Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Fires

I woke up very early on that Sunday morning and turned on the television to watch the news prior to leaving for work. 6:30am: there was a report of a "small fire" that had started near Pepperdine University sometime in the early hours. Firefighters had it under control. Welcome to Southern California, I thought, shrugged, and left for the day.

Sometime mid-afternoon, a friend in San Diego sent me a text message. There was a fire near her community and smoke was in the air, but nothing to worry about. She was waiting in a bookstore cafe for her youngest daughter as she spent a couple of hours with her aunt. Haha, we said to each other, wasn't that a coincidence. My friend had just recently told me about experiencing the last big fire and even drove me past the scene. Less than an hour later, she messaged again saying that they were closing the bookstore. Smoke was rapidly filling the building and everyone had to leave. Another hour and her oldest daughter was evacuated with her husband and kids from their home farther north near Escondido. The fire lines had cut them off from each other and my friend worried. My poor daughter, she said. I wish she could be with me. The next morning another message came from her: I have to start packing...

That next day, Monday, seven counties in Southern California were on fire, spread over a massive area with astounding rapidity. The news coverage was constant here, and on some channels you could watch - via the television news helicopters - the fire spreading faster than a man could run. (One reporter watched his home of 25 years burn while on the air.) One report played often on the news, local and national, about a fire truck that was engulfed with flames. Four firefighters were injured. Another call from my friend revealed that one of them, a volunteer, was a very close friend of her daughter. She had been hurt badly, the doctors inducing coma until they could treat some of the burns. Everyone was sick about it.

Where I'm staying, Hancock Park, there was only a slight smell of smoke. As I left for the day it reminded me of autumn fires back home, leaves and fireplaces. Driving north toward Burbank I began to see the smoke in the distance. The sky northwest of the Valley was covered in a gray-brown haze. To the West, an enormous column of smoke snaked out of the hills near the ocean, filling the sky over the water and making the setting sun an incredible red disc inside of a brown smear of soot for many days after.

All around us there were fires. San Bernardino, Malibu, Ventura, Rice Canyon, Santiago...In San Diego, the fires came within 2 miles of my friend's home, stopped only by highway 15. The line on the map was striking. It gave me chills to see it so close to her neighborhood, which was also the neighborhood of the first college I attended. Throughout the week, the smoke settled heavily on the Valley. At the Burbank Airport, near the theater where I was working, the planes were still taking off. I'd watch them eerily break through the brown clouds like something out of a sci-fi movie, all sepia-toned cinematography. It was a week of headaches and lethargy and low visibilty. And smoke EVERYWHERE. Early during the week the authorities announced that an historic number of people - 250,000 - had been evacuated. By the end of the week it was close to a million.

My friend didn't have to evacuate. Her home was spared, her daughter's home was spared, her sister's brand new business, a half-million dollar investment not even completely opened and only one mile from my friend's house, was spared, though thieves broke in and stole several pieces of new equipment while the businesses were closed. One of the best pieces of news was that the injured firefighter was much better than reported. Though she was indeed burned, it wasn't as bad as the media made it. She's recovering well. You all know the rest, I'm sure. The firefighters worked themselves to the bone while FEMA held fake news conferences. Governor Schwarzenegger petted dogs and said he wanted to "pump up" those who lost their homes. President Bush swooped in for one of his worthless photo ops. Fingers were pointed on all sides. Too many lost everything.

It's hard to relate what all this looked like. I only experienced the fallout and saw the smoke from a distance. I wasn't near the fires, so I didn't have first hand experience with the center of this overwhelming event. But it was my first experience as a new resident of L.A. with the vitriol this town gets. Too many people on the outside of this disaster shrugged it as another problem of the overpriveleged. So what that Malibu burned. So what if all that high-priced real estate was leveled. And, of course, there are those who believe Southern California deserves such things for being a haven of sin. Say what you will about over-development of southwestern desert areas, or of depletion of the water-table, or poor forestry practices, or natural burn cycles conflicting with human populations. I understand all that and more. Enough of my midwestern, outsider smugness comes out time and time again. But I'm certain there weren't 950,000 celebrities evacuated from their homes. And I'm certain no one deserved any of the fear and devastation.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Whaddaya think?

Woman: "I have a tattoo of a rose on my hip. I got it because my maiden name is Rose."

My Mother: "My maiden name is Johnson, what should I get?"

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Petition for Dissolution v. Negative Space

Recently, I was forced to consult an attorney on some unpleasant matters. I had been given, by the Circuit Court of Cook County, the task of completing and filing a sizable stack of legal documents on my own ("pro se" they call it) within a certain deadline, yet it sat on my desk, a coded mystery, as the deadline approached...and went. I poured over the whereases and wherefores many, many times, the words of another attorney ringing in my head like the non-chalant rap of a knife-juggler: "it's really simple". This is never true, except for a lawyer. And it shouldn't be, considering the weight of responsibility inherent in legal documentation. (Legal matters, like knife juggling, should always come with a disclaimer: Don't try this at home. Consult a professional.)

Now, I'm not always a stupid guy and have done a lot writing and filing of business papers over the years. But there was enough confusion that my eyes continually lost focus and frosted over with a thick, waxy haze, while certain areas of my brain went black, and I would regain consciousness, wandering with hollow purposelessness down Clark Street muttering "zoo!" So I sought a lawyer. I just didn't know if I was doing it correctly. I didn't need much from her really, only the equivalent of a cheatsheet to crack the code and a tissue to wipe the wax from my corneas.

"All right" she said immediately, automatically, as I handed her my papers, "first, you need to do this, this, and this, plus file two other documents..." rattling off notes rapid-fire.

"Wait, pretend I'm stupid" I said, (well, I didn't really say that, she already was.) "Slow down and write those out for me."

"This is Law 101" she replied.

"Yes, and you went to law school, not me."

"True" she smiled.

"That's why I'm here. What I do I do well, like you."

Knowing my occupation--I had had to write it on many of the forms--she sighed, shook her head and said "yeah, I've a close friend who's an artist. She keeps explaining it, but I still don't know what 'negative space' means".

"At least you know the term 'negative space'."

"But, I just cannot wrap my head around it"

From this moment our conversation changed tone. We were talking now as one professional seeking advice from another. This doesn't happen much. Too often I'm treated as an outsider--usually fine with me--even though most of my work is mainstream. But this instance of respect was welcomed as it eased my anxiety. I'd even say became a very pleasant meeting, despite the subject at hand. She mentioned her knowledge of the design profession and I my experiences with lawyers and law students. I got my questions answered.

As we shared stories of "the other side" it immediately brought up memories of another encounter many years earlier. I was standing in line at a cafe with a young woman I worked with. On the wall next to us was a painting. Next to the painting was a price tag. The young woman squinted at the tag and exclaimed "two-hundred, seventy-five dollars! That's SO expensive!"

"Not really" I replied. In my opinion it was too expensive for this terrible piece, but generally not for a painting of it's size.

"That's incredible!"

"Why?" I asked.

"Art should be free! Given to the world like a gift to be appreciated!"

"So" I said, "an entire lifetime of skill, knowledge, education, talent and personal progress should be given away for nothing?"

She laughed, embarrassed. "Yes!" Then she confessed she never thought of it that way

To her art was in impulse borne on something intangible called "talent". The thought process behind art stopped at the 'idea' and spilled out into the world with unfettered action, the depths of its meaning to be divined after. Though this may be true for the rare few, and though artists often strive for that level of immediacy it is a deep injustice to believe that because you don't understand how art is created and how the artist's mind works, it is not of worth.

I'm not talking about the commoditization of art when I say 'worth' (though I believe artists should be able to make a living doing what they do.) I'm talking about the impression by too many that art is superfluous to basic living, too ruled by things that lack structure like desire and the subconscious.

This attitude is most alarming to me in the area of education. When school budgets are tight the first to be cut are classes in the arts. Seen as extracurricular, entire departments disappear. Art is deemed unnecessary. This couldn't be farther from the truth.

Art--wether it's music, painting, dancing, theater, sculpture--is an essential language of our species. When we discuss the history of mankind, it is art that guides our knowledge and inquiry. Sculpture and drawing appeared at the dawn of man as a way to express the intangible, make sense of the real world, and create a bridge between thought, sensation and action. It is too simplistic to say that drawing and carving was the precursor to written language. Whatever it's purpose--fertility goddess, self-portrait of pregnancy, paleolithic pornography--the Venus of Willendorf was certainly not created solely of a lack of written language. It was meant to be held, not discussed. It was an expression unto itself.

At the highest level of thought is the highest level of artistic endeavor. The complexity of human life cannot be expressed well in balance sheets. It must be novelized, sung about, painted, banged out on the skin of a drum, needled into the skin of the arm, dramatized, carved out and made tangible. We create bridges between our thoughts, relationships and emotions through art. We make the slightest details of our world better through aesthetics. Anyone who scorns the 'creative' or 'artsy' should always remember that progress is fueled by creativity.

A good friend of mine has a better way of saying it: people don't realize we live in design. Everything we use, wear and dwell in has been made with aesthetic consideration, from modern loft space to military uniforms to street signs to books. In even the simplest cultures aesthetics are inseparable from practical considerations. Aesthetics give us cues to gender, political change, status, warn us against danger, provoke thought, examine the internal and external, change environment, describe God...

We cannot continue to cut budgets for arts education and expect a well rounded human experience. We cannot claim art to be a subculture. That would be false. We cannot dwell on the most narcissistic, or most over-payed as typical examples of the culture of art. That holds true for any industry. The appreciation of art is not pretension. Art relies on great skill, inutuition, thoughtfulness and experience. The professional artist is as valid a professional as any other. The nurturing of the arts in education is as essential as learning language.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


My first week in L.A. I got a job doing voice looping for an action film. A woman I know, a producer on the film, heard I was in town and called me in. In case you don't know what looping - or ADR - is, it's the replacement of dialogue and vocalizations on a film soundtrack after photography is completed. It's an important part of any film, and most pertinent to action films, where you have to cover the sounds made by actors getting the shit kicked out of them by the tough guy lead action hero. As an action sequence is cut together from many angles and takes, a stuntman or actor isn't going to go OOF! the same way each time.

Now, the tough guy lead action hero in this film is a bit passed his prime and now makes direct to DVD films. He's also a little overweight, and not as...nimble, as he used to be. I mean, he doesn't kick the bad guys anymore. He resorts to these furious little hand movements that are meant to overwhelm his opponent. He whisks his lethal paws around in front of the faces of his opponents and they flail their bodies around furiously...overwhelmed. The other actors were clearly doing most of the work. UGH!

Also - and I can't say this is because of his...lack of nimbleness - he has two sequences in the film where he sits down at a table and surprises the guys he doesn't care for with a move I call the "steak-knife-in-the-face". In one of these sequences he doesn't even get up from his seat, while his opponents thrash around all over the place. This might have been a cool premise when action guy was in his prime, but now it just seems un-nimble. HURKH!!

The steak-knife-in-the-face brings up another point. He uses weapons a lot rather than his lethal appendages, plus the element of surprise (nimble-deficient?), in ways that make him just look like a murderer. He's doling out his own brand of justice, but do you really murder a table full of guys for insulting a woman with sexually explicit requests? Hmmm...they were "bad guys" anyway, right? OOF!

I got to get beat up a whole bunch. At least vocally. It's not always easy matching the physicality and timing of the actors in action sequences, and though I've acted a lot since I was a kid, it's been awhile since I've done ADR and my voice skills need a little work. But it was a BLAST and I was called on to do some tricky individual work: multi-part ass kickings, such as "gun shot in the shoulder, fly back on casket, slump forward" and "elbow to the face, chop to the neck, punch to the solar plexis and flip on back". Also, I was very excited to get to work for my friend, the Producer, whom I had only known socially up until then and is one of the coolest, smartest people I know. This was a real breakthrough for her in terms of position and I'm really happy for her and glad to have been even a small part of it.


For Bella

"You should keep a daily blog about your move!" she said. "Blogging is good promotion" she said. "You should definitely blog about this" she said.

Okay. Though I'm dubious about the "promotion" part I'll write stuff here for the entire world to see in perpetuity. Because I'm that interesting...

I just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, and my friend Bella, a formidable blogger herself, encouraged me to chronicle the transition, beginning with the road-trip that brought me out here. I began writing daily about the trip for myself, but I found it to be so bone-deep exhausting that reliving it so soon just made me more exhausted. And re-living it in daily detail made it worse. Big picture is better.

Chicago to L.A. in 4 days. I had planned on making it sooner but my father insisted on coming with me. He's 71 and not in great physical condition so we had to take our time. When he initially invited himself he believed he would drive my car and I would drive the truck. No way. I knew my car would be too small for an overweight elderly man with a fake knee to be crammed into for 7 to 9 hours a day, four days in succession. So he drove the truck. He also insisted on taking the Northern route through the mountains. He didn't want to drive through the desert. Full truck. Old man. Mountains. Slo-o-o-ow. Now, I drive a little 4 cylinder, so it's not that zippy in the mountains either, but it can manage better.

Needless to say, I was a nervous wreck because of him. His driving reflexes aren't too great anymore, nor is his eyesight at night. At one point, on our first night, he slowed down to 30mph on the interstate looking for our turn-off. Trucks whizzed by, engine brakeing, annoyed. This would set a tone for the rest of the trip. But I'm glad he came with me. I knew it was his last chance at a good, long road trip (I know, that sounds like he's died, but he said so himself when we arrived in L.A.) . He has always traveled a lot by car and never flinched at taking a cross-country trip. This is something he and I share.

When I first went to college at a small school in San Diego, my father wanted to go with me then, too. We took the train. I only had a few trunks and boxes of stuff so I shipped them ahead. My father reserved handicap accessible sleeping quarters for us, which were a little bigger than most and had their own toilet, so I was very grateful. It was my first time through the Southwestern desert and I marveled at it. The train tracks were nowhere near the highways so the night was completely dark except for the stars. The colors of the landscape were stunning. At one point a coyote ran along the tracks with the train for about a mile. It was all very exhilerating for a midwestern boy. I can't say that my father and I became closer then because of our interaction. Though he told me some stories about growing up and being in San Diego when he was in the Navy, we didn't share too much. We became a bit closer solely from taking the trip together. After our arrival he stayed a couple of days with me then took the train - the northern route this time - back home. He left a long letter with me before he went, an extrememly personal and emotional statement of good wishes and pride. For the first time in my life I had gotten a glimpse of my father as a young man my age.

On this trip, in what should have been the most beautiful part - the drive through the mountains of Colorado then the highest elevation in Utah - we hit torrential rains, adding further to my father's and my anxiety. It was white knuckles and full bladders all the way. On day four, our last, just as we entered Arizona from Utah, the resonator dropped from my exhaust pipe uner my car. On a Sunday. In the desert. My little four-cylinder chugged through the mountains with the deafening rumble of a dozen Harleys openining up full throttle. With some fortune we found a small town with a small auto shop that was actually open. They had no welder available that weekend however, but at least the mechanic was able to rig the pipe so it wasn't dragging on the ground. I had three-hundred miles to go. The sound was almost unbearable, and my whole body was rattled but I pressed on. My friend Dianne called me on my cell phone as I passed through Las Vegas, and she laughed that great laugh of hers. "White trash! Leaving Las Vegas with your exhaust hanging on the ground!" Yeah, yeah. Made me smile.

The traffic from Las Vegas to Los Angeles that Sunday was INSANE. The weekend gamblers from Southern California were all going home. It was 300 miles of solid cars, trucks, SUVs. And me, my Dad, my white trash ride and the truck. Ugh.

Though we arrived later than planned because of the car repairs, we made it in time to watch the Bears lose. My father confessed that the trip was harder than he expected, but he also said he was really proud that we did it. I, too, was really proud, as so many times before with my father. It was a very affecting journey of giving and taking the lead, of worry and confidence. My friend Donald and I recently talked about parenting the elderly parent. I got my first taste of that on this drive, but only in the slightest way. My Dad was still my Dad, remaining "in charge" and incredibly strong, and I'm glad.

This is, indeed, the short version, though I'm not sure it seems that way. So much more happened in those four days and the few days after arriving (don't ask me about the "pig rig"), but this is the big picture. This is how I'll remember the trip. I'm so grateful I made it for so many reasons.

So, Bella, it's a start.