Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Thing that Goes

I bought a motorcycle on Craigslist this week. I still don't know exactly why I did this. I already own a very reliable car (which I often need for transporting video and sports equipment), I don't exactly have a steady paying job, and I otherwise try my hardest to avoid doing rash, potentially life-changing (or life-ending) things like this. Besides, I'm half scared to death of motorcycles. But I'm also half in love with the things.

I think my infatuation started last winter when I bought a collection of Kenneth Anger films on DVD. I had seen a clip of Scorpio Rising once before, but watching the whole thing touched some strange nerve deep inside me. I watched it again and again and again, which is strange because I almost never feel compelled to watch anything- even movies I love- more than once a year or so. But something about Scorpio demanded repeat viewings, if only to solve the mystery of why I found it so affecting.

And I'm still not sure I can put my finger on it. It might be the beautiful but almost naively simplistic cinematography. Or the amazing and ironic pop music. Or the conflation of James Dean, Jesus, and Hitler. Maybe it was just the biker boys.

Scorpio was one of the first films I saw after coming out, and I think this set me up to identify with Anger's cinematic fascination the male body. Scorpio's bikers preen and polish themselves just as they do their motorcycles. The bikers' existence draws structure through costume and ritual and subcultural mythology- they are their own self-perpetuating gods, just as magnificent and tragic in genesis as they are in death.

A few months later, I met up with one of the subjects I've been following for my surf documentary. We had gone to high school together but had never really been close friends, and I hadn't seen him in five years. His footage ended up being pretty amazing, as he was emotionally sincere and unafraid to bear his soul. He had great stories and uncanny camera sense. And he was gorgeous and rode a motorcycle.

Four months later, I find myself looking over a 2001 Suzuki 500E: midnight blue, 487 cc engine, standard bike. The owner is a musician who works from home, and I find myself nervously questioning his thinning hairline, goatee, and olive-skinned complexion, as if any of these things should serve as a dire warning, but I get the impression that he is just as nervous about the whole thing as I am. I feel funny negotiating a price with him- it's the type of thing that I relished doing when I was traveling in Asia, but it feels strange doing it in America. It probably makes me uncomfortable because I have so little experience bargaining, and I'm afraid that I'm doing it all wrong. Is my first price too low? How am I supposed to read his response? Haggling is a skill that has more or less been bred out of us polite, upper-middle class America (does that even describe me anymore?), but this is a deficiency that I so badly want to fill. Kind of like how I feel about motorcycles.

I come back a few days later to pick up the bike, but it starts giving me trouble, and I find myself regretting taking three months to buy a bike since finishing my safety course. The motorcycle lurches and sputters but doesn't really go anywhere. I start getting frustrated, and eventually get it moving, only to have the bike stall out as I stagger forward, and I struggle for a few seconds before the bike falls to the ground. It's not a bad fall, but the cap at the end of the handlebar is a little bent. Much worse, the bike won't start. The engine whines and gasps, and slowly gives up. I push it back to the sidewalk, afraid that I've tragically broken the thing already, and soon the bike won't even respond to the starter button.

This is exactly the embarrassment that I had been dreading, and all the discouraging words of my friends start come back to me. But I pull myself together and go get the old owner out on the street with his voltmeter. Turns out the battery, like my ego, is totally shot, which explains a lot of things and actually makes me feel a lot better. I want to be pissed at the guy, but I figure he's more dense than dishonest, so I don't bother with it.

A fresh battery improves things greatly, and I take the bike around the block a few times to get a feel for it. I start remembering how to work the clutch to shift gears, and it all feels pretty good. This lasts for about five minutes before I manage to drop the bike again. After propping it back up, I quickly realize that there's no longer a brake lever on the handlebar. A trip to the dealer (new brake lever), the grocery store (WD-40), and my roommate's toolbox (metric-size socket wrench), and the bike is functional again.

I ride the bike around the neighborhood where I bought it, and I notice a lot of the residents are Hispanic (the types that conservative talk radio is always warning me about). There's a family talking in Spanish as they pack their SUV for a picnic, a group of people who have taken over a large chunk of one street with an RV and a table full of delicious smelling foods, and a young man selling oranges and water on a street corner. I see a piƱata set up on the side of the street, and I wonder if it's someone's birthday. It's my birthday in a few days, but I don't have any plans other than going to work. I want to have a party, but I don't know enough people in Los Angeles to invite over, which makes me kinda sad.

Eventually, I decide to ride the bike to my apartment, even though it means leaving my car behind to pick up later. The ride back is something I had been dreading, as I've been deathly afraid of being too incompetent to operate the motorcycle outside of residential streets. To my surprise, everything goes really well. I don't stall at traffic lights or have too much trouble shifting gears. I also get going fast- up around 45mph- and it feels great. Or at least it does until I get to the main street near where I live. Without warning, the engine stops turning over and the bike dies while I am in the middle of the street. Somehow, I manage not to panic as I walk the bike over to the side of the street.

I open up the fuel tank and find that I can see the bottom pretty clearly, which I take to be a bad sign. I'm frustrated because the old owner told me there was enough in there for the bike to go another 125 miles, and I haven't even taken it 50. I walk a few blocks to a gas station. There's another biker there, a stocky Hispanic guy with a chin beard. He looks at me walking up there with my helmet under my arm and right away says that it wasn't my fault and that his bike ran out of gas just one week ago in Long Beach. His friendliness makes me feel better, and the attendant is nice too, though the gas canister he sells me is the most complicated piece of cheap plastic I've ever encountered.

I ride back to my place, but it's not easy going. It takes a little while for the gasoline to start flowing again, and then I can't keep my engine properly revved. I stall the bike and lose power at least half a dozen times on the way back- it's a wonder I don't cause any accidents. I eventually get home in one piece, but now I just keep worrying about what I've gotten myself into. What exactly made me think this was a good idea in the first place? What could I have done during all these months when I've lusted after a motorcycle that doesn't fit my needs or lifestyle? Does this have anything to do with why I find myself so isolated from everything and everyone around me?

Luckily, I'm too worn down to worry all that hard.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Secret Lives

I moved back to Los Angeles this week. I'm living in the same house, working a few streets away from my old job, and doing pretty much the same thing, too. Even though I ended up hating all of this the last time I was here, I'm actually kind of optimistic this time around. I felt really bad when I was leaving San Diego- like I was abandoning this fantasy low-key surf lifestyle that I'd been chasing after, but I guess LA is a pretty good place to be for building new fantasies.

My first day on my new job, I meet up with Bob, the assistant editor for the documentary I'm gonna be working on. He's excited to show me all of the footage he's been fooling around with lately, and he starts going through the sequences. They're obviously rough cuts, but I'm still pretty impressed by our interview footage- we've managed to get a lot of big name subjects, plus there are some amazing soundbytes in there. We get through most of the footage early on, so Bob spends the rest of the day playing clips he's grabbed off of Youtube- there's a lot of silly stuff relating to our subject, and it's looking like we might actually use a bunch of it for the final cut.

I know this all sounds vague, but I guess it has to be because I was barely in the office for an hour before they had me sign a big confidentiality agreement. And even though this blog has a readership of approximately zero, I'm still not wild about writing anything that could get me fired. Even though I'm not getting paid anything and I'm sort of a peon in the company, I still strangely enjoy being a part of this project. Everyone else at the office is pretty easygoing, and I actually feel like people are willing to listen to what I have to say, even though I'm an intern. Plus, the office is full of free food- mostly vegetarian entrees- and I can usually milk this for 3-4 reasonably sized snacks/meals per day (I like to eat a lot). Plus I can pat myself on the back for getting all the vegetables I'm not putting on my plate at home.

Probably the coolest part about this secret documentary that I'm working on is that I'm lined up to go on some stake-outs in the future. I get sent to various undisclosed locations all over the country to watch certain people (hopefully) do certain things while I spy on them with video cameras from behind tinted windows. Bob tells me that this is actually pretty boring- he's done it before, and he's always ended up spending hours in his car, only to have nothing actually happen. Still, I'm pretty amped for when it's gonna be my turn to be behind the darkened glass.

On Saturday, I went to a block party in Venice with Jenny, my roommate, and one of her friends. Right away, one of Jenny's friends hands us these crazy drinks full of fruit that had been soaking all night in various kinds of alcohol. The drink is pretty good, but the fruit is among the more disgusting things I've ever put in my mouth. While we're standing outside, some random guy calls me over and starts telling me about how the house we're standing next to is the ugliest he's ever seen. I think it actually kind of works in a funky ugly LA kind of way, but I don't think I'd want to pay the $2.9 million that the realtor is asking.

Jenny gets drunk and adventurous, and she starts wandering all over the little street where the party is happening. Somehow, she ends up on a third floor balcony, and we climb the stairs to meet her in this cozy little beach apartment where people are listening to remixes and watching surf movies and smoking pot. There's a pretty neat fish tank, too.

We go up on the roof and watch planes landing at LAX and in the night sky they look like UFO's. I meet the guy who owns the apartment with the fish tank. He had a copy of Some Like It Hot sitting in front of his TV, and there are magnets on his refrigerator with 50's era caricatures of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, and Marilyn Monroe. I ask him about these and he seems super excited that someone actually recognized them. We start talking, and some girl I met earlier breaks into our conversation to ask this guy if he's gay too, and he immediately disappears into another conversation and we don't see him again. I take this as a very closted yes.

Eventually, two police officers show up and try to break up the party, but there's at least 300 people around, and they don't have much luck. I eat Mexican food with Jenny and her friends, and then she falls asleep in the car on the way home. I have a really good conversation with Christina, Jenny's friend, on the way home, and I wonder why I often wait so long to come out of my shell when I meet new people. I hope I'm not the same way with Los Angeles this time around.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

California Gothic

I watched The Third Man on DVD the other night. Photographically, It was a really beautiful film, but I have to admit that I didn't care for the story. Everything was very tight and interesting for the first half or so, but then it sort of lost its momentum and the characters became uninteresting. Still, it had in spades that undeniable romance of postwar Europe and film noir. It makes me wonder where in the world that magic might be hiding today. Maybe in Uganda, or so I once believed.

A month before I graduated from college, I applied for a fellowship that would have sent me to work as a photojournalist for The New Vision, a state-controlled newspaper based in Kampala. I was asked to submit a small, relevant portfolio, which was tricky because most of recent stuff was edgy graphic design work that I had heavily Photoshopped . I eventually settled on some photographs I had taken at a skate park during the summer after my freshman year, when I was first becoming interested in photography.

The photos were for a class I was taking through UCSD Extension. My final project was a series on skaters, surfers, and other punk kids hanging out around the various concrete jungles that comprise San Diego. I called the series "Youth Culture", which pretty much just meant that I had wandered around town taking pictures of people who were roughly my age. Still, I remember selecting these images because they all shared a certain feeling of stillness and sadness- a California Gothic, if you will. In retrospect, this sentiment was likely a projection of my own longing to break out of the isolation I found myself in at the time. I had (and often still have) a desire to decode the enchanting bits of knowledge that skaters share and surfers share but the uninitiated can only dream about.

I knew the portfolio I had submitted for the photojournalist position wasn't very strong, so I was very surprised when I learned that I had got the job. In fact, I was happier than I had been in a very long time- photojournalist in Africa is one of those dream jobs that goes right up there with astronaut or rockstar or president. It was a chance to escape the banality of doing something awful and ordinary. It was an opportunity to travel and meet people and have my mind blown. It was exactly what I'd been needing and wanting for a very long time.

A few days later, my mother threatened to sue the people who had awarded me the fellowship, so I lost the job. I was furious at the time, and I still get a little crushed whenever I think about it. I remember being somewhat consoled when a wise and venerable professor told me that it must have happened because the fates had other things in store for me.

I'm still wondering what those other things might be.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I crawled out of bed this morning to find my father's golden retriever lying next to a puddle of his own vomit. It was mostly brown goo, but there were a few chunks in there as well. At first I yelled at the dog, but I think this just confused him. It's not like I was going to be able to shame him into not throwing up all over the floor in the future. The thing already has enough trouble with "sit" and "stay"- I'm doubtful that it could learn "don't vom", or even, "stop rolling around in that," or "don't eat your own puke". I took him outside, hoping he might realize that it would be a far better place for him to wretch up anything left in his stomach, but he just sat there and stared at me.

Back inside, I grabbed a wad of paper towels and started mopping up the mess on the floor while the dog raced to eat as much vom as possible before I had wiped it all away. Afterwards, I splashed some Pinesol on the floor, and I was immediately hit by that pungent smell that always filled our house after Maria made her bi-weekly visits. It was a little surprising for me to realize that I had never before identified what produced the "Maria smell" that indicated that the house was at least temporarily sanitized for the 24 hours that the smell lingered above the tile floors.

Maria was a strange figure during my childhood. I rarely ever saw her, but her presence was noticeable in so many ways that she became an almost supernatural figure, like the wind or the sun or a bolt of lightning that cleaned the house every week (she had come more frequently when my mother still lived with my father). Maria was the reason why a toy or a magazine would suddenly go missing, only to appear in a completely foreign drawer or cabinet. She was the reason why the water in the toilet became blue and bubbly and lightly fragrant. She was the reason why I had to pick up all my toys once each week and the reason why the stuffed animals on top of my bunkbed needed to be rearranged so that they could return to their proper positions. She made my sheets change colors, produced arcing patterns in all the carpets, and left that sickly sweet Maria smell to let me know she had visited.

Once when I was very young, my mother told me that Maria had promised to give back all the money that she made cleaning houses after she became a millionaire. I can't remember if my mother also told me how Maria was planning to make it big, but I often think of this story and it always makes me a little sad. I think it's one of the reasons I try to avoid Maria whenever she's cleaning my father's house. A few years ago, she approached me while I was eating breakfast in my father's kitchen and asked me to say hello to my mother for her. I eventually passed along the message, but my mom just rolled her eyes and said that Maria must have been looking for work. At first I was angry at my mother for being so callous, but I've come to realize that she was probably right. And now it's become another reason why I get a little sad whenever I smell Pinesol.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I haven't been able to write anything for over a year now. I'm more dedicated to my journal than I was even in high school, I find myself making an endless number of lists of things to do or buy or think about, and I've written several letters to my friend Laurel, but I haven't produced anything creative since I handed in my thesis last spring. It bothers me because even when I wasn't writing anything terribly substantial, I was at least able to scrawl down little poems or phrases or fragments of stories that managed to hook into a piece of my brain. But now there's nothing. Even this post feels uncertain and difficult. I had a blog once before- a little page on livejournal where I complained about my troubles and made lists of the new music or movies I had recently consumed. I think a lot of what I wrote was pretty insincere and shallow (I seem to remember once saying that Green Day's fashion aesthetic was so damn cool), but I'll never really know because I deleted it during my junior year at about the same time I purged my Myspace and Facebook accounts. I think I was trying to liberate myself from dependency on meaningless digital media, but I ended up effectively severing myself from the people around me. I regret it, largely because I also lost my high school journal when my mother's house burned down last October, and now that strange boy who lived in that wonderful, critical, wretched time seems so impossibly far away. It's strange to think that it's only been five years.

Lately I've been trying to write something of a fantasized, fictionalized memoir of those high school years. I've been stuck on the first page for about five months now. I'll be driving around San Diego or talking with old friends, and suddenly I'll feel inspired to start writing so I can sort out all of my feelings about my Southern California life, but when I finally force myself to sit down in front of the computer, I just revise the same two paragraphs over and over and over again. I think part of the problem is that my would-be story is too thinly autobiographical and self-involved to make for very appropriate fiction. Right now the characters are all just stand-ins for me and my parents and my high school friends, and I know that this needs to change or at least mutate in some interesting way before I'll be able to make any substantial progress.

Maybe I've just been in a non-fiction mode. The only piece of my writing that I have been happy with recently was a documentary treatment that I submitted with some of my graduate school applications. The idea was basically to make a surfing documentary without any surfing in it. I have a bunch of friends who are connected with the surf industry, so I wrote my treatment about how I would follow them around in their everyday lives, which I would then contrast with the romanticized pop culture image of the surfer that they are all helping to create and promote. I also talked about my own attraction to this image of the surfer, a figure which I have found to be alluring and seductive but also deceitful and impossibly out of reach. I actually got so excited while working on the treatment that I decided to start shooting the project , and I've now gone through 20 hours of tape. I hope something good comes of this, but I'm more than a little worried by the length of the thing, as I probably still have another 10 hours left to shoot, and then I have massive amounts of editing to worry about.

I eventually heard back from the two grad programs who saw my treatment. I was accepted at CalArts but turned down by UCLA. Strangely enough, I was pretty happy with both pieces of news.