Sunday, August 31, 2014

Irritating stuff that doesn't matter

Blame it on the US Open. Blame it on the New York thunderstorm.

My plan for the day was to hike early (done), then watch a lot of athletically gifted people run around the tennis court while I drank beer and ate cheeseburgers.

But then, when rain shut down the Open, I left the house to hit the trail again. And that's why and only why I found this huge butt of an SUV blocking my walkway.

Yeah, I have a traffic cone there, during the neighborhood parties, to properly identify my walkway. It's pretty much my one way in and one way out of the house. But apparently, this GMC figured the cone just meant, hey, don't drive, in a perpendicular direction, through the front door or living room window, but as for your giant ass, feel free to park it wherever you like.

Certain remedies, tactics, came to mind. Eggs, soap. Doing that chalk-circle thing around the SUV and writing ASSHOLE PARKING -- but since this is in front of my house, I feared the asshole would be mis-identified. Then I thought about leaving a note, a scathing note, on the windshield. Something that started with "Dear Jerk," or "Stupid stupid head." Oh, I constructed many many versions in my head.

Thank god I'm a coward at heart. The car will be out of my life by tonight; the US Open has resumed play. Of all my best traits, it's the power of the coward that has saved my bacon, and who knows how many regrets, time and time again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

You can't hurry love

When it comes to sex, fauna has nothing on flora.

Consider the dog. When dogs do it, their upper half appears totally unaware of what the lower half is up to. Judging from the boy dog's face, he's watching cartoons. And she, more contemplative, stares off into the ivy, wondering if that's where she lost her frisbee.

When the deed is done, they slink away in opposite directions, in tacit agreement to forget what just happened ever happened and to mention it to no one.

The plant world, on the other hand, knows no shame. Take the Amorphophallus titanum, for instance. Conveniently owning both male and female parts, the boy part works on his erection proudly, publicly, and for weeks, sometimes years, at a time. Growing two inches one day, four inches another day, and so forth, until reaching an impressive three to five feet tall. The female part doesn't help much to move things along other than handle the suspense with patience and grace.

Finally, the great day arrives. Well, actually, sometimes the great day never arrives, and the whole enterprise just peters out, as it were. But, should the great day arrive and the boy really gets it up, the girl blossom unfolds into a huge, dark burgundy flower. In celebration, the two let out one magnificent, unforgettable stink that can waft for miles. Those in the know say it smells like garbage, an outhouse, rotten eggs, or a piece of fish you left in the fridge while on vacation. Hence the common name: Corpse Flower.

The Corpse Flower bloomed at the Huntington Library this weekend. Thousands of people queued up on Sunday to catch some of the action.

As with both flora and fauna, while wooing and foreplay can take weeks, the climactic event often lasts but a few hours. I arrived 12 hours too late, and by that time found the exhausted Amorphophallus titanum smoking a cigarette, watching Breaking Bad reruns, and ordering take-out.

When I was there a week earlier, as a volunteer, staffing the information table along with a grammar school teacher, hundreds of people dropped by. Sex sells, and so, apparently, does a famously bad odor. In anticipation of the consummation, we had all sorts of drawings explaining the life cycle, including one that helpfully split the name of the plant into an English translation, including, just in case the plant hadn't already made this abundantly clear, the fact that phallus = penis.

When two little boys approached the table, the teacher slipped the English translation in a drawer, then went about her explanation using all the proper scientific terms, exchanging the word "phallus" for the equally correct, "inflorescence."

"Inflorescence, what's that?" they asked

"This, er, thing," she said, tapping the part in question with the eraser end of her pencil.

The two studied the drawings and samples on the table -- the corm, the spathe, the petiole, the inflorescence -- and then moved on.

"You know what I think?" the boy said to his friend, "I think it looks like a giant weiner."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Midweek Matinee: White Dog

Back in the 80's, everyone who loved movies knew Samuel Fuller, and everyone who knew Sam Fuller knew about White Dog. In theory. The film was so notorious, some studio, Paramount, maybe, ducked the controversy, swallowed the loss, and refused to release it in the US. I saw it in France. Loosely based on a true story, it's a movie about both a white dog and a White Dog -- a german shepherd trained from puppyhood, in a tradition dating back to the 1800s, to be a loving family pet for white people and attack and kill black people.

The film was shot for $7 mil, and often looks like it. So I won't defend some of the bad dialog, wardrobe, sound, and editing choices inherent to a budget production.

In spite of all that, it's a powerful film, and succeeds because of Fuller, the score by Ennio Morricone, and the four lead actors (Burl Ives, most definitely included, but Paul Winfield runs the show, breaks the heart). And yes, the movie is a metaphor, but Fuller dealt in slap-in-the-face metaphors -- think Hawthorne and Melville. Nothing coy; no digging required.

The film doesn't stream, but you can get the DVD at various sources. It's painful to watch, and maybe you won't. In which case, I've got a clip of the ending. To set this up: A young actress rescues a dog and they bond. But it's a white White Dog, and once she finds out, she takes it to an animal training center. Both men who run the center recognize the problem, immediately; Ives says kill him, Winfield, well, it's his Moby Dick.

The movie rarely strays from one note, one powerful note, pretty much the whole time. When you learn to hate at an early age, can such damage be reversed. Can you reprogram a mind?

Can hatred be removed, erased; or, once learned, is it just in transit? Always searching for a target.

White Dog

Sunday, August 17, 2014

To the light, kicking and screaming

In college, at least part of it, I lived in a very low rent district, about 10 or 15 miles away from my my daily destination, Westwood. I always felt safe; people within at least a three mile radius knew me. I had a largish dog who required walking twice a day, which is a good way to meet your neighbors. And those who didn't know me, well, I had a largish dog. Bru was jovial, fearless, intelligent, and an excellent judge of character. I made friends with anyone who got his stamp of approval. And if they didn't, well...

For instance, there was this man I rather liked, and Bru didn't cotton to him. The man came over one night, and Bru lifted up, put both paws on his shoulders, and the guy kneed Bru in the chest. Bru and I just looked each other and said, ok, he's fucking out of here.

Bru never steered me wrong, and I'll never have a dog like him again.

But back to this place I lived, while at UCLA. A place I've meant to write about, and will sometime, but that's not the point right now.

In the dumpster, fed by about 15 other apartments and cottages, one day I found Great Works of the 20th Century, a twenty volume set. I couldn't believe my luck. The books were so beautiful -- leather bound, about eight by six inches tall and wide, and three inches thick. With hand-tinted illos protected by gauzy silk.

Of course, these volumes were not in perfect condition, hence the dumping. A certain amount of water-damage, mold had occurred since their publication in 1902. But I reckoned a little magic with my blow-dryer might salvage the set. Still, over a couple of months, the sweet smell of decay increased. The only thing I could do was read what the 20th Century had to offer in the way of great works, as quickly as possible, before pitching the lot.

That's how I found Novalis. Never heard about him in any of my classes -- from philosophy to poetry to literature. I took a shine to him for many reasons, but most of all, because he shared, was the first guy who ever seemed to share, my contrarian way of seeing things, of survival, even. To whit: Disbelieve everything you're told, at first. Argue, always, every side, to exhaustion. Until either you believe what you're saying or have run out of arguments.

Here's how Novlis puts it: To become properly acquainted with a truth, we must first have disbelieved it, and disputed against it.

When it comes to Ukraine, the Middle East, and Missouri, so far, I don't believe anybody, anybody at all.

Monday, August 11, 2014

In my dreams

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or maybe Bill Murray, and nine other guests are coming for lunch at 9 am. I not only agree to host the lunch, I insist upon it. But why? Now I have to clean, cook, set places. And the logistics of it all escapes me -- the table, for instance, seats only nine; someone will just have to stand; pour wine, maybe.

I stare out the second floor window for my guests. No one comes at 9. No one comes at 10.

And then, a group of men enter without knocking, carrying great bouquets of flowers. Of course, what was I thinking, this is a catered affair. They open picnic baskets full of, what? Oh, good stuff. Entrees, oysters, escargot. And now they carry troves of vegetables to the sink. My sink. My sink is kind of dicky. Sometimes it stops up. Perhaps I should tell them? No, if things go south, best I feign shock and surprise.

In the meantime, I need to move the bike and helmet out of the hall so Roosevelt can navigate the wheelchair, from living room to bathroom. There's also a pile of laundry in the hall, which I will cleverly disguise with a blanket.

My father, mother, Roosevelt, a recent boyfriend, and all the guests arrive. We sit down for lunch, but only women are at the table. I go in search of the men, and find they've gathered together in the bathroom. I knock on the door. No one answers.

I smell cigars. Oh yes, of course, they're having a pissing contest.

There's a neuroscientist, and probably more than one, who says that while we're able to cast, script, narrate our dreams, we're also the audience, the clueless audience. We stage and direct a big, big show every sleeping night, yet have no handle on what will happen, one page, one scene to the next. And we almost always wake to a cliffhanger.

Which would be ok, I guess, if we were looking at a mini series. But dreams don't work that way. All that scripting, plotting, intrigue, all those possibilities, they just end with a question mark or em dash. And vaporize.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

My struggle begins...

to read the first page.

We Altadenish have at least two things in common -- we're well-read, and we're cheap. Which means, among other things, when a book gets chatted up by The Paris Review, The Economist, The New Yorker, and so forth, we all race to the local library website and stake our claim. Me first! Me first!

Problem is, when it comes to cutting-edge fiction and non-fiction, Altadena Library orders just one single copy. That's because the library isn't funded by the fed or the state, it's funded by we, the people -- the citizens of my little town -- we, the cheap people.

So I've waited more than two months for My Struggle, by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, a book which has captivated, even obsessed, much of the western world, literarily-speaking, including, I assume, whoever in Altadena butted ahead of me in the website waiting line. But now I finally have Volume 1 (there are 6) in my hot little hand.

The book has been compared favorably to some of the greatest works in literature -- works by Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, Rilke.

So what's stopping me; why haven't I cracked the cover? I'm daunted. Even a little scared. Look at that photograph. It's the face of a man who has seen it all. It's Klaus Kinski trapped in another Werner Herzog nightmare. Kinski may have died two decades ago, but it's Kinski all right, roused from the Big Sleep, risen from the dusty grave, and socked with the mother of all hangovers.

What fresh hell awaits?

I'll summon the courage to read My Struggle, of course. Partly because there hasn't been a great Norwegian author since Knut Hamsun (another party-animal),

And partly because I trust LA Times book critic David Ulin. Ulin loves the book, or at least, the first two volumes of the book. Ulin is humorous, plain-spoken and honest, even about himself. He admits he can't finish Proust. (It is my personal belief that no one ever has. We just make it to the madeleine passage and call it a day. Publishers know this, and no longer bother printing the entire novel. If you flip to the middle of Remembrance of Things Past, you'll find pages 500 to 1000 are filled with nothing but ads from an old Sears catalog.)

I'm not saying Ulin writes for the great unwashed. No doubt he's popular with the fully washed. But his light touch also appeals to the partially washed, people like me.

As I understand it, My Struggle has no traditional plot, as in ye olde beginning-middle-end/climax/dramatic arc. It's not a story of a story, but the story of a self. Or the story we tell ourselves, how we organize, perceive life's mostly random events. Who we are depends on who we tell ourselves we are. And going forward, who we choose to be -- either because of or in spite of what Camus calls "the benign indifference of the universe."

(Do you think it's presumptuous that I comment on a major theme without having read the first sentence?)

In any case, My Struggle is probably not everyone's cup of aquavit. But I'm plot-neutral or a plot-agnostic; for me, it's all about voice and character. When I read a book, the great payoff isn't knowing who killed Colonel Mustard or how he died. I just want, am always in search of, some fresh clue as to how we live.

Here's Knausgaard on Knausgaard: Over recent years, I had increasingly lost faith in literature. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the type of literature that did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person? Not directed above us, nor beneath us, but at the same height as our own gaze. Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.

Here's Ulin on Knausgaard: What we are getting, in other words, is not an epic life but one that, like every other life, is utterly ordinary — and yet, that is where its epic stature resides.