24 December 2012

Merry Christmas

Thank you for spending time here. And best wishes for the holiday.

Merry Christmas to you all!

21 December 2012

Bing & Bowie

Strangest duet ever.

There's a story behind it, too.

19 December 2012

Local Lear

My father has a friend, Pat, who worked for the fire department, but who also was an actor and even ran his own theatre for several years. He found a cheap place, fixed it up, lived upstairs and put on whatever plays he wanted to in the theatre on the ground level. He did modern classics, old plays and even one of his own, which was a funny and entertaining piece of work.

Pat is a gruff, macho Irish guy with a square face, short nose and contrastingly soft brown eyes. His voice, gravely from whisky and cigarettes, was straight out of film noir. He made some money doing commercials where he played a version of the George C. Scott version of General Patton. He, of course, made more money from those commercials that only played in a few local markets than he ever did as a theatre owner.

He liked to smoke Mores -- long, dark cigarettes, and he was a helluva a performer. Pat acted brilliantly, and acted as well as anyone I've seen, off or on the New York stage.

His personal life was less accomplished. I didn't even know he had children until a few months ago. He had been married, to a woman he'd met later in life, and who was younger that him. She committed suicide a few years ago.

(Goriot on his death bed)

Then he suffered a stroke. On what he thought might be his deathbed, he told his son and his daughter that he had a lot of gold coins stashed around his home, and he told them where they were. The coins add up to $400,000 or so, depending on the market.

His daughter hasn't been able to find work for two years. He's helped her, but only so much. His son has a government job. Decent money, but you know how that goes.

He recovered from the stroke, but they had him committed. They found a so-so retirement home. In one wing of the home, they keep the lunatics, the demented and the non compos menti in locked rooms.

So Pat found himself there, locked down, among the insane. He tried to convince the staff that he was, in fact, sane. As would any person suffering from insanity.

Proving your sanity is quite difficult. Especially when you're old, have a bad temper and are coming out of a near-debilitating stroke. It doesn't help when your two children, seemingly caring and concerned, insist that you desperately need psychiatric care

What the officials didn't know was that the children rifled the stash of gold coins. Kind of a pre-inheritance bounty

Back in the ward, Pat made some desperate calls to old friends whenever he had a chance. Finally, some old firefighters got together  -- for safety, just in case -- and paid him a visit. To their surprise, Pat was lucid.

"No crazeir'n he ever was," was how one of them put it.

Now Pat's lawyered up. He's taken his children to court to get himself released and some money back so he can finish his days with some comfort.

When you look at the literary and historical evidence, it's obvious that inheritances cause more trouble than they're worth. At the same time, you have an overpowering craving to build something up -- wealth, connections, experience -- that you can pass along.

Just now, I have safely avoided the dangers of passing along any level of wealth to my children. I have, and will continue to remove any temptations from them. They won't have much from me, other than my blessing and whatever advice they ask for.

It's probably better for all of us that way.

50 Cent's Words of Wisdom

John Lee Hooker - Blues for Christmas

18 December 2012


An Ikea store opened not far from where I work. It's the first one around here. Every now and then, something happens that makes you realize, yes, Denver still is kind of a hick town. The grand opening of Ikea was one of them. You'd've thought it was the second coming of Christ, or at least, the Pope. Naturally, I stayed as far away from that as possible.

I needed a desk for a gift, and I'd looked around all kind of stores, which means for me, used furniture places, curated used furniture places, and Target. Finally, I broke down and looked for our very own Scandinavian Design store. 

That was owned by a surprisingly attractive Danish woman in her 60s or 70s. Her son, a jerk with a pony tail who had pretensions to being all Euro-cool, ran the place. It was crammed with every manner of teak table, sleek desks, sensuous black leather chairs, space age curved couches, sideboards, chandeliers -- you name it. You could barely move through the space, let alone decide what creamy leather would get the privilege of your refined backside. 

It had closed.

So down I went to Ikea. The store here is probably visible from outer space. It's vast, I tell you, and decked out with the navy and yellow colors of the Swedish flag. Hard to miss, even from the interstate.

The baby boom generation has given posterity three great achievements: civil rights, better cuisine and nice packaging. So, let's be fair and ignore, for a moment, the monumental idiocy, greed and pus-soaked mediocrity with which they've bathed the world.

Ikea is a kind of perfection of this for a certain kind of boomer. It's Euro. It's all design-y and shit. And it's dirt cheap. I didn't want to think of what kind of rape of the earth or wherever third world hell hole this stuff must come from. I just wanted a desk.

So I put aside those qualms and navigated my Honda through the immaculate concrete parking garage with its pleasingly high ceilings. I followed the highly legible signage to the entrance. A sudden nostalgia swept over me. I tried to figure out why. Oh yeah: all the colors are Lego colors: those primary yellows, navies and reds from those tender days, long ago, resurrected suddenly for my own delectation.

Once inside, I decided to sample the famous Swedish meatballs. That's about the second thing everyone talks about when they talk about Ikea. I grabbed a tray with something in a green sans serif font written on it. A very nice and cute girl ladled meatballs, gravy, mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam on a minimalist plate.

I took my seat at a pristine, white table. I reflected that, in my house, with just my family, a white like that could not remain so pure for very long. 

Then it hit me: a profound sense of dislocation. I felt like I'd dropped into some mid-sized airport with a good architect, maybe in Portland or Malmø or Xinhua. I was going to say that it was odd to be so geographically divorced, but it was, in fact, quite familiar and comforting. I felt at home. Nice posters about Swedish architecture. Hard glossy surfaces, relieved by ornamental plastic light fixtures in tasteful organic forms.

Looking around me, it felt oddly Swedish though. In Colorado, most of the white people come from Scandinavia, Britain or Germany. So you get a lot of stocky, thick thighed, fair-haired folks, or volks, and if they were thinner and better dressed, you'd almost believe you were in Gothenburg. Weird. Weird, that it's not weird at all, but rather the familiar and by now much noted feature of current life. What would be really strange would be standing out in a field of dun colored short grass, seeing a buffalo. This is just your garden-variety alienation, which is no longer alienation at all, but rather comfortingly familiar and homey.

Once fortified, I sallied out. Ikea has a specific layout of this serpentine maze that forces you through all the display spaces. Everyone knows about it. But, even forearmed, you just . . . go with the flow. Now, I'm all trained about impulse purchases and up-selling and merchandise display, so I'm on my guard. Even so, I have to admire the sheer engineering brilliance brought to every facet of the place. 

I make my selection, write it down, make my way -- after a few slightly claustrophobic moments -- down to a vast warehouse, where I, myself, pull out my table legs and top and then check myself out. I haven't talked to a single salesperson the whole time. 

I load my very reasonably priced stuff in my car, wondering, a little, if all the jokes about assembling Ikea furniture are going to come true.

But so far: Friction free.

And I think of the crammed Scandinavian furniture store that's out of business. I wonder if the impossibly snobbish pony tailed guy got another job, and if his mother is still striking in her 80s. I miss him, slightly, even though he was a royal pain in the ass. 

I remember that what they sold was actually wood and not particle board or laminate. Their store reflected their own bet that what they chose would click. 

And I think - oh so dramatically, yes --  that global totalitarianism would look a lot like the Ikea store. It would be well engineered and thought out. It would be carefully deracinated. It would be well designed, but accessible at the same time. It would not make you feel stupid, but, rather, flattered for being in on things. You'd feel good, like a kid with Legos, doing stuff that worked for the greater good and if things felt a little artificial and slightly out of place, well, you'd get used to that right away.

It would be like Starbucks and Apple -- irresistible, well executed, letting you know that we're all in on the joke together, but it's such a fun and pleasant trick that you wouldn't mind at all being a part of it.

And I missed the asshole with the pony tail even more.

17 December 2012

Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto James Brown

Christmas Party

The problem with office Christmas parties is that they're never like they are in the movies. Growing up, I saw movies with parties where everyone got drunk and into trouble, with tinsel and ironic holiday music. Humping on the boss's desk, drunken jokes, or at least, later, photocopying your ass on the Xerox machine. You know the drill.

It's a great tool for a screenwriter, if you think about it. All sorts of conflicts can arise; the story can spin in a whole new direction. Even the great Billy Wilder had a Christmas party in The Apartment.

When I started my first regular day job, I assumed the parties sucked because my coworkers were really boring people. For a few years in a row, they were odd affairs with full on grotesqueries, as if someone had convinced David Lynch to plan them.

One year, for example, it was in a bar that's on top of a winding, narrow road. The place itself usually hosts country bands, a no-frills place covered with avocado green paint and wood paneling. A flaming gay man was the DJ. The closeted Mormon and he got on pretty well, although the Mormon's wife looked progressively more and more worried. All the dj's jokes fell flatter than a stretch of Kansas interstate. Fat women with wide mouths and heavy makeup dished up prime rib. The rest was strained conversation.

Yeah, no story there. Just another dead boring night, when you tally up the price of conformity in slow painful minutes.

After the company re-arranged itself and we broke away, explorers of the digital future, the parties changed a bit. They became more elaborate. No dingy dusty mansions or roadhouses for us, no sir.  About half the employees would sneak off to an alley or someplace and smoke dope.  Despite this and the free booze that began to flow about the same time, everyone stayed pretty decorous. There was an infamous moment when a young woman started making out with her roommate on a dare.


So this year, my boss's boss's boss -- three levels up the org chart! -- hosted at his house.  He lives in a tony neighborhood in a Tudor style brick place that looks relatively modest from the outside, but once you're inside, it just seems to keep going and going in a series of immaculately decorated rooms. The style is sort of American, relaxed Martha Stewart. It's the kind of house that can, however, accommodate an 18-foot Christmas tree. About which he and his wife joked, appropriately, but it makes an impression.

It's tempting to make fun of it all in a snarky, cynical way, and to take the well-established pose of the superior outsider. Which is more than just a pose, in my personal case, believe me.

But I reflected a bit, as I drank the Prosecco with the festive red pomegranate seeds at the bottom of the glass. First, he was hosting, so it's rude. Even if he will write the entire event off of his taxes, I'm still in the man's home, accepting his hospitality.

Second, he's playing the game well. No one will be writing books about him, or even very many articles in Forbes magazine. But I'm pretty sure he's not a sell out. He majored in business, got his MBA, jumped into the corporate world, lived abroad. It looks as if that's what he wants: the office, the business class flights. He adores his daughters, and he's not an asshole at work. On the contrary, he's respected, he treats people correctly, and he's doing a good job by most people's opinion. He's also making a shit load of money, and should be coming into a cool few millions when the Company goes public.

Ever since I read Nietzsche, and I had this notion reinforced by that Kierkegaard book I read, I've really been on the guard against ressentiment. Envy. This awful peasant impulse to bow and scrape on the one hand and vandalize on the other. It's just small to get worked up about the boss having a more opulent lifestyle. I don't want to become some screechy low-rent Underground Man. But I have to struggle, and I resent the struggle at the same time, knowing that it's much simpler for nearly everyone else in the room.

Because, if left to my own devices, I'd hate all that ranged perfection of Viking stoves, and Persian rugs and the bookshelves empty except for an old edition of the World Book encyclopedia. Hate it, but kind of be implicated, because I'd buy nice shit too if I earned as much money as he did, probably. It'd just be different shit, a matter of taste rather than ethics.

Plus, he more or less earned it. He works hard. I don't think he works as hard as a teacher, a nurse or a firefighter. It isn't fair that his set of skills is so much more richly rewarded. But he does work; he's not a precious little dauphin. And if he's at all human, which he seems to be, he has to have nights filled with dread. He has a lot riding on his show.

No, what doesn't fit in this picture is me. If you're in a game, you should play to win. I'm working the first post office job I've ever had -- that is, the kind of gig where you show up, you more or less work, and you go home. My family needs the health insurance. Hell, I need the health insurance.

So you take up the oldest pose there is -- you say to your self, I work there, but I'm not of there. I'm just doing time, collecting my check, working on what counts on the side. I guess this is true, but the longer I'm there I wonder if, instead of being a heroic artist and family man, I'm just a second-rate employee.

Time for a change.

16 December 2012


Today's my son's birthday. It's tempting to launch into a sentimental post that would be impossible to read, even for me.

But I will say that this day is the anniversary of one of the best days in my life. I'm grateful that he's here. I'm proud of him, and he's made my life richer and better by his presence.

We'll go down to a Brazilian steak house later. His choice. One of our few family traditions.

He'll never really know how glad I'll be to be sitting across the table from him.

15 December 2012

I read Kierkegaard

I read The Present Age by Soren Kierkegaard.

In it Kierkegaard starts out by contrasting his present age - the 1840s, with the revolutionary age that exploded a few decades before then. He finds his time wanting.

Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiams and shrewdly relapsing into repose.
It is a time, he says, filled with shallow materialism, virtue put on for show, and "reflection." Reflection isn't genuine thought, but more a variety of self consciousness, superficial brain spasms. He discerned a preference for appearance over action and a flight from inwardness. Instead of passionate enthusiasm, we suffer from envy -- all products of being stuck in the process of reflection.

Because of this paralysis, we fall into ressentiment -- we can't stand what's truly great. We need to level whatever surpasses our abilities. We exalt the mass and squash great individuals. The greatest engine of that levelling is the "public" -- a phantom manufactured by the press and sustained by society. This creates the necessary pressure to adopt whatever ideas public opinion cherishes.

A by-product of this is that more individuals will aspire to be nothing at all in order to become a member of this public. They abandon themselves to distraction and to gossip. They are indolent rather than bad, given over to sensuality and easy laughter.

The mass prefers talkativeness over silence, chatter about trivialities to real conversation or solo reflection. We take on the attitudes and values of the public, and ignore or never cultivate our own ideas: "The introspection of silence is the condition of all educated social intercourse; the exteriorized caracature of inwardness is vulgarity and talkativeness."

He urges us to develop an inner life, and to return to a hierarchical society, one based on the recognition of true authority. We should accept suffering and leap into the arms of God. To act with boldness and faith.

As usual with me and those 19th century guys, I agree with his diagnosis, but can't accept a lot of the prescribed cure. Overall, I was surprised by how immediately applicable Kierkegaard's critiques were. If you streamlined the language and reduced some of the complexity of his arguments, it sounds very much like more recent complaints about how shallow and stupid we have become.

It made me think that the society of the spectacle is more of a continuation of what occurred before it, and made me remember that the struggles we're facing are not new to a time dominated by electronic media. The Internet is less a rupture with the past than the perfection of modernity, distilling processes that started with mass industrialization.

Key quotes:

...ours is the age of advertisement and publicity (in 1847)
As soon as the artist prostitutes his own reality he is no longer essentially productive.
In the end, therefore, money will be the one thing people will desire, which is moreover only representative, an abstraction. Nowadays a young man hardly envies anyone his gifts, his art, the love of a beautiful girl, or his fame; he only envies him his money. Give me money, he will say, and I am saved. 
It is a fundamental truth of human nature that man is in capable of remaining permanently on the heights, of continuing to admire anything. 
Reflection is not the evil; but a reflective condition and the deadlock which it involves, by transforming eh capacity for action into a means of escape from action, is both corrpt and dangerous, and leads in the end to a retrograde movement.

13 December 2012

My own private UFO

I have my own UFO story.

Here’s the background. It happened on a Spring Break trip.

I hung out with two guys from my wing in the dorm for the better part of a year. Dan was lean, lithe and a chatty, lively charmer. Girls liked him. He wore all sorts of eccentric outfits, often carried a golf club and suffered from manic depression. Chris was a perfect foil to him. Tall, broad, brown haired and saturnine, he was slow and steady to Dan’s quicksilver flights. He rarely spoke. Kind of a Caucasian Chief Broom, the character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

(Come to think of it, I wonder if there’s an alchemical guide of relationships written someplace by a 13 century Czech magician on or something? Because those two, you could see the pattern).

It was a boring semester. I had earned enough over the summer and the fall semester that I didn’t have to work, for once. I’d changed majors, too. As a theatre major, you’re busy 19 hours a day if you’re at all serious. So the sudden vacuum felt huge.

And we were always looking for action in a random, directionless and often stupid way. Road trips, drugs, stupid car tricks, endless hours trying to get laid.

Spring break rolled around, and there was no way we were staying in town. There was also no way we’d plan anything. Chris, I think, suggested Padre Island, off the Texan coast. We’d drive his Pinto in shifts, make the trip there in two days, hang, then come back. This was before Padre Island blew up into a low rent version of the Florida spring breaks they like to show on MTV. 

I don’t want to indulge in some kind of Hunter S. Thompson wannabe description of the debauchery. It was relatively usual for the time and place, but you should know that brain chemistry was altered. It was sped up. It was slowed down. Visions and profound insights into each other’s souls were discovered.

We had no money. We slept on the beach one night and were eaten alive by some kind of sand flea. After that, we put down the back and curled up on the hatchback’s floor.

We lived on powdered donuts, beef jerky and orange juice. We burned some hot dogs, once. Otherwise, we were in a state. Details escape me. I remember bikinis, stars, the surf, sunburns, Dan’s stench, Dan’s getting laid, sunshine, sand castles.

This is a long way of saying that none of us were in a particularly lucid state for the drive home. Chris, who had incredible stamina, was driving. We zoomed along on a two-lane highway, between Alamogordo and Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

photo by wim wenders

Pretty much the entire state of New Mexico teems with visions, ghosts, strange prehistoric demons. The landscape is straight out of surrealist paintings. Even the most aggressive materials feels something in the place. At night, the magic gains weight and potency. The stars are often spookily bright, and, to city eyes, there are too many.

The three of us were awake at once, somehow. I rode shotgun, Dan was in the back rattling on about whatever.

And above the road, in this twisted shadowy valley, two bright lights whooshed over us, hovered, stayed with the Pinto, then disappeared. A heavy sense of menace smothered me so that I could barely speak. I felt as if all the light and life had been sucked out of me by something so dense and dark that I would never be happy again.

Dan, on the other hand, was out of his head with joy.

A UFO, he kept saying, a fucking real UFO. You guys saw it, right? 

Chris nodded his head. It was a fucking UFO. Now don’t talk about it again.

I worked out my despair by arguing. We spent, in fact, the rest of the trip arguing about what we saw and whether we should tell anyone.

Dan, of course, did tell anyone who would listen. This disgusted Chris. They had a kind of bro breakup, and didn’t speak to each other for a few weeks.

People believed or chose not to believe according to their character and their tolerance for Dan.  After some sleep and some regular food, I recovered from that horrible ache that I’d felt on the highway.

I spent some time puzzling over that sudden and overwhelming emotion. It could've been something else. An animal reaction to the heavy tech deployed by the nearby air force base. An usual flavor of fear.

Or maybe involuntary communion with a really sad alien.

It might only have been a kind of psychic burp from all the things we’d ingested.

12 December 2012


Everyone needs a good alien story, so here's yours.

It's completely true. I know the guy who tells it -- and he only tells it rarely, and only when pressured, because he's still spooked about it. It also has some physical evidence left behind, which I'll tell you about.

So this guy, Steve, went to high school in rural Minnesota. It's a Saturday night, and there's a dance at school. He and two of his pals went off to the woods to drink a six pack in peace.

Suddenly, from the roof of the car, they hear a clank -- a metal-on-metal thunk. They look around. Nobody. Nothing.

Then, from the same post, they hear a kind of sucking, puckery sound. Like a big metal suction cup. The sound starts off slowly, then the rhythm gets faster and faster. Totally freaked out, the driver drops the transmission into reverse, and they scream out of there and don't stop until they get back to the school dance.

They get out in the school parking lot and look at the car roof. A rectangular shape, about the size of a brick,  is glowing. Someone had the smarts to take a picture of the mark.

No matter how they tried in the days afterwards, they couldn't remove the rectangle from the roof.

I've seen the picture. Even with the flash, you can still make out a distinctly glowing shape on the top of the Gran Torino.

11 December 2012

Those students I mentioned

Here are the visitors that I mentioned.


Couples have affairs for nearly as many reasons as there are couples. I don't have a lot of personal experience here, so I'm only going on theory and what I've observed.

But some big categories for reasons why people cheat come up.

People cheat because of:
1) Their partner
2) Themselves
3) A combination of one and two.

If you look at the big movies and novels surrounding affairs, you'll see they fall into one of these. Mme Bovary - check. Anna Karenina - check. The Scarlet Letter - yeah. You get the picture.

But what I haven't seen much of, and what I'd like to write a fiction about -- yes, a story, honey, not a memoir --  is a person who has an affair because of his/her children. Those precious ones that you'd kill for, die for and spend your life on. They'd be the cause of your running into someone else's bed.

Consider: You're older, in your 30s, 40s, or god forbid, 50s. At the same time you're feeling life's possibilities narrowing, your kids hit puberty. And, while school is a sort of wasting hell, you know they're having more fun than you are. Because you did. Or you had. You lead a much more intense life filled with drama, tears, wild infatuations and so on.

A certain kind of teen lets his/her parents know this. They just assume their lives are richer and more exciting, Partly because they may be, and partly because that's what the culture tells them through crappy TV shows and less crappy movies.

Even nice kids take it for granted that they are much more interesting than you'll ever be. Nor do they care much about what or who you were. Your youth is, at most, a mildly interesting artifact of merely tangential importance. If that.

This is, even for a saint like me, kind of annoying. For a person of lesser character, it could really fuck you up, especially if you were hot back in your youth. Then, having an affair wouldn't be about your spouse so much. M

Instead, it would be more about being able to say to your kid -- even on the inside, even in silence, never, ever with the intent to put it on the table -- but being able to say, hey: I'm still interesting. I still have a life outside of servicing you, outside of my office job, and beyond what you'll ever imagine. And I'm sophisticated. I may not be able to shag five or six times like I used to, but I drink . . .cocktails! And fancy vintages! I'm not in the back seat of some Japanese econo-box car any more. I'm lolling around on 80 threadcount sheets several floors up. I can snort cocaine off my lover's body and I know a thing or two about sex that I didn't.

So there, you moody little bastard. Who's living now?

And then of course, you, the reader/viewer, would have to wonder, who's the grown up? The moody little bastard or the parent who's having a fling?

I'm sure some French writer has covered this. And I'm not talking some cheesy deal where the father goes for the boy's girlfriend or the mother for the daughter's boyfriend. (Although, come to think of it, First Love, by Turgenev, is one of the all-time great novellas and is a variation on that. In a way.)

"Art is when you're alone in your room . . ."

Jean-Pierre Melville on art.

(Man, I gotta get a smoking jacket like that. Never tried wearing shades while writing indoors, but maybe it's worth a try.)

10 December 2012

Freddie King - Christmas Tears (1961)

Local hero

I heard this story a long time ago. Some evil companions of mine put a gun to my head and made me go to a strip club. I go to strip clubs about as often as I read the Bible. A kind of balance I try to maintain.

So, once the entertainers realized we weren't going for any private dances, they relaxed a bit. We started talking. Somehow, I ended up with this tall African American girl who wasn't my cup of tea, physically, but she was warm and charming as hell, and had a lovely wide smile. She was also much taller than me in her heels. For a few moments, I felt like I'd fallen into some Masai tribe, and truth to tell, she had a kind of regal air, despite the glitter she'd splashed on her shoulders and face.

I asked her about the job, where she'd danced. She had a fairly fluid routine, having heard the questions a few hundred times before.  She -- what was her name? Eve? Yeah, Eve. Anyway, she mentioned she'd danced for a lot of celebrities, both here and in Vegas. Some were great -- she mentioned some rapper guy who blew, like $5K on her and her pals, champagne table service and all.

Some are assholes, though, she said.

Like who?

John Elway.

What'd he do?

He likes to go into clubs with his buddies. He smokes cigars, y'know? And he would heat up quarters and throw them at the dancers on stage. When they hit the girls, they'd get burned. So they have to jump out of the way.

And he and his crew, they'd just laugh, and heat up more quarters and throw them at the girls. For fun.

Larry Clark

from Tulsa, by Larry Clark

Tough to be a teenage guy

At least the girls didn't dangle the possibilities of threesomes as a reward back in my day. 

09 December 2012

We have visitors

My day job is at a big corporation. Corporations have to do some kind of charity work to remain respectable. They do some good things, but it's essentially window dressing. After all, the real job of a business is to make money.

One phase of this outreach was having 10 kids from an inner city high school come visit and shadow different workers. The workers talk about what they do and show them their sweet, sweet cubicles and the windowless conference rooms where they talk about payments technology.

I guess the idea is that if the kids see the insides of an office filled with clean and pleasant people, they'll want to work that much harder to achieve The Dream. But then, if I didn't have shit at home, and if my dad mostly did menial labor, maybe it would be appealing to know that if I buckled down in math class that a grey fabric box and a salary large enough to get me in trouble with the credit card companies is waiting for me.

Anyway, that's not the absurd part. I'll tell you about that later.

The organizers asked me to take some photos. They'll be published to show that we really do care about our community. We -- or some of my coworkers -- actually do care and try to help. I don't want to sound cynical about them. They're donating time and effort.

I asked them where the students came from. Turns out, they're all from the high school I graduated from, good old Abraham Lincoln. Once a blue collar/middle middle class school, now outfitted with the stigma and fascination that come with being "inner city."

Online, you can read various statistics that show how bad the students there score on standard tests.  Less than 10 percent of the students are proficient in basic math. You will discover they have had several principals over the last few years. You will read the school motto: "Think College. Si, se puede." About 93 percent qualify for free lunches. You will find out that 90 percent of the students are Latino.

I checked out the students who were visiting us. They were all Latino. (Latino's sort of a useless term, because it can apply to a guy like Mike Trujillo, who lived down the block from my parent's house and who's family has been in the state for a few generations longer than mine. And Latino can apply to Manuel Trujillo, who just came in from El Salvador a few weeks ago.)

They looked very serious. They also looked small, under five feet, both the boys and the girls. I tried to chat with them, focusing on the boys to reduce the creep factor. They seemed unusually withdrawn, but I figured I'd be a little closed down too, given the setting. I take a few snaps that should work, one of a cute-ish girl with eyebrows like caterpillars and an elfin boy.

The kids go on their rounds, in their navy blue Lincoln Lancers hoodies, ushered by ladies in grey Ann Taylor suits.

Once they'd left, we gossiped about them a bit. Alvaro an intern, was part of the tour. He is nice young guy from Spain, European and all.

Only two had been born in the US. Just a few of the visitors spoke any English at all. They had no clue what the chipper guys in pleated pants were saying to them.

Crazy, huh?

Alvaro asked, horrified, what will happen to them? How can they get jobs? What will they do?

We blabbed on about this or that, but what we said amounted to a collective shoulder shrug. I could see he didn't understand us and was shocked, emotionally that not much was being done.

I tried to explain to him: In America, you're on your own.

08 December 2012

Window shopping in Moscow

photo by Vincent Deyvaux, via lettres de moscou

Relatively Speaking

My in-laws, or, as the French say, my beautiful parents, are visiting. It's fine with me. I like them, and they like me. They are generous, warm, adore their grandchildren and are generally easy guests to host.

I planned to interview both of them on camera. Michael, though, has had his face so mangled by several surgeries that he does not want to be photographed. Elena is simply old, but reluctant to have her face recorded. 

They visit us relatively often, and stay in our house, in the Russian way. In the past, this created problems. Typically, a volcanic fight would erupt between my wife and her mother, who would then sweep Michael into the battle. They'd make up afterwards, but the violence and the volume of the arguments used to shock me.

Now, it's peaceful, mostly. My in-laws don't have much fight left in them. They've aged to the point of resignation. 

Michael used to corner me, standing very close and locking his clear blue eyes on mine to give me advice about raising the children. The advice was sound and old school: make them study hard. Make sure they study science. Have them play sports. Maybe they can go into medicine? Doctors are the kings of this world, he would say.

Until a few years ago, he was a man filled with vitality, intensity and toughness. He walked seven miles each day. After one bout of chemotherapy, he began writing satirical and philosophical verse. Even after two rounds of cancer, he seemed mostly immune to the effects of old age, and nearly the same as when I first met him. 

The last round, though, nearly did him in. The surgery on his face left him with that Joker-like half grin, and he has a wound on his left check that will not heal. His left eye tends to fill with greenish, snot colored pus, and he wears a cap constantly to hide the network of scars and the patchy cover of hair. 

I find that I don't see him as he is. Through some trick, my brain superimposes on this man the one that he was, so that occasionally, I'm shocked and saddened to see the man in front of me, newly mangled by illness.

Part of me is deeply terrified by his condition. I wonder if I'd be able to bear it with the same stoicism that he does. Old age frightens me, and I'm searching for some strategy, some philosophy -- some revelation -- to help me deal with it. 

And I think of what a wasteful bitch Mother Nature can be: their whole worlds -- the siege of Leningrad, the Brezhnev years, the meetings with Khodorkovsky, the geese that ran down the neighborhood streets, the evenings at the Kirov, the long drives down from Casper, Wyoming, the extraordinary courage to throw everything away in late middle age and start all over -- all  of that will soon vanish.

Today, they'll be shopping for grave sites.

07 December 2012

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Andy Warhol. 

25 November 2012


The 25th of November was an important day for Yukio Mishima. I would never do what he did, but I would like to act with the same intensity and clarity. Apart from his gifts as a writer, director, poet, actor, and militarist, Mishima was also a great prophet -- perhaps the great prophet -- of the 21st century. Along with Pasolini, he foresaw better than anyone what was around the corner. Jay McInerny has a great essay about Mishima here:
One of the tasks of reassessing Mishima is to go back to the novels themselves, which are astonishingly diverse, and to stop seeing him as a representative figure. At the risk of robbing Mishima’s life of the perfect shape which he apparently wanted to impose on it, I’m not sure that it would hurt to try to imagine what we would make of his oeuvre if he had, say, died in a car crash, in ’68 or ’69, or of an aneurysm on his way out the door on that final day in 1970, moments after completing the first installment of The Sea of Fertility. It wouldn’t hurt to recall the Mishima that the world knew before he killed himself: an international literary figure, the most successful Japanese literary export of the twentieth century, a writer who has as much in common with Hemingway as he does with Lady Murasaki. We might do well to celebrate Mishima’s contradictions rather than seeing them as solved by his death. We need to rescue him from the mists that obscure him; we need to see him in relation to his contemporaries, like his sometimes-mentor Yasunari Kawabata, who called Mishima the kind of talent who comes along only once every two or three hundred years.

13 November 2012

Belief and the reality distortion field

Preachers and charlatans talk about the power of belief all the time. So much so that I became a classic doubting Thomas, a skeptic and kept the bullshit detector turned on high.

But Mitt Romney and Steve Jobs -- and a few other people -- have me reconsidering that.

I just finished the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. Famously, he was so persuasive and so seductive that people believed whatever Jobs was saying, even if it contradicted reality as we know it. Normally hard-headed engineers and finance guys would fall under this spell. Two top engineers at Pixar made a deal with each other -- as soon as one of them felt himself being sucked in to the reality distortion field, he'd signal the other one so they could avoid the danger. Kind of like Odysseus making sure his sailors plugged their ears and tied him to the mast so they wouldn't be ruined by the Siren's call.

Jobs believed in what he was saying.

I mean, look at that guy.

Jobs is the acceptable face of this quality. People of my ilk love Apple. I'm in the demo. This is a brand of hucksterism we can get behind and admire, even if we pretend not to.

I'm not in the demo for someone like Mitt Romney. Rich men don't fascinate me. In fact, I realized the bio of Steve Jobs is the only one I've read about a business guy, and for all its strengths, it was dead boring in long stretches. Too much like a day in the office.

But Romney killed the first debate. He had it going on. Belief. Romney is able to believe profoundly in whatever he says as he's saying it. This is the salesman's greatest strength. Lots of Mormons are terrific salesmen, partly because they have that evangelical year where they get doors slammed in their faces, mostly, but they do win converts. Even in the strangest of places, they'll still be able to persuade Russians, say, that Jesus appeared in the New World and that they'll get a planet of their own to rule over when they die.

Now, if you can sell a religion based on an angel named Moroni, real estate should be no big deal.

I've derided this kind of power. I also thought it was primarily a technical skill. Plus, I don't generally like salesmen. I'm kind of on the Baudelaire/Napoleon side of things. Warriors over shopkeepers, poets and priests over merchants. This is probably a fatally stupid position for someone like me who is not a general, but we're talking biases here.

Then I saw this guy speak at a sales convention for a major tech company. The Guy had been brought in from his early retirement at his Austin mansion --at God knows what amount of money -- to bring his special brand of voodoo to the sales force. The sales force needed it. The Guy was a big affable blond dude whom I'd liked right away. He was gracious and charming, even to a lowly A/V drone.

But that morning --and it was early, 8:00 AM, and he'd had to brave traffic to get there -- he was kind of pissed. The organizers brought him in at the last moment, hoping his aura would set the room on fire, and he wasn't up for it. Still, he spoke for a while, rambling on with a few personal stories.

Then he got blunt. Not in a blustery mean way, more like a dad who's setting his kid straight at 2:00 am after the kid messed up the family Honda. Just telling it like it is. This is a summary, but what he said went like this: Everyone in the industry has stuff that's more or less the same. Some of it's better at some things, some of it's not so good, but overall, it's going to work and get the job done. So it's not about product.

It's about your belief that it's the best. He mentioned some phenomenal sales team he was on, and he said the  only difference was: they believed in their own product more than anyone else did. Was it better? He didn't know. No one except for a few engineers would. But what they did have was utter conviction. That's what works.

I paid attention. Not only because the Guy was, in his realm, a Napoleon himself. But also because, as a freelancer -- hell, as someone who has to get by in this shitty post-manufacturing weirdo service economy, I have to sell, too. We're all salespeople, unless you can count on a trust fund or go off the grid. So I listened and learned.

It works. That confidence move, that faking it until you make it. You can't blow off your homework, you have to prepare. But when you play the role, people often buy it. I've been surprised, knowing the holes in my story and presenations, that it went over. Because, you know, I'm still the skeptic in the corner. That didn't help

But then, Romney really thought he was going to win. Jobs was sure NeXT would carry the day. The danger is that you believe your own pitch to the point that it's not a pitch. It's you.

I lost my faith when I was fourteen and haven't found it since, so excess of belief isn't a big problem for me. I'll probably not, at this point in my life, ever be the big, bluff easy man The Guy was. But if I were a Mitt or a Steve, or if I do somehow transform into That Guy, I'll take a cue from the Romans. As their victorious generals enjoyed their triumphs, a slave in the chariot with the general would whisper 'sic transit gloria' -- all glory is fleeting.

In other words, don't believe your own bullshit.

I have a tumblr

I've joined Tumblr. Mainly, as a way to keep track of what I see on Tumblr itself, and to catch what might be inspiration.

Overall, I like the platform very much, but it tends to be hectic. I'm always looking for the next image instead of dwelling on the one in front of my eyes on the dashboard. There's a tendency, for me, to gobble it all up too quickly.

So far, my tumblr seems mostly to be trees, girls and film things. I've thought that it would be useful to have a more image-based blog and one more verbally based.

If you're interested, you can visit it here. I'll put it in the links on the side, too.

22 October 2012

bonne anniversaire. madame deneuve

Catherine Deneuve by Jerry Schatzberg
Going to see this in a few days:
Much as I love the city in September, precisely because I love it so much, I spent most of the month in Long Island, working on the novel, though I did go in to see the revival of Einstein on the Beach at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of the most incredible spectacles I’ve ever seen on stage. Glass’s music continues to impress, but that’s been accessible to all since 1976, when it debuted. The great revelation, even for those of us who have seen some of his other work, were Robert Wilson’s tableaux and his staging, the compositions, the lighting, and especially the repetitive, dream-like gesture and motion. Einstein has been hailed as the high point of a certain period, the masterpiece of a collective aesthetic hatched in downtown New York in the seventies, but it still seems utterly fresh; we still haven’t caught up with it.


18 October 2012

Musikladen ROXY MUSIC (1973)

Doesn't Brian Eno -- with, y'know, all due respect to his avante cred, look kind of like an escapee from the set of Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Great stuff. Even with the execrable white suit.

Why it sucks to be an American man

I'm sitting at a table with four full-grown women.

The subject of perfume comes up.

Four of them say they don't own a bottle -- not one goddam bottle -- of perfume. Let alone, use the stuff.

Now, in many cases, that could be A Good Thing. But, in principle, it means they've forsaken one incredibly important element of allure.

I hate that.

Really hate it.

Happy birthday, Klaus Kinski

Crazier, maybe, but also more alive that nearly anyone: From Aguirre:


 And the first part of a cheesy documentary about him:

10 October 2012

The cramps--Way I Walk---78'

photo by Willy Ronis

Willy Ronis

Reverdy: Outre mesure

Outre mesure

Le monde est ma prison
Si je suis loin de ce que j'aime
Vous n'êtes pas trop loin barreaux de l'horizon
L'amour la liberté dans le ciel trop vide
Sur la terre gercée de douleurs
Un visage éclaire et réchauffe les choses dures
Qui faisaient partie de la mort
À partir de cette figure
De ces gestes de cette voix
Ce n'est que moi-même qui parle
Mon cœur qui résonne et qui bat
Un écran de feu abat-jour tendre
Entre les murs familiers de la nuit
Cercle enchanté des fausses solitudes
Faisceaux de reflets lumineux
Tous ces débris du temps crépitent au foyer
Encore un plan qui se déchire
Un acte qui manque à l'appel
Il reste peu de chose à prendre
Dans un homme qui va mourir

© Gallimard

06 October 2012

American Playboy by Helmut Newton

American Playboy, Beverly Hills. Photo by Helmut Newton

05 October 2012


Prevert question

Immense et Rouge 

Immense et rouge  
Au-dessus du Grand Palais  
Le soleil d'hiver apparaît  
Et disparaît  
Comme lui mon coeur va disparaître  
Et tout mon sang va s'en aller  
S'en aller à ta recherche  
Mon amour  
Ma beauté  
Et te trouver  
Là où tu es. 

Jacques Prevert

Okay, here's a question for you real Francophones. I like Prevert, but I feel kind of stupid for liking him. I suspect that if French were my native language, he'd be the kind of poet that 14 year old girls like for a while and outgrow.
But since French is my second language, I have to say, I find his simplicity powerful and beautiful. 

Or, this one:

Déjeuner du matin

Il a mis le café
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de café
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le café au lait
Avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourné
Il a bu le café au lait
Et il a reposé la tasse
Sans me parler

Il a allumé
Une cigarette
Il a fait des ronds
Avec la fumée
Il a mis les cendres
Dans le cendrier
Sans me parler
Sans me regarder

Il s'est levé
Il a mis
Son chapeau sur sa tête
Il a mis son manteau de pluie
Parce qu'il pleuvait
Et il est parti
Sous la pluie
Sans une parole
Sans me regarder

Et moi j'ai pris
Ma tête dans ma main
Et j'ai pleuré

Does this poem sound corny? Did you get too much of it forced on you during your middle school years (12-14?)

Anyway, he was hell of a screenwriter. 

03 October 2012

Todd Hido

photo by Todd Hido


But what really interests me ultimately is not to record the past, so much as how people live with the past and get on with it. There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.
-- Philip Gourevitch

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Devo " Gut Feeling " first time in live in 1977

20 September 2012