Monthly Archives: January 2012

why pamper life’s complexity


Alas, you must forgive me, my dear friends – it is taking me longer than usual to ramp up output of product here at… I had the flu and strep, of course, but followed it up with the stomach flu, and just when I was beginning to hold some food down, I sat through the UNC-Florida State game.

More than all that – and “all that” was pretty fucking bad, lemme tellya – I have been haunted by a script that was due several months ago. For some reason, it threw a spanner in my emotional works, and I just could not finish the last 15 pages.

I knew what needed to happen, I knew exactly what all the characters had to do, I knew what they would say, and the outline was right in front of me – this ain’t rocket science. And still, wave after sandy wave of life spat forth, then retreated, and still, I walked around burdened like the Ancient Mariner. Kids had birthdays, the year changed, and still I slumbered under a cloud of sleet.

Then on Friday I just sat down for seven hours and finished it. Wasn’t even that hard. WHAT the FUCK.

The sun shone forth, rainbows of colors appeared again, and two more stories popped into my brain, like the buds of peonies released by pruning back the overgrowth. Perhaps the gastrointestinal stuff and the writing were related. Sometimes your spirit is held captive by the flesh. As Morrissey summed up

Does the body rule the mind

Or does the mind rule the body?

I dunno


England is mine, and it owes me a living

mum’s the word


Eighty years ago, my mom was born in Boise, Idaho to a Mormon mother and a father who alternated between being a salesman, a butcher, and a purveyor of fancy chocolates. They quickly relocated to the area around Monterey Park and East LA, which was then a bunch of dusty farm roads, wild horses, orchards and the occasional sad oil well.


Her mother, my grandmother Klea, was not a natural at doling out affection and warm fuzzies – and since it was the beginning of the Great Depression, the times suited her peculiar sort of pioneer stoicism. She softened, to be sure, with the commensurate grace afforded to all elders who no longer have a chimney they need to hold up, but in her time, she was granite.

One time my grandmother had gotten a bolt of really nice fabric, meant for curtains or something, and made dresses for all three of her girls. She washed them and hung them over the woodstove to dry, and the line caught fire, burning them all to embers. My mom said it was the only time she ever saw her mother cry.

That kind of steely demeanor was great for survival, but it came at a price for my mother, as well as her siblings. There is a need in everybody who descends from Klea – a longing to be heard, a desire to be swooped up and rescued, a desperate need for everyone to hear our story and told that everything is going to be all right.

When I was a teenager, my mom told me of her first spiral into consummate depression. She was coming home from school, and walked into an empty house – her sisters had gone somewhere, and her mother had left, leaving no note. The totality of the empty house, the horrifying existential maw it opened up, utterly flattened her.

I told her I understood, and I did, as though I had some sense memory of it on a molecular level; I had been there by having come from her. Two years ago, I unwittingly recreated the scene for myself, and it has made me leery of the first few days of January ever since.


My mom honed her musical craft in secret, because back then, a woman had to sandbag, slalom and play a perfect hand if they were more talented than the men. She worked as a telephone operator – you know, the ones that used to wear the headsets and swap wires around a vertical board – and wrote music at night.


She got married at 25 to Bruce Riddle, a teacher/trombonist she was genuinely in love with, and they quickly had my brothers Kent and Steve. When she was 29, he fell asleep at the wheel while delivering woodwind reeds to another musician, and drove off a cliff. There she is, in 1960, with a two and three-year-old, and no husband. I have to think some part of Klea’s igneous fortitude allowed her to keep going.

So my dad came along, two years later, and they began a tumultuous 23-year marriage with a string of miscarriages ending only in yours truly. My brother Sean and Michelle came pretty soon after that, and made a 7-member combined family that is loud, messy, and doing what every big family does: subconsciously building a semi-destructive culture that only we understand.


at our house in Cedar Rapids, IA

My mom was becoming the best-selling choral songwriter of her day (you probably sang one of her pieces in middle school choir) but if she hadn’t been saddled with all of us – and a husband whose job precluded much of her wattage – she could have been independently wealthy.

My parents had one of the most protracted, ugly, soul-wringing divorces in North American history. I don’t think either of them would deny it at this point. My mom said it was harder than losing her first husband, but that might have been the bizarre elasticity of youth. My dad has no interest in talking about it, and I feel the same way.


at the Trevi Fountain, 1981


bustin’ the mid-80s with Steve

My dad remarried, but my mom has not, instead focusing (at first) on rewriting all the music textbooks in our schools – which she did – and then living with whatever child who inhabited the coolest town. Sean and I won that prize, of course, with Chapel Hill from 1993-97.

And now here she is, at 80, helping raise Sean’s kids Barnaby and Marlena at their brownstone in Astoria. She can do it because she is still tremendously healthy, able to muster stairs with only slight kvetching, battling macular degeneration with the newest medicine, yet still able to see tiny musical notes on her Macbook Pro.


with Lucy, 2007

She and I share many traits, which has always made us good travel partners, and no doubt made many of our acquaintances (and my wife) roll their eyes in exhaustion. We both have a need to be completely understood, to leave no slight unexposed, to make sure everyone knows exactly how much we’re suffering. We both respond to criticism with a knee-jerk “why don’t you go fuck yourself” before softening up a half-hour later.

We’ve both been described as doleful pessimists, even though that’s the polar opposite of the truth. We might have a negative crust, but I think both of us would absolutely stop living if we didn’t always think something awesome was just about to happen.


And sometimes it does. When my mom turned 80 a few weeks ago, we all got on Google Hangout conference video to tell her she was “going somewhere” in February, and she was completely psyched. Then, on Christmas Day, we had all the kids lined up and they spelled out the letters to “HAWAII” as I projected a DVD on the screen, leading to yesterday’s picture. Not only that, we said, but all 17 of us are taking her.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to repeat myself: this is for you, mom, in all your squalor, in all your delight, in your messiness and charm and fucked-up rental cars and fabulous stories, your orange rolls and your wit, your heartbreaking talent and your sensualist thirst for the world. We love you and I love you.


here’s to the silver sea


A bit of mise-en-scène photographic sleuthing for you lot today… can anyone (not in my family, or those who already knew) decipher what is going on in this picture?


(not shown: cheers from all others on couch, and a few more spread around the country)

don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s so middle class



In my haphazard, on-again off-again, vague career as a sometimes “journalist”, I totally appreciate a good headline that guarantees Eyeballs™ and internet click-thru Stickiness© and all, but sometimes these articles drive me a little bonkers. Witness Why Liberals Love Downton Abbey, with a subheading that asks “The idle rich of the PBS costume drama are hopelessly out of touch. So why are so many Occupy supporters obsessed?”

I don’t mean to speak ill of Irin Carmon, the writer of the piece (mostly because the headlines and sub-headers of these articles are written by editors we never even meet), but I generally chafe at the suggestion that there’s a reason people like something good. You know, other than the fact that it’s good.

The article asks why so many 99%ers and NPR progressives love Downton Abbey when the show is the very definition of an unshakable class system, a throwback to the Edwardian lord-servant fiefdom, written by a Tory who’s got a peerage. Fair enough, really, but I’ve got two answers.

First off, the show portrays a gentler, utterly analog world that is comforting in all the ways us white folks find comfort. Sure, the intransigent class system meant stultifying rules keeping the downstairs crew from rising above, but at least their employers genuinely cared for them, and treated them like family. I’m not personally advocating for this, but it’s a damn sight better than working for any fuckin’ corporation in 2012.

The other reason “liberals” – or anybody, for that matter – like “Downton Abbey” is because it’s wonderful. The casting is fascinating and always spot-on, using actors that would never see four minutes of action on American television. The dopplegangers, the dialogue, the early 20th-century lighting porn… it’s just delectable.

Sometimes there is no cultural or temporal reason to like a piece of art; you like art because it is amazing. Cookies taste good in any era. And if you like cookies that remind you of a time, however apocryphal, when good men stood up, suffered for, and believed in something, then you’ve got a warm batch waiting.


you’re soaking in it



over the holiday, I caught Lucy during the 4 seconds of contemplativeness she has each hour, and it reminded me a pic from Dec 2008

I’m slowly coming back to life, trying to dismantle the sludge that seems to coat all of my cells, attempting to come clean on a set of resolutions I decided to adopt upon returning to LA for the season.

Normally, I’m not much for any New Year’s resolutions, as there’s something inherently strip-mall, Hello Kitty (or “Greensboro” as my old roommate Jay Murray used to say) about a list of pie-in-the-sky resolutions that are held together by tenuous straps of guilt, only to be abandoned by January 9 or so when the dessert tray comes.

But I reached the point, as they say, “when the pain of staying put became greater than the fear of change,” and it just so happened to unfurl when the new calendar did. I won’t go into any detail, but my resolutions concern the fact that I was becoming vaguely schizoid: a normal, social, affable chap during our New York sojourns… and a depressive, obsessive, profanity-barking shut-in whilst in LA.

So I’m trying to smear a bit of one personality into the other, and indulge some of the fun things we do in New York and translate them, however ham-handedly, to Los Angeles. In that light, my question for you today is this… fuck resolutions, what indulgences do you plan on wallowing in this new year?

I will name but a few of mine:

1. unannounced visits

2. cookie dough

3. blurting

4. deflecting fart blame on others, even when no one has farted

5. more social media word game iPhone apps

6. taking untenable positions and doubling down

And you?

[UPDATE…we’re working on the comments button not working, for you working folks, but it should now be working – yeesh alors! – ed.]

exhale’s navy


The last couple of days in New York, I felt like something was wrong – it took the effort of all my limbs just to get out of a chair, and the simple act of making cereal seemed like baking a soufflé for an Edwardian dinner party.

By the time I got to the gate at the airport, I knew I should turn around – I was so sick, I was beginning to hallucinate and mumble odd things. However, a quirk in Virgin America’s disastrous reservations debacle allowed me a seat by myself in first class, so I figured I’d breathe through my parka, order nothing, and not spread whatever I’d caught.

Over Ohio, or Iowa, I began to unravel. I just kept thinking to myself – just get through the next five minutes. Anyone can suffer anything for five minutes. Then the next five minutes. Then the next.

Somehow I lapsed into a fever dream that lasted until Colorado or so, when I opened my eyes and saw Ernest Borgnine – the real Ernest Borgnine – sitting in the other first class seat diagonally across the row. He was dandily attired, wearing perfectly white gloves.

“Ernest Borgnine?” I seemed to say in my fever, “I thought you were dead!”

“HA!” he seemed to reply, “Doin’ better than you are, ya schmuck!”

A long tunnel connects the flights to your baggage at LAX, and again, I walked, thinking “five more steps, anyone can walk five more steps” until I was there, and so was wife and daughter. Tests confirmed I had strep and flu, and I fell onto our couch, where I have been for three days.

I am not doing something right. I’ll be getting surgery for a deviated septum in the next few weeks, and I hope that’ll steer things better. But I’m at loose ends and thinking in new ways for the new year. Perhaps a pair of crisp, cotton indescribably white gloves. Sure, they’ll inspire commentary, but if it works for Ernest Borgnine at 94, I’m in, because Ernest Borgnine is awesome.