Thursday, January 31, 2008


I'm recovering from the second worst illness in my life, the worst being the legendary February 1998 strep throat that caused me to spend several hours dizzily recoiling in pain on my bathroom floor in Minneapolis, wrapped in towels. Back in '98, I woke up the next morning in a pool of sweat, feeling completely healthy, the antibiotics finally killing what they had to kill.

This time, it's no virus, no bacteria, just (in the words of my gregarious doctor) a "really bad 7-day cold." So, two nights ago, I spent minutes - not hours - recoiling on the bathroom floor. Two afternoons ago, on a brave trip out of my apartment to get a Jamba Juice soy-based smoothie, I had to interrupt my trip back home to take an hour-long nap in my car, parked on the sunny side of Gower Street. Yesterday morning, I watched the entire two-hour block of Frasier and Will and Grace reruns on Lifetime in a medicate haze, respecting that network's "vision" of relentlessly advertising weight loss products, feminine lubricants, and Swiffers. Over the past few days, I've watched so many Monk reruns (on USA and online) that I'm actually finally sick of that finicky bastard and his perky assistant(s). I'll get over it eventually and finally post my "Why Monk is Brilliant" blog entry, incorporating the topics of divorce, loyalty, and Arab-American assimilation.

But back to the title of this entry - I've never felt quite this weak in my life. The energy I've needed to expend on the most mundane tasks - moving from the couch to the bed, turning the heat down from 65 to 63, refilling the cat food, etc. - has seemed equal to the amount expended during my more impressive feats of the past (the half-marathon in 2000, cleaning my apartment that one time in 2006, riding my bike all the way to Doylestown in 1979).
I don't mean to talk about this in a whiny way - this feeling of weakness is just interesting to me. I'm more than familiar with laziness. It's more or less my default. But pure weakness is a novel concept to me.

The 1998 strep throat referenced above wasn't my only experience with the nasty bacteria. Back in December 1996, I was hit with it pretty bad. Back then, I was in my first semester of my Ph.D. program. I was working as a T.A. for a statistics professor who could best be described as "maniacally cruel." It was the day of the final exam and I was proctoring the test. I had found out earlier that morning that my strep test was positive (back then, the test took a day; now, it takes 15 minutes). When the professor found me in my half-office shortly before the test was to begin, with my head down on the desk, asleep, she asked me in her memorable accent "What's wrong?" I mentioned not feeling well. I mentioned the strep test. She weighed the pros and cons of me still giving the test. She considered sending me home and proctoring it herself. In the end, she made the odd compromise of not sending me home but:
- handing the final exams out herself (so I wouldn't touch them)
- announcing to the class that I had strep throat
- leaving me in the classroom to oversee the test (while she sat in her office, likely writing the never published follow-up to this classic book)
- telling the students that I could help them if they had questions but not to get too close to me
- having me collect the tests and grade them, giving them back to her after the bacteria had passed, presumably
Rather than being scared or disgusted by my predicament, the students clearly felt sorry for me and recognized the crass selfishness of a professor who couldn't give an hour of her day to oversee the test and send me home. Anyway, a week later, she left a classic message on my answering machine (I still have the mini-cassette) telling me I was the "lowest performing T.A. in her seven years of teaching." Still, she hired me for the next semester. And the one after that. And the one after that. She knew I was the only one who could take her crap. I knew she was actually easier to work for than the other statistics professors who demanded a lot more curriculum preparation from the assistants.

(Post-script: When she was refused tenure in '99, she left the university for what she told me was a "really good job" at the University of California-San Diego. There was never a record of her working there, under her maiden or married names. There is currently no record of her existence anywhere on the internet, except for a few pre-2000 references. What happened? Is she still alive? Was the guilt simply too much?)

Enough about that crazy professor, whom I conveniently blame for me getting my Ph.D. 3 years too late. What about me? Am I getting better? Today is marginally better than yesterday, which was infinitesimally better than Tuesday, which was far worse than Monday. I think I've turned a corner.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Terrible Songs by Great Artists: Song 1

(IMPORTANT NOTE: On February 1, I will be CHANGING THE URL of my blog to: Why? For reasons unknown, I have decided that having my actual name in the URL may be professionally unwise and indiscreet. There will be a one-month transition period where I will have a link from the current URL to the new one, so no need to panic.)

The other night while sitting in a warm car on a rainy Los Angeles night waiting for the New Beverly Cinema to open its doors for its 7:30 showing of Citizen Kane (good movie, some 3rd act problems), I had a stimulating conversation about music with my moviemate. Specifically, we tried to think of songs that met the following qualifications:
1. The song had to be a beloved classic, performed by a beloved singer or band. If tragedy and death clouded over the life of the artist(s), all the better.

2. The song had to be familiar to even the most casual listener. Ideally, it should be part of the musical canon of the last 100 years.

3. The song had to be truly, irredeemably terrible.

4. The singer or band must be talented and capable of making great quality work but that, for some reason, they came up with one horrible piece of music. Qualitatitively bad singers or novelty acts or so-bad-it's-good songs won't fulfill this obligation.
You see, I had a conversation with someone else earlier in the week about a particular song that I believe meets all four qualifications. And, waiting in the rain, my photographer friend and I tried to come up with other songs that met these exacting standards. We mutually agreed on one song (see below). And we found it enormously difficult to think of other songs.

You see, popular music is a fairly democratic process. Good stuff (generally) gets played a lot. Bad stuff (generally) gets ignored. There are exceptions but just not that many. Since that rainy night (which has been followed by two more rainy days), I've only been able to think of two more songs that I thought were truly terrible songs by great artists, songs that clearly met qualifications 1 through 4. (Note: Beloved and overrated but not terrible songs by great artists don't qualify.)

I'm sure I'll think of more songs though. So today I present the first in the series:

Terrible Songs by Great Artists:

Kiss by Prince

I hate this song. I tried to pretend I liked it once. Because, you see, I like Prince. Everyone likes Prince. Once, at a party, someone I knew heard someone else say "Don't you just love Prince?" and the party guests (Minnesotans) all agreed.

Then, it occurred to me one day that this song was bad. It has no redeeming qualities. Here are a few of my reasons:

1. It's ostensibly a "funky" song but you can't dance to it. Really, try to dance to it. Stand in front of a mirror. Watch yourself. Compare Kiss to Prince masterpieces like Alphabet St., Let's Go Crazy, Gett Off, and, yes, Batdance. Besides, Prince was always a little overrated as a "funk" artist in the 80s, just as he overrated himself as a "rap" artist in the 90s. He's a pop/rock/soul genius though.

2. The lyrics. The first couple of verses are serviceable but hardly worthy of the man who wrote The Ballad of Dorothy Parker and The Ladder. But then we get to this verse:
Women, not girls, rule my world, I said they rule my world
Act your age, mama, not your shoe size, maybe we could do the twirl
U don't have 2 watch Dynasty 2 have an attitude, uh
U just leave it all up 2 me, my love will be your food
What? Okay, so women, not girls rule your world? Do you have to say it twice? Act your age, not your shoe size? Come on, PRN, you're better than that! People stopped saying that in '81 and you sang it in '86. Maybe we could do the twirl? The twirl??? Second laziest rhyme ever written (the laziest will be revealed in part 2 of this series.) In the interest of space, I'll ignore the Dynasty line and just say that "my love will be your food" isn't worthy of the man who, one album earlier, wrote:
There is a park that is known
4 the face it attracts

Colorful people whose hair

On 1 side is swept back
3. The frustration it causes me when people inexplicably love this song. I've had friends get all defensive when I tell them it's a terrible song (luckily someone agrees with me.) Bar patrons erupt in cheers when Kiss comes on the jukebox. Wedding DJs get livid when you ask them not to play it at your own wedding. Radio stations play it incessantly. Tom Jones covers it and subjects the world to two widely played versions.

All in all, Kiss is a truly bad song, written and performed by a great artist. No one has called its greatness into question until today. Sorry I had to be the one. If only there were blogs in 1986.

Don't believe me? Listen to it yourself. I'd link to it but apparently Prince (thankfully) has made it unavailable to the world in mp3 or YouTube form.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Glowsticks, Cows

I can't explain why I like this video so much. I won't give anything away other than to say it involves:

- a Baldwin brother (the one on Celebrity Rehab)
- the Sundance Festival
- glowsticks
- Wisconsin
- cows
- breeding
- coccyxes
- Cal State Northridge

(sorry about the ads and the slow video loading - I tried to find it on YouTube but couldn't. Also -when did Daniel Baldwin become Joaquin Phoenix?)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Good news. When your favorite sports team wins for the sixth time in 40 tries, it qualifies as good news.

Better news. (Of the Best Film nominees, I loved two, liked two, and still haven't seen Atonement)

Best news. Leonard Cohen Tours.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Yes, six days is a long time. I should do this more often.

If it isn't obvious yet, I enthusiastically recommend There Will Be Blood.

How come Paul Simon's best love songs are about Carrie Fisher? Hearts and Bones... Graceland. Both touching and moving (as in mobile, not as in touching). Both title tracks. Why hasn't he written any perfect love songs about Edie Brickell? I'll be patient. It could still happen.

Congratulations to my friend Cynthia in Michigan. Twin boys!

I'm giving up premium cable. I'm embracing oatmeal and maybe Netflix.

I feel like it will all be good.

For you Los Angeles readers, go check out the Julius Shulman exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library. I got to listen to him talk about his photography on Sunday in a small crowded room in Santa Monica. It was fun.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Los Angeles Plays Itself, Again

One day, after the meteorite hits and the oceans melt (or freeze up again), I'll tell you all a tale about a Midwestern town, a WalMart, and a taxicab. Can't tell you now. Too soon. I will say this: they all made a mistake.

Once, I sat in a summer-cooled coffee shop near a lake in Minneapolis. I wrote a short story called Blueprint Blue. The story was about an architect in London and a woman he meets at a Hal Hartley film. I wrote of blueprints in tubes in the back seat of the man's rental car (steering wheel on the right). I wrote of the woman's desire to move to Atlanta. I loved that story then. I like it a little now. I like writing about architects. I should have almost become one once.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Sbarro Incident

(you've waited more than a year for this. I apologize for the delay. But, with passing time, there is perspective)

December 28, 2006. Las Vegas.

I'm hungry. I'm tired. I'm on a family gambling trip and I'm mostly alone - walking the cold streets and long hallways of the Strip. I'm searching for meaning. I'm thinking of giving it all up. I'm single, I'm tired. I'm hungry.

It's about one in the afternoon. It's Thursday. I'm flying home the next day. I've lost some money, too much money. Fucking blackjack. Goddamn poker.

I'm staying at the Paris hotel and casino. There's a fake Eiffel Tower there. There are families with children. The place feels jittery. I want to go outside.

I walk out the lobby door, only to meet her eyes at the same time she meets mine. It's my ex-girlfriend from 11 years ago. You know - the Mormon. The 10 Percenter from the good part of Long Beach. She's with her new boyfriend. We say hi, she introduces me. He looks like Jeff Foxworthy on a bad day. She looks like she did in 1995 and so do I, except for the gray. We say goodbye. This story isn't about seeing her. But it didn't help.

I walk toward the street - Las Vegas Boulevard - thinking about how far I need to walk to truly come to an understanding. I reach the sidewalk. I turn back around. I'm too hungry. I need food. And caffeine. I need a fresh start. This is my last day ever in Las Vegas, I tell myself. I'm never coming back. Might as well make the most of it.

I decide to get a latte and a pastry from the "French" bakery in the hotel. I've just purchased a newspaper - the always comforting-in-Las-Vegas Los Angeles Times. I just want to sit and read and eat, energizing myself for my last day here. Never coming back.

The bakery line is too long. There are no open seats. I need to go somewhere else.

Paris is connected via a long hallway with its "sister" property Bally's. I remember from my unsuccessful trip to Bally's sports book the night before that there's a food court nearby. I want pizza. I recall a Sbarro there. I haven't been to Sbarro since the early nineties. But it'll do. Pizza and a Diet Coke and the sports section of the L.A. Times. All I need.

(Sbarro was actually a common destination of mine in the mall-going eighties. It was at the Sbarro in the Minneapolis City Center where a man seated next to me implored me to fold my slice of pizza. "That's how we do it in New York." "Go fuck yourself," I thought, "I lived in New Jersey. No one tells me how to eat pizza." But that's just what I thought. What I said was nothing. My penchant for random justice-inspired confrontation had not yet been formed. I was only 18.)

The line at Sbarro is blessedly short. I'm a little distracted by hunger, ennui, and sensory overload. But hey look at that - they have a really nice looking veggie pizza, with lots of olives. I order two slices of the veggie. And a refillable Diet Coke cup.

There are actually two lines at this Sbarro - twin approaches to a central cash register. I'm the only one on my side. I have a vague sense of the people on the other line - a family of several people, a bit slow on the uptake ("why is my cup empty?" I hear one of them ask; "why are there two lines?" another says). But they really don't resonate with me. It's just a vague sense. It was later that I realized that the people who populate this "incident" you're about to hear of are the same people who asked the stupid questions.

The funny thing is I shouldn't have been there. I was on my winter break from my job. I should have just stayed in Los Angeles and relaxed. My apartment needed cleaning. My script needed revising. I should have just said no to the family pressures.

But I was there - alone, at a chain pizza restaurant in a food court in a mid-level casino in the holiday season. I was there.

I sit down at a table for four. It's a square table. Four chairs, one on each side. These details are important. I fill my drink cup. I sit down. I get out the sports section. I'm happy for a moment -
yes, I'm a complex man of unique interests but sometimes there's nothing better than eating pizza and reading basketball box scores.

I'm lost in the revelry of the food and the newspaper for only a few seconds. I see an elderly man at a crowded table near me (one of those half-booths) stand up. He's holding an empty tray, from which he's just removed his food. I don't know why I'm watching him. He's probably just going to put the tray over by the trash can, atop the others. Nothing to see here.

Except: he puts the tray on my table, with me sitting there. Eating, reading. The trash can is another five feet away, but he doesn't want to walk that far. I study him. Though he is old, he is not weak. He looks sturdy enough to have been able to walk a little further, to not put his discarded tray on my table.

I should have let it go.

I shouldn't have said a word.

I should have been the better man.

"Excuse me," I say, "please don't put your trash on my table."

Now can I really consider a red plastic tray to be "trash"? Probably not. But there was a discarded straw wrapper on the tray.

"Trash?" the old man asks, incredulously. "It's just a tray."

I point to the trash can next to my table. "You couldn't have walked a few more feet and put it where it belongs."

He was silent for a moment. I studied his table mates. The people from the other line. There were five others. An older woman (his wife?) A younger couple (his child and spouse?) Two children (his grandchildren?)

"No one's sitting there," he responds in a thick southern accent.

Did he just say that? Yeah, I'm eating alone. Yeah, I got no one else. But what the hell does that have to do with what he did?

I do the only thing I can think of, under duress. I lie. "Well, I am waiting for somebody." I don't know why I said this. I believe that most people would have at least been annoyed by the man's tray-discarding actions, even if they wouldn't respond verbally. There was no need for me to justify my reaction.

Perturbed, the man stands up. He says nothing. He takes the tray off of my table. He walks to the trash can. He places it where it belonged all along. Though, it should be noted, he does not throw the straw wrapper in the trash. I would have.

I decide that his reaction was sufficient. My lie was a bit asshole-ish but hey at least he made a gesture. I return to my pizza and paper.

A few minutes pass. I hear a younger voice from the other table. "I thought you said you were waiting for someone." It's the younger man. The old man's son, I decide, though I will receive no confirmation of this.

Childishly, I think, hey they started this in the first place, why the hell would they start it up again, when the tension seemed to have dissipated. Like Lincoln and Andy Pettite, I decidedthat honesty is best. "I lied. There's no one coming."

"You're a jerk," cries the old man. I admire him for his old school taunt. I'm not a chump or an asshat or a player hater. I'm a jerk.

In the mid-90s, while researching graduate schools and dating the Mormon, I briefly considered law school. My father and my Bay Area (beloved) aunt told me, on separate occasions, that I argued "like a lawyer." I humored myself (and my relatives) my taking the LSAT. I scored high enough to apply to some above average law schools. But my heart wasn't in it. I stuck with my psychology/statistics track. But they were right - I argued like a lawyer - specifically a win-at-all-costs liberal minded defense attorney.

It is this inflated sense of justice that compels me to pursue the overly logical debate with the old man and his son. Again, I'm aware that this is nothing but a tray with a straw wrapper on it and I should be the better person and let it all go. But I'm in a bad mood. My lunch and my sports section is over and they have been sullied.

"Hey - you're the one who put your trash on my table."

"It's not trash. It's a tray."

"Well, it showed a lack of class. It's just laziness."

"You're a jerk."

"Look," I say to the son, not being able to get through to the old man."You know what he did was wrong. You seem reasonable. Can't you just admit he should have taken the tray to the trash can?"

You see, I had seen a glimmer of embarrassment on the younger man's face and that of his likely wife's when papa put the tray on my table.

"It's not that big of a deal. Why are you hassling my family?" answers the younger man, in the same southern drawl. Texas, I decided.

In one sense, he's wrong. I'm not hassling his family - just the old guy. In another sense, he was absolutely right - the grandkids don't deserve this. My relaxing lunch in the casino food court was ruined but I'm only one person. What about the other five people's lunches?

The duality is getting to me but I'm done with my lunch. Now, I can do it - I can walk away. I should walk away. I will walk away.

I fastiduously throw my trash out. I leave the newspaper next to the tray pile, so someone else can read it, ideally under better circumstances.

The story would be over if it wasn't for the fact that the family of six get up from their table at the exact same time as me. I don't remember what they did with their trash.

The Bally's Sbarro is at the very end of a long hallway. Unless one plans on spending time at the nearby sports book, there's really only one way back to the rest of the casino, to the hotel, to the street, to the parking structure - that is, to walk the long hallway of shops and other restaurants. I walked that way. They walked that way.

So what happened to me and the Mormon who I had run into earlier that day? Why didn't it last? Well, there were many reasons - the tithing, her annoying Big Dog-apparel-wearing roommate Debbie, and the fact that she was the one who said the worst thing anyone has ever said to me. But we had some good times. And I was hardly heartbroken. She taught me about potato tacos. And she liked Natalie Merchant too.

I let the family pass me. I pretend to look at my cell phone, so the whole ordeal can mercifully end. But it doesn't end for one reason and one reason only: the younger man and his wife are laughing.

Again - for the last time - Ali, let them laugh... you're the better man... you live on a hill in Los Angeles... you have a Ph.D.... your blog is widely read and you're thought of fondly by many people. Let them laugh. Let it go.

"What's so funny?" I call out to them, ahead of me.

The young man stops. His wife pulled him, as if to say "Come on, let's go." She gives up. She and the others, including the old man, keep walking. The young man waits for me to reach him. "I just want to thank you," he says.

"Thank me?"

"Yes, thank you for providing us with entertainment over lunch. We got to see a show for free."

Entertainment? Show? What the fuck is this about?

"Again, all I'll say is that he shouldn't have put his trash on my table. I'll live the rest of my life knowing that I WAS RIGHT AND HE WAS WRONG."

Yes, I'm a little over the top. Perhaps I was "entertaining."

"Look, he's an old man. Don't you think you overreacted?"

Yes I did, I knew. "No I didn't overreact."

"Well thanks again for the entertainment," he says, walking away from me and joining the family.

I see the old man turn and realize that his son (in-law?) is talking to me. He snaps.

"Are you following me?" he yells hysterically. "Are you following my family?"

(note to people with families: please don't play the "family card" with single and/or childless people; we hate it.)

"I'm not following you. I'm walking in the same direction as you," I say truthfully, before adding "But since I'm here, you could apologize to me."

This is taking an ugly turn.

"Apologize?" he yells, "I'm not apologizing to no one."

(Technically this is a double negative, indicating that he is indeed apologizing.)

"Yes, just apologize for putting your trash on my table. You'll feel better."

The young man intervenes. "Look, just cut it out. It's over."

I regain my senses. "You're right."

"And thanks again for providing us with such great entertainment"


All the while, we're walking in the grand endless hallway, approaching the Paris split. The young man stops. He walks toward me. "I have an idea of how we can resolve this" he says, with a serious look on his face.

Oh yeah. It's on! He's gonna challenge me to a fight. Sure, I haven't raised my fist since the "Westwood 'Mission: Impossible' World Premiere Incident" of 1996 but I can take this guy. He's 5'9", 170 tops. I'm 6'1" and a (then) muscled 220. If he wants to "resolve this" outside, I'm not backing away.

I misread the man.

"This is how we can resolve this. We can all go up to our room and pray on it."

Holy shit. "Pray on it?" For the first time in my arguing life, I'm thrown for a loop, unsure of what to say next. I mean, what can I say to that? Maybe he didn't like me invoking Jesus' name a moment ago.

My silence doesn't last long. I think of a comeback - a pretty good one, I have to admit. "Wow, I'm offended," I say, pretending to be offended in an ACLU sort of way, "You want to bring god into this? You want to bring religion into this?"

"I'm just saying we can pray on it. We can all learn to forgive."

I look into the young man's eyes. He's being sincere. He really wants us all to get along. He's the better man. The detour to Paris is coming soon. I decide to end things on a happy note.

A happy note, with a slight assholish qualification: I say, loud enough for all of them to hear "I want the five of you to have a nice day and I want him," pointing to the old man, "to have a bad day."

"You mean, the six of us?" the young guy says immediately.

"No. The five of you - you, you, you, you, and you," pointing to everyone but Grandpa.

"No, I know what you mean," the young guy said, "I know you're not including him. But, you see, there's still six of us. You know why?"


"Because Jesus walks with us."

And to that, I truly had no response. I shake my head in frustration, my first argument truly lost. I walk back to Paris. They walk in the other direction, all of them and Jesus. I lose more money. The next morning, I vow to never gamble again, to never come back to Vegas. I've been back twice since.

The next night, Saddam Hussein is executed and I see Blondie in concert in Agoura Hills . They sing "Heart of Glass" as the noose snaps and the old man realizes that maybe he was wrong.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Top 5 Lists For 2007 (updated with commentary!)

Top 5 Songs

5. In Our Bedroom After the War - Stars ( it's like 1985 but cleaner)
4. Ex-Guru - Fiery Furnaces (sweet)
3. LDN - Lily Allen (Tesco/al fresco)
2. For Reverend Green - Animal Collective (it was number 1 for a few minutes)
1. All My Friends - LCD Soundsystem (sometimes it's all about the song)

Top 5 Albums

5. Boxer - The National (sad songs but true songs)
4. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga - Spoon (after 3 listens you never want to hear it again... but those 3 listens are magical)
3. Wincing the Night Away - The Shins (good driving-around-Hollywood music)
2. The Stage Names - Okkervil River (hope he's better now)
1. In Our Bedroom After the War - Stars (and then it's like 1986 but darker)

Top 5 Books

5. Vanilla Bright Like Eminem - Michel Faber (unexpectedly creeps up on you like a leopard on the prairie)
4. Robots and Other Tin Toys - Yukio Shimizu (shiny, happy, sinister)
3. Tree of Smoke - Denis Johnson (will I even finish this one?)
2. Love is a Mix Tape - Rob Sheffield (better than the title)
1. Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris (almost timeless, almost perfect)

Top 5 TV Shows

5 (tie). Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchordes, Clark and Michael, Californication, Extras, Monk (cable TV... it's not TV... but it is... and yeah C&M is technically an internet show but I like it a lot)
4. Daily Show (like Seymour and the moon, he's there every night)
3. Big Love (the closest thing to Boogie Nights on TV)
2. 30 Rock ("good Flashdance")
1. The Office (for so many reasons but mainly for the Benihana Christmas episode)

Top 5 Movies

5. Michael Clayton (weird)
4. Superbad (touching)
3. Juno (snowy, original)
2. No Country For Old Men (the ending makes sense to me)
1. There Will Be Blood* (can't wait)

*have not seen yet but come on!