Friday, October 30, 2009

The Spoiler

Just when I was feeling pretty good about my charity efforts, I hear Madonna is bringing electricity to the South African village of Malawi.

Damn, she’s always doing stuff like that to me. I mean, we started out pretty much the same. We both had pleasant, but reedy voices. We both had a slight gap between the front teeth. She could act, sort of. I could act, kind of. So why the wildly divergent results?

Driving ambition and mental fortitude. Love her or hate her, Madonna started out with very few apparent gifts; she parlayed a cute face and hardly any talent into millions and millions of dollars. So rich, she can own estates all over the world and still have plenty left to bring dental implants to every Walmart checker in the entire United States.

I always wanted the world to beat a path to my door. Which can happen, if you give it a reason to make the journey. But I never got that far. I never made it to the concept stage – the why should it, as it were.

It’s worth wondering what three of the most successful women in the world -- Oprah, Martha, and Madonna -- have in common. They didn’t come from money. None have what you’d call a true talent. They didn’t invent anything.

I think what they share is the empire-building gene. Each took a good hard look at their abilities, picked their strongest suit, and used it to lay the foundation. Chatting, scrambling eggs, singing – it could have been anything, just anything, and they would have run with it.

I see the Madonna arms as a metaphor. Yahoo and Google were screaming a few weeks back about how masculine her arms look, devoid of softness and curves, just ropes of muscles and veins pushing against the skin. And it is true, she does look like she wrestles alligators for a living. A woman who rose to the top in the music business, guided her own career, continues to run her own show, own her own labels? I’ll bet she has wrestled an ocean full; I’ll bet it’s her favorite sport.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Germs

When my gills turn a pale chartreuse or if I feel the least bit swiney, the first thing I do is double up on the exercise. Hike in the morning, ride in the afternoon, and run in the evening, for example. I’m under-employed, so can do things like that.

Often this method encourages germs to look for housing elsewhere, someplace a little more relaxed and accommodating – at a neighbor’s perhaps.

But when exercise doesn’t work, it’s time to pull out the big guns and make a huge Little House on the Prairie-sized cauldron of Sick Soup. I think I’ve mentioned the soup before, but seeing as we’re in flu season, thought I’d make this an annual PSA.

Sick Soup has as many and varied vegetables as can be crammed into one large pot. You cook it down and then puree it into a highly concentrated and unattractive green liquid. The idea behind the soup is to throw everything – body, brain, virus -- into vitamin shock. See, I posit that when a germ or virus moves in, the body sulks about the added work – you know, like when relatives visit. Sore throat and headache nothing more than a form of whining. But if you bombard the cells with something equally foreign and unwelcome – vegetables – the body is so busy raking leaves, you pass through the episode symptom-free.

The trick is, you’ve got to eat the soup and nothing but the soup for three days. No Triskets, no Snickers, no smoked oysters, no alcohol. Maybe just a small bag of M&Ms to cleanse the palate. And scotch, particularly if you have an aversion to it. Scotch tastes highly-medicinal and smells like bandaids – it's Lysol for the innards.

Soup ingredients
Large onion, garlic, head of cauliflower, head of broccoli, asparagus, boiling potatoes, 2 buns of spinach, bunch of dandelion leaves, carrots, Serrano peppers, salt, pepper, turmeric, chicken stock.

Chop, sauté, boil, puree.

Kitchen Notes
You're out of scotch.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Glass on the Ceiling

You know how you think you don’t like something just because you think you don’t like it? I felt that way about mausoleums, and I felt that way about the music of Philip Glass.

I must have heard his music years ago, ages and ages ago, and filed him away in that part of the brain labeled, No Way, Never Again, Uh-uh. Either I’ve changed or Glass has. The music I heard yesterday was lovely and romantic, but with quick turns and sharp edges. Romance by itself is boring, and sharp edges alone, annoying. But together, I’ll follow wherever they lead.

And the mausoleum? That’s where the concert was held. A string quartet.

I like the dead, they know how to focus, and they know how to listen. From time to time I visit them in the open air, where they have a room with a view. Plenty of fresh air and sunshine, that’s the ticket. But I’ve changed my mind. Nothing wrong with the mansion house; it can be just as sweetly haunting. During the concert, we weren’t chained to our chairs, so I explored -- walked down long halls, up stairs, turned left, turned right, got lost following stained glass windows and walls of dead people, followed in turn by music that bounced off ceilings and echoed off tombs.

Here's a piece of Glass

(If the link doesn't work, copy and paste this

Friday, October 23, 2009

Power and that pesky absolute corruption thingy

The town council representative in our little census tract may see himself as a budding Winston Churchill, but I liken him to Steve Melman, the Window Monitor when I was in the fourth grade.

See, Steve lobbied hard and long for a position no one else wanted because he saw it as a stepping stone. He dreamed big dreams. The biggest dream -- Home Room Proctor.

The role of window monitor required using a long stick with a hook to gently tease the transoms open, or closed, depending on classroom consensus. But within a week, things got weird. Steve started calling himself “Monitor Melman.” Worse, he neglected his duties. The classroom was either too hot or too cold. In his lust for power, Steve decided windows paled next to –- Courtesy Monitor. Though no such thing existed, he decided to create the position and to that end, he started keeping notes. Who was late from recess? Who whispered in class? Who told dirty jokes? In an effort to gather popular opinion to his side, he promised something called a Citizenship Award.

Steve brought a Polaroid Swinger to class. His friend, Monitor Jensen (ball and bats), took the pictures as Steve handed out Tootsie Rolls to a thoroughly surprised Tina Sills, the first weekly good citizen. The pictures appeared on the bulletin board without teacher’s permission. We suspected Jensen, but lacked the proof.

The first to complain about Steve was Jim Stark, Chalkboard and Eraser Monitor. (Yes, it was a man’s world.) He gathered a few of us, the 4th grade athletes, including Kent Russell. We all agreed -- Steve could take all the notes he wanted in the privacy of his own home, but his job at school was to open windows, and, of course, close them. “Besides,” said Kent. “Next thing you know we’ll have to call him Venerable.” Though none of us knew what that meant, we nodded sagely. As our Book Monitor, we trusted Kent when it came to vocabulary words and spelling.

Our ducks in a row, we approached Terry Emery, 4th grade Home Room Proctor and major hunk.

When Steve Melman sensed his reign of terror might be in jeopardy, he jumped all protocol and complained directly to our teacher Mrs. Clapp, and our principal Mr. Jessup. Playing fast and loose with timeline and events, Melman thought he sealed his case with a shocking accusation: Terry Emery had called him “Doo-doo head” while on the german dodgeball court.

It promised to be a bloodbath. Investigations, suspended privileges. Although Steve admitted nothing, he did cry, and somehow that brought the whole political machine to a screaming halt.

Well, that’s the whole story really. After some advertures of his own, the town council window monitor for our little census tract has apparently filed a series of complaints -- either pre emptive or retaliatory -- against our council proctor. Included in the complaints, allegations of “Doo-doo head” (or something similar), being bandied about within closed and sacred chambers.

Damn, we get Watergate, or birdbath gate, or thimblegate, when all we wanted were a couple of stop signs and a speed bump. And it’s a pity; I had such high hopes. Of all the town council monitors, at least ours knew how to dress.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Heroic Gesture

Our friend Pasadena Adjacent, known in the art world as Elizabeth Garrison, and partner Victor Henderson have unveiled their new permanent mural, Earth Water Fire Air, located at the Westchester Fire Station #5 near LAX.

For those of us who live in the shadow of ashen hills, this new mural is an especially timely tribute to firefighters, for all the fights they win, for all they stand to lose.

The drama, scope, scale, detail of this work -- astounding.

Click on the link for a full view of the completed work, although it won't give you an idea of the SIZE. And follow the links to see more examples of their installations over the past years. In a manner of speaking, there are pieces of Liz and Vic all over Los Angeles.

(photo from Elizabeth Garrison collection)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Something to chew on

Think this peek at a Dow summit portends a healthy economy? Don’t hold your breath. I got a giant dose of reality today and it didn’t taste good. In fact, it didn’t taste like anything at all.

I drove to Whole Foods after ceramics class, hungry for those little rounds of cocktail toasts with pate and cheese. In other words, hungry for some free finger food. I was fairly bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, mentally organizing my meal -- hit hors d’oeuvres first, move on to a meat course, finish with hazelnut chocolate and a thimble of coffee.

Three fruitless runs through each aisle convinced me our salad days are over. Our fruit and our salad and our shrimp and our gooseliver and liverwort cheese days. Gone.

Whole Foods has closed the all-you-can-eat-for-free daily buffet, i.e., they no longer have unmanned sample kiosks. They barely have any sample kiosks at all. God, I was there just two years ago for an 8-course Thanksgiving dinner.

I finally found a kiosk, but it was guarded by five hatchet-faced employees dispensing Dixie cups that rattled with one walnut and five peanuts. How low can you go. Whole Trader Joe’s Food samples. Next thing they’ll be giving you is the rind end of an old chicken sausage doused in expired marinara sauce.

Probably, some responsibility should be laid at the doorstep of people like me. One time Whole Foods had a snack table of aged cheddar, curried artichokes, and pumpernickel. I tried to play it cool, and every fifteen minutes took a walkabout, me and my mouthful of goodness, over to dairy and studied the goat milk display. But no one, not even the security camera, was fooled. Finally they played the hook music you hear at the Oscars, so I picked up a couple of apples over at produce and made my way to the check stand.

What falls next? The cocktail wieners at Bristol Farms?

This was so disheartening, I dragged the county extension agent out to read our economic barometer. Look at that banana plant; look at that face. Recovery and curried artichokes are years away.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mind when it matters

As a Cartesian dualist, I’ve always believed the mind lords it over the body with a “peel me a grape,” attitude, and the body scurries around to satisfy the mind’s pursuit of adventure, excitement, passion, gluttony, desire. If the mind has raised the roof too high and the body starts to sulk, then just treat the latter to some thoughtful fuel and measured care, and everything bounces back good as new.

And for most of us, for a time, maybe a long time, results prove this true. But one day results will turn on us, and the mind will command but the body won’t listen. What then? Will I lose the faith? Afterall, philosophies are opportunistic. We adopt them to suit the occasion at hand. Perhaps philosophies, like promises and legs, are made to be broken. When I fell down a mountain a couple of years ago, my Cartesian dualism had a bit of a splat. I walked on a broken leg for three days before finally denying my denial. In that battle, it was Body - 1; Mind – 0, until medical intervention called it a draw.

A couple of people I know are up against some pretty harsh realities, and they’re no longer able to pretend the mind and body can go about their separate business. These people know the body, such a willing accomplice, a sycophant, for all those years, had simply been biding its time. The body is now belle of their personal ball, the focus of much of their time and attention and emotion.

But as I blather on to them about all my trivial pursuits, they don’t shout: How can you talk about this crap you fool, when someday you’re going to hurt, and you’re going to die!

No, instead, they smile, laugh, treat me kindly -- almost gently. There are some things the body can’t steal from the mind, if it’s in the mind to begin with.

These people are my friends. Because they’re my friends and fortune leads to a shadowy place, they want to let go of my hand. Now it’s my turn to hold on tightly.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ill Equipped

My friends The M’s, of the Altadena M’s, know many things, but music isn’t one of them. Still, that didn’t stop The M’s from installing a wall of sound across half their living room -- or a potential wall of sound, since they never use it.

I told Mrs. M to, you know, actually play some music one day, and she and her husband did their best. They made several tries, and lights blinked, and jets roared, but no liftoff. By then dinner was getting cold, so we just gave up. All the CD’s were still in cellophane anyway. Really, anything more than a clock-radio is overkill for these two.

Funny how often people confuse having with doing, owning with knowing. You see it on the tennis court all the time. Those in the cute little Italian Lotto outfits and two-toned shoes, going through a series of warm up exercises. They’re guaranteed moon-ballers, bound to disturb your game with their “Ball please!” “Sorry, ball again please!” Then they’ll go mucking around in your court, looking for the ones with seven dots, when all they have to do is find the ones that still have fuzz.

In any discipline, you should earn your way up the equipment ladder. Prove you can serve with a Sear’s racket, as it were, before snapping on the Federer bandana. And please, the spandex clamdiggers? Do you really think we’re saying, “Honey, over there -- Is that Herbert Bumblechook or Raphael Nadal?”

I practice what I preach. For example, at yoga class, I still bring my beach towel instead of a regulation mat. One day, when people stop asking whether this is my first time, I might upgrade.

On the other hand, M -– of the Clock-Radio M’s -- has a different explanation. She believes I’m just really, really cheap.

Is that why I’m so smitten with the idea of barefoot running? Barefoot running is sweeping the nation. Or it’s sweeping California. Or maybe it has only swept a little part of L.A. At any rate, current theory has it, those incredibly expensive running shoes were nothing but a scam, and a dangerous one at that. Putting weight here when it should be there, responsible for back, hip and leg injuries.

I’ll buy that, since it costs nothing at all. I’ve been out there running nude, totally nude, from the ankles down for the past week. And for the most part, it feels nice. I’ve yelped and shrieked a few times along the way, but I think it’s pretty cool. Who counts your miles, measures your speed when you look impressive? I think people are saying, “Is that Karin Bugge or a really pale marathoner from Kenya?”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Horses and Men and Dogs and Women and Rain

We get downright barmy here in Altadena when there’s an inch of rain. We light a fire, muddle some grog, wax the skis. The dogs crawl into their dog beds, turn a suspicious eye to the door and say, “No, thanks. I can hold it for another 12 hours. At least, let me try...” And we don’t much relish the walk either, so just hope they try their very best.

I shake out the down comforter and lay it on the bed. I’ll have to put it away again by Friday.

Here, you’ve got to take your seasons as they come. We fried last January, had hail in March, drought in April, rain in June. Who knows if we'll have a winter, come winter. So damn it, I dusted off Carl because my toes were wet and cold. My toes were wet and cold because I learned, 12 hours in dog years is way too long.

Horses and Men in Rain by Carl Sandburg

Let us sit by a hissing steam radiator a winter’s day, gray wind pattering frozen raindrops on the window, And let us talk about milk wagon drivers and grocery delivery boys.

Let us keep our feet in wool slippers and mix hot punches—and talk about mail carriers and messenger boys slipping along the icy sidewalks.

Let us write of olden, golden days and hunters of the Holy Grail and men called “knights” riding horses in the rain, in the cold frozen rain for ladies they loved.

A roustabout hunched on a coal wagon goes by, icicles drip on his hat rim, sheets of ice wrapping the hunks of coal, the caravanserai a gray blur in slant of rain.

Let us nudge the steam radiator with our wool slippers and write poems of Lancelot, the hero, and Roland, the hero, and all the olden golden men who rode horses in the rain.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Take me to the cleaners

I paid myself 50 big ones today to clean my house, and what do you think? Not a lick of work out of me yet. Barely adequate help is hard to find. I should have checked my references more closely -- they’re suspect, to say the least. And though not one for idle gossip, I’m also pretty sure I caught you-know-who with her hand in the cookie jar.

Pity. I had hoped that if this panned out, it might start a precedent and improve the quality and quantity of work around here -- such as washing my car, paying my bills, eating my vegetables. But apparently, financial reward is not the only kick in the dustpan I need. Thus far I’m extremely disappointed in the lack of results, and if I don’t see some serious action in the next couple of hours, we’ll have to call this a failed experiment.

Honest effort, that’s all I’m asking; honest work for honest pay. If and when the cleaning does commence, it had better come with elbow grease. O, I know all the tricks. Pushing dustballs behind the couch. Air freshener. Slipcovers. Paint.

It’s hard to do something that doesn’t promise at least a particle of fun. Even the cadaver dogs, who paw their way through some pretty bleak terrain, believe somewhere in there lies a squeaky toy. They’re trained that way. I wasn’t trained that way. I know, hard as I scrub that toilet bowl, no toy, squeaky or otherwise, waits for me. Just time and Tide.

So now I can do nothing but drop some pretty obvious hints. Sigh deeply and write “wash me” on the living room window. I’ll know better next time; next time I hire a housecleaner, it won't be for a sweet smile and ingratiating manner. Experience, that’s what’s needed, someone with experience and an appreciation of unemployment rates and precarious times.

No wonder no one hires English majors these days.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Gimme Five

According to the New York Times, anxiety tops the chart in the mental illness hit parade. Yay, we’re number one; we’re number one.

Before we celebrate, understand, according to this article and the attendant research, anything that doesn’t feel particularly good falls under the heading of general anxiety. Worry about finances, dread over natural and manmade disasters, fear of flying or water or heights or disease. The nagging feeling that whenever the bell tolls, it tolls for me.

Have you ever had trouble sleeping? Do you ever self-medicate? Do little things irritate you disproportionately?

About that last one.

Yeah, well, maybe so. I have a list of major sources of irritation, made up of things so trivial, that the fact they bother me really, really bothers me and keeps me awake at night and drives me to self medicate.

Fortunately, my list does not include the top five words and phrases which, according to a Marist college poll, most irritate Americans.

It’s a benign, unimaginative list, and includes some phrases that really are quite necessary if one doesn’t want to sound like a windbag pundit. “Anyway,” for example, and “you know.” Why not just take “and” away from us and be done with it.

If masses of people were sputtering “ergo” or “heretofore,” that would be a different matter. But even the apparently hated “whatever” surely has a place in daily dialogue.

I suppose if a tolling bell with my name on it were poised atop my head, ready to explode, I could come up with a pretty ordinary phrase that grates on me no end: “This particular point in time.” I don’t have to parse all its problems for you, for YOU, who unfailingly correct my grammar on a daily basis. The perfectly adequate “now” or “then,” depending on the context, could take the place of that jumble.

Whatever. You know, at this particular point, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Anyway, not when it's time to self medicate.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

To me or not to me

Is it that time again? Nobel prizes flying out the door left and right, who had a chance to build up some suspense, anticipation. I had my favorites, I’m sure you did too. Now the only thing left to guess is who wears the most outrageous gown.

The Nobel Prizes are good for my brain – it’s the only time I show a remote interest in physics, chemistry, physiology, or economics. As for literature, here’s a list of winners from the past decade:

• 2008 - Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
• 2007 - Doris Lessing
• 2006 - Orhan Pamuk
• 2005 - Harold Pinter
• 2004 - Elfriede Jelinek
• 2003 - J. M. Coetzee
• 2002 - Imre Kertész
• 2001 - V. S. Naipaul
• 2000 - Gao Xingjian
• 1999 - Günter Grass
• 1998 - José Saramago

How pathetic am I. Ok, I love Pinter, read Lessing, and once saw the name Xingjian in a magazine. Probably the New Yorker. Or was it Gourmet? As for the rest? Oh, I’m a sadly lazy reader. Too much Pippi, not enough Pamuk.

I’ll guarantee you this, though. Not one of these authors is good for a giggle. Even Pinter has a humor so black and bleak that if you give yourself up to it at night, you hate yourself in the morning.

I think about these prize winners; wonder about their childhood, upbringing. Some were privileged, some were miserable, others probably knocked around suburbs such as Fullerton and Naperville just like me. But unlike me, they didn’t come home from school and plop in front of a Gilligan’s Island rerun.

I had my chance. Oh, we all have our chance. Here’s picture from a 5th grade play I wrote for a competition. I’m Hamlet, explaining the meaning of angst to Shakespeare, ably played by my friend Pam Schnyder.

It was my play, so Hamlet had most of the lines, though I think Shakespeare let out an "Egad," from time to time.

But even this contest I lost. Steve Melman, as Napoleon at Waterloo, took the prize. His play was weak in character and plot, but everyone clapped when he yelled, “Wow, we better abdicate,” and raced out the classroom door into the volleyball court.

I think my heart broke a little that day.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Knock Woody Allen

During a crisis of conscience, who doesn’t wonder, “What would Woody do?” Well, thankfully, he didn't keep us waiting. The Polanski thing had me all confused until I heard about Woody's explanation and petition. I now understand pedophiles fall into two entirely separate categories: Those who make movies and those who don’t.

I could practically hear the “Don’t do us any favors,” groan when the Polanski camp learned they got a moral pass and high-five from Allen. The publicist screaming into the phone, “Idiot! When I said get Alan, I meant Alan Alda!”

One can debate whether this effort to bring Polanski to justice has been worth the effort and expense. But as to what led up to this in the first place, I don’t think there’s any room for argument at all.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Matter of Taste

It’s beyond coincidence that Esa Pekka Salonen and I left our regular jobs at the same time -- he as conductor of the LA Philharmonic, and I as, as (oh, pardon, something caught in my throat. Back in a second).

Where was I? Oh yes, we’ve always had much in common. We both have a penchant for jeans and ski sweaters. We both, at some point in our artistic journeys, played the clarinet. We also have a cute little way of tossing the hair out of our eyes so that it just falls back in the eyes again. Then you get to do this flirty little toss-fall, toss-fall, toss-fall … until someone slaps you.

My dad never considered Finns true Scandinavians, unless it was convenient. For example, Matti Ensio Nykänen, the Flying Finn of ski jumping, was; the drunks who passed out and died of hypothermia on Helsinki streets were not. Einojuhani Rautavaara was, the Takkenuns weren’t… I could go on, but for heaven’s sakes, name a few famous Finns off the top of your head, and you can guess into which category they fall.

But back to Esa, there’s also the cheese thing. We both eat it. Wish we could have gotten together before he left LA. Split a Limburger. I have a taste for stinky cheese. Cheese that smells like three kinds of hell inside a dead cow’s stomach that has been wrapped in rotting tuna and left in a South Florida morgue where the air-conditioning is on the blink. Never mind about that. Concentrate on the taste – stinky cheese is wonderfully creamy and nutty and pungent.

And while I’m confessing peculiar tastes, might as well admit to blood sausage. For the uninitiated, blood sausage is exactly as it sounds; you eat it hot with melted butter. And unless you want neighbors to say you have terminal gingivitis (or worse), brush your teeth before taking that evening walk.

I have many questionable tastes. In animals, in decorating, in cheese, in men;
many of which should be enjoyed far away from home. Once they get in the house, you have to rebuild. Or move.