My month of non-stop fathering is coming to an end. Noah is packed and ready to leave. Oskar starts school tomorrow. In a few hours I will be alone.
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.
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.
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?”
“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?”
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
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.
QUITTING THE PAINT FACTORY
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
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.