Friday, November 25, 2011

New Day Rising

The spawn endure another concert seated next to me when I spring for “See a Little Light: Celebration of the Music and Legacy of Bob Mould,” at Disney Hall. Number one son suggests that the music is better suited for Al's Bar but to me Mould's three decades of work merit the grand setting. For once, I am not conspicuously old. It's the kids who are conspicuously young at this tribute to the front man for the seminal punk band Husker Dü. I saw the band in the 80s at the Variety Arts Center and was happy to find standing room close to the stage. It was only when the show started that I realized that I'd planted myself directly in front of a speaker the size of a double-wide. About ten minutes into the concert the sound took on a muffled quality and everything has been a bit muffled for me ever since. Whenever anyone screams at me for having music or the tv on too loud I think “Husker Dü.” I will note that while the band was loud, it was not particularly animated and my stageside vantage afforded the disappointing view of the trio attaining impressive volume while remaing completely motionless, like stiffs. The band busted up and Mould went on the form the band Sugar and later to craft a number of praiseworthy solo albums. Mould has recently published an autobiography and Himself will here paste a link to his review of the "See a Little Light" as well as to his reviews of a book about "the noise-pop band that changed modern rock" and a collection of essays “This Band Could Change Your Life” that has an excellent piece about Husker Dü written by the co-writer of Mould's autobiography.

A number of artists perform a variety of songs spanning Mould's career which results in some mind blowing interpretations and a shamelessly gushy love fest. When I see Margaret Cho's name on the roster I presume she is slated to master the ceremonies but instead she effuses a bit about the succor Mould's music afforded during her years as a teenage misfit. Cho is joined by Grant Lee Phillips for a version of the Sugar tune “Your Favorite Thing.” Her pure passion for Mould's oeuvre overshadows any limitations she may have as a singer. My kids hate Craig Finn of The Hold Steady and sneer that Darby Crash, who made the mistake of committing showy suicide on the same day as John Lennon's murder, did it first. While Finn's herkey jerky physicality bears some similarity to Mr. Crash's, Finn is less a nihilistic punker than a teenage fan letting every nuance of a song take deep root in his soul. His performances evoke the most nerdulent kid in high school letting it rip in front of his bedroom mirror. Finn's performance of Mould's "Real World" and "A Good Idea" is as exciting as his interpretations of his own smart moody songs.

My kids turn me on to the spectacular No Age, a ubiquitous rag tag local duo. They are as ebullient as any performers I've ever seen as they play with Mould and the elder statesman makes it clear that the love and respect is mutual. The burning question of the evening is “Where have you been all my life Dave Grohl?” I was never a big Nirvana fan and may be the only person in the universe who doesn't own Never Mind, which apparently at one point Bob Mould had been slated to produce. Grohl's next project, The Foo Fighters, can be credited with some good commercial songs but have a sound I imagine appeals mostly to teenage girls. When Grohl accompanies Mould on a couple of tunes I am fearful that the 51 year old Mould is going to keel over with a heart attack trying to keep up. Mould, however, holds his own and it is remarkable to see two performers so thoroughly bring out the best in each other. Grohl takes over on drums for New Day Rising and the result was so blistering that even my “came only to see No Age on Mom's dime” companions are on their feet.

Ryan Adams, a singer song writer is the only performer at the tribute to perform Mould's songs acoustically. An old friend who attends the tribute only to hear Ryan Adams, is almost 60. He says that the six year difference in our ages is the reason why none of Mould's music is familiar to him. He complains too that the show seems to be a commercial for Mould's book, which indeed is being sold in the lobby. Britt Daniel of Spoon opens the performance with the confession, “I have the book but I haven't read it yet.” I am in the same boat, although I did read Himself's excellent review (see link above) and Himself boinks himself on the head quite smartingly when he goes to retrieve the tome from the garage at my behest,

The autobiography “See a Little Light” recounts Mould's father's alcoholism and his own struggles with substance abuse. He details the perils of the music industry and his personal difficulties navigating it as a gay man At the end of the show I am elated to see that after over thirty years in rock Mould is respected and adored not only by his peers but by a younger generation as well. Mould admits he is not much of a speaker but also recognizes that the occasion requires a few words. He steps up to the mike and notes that his book chronicles the struggle with his ordinary mindset of alternating between rehashing the past and agonizing about the future. “I have some trouble being in the present,” he goes on and then is silent. He stands in the footlights, looks out to the crowd and drinks in that 2000 people are blissfully in the now with him. A now I am delighted to have shared with my boys, who for all of tsuris they cause me, need music like oxygen and doughnuts. Maybe someday they will tell their children that Grandma has partial hearing loss due to a band called Husker Dü.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Day Trip

We make a pilgrimage to Johnston College which is now known as Johnston Center for Integrative Studies but that's too much of a mouthful. Himself has yet to visit number one son at the institution of higher learning and Uncle Richard comes along for the ride. The familiar landmarks on the 10 evoke my own college days although the big blue barn painted with, “Colton-Hub of Industry, Center of Progress” is gone. Sometimes in the middle of the night we'd visit the Terminal Inn truck stop at the Waterman off-ramp. We'd swill burnt coffee and send the boys into the men's room to verify that there really was a machine that sold French ticklers. We marched in braless in our hippie garb and whispered about what pigs the truckers were when they ogled us. Thirty five years later the truck stop is gone. The kids at Johnston seem to have fallen into a time warp and my own college wardrobe would fit right in. There was recently a “slutwalk” on the University of Redlands campus. I get it that women should be able to wear whatever they want and not be subjected to male sexual aggression but I get the heebie jeebies when I see girls done up like slatterns. Naturally, anyone should be able to dress as they choose and not be victimized by predators but girls wearing slutwalk appropriate garb seem to be demeaning themselves. I'm glad I have boys.

We call our college boy and wake him when we are about fifteen minutes away. When he admits us to the dorm his hair is wet from showering and he is barefoot. “You'll get athlete's foot,” I warn him. He says, “we all go barefoot,” and I stop myself from explaining that's all the more reason for him to wear shoes. I realize that as the parent of a college freshman I have lost my clout with regard to informing his behavior. The little that I had. We arrive at about 12:30 and the dorm is dark and silent. Roommate is still in bed when we enter the cluttered room. I start to say that if I were expecting visitors I would at least have made my bed and ask what's become of the top sheet but remember that I am even more impotent now than when his bed was under my own roof.. It is decided that Roommate will join us for lunch and we agree to wait while he gets himself ready. Himself, who cannot abide waiting for anything, rolls his eyes, but our freshman placates him by proffering that the lobby holds many books.

The lobby is a sea of clutter, including a half eaten cake that has been sitting out so long the pathogens are visible by naked eye. I wonder what is so difficult about putting books neatly on a shelf rather than cramming them in willy nilly stacks although there are a few titles interesting enough to keep Himself from complaining about killing time waiting for Roommate and the inevitability of paying for his lunch. By one pm there are a few more lights on in the halls and a few students in boxer shorts pad drowsily to the coed bathrooms. Barefoot. We are informed that few students rise before noon and Roommate notes that our own scion is a campus sleeping champion, often logging fourteen consecutive hours.

When I arrived on campus with the boy back in September, Roommate, from a private school in the hoity toity part of Pasadena was clean shaven with a fresh haircut. He wore a pastel polo shirt, freshly ironed khakis, Bass Weejuns and something I'd not seen in ages, a ginormous class ring. Fewer than three months have transpired but Roommate's gone native with hair grown out to near Angela Davis proportions. He has a full beard and sports tattered cut off sweat pants and rubber flip flops and he's bagged the class ring. He is, as obviously as my own progeny, hungover. My college boy reports that Roommate's sheltered high school years included few parties. After imbibing from what is described an awesome sized bong in a neighboring room Roommate awakens my own sophisticate at four in the morning in an apoplectic panic as he is unable to feel his tongue.

We set out for a coffee shop in Mentone. I point out a few vestigial orange groves that have somehow survived the epidemic of endless cul de sacs crammed with huge brown stucco houses. I remember distinctly that the street behind the campus runs directly into Mentone Blvd but we wind up at a tiny airport I didn't even know existed. I see Himself's eyes flashing daggers in the rear view mirror. He hates wasting gas as much as he does having his six foot frame jammed into the back seat. Roommate's Iphone navigates us to the restaurant and I note that a number of charming field-stone houses still line Mentone Blvd. We arrive at an old school diner and are seated next to a group of adipose tattooed locals in Valvoline caps and wifebeaters. I posit, as I face them from behind that it might be a back fat convention. Uncle Richard is included in the field trip not only because he is cheerful and keeps Himself on good behavior but also because he shares with Roommate a common interest in the Academy Awards and an intense discussion ensues. Our neighbors glance our way when Roommate squeals loudly “It's gonna be Meryl Streep in Iron Lady” and Himself gives me the stinkeye, like it's my fault.

I've eaten in my share of coffee shops and I know that it is foolhardy in these establishments to order any food that is available in canned form. Himself and I are happy with toast and an omelet. Mr. College asks for 2 sides. Corned beef hash and home fried potatoes. The waitress brings two plates of hash and a third with a plate of undercooked spuds and we are puzzled. I start to say that the boy had wanted two separate side orders, not two of corned beef, but Uncle Richard takes the waitress' side that it sounded indeed like two orders of hash had been requested. I wonder if he would have defended her if he'd intended to pick up the check himself but alas, this is something we will never know.

The hash is definitely of the Dinty Moore variety and is uneaten, as is Roommate's homemade biscuit which drowns in a thick beige gravy of the same provenance as the hash. My boy comments that the hash tastes like store brand cat food and I say that I'd expected a canned product. “Why didn't you tell me not to order it?!” “You don't like it when I tell you what to do,” I reply. He can't argue with this but shrinks a bit, realizing how many more shitty meals he is condemned to.

We continue up the mountain to the apple growing area of Oak Glen. It is a tourist trap with petting zoos and tractor rides but there are fresh apples and cider presses. The air is clean and thin and there are maples and oaks gone autumny red and orange. The boy has come home almost every weekend and rarely leaves the campus during the week. After a lunch among the meth lab haircuts and a short ride to mountain orchards 5000 feet above sea level, it dawns on him that where he lives now is someplace else.

We return to campus and he takes us to the library and checks out a book on Buddhism for Himself to borrow. He treats us to a coffee at the student union and we meet a number of his friends and an instructor and Mr. College is poised and friendly and obviously well liked. We leave him chatting with a group of pals and head back on the 10. The kid is 19 now. I wish he'd wear shoes and keep his bed clean and take it easy with the partying. I no longer have the power of enforcement but I hope what we taught him while he was with us will serve him well. My 19 year old accepts more and more that he lives now in another place. I know sometimes he feels like there is no net but with every passing week this grows less frightening. He is settled in and I am proud and maybe seeing only three place settings at the dinner table someday won't make me weep. Someday.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Siri, My New BFFL

I noted the one year anniversary of my mother's death a couple weeks ago. This week would have been her 91st birthday. My dad would be 93. My imaginings of my parents' lives before I was born are in black and white. Airplanes and automobiles were newfangled contraptions when my parents were children. My father told my children about barnstormers or waiting in line at the Madrona Theater in Seattle to watch a talkie for the first time. Dad, after reminiscing for the boys, added, wistfully, “I wonder what you'll see.” The “after I'm dead” part was tacit. When I was six I found a giant appliance carton and painted dials and lights on it and precociously was a computer for Halloween. Later, at Grant High School only boys were in the Computer Science class and they made impressive pictures of Alfred E. Newman or Keep on Truckin' dot matrix printed on green and white fanfold paper.

I bought my mother her first computer which she used to play solitaire and to write e-mails to me. She pushed send and then called me to report that she'd sent me an e-mail and relate the information it contained. I was required frequently to “fix” the computer for her which usually meant plugging in the mouse or opening a window she'd closed inadvertently. My dad was suspicious when I purchased a $4000 Tandy for the office in 1988 and doggedly refused to learn to use a computer. He grew to appreciate the rapidity with which I could alphabetize lists and later the steep prices commanded for16mm films we sold on what he referred to as the“The Ebay.”

My children tease me about my stalwart allegiance to AOL and my slower than molasses, indecipherable texting. Spuds patiently teaches me the bare rudiments of my new I-phone and I know he's thinking about how wasted the sleek device is in my feeble hands. Himself is more than a little miffed when I take advantage of my cellphone upgrade eligibility and trade my Droid for what is my first Apple product, except for a used computer untouched by me but used at the office to operate Final Cut Pro. Himself is also apoplectic when I purchase a $20 dustpan that has a built in brush to clean the broom from the neat inventor's website I silence him by pointing out his own lack of investment or participation in house cleaning. I have no retort for his remonstrance about the new phone because my rationale for buying it is purely covetousness of cool. Himself glowers at the sight of the new phone and notes derisively that the screen is smaller than a Droid's, but I permit him to hold it. Upon examination he discovers that there are many more Irish language (!) applications available for Apple products. I haven't even shown him the Shazaam gizmo that identifies case I fall in love with a song being piped in at the Gelson's. For all of his grousing about my extravagance I suspect his Droid too will be put out to pasture in a few months when his own upgrade eligibly rolls around.

My friend Richard and I struggle to remember the name “Christopher Guest” although we can list his complete filmography. I finally consult my new friend Siri who came into my life when I activated my I-phone. She names the director instantly. She has some trouble later with “Pollo Loco” (had a coupon) and she admits that she can't find it but adds, “Layne, I'm terribly sorry.” I wonder if Siri will help me conceal signs of dementia longer than my mother was able to mask her own intellectual decline.

I have an hour to kill while Spuds rehearses and decide to visit the Big Lots on Vine which sometimes carries a tea that Himself likes. I drive through Hollywood for the first time in a while. I spent many childhood hours with my father walking the Boulevard. Dad would quiz me on the stars and we'd visit Pickwick Books and Burt Wheeler's Magic store. Now there are slick new buildings and businesses and whole blocks that are totally unfamiliar and I am at sea as to what was there before. The Big Lots is not where I remember it on Vine, near the Greyhound Station. The bus station closed years ago. I would sometimes go there with my dad to send off a film bound for Stockton or San Ysidro, and stowed in the luggage compartment of a big silver bus. Now the Big Lots appears gone as well and Siri confirms that the closest branch to my location is in Burbank. My Hollywood has been desecrated and I feel, irrationally, disrespected and unimportant.

I trod valley cul de sacs in my refrigerator box ENIAC and I guess I sensed what the future held. I have Siri now to guide me through Hollywood but so much of what is natural to my kids baffles me. The city will grow and change and there will be new inventions the likes of which I can't imagine. More and more I get a sense that things are passing me by. My parents too felt like they couldn't keep pace and now they are ashes and the world stumbles on without them. My children will be adults in a world I wouldn't recognize but through them and their children, my parents and I will always be a part of it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Brat Race

I haven't taken a writing breather for about three years but last week, in a well-lived-in cabin nestled in the Redwoods of Mount Hermon, I give myself permission to slack off. Reading, fortunately, is essential to good writing, or at least my (whatever you think of it) writing. While not writing, I finish two novels and a collection of short stories and bask in a lot of graceful prose and permit myself to feel smug about some that is pretty clunky. I devour Jennifer Egan's sly and subtle Visit from the Goon Squad which nails the 80s and 90s and flows from a free form La Ronde to a dazzlingly effective PowerPoint presentation. A collection of stories, The Empty Family by Irish writer Colm Toibin is harrowing, exquisite and rich with elegant sentences. Toibin is a master at evoking heartbreaking bleakness of loneliness counter-parted by quiet, tender redemption.

Steve Job's sister Mona Simpson's latest novel, My Hollywood has a few trenchant observations about children but is hard to follow as characters appear out of nowhere and then recede abruptly, never having furthered the plot. The novel is praised for Simpson's bold stab at capturing the inner-life of a Filipina nanny but I am consistently aware that a privileged white woman is doing the channeling. The plotting is plodding and it is remarkable that an editor didn't note that two separate episodes of children drowning might make an already iffy plot line even less credible. In interviews Simpson admits that her work is chock-a-block with autobiographical elements and perhaps consequently there is distinct quality of self righteousness, bordering on hubris, in her heroines.

Unlike Himself, I am no book reviewer and there are many astute reviews of these three popular works so I won't go into any more depth about my vacation reading, except to note it, lest you think my time was completely frittered away watching Storage Wars and working crossword puzzles. Which is not to say that I completely abstain from the latter two activities. Were I to fully embrace the avocation of critic I would laud the works of Jennifer Egan and Colm Toibin and further excoriate Mona Simpson but I would also have to give my highest praise to the Herculon recliner from which I do most of my reading, watching and puzzling.

Those familiar with the dynamics of Casamurphy are aware that for the most part, Spuds is the family member who best approximates an actualized human being. I remind readers of this in case anyone is tempted to contact the authorities as I confess that Himself and I head north for over a week, and leave Spuds with his brother home from college only on the weekends, a drawer full of cash, a fridge full of food, a written list of instructions and a bus pass. That we leave for our trip on the morning of Joe College's 19th birthday, having underwhelmingly regaled him with a Groupon dinner the night before, is a further example of parental neglect, approaching malfeasance.

The birthday boy asks if he can host a small soiree in his own honor during our absence and I relent, knowing that, as I will be 400 miles away, my verdict is likely irrelevant. Himself paces and growls on the day of the party. I am asked to make many calls and remind our budding entertainers to insure that the dogs don't escape and that the garage where Himself has secreted our liquor remains closed. Himself logs on to Facebook at the onset off the gala and notices immediately that Spuds has posted a picture of two boys roughhousing in front of the open garage. I am on the phone immediately and that I'd discovered the open door freaks the host out so thoroughly that I break down and disabuse him of the fear that we've engaged professional surveillance.

When we return from the north the house looks OK nevertheless. There are a couple of beer bottles (a brand so cheap that Himself wouldn't consider serving to company he dislikes) in the recycling bin so they are ecologically responsible and never figure out where our own liquor is hidden. I learn later from other parents, arriving to fetch their own progeny, that there is quite a crowd, replete with scantily clad teenage girls slugging Colt 45 stumbling in the street. I am pleased that number one son has inherited his mother's social inclinations but, despite no police presence, irate calls from neighbors nor breakage as of yet discovered, it will be a while before we put our facilities as his disposal again.

Spuds survives a week of parental abandonment, feeds himself, takes care of the pets and attends school and play rehearsals and reports for his tutoring job with a better on-time record than his mother/chauffeur usually attains. Spuds inherits from a college bound friend a position tutoring a set of twins who like him about as much as he likes them. Not very. We never employed tutors until a middle school geometry crisis and both of our boys always completed school assignments without supervision or anyone hovering over them. The fourth graders are tutored daily for two hours in order to keep up on their homework which Spuds says really should require no more than a half hour a day. The twins mother is single and holds an extremely prestigious position at a local university. I have never met her but we have a complicated relationship.

My own development was arrested and it took me longer than many of my contemporaries to transition to true adulthood, the point at which I stopped blaming my parents. This perhaps contributes to my strong desire to think of myself as a particularly good mother and I have always pumped my kids for dirt about their friend's moms, hungry for choice examples of mothering inferior to my own. Having recently, for example, left a sixteen year old essentially alone for over a week and consented to an unsupervised teenage party, the pickins' are usually quite slim. With Spud's employer, my contempt fomented by my jealousy at her professional position, I've hit pay dirt.

Spuds is typically greeted by the boys running away from him as rapidly as they can. I proffer diagnoses. Autism. Aspergers. Dyslexia. Aphasia. Spuds rolls his eyes and says that their resistance to completing homework is attributable only to their hostility for their control freak mother who arrives at their school, where Spuds works with them, and interrogates Spuds fiercely about the completion of every speck of homework. The kids have no video games or television so it seems to Spuds that a little homework might even break the tedium of home but if Twinmom's regular backpack excavation reveals a stray assignment Spuds receives a strongly worded text.

Spuds requests an afternoon off to catch up on his own homework, and offers to put in some extra time the next day. He reads me Twinmom's snippy response stating that the boys have homework due every day but we agree it it might be ill-advised to send the response: “I have homework due every day too. BITCH!” Spud's does go to tutor the boys and stays up late to complete his own work. He knows from listening to his dad gripe and hanging out at mom's office that often in the course of earning a living we have to kowtow to people who in real life we would assiduously avoid. Plus, Spuds has decided that he prefers the garments of Urban Outfitters to the Target store brands and sibling hand-me-downs that his mother provides.

Spuds texts Twinmom that he has to leave for a rehearsal and that one of the boys will need to spend a few minutes on an incomplete assignment when he gets home. Twinmom texts back furiously that this is impossible because after dinner the children have to play with their kitten. Spuds screams at his cell phone and I note that some psychiatrist will probably name a yacht after this family...”but,” I start to add. Spuds interrupts me by holding his palm in “halt” position. He finishes my sentence. “Take the money.”