Brian Cox Books A Bikini Wax
On sickness, health, and creative frustration
Are you tired today, too? Are you, like me, having trouble focusing on your job, on the emails or spreadsheets or cash register or fuel pump or customers or vendors or students or patients or clients or jackhammer or snowplow or the fucking malfunctioning drive-through speaker? Good! What a perfect day for us to talk about creative productivity.
I had plenty of trouble sleeping in 2020, and 2021, and throughout the first 11 months of 2022. Somebody coined the term “coronasomnia,” and I even wrote a freelance trend piece about it at some point. The research was enjoyable, and the fee was nice.
I used to churn out books and scripts, but not since the pandemic started. Mostly I have written essays. Mostly everything I have written in these years has been meditative and sad and lonely and slightly hopeful, which is exactly how I myself have mostly been.
At last, I actually have COVID-19, our most petite and virulent global celebrity, which has made it easier to sleep, at least during the day. At night, I woke up choking on my own phlegm a few times, which is not sexy, exactly, but is also not boring when it’s happening to you.
I can’t smell or taste most things. On Day 11 of this sickness, I do feel a good bit better. After losing my sense of smell and taste altogether for a few days, I can now smell eucalyptus, lemon, and orange at about 25% strength, which is extremely exciting. I cannot smell human sweat, piss, shit or vomit, which is also thrilling.
My heart is acting up, a little, in a way that is probably nothing much (benign early repolarization or casual heart murmur, both run in the family) but could be something much, so I’m headed for tests later this week. In addition, COVID-19 has really enhanced my menstrual cramps. But here is what I find more upsetting at present: in the past few years, I have not been able to write a script I or my agents like, or any book proposal, much less a novel.
My agent doesn’t think we can sell another nonfiction book by me right now, and I believe him even though I don’t want to believe him. The effort, then, has been to come up with a novel, but to muster the focus for 50,000+ words of fiction on spec seems impossible. Even two chapters and an outline of a novel (it is sometimes possible to sell a novel “on a partial,” as they say) seems difficult.
Writing books is lonely. They don’t tell you that, usually, when you try to write one. They don’t put it in the contract when you get a deal. But it’s lonely. You can, and will, find loads of other things to occupy your attention.
Many of our Greatest American Writers (TM) used stimulants in order to focus. I can’t/won’t use nonprescription methamphetamines (le sigh) and the most popular prescription kind (Adderall) is notably hard to obtain these days in my city. They do not magically create it for you at the pharmacy when it’s out of stock, not even if your psychiatrist and your psychologist and your other mental/physical/spiritual health helpers say it would be cool and fine if that could happen.
“It’s okay,” I’ve said the three times I’ve checked in the past few months.
“It’s not okay,” the pharmacy tech always says. “People need their meds. They’re going through withdrawals.”
I’m not, thank Christ. I only took it occasionally. Even when it was easy to obtain, it never wrote a novel for me.
Coffee used to help. But coffee only breaks through the COVID-19 fatigue a little bit, and I can’t smell it, which was half of the reason I drank it so often. And coffee never wrote a novel for me, either.
To review the preceding few paragraphs makes me want to laugh. Is there anything more stereotypically writerly than writing about not being able to write? I have admitted to you that due to heart palpitations and symptoms brought on by an infection due to a global pandemic, I must have my first ECG and heart ultrasound, I have cramps, my nose and tastebuds are kinda fucked up, other people are going through withdrawals and freaking out, but most importantly I can’t figure out how to thrill my agents and I can’t focus enough to bang out a fifth book without the promise of a paycheck.
Fuck you, or, to be more specific, fuck me (not literally, could not be less in the mood.)
The truth is that I haven’t written a book since I got sober, and I’m afraid I don’t know how to do it anymore.
Same with any script I’ve actually liked. Jokes? Sure. Punch-up on other people’s scripts? Absolutely. Blurbs for other people’s books? Several. Essays? Many. A weird self-published illustrated 15,000 word novella about the Jersey Devil and Jonah’s whale? Yes indeed. I even joined the fucking Screen Actors Guild, for Chrissakes.
But have I written and sold another feature film, television pilot or book? No. That, still, eludes me. And if I’m honest, and I think I shall be, that has very little to do with COVID-19.
Anyway, I was thinking about death at 2 a.m. the other day, as one does, and I thought to myself, “If you drop dead or choke to death on your own effluvia or whatever, do you think you’ll be upset that you didn’t write another script or book?”
And then I thought, “Well, I’ll be dead, so I won’t feel anything at all.”
And then I thought, “Okay, but what if you can feel and think and know things?”
And then I thought, “That would be the dumbest and most embarrassing shit to care about. And if I had that level of consciousness after death, it leads me to believe there would also be some sort of deity who also had a human-like level of consciousness, and I bet that deity would say, ‘It’s fucking fine, honestly. Relax.’’’
For the artist, it is vital to hang onto the absurd idea that one’s art must be published, or played, or exhibited, or reviewed, or distributed. You can have all the imposter syndrome you like, but if part of you believes you have something in you that deserves to be seen, you’ll likely keep trying to make it happen.
This doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. You may hate what you produce. Others may hate it, or simply find it uninspiring. But you’ll keep trying, and eventually you will make something, misshapen and ugly though it may be.
I am a huge fan of audiobooks, and they have been my companions throughout these long, lonely years. In 2020, I picked up and moved away from dozens of friends in Los Angeles so that I could (temporarily, I thought) be closer to my family in New Jersey. I decided to live for the third time in New York City, which was and is in the midst of a collective experience of trauma that will affect this city for decades to come.
I have at times since wondered if I made a mistake. It was not a mistake, actually, for reasons that continue to unfold in ways that surprise me, but you know how it is when you do something big and then wonder — what if I’d done a different big thing, or something small, or nothing at all?
Anyway, these audiobooks have been like my friends, in a way. They have been especially helpful during my bouts of illness this year: the flu and then RSV, both in October, and, of course, COVID-19.
I have lately resumed listening to the wonderful audiobook Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, by Brian Cox. Some of you know him as Logan Roy; others as the first onscreen Hannibal Lecter; others as a classically trained actor from that wonderful working-class coterie of thespians who came up in the post-WWII era. He is, as the book explains, all of these things and more.
I listen to Brian Cox tell me his life story while I am in the bathtub, which is less erotic than it may sound, considering it’s always an Epsom salts bath and I am not infrequently hacking up snot.
Early on in my illness, my fever was over 103 degrees and I decided a bath measuring somewhere in the 80s would cool me down. I do not recall whether in this particular bath I listened to Brian Cox or one of my beloved Greek mythology audiobooks — I do not recall much of those early days — but I do remember my cat, Polly, climbing up on the side of the bathtub, staring at me with evident concern, and then trying to climb into the bathtub to settle herself atop my semi-buoyant bosom, which is something she does when I’m sick in bed.
It was very sweet, but I thought it prudent to prevent this very nurturing feline from hurling herself onto my tits to save me. I lifted her up and put her on the ground and she smacked me in the nose for my efforts.
Anyway, back to Mr. Cox’s book. I’ve just gotten to the part where, after loads of success onstage and on the small screen in the UK, as well as a small bit of film success, he’s down on his luck and has taken a job at a fancy gym in 1980s London.
This was a guy who had already won prestigious acting awards, who had acted alongside the great Albert Finney — more than once! — as well as Sir Laurence Olivier — again, more than once! He had directed plays! Princess Margaret had hit on him and scared the shit out of him in the process! He had been a visiting professor of Shakespeare at UCLA! Eva Marie Saint was one of his students!
I may have the sequence of some of this incorrect, as I have lately been busy hazily sucking on honey cough drops or hallucinating in the bathtub and being pawed at by my cat in a far more innocent way than Princess Margaret pawed at Mr. Cox, but anyway, you get the gist.
Then he’s on his way to the National Theatre for a performance and gets into a motorcycle accident. He somersaults through the air over his bike and lands, thankfully while wearing a helmet. His glasses break and cut his face up, although with no injury to his eyes. After checking in with the police and witnesses, this motherfucker gets back on his bike and goes to the fucking theatre and does the evening’s show!
Anyway, this leads into a rather disappointing time in his life. His first marriage is going to pieces, the work has dried up, and he’s got the bills from trying to fix up a new house. He’s 37. He’s got kids. It’ll be years before he goes to therapy and deals with some of his shit, which is considerable, given the difficulties of his early years.
His first wife is very clever with money, so they’re not going to starve, but he needs a job. Something steadier than acting, which is to say, well, almost anything.
Now, I love stories about artists with day jobs, so much so that I wrote a book about it, Real Artists Have Day Jobs. It’s the last book I’ve had published, and possibly the final one I’ll ever do (I hope not, but one ought to be realistic sometimes). Anyway, I got particularly excited at this part of the book.
What will Brian Cox do now? I wondered to myself.
What Brian Cox will do now is take a job as a receptionist at a gym and spa. And as a matter of his regular duties in this job, he books people in for bikini waxes.
Pause, for a moment, to imagine that voice on the other end of the line when you call up to request getting the hair on and around your asshole, taint and labia majora (or balls!) pulled out by its roots.
Despite his working class background, Cox only really ever takes one day job outside the theatre, and it is this brief gig. The story doesn’t take up much time in his book, but it’s a great moment.
Cox says, “It was so weird, but in one sense, an instructive experience, because I saw more actors on the other side of the counter than I’d ever seen in the theatre. Everybody comes in with a performance! They’re all doing their thing. And what I realized behind that desk was that human beings are natural actors, just that they don’t realize it. They’re acting situations all the time. Put them into an unfamiliar scenario, and they go into performance mode. They act out the part of the person they want to be.”
Soon enough, a highly regarded actor turns down the role of Captain Ahab in a wild stage production of Moby Dick. The actor doesn’t want to have one leg strapped up through the four hour performance, because it’ll be uncomfortable and indeed dangerous to his health. Cox gets the offer, and he takes it. The play is a rousing success, though Cox requires regular physical therapy from the whole faking-a-peg-leg-for-four-to-eight-hours-a-night thing. And he never books another bikini wax.
I worked in a gym with a small day spa once, though I can’t recall if bikini waxes were on offer. It was when I dropped out of college due to mental illness (agoraphobia and suicidal ideation). I was getting better, which is how I was able to get to the job every morning at 6 a.m. to make the coffee at the snack counter.
I didn’t drink the stuff back then, but I always loved the smell of the whole beans, and the freshly ground ones, and the brewed liquid that seemed to be like an elixir to those who ordered it.
Some of my coffee regulars were patients from the local hospital, people who were meant to visit the gym for cardiac rehabilitation with special physical therapists. Most of them weren’t supposed to have caffeine, but I wasn’t supposed to deny it to them, either.
“Everybody makes their own choices,” my boss said, or maybe I said it to myself. I was 21, young enough to think, “Well, maybe this is my whole life now. Maybe I’ll always work in places like this. It’s not bad. It’s even fun. I give people what they want, and they are usually happy about it. I can finish college someday, or not at all. I’m not so sick anymore, anyway.”
It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Simple, and so satisfying. I’m sure it would’ve worn on me over time, but I did it for about six months as I underwent my own talk therapy and psychiatry visits in my off-hours.
I liked seeing the physical therapists and nurses come in, knowing they were helping people heal their bodies. Sometimes they got coffee, too. My understanding is that the medical industry is largely run on coffee.
I started researching options for getting my massage therapy license. I never got it. I thought about studying coffee like my friend went on to do, really learning about the chemistry and culinary science of it all, traveling to farms and meeting the growers, perhaps running a coffee program at a restaurant or chain of grocery stories. I didn’t.
I did end up finishing college, eventually. I’ve had all sorts of jobs since then. I am a member of two unions. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, except that I’m writing, and recovering, and I’ve got therapy via my laptop screen tomorrow and Christmas is this weekend.
I made my own coffee this morning. I couldn’t smell it, but I could sort of taste it. I can’t smell holiday things, either. That’s my only real regret about it at present. New York smells its very best at the holidays.
It’s Hanukkah, and I can’t smell the latkes sizzling. I can’t smell peppermint candy canes, or vanilla marshmallows floating in hot cocoa, or the fragrant open-air corridors of evergreen trees that spring up on our streets in this city in December. I can’t tell when my neighbors are baking cookies. I can’t smell my favorite New York City holiday scent — exhaust from cars mixed with oil-fueled street cart generators mixed with burnt-on-the-bottom soft pretzels mixed with freshly roasted chestnuts. But that’s me complaining again, and there is so much more for which I can be grateful.
I have a job. It’s not making coffee or scheduling bikini waxes or yelling at my pretend children onscreen or churning out bestselling novels, but I have a job. A few jobs, actually. How fortunate I am, and how scared of losing it all, and how glad I ended up here at all.
Here. I’m here. I can walk and stretch and breathe and eat and swallow and bend and see and hear and feel and sleep, though I may have miles to go before I can do that tonight. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be easy. Some things are, once in a while.
Brian Cox says that the text should be of paramount importance to the actor and to the director. It seems obvious that this should be true for the writer, too, but it isn’t always. It’s very easy to get caught up in wanting the deal, and the paycheck, and the acclaim, and the right book cover, and the correct review, and I have sometimes wanted these things more than the story itself.
You’ve got to want the story first and foremost. The text is in you. It’s in me, too. It is the most important thing. And it seems I can, now and again, still write it down in a way that says exactly what I want to say. Thank God for that and for other big little miracles, in all seasons.
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*Note: This essay originally appeared on Medium.