Friday, August 29, 2014


I think my dad was about my age when he started keeping the list. He noted the date of death and the age of people he knew in the film industry when an obit appeared in Variety. The list merited a designated yellow legal pad and grew to be many pages long. I guess it's packed away somewhere or maybe in an unsentimental moment I tossed it. I do remember tackling the Rolodex, after his death at age 89, and when towards the end of the alphabet I found that not a single person was still alive, I hurled the whole thing into the dumpster.

For decades now my friend Richard has tracked celebrity deaths. He indoctrinated a number of friends and offered a one dollar reward to anyone who was the first to notify him of a death. The policy was changed facing the recession when a special “Last Gasp” list was generated and only very old or ailing celebrities were worth a buck. After 30 plus years I am the only player left, although my children are honorary participants (but ineligible for cash prizes). I'm up two bucks in the last weeks, Lauren Bacall and Richard Attenborough.

My mom would refer to herself “kicking the bucket” frequently. She left everything in meticulous order rendering her pre-mortum admonishments unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective in the genuine objective, which was to get my attention. I don't do the “I'm going to die soon so you'd better be nice to me,” thing with my kids but I do more fully understand the emptiness Mom suffered in my absence. At least I have Himself to keep me company in the house that suddenly seems much too big for our dinners of sardines and English muffins and the single weekly load of laundry.

For all of my parents' levity I think both of them were afraid of dying. I sense that they felt, even to the end, that there was something that they missed. I think that growing up during the Depression scarred them both and good fortune never felt more than ephemeral. My mother agonized about maintaining her youthful appearance and would have endured water-boarding rather than reveal her age. My dad was slavishly committed to fitness and keeping up with a wife younger than my sister. There was a palpable restlessness in both of my parents. I am grateful for a childhood comfortable enough not to cloud my appreciation of my future blessings.

I joked about both of my parents' frugality. My dad and stepmother shared the early bird special at Norms. My mother left drawers overflowing with coupons. Now that it's dawned on me that there will inevitably be a time when I don't want to, or am unable to work, a light left on overnight makes me insane. I know my children can't fathom being as old as I am now. “If I ever get unstrung about a light being left on, just shoot me.” I try to gently tell them the things I wish that I'd done when I was their age, but really, why would they act like old men?

We spend a few days in Felton. We rent the oldest cabin in a small tract of redwoods that has been in the same family for many generations. In the past we have visited two or three times a year but now it's been over a year since our last visit. Over the course of a decade we have seen the cabin transition. An adult son and his wife appear to be in charge now. The plastic flower arrangements are gone. There is a new sofa. A hideous ceiling fan, positioned so that it interfered with a cabinet door, is removed. Light fixtures are updated and good quality draperies replace cheap blinds. Still, it feels like family and how awesome for the current owners to know that their great great grandparents summered too in the cool of this same forest. Perhaps we are the first of many generations to inhabit Casamurphy or maybe the kids will be clearing the place out with giant trash bags far sooner than I can bear to think about.

I have a handful of friends I've known since my teens or early twenties. We talk now about maladies and retirement but we do it self consciously, almost theatrically. Are we really this old? The weed seeds spilling out of the Joni Mitchell album phase seemed eternal. The “waiting for life to begin” felt like forever. It did happen though. Life did indeed begin but I cannot pinpoint the date.

I started playing the dead celebrity game in my twenties. There have been many premature losses but it's usually people in their 80s or older which when the game began seemed like no big deal. I still love winning but with every buck I am reminded that I myself am approaching my own inevitability. Each death my dad recorded brought him closer to his final entry, Al Drebin.

Death, as I understand it, is the end of consciousness and of all joy and suffering. I expect I'll experience nothing when I cease to be. I am not afraid to be dead. Towards the end of their lives there were times when the thought of seeing my parents brought sick dread. My father went from working full time to our decision to remove a ventilator in a little over a month. My mother's decline was over the course of five years. I used the kids as an excuse not to spend as much time with them as I could have. The thought of my own kids potentially experiencing this in the face of my own decline is far scarier than death itself.

My sister died a sad early death but it ended many years of suffering. My parents both lived to be 89. Dad went quickly and without much suffering. Mom returned to a peaceful childlike state during her last years. She would have been repulsed to witness her own decline, which may be the ironic grace of Alzheimer's. These three deaths were very sad but each also conferred a degree of relief. My own list though, like my dad's, will grow. People I barely remember will die but also some of the same people with whom I closely shared seemingly endless youth will leave me too. Who will grieve the loss of who?

Spuds needs to declare his major this semester and is being pulled by his love of art and his enjoyment of money. Joe College graduates in May with a liberal arts degree and six months to begin paying off his student loans. I do not trivialize the stresses both boys suffer. I would not diminish their college exertions by pointing out that in the scheme of things these agonizing decisions likely will have little or no long-term weight. But they are in that slow motion phase of life when you wait for it to happen, while I have reached near warp speed. Sometimes they humor me and let me blather on about what I have learned in my life but my ancient history's just not applicable. There is some project that asks people to write letters to their younger selves. I can't think of anything in particular that I would say and I wouldn't have read it anyway.

(The painting is A Measure of Dreams by Arthur B. Davies)

Friday, August 15, 2014

More Writing About the Stuff I Always Write About

I pick up again on scanning the many boxes of family photos I haven't looked at in years. The project begins about a month ago but the fat pictures of myself freak me out and I take a breather. This batch, unfortunately, seems to be even fatter. I know that the person in the photos is me but for the sake of sanity I've had to disown her. I can barely conjure now what it was like to move about and navigate the world in that body. That said, I was always active and certainly present and capable for the kids. Additionally, while I was probably a time bomb, at the time of my bariatric surgery my blood pressure was normal and I showed no sign of the “co-morbidities” often associated with obesity. Still, the photos are beyond disturbing. Because my friends and kids and family are in so many of them I refrain from destroying them, but as there are ample others of loved ones without me, I might change my mind about that.

Laura Bogart has written a number of excellent essays about the experience of being fat. A recent piece on Salon chronicles the plight of the fat woman in romantic relationships. I was in a thinner phase, after months on The Rice Diet (just rice and salad with mineral oil dressing...really), when I met Himself so it was definitely a case of bait and switch. The advantage of seeing someone every day is that he doesn't notice the weight creeping up. Or, notice the pounds melting away either. So my long marriage has exempted my body from both criticism and praise. My personality and intellect, not so much.

While I believe that Bogart is at peace with who she is and her decision not to diet or weigh herself is a liberating one, she does eloquently express the difficulty of finding a partner who loves about her what she loves in herself. She recounts one relationship with a man who was embarrassed to express affection for her in public. There is also an issue of fetishists, who in their way are just as shallow as men who seek bimbo trophy wives.

For me, at the minute, it seems like I've gone through so much that it's worth, what on some days feels herculean, the vigilance required to stay at a relatively normal weight. There is a woman at Weight Watchers who is not much overweight. She constantly mentions “stomach stapling” as an “easy way out.” She is a nice woman so I don't slap her. I know a number of people who've undergone bariatric surgery (there are no staples involved btw) and after a year or so of dramatic weight loss begin to regain and finally exceed their pre-surgery weight. Friends assure me that this can never happen to me. They are wrong. At present, I am above my comfort zone and even that is about twenty pounds more than the Weight Watchers chart says I'm supposed to weigh. A lifetime of yo-yo dieting has messed up my brain chemistry, and despite bariatric surgery I have very little sense of when I am truly hungry or full. I have to vigilantly keep track of every morsel I consume and wake up at 4:30 every weekday morning for a walk.

I totally get why Laura Bogart has opted out. I believe that with decent habits one can be morbidly obese and still remain relatively healthy. My own bariatric surgery was followed by four additional surgeries which resulted in a serious problem with pain meds. I look at the horrible old pictures and am assured that it was worth it but, perhaps if I nurtured the same self acceptance as Laura Bogart has, I would have been spared some ugly suffering.

I am able now to make it from Casamurphy, in Baja Mount Washington, up over Kite Hill and past the Self Realization Fellowship to the top of the mountain. Aside from shopping for normal clothing sizes, being able to self propel is perhaps the biggest perquisite of weight loss. This is the first week of school and I pass the Mount Washington School. Nervous parents. New backpacks and fresh haircuts. Never again will I shop for school supplies at the Target or fret that my kid gets the “good” teacher. No more carpools or play dates. And they won't let me hold their hands when we cross the street. The changing role is bittersweet. I am nostalgic for the sweet innocence of little kids but also I am gratified when I see the young men that mine have become.

Last week's new TV campaign paid off. The new model for the bedroom is on order. Himself relented not because I am unable to see the present tiny set or because it is an energy sucker but just to shut me the fuck up. I have yet to touch any of Rover's accoutrements at the office and I have never gone to work without I dog. I miss the furry presence. Not to disparage the characters of the two home-bound canines, suffice it to say, they are not suitable for the workplace. Despite my avowal to never ever ever do it again I am thinking that it would be nice to get a little dog to take to work. I mention the possibility of new little dog, but strategically, when Himself is just about to doze off, and he mutters something that doesn't sound too outraged and might even be construed as acquiescence so I think maybe a new companion is a possibility.

Spuds and I are discussing the new TV and Himself rolls his eyes and says to him, “How would you feel knowing that your opinions bear no weight whatsoever?” Himself gives me no credit for editing, with him in mind, many of my wants and desires. I only badger him relentlessly over really important stuff. I make a huge strategic gaffe and mention now the little office dog. Spuds goes ballistic and accuses us (unduly harshly in my opinion) of being borderline negligent with the special needs canines we already have. Himself smirks in satisfaction. Spuds returns to New York on Monday. I will have to keep my mouth shut about the dog for awhile, given now the unholy alliance of Himself and Spuds. This gives me until December to find Himself in a good enough mood to revisit the dog issue and complete the adoption before Spuds returns.

I've had both kids simultaneously at home for less than three weeks this summer. Joe College is back on campus and Spuds will soon be gone. We will meet in San Gabriel for some Chinese food and then it will be December until the four of us are together again. Last year is my first experience with the totally empty nest. There is a lot of wonderful travel but the time at home is a challenge. I realize that there is more to the morass than just the kids being gone. I have lived many more years as a fat person than as a not so fat one. I coped with being fat by being an over achiever. I had to prove to the world that I was smart and nice and funny and the World's Best Mom. It took a lot of effort. With less to prove and no kids around to micromanage I sometimes struggle with purposelessness. I'm thankful to have a nice new TV to look forward to. And maybe a little dog too.

Friday, August 8, 2014

In with the Old

It must have been over thirty years since we got the first fax machine in the office. A guy from the phone company came and spent hours installing the dedicated line. We plugged it in and with difficulty inserted the roll of thermostatic paper. One of our competitors had also recently taken the plunge and we tested out our respective machines sending faxes back and forth. Mainly things like “Go fuck yourself,” and other witticisms. My father never used the thing himself but was enchanted by it. He described its function to everyone like he was recounting a vision at Fatima.

When my boys were little they'd come to the office after school each day. My dad still worked as hard as he could but by then had slowed down quite a bit. He'd wake from his afternoon nap and have a snack with the kids, usually something my stepmother had forbidden him to eat. He told them about seeing an airplane overhead for the first time. Dad remembered the Madrona Theater in Seattle, where he worked as an usher. It closed for several weeks in 1930 and he watched as the organ was torn out and speakers were installed for the advent of sound motion pictures. The grandchildren were also told stories about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Sacco and Vanzetti and Leopold and Loeb. Dad didn't have much of a filter. My kids would sit on his lap in his big leather chair and listen. Grandpa remembered lots of lurid history and all of the advances and inventions he'd witnessed since his birth in 1918. He'd stroke the kids' heads and sigh, “I can't begin to imagine what you'll see...”

We have Netflix and Amazon Prime, a DVR and a premium cable package and still my kids rent DVDs. I remind them frequently of growing up with seven black and white channels only (and walking eight miles to school. Barefoot. In the snow. In Van Nuys). My mother did spring for a color set when I started college but you pretty much had to scour the TV Guide and slavishly pour over revival house programs if there was something you were dying to see. I had the enormous advantage of access to a library of 10,000 films. I did a ton of movie theater going because ,despite its enormity, my dad's collection was limited to only certain studios. I'd run stuff by myself a lot, even on the bulletin board in my tiny dorm room and also, until the advent of video, my access to movies was my best social currency.

My kids abhor my current media laziness. If it isn't music I can listen to on Rhapsody, I don't bother with it. I watch mostly Judge Judy and Forensic Files, even re-runs, unbothered by commercials for disability lawyers and mobility devices. I seldom go to movie theaters and while I know how to switch the regular TV over to the Roku device, I usually don't go to the trouble. Himself and I are watching Sons of Anarchy, although I've seen the series already. It has an ongoing Irish theme and even uses some Irish language so he's thinking of writing a paper. God forbid he should watch for entertainment. We also have Masters of Sex and Rectify stored away on the DVR for when the kids are gone and we run out of stuff to say to each other. But left to my own devices I watch crap.

Years ago the yard at Casamurphy was tended by a wonderful landscaper. We had a viable herb and vegetable garden and frequently entertained outdoors. Our landscaper moved to Oregon and we had a mow and blow guy who sucked but is a relative of our housekeeper. It took me over a decade to muster the courage to fire him. We've installed a dog run and the new gardener is pretty decent. I score a pretty tile table. My friend really wants it too but, in that she already has two tile tables, I buy it while she is on vacation. Since, we've taken to eating dinner outdoors occasionally and it is very pleasant.

There is just over a week of overlap having both kids home and it will be December until they're both here again. A friend screens some films at the Echo Park Film Center and the kids enjoy it so much I decide to schlep home a projector, screen and a bunch of my own shorts to run on the patio. My dad ran movies at a lot of the kids' parties. Himself says, and I find it hard to believe, but I bear the onus of being married to someone infallible, that he has never seen me run movies.

Some friends are invited for Saturday night but I am rusty on projecting so I do a dry run just for Himself and myself on Friday. I have a particularly rare silent film from the late 20s. Sister Aimee Semple McPherson founded the Angelus Temple on Echo Park Lake. She was one of the first media evangelists and her catchphrase was “I hate hearing the clinking of coins but love the rustle of paper dollars.” In 1926 Sister Aimee mysteriously disappeared while bathing at the beach at Venice. There were some specious ransom notes and a huge media sensation. Aimee turned up six weeks later. It was conjectured that she'd run off to a love nest in Carmel By the Sea with a married boyfriend. There has been speculation about the veracity of the kidnapping story for years. Pete Seeger wrote “The Ballad of Sister Aimee” which described the motel and included the line, “The dents in the mattress fit Aimee's caboose.” After a long trial Aimee, and her mother—an accused conspirator, were acquitted but the controversy still didn't blow over.

Aimee produced and starred in a film version of the real story. The result was melodramatic, to say the least. Aimee does a lot of praying but her evil captors fail to see the light. She is able to escape from her rope bonds when the kidnappers leave to go and purchase fire water. Aimee wanders around the desert, praying and collapsing occasionally, until she is found by a kindly Mexican peasant who graciously escorts her to the border. The last shot is of the Angelus Temple which looks exactly the same as it does today. I can't imagine, even in the twenties, seeing this hokum and not concluding, based on the film, that the kidnapping story is bullshit. There is however, in San Francisco, a Court of Historic Review which examines old cases. Aimee's case was reviewed in 1990 and it was determined that there was no credible evidence that the kidnapping story was fabricated.

I choose a more crowd pleasing program for the next night. Most of the kids have never seen a 16mm projector or real motion picture film. I run a few obscure cartoons, some Betty Boops, and an Our Gang. I watched hours and hours of Our Gang as a child because I described the plots to my dad for his rental catalog. Watching one now it occurs to me that the friendship between the black and white kids is so natural and easy. The film I show however has a big production number which projects the kids into the future. Some of the white kids end up on the Bowery, louts and trollops. The luckier kids strut down 5th Avenue in tuxedos and minks. The final group is the black kids who tap dance wearing the uniforms of maids and railway porters. I'm sure I didn't notice this when I was kid but my audience gasps. Then however, there is another twist. In the future, Spanky has a swanky nightclub. Darla explains to Alfalfa that by performing there she earns “hundreds and thousands of dollars” and buys diamonds. When it's Buckwheat's turn to take the stage, Darla explains that Buckwheat earns “hundreds and thousand of dollars” and sports diamonds too. Our Gang comedies were such a simple pleasure of my childhood. I am surprised that now, half a century later, they're so confounding.

I will likely bring home films and a projector again. It is weird that this is a novelty in such a different way than it was when I was a kid. For me and most of my friends, being able to choose what to see was incredibly appealing, Now it is an exercise in nostalgia, which I am happy to provide but it makes me feel old. Our mom. The blacksmith. I hold on to many films and pay a bundle to keep them in climate controlled storage. It seemed like folly but I couldn't bring myself to part with them. Now however with the advent of high definition, holding on the the prints is still sentimental but suddenly quite practical too.

While I keep thousands of film prints I am virulently opposed to most other physical media. I take great pains to reduce the clutter of DVDs, CDs, vinyl records and books. My kids however spend much of their time amassing more. I chide them for accumulating more bulky dust collecting items. I guess, like my pop with the fax machine, I appreciate that I need no more than a phone or laptop to enjoy books, films and music. Perhaps the kids are building priceless collections. Or maybe they'll reach the same point that I have and find the aggregation of stuff unbearably oppressive.

Free stuff is a bit less oppressive though and as a top Amazon reviewer Himself receives books, sundry items and various gadgets in the mail every day. He is reluctant to let me peruse the available books because he's afraid that it will skew his Amazon algorithm towards chick lit and they'll start sending him Stephanie Meyer or Danielle Steele books instead of William Vollman and Thomas Pynchon. Because the upstairs TV is on the fritz (and even though it is NOT energy efficient and the screen is too small for me to see, I am forbidden from acquiring a model that will consume MUCH less electricity and costs (with free shipping!) under $200) I am reading a book. I am almost done with said book and due to the lack of en suite entertainment I think it's a good idea to get another one. Himself relents and lets me log on to his Amazon Vine account to see what books can be had for free (or for the price of a review actually).

I ask Joe College how to make my computer incognito so I don't have to try to remember by own Amazon password. He tells me the commands off the top of his head and voila! Earlier in the summer Girlfriend in-law shows me how to retrieve my browsing history. I still can't figure out a screen grab. There is so much that I don't know that I don't know. The kids though have never not had computers and I was nearly thirty when I acquired my first. My kids have never had to make a trip to the library to settle an argument over a trivial fact or navigate using a map. Or try to refold a map.

I wear a device on my wrist that records how far I walk and how much I sleep. And probably tracks me in some sort of creepy way. But, whenever I look at something online, it is advertised on Facebook within seconds so I'm over that. Still, like my dad, I wonder where it is all going. I read about a new device called a Sproutling which is affixed to a baby's ankle. It monitors the baby's heart-rate and sleeping positions. It also analyzes the baby and alerts parents via a phone app when it is hungry, wet or on the verge of waking up. It anticipates a baby's needs before the baby has a chance to cry. What will it be like in the world when, inevitably, a technological device recognizes our every need before we know it ourselves? My dad saw a man actually fly in a winged contraption. I watched, in snowy black and white, a man set foot upon the moon. I sense though that in the lifetimes of my children, and their children, the world will change more profoundly than it has since the beginning of time. And I don't know whether to feel wistful or relieved that I will miss it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Whatcha Gonna Do With Your Lives?

For several weeks Joe College and Girlfriend-in-law are inert on the couch except for beer, and (although we have Amazon Prime and Netflix) dvd rental and (despite a full fridge) ethnic food runs. I throw away Styrofoam containers of rotting leftovers. I collect their detritus-bobby pins, books, sunglasses etc. into a basket for them to carry downstairs. After I nag them for a week the basket is taken to their room, from where, I presume, it will never return. My overused line of the summer is that the best cure for empty nest syndrome is having them come home.

I know the kids try not to get on my nerves. They are getting better at remembering to turn out lights and are pretty good about not stacking dirty dishes in the sink. I think the message about leaving the washer on “eco mode” has finally sunk in. I can usually find the remote and they know that the upstairs TV is turned to Judge Judy weekdays at four no matter what they are in the middle of watching.

I am asked to have a table and make a presentation at a professional event at the Skirball Museum. It is a very nice venue but a pain in the ass to get to during rush hour for just about anyone. I hate this kind of thing and am always relieved when I have a legitimate excuse not to attend. Usually it's vacation but even surgery is preferable. Being healthy and in town and noting that most of my local competition will be in attendance I relent. I do a rush order of some swag (which my children tell me is now called “merch”) and bake a big batch of cookies. I dig up an ancient demo reel and write up a little spiel about the advantages of dealing with a small family run business and ask Joe College to present it.

The event is the same day that Spuds returns from Detroit. I send Joe College to fetch him at LAX. There is a delay in the delivery of Spuds' suitcase and as usual, when he returns to L.A. he has to make and In 'n Out pit stop. I nervously wait for them to get home while watching news reports about the burst pipe near UCLA, spittin' distance from the Skirball. The kids get stuck in traffic and in a panic, I leave for the Skirball by myself. Fortunately the traffic is light and I arrive in good time. Spuds drives Joe College and Girlfriend i-l up to the Skirball so the boy can practice his presentation during the drive. Spuds pops in to say hi. He seems to have grown another inch or so and right in the middle of the big room filled with clients and competitors I hug him like I haven't seen him in two months. Which I haven't and he is a very good sport about. Maintaining a modicum of professionalism, I do not cry. Spuds reports that Himself has asked him to pick up some pizza on the way home and as usual, has calculated the price in 1980's monies so I slip the boy some green.

I've been running a film archive for so long that I am friendly with most of my competitors. There are only a handful of small libraries left and we're friends and stand together in competition with the big multinationals. All of the other small libraries are owned by people my age and older. Whenever I get a chance, I ask what they have in mind as an exit strategy. I, myself, think a lot about retirement. The response to this question however is always just a shrug.

We take turns at the table. My colleague John is friendly and easy going and enjoys meeting people whose names he recognizes from e-mails. Girlfriend i-l encourage people to “like” the new Facebook page she's created for the business. Joe College talks about film. He is happy. I know he is anxious about his post graduation life and as I watch him, knowledgeable and holding forth, I think perhaps he'll be my exit strategy.

None of us get a chance to eat at the event and when it winds up around 11, we're starved. Due to construction I miss the freeway off-ramp and end up on Ventura Blvd. I drive from Encino to Studio City. It's been a long time. There remain a few remnants from my childhood. The Sportsman's Lodge where I remember fishing for trout that the chef would cook for you and feeding the ducks with food purchased from a steel vending machine. Antonio's in Sherman Oaks still has the map of Italy neon sign. My uncle chewed out my aunt there once for letting me eat spaghetti when I was supposed to be on a diet. I was about six. The Casa Vega, at the corner of Fulton and Ventura looks the same and I presume the tacos are still hard shelled, everything is covered with orange cheese and the tortillas are served with butter. My mother and her alkie girlfriend used to hang out hopefully at the bar there, sucking down vodka mists.

I end up with the kids at Dupar's. I went there all the time with my mom and sister. Sheri and I ordered patty melts and fries with pie for dessert. Mom ordered just a side of date nut bread and ended up taking half of it home. Joe College goes for the patty melt and as an homage to Mom, I have the date nut bread and a salad. The date bread is dry like sawdust. It tasted much better when I'd snatch it from the refrigerator in the morning before Mom woke up. I am disappointed that the waitresses no longer wear old fashioned hankies fan-folded behind their name plates. Our server calls Joe College “Hon” and “Sweetheart” though and he grins ear-to-ear.

It is easier to talk in neutral territory. Joe College worries about being a dorm adviser and dealing with freshman crises. Girlfriend i-l is spending the semester abroad and many of his school friends will be gone too. The prospect of being a friendless babysitter in Redlands does not enthuse. Then, in May, he graduates and faces the same conundrum that I do. Perhaps it is no comfort to him that I have never ceased to perceive the same gigantic question mark and worry constantly about money, meaning and making a mark. Encroaching decrepitude is added to my own mix tape but this doesn't make the boy feel better about his own uncharted future. When I see him hold forth and chat up customers I think that maybe taking over my business wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. But when I think about dealing with rotting film, ever changing technology, taxes, payroll, insurance and negotiating contracts with hopeless, junior lawyers, it seems maybe a stupid idea.

The correlation of college graduation with some degree of adulthood is illusory I tell the boy. I guess this takes the heat off but also guarantees that you'll never feel like you think you ought to feel. Self contained and actualized. Ironically, the more I face my own pathetic neediness and uncertainty the more I get that this awareness is the benchmark of true adulthood. I guess when it comes down to it, we are all at sea. The future is merely flux and all we can do is let down our guard enough to fully love our friends and family. And keep them close enough to buoy and anchor.