Tuesday, December 27, 2016


   Last Fall, I holed up in an awful apartment and read a book about the poet Pushkin. A cross between the Norton Anthology and The Real Wives of St Petersburg.
   Pushkin died in a duel in 1837 when he was 37, shot by a journeymen French solider of fortune who'd been adopted by an amorous Russian step-father and who was making eyes and probably more at Pushkin's legendarily stunning wife.
   Pushkin was born in Eastern Russia, his family owned land near the Estonian border. Pskov. His great-grandfather was from Africa and had worked for and become a favorite of Peter The Great, who to the Russians is kind of like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and George Patton all wrapped up in one. Maybe add some Hannibal Lector. Peter carried a metal pike with him that the liked to impale minions with. A member of the Stroganoff family licked a sore on Peter's foot until it healed and as a reward he was given estates the size of Massachusetts.
   When I was 17, I went to Russia/ The USSR. The cab driver who took me to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg/Leningrad knew I was an American in a heartbeat. Before we'd gone 5 blocks he asked me what poetry did I know by heart?
  What poetry can you speak aloud right now!? Out loud!
   I'd had a task master of an English prof that year and for no other reason I could recite the last two pages of The Great Gatsby. Which I did. (Maybe not poetry but close.) My cabbie nodded his head in reluctant acknowledgement and then proceeded to quote Pushkin for the next 5 minutes as we dodged mountains of sludge and puddles the size of Lake Baikal on our way to the onetime home of the Czars, and then and now the Hermitage Museum. Impressive enough.
   And then he quoted the first page of both Jack London's Great White Silence and Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. In English.
   He did accept my tip.
   I live in Central Hollywood -which one can actually do in LA, live in Hollywood without ever being in "Hollywood", though most are or, like me, trying to be, "in it". For blocks in all directions I'm surrounded by Russians. Everywhere, I walk I pass them, couples, kids, grandmothers, aspirant Russian rock stars, Russian club kids, Russian landlords, a nurse shouting into her smart phone with Slavic force.
  The buildings in this part of LA, teetering on the edge of Cahuenga pass where the great vortex of the 101 freeway grinds though to the Valley, are covered in carbon soot. Satanic grey dust everywhere. This is where you end up when you quit, or where you got your first apartment when you had no idea that this was absolutely the lowest housing rung on the LA ladder and probably where you'd end up 20 years later.
   Maybe the apartment blocks here remind the Russians of the deprivations of home. Of the Old Days. The stacked, yard free, balcony free, parking free stuccoed concrete rental units of LA by way of Novosibirsk. "Satan lives." Scratched into the wall next to my laundry. Or Stalin.
   Maybe they like it here because once you own enough of these joints you can milk the miserable and the novice alike. Less a toehold in the American dream than a claw's grip on the neck.
   No hacking necessary.
   I've always been fascinated by things Russian. When I was a boy I remember watching a film in Mr D'Ambrosio's 7th grade music class about Tchaikovsky. Apparently Peter, or Piotr, couldn't stop played the piano so his parents locked it shut. In the film, in glorious technicolor with St Basil's twisting onion domes in the background young Piotr starts "playing" on the window until it shatters and the blood flows.
  I thought- I wanna be like him.
  And then all the ice, and the wolves, and the steppe and the tiaga. Such words. Versts! Who wouldn't want to travel many versts instead of a couple of miles?
  Lots of red everywhere, red red red, and more Tchaikovsky and blue eyed girls hidden in fur, they won WWII !!- what else can you want? And then I heard them sing....something about that language in song, sung by only voices, no music to accompany it, it floored me.
   I was hooked. And have been ever since.
   A shit show and an enchanted realm: Russia.
  Magnificent ideals colliding with, devolving into, horrific reality.
   From each according to his ability to each accordingly to his need until each of you goes to the gulag if you don't do what we need.
  Trotsky using violence to fight a way toward an ideal state of equity - Putin mouthing ideals to equivocate state violence.
   One hundred years this year. 1917. The Bolshevik revolution. And already the United States is honoring that milestone by electing a plutocratic Czar for president. Trump the ultimate achievement of Rove's right wing Bolsheviks. If you think I'm joking look at pictures of Karl's office. He has a bust of Lenin mounted by his bookshelves.
   I don't mean to draw too fine a parallel between Lenin and Rove. The Russian Bolsheviks actually believed in something, and fought, risking their lives to end a regime that had ground 85% of the Russian people into fertilizer for 3 centuries.
  Rove has picked up where Stalin left off - power as an ends in itself, figure out the policy later.
  Now the Trump era. However brief, but potentially ending the American experiment in its 3rd century.
  The threat of Islam? No kind sirs....the enemy is within. The fault is in us, not our stars, or in anyone else's star and crescent.
  .....anyhow....Russia.....Pushkin.....his wife's name was Natalia Goncharova...one of three sisters from an old Muscovite family, Cossack warrior traders with a history of mental instability, Natalia was said to be the most beautiful of an astonishingly beautiful trio of women. Portraits of her even in the mediocre court styles of the day give some hint of her glory.
   She and Pushkin, as most people of their class did wrote to each other frequently but while 70 some letters from him to her exist, only one from her to him, signed by her mother, survives. So we have no record what the voice of the woman that Russia's greatest poet loved to distraction sounded like..
   I wonder ...a clipped soprano, breathy and phrased like Grace Kelly's? Or an alto unexpected coming out of her mouth in waves, like Audrey Hepburn's?
   Czar Nicholas flirted with her, often enough that Pushkin was driven to belittle him in public. A poet, in mountains of debt, from no great family, insulting the Emperor of the world's largest country. Son of the man who defeated Napoleon.
   Balls of stone.
   No wonder they quote him 150 years later, taxi drivers and elevator repairmen and college students I met studying engineering who snuck us down off the Lenin Hills and into Red Square, out of their dorms, wearing their clothes, so we could watch as the last Communist, Gorbachev was instated on Lenin's tomb
   I remember it was snowing lightly and I tried to catch a flake in my mouth. My host squeezed my hand hard, "Stop. Don't let them know you're an American."


Sunday, December 11, 2016


    Sometimes I think I live in a place with no history. With no lessons learned. That we had a Great Depression, that we had a Gilded Age when men bought labor like it was shelled nuts, when children under the age of ten worked 16 hour days, and yet we enter a new Millenia and decide... none of it holds water anymore. Only the strong should survive. The weak deserve their lot. They must have done something to deserve it. 
   The most primitive, Puritanical, Calvinist nonsense imaginable and yet here we are, at the border of 2017 and we're just gonna burn the books of experience on the pyre of success, in every town square in America. 
   In China, there's a lot of history.
  15 dynasties alone. From Song to Sung to Ming to Qing, you barely scratch the surface of a stretch of human existence most Americans can’t imagine.
   "Well my mother’s family has been in Philadelphia since the 1660s"….Say that to a guy from Bejing who’s 200 generations deep and you’ll get a glimmer. 
    I'm at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA -one of the finest acronyms in the country. 
Barely lacking being an acronym of "acronym" itself - (And in a city 54% hispanic bringing to mind, Lachrymosa. The tears of Christ. Or the tears of the mother of Christ I can’t remember.)
    A school of Chinese painters in the time of Rembrandt retreated into the mountains to avoid the censors and henchman of a new emperor. They painted landscapes to memorialize their lost dynasty, their emperor and his patrons. 
   Ink. Paper. Stone. 
   The three holies. Or is it four? Yes, "And a brush."
   I look at the collection and I think this is genius, how could they draw like that? But then I walk up to the Rembrandts and think, no he’s a lot better, far more realistic, more virtuosic and then I walked back down into the Chinese gallery and read that there’s a word, "Pingdan", which doesn’t translate maybe because we’ve grown up looking at Rembrandts, but which loosely means, "matter of fact", or hum drum, or something like “ you should imagine this was done without too much labor because I don’t want you to think it’s an overwrought masterpiece I spent my life training to achieve but rather something I tossed off in an afternoon, I thought you might enjoy. No offense. ” The strokes are intentionally simple, almost amateurish. The gestures made to evoke a world unspectacular, sketched, dashed off. But transfixing in its truth.
   The truth is these men practiced the movement of their brushes, their hands, their grip and their intent like workers worked in a Steel Mill in 1891. 12 hour days. And the long shift every two weeks of 24 hours straight. They drew like violinists practicing till their necks bled. 
   But essential to their art was the sense that it not impose itself. Life was greater, the work shouldn’t embarrass the living but rather remind us of some fleeting beauty, some grace notes, the presence of the divine caught while we go about the day. 
  The Western artist builds a career on a series of greater glories, finer achievements, perfected craft, the journey of which is played out before the viewer. Genius made demonstrable. 
   The Chinese painter’s genius is in creating a masterpiece one would hesitate to say the reasons why it's a masterpiece.
   I drive across the Rankin bridge which used to cross over the Eastern end of the Homestead works, a Steel mill where the labor movement was crippled for 40 years, but also where more steel was made in one set of Western Pennsylvania structures than in the entire Ruhr Valley in WWII.
   It's a mall now, selling jobs that pay on average 8 dollars an hour unless you work at Starbucks and then you get some stock as well, some company script. There's an access road to the mall over the old train tracks that fed the mill countless cars and it often bottlenecks because the County built it on the cheap.
   I sat there of an afternoon, an afternoon like any other, matter of fact, a random hum drum day in my life itching to get going, and as I'm sitting in the car cursing the light and the first guy in line who keeps staring at his phone instead of the green, I glance over at the roadbed. There's grass, growing between the street and the fenced off car lot beyond.
    Here I am, almost to the off ramp into the mall, the stretch of flood plain below where the Pinkertons driven out of town in 1892 by the striking citizens once hid, and I notice this grass, tufts surviving in a detritus of concrete and exhaust and garbage tossed from folks like myself, but alive and bright green and drawn simply into the air as if some artist had just thrown them into being.  

Mash up

      I can't think of the name of the artist Raphael without thinking of Peter Sellars. He starred in a masterpiece called Being There back in the 80s. One of the funniest and strangest films in American history. During the credits they show clips of Sellars trying to tell a joke, play a bit, where he asks a doctor does he know a fellow named Raphael? He pronounces it, "Ra-Fai-El".
     For a number of reasons Sellars can't do the bit without bursting into laughter which ultimately kept the bit out of the movie but when seen is as funny as anything you've just seen in the film.
     So I'm reading over breakfast about Raphael, about a show in a museum in 1987, from a collection of essays by a critic supposed to be famous who I never read when he was and this one is three pages, from "The Nation", December 19th 1987.
   And while I'm reading a song comes on the radio, a 3 or 4 minute song and I'm transfixed. It grabs me by the gut like songs used to do when I was 15, 19, 24. And I think it's Paul Weller but I learn later it's Blur and I love the heavy accent and the deep tonal bass - "what have you got? Mass produced in somewhere hot", but at the same time I'm obsessed with Raphael and did I see this exhibit, did I run up to the Morgan when I tried to chase my girlfriend back into my arms that Winter in NYC and after she didn't show did I go to the gallery and try and lose myself in all that beauty? The drawings of the most influential Renaissance artist ever, the handful of drawings we know to be by him and not his pupils, how to see through all that fame and back into the genius.
  On goes Blur telling me about the 5:14 to Grinstead which is what made me think it was Weller telling me about "waking up at 6am on a cool warm morning, opening the window and breathing in petrol' because it is morning and I'm trying to get out on time for a meeting in Pittsburgh this winter of 2016 Trumplandia, but I want to finish this essay about this critic's favorite artist while Blur plays, side by side, and the language of each somehow makes the music better, a waltz of high and low, of my two complete passions: the long pondered miracle of a classic drawing and the snap shot hard reality of a city street in a song, the richness, the lust you can feel drifting by a nude drawn 5 centuries ago and the clear truth of music that works for just a night, for just a moment, for just your generation, both toe to toe in your heart, in the furnace of what makes you want to make things.
   "Talking types will let us down" the song sings and here I am talking and trying to tie a professional talker and his male muse to the evanescent climax of a pop tune which ends just as I get to the last paragraph of the essay which tells me that many of Raphael's best drawings we will never see because they exist under his paintings, studies laid down to give shape to the paint, "synopie" they're called and only a few of them remain, works from works he died before he got to. Stunning charcoal and pen and crayon miracles of shape and inspiration that the author thinks shine light on all else around them.
  But I  wonder...where is Grinstead street, and have I passed it on my few trips to London, is it even in London? Why didn't Weller write this instead of "two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude" which the first time I heard it made me drop a plate of food on a floor that some minor rock hero could have penned that when he was 20 years younger than I am now.
   I guess Raphael tells us as much. It's difficult to go back. To see thru what we've learned about what's so influential in our lives, back to when it was simply new and one voice among many that would soon fade.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Men's Tennis

  Everyone knows the year ends in September. No matter how old we are, we're all still students. Summer's indulgences have to be paid for. Long weekends go the way of the long evening sunlight. School's about to begin. We have to go back somehow. We feel it in the shorter days.
   Or maybe there are two years in every year. The business year begins in January and runs till Labor day. And then there's a short private year, a dispensation, the old harvest time stretching from Indian summer to the Winter Solstice. The trio of months when we reach for each other and dig vertically into the stratum of our lives. What's been done, who did you love, who forgive, what charity was given, what's the record say? The Jews know it. Rosh Hoshanah. Yom Kippur. Consider. Repay. Repent. All souls must.
  When I was a boy, at the end of the summer, we would drive to Philadelphia, where my mother had grown up. We wouldn't stay with what was left of her family, we stayed with her friend Mercedes.
   My dad when he spoke her name hit the first syllable. She and her husband lived in a fine old house with an endless backyard, at the absolute edge of which was the biggest trampoline I'd ever seen.
   I'd never seen a trampoline. Or a big backyard.
   I'd jump on it for as long as I could. When I got too ambitious, the sprung circle came up and hit me in the face. I can still feel it. A comfort. Like a smack from a big brother. The adults were in the house, Mercedes' children were older, in the garage or up in the attic, smiling or playing albums. I didn't want to know. I just wanted to leap. To fly. From euphoria to hard reality and back, every time I hit the canvas. I didn't want it to stop.
  It was one of the few vacations I remember being repeated. I went to camp every June by myself for a few weeks but as a family we rarely left Pittsburgh. I suppose my mother was looking in on her sister to make sure the cousins got off to school or were fed and clothed. I had two cousins a boy and a girl but my aunt had 10 dogs and, depending on the season, 20 or more cats. Kittens by the horde that I use to chase from room to room like tiny buffalo. It was heaven. I remember finding some calcified dog shit propped up on a 18th century side table and not thinking this was a big deal. A leftover, left up on the leftovers of my mother's family's wealth. Federalist era antiques and fecal matter. And gin. My inheritance.
  They were all about the age I am now, my parents, my aunt, and their friends. Late 40s, early 50s. My mother's father was 13 years younger than his nearest sibling. My mom the youngest child as well, and not pregnant with me till she was 38 which made me the youngest by far. Most of the generation I was born into by that time was in HS or even college. My cousins like Mercedes' kids were doing acid or cranking the Sabbath, unfazed by sex and swearing and cruelty. I trailed along, the last of the last of the last. Or more often, I just hid.
  Main Line Philadelphia homes didn't have tv rooms. Nobody buried themselves in a man cave or binge watched ....anything.... the concept didn't exist. You didn't arrange the family furniture to look a screen. You entertained. You triangulated chairs and low tables for drinks and the best advantages of the drinkers. A tv went into the corner of a kitchen or on a shelf in the library where you might curl up and watch the news before you went to bed or a PBS show or the occasional golf game. TV was unseemly. I have no memories of the thing on in the day in my parents' house. I can't think of much I ever did that met with deeper disapproval than watching Spiderman cartoons after school or reruns of Green Acres followed by Gomer Pyle followed by ....oblivion....and parental distaste. Their title songs to this day stir up in me a kind of illness. As if for a decade or so I'd been member to a mindless cult. The river bottom of my life giving up its poisons.
   You could apologize for being stupid or selfish or cruel. You could make up for such behavior and redress. But to my parents and their families, you couldn't get back the time you spent in front of a television. To them reality was still hovering somewhere in the late 50s, conditioned by their depression era parents who had lived by the round of cocktail parties and clubs, dancing and correspondence. Even a telephone was something to be used sparingly. Something alien. Make a date and go visit someone. Live. Be in the world. Be seen. Rise and contend.
   So it's unusual and almost sweet that my memories of Mercedes' home revolve around her cosy couch encircled library and me in it curled up and allowed to watch the US Open as the adults cheerfully snuck in and asked after the score, or caught a few points, drinks in hand. The transgression of watching. It's stayed with me to this day. The happy sin my parents permitted me centered around a tennis match.
   I'd been a Connors' fan- mostly I think because I had the same bowl cut - but that late summer I couldn't take my eyes off McEnroe. There was something else going on here than the boyhood focus on winning, losing and trying to pick between the two. He swore like the older kids. He was all thrust and hair and adolescent rage. There was something about the shape he made at the serve, the insistent 3 dimensional vector he'd cock himself into before arching into space and finding the ball. The grunt, the heat of it, and the fury of his desire to play.
  I saw myself watching. I understood that this was a time in my life. A thing. I was changing, people were beginning to look at me differently, I could see that. Something was about to be expected of me that they weren't offering to explain. I pretended I had some idea but in truth I was like a 12 year old reading erotica. I saw the beauty in the blueprints but I had no idea the kind of sweat it would take to build the frame.
    So even now, every year, though I smile mid-February to see t shirts and sweat and sunburns when the Aussies open the season, and I will always lust to see the French Open in person and get some red dust on my skin, though I know Wimbledon is the jewel in the crown of tennis and if allowed I'd probably break with my habitual Puritanism  - don't touch that Oscar it's not YOURS!- and lay down on the blue green lawns if no one was looking, to me it's the sloppy, loud, concrete girdled Open in New York I'm most fond of. Its rough democracy. Something done well in a rude American way. The clamor and glitz happening just as the year dies. The last circus to trundle out of town. And one that one can't follow.
  It comes back every September. A hot sliver of memory -like the last bit of scent on scarf a girl gave you a decade before- the nicotine on her fingers - from inside the house of a woman with an odd name I may have met three times and who my parents might only have called an acquaintance.  Folded up in her turkish hideaway in a grand home, watching the young men who would be the last of my childhood heros show me what men could do. Our elemental best. What we had to do.
   They examples I would always hold against myself in my mind. I could feel it- my legs getting longer, the thighs touching now, the dark hair curling out against my skin, the shoulders my mother's friends keep reaching out to hold and say, "Ah, see..." And deeper than that, something in my bones, waking up, that wasn't me but something I now had to carry. That what we are, we have to become.
    And there is McEnroe a man awkward at everything but rushing a net, playing the hardest game on earth, becoming oddly for me the very image of manly grace but also of manhood's sometimes justified and sometimes terrible fury. And that the two rarely exist without the other.
  I guess that's one definition of being a man. You become your own other. Your own destroyer. You possess it within you.
   Each man kills the thing he loves? I doubt it. I think most often we kill the thing we learned too late to love. Ourselves.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


   It's a feeling I love.
I like to let it happen.
Sometimes I do it on purpose.
I go to a pool, walk into the surf, swim out into a river, flip myself upside down and ....breathe. 
I long for it. I miss it.
The burn. The stuff ripping up into your sinus and out your ears and back into your mouth. Death searching for life, or is it life searching out death?
When water challenges the air for the same space in your body, tugging at it, wrestling it, the combustion is almost erotic.  The body remembers -and I almost feel anger at the memory- that at one time I could breathe both. 
I've tried. How I've tried. 
It's the strangest thing. To know this in your bones. In your blood. 
The High Schools I swam at, the clubs, the parks, the camps, walking past people's pools I breathe in the beautiful poisons. Chlorine. Soda ash. Both should kill you, both can. Both send me into a reverie. I whipsnap into a different time a different age. Suddenly I'm ten again, I'm 14, I'm 20 and this water is my ticket, my pathway, my canvas, my proving ground. The ring wherein the damage done never shows. Eternal water. Eternal movement. The feline element. The only one you can throw yourself into that will bouy you up.
I'm a fire sign and I've been told by acupuncturists and doctors and seers and astrologists and girls Ive dated that I should get the fuck in the water every day and cool the fuck off.
I shrug. And then when I do get in the water, the ocean especially, I feel transformed, like a mole who's been activated by his handlers to admit his true purpose, to shake off the act and be that which one was meant to be. I feel like a weapon that's been disarmed at the last second in a Bond film or a villain who's happy he got caught and now wants to do his time.
Somewhere in the salt water is my covalent bond. The element that takes me from reactive to inert.
My point break. Go easy bro. Who knew?
I think it comes from this: one day I realized that most of the world doesn't, most of what we call the living, don't breathe air. Something stuck in my mind- that there's what we think, and there's what is. There are the theories of the few and the thinking of the mass, and I thought to myself I am not in that mass. That mass breathes water, it swims and breeds and swarms about the rim and expanse of the globe and we sit up on our odd rocky outposts and theorize about intelligence and fate and destiny.
We on the surface are an abstraction. And our beliefs, our reasons to be: God, transcendence, art, work, labor, gender, race, war..they're all bumper stickers on the ass of the music of the water world.  Prosaically we're a bacteria on the skin of the earth.
I had no philosophy to support my thoughts but I began to think my thoughts must be incomplete, must be crippled somehow, or stunted because I lived in the air and not below it.
If the earth is an organism, if it is a unified ecology then that ecology is fed by water, it's oxygen is liquid.
The land is an exception and the land dwellers but workers on the surface, trained to keep the canopy clean.
I have a theory.
And it's this.....one day we will realize as best we can, or maybe we will only catch a glimmer of this truth as we denude the seas of their creatures, or we will, just before incinerating ourselves in a holy war, hear spoken the concept that everything we do and want and build and fight for is motivated and mediated by our need for tools. To use our hands and language as transmitting poles for what goes on in our minds and body. To embody the nature of tools. To diefy them.
So imagine if we didn't need to. Use tools. If we didn't need hands or the extensions thereof. If we didn't need that most amazing of human constructions; If we didn't need language.
What if whatever we were, or needed, or were thinking, or felt could be felt in kind by our siblings our loved ones and our neighbors thru the medium in which we lived? If we and the medium were one?
What would fall away?
Clothing. Speech. Tools. Architecture. Science.....Deception....?
Imagine, you live in the same fluid that makes up the majority of your body. Your "self" extends, after a brief epidermal pause, into the immensity of the world about you. You and the nerve endings of creation are one. When your heart skips a beat, your brother knows it. When you are sick, your sister feels it. When you want a thing, they know you do, or want it too at the same instant. Communication becomes a kind of sung common truth. History is what you need to preserve in song to stay alive. Imagine something, anything, any of your deepest darkest secrets, and 3 thousand miles away, a day or two later, your distant cousins conceive the same.
Whales. Dolphins. Cetaceans.
Carl Sagan describes what must happen when a creature in a two dimensional world comes into contact with a three dimensional creature. The two D being sees a two dimensional line. It's the world he/she knows. It's how their eyes work.
That line may be, to the two dimensional being's apprehension, fairly simple or even rudimentary because to the three dimensional creature the particular aesthetics and needs of the two dimensional mind must seem primitive.
Now imagine you had no need for clothing. For a wrench or a fire or a backhoe or housing or the telegraph or the internet. All of it. The whole built terranean world was extraneous to you. Go beyond that. Imagine that the fundamental conundrum of individual consciousness, of being, of existential human conflict, of incomprehension or translation or even distance and the nature of the "self" was not only unimaginable to you, it was irrelevant, unnecessary.
You are a whale.
You are a dolphin.
You're brain is larger than a humans.
These odd small boney beings make sounds at you and then throw you fish if you imitate them, surely the snack is worth the amusement.
The three dimensional dolphin gazes at the ridiculous two dimensional human as the human laments that the dolphin doesn't know subject from object.
Only because in the dolphin's world the two were never separate. There was never a language in the water that needed them.
If for nothing else we should incline our genius to theirs.
But here's the kicker.
We've slaughtered them for hundreds of years. Exercised a virtual holocaust on their population and still instinctively....they do not run from us. They surface and look us in the eye. They lift their children up out of their living element to see these strange calling apparitions in the sky.
If for no other reason, if say we decide they do not communicate in a simpler and superior manner that one day millennia from now we may share, than if only for the fact that they forgive us our sins, we should step into their world and cherish both them and it, and suffer the consequences.


   The summer I turned 13 my friend Peter asked me to come to the shore with him and his parents for a week. Or his parents asked. He was an only child. We swam together. For different teams so I suppose we swam against each other but it never felt that way. He won, I won, we were happy for the other's success. And it was the only time we ever saw each other, at swim meets. He lived in the suburbs I lived nearer the city, but back then, in Pittsburgh, especially Pittsburgh with its Balkan hills and Balkan ways, a few miles of separation could mean as much as a time zone.
   Peter was blonde. We were both breaststrokers, equivalent in speed, teetering into adolescence. What a silly word. Such a meager word, a soft word for what in a boy's life can make or break him, or both. To leave boyhood and realize you have to be a man. Your manhood overtaking you and running you into the ground. The muscle, the heat, the sweat, the stink of being male. It grabs and doesn't let go. One day you're pretty, you play with dolls as often as balls, you lean against your mother and your friends, you help her sift flour and sweep the rooms, your bones are fine, you could be called aquiline, the trim of you is neither hard nor soft and then you wake up and you're a plow. A block. A threat. Happy Birthday.
   We stayed in an A frame his parents rented in Cape Hatteras. Among a few houses in a field of sea grass, a mile from the only store in town, the Red Drum I think it was called, and the grand lighthouse to the East with its twirled stonework, a short walk to see. When the tide came in the light was surrounded and Peter's father said it was bound to collapse if they didn't move it. Which one summer 20 years later they did.
     I would stare at it from the back porch  reading Robert Ludlum novels and Clive Cussler and Leon Uris, the moldered paper backs left year after year on the vacation shelves, as his parents smoked and drank and told themselves stories about a family I didn't belong to. Peter's parents were as old as mine which was a rarity in working Pgh. Mine remembered the Depression. My father could have served in the War if he'd wanted to lie well enough. When they'd met they smiled at each other knowing they didn't have to explain, didn't have to bridge the baby boomer gap. Peter and me, the last sons of last son's last son. My mom told me once of her grandmother recalling in her presence that as a young girl she lead the young men down into the basement to hide and be fed. Antietam.
   Peter and I went to a water park one afternoon and I remember the perfection of the girl who let me ride behind her on the plunging raft. Unable to let myself put my arms and hands around her breasts I held her by the shoulders. Something unforgivable to me to this day. Nearly throttling her. The maddening firmness and strength of her body and the simple clear fact that she wanted me to touch her. That she offered it. The astonishment that she would. Dawning on a boy in the same way being paid for a job, or rewarded for kindness, or forgiven completely would continue to stun him till he was in his thirties.
   I hid myself. I read for hours when I should have roamed the shore with Peter, I was afraid of the solitude I chose but I chose it. We must have gone to the beach occasionally because I remember Peter's hirsute father covering himself in sand and running toward his wife the sharp dust cascading off the dust of him as she emerged smiling from the water. Half naked grown ups. My friend's mother's tits. Her smile. Knowing she still loved her husband. Watching them and feeling like a language was being spoken to me I could not translate in a land I couldn't leave.
  I think that week was the end of our friendship, Peter and me. I was too tortured even then, too dark, too inclined already to leave, to walk away, and abandon anyone when the demands and shortcomings of friendship got too dear, the necessary exchange of forgiveness for kindness, got too complicated. We swam a few more times against each other that Fall. I quit swimming, became an anorexic shut-in for a year, reading everything in the house, every book, diary, magazine and paper, my father's Defense Industry monthlies, years of stacked New Yorkers and Smithsonians, two decades of the National Geo and when it came down to it catalogues that my mother paged through for fun, and when that ran dry whatever I could grab from the town library. And then I went to boarding school where at least for awhile the men there dragged me to the surface of a life some could call normal and I excelled.
    4 years after that summer Peter and I swam in a race, an exhibition between his HS and my private school and we nearly tied in adjacent lanes. I remember how big his smile was and that he reached across the lane rope and hugged me in his father's gruff way. He shook me. We never saw each other again. I think we spoke once on the phone later when we were adults and I'd been on tv. I seem to remember his voice, deep, older, generous but withheld by what we used to share.
   At Hatteras, his parents were friends with a pair of married couples who shared  the house next door. The only other house for blocks, if one could call the dunes with lanes dug thru them streets - today I'm sure they're cheek by jowl with development and rented, the wild grass torn away for the pebbled yards owners lay out to save money on gardening in the off season - but then it was acres of tall blue green hay and the tower of the lighthouse rising out of God's nothing and the surf.
  The couples were young. One husband had a ragged beard. His wife's name was Gail. "Perfect name for her as she's a wild woman." They seemed weathered, experienced, I found them faded. They were probably in their early thirties. It was Gail's husband who took us to the water park. I remember him telling us that the girls we'd met were hard for him to look at, and then he hooted to the sky and stroked back his beard and made way for the imagined descent of their thighs onto his face. As he told us, and acted out the act I had no idea this was even possible. I remember being ashamed, put off by his candor, by what I didn't even know in me was desire. The facts of life it didn't seem possible were what beauty got boiled down to. The unutterable vision and the perishable flesh I couldn't yet combine.
   They smoked a lot, they listened to the Dead who I didn't know were the Dead yet, and they sat behind their screens at sunset, filtered as if on film, and talked and laughed while Peter and I waited for dinner to end. Mr Cochran grilling the fish he'd caught outside under the eave of the house. We'd walk to the beach afterwards every night. It was my only peace, answering the huge tug of the surf. The heave of Hatteras with its monstrous opposing currents, hot and cold, the Gulf and the Labrador crashing into each other and creating a tide that didn't care a rats ass for human life or comfort.
  I'd made a sandcastle one afternoon, one rare day in the sun, and I wanted to go back and see how it was doing in the wind, whether the tide had been able to reach it thru my moats and walling. I do remember it was a gorgeous sunset, the glow on our faces almost a force, the waving blue of the land set off like rich fabric against the sky. When I got to the beach a handful of kids who lived nearby and I'd met -I think we'd even body surfed that day, I can still see Peter's expert angling- were hovering around the sandcastle, a few of them smoking, a few of them dressed in finer clothes like the teenagers they were about to become.
   I joined them, it got darker, and there was a girl there, with long blonde hair and a light cotton sweater, a useless thing in the evening wind that snapped off the ocean, but which looked like spun ambergris in my eyes against her. A boy, I don't know if he liked her and didn't like that she and I were standing near, or whether he had any idea I'd made the sandcastle at all, then waded into my castle and destroyed it with a few quick sweeps of his leg.
  I remember thinking this should hurt my hand as I hit him with my fist, again and again on the mouth as he lay in the sand where I held him. And I remember thinking this is so easy, why doesn't he push back. I could feel his sadness and his fear in my fingers and on my face. I remember thinking even then that it was odd something inanimate, a sandcastle, a stuffed toy, a book with the cover torn off, could mean so much to me, or be the source of so much sorrow. When I bite the knuckles on my right hand, if I need to pull out a splinter, or chew off some stuck residue, I feel his teeth to this day against my fingers as if they were my own.
  And I wonder, does he remember going one summer to North Carolina. A trip with a friend or a regular summer spent by the shore with his family. Did he know the girl's name, does he know it still as he approaches 50 and where did he go to school and then graduate and where did he finally settle down to work and make of life a go? Where does he live now? With a family, or divorced and on his own, balding, children, how old and when he sits of an evening by the water does he remember this boy forcing a fist into his mouth time after time because of a little sand. Has he ever told anyone who wasn't there that night what happened?
  I dont remember him bleeding. No one tried to stop or pull me away. I do remember crying, heaving cries, sobs with a voice in them, when I let him go and wondered at 13 why am I crying, when I'm not the one who's being hurt.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rhinebeck NY

    I was shooting a film no one's ever seen in a mansion half a mile above the Hudson. A view one literally would kill for.
    The house belonged to a man named Sam. He'd made a fortune writing soap operas. He was tall, strong, well- fed. He looked like Rodin's Balzac. Not a handsome man but striking: one people gathered round, with the forehead of a Russian chess player, eyes that either undressed you or kept your secrets. Or both.
    Sam took me to a party. We parked by the gate of a place you couldn't see from the gate. Halfway across the lawn we met another man, wearing the most beautiful shirt I'd ever seen, untucked, flowing around him, blue grey like a canvas.
    "Hello Sam".
     The man's face didn't change when he glanced at me.
    "David, I want you to meet Jasper."
    Later that afternoon at the party in Jasper John's house I listened to a thin, cigarette sodden man talk about the Christ child's cock. When, in the portraits of the baby diety did you see it, Jesus's penis, or not. And what that told us about the times in which the painters lived.
   Women I would have killed for sat around him, listening in poses out of a seraglio.
   I asked him, is it true oil paintings take a century to dry?
    He said of course, isn't it erotic? The scent, the stench of what you make, of what you love most, isn't that what we all want in life, all around us, smeared on us?
   The women smiled. Yes.
   As in Ulysses yes? when Bloom takes a shit in chapter four and reads the paper and thinks about his wife fucking another man and his daughter also come to maturity, the ink of the paper and his own stink rising, the meal he'd just made the Kippers fried come to their natural end, and then he takes the "paper" yes, like the language we've been listening to and wipes his ass. Genius, no?
    I nodded. Sam laughed till he coughed. You're so full of shit Victor. Victor inhaled- Exactly!
    Johns asked me to hand out some snacks. His cocktail napkins were a bright Caribbean blue, I remember. Half the guests thought I was the help. Or one of his Johns. The art historian turned out to be one of the world's foremost art critics. The women, his students for the summer.
   Sam told me later, on his wide porch, the Hudson laying out below us, that he was thinking about marrying the woman who lived in the mansion behind him, which one couldn't see from his yard. I said I didn't know 80 year olds got married again, or had affairs, or sex.
   Of course David, what the fuck else is there? This ? and he pointed to the house and the grounds that I would have killed for ..."but I'm afraid our rigidities don't match. A shame. She's lovely. Paints all the time down in her place by the water. Doesn't chatter."
   She has another house?
   Yes, a boat house. Says the light's better there than in the manse.
   Sam, aren't you gay?
   Have been. Mostly. After awhile it doesn't matter as much, where, you know, how. Just who. I do have a son, remember, so I ....remember.
    Doesn't speak to me much, but there you are. Strangest thing - they don't tell you-  your children stop being your children and become anyone else. It's as much their fault as yours, eventually. Odd.  But a relief.
    The film never came out. The Director and the Producer refused to use a two page version of the final 10 page scene that we had to shoot and had no time for, because the actors, not they, had cobbled it together. Half way thru the 10 page sprawl the other Producer shut down the set and sent everyone home. We were blamed.
    The Director came back months later and tried to film a patch work scene- some Hail Mary, Frankenstein piece of writing to make saleble sense out of his mess-  on Sam's property, and Sam met him at the gate with a shotgun.
   I have rarely loved a man more. I keep that image of him in my head to this day. Grand Colonial estate, grass flowing down to the trees along the great river, the abandoned docks, the rail line, the Adirondacks grey in the distance, a tall man in impeccable dress. A shotgun.
   He died a few years later. I came back to see him just once. I was doing a play at a workshop in Poughkeepsie -which sounds like the opening of a stand up routine but there you are- I came by and we had a drink on his porch. He hadn't married his neighbor. The house was in decent shape and though his son was writing more often he didn't want to leave it to him.
    For some reason, I can't remember the segue, he started talking about WWII.
    For some reason it hadn't clicked in my head. Of course, he was the right age, he must have, and he did, serve.
    Combat, somewhere in Europe. I don't remember the facts, the name, the places which would give this story some non fiction gravitas. But he landed close to D Day and saw terrible shit. Boys died next to him. He wasn't a clerk.
    I said oh you should read Paul Fussell's book on his..."I know Paul, he's an ass." And Private Ryan had just come out so I said "They say the sound effects in the beginning are exactly like- " And why would I want to hear that again David?
    He had a stillness about him, I remember. He didn't move more than he needed to, and even less. His eyes didn't give much away. He smiled rarely. When he did laugh it was usually at someone's expense and he could stop a conversation completely with it. He had you, more often than not. He was the one you watched in a group. If he'd had a favorite hat, if it had blown off he would have stood there and watched it tumble down the street. What do they say, with a bemused air.
  If I've ever been in a bemused air, it was with him.
  Letters. That was the segue. It was something about letters, the texture of them, the feel of an actual letter, not the new fangled emails his son was trying to get him to open.
   He said the stationery the army gave you was completely singular, he'd never felt anything like it since: light but raspy to the touch, a militant onion skin, a material one couldn't imagine could give any pleasure at all but that nothing in his life had ever been so important as opening a letter from home at the front. The stench and the brutality surrounding him, sitting in a killing zone, and then his mother's voice or a close friend's coming up off the page.
  I think that's why I became a writer, yes, that's what I was trying to do, he told me.
  The light was just right, it was near sunset -he probably knew that- and he knew exactly which way to lean to catch the glow, but his eyes when he spoke about the war changed completely. Like my best friend's, getting out of the car he'd just driven into the side of a truck and lived, staring at me. My brother's when he told me his remission wasn't gonna last. My mother's when my brother stopped breathing. Even these are weak approximations. War. The deepest crime. And the one we send all our sons to commit.
  Sam. My war hero. Was 20 years ago this week I met you. Godspeed. And a shotgun.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

I, Los Angeleno

  From the Mexican border to Los Angeles County, 80-90 percent of the original shoreline wetlands have been dug up, wiped out, built on.
  The amount of suburban and exurban and neo-tripleX- unurban development that's happened in Southern California -and that's an idiotic phrase because it didn't "happen", it was made, bought, built and sold- since the Second World War, is truly mind blowing. 
    Housing - the phenomenon of unchecked unending single home sprawl along the California coast- is one of the great unwonders of the world. 
   I never get used to it. It's like watching a fire. Or like watching something you hope will catch fire and never stop burning till the scrub fields, and the salt marsh, and the pine gatherings return. 
   But it's a hopeless hope. California's great undying myth is homeownership. Like capitalism, like cancer it HAS to grow. My door, my garage(s), my yard. Ad infinitum. 
   And the other undying aspect of Cali life is the story of what was. Or more accurately what wasn't. You get it first, you notice it, or seek it out, from the old guard, the third and fourth and that rarest of the rare, the fifth generation Californian - Cheryl Camp you red headed genius where are you now - they look up slightly from their Vans and their Dickies shorts, over the top of their rebuilt Broncos and the sun glazed eyes focus somewhere toward when they were 15 or 16 and they start to tell you about the open fields that were the Marina, hunting for foxes with rifles over their shoulders where the condos spread now, the old Irvine ranch lands above Orange County which into the early 60s stretched for 20 thousand acres. Santa Clarita when it was an empty desert camp. The back lot of Fox spreading across Olympic and Pico to lean up against Beverly Hills like a fantastic theme park for the celluloid visionaries in their Canyon manses. 
   The story of California is always what's been lost. The virgin territory of Old California. But what's actually been lost is the urge not to do something. Not to build or sell or develop. It's almost unimaginable to them. But somewhere in the depths of their psyche the Californian feels the urge- Don't Rent It- they just can't bring themselves to say the words.
    For a place constantly trumpeting its growth and richness and adaptability, the deeper narrative of the local is a false lost innocence, his or her lost lebensraum, how the promised land broke its promise to them, its Covenant. (Why are my taxes so high!!) Californians are hard but dreamy Protestants -Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu no matter, the dream's the same- who can't figure out how they get even less now that they all decided to stop paying taxes for what they had. Saint Ronald, in the long run, let them down. And what's left to represent their American Dream? Nothingness. What's left simmering in their minds behind the wheel as they resent waiting for you to cross the street? The lust for open space, unused territory. Because it's the clearest expression of wealth; Land you didn't sell. 
    They say once you've made it thru six years in "The City" you can call yourself a New Yorker . I think you become a New Yorker like you fall in love or you can throw a spiral - it just happens for some people and not for others. 
    You can call yourself a Los Angeleno I think when you love a part of the town that no longer exists. You suddenly feel a ghost landscape in your heart. And you don't have to do anything about it.
   It's happened to me finally. 
  To get to Venice Beach from the airport you have to drive north on Lincoln Blvd. It's a simple and an easy drive, a god send if you travel a lot. I could get home or back to LAX in 15 minutes. 
  Lincoln drops down from Westchester Heights and into the giant Santa Monica basin. 7 miles of flatland, the great plain of Los Angeles, held in by the Mts to the north. When I first moved here to work in 1996 that descent out of the crowded and condo'd and mini malled Heights used to take you down into a long dark field. The Balloona wetlands. The delta of the northern flood plain of the LA river, which had never been built on. From the docks of Marina Del Rey it held out for two miles inland. A salt sea, scrub desert. Heavy succulents and dark bushes with spritzings of wildflower. Glimpses of calm water. Acres of what LA once was. The thing the Spanish said they saw when they landed in a bay with no harbor. Swampland and fields of seagrass as high as the saddle, one Captain wrote, his legs soaked to the skin by dew long before he reached the Mission 11 miles inland. 
    And here it still was, minutes after leaving the hectic airport. Primordial California. A beautiful nothingness in the epicenter of west LA wealth, no houses, no shops, no light. The drive home like passing thru the blacks at the edge of a stage - an intake of breath, a place to clear the mind before I dove back into the narrative of the city and my place in it. 
   And of course the point is it's no longer there. 
   Well half of it is. 
   The County sold it to Spielberg and Katzenberg and David Geffen, men with the power of Conquistadors, a power of Chinatown scariness, Stanford, Huntingdon, Chandler type strength. They were going to build their Dreamworks studio and leave half the wetlands alone. Which is half of what happened. The titans fought, the studio went elsewhere, half the wetlands closer to the water can still be seen and the other half East of Lincoln blvd is now the ultimate expression of that dreaded big box reality, Live/Work.  
  Is there a better moniker for the New America? LiveWork. The two now fused. You MUST work. It will follow you home. It IS you. Work IS home. Here are the keys. 
  So my lost LA is a hemmed-in triangle of weeds just south of Marina del Rey. Fitzgerald talked about My Lost City. I suppose this is My Lost County. (Los Angelenos being a little more expansive in their dreams). Strange the difference. NYers live in a compressed landscape of particulars but dream of the grand city. Los Angelenos live in a colossal city state but dream of a deli they used to go to when they were kids. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016



   "It rained during the survivor's lap. Poured. Only half of them had umbrellas but they walked. The luminaria that circled the track that circled the football field weren't going to light, but they walked, and we cheered and clapped. 40 some folks walked by us, some smiling, some glancing at the uncooperative sky, some of whom as you read this 
no longer alive. 
  Charleroi High School hosts the Mon Vallley Cancer Walk. Kids from 4 different schools: Belle Vernon, Ringgold, Fraiset and Charleroi walk their quarter mile track for an entire day, taking turns, taking breaks, hawking snacks and toys and games to themselves and anyone else who wants join them. They raised 110,000 dollars.
  It was beautiful American chaos. Kids walking both directions, kids running, dancing, and dodging each other. Balls of all description flying through the air. Dance music deafening the procession at the 50 yard line. Every fried, dipped, battered and cheese covered edible available at all times. 
  For an event to fight a serious disease it was wonderfully irreverent. What my acting teachers had always told me come to fruition.. play the opposite: laugh when they think you're gonna cry. Smile when you should be curling up in pain. 
  I climbed up into the bleachers to get a wider view of the field. Past the photo booth, past the word "Hope" blocked out in paper bags that weren't going to glow anytime soon. 
  I could see the dark valley of the Monongahela. I could see where the mills of Monesson once stood. I could see a farm not a quarter mile away. 
    And below me in this AstroTurf commons a couple hundred teenagers had built a messy town square. Hoodies, pajamas, blankets, sweats: kids huddling around the idea that this shouldn't be happening, this epidemic, gathering almost, if you weren't close enough to hear the banter, almost like they were praying. 
  Cancer rates in the Mon Valley towns, in the Kiski Valley, in parts of Greater Pgh itself reach 30 times the national average. When we built the Arsenal of Democracy, after all the steel had been poured, after all the glass and coke and aluminum and plutonium was pulled out of the bones of working Pittsburgh- who forgot to clean up the mess?
   What the Hell did we do to ourselves?
   And do our kids have to keep paying the price? 
   What's next for Pittsburgh? The future looks exciting. Uber, Google, Remake Learning, Light Rail? The names go on, describing growth like we haven't seen since WWII. 
  I looked down at Charleroi's field, feeling like I was dead center of what I'd call home, and watched 100 kids doing a line dance. 
    No future, no kind of growth's worth any of them walking another lap when they don't have to. 

Sent from my iPhone

Friday, April 15, 2016

Trump Night in Pittsburgh

  The Post- Gazette won't print an article, editorial, or letter with the word "Jagoff" in it. 
   David Schribman the editor in chief finds it offensive. Or possibly he finds it beneath his dignity. 
   A beloved term from our local dialect - a phrase possibly deriding someone as "a masturbator". (That word passes Schribman's muster I imagine.) Why give it the silent treatment? 
   I guess it would be similar to allowing the use of "intercourse" but not "fuck"? 
    Grandmothers might be upset. 
     Hell, mothers might be upset. 
     Someone please find me a mother or grandmother in the entire Greater Pittsburgh area who'd be upset by the word "jagoff".
   So it must be that the PG finds Jagoff beneath its dignity. 
     The same dignity that almost endorsed Donald Trump. 
    The same dignity that's pushed half of its veteran staff into early retirement. 
    The same dignity happy with the worst online homepage in the web's short history. 
    I'm kinda glad they told me they wouldn't print the piece below if I didn't excise my "jagoff". 
    When I looked up "letters@pg..." I shouldn't have pressed send. 
    And quite frankly folks, until the ownership of the paper leaves the hands of the blockish Blocks and the-where'd-responsible-journalism-go-Mr Robinson's none of us should press "spend" on the PGs pay site or elsewhere for its thinning content. 
   The time has come. 
    Let it and the Trib chase each other to the bottom. They deserve each other. The latter subsidized by a radical conservative billionaire and the former trying to sound like him. 
   Press delete. 
   I wrote this the night of the Trump rally in Pittsburgh and I should have printed it right then on this little blog. 
   Somehow I felt like Pittsburgh and its newspapers still co-habituated. 
   They don't folks. They don't. 
  There's been a lot said in the media about a new Pittsburgh. 
  How we're a cultural gem, a rust belt city reborn, a realtor's dirty secret, a foody Mecca, the best example of a new American Urbanism.
   What I saw last night, (a few nights ago) Trumps all of that. 
   There was sound, there was fury, there were even a few punches thrown. But....
   I watched a number of people who should have been fighting shake hands. Take time. Reach out. 
   I watched a bearded college kid repeatedly approach the Trump supporters line along the convention center wall and ask,  "What matters most to you? Tell me." 
   He was never assaulted, he was never harassed. He talked to a massive guy in full Harley skins for quarter of an hour. 
   I watched three African American women talk for 20 minutes to a Persian CMU grad about what was missing from American government. He held
His hands up at one point and said, "Hey look I don't mean to offend you." They embraced when they parted.
  I watched a guy with half his head shaved carrying a "Dump Racost Sexist Trump" banner the size of a  flag for the 1st Air cavalry, speak to a man in a cowboy hat with the Virgin of Guadeloupe across his chest, quoting scripture - they never came to blows. 
  And I watched the city's police act with a kind of restraint and decency I can only say almost brought me to tears. 
   My point is: old or new, this is Pittsburgh. 
   We don't fit the national model of disdain, disharmony, and disunion. Thank God.
   We don't behave like jagoffs. Right or Left.
   We might get in fights but we don't hit each other without good reason. Usually. 
   So yes, there was anger,
 cruel words were thrown. But...
   I watched people, radical conservatives and radical democrats, both, who for good reason, believe they have been left behind by the powers that be, dispossessed. 
    Who believe their government has got to change.
   And I truly believe I saw them look at each other, across the divide under the David Lawrence Convention Center, and I think I saw them see themselves. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Flying over the date line...

  It poured the last night I spent in Los Angeles. Rained the entire day. 
       The place was awash. Winds came from the ocean and from the mountains, the palm trees dropped their quilled limbs, garbage cans were knocked flat, and dust devils of trash rose above the roofline. The long over-shopped avenues were empty. 
       A Florida gale had come West and by some consent, everyone stayed inside. It was a Sunday without football. The roads not worth clogging. 
      That whole day, weird magic trailed me. 
      At a Venice Starbucks, there was no line. 
      I held the door open for a young couple and... they thanked me. Both of them.
      I went to a bar and everyone said hello and looked me in the eye.
      For over an hour, I left my car at an unpaid beach meter and received no fine. 
  Surely the Gods were for me. 
  Toward sunset and not far from Sunset, I turned onto a Brentwood street and the entire block was covered with pine needles. Long fronds from those expensive cypress trees tonier neighborhoods use to mark their territory. Blown down, end to end, the street was a deep scattered green.
   I drove to Will Rogers Park. The gate was abandoned. The parking was free. I walked up to Inspiration Point, turned my back on the view of the city and the bay, and watched a cyclist descend the green hills 2 miles away. A gold figure floating through the desert brush followed by the bouncing white ball of his dog. Oliver Stone passed me the opposite way with his wife. The horses that always ignore me from their paddock -once they know I have no sweets, no apple, no business telling them to stay- stayed by me and snorted and chewed, and we watched the light go out of the sky. 
    Today, I thought, somebody up there loves me.
    Which was bittersweet, as I’d come to leave. 
    I’d come to quit.
    I'd come back to LA to mail home the last of my stuff. The bike. The Golf clubs. A few suit jackets. Work out clothes. A pile of books. The kindling I’d kept for a life here that I thought might always catch. 
   And now I was done. Left the acting business to take a job in the administration of the City of Pittsburgh. 
    I’d never been to LA not to work. Never been a civilian before. The giant town felt absent. The air wasn’t filled with hope or my potential, it wasn’t filled with the money I might make in the blink of an eye. It was just air. Sweet cool California air the day after a storm.
    Strange. There was no hovering, no practiced waiting, nothing on hold. If I stood on the corner, on the concrete of a random SoCal crossroads, I wasn’t standing there waiting for my agent to call me and say They Loved You. No, I was just standing. I was just me. I was real. 
   I got up early the last day to mail out my last box. Crossed thru the park where my gym once was, a patch of grass with chairs stuffed between three office buildings, where I played tennis with a guy from Maine for 10 years, where I could swim in a pool built under the parking structure, under the grass itself and if you stood in a raised corner of the park you could look down thru the heavy glass and watch the swimmers go by. A park which on weekends no one visited, and you could read or write, or watch the inbound jets from Japan or Russia cut across the sharp blue sky their engines powering down. A place that bizarrely for its corporate setting gave me a peace I found nowhere else in LA.
  For the first five years I came here the little park had a resident cat. A small black feral who roamed the landscaping and sometimes hid like a hunter in the trees. A cat even the security guards knew by name and whom the office crowd left food for scattered about the grounds on white plates. 
    I spent five years trying to pet that cat and she never came to me but once. I tried everything, but only once. I was sitting eating a protein bar or some such stupid urban fare and she brushed my arm. I turned, put my hand down and touched her shoulder. Bones like a bird. Hair heavy like a stray’s, a cat that never had her guts out, she didn’t flinch but she didn’t lean into me either and that was it. The gold eyes went back into the grass and she hunkered down. No one I spoke to in all those years ever heard her make a sound. 
  I came back one year after a 6 month stay in New York and her plates were gone. She wasn’t in the book of her favorite tree. I walked in a quiet panic. A security guard who knew me said “Gatto negro, she’s gone now.” I asked “Died? They didn’t move her? Didn’t come capture her for some fucking health thing did they?” He smiled, “No man, she’s just gone.” 
   And now I was going. 
  A woman I know told me not to be sentimental, not to see the process as a loss. I could hear Joe Cotton’s character in the Third Man when they tell him to leave Vienna- “Be sensible Martins and go home.” 
   "I haven’t got a sensible name." he says and tears up the ticket.  
   I wish I had such guts. 
   To get to my friend’s apartment building from the Post office you walk East. I looked up. After a big rain, at the far reach of the avenues of Santa Monica you can see the tops of the Los Angeles mountains 40 miles away. You can see them for a day or two.
    Storm clouds gathered along the peak line of the LA basin. The morning sun turning them into molten gold. The air smelled like the Sierra Nevada. I was 10 blocks from the ocean, smack in the middle of a metropolis with 20 million cars, and inhaling with my eyes closed you coulda told me I was in Yosemite. 
   I love my new job. I love that Pittsburgh owns me. That I belong to a place. I know I was never going to be happy if I didn’t work for some tangible good in the world….lemme rephrase that… I know I'm never really going to be predictably happy no matter what I do so working at something I do know is important makes total sense. 
   But give it all that and still, just walking that distance from a park to an apt in non descript LA , in just those few blocks I could look around me and even in every haggled tree, every overpriced doorway, every narrowed glimpse of the Western sky I could still feel this dreamland’s power all around me. 
  It is astonishing. There’s a city at the end of the road, on the Western shore of a continent, ringed by ragged mountains, on a desert plain without water, with no harbor, a place as motley and mundane as a big box shopping aisle, built by thieves and racists and murderers, who squeezed the American Dream out of every immigrant they could sell a plot of dust to, a City whose history has been tried and convicted more times than not, and still into it pours the dreams and fantasies, the lust and madness, and the incarnate alchemy of the whole fucking human race. No matter how you well see it, no matter how you have it figured out, no matter how clearly you know the game is rigged and the house will win, still you’re gonna feel it in your bones…..anything can happen here…..
   In the end I always reach for Fitzgerald, who reached for something in this town and died trying. That line about the inexhaustible nature of our dreams in the face of all evidence to their contrary. That line about his hero, 
"Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentImentality I was reminded of something--an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.   For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted....But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever."
   How odd I feel this way not about a man but about a place. LA. Despite it all, I take my hat off, well fucking done Big City Under the Big Black Sun. 
   Everyone should see it.
   If only to see themselves. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Waving and not drowning.

  I was watching a documentary about FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Eleanor and I kept noticing the way people waved goodbye back then, in those less selfied days. 
  They'd hold out a hand, palm down and shiver their fingers as if they were practicing piano or shooing something away. Big smile. 
  There's FDR waving to the crowd. He looks like a matron airing out a hankie. Even Teddy. Wave like a sissy and carry a big stick. Only Eleanor looked like she'd take you out with the back of her hand. 
   My dad waved like that. He'd stick his arm straight out and wiggle his fingers at me, smiling and fluttering, as I left for summer camp, after he took me to a party in High School, as he dropped me off my first day at college, smiling even after I'd slept the entire 12 hour trip to Providence, saying nothing to him, driving no share of the way, jammed next to the window because I'd stayed out till 5am with my girlfriend the night before and then lain next to her, us curled like dogs under the dining room table, my gear piled about, waiting for the grownups. 
  He smiled when he said goodbye even after some of our worst fights. Screaming rants, humiliation, brutality meted out in the meager family arena - but give it a few hours, he'd deliver me to where I had to be and he'd smile regardless and wave that wave like it had all been a game, something extraneous and silly to be shooed away, unimportant compared to ....compared to nothing sadly... as there wasn't much else between us beside fighting and waving. A few shared jokes. Some tv shows. We both loved cats. Christmas. The rest was silence. But when he took me to a train or to the airport, he would always wave and he always stood there, waiting, till I had left his sight.
   Synod Hall. Pittsburgh. I was listening to a famous quartet. Old instruments; early versions of a violin, a cello, a flute, and a viola. As one movement began, the Doppler wail of an ambulance sped by on the same note as the music. Harmony between the post-industrial age and the baroque. A duet 400 years in the making. Time folding it's hands around me. 
   Before the concert, I'd sat in a pew in the church next to the Synod. The City's grandest Catholic parish. Walking by, I'd seen the lights on, the inner doors not locked. I entered, crossed myself with some Holy water, which was for sale by the liter, sat down 20 feet from a seriously elaborate Mary surrounded by candles, also for sale, and soon realized that the church was open because it was confession.
   The center of the church, the grand mass under the nave, was nearly empty but directly behind me stood a silent row of the faithful come to petition their Lord. Like they were waiting for their grades from an angry headmaster. 
  The huge space, the candles, a few people praying. Why not? Why not tell them, why not tell Him, what you'd done. What I did. Why not? I thought about it. Just bow your head and tell him, Father, what you'd done. But I was sure I'd be found out, I'd blow my lines, the Protestant in me would protest and I'd get tossed out on my ear. Dad would have approved. Lapsed Catholic that he was, the rituals never got a good word. 
   I did listen. Heard some whispers, some shuffling, the soft click of a well made door, what sounded like a phrase I recognized from somewhere. But I didn't go in. I watched the candles burn down. I breathed in the emptiness and the quiet. A man and his two young sons prayed to Mary, after he explained who Mary was. The one boy staring intently as if she might move, as if there had to be a film about this where he could get the real story.
    The concert was mediocre. The quartet past their prime. The audience clapped for themselves and their good taste, their contribution to Culture in tough old pragmatic Pittsburgh. I watched some music students in the cheap seats trying to be polite. I wanted more - to feel it in my heart, but it didn't happen and I left before the encore. 
    We do that though. We applaud for those who show up. We thank ourselves. We forgive the present with the glories of the past. We attend. Especially around Christmas. We do a lot, we labor at that which in the holiday moment delivers all the thrill of a joke too often told, a story a close friend can't remember's confiding to you again and again. Ritual in this casual world, in our reform age, doesn't pack the punch it used to.
     We ask too much. And we give it no credence.
    We pay no homage.
    I think somewhere along the American line we suddenly decided we deserve all these feelings. That they should come to us upon demand. And when they don't don't, something out there must be wrong, something's missing.
   What's missing is you don't get to call the Gods down from on high when you need them. You don't put your Muse on hold. The Spirit doesn't show up just because you do. Walking in the door and taking your reserved seat isn't enough.
    I don't know why we've come to think it's that easy, inspiration, or when we copped out. And by you of course I mean me. 
    Like the priests and the self help gurus say, on both sides of the socio political aisle, Marriage takes work. Which is a way of saying, Love takes work.
   If you love Shakespeare you gotta read him more than once. A day. You love music, you gotta practice like a person who if they weren't practicing an instrument would be diagnosed autistic. You want the runner's high? Go hurt yourself. The Right Stuff, the Real Thing, the magic doesn't descend around us in the dark, until we work. The Gods don't smile on us until we suffer for them.
   And if you love each other, your family, your friends, your people, and it's the Holiday season....what? What does it take? Suffering and Christmas? 
   After the concert, I walked a little ways to the car in the cold and I thought, what did I leave undone this Holiday season and who did I forget to tell?
   My father's dead now half a decade. He can't tell me. He never could.
    I wave at the parents of a woman I almost married. I nod at people that recognize me or I went to grade school with, I can't tell the difference anymore. 
    Blocks from the theater my truck's parked across the way from a bicycle chained to a street light. Painted pure white. A girl died here. Run over by a commuter anxious to get home. She died on the pavement and her friends and family built this ghost sculpture. Its wheels lit by strips of tiny lavender bulbs. 
     I drive home on streets I could close my eyes thru. The last Christmas lights have come down. Collectively, homeowners deciding a fortnight was the limit. God, how dim and grey everything seems. How cleared out. The deep blue black of the City landscape regaining its hold on the shadows. 
    I must love the season. For a month or so, collectively we all lean toward worship, or kindness, or whatever keeps us from killing each other. And then it's the long climb toward Summer. It's like being dropped out in the ocean where you can't see the shore and being told, "Swim.That way. Have faith."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Like the night

   "She walks in beauty like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes,
thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies."

      Most of my life I've asked why is this poem a great poem? It's a sledge hammer, it's a stack of cliches, with a ten year old's rhyme scheme it's as gaudy as its accusation toward day. It ends two lines late.
   Heck, it was the product of an all-nighter..
  "He wrote that ...coming home from a party."
   Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. The first play I ever did. I listened to the poem or at least this piece of it spoken every night for a month.
  I kept telling myself, "It's clunky. It thumps. It's awkward. Why this one?" Why this one in a language, a literature, filled to the brim with love poems?
   I watched the twin towers fall 14 years ago. I walked in their rubble. The air that week was filled with the atomized spray of some 3000 people - the detonation of two of mankind's most gigantic gestures. Our folly.
   Last night I watched The Walk, a Hollywood take on Phillipe Petit's high wire crossing between the North and the South tower in 1974.
   It's a thumpy movie. It's a stack of cliches. It's gaudy and it plays with your heart strings like a ten year old would.
   But when I saw them again, when I saw them standing there, full, finished, shining and perfect in that awful way that they did double perfection, I nearly wept.
  I don't know if we freeze the time, the part of our life we remember before trauma, that we choose to privilege, we freeze it and we leave it there forever, before the event. So it someday can be returned to or so that some part of us remains untainted, unhurt by what happened next. But watching, I knew myself back then. I could feel myself out over the void that was coming, that's still there, still waiting, alive and young and reckless in New York at the turn of the Millennium.
   When I saw the towers standing again, the actors touching the stainless metal, I was breathless - unhooked into an emotional vertigo- happily shocked and in love again with something that no longer existed, that had turned to dust, and that maybe never was more than an awkward couple of buildings you had to cast your hopes across to make better.
   But so many things exist simply in experience. They can be spoken of but not evoked. Not made true. Like a song, or a film, or a poem.
  This man walked across two buildings and made them one beautiful enough thing. Him and the New Yorkers who didn't arrest him, and the few hundred on the ground who bore witness to something far rarer than even a man walking on the moon. They made those two giant silver boxes into something graceful. Some thing worth all that work.
    My brother's been dead for 4 years. I ask for the simplest of things. That he haunt me. That he wake me from my sleep, or track me down, or scream at me when I'm foolish. From somewhere.
  I believe in the simplest of ideas, of the cliche of a ghost, of wisdom from beyond the grave, something a young boy would want from an absent parent. Some impossible crossing between the world of the living and the wordless dead.
  "Of cloudless climes and starry skies.."
  He wrote that coming home from a party.
   About a young woman, his cousin I think she was who he'd seen dressed in mourning. "And all that's best of dark and bright." She's been dead and buried in an English courtyard for a hundred and forty years. The raven tresses, the liquid eyes, her walk, her clouded face, what her voice must have been to the ear. All, dust in the earth for a century and a half.
   And yet.
   "All that's best and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes" and every time I hear that poem, bussed by it, I can feel that night's cold air, the kind of chill the dark can have in the country when there's an empty sky and the stars seem to suck the heat out of the ground. In six lines. Six lines laid down with a hammer.
  The real. A poem. Two towering staring metal ghosts. The space my brother left. It's all so astonishing. Incredible we go on daily living the lockstep lives we lead. The endless feeding, the lists, the half felt duty, the pallid day after pallid days.
  There's a light outside my window.
  It's a 70 foot flame spit out by the steel mill across the street. A building that probably contains the combustive force of an atomic bomb. The flame. I can read by it in a pitch black room. Just the mill blowing off steam.
   Byron dashing off immortality before daybreak.
  A million and a half tons of metal there and then not there and then there again.
  My brother in the corner of my eye chasing me, chasing me until I'll stop.