Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Screen Door Slams / Mary's Dress Waves

Has there ever been a better 7-word line in the history of song lyrics (or literature/oratory/poetry for that matter) than those found in today's title? Some of you may nominate 7 words from other songs. Like "I want a name when I lose" or "Your uncle was a crooked French Canadian" or "This year Halloween fell on a weekend" or "Never meant to make your daughter cry" or even "They leave suspicious things in the sink." But I choose the first seven words of Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road : "The screen door slams. Mary's dress waves."

First of all, Bruce gets two sentences out of those seven words. Now, I'm no word economist, but in music you often have to get your message out quickly. And if you're telling the history of America in a four-minute chorusless song like Thunder Road, as Bruce is doing, you've got to make your words count. Let's break it down DJ Quik-style, sentence by sentence.

Sentence 1: "The screen door slams." First, the choice of "the" over "a." "A" means distance, watching the door slam from a far-removed perch. "The" indicates "let's get close and watch this scene." We're either in the house or right outside. And it's a screen door. Screen doors mean summer. Or maybe late spring, the time of year when people get out of towns full of losers while they're still young. Screen doors evoke shoddy workmanship (they never last) and invading mosquitos. In this song, above all else, the screen door represents something penetrable (a shaky love, a faded longing, a man with a plan that's not so well thought out). And it slams. It's an odd sound, that of a screen door slamming. A real door, with knobs and locks, shakes foundations and startles children and cats. A screen doors volleys and flails, causing only a flinch of recognition if it's lucky. We don't know (yet) if the real door is open or not, slammed or gently urged to close, propped open by a guitar case with stickers of bands that the narrator thinks represent boundless youth but really there'll be reunion tours he'd never have imagined (and what's wrong with that?). We do, however, know about the screen door. But the most important thing to take from this line is that something big has happened, a change is already in the making. The door is no longer open. We're inside or outside but we don't have the same options. A perfect four-word exposition, and not a forced noirish gesture to be found.

Sentence 2: "Mary's dress waves." Mary. Mother of Christ, yes, but back in 1975, the name Mary was a signifier of an average American woman. Mary on a farm, tending the crops. Mary in the suburbs, trimming the bushes. Mary in the city, working the streets. But even then Mary was a little old-fashioned. If he wanted a youthful name of the moment, Bruce would have chosen Cheryl or Karen or Kathy or Cathy. With Mary, he was going for someone older than the narrator, about 30, maybe a single mother of a child from another man (a foreman perhaps). Or you could think he was setting the whole song in the past, though that notion would disappear by the song's end. And she was wearing a dress. Even in '75, a young carefree New Jersey woman would be expected to wear jeans in late spring or summer. A dress was a prim formal gesture. Mary must have had big plans. Perhaps a trip to the county fair. Or to a roadhouse. Or to a Gary U.S. Bonds concert at the Stone Pony. And the dress waves. From the breeze of the slamming screen door, with a contribution perhaps from an outside wind. A fierce wind, an omen breeze. A foreshadowing wind (images of winds, dresses, gowns, etc. permeate). And taken all together, "Mary's dress waves" is kind of a sexy image, a provocative story told of a woman who, we learn in the next line, dances "like a vision."

So in seven words, Springsteen juxtaposes ineffectual violence (the screen door slamming) and fading innocence (Mary's dress waving), tossing in a reference to time and place (the screen door), ending with a call to action (waves). And the song fulfills the promise of those first seven words, ending with Young Bruce out-harmonica-ing Old Dylan by an east central Jersey mile, perhaps a mile of road on Highway 9, signaling a new generation where the promises of youth don't get broken by the winds of cynicism. No, they just get broken.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Caketopper Has Been Located

Last night Laurel and I cleaned our office. Known in landlord terms as the second bedroom, the home office had turned into a clumsy storage room, unused furniture and bags and boxes lining the perimeter, a closet full of hatboxes and baseball cards from 1974. Old phones. Old stereos. Old Discmen. The last remnants of many bad ideas and a few good ones.

Actually, we began to clean our office. There's still a lot to do. The closet is done, much of it purged to trash bins and alley folk. The ugly work starts tonight. The demolding of windowsills. The vacuuming of dust off of literary novels of the late nineties. The rearranging of the furniture that made the cut. The argument over the ugly rug, the multicolored runner that I wish to banish forever. And dust and cat hair everywhere the eye can see, before a linty squint turns into an April sneeze. But, in 12 hours, it will be a room again.

I deserve some kind of commendation for not using the word detritus in the preceding two paragraphs, don't I?

There's a stillness in my workplace today. The loud one is nowhere to be heard. The other one's allergies aren't acting up today. The cubicles are filled with the studious and the collegial. It's a good day.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Transfiguration

A few years ago, as both of my readers are well aware, I compiled a list of the top ten fruits. I don’t remember what I had as #1 – likely either the mango or the raspberry. It’s a very difficult choice to make. This morning I am eating some of the finest raspberries ever grown. Soon, it will be the height of mango season. It’s a good time to be alive.

After a 3-week hiatus, the screenwriting team reconvened last night. The time off was good for us, even if it has triggered a complete re-thinking of the basic plot. What will emerge, however, will be a stronger and more compelling script. Smaller yet bigger. Less contrived but more familiar. More Tobey McGuire, less Goldblum.

What’s with the world religions? They’re crazy! Still, despite my resistance to the concept of organized belief systems, I have to give them props for their music. Whether it’s the wandering Christianity of Sufjan Stevens, the disguised Buddhism of Stew, or the methodical Catholicism of Macaloon, the frenzied hybrid Islam-Judaism of Hall+Oates, or the intonations of all of them combined, it seems that belief in a higher power and a weekly sermon often leads to good songs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Rolling South

Laurel and I took a walk on the Santa Monica / Venice Beach boardwalk last night. Not to get all sentimental and windswept but there’s something really cool about the off-season beach on a breezy spring night, with the boarded-up lifeguard stations and the sparsely populated (with German tourists) beer cafes. And it’s a good time whenever you hear the following two random quotes: “Look who’s rolling south tonight!” and “Why do the geeky guys always get the beautiful women?” The first quote courtesy of a rollerblader, in reference to another rollerblader. The second quote courtesy of a homeless man, in reference to me and Laurel.

I always like starting and ending a paragraph with the same word.

Today is one of those days like the Sunday in the video for Morrissey’s Every Day is Like Sunday video. Cloudy, gray, filled with both mope and hope. A sly drizzle on my morning windshield. A consideration of whether to bring the umbrella from car to office. How can a drizzle be sly? It’s complicated, in an unthreatening way.

Things I’ve learned since my last entry: Arrested Development is the best show on TV. Bernie Mac is not flawless. The Timberwolves need a pure point and a rebounding center. The Dodgers are better than I thought. My car needs a tune-up. Patience breeds progress. Love is a battlefield but like oxygen nonetheless. Dreamers will always dream. Beck’ll be alright. Jeff Goldblum should be Conan O’Brien’s permanent co-host. Maria Tomei should be a superstar, as should Katie Holmes. It’s possible to eat too much starch and play too many card games. There is nothing wrong with sleep. I want to live on a quiet street.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Only One Man

Yes, the entries have been sporadic lately. But, as Regis Philbin put it so succinctly in his autobiography title, I’m only one man.

There have been troubles lately. Quick-cutting cat-out-of-the-bag troubles. Timberwolves-out-of-the-playoffs troubles. Reassessment-of-life's-priorities troubles.

But there has also been the sun, glorious as it warms the greenest Los Angeles ever. And there has been the Decemberists, whose new album Picaresque defies categorization and underfits hyperbole. And the Ian McEwan book is still resonating. And Seymour, fat lovable Seymour, the healthiest 20-pound cat in America, turned 12 the other day.

So, until tomorrow, I leave you with a very very short story I wrote several years ago. When I wrote it, I thought it was about someone else. Today, I’m not so sure. I think it’s about me.

For Risks Not Yet Enumerated #1

I’ve watched you, your black shoes the full range of your darkness. There is a light emanating from you and I can’t say that I always like it. I can say that I always have to think a few moments before knowing if I like it. And there is a real tension to your two eyes and what they take in. It seems that they don’t wish to be bothered with the pieties of human interplay. There have been no invitations given. And surely none declined.

Sometimes, you’re found slumped over like a bingo parlor polar bear one short on the diagonal. You realize that it doesn’t matter anyway because bears can’t bask in human reward. But there is some joy in seeing others go home, to the long suburban night, uncompensated.

Other times you’re laughing silently, an inner movie dialogue coming up roses on your pearly whites. You follow your laughter with the stillness you’re known for. I can see the atoms cringing at your homeostasis.

But this is all from afar, this watching, this theorizing. And I am smart enough to know I know nothing, no, to believe that I know nothing. That I only chase knowledge because I like how it looks from behind. You could say more about me – accurately – than I ever could about you. That’s partly due to you and your daisy-like impenetrability. But the rest of it comes from me and my love for the labors that come with the furthest distances.

I imagine you at home, tap dancing to a free love folk ballad, twirling candy canes with your good hand, smiling like a come-on to your teeth. Minutes pass and I imagine you now head in hands (good and bad), hair as face, chin as single breast, and your feet weak from dancing but wanting more and this time more angry, less angel. I imagine you slighting your whimsy with the punishment of staying still, eyes buried between knuckles and it doesn’t matter that they’re closed or that your glasses are unreachable or that none of this is really happening. I imagine you asking for an inorganic forgiveness from the only one that counts: yourself. And you, as always, are forgiven.

Again, a pause is called for. All of this is my own artifice and no one else’s. This is my reading of your mind reading your life.

I see you sleeping, dreaming of colors you can’t invent awake. I hear your bed breaths, shorter and louder than your upright ones and I notice that you’re pacing yourself better. Last time, you were out there. And my newest theory is that perhaps this is the reason that in the brief conversations of yours and others that I’ve overheard, there’s a newfound wellspokenness to your delivery. The sleeping and the non-actualized color dreaming is fueling your new locution. I am swimming in my own pride of you.

Thursday, April 07, 2005


In Los Angeles, the delightful gadfly called spring has pushed its way past the heavy-lidded thug we call rainy season.

I was promoted to a new desk. They’ve moved me one cubicle closer to the window. If I back my chair up 5 feet from the desk, look 57 degrees to the left, and crane my neck, I have a very adequate view of this building:

But thankfully my view isn’t of the shiny side.

I promise I will learn the intricacies of HTML and seamlessly incorporate my links into my text. But it’s been a busy April.

A book recommendation: Saturday by Ian McEwan. His last book, Atonement, began with 40 pages of prose so morassingly turgid and quicksandishly expositive that I resisted Saturday. I tried three times to get past those 40 pages. I couldn’t do it. But I’ve read about 100 pages of Saturday and it’s my favorite book of the second half of the second third of the millennium. Sure, Ian will still slow things down a little. But when he spends 10 pages describing a squash game, every word is delectable, precise, and well positioned, but in a dancerly way. He’s the Paddy Macaloon of literature. His defense of men sitting down while peeing is masterful. It’s almost enough to get me to dive back into the mud of Atonement, where I promise this time I’ll start on page 41.

Saturday, April 02, 2005


I am going on a journey. I will write more upon my return. Expect a new wordy entry on Thursday.