Friday, October 31, 2014


Wednesday October 29
We breakfast on fruit, instant oatmeal and yogurt and head off to the Colorado Museum of Corrections. I am absolutely shocked that we are the only patrons. The museum is actually fascinating. Colorado has a huge prison industry but the museum's presentation is quite unbiased. There is a replica of a device used at the turn of the century to flog prisoners and a couple of genuine nooses from actual hangings. But there are also remnants of a kinder gentler era when women inmates decorated their cells with curtains and doilies and the recreation areas held pianos and other musical instruments and a juke box. Perhaps the most moving thing was a recorded interview with a former warden. He acknowledged the controversy about capital punishment but accepted that it was part of the position he'd agreed to fulfill. His mother, he added, was vehemently opposed to the death sentence and he found out after he retired that she had written a letter of comfort to each of the men whose executions he'd overseen. Like with the folkart museum, I am enchanted with the human need to create decorative objects with whatever is available and I am charmed by inmate crafted items made of wood scraps and cigarette wrappers.

We cross then the Colorado plains and stop in the tiny town Simla for lunch at the Hen House. Himself again discovered that the single vegetarian dish available at most roadside stops is covered with shredded lettuce which he despises. He has done quite a bit of lettuce picking but I think he's learned now to order more wisely. The meal concludes with pie. I don't even like pie but I couldn't turn down strawberry rhubarb and when the girl asks if I want it heated with some ice cream, I say,"what the hell?"

The next stop is The Best Value Inn in North Platte Nebraska. Driving into the down reminds me of Vegas, aglow with bright neon although instead of casinos, North Platte offers every conceivable brand of fast food and chain motel. Our motel is sui generis but the owner is friendly and tells us about his days in Camp Pendleton. We are so full from the Hen House that dinner is popcorn and tangerines from the provisions we've amassed along the road.

Thursday October 30
We visit first thing the Golden Spike Railroad Observation Tower. North Platte has the world's biggest rail yard, having been in the heyday of the railroads a prime stopping location for many routes. At the top of the eight story tower there are rail tracks and repair buildings for as far as the eye can see. The ladies of North Platte had a well organized program during the Second World War to deliver baskets of candies and cookies to the many troop trains that stopped at the depot.

We cross the Colorado Sand Hills for a hundred miles and arrive at the well preserved brick town of Alliance. Our lunch at Newberry's is served by a curious waitress and we get the impression that not many Californians pass through the sweet little town. Another hundred or so miles of Nebraska plain bring us cross the South Dakota border and into the Black Hills. We stop at a small market in Hot Springs for provisions before we set out for our cabin on a horse ranch. Our little cabin is done up with kitschy cowboy décor and our host is helpful and genial. I'd failed to notice that there is no stove so our dinner is improvised. I soak pasta in a bowl with boil water from our kettle and cook some onions in the microwave. I defrost some frozen spinach using the water poured off the noodles, throw in a can of tuna and a little cheese. We have no salt and pepper but I shake off a bit from the bottom of a pretzel bag and while it is far from haute cuisine, it isn't the worst dinner we'd ever had. We walk among the horses, surrounded by huge ranches and wild country. A horse kisses Himself and we end our first day in South Dakota.


Sunday, October 26
Himself's conference is over and we pick up Bill and head towards Taos. We traverse the Carson National Forest and stop at the Sanctuario De Chimayo. Himself and I were there years ago and there was only a tiny chapel where people left offerings and collected healing, holy dirt. The site, which figured prominently in a Breaking Bad episode, has expanded and there is now a gift shop and a number of other buildings. The sanctuary is filled with photographs of loved ones, mainly men, a lot of soldiers and a few guys in prison uniforms. There is a wall lined with crutches, ostensibly of those healed by the sacred dirt but I notice that there lots of single crutches and almost no matched sets which Bill attributes to the supplicants hedging their bets.

From the Sanctuario we continue to thousand year old Taos Pueblo, dramatic red adobe structures surrounded by jagged mountains. There remains a ruin of a church that was the center of an Indian rebellion against the Spanish during the 17th century. The Pueblo has no electricity or running water but there are still over 100 full time occupants. There is a small Catholic church which seems to now coexist with the native faith. There is no written language and the heritage and ritual are passed from generation to generation orally.

We return to Santa Fe and dine at another recommended New Mexican Restaurant, fittingly called Chimayo. This restaurant has no liquor license and instead of margaritas, they offer “ritas” which are made with agave wine. I guess I'm no connoisseur of tequila because I can't really tell the difference between the supposedly primo version from the extensive menu from the night before and the ersatz tequila free version. Both are equally inebriating. After we stroll the plaza, mostly deserted except for a couple of guttersnipes begging for change. We walk around the modest state capitol building and explore silent residential areas, free of streetlights.

Monday October 27
Bill and I explore the newish Railyard area. The old Santa Fe Depot is preserved and surrounded by art galleries, boutiques and performance spaces. There is a beautifully landscaped walking trail and an innovative park, all relatively deserted on a Monday morning. We have a nice breakfast at The Flying Star Cafe and then Himself and I bid Bill farewell and hit the Turquoise Trail toward Albuquerque. We've reserved a room via Air B&B that's been excellently reviewed by other travelers. My friend Rachel who lives in Albuquerque tells me that the house borders the barrio and tells me to expect lots of low-rider cars and neon, which isn't all that different from where we live. We have to switch rental cars, from the one paid for by Himself's employer to one we've gotten a good deal on for a long term rental, at the Albuquerque airport. There is a bit of drama of the sort one expects during such transactions and then we get caught in lots of traffic when we make our way cross town to the Auto Club to pick up maps. There is more traffic and road construction when we make our way to our accommodation. We arrive and notice that the front yard is torn up and there are various piles of rubble surrounding the ramshackle stucco house. Two workers are digging in the front yard and the second I step out of the car one emits a loud belch.

Our room has a private entrance, through a partial bathroom with a toilet beside an uncurtained window. The shower is through the kitchen. The sink is filled with dirty dishes and the counters are covered with plates of food and open jars of condiments. There are piles of dirty laundry in the living room and the whole place doesn't smell very good. A million years ago in Dublin, after navigating for over an hour in a terrible rain storm I refuse to stay at an otherwise charming guesthouse because there is no private bath. Himself still hasn't forgiven me. I am literally trembling when I tell him that I cannot stay at the Albuquerque AirB&B and he is a remarkably good sport about it. Online I find a barebones motel that is less expensive than the icky room and actually includes a free breakfast.

We meet fellow Johnston alum, Rachel, who despite being on crutches (actually a single crutch, perhaps the other one is at Chimayo) and she takes us to a swell neighborhood Mexican joint. We catch up and talk about music. Perhaps the little remaining feminist credential I have left will be rescinded but I have very few women friends with whom I can talk about music. Rachel is a dj and has broad eclectic tastes and a wide realm of knowledge.

After we drop Rachel at home we head to the Baymont Motel. The check-in guy has greased up spiked hair. I guess I look reputable because he doesn't ask me for id or a credit card, although he admits that last week someone stole a TV. Hip hop blares from a couple of room as we make our way down the hall to our room. The room however is enormous and clean. And the TV is so large that I admire that ingenuity of anyone who was able to remove one.

Tuesday October 28
Breakfast at the Baymont is the usual commercial muffins and sweet rolls. I try the wafflemaker but even if there had been real butter and maple syrup instead of margarine and “maple flavored” it wasn't really edible. There are some foreigners and a number of large families. I suspect that the Baymont may serve as a welfare residence because a lot of folks are barefoot and in pajamas and seem to have made themselves at home. One large lady is very concerned about her kids' manners. She tells us that she is half black and warns us against ever putting your fork on a black person's plate. When a group of European's leave their breakfast table strewn with wrappers and styrofoam plates and cups she is disgusted by their arrogance.

We bid farewell to Albuquerque and head northeast to Pecos National Monument. This is another site where the Indians went at it with the Spanish and there are the remains of another red adobe church overlooking a vast expanse of verdant mountains. Pueblos stood four to five stories high and fragments and bits of foundation remain. Himself climbs down a ladder into an underground ceremonial kiwa but I take a pass. There is a plaque commemorating a Civil War Battle and the adjacent Gloriana is referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.”

Miles of juniper and ponderosa line the road from Pecos to Las Vegas. Years ago my father visited New Mexico. He took a road toward Las Vegas and was surprised he didn't end up in Nevada. We find a sweet Mexican restaurant called Kochina de Raphael and here the diet goes off the rail when I order a chicken taco plate. I suspect that they will be fried but “forget to ask” and devour the lovely greasy crunchy things.

We veer off the main road to visit the memorial of the Ludlow massacre. John Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy is our audio book so this is a good fit for stories of the labor movement and Ludlow is actually referred to in the novel. Eleven children and many men and women died in a gruesome standoff against the mine owners. The notoriety at least helped the unions make some inroads in improving mine conditions.

Our final destination is the Travel Inn Motel in Canon City another spartan, albeit comfortable motel room. We buys some snacks and breakfast fixings. Being on a budget and knowing we'd be staying in modest surroundings I pack a small electric kettle. This is, if you should ever travel with such an item, better packed in checked luggage as the TSA agent informs us that when sent through an x-ray machine it sort of resembles a bomb.


Friday October 24
After posting my obligatory Friday writing and listening to Himself present his paper on J.F. Powers I attend a reception at the Irish Studies Conference. There are no snacks, just mediocre beer and wine. The presentation is a dramatic reading of some of the columns Finley Peter Dunne, a Chicago newspaper columnist from the 1890s through the turn-of-the-century who wrote humorous columns, in the voice of an Irish immigrant sounding off to the neighborhood barkeep about political and social issues. A number of the columns are cobbled into monologues and recited by Myles Duggan, an RTE correspondent and historian whose performance is so hilarious we don't mind the lack of food. While others head off after the performance to a pub to watch the end of the World Series game we are feeling more old fartish and settle for a quiet dinner at the hotel restaurant. While I find the Hotel Santa Fe overpriced and underwhelming, the restaurant isn't too bad and the prices are fair. I am proud of myself for ordering a salad but ask for the dessert menu. When it takes more than a half hour to arrive, fatigue trumps sweet tooth and I end the day having done little financial or dietary damage.

Saturday October 25
Himself is committed to a full day of conferencing and I have a day of liberty. I head to the International Museum of Folk Art, which Himself reminds me I visited over twenty years ago but I have no memory of. The collection is largely a bequest from architect Alexander Girard and is a spectacular representation of folk art from all over the planet. The second I enter the huge gallery I am entranced. I am a sucker for color and also entranced by the urge that even poor people have to craft colorful objects that have no utilitarian value.

From the museum I head about 15 miles out of Santa Fe to the town of Lamy. The place is less sleepy than non-existent but for some reason, the Amtrak stops here, rather than Santa Fe and I am picking up my old friend Bill who is coming in from Kansas City. The train is late. There is a nice German Shepherd named Rocky who moves the wrought iron table his leash is strapped to several feet in order to greet me by sniffing my crotch. Rocky's people are a couple years older than I am. They live in Santa Fe and have driven to Lamy for the purpose of watching the train pull into the tiny station. We talk about Susan Orlean's book about Rin Tin Tin and the attractions of Long Beach where their son lives. It seems that Rocky and this handsome older couple could have found a more interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon than watching a train screech into a dusty station but to each his own I guess.

It's been over fifteen years since we've seen Bill, who when before he moved to Kansas City was an integral part of the inner sanctum. He is one of the most observant people I've ever met. The weekend is somewhat of a see-saw experience for me. Bill remembers bringing a friend and his dog to meet us in our little Echo Park cottage. The dog immediately gave chase to one of our cats. The cat got tangled in some speaker wires and was extricated only after the wires were severed and I received a scratch on my hand that required medical attention. Later the same evening some imprudently placed candles ignite placements and a tray of appetizers. I have no memory at all of this. Bill later remembers a friend of his that he's lost contact with and I met only once or twice about twenty five years ago. With only a tiny bit of a memory jog I am able to remember that the man's parents adopted a boy and a girl of approximately the same age and referred to them as “twins.” Bill's friend I remember as being diminutive, bookish and somewhat nerdy. His “twin” I remember was obese and of dull normal intelligence. I do not remember a cat scratch that sent me to urgent care or a conflagration in the middle of a dinner party but I remember that when Bill's friend's sister married that in lieu of traditional gifts, she and her betrothed requested board games. After watching my mother descend into dementia I worry a lot about losing my memory. After spending time with a close friend I hadn't seen for so long the verdict is still out. Maybe my memory isn't quite as bad as I think it is but just no where near as good as Bill's.

Bill and I traverse a number of strip malls and gas stations in search of “Maria's” a well recommended Mexican restaurant that has an enormous separate Margarita menu. There are pages and pages of different Margaritas, some costing $45. We have no imagination however and end up with the house special. I have some decent trout and Bill has enchiladas with some of the chile New Mexicans are always going on about that I probably couldn't distinguish from roasted Ortegas in a can.

Friday, October 24, 2014


I stop most Fridays at Gelson's for a challah. Now that the kids are gone I get an itty bitty one which we share with the dog. The bakery counter is crowded with the JCC nursery school crowd buying challah and flowers for the weekly Shabbat celebration. Tiny kids, with parents who sport more tattoos and ironic headwear than fifteen years ago when I was a nursery school mom. I remember the chronic exhaustion but also the exultant sense of self righteousness. Child rearing was the most important thing I'd ever done or will ever do. And now it is pretty much mission accomplished. The spawn are smart and decent and it is appropriate that my involvement in their lives becomes more peripheral. I've gone on now ad infinitum about the resultant lack of sense of purpose. Maybe I'm getting so sick of hearing myself whine that I'll finally figure out how to meaningfully navigate life's next phase.

We are at the annual Irish studies conference, this year in Santa Fe, where Himself has just presented an excellent paper on the letters of J.F. Powers. We attend these conferences every year on his employer's dime. I listen to a few papers, attend some performances and mooch from the hospitality table. I ask Himself to remind me of names of the usual suspects before the event and then chat everyone up like they're old pals. With few exceptions, no one seems to have aged all that much from the previous year. This and the abundance of free snacks reassures me.

We were last in Santa Fe when Joe College was about six months old. I land at the airport in Albuquerque and have no memory of having been there before. We must have been encumbered with a car seat and a stroller and heaps of baby gear. We would have had to take the shuttle from the airport to the car rental lot but nothing seems familiar. Coincidentally, the conference is at the same, not very good, hotel we stay in two decades ago but it is disconcerting that my memories are so hazy. We ate fry bread and something with prunes at an Indian Reservation and changed a diaper in the trunk. Snow fell lightly in the Plaza as we pushed the stroller. We ate breakfast at the famous Pasqual's. I return there this morning along with oodles of other tourists. The service is snippy and the food not remarkable.

Santa Fe is immaculate. There is no litter anywhere. There is even something pristine about a dead mouse lying in the gutter. I am immediately struck by the aroma of pinion, one thing still familiar after over twenty years. Tony stores with expensive Southwestern-ish fashion and Native Americans sitting on blankets arrayed with silver and craft gimcrack surround the square. The hotel pushes wildly expensive spa treatments, like a $120 Sacred Ground Body Wrap, aggressively. The tourist magazines in the room highlight million dollar real estate and mediocre paintings. Last year we are in Bar Harbor, equally meticulous and offering costly souvenirs and fashions, nearly identical to Santa Fe, except New England-ish, pine scented incense, moose and lighthouses instead of coyotes, ristras and pinion.

On the airplane two strangers converse through the whole flight. They talk about family problems and new age medicine. At the restaurant a mother and daughter chat about traveling and gossip about friends and relatives. I am annoyed by the banality of this incessant chatter. In my mind's eye I achieve a higher level of discourse. We talk about ideas and tell stories. I realize though that I do have a propensity for filling the emptiness with inane blather but it is Himself who has no patience for chit chat and has taught me to appreciate the silence of my own thoughts. When I see an older couple dining at a restaurant and not exchanging a word I would presume that they are bitter and miserable. Perhaps though it is the comfort of a marriage so ancient that it is almost telepathic. Often we laugh at things that no one else laughs at, like we have transmogrified into the same perverse individual.

This marks the beginning of Himself's annual teaching break and our time, along with others, mainly the long of tooth and no longer bound by a traditional school year, to travel. There are lots of electric scooters. A couple checks out of the hotel, toting a portable oxygen tank and a shower chair. I guess we are in the very brief traveling window where we don't have to tote a lot of kid crap or medical supplies. I am encumbered only by a befuddling array of electronics that enable me to run my business and probably more shoes than I need.

From Santa Fe we are spending a night in Albuquerque. We have a rental car for four weeks and no itinerary. For me, the open road is more comforting than the empty house. Last year we explore the East Coast, this year the middle. Our route will depend on whim and weather but we hope to see the Badlands and cruise Route 66 and visit friends along the way. We have a GoPro camera, smaller than a cigarette pack, that we can mount on the windshield and if it doesn't fly off and we can figure it out, we'll shoot some footage for the library. We'll stay at cheap motels or rent rooms through Air B&B. We haven't explored this part of the country. I suspect there won't be many gluten free options or parking lots overflowing with Prius. We'll see fall color and cruise the backroads and amass experiences I likely won't remember. Navigating the country without an itinerary might restore some purposefulness and meaning. It's not as important as raising two kids but we're going to take it slow tand make sure that it's not as tiring.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reefer Sadness

I get a medical marijuana card within minutes of the law taking effect. Although this may not have been the case everywhere, I do have to submit medical records and undergo a relatively comprehensive interview. At the time I am experiencing pretty severe anxiety but the novelty of extra strong weed being available in a veritable department store venue produces mixed results. Incapacitating stress diminishes but I over imbibe and make some bad decisions while under the influence. Now, for me, the line between medical and recreational has become blurred. When someone has a brutal day and chugs a few martinis to unwind, the alcohol is not ascribed medicinal properties. But how many prescription Xanax are popped with the same objective as a shot of hard liquor? The bud I buy in the Gelson's parking lot is recreational (and illegal) and what I pick up at the collective down the street is medicine. Except to the federal government. And maybe me.

My use of cannabis varies these days. I often go a couple weeks without partaking but once or twice a week is probably typical. Since the early days of dope emporiums I've instituted some ground rules that I adhere to strictly. When medicated, I never drive, create a customer invoice or send an e-mail. I presume that some friends and acquaintances would disapprove of my commission of a federal crime. But it's not like anyone could think any worse of me than what I, for the most part, think of myself. I wonder often if there's something wrong with me, maybe a character deficit. Pot transports me to a state of being I am seldom able to attain without the use of it. For all the grandiosity and epiphany, which I have learned to treat with a grain of salt, when I am under the influence I am more forgiving of myself. Much of the creative output that I am the most satisfied with emerges, when somehow, THC delivers me from crippling inhibition and shame. And yes, when I'm high is about the only time I don't feel guilty about getting high. I am sure there are a number of non-narcotizing alternatives that might prove effective in diminishing my angst but at age 57 I lack the inclination to try new things.

The co-op I frequent in the bay area is staffed by old hippies so I don't stand out that much. I just have to count my change. When I do have to make a local purchase I am so self conscious that I go all manic and can't stop my own inane blather. I notice that most of the other “patients” here in L.A. are in their twenties. I can't help but theorize that if the quality of pot sold now was easily obtainable when I was in my twenties I would be a total burnout now.

My friend's sister is afflicted with ALS. A cannabis tea provides comfort in the past and my friend approaches me to run a dispensary errand for her. Even though I totally get the wink-wink bullshit of the local medical marijuana industry, I try to be a good citizen and purchase from the dispensary for my own use only. Given my friend's sister's suffering I make an exception. A number of Los Angeles dispensaries have been shuttered so there are some complications. My friend ends up spending way too much money to endure a very brief interview with a physician via Skype and is issued a medical marijuana card for herself on the spot. And now the fun begins. Not. I've had a long time to experiment and discover which products are effective for me. I prefer a capsule called Kind-Cap which I purchase in the Bay Area. But even having used these for years, once in a while there is a wild variation in the potency. Sometimes I take a dud and there have been a couple occasions when I want to chill a bit and take my usual dose only to find myself in a drooling stupor.

My friend and I discuss the tea that is effective for her sister in the past. In involves two separate strains of kush, a form of indica which is the more psychoactive than the sativa variety. As the preponderance of dispensaries are staffed by potheads, often website menus are not updated. Nevertheless, “White Widow” and “Northern Lights” do not appear to be available at all locally so my friend is going to have to improvise. There is, I discover in the course of my research, a dispensary called “The House of Dank.” Real medical sounding, right?

Given that what ails me is all in my head and while it would be an annoyance if suddenly there was no cannabis available, I cannot honestly categorize my personal experience as suffering. The lady with ALS is in New Hampshire, a state that has passed medical marijuana legislation which will not go into effect until 2015. While the first experiment with medical marijuana proves salubrious, subsequent attempts are a crap shoot. There is absolutely no regulation or standardization of medical marijuana products. There's a chance that the tincture my friend makes will not relieve her sister's discomfort at all and there's also a possibility that it will induce anxiety and paranoia.

It is suggested that marijuana is effective in the treatment of pain, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, seizures, type 2 diabetes and other maladies way more severe than me feeling uptight. There is one British company (GW Pharmaceuticals) doing serious research with medical cannabis. Based on my limited research however, big U.S. Pharma is pretty much hands off. It is likely that medical cannabis will be legalized in most states in the near future and chances are that legal recreational pot will also become quite prevalent. I suspect that because marijuana is cheap and widely available, the lack of potential profitability for the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in a dearth of research.

There is a barrage of advertising for what I call vanity pharmaceuticals. I know that age related bladder leakage, vaginal dryness and diminished testosterone are no picnic but the advertising budgets to push pharmaceuticals which treat the normal ravages of age are staggering. New weight loss medications are peddled aggressively. I find a list of medications that have been approved by the FDA in 2014. There are a couple to treat diabetes and Crohn's disease, both of which are extremely widespread so these meds are huge cash cows. Although it is assumed that inexpensive medical marijuana would also have good results in treating these common ailments, research is scant.

About a hundred new medications have been approved for the year. There are very few drugs being released that treat maladies which I haven't heard of. It is impossible to look at this list and not notice the underlying profit motive. Along with Crohn's, diabetes and the afflictions of the over 50 crowd, there are remedies for acne, allergies and toenail fungus. Yes, there are a couple of drugs for the treatment of cancer but until there is a generic available, I wonder to what extent these will be readily accessible.

Perhaps, decriminalization and the approval for quasi-medical use of marijuana has totally screwed those who would most benefit from it. I can say with certainty however, the way the pharmaceutical industry operates results in many people being screwed. The argument against reining in big pharma is that research will dwindle when the carrot of huge financial gain is removed. The whole pharmaceutical industry is really shameless in demonstrating again and again that a big payday trumps compassion.

I know that marijuana is panacea for myriad ailments. I feel guilty that my specious occasional use may contribute to the lack of funded research. I hope my friend gets the formula right and that her sister experiences relief. Other patients, including the parents of seizure prone children have uprooted themselves and moved to Colorado and Washington, states where marijuana is legal. How sad that an FDA regulated marijuana product isn't available at the pharmacy. If foregoing my own consumption would help towards promoting research to make medical marijuana safe and reliable for those with a more legitimate need for it I would burn my card. Which is easy to say given the improbability of the scenario. And even if “medical” becomes really medical, knowing myself, I'd likely end up copping in the Gelson's parking lot.

Friday, October 10, 2014


David Fincher's The Social Network feels like history in the making and is prescient, forseeing the sea change in social interaction fomented by Facebook and everything since. Fincher's Gone Girl tackles the current television equivalent of yellow journalism but the film feels almost like a relic. Fincher takes on the transition of journalists into sensationalists and scolds but this not only reflects the current info-tainment (emphasis on the “tainment") convention, it also harks back to the nasty little reporters and gossips of classic noir. Burt Lancaster's Walter Winchell inspired character J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success comes to mind.

Ben Affleck's natural smarminess propels him. Rosamund Pike is a convincing old school femme fatal. Neither performance is particularly nuanced but both suffice in giving the film a 1930's murder mystery vibe. Integral to the plot is the couple's move from Manhattan to a small town in Missouri but unlike most of Fincher's other work, Gone Girl never really nails a sense of place. What is compelling however is an extraordinary supporting cast. Kim Dickens is wonderful as the unflappable,warm but cautious Detective Boney. After playing a hooker with a great business plan on Sons of Anarchy and a sexy chef onTremeGone Girl gives Dickens a fabulous vehicle to demonstrate her range. Boney's deadpan underling is played by Patrick Fugit who is best known for the Cameron Crowe role in Almost Famous and seems to have been under-appreciated ever since. I hope this performance establishes Fugit as very desirable for more quirky adult-type roles.

Affleck's twin sister is played by Carrie Coon. I'm probably the only person on the planet who endured every episode of “The Leftovers.” Coon, as the tortured Nora Dunne, is a standout on this series. She beefs up her role in Gone Girl by infusing the character with great balance of strength and frail humanity. Sela Ward and Missy Pike are both terrific as callow, power tripping TV personalities. Tyler Perry has a blast as a super star criminal defense attorney. Neil Patrick Harris and his opulent lakeside retreat may have been in a different movie but Neil sure can do “creepy” and I'm a sucker for the palatial prison device.

The film is compelling though and genuinely funny in parts. The screen play is adapted by Gillian Flynn, the author of the successful novel. There may have been a few scenes a more objective writer would have cut in a nod to cinematic economy but the two hour plus film never bores me. Perhaps Gone Girl isn't one of Fincher's masterpieces but it certainly a fun film to herald the winter season of movies for grown ups.

But for every movie I see there are oodles of worthwhile television programs to choose among. We don't have to wait until Sunday night for the new Sopranos any more. Now we can binge on intricately woven long form stories. Episodic TV pioneer Jill Soloway produced Six Feet Under. She lives in the 'hood and the characters in her Amazon series Transparent talk about the Hyperion Reservoir, the JCC and the Ivanhoe School. Soloway's feature Afternoon Delight as well as Six Feet Under are also L.A. centric. For the most part, Soloway achieves a convincing read on the pulse of local denizens. The culturally Jewish Pfefferman family portrayed in Transparent is well observed and feels authentic. They squabble constantly about money and food. They take sides and fight dirty. The betrayals are as egregious as the love is fierce. They turn on one another and practice divide and conquer. And in a way that feels particularly Jewish to me, gallows humor suffuses all of it. The miraculous Jeffrey Tambor plays patriarch Mort who becomes matriarch Maura. Early in the series when Tambor first appears dressed as a woman it is hard to get over his unattractiveness. As the series progresses however, the character's sweetness and solidity is redemptive and you not only accept Tambor as Maura, there is relief that he is able to become her.

Judith Light brings a remarkable physicality to the role of Shelly, the mother. Every gesture is perfect as is the explosive laughter that issues forth from her at the most inappropriate moments. The three adult kids are played by Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass and Amy Landecker. The three are spoiled, self centered and sexually confused. I do have a bone to pick with Soloway, something that bugged me about Six Feet Under too. Maybe it's just my own prudery but the preponderance of kinky-ish sex feels gratuitous. It just goes too far and feels facile, a perverse shortcut, a distraction from a not fully formed character.

Gaby Hoffman is the daughter of Warhol darling Viva so her credentials have gravitas. She plays Ali, the youngest Pfefferman. She's permanently scarred and immobilized, maybe because her bat mitzvah is canceled. The thirteen year old blithely questions her belief in God to father Mort. Dad seizes on her uncertainty as an excuse to nix the affair so he can attend a camp for cross-dressers. Gaby is big shameless girl. She plays Adam's lunatic sister on Girls. Flashing her bush is nearly a signature. Hoffman rips voraciously into her oddball roles, becoming nearly feral. Sometimes Hoffman goes over the edge and you get the feeling that her character is so awful and over the top that the writers are on the verge of killing her off but they don't want you to feel too sad about it.

Ali is confused. She plans a threesome with two hunky guys and dates a transgender butch and decides on the “Pegasus” model dildo. In her 30s, Ali is supported still by Mort/Maura. She burns through people,money and avocations. Her best friend is perhaps my favorite character on the show. Syd is played by an absolutely incandescent Carrie Brownstein, who it is revealed had a thing with brother Joshie.

Jay Dupless is Joshie, never Josh. He is successful in the music industry until his love addiction puts him out on his ass. It is revealed that the 15 year old Joshie lost his virginity to a nanny and the sweet faced lad has fallen in and out of love with regularity ever since. We think he may have found the real deal with a beautiful rabbi but it may be just another notch on the belt.

Oldest sister Sarah, played by Amy Landecker impulsively throws away a long marriage to a sweet goofy guy when her lover from lesbian college days appears at the nursery school. Ex-girlfriend girlfriend Tammy (Melora Hardin) is a radiant wasp with a long history of failed marriages. She re-sweeps Sarah off her feet and before you know it they've set up housekeeping.

Every character except Mom Shelly has unresolved sexual issues. I just find the resolution of family issues, particularly given the fascinating Pfeffermans more compelling. There are however some gorgeous touches. Shelly's second husband Ed is a vegetable who she's stuck caring for. There is a flashback of Ed in the final episode. The three young teen kids are sitting across from him on a couch, perhaps meeting Mom's new beau for the first time. Shelly is at Ed's side, prodding him to tell a joke. The joke is a tiny bit dirty for kids so young. I think it's slightly funny. I'm not sure what the kids think but you can see Shelly's desperation for them to like her new man and Ed's ernest effort to make them laugh. The kids used in the flashbacks are not only talented performers, uncannily they're dead ringers for the adult Pfefferman siblings.

The last episode also has an amazing scene of a body being placed in a traditional white shroud. Then the Jewish thing goes off the rails. Control freak waspy Tammy takes it upon herself to turn sitting shiva into a rainbow sharing of feelings. In the final scene, a guest of the Pferrermans leads them in grace, giving thanks to Jesus. I can see the deliciousness of the contrast between Jewish and non-Jewish characters but it seems very inauthentic that two gentiles, no matter how bossy, would commander a Jewish ritual with which they are unfamiliar. It's the subtle differences that are the most funny anyway.

While both of the dark comedy of Gone Girl and Transparent miss the mark in some ways, both are solid entertainments and showcase some wonderful performers. A less available but no less rewarding work, Please Like Me is a horse of a different color. The show is the creation of the 27 year old Australian comedian Josh Thomas. There is nothing Jewish or arch about it. I've seldom been so charmed by a show. I can make no defense for Please Like Me not being twee but it's twee in a good way, a confection. The Josh of the show, like Ali Pfefferman, is casting about, albeit much younger than Ali. Josh lives with roommates in a house his dad owns. His friends and family are nonplussed when Josh breaks up with his girlfriend and accepts that he's gay. Josh suffers awkwardness when he begins to date. His father's young Thai girlfriend has just had a baby and Josh's mom is in and out of a mental institution.

The show has a leisurely pace. Josh cooks and dances. He dresses up his little dog and when he babysits his new half sister the baby and dog get a montage with matching outfits. The cutest are the striped jail uniforms but Josh takes some heat from his dad and stepmom for drawing prison tattoos on the baby. I don't remember another show in which every character is completely likable. And relatively polite despite being direct and sardonic. While a comedy and a very funny one, Please Like Me takes the subject of mental illness head on. The cast even does PSAs for NAMI (The National Alliance on Mental Health). The scenes of Josh's mom and her fellow patients are very funny but Thomas is meticulously sensitive, although not inhibited by an allegiance to political correctness, in depicting about what mental illness really looks like.

Thomas's repartee evokes the heyday of screwball comedies, but dirtier. The entire cast is enormously likable. Usually there are characters which are particularly compelling, like Carrie Brownfield in Transparent or Kim Dickens in Gone Girl but I can't get enough of anyone in the cast of Please Like Me. The show is on Pivot TV and also available for streaming from Amazon. If Please Like Me doesn't make you like it, then you're like my husband.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Color Me Impressed

Last week I write about the difficulty I experience in confirming the death of one of my long time pen-pals, an inmate at a state prison in San Diego. This week, finally, my cards and letters, one by one, are being returned. They are stamped”return to sender” and on each is handwritten the word “inactive.” My observance of this year's Days of Awe is pretty inactive too. There is a website called 10Q. For each of ten days a question is posed. These answers are returned to the writer via e-mail the following year. I do not avail myself of the option to post my responses publicly. Essentially the questions refer to regrets, shortcomings and future hopes for oneself and the world at large. My shortcomings are that I eat too much, write too little and spend too much money. My whole world stuff is about justice, equality and peace. I object to the public posting of my responses because they are so lacking in imagination. The final question posed is about your anticipated response to receiving these answers next year. The truth is, at 57 I don't expect much resolution of the things that have dogged me and the planet for as long as I can remember.

The third question on 10Q is about a memorable spiritual experience of the past year. A year ago, right after the High Holidays, I take Joe College to Riot Fest, a music festival in Denver to see the reunion, after 22 years, of my favorite band, The Replacements. The band before the headliner is Iggy and the Stooges. Iggy is still in great form but I hope there are paramedics nearby for the Stooges. The Replacements take the stage in cowgirl skirts. They are having fun and do a number of great songs and sound amazingly good for being old farts. The moment I would characterize as the best spiritual moment of the year, was when they break into my favorite song of songs, “Alex Chilton,”a song about loving music. “I'm in love! What's that song?” It's one of their best and it's no surprise that they perform it or that it makes me go all gloopy. What I will always cherish though is upon hearing the first few notes, Joe College steps closer, looks me in the eye and hugs me, genuinely delighted that Mom is blissed out.

One of the great gifts of my life is that there is another person on the planet who understands what a few familiar chords can do for me. When I arrive at the office, no matter what is pressing, the first thing I do, before even grabbing coffee, is turn on my music. I mainly listen to the same crap I've listened to for years but Joe College has an ear for the yearning urgent sound I have a taste for and is dead on in choosing newer music that I like.

I meet up a few years ago with an ex-boyfriend. He'd been a Deadhead and had stereo speakers the size of a restaurant freezer. It is a boring lunch. His kids are perfect. His wife is beautiful and accomplished. His career is successful. Lots of equity in the house. Finally, I pose, “What are you listening to these days?” “Oh, I don't really listen to music anymore.” It is all I can do to keep from blurting out, “But that was the only thing I liked about you.”

I don't even bother to downplay my Replacements obsession anymore. There is a documentary called “Color Me Obsessed” (after the song “Color Me Impressed” by frontman Paul Westerberg, allegedly written in response to a fling with Winona Ryder). There is no footage of the band. The soundtrack has none of their music. It is simply interviews with fans talking about what the band means to them. I avoid the film for a long time thinking it will just make me feel embarrassed and nerdulant. Finally I succumb. The fans are so articulate and the interviews so heartfelt that I am able to step out of the closet. I love the Replacements and making the decision to fly to Denver for their reunion concert is not a difficult one.

Coachella however is beyond my realm of possibility. It is weird to think of them playing so close by and not being there but the heat and the expense and overwhelmingness of the festival put off this hardcore fan. The band does a number of festivals over the summer and a show with another of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady. If money hadn't been an object I would have attended a number of them. A show at the Summer's End Festival in Tempe is announced. Joe College isn't available and I know better than to ask Himself who actually sort of liked the band until I played them so much he wanted to blow his brains out. I seriously consider going to the Arizona show by myself.

Respecting privacy, I am usually coy about mentioning my friends here but I figure I have some license with Marion. Her mom is Nora Johnson, the daughter of Hollywood luminary Nunnally Johnson. Nora wrote “The World of Henry Orient” and a number of other novels. She has also published a series of very frank memoirs about her family so I figure Marion's skin is pretty thick. I meet Nora a couple times, most recently last summer in New York. Marion is there attending her eldest son's graduation and I am helping Spuds vacate his dorm room. Marion's twin daughters are great friends with Spuds so we plan a multi-generational meet up. Nora's 81 and arrives at the restaurant with her walker. A girlfriend of hers, back from her Smith College days, also walking with assistance, joins us. The ladies are fabulous. They're way more up-to-date than I am on books and films. And both enjoy a goodly amount of wine. The picture of my mom in the later years of her life still haunts me and seeing tack sharp Nora and her pal helps give birth to hope.

Marion joins us for dinner at Casamurphy. I mention that the Replacements are playing in Tempe. “Oh shit,,,” mutters Himself. “I know what's coming now.” “I was just thinking about it,” I respond. “I'll go with you!” pipes up Marion. So I pick up some cheap tickets and find a hotel bargain. After the die is cast Marion admits she's never heard of the band. Knowing that the “Mats are more than a little idiosyncratic and rooted in punk mayhem I suggest she might want to chill at the hotel while I attend the show.

I put together a playlist for the car and lard it with a few other more familiar bands like REM and Wilco in case the Replacements aren't her cup of tea. We mainly talk so I can't really gauge her response to the music. The weather report is scary. Thunderstorms and floods are predicted. I pack a raincoat and think about Woodstock.

I have never been to Phoenix or Tempe or really east of Indio on Highway Ten. I am surprised by the desolation and the beauty of unspoiled desert for as far as you can see. We cross the border into Arizona and highway signs flash with flood warnings. Our cell phones get emergency weather advisories. So we might not even make to Tempe in time to wallow in the mud. The clouds on the horizon though move east as we do. There are a few light showers but the rumors of flood danger are greatly exaggerated. The weather predictions cause the show to be moved into a small hall. The venue makes Al's Bar look like Lincoln Center. My shoes still reek of Coors.

I sit out the other bands and an extremely drunk young man chats us up about Iowa and Niagara Falls. The original guitarist, Bob Stinson was fired from the band years ago and died shortly thereafter. Chris Mars, the original drummer has a successful career as an artist and I glean that even if that weren't the case, he'd want nothing to do with the band. All that's left is bass player Tommy Stinson and Paul himself. Paul wears a smoking jacket and Tommy comes on stage in a Teletubbie suit. They are having fun but it feels that after a year of touring, maybe they're bored performing the same old songs. Paul has had a steady output of solo material since the breakup. He's written a number of beautiful songs but nothing approximates the work he did with The Replacements. With the exception of a song (“Love you in the Fall”) written for the animated feature Open Season, they stick to old material.

I feel the same when I see Steely Dan a few months ago. What would it be like to know that everything that you will be remembered for was accomplished when you were in your twenties? Although, The Replacements were bitter then too. Marion enjoys the show and even though it doesn't have the mind blowing magic of the Denver set, so do I. I try to remember if I fell in love with band the first time I heard them or it took time for the sound to grow on me. I remember years ago my cousin mailed me a cassette and I played REM for the first time and I knew instantly. I just don't remember the first time I heard The Replacements which is probably due to being in an altered state of consciousness.

The show ends at after two a.m. It is impossible to buy ice cream in Tempe, (the home of notorious party school ASU) at this hour but this isn't the case with alcoholic beverages. The bars, including Hooters,  have lines around the block. Some of them have “short lines” which cost $5. The girls' standard uniform is an extremely clingy short dress and six inch heels. And alcohol is added to this equation. I can imagine the emergency room does a brisk business on a Saturday night. The drive back to L.A. is uneventful except I notice the mini mart has a big NRA section, including a selection of children's t-shirts and toy weapons. And we stop at a deserted coffee shop in Indio. The lounge in the back is hopping with sun grizzled bar flies and evokes a David Lynch tableau.

At home I begin one of Nora Johnson's early memoirs Coast to Coast about going back and forth from New York to Hollywood after her parent's divorce. It is one of the least cliché things I've ever read about Hollywood. I have a stack of other of her memoirs to look forward to. Nora's most famous work I believe is “The World of Henry Orient” which was published when she was in her twenties. Two bands that I admire have never really surpassed the work they did at this age. They've thrown in the towel now and are “nostalgia acts.” Marion says that Nora writes every day. Recently she has a piece in the New York Times about aging and forgiveness which is one of the most gorgeous, economical, delightful pieces of prose I've read in a long time. Her perseverance and maturity shine though.

I've been at it here now for over a decade. My efforts to reach a larger audience through publication are disheartening and apparently futile. But, I do it just about every week and my writing, I think, has improved over time. Maybe by the time I'm eighty I'll have something good enough for the New York Times. Maybe not, but every week I get a little better. If nothing else, I hope that I keep active until I'm inactive.