New Piece at the LA Weekly, Booktalk Nation, and Junkie Love

It’s been an eventful week with a lot of exciting news, and I haven’t even had the opportunity to document all that’s been going on. Last week I had a new piece appear at the LA Weekly on Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine. I loved writing this piece, and it seemed to have a connection to the piece I wrote a couple of months ago on trying to rediscover the California dream. I was lucky enough to interview Specktor at Musso and Frank’s in Hollywood. That restaurant is one of the coolest places in the city. I love how it’s dripping with the ghosts of an ancient Hollywood. Now I’m working on a piece on Chiwan Choi. I’ll be interviewing him soon. Looking forward to that.

Another exciting development: As part of Booktalk Nation, I will interview Matthew Specktor on the program. I’m going to have a discussion about his book American Dream Machine. This is going to be a pleasure. I’m so excited about this event, and I really hope you will sign up for the talk. Click on the link above and enter your email. You will receive a phone number and a conference-call code.

And finally, my good buddy, your good buddy, Joe Clifford had his novel, Junkie Love, appear on bookshelves everywhere. Have you picked up your copy? Well, I believe you can buy it here: Amazon. Lol.

The Greatest Lesson I Learned from Rehab

I was in a rehab center from July, 2011 to July, 2012. Now, I didn’t end up in this facility in the traditional way. I wasn’t dealing with drug addiction; I wasn’t struggling with alcohol addiction; and I wasn’t seeking treatment. In fact, I’m being a bit coy here…I needed a job.

In May of 2011, I graduated from the MFA Program at Florida International University — have you heard about our great alumni: Richard Blanco, Dennis Lehane, Joe Clifford and Patricia Engel! — and I moved out to Southern California to live with Heron. I didn’t know anybody out in L.A. I bugged my teachers endlessly for contacts until they threw some names at me, and I cherished those names like lifeboats on a sinking ship.

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Of course, when I moved out here, I reached out to those contacts, and I learned a lot from them and continue to benefit from their knowledge and experience, but I didn’t find a job…at least right away. So I scoured the city, looking for something to pay my rent and bills, and I came across an ad on Craigslist to teach creative writing at a rehab center. Well, I was a teacher, and I was a writer — Could there be anything better?

I applied and got the job. I couldn’t wait to start, but as you might have read before, I had to drive 44 miles through the worst traffic in the country from Long Beach to Woodland Hills. That’s beyond the point. I’m not here to bore you with the same story of transportation.

Well, after I started working at the rehab center, I realized the drive was killing me, and I wanted a job where I was writing more. I loved teaching, but I was dissatisfied and wanted to write all the time — or at least more and get paid for it. I became frustrated. I became anxious. I became impatient. Suddenly, I felt stuck in a situation.

Everyday I listened to the counselors talk about the steps and the Big Book, and initially all this jargon just washed over my head. What did I care? Of course, I wanted to help the kids — oh, more than anything in the world — but I wanted to teach them through words and writing and other sunshine bullshit that I still believe in.

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Then one day, something changed.

One of the counselors there — he was this huge guy with a mullet — caught my attention. He took me aside and basically told me to look around. Be a part of this team. You’re trying to run your own show, man. Be here with us. Be in the moment. That’s what this is about. You’re going to move onto something better soon, but for right now, be here, be with us.

He woke me up. I was so fixated on the next step, being a writer, and moving on that I wasn’t in the moment. I began to listen to him more when he spoke to the kids. He used to walk around the room, flicking his mullet, smacking kid on the back, hugging people who walked into the room. His personality was so large you couldn’t help but pay attention. And his mantra was always — be in the moment.

I’ll never forget this story he told about being in jail. He talked about being overwhelmed by the amount of time he had to serve. That it became impossible to not future trip and let your anxiety spin out of control. And he said the only thing that mattered, his only comfort, was that the second-hand on that clock kept ticking.

That was a really profound moment for me. Sometimes, I live like I’m in jail. No, I’m not comparing my life to an actual prison, but I’m saying that I can feel stuck; I can feel trapped; and I can forget about that second, that moment, because I’m so disconnected that my own impatience and ambition can be a trap. That’s the greatest lesson I learned. That I needed to struggle, to fight to be in the moment. To remind myself that this very next word is the next word I’m going to type and this very next thought is the next thought I’m going to think and this very next breath is the next breath. The rest, to a certain extent, is out of my control.

This was humbling. I’m an ambitious guy, and I’m never satisfied. But when I forget to focus on what’s in front of me, well, that’s when I slip up and lose control. How hard is it to be present? How hard is it to remember nothing in the future is guaranteed? How hard is to believe that the path you are on is guiding you to a place of happiness?

The Place Beyond the Pines — The Desperation of James Dean

Last Saturday, Heron and I went down to the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood to see The Place Beyond the Pines. It  came out the day before, and we really knew nothing about the movie beforehand. I saw that Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper were in the movie, and I thought that sounds like a terrible mix. The film is pitched as a crime movie, but in the end, it seems to be more about familial relationships, generational feuds and the tension between father and sons. Plus, there is a lot of dirt-bike riding and bank robbing. For the women: Gosling’s abs; for the men: Mendes without a bra. (Let me take that back. There are probably a lot of men interested in Gosling and a lot of women interested in Mendes, too.)

So, what did I think of this movie? Before I tell you my opinion, I want you to listen to what others had to say about this movie.

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In the LA Weekly, Scott Fondus writes that he’s unsure if Gosling is parodying masculinity. It seems to me that Fondus is unsure how to read Gosling’s character, Handsome Luke, in the movie. He also calls Mendes disposable. “But the disparate pieces,” Fondus later writes, “never quite jell; the movie is all trees and no forest.”

The LA Times gave the movie a tepid review: “The movie is intimate in its telling, sweeping in its issues and stumbles only occasionally.” The writers riffs on the economic conditions the director, Derek Cianfrance, loves to focus on and how these people are on the fringes of desperation. Cool. I feel yah.

Justin Craig at Fox News, well, he basically calls for an oscar — but not really: “It’s usually far too early to even utter the words “Oscar,” but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is movie gold. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper have never been better than in Derek Cianfrance’s (“Blue Valentine”) brooding, immersive crime drama.” I was generally surprised that someone at Fox News would like this movie, but maybe I shouldn’t be such a stereotyping asshole.

A.O. Scott at the New York Times has this to say: “It goes on too long: the three-part story, spread over nearly two and a half hours, represents a triumph of sympathetic imagination and a failure of narrative economy. But if, in the end, the film can’t quite sustain its epic vision, it does, along the way, achieve the density and momentum of a good novel.” Good for Scott. He’s telling it like he sees it. The movie is long — over two hours — and the story has three parts, and it makes an abrupt shift in point of view in the middle that is shocking and almost absurd. I hear you. Don’t worry though. I’m getting to my point. First, watch the trailer:

Now I’m not a movie critic, and I don’t pretend to be. But I know story. And I’m going to say what all the other critics were too scared to say; The Place Beyond the Pines will be a classic movie, and Gosling’s performance, his character, will become legendary. Gosling as Handsome Luke reminds me of a James Dean. The characters in The Place Beyond the Pines and a move like Rebel Without a Cause — Handsome Luke and Jim Stark — are remarkable and similar, because they are on the edge of desperation (to borrow a term from the NY Times), searching for something to care about, to believe in; once they find that something, there is no letting go. And there is usually violence and an unbridled pursuit of disaster. Gosling captures, in my opinion, this rare energy that goes beyond masculinity and into the realms of madness. A controlled madness poking below the surface. A madness, a failure to fit within certain roles, an inability to accept the rules of society. In Handsome Luke’s case, the rule that he is not allowed to see his child. He’s one of those characters who Kerouac would have wanted to follow down the streets lit by hysterical roman candles.

Of course, there are elements of this movie at first glance that can seem pedantic. Yes, there are a lot of bank robbing scenes, and the main character is robbing banks to provide for his family. Yes, there is a bad-ass dude riding a bike — but it’s a dirt bike. Yes, the movie has another role where Bradley Cooper’s character has a tremendous amount of douchey vibes. And yes, the movie does have segments that shift abruptly and seem to make the movie feel long.

But Alfred Hitchcock was accused of something similar when Psycho came out. The main character, the woman who is killed in the Bates Motel, is suddenly gone from the movie, leaving the story to continue without her. It broke the normal and accepted narrative structure, and the story seems to begin again — though it circles around again at the end.

And without ruining the movie, The Place Beyond the Pines makes a similar move, but this is what I love about the movie. It doesn’t succumb to the normal rules of modern cinema; it doesn’t treat the viewer like an idiot who can’t sit still for over two hours; and it reminds the viewer that stories come in all shapes and sizes. This movie and Gosling and Cooper’s performances will be remembered for a long time. Plus, the two kids at the end are amazing. Go see this movie and let me know what you think. As always, your comments are more than welcome. Love to hear what you thought of the movie.

Judge These Book Covers: My 10 favorite book covers in my house

Heron’s sister and her friend came over this weekend and rearranged our house as a wedding gift. They put my books all around the house, and it provided a great opportunity to look at some of them I haven’t paid attention to in a while. So I decided to put together a list of my favorite book covers I currently have in my house. Now, I didn’t include art books, because I thought that would be unfair, and some of my books I gave away. But these are the books I find myself just admiring for the cover sometimes long after I had finished it.

10. Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time — Trains and War and Masculinity 

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9. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Basic Writings — The “superman” on the cover looks like he’s actually the cause of earthquakes.

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8. Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism — I found this rare book in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. Love the hand drawing the hand imagery.

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7. Jack O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh — A futuristic and twisted version of my home, Worcester, MA. 

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6. Henri Matisse’s Jazz — No, I’m not cheating. Matisse does write in this book, and it’s one of my favorite book covers — and books — of all time.

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5. Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air — This is a simple cover with a simple swirl, but it speaks so loudly, somehow, to Mandelstam’s poetry. 

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4. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral — If you’ve read the story, Cathedral, then you understand why this cover is so beautiful.  

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3. Charles Bukowski’s Ham on RyeImagining a young Bukowski always makes me laugh.  

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2. Philip Levine’s What Work Is — This photograph of the girl at work in a textile plant is haunting and glorious, just like this book.

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1. Mike Davis’ The Ecology of Fear — Los Angeles poking through the clouds.

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Los Angeles Loves Their Middle Fingers: Flip the Bird L.A.

So earlier, I was walking my dog down Barrington, and the sky was oh-so blue; the flowers were blooming; and the traffic was slowly meandering towards the 405. I HAD been at work all day, and the spring air was thrilling — almost like something you would read out of some grocery-store novel to enliven the jaded from winter-solstice blues. I was training Hendrix, my dog, and I was thinking about something I saw earlier on Facebook: Anger is a choice.

That’s when I noticed a truck barreling down behind a car on the way towards Santa Monica. The truck blew past the car trying to turn left, and as the truck was passing, the guy stuck his finger out the window and flipped the car the bird. And it wasn’t just a regular old middle finger; it was the Washington Monument of Fuck Yous — if you know what I mean.

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Los Angeles, I have never seen a city so free with their middle fingers. The other day on my way to work, I was driving towards Westwood, when a white Bronco came out of nowhere, swerving in and out of lanes, and for whatever reason, the Bronco starting flipping me the bird — as if I had just cut her off. I couldn’t figure out what this person’s problem was because we were stuck at a red light and nobody was moving. It just struck me very strangely — don’t Angelenos know that the middle finger should only be used in the most extreme offensive? Only in times of extreme offense like somebody kicked your dog or called your wife a bitch.

So why is it that Angelenos use the middle finger so freely? 

Because Los Angeles is so large and people are moving so fast, I have a feeling most casual users of the middle finger have never experienced this gesture gone wrong. A driver will flip the bird, and there will be no time for retaliation. Well, I, unfortunately, have experienced the wrong side of the middle finger.

Back in high school, my buddies — Czar and C-Mac — were driving up to Riverside Park — an amusement park in Springfield, Massachusetts, now called Six Flags — in my Subaru Wagon. I was driving, and we were rushing to get there. We wanted to have the whole day at the park to make the crazy admission fee worth it. So I was pissed to find this guy in a SUV, driving 65 m.p.h. in the left lane.

I passed the SUV on the right and then pulled back over to the left lane, slowing down just enough so he could see me. I stared back at him through my mirror, and I saw the man’s face; I saw his wife; I saw the New Hampshire license plate; and I saw his kid in the back seat. Without any hesitation, I showed him my middle finger so proudly you would have that I had been waiting my entire life to tell someone they drive like an asshole.

Big mistake. I drove a little bit faster, and then all of a sudden, a red truck pulled up out of no where, and they flew right behind me. They were right on my bumper, and I thought they were going to hit me. I looked in my rearview mirror, and there were two guys, maybe about 23, with their shirts off, a small confederate flag draped over their mirror, and they were demanding I pull over.

My buddies didn’t say a word; they just looked at me to see what I was going to do. I didn’t know what I was going to do though. So I just pretended like I didn’t see them. I stared straight ahead, thinking they would go away.

But they didn’t stop. They drove up to the side of our car, and they were yelling at us, calling me a pussy and telling me to pull to the side of the road. Well, I wasn’t stupid; I wasn’t about to pull to the side of the road in the middle of Wester Massachusetts. Remember, I was 17–years old; I basically just got my license. Best I can figure it, these were the older sons of the guy in the truck — or maybe even brothers — and they were exacting revenge.

I thought it was going to get real bad when they pulled up in front of my Subaru and started slamming on the brakes. Luckily I stayed calm and just avoided their truck. It must have went on like this for over 15 minutes, until they gave up and moved on.

They sure scared the shit out of me, and I learned that I would make sure if I was going to use the middle finger, then I should use it for something worth fighting about.