Thursday February 21st 2019, 9:56 pm
Filed under: grief,HelLA,himself Tags:

I wrote this for someone else, but sent it to Ellis, whom I had just seen. She wanted to publish a very different version of it in her curated corner of Public Books. I declined.

March 27th, 2016. 11:30 am. Newark Airport, New Jersey

I’ve been in New York and Brooklyn for the last four days, visiting friends and visiting some of the places and spaces of my past here. I find myself fascinated by the infinite variety of very, very proximate bodies. On the subways, on the sidewalks, it’s all so very different. The Los Angeles body exists so often in the carefully separate spaces of glass-walled cars. When you do encounter others in person, they’re often not that different. LA’s bodies come in much more homogenous clusters of body type and race than NY permits, or even makes possible. It is rare in LA to encounter the density of the press of people. The human awkwardness of a crowded rush hour subway train also makes possible the small courtesies and kindnesses (and, of course, their opposites) that make walking and travelling possible, but also make it meaningful. Letting someone merge doesn’t mean in the same way that making eye contact and silently indicating, “go ahead, you take the last seat,” does, or the way that watching someone stand to let an elderly person sit pulls you into a shared moment of existence in a world full of bodies.

Practically, I don’t see myself living in NY or London now. Jobs, money, partner, child, and dogs aside, NY is a city to be young and energetic and poor in, or middle aged and very wealthy. Anything in between seems as if it would involve too many impossible compromises. But this visit has also enabled me to confront something more basic.

When people ask, and often when they don’t, I say that I don’t like LA. I hold out categorically that I don’t like living in LA. Pressed, I’ll admit that I enjoy pretty much everything about my life and job other than the fact it mostly takes place in LA. Pressed still harder to identify what, specifically, I don’t like about LA, about what I find objectionable about living here now as an adult, my answers are embarrassingly vague and thin. I object to my commute, though it is a byproduct of choosing particular living arrangements which are otherwise quite pleasant. I object to the proximity of my family, though my relationship with their nearness has changed fundamentally since the birth of Miles. I loathe the particular soup of fraudulently narcissistic/vanity/performance/entertainment/vapid LA culture, which, while it exists as a toxic soup everywhere in this town, also doesn’t describe almost anyone or anything I have much contact with on a regular basis. Avoiding this and “those people” is why I live where I live, and why I live how I live. It seems strange to then identify the thing I have worked hard to avoid surrounding myself with (and have succeed at, for the most part) as the thing that most irks me about living in LA. I praise LA’s food scene, its museums, I regale people with tales of  stunningly beautiful hikes and enjoy the ocean-to-mountain-to-desert richness of a pleasantly warm winter weekend in February. 

Perhaps my dislike is a reflex, connected to the rather predictable unhappiness of being a teenager here, eager to move away and move on to the next thing. Rather than not liking LA, perhaps I simply didn’t like LA, and can’t seem to find my way to answer the question differently. Or, perhaps I don’t like myself in LA more than I don’t like LA.

I’m not really from LA. I’m from The Valley. The San Fernando Valley, for a child coming of conscious cultural age in the 80s, was skateboarding and surfing, Valley speak and Valley girls, and the Galleria. The Valley was the third option in contemporary mainstream teenage existence as represented in movies: small town middle America, New York/Chicago urbanity, and whatever the hell Valley teens were, led by the recognizable tropes of a very stoned Sean Penn as Spiccoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” I was raised in North Hollywood, but a decade or so after I had moved away, some residents decided my childhood had taken place in a corner that was dragged down by being undifferentiated from a bigger area – extending from the Hollywood Hills all the way up to the industrial zones west of Burbank airport, it included too many brown bodies and working class families. The affluent southern corner seceded and declared itself Valley Village. It was a successful rebranding – the shops along Ventura Blvd, which was a vein of commerce 30 years ago, but a sad and hostile one in comparison with the infinite number of ways the shops and restaurants there will now take your money. 

The Valley’s suburbs, safe and spacious and featuring large single-family dwellings, also made it impossible to get anywhere, or to see anyone. Riding the bus was a last resort, and riding a bicycle was only a small step to reducing the vast distances of native teenage LA living. Even when the problem was partly solved at 16 with a license and a (shared) car, the other side of the problem emerged: the sheer scale of LA was intimidating, the complexity of finding my lost teenage self on the page and grid of the Thomas Guide maps could be an exercise in somewhat bewildering anxiety. At the same time, I found (and sometimes still find) driving a comfort. Late at night, driving the 101 to the 405 to the 10, or the 134 to the 101 to Topanga to PCH, or west along Mulholland from the 110, across Laurel, Coldwater, and Beverly Glen, driving offered something very close to therapy. If you measure distance travelled as a vector quantity, rather than a scalar quantity, then in my entire life I have only travelled the 21 or so miles between my birth at Tarzana Medical Center in the Valley and my current home in Echo Park.

I spent a fair amount of time in a mildly misspent youth on the banks of the LA River. A strange space, the section I was most familiar with as a youth is the bare concrete river channel as it wends from the Balboa Park dam to the Cahuenga pass. On either side of the almost-always-empty monumental concrete channel are 25 or so feet of dirt. The strip stands 25 or so feet above the floor of the “wash,” as it was called, and separates the backs of the houses of the Valley from the strangeness of LA’s relationship to water. It was wholly our space, an in-between playground for the small violences of pre-teen boys – fires and graffiti and endless games and conversations. A friend and I would climb over the backyard fence of a third ex-friend (such are the tyrannies of boys) to get there. We must have spent hundreds of hours in this strange, unsupervised space. Some parts are in plain sight of the overpasses of the larger east/west streets, other parts follow the curve of the wash and offer invisibility from the world. I don’t think we ever saw anyone else in our kingdom, 25 feet wide, and an impossible number of miles long. We never walked all that far, and we never risked somehow rapelling down the sheer concrete sides to the mysterious bottom of the wash, but we also didn’t have to – I can’t recall that we ever saw another person in all those hours. The LA River now is a different world – we currently live just up from the greenery of the river as it flows past Griffith Park, navigable by boat (!), with a bike path, filled with herons and other waterfowl. It’s still a vaguely interstitial and improbable place, but the dry beauty of the dirt and concrete of my youth is a world apart from my current strolls along its much gentler concrete banks.

I dislike not experiencing the parts of LA that exist between the point of origin and destination. In cities where you walk, take the bus or metro, you encounter an enormous number of things, places, people, moments, that are not where you started or where you are going. There’s something about the car commute, not just its isolation, but the way in which it thins out experience, diminishes encounter, thwarts the possibility to wander, to notice the unexpected, to dally or to dawdle, suppresses the serendipitious. The functional transaction of the drive to work, or to see a friend, or to run an errand makes something such as “stopping” for drinks on the way home, including parking and the rest, become a profoundly different proposition than “meeting” for drinks after work, as in London or NY. A journey interrupted and resumed. Worse, when I do encounter LA on foot, on the bus, on the subway, or on a bicycle, it feels as if I’m playing at queering LA somehow. It sometimes feels subversive, then a bit silly; it feels illicit, then inconvenient. 

By 18, being from LA was something I was quick to perceive as a cultural vulnerability. There was no cachet to be had from it, nothing particular gained, no clear association or reference point for non-Angelenos to link me with anything other than Hollywood, the very thing I most despised culturally. In college, as I fashioned a self, I swiftly de-fashioned my LA self into a Berkeley self, and from there into a San Francisco self, and from there into a loosely culturally understood self, and then all that remained was to actually live cosmopolitan-ly – to travel to Paris, to move to England, to live in Oxford, London, and New York. As a junior in college, I read the New Yorker’sTalk of the Town columns, becoming casually, hip-ly familiar with the acts playing at the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note, with the afterlife of Dylan’s Greenwich Village and the last throes of the music and art scene of Alphabet City. I read various imported UK music magazines and affected familiarity with London’s 90s triphop scene in Shoreditch and the Southbank – all this predated my first brief visit to Manhattan, and my move to Oxford, by fully two years. In some ways, I suppose, it confirms how very LA I am: I researched the role, the wardrobe, the background knowledge and character motivations to prepare myself for the moment I could hop on the subway or the tube and not pause to look at a map, not pause to orient myself, not pause and thereby expose myself as not a native of NY or London.

I still can’t answer why I don’t like LA, or more honestly, why I don’t want to like living in LA. The pieces of my life make more sense here than anywhere else I can imagine, and the city’s pleasures, opportunities, adjacencies, are equal to anything I’ve experienced in many of the world’s great cities. It is Los Angeles’s rhythms, not only those of freeway and traffic, green juice and yoga pants, $6 pour-over coffees and a movie script in progress on every laptop in every cafe, but the rhythms of isolation and discontinuity that I find most objectionable. But I look at my one-year-old child, and wonder how I can teach him to love this place, to revel in what is magical and magnificent about this odd and improbable place, and also how I can teach him to get out, how to live and move and love in other languages, in other rhythms, in other cities.

Ellis Avery
Monday February 18th 2019, 3:45 pm
Filed under: exit,friends,grief,magic,memory,New York Tags:

Oh, Ellis. I’m so very, very sad about your death. Too many thoughts in too many directions, not helped by having had a high fever and the flu, and only just coming back into focus as a person.

I don’t think we were as close as we should have been, but I always _felt_ close to you (and to S) despite the distance and the long silences. Our annual tradition of calling and singing happy birthday to the other – I don’t recall how it started. I do recall the very surprised russian woman a few years ago when I didn’t have the right number for you, who politely waited for me to finish before telling me I had the wrong number. Increasingly “close” seems a weird metric for friendship – social media is filled with people grieving your death, who knew you longer and better than I did. But whatever kind of friends we were, we were, and policing its authenticity doesn’t seem helpful.

You seemed more grown up,more assured, partly because of Sharon, perhaps, or for owning a flat in Manhattan, or for having written a book. A book! A novel! I don’t know why you and Sharon rescued me from Wall Street Reporter to do construction. I’m sorry I couldn’t do the window, which I said I could, or the fan. I probably turned out to be a very expensive rescue.

Waiting by your chunky black landline phone as I bustled deliberately around, December 2005 was a weird month, as I dutifully showed up at your house every day to work. Was there really that much work? I remember painting the bathroom with you and S, fucking up the window and the fan, and finally patching the ceiling rather than replacing the sheetrock. Was that weeks of work? And the bidding war for your manuscript, your agent calling with updates. Much like Toni, the day before she died, watching General Hospital as we sat on her couch, and wondering aloud “who ever would think this is how it would end, watching General Hospital with you.” Did you feel the same way about getting your first big publishing deal with me pottering around in your house, your partner far uptown. Did I understand? Was I celebratory enough? I was so excited for you, but I don’t know if I made that clear.

All the grading papers at Mud cafe. I hate fucking grading papers. I’m not grading papers _right now_. Though I wish I had your scansion handout. I’ve looked a few times. There might be a hardcopy in a Dalton box somewhere. It was great. Thanks for teaching me how to scan verse so I could teach it, so little Peter whatshisface could clap wildly erratically beats, far removed from syllables, let alone stress.

Oh Ellis. I didn’t read your cancer memoir after the last time I saw you, when you gave it to me after we had hours and hours and hours of talking and catching up. I think I saw you once more, as you and your scooter visited the little house in Echo Park, and himself was charmed. [Email fact check. Yes, a few weeks later] I read it Saturday, still lightly feverish, after I learned of your death. You were in so much pain for so many years. And the food stuff, that would’ve killed me. S sounding like herself, terribly and truthfully and transcendently.

[OK, email fact checking now has me re-reading a whole seam of correspondence I didn’t really know existed. This stood out, too “Ask me about the the “employee of the month” badge I earned and then promptly sold for $30.” I have no memory of this. But the emails, recalling dinners and computer fixing and the bed platform that was much of the work done at their flat, and walks and coffees and all the rest, paint a picture of a much deeper intimacy than my brain remembers. I used to remember. Sigh.]

The grief is deep. She was so vibrant, so very much herself, so fiercely generous, so impossibly bright at times, so very dark at others. I lack words, really, to describe your impossible self.

20 years of writing a haiku each day. Dead at 46. Fuck that.

Friday January 12th 2018, 10:59 pm
Filed under: exit,grief,obits Tags:

It’s too soon for words. I don’t have them, just a hole in my heart and an impossibly tangible sense of the absence of a body in my life, and a toddler who is very unsure about what we’re trying to say and to not say. Farewell, inherited poodle. You are loved.

Moral calculus
Tuesday May 23rd 2017, 11:26 pm
Filed under: fear,grief,teaching Tags:

They were unconvinced. It is, frankly, not Lakoff’s finest. There are some truths, but he’s too eager to make them systemic, totalizing, rather than doing his best work – poking small holes in other people’s bubbles. So, moral economies, positive actions and debt repayments. Before frames, even. So we did an analysis of the Manchester bomber’s possible calculus. And the horror of seeing everything as quantifiable, the cost (metaphor not intended) was too much.

4 minutes later
Wednesday June 01st 2016, 10:33 pm
Filed under: family,fear,friends,grief,whatsnext,Work Tags:

4 minutes later, 4 minutes after my meaningless check in to TPT this morning, a man would shoot another man. 2 shots, apparently, to shoot and kill his engineering professor. It has been widely reported, though without any substantiation I’ve seen, that he did so over grades.

So, here, everyone – have an A. Have 52 channels of A. Because I’m not dying because I gave you a B, or a C, or a D. And YCT shouldn’t have to spend 2+ hours “locked down” in an “active shooter situation” because your euphemisms don’t hide how FUCKED UP all of this is.

The anger is replacing the fear, the frustration overrunning the helplessness, the rage rumbling against the tender and the desperate.

The anger that we allow this to happen, over and over. A school shooting a week, apparently, since Sandy Hook. But fuck numbers, fuck statistics. Anger that MY ANGER is always-already a symptom that is somehow invalidating. That it’s “hysteria” and a particular political stance. That to be angry about senseless gun death is to be hysterical, and thus wrong, and eminently dismissable.

Two and a half hours. Her students asked to give their final presentations, despite sitting on the floor in the dark, despite not being able to show their slides, despite their phones lighting up with texts and calls from loved ones intermittently. How is it possible that 15 students and a teacher, times 10, times 100, times 1000, times 2000, can be frozen in the dark, in fear? More than thirty five thousand students on campus, maybe fifty plus thousand including staff and faculty. Frozen. Talking about the Brontës in context. The context of school shootings, of senseless wholesale death because we hold these truths to be self-evident: that my right to kill you, me, and anyone else with a gun is more important than anything else.

Tomorrow, I teach the last day of metaphors and embodied language – a “Fiat Lux” class, started in response to 9/11 to get students talking about the big issues. I think we’ll analyze the metaphors at play in all of the headlines and articles. And part of me, the terrified part, is relieved the class is pass/not-pass, and everyone will pas. And part of me is so, so, so very angry that I’m afraid.

One fewer rainbow sender
Tuesday June 09th 2015, 10:50 pm
Filed under: friends,grief,Oxford Tags:

“the most irresponsibly generous person I’ve met.”
“Wise, crazy, and wonderful.”

Last night I looked at the Chagall book she gave me, as I left Oxf a decade and change ago. “From someone who does give a shit,” she signed it. I believe it was one of two art books that her father had given her. He was a stage designer, or technical theatre person of some description. That was her, though. I think she showed up to the party around midnight, well after someone had already exited the flat through the glorious front windows, through the bushes, and took with them the last shreds of my landlord’s respect and most of my security deposit. God knows where she was coming from – the Royal Shakespeare Company, I would guess, where she was doing vocals? Did she have a stage name? Light googling isn’t turning much up. But classic Helen. Here, take one of these two totally precious things (that I’m inexplicably carrying around with me) that I really, really, really want you to have.

And she really did want you to have it. We spoke several times that summer. I remember pacing around the parking lot between the co-op and the faculty housing, speaking waaay too loudly on a mobile phone when it was still novel for the US. (A novelty and an unpaid bill that would come back to haunt me despite several corporate buyouts some 5 years later at the invention of the idevice.) She sent rainbows in ridiculous ways, and tatt and good scotch, and told me I had to have a place to play my music. We never played together, probably out of my shame at not being in the league that she was at, that the other reader of this is at. A shame, really, as she judged passion, not skill, heart, not talent. (And then skill, talent when appropriate. Damn could she judge when called to.)

She sent money, too, when it all rather predictably fell apart and I needed to leave, and she and the friend made it possible to get out of the narrative that I’d been unable to disrupt before it came to the very end. I left and came back, not to Oxf, but to London. I’d go back to Ox, of course, but never with a place to call home again. I’d see her a few times in the year it took me to finish, then move to NY, to here. She always asked if I had a place to play my music. Never without the possessive pronoun. That mattered, that meant something, that absolved and forgave and gently made anything OK, even beautiful.

We’re headed out in just a few weeks. She said she had a few more weeks than that, and we were going to see her, small included. When her daughter called, she sounded just like her. The connection was terrible – I fucking hate AT&T – and I thought it _was_ her. Somethingsomethingsomething at home? No, I’m at work I said. Peacefullyinhersleep. Oh god. I’m so sorry.

And I am. Not that she minded, at the end, staggeringly generous in forgiveness as in everything else. I raise a glass of single malt, and listen to music that reminds me of you, and none of it will fill the remarkable space you made so utterly yours. What the physicists must have made of you, your eagerness to push their science into philosophy, their quantum indeterminacy into a different kind of beauty.

“I want to live, but I love the life I’ve lived, and can leave it.” May your atoms and molecules scatter and entangle interestingly. You were loved.

pride and despair

An odd mix, really.  The work has been ragged of late.  But the UC Berkeley protests today, locking themselves into Wheeler Hall, home of the English Dept, and holding it for hours, making it national news.  Building on 9/24, but with the added horror of yesterday’s fee hikes.  Not that I’m not proud of UCLA, too, for the few thousand protesters at Covel Commons for the Regents’ meeting, and the occupiers of Campbell Hall (although, the tutoring building?  really?  odd choice, folks.).  Plus a shout out to the Davis and Santa Cruz occupiers of buildings various and sundry (and the Asst Professor at Davis helping organize, the ballsy fucker).  But I don’t know what my place is in all of this.   I don’t know what my untelevised revolution is supposed to look like, at this point.  I long to have been up at Berkeley for today’s shit, but all I did yesterday was sit down with the occupiers of Campbell Hall and have a five minute chat to thank them for putting themselves on the line.  Is that all?  How do I want to be counted?

[update, 3 hours, a bottle of wine, and two generous glasses of fine single malt scotch later.]  An email to a Berkeley long ago ex, and an email to a colleague’s husband, asking if he has an email for a Berkeley long ago friend (who happens to be the ex’s ex, but that’s complicated, not worth telling, and not particularly telling, from a perspective of detail.).  Still proud of the protests, still don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do, but as I was just telling the dog (and, as YCTNW is asleep in bed, I mean that literally) no one  cares what I do tomorrow.  I’m panicked about finishing my book, because when you divide months by chapters, Xeno’s paradox kicks in and it looks as if you can’t get there from here.  The flip side, of course, is that no one gives a flying fuck what I do tomorrow.  I can nostalg (a new verb! hah!), I can email various and sundry whilst in my cups.  YCTNW and I have vague late morning plans, I have a friend to pick up from the airport at half-one, and we have half seven dinner with a coworker + husband of YCTNW’s.  None of which have anything to do with my book, with how I get there from here.  I wanted a life in which process wouldn’t be held against me, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Tuesday June 09th 2009, 10:39 am
Filed under: grief,memory,sober,tired Tags:

Huh.  Didn’t see that one coming.  I used the faulty messenger/telephone of the malicious, scandalous, untrue, or vaguely scandal-scented on Friday, to communicate to (insert better acronym, euphemism, quasi-personal identifier than I can come up with here).  Knowing it, indeed, intending it, to come back around.  Which it indeed accomplished, three-quarters of a pot of coffee in this morning.  Professional stuff (which wasn’t all that significant) aside, unexpected tidbits include 1) in a relationship, and 2) recently suffered a similar tragedy to that which beset an over-educated over-funded friend unexpectedly absent from the big day, lo those (ummm) two and a half months back.   I know it’s utterly irrational, but hearkens back, for those of you who know, to the traumatic last months of the endgame a mere 6 years ago, but my first reaction was “it can’t be mine.  how is it possible it’s mine.  i don’t want this, like this, not now.”  I managed to wade through the impossibilities, my own innocence, if that makes any sense, so I could figure out what I was supposed to be feeling in relation to the tragedy.  Which is deep sympathy – I know how much she wants, has wanted, this, and how hard it must be to have this happen far enough into it all to be emotionally and spiritually crushing.  A sympathy I didn’t feel, last time, too deeply embedded in my own very complex reactions to the same situation, but my very different role in it.  (Apologies if I’m being too obscure [or, not obscure enough] about all of this; names have been changed, etc., but still….)  Anyway, aware of and uncomfortable about the issue for other reasons, to remain still vaguer, but an interesting re-visit to an emotional past that doesn’t, in fact, factor in to an emotional present.  I’m so sorry, for the present tense grief.

it’s all relative
Tuesday June 10th 2008, 1:06 am
Filed under: Boozy,friends,grief,Oxford,reminiscence Tags:

Friends, concerned whether my cancer scare was in fact cancer, or a scare. Friend, whose scare was cancerous, and ain’t free yet. Drunk-ish, and emphatically tired, I confront the fact I ain’t done yet. It feels done, it seems done, summer is in the air and the air holds the promise of error, of a future out-of-bounds, of uncertainty and possibility and rest. But I, emphatically, ain’t done. Papers to grade, a final to finish, then a final to grade, then still more papers to grade, then a talk to give. Then done. By the time I hit the UK, I’m done. Despite an odd imperative to reminisce, premature in its siren call to find “whatever happened to” and “does so-and-so remember when”….A premature reminiscence, might I add….

Damn, Tone, Lebanese and Musar would be perfect. My treat. Several bottles of the latter, for that matter. I’m sorry not in the pity sense, but because I’m so fucking proud of you, proud of your effort to knock the diss out and get your bidness done. And I’m rooting for you to do so, regardless of sturgeon’s and their nefarious incisions. You’ve been strong for so many years, keep it up, bitch. That magic viagra of the soul you seem to have – keep popping it. It ain’t all good, but you’ll do, any day.

and you shall know me by
Saturday April 26th 2008, 9:18 am
Filed under: friends,grief,hangover,holidays,tired Tags:

Umm. I dunno, exactly. Not a legacy, per se, but at least by some combination of the good I’ve done set alongside the,err, umm, not so good. It’s seder night here at the farm, although there’s a mild hangover to clear up, first. Then mad list-making, shopping, house-cleaning, and cooking, although for a mere 9 (rather than 11, 15, 22…the various numbers of seders past.). A friend of YCT’s unexpectedly here as a houseguest – one of a two-academic couple, facing the trauma of ambitions and desires that don’t align. Such grief, and no good answers to be had. A friend in Berkeley, remarking that his girlfriend of four years has only ever known him while he was “on the market,” as the phrase goes. (I much prefer the English “putting in for” a post, or position, or even job. Retail rather than wholesale, baby, a nation of [academic] shopkeepers.) Amongst all of the other costs of pursuing a dream, a job that we love to do (and to the student (who I assume has no idea this exists) who interviewed me about tenure for the campus newspaper, thank you for closing with that quotation), is precisely that – knowing what we want to do. Which makes the pain of not being able to do it at all, or not being able to do it how or where we want, that much more painful. It’s an identity profession – doctor, lawyer, plumber, carpenter, contractor, gardener – and when we “can’t get a job AS an xxxx” then we confront separating the years of work to assume the mantle from the desire that motivated the work in the first place.

Jesus H. Christ on the cross, I’m babbling. Not really through the first cup of coffee. To review: seder tonight, YCT’s friend is having a tough time of a situation I thank the stars above that it isn’t a plague that was visited upon me (see what I did there? See?), my heart has been unhardened for a while now (….), and, umm, yeah. Missing the people with whom this tradition started, with whom I’ve shared this in the past. You’re here, in some form, tonight.