Sunday, August 16, 2009

How to Fix the Whole Wide World, part One

So, North Korea is back in the news, testing missiles, darkly threatening the world with annihilation, sending suspicious freighters hither and yon-- and quite uncharacteristically, freeing two imprisoned American journalists into the custody of ex-President Bill Clinton, acting as a Very Special Envoy. The Big Dog, as he can, made Special Envoying look effortless, securing the journalists' release in an American record few hour's time. Various right-wing sites have wondered darkly about what concessions Clinton gave to the DPRK. The reality is more prosaic: the 6' 2" Clinton, after making nice with a letter to Kim Jong Il, hoisted the 2 journalists to his shoulders and played keep-away with them over the soldiers (average height 5'4") all the way back to the plane. Pausing on the steps, he called out a cheerful "No backsies!", thus frustrating Kim Jong Il's order to recapture before it could even be given. Of course, the mainstream media has suppressed this, but my readers (and you know who you are) can handle the truth. Whatever the particulars, the journalists are now home, or maybe they are still stuck in Burbank Airport, from whence they did their obligatory but certainly heartfelt tearful press conference. While not that crazy about Burbank Airport-- technically the Bob Hope Airport, and thus only the second best airport named after a millionaire right-wing Hollywood icon here in Southern Alta Californgeles-- I can say with near certainty that the food there is better than in North Korea, where the national dish is false hope, lightly grilled. What i would have liked to have seen is the two of them, after their flight with Clinton, taken to-- wait for it!-- North Koreatown for their press conference, but apparently there are no great ironists at the State Department.

And now, Clinton's shrewd use of "No backsies!" thwarting their revenge, the North Korean government is quietly plotting-- well, something, of that one can be sure. They are determined to-- well, mostly continue being just what they are. Unlike Americans, who want to be all they can be, for instance. Can these two cultures ever find an accomodation? I think so, and I have an idea whose time has come.

Some years ago, I read some account of another journalist who had actually gotten permission (Getting permission? Now there's a concept…) to hang in Pyongyang and see the glories of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (first question-- are the People Democratic, or is the Peoples Republic Democratic? Discuss. Their missiles may not work terribly well, but the North Koreans can dangle a modifier with the best of them.). He described an urban moonscape-- being the only guest in a 40 story luxury hotel where the elevators didn't work, wide boulevards devoid of cars or pedestrians, all electric power shutting off at about 9pm. Most haunting was a crew building an automotive and railroad bridge spanning the river-- using only hand tools, because of the scarcity of electric power.

It was this last that got the international peacemaker in me out of his slumber. Building a bridge with hand tools may be a way of life in North Korea-- but it's a basic cable show here in the United States. If we have "Orange County Choppers", why not "Pyongyang Bridge Builders", the story of a crusty, emaciated ace with a rivet bucket, his wayward sons, and the crazy edicts that come down from the Ministry of Bridges or whatever they call it. Right there, you've promoted international understanding and world harmony, etc etc. And then, the part of the plan that I'm most proud of, we can send our "Monster Garage" guys abroad-- "You guys have to design and build a mass transit system in Ouagadougou, using only this donated ski lift and surplus Soviet-era mini-subs-- GO!" to rebuild the Second and Third World one project at a time. A sort of "Pimp My Democratic People's Republic", if you will, and I'm sure you will.

Some of these places are primitive, you say (and by "you" I mean a fictional strawman I can knock down)? We have people with more money than sense who have become experts in the same "primitive technology"-- any primitive technology you could name! We have mead brewers, artisanal pickle makers, constructors of Stirling engines of any size! Why should our Marines have to rebuild what they just knocked down, when we could recruit a volunteer corps of bisexual hipster steampunks who would be only too happy to work with actual Edwardian-era power stations. To arms, bisexual hipster steampunks, you are America's new foreign ambassadors! And let Orange County Choppers open a satellite office in Kabul! Let freedom ring from a thousand robot street sweepers, a Zeppelin bus system, escape pods from sinking island republics, all courtesy of the good old US of A! We can stop being the largest weapons exporter and be the world's largest exporter of retro-cool gearhead geekism. A big step up, if you ask me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Papa's got a Brand New Bag

(Author's note: just to be perfectly clear, I am not a dad YET. In another month or so. It's a little like waiting for Godot, but at least we know where the baby is.)

Papa's got a brand New Bag, indeed. And in that bag, shiny inside the packaging, is Papa himself. My wife is giving birth to our baby, and I am going to have to give birth to a father, who is me and yet who is hopefully better, brighter and shinier and stronger. There are a million types of fathers here in the naked city, and no telling yet which one you are. I'm not cut out to be the one who goes out for cigarettes and never returns, because I don't smoke, but that's all I know. And I don't get to know, until it's all over, which means I never get to know, because we are starting a family, and it's never over. Until it is. I admit that watching a line of distant cousins flicker to extinction in a nursing home in Seattle played a role in my decision to become a father. And that decision will end up maybe reverberating down through my own family. Maybe I will make such a hash of fatherhood that vows of celibacy will be taken. Maybe everything my child does as a parent will be with me as a negative example fresh in his head. But adjustment is possible My wife can tell me that I'm coming on a little strong, or that toddlers really don't get sarcasm-- unless, of course, she's gone out for cigarettes. And even if she does, there are many ways of winning at parenthood. Sometimes it's being the best listener in the world and not saying anything. And maybe I fail that test, some of the time. But I can redeem myself later, when all that matters are the four most important words I will ever say: "Look out! Runaway bus!" . There are peaks and valleys of parenthood, is what I'm saying, and everyone goes in without a map.

Having no map, I must look for landmarks around me, to see if anybody has left me a message, scrawled on a rock, or in some freshly guzzled, still damp fifth of Jack Daniel's. There are none to be had, for at this stage, it seems, everyone has gone out for cigarettes. But I am starting fatherhood at the age that my pop, this kid's Old Grand-Dad, was when I graduated from college. I'm not sure that repeated cries for the kid to get a decent job are appropriate here, but I guess it can't hurt to get an early start, since I'll be retiring almost exactly when my son graduates from college, an all too literal example of the generational compact of Social Security. I am late to this party, as I am late to almost everything, or so it seems everywhere I look. Except for around my neighborhood, where wiry, greying dads push strollers with the stolidity of yoked oxen, or jog behind them, racehorses gone to stud, pushing their own Triple Crown dreams onto their kids while guiding their Quinny's around the Rose Bowl. If they can do it, so can I. Why this grey-by boom? Does maturity come so much later now? is it that maturity has always come now, and our previous generations of younger parents were even more terrified and clueless than we are? Or does the specter of the flame extinguishing itself finally give the necessary push?All I know is that in my own mind, at some point "not now" became "why not now?" and then each month without the child became its own anxiety: "WHY not now?". And then finally, relief on that score, and a whole new set of anxieties. And so on, from now until the end of etc. etc., see paragraph 2.

I used to think that making a baby was a kind of zero point for becoming a father,a useful lower bound ; for instance the courtroom question "Did you father that child?". But for me the first decision was to make a home for the baby in my life, to see if I had reached the point where I had to do this. Of course, these discussions weren't just for me, by me-- I would have been royally pooched if they were. Fatherhood begins as an idea, and it has to be translated into reality again and again and again and again. And in that translation, you go from being a father to becoming Dad.

See, fathers make only one thing: babies. There's always a father involved somewhere, whether smiling as you remove your clothes, ladies; or grimacing dutifully over a test tube and a copy of "Perfect 10". But everything that a man can do after that requires a Dad. Being a father is formal and abstract. You can die never knowing your father; but you'll never do that with Dad. Dad is informal as hell. Dad is concrete, not abstract. One thing would have made me a father. But being a Dad means to keep making things. As a dad to be, I have sat in on ultrasounds, massaged my poor wife's neck and lower back as some hedge against the discomfort of her steady inflation, helped put together a baby registry, done the dishes, cooked most of the meals, felt guilty about missing the breastfeeding class even though I'm not about to do it myself, and done the dishes again. And again. I have built walls, painted trim, picked up cribs and mattresses, found an antireflux pillow and have grown just a little bit with each task. I am ready to be a dad, dammit. I'm only missing the one thing that will tell the world I am.

But these are just names, people say, and by people I mean fictional strawmen who exist only to make me look good. But names are important. For me, mother and father are titles. But mom and dad are people, real people I know and love and probably put through hell at one time or another. You can father a child by mistake, but being a dad takes concentration and preparation and years of improvisation. A child can be a father, but being a dad means being an adult-- there I said it. The A-word, that most misunderstood, oft-euphemised, and belittled state, and the most necessary for the survival of the culture. The only phrase that's straightforward about it (“adult books” “movies” or “beverages” don't count) is “responsible adult”, which is made to sound as exciting as hi- fiber cereal. But it's thrilling, in its way. Being a responsible adult is the feeling you get when you first ride your bike without training wheels.

There are ceremonies and laws and rules of thumb to tell you when you have become a man, but rather tellingly, none that tell you when you've become an actual adult. For me that time definitively came a couple weeks ago, when me and my ripening honey sat kissing, legs wrapped round each other, on top of the brand new linoleum floor I had just laid down, in what is now "the baby's room". With each smooch I held her as tightly as her abdomen would allow, and I could feel my heart pounding and my blood rising , and I thought so loudly I wondered if the neighborhood could hear it : "Yeah, damn it, Daddy's home. He's right here. In our house, which is mommy's house and daddy's house. And this is the room that we decided was yours, and I made for you, because we love you, and I love you. I haven't met you yet but I love you and I wanted you to have this cute little room with its mommy-selected striped floor in Whispering Blue and Sahara, with the bright blue crib for you and the glider I got for mommy, 'cause all mommies need a glider, says so on all the forums and anyway it's great because it doesn't scratch up the cute striped floor-- that's your job, with the toys you'll have and that we'll help you play with. We'll have to see about the puppy, no promises there. All this is for you, and I do it because I have to and because I want to, because fathering is easy but being a dad is hard work and you have to be a goddamn adult to appreciate it, because one of the pleasures of adulthood as a friend of mine has truly written is getting as much pleasure from giving a gift as getting a gift. I gave you life, little boy to be, and now I must give you a life, and you must give me nothing but yourself-- well a secure retirement would be nice, but we'll have to see about that, no demands there-- so for now you just be you and I will give you everything I know how and we'll see how it all works out. Much love till we meet, Dad."

(a version of this piece was performed on June 13th in Los Angeles, as Part of the Lit UP! series. video may be posted shortly.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Some Lazy SOB with a Shovel

So. for the last little bit, since the project I was working on went away for rehab, I've been doing some unskilled labor around the house. It's unskilled because I'm doing it, aided and abetted by my Dad, who comes up and makes sure I don't kill myself with tools or effort. He has a lot more practice than me and a generally good sense of humor, which is what is needed when I pick up a hand tool. It's not all sweetness and light, as we have different ways about us. Dad is of the type who believes that working means actually doing something, anything, and if he has a hammer in his hand it is usually moving. Me, I prefer to analyze all my options before committing to any one of them, and thus I can usually be found staring at a project, my eyes burning a hole in the atmosphere, as I appear to be attempting to pound the nail with the power of my mind alone. Eventually my hammer swings, blows are landed, something happens. While waiting for that, Dad repairs to his coffee thermos, in which I have often wondered if there isn't something stronger, to salve the frustration at having to watch me work, or think about working. But we have been doing this for a while, and we have learned to complement each other-- my job is generally to say "Whoa there, Tiger", his is to say "Well, let's at least do something." So we have been installing some sweat equity, and nothing is more truly named-- a linoleum floor synthesized from coffee. cursing, perspiration and ham sandwiches; and currently a wall, taking place behind our garage, where we enact most of the travails of the ancient Egyptians, slowly moving block after block, with considerably less grand results-- two and a half feet so far. Well, they had slaves (They didn't? Damn it. Damn it to hell.). We have each other, and a "helpful brochure".

It has been an education, no thanks to the brochure. Everyone should do it at least once. This doesn't explain why I keep doing it, but the fact that I'm cheap and just a bit of a control freak probably will do for that. The thing is, despite the undervaluation of manual labor, its continual marginalization and defamation, there remain two facts about it: 1) it's necessary, and 2) it's hard. It's not just physically demanding, it requires skills that you and I don't have. There is nothing more humbling to the college bound youth than working along side someone who can really use a hoe. I've seen it, and I'll never forget it. That simple tool, bane of casual gardeners and reluctant lawn owners, can be wielded like a sushi chef's knife or sculptor's chisel. My painfully slow "improvements" just makes that memory burn brighter-- the merciless sun beating down on our six-person weeding crew, till finally this kid, an aspiring chiropractor no less, said "We'll never finish this like this. You guys take this half of the field, and I'll take this half." And he finished before us. It was a sight to behold.

And it is physically demanding as well. This wall has taken a lot out of me, and if sweat were equity, then I'd live in the Taj by now. But I had a realization that I really needed as I stood there, drooping off the top of my shovel like a wet gym sock, trying to find another breath somewhere. I had a picture of myself in my mind's eye at that moment, that I had seen a hundred times. Mostly, I'd seen it driving past highway construction sites or street work. We all have seen it-- some lazy SOB with a shovel, just leaning stock-still on the thing, taking what surely must be a long, lazy break. And I have taken this as proof of the decline of America's work ethic, or misplaced staffing priorities, or whatever. Well, now I have some idea of what might have been going on before I drove by and saw what I saw. SOB's with shovels, I owe you an apology. Take your rest, you've almost certainly earned it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Live Satire Alert!

If you've never seen the really huge trainwreck that is the Nosmo King live experience, come catch me, Nosmo King, tomorrow (Tuesday, March 24th) night at the YDFPFT show. It's at The Room, 1323 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica CA 90404, and it starts 9pm-ish. The entrance is around the back of the building, and the show is in the third room in. I was booked a long time ago for this-- let's hope they remember I'm on. If not, free guerrilla-style Nosmo King Show in the parking lot, or the Volvo dealership next door-- your choice! There will be other fully credentialled comedians on the bill, but let's face it, we know who the draw is here.

Lightening Up: Past Weekend Bicycling Blogging

(Author's note: My efforts to write the definitive post on the financial crisis and its criminality on a grand scale have frustrated me for so long that I just sat back and typed, and typed this. So there. It's a different side of Nosmo King, and obviously even I am uncomfortable with it somehow. Hey, I'm whimsical sometimes, so sue me. Or at least claw back my bonuses.)

So on a recent Saturday my wife was away, doing something mysterious and female, to which I was not invited because I am not female, nor mysterious (it's okay, it's fine-- I have long since come to terms with my chronic masculinity). So I take the high road-- literally, and go out on a bike ride. I just make it into the guttering light of a thick mist Angelenic evening, the kind that in the valleys turns into such blanket as might disgorge Sherlock Holmes. But it is too early for that, but I still wear my sparkly jacket and turn my lights to announce me, at least, if not mesmerize the motoroids with my dazzle. I am on my three-speed, a contraption that I built up myself from a mountain crank and a road frame, one that must be ridden hard or not at all, and was in fact not being ridden at all, because it needed fixing, because I made it, and it broke. Broke like Citigroup, broke like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Indy Mac and all the other Macs and Maes and owners of those buildings with signs in the sky . The difference being that those august institutions were supposedly built by experts, while, as I hope I've made clear, me (occasional) writer, not expert bike so much builder very. But this evening, while my spouse is having a girls' night out, my oneliest bike creation is fixed, and I am pedaling it to beat hell or at least traffic, up and down ,some big hills till I don't notice the slight grade that runs for a mile or more on the home stretch. I am breathing deep and rhythmic and I am deeply happy, the kind that you wonder if you should tell anybody about because inside you it feels like really big news, sensational, almost pornographic. And I wonder why I find that on a bike, moreso than other places, and why that feeling is important or desirable in modern Upper Losangeleswood. So, herewith, the answer to these and other pressing questions.
I labor in the picture business by day, making other people's movies more like themselves. And to do this, you live here, in America's second largest city, a place that people say nobody comes from even though one in thirty US citizens is either me or a fellow county dweller. This mega-city (literally one million cities, which I believe is an accurate description of Upper Losangeleswood) is built upon the promise of rapid motion-- jumbles of expressways replacing the largest electric rail system that ever was in the world-- and that promise is broken. The freeways are jammed eight hours a day, their feeder streets stopped cold, we weary drivers forced to try ever more obscure side streets and byways to keep our cars moving at all, because cars are like sharks-- once they stop they start to stink in a very short time. And our tempers fray, our minds frazzle as we move more of our lives into the cars, eating breakfast, applying makeup, frantically calling friends if we have them, therapists if we don't (yes, I know many people have both-- we need all the help we can get in this town). Into this school I swim, sans armor, on a delicate device powered by whim. I am a minnow among sharks taking my life in my own hands. I am vulnerable and I know it. And I am happy.
Happy because, while the promise of motion for cars in ULAwood is a cruel, sad joke, if you're on a bike it is alive and well. All the streets, even the tiny byways, are spacious, so much more than those in Pdxville, one state to the north, for instance. In a car here, I feel like my progress is suffocated by all of these other cars, all so manifestly on some frivolous errand , making my unbelievably important, life or death journey nearly impossible. But on a bicycle, I am always going as fast as I want. I have my sense of control back, and thus I feel free. Thus the happiness sensational, almost pornographic.
I think the cars sense this, which is why they hate us. But most of them don't hate us enough to want to kill us, or at least not so much as to raise their insurance. People have asked me if I'm scared to ride in traffic. No, I say, traffic means witnesses. Besides, it's illegal to ride on the sidewalk here, and at the speeds I go, downright unneighborly. So into the mix I go, happily.
Because the other reason I love to cycle is that it gives me a chance to do only one thing. I step out of my mobile breakfast nook/ phonebooth/ panic room and just ride. I have no Ipod, no radio, and I'm working really hard at not answering my cell phone. I have the freedom to do only one thing-- keep myself alive. It's better than any video game, the graphics are un-freaking believable, and the multiplayer engine is ssssweet. I'm still searching for the reset button, and knowing that there are no extra lives makes it-- well it makes it something, lemmetellya. You can't program something like this, nor would you want to. It's life at the speed of life.
I'm trying to get better about not doing this for exercise. The best thing I can do for myself is to bicycle, and the best thing I could do for the planet is to bicycle. If you're a typical resident of this city of the mind called Upper Losangeleswood, one of the only things that matter to the environment is reducing the amount that you drive. I've got a ready-made solution here on two wheels, but I do have commitment issues. I just need to commit fully to the notion of my bike as transportation, not just therapy. I need to stop making excuses for not doing it. Which, I realize –META ALERT! WRITING ABOUT WRITING COMING UP! LOOK AWAY IF YOU MUST!-- applies equally well to this blog. I need to stop making excuses for not doing it. I need to realize that the only thing that matters is increasing the amount of time I spend on it. I need to start using it to get where I need to go. So, some cycling blogging will probably become a semiregular feature her, in this small world of irregular features. I encourage you all to get out there on your bike, and go somewhere you were going to go anyway, or go someplace new. Everybody already has a screenplay; most people have a blog, but not everybody has a bike. Oh, and get a road bike, for crying out loud. You live on a road, you probably don't live on a mountain. To those of you on mountain roads, or mountain bikes, my sincerest apology.