Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Laughs Up Close: Leno at Hermosa Beach

Okay, all you poor frozen chumps in Michigan, listen to this story: I went to HERMOSA BEACH Sunday night with the "commune" -- Teddy R., Dennis B., and my beloved Ted N. Doesn't even the very sound of the name "Hermosa Beach" strike envy into your ice-encrusted Midwestern hearts? I'm almost ashamed to tell this story.

But, I will. We heard that almost every Sunday night, Jay Leno shows up at the Comedy and Magic Club in the aforementioned H.B. and tries out his jokes for the next week on the show. We bought tickets for the 7 p.m. show and as we'd been advised, showed up at 4:30 to be as close to first in line as possible. I had "The Emperor's Children," a fat new novel by Claire Messud,, in my stylish LA shoulder bag, just in case my friends' conversational wit (or mine, let's be fair) failed while waiting for The Man to appear. And bear in mind this was OSCAR night -- would he really give up a night of schmoozing at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood for a roomful of overweight tourists?

Well, yes, as it turned out, he would.

But first, we had to wait in the blessed Sunday afternoon sun outside. There were only five people in front of us -- some overly tanned bleached-blond nurses (we learned) who beat us to first choice tables in the 300-seat venue. That was okay. We got great seats about 10 feet from the stage and ordered our first round of drinks -- a kamikaze for me, of course. Then reasonably decent kalimari appetizers and an edible romaine salad, though Teddy R. complained it was "too white." Then an assortment of raviolis and teriyakis, merely krill to keep us occupied until the first comic, charming Wayne Cotter, stepped out. Hilarious guy, and such a nice kid. And then James Brogan, a native Buckeye (from Cleveland, that rich source of dark humor) whose whole schtick consisted of asking audience members, "Where are you from?" and going from there. "Who's that?" he asked one retired English teacher about the rather dumbfounded geezer beside her. "My live in lover," she shouted happily, and he moved to the next table...

(That's handsome Wayne Cotter on the left)

And then with no fanfare, out stepped Leno, his hair and tie askew as if he'd just clambered off his motorcycle. I laughed so hard the raviolis were doing a tango in my belly. After a 45 minute monologue (a bit stale, frankly, relying weirdly on Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson jokes), he pulled out a little stack of index cards and his glasses in a black case held together with a rubber band. When he pulled off the rubber band and opened the case, the rubber band stuck to his glasses and was still dangling there when he put them on. Interesting offhand remark: He said his wife keeps nagging him, "Honey, you make millions of dollars, you'd think you could have a glasses case that doesn't need a rubber band around it." He seemed like a regular guy, if a bit frenetic. He had a little old-fashioned tape recorder which he clicked on and propped up on a stool, presumably to record our reactions. It was all so low-tech -- I felt right at home.

So, we laughed our asses off as he made jokes about Britney Spears and Hillary Clinton's pantsuits and his Italian childhood, and then he said, "Well, there's probably four or five good ones there," and he tucked his index cards back in his jacket, put away his glasses, picked up the little recorder and disappeared. I finished off the last swig of my kamikaze and my friends and I went out into the fresh air of Hermosa Beach, surprised night had fallen during our two hours of hilarity.

Monday night, I fell asleep before the Leno show, but Ted stayed up for it and said he used about a dozen of those Hermosa Beach gags. And last night, a couple more popped out, and I feel like I was part of something, with my laughs. I never had to crack that novel.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

La Luna

My talented young webmaster Shane stopped by to pick something up just as the eclipse last night went into its full glory. He went home and caught the gorgeous lady above. What a relief to savor this beauty on a crisp winter night. Check out Shane's other handiwork at Check out Mother Nature's handiwork again tonight -- no eclipse, but another splendid moon.

Even with Trial Two on the melatonin (didn't stick in my throat this time) my body said "stay awake and watch the moon." It must be something primitive: keep the fire going, see what's happening in the sky. This apparently matters to my subconscious brain.

Tomorrow, full moon over the LA Harbor.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Enough Already, and a Soporific

His visage is sweet and loving and all that, but I've been informed enough is enough with the Mahareshi. I've been swamped and uninspired, probably half-suffocated by SAD...such an appropriate acronym. What a winter! Ten degrees this morning, with lovely, sparkling drips of ice growing down the screen of my big office window. I love this window.

This winter is reassuring, though: a short-term salve for worries about global warming. I keep wondering, is this the last hard winter of my life? I don't feel like complaining. Each day of hard freeze seems like a reprieve.

Trouble sleeping -- part deep-winter angst, part post-menopause, part too much work before LA -- and so yesterday I picked up a little brown vial of melatonin, 500 mcg. I tried melatonin in the 90s during a bad time of life, both parents and a dear friend dying, professional travails, and it worked well until my dreamlife turned on me with frightening nightmares. A dozen years on, I'm ready to try it again.

So I pop the little pill an hour before bedtime, and the damn thing gets stuck in my gullet. No matter how many times I swallow, I can feel it clinging to the left side of my esophagus. I make a cup of (consciously chosen) Sleepytime tea and gulp iit slowly; the bolus is still there, stuck. Who can fall asleep with that going on? Frustrated, I click "sleep" on my bedside radio and trust the monotonous midnight BBC will do the trick, and it does, even its catastrophic catalog about Kenya and Kosovo. At least this night there's news of Obama's latest wins, a remarkable momentum. Daring to hope for change, I finally fall asleep, my last-ditch melatonin eventually melting in my throat.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Goodbye to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Okay, I admit it. Back in about 1975, three or four years into my so-called adult life as a kid reporter in Southern California, I took lessons in transcendental meditation, and at the end of it, I showed up with a bouquet of fresh flowers and some fruit for my one-to-one meeting with a TM leader, passed along a handful of cash, and received a mantra. I can't remember exactly how much I paid. For a while, telling my story, I used to say it cost me $75, but now it seems like it might have been $125. I don't know why I say that -- as time goes by I'm less and less sure about certain specifics -- even finding myself asking "so what?"

Well, I've made fun of myself through the years for "buying a mantra," as I've sometimes disparagingly put it. But when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died this week, apparently in his 90s, I felt a wave of affection for him, for his beautiful face and disarming giggle -- he is a memorable image of a time in the life of my Baby Boomer brothers and sisters and me when we still were having youthful fun, exploring, believing in peace, in some cases still toying with the notion of "free love" and generally still thinking that anything we dreamed of could come true. Other things I remember from that time are listening obsessively to Tom Waits' album Heart of Saturday Night, and hearing about Bruce Springsteen for the first time. One night a bunch of friends and I drank a couple of bottles of Cold Duck -- yes, that was a kind of wine, icky but effective -- and proceeded, half tipsy, to see All the President's Men. I was working the early shift as a copy editor at the Orange Coast Daily Pilot, going in at 5:45 a.m., and I used to shoot out to the track at a local high school to jog three miles on my lunch hour, which was at 10 a.m. As I recall it, I never experienced the slightest insomnia, but I lived my life on a lot of 20-something adrenaline, and I was fitful, always restless. I faithfully meditated, twice a day, for about, well...let's say, three or four months.

But, I confess, I still remember my mantra, and occasionally, in the middle of the night when I can't sleep and the scary realities along with the spectres of old age and death pursue me and interfere with my serenity, sometimes I lie in bed quietly and calm myself by murmuring my mantra, over and over again. It seems to help, and I'm grateful for it.

Where The Energy Is: Versiz and Future

That's Detroit poet Versiz on the left.

I've been ruminating on this claim for a couple of weeks, and now here goes -- this frigid Sunday I'm ready to commit: If you want to know where the real energy is in the poetry scene in Flint, this, without a doubt, is the answer. It's not in the University where I work (and teach creative writing, so I'm commenting about myself). It's not in the small struggling pods of young downtown writers, as admirable as are their efforts. It's in the African American community.

Well, Duh. I"ve understood this for several years now, and I think it's interesting and worth discussing. A dramatic example: A couple of weeks ago I showed up at the Kiva at UM-Flint for "Flint UnPlugged," a poetry event organized by Flint's irrepressible Ed Wilson, aka Future. It was a cold, dark night and I got there a bit late, remembering how most poetry events, perhaps reflecting the phlegmatic state of a lot of the poets I know, along with their constitutional inability to keep to the world's timetables, start late. But Future and his colleagues are pros, and he runs things like a Hollywood mogul. When I arrived the event was already in full stride, every seat taken, the house lights down, somebody from Detroit wailing away at the mic, the crowd loudly cheering her on.

(That's Flint's Ed "Future" Wilson on the right. He's got a great smile, though you can't tell it here.)

I had to sit on the carpeted steps. The Kiva holds 300 people, friends. That's THREE HUNDRED. I can't remember the last time in Flint when 300 people showed up for poetry in Flint, if ever -- even in the Fall of 2006, when former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass came in on a Green Arts visit, we felt lucky to attract about 100 to the same venue.

The show went on for several hours, and an acquaintance of mine said UMF Housekeeping had to scoot the last folks out at 11 p.m. Wilson, a UMF mass communications grad, along with an energetic Flint cadre including local favorite Amber Lakes, recent Red Ink MC Dawn Demps, and UM - Flint Communications Prof. Traci Currie, has been putting together one galvanizing event after another.

The most impressive poet that night, in my view, was Detroit virtuoso Jamaal May, who goes by the nom de mic Versiz. His suite of war poems, in particular, was gripping. Before performing them he said something like, "Where are the war poems?" and chastised the white poetry establishment -- this war's going on and on, he said, and "they're sitting around writing about...I don't know...trees." Ouch -- as a Green Arts teacher, I protest that specific disparagement. More on that later -- nonetheless, his poems were riveting. And he's venturing into putting those poems onto the page, announcing the selection of some of his work recently by Atlanta Review.

Wilson's performance that night is viewable on his myspace page He's an amiable egotist , self-declared "handsome dude" with gargantuan talent and heart. He says in one piece I've heard him perform a couple of times, "I learned to love my scars."

"There's more man in my poems," he exuberantly asserts, his arms flying in that curved-hand dance of the hip hoppers, "than society's seen in the past 20 something odd years...I'm gifted."

But he's not just out for himself -- he offers hard critiques of BET, "fools puttin' $10,000 rims on" and a ghetto culture with not enough father love or meaningful support. (In the following quotes I apologize if I don't get everything exactly as he says them -- I transcribed them from the video) "I know how it feels to shape your goals only to have the world shoot through 'em," he declares. "to watch your dreams die on a hotel balcony."

In the same piece, he contends, "The ghetto is full of animals/cannibals that are ruining your home/devouring what you own/dealing death for life."

"So it's hard to smell the roses when you grow up in a world full of problems/with no help tryin' to solve's easier to love the devil at your door." Maybe that's why Wilson and Versiz don't have time to write about trees.

Future's gospel ends with a pledge to "love you to death," and at the Kiva that cold January night in Flint, the audience roared back their approval. If this is where the poetry is these days in Flint, we could do worse.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Snow Day

Wednesday night and Thursday were magical. What a luxury to be snowed in. Today, the world is bit frowzy, chunks of snow dropping off branches and jagged paths cut or blown out through the foot of snow on the sidewalks. People seem to be venturing out into the cold realities again, and I'm about to join them. But I'd prefer to nestle back into my burrow and sleep until spring.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday: Exuberant Democracy

Sitting in the coffee shop at Bishop Airport waiting for foggy daylight after dropping Ted off, I watched CNN on the big screen TV as Hillary Clinton walked into her polling booth in Harlem. She looked good in that stylish chocolate brown suit -- I think the same one she wore for last week's debate. Bill was at her side, but interestingly, kept his back to the cameras. When Hillary went into the booth and pulled the curtains closed, I thought, thank god, she has a moment of solitude. I wondered what she was thinking in there -- a bit of privacy, courtesy of the 232-year-old American tradition, less than a hundred since women got the vote. I felt a little teary-eyed. The fabric of our old republic, so worn and tattered in recent decades, suddenly seems fresh and invigorated. I've never seen such energy, even, as Jon Stewart doubtfully offered last night, a blend of "hope and joy." "I just gotta say," he cracked dyspeptically, "I don't much care for it."

Well, here's another scene for us cynics to chew on: at our goodbye dinner out last night, Ted and I eavesdropped as a couple in a booth behind us talked animatedly about the primaries: a young woman in spiky, highlighted hair offering enthusiastic opinions about McCain's chances, while her companion, a young man, tried to keep up though he didn't seem too sure of all the facts. She covered everything: McCain's views on the war, on abortion, on the economy. Here's the kicker -- did you get it? They were YOUNG! This is big.