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November Rain

American elections and Thanksgivings share much in common. Technically, one is biennial and the other annual, but the intolerable aspects of each often lead to participants skipping a year. A single Thanksgiving may pass without disruption, but if you divide them into four and eight-year spans, the likelihood of an explosive shit show increases exponentially. A good Thanksgiving follows a set pattern: polite hellos and greetings at the front door followed by “take your coat off,” cocktails sipped in initial moderation, and the bird served late afternoon. By dessert, things get notably looser, booze and tryptophan take hold, and opinions slip through the cracks of sobriety. The kids retreat to the family room to get high and make fun of the old folks. A bad Thanksgiving ends in total disintegration; profanity screamed, plates broken, accusations of lives ruined, etc. After enough eight-year spans come and go, kids assume the pathetic adult role (save that even more troubling uncle who persists in drawing cartoons somewhere in a corner), and the simulation continues. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Our Thanksgivings often pitted my father against my Uncle Ned. Ned was a dead-ringer for the ‘Anderson’ next-door-neighbor character on Beavis and Butthead. He was the “conservative” uncle, childless and married to my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Adele. He called her “Mrs. Hib” — short for Hibbert. My dad was a fairly conservative sort, too, but we all need extremes to cement our starring role in the Hero’s Journey. Next to Ned, Dad was Jane Fonda atop a North Vietnamese tank, smoking a doobie and telling the pigs back home to kiss his ass. The Thanksgivings I remember most were in the 1970s when the old man wore his sideburns long and favored high-heeled Florsheim dress boots. By evening’s end, the conversation inevitably turned to subjects like the draft, presidents past and present, and, from my dad’s increasingly emboldened perspective, Ned’s asshole views. Dad was drafted during the Korean War but never saw action, serving instead in the Signal Corp in Panama. He reckoned the best thing about the army was “it teaches you to take shit from assholes,” something he figured was inevitable in a life long enough lived. Ned had a deferment during World War II, performing what was considered an “essential” job as an executive at the American Can Company. Ned’s childless status and military deferment gave Dad what he considered moral high ground and license to pass judgment on his elder uncle and his hawkish views.  What did this never-drafted man know about the military and how could he share a father’s empathy for his sons?

Fortunately, none of our Thanksgivings ended in complete melt-down, and for this, I credit Uncle Ned’s steady demeanor and tempered approach. I’m not sure I would have fared as well, faced with my father’s increasingly animated taunts. “Oh bullshit, Ned, BULLSHIT. You were a draft-dodger. DRAFT-DODGER!!” The universe leans curiously toward equilibrium, though, and the old man soon had to endure my pre-adolescent, pitch-perfect imitation of him coming from the next room. “Oh fuck you, Wiseass,” he’d say before the de-escalating relief of laughter kicked in and Mom served the pumpkin pie and coffee.

It kind of feels like an eighth-year Thanksgiving these days, as we roll toward November, quarantined, masked, and a bit nuts. De-escalating laughter is in short supply, despite having more than enough to make fun of. I’m placing the blame on smaller families and the lack of alternate uncles. You see, my grandmother came from a large Catholic family with twelve kids (it would have been fourteen, had the twins not died at birth.) She had multiple sisters, my Aunt Alice among them. Alice was the elder and she was married to Uncle Mick. I never met Mick but he assumed legendary status in my mind via Dad’s stories about him. Mick was fond of the grape, didn’t care much for work, but had a caustic wit and razor-sharp mind. He could recite voluminous lines of poetry by memory and was a voracious reader. Aunt Alice was the bread-winner and had a job at Podesta Baldocchi, the famed San Francisco florist. One year, Uncle Ned decided to pull some strings and get Mick a job at American Can — a favor for which Mick never forgave him. I’m not sure how long Mick lasted at the can company, but my dad said his most remarkable career accomplishment was finding what proved to be an undiscoverable hiding place for his bottle of hooch. The circumstances of Mick’s death, some years later, were re-told admiringly in the family. The corner grocer was the last to see him after he’d purchased his daily bottle of vino. He’d died in the middle of his afternoon nap, the bottle half-finished, and a book of poetry resting comfortably on his stomach.

I’m not sure where the Ned-Mick story fits in with the approaching November election, but it makes for substantially more pleasant reading.

Toasted Corn Pops

Sometimes, I think it’s a shame when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain” – Gordon Lightfoot

California has three seasons. They are, to quote Bugs Bunny’s great adversary Elmer Fudd: Duck, Wabbit and Fire. We are currently in the latter, which means it’s time for our own more regal Fudd-proxy to shine. Now is when Governor Gavin Newsom dons his best Golden Bear khaki suit and, like some kind of reverse-phoenix, returns to the ashes. It’s a striking look for the tall, gel-haired, toothsome politician, and he knows it. Where former Gov and gap-toothed action star Arnold Schwarzenegger shone behind an oak desk with a stogie in hand, the current head of state prefers the subtle hue of an obscured sun and plenty of  Blade Runner gravitas. Newsom is also fond of the fire-seasonal, period-laden Preachy Tweet, like “Climate. Change. Is. Real.” It gives those cavemen Yorba Linda deniers reason for pause. Just out of the tweeting frame, beyond his well-coiffed bean, one can find failed, charred PG&E transmission lines that pre-date Gavin’s Redwood High days (my alma mater — home of the Giants!) by some forty years. Further still is acre after acre of crowded, toasted timber, and, in the ominous distance, motionless windmills upon golden hills. Finally, one finds Newsom’s denizens: powerless, hot, breathing smoked air, sitting in the dark.

As with pronoun preference and grievance qualification, there is no one answer to why the forests burn every year. California is a non-binary state and skies brown for a multitude of reasons. Climate change is the canopy and big top of blame, but underneath is a multi-ringed circus of triggers. Failed electrical infrastructure and unchecked timber (despite what the Sierra Club preaches) have provided plenty of spark and kindling. And PG&E, our electrical utility, is to corporate arson what Ted Bundy was to serial killing. Historically, the state has burned. But it didn’t always have forty million inhabitants. Native Americans practiced controlled fires and tended to keep their own tented McMansions on the reservation. That was a long time ago, though, and complexity abounds where the white man multiplies.

The important thing, in an election season, is that the Governor’s photo-ops keep coming. Between wildfires and wildfire-viruses, Gavin has plenty. To be fair I don’t know much about the man, besides his having an affair with his best-friend campaign manager’s wife and playing on the same Little League team as my childhood buddy’s kid brother. His ex-wife is currently dating Trump Jr, which lends sufficient insight into the world of political power. He’s family friends with the Gettys, which puts him on another stratum of Marin County elite. And he’s well-attuned to the first rule of politics: people always listen to those with more money, teeth, and hair. Add height to that trio and you’ve got gubernatorial, and potentially presidential material. Conversely, you’ve also got the potential for a colossal fall from grace, which tends to happen when you mix righteousness with abysmal air quality. It’s all about timing and message and Newsom has pushed his chips forward on shiny green deals and apocalyptic admonishment. Obviously, he has his sights set on loftier perches.

But enough of that. Everybody’s choking on the political these days. “Don’t leave home without a mask” has become “don’t leave home.” These scribblings are proof of just how fucked-up one’s brain becomes without the outlet of daily, moderate exercise. Small wonder those San Quentin inmates get so jacked in such short order. Thank God for the Joe Biden Corn Pop story.

Corn Pop, for the few who still don’t know, was a bad dude. He ran a gang at the same Delaware pool where Biden lifeguarded in his golden youth. Back then, you weren’t allowed in the pool sans bathing cap if you favored the Pomade, but the Pop wasn’t one for rules. This riveting hodgepodge of circumstances set up the great Joe Biden – Corn Pop Parking Lot Showdown of nineteen-sixty-something. Replete with rusty rain barrel straight-blades and bicycle chains, it’s a glorious, glorious tale, impervious to succinct retelling, even with the benefit of a laptop computer and time to think. So you can imagine where Biden went with it. For those who have yet to Google “Joe Biden Corn Pop story”, I urge doing so. There’s so little left to rise for on a smoky morning, but this one might just keep you going until skies clear. The highlight of the story (blink and you’ll miss it) is when Biden disses the Pop by referring to him as “Esther Williams.” Williams, a competitive swimmer and actress, starred in such delicately-titled motion pictures as “Million Dollar Mermaid” and “Dangerous When Wet” (don’t have to be Fellini to figure out that last one.) It just wasn’t in the cards for an urban-dwelling, swimming-capless gang leader to allow such comments to go unchecked. They aren’t allowing Biden to go unchecked these days, either, which I think is a shame (see Gordon Lightfoot.) Were I running things, I’d advise leaning harder into the crazy. It hasn’t hurt his opponent any and let’s face it — Crazy Biden is Fun Biden. Hell, the whole state’s on fire anyway.

Drop-D Blogging

How then, is it possible, to be abjectly miserable in a moment, yet still look back on that moment fondly and with longing some time later? Does time distort or lend perspective? And if time is an illusion, could neither be true? It’s all in line with my new commitment to commas and question marks. I’m tuned into some fairly smart people lately, many of whom are questioning reality to some degree. Turns out 98.6 is just the average. Truth is up for grabs. Institutions and those in charge of their upkeep are demonstrably untruthful. There is no losing argument so ubiquitous as “my guy is right.” It’s the guy in question that’s relevant. We’ve become comfortable with this reality in politicians, but when it extends to doctors, scientists, sports heroes, and brothers, the horizon can go askew. Cut to Julie Kavner telling Woody Allen “listen, kid, I think you’ve snapped your cap.” Time for a few weeks in Bermuda, indeed. If it were only safe to begin the boarding process.

Colin Hay, the Scottish musician who once fronted the annoying band ‘Men At Work’ yet turned out to be a bit of a genius, has this great songI Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” He plays it in an open, droning, drop-D guitar tuning, and it doesn’t have the kind of snappy, ca-chunk style rock n roll lyrics that I typically glom onto. But the airy, poignant, somewhat ambiguous way it carries on feels perfect for these times. Open tuning is a kind of drug for guitar players, a way of instantly changing musical perspective. Hay’s wife describes it well as “vague chords.” Keith Richards, who favors open-G, is perhaps the most famous practitioner, so it can ca-chunk just as effectively.  Anyway, it’s a beautiful tune. The “you” he can’t get over, like the tuning, feels open for interpretation: a woman, a dog, a place .. booze, chocolate, heroin. The song isn’t specific, though he does mention drinking “good coffee” every morning, and that grounds it (insert smiley emoticon.) There is no time marker so specific as when coffee bumps up to vice of choice. Perspective supplants vitality and jagged bits on the long road behind soften.

Blah blah blah, Ginger. As airy-fairy, hippie-dippy as the preceding may read, it’s actually less trippy than what I’ve really been pondering. I should emphasize ‘pondering’ as it’s more muse than prophet. And it’s the cereal of sci-fi, larping sorts, which has never been my breakfast of choice. Still, this idea of the ‘simulation,’ as it were, feels more plausible. “There, I said it” to quote the late, great Nancy Paweski. And, I’m using “as it were” even after ingesting strong coffee, so it’s all over. Still, has there ever been a time when ideas like free will and individual existence felt more tenuous? Or, put another way, is there a limit to how much absurdity can be ramped up? Look for both questions on the November ballot. As Governor William J Lepetomane says to Hedley Lamarr “haven’t you taken a giant leap away from your good senses?” But then they could never make that movie today. Maybe keep the open tuning, but switch over to G and some Keith Richards.

Real-Life Nephew Of My Uncle Marvin

A shout-out to the inimitable Scott (Coleman) Miller on this Fourth of July weekend for his response after hearing about protestors in London’s Parliament Square attempting to tear down a statue of Winston Churchill: “Wait until they hear about the other guy.” Miller’s dad, Artie, still going strong at 94, had some experience with the “other guy,” having parachuted behind enemy lines to liberate the concentration camps. Artie doesn’t talk much about it. Still, it’s interesting to think what the Schwarze Leben Zählen movement might look like today, had Artie not faked his age to serve his country. Miller’s long-time pal Tom Myers occasionally theorizes that “every subsequent male generation are bigger pussies than their fathers.” It’s a hard one to argue, though a bit daunting when I consider some of the pussies I grew up with. Personally, I couldn’t give a shit about statues, save the one of Robert Burns in Central Park. That’s the only statue-hill I’m dying on.

Independence Day, in all its hotdog-eating glory, is the last great American reminder to the world that we still plan to go down swinging. Most of that swinging has been between one another of late, though it’s still inspiring to see that our internal scuffles can have rippling global effects. It’s like the photo I saw after September 11th, with a crowd of Afghan youths burning an American flag, several of them wearing Spiderman t-shirts. We may be crap purveyors, but that crap has legs. This has been the traditional cycle: endeavor, fight, conquer, get fat, produce crap. These days it’s more likely a “crap app” but the concept still applies. July 4th is also a uniquely American holiday in its ill timing. That fireworks are featured prominently and at the peak of California’s dry-brush season seems appropriately counter-intuitive. As do starred and striped shorts and heaping mouths-full of potato salad.

I lived for a long while on Brooklyn’s Henry Street in Cobble Hill, not far from George Washington’s old stomping grounds. Just a few blocks down was the birthplace of Winston Churchills’ mother, Jennie Spencer-Churchill. It was an unremarkable brownstone with a plaque outside commemorating its significance. Churchill’s strong American ties and his particular fondness for New York made him OK in my book. He famously said “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.” It’s a clever quip and reminder of the lost art of the backhanded compliment. For this alone, I’d leave his statue up. But like the sign says, “Who Asked Me?” And wait until they hear about the other guy ..

Motion Pictures II

It was Prospect Park, Brooklyn, way back in the winter of ’03-’04. I lived in a tiny apartment in a converted mansion that was once the home of Thomas Adams, a chewing gum pioneer. Like most broken men trying to find themselves, I didn’t realize that I was already there. Alone, facing the future in a strange place, but right where I needed to be. Snow mounted outside but the steam heat worked and the sun would pour in the parapet window pure and strong. The black coffee was strong, too, and I’d sit and type away, occasionally hitting on a few good thoughts. Then I’d wrap myself up to the nines and go run around that park in the freezing air, pushing forty but in the best shape of my life, cheap earphones plugged into my tiny MP3 player loaded with a few choice tunes. The one that stuck out was Neil Young’s “Motion Pictures” from the album “On The Beach.” Not exactly the kind of fire-up music one typically associates with running in sub-zero temperatures but it fit perfectly. “All those headlines / they just bore me now / I’m deep inside myself, but I’ll get out somehow ..” And I suppose I did, eventually, and have been trying to get back inside ever since.

The small MP-3 player was a precursor to the iPhone that would soon follow. MySpace was about to be supplanted by Facebook and Google had yet to take over the world. I had a small platform on a website for New York “newcomers” and soon anybody who owned a phone would have a platform. Youtube was a year away; Twitter, Periscope and Tik-Tok were all on the distant horizon.

And so here we are and there’s no going back. No putting the proverbial genie back in the smartphone. If ever there was a good time to shut it all off and go for a run it’s now, but there is no shutting it off. This was always the cautionary tale that came with Artificial Intelligence — it can’t be unplugged or disabled. And it has run in perfect conjunction with the dumbing down of society. Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” from 2006 seems wildly prophetic and a particular George Carlin quote keeps coming up and back: “Think of how stupid the average person is and realize half of them are stupider than that.” Idiocy is elevated and celebrated. Those pointing out the idiots are bigger idiots, still. It’s all reminiscent of the finale for that last, great bit of western art, “The Sopranos.” Agent Harris, hearing that Tony Soprano’s principal rival Phil Leotardo has been killed, exalts “Damn! We’re gonna win this thing!”  Of course, by then it’s all over and an abrupt cut to black is just around the corner.

So how close are we to that abrupt cut ourselves? I’d say it all hinges on our last chance to unplug and whether it’s already passed. Every source of news and information is infiltrated by complete bullshit at present. We’re looking into the other’s eyes to get a true sense of where we stand, faces covered with masks, and standing six feet apart. All advice seems bad, all leaders un-trustable. We’re all Agent Harris, hoping our personal dark horse might win the race.

The Neil Young song was and still is perfect. It made me think of my dad back then and how it might be a good anthem at his funeral. Motion Pictures. People still use the word — “film” — without a trace of irony. They “filmed” that guy in Minneapolis being killed; “filmed” some guy caught up in a riot, getting his head split open. Even its replacement, videotape, is obsolete now. Thus the double-irony of those thinking they’re using that one correctly. Everything is, appropriately enough, ones and zeros. Pick a number, pick a side.

Dad died a few years back and I didn’t play the tune at his funeral. But it went off well, none the less. Neil wrote the song for Carrie Snodgress, a young love. I suppose there’s always hope.

Burnt Offerings

America is burning. It isn’t the first time and won’t be the last. This particular burn comes at an unfortunately opportune time given what preceded it. As a people, we’re drawn to the flame. It’s what our predecessors gathered around to tell stories and what we keep in the window when a loved one goes missing. And, on occasion, we like to let it run its course as a kind of reset, which was the path we were on anyway with this virus.

As to the cause of this specific burn, I’m unqualified to comment. There was a spectacularly stupid and egregious act committed .. but hey, this is America. They would have fit “egregiously stupid” in the national anthem had “rockets red glare” not taken up so much space. As a white guy, I’m being instructed to shut up and listen, which seems appropriate. Somebody might have added something about keeping an extinguisher at the ready, but that’s OK. Had I identified someone who looked much like me as the victim at the center of this and other similarly offensive acts, I wouldn’t be happy either. Ironically, many of those asserting that white people need to shut up and listen are white people themselves. Some of these same white people are feeding and even instigating the current burn. And while I’m quite certain that the “racist” brand fits me as well as anybody, most of my objections these days are centered around other white people. So, you know, fuck ’em.

If the above seems unapologetically cynical, it is. Human beings policing other human beings is an inherently flawed yet seemingly necessary concept. I have mixed feelings about cops myself and, were I black, I suspect that mix would be all the more tumultuous. There’s nothing I value more than being left alone and on that front and many others, I’m lucky to have been born white. There is a multitude of ugly shit in this world; violence, betrayal, crime, the breaking down of cells as we age. Richard Pryor had a bit on why he stopped using the most volatile of all American racial epithets in his act. He said something like “being human is hard enough without ‘nig**r’” I thought that was a decent sentiment.

We’ll get past this, but it will come back around again. I wish this wasn’t so, but it is. All systems fail and ours is a relatively young one. I’m far more comfortable in defending it against other systems or in singing our flawed praises. Hopefully, there will still be time to get back to that.

Just Kickin’ Hippies’ Asses and Raisin’ Hell

He’s 54 and drinkin’ in a honky-tonk ..” – Ray Wylie Hubbard

Happy Mother’s Day. Mine was the best, which is something many might say but is empirically provable in my case. I used to bring friends home from college, some of whom were prone to brag about their own mothers and would have to pry their fingers loose from the front door frame when it was time to leave. They’d be in a funk for half of the long drive down Highway 5 back to Los Angeles until I promised to bring them back again at Spring Break. But nobody wants to hear a broken man cry about this sort of thing on a day of celebration. Of all my many and varied assumptions, the idea that everyone was as lucky as me in this department was perhaps the most naive. I say “was” because I’ve indeed learned differently over the years. Motherhood in itself does not instill these qualities. This point was driven home last night watching a confessional documentary on SNL veteran everyman Darryl Hammond, whose own mother did quite the number on him. Many mothers do quite the number, as it turns out. Even those mildly indifferent to the title can have a profound impact on their confused offspring. So take heed all you moms and future moms — it ain’t like getting a library card and then forgetting to return a book.

I’ve been living in my mother’s home during this lockdown (and make no mistake about it, this was her home. ) I’ve used the word “reset” several times to describe the experience, and I think it applies to multitudes. This deserves a strong caveat and for those most impacted, the word would be laughable and even insulting. Still, for many this has been a period of reflection, perspective, and taking stock. If your health and that of those you love has remained good, odds are you’ve shifted to next-level concerns. Relationships have solidified or been pushed to the brink, and this includes those with ourselves. If interaction with the outside world serves a specific purpose, it’s self-distraction. I discovered this when I first moved to New York City and was, perhaps, most alone. There is no place on the planet better suited for avoiding the internal. Distraction is still the order of the day in Gotham, but in most unwelcome ways for those struggling to breathe or focused suspiciously on their apartment’s ventilation system. That’s the trouble with this thing; it’s sneaky. Were it even worse it would have flamed-out by now, having run its course through the unfortunate. Instead, it progresses in the most insidious manner, devastating one locale at a time before moving to the next. Those prone to thoughts of conspiracy have little trouble seeing a human hand.

Boo-hoo, you had me and you lost me (to quote Darryl Hammond’s SNL predecessor Phil Hartman as Chairman of the Board on ‘Sinatra Group.’) Not sure about Phil’s mother, but his wife did quite the number on him. The longer you live, the more dead people you know. I made this observation at a funeral in my twenties. Not exactly suitable for the Profundity Hall of Fame but accurate none the less. As with most things, there are two directions to go with it: you can dwell on the impermanence or appreciate the fact that you’re still around to dwell on it. (Religion offers a potential third rail, but I’m saving that blog for my Howard Hughes exit years.) For now, I’m experiencing both of the basic options in spades, appreciating her home as she would and did while unavoidably noting that she isn’t here in mortal form. But best not to dwell on this lest they send the masked guys in white by to retrieve me. And why are they always dressed in white? Something else to ponder on this pandemic Mother’s Day, 2020. A good one with perfect vision to you and yours.

Serial Living

Bill de Blasio. Never has such impressive height been wasted on one man. The New York mayor’s request for citizens to rat-out fellow social distancing violaters via smartphone snaps was apparently flooded with dick-pics and Hitler memes. Dick-pics, for those with lives, are male anatomical self-shots, taken mostly by lonely guys thinking “damn .. I look good from this angle ..” Don’t ask me how I know this. The point is, the images forwarded to de Blasio may be the first legitimate usage of this mildly illicit practice. They could have saved the Hitler memes entirely. It’s also enduring proof that New York City is still great. They’re getting slammed daily by a deadly pandemic yet still have time to drop trow and take a snap for their bumbling, fink-encouraging mayor. San Francisco may have been a front-runner for in-place sheltering, but its humorous sensibilities lean more toward naming a sewage treatment plant after George W Bush. Aren’t we so great? *This* is why you capitalize the “c” in “City.” If de Blasio’s request had been issued in San Francisco, documented proof that violaters had voted republican would have been forwarded as well. New York is as progressive as any city going, yet refuses to play that pussy bullshit. I’ll be back there again, risk groups and mortality rates allowing.

For now, though, I’m choosing to shelter in the gritty confines of Marin County. With neither subways nor crowded streets, Marin’s virus hot-spots are confined mostly to bike trails and jogging paths. Say what you will about white people (and apparently there’s an entire Netflix series dedicated to this) we’re damn good at avoiding one another for a protracted period. This is particularly true in conjunction with affluent liberalism or any ’cause’ that can be practiced publicly for an hour or two before retreating to our dark-bottom pools and Jacuzzis. We’ll even forego wife-swapping and Rolfing if the plan dictates and we don’t have to hold out for too long. There’s a trade-off to all of this privilege, though, and some of the oddest tales of human behavior sprung from the Marin of my youth. Much of Marin County’s reputation pivoted some time in the 70s when Cyra McFadden’s book “The Serial” came out. It focused on the trippier, self-indulgent elements of the county, painting it as a large commune packed with Zen joggers, natural fibers, enzymes, peacock feathers, and whip fantasies. While these things may have been occurring in select pockets, the Marin inhabitants I grew up around were mostly the families of neighborhood guys from the city; Italians who had crossed the bridge seeking more space. I don’t recall anyone producing a peacock feather or doing much enzyme shopping but there was the time Jack Arata buzzed down Joe Picetti’s mailbox to demonstrate the efficiency of a new chainsaw he’d purchased. Darker tales from those in the ‘extended’ group included the pharmacist’s wife who tried to separate him from his head with an axe while he slept. Cyra McFadden was likely indulging in too much high-grade sensimilla to be aware of these stories. The truth is Marin was all of these things but, as with San Francisco, I have little idea what it is now, other than quarantined.

Choice-elimination can be paradoxically liberating. Those who worry about missing the boat can feel secure knowing all are moored. If you balk at parties or social gatherings you likely feel ahead of current curves. And there are less noble endeavors than curbing infection; on a grand scale, it puts buying a vacation home or pursuing your third Ph.D. to shame. This Marin County relevancy doesn’t speak to more typical worries like keeping your kids fed or the rent paid when your waitressing gig disappears. But live long enough and you’ll be tested, even in the leafy confines of NorCal suburbia. All these apologetic caveats get redundant after a while, anyway. Chances are Bill de Blasio wouldn’t fly around these parts, either.

Hat Of A Monkey

My mother had this monkey, George. He was among her few prized possessions, purchased in the early ’70s from a shop in Larkspur. She discovered him while browsing with her friend Inna, fell in love, but decided the price was too dear. Inna, knowing something about my parents’ marriage and my father’s complete ineptitude in choosing gifts, told him to get down there and buy the ceramic monkey for their anniversary. My father wasn’t a man who shopped easily and hardware stores defined the extent of his limited range. Antiques and proprietors of such weren’t exactly his thing. And this task required two visits upon discovering that the proprietor in question didn’t accept credit cards. Pre-ATM days necessitated back-tracking across the Golden Gate Bridge and raiding the petty cash drawer at work. There was probably another phone call to Inna involved, and repeated instruction to “get down there and buy that damn monkey,” but the point is, it got done. The name ‘George’ didn’t come from the curious, children’s book primate, but rather an uncle on my dad’s side. Uncle George was my grandmother’s brother and resident of an old-folks home in Terra Linda. My mom visited him frequently because that’s who she was. It’s who all of us should be, but most aren’t. I digress. George reminded her of my uncle and thus a  monkey’s name was born.

George’s pièce de résistance was his straw hat, perched jauntily atop his head. ‘Straw’ isn’t sufficiently descriptive. The hat was constructed of a thicker, twig-like material, and what’s left of it still is. It’s come apart over time and I’ve found myself re-positioning it atop his head to better hide the flaws. There were two goals in the last years of my parents’ lives: keep them in their home and keep that home as my mother would have wanted it. They’ve been gone over a year now and its upkeep still falls to my charge. I’ve been scouring Amazon for an appropriate monkey hat, but efforts thus far have been inadequate. Of the three I’ve tried, the one that best fits (pictured above) makes George look like a peasant; like some kind of gardener working for Pablo Escobar who is occasionally granted use of his Jacuzzi. The original hat lent a royal yet subdued presence. Hat aside, he sits in a beautiful spot with sweeping views of the water, mountains, birds and Highway 101. Some years back, a Scottish visitor taking in the same view opined “just imagine — Neil Diamond could be in one of those cars!” But I never slept well in the place after my teenage years. Something about the weight of history, and the intensity of most recent experiences, sat too heavily. I’ll come by to cook a meal, fix the gutters or take in the mail, but sleep has eluded me. That is, up until this week. Turns out a single-family home is an ideal spot for a single guy during a pandemic. The same restlessness persisted the first few nights as I moved from room to room, bed to bed. The last resort — my mother’s room — turned out to be my best choice. It was counter-intuitive at first but of course makes perfect sense. I have no plans to move back into the place permanently but this period of reconnecting with the home, and most particularly with what she loved about it, seems almost predestined.

This brings me to the persistence of incremental change. It’s an idea with which one need only live long enough to be familiar. You can side-step change assiduously or run headlong into the fray but neither approach halts its inevitable arrival. Sometimes things change slowly enough to be eminently observable yet still move at lightning speed. I had some life-altering experience with this a few years back, and now it’s playing out on a global level. We have a clearly defined, yet invisible, existential threat. Each of us knows that it’s out there, spreading person to person and that the best we can do in the immediate is to avoid and isolate. This is subject to change, of course; even viruses aren’t immune to the passage of time and human innovation can surprise. But for this moment we have no guarantees. This virus spreads with great facility and kills with notable efficiency, stopping just short of wiping itself out. That last observation is worth pondering, but I have no time for conspiracy theories at present as I’m too busy isolating, denying and pricing monkey hats. And sleeping a bit better, turning on the heat in the morning, making myself a cup of coffee and appreciating my surroundings. And missing her, which is one of the few things I suspect won’t change for the remainder of my days.

Franz Ferdinand & The Wuhan Clan

World War One, by my limited understanding, was started when some Austrian archduke and his pregnant wife were bumped off. That’s a hell of a note. Most will acknowledge the existence of chain-reactions, but like other things we can’t see, they aren’t at the top of our shopping list. Our current global panic was triggered by animals and humans cross-infecting in China. There have been other theories, but as John Adams might point out “facts are stubborn things.” Science falls short of answering spiritual or philosophical queries but it’s pretty damn good when it comes to stuff like this. One needn’t be Einstein nor Hawking to sense that bats stacked atop pangolins don’t make for wet market happy days. There are a lot of fingers being pointed at China now, perhaps rightfully so. People are understandably angry, for both rational and irrational reasons. Outside of the usual knuckle-draggers, that anger is directed at a government and not its citizens. Still, what to do in a country of a billion and a half people? That’s a number we in the west will never get our democratic heads around.

Cultural differences exist for specific reasons. Bitching about them may release steam but is about as useful as an anti-vaccination rally amid a pandemic. This said, pent up steam can be problematic too. Sometimes voicing one’s annoyance about a particular situation or culture provides relief and clarity. You don’t solve the immediate crisis by admonishing the use of “Chinese flu.” We have bigger fish to fry than debating the long-term social implications of calling a spade a spade. Those most suited and needed for this particular fish fry — scientists — aren’t typically known for their social skills, anyway. Best to let them do their jobs.

My own clarity, as evidenced by the above, has been on the decline for some time now. Luckily I’m not a scientist. I am, however, something of a knuckle-dragging cultural observer. I lived in Italy for a while and it’s part of my genetic lineage. I grew up around Italians. Italian-American culture, with all its cross-pollination, has come to define the image as much as gondolas or the Vatican. James Caan, a German-Jew, is taken for Italian as much as Al Pacino because of ‘The Godfather.’ But make no mistake, there are huge differences between the Italians and their American descendants, and some of them relate to this ongoing situation. For all their charm, beauty, and impact on western civilization, they ain’t the most organized people in the world. Lines (or ‘queues’ to use the British vernacular) are a foreign concept in Italy and they couldn’t form an organized one to save their lives. They’re particularly good at striking (as in walking out of work in protest; not hitting one another.) ‘Sciopero’ is the Italian word and it’s practiced as an art form. Both the banks and universities staged walk-outs when I lived there. The latter was particularly curious to me and I never figured out what the students were protesting. But they took to it like champs, sitting in groups outside various institutions of higher learning, holding signs and smoking cigarettes. I’m not claiming a direct correlation between these observations and the speed and intensity with which the coronavirus has torn through Italy. But the Italians sure ain’t the South Koreans.

Our current, crazy time has highlighted a conundrum of contradiction; a paradoxical plethora (if you’ll forgive the alluring alliteration.) In the immediate, it’s a rush to lock down and isolate, to separate from one another in order to save one another. What would seem counter-intuitive has become essential. Act as one, we’re being told, but do it from a distance. We’ve aced parts of  ‘doing it from a distance’ and at this very moment, the best minds around the world are sharing essential, potentially civilization-saving information in both real-time and great detail. But the same technology allowing for this has revealed how uncivil and bitter we can be, given a little anonymity and distance. Was there ever a more appropriately named entity than ‘Twitter’? Yes, it’s included in this realm of sharing useful information, but its more cesspool-like attributes overwhelm. To put it another way, fuck Twitter. Fuck also, anyone in America inclined to politicize or assign blame in this situation. Ignorance, like a virus, spreads through those of all political persuasion. San Francisco is a ridiculous city in multiple regards, but I’m proud to live here at this current juncture and see the proactive measures being taken. I for one am avoiding partisan-chatter, bold attention-demanding headlines, and incendiary social media feeds. The CDC and Johns Hopkins University website will suffice. And anytime I see the name ‘Anthony Fauci’ connected to anything, I’m all over it. My own poorly-connected cultural rants aside, the man is an Italian-American hero and has surpassed Joe Montana in my book of all-time greats.