Thursday, October 29, 2009

Best Line from Tonight's Halloween episode of "30 Rock"

Tracy: "This is going to be the scariest Princeton parents' weekend ever!"

(Bonus cultural references from Yours Truly: Jenna says "Cowabunga" and there is a woman dressed as Optimus Prime at the gay Halloween party.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Looking for Harry.

Ask the average person who Harry Nilsson is, and if they're of a certain age they'll probably scrunch up their face and say, "The name sounds familiar..." and if they're under 40 they probably won't have the faintest idea.

But mention "Me and My Arrow," or "Without You" or "Everybody's Talkin'" or say "Put de lime in de coconut," and odds are good that no matter their age, their eyes will light up with recognition: "Oh, that guy! I love that song!"

Recently while digging around the Internet I stumbled across the fact that Harry, who died in 1994 just before the big L.A. earthquake, was buried at Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park in Westlake Village. I drive past that place all the time -- it's next to our local Costco, Pet Smart, and Staples -- and I never knew Harry was there.

A little further digging revealed that in the final years of his life, Harry lived right here in my hometown of Agoura Hills. Agoura seems a strange place for such a successful musician to have lived; it ain't exactly Malibu -- it's not even Westlake Village. On a little more investigation, I learned that Harry, whose career had taken a sharp downturn in the late Seventies owing to his general iconoclasticity, his refusal to tour or play concerts, and his notorious carousing with John Lennon, was financially wiped out when his business manager embezzled all his money, for which she did two years and never had to make any sort of restitution.

I never met Harry, but I've occasionally met people who knew him (including Lennon, and the great Van Dyke Parks), and my producer/co-conspirator on nine years' worth of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was Fred Wolf, who single-handedly animated Harry's film The Point, which is awesome and full of win and which you should see immediately. For some reason, discovering that Harry had lived here made me want to pay him a visit.

I'm not a terribly morbid person by nature. The only time I've been to a celebrity grave was to see Oliver Hardy, who's buried near the old Disney TV animation building, where I used to work. But as someone who has loved Nilsson's music his entire adult life, I felt compelled to pay him my regards.

And so Audry and I headed out this morning, armed with the exact GPS coordinates of the gravesite, and went looking for Harry. We found him at the top of this hill, just east of Lindero Canyon Road.

Audry put a flower on the stone.

The notes of Harry's song "Remember" were transcribed and hand-etched on the stone by Van Dyke Parks himself. Among the many musicians at the funeral was George Harrison.

Turns out the several famous people are buried here, including Artie Shaw, Jack "King" Kirby, and Karen Carpenter. On our way back, we encountered one of them:

Strange thing about being in a cemetery: you think about the people there, and wonder what their lives were like, what worried them, what was important to them, what upset or delighted or enraged them -- and you instantly realize that none of it matters now. It reminds you that whatever you're worried or upset or angry or afraid about ultimately is going to be meaningless. And maybe that's a good thing to think about once in a while. Gives you perspective.

Apropos of that, here is Harry's song "Think About Your Troubles," from The Point:

Fool Your Friends! Confound Your Enemies!

Ever wonder whatever happened to the old Johnson-Smith Catalog? You know, the one with the X-ray specs and fake dog poop? It grew up and mutated into this unbelievably awesome website, where you can buy handerpants and yodelling pickles and paintings of squirrels in their underwear! Check it out!

Monday, October 12, 2009


In reading Chip Delany's About Writing, I came across the following provocative sentence:

"One way or the other, directly or indirectly, good fiction tends to be about money."

I think (hope?) what Chip is referring to is not money per se, but its effects on people -- in their circumstances, in having or not having it, in the pursuit of it, and in the effects it has on peoples' emotions.

It's a great way to force you to think about fiction from a different angle, but I think it's overstated. (I imagine Chip would be the first to agree.) He's also left himself a couple of outs, through the qualifiers "good" (no one is going to always agree with you about what constitutes "good" fiction) and "tends to be about" (which allows for exceptions).

Money of course is representative of various aspects of both our survival (food, shelter, etc.), which motivates fictions both complex (Les Miserables) and simple (any Road Runner cartoon), and our aspirations: achieved, thwarted, gained but to no good end, and even (in the case of a book like Siddhartha) rejected. (Money is such a ubiquitous part of human existence that you could just as easily say that most good fiction tends to be about clothes. After all, we all wear 'em.)

Equally interesting, Chip says that you pretty much can't write fiction without establishing your characters' financial circumstances. Fascinating and true. But again, I think we do this in order to provide context for the characters' emotions and behaviors.

Money, in the long run, is just paper and metal. Even in the real world, it's basically symbolic. Personally, I think fiction -- most fiction -- good, bad or indifferent fiction -- is about only one thing:

Something stands in the way of what I want.

The "something" may be an antagonist, or circumstances, or myself -- and ideally it's a combination of all three. This too is an over-generalization, and is considerably more simple-minded than Chip's statement -- but I think it comes fairly close to describing the essence of storytelling, for what it's worth.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Okay. That's weird.

From an unpublished novella called "Wonderland," which I finished in 1999:

"Her words seemed to thaw out some sort of ice dam inside of me..."

From Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, published this year:

"[He] felt some ice dam in his heart break apart..."

Okay, maybe he says it better than me, but still... Get out of my head, Russo!

I won't say my story's better, but it does have lots more time-travelling, senseless killing, half-baked superheroes from the future, revelations of a higher intelligence in the universe and playing of the game "Monopoly" than Russo's book. (Both have marital breakups in them, though the one in my story only lasts for about ten seconds.) I'm just sayin'.