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.