Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas in the Foothills (Again)

I had intended to spend Christmas in the Midwest, traversing the great snow prairies. Due to complications and reconsiderations, I found myself spending Christmas again in the greater Los Angeles area, bounding along the great rain-spattered freeways, scheming ways around the traffic as I crawled resolutely to La Verne. I would be spending the 25th with my mother, my sister and brother-in-law and their three children, and two other couples and their kids ("friends" of my sister and her husband). This post is largely about one of these friends, a man called Jon.

(I'll interrupt to here to say that it extremely unlikely any of the people at the Christmas gathering would actually be reading this. But I will acknowledge that it is a possibility. So - sorry.)

I have encountered Jon at a few other family gatherings - Thanksgiving last year and a long ago Super Bowl (one which the Cowboys won so you know it was a long time ago). At Thanksgiving last year he went into an extended discussion (in front of all the children, including two of his own) about how he preferred receiving "spa massages" from men instead of women, about how "men just know what to do." He spoke glowingly of the new massage guy at the Newport Beach spa he frequents. Shortly after that his wife spoke of her disdain for the new masseur, explaining that she preferred women. A few minutes later, his wife told me (again, in front of the entire gathering) that she admired my handsome face with its "Egyptian cheekbones." Arguably, she had a point but again it was uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner material. Jon made several other fascinating and inappropriate comments that Thanksgiving but my memory fails me. What he said yesterday is fresher in my mind.

My brother-in-law and his male friends are huge wine snobs. Their wives don't bother with the pretense of having wine expertise, preferring to say things like "I just like what tastes good. If it tastes good, keep pouring." A few years ago my brother-in-law and his own brother discussed the "earthy terroire" of a new French wine (loud enough for the gathered audience to hear). I don't know much French but "earthy terroire" sounds redundant. Yesterday, Jon was eager to try an expensive red wine that had just been opened. I don't know who brought the wine but I do know that the wine I brought was left unopened in a dark corner of the kitchen for the entire day. I had purchased the $9.99 red wine with the cool graphics on the bottle from Ralph's (the only grocery store open in town). Along with the wine I bought three Best Buy giftcards for the niece and nephews. I bought all this at precisely 2:23pm on Christmas Day. Dinner was being served at 3:00. Yes, I made it in time.

So back to Jon and the wine. It seemed that Jon still had just finished a different red wine from his glass. As the entire gathering sat, ready to enjoy Christmas dinner, he loudly requested that someone get him another glass so he could enjoy the new wine, not wanting the sediment from the first wine to interrupt the experience of the new one.

Now this is not an unreasonable request at, say, a wine tasting or some other wine-centered event. But there were two problems with him requesting the new glass at Christmas dinner. One, it was rude to expect someone - anyone - to stand up from their plate and get a new fresh glass (did I mention that, in addition to his emptied wine glass, he had a clean unused water glass directly in front of him?) Two, the dude is a complete idiot and likely didn't know what the hell he was talking about when he discussed wine or any other subject.

I have written here about my mother, in both a guarded and unguarded fashion (see my cousin's blog entry for more brilliance about my mom.) I will say that her reaction to Jon's request was one of the greatest things she has ever said. She said, "why don't you just get up and wash your glass?" referring to the wine glass he had just drank out of. I immediately thought of Curb Your Enthusiasm. When there was a particularly bad spill at a dinner table, Larry's mother-in-law yelled out "Somebody get a sponge!" Larry, recognizing that she was closest to the kitchen, said, "Why don't you get the sponge? It was then that I realized that my mother is Larry David, that the utterly self-involved motivations of his character on Curb are familiar to me because that's how I was raised.

Oddly, it seemed that no one other than me heard my mother had said. What she does not share with Larry David is an ostentatious way of speaking. She mumbles her put-downs. You need to listen carefully. I listen carefully.

(I actually don't remember if anyone got him a new wine glass. Or if he just accepted that it could be poured into the empty glass in front of him.)

Later, many of us gathered in the family room to watch the end of the Lakers-Celtics game. Now I love basketball more than just about anything else on earth. I enjoy watching basketball. But the inane behavior of Jon - seated, unfortunately, next to me on the couch - made me not want to watch basketball again in the near future. Emboldened by all the wines he tasted, he insisted on engaging in a fist pump with me whenever the Lakers did anything good. Dude, I thought, it's the third quarter of a regular season game. This is not worthy of fist pumps.

(Meanwhile, one of the other friends that my sister invited engaged in hugely racist mocking whenever one of the (non-white) basketball players was seen arguing on TV with a referee. I won't repeat it here. I'll just say that his imitations of Kevin Garnett and Eddie House arguing foul calls set back American race relations at least 10 years. Yes, it completely wiped out the Obama victory.)

During a lull in the game, Jon engaged me in conversation about my job. He asked about the neighborhood around USC, whether it was safe. I said it was mostly safe but that yes, being located in the heart of a major city, there was some crime. He then asked me "What about RAPES? Are there a lot of RAPES around there?" (emphasis his, not mine) I don't know why he was asking this. Maybe with his daughter (seated nearby) approaching college age, he didn't want to put her at risk by sending her to USC. More likely, the guy is just plain weird and is fascinated with RAPE. I answered his question honestly, noting the two sexual assaults on and near campus from a few months ago and telling him I really didn't know the overall statistics for the entire area. He then asked me about USC's business program.

Eventually, the game continued. The Lakers won. I had moved away from the couch because I was sick of fist pumping and I actually kind of like the Celtics now, a miracle considering how much I hated them in childhood.

At this point on Christmas day, considering all the travel and life-related upset that the past few days had brought, I decided that the rest of my La Verne visit could be spent in the downstairs bedroom, watching old episodes of Flight of the Conchords (the Bowie episode) and Big Love (the amazing hotel episode) on my mother's flat screen. Somewhere in there I retreated upstairs for dessert and to check if my "table wine" had been opened. It hadn't been.

For all my complaints, I guess there is something reassuring about spending Christmas with my family and their friends. It beats being alone and it gives me something write about. Still, I intend to plan ahead for Christmas next year. And I intend to stick to my plan.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rainy Day Post #2: Benihana Chirstmas

Last night I watched a TBS rerun of my favorite episode of any TV show this decade: the Benihana Christmas episode of The Office. The levels on which I love this episode are many - the cruel rivalry between the Party Planning Committee and the Committee to Plan Parties; the way Michael repeats the same 30-second iTunes clip of some awful love song to indicate his heartache (but not enough heartache to buy the whole song), the karaoke jam at the end of the show, and, most of all, the trip to Benihana. Now there are some inaccuracies in there - there is no way there's a Benihana in Scranton. When I was a kid living in Doylestown, we had to all the way to Bala Cynwyd (yes that's spelled correctly) for Benihana. Bala Cynwyd is right outside Philadelphia. It would always rain on the way there or on the way back. The drive was 25 miles but seemed like forever (in a good way, as I look back). But that was the 80s and this is today so let me check if there actually is a Benihana in Scranton.

(going to Benihana website)
(annoying graphics)
(wow - they closed down the one in Bala Cynwyd)
(nope - nothing within 120 miles of Scranton)
(yes I know it's fiction but still...)

Benihana was the ultimate dining experience for my family, all the way to my third of four graduation dinners when we went to the one in Anaheim. I would look forward to the theatrical Japanese cooking show that a trip to Benihana delivered. I would be afraid of (and excited by) the fire and the knives. I would wonder what those red drinks were that my parents were drinking. I would take everyone's extra food as my adolescent stomach accepted more and more salty goodness without repercussions.

Often there would be a wait, so the staff could ready the table for 4 (or, during the late 80s and early 90s visits, 5, 6, or 7 or more). In the lobby there would always a photo montage of the Benihana founder Rocky Aoki - the jetsetting silky rich race car-driving playboy. I think my father idolized Rocky Aoki more than he did anyone else. I think Rocky Aoki was the only man my father idolized. I think, in my father's mind, Rocky Aoki could kick Hugh Hefner's ass without messing up his beautiful Japanese hair.

Now none of these themes were exactly revisited in The Office episode. But what they did show was all spot-on and meaningful to me: the discomfort in sharing a large table with strangers, the wonder in Michael's eyes when he saw the onion volcano, the bad jokes delivered to (and by) the staff, the distant waitresses and their stupid robes, and the overall joyous theme-park-ness of it all.

It's off to the party.

Rainy Day Post #1

After raining twice in 10 months, it's rained 3 times in 5 days. I like the rain. And that's as much as I'll talk about the weather.

Soon I will venture to my employer's underutilized state-of-the-art arena, more specifically to the arena's underutilized banquet room. The occasion is the largest of the 4 work-related holiday parties I will be attending (interestingly, these are the only holiday parties I will be attending - do I still have friends?) I will eat fancy foods and drink sweet drinks. I may quietly depart early because of other obligations. Or I may stay until the bitter end just to see how the raffle plays out. Last year I won a semester-long gym membership.

I like holiday parties. I like December. I like wearing my underutilized coat. I bought it at a San Francisco Nordstrom during a visit in an earlier, more innocent December. I remember going there to buy a wintery coat with a gift certificate given to me on my birthday three months earlier. I remember finding the coat. I remember realizing I had left the gift certificate back at the house where I was staying. So I patiently followed Audrey's directions back to her house and then back to the strange shopping mall on the hilly edge of the city. This was the same mall where I "reengineered" my cousin's life after his unfortunate run-ins with life and the law. (Reengineering consisted of buying him new clothes and glasses and some Chuck Paluhnik book. Never read the guy but his books bother me for some reason.)

What did that previous paragraph tell you? Just that my life is sometimes interesting enough and at other times not quite enough.

Still love this book. I recommend it to anyone who likes big arduous books.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Oates (again)

In honor of Daryl Hall and John Oates' triumphant and bizarre Daily Show appearance last night (go here and go about 7 minutes in), I will post (here for the third time!) my 2003 poem, Oates.


Oates, how did it feel
When the prettiest ladies
Swooned for Daryl, leaving you behind?

Oates, how could you smile
As you stood to the side
And Daryl hit the notes you couldn't find?

All the girls loved Daryl
The black girls said "he's one of us"
The white girls said "he's so fine"
You were the number two
The "and who are you?"
The "do you sing too?"

Everyone loved Daryl
Sara smiled a while for him
You? She thought your name was Jim
You were the other guy
The little brother guy
The short and ugly guy

Oates, why did you stay?
Were you afraid
That no one would listen to only you?

Oates, how did it taste
When Daryl went solo
And no one asked "What's Oates gonna do?"

All the girls loved Daryl
Pretty Daryl, lanky Daryl
The king of Reagan-era R&B
You were the swarthy one
They called you the lesser son
The rumors said five-foot-one

Everyone loved Daryl
When he sang “No can do”
Stevie Wonder said "I now can see"
You were the facial hair
The striped shirts and the stupid stare
The man who wasn't there

Oates, who wrote the songs?
Daryl, that's who
Though he'd sometimes throw you a bone

Oates, did he order you around?
Did he make you fetch
The paper and the cocaine?

Oates, did Daryl call you a monkey?
I heard he called you a monkey
I heard he called you a monkey
Say it isn’t so
Oates, say
It isn’t so

(I'm so sorry)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Alpha Sunday

There's a new epic poem here. (it's only partly true)

Chores I've completed today:

Copied 47 CDs onto my iTunes.
No, make that 48.
Did six loads of laundry.
Cleaned all my dishes.
Changed the water purifier filter.
Made myself breakfast.
And lunch.
And probably dinner.
Changed the sheets.
Changed the cat litter.
Swept the floor, mopped parts of it.
Wrote epic poem.
Completed Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle.
Watched 1 1/2 football games, Dexter, and Californication.
And 30 Rock twice.
("I want to go to there.")

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Revenge is a funny thing. There is the once-removed revenge of being a sports fan, like in 1983 when the 76ers finally got past the Celtics in the playoffs and a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs (me) pumped his fists (proverbially, most likely) and breathed heavy but silent sighs of relief.

There is the relatively meaningless and playful revenge inherent to jovial games of poker between friends. This happened on Saturday when I avenged my summer tournament series loss to Karen by cruelly knocking her out of the running by coolly flopping a 10-high straight.

Then there is professional revenge. This type of revenge needs to be handled delicately. Payback may need to take weeks, if not months. Recently, my statistical methodology was (incorrectly) questioned in a semi-public forum. And if you know me, you know that no one questions my methodology.

What does this all mean? Am I gonna have to get all multilevel multivariate and go HLM on someone's ass? Will there be a 2-page paper with a 3-color graph involved? Will there be an email with multiple influential CCs and a few unnamed BCCs thrown in? Will there be blood? I will provide updates in this space, as necessary.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I posted three poems on the poetry site - one that I wrote 13 minutes ago, a better one that I wrote in 2000, and an even better one from 1995. I used to be a poet.

I'm reading Roberto Bolano's 2666. It's pretty amazing. I'm 23 pages in and have over 800 to go. I recommend reading his notorious and beautiful 5-page, 2247-word sentence from early in the book, reprinted here (follow the attachment). There's a riddle hidden in there. And potatoes, sausage, and beer.

Maybe I'm still a poet. And a writer in other forms. Maybe this little piece I found, something I wrote 10 years ago, maybe it was written to myself and not the other (older, bigger) writer I imagined. This is what I wrote on 10/13/98:

And when you get there, when you get there, those that will see you, those that will not, those that cannot. And in heaven the fruitless and fictional are eternalized and beautiful. Are you dead?

Or just not writing anymore?

Or just not caring enough to write anymore?

I am writing. I am caring. I think.

The pluralistic, the cultural, the whole streets, the back alleys, the back lots. This was your city and it will be forever. I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t live it, I had to leave and will I come back? Can I? I am writing. I am caring. I think.

The confessors sleep the sleep of the spent and weak. But it is a sleep.

The shrouded and guilty sleep like wasted chances and unread menus and boast relentlessly of the smell of the rain of the trees on a street.

And if you break the code (this one), if you break the unbreakable, the unreachable, where will you be then? A reader (not a writer) and his obsession. The writer (being read) and his raggedy youth, his faltering adulthood, his old age, and perhaps (don’t know yet) his death.

The code (in its uniform descent into self-efficacy): portraits of uncles, unmet goals, sleeping diagonal (because you are too tall), forced lies, unforced truths, painted legends, hometown pride (and the scornful rueful looks that entails), envelopes full of money (cash money, check money, play money, new money, old monkey money, and the deadest of all: no money), the imagination, the off-white of her eyes, the aging process (15 years – a long time), the instigation of abruptness followed by the wallowing (rueful, tearful, and awful), Santa Claus (and his lovable inebriated eyes), briefcases and Sammy and Rosie, the code, its uniform descent).

I wonder what it all means. I can decipher about half of it. My cat just vomited. I must go clean it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Chasing UPS Trucks on St. Paul Pavements: Top 11 Songs of 2008

(This could end up being my year-end list. Or I might put up a new one)

(I'm aware that my #1 song was first released in 2007 but careful wiki-research reveals that it did not have an official U.S. single release until 2008. A technicality? Yes. But I'm not changing it.)

11. Yeah Sapphire - The Hold Steady

Listen to the song here while it's still legal. It makes the list solely for the following lines:

Sapphire, if Cheyenne's too small/We'll haul it all back to St. Paul
I was just about to call you when you called

or maybe these lines:

Sapphire, if St. Paul don't call / We've always got Aberdeen
'Cause dreams they seem to cost money but money costs some dreams

Yeah. it's the latter.

10. Easy Does It - Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Not sure if this is an "official" video but I like it. The song pretty much describes my life philosophy in 1987, 1993, 2002, and maybe 2009.

9. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa - Vampire Weekend
I could pick five different songs from their album for this list but this is the one that I sing for hours after hearing it. I make up new lyrics sometimes. Great song. Annoying/funny video.

8. White Winter Hymnal - Fleet Foxes

Gets more perfect (technically not possible) each time I hear it.

7. Chasing Pavements - Adele

Back in the mid-80s I would go to late, lamented Northern Lights Music in Minneapolis (or sometimes the one in St. Paul, after which I'd hit the White Castle on Lexington). I'd buy well-produced, carefully written "soul" records by British artists like Simply Red and the Style Council. I'd take the records carefully out of their English sleeves and listen slowly/sleekly/collegiately to each song, all the while making a cassette version of the album. Then, I'd put the record away and never listen to it on vinyl again. I'd listen to the tape 10 times, a dozen tops. Then I'd go back to Northern Lights and do it all over again. This song reminds me of those albums. Go here and find the video.

6. All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco - American Music Club

Yes that is Lois Henrickson from Big Love in the video (or Laura Palmer's mom from Twin Peaks if you prefer). When I saw American Music Club this past summer in Echo Park, she was in the audience, with the guy who plays her grandson Ben on Big Love. I hope they weren't on a date because that would be weird. Anyway, I was in San Francisco recently. The souls there are not nearly as lost as in Los Angeles. That's a compliment. To both cities.

5. Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? - She & Him

If she asked me to, yeah I'd have to marry her.

4. The Old Days - Dr. Dog

There was a time when I'd play this song over and over again on my iPod. It was like I was addicted to it and only further listenings would cure me. Then I listened to the rest of the album and liked it nearly as much. Scroll down the song list here and find the song and listen. You might like it or you might consider it time better spent doing something else.

3. Buriedfed - Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson

An odd song, a beautiful song, an iPod-on-an-airplane song if there ever was one. The song just builds up and soars and flies and lands and it's unsettling and your brain is rattled but then you're glad you got where you were going.

2. Ask Her For Adderall - The Hold Steady

Why they made this song a not-available-on-iTunes-only-available-on CD "bonus track" I have no idea. It's the only linkless/video-less song on my list. It's also maybe the tightest, coolest, purest, best rock and roll song I've heard since this one and that's saying quite a lot. Some memorable lyrics: "If she wants to help the cause / Tell her we need sterile gauze." And it gets pushed up one spot in the rankings for the final verse which updates all us listeners on what happened to two characters from some songs from two albums ago. That's thorough!

1. Paper Planes - M.I.A.

In the end it wasn't even close. I could hear this song every hour, every day of my life and still not get sick of it. I can't say that about any other song (not Crazy, not Hey Ya, not even Baker Street). And I'd have to marry M.I.A. too. There would have to be a prenup though. And has any song ever started out better than this?

I fly like paper, get high like planes /
If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name

(what's important here is that she has VISAS (plural) in her name. Not just one.)

and two bonus songs from 2007:

Rainbowarriors - Coco Rosie

Sweetheart in the Summer - Ween
(not a video; just the sky)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

18 Things I Did On Saturday

1. Ate an awesome breakfast scramble on a patio.
2. Toured a historic house.
3. Noticed the kitchen fixtures.
4. Sold 9 CDs from 3 different decades at Amoeba. Made 20 bucks.
5. Walked in circles at IKEA.
6. Heard a Steely Dan song in a Starbucks. Strangely this has never happened before.
7. Watched "The Nightman Cometh" episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia two more times. 8. Couldn't get "the troll toll" song out of my head.
9. Put on a shirt I haven't worn since Minnesota.
10. Bought two kinds of cheese - one hard and one soft - at Whole Foods. For the party. Got a baguette too.
11. Drove to Santa Ana.
12. Saw an old friend for the first time since 1990.
13. Celebrated another friend's birthday.
14. Comforted a condo complex cat after the sprinklers freaked the cat out.
15. Sat on a leather chair and closed my eyes and listened to Richard Marx. Okay I just tried to listen. Eventually my eyes had to open.
16. Ate one of my two cheeses and three of someone else's.
17. Ate a cupcake - part of a fish-and-rocks-themed cupcake birthday cake.
18. Recalled some poolside memories from younger days with Katinka and Matt.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Weird Hazy Twinkling

This interview with comedian/Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange on NPR is great - funny, heartbreaking... insightful, poetic. The book excerpt at the same link is worth reading too. I completely understand the concept of boredom leading to chaos. For Artie, boredom lead (leads?) to alcohol and heroin and other drugs. For me there was the online poker thing. If only there was a cure for boredom...

Looking out the window at the hills tonight - the lights are twinkling in the haze, the palm trees are swaying, the police helicopter finally stopped circling. I'm thinking about sleeping. I'm thinking about going to Whole Foods. But I have a sweet parking space. And I'm not bored. And Seymour's at my feet and he doesn't seem to want me to go anywhere.

I just found this "lost poem" I wrote in 2002. I like it a lot.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Long-Limbed, Short-Rested

Driving down the 101 from San Francisco to Los Angeles last night I had time for a lot of thinking. There were thoughts of mortality, of history, of love and loss, of music and friendship. There were thoughts about thoughts. And thoughts about those thoughts.

(Yes I could have taken the 5. Not as reflective.)

Driving past Montecito I saw three shimmering night clouds of smoke, left over from last week's now-extinguished fire. It was creepy - the remnants of a fire that destroyed many homes on a beautiful hillside, one that I've driven through a couple of times with a couple of different people, under a few different circumstances. The clouds were beautiful even if the fire wasn't. I'm sure in the daytime nothing was beautiful. But that's why I drive at night.

Today I'm tired and still reflective. Wired from the caffeine I drank to keep me awake from the drive, I watched two episodes of Entourage after arriving home at 1:00. After a weekend in which the idle times between brunches and other outings were filled with watching eight episodes of True Blood, I needed to see something not about vampires, about people grounded in "reality" to relax my racing mind. Some time before the second absurd episode ended but after the conflict was established, I fell asleep. I slept soundly, only to wake up an hour late. I didn't hear the alarm.

Now it's 1:00 in the afternoon and I haven't really said anything of substance here. I need a snack before the next meeting. Perhaps some Red Mango.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Past, the House

I've discovered that when one writes blog entries and mentions people by name, it is indeed possible that the named people can eventually read those blog entries (especially when I provide them the links!)

So I'll say the following:
  • Not everything I write here about events from the past is necessarily true (even when I don't provide a "may be exaggerated" warning).
  • If I label something as "3/4 true" or "25% lie" it's quite possible that the true ratios/percentages are different.
  • Overall, my memories of that time are good ones.
  • The bullhorn was cool.
I will now vow to be more careful with what I say. Or I'll just use fictional names. Like the time me and my old buddy Barack rode our inner tubes down the Delaware River on a weekday afternoon in '85. When it started raining, we and the others convened at the Burger King back in town for an early dinner. I had a deep-fried chicken sandwich and deep-fried onion rings. I was wet from the river and the rain. It was at the table in the back, near the bathrooms, where I noticed that my other friend Sarah P. was looking at me in a flirtatious manner. She had long brown curly hair like in the bible.

Then, the whole group - seven of us in all - decided to go the haunted house down the street. What happened next is immortalized in this short story, one I wrote under winter duress in Minneapolis at the turn of the century.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I Measure Outcomes

You might ask yourself. Or you might ask me. What's up with the new photo? The one with the purple wall. The one where I'm "candidly" looking up. The one with the exaggerated dimples. Hey - sometimes one must experiment. Risks must be taken.

Some random stuff:

Pandora is awesome. So so awesome.

Yesterday I made reference to a Spike Lee student film. This is it. I wish to see it again. It's pretty great.

(You should know I have a critical "blind spot" when it comes to Spike Lee. As far as I'm concerned: He has done no wrong. He can do no wrong. I used to have a refrigerator magnet of his head. If anyone knows where it is...)

(Yes - even that movie. And that one too. All of them - brilliant!)

(But especially this one. If anyone knows where I can find the She's Gotta Have It soundtrack please let me know. It's more important to me than the refrigerator magnet.)

For those of you who don't know, I have a Facebook page. Just search my name. If you don't know it, email me. In recent days I'm actually using it - providing pointless "news" updates and cleverly commenting on random photographs and ignoring invitations to join political "groups."

Note to inviters: I likely agree 100% with all of your political views (no on Prop. 8, yes on Obama, free Al Franken, etc.) It's just that I do not believe in the concept of "group." Not yet at least.

If you have to see one It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode this season, this is the one to see (at least until the Dayman / Nightman musical hits the air.)

I'm listening to a Pavement song from near the end of their time together (chosen by Pandora for its musical similarity to Magnetic Fields, a similarity which doesn't really exist but okay). You could hear it all coming to a halt. Now they're playing Andrew Bird on the Vampire Weekend "station." Makes a little more sense. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just go here. It's so cool - like Last FM with forethought. And genomes.

And now I hear this song, which I almost forgot about:

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Thousand Pieces Around (Me)

Yes there are days like this. I wake up on my couch unsure of how I fell asleep on my couch. Oh I remember. I never went to my bed. I curled up on the couch with a laptop and a remote and a cat and a bottle of Target's store brand water. After the Ambien. And next thing I know it's the sunrise and is that the Hollywood sign dead-clear in the hills, no fog and smog in the way? Yes it is. Wasn't I just waking up on Emerson Avenue in south Minneapolis, putting on my glasses so I can look out into the alley to see if the snow stuck to the ground? Wasn't that just yesterday? No. That was more than years ago and then there are days like this.

So I get out of bed and change the cat litter and discover that that new brand of "revolutionary" litter... those spring-fresh-scented pellets that would make my life easier.... well, they don't exactly work. You see - they get rid of the urine odor but allow the actual feline urine to coalesce in the little space above the "filter." When I lifted up the box to pour the litter out, I also poured out... never mind. I'll just say I cleaned it all up and returned the old purple litter box to its rightful place. The kitchen no longer smells like urine. Rather, it smells like Begley's Best surface cleaner.

In between the waking up and seeing the Hollywood sign and changing the cat litter I watched a Hulu'd episode of Psych. It's getting closer - the moment when I declare Psych the true revolution, at least during the Monk hiatus. I know - what the hell happened to me? I used to have an edge. I bought R.E.M. 12-inch singles in unlit low rent indie record stores in '84. I wateched Spike Lee's student film in the student-run screening room on the crappy student-run film projector at the University of Minnesota back in '85. I saw the Tindersticks at the Troubador in '96, with 23 other people in the room and a heatwave outside. And here I am praising shows on the USA Network - but dude on Psych they referenced the Robert Forster-read audiobook of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections in an offhand truly unnecessary aside. I loved that book (the printed one). He needs to write another one. Essays don't count.

I'm writing this from the Sabor y Cultura coffeehouse on Hollywood Boulevard. High ceilings, space between tables, and free internet. Perfect for a Sunday morning. Pretty good coffee. I'm listening to The National on my headphones. Two songs left and then it's Nellie McLay on the alphabetical playlist. So yeah I need to take action soon. Sunday has just begun.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Hostages, the Hardware Store, and Identity Politics: Barack and Me

Barack Obama's election means a lot to a lot of people. It is not insignificant that he is the first African-American president in U.S. history. Or that he is a cerebral and (seemingly) humble figure who will think things through and consider every option, unlike the last four presidents we've had (yeah even Bill). But his election means something to me for entirely selfish reasons: He reminds me of myself.

There's the way he believes in every word he's saying despite not exactly feeling entirely comfortable speaking to groups; this manifested itself in last night's brief and brilliant acceptance speech. Yeah he's a somewhat stuffy professorial type - nothing wrong with that.

More importantly, there is his background. Some detail for those who aren't familiar with me or my background: I'm half Swedish and half Egyptian. I spent most of the first 2 1/2 years of my life Alexandria, Egypt with my Swedish mother and Egyptian father, the exception being my first few weeks of life in Sweden (my mother gave birth to me there, ostensibly because she "didn't trust Egyptian hospitals" after giving birth to my sister; is that the real reason? who knows?) At 28 months, I got on that America-bound plane and landed at JFK. During the plane ride I distinctly remember being disgusted by the taste of tomatoes.

We settled near the banks of the Hackensack River in New Jersey. It was there that I saw two of my childhood idols crossing a Teaneck street: Gordon and Susan from Sesame Street. The family - me, my sister, and my parents - bounced between the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia, settling in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home to historical novelists and the world's greatest rock and roll band. This is the closest I've been to a "home" in my life, spending seven years in a rust-colored house in the then-brand new Pheasant Ridge housing development.

So what's the Obama connection? Well, at the risk of causing eyes to roll in Hyde Park or faces to smirk in Long Beach, I'll say that Obama and I share the same outsider-ness. We grew up as Americans but also as the sons of Muslim fathers from Africa. Absent from these fathers, we exist as essentially non-religious adults. We grew up in matriarchies in lands that were as foreign to our parents as they were to us (Hawaii, Doylestown). We resettled in different and bigger American cities as adults (Minneapolis, Los Angeles... Chicago and.... D.C.). Home has never been nor will ever be one place. Home is elusive until we figure it out is everywhere.
Home - is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
-This Must Be the Place - Talking Heads
But even if I'm already here or he's already there, it really doesn't feel like home, at least not in the mostly Western sense of historic entitlement. Yeah I live here but I could have lived there. Yeah I grew up on Southview Lane but I could have been in South Philly. I would have turned out the same, except I would have had a thicker accent and worn more sleeveless shirts back in 1985. I ended up in Minnesota by accident and stayed there half my life since. I ended up in California not exactly by accident but I've come so close to leaving this place that I have to give Los Angeles credit for persistently, stubbornly keeping me here and not letting me go. Obama was shuttled to Kansas and Hawaii, to Kenya for a month and Los Angeles for a few semesters, to Columbia and Harvard and Chicago. But he's steadfastly remained himself and location didn't seem to matter (except when it's all that matters, which happens from time to time and then you forget).

Do I really feel like an outsider? Do I really feel like an observer of a life (even my own) and a culture and a world? Yes. On The Office, when they have those (too) frequently used shots through a half-open blind into an office, of an uncomfortable conversation between two romanced co-workers, do the scenes have special resonance to me because of the "outsider status" of the camera eye? Yes.

(Speaking of The Office, I DO NOT look like him. Please stop telling me that I do.)

But outsiderness has its benefits. Has Barack Obama benefited from an adoring press because he's just so different (and outside of) from the political establishment? Sure he has. But do you know how hard it is to succeed in politics as an outsider? He deserves what he's worked for. Besides, over the next four to eight years he'll be the most closely followed and, thus, persistently critiqued (per capita) human being since Jesus.

I've always shunned groups and clubs. At meetings at my present job and previous ones, there is often discussion of those that are not part of the the "family" or of individuals who do not contribute to the "culture." This makes me cringe but it also makes me happy because I truly feel outside of it all and thus superior. Does this lead to me feeling alone and bored? Sometimes above it all and infrequently bitter? Yes, yes. It is no accident that my favorite TV and literary characters of all time are Adrian Monk and Don Gately.

And then there's the outside-of-America-ness issue. Despite being born and raised in the U.S., Barack Obama has had his loyalty questioned, his family history poked around, and his name mocked. This is partially because of where his father is from (Kenya), partially because of where he grew up (Hawaii - a United State but that's not good enough for some), and partially because of the color of his skin. But more than these three factors there is his name. I consider it a small miracle that a country with so many citizens who mock and hate the unfamiliar would (in majority) vote in a man as president with three seemingly "dangerous" names. It actually makes me joyously happy.

But not happy enough to erase the bad memories and bitterness of so much name-inflected mistreatment. I've written about the kid in school growing up who blamed me (me!) for the Iran hostage crisis. It's funny in a way - we got off the school bus and he started punching me hard in the shoulder, screaming "This is for the hostages! This is for the hostages!" Okay, it's hilarious but not when you're a kid completely aware of the difference between Iran and Egypt, of Doylestown and Teheran. So Chris McGuire, if you're reading this - I know you were just a kid too but what the fuck?

(I did fight back. But this is the same Chris McGuire who a few years later was the biggest kid on the high school football team. He was huge!)

(I clearly remembered this incident when, years later after 9/11, Iranian-Americans went on a PR campaign to distance themselves from "Arabs." Like that family in the movie Crash. Whatever.)

And then there was the man in the Minneapolis hardware store in the late nineties. I was paying for something with my credit card. He looked at the name on the card. He looked at me. He looked back at the card. And then back at me. Not waiting for him to say something stupid, I said "yes that's really me." And of course he said "how do you get a name like that?" So the very short version of my family history was told and I hoped (prayed) that that would be it. But no. He decided to make a parallel. "You know - I know this family who adopted a little black boy and called him Bjorn. I thought it was so strange. A black boy named Bjorn. That's kind of like you being named Ali" I responded to him with silence as I waited for the credit card receipt to print. Bjorn, if you're reading this - respect.

I'm sure a guy named Barack Hussein Obama has had to endure the same ridiculous comments about names and essentialist questions about backgrounds. I've been asked countless times about my experiences in Egypt (barely remember the childhood years; sort of remember the trip there in '83). I've been asked a handful of times about my experiences in Sweden (no memory of my birth; vague recollection of candy kiosks and the IKEA factory during a visit in '74). No one has ever asked me about living in Doylestown or North Hollywood or Eden Prairie. Or Feasterville or Brea or New Milford. During the election, Obama's childhood in Kansas and Hawaii seemed almost fictional (it wasn't) and his ties to mysterious nefarious individuals seemed meaningful (they weren't).

I fear my analogy is slipping so I'll just say I'm happy that the man I voted for won, that the outsider is on the inside, that a man with a strange name was elected in a country that has, in the past, shied away from the difficult and risky best decision. All I ask of Barack Obama is that his administration gets rid of the ridiculous archaic rule requiring presidential candidates to have been born in the U.S. To put it simply: it's discriminatory and wrong, especially in a nation built largely on by immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary. I'm not saying I want to run in 2016 if the rule gets changed. But I don't want that option denied me just because I was born in Eskilstuna.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

With Jam to Lace the Bread

You may have noticed that I haven't written as much these past few weeks. I could attribute this to being busy. But really there's just been too much on my mind - both happy and sad, easy and difficult, old and new. With all that racing through this already too-busy brain of mine, my attempts at blogging have been a bit unfocused and off, and much of what I've written has gone unpublished. Hopefully this will change soon.

These are definitely interesting times. In the last few weeks and the upcoming month, the following things have happened or will happen:
  • Reunions with old friends from both the Golden Age and the Harvest Years
  • A visit from the cousin and a trip up north
  • Car accidents (not me; no one was hurt) and moving vans (again, not me)
  • Insomnia and bliss
  • Long phone conversations and short attention spans
  • And - not to jinx things which won't happen because really jinxes just don't exist - we'll have the best president of my lifetime
Soon I'll have another one of those epic posts that I reread over and over again and effusively praise myself for. Maybe that short story that I've been perfecting for eight years will see the light of day (it's so good; it's the one). Maybe there will be lists.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mary, Liz, O.J., and Kevin

I couldn't possibly be the only one to notice this but I'm too lazy to do the research. Has anyone noticed that the characters and much of the setting on the show 30 Rock practically mirrors those of Mary Tyler Moore? A comparison:

MTM: Set in local TV news studio
30R: Set in network TV studio.

MTM: Free spirited single brunette lead (Mary)
30R: Free spirited single brunette lead (Liz)

MTM: Avuncular older male lead with mostly platonic relationship to female lead (Lou)
30R: Avuncular older male lead with mostly platonic relationship to female lead (Jack)

MTM: Cerebral bald writer (Murray)
30R: Cerebral bald director (Pete)

MTM: Self-centered on-air star (Ted)
30R: Self-centered on-air star (Tracy)

MTM: Slightly ditzy blonde female friend (Phyllis)
30R: Slightly ditzy blonde female friend (Jenny)

There's no equivalent to Rhoda on 30 Rock. And MTM has no equivalent to Frank and Toofer or the secretary or Tracy's entourage. But other than Rhoda those are all minor characters.

What does it all mean? They're both great shows. That's about it.

Today is the beginning of basketball season. If you want imaginative predictions of every game go to Free Darko. Rather than the traditional team-by-team overly worded preview, I'll just offer a few general NBA predictions and stray thoughts:

1. Cleveland and the Lakers will play in the finals. The Lakers will win in 7 games.
2. The Western Conference playoff teams will be (in order of seeds): 1. L.A. Lakers; 2. Houston; 3. Portland; 4. Phoenix; 5. New Orleans; 7. L.A. Clippers; 8. Utah.
3. The Eastern Conference playoff teams will be: 1. Boston; 2. Cleveland; 3. Toronto; 4. Orlando; 5. Detroit; 6. Atlanta; 7. Chicago; 8. Philadelphia.
4. My team - the Minnesota Timberwolves - will finish 33-49. Kevin Love will be good. Al Jefferson will be better. Randy Wittman will be fired before January with the team at 10-31. New coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will lead the Wolves to a 23-18 record the rest of the way; he will wear Native American fringe-jackets on the sidelines. They will not regret the draft day trade of Mayo for Love. Not this year at least.
5. Former Trojan Nick Young will outplay former Trojan O.J. Mayo.
6. The Milwaukee Bucks will finish with the worst record in the NBA - 16-66 (sorry Jason).
7. LeBron James will be MVP; Derrick Rose will be Rookie of the Year.
8. I will attend exactly one NBA game.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Friendship For Everyone

According to this source among others, there will be a musical episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia this season featuring the Day Man and Night Man characters. Without overhyping this too much, I'll just say that the day that this episode airs will be the happiest of my life.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some Things Stay In Place (5 Songs on a Saturday Night)

I'm sad that Levi Stubbs (the lead singer of the Four Tops) died at 71. He was one of the best vocalists ever and definitely my favorite of the Motown era. In Standing in the Shadows of Love you can hear what separates him from the rest: anguish and anger, pain and a tiny figment of hope. Listen to to Reach Out I'll Be There.

Or just watch this amazing version of Baby I Need Your Lovin (he's on the right):

And here's an amazing video of Billy Bragg's song Levi Stubbs' Tears in which he imagines the singer's pain as a proxy for someone else's:

Speaking of great vocalists, I have to say I like Adele (just saw her on Saturday Night Live). She sounds like November 1986:

Which reminds me of:

And just for the hell of it - the world's greatest rock and roll band:

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Death (and Rebirth) of Century Boulevard

(Note: This blog entry contains hyperbole. [Special thanks to the unknown flickr photographers from whom I stole pics 1 and 2])

This morning I drove to work on my new favorite street, Norton Avenue. It provides a convenient non-maddening "shortcut" from the Larchmont area to the 10 freeway. For a while I had been using Wilton Place as a shortcut. Wilton was a shortcut that I "discovered" in 2006. Apparently I wasn't alone. When people at work found out where I lived, they lowered their voice and asked me if I "knew about Wilton?" Yes, I assured them. They nodded in approval. But Wilton is dead now. Nothing can save it. There are too many cars. There are too many abrupt changes - from straightaway to curve to school zone to straightaway. Wilton Place is now the worst street in Los Angeles. Every morning there's a car illegally parked in the right lane, next to one of those ugly apartment buildings, likely belonging to someone who got lucky and spent the night but didn't know about local parking restrictions. Every morning, there's an angry man (not me) tailgating unnecessarily past the elementary school.

Norton Avenue, which extends from 3rd Street to Pico is my new morning home. (Note: Norton starts up again on the south side of the 10 and if you go far enough you'll find where the body of the Black Dahlia was found.) Then, it's just a short hop to underrated (on weekdays only) Western Avenue to the freeway.

I said that "nothing can save" Wilton Place. I'm wrong about that. Let me tell you a story about Century Boulevard, the main road from the 405 freeway to LAX.

In the eighties and nineties, Century was a busy street. One of the busiest I had ever seen. On my first trip to Los Angeles as an adolescent, I remember being awed by the wide boulevard lined with fast food restaurants, billboards, and sex shops as the family trundled along at eight miles per hour in our rental car (likely a Taurus).

Eventually word got around that everyone took Century to get to the airport, that Century was a permanent traffic jam. At mid-90s parties from Long Beach to La Verne, from Simi Valley to Santa Monica, word got around: Take Sepulveda. Take Lincoln. When it finally opens for traffic, take the 105. Hell, take IMPERIAL. But don't take Century. I distinctly recall a former co-worker named Patrick telling me in his New York-tinged Trinidiadian lilt "Only stupid fools take Century."

If you go to LAX via the 405, the most direct route is to exit Century and head west to the airport. It's always been that way and will always be that way. The laws of geometry cannot be changed. But the traffic-savvy southern Californians heard these cautionary tales about this particular road to perdition, this Hotel California of boulevards. Everyone heeded the advice of Patrick and other self-proclaimed traffic experts. They abandoned Century Boulevard. Eventually even the stupid fools abandoned Century.

Even Larry David went along with the crowd. In season 1 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in The Baptism episode, Larry and Cheryl had to hurry to the airport. Cheryl wanted to go the logical, geometrical route (405 to Century). Larry wanted to take Lincoln from Santa Monica. Knowing that he married a woman who didn't like to be disobeyed, he asked Cheryl for "Lincoln Approval."

That was a long time ago. Today? No one uses Century. It's a Ghost Boulevard.  If you wanted a clean surface to eat off of, I would suggest having a picnic on the asphalt of Century Boulevard, perhaps near the intersection with Airport Boulevard. If you were a homeless person and needed a safe, well-lit place to sleep, I would point you to any of the crosswalks on Century between the 405 and the bomb-sniffing-dog-security check. No one uses Century anymore. Nobody. Oh sure, there's the occasional hotel bus and the random sex shop counterperson. And there's me. But that's about it. These days Century Boulevard near LAX is a beautiful well-maintained palm-lined boulevard, with wide lanes of pristine asphalt the only thing that separates one from the ticket counter and baggage check.

Where did everyone go? The masses are inching up and down Sepulveda at six miles per hour, losing their cell reception as they get stuck at the light in that creepy tunnel beneath the runway. From the south, they ride the 105 west to Sepulveda, creating a westbound traffic backup on the 105 for miles, all the way back to Prairie. From the north, they take Sepulveda or Lincoln. You know what Lincoln Approval gets you these days? Twenty minutes trying to get past the stoplights at Venice and Washington. All because of that new Costco, in my opinion.

What is the lesson of all this? Information will spread. Shortcuts will be shared via word-of-mouth. Secret traffic blogs will tell you secret traffic routes, imploring you to keep it to yourself. Nothing lasts forever. Norton Avenue will not last forever. Not because of what I'm writing. My hit count is so small (and half of you are in Wisconsin) that I doubt what I say will make a difference. Eventually, Wilton Place will get back to 2006 levels. The universe may be infinite but human behavior patterns are not.

Maybe this weekend I'll head to Century Boulevard. I have no flights to catch, no people to pick up. I just want to roll down that road, approaching the relaxed Pacific vista, remembering the California that was (and still is if you work hard to find it). I'll blast that Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks album from 1995 in my CRV, sipping pink lemonade, fanning myself with a vintage 1959 Dodgers pennant and staring up at the palm trees wondering which frond will fall next, hoping no one's picnic gets ruined.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Behind the Line

Watching the debate last night I came to a realization. I've always liked Barack Obama, from his impressive speech at the 2004 Democratic convention to his off-the-cuff campaigning for a failed California gubernatorial candidate on the steps of the university library across the way. He seemed like a bright passionate guy - spirited without being annoying, pragmatic without being dull. It was clear from the beginning of the campaign that I was voting for him - not Hilary Clinton and her Fountainhead undertones, not John Edwards and his TQM technique, not John McCain and his everything (how did such an interesting Daily Show guest and David Foster Wallace book subject turn into such a cranky ass?) No, I was clarly voting for Brack Obama.

Last night, Obama - at the point of greatest pressure, when the election seems like it's almost wrapped up, when he has the most to lose - didn't back down from a single tough question. He tackled abortion, the economy (I'll take that penalty-free 401K withdrawal you promised, Barack), William Ayers (really - try finding a college professor in Chicago who's not a reformed domestic terrorist) and did it coolly, smartly, inspirationally, and pragmatically. (Note: These are admirable traits) McCain, on the other hand, offered intellectually vacant sentences and scripted "zinger" comebacks that went nowhere. That might have worked in 2000 and 2004 but not against an opponent who can shoot you down with one well-thought-out sentence. Plus, he plays basketball and has lived in Hawaii, Kansas, Indonesia, and the south side of Chicago (all of which is pretty much analogous to Sweden, Egypt, the NJ/PA corridor, Minnesota, and the sort-of-east side of Los Angeles).

Speaking of Chicago - read my cousin's amazing account of a horrifying scene outside his apartment building.

I'll keep trying to push It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia on all of you until someone tells me I'm right. This show is the natural successor (companion?) to Curb Your Enthusiasm except that it features five egocentric inappropriate characters instead of one. Not only that but Kaitlyn Olson - Larry's sister-in-law on CYE - is one of those five people. Here's part one of her "I'm not a bus person" scene from a couple episodes back. It can't touch the scene I linked to last week (nothing can) but it does perfectly represent a certain kind of public transportation claustrophobia that everyone can relate to.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Early Nineties

There's a time that I keep hidden, in reserve until it's needed. And it seems that it's never needed. Yes if you're a careful reader of BpB, you notice that I speak frequently of my past, sometimes through the filter of pop culture or, more specifically, music and sometimes through no filter but my memory. Going backwards: In this blog and in my conversations with some of you, you learn about the early '00s - the marriage and its fall, the legendary incidents (Sbarro, The Anonymous Pop Star and the French fries, "Grandma's got a hot date tonight). You hear about the mid and late '90s - the "Amherst August" and its crisscrossing moving vans, the Hal Hartley years in Minneapolis apartments, Professor Edwards and the difference between relative and absolute zero, the night a runaway horse ran down First Avenue. You discover the '80s - the basketball obsessions, my job at the movie theater when Purple Rain and Ghostbusters screened simultaneously (!), wine cooler parties on Xerxes Avenue, the Billy Joel and Springsteen and Violent Femmes concerts, the Stellfox Duel, and Amy's red mustang in the Davanni's parking lot. And of course - Brea, '89. You even hear about the distant faraway years before then. Have I told you about seeing Muhammad Ali at a freaking McGovern rally and later procuring his autograph on a paper towel in the Allentown (PA) Airport, me and Patrick being dropped off with each other's parents in fast food parking lot meeting places in central Jersey, my mean first grade teacher making me stand out in the hallway because I wasn't singing freaking Frere Jacques with the rest of the kids (I didn't sing until '79), picking mangoes off the tree in Alexandria, Egypt. Yeah, you've heard it all.

But what's missing? If you read that last paragraph carefully, you'll notice that I didn't mention the EARLY NINETIES. Yes, these are the lost years that I dare not speak of, the time that spanned, to paraphrase Office Space, the best years of mid-20s. Why do I keep this time a secret from you - my friends, my ex-wife, my cousin, my readers - why indeed? Well, I really have no valid reason. Ostensibly it's to forget about a particularly strange and "difficult" relationship that spanned the years 1991 to 1994. (Disclosure: I did tell a "3/4 True Story" about one event during these years. But that one was sort of fictional.) Or maybe it's to bury the frustrating loneliness that consumed me during this time (but still - not like it went away). Maybe I made some bad decisions (like moving back to California in 1991, after a brief return to Minneapolis during the Twin Peaks years) that I spent too much time regretting.

Recently, two people from this time of my life have sort of re-entered my life, as much as being "friends" on a social networking site can signify life re-entry. One of these people is my ex-girlfriend. Let's call her Lauren. The other person is Lauren's friend Jennifer.

So, with the understanding that one or both of these people could actually be reading this, let me proceed in my discussion of 1991 to 1994. These were not bad times. These were not always good times but they were often interesting times. These were lonely times but they were also filled with odd trips out of town and freaky late nights in lovely L.A. These were the years when I first wrote good poetry and when Seymour entered my life as a skinny little white kitten. He's now a fat old creamsicle cat, my favorite creature in the world. Sure, I managed to live in bad apartments in three different cities (Monrovia, Newbury Park, and Ventura (the last being in '95/'96 but I'll count it anyway) but I lived in good ones in Pasadena and North Hollywood. I traveled to San Francisco and Seattle, to Monterey and Mexico, to Las Vegas and Phoenix, to Minneapolis and the hotels around LAX.

My social circle then consisted of three people: Lauren, Jennifer, and, toward the end of these years, my cousin Sharif, then matriculating at UCLA. Thinking back, there were a few memories that make me cringe. But in a good way. Lauren had a thing for trannies. She also had a bullhorn. The bullhorn worked in one of two ways: in the normal bullhorn way (speak into it and everything gets amplified) and a second function that wasn't typical of bullhorns: the bullhorn had songs pre-programmed into it that one could also play loud. So back to the trannies. Back in the day there used to be a lot of transexual and transgendered prostitutes working Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, roughly between Highland and La Brea (or, more vividly, between Shakey's and Del Taco). Lauren loved these prostitutes. She appreciated their beauty and their work ethic. She empathized with them. She believed in them. So she would open the window of my eventually stolen '91 Honda Civic and scream words of tranny encouragement into the bullhorn: "Woo-hoo." "I love you." "You're beautiful." If the phrase existed then she surely would have said "You go girl." Luckily it did not yet exist.

So there's that. She also liked to play the preprogrammed Hava Nagila on the bullhorn as we drove past Jewish pedestrians on Saturday evenings as they walked to temple. She liked to play the mariachi song as we drove past groups of Mexican people. She loved to play the German songs when we drove past anyone really. That's the bullhorn.

There were also the weekends we would drive up to San Luis Obispo, where Jennifer was attending college. Those were great, more normal times. We walked down Bubblegum Alley. We ate at Hudson's Grill. We saw The Fugitive (Harrison Ford version). (Brief aside: Lauren gave Seymour his name but liked to call him Harrison because of his resemblance to the actor.) We watched some strange local San Luis Obispo fishing show. Jennifer had a boyfriend named Bill. Lauren used to say Bill was boring but he seemed alright to me. Later Jennifer had another boyfriend whose name I can't recall. I think he was from Iowa.

I remember driving back to Los Angeles from San Luis Obispo on one particular occasion. Jennifer was driving back home with Lauren and me, to her Mom's house (I think) in Glassell Park (where, it's been told, the aisles of Sav-On were lined with pyramids of canned corned beef). I recall listening to Weird Al Yankovic and fucking Toad the Wet Sprocket. I remember Jennifer reading aloud from a book called 13th Gen about the generation after Generation X (the 13th Gen name never really took). But I remember being thoroughly entertained and interested in the generational differences and divides the author was describing and Jennifer was narrating. There was a bit of generational divide between me and them anyway - I was six or seven years older.

Back in L.A., Lauren and I saw lots of movies, mostly midnight shows on Friday nights (many at the claustrophobic and now dated Beverly Center theaters). It should be noted that Lauren nor I lived nowhere near the Hollywood/West Hollywood/Beverly Hills nexus we socialized in. She always believed it was important to leave the area where she lived (Highland Park and, eventually, Glendale... they ALL move to Glendale). So yeah we saw lots of movies. We even saw that John Ritter/Pam Dawber movie, whatever it was called. We had many late night meals at 24-hour restaurants. The ones that are still around (Canter's, Jerry's, Astro Burger), ones that have died unfortunate deaths (Beverly Hills Cafe, Pennyfeathers), and one that is still around but should have died a thousand fortunate deaths (French Marketplace).

Lauren didn't like to go out before 11 at night. She wasn't really a Goth but she admired them. What else did we do? We went to the Museum of Tolerance but not any of the other museums. We saw The Cure at the Rose Bowl in the afternoon. We saw Ween at the Jabberjaw on Pico at night (different night). We got into altercations with innocent restaurant employees (Sizzler, '94) and obnoxious restaurant customers (Jerry's in Encino, '92). We drove slowly past her ex-boyfriend's place on Edgemont in Hollywood (later the street of Jason and Monica). We went to a few parties at my sister's house (birthday parties for the kids mostly) but eventually we stopped getting invited. We lived through the Northridge Quake, the L.A. riots, and the O.J. Simpson Trial. On the night of the double murder (for which I'm only 98% certain was committed by O.J.), Lauren and I ate at Viva La Pasta on Wilshire and Bundy, blocks from the murder scene. Don't know why that's important but we ate there. Viva La Pasta was a small L.A. chain. Their hook was that you could get any one of their 30 pastas in combination with any of their 40 sauces, for a total of 1,200 different combinations. Anything you want! Viva La Pasta no longer exists.

After the relationship ended, my friendships with Lauren and Jennifer continued. Late 1994, 1995, and 1996 were filled with "friend" dates with Lauren, UCLA parties with Sharif, and time spent with the Mormon (another story, for a different time). I remember going to Jennifer's graduation during this time with Lauren, both of us in new relationships at the time (the Mormon for me, the Hockey-playing Goth for her). It was a bittersweet drive to San Luis Obispo. We had to share the same tiny bed in Jennifer's tiny apartment the night before the graduation. Which was odd. But it was a fun weekend. We saw a young man vomit in a Mexican restaurant (end of school year partying). We went to the wretchedly over-the-top Madonna Inn to check out the bathrooms (Google it.) We listened to Shudder to Think, the Judybats, and more fucking Toad the fucking Wet fucking Sprocket. Everything we listened to was on cassette. Later, we all went to Lauren's graduation in L.A. and, a short week and a half later, her mom's funeral in Glendale. That was the only time I was ever in Jennifer's L.A. house. I remember her new boyfriend (the one from Iowa) was talking too much. I remember the actor Harry Morgan was arrested that day for spousal abuse.

(Note: Does that Judybats album cover define sincerity circa 1994 better than anything you've ever seen or what?

Then we all went separate ways. Lauren eventually moved to (and from) Minneapolis while I was living there. The late '90s happened and then it all changed. I saw Jennifer one other time on one of my visits back to California (at the coffee house in Pasadena that was used for a scene in the first Brady Bunch movie). And then no word, from anyone, from me. I invented the fiction (sprinkled with only a tiny morsel of fact) that the early '90s were bad times and they should be purged from my memory. No, they were good times. I was surrounded by good friends who reminded me that not all...... (no I shouldn't finish this sentence; certain personal issues should only be discussed in private, perhaps in therapy).

Today Lauren is in Wisconsin. I don't know the details. She moves around (California to Connecticut to Minnesota to Hawaii to Wisconsin). Jennifer is in Pasadena, with a son and an Oscar-nominated husband. And having two more friends is fine with me. I wouldn't even mind hearing that bullhorn again.

10 Seminal Songs of the Early '90s (in no order but the order in which they come to me)

1. Girlfriend - Matthew Sweet
2. Lulu - Trip Shakespeare
3. Pain Makes You Beautiful - Judybats
4. London's Brilliant Parade - Elvis Costello
5. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana
6. Under the Bridge - RHCP
7. Nothin' But A G Thang - Dr. Dre (feat. Snoop D. Dogg)
8. Summertime in the LBC - Dove Shack
9. Birthday Boy - Ween
10. That screen door song by Shudder to Think

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Metrodome Waits

Okay. It's time to acknowledge other sports besides basketball.

Baseball: I'm just waiting for the White Sox to lose so the Twins can get into the playoffs. Should be any hour now. Oh wait. The Sox are up 1-0. Only the first inning. Go. Tigers.

College Football: Just because my employer's team lost doesn't mean it's time to panic. There's still time to get back to number 1. It's still early. Even the Golden Gophers have a chance. They just need to win their next seven games. Should be easy.

Pro Football: Not a major sport. Not until Los Angeles gets a team again.

Election: It keeps getting better.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Champion of the Sun

I've avoided linking to videos that I think are "fun." Not because of any aversion to the viral ubiquity of youtube. Just because what's funny to me is often not funny to others.

But the video clip of Charlie and eventually Dennis writing the song "Day Man" from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is so funny to me that I can't not write about it and link to it here.

You may need to set up a hulu account to view it because it's for "mature audiences only" (likely because of the thing with the sock). It's not exactly new (it's from last season) but I've been watching it constantly over the last five days. If you're sad, it will make you happy. If you're bored, it will make you busy. If you're uninspired, it will make want to paint murals. Here are my favorite five things about the video:

1. Sock, spraypaint.
2. The way Dennis says "I like that" after only hearing one or two default beats from Charlie's keyboard.
3. The way Dennis first looks at Charlie and then looks at an imaginary audience as he discovers the perfection of his backup howls.
4. Dennis taking the spraypaint away from Charlie while they're singing (what friends are for).
5. Charlie taking off his blanket as the song reaches its peak.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Fly Like Paper

I've made it through day 8 of my self-assigned vegetarianism. It's fun. I've had these bouts of meatlessness before, once for six months or so in 2001. Interestingly I've lost five pounds in the past week although I think that's more likely due to my swearing off breakfast pastries.

I've been to a lot of interesting meetings with highers-up in my professional and academic careers. These meetings have been at universities, government agencies, private businesses, and fast food restaurants. Never, until today, did I hear anyone - and the big boss at that - quote Dr. Dre lyrics. It was a lovely moment.

David Foster Wallace's spring 2005 Pomona College Literary Interpretation syllabus. Dude was tough. But fair. If your shit was "mind-blowingly good" he'd give you the A+. He also used the word "sexy." And "spiel." (full syllabus available via link. thanks to for original link)

Favorite old song of the weekend: Metal Firecracker - Lucinda Williams

Favorite not really new song: Paper Planes - M.I.A.

Favorite new video: Sir Ben Kingsley, Punk.

Which reminds me of a funny story. A few years back I was at a party in the home of someone who worked on the creative fringes of the entertainment industry. Without saying too much, I'll just mention that Ben Kingsley was one of her clients. On her office wall was a printed "thank you" email from Ben. Two things struck me about the email: 1) It wasn't grammatically perfect; and 2) His email address - which I really want to tell you but I'm cognizant of the fact that there are two roles in the screenplay I just (co-)wrote that would be perfect for Ben and I don't want to burn bridges - includes both a "2000" and a "sir_ben."

And speaking of Lucinda Williams - hottest 55-year old woman ever or what? (scroll down for each link) (Note: Isabella Rosellini wins the award for 56-year olds.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Here's a story I wrote around the turn of the century.

Here's something funny about something sad.

Here's some good news.

Here's another DFW tribute. More here.

And Michael Silverblatt here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

David Foster Wallace part two

"I am seated in an office."

I was terribly saddened by David Foster Wallace's suicide over the weekend. As I've said too many times to too many people, Infinite Jest is my favorite book ever. As I've said to a few of you, Infinite Jest helped make me a better (fiction) writer. Besides the sheer experimental audacity of the book, there are the words - the sentences that made one's jaw drop or, on several occasions, made me reach for my laptop or notebook to write something myself. I never wrote at a more prolific level than the period of time from 1996 to 1998 when I was reading Infinite jest. Yes, it took me that long. Now, I should be able to read 1,079 pages in less than 28 months. But there would be weeks at a time when I wouldn't pick the book up. And other periods where I couldn't pull myself away from it. And then the norm - days where I'd read three or four pages and switch to something else. At the time I suspected that I was trying to stretch out the experience of Infinite Jest - to make it last way longer than its 1,079 pages. I feared that I would be disappointed when I was finished with it, that I'd never to get to read those words again for the first time. I was absolutely right. I remember exactly where I was when I finished the book (something I honestly can't say for most books I finish). It was a Saturday afternoon in November 1998. I was seated on the green couch in the Dunn Brothers coffee shop on 34th and Hennepin in Minneapolis. When I read the final page, I remember thinking "Shit. This is it." Not because of the book's not-really-an-ending ending. But because there were no more pages. I walked to my car resignedly with the big blue book in my backpack in a heavy rain. And that was that.

Wallace wrote a lot more after (and before) Infinite Jest - all of it clearly the work of a brilliant, difficult, and dead-on mind. I remember reading the title story of his first short story collection Girl With Curious Hair in a taxi from O'Hare to downtown Chicago and hoping I'd finish it before the ride was over. I read all of it - his two collections of essays, his second story collection Oblivion, his amazing article about Roger Federer (Wallace knew tennis.) Okay so I didn't actually read his first novel Broom of the System. I will. Soon.

I liked his essays but I loved his fiction. The world he observed and recorded and reflected upon came across brilliantly enough but when he threw his imagination into the swirl, well then it got god-like. Yeah I know I could be prone to post-death hype but no. As I wrote in this blog nearly two years ago "His essays are nice and his short stories are nicer but the man's vision, brain, and ambition demand something big, something huge, something infinite and 1000+ pages long."

He really did make me a better writer. I can't explain it now but there was something about the way he structured it all that got to me. It could be a cliche to say that he wrote the way I think, which helped me write the way I think. But yeah that's true. He wasn't a mannered writer. He wasn't a minimalist. He wasn't an easy writer. I'm sure his brain got tired. There's no way someone could write something like "I presume it's probably facilitate that the tennis coach mistook for accentuate, though accelerate, while clunkier than facilitate, is from a phonetic perspective more sensible, as a mistake." (p. 3, Jest) and not eventually feel exhausted.

If his personal pain matched at any level the relentless of his written words, then the fact that the ultimate exhaustion of his head and heart and body may have lead to his suicide seems not that surprising. But it's still so very sad. One page earlier in Infinite Jest, he also wrote
"My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it." 930 pages later, he wrote "...the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late."

I saw Wallace in person three times in my life. The first was in the now-closed Hungry Mind bookstore in St. Paul. It was for a reading from
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. He shook my hand and signed three of his books for me. He was disheveled. The second time was in 2003 at the Barnes and Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles. He was on a panel discussing "the short story." (Jason - am I right about this or were they talking about something else?) He was less disheveled. I believe this was after he became a professor at Pomona College.

The final time I saw him was at a theater in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2004 or 2005. He was dressed sharply. He was part of a panel about the current state of fiction. There were other writers there but he was the star of the event - almost all of the Q&As were directed his way. He was an insightful and respectful panelist but he did become testy at one point. Discussing a story from Oblivion called Good Old Neon - a young man (presumably a UCLA student because the UCLA English Department was sponsoring the event) nervously asked Wallace a question - whether Wallace shared some of the same beliefs of the protagonist in the story (I don't recall the specific beliefs.) Wallace paused for a moment and in the most subdued yet sarcastic tone you could imagine said "You're talking about a work of fiction. Fiction. Derived from the Latin word fictus, which means to feign or to make stuff up." The room fell silent. No one asked Wallace any more personal questions. Of course the poor college student was humiliated, being fantastically dissed by a famous writer, probably his favorite writer. I couldn't see the student but I'm sure he was slinking in his seat. I'm sure he was scarred for months. But, considering that the subject of his question - the character in Good Old Neon - commits suicide in the story, maybe he was on to something. (but here's a good counterargument of that contention.)

So yeah David Foster Wallace could occasionally be something of an asshole. Well so could I. And from everything that's been said about him these past few days - read the McSweeney's tribute especially - he was a great guy and a treasured teacher. He leaves behind some amazing work.

The first sentence of this post is the first sentence of Infinite Jest. I'll close with the final sentence (I thought about making this explanation a footnote - you know, as sort of a joke but I can't figure out how to superscript in HTML):

"It was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out."