Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dreamy After Glow and a Bougainvillea Dustup


Aren't those kind of cute, in a way? An earthquake one day and a colonoscopy the next have put me in a mild and mushy mood. Of course the Demerol hasn't worn off yet, but instead of lingering in grief over the loss of two polyps nice young Dr. Zaidel found and snipped off while I was in LaLa Land, I'll just say that it's rather sweet to be all in one piece in our little perch on the hillside stretched out under our new prism-striped bedspread listening to the wind in the palm trees outside we call Fred and Ethel. Ted is lying here next to me for post-procedure companionship, and we're watching CNN and PBS and bitching about everything. We love Gwen Ifill but can't stand Roland Martin. Tired of Wolf Blitzer's voice. Like Campbell Brown, and respect Gloria Borger. Tired of hearing about the earthquake. Etc. Etc.

They were playing old Rolling Stone in the procedure room. I commented on it and the friendly "butt tech" kid said, "would you like to voice a preference?" I muttered I didn't think I'd be awake long enough to enjoy it. At that moment I was cold with last second anxiety and wondering why there was a digital readout up at the ceiling that read 00:00. What was that about? Time stops during colonoscopies? I wish I'd said, like, "yeah, Nick Drake" or something just to be cool.

A person is not cool while naked on a padded gurney with her butt crack exposed to the long hose with a tiny camera on the end. Think there's a chance I could get that on You-Tube? I seem to remember saying "ouch," "ouch" a couple of times, but when I opened my eyes I was done and back in the recovery room, still on my left side, hearing a lady holler, "I'm going to die, I'm going to die." I don't know if she did but I didn't, at least not yet.

Anyway, back to our airy aerie. Just as we were settling down to wait for my sobriety, the neighbors on two adjoining terraces below us got into a dustup over their back fences: She, of a round little body and beatup sunhats and a wonderful little patch of tangled and overgrown melon vines, tomatoes, beans and corn stalks started yelling "I know what you do when I'm not looking! You fucking reach over my fence and cut away my fucking bougainvilleas!" He apparently made the mistake of calling her honey, which prompted a fresh streak of blue from said lady gardener. "How fucking dare you? Who do you think you are?" We couldn't make out his abashed response. Ted and I love this hillside. Fights over bougainvilleas...it just makes me happy. She has two little dogs and plays solitaire on a card table under a dilapidated lean-to at night. I'm on her side.

First food after getting home: a nice slim ham and cheese sandwich.

New info: diverticulosis. Oh, lord, didn't they used to make fun of that on Saturday Night Live? Well, there's a tradeoff: another disease to gab about at parties. BINGO! My body is gifting me yet again: woo-hoo! A new way to bore my friends and establish my creds as an old dame.

The only treatment, according to a damp little handout they stuck into my clammy palms: what my mother called roughage. I can't imagine that I haven't eaten enough roughage -- it was the central item on my mother's Ohio menus. All hail roughage.

Off to sink back into dreamy land to Jim Lehrer's comforting voice while it lasts...and then Ted and I are repairing to the Think Cafe up in the strip mall for lots of...roughage.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

YIKES! Shakin' in Pedro

5.8 earthquake for 20 seconds just scared the bejeezus out of me. It's nervewracking on this steep hillside! I bolted for the doorframe. So did everybody else on the street...now my BP is calming down. No worse for the wear but a bit shaky.
Later: Now they've downgraded it to a 5.4. It still made things rattle and roll around here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Bad Boy Poet

On the other hand, the Times featured "Bad Boy" San Francisco poet August Kleinzahler, crusty author of the collection Sleeping It Off in Rapid City in a "Column One" page one feature jumping to a long feature on A12 Link to Kleinzahler.

If you're tired of the academic establishment or academic poetry, the belligerent Kleinzahler's acerbic attitude will please you. As the article notes, he once called University writing programs "multi-million-dollar Ponzi schemes" in which, reporter John Glionna says, "Volvo driving poet-professors are too fearful of risking prizes or promotions to make waves."

Well, I don't know how to break it to Kleinzahler, but I've got an 11-year-old Honda and no tenure and I decided long ago that the joy of my sinecure, such as it is, is that there's not much to lose. I am grateful to the academy for being one of the few places that respects and values poetry. It's not perfect, but it's one place where I can find somebody to talk to about, say, the sweet satisfaction of a well-chosen line break, or a poem that grabs me by the neck.

Kleinzahler's chosen hangouts -- the dives of San Francisco and elsewhere -- are indeed rich mines for the pen -- they have been and probably always will be. I began my own performance career not in the academy but in the bar -- a beloved dump in downtown Flint that was long ago replaced by a parking lot. It was a good, rough, rowdy school and I cherish my memories of that time and that practical apprenticeship. But drunks aren't the only ones with insights about this world.

I like my sacramental quaffs of Irish and the occasional excesses of good red wine. But as my students will tell you, I have little patience for those who come to writing thinking it requires alcoholism and drugs as fuel. Writing takes a clear head and physical energy. So, in short, sitting on a hillside this morning not far from where Bukowski raged from barstool to barstool, I'm not convinced I need to read another misanthropic poem about a hangover. Nonetheless I'm glad he's prospering, even in light of his vitriol, because I think lots of poetry -- and lots of voices -- are good for the world. I bought the book and have it in front of me. Once I've put in my own hours of labor over the language, in whatever semblance of right mind I possess, I'll give him a chance to move me.

Another Nail in the Coffin


Yesterday's pull-out tabloid, the Opinion and Book Review section, was the last one, according to an editorial.Times Link. The section already had been diminished -- as I bemoaned in a post a couple of weeks ago, they'd recently re-designed the increasingly measly supplement so you had to turn it over to read the other half, and it was often buried among the (also thinning) classified ads.
It must be so depressing for those writers and editors at the Times, who are seeing their careers and, I imagine, their love of newspapers going down the drain. Fast, faster, faster.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"A Hunger in Himself to Be More Serious"

A post by Gillian Swart about churches getting co-opted by modernists prompted me to look this old Philip Larkin poem up, one that I've always loved -- especially the wry "once I am sure there's nothing going on," and "I take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence."

Searching for a good image of Larkin to post, I see some Irish blogger describes the late bad boy as "a miserible effing sod, useful as a bag of arses."
I rather like that. Could a poet hope for more?

Church Going

Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation ?marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these ?for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Philip Larkin
(1922-1985)

Amusing shot from Photobucket.com: the same bike he used for churchgoing, perhaps?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Culture Snacks: French Film, Jazz, Dillard and Murikami


I've had time to read and catch up on "cultcha." Here are a few brief reports:

-- Tell No One, the French thriller, is the best movie I've seen for ages. From a novel by Harlan Coben, its tag line goes something like this: Eight years ago, his wife was murdered. Today, she sent him an email." Dustin Hoffman-lookalike Francois Cluzet is superb as the obsessed widower, and Kristin Scott Thomas, speaking excellent French, plays an honorable role. The subtitles are easy to read and everything about it is a pleasure. I particularly enjoyed François Berléand as a sympathetic police inspector. Adding to our enjoyment was that we saw it at the Landmark Theater on Pico Boulevard in West LA one Sunday morning where you pick your seat at the ticket counter and where a friendly, uniformed young man comes out at the beginning--an actual person, who seems delighted you're there!-- and welcomes you, making a few introductory comments about the film. The film has classic French touches, including the end (no, I'm not going to spoil it) but I found myself saying, "An American film would never end this way."

-- We visited one of our favorite music haunts, Rosalie and Alva's on Eighth in San Pedro right across from Shin-Shin, two times lately. The first time we heard the Quartet Equinox, intriguingly billed as "flamenco jazz." I like flamenco and could see the connection, but the riffs rapidly turned very esoteric and challenging, as in "Seven C's," a piece in 7/4 time that was incredibly cerebral and hard to follow. Listening to it was like trying to figure out a "very difficult" sudoku -- you know there's a pattern there, but you can't quite get it. As in the case of working out a sudoku, listening to this music is probably a good Alzheimer's preventative, but not too relaxing on a Saturday night. The second band we saw there was the Chris Dundas Group, another jazz ensemble including one of the same musicians, sax player Andy Suzuki. I found their offerings more accessible, drawing from the repertoires of Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett among others, but still, the long exploratory riffs began to feel more like work than entertainment. Perhaps it's just that my tastes lean more to the melodic and less to the abstract -- this music reminded me of the poems of Jorie Graham, when I'm often in the mood for Billy Collins. As always, however, the musicianship of these folks is stellar -- Rosalie and Alva's energetic son and music coordinator Matt never fails to bring the best to this appealing, small scale venue. They are often musicians' musicians, I think -- given the opportunity to do whatever they want to a very appreciative audience and great acoustics.

-- Just finished reading two novels I had on my pile: The Maytrees by Annie Dillard and After Dark by Haruki Murakami. Each has its pleasures. Dillard's style is syntactically odd with truncated rhythms, spare, reticent diction like one stone laid down after another and many weird expressions. It feels a lot like poetry and it's sometimes hard to get comfy with the flow. Example: "Girl Lou liked her easy Provincetown friends -- hardworking, laughing girls, half of them Portuguese, who directly stuck her like spat to their clump." Spat to their clump? When it works, it's lovely: "Unseen, a catbird sang baroque. The wind was clocking east. It cracked the cold sea line." By the last third of the novel, however, I finally got used to her way and enjoyed the unusual plot resolution, a kind of happy ending. While Dillard plays with the narrative thread, jumping back and forth infuriatingly -- but you see from my comments above that I'm not wholly comfortable with abstract leaping -- it eventually comes together, structurally finding its way to a traditional wrap-up. Perhaps, as she says of one of the central characters, Dillard has "outgrown eloquence."

Jay Rubin's translation of Murakami's 2007 novel is smooth and engaging. The story takes place over a single night, and as inKafka At the Shore, Murakami demonstrates a particular empathy for and brilliance at capturing late adolescent characters struggling to find themselves -- in this case, the charming Mari, whom we first see sitting in the front window of a Denny's. I enjoyed how she comes to know the sweet trombonist Takahashi, and the gruff but endearing manager of a "love hotel" Kaoru. It also tickled me that Mari's sister, the beautiful Eri, sleeps through the whole book, and in fact has been sleeping for two months. Mari's myth-busting attempt to kiss her sister awake in the last scenes is a poignant twist. Murakami's predilection for the surreal surfaces here as it often does in his work (in this story, Eri somehow is watched by a "Man With No Face" from a TV screen and then somehow finds herself transported, and trapped there in his blank room) and sometimes that makes me impatient. In the case of Dillard, it's her style that stood in my way initially; in Murakami, an indeterminant resolution is the name of the game, placing the story somewhere between magic realism, existentialism and hope. "Whatever it is, something is trying to send a sign to this side through a tiny opening in the consciousness," he writes in ending. "The night has begun to open up at last. There will be time until the next darkness arrives." But, but, what happened to the guy who beat up the prostitute? Will Eri ever wake up? Will Mari go to Beijing? Don't expect to get the answers.

Oh, aren't I a cranky dinosaur this morning.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Caught with our Pants Down Again


Flint has a faultless way of getting into the news -- usually for dumb, embarrassing or damaging reasons. Today is no exception -- in the "fall out," so to speak from Flint Police Chief David Dicks' recent saggy pants ultimatum (see my July 11 post) -- the LA Times actually ran an editorial on the silliness. Link

Here's the first paragraph:

Flint, Mich., has run out of crime. There are no statistics to prove this assertion, but it must be true. Only the total absence of lawbreaking can explain why the police department has turned to fashion enforcement. Flint, best known as the hard-luck, gritty town featured in Michael Moore's documentary "Roger and Me," is being mocked across the globe for its police chief's decision to arrest and ticket the wearers of sagging pants."

I don't know why I feel a slight impulse to defend him, but I'm yielding to the urge to mention that Dicks' own son was shot to death on the very same day he was installed as police chief this spring. I'm not sure if that excuses his irrationality, but it correlates with it.

Anyway, for decades now, the city of Flint seems to be suffering from a collective head injury, as if major brain trauma is the result of the weapon of mental destruction known as General Motors. I keep going back to Arnold Seligman's theory of learned helplessness. Flint is the shocked dog that doesn't realize the lid's been lifted off the cage.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On Eloquence: "Beautiful Folly"?

I'm thoroughly enjoying Dennis Donoghue's book On Eloquence, which just arrived at my doorstep yesterday. How refreshing to have time to read thoughtfully. In his first few pages, setting out his premises, he describes eloquence as playfulness, like dancing, as opposed to the sometimes dreary business of rhetoric:

"Rhetoric has an aim: to move people to do one thing rather than another. Hitler's Mein Kampf is a work of rhetoric. So is The Communist Manifesto. So are Stanley Fish's Is there a Text in this Class and Jacques Derrida's De La Grammatologie...Eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice."

And here's this quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which to my surprise made me break out in little squirts of tears:

"How lovely it is that there are words and sounds. Are not words and sounds rainbows and illusive bridges between things which are eternally apart? But all sounds make us forget this; how lovely it is that we forget...Are not words and sounds given to things so that man can renew himself through things? Speech is a beautiful folly: by means of it, man dances over all things. How sweet is all speech; [how sweet] all the illusion of sounds! With sounds our love dances on many-coloured rainbows!

Hmmm...I wonder if I can convince my first-year writers in "College Rhetoric" this fall -- that late-adolescent crowd so determined to be sophisticated and cynical -- to side with Zarathustra...

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Blogonut Wireless


Back in Tonga there used to be a phenomenon (I suppose there still is) we called the "coconut wireless" which meant basically that news could travel fast by word of mouth through the bush. The immediacy of person-to-person transmission was interesting, amusing and somewhat mysterious -- how did something travel so fast, if not always accurately, and certainly not in a straight line? It was more like a complicated dominos design dropping tidbits across the whole island of Tongatapu, spreading simultaneously in a dozen, a hundred, directions, vividly representative of the human impulse to "tell."

I'm thinking about the Coconut Wireless this morning as I sign in and realize I'm creating here my own little network of friends whose writing I can see through the new Blogger feature I just added, at right, the "Blog List" including blogs from former Flintoid Gillian Swart, Grand Rapids poet Greg Rappleye, my colleagues Cathy Akers-Jordan, Jim Anderson, tech role model Krista Heiser, and fellow "communards" Teddy Robertson and Dennis "Sporeman" Brown -- people whose lively observations and wit -- whose lives, really, however they write about and depict them -- I find intriguing, stimulating and entertaining.

Last week, feeling lachrymose, I offered a eulogy of sorts for newspapers, but this morning I'm leaning toward a brighter perspective. Some of the channels evolving to replace newspapers are pretty damn terrific, offering intricate and complex ways to say who we are and what it's like to be human at This Moment. We're all in the game, paying attention, reacting, writing poems, taking pictures, venting, griping, celebrating, solving problems, wisecracking, bemoaning, remembering, arguing -- it's amazingly energetic and idiosyncratic. Technology has not led us to the loss of humanity we feared, at least as it's playing out on the Internet. It has proliferated our humanity, opening up a zazillion channels for the individual voice. Is anybody listening to anybody else? Well, I'm at least listening to the folks on that blog roll at the right, and I think they're listening to me. Here's to the human voice -- voices.

Hmm..this Monday morning seems to find me uncharacteristically optimistic. No marine layer here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Hear Greg's Poem

Wondrous poet Greg Rappleye's excellent poem "Blackbirds" is featured today on Poetry Daily. I've tried to put up a link but failed -- go to Greg's blog, listed at right (Sonnets at 4 a.m.) to find it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Crow on the Counter



Finally heard somebody on NPR bring up "It's a Wonderful Life" this morning when talking about the IndyMac bank collapse. it started in Pasadena last week, a town full of the old rich; It's old California, with a very upscale facade trying to be a bit like Bedford Falls. Many depositors there, one is quite sure, have much more than the FIDC-insured $100,000.

People literally pounded on the glass doors of the Pasadena branch and jostled upstreperously in lines down the block: "inline and enraged," before dawn even today, according to a "Day to Day" reporter this morning in Santa Monica.

Oh for the days when Jimmy Stewart made it all right, cajoling his customers to take $20 at a time from his honeymoon stash: he took time to talk them out of their panic. It ain't working in Pasadena and elsewhere. Too many Mr. Potters, perhaps? And people are saying no matter what they're being told, they don't trust the gov'mint. Whaaa???

"I don't understand our government, I don't understand how it got this way, and I'm really pretty unhappy -- and the people at the top don't think anything is going on...but don't get me started," one customer in line spat out. "This is a travesty -- this was supposed to be the safest place," one guy waiting on a lawn chair added.

My dad, whose family lost their Indiana farm in the Great Depression partly because his father disastrously speculated on "hog futures," forever thereafter hoarded cash. He felt secure only if he had about $10,000 in Franklins tucked away in various hiding places that he took pride in designing in his woodworking shop. When we sold his house we always worried we had not found all his caches, though we dug rolls of greenbacks out of five different places. Lately I've found myself hoarding cash like my old man. But if the whole system collapses will cash even matter? I'm even hearing a six-pack of Budweiser has gone up a buck over the past year.

My favorite part of that Jimmy Stewart shot above is the crow -- one of the smartest birds -- overseeing the negotiations. Maybe IndyMac needs a resident bird -- not, of course, the canary in the coal mine which one suspects expired at least a week ago.

Monday, July 14, 2008

It's SATIRE



It's called "The Politics of Fear." Does this have to be tiresomely explained?

The New Yorker/Obama cover fracas unpleasantly reminds me of MANY incidents with my students having to do with satire. They don't get it, they hate it, and when presented with it, they get all sweaty, agitated and disagreeable. They don't understand why on earth somebody would say one thing and mean something else.

One time one of my brightest, most curious students asked me to define a word I'd just used, "incongruous." Rapidly free-associating, I used the example of the closing scene of the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian. I described "Brian" and his two buddies pinned to their respective crosses, cheerily singing the ridiculous ditty "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." "That's incongruity," I said, and, fondly remembering the movie, god forbid (so to speak), I chuckled.

Cue the dark, foreboding music.

No sooner did I get back to my office than I had a bitter, vitriolic email from another of my students, an ardently observant Protestant fundamentalist, vociferously objecting to my example and saying I had violated his religious rights. He threatened to take the matter to my supervisor, which I readily urged him to do. I had to take pains -- which I did voluntarily -- to assure him that I did not mean any offense to his religious passions; in fact, I explained, it was MY religious tradition too, and, as my colleagues and I agreed, many of our Christian students are the best we get -- conscientious, ethical, responsible. I appreciate their innocence.

But like David Remnick at the New Yorker, I hated being in the position of explaining (again) why my example was not meant as religious attack, but as a very precise example of "incongruity." It was satire. And as a preacher's daughter who grew up in a world where a sense of humor was my mark that I'd transcended zealotry, I was deeply disheartened.

Has the national intelligence plunged so precipitiously that the whole idea of satire now escapes us? Is this the best we can do after all these decades, these 232 years of struggling with issues of freedom of speech and tolerance, that we are still so unresolved, so unevolved, so easily triggered to truculence, and still so fearmongering? And I wonder, are all our years of cuts to education budgets beginning to show in a kind of contagious intellectual Alzheimer's?

And what's wrong with the Obama camp? These are Ivy League whizzes with street smarts: They've given us a tantalizing whiff of politics that allow for intellectual complexity. So why this tiresome, cliched automatic response? I'm disappointed.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Saturday Night at Harold's Place



Ah, the joys of a dive.

We heard a blues guy named Shane O'Brien was supposed to play at Harold's Place last night starting at nine. We'd never been there, but as a sometime habitue ( or is that "habituee" in my case?) of down-at-the-heel boites, I wanted to check it out. One of the few dives left on Pacific from the rowdy old days of San Pedro, Harold's, at 19th next to the Burrito Factory, looked to be a suitably downscale cubby hole.

On Google somebody said Harold's used to host to San Pedro's punk scene, which argued against it, but that its regulars were non-judgementally accepting of the punksters, which argued for it. I thought I remembered Harold's was one of Bukowski's hangouts, which argued for it. Reviews noted its location in an iffy Pedro neighborhood (only a few blocks from the green and manicured Air Force base, but the AF officers generally stay snugly garrisoned behind thick walls. From our hillside though we could see somebody flying a red kite on the grass Ft. MacArthur quadrangle yesterday afternoon, a perfect blue day. I doubt if that innocent kite-flyer hangs out at Harold's).

Being calculating adventurers, we reconnoitered earlier to check out where to park. We thought the lot of the Bethany Apostolic storefront across the street offered the perfect sanctuary.

Back home, getting ready, I was thinking about how it takes a bit of guts to walk into a bar for the first time, and how that felt especially true about a dive on Pacific. Standing at the butcher block island in our kitchen, therefore, I readied myself by swilling a small tumbler of merlot. For courage.

All we had to do was cross the street from the speaking-in-tongues storefront and go inside, under Harold's yellow neon sign. We took a deep breath (Ted and I are secretly shy and self-conscious) and loped decisively forward, holding hands. A bouncer with a shaved head, a white teeshirt and elaborate, beautiful arm tattoos standing at the door didn't exactly smile us in, but he wasn't hostile either.

Inside, a row of barstools offered the only place to sit, but at first it looked like all the stools were taken. In the momentary panic I looked around: six pool tables waited, unoccupied. Thankfully, we spied two last stools at the end of the bar, far from the door so we could watch everything. We negotiated our way through the room. Officially, nobody looked up. A string of plastic American flags, left over from the Fourth, hung over the little stage. A sign said beer was $3.75 a bottle. A six-piece band listlessly tinkered with set up, sorting out cords and plugs, doing perfunctory sound checks.

A digital readout said "Hapy Birthday Candy" over and over in red and we tried to guess who Candy was. Everybody looked like regulars. The bartender, Debbie, told us Shane O'Brien wasn't going to play -- there'd been , she said, "a misunderstanding."

Ted and I exchanged glances. I like that kind of moment in a marriage. You look at each other and you go, "Yeah, let's see what happens."

"I'll take a Heineken," I said.

"Ginger ale," my husband ordered.

Debbie said the band was called "Last Minute," which was cute. They finally finished setting up and cranked up two rock 'n roll classics. The zaftig singer with small, delicate feet in bejeweled flipflops world-wearily shook her tambourine. And then they plunged into a respectably convincing cover of "Stormy Monday," during which I committed myself to a couple of blues shouts. Ted started bouncing his shoulders the way he does when he likes the music.

The band looked depressed, playing for a house of about seven people, all with their back to them at the bar, except for Ted and me. But gradually things warmed up.

A woman who might have been Candy jumped up from her stool and danced by herself on the sidewalk, just outside the door, alternately smoking a cigarette and singing along, grinning back in at a big guy we gathered was Ray. (Smoking, of course, is strictly forbidden at Harold's, and so we won't dwell on those who placidly might have lit up at the bar and were officially not noticed.)

A guy sitting next to us didn't say a word to anybody. He poured beer into his glass an inch at a time and fastidiously sipped, savoring every swallow. But he gave the waitress some money to put in the band's tip jar.

A round little troll about four feet tall wearing a huge straw hat ambled in with a black bag over his shoulder, hawking...straw hats, as it turned out. Nobody bought. An enterprising madame in lycra and a helmet parked her bike out front and tried to sell Debbie some body wash -- also unsuccessful, but still. The pleasantly unexpressive bouncer came and went. We ordered a second round. More people wandered in in teeshirts, baggy shorts and flipflops. Everybody seemed to know who they were.

"Howdya like the band?" Debbie asked.

"They're good. I liked the blues," I said. I was thinking about other dives I've hung out in -- The Tonga Club in Nuku'alofa, Hat's Pub and The Torch Bar and Grille on Buckham Alley, both in Flint, and I was thinking how good it felt to be sitting on Pacific Avenue in Pedro with a row of people bent over their drinks, heads nodding just so slightly to the music, which wasn't totally bad.

After the first set a bunch of people came in, hugging the singer, ordering drinks, shaking their booty and populating the pool tables. One of the guitarists bared his belly to the overhead fan. It was hot. The women didn't try to hide big unsculpted breasts and happily flaunted love handles and plump unworked biceps. That's what I like about Pedro -- so NOT Rodeo Drive. "Lots to love" ought to be the town motto.

If I'd stayed through the whole second set I might have danced a little myself. We liked the band a lot and felt for them. But Ted and I are party geezers and we'd soon had enough. Nonetheless, we smiled at each other as we crossed the street back to the Apostolic storefront. Saturday night at Harold's -- that's my kind of church.

Friday, July 11, 2008

That Dream Again: New Pome

I know when I'm settling down in LA -- when the new stuff starts pushing out. Here's a baby, for a day or two before I pull a Rappleye ("poof!")

THAT DREAM AGAIN

*poof*

At Least Somethin' Ain't Saggin' in Flint

Let's just start with the delightful fact that Flint's fairly new top cop is named Chief Dicks. Now let's add his zealous new campaign against saggy pants. And this belongs on The Daily Show. Here's the best news graphic of the day, week, month and year:



Is that clear? Now pull 'em up, ya knuckleheads!

For the whole hilarious story, here's the link from the July 8 Freep: http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2008307080009

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sex and the Simpletons



Who wrote the insipid script for the inane movie version of "Sex and the City"? I think it was either a fifth grade girl, with her imbecile brother providing the "poo-poo" jokes, or a couple of gay men high on too many poppers. Actually, that's an insult to the fifth grader AND the gay men -- I'd have expected better -- funnier, sharper, smarter -- from any of them. It certainly couldn't be an actual real woman, since there are no real women in this painfully half-witted two and a quarter hours.

In fact, the screen writer, I see on Google, was also the director, Michael Patrick King. He should be embarrassed. Whatever this movie is trying to say to and about women, especially women in middle age, I want nothing to do with it. I wouldn't have minded a fizzy fantasy, but not one with an IQ of about 50.

Since I'd occasionally enjoyed the confectionary wit of the HBO series, I went to see the movie the other day at a Torrance multi-plex. I had, I thought, a vague memory of a review in The New Yorker in which the writer said something about it being a guilty pleasure.

It must not have been Anthony Lane, who in a June 9 review calls it, appropriately, "catastrophically retrograde." Nobody fares well in this script. Describing Charlotte's sappy husband Harry, for example, Lane writes, "For a movie about the need for real men—lusty, loyal, and loaded—this unusual earthling is truly a most peculiar advertisement for the gender." All the characters are peculiar and problematic, trite, superficial, unengaging.

My husband went along -- in fact, it was his idea because he thought it might be fun. When it became clear he was the only man in the theater, as little pods of women "of a certain age" wandered in in twos and threes, I put my arm around him and murmured, "Hey, babe, you're a stand out! All these women are going to think, what a sensitive guy!"

He whispered he might really be hoping to see a little big-screen T&A.

But when it was over, he said the only thing that aroused him in the whole movie was the chocolate cake at Charlotte's baby shower.

The trouble is, SATC is never funny enough to be a satisfying parody, not authentic enough to be a satisfying romantic comedy, never smart enough to offer vivid perspectives on the lives of its four notorious metro-gals Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha.

Instead, they're one-dimensional, silly strumpets, little girls with stunted emotional lives dressed up in ridiculous clothes tripping around like drunk flamingoes. And I wasn't even convinced they were having fun. As Anthony Lane put it, "their gallops of conspicuous consumption seem oddly joyless." The last straw for me was when Samantha took a big risk with commitment...and bought a lap dog, one of the ugly little ones with hair in its eyes -- and guess what? Doggie humps everything, including at least one designer purse.

The plot revolves around Carrie getting left at the altar by Big. But even that twist was annoying -- the guy had doubts the night before, like anybody with half a brain, male or female -- and then couldn't quite bring himself to go inside their nuptial venue -- the New York Public Library. Within a minute after telling her he couldn't do it as their limos crossed paths on the street in front of the library, he changed his mind and said, basically, okay, he was okay.

But that one fatal minute of doubt -- wholly justified in any real world -- was enough for her to jettison her bouquet at him, hollering, "You humiliated me!" and call the whole thing off. This led to an orgy of rejection (and more spending from unknown sources), a protracted narcoleptic coma in Mexico and being spoonfed by Samantha, who dropped everything, along with Charlotte and Miranda (how'd she have that much vacation time saved up?) to succor their spurned sister.

The humor is dumb and also mean. For instance, the moment when Carrie gets her first hearty laugh after being left for that micro-second by Big was when Charlotte poops her pants in Mexico. What kind of joke is that? What are these girls, nine year old boys in drag?

In another painful scene, Samantha castigates Miranda for showing a tiny sprig of pubic hair as they relax (girls only) in swimsuits at their Mexico resort. Real pubic hair -- maybe one of the only natural elements in two hours of the phony lives of these scraped, plucked, botoxed, made up harlequins. It's frickin' depressing.

Then there's Jennifer Hudson, the only black character, who shows up with her perfect makeup and sweet batty eyes, the only woman in the movie with a real woman's body -- whose job is to be a kind of upscale mammy to Sarah Jessica Parker's extravagantly distraught Carrie. This seems to have a lot to do with deleting emails (apparently the hysteria makes it impossible for Carrie to hit "delete") and sorting through Manolo Blahnik shoes. Her reward? A Louis Vuitton handbag, (ugly as hell, by the way) to replace the fake ones she'd been renting. She eventually gets HER man and retires, handbag awkwardly slung on her arm, back to St. Louis where she's much more likely, one suspects, to fit in.

Carrie's supposed to be a writer, but we see her type only one word: "Love..." and then she revises, deleting those uncertain ellipses. Wow. What work! What brave rethinking!

Anthony Lane comments, "There is a deep sadness in the sight of Carrie and friends defining themselves not as Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter did—by their talents, their hats, and the swordplay of their wits—but purely by their ability to snare and keep a man. Believe me, ladies, we’re not worth it." He concludes, "I walked into the theatre hoping for a nice evening and came out as a hard-line Marxist, my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness."

For myself, I didn't come out quoting Marx. But weirdly, in the midst of its vacuous froth, the movie's nods to a mutated, dopey feminism were among its worst offenses. "Sex" is a big disappointment for real women who'd have liked an intelligent, knowing romp into the considerable humor, when it comes down to it, of real work, real bodies, real friends and real men.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Monday Morning Aerobics for Gray Cells


Brain scientists say the secret of retaining memory, if I understand correctly, is to lay down deep paths in one's thick matter between the ears.

I'm trying to dig a deeper vein for two words I like and often can't remember for some reason.

Last week I couldn't think of the name for the red, orange, sometimes purplish flowers that spill over many walls and fences here in SoCal. All that kept coming to me was frangipani, a wonderful Polynesian word which is fun to say and anchored in my memory because, I suspect, it got anchored there during two very intense years of my life. Every time I asked my brain to locate the word for those flowers, it kept spitting back "frangipani, frangipani!" and I kept saying, NO, thanks for that word but that isn't it.

Finally, at an unguarded, relaxed moment the word I wanted popped out: bougainvillea! Whew. The same number of syllables as frangipani, but a different flora altogether. Bougainvillea! Above, courtesy of Google images, is the way they look on a veranda in Zimbabwe. There's a sweet word, by the way -- veranda. Sounds so peaceful and relaxing.

The second other word that often eludes me is the one for the chemical rush one gets out of, say, running a marathon, or, in my more geriatric life, getting to the local rib joint in time for the senior special. I think and think and think and finally, the word magically plops into consciousness: ENDORPHINS! Remembering this beneficent word gives me an endorphin rush. Now I'm ready to start my week, my personal lexicon spruced up. Bougainvillea, endorphins! Hooray!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Obama in Hollywood


Oh, man, this picture has it all..Barry on Hollywood Boulevard in his cardboard cutout gorgeosity, bubbles (yes, look for them, they're there) reminding us of our indubitably happier days ahead, the resplendently garish El Capitan, not to mention the Walt Disney Studio Store, the Walk of Fame, the teeshirts, the posters, the bumper stickers, the ideas. Oh, wait...not those. No, wait, again, Macy, don't be snooty..."no ideas but in things"! Okay, there's a bunch of those in Hollyweird. If you enter "Obama Hollywood" on Google, you get 9,600,000 entries. My, my, my, life is good. This, my friends, is American politics today! Yes we can! Yes we can!

Laundry Room with a View, After Pyrotechnics



This is what I see while folding clean teeshirts and undies. It has to be the best view in the world for doing laundry. I know there's a poem here but lately I find myself more attracted to the visual image, the immediacy of my little digital camera. I could say I'm lazy, but on this Saturday morning I'm too calm and happy for guilty self-defaming. A photo is a moment. Right now, a lovely one.

Doing laundry, as usual, is a welcome meditation, after last night's raucous Pedro fireworks. We sat on the balcony sipping what I'll call pom-agne, or, how about champ-egranate, a red blend of pomegranate juice and champagne, while the crazy neighbors down the hill shot off hours of their ill-gotten booty. Then we watched the "legitimate" show at Cabrillo Beach, also catching blooms from the Queen Mary across the harbor and even, in the hazy distance, Newport Beach.

Holly remembered a place in Missouri called Boomland where her family always used to stop and shop on their way home from vacation. I remembered one out in the woods of Central Ohio near my parents' nursing home. In both cases, we loaded trunks with giant fireworks and guiltlessly spirited them back to Michigan. I used to charge mine, enjoying going into debt for pyrotechnics. So much more colorful than, say, a washer and dryer!

Holly said Boomland blew up. Which seemed funnily appropriate. It happened in 2005 and they built another one, I see on Google. I'm not sure about the place in Ohio. Like the steakhouse and bar down the street from my parents' Tara-like last residence, the pole barn stacked with Iraq-sized pyrotechnics offered explosive relief from the gloom of my parents' decline. It was sort of like, mortality sucks, let's light a 36-Shot Happy! Once we tried to put on a show with our boomers at the pond behind The Home. We rolled my mother in her wheelchair through the grass to watch. The whole thing made her nervous and, after picking up the shreds of burnt cardboard and blackened fuses, we chalked it up as a possibly good-hearted but failed gesture.

My taste for the noise, especially, has subsided. I still think mortality sucks. Old age isn't looking all that great either. But like a photo, fireworks celebrate bright, brief moments. As Dennis said last night, "it's quite an art, to make that happen so fast, and then it's over." We wondered about the people who design them. They must have an amazing appreciation for the possibilities of five seconds of life in the dark.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Local Wonders #2: Korean Bell in Fog

Tomorrow is the Korean Bell's big day -- one of only two in the year it is rung. Tomorrow the site at the top of the hill overlooking a wide expanse of harbor and ocean will be crowded with well-wishers, celebrants, politicians and ringers wearing white gloves. Today, it was quiet and enveloped in fog. At first I was the only one there -- what delight to be alone here. Then a hawk getting chased by crows. Then these two gulls. Then a long-haired guy with a long-haired dog. Then three gabby Korean men with a bottle of Windex and a red rag, polishing the plaques -- for tomorrow, I suppose. It's one of my favorite places in San Pedro.



Local Wonders: Ted Kooser's and Mine


We awoke to a thick, cool marine layer today. This is our favorite kind of San Pedro morning. The front windows of the apartment are wide open facing out to a misty, dreamlike harbor, only four shadowy palms visible at what I know is Fort MacArthur. Behind the fog, the harbor sounds continue, muffled, a murmuring chant, soothing after last night's annoying bursts of cherry bombs. The marine layer is a local wonder.

The phrase emerges because on the flight out here, I finished reading a book about a life about as far from LA as you can get -- Ted Kooser's Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps. The "Alps" he writes about are a series of low hills in Eastern Nebraska settled by Czech and German immigrants in the 1870s. Writing one chapter for each of the seasons, he ruminates about his outhouse, church dinners, the rarity of curved roads in the Midwest, his dog Alice, tombstones, mice families, herbicide sprayers, his Uncle Tubby, Mennonite women in their sixties at the Etcetera Thrift and Gift Shop in Seward, Nebraska: "They handle every article with reverence, as if it had personality and character; they have a winning way of looking upon a homely paint-by-number picture or a tweed sports coat that's a little bit stinky under the arms. You can tell that though they'll be happy to see it go, they wish it a happy future."

I imagine some "sophisticated" people find Kooser's writing dismissable -- his writing is quietly observant and his topics totally unpretentious. I seem to recall a few sneers when he was named the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate. (Jim Harrison, a dyed-in-the-wool Michigander who, let's face it, hangs out with pretty rarefied company from time to time, and who's a friend of Kooser's, says Local Wonders is "The quietest magnificent book I've ever read." So there.)

As a Midwesterner to my marrow, I think Kooser gets it -- the weather, the heart of life in the lands of four seasons. He makes me want to buy a chunk of land and raise goats -- a ridiculous notion for ME. But still. His similes and metaphors are wonderful. Here's one of my favorites: "The sky is like old blue denim just before dawn, with one round hole worn through, exposing the cold bony knee of the moon." I've been thinking about that image ever since -- how it perfectly captures something both weary and resilient about certain Midwestern nights.

Now off to walk to the Korean Bell in the fog, before it burns off.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

LA as Motherboard and an Iron Brace



In the harsh sun of midafternoon yesterday when we flew into LAX, Los Angeles looked less like the City of Angels than a giant repeated motherboard: metallic, unnatural, hard-edged, giving off a gun-silver glint that almost hurt the eyes. This is how it is: the intense compactions of the city's concrete grids, ending finally at the lip of ocean. From the air the strips of beach at Redondo looked thin, a meager, gritty skin, a line of inadequate sandbags barely serving in reverse to protect the ocean from rigidly rectangular encroachments of city.

It doesn't always strike me like that. Sometimes the first sight of a palm along Century Boulevard, let's say, where the airport hotels line up like fortresses for exhausted travelers, breaks up the landscape with a single flourish, the crown of green, and a person can sigh a little. But I couldn't find them, my tense neck bent to the jet's small window.

It took the full drive into San Pedro to begin to relax. We came with friends this time -- a couple who'd never flown and had never been to California. Their delight assuaged -- they noticed the smell of the air, its reliable saltiness -- what we quickly, predictably termed "refreshing." If salt is a preservative this LA scent is something to cling to. I thought there was also a whiff of smoke, whipped down from the summer's fires.

Having dinner at Port O' Call, we watched two species of survivors. Pelicans dove into the channel and a seal somersaulted in the olive-green water. A container ship glided out and we talked about the glut of containers: our friend Shane said he'd bought two of them for $1900 each, a bargain, for his Flint company. People could live in them, and do, he said, though at his company they efficiently store chemicals.

What is it that this place contains? Everything, I think. It is a motherboard of human production, a hard palette of accomplishment, craving, and aggressive detritus of the urge to flee -- from the history of "back there," for example -- to the east, the boring burgs of wherever we're "from," the hyper-charged energy, sometimes feverish, of starting over. Or maybe, I'm thinking, by now this interpretation of "California" is obsolete: the space for it, both intellectual and literal, might be...taken. Whatever it is, whatever we impose on this crowded canvas, it is cast in complex alloy. It's not so much what this place contains, but how it contains itself and us with it. The land feels trapped today, like a leg in an iron brace.