Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Freeway State of Mind


               A friend of mine who lives outside of Los Angeles asked me why Angelinos are all so obsessed with the freeways. After all, we talk about them, we put them in our movies, and of course we write about them.
               I’ve been writing about L.A. and the freeway system my whole career, and I’ve developed theories about them. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am a little obsessed with them.
               Let me be clear. Everyone in Los Angeles hates the freeways. They’re horrible. But they also define us.


               They are what make us what we are. Without them, we would be a much friendlier place. Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities described the basic problem of L.A. perfectly. We are really a number of communities that have kind of all grown together.
               Most of these were orchard communities.
               Land developers realized that houses were more valuable than trees and so bedroom communities began to spring up. Since this happened after the advent of the automobile, people could live one place and commute into work.
               So now we have freeways.
               All of this created the Los Angeles phenomenon of the single use area. People live one place, commute to work someplace else, and commute to entertain themselves in a third place.
               But another phenomenon has risen because of it. So many cities in the world have a kind of city center around which the community grows and helps to define the community.
               The city center of Los Angeles is the freeway. We are growing around it rather than growing around a centralized downtown experience, and in fact because of this, different towns become strangely united. People who normally would go to Claremont for entertainment will feel equally comfortable in Pasadena and parts of Long Beach even though these areas are miles and miles distant.
               They will pass by Duarte on their way from Claremont to Pasadena never considering stopping, and it could be argued that Pomona is culturally closer to Montebello than Walnut even though they are next door neighbors.


               The result is a great deal of unfriendliness.
               It’s easy for me to get to areas in town where people like me live and congregate, so I never bother to get to know my neighbors.
               On one side of my house a police officer and his family live. These are interesting people who always seem to be laughing and having a good time. Aside from waving at them, I’ve never had contact with them. On the other side of my house lives an immigrant from somewhere. I’m not sure where. He’s obsessed with gardening and Asian art. On trash day, he brings in the trash cans for everyone on the street, and every once in a while he’ll bring my newspaper to my door step leaving a coin for luck underneath it.
               Why haven’t I gotten to know him?
               Because it’s easy to get on the freeway and drive down to Long Beach where I know I’ll have good time with my friends. The ease of those relationships makes the work of getting to know my neighbors unnecessary.
               The result is that we spend hours on the freeways, commuting and growing angrier. All we want is to get to our friends and engage in human relationships. But we sit in traffic for hours completely surrounded by strangers and feeling completely alone. They create a kind of community isolation and despair.
               So we become obsessed with freeways. At least I do.
               If there were one thing I’d change about L.A., it would be the phenomenon of the single use area, and some communities are trying to do that. The freeways are meant to be a kind of stopgap, a way to bring people together in a city were public transportation doesn’t work. However, they have ended up having exactly the opposite effect.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Mann of War Cocktail

My novel, Mann of War, is coming out soon from Oak Tree Press. I've been looking around, found that there was a Man of War Cocktail. In anticipation of my new novel, I played with that recipe and came up with the Mann of War.

Cocktails Collection - Blue Hawaiian

Here's the recipe:

1. Pour too much bourbon over ice and chunks of fruit.

2. Pour in just enough blue curacao to turn it teal.

3. Drink it angrily as you think about all the criminals who get away with their crimes, and plot your revenge!

Don't drink too many. The fruit flavor makes you think it's not very strong. Soon, you're snoring on someone else's couch.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mann, I'm Having Fun

I can't tell you how much fun I'm having with the early promotion of my book.

Sunny Frazier got me going, told me to have a good time with promotion, and I've followed that directive religiously.

It makes sense of course. I've never been able to do my various jobs well when I haven't enjoyed them. I don't think anyone can. And the careers I have now, teaching and writing, are a joy.

Anyway, I've tried to make promotion a creative act, and in the last year of studying this, I think this was the best advice I have gotten. When joy permeates what I'm doing, people react. When frustration does, people react to that too.

This last week has been the most fun of all. I got together with several of my students/friends, and we filmed a trailer for my upcoming novel, Mann of War. I haven't see the final product yet, but I can't wait.

I am so grateful for all the people who let me kill them on screen especially Elder Zamora, who lay on the ground with dirt and flowers on his head in the halls of Cal Poly, Pomona as professors stared quizzically at him. Does that whet your appetite for the film?

Who else am I grateful to? David Falkinburg, Hanna Phipps, Ann Brantingham (does this go without saying? It shouldn't. In a life of gratitude, I am most grateful to her), Daniel Cuesta, and Charlotte San Juan. All were willing to die publicly for my art or willing to be bystanders.

Anyway, here is an interview with two of them. It's the first of my sock puppet interviews. Watch and enjoy! They're interesting artists and people in general. By the way, want to be shocked? David, the published writer and director of the film is only 22 years old. Can you imagine the possibilities in front of a talent who is so young?

So what is a sock puppet interview? My sock puppet, Sockk of War, interviews creative people about things they do well.




Monday, December 10, 2012

Everything's Coming up Jeffrey

I don't know what you're doing on Friday at 3pm, but I'm going to be listening to 88.7 KSPC in Claremont, California.

They've made the wise choice of featuring the poetry of my student and friend, Jeffrey Graessley.


Jeff's one of a long string of successful students. When he came to Mt. San Antonio College (we all call it Mt. SAC) a few years ago, he had a lot of raw talent, but he knew that he had to do some work. So he removed a string of piercings from his mouth and got down to work.

It's been great to see him succeed, to see him develop talent and ability over the years.

It's been great to watch him publish all his work as well. He's had poetry in a number of magazines, and he's working on a novel that I think it going to go. It's the first steam-punk occult western I've seen since Brisco County Jr.

He's a great writer and a young writer, and he's done the one thing to contribute to his own success that all of my students who have had great success have done.

I'll tell you his secret at the end. For now, I'm going to brag about my students.

There are a number of students I can't write about since their publisher have asked that they keep their novels on the QT for the time being, so I'm not going to talk about them. Others who have been successful, I'm going to not write about. Why? Because so many of the students have published work, found writing, changed their lives, that there's not enough room.

But here is a list of a few of the most recent:

Marta Chausee whose book is coming out in the next month or so from Oak Tree Press.
She took my novel writing class two years ago and excelled. She was focused took and gave criticism and was a leader in her groups. All great qualities, but not the key to her success.

Michaelsun Knapp has published all over the place and is getting paid for his fiction and poetry. In a year or so, he'll be moving on to an MFA, and I can't imagine the number of books in his future. He's doing extraordinary ekphrastic poems right now. Hard to wrap your head around how good these are.

Michael Torres just published his first chapbook through Finishing Line Press, and his poetry has been all over the place. He won a PEN award and his work is good.

Scott Creley, Elder Zamora, David Falkinberg . . . there have been too many to name who have done well.

What's the common denominator?

It's tempting to say I am, but it's not that.

On the other hand, I did give them the same advice that they all followed, so maybe I can steal their glory.

What they all did, what all my very successful students have done is to form strong and sustaining communities to help them with their writing. This more than anything I have seen or done has been the hallmark of success.

Of course it spurs on all the other things that makes people successful.

People in writing communities write regularly because the community demands it.

People in writing communities revise carefully because they are embarrassed not to.

People in writing communities read more and better because of recommendations.

People in writing communities stay positive and focused.

People in writing communities aren't unrealistic.

People in writing communities send their work out when it's ready.

The advice that I gave to them all was to get into a good group and get as much out of it as you can. They've all done that and have succeeded beyond what I expected and quickly. All of these highly successful writers have been my student in the last two years.

So, what are the other hallmarks of success? Let us know. We're all on our way, but we all have a ways to go.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Research - The Secret Language of Place



I love the way that places try to speak to me even when I can't understand what they are saying. On my daily walks, my wife and I spend much of our time trying to decipher the language of civil engineering, why a "G" is printed into the concrete here and what the pipes that come out of the ground near the school are for there.

We've always wanted to see the site of the St. Francis Dam tragedy on San Francisquito Canyon Road just outside of Santa Clarita.

(The Dam still intact.)

The St. Francis Dam was part of William Mulholland's vision for watering the Los Angeles area. He was responsible for so much of the water that had been pumped into the area, and for so much of what the water did in the area. He brought in water from Owen's Lake, which devastated the Owen's Valley and did little for Los Angeles. But the aqueduct he built was a feat of engineering genius. Eventually, he built the St. Francis Dam.

The St. Francis Dam is one of those forgotten tragedies, possibly one of the worst things to ever happen to Los Angeles, but few people remember it.

On March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed because of the weakness of the rock surrounding it, and a wall of water and debris was sent into the low lying communities between it and the sea. Because of the lack of records at the time, there's no way to be sure to know even how communities were swept away let alone how many houses and people. We do know that bodies swept into the ocean were found as far away as Mexico.

Ann and I went to view the site on a rare rainy day, but the rain seemed appropriate enough given the site we were going to visit.

The dam is located up in the foothills of Los Angeles in the Grapevine area, which has a kind of scrubby beauty -- miles of hills covered with the kind of bushes that live on almost no water and house mice, snakes, and desert birds.

(Beautiful foothills of the Angeles National Park.)

It took a while to find the spot due to a blow out that had us in Sears for a couple of hours and the fact that we had only a general sort of knowledge of where it is. This is the best way to travel, and the way we always go. We don't always end up where we wanted to go, but it's a lot of fun going this way.

We did eventually find San Francisquito Canyon Road however just off Cooper Hill. The road is one lane and still holds some of Mulholland's positive legacy. Once of the aqueduct's power generators is still working here in an art deco building straight from the 1920s that looks too nice to be simply generating power. Leaded glass windows, bas relief, trees. Absolutely beautiful.

(The best shot I could get without blocking traffic. If you notice, I shop at Car Max)

Seeing the site has become easier since a storm in 2005 swept the road away nearby. The main road passes above, but the old road is perfect for hiking and leads you directly to the site with bits of debris from the tragedy fallen off the rock wall nearby and onto the road itself.

(A concrete block with a piece of the iron from the dam)

It's nearly impossible to see the dam unless you know what you're looking for. Even then it's difficult. We spent a little while trying to figure out what we were looking at, and then saw a bit of iron out of the rock face, rubble, and a small wooden cross marking the spot.


And did the voices of the dead speak to me? I don't think so. Or if they did, I wasn't listening well enough. But if the dead speak here, they are speaking everywhere.

What spoke to me was the canyon. California speaks to me. I know that this place is going to appear in my poems and my fiction. It's working its way into me like a virus or a splinter or a less painful metaphor. What's going to come out?

I don't know. But I can feel it down there like all places that speak to me.

Here's the blog questions and please answer below if you feel like it: What places speak to you? What do they say?