The Madame Next Door


Facebook is wonderful if, like me, you were raised in an eccentric town during a remarkable era. Simply looking at photos of old classmates can send you back in time. Manhattan Beach in the 70’s was a bastion of suspended childhood. Shoes and shaving were completely optional. If you were lucky enough to get your turn in the front seat you were just as likely to lose it to a hitch hiker. Which never made sense to me. It seemed to me that they were lucky to get the ride at all and the back seat would be adequate. Plus, they smelled.

Our neighborhood was interesting. Caddy corner to our own home was a rental that seemed to always feature pit bulls that would run though the streets as fast as any car. We’d lock ourselves inside until we’d see the dog returned to their house. Right down the road in Inglewood our father was working for a family whose 2 year old child had been killed by a Pit Bull. We had good reason to fear those dogs.

Across the street were some ex drug users who formed their own church. They loved Jesus and wanted us to love Jesus too. Just a few days after I turned ten they were outside tending to a non existent garden and said, “Did you hear? The president’s been shot.” And I let myself in the front door and waited for my mother to get home feeling terrified. If someone could shoot the president they could blow me off the face of the map. They also talked to me about hell a lot. Those neighbors were scarier than the Pit Bull Neighbors.

Next to us was a lady who was about five feet tall and possibly four feet wide. She had grey hair that reached to her waist and was occasionally tied upon her head. She talked a lot about communism, it’s merits and the Spanish Civil War. She always wore a mumu and most often a flower in her hair to match the mumu. The flowers were always picked from someone else’s garden. I remember her nipples because she never wore a bra and they always seemed to be pointing at me.

The scouting family four houses down had their yard dug up by the police during the McMartin trial. They were looking for animal remains and I hoped for their sake that they’d been more successful with hamsters than we’d been. We didn’t know how to talk to their kids during those weeks, so we didn’t. We all just sort of played and didn’t talk.

Around the corner my brother had a friend whose mother would always chat with me. Instead of going to Hebrew school I’d sit on her sofa while she sipped champagne and smoked a tiny joint, “Just a pinner in the afternoon.” And she’d talk to me like I was an adult. She was a hulk of a woman, over six feet tall with a puffy but kind face, grey hair, blue eyes and never a stitch of makeup. Her husband was slight and unassuming and her boys were younger than I by a year or two. Four o’clock was a good time to pop in there. She’d always feed me too. Stoner food mostly, it was enjoyable and even in retrospect it doesn’t seem all that strange.

My neighbor next door was one of the only women of color that Manhattan Beach hosted. She lived alone in a modern home that could only be described as slick. Unlike every other lady in town she was not a hippie so my brother and I would go over there for a visit and get sodas from behind her bar. She’d sit and chat with us. She had exotic food like white bread and bologna, things that our family would never have.

Behind the bar our neighbor had a neon sign that said, “Foxy” in pink script. It was her nickname. In addition to being black (which automatically made her exotic in a town where my family was the diversity) she was tall and wore enormous headscarves. As a child I wondered why she’d chosen Foxy instead of Nefertiti, she looked like Nefertiti to me.

Foxy had a name but I can’t recall it. It was ordinary like Susan or Ruth. She’d let us in the door for our sodas in the afternoon (or on a lucky weekend in the morning) and warn us that she had a Gentleman Friend coming to visit at exactly 2 o’clock so we’d need to leave. In the event that he was early we were given explicit directions to call her Foxy, not her real name, Susan or Ruth. We never forgot to call her Foxy in front of her Gentlemen Friends. She did have a lot of them and we saw a few of the same friends more than once. I never saw a woman visit Foxy or Susan or Ruth.

Our neighbors now are much less interesting. Partly because I’m home and partly because the kids don’t walk to school they won’t be poking their heads into a bunch of living rooms. They won’t be scared of Pit Bulls or Jesus Freaks and they’re unlikely to befriend a madame with cheekbones that looked like they were carved from stone.

I’m pretty sure we have a local communist though. That should help keep their childhood interesting.

I Fought My Bully


headlock fighting

Thanks to James Fell for a wonderful guest post. It’s nice to have an XY perspective. 

Often it’s the weird kids who get bullied, and I was weirder than most.

I said and did inappropriate things and was terrible at sports. I couldn’t even fit in with the smart kids because I wasn’t. I was a pariah who dressed funny.

I was also a coward.

All through school it was rare for me to have friends. I once tried to boost my popularity amongst my fellow fourth graders by biting a worm in half and eating it. This did not have the desired effect, and that half worm wriggled in my stomach for hours.

My status reached a low point in eighth grade. I was publicly ridiculed, shoved, kicked and spit upon. I did not fight back. I possessed a mental block when it came to self-defense. It was a combination of not wanting to get in trouble and fear of being punched in the face. For me, there was a third “F” in the flight or fight response, and that was “freeze.” When attacked, I just took it, hoping it would be minimal and praying for it to stop.

I was not a pacifist. I hated my tormentors. I fantasized about being a martial arts master who beat the crap out of them. Then the pretty girls would tell me I’m awesome.

It was ninth grade when I fought back.

During the eighth grade I’d finally made a good friend named Oliver. We lived on the same block but went to different schools, so he had no idea about my leprous social status. Conversely, Oliver was popular. He was big, strong, got good grades and was tough because he had three older brothers.

I think Oliver was willing to be my friend because I had a motorized go-cart.

Towards the end of eighth grade I asked my parents if I could move to Oliver’s school. My mother and stepfather were workaholics and didn’t know what was going on, but seemed to sense I needed this; they agreed.

My slate did not stay clean for long.

Oliver’s popularity did not trickle down. He often hung out with an aggressive group of boys and it wasn’t long before they realized I didn’t fit. I wasn’t athletic and didn’t give off an aura of “don’t mess with me.” I still exuded the target vibe.

Within six weeks everything had gone to hell.

In this group of boys my primary tormenter was Puke Face (not his real name). He was slightly shorter than me, but made up for it in meanness. He started elbowing me in the hallways and would sneak up and make rapid, threatening gestures causing me to flinch. Then he would laugh and extol to everyone in earshot about what a pussy I was.

I imagined him being run over by a bus.

One day, in gym class, he shoved me and I shoved back. I don’t know why I broke with my cowardly character, but instantly came to regret it because he challenged me to a fight on the spot. I walked away, face flushed, stomach in knots.

Word got out that I was chicken, and things went from bad to worse.

Puke Face continued to taunt me and challenge me to fights daily. Others jumped on the bandwagon. My pariah status gained steam. Oliver began to distance himself and I don’t blame him. Well, at the time I thought he was a disloyal bastard, but in hindsight I understand the juvenile desire to stay away from the lowest in the pecking order to preserve one’s own status.

After two weeks of this, Oliver staged an intervention. As we walked from the bus stop towards his house he said, “You have to fight him.”

“I … I just can’t.” This was the first time I’d ever been truly honest with my only friend. “I’m terrified of fighting. He’s going to kill me.”

“He’s not going to kill you,” Oliver said. “At worst you’ll get a bloody nose or black eye. Even if you lose it will make things better.” Then he didn’t give me any choice in the matter. He grabbed me by the sleeve. “Come on.”

Oliver took me into his backyard, grabbed two pairs of boxing gloves out of his parents’ garage and threw one set at me. “I’m teaching you to fight.”

And that’s what we did for the next three hours until I got called home for dinner. The next morning my right wrist ached from all the boxing practice, so I wrapped it in a tensor bandage. When Oliver met me at the bus stop he said, “Challenge him first thing. Don’t chicken out.”

The first class was art, and before the teacher arrived I walked up to Puke Face. “After school. The field.” It was all I trusted myself to say. I walked away then, my heart rate in the low 200s and great lakes forming in my armpits.

I didn’t hear a single word any teacher said that day, and my lunch went uneaten. I’d never been so afraid.

Three o’clock arrived and I realized that issuing the challenge early had been a mistake, as word got around and a crowd of thirty or so of my fellow students gathered in the field behind the school, ready to see blood. We had adults in the audience as well; the roof of the school was being redone and a dozen workmen sensed something was up and stopped their labors to bear witness to teenage combat.

Puke Face was chatting with another boy and seemed not the least bit frightened. Oliver gave me last-minute advice. “Keep the sun at your back. Remember the fake I showed you.” Then he gave me a gentle prod forward into the open space between my foe and I.

My opponent looked at the bandage on my wrist. “You’re not going to use that as some lame excuse when I kick your ass, are you?”

As much as I hated him, I didn’t feel it at the time. I was too busy thinking. All the tactics Oliver taught me ran through my mind, leaving no room for anger. I kept my hands up in a left-handed boxer pose and my chin tucked down. Puke Face and I circled, and then he threw a punch, I dodged my face back and it missed.

It was early November in Canada. We were having a mild autumn – snow hadn’t yet arrived, but due to the northern latitude the sun was already sinking toward the horizon. I kept circling until the sun was at my back, and struck with a slow and telegraphed roundhouse punch with my right hand. Puke Face accepted the decoy and blocked it. I drove up hard into his nose with my more powerful left, and it drew blood. I wanted to shout with joy.

The fight lasted about five minutes. There was no grappling, kicking, or rolling on the ground. It was a standup punching contest. I don’t know if Puke Face landed a single blow – I was undamaged – but I got in several hard hits. His white Billy Squire T-shirt was covered in blood. (Billy Squire? He sucks.)

“Hey, you in the white shirt,” one of the roof-workers called. “I think you should give up.”

Bless that man.

I used this as an opportunity to extricate myself from the fight by stepping back. “It’s over,” I said. “I won.” My innate cowardliness had returned. Puke Face may have been bleeding but appeared capable of continuing. In fact, he looked pissed off. I worried he was about to go berserker and turn the tables.

But he seemed willing to admit defeat, possibly because there was still a lot of blood coming from his nose. Then, in an act of chivalry I hadn’t known I possessed, I removed the tensor from my wrist and handed it to him as a peace offering to staunch the flow. He snatched it from me in an ungrateful manner and I left the field of battle with Oliver at my side, feeling victorious.

Unlike the movies, this didn’t suddenly skyrocket my popularity. The next morning I was at my locker and Peter, the smartest kid in the school who’d experienced his own share of bullying, said, “I heard you beat up [Puke Face]. Good job.” That was the only acknowledgement I got.

Then I went to class and saw my enemy stalking towards my desk, angrier than ever. His right eye was swollen and scraped, and all I could think of was, I don’t remember hitting him there.

“Rematch,” he said through clenched teeth. “After school.”

“Screw off. I proved my point.” A façade. I was just as terrified of a rematch. He seemed bent on murder. I was relieved when he didn’t push it.

I didn’t become popular; I just removed the target I’d worn most of my life. I got to spend the rest of the school year in relative peace, which was so much better than what I was used to.

For tenth grade I left Oliver and Puke Face and went back to my original-track for high school, and saw those jerks from my previous junior high. But either they picked up that something had changed, or the year away meant they’d lost interest in me.

For a brief time I became a hypocritical jackass. I made some new friends, and in an effort to impress them I bullied a smaller boy a couple of times. Adrian, I am sorry.

Thirty years later I’ve come to realize how much that fight was a catalyst. I don’t condone violence, but the experience taught me something about facing fear. To this day, I feel a level of fear about many things, like it’s encoded in my genes. Perhaps I have a mild anxiety disorder.

The fight was the first step in prompting me to achieve, and by that I mean I obsessed over not being a loser. I became a risk-taker and status-seeker. I’d spent so long at the bottom of the totem pole I wanted to put a buffer zone between it and I. Fear of being bullied pushed me to pursue education, career success, fitness and even celebrity. I slowly learned to face fear and take risks in order to achieve, because the terror of once again being that low-status boy with a target on his back was unthinkable.

I know. I was overcompensating.

Last year, at my 25th high school reunion, I saw some of the boys – now men – who had bullied me in seventh and eighth grade. Thanks to Facebook, many of my fellow grads knew about my successful career. I’d discovered exercise in a big way and become a well-known expert. It was the epitome of a cheesy movie cliché. The bullies had mostly gotten fat. They looked old and tired, whereas I was youthful and fit. One of the men, who I’d particularly hated, came up to speak with me, asking, “What are you up to these days?“

“I’m a fitness writer,” I said. I no longer hated him, but this doesn’t mean I liked him.

“Well, as you can see,” he patted his massive belly, “I am not.” I chuckled then excused myself.

My wife was at a friend’s birthday and some of the aforementioned pretty girls – now women – wanted to talk to me because they were fans of my writing. It was surreal, and shamefully, I reveled. Stupid.

Even more stupid is the fact that I reveled in the victory of beating another person bloody. In hindsight, I realize now that even though I faced him, I still took a coward’s way out. Mahatma Ghandi said, “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.” And it was momentary, because I never lost the fear, and this lead to much focus on silly totem poles and pecking orders.

Thirty years ago there was an opportunity to be courageous. While there may be a time and place for violence, this wasn’t it. I could have taken a stand against such juvenile idiocy. I could have called out my tormentors for their immature need to establish their superiority via aggression. It would have meant beatings, but those can be more easily suffered when one’s cause is right. Fighting back against a tormentor didn’t mean my cause was right, it just meant I was willing to play his game.

Now I realize what a foolish game it is.

Get your FREE Weight Loss Report from James.

James S. Fell, CSCS, is the co-founder of James is a nationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles TimesHis book, Lose It Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind is coming from Random House in fall, 2013. 



If Stripping is Recession Proof it Makes Sense to Get the Kids Started Young


Times are tough. I know that here in America we’ve added back a lot of jobs but The Great Recession knocked the wind out of our collective sails. Apparently Canada is having trouble too because some parents are signing their daughters up for for a series of pole dancing classes. Oh, and when I say daughters I mean kids. And when I say kids I mean girls because everyone who is anyone sees a pole and doesn’t think FIREFIGHTER they think STRIPPER!

There’s a trend now towards having kids specialize young and some folks don’t think that college is necessary. I’m thinking a class like this is great for your tween particularly if she’s clearly already very seductive (as we all know that tweens can be). When do you think exotic dancing is legal? I mean you could use larger pasties and a bikini instead of a G-String and these girls could be earning a decent wage by the sixth grade.

Also… I remember my friend Scott talking about his girlfriend 20 or so years ago. She was very petite and he referred to her as a “little spinner” I’m SURE it’s because she took this dance class. Right?




Children and Show Business?


I live in a factory town. The product here is television, don’t get me started on how all the movie productions have left Los Angeles.

I grew up with kids who were working actors. As an adult I became friends with more than a few folks who had spent their childhoods auditioning and sometimes working. I watch the kids in the neighborhood go off to casting calls, and spend summers on set.

I’m not enchanted by Hollywood, and I haven’t made a secret of believing that children shouldn’t be on the big (or little) screen. This week when we taped Momversation I was asked to lead a discussion about kids and Hollywood with Jen and Trish. I knew all about Trish and her daughter’s less than wonderful experience with modeling, but I had NO IDEA that Jen had not one but two kids on a TV show.

This week on Momversation be sure to watch as a firmly wedge my foot in my mouth…. because really, that’s why y’all watch, right?

And then if have another six minutes to give to the web today, Tom Hanks nails it with Toddlers and Tiaras. Incidentally when Mr. G. caught me watching Toddlers and Tiaras his lecture included the phrase, “by watching this you are culpable.”

Enjoy. Guilt free. You are not culpable.

If Your Five Year Old Isn’t Pole Dancing Now She’ll Never Be A Featured Dancer


Tammy Morris of Tantra Fitness is teaching five year old girls to pole dance, and group lessons are available for girls ages nine and older. I know you’re worried that your nine year old doesn’t yet know how to pole dance, but based on the names of the classes I think they’ll catch your daughter up pretty quickly.

Sexy Flexy
Pussycat Dolls (no trademark issues?)
Promiscuous Girls

It used to be that in order to be the proud parent of a featured dancer you had to be a raging feminist, drug addicted or the child needed to be abused. Now, you can shortcut all of that, and maybe when she’s 15 you can work on a fake ID so that she can dance in the cage.