It Might Be Gaining On You

I saw “Don’t Look Back” for the first time when I was going to school at Berke­ley. It was play­ing at the great old UC The­ater (the same place where Wern­er Her­zog ate his shoe) as a mid­night movie. I was liv­ing kind of far away from cam­pus (which can be said for every school I ever attend­ed) so I drove my car. I remem­ber leav­ing the the­ater with my nerves jan­gling and ideas fly­ing out of my eyes. I had seen ver­ité doc­u­men­taries before but noth­ing hit me like this one. And I loved the title, maybe even more than I loved the movie. Nico­las Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” had a title that car­ried a dread­ful promise that the movie deliv­ered exquis­ite­ly. But “Don’t Look Back” was clean. Stop liv­ing in the past. There are no answers behind you. Just live. I couldn’t get those words out of my head. But why do I remem­ber this 25 years lat­er ?

Well, because while dri­ving home after 2 in the morn­ing, I ran a red light and got a tick­et. This led to traf­fic school a month lat­er at the Sheriff’s sta­tion around the cor­ner from the the­ater on MLK Dri­ve. And I remem­ber that par­tic­u­lar monot­o­ny for two rea­sons.

First, I remem­ber the Sher­iff want­ed to kill time by ask­ing each of us what we did wrong to end up in traf­fic school and how each of the thir­ty or so peo­ple in the room made sure to explain that although they were cit­ed for this or that infrac­tion, they actu­al­ly didn’t do it ; the Sher­iff didn’t seem to find this hilar­i­ous, and when it was my turn, and I said “I ran a red light,” he asked me, “And.…?”

That’s all. I did it.”

He rolled is eyes and said, “No shit.” I had thought he’d be impressed with my will­ing­ness to admit my guilt, but he clear­ly thought I was a dick for not play­ing the game. I didn’t under­stand this at all then, but I can see his point now. After all my answer only burned 30 sec­onds of the 8 hour class. If I had lied and protest­ed my inno­cence it could have tak­en a full 3 min­utes — maybe more if some of my class­mates pre­tend­ed to not to under­stand my sto­ry and asked ques­tions.

Sec­ond, a woman sit­ting next to me hand­ed me some home made brown­ies after the halfway break. Berke­ley. Brown­ies. You get it. I didn’t, though, and by the end of the fifth hour, I was trip­ping balls. I kept try­ing to get her atten­tion to ask her what the hell ? But she had decid­ed to spend her wan­ing hours of san­i­ty doo­dling on the back of her hand. At that point I had nev­er tried any drug, and I’d been drunk exact­ly once. Now I was hal­lu­ci­nat­ing in the Sheriff’s Depart­ment. Plus I had to dri­ve home.…

I under­stand the con­tra­dic­tion here. I just wrote that I adopt­ed the phrase “Don’t look back” as a per­son­al cre­do, and here I am turned all the way around. But the truth is, I didn’t real­ly adopt that idea so much as I real­ized I could use it to explain my already selec­tive mem­o­ry.

I can remem­ber that film — Dylan putting up with and shut­ting down reporters, Dono­van, Baez, and syco­phants, Dylan tear­ing a hole through the silence at Roy­al Albert Hall — and I can remem­ber that late night tick­et and all that traf­fic school jazz. But I can­not remem­ber the names of any of the friends I made there, or the name of the kind and sad wid­ow who rent­ed a room to me. I can remem­ber spilling a buck­et of paint on her floor while prim­ing the trim. I can remem­ber watch­ing Mia­mi Vice with her one night when she was cry­ing, and I can remem­ber rid­ing in her Porsche as she raced through Oak­land where her hus­band used to work, but I can’t recall her name. I remem­ber my par­ents divorced that year, but I can’t remem­ber my reac­tion to the news. I remem­ber being crazy about a girl who didn’t want to be with me any­more, but I can’t remem­ber why. And if I were to ask my fam­i­ly or friends (if I could recall their names) about that year, I’m sure they would have sto­ries of things I did or said that I will be news to me.

So it has always been easy to turn this strange mal­a­dy on its ear : “The past is done. The future is lat­er. What mat­ters is now.” Mem­o­ries are for chumps. Inter­nal­ize and get on with it. That kind of brag­gado­cio coa­lesced nice­ly with anoth­er cre­do I had grown fond of : bold­ness and igno­rance. You can slide through life pret­ty nice­ly like that for a few years, but soon­er or lat­er you will run up against some­thing clas­sic (betray­al, dis­ap­point­ment, fail­ure, loss, death, and so on )and just implode.

The thing is, Dylan nev­er said “Don’t look back,” in the film, nor did he ever, as far as I know, espouse liv­ing a life with­out ref­er­ence, all now and no then. In fact, I learned much lat­er that D.A. Pen­nebak­er took the title from base­ball leg­end Satchel Paige’s sixth rule for stay­ing young : “Don’t look back, because some­thing might be gain­ing on you.” The depen­dent clause will bite you in the ass every time.

And if you think about it, it’s bad advice. A very smart guy I know used to say that “it’s not enough to plan where you want to go. Check your mir­rors, because what you fear the most might not be ahead of you — it might be com­ing up from behind.”

That’s some­thing I’ve learned slow­ly, lat­er than I should have, but ear­ly enough to still do some good. Look back, I’d say, because some­thing is always gain­ing on you. At least that way, you stand a fight­ing chance of get­ting out of the way.

No Guru No Method No Teacher

It’s the last few hours of 2012 here in Cal­i­for­nia, and I’ve got some res­o­lutin’ to do. I haven’t post­ed any­thing in over a month because I had begun to think of this as a port­fo­lio of (almost) fin­ished pieces. That is just intim­i­dat­ing enough to ensure I will nev­er write here again.

1. I resolve to treat this as the web hus­tle it deserves to be : good, bad, and hasty writ­ing will co-min­gle. Quan­ti­ty is qual­i­ty here at the dog.

2. I will bus­tle 3 times a week. Let’s see how quick­ly that goes south. But it might not. I have also been keep­ing a jour­nal, and late­ly my entries are ten to fif­teen pages each. I find that writ­ing is the best way to write more.

3. I resolve to be a work­ing writer again. It’s tak­en most of a year for my fac­ul­ties and my ener­gy to bub­ble up to the sur­face again after all my super fun crap­pums of the past decade. Five years ago, I wasn’t able to hold a thought long enough to write it down. A year ago, I was micro-nap­ping so furi­ous­ly that I couldn’t fin­ish a para­graph of even the most basic prose with­out hav­ing to come back to it sev­er­al times. Late­ly, I feel how I felt when I first began to real­ize I love to write : I’m myself. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to tell that I am a writer, and that deeply grat­i­fy­ing sense of being where I belong has returned.

I am fifty years old and I am all promise and very lit­tle show to this point. It’s nasty to real­ize most peo­ple my age have either reached the zenith of their accom­plish­ments or are near­ly there. I can­not think about things like that if I want to do any­thing great. Don’t look back. But the truth is I am about to be seri­ous about my work for the first time in my life.


The Ultimate Driving Machine

Mon Truck­er Mag­nifique

I am fifty years old, and I am fat. Not mid­dle-aged thick, not suck in your gut for pic­tures. I am Fat­ty d’Fat Fat, Lord Fatisi­mo of the Great and Wide Fat­ties. I am also male, most­ly white, most­ly Irish by way of the South, and I grew up a non-prac­tic­ing Epis­co­palian in the north­ern sub­urbs of Los Ange­les Coun­ty. Which makes me both obso­lete and redun­dant. I’m also part Venezue­lan, part Catholic, part Jew (how else can I explain my Irish Catholic pater­nal grandmother’s maid­en name : Lowen­stein?), and part Mor­mon.

The Mor­mon part is of my own doing. I joined the Mor­mon church when I was 17, and I left the church 13 years lat­er. I say that I am still part Mor­mon not because of any ves­ti­gial beliefs I might be wag­ging behind me, but because my two sons Hunter and Noah were raised in the church. Hunter’s rejec­tion and Noah’s embrace of the faith are both part­ly results of my choic­es. When you are a father, no deci­sion you make can be unmade. I can play music mod­er­ate­ly well. I can­not whis­tle. I sing poor­ly, but I sing much bet­ter than I should because I have tried all my life. I wish I could sing bet­ter, but it’s a great plea­sure to hear Noah sing so well. Oskar sings too, and while Hunter nev­er sings in front of me, he whis­tles with a per­fect pitch and a gor­geous tone.

I love most sports but I cant play any oth­er than base­ball. I did not exer­cise what­so­ev­er until high school. As a result entropy and resis­tance to fit­ness are my nat­ur­al modes. But how­ev­er unlike­ly, I fell in love with bicy­cles when I was a kid. My first bike was a Peu­got 10 speed, some­thing like this :

My Scout troop went on a two day 100 mile ride, and inex­plic­a­bly, I smoked every­one else in my troop, includ­ing the adults. The sup­port truck had to find me and tell me to slow down. Con­tin­ue read­ing


I hate every name that describes what I love. Cin­e­ma. Maybe it’s that final “ma” syl­la­ble (just like dra­ma) but I sound like a douche every time I try to use it seri­ous­ly. Plus it’s one of those names for inex­plic­a­ble things that comes through the util­i­ty door : the ear­li­est machines that both record­ed and pro­ject­ed the mov­ing images were called cin­e­matographs. Lat­er, the halls and the­aters where they were exhib­it­ed were referred to as cin­e­mas. And of course, the law of lin­guis­tic metas­ta­sis requires that even­tu­al­ly such a name will become the short­hand for the entire expe­ri­ence.

Film. Ugh. You can almost imag­ine where this one came from — “I loved watch­ing your mag­i­cal light show. But how did you con­jure it?”

I ran a bunch of pho­tographs strung togeth­er fast enough to cre­ate the illu­sion of motion.”

Hot shit. But how did you get it on the wall ? I thought pho­tographs were opaque.”

Yup­pers. Instead of paper I used trans­par­ent cel­lu­loid with a thin film of sil­ver emul­sion that allows images to be pro­ject­ed with a light source.”

What the…? You made mag­ic with a film?”

Okay, sure.”

Sick. Got any films with asso­cia­tive dialec­ti­cal mon­tages that resem­ble Marxist/Hegelian philoso­phies enough to claim a new rev­o­lu­tion­ary art form ? Or, if not, any films with naked girls?”

I’ll check.”

Using the word film to describe the art form is like call­ing nov­els pages or paint­ings can­vas­es. And film­mak­er ? Even the teenagers mak­ing lattes at Star­bucks have cool­er names than that. Then there’s the word I use the most : movies. It’s corny and grace­less, and it cre­ates a false dif­fer­ence between films and movies. But the one thing it has going for it is accu­ra­cy. As Dieter said to Eddie Mun­ster on Sprock­ets, “Susan Son­tag said that cin­e­ma lies at 24 frames a sec­ond, Eddie. Any com­ments?” Movies are still images sep­a­rat­ed by dark­ness, mov­ing fast enough to fool the brain into per­ceiv­ing motion. Does it mat­ter ? Prob­a­bly not.

Except wait, it does. Con­tin­ue read­ing

Quitting the Paint Store

This is an essay I read years ago in Harper’s Mag­a­zine. It’s hard to find now, but I kept it online. Our cul­ture val­ues orga­ni­za­tion, effi­cien­cy, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and hard work. This essay speaks to that sad con­di­tion.


On the virtues of idle­ness

By Mark Slou­ka

Harper’s Mag­a­zine – Novem­ber 2004 issue

I dis­trust the per­pet­u­al­ly busy ; always have. The fre­net­ic ones spin­ning in tight lit­tle cir­cles like poi­soned rats. The slow­er ones, grind­ing away their fourscore and ten in right­eous­ness and pain. They are the soul-eaters.

When I was young, my par­ents read me Aesop’s fable of “The Ant and the Grasshop­per,” where­in, as every­one knows, the grasshop­per spends the sum­mer mak­ing music in the sun while the ant toils with his fel­low formi­ci­dae. Inevitably, win­ter comes, as win­ters will, and the grasshop­per, who hasn’t planned ahead and who doesn’t know what a 401K is, has run out of luck. When he shows up at the ants’ door, car­ry­ing his fid­dle, the ant asks him what he was doing all year : “I was singing, if you please,” the grasshop­per replies, or some­thing to that effect. “You were singing?” says the ant. “Well, then, go and sing.” And per­haps because I sensed, even then, that fate would some­day find me hold­ing a vio­lin or a man­u­script at the door of the ants, my anten­nae frozen and my hills over­due, I con­found­ed both Aesop and my well-mean­ing par­ents, and bore away the wrong moral. That sum­mer, many a wind­blown grasshop­per was saved from the pond, and many an anthill inun­dat­ed under the gold­en rain of my pee.

I was right.

In the life­time that has passed since Calvin Coolidge gave his speech to the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of News­pa­per Edi­tors in which he famous­ly pro­claimed that “the chief busi­ness of the Amer­i­can peo­ple is busi­ness,” the domin­ion of the ants has grown enor­mous­ly. Look about : The busi­ness of busi­ness is every­where and inescapable ; the song of the buy­ers and the sell­ers nev­er stops ; the term “worka­holic” has been fold­ed up and put away. We have no time for our friends or our fam­i­lies, no time to think or to make a meal. We’re mov­ing prod­uct, while the soul drowns like a cat in a well. (“I think that there is far too much work done in the world,” Bertrand Rus­sell observed in his famous 1932 essay “In Praise of Idle­ness,” adding that he hoped to “start a cam­paign to induce good young men to do noth­ing.” He failed. A year lat­er, Nation­al Social­ism, with its cult of work [think of all those bronzed young men in Leni Riefenstahl’s Tri­umph of the Will throw­ing cord­wood to each oth­er in the sun], flared in Ger­many.) Con­tin­ue read­ing

The Rhizoid Amanuensis

When I first was thrown up against the the inter­net, I was in grad­u­ate school at USC in 1993. Stu­dents were giv­en elec­tron­ic mail accounts, though none of us actu­al­ly used them. I rarely sent nor­mal mail, and I couldn’t under­stand how doing it dig­i­tal­ly would make it any more palat­able. I for­get the par­tic­u­lars, but there was also a way to access an ear­ly ver­sion of the Mosa­ic brows­er, but again, I don’t remem­ber much that you could do with it oth­er than access the department’s phone num­bers and office hours. The 300 baud modem I had attached to my Mac Plus didn’t add any juice to the idea.

I’ve nev­er been a futur­ist, because I think nest­ed with­in that idea is a sort of unbri­dled opti­mism, and that’s some­thing I’m more sus­pi­cious of than prone to, but I could dim­ly under­stand the promise smarter peo­ple saw in the dis­sem­i­na­tion of inter­net access. Peo­ple like me, writ­ers, artists, musi­cians, would no longer have to cre­ate in iso­la­tion. We would be able to con­nect with each oth­er ; work could become com­mon to all of us, and each per­son would become an author of every work, a sort of rhi­zoid amanu­en­sis.

I do remem­ber one of the first web­sites I stum­bled across though. It was a col­lec­tion of vorarephil­ia fic­tion and art called some­thing like Swal­lowed by a Whale. I read sev­er­al sto­ries that all cen­tered around the extreme plea­sure of either swal­low­ing some­one whole or being swal­lowed whole by anoth­er. My mem­o­ry is famous­ly spot­ty, so for these sto­ries to be still so vivid today indi­cates how deeply they were scarred into my cor­tex. I didn’t real­ize it at the time, but that was already the begin­ning of the end of the promise of the inter­net and the begin­ning of some­thing much more famil­iar and dis­ap­point­ing.

Today, I write alone, in iso­la­tion, some­times by hand, some­times on an old type­writer, or some­times with the wi-fi turned off — a fire­wall between me and the world — and the idea of oth­ers tak­ing my work and turn­ing it into some­thing com­mon to all sounds like a shit­ty smart­phone com­mer­cial. I’m not nos­tal­gic, and I’m not opti­mistic. I am how­ev­er, deter­mined to make what­ev­er is left of the inter­net work for what I want to do. This is the begin­ning.