Sunday, October 23, 2005

My Marshmallow Misadventure

Must admit, it's awfully boring never to have anything new on the blog. OK, here's something fresh and exciting that may make you ill. I wrote it a few days ago but held off posting it to protect the implicated.

I've been back in LA for nine days, having been gone for almost three months. In fact, I haven't even been in LA much yet. I've been avoiding it, hovering on the outskirts where possible. I spent a few days at the Malibu-Ventura county line, where a friend's surfside cottage offered a splendid time-warped antidote to everything I'm resisting about L.A. It wasn't only the porpoises breaching in front of the house every morning, or the pelicans skimming just above the breaking waves, or the lulling white noise of the surf, or the hot tub or the kayak or the lizards or even my pal's boundless hospitality ... no, it was the near-total remove from the Angeleno mindset. I've been easing back in slowly, as if into a very hot bath or a very cold ocean.

So what is it I'm resisting about re-engaging with this city? See Los Angeles Magazine, which exists to glorify most of what I hate about L.A. But that's another post.

In any case, I had a mouthful of answer just this evening. After a longish walk with another old pal, catching up, etc., he invited me to a BBQ. In classic L.A. fashion, we took separate cars to a gorgeous modern house way up in the Brentwood hills above Sunset Blvd. The gleaming poured-concrete showpiece sparkled with modern art, well-groomed friendly people, and an infinity pool. I wanted to lurk in the infinity overflow trough just to jump out and scare folks, but no one was swimming. Who was it slapped Eminem on the stereo -- our genial doctor host in his pricey prefaded t-shirt, or his 12-year-old son? The gym room was being converted to a yoga room, and the license plate on a Mercedes SUV out front read "ZEN CHI." Bobos in paradise indeed. And here's how we entertained ourselves.

The 12-year-old loves s'mores, so papa doc had piled high a big tray with marshmallows, skewers, graham crackers, and an oversized Hershey bar. After dinner, the guests reconvened outside to drape themselves across the furniture surrounding the firebowl. They were chatting in small loud groups until the li'l rascal galvanized all us adults into action with a kooky game straight outta Ancient Rome. And a little child shall mislead them. The diversion called for guests to put as many marshmallows into their mouths as possible while saying the words "Funny Bunny" or "Chunky Bunny" or something like that. None of us boozy adults were able to keep the script straight. I'm sober as a fighter pilot now and I still can't remember the phrase that pays.

As the tray made its way around the circle, the achievement-oriented partygoers kept pushing more sticky fluff into their pieholes and pushing up the number of pushed-in marshmallows, in effect boosting the number to beat. The lone French guy flattened the competition by expertly cramming 14 marshmallows in before calling it quits. Perhaps he had studied how the foie gras geese do it. I sat fireside toasting marshmallows in a decidedly old-fashioned way, occasionally thinking this is just what I can't stand about L.A. -- a repulsive display of excess by bored rich folks in a beautiful setting egged on by a spoiled child. This, I mused, is what I don't want to re-engage with here in Gomorrah. Yes, I am a delightful party guest.

No, really -- I am. Watch: I just sat there making small talk, altruistically toasting marshmallows for whomever and lobbing occasional jokes across the fire. Every few minutes we'd all watch with revulsion as a participant reached his or her regurgitation point and retched forth a softball-sized mass of white goo, like a cocoon from the "Aliens" prop room.

Suddenly, one of the pretty women was holding the tray out to me. How many years had it been since a pretty party guest handed me a tray full of white stuff? When in Ancient Rome, I thought, do as the Ancient Romans do. The firepit had already become a pyre to the remains of our collective dignity, its floor shellacked with burning black regurgitated sugar foam. In a trice, I went from sneering outsider to motivated, if choking competitor, poking puffy sweets deep into each cheek just as I'd seen Monsieur Quatorze do en route to his Grand Prix.

One, two, three ... I paused. "No chewing," someone shouted helpfully. OK, OK. With each new marshmallow, the prepubescent drill sergeant at my elbow barked, "Say it! Say it!" Funny junky! Chunky stumpy! Frumpy flunky! As I stuffed and mumbled easily past seven, eight, even nine marshmallows, La Grande Bouche (aka Bigmouth the Frog) leveled a defensive glare at me. And you know? He had reason to resent. I was out for his record, and I was cramming my mouth full like a meth-addled whore just to beat it. That's right -- I was gunning for his 14. Fifteen, even, just to be the mostest grossest of the gross. As I poked in marshmallow number 10, people started paying attention, even chanting. It was a piƱata moment: the screaming is always loudest right before the candy comes out.

And that's when some wiseacre undid me. I heard the words "gag reflex," and mine woke up, as if heeding the call. One more marshmallow, and the pressure on the back of my mouth proved too much. I shoved in the twelfth puff of aerated sugar and gelatin just as the heaves started.

People often say I take things too far. Of course, nobody accused me of that while I was packing in the marshmallows -- how could they? I was just playing along. And after all, gagging is involuntary. Nevertheless, when I retched my own giant white bolus into the dancing firelight -- followed by a few genteel ropes of spittle and dinner and beer -- my fellow guests emitted a chorus of "eeewwws."

It could have been so much worse: It could have been all of the dinner and all of the beer. Why don't people count their blessings?

When I returned from gargling and recomposing myself in the beautifully spare bathroom, another doctor was gracious enough to describe just how widely his own patients' gag reflexes differ. You'd be surprised! We all listened raptly. I didn't notice if the game had ended because of my shocking display or because the tray had gone all the way around the circle and met all its matches. I was just happy noone was calling me "Pukey."

And now, having dishonored my ancestors in the name of fun, I must be back home. Back home in L.A. I'm still trying not to feel like it, but maybe all that "when in Rome" jazz is just my effort to sustain a tourist's sense of wonder, even in the city where I pay my utility bills.

Update: No matter what I wrote that night, it's been more than a week since my marshmallow misadventure, and I feel no more at home here than I did then. (At home he feels like a tourist.) I was talking to a pal in NYC today -- on a cell phone, on the 405, in my convertible, sue me -- about whether the problem is that we're getting old or that our cities are getting worse. I say it’s both. He had to cut short his grousing about noisy bars and overrun Hamptons hotspots, though, because he was dashing off to the sumo wrestling event at Madison Square Garden. Me, I had to change lanes and cut off a pensioner just to shave 30 seconds off my drive.

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