Excerpts from the Journal, Shanghai 2011

Sometimes first impressions are all we get. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in China, let alone Shanghai, so these reflections, formed after just four days, may kick around in my head for quite some time.

October 8

Second-story window view in the Jade Buddha Temple

Striking how much more intimate and compact these areas of devotion are. Western culture has us accustomed to expansive cathedrals and architectural feats to touch the heavens. Shanghai’s glorifying praise is to twenty-first century money — skyscrapers that stream colored lights like a nightly fireworks display, populating the Pudong, an army of freakish sentinels of finance and prosperity. But true temples? Religious devotion? Wooden buildings of two or three stories, a series of rooms holding statuary of no overly imposing size, carpeted in red cushions for brief periods of kneeling, incense burning, or admiration. Beautiful, intricate, but somehow secretive. Perhaps a remnant of private worship before the government made it okay to be spiritual again…

October 9

I joked with Benett this morning that we may have found the cure for his insomnia/involuntary early rising: cigars and alcohol.

My roommate is a fifty-four year old ex-New Yorker who has been living and teaching drama in Los Angeles for over a decade now. He’s enthusiastic, adventurous, and charming. His approachability (or apparent need for female company) had led to dozens of offers for “massage? sex massage? sex?” Always in that order. That, and the ubiquitous pressure by street vendors to sell watches and bags, is all we are ever asked in the streets. Continue reading Excerpts from the Journal, Shanghai 2011

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 8: Automatic Hatred For Stone Temple Pilots

My research tells me that the biggest smash hit of the summer of ’92 was “Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap! Upon listening to the song now, I have to admit I have absolutely no recollection of it. I must have heard it multiple times, but tuned it out (which doesn’t seem difficult.) That summer also saw the release of the Madonna song which gives this blog series its title. Is it on the playlist? Nope.

#68. “Human Touch” – Bruce Springsteen

Few artists are big enough to pull off the release of two new albums simultaneously. Guns N’ Roses had pulled it off the previous fall, and in 1992, Bruce Springsteen followed suit. The difference was, Use Your Illusion I and II were essentially two parts of the same big album. Bruce had recorded an album – Human Touch – and then, while insipiration was still running high, kept the tapes rolling for a hasty follow-up. Ironically, the afterthought album – Lucky Town – was to most people’s ears the superior one. Human Touch was polished and labored, whereas Lucky Town was loose and spontaneous. The biggest bright spot on Human Touch was its title song, an understated plea for making an emotional connection with someone. It’s a song I would come back to for solace in later, darker years. At the time, the video was just a constant presence on MTV all that summer, and I didn’t pay it much mind. (Pointless Note #1: Bruce’s E Street Band was on hiatus, so American Idol’s Randy Jackson plays bass on this song.) (Pointless Note #2: See above for correct use of the term “ironically.” It doesn’t mean “amazingly” or “coincidentally.” The more you know…)

If you’re a Spingsteen fan, don’t bother trying to turn a younger friend or relative on to him if he/she is below a certain age. The appeal of Springsteen is a very adult appeal, lost on anyone who hasn’t experienced a certain amount of real life. As a budding music nerd, I owned 1982’s Nebraska and 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. years before their themes had any true resonance for me.

#69. “Tears In Heaven” – Eric Clapton

Originally recorded as part of the soundtrack to the film Rush in late 1991, “Tears In Heaven” became the official Downer Song of 1992 as the centerpiece of Clapton’s massively successful Unplugged TV concert/album. When we weren’t debating over The Cure and Depeche Mode, Stephanie and I were agreeing on the awesomeness of Clapton. She had the Rush soundtrack cassingle of the song (see earlier entry for discussion of “cassingles”) months before Unplugged became the soundtrack of the summer of ’92. (The TV episode, that is. The accompanying album didn’t come out until late August. There’s a noticeable lack of crowd reaction in the video when he begins the number, because it was a brand-new, unfamiliar song at the time the show was taped.) An ode to his young son that died after a fall from an open high-rise window, “Tears In Heaven” was shamelessly manipulative and maudlin – but damned if it didn’t work. A testament to Slowhand’s songwriting ability, which is often overlooked in the rush to praise his virtuosity.

#70. “Remedy” – The Black Crowes

As the summer wound down, I needed money. The only person more obsessed with raw capitalism than me was Stephanie. Her father was a part-time salesman at one of the seedier used-car lots in Marysville. In fact, the only thing seedier than this particular lot was its associated used-RV center immediately adjacent. Some of the flagship Winnebagos nearest the street were OK, but as you penetrated deeper and deeper into the lot, the vehicles began taking on a distinctly Cousin Eddie “tenement-on-wheels” appearance. Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 8: Automatic Hatred For Stone Temple Pilots

Justice League #1

DC Comics unveiled the first issue in its “New” DC Universe (DCnU) yesterday, with the release of Justice League #1. Penned by fan-favorite Geoff Johns and featuring art by comics icon Jim Lee, this first installment in “The New 52,” the highly controversial and hotly anticipated reboot of DC Comics’ decades-long continuity, sets the stage for a new origin of one of the oldest superhero pantheons in pop culture. In an era where superheroes are big business, and the vast majority of comic book character introductions are being made via media other than comics, this fresh start has the opportunity to revitalize the DC canon. It has the potential to give a new audience the thrill of experiencing the magic of comics alongside generations of long-time fans who have been glowing in the burgeoning interest and exposure of their favorite stories. Instead of fresh, this first issue feels terribly stale. Comics, courtesy of inventive storytellers like Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and Geoff Johns himself, had been the inspiration for a decade of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. If this one issue is any indication, however, DC would prefer that their movies, cartoons, and video games influence the comics instead.

Continue reading Justice League #1

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 7: Cure-ination & Urination On Prom Night, and A Sad Interlude

First, A Sad Interlude…

#63. “Jeremy” — Pearl Jam

Jumping ahead slightly from where I left off, in the late summer of 1992, MTV began airing a video that kind of made all of us in the Yuba City area shift uncomfortably whenever it came on — it served as a reminder of the events of early May. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” was the last narrative (non-performance) video Pearl Jam would make for the better part of the decade. It depicts the violent suicide of a misfit child in front of his classmates. Thanks to some oblique editing, the video can also be interpreted as the “Jeremy” character shooting those classmates, which is the scenario that played out at Lindhurst High School on May 1, 1992.

Eric Houston did not have the fortitude to off himself, despite being a self-confessed miserable piece of shit. Instead he came to Lindhurst High School, about nine miles away from where I sat in Creative Writing at Yuba City High School, and began shooting. He killed three students and a teacher, and held eighty-five more as hostages late into the night, before being led meekly away in handcuffs.

It was the third day of the L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, so when an announcement came over the YCHS public address speaker stating that all students should go “straight home” after 6th period, I assumed that it had something to do with the tension and unrest that had been all over the media, and humming through the school, for the past couple of days. It had been a year of student protests and sit-ins for a variety of (mostly petty) causes — the infamous “Codom Man” incident was still fresh in everyone’s minds — so I genuinely believed that the YCHS administration was trying to defuse some kind of uprising by a group of mostly middle-class high school students acting in solidarity with disenfranchised inner-city African-Americans 400 miles away. As it turned out, it was the deadly situation rapidly unfolding at LHS to which they were reacting. Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 7: Cure-ination & Urination On Prom Night, and A Sad Interlude

Make Me a Mixtape

Hey Buddy: Win this Bearded Brian Bobblehead!

…and win this limited edition Brian Wilson bobblehead!

First off, let me thank Jimmy Chew for talking me into this year’s The Giant Race half marathon. And even after I said I’d run it, his incessant “have you registered yet?” reminders ensured that I got a bib number before it sold out.

Of course, it’s been a good long while since I’ve run any kind of marathon, full or half, and getting my legs up to speed has been a drag (especially since my old marathon training team has either moved to the east coast; given up running shoes for a bicycle; or just opted for the most sane alternative to running which is, simply, not running).

When training alone, scintillating conversation needs to be replaced with music. The iPod Shuffle figured to be a great running buddy: it’s lightweight, clips to my shorts, and holds two gigs of tunes. What really sold me was the way it could auto-fill itself from your iTunes library, guaranteeing an exciting randomized playlist and miles of “guess the artist” fun.

I went from thinking this was a clever little device, to thinking it was stupid, to thinking it was cleverly sadistic in the span of three runs. Granted, it’s been pulling from over 35,000 songs, but this miniature robot prankster somehow manages to jumble in as many forgotten spoken word tracks, bluegrass banjo disasters, and instrumental lullabies that it can find on my hard drive. Instead of having fun being surprised by a song and wondering, “who sings this again?” I yank out my earbuds wondering (sometimes audibly, which can be embarrassing if there are other runners about), “what the hell is this and why was it on my computer?”

Continue reading Make Me a Mixtape

Grant Morrison’s Supergods

It should be an easy question to answer, a simple topic to elaborate upon. I love comics, and I love talking about the medium. And despite the fact that some of the best, most literate expressions of this artform have nothing to do with superheroes, I can’t ever deny the deep-seated passion I’ve had for capes-and-tights adventures since my first Avengers so many decades ago. But – why superheroes? What is it about this mythic cross of science fiction and fantasy that had not only enthralled me from a young age, but has also turned into huge business, dominating popular culture in movies and video games in the twenty-first century? Should be simple to answer. Shouldn’t it?

Grant Morrison, one of the most renowned and respected comics writers of our day, is far more equipped to tackle this subject than I. Thankfully, at least, as his new book Supergods shows us, I wasn’t wrong in thinking that there is no simple answer to the question. I’m just as thankful that the exploration of superhero culture, in his capable hands and guided by a life similarly captivated by the genre (as well as being twisted through years of genuine chaos magic and intense psychedelia), is a tremendously fascinating and rewarding one.

The "demigod" begins his journey to "pop deity"

Supergods explores the history of superheroes, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation of Superman in 1938 through the modern era and the infusion of superheroics into the “real world,” both in Hollywood’s forays into more realistic portrayals, and the advent of real world superheroes, like Portland’s Zetaman and Atlanta’s Crimson Fist. As each decade and each era is explored, Morrison beautifully connects current events with the responses of popular culture, demonstrating how the world of comics, and superheroes specifically, became both accurate reflections of the times as well as prescient oracles of developing fears, dreams, and ideals.

Continue reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods

Excerpts from the Journal, Italia 2010

It’s been little over a year since my most recent trip to Italy, which means I’ve already started thinking about how soon I can get back. The da Vinci-esque scrawls that fill up my Moleskine on traveling adventures are perfectly useless (and not just because of the illegibility) as a guide through foreign cities, but chronicling ruminations and observations about anything interesting in our lives is an Idle Time virtue, and one which I ceaselessly promote.

June 29, 2010

A week ago today we made our first trip into Firenze. The five of us, led by Margaret (our rental car’s soothing British-accented navigation device), parked at Piazza Michelangelo above the city, fairly near San Miniato en Monte. As promised by my Rough Guides guidebook (I’m now a big proponent of RG — dispensing with the juvenile snapshot summaries of DK and weary of the snarky pretension of Lonely Planet), parking was free in the piazza, and for €1,20 each we could ride the bus into town (which, honestly, wasn’t that far… we could really have handled a lot more walking on this trip…)

I was happy to show the kids (and Matt) what I remembered from my time here in ’06. Street-level, outdoor views of the Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Maria Novella, Ponte Vecchio, and numerous other churches that I had something to say about — all marginally interesting, and in play later that evening.

The interior catwalk, lower rung

The highlight — and easily the most memorable moment of our time in northern Tuscany — came during our exploration of the Duomo. After exploring the inside of Santa Maria del Fiore we decided to appreciate Brunelleschi’s accomplishment up close by forking over the €8 apiece to climb up into the dome itself. The stairwells were even narrower than the climbs in Siena; the exertion double what we experienced in San Gimignano. The initial egress put us on the first of two narrow walkways encircling the inside of the great dome. A sheet of plexiglass kept us from tumbling down the twenty stories onto the altar below, and above and all around us, the spectacular fresco of the Last Judgment in all its glory. Heads of demons and devils fifteen feet across were just above us — Hell being the lower rung of the artwork — tormenting poor souls with flaming cudgels and flaying skin from sinners’ bones.

Continue reading Excerpts from the Journal, Italia 2010

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 6: Schwing And A Hit

#43. “Alive” — Pearl Jam

Ohhh, Pearl Jam. The perpetual #2 in the Great Early 90s Seattle Band ranking. The Stones to Nirvana’s Beatles. The Wyatt Earp to their Tombstone. The Munsters to their Addams Family. Pearl Jam were much more open about their classic-rock influences than Nirvana, and P.J.’s slightly-less-experimental approach gave Nirvana the much sought-after credibility edge. Kurt Cobain once summed up Pearl Jam in one sneering word – “jocks” – the implication being that cool, popular guys like Pearl Jam were once the guys that beat up arty misfit punks like Nirvana. It was all a crock, of course — neither band really matched those reductive descriptions. It was all a part of a “feud” between the two bands whipped up by the media to sell the magazines that were beginning to pile up in the corner of my room.

Sometime in early ’92, I was cruising aimlessly around town on a Friday night in Brian Cunningham’s much beloved sky-blue Chevy stepside (mentioned in a previous entry.) Also on board was Jason Van Zant, a free spirit who favored floppy denim hats and those rough-hewn, loose-fitting hemp pullovers that I thought had a name, but I guess are just called “rough-hewn, loose-fitting hemp pullovers.” The proper social order was maintained, as I rode in the middle of the truck’s bench seat (as a junior) while Cunningham and Van Zant occupied the proper “adult” seats befitting their status as seniors. Van Zant was very into music, like I was, but his taste skewed a little more toward metal. He was one of those dabblers who always knew a few guitar chords and occasionally scribbled some lyrics into a Mead notebook.

“Vedder stole my thunder,” Van Zant was saying.

“Huh?” I asked, never having heard the name at this point.

“Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam. I’ve been working on getting that tremolo into my singing voice for years, and now this Seattle clown is making a mint off it.”

Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 6: Schwing And A Hit

The Passion of the Thunder God

At the EarthFair Festival in San Diego this past weekend, I was struck by the logo for the San Diego Pagan Pride organization.  All these pagan religions united against discrimination and prejudice, reminding us all the while that crosses and Stars of David are fine as religious symbols, but if you’re really looking for iconography to rally behind, consider the ankh or… the hammer of Thor!

Which then made me wonder whether or not the half-dozen or so people in San Diego who actually claim to be adherents to the Norse faith had any problem with Marvel Studios’ upcoming summer blockbuster. Was Thor being seen as a trivialization of their beliefs? An insulting depiction of their deity dealing with the modern world like, I don’t know… The Book of Mormon or something?  Or was this going to be their Passion of the Christ?  Would Teutonic neopaganists start losing their shit in theaters nationwide (starting at midnight on May 6, naturally) watching their God of Thunder suffer at the hands of the divinely crafted Destroyer armor? Continue reading The Passion of the Thunder God

This Used To Be My Playground, Part 5: Smells Like Teen…age Fanclub?

There are many pieces of advice floating around out there when it comes to dating, most of them grade-A horseshit. It’s in matters of the heart where human behavior least conforms to set patterns. (Matters of the crotch are where human behavior most conforms to set patterns, but that was still a couple of months in my future.) “The prettiest girl never gets asked out because the boys are too intimidated” was one old saw that came a-cropper with the Marla Berry Christmas dance invitation. “Girls are attracted to confidence” was another bald-faced lie. I was far more confident than my track record entitled me to be, and was getting skunked left and right. “It’ll happen when you’re not looking for it.” I never stopped looking for it, and it happened.

On Wednesdays and Fridays in Creative Writing, we put our desks in the “sharing circle” and read aloud our works in progress. When circle time came, I usually ended up next to a senior named James Williams on my right, and on his right was another senior named Stephanie. James and I had grown into a comfortable acquaintanceship, and he was clearly a close friend of Stephanie’s. I don’t recall ever saying a word to Stephanie before, mostly because she was a senior girl, and I didn’t quite pack the gear to talk to senior girls. One Wednesday in mid-December, James was reading some of Stephanie’s poetry aloud for her. For reasons described earlier, I was in a fairly irritable and snarky mood that month, and certainly ready to call any feminine prima-donnaism on the carpet, even if it was a senior. Continue reading This Used To Be My Playground, Part 5: Smells Like Teen…age Fanclub?