Jul 31, 2007


Antonioni's L'Aventura was more character study than story. Several young couples stop off at an island; one of the women disappears, we never find out what happens to her but we do find out what happens to people deep in their ennui. How quaint all that seems now. One can hardly imagine the power of such disenchantment.

Now, we have science to tell us that the hearts of all animals, save humans, beats about 1 billion times. Then, the organism stops, whether humming bee or whale. One billion beats. That's the outside bet.

Then add the fashionable new Copernican principle, from which you can say humans have 5,100 more years on the planet and about 46 more years to reach Mars and set up shop or else we probably won't survive and so peter out with barely a whimper. Then throw in Iraq and the relentless desire to kill and be killed; the prospect of dirty bombs, Israel denying refugees from Darfur, the murder of an Oakland journalist; and global warming of course and lead poisoning and diabetes and the 30-year-old just named head of Australia's preeminent dance company, killed in a crosswalk by a truck....

There's so much and so many that you think, 'okay, uncle, maybe I'll cash in these cards after all and see what I get next time.' House wins again.

And if you don't believe in next time at least you'll be back in the ONE, you hope, the one and only, back in pre and post personality, without body, credit cards, mind, or memory. In the meantime, I am beginning to see the sweet end of the good lama, slowly sweeping a street.

But what I wouldn't give to jump into Antonioni's Aventura and sit around a rocky island lamenting this and that.

Jul 23, 2007


Back in the homelands after many years. Early Sunday afternoon. Vince Scully is still calling games on KFWB.

“And there’s a high fly ball,” he’s saying, voice rising with the ball. “Deep to right field. Going way back is Kemp.....” Then, before the arc is completed, Scully relays an anecdote about the next batter who bought a monkey, but had to sign an agreement that he would take care of it for 40 years. After a few days at home, the player decided that was not feasible. “Kemp makes the catch at the warning track and the Mets are retired. Bottom of the first, no score.”

Scully remains the Chekhov of color commentators. But his rhythm is a little slower, with a trace of slur. A stroke perhaps, or a new denture. Not quite the same enthusiasm, not the same sense that the high fly ball is a metaphor of good times, now it’s a just a high fly ball.

Forty years ago, there was no end to the optimism. You merely had to look at Rudy,the Filipino house boy, in his 50s then, in his white jacket and black tie, on a Sunday, after making dollar-sized pancakes, sitting in the kitchen, on his stool with his old beige am radio on the counter, singing Scully all afternoon.

While he listened to the radio, I shot lizards on the woodpile.

* * *

I’m staying in Venice. The night before, I walk with S over Monet-style bridges and along the narrow walkways next to the canals, on the way to dinner. These are all glass houses. Originally, these were cottages. Those have all been torn down and tiny lots built to the brim. Everything is glass. Everything is exposed.

“You think of Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut, don’t you?” We say.

“But different,” we say, “because his idea was to deconstruct the barrier between inside and out. And there, the view is of meadows. It’s private. Here, nothing is private. Here, the glass is to expose you, to taunt perhaps, to say, ‘look at me. Envy me.’

I’m struck by how many living rooms have exercise machines lined up. Living as exercise. Mechanical, demanding, for the passively active, for the quick living, and you see size does matter, look at my machine... That old artifact room, the living room, often left to entertain IRS agents, the police and a priest, the room about who we pretend to be, is gone. Now, there is no pretense. ‘ If you come to my house, I may have to exercise while we talk. I cannot just sit and converse with you. I cannot just sit. I need my endorphins, I need to lose weight, I need to gain esteem. You understand. We are all like that, aren’t we?”


In Venice, the next morning. We brunch. And walk by an old garage turned into a Yoga and Spinning Center. Rows of people on exercise machines desperately peddle to the orders of a woman on a microphone. “Faster now” is the mandate. And look at those people go. When they finish they look like real bikers. But you wonder why people would seek that out. Why not actually go for a bike ride? On the other hand, this is compact, convenient, and in a country desperate for a leader, a woman gripping the mic and screaming like an auctioneer at a hog fair will do.

It’s even worth $15 a half hour, to be forced and berated, lured into becoming an insaniac riding through the Alps of a lifestyle that is mostly flat after all. Not much else to do but compare yourself to everyone else. Play As It Lays is still playing. The gardener, the checkout lady, the person in the next japanZeuro luxury sedan, everyone is either up a rung or down, from you babe, and seeing yourself relative to them is the only way you know where you are, that’s the triangulation, that’s the dead reckoning that will get you home.

* * *

All the old themes. But not as if you’d left and come back to find out that everything was the same. But as if you had never left, stayed a boy all this time, and nothing had changed, and your mind had wandered off during a red light. During the wait for a hamburger and milk and orange cake and the next to last chapter of Peyton Place.

Difference is, while you were asleep at the light, 55 percent of the people got Latino. How did it happen? The white wash is fading.

And the freeways are no better, single women are unhappier than they were before, men are more uptight, more about ‘making it’, the air is as strange and dull glossed as ever.

And you’re in the car just like it always was, driving up Robertson, past Cadillac, past Pico and Olympic, right up to Doheny and all the ghosts are sitting at a bus stop. A girl raped and garroted. A mother screaming. Another mother with a bouquet of tennis racquets. A father with dark glasses even at night, middle aged women, singers and actresses, all sitting there and waving as I go by. I wave back and go on.

* * *

A few minutes later the door opens in a dark hallway on Oakhurst, in the flats, in a building with 12-foot tall black doors but inside low and lightless, the smell of old carpet, cracked tiles, a place behind the lines.

Door opens. Older woman just out of the hair salon. Heavy make up. Betty Davis eyes. A starlet at 90 with Bacall blonde hair, a woman of some age but what. In her late somethings, but you would be stunned to hear 90. You would be stunned.

Over her shoulder familiar objects, paintings and furniture. A small dog at her feet. That’s the law now in El Lay. Everyone has to have a very small dog.

Then a sideway hug. Nothing personal, no hint of real contact. As though nothing was ever personal. — I’m glad you’re here. — I am too.

And then right into it. No warm up, no sit down, no news. No, “well, how long has it been?” I don't know how long it's been. The better part of 10 years.

No, “How are you doing?” No, "What about the old days?"

No. Everything is apparent; there's nothing to ask or say or do, except make a choice, move it out. Rawhide.

I get the backgammon table, the Queen Anne desk, the long dark bench, a table, two lamps, two recovered chairs, some odds, ends. Everything is in disrepair. Take this. Take that. I would like this. Well, actually not that.... But how about some old silver-plated serving dishes? How about these chairs?

I can’t, I say. What about this dictionary stand? I’ll take it.

I say, yes, to please, to affirm. That’s an old rhythm. That’s always been our way. You’ve had this life of horror; I will forever honor your tragedies.

She disappears. I work the hand truck. I rattle off, in and out. An hour passes. A neighbor stops by. E and this woman compare small dogs. A phone rings. The work is ending, the tension is increasing. The apartment is looking distraught, as though there had been a fight perhaps. This is the hour of the wolf in moving. She has to stay here in the confusion, with bare walls, with things missing. I’ve come and started to deconstruct not just her apartment, but her life, her future even.

Yes, this is the last time probably.

I always used to say that to Marina and Dylan. This is the last time you’re going to see your grandfather so pay attention. I became obsessed with ‘last times’. But it was never the last time until the last time and then it was all gone, him and the lifestyle and Hollywood in the old days, and the 1930s at Mike Romanoff’s, and every electric charge, gone, like the view of a city from 35,000 feet.

Well how’s your mother, she asks. Dead, I reply. She goes into a trance, like the gypsy woman in the booth at musee mechanique that tells your fortune for a quarter. Suddenly, she’s very stiff. This fortune wasn’t in the deck.

“Don’t go there,” she says, to herself mostly. “Don’t go there.” And the hair is straight on the back of your neck.

She has no emotional shocks left, there's nothing to soften the ride. And in her condition, with all that tragedy, even if the stories have been mistold or she’s recited a life that wasn’t quite so phantasmagorical, still it is amazing that she got through it, and that she could look like this now....

Of course, you should have seen her when she was my age, we are just at that point, she and I began just when she was the age I am now.... She looked like a woman in her 40s then, in the late 1960s, a ‘fragrant phantom’ as Zelda Sayre once described herself on the night she fell in love with F. Scott. Blonde and hot and would not be denied. “I can’t keep my hands off you,” she would say. “I just can’t.”

Dissolve, as we used to say.... POV, now.

“Let’s not talk about your mother,” she says.

Okay, I say.

“Keep it in the moment,” she says, "steady now."

Steady as she goes and we cross through the straits. There is no more talk.

Move this, move that. Unplug this, plug that. She empties some desk drawers, but not really. When I get it home the desk is full of credit cards and uncashed checks. And eight of an inch cockroaches.

* * *

I took the last things and put them in the back of the pick up truck, paying special attention to the paintings. I should have taken more paintings, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to make the walls barren. I just couldn’t do it, but I will regret that of course. Regret is also part of the rhythm.

She’s tried to get me to take more, to lure me with old playing cards and expensive poker chips and a cork backgammon table on which the points are barely visible. Want the stones, at least? She wanted me to stay I suppose, looking back, and yet....

We sit in her bedroom for a moment. Want these books? Some written by her first husband. Some written by this lover or that. There’s the John Huston biography; she’s Cherokee in that. No, I have all those, copies. I don’t want any more books. I can’t take them. But I suppose she’s saying, asking, for another moment. But I can’t manage it myself. All these old scents, still the original perfume, she’s wearing. And the bookcase in her room coming undone. A reminder of gray gardens. I want to get away. I would stay if she knew how to negotiate a place, a reason....

The room is as it always was. Recreated, I mean. The same paintings, of her daughter, of herself in the company of the stars of yesteryear. When people were named Belden Cattleman and Diortis Niven and Jack and Cubby Brocolli.

We wander into the living room. she looks one way, I look another. Like partners in a tango. So you don’t want this or that or anything, it seems. That’s what she’s thinking. And so she senses that I want to go, and that she wants me to go. We’re not really thinking this is the last time.....

And then suddenly she said, “okay that’s it. I’m going to turn away and I’d like you to be gone.”

She turned and I left.

Land of no goodbyes. Fade to black, to black and white reels on a noisy projector. Was I ever there?

* * *

I drove up to the old house. “The house” as it was called. As if there were no other. “Come up to the house. The bar is always open”... Decade after decade. The parties that got done in that house, the betting, and John F. Kennedy’s Los Angeles campaign headquarters in the summer of 1959.

I hadn’t been back but have been writing something about it and took the opportunity. The road was unchanged, the neighborhoods had settled. They were new when I was a kid. Now the trees have matured. The cement has cracked and been redone. It was dirt road when I first got there in 1957.

The house itself was different of course, then. Now, the garage is a house. The main house, the house, has a second floor. The cottage in the back is a house. All things have been enlarged, engorged and hidden.

I wanted to go to where the woodpile had been, to say a prayer to those lizards that I played with and then shot. It’s the thing I most regret from that time. Other crimes, which were serious enough, were nothing next to that. And why? I played with them as pets, took them in the house, put them all over me, treated them like domiciles, fed them flies, you can’t imagine. And then one day I turned, I got afraid and mean and the adolescent got violent. I became an adult and lost on whatever day that was....

I wanted to do that, to make a pilgrimage to the lizards, to pay my respects, to acknowledge my crimes, but now there’s gates and hedges, you can hardly see anything.

* * *

I finally drive away, past the park where it rained high fly balls, now to be a reservoir; past the old hotel and Our Lady of the Good Cadillacs, down into the flats, on to Pico and Olympic, past the apartment where my grandmother lived at the end.

The game is still on but Vince Scully has been replaced. The Dodgers are on their heels, the relief pitchers have fallen apart, the Mets have gone ahead. The air has that opaque quality, like air next to a waterfall, moving, moist, unreal.

Jul 4, 2007


After dogs and burgers, key lime pie, mustard around the mouth, men playing hillybilly golf out the window, where the thermometer has gone to 106, four women sit down at the end of the diningroom table. In the cool. Accomplished women in their late 40s and early 50s. Except for one they would not be the kind of women to see the Vagina Monologues, they don't use that word lightly, but they would gladly see the new comedy about Menopause.

One is a CFO; one is blonde; one is good; and one is big and tall. Towering, is the word. And something about her that's not only imposing but forbidding. Her body language suggests all work and no play, suggests jacqueline coming down the beanstock for women and not in a good mood, suggests feeling angry at having to be in the wrong sex all the time.

She is also the consummate matron, she's in this charity and that. She believes it's more blessed to give than to receive. She likes little kids. She's Republican and thinks the war is a terrible thing.

But lately life has been hard. Look at her smile; she can "hardly get her lips to bend. But this is why, this is why, this is why... as the kids keep singing these days. This is why she is...

She lives in a gated community across the valley from Mt. Diablo. Where she lives there are red wine orchards and over the hills to the south one of the great state parks in this part of the state. She has a view of the town in the valley below.

If the internet could be made real, so you could see it, this is what you would see. Her looking out her window and the town below and the town looking at her, all at the same time, this towering woman in the window looking down, her line of site in every direction. As an aside, this is her fate, she always has to look down, she rarely, rarely gets a chance to look up. Except at a bird or dark clouds or the moon, she looked up at the moon a few weeks ago, or the hunchback's gargoyle at Notre Dame. Otherwise, everything is below her. I won't say 'beneath' her because I don't know her, I can't prove that, I can only say 'below' her.

In this community where she lives there are rules, of course. You can do certain things to your house, for example, but anything you imagine must be approved. You have to show not tell, let's see the plans, let's know what you're doing here.

You show it to a homeowner board. Like in every community these days, even if you live in a time share or a commune, there's a board. Where she lives, you can't just convert your garages to rooms for example, You can't just pull up all the grass in your front yard and plant something else. There are standards. There is an expectation. You can plant trees but we don't want eucalyptus, which are dirty and of course they're full of water and they can fall over on your house. Or my house. You can have oak and maple and cherry just like people in Ohio, which is where all these people came from by the way.

So Mrs. Big and Tall wanted to paint her house yellow, kind of golden yellow, not wizard of oz yellow, but yellow to echo the hills around which have that yellow you see in the high hot of summer when the tall grass is dead and white near the roots and kind of pale beigy, yellowy on the top. She wants her house to look that color.

So she got a little patch with the exact color and took it to homeowner board, the lady who does these things on behalf of the board, showed it to her, she signed off, and then Mrs. Big and Tall went and painted her house.

Well the painters hadn't finished when somebody, we don't know who, somebody in the development, let's not use that word, let's say someone in the community, complained. Said, "what the heck is that woman doing?" That's a horrible shade of yellow, all the rest of the houses are beige, or some shade of beige and gray and there's just no yellow in any of our homes.

This mystery person, and it's a woman, we know that, the board lady said that by mistake, it was a woman and she doesn't like what you've done and there's some question whether the patch you showed us is an accurate reflection of the color of your house. So we need to take a sample, the board will need to review this decision. We take these matters very seriously. It's possible you may have to repaint your house. Of course, we don't like doing this, this is not an easy job, and we know you have rights just like everyone else...

Can you believe it? asked Mrs. Big and Tall who got a round of sympathy from the others at the dining room table. Some atta boys to go with her burger and potato salad. How ironic, everyone said, that on July 4th 2007 we don't have our freedoms.

"This is what it's like," said Mrs. Big and Tall, who stood up and looked down at us like a Kareem Abdul Jabar. And you expected her to say, "And I'm not going to take it anymore." But she didn't, she just shook her head, and smirked, and thoroughly enjoyed the support. Because now she was going to have to drive back there, back to the gated community and endure the derision of someone there who didn't like the color of her house.

But she wanted to add that her real anger was not at the woman who complained but the woman at the board who relayed the complaint. "She" said Mrs. B & G, "should have handled it right there. She should have taken care of it. Why bother me with this. Now I have to wait for the board to decide, but it should all have been taken care of..."