too young, three years ago today. He left a fiancée, a beloved uncle, some good friends, and me. It’s a cliché to say that you think often of someone who’s died, but it’s true in this case. Frequently I want to share something with him, or think of something he’d say right now.

So far, so conventional. Why am I writing an everyday story of an everyday life?

There’s something else about Pete that everyone noticed first. He was born with a dreadful disease called Neurofibromatosis-2. This causes tumors to grow on nerves and is uniformly fatal. From childhood he knew that he was permanently ill and that this could not get better. Since his mother was affected with the same disease, he could see his future in real time.

Pete had occasional surgeries his entire life, ranging from a trim of some lump on an extremity to invasive brain surgery. He lost mobility, became deaf, lost use of a hand, and suffered through another hundred failures of the flesh. Because of deafness and the effect of the disease on his appearance he appeared to be mentally handicapped and was treated as such. Past a certain point in the process he was clearly in discomfort all the time.

Because he was on full disability, he could not work full time, although he had a successful consulting business. Too much success and he would lose his medical benefits and therefore die. Survival required subtle skill with government paperwork. As with other handicapped people he had to fight every social obstacle to those with mobility and hearing problems.

On top of all this, Pete had a family that was unworthy of him. I won’t go into details, because he wouldn’t, but I am to this day gravely disappointed in everyone except his uncle, who is a fine man.

Now here’s the thing: Pete lived an ordinary life.

He achieved as an EMT and a college graduate. He worked hard and well at a technical profession. He dated a few women and was engaged to a wonderful one. He had moderate conservative politics and moderate religious views. He liked ice cream and loved Disneyland. He was proud of being a firefighter and embarrassed at his bad spelling. He was, unlike all my other friends, a moderate and ordinary man who sought out and led an uncomplicated life.

How the hell did he do that?

His attitude toward life’s giant sack of bad luck was perfectly sane. He didn’t deny the disease or pretend to others that it was okay. Everything about it was monstrously unfair and awful; it hurt; it made him feel different and separated from others; it frightened him. There wasn’t any sentimental heroism in Pete. He didn’t give out false hope or encourage others to do so. When he was frustrated or scared or in pain he would talk about it honestly.

Somehow he also avoided making the disease his life. A typical conversation with Pete was honestly about ice cream or car crashes or the hilarity of AOL management without any bit of that awful darkness leaking through. He was genuinely sympathetic to my own life problems. Pete never pulled the “my life is worse” card even though perfectly entitled to do so. He would help others and do nice things for his fiancée in the manner of any other guy with good values.

Despite a ridiculously awful childhood, a loathsome and deadly progressive disease, social barriers,  and every bit of crap luck that goes with any other person’s life, Pete was an ordinary guy with a good heart. His natural resilience made you forget in a moment that you were talking to someone this profoundly unfortunate; it was just Pete. It wasn’t heroic, or some feat of overcoming to be patronized by the sentimental, or a great success at denial. He recognized and acknowledged the huge disaster and at once led a life that paid no rent to Death.

Pete just wanted a regular life, and he worked harder to get one that anyone I’ve known. I won’t insult him with a romantic picture of his life and say that he won. The disease won and tortured him to death in his youth. But here’s what he knew: a terrible misfortune is no reason to turn your life upside down.

So here’s to Peter Brayman, an ordinary guy and a great friend. May we all come this close to winning.

END OF YEAR LIST: OUR BIG 15!

15. Joe Mantegna’s facial hair. Just squeaked in this time!

14. The five pound jar of Nutella.

13. Drakkar Nöir. The Baku metal scene had its high water mark in the late 90s, but nobody told these guys the grim grind party was over. We especially liked “Shashlik Midnight” but don’t stop before you get to the hard-bashing Turkic reinvention of “Little Wing.”

12. Kevlar’s. Last year this New Culver City treasure was a top 10, but since star pastry chef Lucas DeBeers defected to a revitalized nearby IHOP the brioche hasn’t been the same. Still the place for a weekday brunch in the Furniture District.

11. Dressing, The Orgone Trail. If you haven’t seen Dressing live, you’ve missed a projected screen game of Myst and a lot of M&M throwing, but not too much music. Where they shine is on record, and this flaming puu-puu platter of psychotronic gamer nostalgia will mark 2011 more than any number of on stage beach furniture auctions.

10. The oxygen bar at Raoul’s. Like it or not, the number of people in the scene “ironically” huffing is rising fast. Whether it’s just a giggle with a palmful of marker ink or a full gold paint overnighter, Raoul’s is the one spot to get a lung rinse without a crowd. Be safe, kids. The enamel kills even if you’re just joking.

9. Punch & Judy at Patch Park. Sunday morning isn’t just IHOP and regret now. Those in the know drag themselves down to the Merkin District for the marionette beatdown that’s too good for kids. Remember to stay in the back few rows and keep the smoking down or the whole delicious business is done.

8. The Beatles. Seriously!

7. Pressed Turkey. Remember brining and whole frying? Okay, we laugh now, it was dumb. But it’s not just Miley Cyrus and the Gypsy Kings ordering those big turkey presses this year; we’re all in on the act. Try David Lee Roth’s “Mushroom Mashup” version from August’s GQ if you dare!

6. The Barry Gibbs. Four of the same Bee Gee, singing nothing but classic Motown Soul. Only in this town, only Wednesday nights, and only at the IHOP on Technology Parkway West. Look carefully and you’ll see a “unique” celebrity guest most nights.

5. Virago State Prison Ballet Company. Probably the only maximum security dance company in the world, and certainly the best. Don’t mind the razor wire, but stay for the limeade and the heartbreakingly beautiful annual production of The Nutcracker Suite. Remember: there but for the grace of God the show must go on.

4. Balalaika Jones, Nightmares in Flax. We knew him as Fabrizio from the IHOP in the Lamination District. The whole world knows him now as the guy with the orange stuff on his balls. The two worlds meet in this two-fisted doubleheader, full of city pride and suburban swagger and that simpering cough we all knew would someday be the signature sound of a star. We want to put it on the list twice, and not just because our own Advertising Manager Jennifyr DeBeers sits in on percussion for two tracks.

3. AAA Art Supplies & Accessories. Don’t be shy, admit it. A lot of us end up in the Solvents District on Friday night, and there’s no shortage of places to to grab a quick “art break.” Tim and Broennwynn will remember your brand and color and even your bag size after just one visit, and their spacious alley is perfect for “jamming.” And don’t forget, Raoul’s is just a quick stagger west!

2. Badwater Grill. Just when the Dhaka was getting a little too damp, the latest “environment spot” hit our spot this year, spot-on. Lance DeBeers took this former IHOP on McMansion Parkway and turned it into a 130-degree Death Valley ultra-lounge that has the whole scene sweating like happy pigs. If you can brave the Sebum District after midnight, reserve the Scotty’s Castle table and order a Gatorade keg.

1. Pfft Gallery. Tucked into the armpit of the Resistor District where I-400 dead ends is the epicenter of an artistic earthquake. By now the phrase “infrastructure expressionist” sounds tired, we know, but when you see those blown-out transformers, bent girders, and huge jagged sheets of polyurethane, you’ll get what everyone from the Times-Record-Leader’s Ashok DeBeers to Christina Ricci already got: broken stuff. As cynical as we are here, we’re overcome every time we visit, and not just because our own Circulation Assistant Ashlii Redacted is the paint can girl. This year’s #1 and last year’s too. See you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dept of Amplification & Correction: “The Wave”

On further investigation, big chunks of the story about my father’s crib book and its effects were completely inaccurate. In particular, the meat of the thing is rotten: Fred’s life arc began with books and also with collecting, and he was all along a bibliophile. The original post has been edited to reflect this; please read it before repeating my own error.

Also, I used the word “partner” to refer to his wife, and this has been corrected as well.

Like my father, I make stories in my head and defend them against the world, even when this is disastrous. I apologize to Fred for wedging him into one of my stories, especially when it was his story to begin with.

Hell of a good story, though. Hope it happened to somebody.

The Wave, or Why to Publish (corrected and expanded)

Contemporary Literature cover and frontispiece
Fred Schreiber's copy of Contemporary Literature, 1956

My father was a skilled and productive writer. He published many novels, including the recently reissued National Book Award nominee The Balloonist. There were a few non-fiction books as well: some early scholarly work about Italian literature, a book about solo sailing around the world, and a series of literature study guides for students with the usual plot summaries, discussion of themes etc. The crib books were the least important thing he had done, and my mother had done a lot of the work with him grinding out summaries.

Now, a leap. In the early 1990s I was an America Online user and an avid player of online trivia. Online social networks were very new, and this was a great one. Intelligent, educated obsessives battled for free online hours at a time when connection time was expensive. I made some good friends among the “Triviots” and not too many enemies, and some of these people are close friends to this day.

One day in chat I talked about my father and his work. Later I received an email from a fellow Triviot: Are you really this guy’s son? He changed my entire life around! We have to talk.

The email was from Fred Schreiber, an antiquarian bookseller in New York and a former professor of Classics.

And now, a lesson. The three paragraphs below are completely incorrect, which is why they’re in strikeout. I am not sure how this happened, but a story appeared in my mind — backed up by memories of conversations that did not occur — that is in fact not true. The story is told in the link below, and is very different: a working-class kid and compulsive reader, a love for books, and a formal education that started a mile behind and finished to win.

My Life With Books: How One Thing Leads to Another

After gently correcting my bizarrely fictional account, he was kind enough to say:

“The fact remains that your father’s book played a VERY BIG part in my early education; the proof is that I have kept it for well over a half century.”

So there we are, with a new story. At this point I really have no idea what part my father’s little book had, and I’m going to back slowly away from the story and just say that Fred’s pretty amazing. For my own part, I seem to have fallen into one of my father’s novels, possibly Hemingway’s Suitcase, in which the line between fact and literature becomes thicker and thicker as imagination and fraud switch places.

I apologize to Fred for inadvertently romanticizing him into a kind of high culture Horatio Alger character. The true story is better and more complicated than accidental fiction, as lives usually are.

Fred’s story did not begin in academia. In 1956, he was uninterested in school or anything else in the straight world. By his account, he was a tough guy headed for a working class life at best, and constantly in some kind of trouble. Some twist of fate, probably a court order, put him in night high school at the age of 21, taking bonehead classes and hating it.

For his sweathog English class, Fred picked up a copy of Contemporary Literature, one of my father’s crib books, with plot summaries and critical paragraphs to get him through this nightmare with the minimum of actual reading. And then something odd happened.

He became fascinated with the stories, the ideas, and the writers. In a recent email to me, he put it this way: “I remember how fascinating and instructive I found the book: your father had a way of telling the essential facts about an author in a most readable and elegant way.” I have to drag out a cliché here: a door opened for him into an entirely new world, full of stories and characters and ideas, the last thing he’d expected from an enforced trip back to high school.

The transformation took Fred from the streets of New York to college, graduate school, a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard, and a professorship at CUNY in Classics. He was as immersed in literature and ideas as a person could be, and loving it. When he got tenure and a job for life, though, he was immediately bored. He left academia and began dealing in old books. To this day he and his partner wife are E.K. Schreiber, dealer in books before 1700.

So this is the story of how a young person headed for a tough life in a hard city became a seller of “Early Printed Books, Incunabula, Renaissance Humanism, Early and Important Editions of the Greek & Latin Classics, Early Illustrated Books, Emblem Books, Theology, Early Bibles (in Greek & Latin).” And my father’s books were the key to that world. Not any of the award-winning novels, or the studies of Italian post-war literature, but the plot summary study aids he bought for $1.95 so he wouldn’t have to read his assigned work in remedial adult high school.

Publish! Record! Blog, even! Don’t just create, distribute, as far and wide as you can. To this day my father’s mostly out-of-print books are in libraries and used bookstores all over the world, in many languages. I have no idea if there’s just one Fred story there, or a thousand. If you have something to say or make, please put some effort into sharing it.

A bit of yourself, thrown far enough, hits the ocean and makes a little wave. You may never see the shore on the other end, never see the size as it breaks, but make the wave anyway.

The devil’s in the details

In the news today, an 800-year-old Easter Egg: Giotto sneaked the Devil into a painting of St. Francis of Assissi. They speculate that he was annoyed with someone. Took some guts to do that, too. Disney may get very angry at little jokes in their movies but they haven’t yet burned someone at the stake for it.

See the full story from the International Business Times, who has the best big picture.

Detail below shows Mr. Beelzebub.

The Devil Himself
Detail from Giotto's St. Francis fresco

There are certain things that enter the minds of people even without one.

The andies

Five years ago I revealed that an unknown number of public figures were created as clones of the late great absurdist comedian Andy Kaufman. That article is linked here: Theory: We Are All Andy Now.

This was a tremendous breakthrough. Without this knowledge, we would have been powerless against an army of Andys. It’s been difficult to get by even knowing that characters like Sarah Palin, Rob Ford, Fred Phelps, Julian Assange, and Keith Olbermann are clones of a legendary avant-garde prankster. The current Republican Party candidates for the U.S. Presidency are a clean sweep of 100% Andys. If we didn’t know that, our whole world would be a joke. I mean, think about it.

Two things came up this week that shed further darkness on the situation. I mentioned Steve Rocco, a local political character here, as an Andy. Since I hadn’t done enough research, I didn’t realize that the person commenting at the time about Andy’s death being faked was… Rocco himself. Not only is he an Andy, but his shtick encompasses “Andy Death Denier” along with Mafia paranoia, sunglasses and hat combo, and alleged ketchup theft. So this is a recursive Andy, a meta-Andy, or, scariest of all, a self-aware Andy clone.

Which leads to the next problem. Clearly there are both male and female Andys, and some of them have produced children. Has anyone considered the potential impact of a generation of half-Andys? And if two Andys mate, what happens then?

There’s been talk about a limit to the absurd. Could we have reached the state in human civilization where that combination of meaningless narcissism, absurd behavior, and destructive charisma has peaked? I think not. The second generation Andys are coming. Like the physicists of the 19th century, we are about to be jolted into a new age of Quantum Andys, in which the overwhelming confusion and horror of public life turns us all into Andy, one by one.

I’ve known all my life that Eugene Ionèsco was right about our world. And Rhinoceros has enough parallels with the last decade here already. But I had no idea we were all to be Andy. Who will be the last to go?

PURCHASE MY AMATEURISH CRAP RIGHT THIS INSTANT

I have had a Zazzle Store for quite a while and never really promoted it, but I have a total of TWO products.

1. The “Bob is Love” U.S. postal stamps, in a variety of denominations, featuring a touching and artistical black & white photo of Mr. Bob Trout, my best friend and an icon of the greater Newport-Mesa area:

 

2. The tiresome “nerd freedom” Software is Speech shirt, featuring said slogan on the front and what I am pretty sure is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America in binary on the back. You see, it’s cool because it’s nerdy and also because you can stand up for an abstract idea of freedom without any risk simply by purchasing an inexpensive consumer item:

The back of the shirt

 

Go buy lots of both now.

Hollywood Elegies, by Bertolt Brecht

I first heard these set to Hans Eisler’s music, as sung by Dagmar Krause on her wonderful record Supply and Demand. My favorite is the last one, “The Swamp”. It hits as hard as it did in the forties.

I
The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.

II

By the sea stand the oil derricks. Up the canyons
The gold prospectors’ bones lie bleaching. Their sons
Built the dream factories of Hollywood.
The four cities
Are filled with the oily smell
Of films.

III
The city is named after the angels
And you meet angels on every hand
They smell of oil and wear golden pessaries
And, with blue rings round their eyes
Feed the writers in their swimming pools every morning.

IV
Beneath the green pepper trees
The musicians play the whore, two by two
With the writers. Bach
Has written a Strumpet Voluntary. Dante wriggles
His shrivelled bottom.

V
The angels of Los Angeles
Are tired out with smiling. Desperately
Behind the fruit stalls of an evening
They buy little bottles
Containing sex odours.

VI
Above the four cities the fighter planes
Of the Defense Department circle at a great height
So that the stink of greed and poverty
Shall not reach them

THE SWAMP

I saw many friends, and among them the friend I loved most
Helplessly sink into the swamp
I pass by daily.

And a drowning was not over
In a single morning. Often it took
Weeks; this made it more terrible.
And the memory of our long talks together
About the swamp, that already
Had claimed so many.

Helpless I watched him, leaning back
Covered with leeches
In the shimmering
Softly moving slime:
Upon the sinking face
The ghastly
Blissful smile.

Bob speaks: The collection call.

I got one of those calls. A young kid said “Sir, if you are unwilling to pay the amount owed, you’ll have to talk to Mr. James.”

“Listen to me for a second, kid. You work for Mr. James, and he drives a Porsche, and you want to park your Toyota Tacoma next to his Porsche, and you’re an office boy with aspirations, and you believe that this is how it works. I don’t think you understand.

“I have worked at an establishment similar to yours. I was a skip tracer, you probably know the phrase.  A skip tracer is an alcoholic murderer who has done hard time, and learned hard things during the hard time. Someone who really does not give a shit. I think you understand.

“And I will find you, because that is what skip tracers do, and I will be waiting in the parking lot with a baseball bat to smash the windows out of your fucking Toyota Tacoma and then smash your fucking skull in and smash Mr. James’ face in as well, if you ever fucking call me again. I think you understand.”

There were no more calls.