25 February 2009

Crookshank: Minor Basketball Legend

On the edge of Hoosier National Forest, Indiana, USA, lies the Crookshank family homestead nestled amongst the greenest tall pines just on the left hip of a low lying mountain range. Eleven generations of Crookshanks have called the Hoosier state home (even prior to statehood in 1816 ), but that home court winning streak came to an abrupt and angry end when Wallace Earnest Crookshank IV (“Wally”) moved his family to neighboring and equally basketball-loving state of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, USA.

As father-son spats go, the Crookshanks have seen and survived their fair share, less than most, more than some. But the familial peace of this branch of the Crookshanks was shattered seemingly beyond repair when Wally and his dad "Trip" (Wallace III) Crookshank disagreed over Wally’s favorite gal, soon-to-be-wife, Isabella.

Turns out, the Crookshanks are a capable bunch of gentlemen farmers (and gentlelady), with a keen eye for picking a good melon, literally. This melon-pickin’ skill carried over from farming into other areas of their lives and served them well, whether in business, theology, which cousin to choose for a pick-up game of hoop, or in choosing a spouse. It is said that a Crookshank can spot an ill-intentioned, ulterior motive a mile away, and detect manure before an outsider has a chance to put shovel into pile. They are often called “wise behind their ears” for their slightly protruding listening discs, but it’s the “wise beyond their years” knack for making good decisions that has resulted in the family Crookshank choosing spouses with amazing accuracy of darn near 90% -- making for an odd thing really when a Crookshank marriage doesn’t take root and blossom.

And so it was that Trip Crookshank simply did not agree with Wallace-the-lesser’s decision to spend his hard-earned savings on an engagement ring for Isabella Smith of the French Lick, Indiana Smith’s. To Trip’s way of thinking, they didn’t know her long enough and not enough was known about Isabella or her family. Wally was smitten, however, and so off he and his new bride went to Prospect, Kentucky, to start a new life, away from prying eyes (he felt) of family who might be judging him and the 18-yr-old's ability to discern for himself his choice of mate, thank you very much. Eighteen months and one baby boy later, Wally returned to Indiana with his son Wesley Ellis Crookshank riding shotgun -- no longer smitten, but rather somewhat smote after Isabella-the-lesser-half ran off with a Kentucky wildcat heading out west to make his fortune in California in the motion picture business. Wally was now part of the dubious 10% crowd that chose or guessed wrong on the multiple-choice exam of love.

20 February 2009

Helms Man, Watermelon Man

Good people work hard. They work hard and rear their families as best they can, whether making $125,000 or $25,000. I've known one family making a million dollars per annum, with salt-of-the-earth parents and great kids (Hollywood types), and another family with a dad who quite literally collects recycled materials and hauls trash to make ends meet (Hauling types). Both of these families have a few things in common: they own their homes, with children who attend private/religious schools, and both are credits to their neighborhoods.

Good people work hard, and to work is a blessing from a good God, so says the Puritan work ethic and King Solomon in Ecclesiastes (before everything became vanity). Occasionally my sons will ask me about the men we see waiting by Home Depot for work. "Dad, why are some of the workers dirty? Are they from countries that are dirty?" I tell them that these men put many of the men in suits on the same LA streets to shame with their amazing work ethic and indefatigable spirit to make a living. And, yes, they may be dirty, but their day-laborer métier is a badge of honor. That's what I tell my sons. If I had their work ethic, thick skin and stamina, then I'd be Richard Branson successful (see Ex Libris ... 2009, right) of Virgin Group fame.

When I was a kid -- 4 and 5 years old -- the Helms Man used to come through our neighborhood regularly. I can still hear the distinct "wooot, wooot" whistle of the Helms truck telling all who had ears to hear that calorie-loaded goodness was drawing nigh. And, like any good childhood memory, there was food involved.

Many times as I was walking to kindergarten (when children still walked to school), I would wave down the Helms Man and he'd stop and give me a chocolate chip cookie and a bag of M&Ms. I'd put it on our tab and then he'd charge my mom (since she always slept-in, she could not stop such mid-morning gastronomical tomfoolery). The yellow truck was modified with all sorts of doors that opened, revealing still more drawers, some which were very narrow and long, or very flat and wide. In these drawers and behind those doors were the time-tested still-warm goodies of a bygone era: pastries, doughnuts, cookies, and some store-bought candy all within steps of your home or on your way to kindergarten.

Lots of memories from that time have stayed with me: the feel-good aroma that poured out of the Helms truck every time those doors opened (like the perfume scented memory of loving grandma's bakery hug). Or, the sonic memory of clanking bottles (both full and empty) when the milkman would drop off the milk on his morning round -- which occasionally included a bottle of thick-n-rich chocolate milk after my little brother and I would mark up the order card with an extra 'X' in the box. Which I suppose was appropriate as we were the beginning of the generation tagged with moniker 'X'.

Helms Bakery at its height of popularity was a 24-hour-a-day factory that cranked out fresh baked goods, and then loaded up hundreds of trucks around SoCal for daily delivery. Helms established the brand after landing the contract to supply the 1932 Olympics. Drivers like the Helms guys, and individuals like them, made a living by working the oil rigs, doing time on the assembly line, or walking a beat in Southern California. These guys are called the "greatest generation" because of their ability to see something that had to be done, and then going about their doing it without any fanfare whatsoever (like stopping some of the grossest evils mankind has ever seen in Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan or despotic fascist Italy). They believed in duties, not rights.

Just this last week, I heard the call of the Watermelon Man. I hear it occasionally, maybe four times in the last five years. "Watermelon Man. Fresh, cold melons. Get your melons. Watermelon man. " I can hear the octogenarian driver as he barely above a whisper calls to his former clients over his loud speaker, many who are either no longer alive, no longer hear, or have moved out of the ole neighborhood. I'm not sure what's the bigger surprise, that his truck still operates, or that he's still working at 82? What doesn't surprise me, is that good people from all walks of life work hard, and find tremendous satisfaction in a job well done. Especially if that job helps men and women with calloused hands meet the needs of their families in a very expensive City of Angels.

18 February 2009

Batman Begins, a Movie Review

Note: This review originally appeared on LuxeMont.com

Honesty alert. I never connected with the original Batman series from Warners. Sure they brought in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, but the moribund franchise also went off the rails long ago, almost committing seppuku in the process of exploiting itself.

It’s not that Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney
 did sub-par work; they were great as the Dark Knight. But, the overall vibe and feel of the Batman pictures were too otherworldly. A darker world that Tim Burton, et. al., delivered in their mildly disturbing comic book interpretations. They just sort of creeped me out. Directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), Batman Begins is all about character development, creating a nuanced backstory, and of course, establishing a new vehicle from which a new and improved franchise can be launched. And Nolan succeeds like no other director before him in fleshing out a superhero on film. His Batman is a real man dealing with familial trauma, living in a real city. As soon as the 3rd reel ends, you want to stay in your seat and watch it again. I had no expectations – none -- about this film, and was blown away by the sets, story, and direction. Christian Bale (Little Women, American Psycho) is perfect as the billionaire playboy who by night attempts to keep the crime balance in Gotham.

The film of course has de rigueur explosions, unreal tumbles off of buildings and cliffs, and one-against-twenty fight sequences. But, here, you believe the action. Suspended disbelief works wonders, especially when you see the Batmobile, Batsuit, and Wayne Manor. It all works, and you ask yourself ala Jack Nicholson, “where does he get those wonderful toys!?”

Michael Caine is fantastic as Alfred the butler who provides Bruce Wayne with more of a father figure than simply a footman offering avuncular advice. Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Katie Holmes all deliver reeled-in performances, allowing their characters to meld in perfectly with the exposition. They execute the material in front of them, and we all benefit from their character performances. Nolan’s Batman is about fathers and how they shape the lives of their sons, even from the grave. The loss of his father impacts Bruce Wayne’s life in a profound way. We see young Bruce rescued by his father a couple of times, and in the tragic scene where his parents are murdered, his father tells Bruce “don’t be afraid.” This is one comfort that Bruce is able to hold on to, loving fatherly advice; his father’s protection even in the end.

Batman Begins is Nolan’s interpretation of how Bruce Wayne would attempt to rid himself of the survivor guilt that profoundly shapes him. As he matures, Bruce seeks the courage to avenge/face/heal from the loss of his parents, by embracing a wanderlust that takes him in to crime-infested prisons and criminal gangs where he can face his fears. Before he can become Batman, Bruce must be able to “not be afraid,” keeping the connection with his father very much alive in Bruce’s heart. It is Bruce’s attempt to understand the criminal mindset that leads him to a mentor to help him harness the fear, anxiety, and anger that have plagued him.

Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers Bruce what he lacks: peace of mind and self-control. Here we see the beginnings of the Dark Knight. Facing his fear of bats, death, and the unknown, Bruce even faces down the evil crime lord of the League of Shadows, setting up the showdown that always takes place at the end of every superhero movie. This is the birth of Batman. Bruce overcoming his fears, no longer being afraid, and finally embracing the Wayne legacy left him by his father.

16 February 2009

Windy LA (Doubting Son)

Palms and palms, shake and they yaw,
palms and palms, lovely and grand.
If the wind she blows, look out below,
for the fronds of palms fall and they land.

The palms they tall, 100 foot land,
with span 20 per block.
Untold planted in L.A. Moderne, arranged in lines not stands.
And when windy, my man, Myles my boy, palms and palms they rock.


13 February 2009

Bachelor … Bad

For me, being a bachelor is bad. It really brings out the worst in me: indolence, procrastination, not cleaning the house enough, or finding a date for Valentine's Day. However, I don’t find that I need to be married or a serial monogamist to be content. I have many healthy relationships with women, and socialize fairly regularly. Perhaps that’s why I loathe those male-centric self-aggrandizing date books whose sole end-game is to help some Neanderthal whittle notch number one in a dorm bedpost. They’re as lame as the deodorant commercials with the nerd who buys the roll-on and then mirabile visu beautiful co-eds begin falling out of trees like so many Caribbean coconuts hitting the beach just for a chance to smooch his peach-fuzzed cheeks. Ugh, pahleez. Besides, these books and deodorants never worked for me.

Instead of the cocksure posturing of the alpha-male, I prefer the comic blunderings of the unsure average joe who finally realizes that finding love in this mad-cap world is all about being oneself, with an equal measure of adhering to the rule of scarcity or playing it cool. So, here lies a thinly veiled offering of what I’ve gleaned during the bachelor years from and around undergrad (go Cal State!) and after divorce (go fat bald guy!). Not so much a roman à clef as it is a few tips and mistakes to avoid when attempting to date, entertain, or simply enjoy the company of the opposite sex – mistakes which may befall you as well, dear reader of the same sex. If they do befall, remember that misery loves company and like sales, it all boils down to a numbers game: don’t worry, there are always other fish in the sea, and sometimes they even jump in the boat. So, here goes, some random samplings.

Rule 1: Never go out with any girl friend (especially one that you’d like to see again as a girlfriend) in a dirty car. Your buddies are wholly different creatures. They’ll get into your mud-caked ride even if you’re hauling wet manure in the backseat and they have to shove knives, a broken bottle and leaking quarts of oil over on the passenger’s seat to sit down. But, for the fairer sex, a cluttered car reveals a cluttered mind (same goes for your crib). You are already starting out "in the hole," most likely, handicapped by your gender’s reputation. Don’t let your car’s appearance confirm her suspicions.

After undergrad, my first job was at a bank and I used to meet-up with a girlfriend that I knew from high school, Arlyn, who worked at a competing bank. Our get-togethers were fairly regular, and it was always a joy hanging out with a beautiful, funny and terrifically smart young woman. But, because my job and 60 mile commute kept me on the road, I was always eating fast food, tossing bags in the backseat of my Mazda 626. Well, one night I mistakenly left a couple of windows cracked parked next to a dumpster and some flies found their way in to snack on the 3 or 4 bags of the Colonel or the Bell in the backseat. After one of our lunches, Arlyn asked me if she could see some of my bank’s collateral. It had been very cool in the morning, but by lunch, it was warm and those little buggers (that I was totally unaware of at this point) were hot to get out of the now steaming hot car. As soon as I popped the hatchback, pulling the collateral out of my briefcase for her, these flies (some frighteningly large; I mean bumble bee large) were bumping into us with their big eyes and loud wings. At first, I didn’t realize what was going on, but when I stood up with the papers for her to peruse, I saw that she was now 10 feet away swinging her arms around like a boxer swinging at a much faster opponent, hitting nothing but air. After several involuntary reflexive gags and a dozen or so shakes of her head trying to get them out of hair, she told me she was late for an appointment and hopped in her BMW, not offering her usual hug or planning our next date. Never heard from her again.

Rule 2: Have money in your bank account. If you don’t have it, don’t ask someone out, especially if you’re the type who thinks you just might have enough to pay for dinner. Your date will always order something else that you might not have budgeted for, like food and a drink. Don’t chance it. The credit card decline has happened to the best of people, and sometime it might happen to you. Don’t panic or freak. Just ask your date to meet you at the Starbucks for the after-dinner coffee (it will be her turn to treat), and then ask/beg the manager if you can bring the cash the next day. And, then don’t forget to get your license the next day when you do bring the cash.

Rule 3: Do NOT be friends with married women, that is to say, married women are not for paling around with. Period. No exceptions! I was very friendly (totally platonic) with a married colleague of mine (and her husband and kids) for several years whilst living in Newport Beach. I was newly married, and enjoying the first New Year’s Eve with my new bride. Champagne was chilling. Around 9:30pm, “Dave,” the husband of my colleague, Kami, is knocking on my front door, peering into my living room intently, like a kid at See's Candy with nose firmly pressed against the glass. Seems like another colleague of ours, “Bob” was more than friendly with Kami, and Dave was looking to make his acquaintance in the worst way possible. Needless to say, New Year’s was very memorable, not to mention ruined, with yours truly taking the 9mm handgun from hubby Dave's possession, and then riding in his car to broker a peace accord in some OC airport hotel (where I heard the phrase“I won’t kill you, Bob, if you stop seeing my wife” more than twice). Did I mention no exceptions to this rule?!

Rule 4: Don’t fight the breakups (see No.3 above). They will come. They stink, hurt and can really mess you up. Be grown-up about them, especially if someone cheats on you. Just because the love of your life, or this semester, happens to step out on you or just all over your broken heart, doesn’t give you leave to take leave of your senses, moral compass, or emotional center. Hold on dear friend. Time does heal. Promise. Besides, Valentine's Day is a commercial hack invention, and you have lots of other days to be with someone who truly loves you. Like your mom.

Rule 5: Don’t call too often when wooing or pursuing your most recent crush. This is a turn-off to be sure. Playing it cool is key – always have something to do, whether it’s studying at the library, reading a great book, or going to a jazz club (even by yourself). Keeping a taut social schedule is attractive to women. Especially if they see that some of your friends are women also (not too many, mind you. big turn-off and kinda creepy). But, remember, you can’t call too much when she's returning the vibe you've been vibing her way, and the two of you are beginning to get serious. Communication is key. So's playing the vibraphone.

Rule 6: Go to places where you both are comfortable. Whether that's church, or the museum, or Muscle Beach. Be yourself, and don't force any affectation by trying to be what you think she wants you to be. Believe me, she wants you to be yourself. So, now you can stop doing the George Clooney head cocked to the side thing, and dying your hair gray. That comes soon enough.

Rule 7: Now that you're a smashing success at introducing yourself to women you find attractive and getting on their calendar, do not roll up to a party with more than one hottie on your arm ... unless you enjoy being perceived as the total arse. I have seen this in my life a few times. Joker shows up with two women and several bottles of wine (“one for each beautiful baby and me!”). Unless you know the host or hostess very well, don’t be “that guy.” Very tough to pull off, as only the most preternaturally gifted (read vapid) bachelor can attest.

07 February 2009

Death Takes a Holiday ... not.

Death is all around us. And, unlike Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black, death seems to be working overtime in our senior living centers, foreign war zones, and unfortunately, certain neighborhoods here in Los Angeles. I live in one such area with nightly gunshots and the ubiquitous crime scene taped off around the liquor stores seemingly on every block. The police helicopter becomes this mechanical vulture illuminating the presence of a fresh kill or that units are in hot pursuit. You never quite get used to the constant reminders of your mortality, the way one takes it for granted living in the suburbs from whence I hail. Maybe that's why there are five-times the number of churches in L.A. proper.

A few months ago, a young man three doors down from my house was shot and killed. He was standing with a group of young men and women early in the evening, when the unnoticed coward walked up and fired at point-blank range. While everyone scattered for their lives jumping behind walls and cars, the killer jogged to his van and was driven away leaving an all-too-common scene for a heart-broken father away on a business trip to come home to. The police said it was an initiation killing and that our neighbor was in the wrong place, etc. There are just too many etc.'s in our inner cities today. Perhaps President Obama should propose a war on domestic terror and pull a few billion out of the "stimulus bill" where it might actually do some good by hiring extra police and specially trained gang units. Now there's some hope and change I'd like to see become a reality.

I have witnessed or come across three such murders while here in the 'hood, and my brothers and friends are constantly telling me to move away. But, I remind them that when I lived in the safe suburbs, my little brother and I watched early one morning as the coroner's office took away our neighbor, Mr. 'D', who had kissed his daughter (with her friend over for a sleepover) and son goodnight, sat himself down late-night in his car parked with the engine running in their closed garage, and drove himself into the afterlife. We sat there in our side yard not 10 feet away from the coroner as he wheeled Mr. 'D', who was covered in a blanket or bag, into the back of the station wagon with its windows blackened. We knew that he was dead, like kids just know or divine the truth out of a situation without really knowing. You know?

Just a few short years after Mr. 'D's departure, I went to see Rollerball, starring Jimmy Caan -- my older brother James took my little brother and me. Driving back home up the hill that leads to our house, we were stunned to see bodies covered with blood stained sheets in our neighbor's driveway across the street from our house. This was the aftermath of a murder, attempted-suicide (the murderer later died in a coma). Thankfully, our neighbor and other members of the family (our friends) survived. He later remarried and has been blissfully happy for the past 25 years. But, that night, in the safe suburbs, my brother Gil became a hero. When bullets were flying, and an off-duty cop's revolver was jamming, my next door neighbor Mrs. Glenn tried to stop the onslaught; it was my 14 year-old brother who tackled her, knocking her into the bushes, and dragged her back to safety. Death doesn't take a holiday, and when it's our time, we should all be ready to give an account for the life we're living, whether we're in Happy Dale sanitarium, Afghanistan, or Beverly Hills.

06 February 2009

Ex Libris FatScribe ...

One's personal library speaks volumes (no pun intended) about us as individuals, like one's wardrobe, or best friend or dog. (Take a look at George Lucas's personal study at SkyWalker Ranch, right.) The things we associate with on a daily basis mean something. These things, people, or objects that make-up our personal environ often project what is deep within us, wishing to come out, to be seen. All the world's a stage, and we merely want to show (however unconsciously) that we are players, even in some small way. When I pocket my Montblanc fountain pen in my Brooks Brothers suit, riding in my Lincoln MKX, looking at (my) Malibu through aviator sunglasses, I could be projecting something shallow or materialistic. Or, not. I could be another victim of Madison Avenue, or merely one who appreciates a certain aesthetic or the quality of a well-made item because that was the way my father dressed or that was the car my mom drove. (Btw, my mom drove a pea-green Honda Civic and my dad wore blue pants with white belt and shoes.)

But, books are different from the other things in our lives. (I suppose a quick distinction should be made here. If I am a book collector -- and not a reader -- acquiring first-editions to be displayed or held as an investment, then books are not so different.) Books are meant to inspire or move or just plain entertain; witness the great summer reads that dot the beaches from San Diego to Kinnebunkport. In fact, books can be a lot like our friends or mentors or family. A book is something that we ingest, and then hopefully pass through our lower and large psyche, -- just as our friends and family become immersed in our lives -- as an agent of change or provocateur. When I read John Ortberg's It All Goes Back in the Box, if I've actively read it, I am changed. Or, when we "read" the lives of a mentor or our parents we are changed ... hopefully for the better in both cases.

They say that we will waste what amounts to months of our lives waiting in line. Not me. I take a book with me everywhere I go. I carry one or two in my well-worn leather messenger bag (man purse), and when others are reaching for cell phones to waste their friend's time, I am busy learning about 20th century presidents in David Pietrusza's 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents. And, it all started with a Scholastic book that I read in 5th grade, The Iceberg Hermit, my first page turner that I couldn't put down. It was the first time that I was anxious to get off the bus and then run home to read. I can remember walking down to my neighbor's house, and lying down amongst several Birch trees in their front yard and just reading. And, I remember being sad when the fish-out-of-water story of this man trapped on an ice flow came to its dénouement. This book excited me. It moved me. And, looking back over this well-trod 30-year reading path, that book changed me. And that has made all the difference. A pretty good difference. Well, maybe not a huge difference, but at least I can drop some names at the cocktail party with all of the east coast swells. gawd, I'm such a poseur.