Friday, December 28, 2007

Why I Don't Like Christmas Carols

As the light-up snowflakes were hung from street lights on Central Avenue, it was looking like this would not be the holliest of jollies.

Having devoted nearly all of my earnings this year to surviving and paying debt, the resources to fly home just weren't there. If Christmas means anything to me, it's about having a nice day with my family. Yet, for the second year in a row, I would not be doing that. The fiance and her family invited me to New Mexico, of course, but I was not feeling Christmas this year. Instead, I would stay in Los Angeles and try to find some way, any way within the law, to earn some money.

* * *

Besides all of this, the Christmas carols still remind me of Trinity Rep and its flagship production of A Christmas Carol, a life and a professional home I miss every day. They remind me of pushing a stage door through snow out onto Empire Street and the snap of cold air as I walked out into the flakes, often to walk up Federal Hill and find myself something delicious at one of the Italian markets between performances. They remind me of twinkling lights on Benefit Street and teasing my old friend Mauro and my acting teacher and other actors I had looked up to from childhood until I got be on stage with them. They are difficult for me, these songs, overfamiliar and laden with silence.

The irony is entertaining, though. When I played the Ghost of Christmas Past to Bill Damkoehler's Scrooge in 1999, I forcibly walked the miser through his past memories so he could remember where he came from, how he began the sorry path he treaded. We captured the feeling of this by riding a tandem bike from one scene to another. He trembled and swayed fearfully on the bicycle as he was dragged from one memory to another. One night, we actually fell and heard hoots of laughter in the wings.

Yet I don't like being on the bike any more than Scrooge. I can't help looking back, convinced there was a misstep somewhere but never finding it. Then I turn away in anger, load myself into the car, and drive somewhere to earn my living moving pieces of paper from one place to another, writing things on pieces of paper, and storing the paper in drawers full of other important pieces of paper. Bah humbug.

* * *

During Christmas week, the Center was closed and my hopes for temp work (extra income!) did not pan out. And yet, there was a reason for me to be in Los Angeles after all.

As Sarah arrived in New Mexico, disappointed that I had stayed behind, I got an email that a friend of mine had been in the hospital for a week. He had nearly died they night he came in and spent a week in the ICU on oxygen, antibiotics, and catheter. Mutual friends had not alerted me; the patient had asked for me after regaining consciousness. Ouch.

The day after I got the email, I found him at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica. Sunim had been recovering very well, and enjoyed having friends around. He moved slowly, and his eyes were not focusing properly, but he smiled, laughed, and ate. And for Christmas Day, I canceled my plans to climb Kelso Dune again, adventuring in the mojave preserve, so I could spend part of that day amusing my friend while he healed.

It is good to remember, on a holiday that has become a National Consumer Holiday, that ones very presence can be a gift. When you're stuck in a bed looking like a human power strip, with cords and tubes coming out of you in all directions, listening to the whir and click of machines that are entrusted with your health, it can be a reassuring thing to look around and see friends hanging around, ragging on the president and telling in-jokes.

So this year Christmas was about friends, rather than my blood relatives. Besides Sunim, beeping and coughing in his hospital room, I raised glasses with friends old and new and walked through the neighborhoods of Los Feliz, a couple of paths in Griffith Park, to clear my head. I am not on some wild bike ride, after all; I am walking on the earth, one step, and another, and another.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Something Rotten in the City of Ravenage

Quentin Crisp was famous for being famous. He worked as a figure model, wrote a lively memoir, and became known as one of the most entertaining conversationalists ever. Stories and witty remarks fell from him like acorns.

Then comes one odd little novel entitled Chog (1979), in which the aphorist spins a darkly comic, gothic yarn set in a gloomy English city he calls Ravenage. A miserly millionare passes away and leaves his fortune to his dog, Fido. Two conniving servants are left in charge of the mansion and the dog. The unnaturally intelligent millionare dog sets off on a course of self-determination that leads to violent, tragic ends.

More than his memoir and hundreds of aphorisms, Chog exhibits some lovely, witty prose - worthy of Wodehouse yet with a much darker, more troubled imagination. Crisp seems to have been well-suited for this sort of humorous gothic horror, populated with characters who emerge as wry cartoons - the miserable Lord Emms, the servants Mr. and Mrs. Davies, a prostitute who strikes up the acquaintance of Mr. Davies and Fido; and of course there is Chog, the most disturbing character of all. In the Methuen edition I found, illustrated by the great Gahan Wilson, the illustrations wisely leave Chog's features as undefined and mysterious as Crisp does.

One has to wonder what collaborations might have transpired between him and film director Tim Burton. During a winter where I am feeling not-so-Christmasy, this has been such an enjoyable (if surprisingly quick) read. If you can find a copy of it, which may be difficult, I recommend it for the humbug on your gift list.

---ERRATUM---

I have updated this entry after noticing I referred to Wilson as "the late great." It is my pleasure to affirm that Gahan Wilson is still around.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Coming Soon, Maybe: Sitting in Studio City

A weekend has gone by. The lady was in Texas celebrating her sister's graduation, and I was ambitiously unproductive here in Los Angeles. I spoiled this trend at the very end of the weekend when the lady flew home and suggested it was time, at last, to put on the pilot light and get some heat going.

So Sunday night came and I did something productive after all. On the other hand, I got to feel manly and primal for bringing fire.

* * *
Well, okay, there was something else.
On Sunday morning I drove 11 miles to an eclectic fitness center in Studio City. The place is home to fitness classes described in their promotional literature as "kickass," combining yoga, dance, weight training, jump ropes, hula hoops, cardiovascular machines, music, and a teacher who never ever gets tired.
We might bring a sitting group there, or meditation classes of some kind, starting very soon. Watch this space for an announcement if you are interested in that.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

No More Polls

What if we refused to participate in the opinion polls that lead up to the primaries and elections? What if we said to these pollsters, when they called, "Sorry, but I only have time to participate in two polls this year: my local primary, and then the general election."

The contest appears to be a race, with candidates gaining or losing ground for months on end, because the press portrays it that way. The numbers fuel dramatic stories about Hillary's fall from inevitability, the unaccountable rise of Mike Huckabee from obscurity, and so forth. In turn, this inspires the candidates and their campaign staffers to spend their time looking for ways to influence those numbers and change the narrative.

Doesn't this all seem like a waste of time and money compared to what is truly important?

Boycott the damn polls. Don't participate. If the press had no numbers to spin about, they would be forced to write about the political campaign in a different way. They would have to speculate about what voters might be thinking, and make educated guesses based not on popular polls but, perhaps, just maybe, on the content.

Valuable resources such as Factcheck.org would rise in prominence as more focus would come to bear on what is actually being said. Column inches would be filled with explanations and comments on policy proposals, ideas, and visions. Sound bites would lose some of their value since there would be no measure of their "bounce" in the polling.

We would have no reason to feel discouraged about voting for our candidate. When a candidate is low in the polls, many people start to think: "I don't want to waste my vote on a loser." In this way, polls influence the outcome, as people are discouraged from voting for the one they feel is best. The vote on election day MUST be the only vote that matters.

Meanwhile, pollsters are doing this professionally. Consider this for a moment. Someone makes money from something you give them for free. And in the process they are degrading the value and importance of the actual election.

It is not enough to reform campaign financing, to reduce the dominance of money in popular elections; we must also establish checks against popular polling and how they establish a narrative that influences the outcome of our elections.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Verbinage

Early in the morning I am motorolaed awake and after a half hour of DharmaCraftsing the waking process is assisted by a process of starbucking. Eventually I honda myself to work where I mostly PC but sometimes bic and do a lot of xeroxing and pitneybowesing.

While I do this, the kids are "texting" and "googling" and "IMing." Myself, I don't have as much time for those things. I don't facebook or myspace. I kala a bit, trying to play better each and every day. On my lunch hour I sometimes do a little extra starbucking and either some meading or more usually a little light Atlanticking.

By the time I honda back home I'm pretty tired. My love, what do you think? Shall we pizza hut tonight, or do you want me to o'keefe and merritt us some dinner?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Except When It Doesn't

“What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do. When we do what we are meant to do, money comes to us, doors open for us, we feel useful, and the work we do feels like play to us.” -Julia Cameron


Except when it doesn't work out that way.

You can do what you love and end up in deep debt with insufficient income. Doors may open or close. And you may have to do other kinds of work to eat and pay bills.

For every J.K. Rowling - and bless her, really, for never giving up and writing every day no matter what was going on in her life - there are plenty of talented and hardworking writers who don't make it.

There are people in this town who remember Tom Cruise when he was a young fellow driving a beat up car, wearing a thrift store blazer and a big smile, showing up at casting agencies with his resume and pic. Most of us would say that hard work, perseverance, and his talent paid off for him. And it's true. He kept a positive attitude, worked really hard, and made it.

The Positive Thinking fallacy is this: It promises that your attitude determines your results. There is an important step or two missing from that summation. Mainly, the part where all the hard work happens. Attitude certainly does influence the quality of your effort. If I keep a bad attitude, I will be inclined to give up more quickly or fail to consider all the possibilities of a given situation; my view becomes unclear, and I misjudge. With a bright attitude, I see possibilities everywhere, feel energized, and work harder, longer, smarter. The latter certainly enhances the possibility of success. Yet nothing is guaranteed. The results are not determined by your attitude. You can control your effort and make success more likely. That is the extent of our control.

The world we experience is a world experienced through our mind, and so changing our mind changes the world. Yet the teaching of our Zen sutras points at something very important: when mind is extinguished and the world is extinguished, that's when you begin living.

That said, everything does work itself out. Everything, just like it is, is the truth. Nothing is wrong with the universe.

Still, I didn't sleep much last night because I was worrying and feeling frustrated about worrying. Instead of criticizing my feelings or trying to change them, I just watched them as a child might count sheep, watching the circular process of worrying. Things are always in the process of working themselves out. Events happen, and the events don't care whether you see them as chance or as God doing His work. Hurricanes really don't care what you think, and neither do rainbows.

Then it hit me. I don't need to worry about money. All I need to do is write a book about how to think yourself rich. People love to hear that message. People love to hear that you can choose your reality and change matter with your mind. The book will sell millions of copies and Q.E.D. I will be an authority on how to be a self-made millionare. Then I can give talks and workshops and write still more books about how you can become rich and happy.

So I will close today's entry and start working on my book. Hmm, working title: BUY MY BOOK AND YOU'LL BE RICHER!

Monday, December 10, 2007

On Clothing and The Company of Drunks

Spirits were invented as a way of augmenting the worst features of the assholes among us. It augments their voices, for starters; and it also augments their divisions, their dislikes, their deep-seated prejudices (even ones their sobriety covered up), their paranoias, and more. Moreover, no one is immune from this effect, since everyone has the potential to be an asshole. Drink tugs at our masks and erodes whatever civility we weave around ourselves.

On Saturday night, my fiance sashayed and wiggled and undulated through another belly-dancing performance with her teacher at Merry's in Long Beach. This tiny Broadway shop offers clothes and baubles from all over the world, in addition to classes in tribal dance and drumming. It does not do well as a performance venue because of the limited floorspace. There is no stage, and the place quickly becomes a crush of people. Some of these people are dressed as pirates and you do not want to be crushed up against them for fear of lancing your spleen on their swords. While these demonstrations are pleasant in themselves, and I am always happy to watch my fiance swirl around in her veils, the crowd does get to me after a while and I must retreat to the curb outside the shop, being sure to nab one of Merry's mozzarella sticks on my way out.

This little block of Broadway was bopping with activity - literally, by the high-hat of the jazz quartet across the street. A barbershop next to Merry's had been converted into an art gallery for the evening, generously doling out free liquor, exhibiting tattoo-inspired works of art and drawing a crowd of tattoo-inspired drinkers. After a cursory scan of the art, most of the patrons took their red plastic cups out to the street.

The Merry's crowd and the tattoo-inspired drinker crowd mingled there. For the most part, this mutual sizing-up was conducted silently the way we animals do. A few 22-year old louts, however, manners liberated by free booze, cast themselves as loudmouthed sports commentators narrating the whole proceedings with derisive comments and loud, sniggering laughter.

The Merry's crowd favoured attire from various parts of the world, shirts with mandarin collars or arabesques sewn on, tassles, veils, kufi hats. Besides the full-equipped pirate mentioned earlier, there was a fellow wearing expensive eyeglasses and a conservative haircut who was modeling the wardrobe of a Bedouin playboy complete with turban. Others incorporated some of these elements into what they were wearing, without stumbling across that line where style becomes a costume.

Where is that line, if it even exists? What of the style favored by the tattoo-rocker-drinking crowd, most of whom ignored the art but hung out together modeling for each other their tattoo-rocker attire? The de rigeur black leather jacket, the scuffed boots or shoes, the studied disrepair of their denim and flannel, the carefully positioned watch caps? Had they really dressed less carefully than Abu Greenberg over there, or me in my tie and porkpie hat?

It is easy enough to make fun of or cast scorn on a man dressed as a buccaneer who probably hasn't boarded ship since the last time he rode "It's A Small World" at Disneyland. Yet, as I scanned the crowd for potential security concerns (my future wife and our future child to consider), I noticed that these were folks dressed as tough people. Not one of them looked as though they could take a punch, or throw one.

Most of the time, we wear our uniforms and make our impressions on each other without commentary, but there was a lot of liquor flowing through the crowd on the street, and because Merry's store was stuffed, I had to wait outside and listen to the kids experience their alcohol.

"Look at de pirate! Whaddya you a fag? Aaaaaaa ha ha ha ha ha." "Omigaaad lookit dis faggot! Aaaaaa hee hee hee hee hee hee hee [snort snort]." "Ay you snorted! Omigaaaad!" The girl didn't have much to say, so she affirmed her membership in the pack by loudly guffawing at anything that was said. Really, anything.

Somehow I became "Harry Potter." My status as a "faggot" was not clearly established but remained suspicious. They threw a few "faggots" at me to see if I responded. I was too busy, peeking into the cramped shop for a glimpse of my fiance, and then scanning Broadway north and south for any hint of a coffee shop.


* * *

Later in the evening, everyone had "gotten their tribal on," with drums and fire dancing in the alleyway at Colorado Place and Broadway, and it was time to solidify tribal relations over hot food and beer. A group of us landed a table at a nearby pub where large plasma-screen television monitors were broadcasting "ultimate fighting." This is a sport in which two men get their own tribal on by pummeling each other until their faces look like uncooked hamburger. Judges give them scores for this.

Feeling thoroughly primal, cooked meat and ale was brought to the table and we engaged in the ritual of grunts and gestures the experts call "hanging out." There was, however, a disturbance in our tribal structure, as it became apparent that one member of our party had dove a bit deeply into the strong waters.

What we learned about this fellow that evening is that he is one of those folks who becomes a different person when drunk - and the new person is not a pleasure to know. In fact, the new person proved very difficult to be with: foul-mouthed, homophobic, and temperamental. It got bad enough that the evening had to be aborted so the lout could be disposed of properly.

Interestingly, I had seen this man at the beginning of the evening, very carefully ironing a shirt he had selected for the big night. With much care, he had designed his appearance and prepared his costume - only to upstage himself by unraveling in such a spectacular manner.

For all the effort he put into making one kind of impression, he will now be remembered for an impression he made carelessly.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

This Blog Has Been Silent For A Week

It was anything but a slow week, you just didn't read anything about it here.

My fiance got sick to her stomach and it was a Biblical pestilence of an illness, a full-body catastrophe, a great whooping misery of an illness. I saw not only meals she had eaten: I saw chapters from cookbooks she had read. I saw receipts from grocery stores. It was, to end the matter, an astonishing illness.

My own astonishing illness is in the checkbook, infected by just a few creditors too many, with not quite enough plasma to neutralize them; and yet again, my bank account went into dry heaves and I canceled Christmas. No travel, no getaways. I am looking for a second job.

The first job I applied for, the very day I learned of an unanticipated $400 expense this month and canceled my ukulele lessons until, oh, 2008 sometime - this first desperate attempt I made to supplement my income was at a Honda dealership in North Hollywood. They are in need of a Saturday and Sunday receptionist.

I walked in, shirt and tie, holding my resume, and filled out a long application. Last degree earned: M.F.A. Position sought: Receptionist. Part-time. Secondary employment. Job history: college professor, performing artist, executive director of a religious non-profit organization. Position sought: receptionist. Part-time. Age: almost 37, about to become a father.

No phone call yet.

We had a great big fundraiser for the youth center at the Regent Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. We handed out trophies to famous people who got their friends to donate money, then we made everybody cry and asked them to donate a little more, and then we auctioned off some things that other folks had donated. It works well and everyone knows how this is how it works, and everyone is agreeable because the cause is pretty darn pure. One young fellow we invited to speak slew the room with a single line when he made a vow to live past the age of eighteen. After hearing three of our kids talk about their lives, speeches were folded into pockets and the subsequent speakers said, more or less, "I got nothin'."

Meanwhile, ten miles away from that hotel in Beverly Hills, the roof was leaking at the center itself. We've had some rain this past week, and as the fiance said (all recovered from the plague and back eating my pancakes), Los Angeles always looks better after it's had a wash.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Fetus Reading List (Reader Participation, Please)

By now, our child has ear drums and a middle ear. Pretty soon the brain will begin receiving information from these tiny sensors and our kid will be able to hear me reading Shakespeare through mommy's belly.

Time to start our Fetus Reading List. This is where you come in: what are you suggestions for reading material? Please comments with the poets, essayists, dramatists, and orators you deem appropriate for our baby. Bear in mind, we do not know yet whether we are addressing Gabriel or Gabriela (Gabrielle?).

Yes yes, I know, I'd be competing with the flurrrrrsh and grrrrrgle of mommy's blood and digestive gasses and her heartbeat, but don't worry. I'm loud.

In other developments, our child's eyebrows are now developing. This child is going to have serious eyebrows. Nose, eyebrows - joy to the world, the second coming of Groucho Marx is upon us.

Now put on your thinking caps and let's have your Fetus Reading Lists.