los angeles 2: support our tropes!

Slept late Saturday after last night’s 3 AM Xbox party, my head feeling like a pumpkin tossed off the porch by rejected trick or treaters. Greg, Kim and I head into the desert valley flatlands to Twitter-chase a couple of lunch trucks that we’re expecting will shortly pull up in front of a Vietnam memorial. The memorial is a long granite wall, tapered at each end and plopped in the middle of what looks like a dusty and barren landing strip. The place is filled with, in no particular order, veterans in Vietnam war memorabilia clothing, reservists and others in military gear, supporters of our troops (again, wearing T-shirts so you can tell), and, outside all of this memorializing, a group of supporters of BBQ, mostly Koreans.

We’re standing there now, in the shade of a lone tree just outside the memorial area, amid a passing flow of veterans and their families, awaiting the Kobe Korean BBQ taco truck and wisecracking. Us and the Korean youth brigade. It looks like we’re protesting the Vietnam memorial. We just need placards. “EAT, WE CAN!” or “SUPPORT OUR TROPES.”

Ok, truck’s here. We join the growing crowd that chases the truck around and around the parking lot until they finally get directed by the Men In Fatigues to a spot conveniently situated in the blazing LA desert sun on a dusty runway away from the lone tree where we’d been avoiding heatstroke. We huff and puff our way to a spot near the front of the line, and wait in the blazing sun. Yea, though it’s 94 degrees in the Valley, there’s no shadow of death. There’s no shadow of anything. It’s just plain hot as blazes.

The food was great. We ate under a tent where a trumpeter burped out patriotic standards, songs like America The Beautiful or You’re A Grand Old Flag, with extra notes thrown in for free. Just as we down our meal, the Hawaiian “Get Shaved” shave ice truck appears. Hawaiian shave ice is like a snow-cone in the same way that filet mignon is like a Big Mac.

It’s a very multicultural memorial. A bit of Vietnam (or rather, the complete absence of Vietnam, other than the Americans who had left some of themselves there), some Korea and a sprinkling of frozen Hawaii: a scoop of ice cream, covered in a ball of the softest, fine snow and flavored with various lovely syrups, then topped with sweet cream.

In the evening, Greg took me to Elf for vegetarian food beyond belief: spicy kale salad, a stew, and savory crepes. Everyone who worked there looked like they’d just dropped in from 70’s era Berkeley. Elves, one and all. And moments later, we were front row center to see our long-time idols, the amazing Firesign Theatre, perform bits from their classic albums of the 60’s and 70’s a few feet from us. The experience was just incredible, like having the Beatles reunite and perform 6 feet from us, only without having to bring anyone back from the dead.

To cap off the night, we went to Thai Tits for dessert. Not sure why it’s called that. Something about the Saturday night clientele. Great place for late night dessert.

los angeles 1: i have a balm

Friday morning. Inauspicious start to a week of travel. I’m heading to Beijing a few days from now, but first I’m taking an extended weekend in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to me and ignored in the email that United sent to my iPhone, the flight out of SFO is early for a change, so I arrive five minutes too late to check the bag I’d already prepaid. Lost my 30 year old pocket knife and various soothing creamy unguents.

Apparently the airport doesn’t like it when they ask, “What have you got in your luggage, sir?” and I answer, “I have a balm.”

Also: cavity searches aren’t pleasurable. I don’t care how kinky you are.

First stop: Los Angeles. I haven’t been here since, let’s see—last week. Visiting my brother, so This Time It’s Personal. By the way, that’s my tagline for the script I’m working on, a sequel to The Passion Of The Christ: This Time It’s Personal.

Sitting at an audition with Greg, watching my brother work the room. Look up Gregarious. Greg’s headshot is right there in the dictionary. At least, until somebody on Wikipedia deletes it. I keep adding his head, somebody keeps taking it down, like head badminton.

He’s playing the part of a snowman. The director invited me in to watch Greg audition and sit on the casting couch. No, no, no, it’s not like that. It was a real couch. I’m sure the stains were just butter from the popcorn.

Outside in the waiting room, a guy noted, “You can tell the kind of stuff people are auditioning for by looking at who shows up.” Apparently next door to the snowman commercial they were casting women for GOT MILF?

Sis-in-law Kim met us back at the house, a.k.a. Mediocre Films Studios. G shot us all for a brief intro to one of his YouTube videos, and I took a nap before we all headed off to one of Kim’s auditions. Maybe they’ll invite G and me both in. I could use some popcorn to tide me over.

It’s a clear and hot day in Los Angeles. We arrived at Kim’s audition, in a tiny unmarked house where apparently a huge number of national spots get cast. Kids run around in the tiny yard. People who look familiar from other commercials sit around under poor lighting and look glum. Greg and I split to go get dinner.

Zankou Chicken! It’s a pilgrimmage for me whenever I’m in LA. And then off to see Mike Birbiglia at a comedy club. We actually saw Mike B before the show, walking toward the club with his wife. Intro’s all around. He’d seen some of Greg’s videos. Nice guy. Fast walker. Managed to get away from us a good half block before we hit the back of the line waiting to see him.

To be fair, I’d be hurrying too, to avoid being late to my own show. Or just to get away from Greg, Kim and me.

Homeless guy on the street calls out as we pass: “Hey, I’m a fan of Richard Pryor. Can I have five dollars?” Greg responds that he is also a fan of Richard Pryor, and No. How’d the homeless guy know it was comedy weekend?

Mike Birbiglia’s show was great! The warmup act had 10 really funny minutes, but was out there for 30. Excellent yogurt afterward, and Beatles Rock Band, and XBox on the big screen, and sleep.

To be continued…

i made the boy, dammit! my fault! he’s MINE!

Couple of rows up from me on a crowded plane, a plum-faced baby squalls, demon-possessed. Its rubbery arms flail like an octopus under a sashimi knife. The parents avoid eye contact from everyone on the plane, including each other. But the red tips of their ears tell a different story, and I know, because I’ve Been There. Some animals kill their young. I just nod to myself and remember. My kids are terrific travelers.

But it wasn’t always that way. Oh, no.

Mid-June, many years ago now. Moving day. We were at DFW airport, ready to fly to northern California, the Bay Area, our new home. The weather was typical Dallas summer: hot as habaneros, dry as a saucer of toasted dust. A three and a half hour plane ride to 72 degree daytime highs sounded just fine.

The older son and I were reading the fifth Harry Potter book together. Order of the Phoenix had just gone on sale that day, and the airport was a surreal blue sea of identical book jackets. There were more Harry Potter hardcovers at the airport than Bibles at a north Dallas Baptodome. Young or old, pre-teen, pilot or priest: every nose was buried deep in a copy of that book, and apart from the rustling of paper leaves it was dead silent.

Aboard the plane, my wife, our toddler and my mother were sitting together some rows up ahead of me, with our cat tucked under the seat in a kitty travel bag. I had it easy. I sat  with our seven-year-old, our heads pulled together as I quietly read Harry Potter to him. The continued cries of a toddler somewhere up ahead were successfully ignored in favor of Hogwarts. That is, until my mother suddenly appeared in the aisle.

“I think your wife would like me to trade places with you. Now.” I bent sideways into the aisle and saw Marci’s fuzzy hair sticking up over the back of her seat like Bride of Frankenstein. Was that the foot of our 18-month old son sticking up through her tangle like a fleshy hair pick? Uh oh. I got up and gave my mom my seat.

As I walked up the aisle past enough copies of Order of the Phoenix to fill a small bookstore, the wailing grew louder. Marci’s panicked face turned toward me. “I can’t get him to stop crying!”

Clearly, our youngling just needed to move around. I took crying little Geran for a walk through the plane. Nothing doing. He let his stumpy little legs go limp and screamed as I dragged him through the aisle.

I tried bouncing Geran on my knee. Giving him some milk. Tickling him. Talking soothingly. These had about the same effect as a mosquito standing at the mouth of a Howitzer would have on the trajectory of the shell. He kept crying nonstop. I don’t think he peed the entire flight—any liquid we poured into him came streaming out of his eyes and nose.

Meanwhile, Kishka the cat remained quiet under Marci’s seat, stoned on kitty sedatives. “How’s the cat?” I asked Marci, raising my voice above the level of Geran’s hollering.

“She hasn’t made a sound,” she said. “Been asleep the whole flight.”

“Do you think we could…?”

“No!” My wife gave a small laugh, just this side of hysteria, as Geran’s crying intensified. “I wish we could. No, we couldn’t possibly. Could we?” That’s how desperate we were at this point, sitting there avoiding eye contact with everyone else on the plane and contemplating giving cat sedatives to our toddler.

We were saved from potentially poisoning our child by the mere fact of having used up the last of the cat sedatives at the start of the flight. And the flight attendants refused to fill Geran’s baby bottle with red wine. So we gave up. We put the squirming, squalling little guy on the floor beneath his seat with a selection of small toys, hoping he would amuse himself into quieting down.

“Look, Geran! A toy! A little motorcycle! A plastic hamburger! Look, it’s My Little Pony! A rattle—want a rattle? How about a rubber duck? Take the damn duck, already!”

He was only 18 months old at this point, and pre-verbal. So visualize the next two-point-five seconds in slow motion Instant Replay:

Geran launches his chubby body off the floor and into his seat like a tiny pommel horse Olympian. Momentum plus piston-legs pole-vault him up the back of his chair. It’s the wind-up: he pinwheels his right arm in mid-air, and in a shot worthy of the World Series, hurls a plastic toy motorcycle with incredible force over the back of the seat. The small two-wheeled projectile cuts through the air with a blurred yellow wake. The toy smacks into the forehead of the middle-aged Asian woman sitting just behind us, knocking her senseless, cross-eyed, and thankfully too dazed to bring a lawsuit.

“That’s it!” I cried, grabbing my son by the back of his cotton one-piece. “You have lost all privileges as a human being!” I flipped him around, overpowering his surprisingly muscular contortions, and manhandled him into his car seat, where I buckled his five-point harness and cinced him in so tight it was amazing he could even draw breath.

And yet, he managed.

Oh, how that child could draw breath, like Superman blowing out a raging fire in a Metropolis office tower. Geran let loose with a banshee screech of such staggering intensity it blew the hair off my forearms and caused the plane to lurch. And he didn’t stop. His face turned so red I thought his head would pop off. He wailed so loudly and constantly he must have been drawing air in through his butt in a constant loop, like an air-raid siren warning that we were under attack.

As far away as ten aisles in front of us, frowning women and men turned in their seats and stared back to glare at the Bad Parents. Marci sank down and put her hand over her face in shame, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up and raised my hands in surrender, crying out to the plane for all to hear:

“It’s my fault! I’m the bad father! I made him! I admit it! He’s mine, you hear me? He’s MINE!”

I sat down, exhausted. Row after row of knowing parents and experienced travelers nodded their heads in satisfaction and returned to their newly-minted hardbacks of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not another word was said. Within minutes, Geran wore himself out and passed out in his safety seat, to sleep peacefully for the rest of the flight.

And when we landed in San Francisco, he awoke and smiled, and cooed and burbled and waved joyfully to everyone as I held him up to my shoulder. He blew bubble kisses to all as we passed up the aisle, and when we reached the flight attendant at the front of the plane, she cooed at him, and said, “My, what a happy little boy! Why, he’s just an angel! An angel!”

And he was.



he had a face like chipped beef, like a tray of bacon

Back before the now-time began, and well before the world ended, Marci and I were lovers. Now we’re married, so even though we’re still lovers it doesn’t count. We’d been working “starter jobs” the year after college, and when those came to an end (or rather, when we decided to end ’em) we went on a six-week driving trip through the Great American Southwest, starting in the ‘burbs north of Dallas, Texas, where we both grew up.

Among the images I remember clearly from the day we left:

One: Marci turning around in the front seat as we drove away from her parents’ house to look back at her mom and dad. Her father was holding up three fingers: three weeks. Marci shook her head and responded with extra fingers: six weeks. I had to marry her after that. Not in the shotgun sense, of course. I just had to! Couldn’t get enough of her company. That was twenty years ago. I still can’t get enough of her. Crazy, huh?

Two: we stopped by my folks’ house. Said goodbye. Told my dad, “Westward, Ho!” and then had to turn back to him as M and I walked to the car. “Uh, which way is west?” Dad laughed and pointed. We made it to California.

Anyway, skip forward nearly a month into the trip. Marci and I had left off from camping in Yosemite on the return route from San Francisco and had driven up over the cold Tioga Pass, where the snow at the end of May was up to our waists. And that’s no exaggeration: we hopped out of the car and jumped around in waist-deep snow. We’d spent weeks in the desert prior to that, so deep snow was quite novel. We were headed from the forests and high mountains back down to the desert on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Within the course of that morning we had traveled from the forests of Yosemite Valley up and over the high and frozen Tioga pass, and eventually down the jagged range toward the hot desert flats. We were headed south, roughly in the direction of Las Vegas, with no real destination in mind for the night, and no sign of humanity on our two-lane highway. Over the course of about an hour, our crackling car radio noise resolved itself into music and voices and a message called to us, transmitted from some distant oasis and beckoning over the invisible airwaves.

The message was this: All You Can Eat Pizza Buffet!

Our car glided toward the source as if traveling on a giant Ouija board, up a steep mountain ascent to the small mountain town of Mammoth Lakes. We had never heard of Mammoth Lakes, but it’s a popular winter ski destination for Nevada and California folk. Marci and I drove around the town, high up in the mountains, and set up our tent in the campgrounds at the edge of town. Over lunch, we met some locals who gave us directions to a natural hot springs.

We found the hot springs at the end of an unmarked road in the desert several miles out of town. Jumping into our bathing suits, we climbed down the steep steps to the spring. Ropes were placed to keep people away from the most dangerous areas; good thing, since otherwise I would have dived right into the rapidly boiling water pools ringed with sulfurous steam-farting mud fumeroles.

The swimmable areas were deep and hot, and the water was high in minerals and made our skin tingle. Where our feet could touch the bottom we could feel a rumbling beneath the ground, as if thundering herds of pachyderms were heading straight for us. It was unnerving, like standing above an underground nuclear test site not knowing when the next bomb blast would blow.

There were a few others at the hot springs, and we all talked about the experience of hitting so many wildly different climates within a single day: cool forests to snowy mountain passes to desert hot springs.

Back in Mammoth Lakes we drove around the deserted town looking at the pricy winter chalets until heading to the promised pizza land for the dinner buffet. When night fell in Mammoth Lakes it fell hard; the temperature dropped and shattered on the ground like broken icicles. We weren’t ready to nod off or face a few hours in the cold tent, so we drove through the town in search of night life. We couldn’t find any. There wasn’t a movie theater, and there didn’t seem to be any bars or restaurants open at night. The streets were deserted by 8 PM.

M and I wandered around the local grocery store, the only place that seemed to be open apart from one self-serve laundromat. We made small talk with the two employees, who asked us if we were in town to go skiing. Mammoth Lakes is so high up that even though ski season was over and only the locals were left in town, the upper reaches of the mountain remained open. So Marci and I decided that we’d tarry a day and go skiing.

That night we gained valuable camping experience and learned some interesting lessons. For instance, we learned that a cheap tent and sleeping bags and thin foam pads don’t keep you very warm when the temperature drops into the low 20’s. And I learned that when the temperature gets that low, and you have to get up to pee at 3 am, you’re going to be really sorry that you left all of your clothing outside the sleeping bag. Apparently, blue jeans freeze at about the same temperature as water.

The next day, clad in jeans, caps and work gloves, we headed up the mountain to rent skis for the day, The rental area was at the base of the lift, and the man working there… Hmm, I’m not sure how to describe him. There are tales told around the campfire, stories to scare children that generally end with someone being grabbed. He could have been featured in one of those stories.

He had some sort of skin condition. He looked like he’d been burned all over his body. The sun couldn’t do it alone; he must have been through a kiln. His skin was in tatters, peeling off of every exposed surface. He looked like chipped beef, like one of those trays full of bacon that you see in brunch buffet lines. He was extra crispy. As he fit Marci for boots, she suddenly turned to me and exclaimed, wide-eyed, “Oh! I forgot the sun screen!”

That’s about the end of this part of the story. Except for the poignant scenes where Marci and I skied together. Twice, as my father used to day: the first time and the last time. When she said she could ski, I thought that meant she could ski. A miscommunication: Marci thought those little bunny hills constituted skiing, and I thought that skiing was skiing. So when we got to the top of the mountain, where that late in May only the upper blue and black slopes remained open, and Marci found out that she could not actually do the type of skiing that involved actual skiing… well, it wasn’t pretty.

She tried her best, and I really felt for her. Actually, she did okay on the left turns, skiing ever so slowly across the steep and icy slopes. And then she fell on each and every right turn, dropping on the same spot on her hip as the snow soaked through her jeans. Eventually she got so tired and frustrated and black and blue and sore and wet that she started crying and I was getting impatient waiting for her to Get Up! since it was obvious to me that the only way down was down. Since then we’ve been able to laugh about it with a standing joke about such situations: Stop Crying! Roll!

We gave up that night, and stayed at a motel. The next morning, we cooked breakfast over our camp stove-on the pavement by the motel parking lot. Ah, roughing it. Since then, Marci’s gotten “back on the horse” so to speak: we’ve gone skiing together several times. She takes lessons while I attempt to break my legs skiing well above my limits. Well, you know what they say: if it doesn’t kill you, try try again.