Tuesday, July 29, 2008


The only word I can think of to describe today's Los Angeles earthquake is... sensual. Yeah, the earth swayed and swooshed and ended in a meandering fadeout, much like the end of Hotel California if you drop the guitars. It lasted 14 seconds, which is a Magnolia-like eternity in earthquake time.

The damage at the office: none. The damage at the apartment: three framed photos on top of the bookcase topple but remain on the top of the bookcase; four wind-up toys and one postcard end up on the floor; and one cat (the little one) cowers under the bed while the other (the big one) sits contentedly on the couch.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Love in the 90s #1

(I wrote this on a plane yesterday, flying over the middle of America. This is the first of a series. There will be some explicit language. Note that the story is likely 3/4 true. It's not exactly timely other than that my personal statute of limitations has finally expired)

Lauren was screaming at the girl at the Sizzler cash register. The cashier, younger than Lauren, as small as Lauren, appeared to be on the verge of tears. It was a Sunday. We were coming back from the beach. We were in Fullerton, on Yorba Linda Blvd., just east of the freeway.

After Lauren finished screaming, we took our trays and our ugly food to our as-yet-unchosen table. I took a sip of Pepsi and stared Lauren down. I had no words.

She answered me anyway. "I didn't like her attitude. Just because your card was declined."

I appreciated Lauren's loyalty. But she neglected to consider that the credit card was declined because she owed me money and I was poor. I ended up using my other card, the one with 12 dollars available credit. It worked. Besides, the cashier didn't really have that much of an attitude; Lauren imagined it. I told her this. She got really mad. I was 26. Lauren was 20. I got up, walked away.

I stood for a minute just past the cash register, waiting for the girl to complete the sale - two sirloin dinners with salad bars and sodas, two senior discounts.

"I want to apologize. For her behavior." Yeah, I was a bit of a bastard. What kind of boyfriend was I? Honor over love!?

The girl looked surprised. Not only for my apology, a gesture she clearly understood (Lauren did call her a "Mexican cunt" after all.) No, the girl - her name tag said Grace, that I remember - was surprised I would apologize with Lauren - that spritely little half-goth - sitting 30 feet away, watching us without hearing. Grace said "Thank you" with a look that carried what passed for compassion and sympathy in early Clinton-era Orange County.

Neither of us lived in Fullerton. I had left Brea four years earlier. We were on our way back from Dana Point. I swam in the ocean. Lauren swam a little too but mostly sunscreened and umbrellad her pale soul into winter in July.

We would break up for good in September. We would both move, separately, to New England two summers later and then, separately, to Minnesota (me after 12 days in Amherst, Lauren after 12 months in Greenwich). Some time around 2000, I lost track of her.

I've created a few possible/plausible life outcomes for Lauren: uncertified massage therapist in Honolulu; shadowy operative in Atlanta; dead on a hill at Forest Lawn in Glendale; right behind me as I walk down Exposition Boulevard, back to my car after a day's work; eating one last time at that Yorba Linda Blvd. Sizzler, waiting for the sun to set so she drive west without distraction; or, and this is the most likely of the outcomes though none of them really stands much of a chance, living with her husband and a dog named Bauhaus in Dublin, California, first child on the way.

Her harsh words notwithstanding, I have to admire Lauren's defense of me. Growing up in a matriarchy marked my harsh criticisms (tough love? nah), there's something to be said for blind female loyalty, even if Lauren didn't believe in working for a living, wouldn't eat dinner before midnight, and refused to listen to any of the music I liked except for that one Matthew Sweet album.

Once, when I talked myself into there still being hope for Lauren and me, we went to the Glendale Galleria. She loved that godawful mall. She bought a black and white striped dress at Express, a store whose clientele she specifically hated but whose clothes she mercilessly purchased with her allowance (really). The dress was wintery for Los Angeles, thin but woolen.

The next weekend, we were going to Diamond Bar for dinner with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew. They hated Lauren. Even the little one - four years old at the time - was likely programmed to look askance at her uneven unexplainable ways. I picked her up in front of her dead-end street apartment building in Highland Park, down the street from the drug playground. She had cut the sleeves of the dress, leaving messy fringe and white-as-snow arms. It was cold and cloudy that day; she didn't care. No jacket. She was punk that day (not every day though - she loved Too Close For Comfort.)

When I saw the cut-off dress, I thought "God, my sister will hate that dress ten times more than she would have with sleeves." And from the look on her face and, by default, her husband's face and her child's face, the contempt for Lauren was everywhere that Sunday afternoon. Which made dinner at that white carpet condo, the place I last saw my dad alive two years later, ten times as tolerable.

We broke up over the phone while I was in Denver for work. I specifically remember that the room service menu looked as if it was written in the 1920s and only updated sporadically with new prices over the whited-out old ones. There was food I had never heard of, meats from animals likely extinct.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Constructive Summer #1

I'm just rolling along on my Midwest vacation. It got off to a rough start due to someone not answering the phone when he was supposed to, relegating me to driving myself to the airport (to the bus station actually, from where I rode the cool blue bus on the high-above-the-universe car pool lane on the 110). But the plane ride was smooth, the rental car is a teal Vibe, and I've had meals in Minneapolis, Rochester, and Chicago, as well as ice cream in Madison. It's been a whirl wind. It's too humid. Too hot. But I'll manage. Makes it more difficult to sleep. But... that's summer in the CDT.

During most of my Rochester-Madison drive along scenic interstates 90 and 94, I listened to the new album by The Hold Steady. I need to listen to it more but I think it's their masterpiece. Every song absolutely perfect. Chilling moments. Yes, more songs about big mistakes and the hedonistic joy and subsequent regret they bring. It would be easy to say: Their first album was the party; their second was its sad aftermath; their third album was another party; and this, their fourth, is the (much) sadder aftermath. But the temptation is replaced by something truer. Then I remember that they were almost killed on that first album (Almost Killed Me) and that the new one is called Stay Positive (and they do) and it all gets swirled together and I get it - the good and bad, the party and recovery, the camaraderie and emptiness - it's all the same. Wow, the new album is good.

Now, the Ambien is kicking in. I should sleep. The air conditioner is starting to fill the large Chicago apartment with just enough cool air. Meanwhile my cats sleep in regulated central-air bliss.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Links for the middle of summer

The Hold Steady's new single is perfect, as usual (the E-Street Band keyboards and Jet Airliner myspace quote are nice touches.)

Does anyone have the mp3 for S.F. Seals' cover of Faust's Flashback Caruso? I need it.

This is my favorite roller coaster ever and I really want to ride it again. Haven't been there since 1984. It's time.

Nothing more fun than poetically arbitrary lists of white people's favorite rap songs and black people's favorite rock songs.

Entertainment Weekly recently published a bunch of Top 100 lists for the last 25 years. Arbitrary? Yes. Mostly wrong? Of course but until I make my own lists, I'll limit my complaints to:
  • Movies: Number 1 isn't bad but #16 is better and #17 is ridiculous
  • Music: Number 1 is acceptable but 8, 45, and 47 would be okay too. And 23 and 53. Nothing really bad on the list except maybe 67 and 76 and that's just because I was looking.
  • Books: This one is hard to critique because I just haven't read enough of them. Which ones have I read? 15, 19, 50, 63, 64, 66 (his other book should be #1 but it's mysteriously absent), 70, 72, and 100. Which ones have I started but not finished? 5, 10, 28, 34, 53 (people really like this book? this is inconceivable to me), and 82.
  • TV: No real complaints except #2 should be #1, #61 should be #2, #17 should be #61, and #91 should be #19.
  • Other highlights: Liz Phair might make me reconsider 3EB and this list is illuminating.
This is 12 days old but if you want an astute rollicking smart 2,595-word post about the Minnesota-Memphis trade (aka Love-Mayo trade, aka UCLA-USC trade) the night of the NBA draft, there's no better person to read than Britt Robson.

I could be mistaken but I think this mostly forgotten song from 1998 might be the greatest song of all time (mostly forgotten but not by everyone).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

City Planners I Have Known (a short story)

(I wrote half of this in a coffee shop in 2007 and half in a car wash in 2008; both places were approximately two miles from my current home.)

The first city planner I knew was a cipher in the black bean heart of the sunset state I spent my days in, then. She had no skip to her step, only a swing to her shuffle. She worked as a planner for the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, the one-step forward/two steps back twin sister of Minneapolis, City of Water. Someone long ago had already planned St. Paul but there was still work for her to do - Carolyn with her New Urbanist dreams and her shake-shaky despotic fears.

She looked like she could kick the mayor’s ass if she had to but she never had to and I never knew what the mayor looked like because I lived far away, in the City of Water. On the day we met, however, I was in her town.

She said the park outside the office tower, next to the failing mall where we saw a sequel movie, was not her idea per se. But she did write some questionnaires that led to the data that inspired the decision to make diagonal walkways through the one-square-block park. “Like an X with a square around it!” This was a good plan. I liked it. We were looking at the park through the picture window on the dying mall’s mezzanine.

(Weeks earlier, I ran into an old family friend in the mall’s elevator. When I was a boy, my father suspected his father of making an under-the-table foot-related move on my mother. The two fathers, friends since high school, never spoke again. The other family moved to the other side of Pennsylvania. I hadn’t seen Omar since 1983 when I saw him in the mall’s elevator in 1997, 1200 miles from Doylestown. It was strange. We didn’t say a word to each other. A few years later, I tracked him down and invited him to my failed wedding. He gave us a four-slice toaster. I got it in the divorce and often use it for one or two slices.)

The first city planner’s air was weaker than sugar, weaker than outlaws on parole, weaker than just walking through the grass.

Carolyn spoke highly of love, of family, of art and pathways. She was a pretty city planner with flush-enough skin and a backpack of keepsakes. I never loved her, couldn’t bring myself to. But she praised my thoughts once. I hope she gets to be mayor some day.

The second city planner was also from Minnesota, the land of basements and abasement, water and land, cold and cool and warm enough for fucking slowly. But I knew her best years later, in an apartment community in Riverside, California, the city she was asked to save, to fix, to resurrect and “Don’t give us orange crate art, Linda! We can only get so far with orange crate art!"

She and her boyfriend hosted my then-girlfriend and me for brunch in an unassuming apartment on the college-cradled outskirts of Riverside where, it’s been said, the good girls live and the bad girls hide. In a quiet moment over ham and egg and orange juice in dusty glasses and coffee in shiny mugs, Linda said “Miguel and I are splitting up.” Seeing Miguel sit there and grimace and pout and grimace again while she told us she was in love with Miguel’s best friend was difficult. I had one overwhelming absent-of-everything-else thought: “Why aren’t we having brunch with the other dude? Why put Miguel through this?”

Linda would later marry the other man and now they’re happy in Sydney, Australia where she hasn’t found a job yet but if she were a planner there, I imagine days spent zoning harbors and designing opera courtyards. I also assume she curses orange crates and dust in the wind. Prairie wind or canyon wind, it doesn’t matter - Linda’s a rock.

Next I met a man named Gerald. He wasn’t a city planner when I knew him and he’s not a city planner now. One year ago, he died in a fiery crash on Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, more specifically between Baker and Barstow. He died alone on a momentous afternoon of heat and vistas all around. He died when a giant truck split in half and the smaller half crushed Gerald’s car and his body, 73 dollars richer leaving Las Vegas than it was coming.

Gerald had a band that sang songs of fruit pickers and angry jilted lovers, headmasters and old homeless ladies, pushing their cars down Sherman Way in the San Fernando Valley, near where Gerald grew up, the same street where Rollergirl kicked that guy’s face in with her skates in Boogie Nights. Gerald loved that movie, like he loved gambling and driving hundreds of miles on a dare.

He planned for Simi Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles he disdained but vowed to improve, no matter the transgressions he committed in the name of progress. He did what he could - one less strip mall here, one more small park with swings and see-saws there. He also liked the Virgin Mary and wearing black. He was a good guy.

I knew him 10 years earlier, in college. He loaned me a novel once, said it would change my life. It did.

If he had to die, it’s best he was in his car, ahead 73 dollars (after expenses) coming home from a weekend in Vegas, on his favorite highway, driving way too fast (a slower driver could have swerved.) But he shouldn’t have had to go so young.

The fourth city planner I have known is panicking this morning. Adriana is in Hillsboro, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. She works in Portland, her favorite city, the city she dreamed of planning when she was in grad school in Santa Cruz. She’s scared because she’s in an MRI machine, trapped, on the basement level of a sprawling medical complex. It all started when she slipped on some slick steps in front of her condo building in the Hollywood neighborhood of Portland. It hadn’t rained for weeks. The steps were slick from something she still hasn’t figured out – spilled beer or stray homeless urine were her two first thoughts. Weeks later, while running in the hills on the city’s west side, she felt the first of many lower back spasms. Her doctor suggested an MRI, to see if anything was broken from the fall. She assumed it was just from running too much.

That’s why she’s here, now, in Hillsboro. She’s never felt claustrophobic before but this is too much for her. The radiologist said it would take five minutes, seven tops. She thinks it’s only been three or four and she doesn’t know if she can go any further. There’s a button she can push, to call the whole thing off. She’d be pulled out of the machine, into the relatively freer confines of the tiny paint-odored below-ground room. They should really have a room with windows, Adriana thought, when she first came in the room, before they slid her in, roughly and firmly (that part, she liked.)

She decides to count seconds. First to 30, then to 60. She gets to 50 and the button which she imagines as red but is really black (she can feel it, knows where it is, can’t see it) is inches away from her curled up fist.

She finds the strength and keeps counting. She was once in love with Gerald. 55. She hopes it’s temporary, the back problem. She doesn’t want to quit running. 59, 60. Another 60 and she’s sure it’ll be over. When she met him at the planner’s convention in Tucson, she didn’t think she’d ever miss him this much. That’s why she stopped smoking, started running. He died and she had to get out of the house.

Adriana found out about it when I called her one afternoon at her office. I found the number online. I knew how she felt about him. I wanted her to hear it from me, not from a listserv or a text message. I wanted to give her room to breathe. I paused for her to collect herself, before I spoke of each detail. She asked me if Caroline knew and I said, yes, that’s who told me. She didn’t ask how Caroline found out. Neither did I.

I gave her the details – the truck, the freeway, the direction he was driving. I could hear her smile through the next set of words. She was probably smiling to keep from crying.

She’s thinking of the phone call right now. She realizes she’s not in danger anymore. They pulled her out, at 37, in her third count to 60.

They give her the results in the largest manila envelope she’s ever seen. She walks to the parking lot and drives east to the city. She wants to look inside but doesn’t. She knows topographical maps. She knows blueprints. She even knows X-rays. She doesn’t know MRI printouts.

When Adriana gets home, she throws the envelope with the MRI results on her small white square kitchen table. She likes how it’s plastic. She sits down on her couch and looks out the window and sees a light coming up through the skylight in the loft apartment across the street. She likes the way that looks, the way the light leaves the city and returns the sky’s favor. She could look at it all night. She vows to keep looking until the light disappears, until the person across the street (another woman, living alone; they talked once) turns it off. She falls asleep with the light still on wakes up and it’s still on but she can’t see it because of the sun.

Those are the city planners I have known. I don’t expect to know more. It’s all been an accident, my knowing them.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Weekendness

On my poetry blog there are six new poems, all of which mean nothing and everything.

I like Wordle. Here's a word cloud of the third poem.

I had a very nice weekend. Moderate fireworks. Good food. Two movies - one touching, the other animated. Both really good.

And my mind is filled with every thought I've ever had. That's a good thing.

More from the (long) weekend:
  • I convinced someone not to climb through an open window. He did it anyway the next day.
  • I was given things that I appreciate.
  • I spent time in the Valley, the Westside, and the 626. I rocked them all but still.... home is where it's at.
  • I listened to Jazz Butcher. Or is it The Jazz Butcher. I never knew.
  • I washed my car.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nothing Feeds a Hunger Like a Thirst

I have some big ideas for this blog. BIG ideas. It will happen. Lists. Stories. More lists.

I just made plans for what has become an annual Midwest summer trip. I will tour the Minneapolis/Madison/Chicago triangle from July 14th through the 22nd. Make your appointments now. I guess technically it's the Minneapolis/Rochester/Madison/Chicago parallelogram.

I took public transportation to work today. Not out of necessity or convenience. I keep getting closer and closer to making that switch. Walk/drive to the subway station... subway to Union Station... shuttle to work. It's not so bad. But I love that morning freedom which I will likely give up. But gas prices are just too high and trains are just so cool, especially the ones that go underground.

Summary of Vegas trip: Fatburger, long hallways, crosswords, too many cards, and a text reading "out." Second summary: Arby's, heat, songs number 3 and 6 on the Billy CD, songs # 12, 17, and 18 on Guyville.