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Original Essays

Lessons of a Hollywood Youth

by Jonathan Selwood
  1. The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse (P.S.)
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

Unlike every other male fiction writer in the country, I did not grow up in Brooklyn, and have never once played "stickball" with "the boys."

Instead, I grew up in the glorious hedonism of the Hollywood Hills — exposed to guilt-free sex, exotic tropical drinks, and a cornucopia of recreational drugs at a very young age. There were porno movies being shot at the pool across the canyon, leather gay parties spilling out into the street almost every weekend, and Jacuzzis bubbling year round — even the kindly cardigan-clad old couple at the end of the street had been swingers back in the Fifties (they liked to call it "wife swapping").

Now I know that Hollywood gets a lot of flack for being some kind of modern day Gomorrah, but when it comes to raising children, I feel that this is actually a plus — my schoolyard lessons in how to avoid STDs and PCP-laced marijuana will last a lifetime, while the oft mentioned lessons of stickball will barely get you through junior high.

Superficiality Is Super!

Los Angeles has long had the reputation of being the most superficial city on the planet, largely because... well, it is the most superficial city on the planet. But the bigger question is whether or not that extraordinary level of superficiality is always a bad thing.

What's often overlooked by those condemning Angelenos as having little more than a "spray-on tan" culture, is that Los Angeles is arguably the most artistically creative place on the planet — entertaining the world with an unending stream of movies and television. And so much of the impetus for this unprecedented creativity is the absence of any suffocating tradition or history (i.e., depth). Even our myriad cult religions are pro-entertainment industry.

Much like a self-help book, Hollywood blithely encourages you to climb out of the cultural dungeon of your past and start afresh on the surface. If you don't want to follow in your father's footsteps as a Midwestern manure farmer, just move to Hollywood and become an actor. And if your new found acting career doesn't work out? Well, you can always reinvent yourself as the governor... or even the president.

Take the Surface Streets

Anyone who's lived in Los Angeles for even a short time knows that the freeways are to be treated with the utmost suspicion. The 1960s dream of crisscrossing the city's sprawl at 65 miles per hour has long since been replaced by the present nightmare of an elevated parking lot. So how do locals get around town? They take the "surface streets."

The fact that sometimes the most expedient way to get from point A to point B involves utilizing an insanely complicated tangle of avenues, boulevards, and even alleyways is impressed upon Angelenos practically from birth. Ask a native for the fastest way to get from the airport to Hollywood during rush hour, and you'll end up with a set of directions just slightly more complicated than String Theory.

Out in the "real world," this deeply ingrained lesson has again and again come to my rescue. Your crappy poetry somehow failing to pay the bills? Take the surface streets and start writing screenplays. No one wants to buy your crappy screenplays? Take the surface streets again and write a novel. No one wants to publish your crappy novel? Take the surface... oh, wait, they did publish my novel. Anyway, you get the point.

Kink Is Okay

As the epicenter of the multi-billion dollar porn industry, Los Angeles is not only aware that "different folks like different strokes," but goes out of its way to provide exactly the kind of "strokes" people are looking for — no matter how bizarre. Whether you've got a bit of a foot fetish or can only get off to hermaphroditic conjoined triplets in culottes, LA is willing to cater to your kink.

But this acceptance goes beyond a mere tolerance for my pathological obsession with hermaphroditic conjoined triplets in culottes. Hollywood really does seem to hold to the "judge not, lest ye be judged" philosophy. Just drive through the Hollywood Hills and look at the houses — Spanish haciendas next to Southern plantations next to full-blown Scottish castles with swimming pool moats. Can you imagine the like in, say, Boston?

While Hollywood's tolerance for the eccentric may not shield me from the wagging fingers and blue noses of non-Angelenos, it has kept me from jumping to knee-jerk judgments of others. And, of course, that's left me with some exceptionally kinky acquaintances...

Rome Is Burning

When the LA riots broke out in 1992, I was studying abroad in Madrid. The phone lines were overwhelmed, and it took me forever to get a call through to my parents back in Hollywood. When I did, they sounded... fine.

Watching Spanish television, I could clearly see that the city was going up in flames, National Guard tanks were parked in our local supermarket parking lot, and neighbors were guarding the streets with assault rifles. But my parents? They were just sitting out in the garden, splitting a bottle of wine, and enjoying the time off from work. When I asked them why they weren't freaking out, they replied, "Oh, we lived through the Watts riots, I suppose we'll live through this one as well."

I think that's basically the quintessential Hollywood response. The world is going to hell around you, but then again, the world is always going to hell around you when you live in Hollywood — earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, Paris Hilton.

You might as well break out the wine.

In conclusion, I reiterate that I have only positive things to say about such a childrearing environment. After all, it made me the dissolute hard-drinking anarchist I am today.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jonathan Selwood grew up in Hollywood. He received an MFA from Columbia University and is married and lives in Portland, OR. spacer

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