the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: October 2012

Explaining Halloween to Foreigners

I was sitting on a bench in Los Angeles when I saw two college girls walking down the street.   Why not take an instagram photo of them?   As I pressed the button to the cameraphone, I saw one of the girls looking directly at me.

“Aw, crap. Caught,” I thought.

But it wasn’t what I thought.   They approached me, singling me out as a potential victim.

“Hello,” said one of the girls in broken English. “We are ESL students from Japan. Our assignment is to find an American person on the street and ask him questions about the American holiday of Halloween. Can we impose on your time and ask you questions?”

“Sure!” I answered, always a strong believer in helping strangers in a strange land.

They bowed to me, then giggled.  I was touched, and confused.

The more extroverted girl, with long brown hair and large glasses, stepped forward.  She was holding a piece of paper in her hand.  It was her homework sheet.   On the sheet were Halloween terms they needed to learn.

“What is Trick or Treat?” she asked, pointing at question #1.

I was frankly surprised that these girls were so clueless about Halloween. Doesn’t the world watch Charlie Brown?

Trick or Treat.  How was I suppose to explain Trick or Treat to two girls with a limited knowledge of English?

“Well, you know kids go house to house on Halloween and get candy, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the extroverted girl. “You get candy on Halloween.”

Perfect.  I was half way there.

“The candy is the “treat.” I said.   “But if the person doesn’t give a treat, then you are allowed to do a “trick.””


“It’s like a joke.   If you don’t get any candy — the treat — then  you are allowed to do something like put toilet paper all around the person’s car — the trick.  You understand?”

The two girls exchanged confused glances, not getting the toilet paper reference.

“It’s an either or thing.    If there’s no candy for kid… then the kid can do something back.”

“Out of anger?”

“Well, it’s not really anger.”


“OK, somewhat…”

“So if no candy, the child shoots person with gun?”

“No. No!  Not so extreme!” I insisted.

Is this how the world views America — shooting each other over candy?

“Just a funny trick,” I continued.   “Like toilet paper on the car! Understand?”

They didn’t understand.  I gave up.

“Let’s go on to the next one,” I suggested.

It was Jack O’Lantern.

OK, Jack O’ Lantern.   This would be easier.  And less violent.

“Do you know a pumpkin?” I asked the girls.

“Pump it?” asked the shy girl, the first and only time she spoke during the entire conversation.

“No.  A pumpkin?  The big orange thing.  The vegetable.  It grows in a pumpkin patch.  Like on a farm.  Like in Charlie Brown.   Big.  Orange.”

“Oh, yes.  Big Orange Vegetable.  Pumpkin.” said the extrovert.  “That’s Jack o’Lantern?”

“Not exactly.   The Jack o’ Lantern is what you make from the pumpkin.  The face.”

“The face?”

I pointed at my face.

“People make a face on the pumpkin.” I said.   “With a knife.  They cut out a face with a knife.”

The girls looked horrified.

“They cut people’s face with knives?”

“No. They cut the face out of the pumpkin.”

I made a cutting motion with my hand to better explain things. They moved a foot away, as if I was brandishing a samurai sword.

“How many more questions do you have?” I asked, feeling hopeless.

“Just one more,” said the extroverted Japanese girl. “Superstition.”

“Ah, yes. Superstition. Superstition is when people believe things that are not true.”

No reaction.

“Every culture has superstitions. In Japan, do you avoid walking under ladders or black cats?”


“I know there are ghosts in Japan.  I’ve seen Japanese movies about ghosts.”

“Yes, ghosts in Japan!”

“Do you believe in ghosts?”


“But some people do. That is superstition.”

“Superstition is ghosts.”

“Well, it can be.   But more than just ghosts.  Could be zombies, too.”

“So, all Dead People?  On Halloween, Americans dress up like dead people.”

I was getting bored with the conversation.

“Yes. Exactly,” I said.  “We dress like dead people.”

I sent the girls back to their ESL class, clutching their notes,  thinking that in America, the holiday of Halloween means dressing up as dead people, stabbing each other in the face with knives, and shooting those who don’t give you candy.

Happy Halloween!

Three Stories

A week ago, Actress #1 ( the woman with arm behind her back) mentioned to her friend, Actress #2 that she had an audition at Warner Brothers; Dick Wolf was looking for a actress to play a female rookie cop in some new crime drama. She hadn’t had a decent gig in years. Actress #2, also desperate, called up her agent and set up her own audition, keeping it a secret from he friend. A few days later, Actress #1 is surprised to discover Actress #2 leaving the production office.

“I got the role!” she said.

“What? How…?” a confused Actress #1 wondered. “I thought they were looking for a “stocky woman toughed by the streets?”

“They’re changing the character for me!” she chorted. “They want her more “sexier.” Typical Hollywood, right? No hard feelings, right?”

When Actress #1 heard this inauthentic patter, her face turned white. She could feel her fist tightening. She imagines bashing her friend in her pretty Hollywood face, over and over again, until the bright red backstabbing blood was rushing into the Los Angeles river, turning the water into the color of a Pacific Ocean sunset.


They were eating Sunday brunch at their favorite cafe in Santa Monica. She had ordered the broccoli and swiss cheese omelette. He made a note to himself that she had ordered the exact same breakfast entree for the last fifteen years of marriage. Not once has she ever ordered oatmeal or scrambled eggs.

“You’ve ruined my life,” she suddenly said. “I’ve begun to hate looking at you.”

He closed the calendar section of the LA Times. He was reading about the box-office failure of his movie director friend, and was glad to read about it.

“I ruined your life?” he said, loud enough to reach the other two couples crammed into the cafe tables to the right and to the left of them, like overpriced sardines.

He tried to come up with something that would hurt her feelings.

“I hope you choke on your broccoli and swiss cheese!”

He knew it wasn’t a great retort, but he meant it. She was the writer in the family, not him. Fuck her if she didn’t think his job at Toyota was “creative” enough for her tender Bohemian, hat-wearing friends. He was the one who supported her ridiculous photography seminars.

The husband and wife didn’t speak at all as they walked back to their home, a three bedroom they bought in 2005, that lose most of its value after the real estate bust.


After his MRI, Jason didn’t want to go home and face his roommates. He found the darkest corner of his local Starbucks and looked at photos of young girls, all of them topless and tattooed. It bothered him that he had never fucked a woman with a tattoo. Should he add this to his bucket list?

Jason was still shaking from the experience in the hospital imaging center. “Keep perfectly still” said the lab technician, a young Asian woman with a tattoo. He watched her disappear from view as he slid into the hard white high-tech MRI coffin. Jason was tied down to prevent him from moving, and he wore earplugs to soften the deafening sound of the machine.

One day, he will die for real, and he will be buried in a wood coffin. “And most of my bucket list will remain unchecked,” he thought, as he drank from his cup of coffee.

Georgia on My Mind

I arrived in Atlanta on Thursday. I was attending the Aiming Low Non-Conference, which was convening at Callaway Gardens, a resort/hotel an hour outside of the city.

I went to Avis to pick up a car.  After the nice salesgirl with the Southern accent unsuccessfully tried to sell me a GPS, extra insurance, and a complicated gasoline plan, she took a different tact in order to earn Avis some extra of my money.

“You look like the type of man who likes to drive a Mercedes sportscar, and you are in luck, because just today I can give you…”

I told the Avis sales rep that she misread me (pay $30 a day extra for a sportscar — was she crazy? I wouldn’t pay that even if Georgia State’s homecoming queen was my chauffeur!).

Soon afterwards, I drove my bland American economy car towards Callaway Gardens, travelling along Atlanta’s highway, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the ugliness of the Los Angeles freeway

About ten minutes of driving, I noticed a yellow sign on the side of the road that read, “Waffle House – next exit.”

I have never been to the “real” South, but I am lover of movies that take place below the Macon-Dixon line, and I had heard quite a lot about this famous Waffle House.  I made my way off the highway for a quick breakfast.

The Waffle House was as grungy and wonderful as I expected. I was the only white person there and everyone was super friendly.  I ordered the specialty — the waffles with some sort of white creamy blob smothering it, a pile of steaming grits, and overly-buttered raisin toast.  It was perfect, and I could feel my cholesterol rising by the moment.  Proud to tell the world about my new worldly achievement, I went on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, announcing to the world that I had finally made it to THE WAFFLE HOUSE!

Unfortunately, when I returned to the road, I noticed another Waffle House at the next exit, and then a Waffle House at every exit for the next fifty miles. I had thought I had just eaten a meal at the ONE-AND-ONLY famous Waffle House, not just one in a ubiquitous chain of 10,000 Waffle Houses!


The Aiming Low Non-Conference was terrific, a 180 degree turn from the chaos of BlogHer in New York City.   It was a quite small group, and we were all trapped in the middle of nowhere.  Even the local BBQ place down the road seemed to close at 8PM.   The whole weekend was extremely mellow, mostly hanging out, chatting, and taking photos in front of this fake nature background they had set up in the lobby.  I loved it!

Sure there was parties, but it all seemed so manageable and friendly.    The only real “superstar moment” of the conference was the arrival of The Pioneer Woman, but even one of the blogging world’s biggest stars seemed to appreciate the low-key atmosphere of the event, posing with everyone for silly photos.

This photo says a lot about the hierarchical relationship between Ree and myself in the blogosphere.


On Saturday morning, I lead a mobile phone photowalk around the beautiful grounds of Callaway Gardens.  It was a great honor.  If anyone had told me two years ago that I would be a trusted person in anything photographic,  I would have laughed!

That said, I was probably the wrong person to lead this particular photowalk, which consisted mostly of trees, flowers, and butterflies.    You know something is wrong when the “instructor” is saying “these butterflies are boring as hell,” and the participants are arguing with you, trying to get you to appreciate their beauty.   So while my “students” took photos of the butterflies, I fell back on my forte, taking photos of the cute women participants taking photos of the butterflies.

Thank you, Anissa.  Thank you Faiqa.  Thank you everyone at the conference.   It was a lot of fun.

And thank you, Muskrat for our BBQ lunch back in Atlanta.  Definitely a cool city that I still don’t quite understand.   Black.  White.  Rich.  Poor.  Conservative.  Liberal.  I even found myself getting lost in the middle of Atlanta’s Gay Pride Parade!


God is An Absentee Landlord

God is an absentee landlord and we are the tenants.

He created the world in six days, and then, on the seventh, he moved to a retirement community in Boca Raton, letting us fend for ourselves.

We are bad tenants. Without God nearby, we turned our Garden into a miserable dump.

“Where are you, God?” we cry. “Why have you forsaken us? Why do you leave us with death, illness, and decay? Why must we stand alone with so little guidance?”

God will not answer. He is too busy playing canasta with his friends.

But I have heard from God.

Oh, nothing dramatic like a Burning Bush or a Technicolor Dream.

God left us a Post-it Note on the front door.

Dear People,

You are not alone. But go look at the contract you signed. You need to take care of your shit yourselves. Grow some balls. I know you are weak. But I already gave you the three tools that will get you through every emergency.

I gave you rain. This will wash away the death and despair.

I gave you sun. This will give enable you to see.

And I gave you love. Which will make life worthwhile.

If any of you would rather trade in one of these tools for a new dishwasher instead, please leave a message at the rental office.

Now leave me the alone.


cc: prophets and angels.


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