Imperiled


We are hosting, for the next few weeks, a family gathering. There are guests from Malaysia, Singapore and Switzerland, women all, except for the family patriarch, 83-years-old, who, despite his recent health setbacks, flew 19 hours to see his granddaughter graduate from business school and join the festivities.

The house is crowded and people are sleeping on futons, air mattresses and sofas. We bought sacks of sweet potatoes and Vidalia Onions and cartons of organic cherries, blueberries, and strawberries.

For mental health reasons, I stocked up on beer.

Because this is a Chinese-Malaysian family, I get to see and be a part of, close-up, the Hainan dialect, the Straits accented English, so sharp and so distinct;  and the laughter, and sometimes the arguments which I observe but do not partake in.

Prescriptive, advising, pedantic, loving, cautionary, understanding, this is the general aura. When you are in the embrace, you are looked after, and you look after others.

Around 3 O’Clock in the afternoon there are cakes and coffee and people gathered around the dining room table chatting and laughing and sending photos over mobile devices.


As an American, I take pleasure in people being awed by the things I never think about: the copious enormity of Costco, the directness of speech, the assertive and self-assured women, the large portions of food, the open vulgarity of sexual talk and provocative dress, and the friendly kindness of strangers.

On “The View”, a show blaring today, they were arguing and screaming about politics, and our guests, fully conversant in English, must have wondered about how we get away with saying what we want without fear of arrest or condemnation. There are sedition laws back in Malaysia and public discourse is held back, and one would not broadcast aloud against the government for long without inviting arrest.

Whoopi Goldberg could be a political prisoner there. Imagine that.

One of our guests liked the small chatter and joking banter she saw on the local KTLA news. It was so casual and relaxed she said; so un-like her country.  Target, Costco, Sam Woo…we really do have it all.

Nothing is so nice as being admired for banality.


We went to Vegas for a two-day trip to stay at room cheap, free parking for now Mandalay Bay and visit Hoover Dam.

In the casino, where machines insatiably swallow $20 bills, Liberty Bell shaped smokers waddle through. The smell of second hand smoke wafts through the air like hay in a stable.

We drank at Red Square during their happy hour and had two whisky cocktails for $24. Later on we ate Japanese food where a fist-sized piece of salmon goes for $49. When I went to withdraw cash from the ATM they took a $6.99 fee.

At the elegant Japanese restaurant at Mandalay Bay, men wore Affliction T-shirts and baseball caps or square toed dress shoes with cargo shorts.

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At Terrible’s Gas Station on The Strip the attendant who rang me up called me honey and at the Market Grille Café in North Las Vegas I was darling and I was sir and sweety at the Mizuya Lounge. Vegas is nothing if not affectionate to strangers.


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On our way back from Las Vegas yesterday morning, we stopped in the Mojave Desert to see the world’s tallest thermometer, use the restrooms and buy some water.

Hardscrabble, windy and roasting, Baker is significant in its nothingness: a strip of dilapidated and defunct motels, a country store selling hot sauces and craft sodas, and the home of the Mad Greek Diner, occupying a key corner off the highway.

We parked first at the thermometer, which was cool at only 93. We were looking for bathrooms, but we couldn’t find any there. Instead there was a metal and stone monument featuring an egg in a frying pan.

As we made our way down to the country store where urinals and toilets awaited, one uncle received a text from the young woman about to graduate. She was in her classroom at UCLA and her school was in lockdown after a shooting. A gunman, or possibly two, was on the loose.

The uncle told me, but we kept the knowledge of the unfolding events from the mother, the elderly father, and the aunt.

We got back in the car, and were stopped in the middle of the desert by road construction. The temperature outside was about 100 and the air-conditioning was blasting. The two aunties and their father were sleeping in back.

So I turned on the LA news, KNX 1070, and gradually the terrifying words filled the car: police, shooting, FBI, active shooter, two dead, locked in the classrooms, students, LAPD, bomb squad, SWAT team. The mother, napping in back, awoke, and gradually, without us saying anything, realized her youngest daughter’s school was now a crime scene.

A few more texts came from our girl. She said they were hunkered down in darkness. But she was all right.

We are all in our classroom with locked doors and the lights off. I think they confirmed it’s a murder-suicide.

Worried, in suspense, we listened to every development at UCLA as reported by KNX. Why did I turn on that radio?

We inched along at 15 or 20 miles an hour. The traffic broke, and we continued west, now at 60 or 70 MPH into Barstow, and then that steep, disorienting angle into the brown cloud that filled the mouth of the Cajon Pass, and later travelling along the flat 210, in Rancho Cucamonga, we got relief.

We are being let out now.

Our loved one was OK. But someone else lost a son, a friend, a husband; and a killer died who was also someone’s child. Bullets, brains, and blood took their monthly seat alongside erasers and magic markers.

America! What is wrong with you? You have so much going for you! Everyone likes you! People are so impressed by you! Don’t fuck it up! Use your God-given talents! Just like my mother used to tell me.

I am still deeply in love with the United States of America. When foreigners say something against it to my face, I remember it. I want to present it and show it proudly.

Born, was I, in the Land of Lincoln, 97 years after, the 16th President, died.

Riding back from Las Vegas yesterday, a typical American morning unfolded for our guests from Malaysia. I wasn’t proud.

I was ashamed.

Something Quiet and Urgent…


Something quiet and urgent was hanging over the radio this morning soon after I awoke in the darkness at 5:30am.

LAUSD was expected to make an announcement.

It was forthcoming:  a rumor the schools might be closed down here in Los Angeles.

The sun rose, the skies were clear, the winds blew, and it was a cold morning in December, 9 days before Christmas.

Then it was official.

The schools were, indeed, closed.

A bomb threat had been “sent electronically” (how else are communications sent these days?) and over a half million children would not go to school. Which made many of the students happy, but caused those parents, who work at jobs, to work at worrying, about their kids.

Our alerted and nervous minds went to school, where poisons and dangers and societal toxins lined up near the entrance, under the flag, ready to march past the lockers, down the hall and into the classroom. The diversity of fear, one nation under lockdown, forever ready to give up liberty before death.

Internet, Islam and San Bernardino, caution, children, unforeseen terror, substantiated threat, hoax, fear, prayers, moms, guns and explosives.

It was a day of mayoral and school chancellor pronouncements, of the FBI, the White House and the LAPD, all speaking in front of reporters, and the line of authority acting competent when deep down we know that the sick and the violent soul of humankind casts a darker shadow across our nation these days.

No wonder the blurted and un-thoughtful utterances of Mr. Trump lure us into his mad funhouse of revenge and strongman demagoguery. We know or think we know that he knows what we know. When he blurts out what’s on everyone’s minds, we imagine he can fight and win the battle.

In our country, there are many days when children go to school and nobody tells them to go home, but instead someone armed and ill enters a school and kills.

Those are the days we should fear. Those are the days that have already come too many times.

But it is hard to know what to fear first, so paralyzed with dread are we at red blood under the blackboard.

State of the Union


Chicago, IL
South Side
2013

“Tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let’s prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let’s start right away.

Part of our rebuilding effort must also involve our housing sector. Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007. Home prices are rising at the fastest pace in six years, home purchases are up nearly 50 percent, and construction is expanding again.

But even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no. That’s holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it. Right now, there’s a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill. Right now, overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home. What’s holding us back? Let’s streamline the process, and help our economy grow.” -Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, 2/13/13

Back to the Future


Once or twice, I’ve implied, on this blog, about the deep conservatism of the car show crowd.

I stand by my intuition and observation, as shown by this Romney bumper sticker incongruously and sloppily stuck on the back of a 1956 Ford at Bob’s in Burbank last Friday evening.

Car people are particular. Engines are buffed, vacuumed and wiped flawless with glass cleaner. A piece of dust under a foot pedal is upsetting. So it must be quite a matter of some significance to deface an exquisitely perfect 1956 Ford bumper with a taped on Romney sticker.

Car shows are also about nostalgia. They represent what we imagine and love about the past, a past that never ages or grows old, whose icons and places, Elvis and Ike, Van Nuys Boulevard and the Hollywood Freeway were once young, promising and fresh.

The machines of 50 or 60 years ago had style, they were adventurous in design and innovation, capable of exciting and seducing us, in a way that new cars do not. They ran fast, they took us to drive-in movies, to midnight picnics on the beach, up the road to hide and make out in the moonlit orange groves in the back of a convertible.

In the car show fantasy, nobody ever sat in traffic on a freeway and commuted to a dull job as an actuary in an insurance company. Everyone had a permanent erection and a pretty young thing next to them. And every night was Friday night.

Now the car show crowd is hot and heavy, excited and worked up over the next new marketing invention, Willard Mitt Romney.

31 years after Ronald Reagan took office, the car show crowd is again hoping that a reassuring old model will be inaugurated, a model whose exterior charms and surface good looks represent the best of what America can be, a model male whose wealth, beautiful children and blonde wife stand as proof of the veracity of our nation’s promise, a leader whose banal aphorisms and smooth clichés may soothe our rotted souls and whose lies and reversals masquerade as moderatism.

Like a new car, the new president promises good times, advertising his suitability for any family, his practical experience on the road, his durability, his proven assets, all dramatized in commercials, on stage, in front of an audience of millions. He is shiny, buffed and prosperous.

But there is one deep, dark pothole, on the road to Romney, which may cause him to lose his political goal.

If, by the intervention of Satan, Obama is re-elected, the car show crowd will grumble and groan. The old, red-nosed, white-haired men with their fold-out, blue, big cup chairs and plastic flags will still gather at Bob’s; but the talk, of taxes and debt, war and health care, the big issues, those will once again go underground in hibernation, for four more years, and the focus will shift back to 1955, 1962, 1969, 1972, a past that never dies, a young and eternal past which the old haunt like a prospector panning for gold in a dried up stream bed.

Kunstler on the Tuscon Killings.


James Howard Kunstler writes provocative critiques about the decline of America, interpreted through the aesthetic ugliness of our strip malls, billboards, and vacuous suburban environment.   He speculates about why young men, facing meaningless work and oppressive debt, might go mad in a nihilistic nation that has destroyed its own character and integrity:

“The rewards of entering the realm beyond college are paltry-to-miserable. Solitary cab rides to the mall. A burrito and a Big Gulp. Later, back home, an hour in the virtual company of the Kardashian sisters via the E-Network on your parents’ cable TV. Where are the initiations into manhood? (Try the channelized dry-wash, courtesy of the Barrio Blue Moon boyz.) I’m convinced that the reason video games and movies aimed at young males in America are devoted almost solely to fantasies about super-heroes and supernatural power (especially the power to kill) is because adolescent boys feel so impotent, so powerless, so unlike real men. The adults in this culture do not furnish any meaningful alternative scripts. That’s the market’s job, I guess.”