Sunday, December 14, 2008

The End Of Time

As I near the end of my own time, Updike's Toward The End Of Time provides a kind of reference point for me. I've outlived Harry Angstrom. Ben Turnbull, 66-year-old ex-financier, failing in body and mind, is my benchmark now.

Ben lives in an alternate future that features Al Gore as a former President, nuclear war with China, the collapse of the federal government and security services from FedEx. The latter makes sense. They have the trucks and people, and they know the neighborhoods. I've often thought FedEx or UPS should deliver our bombs for us. Problem is, I suppose, that, as international corporations, they might take contracts from other countries, too, maybe even contracts to turn around in mid-flight and drop our bombs on us.

One of the permissions Updike gives us is to treat fiction as fiction. After all, centaurs and witches are no more or less believable than FedEx providing security in the absence of police or rich, old Ben Turnbull, consorting with teenage whores as he works through a dying marriage and approaches his inevitable confrontation with impotence and incontinence, unless death intervenes first.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


The third graders put on a short version of The Nutcracker tonight. In one of the dances, the kids wore tea cups on their heads, reminding me of the last time I saw Ross K.

Ross is a friend of my wife's parents, and, at dinner a couple of years ago, right before Ross went into a nursing home for Alzheimer's patients, he ate his dessert with his coffee cup sitting on his head.

In Japan, Zen is practiced mainly by old people who have finished their work in the world and can afford to be more spontaneous than the rest of us. In Japan, Ross might have become a Zen Master. Here, he ended up in a room with a poster of a bookcase covering his door so he wouldn't walk out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Real Cities

All my life, I've tried to live and work in what I call "real" cities, or close enough to one to use it.

I've tried to avoid cities that don't have all the things I think a real city should have.

First off, the city has to be located on an ocean, the Gulf of Mexico or a Great Lake. No smaller lake and no river will do. Then, it has to have the major sports: football, baseball and basketball. Since I grew up a long time ago in the South, I give cities a pass on hockey and soccer. But they have to have an opera, a symphony, a good art museum and some theater. I think those eight things are essential.

I went to college and worked in a couple of land-locked Texas cities, and I spent some time working in Washington, D.C., but I was never really happy in those places. I missed the big water.

If I made a list of real countries, I wonder if America would be on it. What would a list of eight things a real country has to have look like?

Growing up in America, I never doubted we were a real country. I still remember coming home, after spending several years in Europe. I flew into New Jersey, and I was amazed at the amount of street lighting and the number of pay phones in America, compared to Europe. Thinking about the enormous wealth the consumption of that much electricity required, I felt proud to be an American, happy to be back home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Back From The Future

Los Angeles is maybe 5 years ahead of Houston in traffic and pollution. Similar cities in their topographies and sprawling geographies. Hard to imagine either one without the automobile. Hard to forget they sit in bowls, covered by inversion layers. Leonel Castillo used to say the solution to industrial pollution was to cover the factories with domes and make management live inside the domes. In a way, nature has done that for Los Angeles and Houston.

We made our yearly swing through Houston and Los Angeles last week. Compressed trip to see the grandmothers. Into Houston for two days, on to L.A. and up to Santa Barbara for two days, then back home before the Thanksgiving rush.

Every year the traffic is worse. It's just impossible to imagine all of those big, high-powered cars, weaving in and out of traffic at 70 m.p.h., being replaced by electric cars in my lifetime. There are just too many of them.

It's easier to imagine the end of commercial air travel, knocked in by high-speed rail and telecommuting, but maybe that's just a fantasy spawned by the misfortune of ending up in a middle seat between two strangers on a 4-hour red eye.

In Houston, we whipped down the HOV lane (2 or more occupants) with a handful of other cars, while thousands of other cars and trucks inched along the regular lanes of the Katy Freeway. Nobody believes the Port Of Houston or the Baytown and Texas City refineries are secure. Houses have been cheap for a long time in Houston. There wasn't much of a housing bubble there, but other investments have taken a hit.

In California, houses and land have taken a hit, along with stocks and other investments. We stopped at a P.F. Changs along the highway. It was in a new mall with an ice rink. The power in the mall went out right after we ordered. The waiters at P.F. Changs say it happens all the time. They blame it on the rink.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Whole Earth Catalog

I used to read Whole Earth Catalog religiously.

I don't know what the catalog has evolved into, but I'd like to get back to that Seventies frame of mind. Read and re-read something like the Whole Earth Catalog. Find something to try.

I remember an article about shooting deer at a salt lick. Written by a Native American. Don't remember the tribe. He put out a salt lick, and he'd go down there and wait for the deer to come. Pretty soon, one of the deer would let him know it was ready to die, and that's the one he would shoot.

I was living in Arkansas at the time. The Corporation For Public Broadcasting gave some grants out to public television stations to build news and documentary teams, and the station in Conway, Arkansas, hired me and a friend to buy the equipment and make some documentaries to get them started.

I was editing some film one afternoon. The TV was on in the editing room, and a game commission film about deer hunting was running. They had drugged an old buck, and he staggered around in a clearing, until the hunter and the camera walked up on him and the hunter shot him. Something about that film pissed me off.

So, I spent a few weekends that year, creeping through the woods of Arkansas and Texas, with whatever reluctant cameraman I could drag along, "still hunting" whitetail deer. Still hunting doesn't mean sitting in a blind or a tree, of course. It means stealthily approaching a deer on foot, until you get close enough to shoot it. It's hard for one person to do. For two people, lugging a camera and recorder, it's impossible. I saw one deer. Saw him out of the corner of my eye as he tip-toed away, one big eye fixed on me. When I tried to turn, he was gone.

The salt lick seemed like a reasonable compromise.

I bought a block of salt, and my wife and I drove up to the Buffalo River and found a clearing with a stream running through it. I put the block of salt out by the stream. The next weekend, we drove up, spent the night in a little motel cabin. We heard wolves, howling in the night, cooked oatmeal in the room on a camp stove before dawn.

We went down to the salt lick. We set up the camera and listened to the wolves while we waited for the deer to come down to the stream and tell us which one was ready to die.

Friday, November 14, 2008

We Ate Their Goddam Eggs

We ate their eggs. We ate them. We little mammals ate them. And we inherited the earth.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In My Craft Of Celluloid

I like the accidents, the ephemeral events, things you catch out of the corner of your eye. And I like art that's polyreferential.

I was a kid who could read words he couldn't pronounce. Running in and out of rooms where poetry was recited, I thought Pound said "hang it all, Robert Browing, there can be but one bordello," and Thomas said "in my craft of celluloid."

I don't believe in explaining anything. I sent my friend Michael a picture of himself with his mouth sewn up after he explained himself to Art Forum.

I'm interested in what's going on at other hives, including the Great American Hive that has always managed to find a place for ants like me. But it's the record of this hive I care about.

We were talking about adding a bathroom to our house this winter. And we were wondering why, if we're in a recession, the cost of doing that doesn't seem to be going down.