Monday, June 30, 2008

Final Phone Call

Today was the last day to legally use a cell phone while driving in California. An enduring image of Los Angeles highlife - driving while deal-making - has come to a quiet end. Starting tomorrow, a first offense will cost $20 and a second $50, although the addition of something called "penalty assessments" boost the fines to $76 and $190. I'm opting out of the Bluetooth option because I can't think of anything more monstrous than having a telephone installed in my frigging ear. This is it. I'm done.

Unlike lots of other nanny state proclamations popping up left and right in Schwartzeneggar / Bloomberg America, I support this law. It'll make my own life more tranquil. I don't have to worry about calling anybody anymore. My car can now join the ranks of "Excusing Myself To Go To The Bathroom At Parties" and "Standing Quietly In The Shower" as an oasis of solitude. The law says it'll still be legal to text message while driving, so I'm assuming it'll be ok for me to continue my other hobbies like cell phone photography and playing tetris.

And yet I am sad that I missed doing a few things when I still had the chance;

1) Talking on the phone while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, the wind whipping through my awesome blond mane of hair.

2) Taunting cops as they try to shoot out my tires but just aren't fast enough, which I guess means I would have had to call 911 dispatch and convince them to put me through to the individual officers' cell phones.

3) Using my cell phone to save the life of an animal, child, or elderly person in the kind of crazy circumstances that'd get me on the local news. I guess technically this last one is still legal, but somehow it won't be the same.

Questions: Will it be legal to use my cell phone to call the cops to report another driver using a cell phone while driving? Will I be able to mock other drivers by only pretending to be on my cell phone? What if I just want to call someone in the back seat?

The cell phone ban comes at a weird juncture. Traffic has noticeably thinned since gas hit $4.50 a gallon. I haven't gotten angry at the sight of a Hummer in weeks because I haven't seen a Hummer in weeks. It's been months since I sat in a traffic jam. This afternoon the San Gabriel mountains were shockingly clear, every distant, stubbly tree and craggy gorge clearly outlined. This is something of a rarity this time of year. Generally the mountains wink out behind an opaque wall of haze for six months starting in March. It seems like there's less smog now. In some barely measurable way, life may have improved.

I used my final car call at dusk. It was one of those nice backlit Southern California sunsets, the palm trees rendered as swaying silhouettes, and I decided to ring up the Sherman Oaks casting agency that has so far netted me nones of jobs as an extra. The perky lady on their voicemail said they were looking for an African American of college age who "can do his hair in a big afro", and is "totally 80's". For a moment I thought about trying to Tootsie it, but I'm simply not that good. Click.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Worst Food Experiences

REGRETS DEPT, June 27 - Learn from my mistakes.


Virginia, 1993
I'd never tasted coffee until I was 24, and it took a few months of trial and error to learn the physics of caffeine. One night fairly soon into this lifestyle change, I drank six cups in one sitting. I remember the next half hour as one of the best periods of my life. All powerful and omniscient, the only hard decision I faced was if I should write the great American novel in one shot or fly down to the interstate and kickbox big rigs.

Then there was a scene cut and I was on the floor of my bedroom in my underwear, rocking and weeping because I'd broken my mind. I pulled myself together enough to ask a roommate for one of his valiums, on the theory that a depressant might save one or two of my heart valves from exploding. When I eventually projectile vomited, the little blue pill hit the back of the toilet like a bb pellet, and I crawled off to bed and slept for 19 hours.

Virginia, 1995
My plan to bake everyone Christmas cookies hit one small snag this particular year, being my ignorance that not all foods are left in the oven for 40 minutes at 450 degrees simply because that is how long potatoes are baked. The first round of cookies emerged a shiny strip of asphalt, which I broke into chunks and ate, angrily, over the course of the next two months. Several times I tried to convince myself that I could distinguish which bits of charcoal had once been chocolate. I have a feeling I'll be sharing a laugh with my oncologist about this one someday.

North Carolina, 1996
This regional delicacy single-handedly ended my love affair with the American south. Grits are a charming and quaint southern dish. Boiled peanuts are small and soft and brown and slimy. And tapered. I'm not a psychotic or a coprophiliac, so I didn't enjoy the one second this was in my mouth.

Maine, 1999
I must have been terribly upset to eat an entire bag of Campfire marshmallows in one session, standing over a trash can in an empty kitchen. When I came to, clutching an empty plastic wrapper, I felt lightheaded and strangely euphoric, and was reminded of a classmate from Vermont who once swallowed a mouthful of gas while siphoning a snowmobile and wandered off into the woods to die. This marshmallow experience is now the yardstick by which I measure other personal failures by.

Oklahoma, 2004
After my band spent a pleasant autumn day getting to know OK City, visiting the bombing memorial and playing a ho-hum punk show, we retired to the dumpy but welcoming house of our promoter and ordered an XXL party pizza. We watched all of "Eurotrip" - a surprisingly well crafted film - and by 2AM gave up hope of seeing any food.

Sometime close to 3, the doorbell rang. It was the pizza! And not just any pizza! A 52", thirty-piece jalapeno and feta monster pizza, with many, many slices for each man! This felt like an event, some important turning point in all our lives, and I took a photo to mark the occasion;

I ate five or six slices and passed out on the couch. Sometime before dawn, a strange noise roused me. I opened my eyes to find thousands of baby spiders pouring over the back of the couch, engulfing me. I was up and in the kitchen, screaming and stomping, before realizing it had been some sort of psychoactive pizza night terror. Later that night, our guitarist Andy found himself in this same kitchen with a terrible thirst. He placed his head under the sink faucet, but when he turned the spigot all that came out was human hair.

If our rhythm section experienced any hallucinations, they kept mum. Although Andy and I both remember a birdlike wail of terror coming from one of their sleeping bags in the middle of the night.

Nevada, 2006
I probably lucked out on this one; when most people go to Las Vegas and decide that the rules of human conduct have been suspended, they usually wind up with dumpster stains and strange sex diseases. Instead, I went to Old Town and decided that eating a one-dollar deep-fried twinkie was somehow within the parameters of acceptable behavior. Here's how deep-fried twinkies are advertised;

What they actually look like is a nerf product that has been dunked in the toilet and then tempura battered. What they taste like is this:

Later, wandering Freemont street in clinical shock, I noticed my dandruff had worsened tenfold.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review: Curse Of The Narrows

CURSE OF THE NARROWS: by Laura M. Mac Donald, 356 pp., Walker Books, 2005.

In hindsight, the blowing up of Halifax, Nova Scotia, seems to owe a slight debt to cartoonist Chuck Jones. On the morning of December 6, 1917, the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc slipped into Halifax Harbor packed with every implement of a grand Wile E. Coyote routine: gunpowder mix, two old-timey explosives called picric acid and benzol, and 250 tons of TNT. All the ship needed was a large ACME stenciled on its side.

1917 Halifax, as portrayed in Laura M. MacDonald's lively 2005 account of the disaster, was not a friendly town. Prostitutes and sailors swapped syphilis and TB, and goons and drunks roamed the back alleys. It was also a city suffering from war jitters. WWI seemed certain to jump the ocean, either by sabotage or U-Boat, and as the northernmost center of commerce and military activity on the East coast, the city's residents had steeled themselves for a surprise visit by the Kaiser. Munitions traffic was shrugged off as a necessary risk. Even when the Mont-Blanc sideswiped a smaller ship and, burning, careened towards the docks, no one understood the danger. As its lesser munitions ignited on the deck, hundreds of people lined the shore to watch a spectacular fireworks display of green and pink.

At 9:04, the fire reached the TNT and the ship detonated. It was the largest non-nuclear explosion to hit any civilian population in history, sending a mile-high mushroom cloud soaring over a one mile impact crater. A tsunami the size of the Hollywood sign roared through flattened neighborhoods, dragging shrieking survivors back down into the harbor. White hot shrapnel rained down on the rubble, followed by ten minutes of thick black fallout. That night temperatures plunged, a massive blizzard rolled in, and by the next morning the city was twenty degrees below zero and buried under a foot and a half of snow. First responders reported that Halifax had vanished. At least two thousand people died.

Of many calamities to befall the city, the exploding Mont Blanc executed one trick later revived by Al Qaeda in east Africa; get everyone looking in one direction and then shower them in flying glass. History records 5,923 eyes destroyed in the seconds after the explosion. In chapter 5, MacDonald returns to the cartoon world with a description of a woman whose eyeballs have been blown out of their sockets, like an "Itchy and Scratchy" gag. Later, the reader follows the esteemed ocular surgeon George Cox as he tries to bring relief to this netherworld, and in one gruesome passage we join him at a makeshift operating table, thirty hours into his shift, plopping eyeballs into a surgical bucket that eventually overflows.

Large parts of the book are like this. Some of the post-explosion chapters read like George Romero scripts. The author writes of streets strewn with fingers and feet and heads. Rescue workers had to traverse exploding stoves, dangling live wires, burning trees and dogs gone insane. Corpses clutched squalling children, and refugees tried to eat food contaminated with glass chards, oblivious to their own septic face wounds. A newspaper editor, lifting debris, had an anonymous human brain tumble to his feet.

Mac Donald is an engaging historian, unafraid to crawl into people's heads and assign them motives and memories. When faced with the presumably staggering job of sifting through the historical data, she shows a nice instinct for the cinematic. A young man dashes home to find his house eerily deserted. In the kitchen, "a skin of black soot floated on the pitcher of milk, and blood was smeared across the table." Rescuers find two mutilated horse corpses frozen in pose, reminding one of "equestrian statues gone wrong." Of a makeshift basement embalming room, an eyewitness complains that "through the mist loom up the indistinct contours of nude corpses above which ghoul-like figures bend with eerie implements and vessels." It's not hard to picture the trailer for this movie.

Other historians have not done such a good sales job with Halifax. The Titanic remains the sexy disaster of the nineteen-teens, despite the smaller death toll. From our vantage point, the first fifth of the twentieth century is a dim sinkhole. WWI remains in memory; the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, twice as fatal as the Great War, does not. My hardbound copy of The New York Times Page One starts the 20th century in 1920. President McKinley's shooting and slow death, occurring exactly a century before 9/11, have been relegated to the old timey museum. The implied irrelevance for our era is hard to face. A hundred years from now, will this decade's travails - all our wars and flooded cities and exploding skyscrapers - rank as even a footnote in anyone's anthology?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


If you live in Los Angeles, I'll be reading aloud some short fiction at Hope Gallery in Silverlake this Thursday. Chicago music writer Jessica Hopper will also be reading. The full announcement can be viewed here. It's no big deal if you want to come but cannot - I'll do more of these things. But this one is free, and if I become a big shot at some point in the future and my shows cost $80 a seat, then you may be upset with yourself and I cannot take responsibility for that.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)

Almost all of us share this moment from childhood; one of your parents has just read to you before bedtime, the story ends with a soft little clap of the bookcover and mom or dad is smiling because now they get an hour or two to themselves before they have to go to sleep. Except you're sitting there with a frustrated furrow on your little brow and you're just mad. "No, no, no, you got it all wrong," you say. "You should've had the wizard marry the princess. Tell it again!" And your mom or dad sighs, does some quick mental calculus and deduces that the path of least resistance is actually to cave in and just tell the frigging story over with the alternate ending. The wizard winds up marrying the princess after all, you fall asleep, everyone's happy.

That's the film industry. "The Hulk" came out in 2003, and millions of people sat in darkened theaters with frustrated furrows on their little brows. "No, no, no, you got it all wrong," America said to Hollywood. "You should have the Hulk be awesome, and you should have him fight a giant gray Hulk, and there shouldn't be any Nick Nolte. Tell it again!"
The new, new "Hulk" is indeed awesome. I could have done without all the exposition, and dialogue, and actors, but once it gets going it's one of the best American films to ever deal with the subject of a guy who goes around destroying shit. This new Hulk punches out banks and dropkicks airports and uses two halves of a cop car for boxing gloves. At one point I think he eats a child. My only complaint is the sequel teaser at the end of the movie. They should have ended the film honorably, King Kong style, by killing the green beast in the streets. I guarantee everyone in my theater would've wept.

But if there must be a sequel, here's my pitch, in the grand spirit of storytime. We all know that if you kick Bruce Banner in the groin you're going to get the Hulk. But what does the Hulk turn into when you get him mad? Answer: Mega Hulk. The poster for "Mega Hulk" is just a wall of throbbing meat with a tiny eye peeking out in the middle. The tagline reads HOW MUCH ANGRIER CAN HE GET? In Europe maybe the tagline could be something a little racier, like HOW MUCH MORE CAN HIS PANTS STRETCH? Although, obviously, it'd have to be in German or whatever.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Problem: roadside accusation

THE WORLD OF MYSTERY, June 18 - A problematic plywood sign greeted motorists on Foothill Boulevard in Claremont this afternoon;

No one else was around, but as I hastily snapped this photo I could feel eyes watching me from one of the nearby apartments, and, not wanting to get rapped myself, I speed-walked back to my car and got the hell out of there. I've seen enough cryptic signage in my life to make me think I should compile a great coffee table book of my findings. Sadly, my juiciest discoveries (like the guy in a beach chair, not far from where this photo was taken, holding a sheet announcing CLAREMONT HATES SICK PEOPLE, or the elderly man in Albany holding a DON'T FUCK THE POOR sign in front of the governor's mansion) have all eluded photography.

Except one. Six or seven years ago, Tara and I drove across lower Oregon on Dead Indian Memorial Road, the scenic highway that connects OR-66 to US-97. In the middle of the vast splendor of pines and open road, we came upon a crudely painted plank announcing a PUNK SHOW, with an orange arrow pointing off into the wilderness. I stopped the car and took this photo with the Polaroid sticker camera;

Our responsibilities in this case were unclear. This sign was either A) an invitation to the best show ever, B) an invitation to a once-in-a-lifetime Narnia / Phantom Tollbooth / Twilight Zone situation, or C) a trap set by mountain cannibals. As we weighed our odds, I felt more eyes watching us from the woods, and I put the car in drive and got the hell out of there as well.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Ray Ray 2001-2008

Ray came to live with us in late 2003. One of the two cats I'd lugged around since New Jersey had died that spring from lung cancer, and the survivor seemed lonely and withdrawn. In the fall, a friend had trouble getting Ray on a flight, so he arrived one night for a temporary stay and remained here for the next five years.

Ray was the closest I've come to owning a purebred. He belonged to the Ragdoll and Flamepoint breeds, cousins of the Siamese, which gave him orange clown ears and the complexion of pound cake. Look up "Flamepoint" on Google Images and you'll see the varied faces of Ray Ray's diaspora. His eyes - the piercing blue of all such cats - had a mild genetic defect that kept them in constant wiggle. It was a little disconcerting at first. Then it made him appear searching, imploring, and occasionally intellectually curious.

He didn't really get along with the other cat, but in every other respect Ray seemed to quickly grasp the fundamentals: humans take on cats as surrogate infants, cats entertain humans by seeking out surrogate mice. It's a classic symbiotic relationship, one that has served both species well for the last 20,000 years. After mastering the basics, Ray majored in human relationships. He minored in "hair fetishism" and "chaos", and excelled in all these functions for the next five years.

We buried Ray on Thursday, in the suitcase in this photo. I've had to put down a lot of pets in my life, and Ray makes the third cat in five years we've said goodbye to. This, however, was the first time I've found myself completely debilitated with sadness. Putting down an animal is a foreshadowing of all the death and horror still to come, most of which will be human. But at least with other people you don't have to arrange to have them killed.

I know there are people out there who find it silly that someone would grieve over a seven pound animal. Up until last week, I was still working on excuses for selling my car. It seemed far easier to say, "my transmission died" than "I'm gathering cash for a feline kidney transplant with only an 80% survival rate." I just wasn't up for the scrutiny of the many, many people out there who can't summon even a baseline smidgen of human empathy when it comes to the life and/or death of a pet.

If you're one of these people, seriously: fuck the fuck off.