Backyard Jungle

I live in the largest housing project west of the Mississippi, a plot of row-houses and high-rises between West Hollywood and the Miracle Mile. Park LaBrea is a model of a path not taken in urban development – the houses, winding streets and green acres surrounded but some of the densest development in the city, the calm and privacy of the suburbs divorced from ‘the idiocy of rural life.’ Here in the heart of LA, I drive my car once or twice a week, at most.

All those sprawling lawns and old trees provide opportunities to species that don’t pay rent – murders of crows, the odd seagull, songbirds, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, coyotes, bees, wasps, snails, a variety of species that you won’t find in the fragmented habitats of the grid.

A few nights ago I heard a cat yowling in the yard. At first I thought it was the mating game, boys and girls clawing and shrieking from hormones. As the yowling went on, I realized it was something else. The tone of the cries was much steadier than the modulations of cat fight/love/hate/territorial dispute which moves from soft groaning to high shrieks. This was a high, frantic howl, sustained over minutes.
I went outside and watched a small-medium sized furry mammal lope away from me across the lawn. At first I thought it was a coyote but it was rather too short for a coyote, and too broad across the rump. It might have been a raccoon although it would have been a big raccoon and it moved awfully fast for one. A fox? The fur seemed dark and silver although it was hard to tell in the moonlight. I wondered if a local cat had been attacked by a larger predator. I got my headlamp from the kitchen cabinet and went outside, hoping I wouldn’t find a seriously injured cat. After a few minutes poking around my patio, green eyes iridized in my beam. It was the local stray, a scrawny mostly white cat with a checkboard pattern on its muzzle and tail. The cat didn’t run but wouldn’t come any closer. It seemed to be walking easily and I didn’t notice any wounds but it never allowed me to approach more closely than three feet. I wonder why it didn’t flee at once – I took it as a need for safety (only realizing later that it might have wanted to get back to the kill). Finally it disappeared.
The next day, I walked onto my patio to find three flowerpots overturned, including one that must weigh thirty pounds. Gravel, earth and leaves in heaps (it wasn’t until the following day that I noticed the clumps of white hair, almost certainly from the cat). As my daughter and I passed the next house, we came upon the skinless corpse of a rodent – rat or small squirrel (although no bushy tail) – or a small possum. My view of the previous night changed. Had the cat made a kill – a big one for a cat, who expertly kill birds and small rodents (their bite perfectly fits the spaces between mouse vertebrae) – and been chased off by a larger predator?
This morning Circe and I were walking again at the far end of the yard and she stumbled on two sad baby squirrel corpses fetal in the grass. They were fairly large although lacking much fur. I hurried Circe past them. My story shifted again. Had their mother been killed by the cat or the bigger animal, leaving the pups to starve? Maybe they’d grown so hungry that they’d wriggled out of their nest and fallen to the ground. The bodies were unmarked.

Sunny’s Place

Writing a serious book review is a lot of work and a lousy way to make money. I’ll review books that are assigned to me but I almost never pitch reviews – it takes too much time and most of the books I love were published a long time ago by people now dead. Tim Sultan’s Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World is an exception. The paragraphs in Sultan’s NYC memoir are so artfully constructed that reading them gives sensuous pleasure – like rolling a great wine over your tongue. Read my review in the Los Angeles Review of Books and be converted.

IN THE SUMMER of 1988, my girlfriend found a sublet in Brooklyn Heights. Then, less than two weeks after I showed up with my suitcase, she flitted away to Europe and I was left to pay $250 a month on a Pineapple Street studio across from the Hotel St. George….

Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali

The LA Times let me go long for this review of a new book on the relationship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali called Blood Brothers. I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with the first sentence: ‘Time elides the complexity of icons. Almost 51 years after his death, Malcolm X has become a T-shirt superhero of African American militancy: Malcolm carrying a rifle, Malcolm “By any means necessary,” one hand raised above his bespectacled face.’

When I first read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ as a teenager, he immediately became a hero, despite the bizarre theories of race that he espouses in the book. As I learned about his political development away from the Nation of Islam and his embrace of the oppressed people of the world, he became an even bigger hero. He was a man who always challenged himself morally and intellectually, no matter the cost. Ultimately, he paid with his life. His death was one of the real tragedies of the 1960s: African-American communities would not have suffered as badly in the following decades if he’d been there to provide leadership.


Coney Island Review

I wrote a long review for the London Times Literary Supplement (TLS) on Coney Island. Here’s the first sentence:

‘For Rem Koolhaas, Coney Island was the pleasure point (“a clitoral appendage at the mouth of New York’s natural harbor”), laboratory and staging ground for Manhattan’s ascension into the twentieth century.’

When I thought about New York City growing up, Coney Island was one the first things that came to mind, up there with the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and violence on the subways. I finally made it there as a college senior and went back every few years. Once I went alone and rode the Cyclone seven times in a row. I’d reach the end, jump out, and run back to the entrance: it was a weekday in the spring so I didn’t have to wait. The experience was nothing like the smooth modern roller coasters – the car rattled and shook, slamming you from side to side and back against the seat so hard it felt like a giant wearing steel-toed boots was kicking you in the kidneys.

Nancy Marie Skelly-Aneyci 1943-2016

A slightly revised version of the eulogy I gave at my mother’s memorial service. What good qualities I possess, I owe solely to this woman, and I will never stop missing her.

My mother lost her father when she was eighteen and I grew up with her stories of Raymond Skelly – his great height (he was 6’4) and his unusual intelligence, he was forced to turn down a college scholarship during the Depression to support his family and he established a successful construction and landscaping business before the botched operation that destroyed his health. Despite his interrupted education he was a voracious reader, and happiness for him was between the covers of a book – everything from detective fiction to James Joyce (he read Ulysses) to his particular favorites, the novels of Jane Austen. My mother always suffered from the tragedy of his early death, above all the fact that her children never met him. When I became an equally obsessive reader, my mother would often say, ‘He would have loved that about you.’
My mother had no shortage of self-awareness and she understood that her choice of a nursing career – one of the few professions open to a woman in 1960 – was influenced by an adolescence spent caring for a semi-invalid. At her bedside two days ago, her brother, my uncle, told me that when my grandmother went to the hospital for brain surgery in 1957 (they were not the luckiest family), fourteen year-old Nancy Skelly immediately started preparing all their meals. No one told her to do this, she simply took on the responsibility without question or complaint. My uncle’s anecdote captures the sense of commitment my mother had to her family – she did what needed to be done.
For most of my life my mother left for work at 530 a.m. Into her 70s, years after she had left Providence for Charlestown and could have retired comfortably, she would drive out in the darkness for an hour-long commute up Route 95. My memories are filled with the sound of her alarm clock ringing before dawn. Despite her early shift, she rarely went to bed before eleven p.m. and I’d often see the light on in her bedroom after midnight, a sign that she was trying to finish another book. I don’t think there was ever a time when she wasn’t sleep-deprived but she wouldn’t let perpetual exhaustion kept her from engaging life.
Yet there was much more to my mother than devotion to family, including a deep sense of social justice. She dated her political awakening to the exposure of the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. ‘I was watching the news with you in my lap,’ she said. ‘When they announced the story and showed photos of the murdered children, I burst into tears. I couldn’t stop crying. I’d been taught that Americans couldn’t do anything like that and I never questioned it. All of a sudden, I realized that I’d been lied to for years and that the values I’d been raised with had been completely betrayed by our government.’ In the wake of this experience, she became active in the Women’s Movement and helped to establish the first Rape Crisis Center in Rhode Island. A quarter of the century later, she was still working in progressive politics. For my mother, activism was a simple case of doing what was right. Why shouldn’t women get equal pay for equal work? Why should a woman who’d been assaulted by a husband or boyfriend not be protected? This sense of justice is something she passed on to all of her children.
My mother could be incredibly determined and there were few obstacles that stopped her for long. In her 20s, she went back to school and earned a bachelor of science degree, all while working as an R.N. and with three boys under the age of six at home. I still have no idea how she managed that. Later on, she picked up acquired her masters and became a nurse anesthetist.
My mother refused to accept that anything was out of her reach. When she decided she wanted to learn how to sail, she took sailing lessons and bought a boat. When she fell in love with Chinese cuisine, she bought a cookbook and tracked down the one Chinese grocery store in Rhode Island. When genealogy became an interest, she tracked down distant relatives across the globe. She was always eager for new experiences and her enthusiasm took her to Alaska, to Ireland, down the Rhine, and to Newfoundland, where we tracked down birth and marriage records of her ancestors.
The only time I saw my mother truly afraid was six years ago in the aftermath of her cancer diagnosis, as she struggled through chemo and radiation treatments. It was a harrowing experience for her, as I’m sure anyone who has experienced cancer will attest. She told me, more than once, that she wanted to give up. She said that she couldn’t keep going through the nausea and depression. But she did, and her courage brought her fruitful years in which she tackled quilting, and saw each one of her children settle down and begin raising a family (we all got pretty late starts and there are two more grandchildren on the way). In this final illness, she didn’t display any of her former fear. She’d worked through it and was prepared for whatever came next.
In his diary, the German-Jewish author Franz Kafka wrote, ‘Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.’ This quote has been echoing through my mind since I first heard that mom’s life was in danger. I know it’s been a long time since Sunday school for some of you, but in the story of Exodus, the Israelites flee Egypt and wander through the desert before reaching the Promised Land. Their leader, Moses of course, communicates directly with God. At one point, Moses doesn’t follow God’s directions to the letter and in typical Old Testament fashion, he is severely punished. God informs Moses that he will be able to look upon the Promised Land but not enter it.
For me, what Kafka meant when he wrote, ‘Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life’ is that a human life is never long enough for us to achieve all of our goals, to be completely fulfilled in our loved ones and ourselves. In the days since my mother’s illness became threatening, I’ve suffered terrible regret at what I haven’t done with her, at everything my mother will miss. All autumn and winter I made plans to visit her with my young daughter, but we kept having to delay the trip. My mother will not get to meet her two unborn grandchildren. She loved the natural world, and I have always hoped to be able to send her on a photo safari to East Africa and the Serengeti. That too, won’t happen.
Nancy only had her father for 18 years, while I had her for 49 and yet I am still racked by the sense that she was cheated. That we were all cheated. And the fact is: we were. Everyone is. No matter how long I had my mother it would never have been enough. That is the essential tragedy we face as human beings. We can describe entire eco-systems – trees, ferns, dinosaurs, pterodactyls – that haven’t existed on the earth for hundreds of millions of years. Our minds soar across galaxies to see light from the beginning of the universe 13-odd billion years ago. Yet we’re stuck in these fallible, ridiculous bodies and our lives go by much too fast. As someone wrote, ‘days drag; years fly.’
To dismiss the regrets and suffering of this loss would be to diminish how much my mother gave us. In fact the loss and suffering tell us just how important Nancy Aneyci was. The presence of all the people in this room tells us of her importance. The fact that not a minute goes by without my thinking of her tells us of her importance. When my family got news of her illness, we rallied from the across the country to gather at her bedside. Our phone didn’t stop ringing with calls from concerned friends and our refrigerator filled to overflowing with their gifts.
My mother was a remarkable woman who accomplished far more for her family and community than an East-Side Irish-Catholic girl in the 1950s would have ever imagined. The positive, enduring legacy that my mother created lives on through all of us. On behalf of my family, I thank you for joining us here to recognize, mourn and celebrate her.

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.

[Final Note: A few days after I wrote this, the girls were gone. We were into September so at first I thought that the older girls were in school and Alissa was with her mother or in some version of daycare. Even on the weekends though, nothing: no stuffed animals on my doorstep, no skateboard swoops down the drive, no dust clouds and child shouts next door].

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…