Monday, August 22, 2005

Boy Bravado

It’s great to be closing in on 60 and to have a young son. How else could a guy in my demographic tune in so directly to the world of boys? For my son’s twelfth birthday, I drove him and seven other pre-adolescent fellows to a place out in the Mojave foothills called “Mountasia” (just a blistering hop-skip-and jump from Magic Mountain).

Mountasia is a very parent friendly little collection of amusements (go-carts, lasertag, bumper-boats and video games). The food was crap but so what? You didn’t have to shlep everywhere to keep track of scattered children, and the place is too tame to attract the gangs Magic Mountain features.

But back to my point. At the park I drifted away from the kids, so the real interaction was in my van, coming and going. I’m calling what I was subjected to “boy bravado,” and I’m sure you know what that is.

“Dude, did you see Undertaker do a crippler on Big Show last night?” (on WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment, that is).

“Man, he was so in submission!”

“Dude, check that Harley!”


The Harley in question ripped past us, its purposely defeated muffler allowing an ungodly roar to shatter the surrounding atmosphere. The shaded, leathered and booted man who straddled this machine must have seemed iconic to the boys, a WWE demi-god sent down to redeem our sins. My faithful Ford Windstar, vintage 1995, bearing only the virtue of being paid for, seemed diminished then to my passengers. I was repeatedly urged to “book it!”, but, as I told them with attempted humor, you can only book my van when it’s going downhill.

The boy-bravado continued non-stop during every moment of the journey, both there and back. In addition to wrestling and motor-vehicles, it encompassed recollections from the last school year of various boys and girls who had been humiliated in a variety of ways, perhaps by doing something physically clumsy, or saying or doing something stupid that everyone could laugh at. The experience was almost like conducting a focus group on the elements of boy society. I could have written up my observations and sold them to video game producers, making sure they stocked their scenarios with ample mayhem- as if they don’t know about that already.

It brought me back to the cruelty of my middle-school years, both my own and others'.  Is it so different in the adult world?  News sources commonly express the doings of our culture in a male language of conquest and submission.  You can translate these expressions into imaginary boy-bravado conversations. Thus, from this morning’s L.A.Times Calendar section:

“Dude! Did you see that '40 Year Old Virgin’ kicked ‘Red Eye’ down to second place?”

“Shit, ‘Eye’ made a measely $16.5 million!”

“Wait, dudes! ‘Penguin’ is kicking ass for the long term box-office!”

From the Business section:

“Dude, Google is selling another 14 million shares!”

“Oh, dude, they’re going to take in about FOUR BILLION!”

“Shit, dude, they have a MASSIVE acquisition plan!”

“Oh yeah, dude! They’re going to wire up half the United States with Wi-Fi!”

It’s a bit obvious how boy-bravado infuses the front page, with its group upon group struggles, its crime and pain, but, and yes, here it comes, the obligatory gibe at President Bush, has not the President employed boy bravado as the primary vehicle in selling his foreign policies? We had our asses kicked on 9/11, so we have to KICK SOME ASS RIGHT NOW!  What choice does he have, though?  I get tired at my high school at the periodic exhortations to beat our rival school, because, you know, who cares?,  but I accept this adult inspired rivalry as one of the few ways to achieve adolescent solidarity: our group at war against that group over there!  I'm not in a position to criticize it, anyway.  As a debate coach I'm forever haranging my debaters about beating this or that team.   What are ya' gonna' do?  I guess I belong in the boy bravado arena.

As we approached Mountasia, the boys turned their focus to the attractions to come. Many had been to the park before, and they opined on which rides were the best. There was consensus that everything was good except the bumper-boats, which were “gay.” This I had to see- gay bumper-boats! It turned out that the best place to read my New Yorker was at a shaded table right next to the bumper-boats. These were large inner tubes seating two, equipped improbably with gasoline powered outboard motors which putt-putted the tubes lazily around a pond, so that every once in a while they bumped gently into another tube and its passengers. Gay, indeed! It was actually a perfect setting to finish my article, in which I learned that Billy Graham’s son kicked ass on the liberal wing of the Protestant Church.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Hollywood Bowl

Angelenos can go a long time without visiting the Hollywood Bowl. My attendance was sporadic through childhood. When I was 12, we went to the Bowl to see our neighbor, an opera singer, in a musical rendition of Julius Caesar. After what seemed like hours, a baritone guard sang out one line and my dad shouted and pointed, "That's him!" Then nothing until 1968, when my friend and I watched Janice Joplin rampage across the stage.

And then a long absence, over 30 years, until last year we got season tickets for a box in the frontish section ( one section behind the elite boxes abutting the stage). Most of the time we attended with our two boys, Andrew, 21, and Connor, 11. The box is compact, to put it diplomatically. It's hard to manipulate the fold-up tables and sit and eat in a space the size of a large closet, but you are outside surrounded by happy people and once you're settled with your wine it's not bad at all.

What I want to write about are the performances. To start with: "Electronica." One night last year was devoted to it; and now I know what it is. It's this: some guys go up on the stage with laptops. No musical instruments are apparent. There is also a bank of technicians with elaborate consoles (no musical instruments there either). The technicians push levers and a backbeat loop begins. The guys on stage, the headline group, listen thoughtfully to the backbeat for a few moments, then they type in some stuff on their laptops which results in lots of synthesized sounds blaring out of giant speakers. The guys then watch the monitors of their laptops, every now and then typing something new, which, one gathers, changes the nature of the music. The sounds are not unlike the "synthetic" music of the last half century; the innovation is that they're attached to a rock beat and are blasted into your ears at deafening decibels. I was thankful I had brought my earplugs. This is not a confession of dotage. I walked out of a Cream gig at the Whiskey in 1969 because of the idiotic volume- and they were my favorite group. But I must say, some of the Electronica was pleasant. At one point, I felt I was being mesmerized. Susan and the boys were happy, and the big crowd around us was definitely happy. A thick smog of pot smoke hung everywhere. Hundreds of people, including ushers, were dancing in solitary joy.

It was fun, but I do need to ask this question: How is a guy typing commands on a laptop a musician? If the music was composed previously, fine, but then you might as well have a composer/musician come on stage and put on a CD of his work. Just asking. Another night we heard Wycleff Jean, well known singer in the Rastafarian tradition. Very musical and talented, though it gave me pause during a song extolling pot smoking when he stopped to address the young kids specifically. This would include Connor, who was definitely paying attention. Jean said that the kids in the audience were too young to understand the wonders of marijuana, but in a few years they would be old enough, and then they should "smoke dee mari-uaanaa!" It's a free country, right? I suppose someone like me who sees continual signs of erosion of our freedoms should be grateful that I can still pay money to hear a famous role-model tell my son to smoke dope. I will let the righteous and ascended souls among us figure this one out.

Anyway, I want to conclude with a description of last night's Yo-Yo Ma concert. Because it was Ma it was sold out, which in itself nuanced the experience. The traffic on the east-bound 101 was quite light, no doubt due to the ongoing heat-wave, but this ended at the Highland offramp, where we came to a miserable crawl. It took almost 30 minutes to travel from the offramp to the Bowl parking lot, where we were informed that the lot was full and given a map to another lot three blocks down at Highland and Hollywood, behind the Kodak center. I let my family out with their tickets and continued, still at a snail's pace, towards Hollywood. At the Franklin Avenue turnoff there were prominent signs reading "Bowl Parking Here!" I foolishly turned in and beheld a vacant lot, vacant that is except for two hundred cars squished bumper to bumper, at a price of $15 each. This was not, in fact, the lot indicated on the map. In high dudgeon I backed out, maneuvered madly back onto Highland southbound, and made my way at last into the Kodak parking lot. No attendants were at the entrance when I pushed the button for my ticket, so I rushed through the lengthy description of charges and determined that though the Bowl was not among the listed validators, the max was $10. Not expecting anything better than this, I started my spiraling descent into the structure, parking finally on the fourth floor below street level. It was at this point, as I dragged myself out of the car and contemplated the stretch remaining between me and my plastic cup of wine, that it began.

You know how it is. You go day after day a good citizen, loving your country, honoring your leaders, and then one day, after one dumb vicissitude too many, you crack. I focused my fury on President Bush. What are the chances he would enter the Hollywood Bowl in such an ignominious fashion? He would be escorted via limo through an underground tunnel that led directly to the VIP elevator, which would ascend to a spot located five feet from his box next to the stage. If he was late, the show would be delayed. Why is this the case? Why does he get his own jet plane? Why, when he gets a check-up, does he need no appointment, and is attended by 10 doctors? It's because he's the president. What does that mean? It means he's in the ruling class. My brain became overheated as I rummaged through the car for a pen or pencil to write the location of my parking spot. Yes, we have a ruling class, a privileged class, just like those from which came the monarchies so despised by our founding fathers. We've been lulled into thinking it's a necessity, I fulminated as I searched up and down the lane for a sign indicating an elevator. We've forgotten, if we ever knew, that a competent national manager could do a decent job with just the basic comforts and amenities, and never miss the giant entourage, the mansion, the cooks and maids and drivers and personal jet planes. Then I found the escalator and had a chance to stand and fume. Yes, I realized, by lulling us into seeing this pomp and waste as natural, we had been tricked into having a...a king!

Granted a king for no more than two four year stretches, but a king nevertheless who, with the other royal families, perpetuates a system of rotating monarchs while we dumbly scrabble in the ruins looking for parking spaces at the Yo-Yo Ma concert. I emerged then onto Highland, where a fresh breeze took me by surpise. As I walked northward, I started to feel better. This isn't so bad, I thought. It's kind of fun to be walking up Highland in Hollywood, Calif. The people in the cars are glancing at me. I could be in a movie about a middle aged guy having one stupid crisis after another. Ok, George W., you can be a king. Just don't take away my right to revel in myself.

Fast forward to me, seated in my box, rapidly pouring my cup of wine. On the stage was Yo-Yo with his "Silk Road Ensemble," an assemblage of "World Music" performers. "World Music" can be defined as music from anyplace on earth except Europe and Russia (at least in their classical forms- exceptions can be made for folkish music). This means that while Zithian Nimble-Squeak played on a stringed miniature bat-gourd is World Music, Bach is not. Be that as it may, the music was nice. An array of World Music instruments- sitar, tabla, santur, ney, kamanche, sanxian, pipa, and shen- and a tolerant mix of Western- guitar, violin, viola, and of course Ma's cello- produced pleasant sounds. Certainly an enjoyable concert. Though I must ask this: Why couldn't Yo-Yo have played just a little Bach? Stretched the rules a bit. After all, Bach's music is better than anything anyone is writing now. Uh-oh, now I've done it! Anyway, like the Hollywood Bowl a lot, in spite of the logistical agonies associated with going there. You really should go to the Hollywood Bowl.

Friday, July 29, 2005


The cemetery stones tell much of the story.  On the hill above the landside of the mesa, they begin at the eastern edge with the oldest graves: an Irish family, the founder dying in 1805 and the last dying two generations later in 1873. Their lives drift by as you wander towards the seaside, ending above the street with the most recent tombstone: 2004.

There are stories in the vacant patches of land between the stones. Over a hundred years has not filled this couple of acres. Mendocino is one of those beautiful, highly desirable spots, inhabited by protective spirits who ward off domination from any quarter. The graveyard will never be full. Location is part of it- in the remote north of California, above a jagged coastline, the spirits do not contend here with the combined force of humanity, as they do in Los Angeles. In Mendocino, the sea and wood gods gave up the Pomo to the Spanish, then shipwrecked the Spanish and later the redwood pillagers who founded the town, driving them off. Periods of bankruptcy, what we in the cities might call "blight," were in fact periods of balm and resurgence for the forces here.

Perhaps some element of those forces possessed the Packard family, so that Mrs. Packard, who owned the tip of the mesa, where the redwood mill used to wreak its carnage, refused in the 1980's to sell her land for condominiums. We stayed in her beautiful old house, now the Packard House Bed and Breakfast.  Such was the warmth of our hosts that whatever spirits clung to the place were too subtle and satisfied to contact.

That evening, before we walked to a big white tent on the upper slope to hear Vivaldi choral music, Susan and I explored the end of the mesa, Mrs. Packard's gift, and studied the trails that wound down to the south-facing coves.  I felt that I'd have better luck encountering any spirits residing near these coves if I went down the next morning at dawn (Susan reserves dawn for sleeping).

I should mention that I don't know if there are such things as spirits.  Sometimes it seems I'm hearing from a consciousness I can't see, reminding me of those quantum physicists who wonder if they're detecting an entity that "knows" what they're doing and is messing with the results- it's mostly a glancing and ambiguous experience, and my "belief" is tentative.  I think you'd need to be a prophet, engaged in direct conversation with a conscious force or entity you can't see, in order to believe in it.  Like many others, I want there to be forces other than human.  I get no kick from the "scientific" vision of our species, which is that we are the only super-duper consciousnesses anywhere, surrounded by lesser creatures with tiny, stupid brains, and tinier things that have no brains and mindlessly interact with other senseless things, waiting for us to play with them as our toys, so that we are the only smart things anywhere in the known universe.  Sure, keep telling yourself that.

Anyway, when I'm someplace where spirits we chase away seem to have the strength to gather, I want to seek them out and, I don't know, pray or something.

With this in mind, I stole out the front door of the Packard House at 6:00am, and made my way to the cliff stairs Susan and I had inspected the night before. These I now descended to a sandy cove.  The high tide at night had kept the curved beach free of visitors and smoothed its surface. Wandering across the sand and marking it, I saw a series of caves, hollowed out over eons by patient waves.  "A spirit might be in one of these," I thought, and then wondered if there were such things as malevolent spirits as well as friendly or indifferent ones, as our popular culture and many of the world's religions have it. "Could be," I thought, but I did not sense one. At the southern end of the cove I found a low, narrow cave, about 25 feet long, perfectly straight and tapered at the end, so that you had to crouch more as you proceeded. I entered and within a few moments was at the end, where I sat on the damp sand, facing out. I saw the flat, smooth sand floor, with only my own footprints as blemish. The thick frame was black, centering on a bright, ovalesque picture of a primeval beach, an animated picture...with langorous rolling waves (see footnotes for videos).

Surely there is a spirit here with me, I thought, after sitting for a while. No mortal may inhabit such a place and claim it as his own.

Yet I felt nothing, no presence. I meditated; still nothing. Either I was alone there without any "other," maybe arriving at the interval between nocturnal spirits and the barking dogs of day, or my presence, loud and clangy from 56 years in Los Angeles, was enough to silence or even banish any subtle company. I did not, in short, fall into a meditative state, gazing at the mandala of the oval until time stood still, and seeing beyond it the question that is its own answer. Instead, like the New Age dropout I am, I left after a couple of minutes, scurried up the trail and headed for Moose's Coffee shop, which featured internet access. A relaxed woman in her thirties took my order. "I'll have a tall latte," I said. "Tall?" she asked, puzzled. "Oops," I smiled, "I'm thinking of Starbucks. They call 'small' 'tall;' I don't know why." She laughed, and it seemed we shared a solidarity against the giant Starbucks, in a town that has defeated giants. And yet, I thought as I carried my coffee to a bank of pc's, I had fled the cave. Why was I not still there?

Logging on, I gazed at the AOL news. "What is this madness?" I wondered. People expending their lives over ugly, ruined strips of land bedecked with a hocus-pocus of hate, while my cave, the magic place I fled, lay unused. "I can't fight what I am," I thought sadly. I took my coffee outside into the lightening morning and headed to the Packard House in time for breakfast. We spent the rest of the day touring the charming shops, and then, around 2:00, we left. I carry that cave around with me now, in Los Angeles of all places. I gaze at the animated oval at the center of darkness... I feel a presence. It is watching us.