The Girls Next Door

Three girls (7,5,2) live in the small apartment building next to my house. Luisa, the oldest, is solidly built, with dark curly hair. She’s particularly interested in details – how old I am, how many brothers and sisters, the make of our cars; Alana, the middle girl, is slender and fey with dark wavy hair halfway down her back; the youngest, Alissa, is always in a baby carriage that is too small for her. She’s big for her age and has feet like canoes.

Whenever I leave the house the older girls surround me, asking questions and hovering around my baby and dog with cries of excitement. ‘I love your dog!’ ‘The baby is sooo cute!’ The yard of their building is mostly dirt and the girls are always coated in dust, dirt tattoos smearing their cheeks and arms. Recently they’ve taken to ringing my doorbell throughout the day because they have stuffed animals, books, and toys that they want to give to my daughter. These gifts are all equally soaked in dust and this make the stuffed animals particularly sad – as if Sesame Street has turned into a homeless shelter. The last two days I’ve come home to find one of these forlorn stuffed animals waiting on my doorstep.

They like to play in my driveway because of the slope and I walk out on the deck to see them riding their scooters and skateboards down the driveway and into the street. I warn them not to do this, and they agree, but the next time I look down, there they are, flying into the street again. When I walk with the baby carriage and the dog, I’m surrounded by a buzz of chatter that doesn’t leave me for several blocks.

I’ve never seen their mother.

They moved here from Santa Barbara around the same time I did. The move, I gather, has something to do with their parents’ separation (divorce?). They tell me that their father is in Mexico now. They’ve never been there but their father wants them to come and has agreed to pay their roundtrip air fare.

But my mother won’t let us go, Luisa says.

Why not? I ask.

Because, Alana says, My mom thinks that he won’t let us come back.

The Myrmidons

Last night in bed, Sarah felt a tickling on her face and hands. She woke up more fully and clicked on the bedside table lamp to see a brown film of ants covering the baby’s face, hands and arms. The ants had been drawn by the dripping formula that had soaked a towel and the fitted sheet and they had even made their way into the bottle itself, drowning in sweet white water.

Since we moved into our new apartment a few weeks ago, we have been battling ants, admirable, relentless, ingenious ants. ‘In terms of biomass (the amount of living matter), ants make up at least 15 percent of the terrestrial animal biomass. In tropical areas, such as the Amazon, this number increases to 25 percent or more of the terrestrial animal biomass. One hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land in the Amazon rain forest can contain eight million ants or more. A study in the savanna of Côte d’Ivoire showed that a hectare there harbored 20 million.’ It’s an ant world and they farm us like they do aphids. Trying to get rid of them (in my case, Argentine ants) is like playing chess against a supercomputer: No matter how clever your strategy, they’ll defeat you because they can test every combination by means of ones and zeros.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the ubiquity of ants is the fact that there is one other species which also makes up 15% of the earth’s biomass: Us.


Honey, We’re Not in Glendale Anymore…

Hey buddy, the woman said. How you doin’?

From the other side of the street, I gave her a thumbs up. She was sitting at a bus stop bench in front of a derelict massage parlor with a ‘For Lease’ sign on the front door. Next to the massage parlor is a dubious motel, ‘Crystal Lodge’ on a hot red neon sign over the building.

The woman rose from the bench and started moving in my direction.

Where are you going? She said.

To get a beer, I said, which was true.

The liquor store was closed though, and it wasn’t even eleven. I had to cross the street and pass the woman again.

We must moved to Midtown in Ventura. Most of the houses around mine are Craftsmen with well-tended yards. The closer you get to the 101 though (and to the beach), the sketchier the neighborhood grows: vacant lots, cars on blocks, auto-body shops, and hot-sheet motels like the Crystal. Our house stands at the edge of this zone – from my bedroom window I look down upon the the back walkway of the Crystal, the tenants leaning on the railing with thousand-yard stares behind their cigarettes.

I crossed the street as the woman limped toward me.

Hey buddy, she said. Hey buddy.

She was wearing a black sweatsuit that left her thick calves bare, and dark hair hung limp around her weathered face. She looked like she’d been knocked down by a U-Haul and dragged fifteen yards.

What are you up to, buddy? She said.

Going home to my wife and kid, I said, which was also true.

Oh, she said as I passed her. I’m sorry.


Driving the 4th

Came down the 118 to the 5 to the 134 around nine p.m. I think we caught every fireworks show in the Valley and north half of LA County, in some cases like Chavez Ravine the lightshow going off right over the freeway. We’d pass one and immediately hit the next, or have three going off at once at different distances. It felt like I was driving a spaceship through an interstellar battle. Everyone on the road was rubbernecking – average speed down to 30 mph, some cars pulling into the breakdown lane just to stop and gape.

A Bitch Magnet for Dudes

It’s strange that something that you did in your early twenties can shape your entire life, but such is reality for criminals and rock bands. Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) is Bitch Magnet’s guitarist Jon Fine’s take on how the resurrection of his college band gave him incendiary joy as a 40-something. The memoir is alternately good, bad and ugly, much like the math rock throbbings of Bitch Magnet. Click the link above for my LA Times review.

Long, long ago in a time now known as the early ’80s, long before Pandora, file sharing and even compact discs, to find new music you trudged to a record store and sifted through bins of LPs. If you lived in the suburbs, your options were limited to a few national chains that sold only the latest corporate-approved offerings from commercial radio. Jon Fine grew up in just such a musical wasteland in New Jersey, but a fortuitous summer camp encounter with the Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols shoved Fine into the punk-indie-alternative music wormhole…

The Noble Hustle: a Review

I just reviewed Colson’s Whitehead’s THE NOBLE HUSTLE: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death for the LA Times. While it ran long for a contemporary book review, I still needed space to really develop my arguments. Whitehead is immensely talented, but there’s a flaw running through the book that I think extends to many of the premiere novelists of his generation. When I get a head of steam going, I’ll write that piece. Maῆana, maῆana, maῆana.

Everything Rises…

My friend and former editor Paul Elie has been blogging daily at Everything that Rises. Literature, Italy, the papacy, are some of his main topics but he ranges widely. It’s now part of my my morning reveille and well worth a read. I don’t know how he stays so consistent but I haven’t seen a weak post yet. Check it out.
The title of his blog connects to his deep concerns – the Catholic Church, spirituality, the state of literature and the arts, and many things Italian. Paul published a book THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN: An American Pilgrimage, about four important mid-century American Catholic figures – O’Connor, Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy. His newest book, REINVENTING BACH, provides a look at the great composer through the lens of a new millennium.

The Hidden Valleys of the Andean Jungle

My new feature for Pacific Standard just came out. Last August and September I trekked into the Peruvian cloud forest to an Andean valley that only a handful of humans (or none) have traversed in the last five hundred years. In the 21st Century it’s remarkable that these places still exist, but in Peru they do. Alas, it’s only a matter of time until chain saws and flame sweep them away.

Pro Wrestling, Squared

I got to go fairly long in my LA Times review of David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling. Shoemaker has successfully transferred, for the most part, the insouciance of his Deadspin column, ‘Dead Wrestler of the Week’ to the printed page. The Masked Man shows his face. Click and read on.