I’m not big on crowds. My experiences with conferences tend to revolve around hanging with one or two people who I strongly connect with for one reason or another. This year, at BlogHer, that person was JC, the Animated Woman. Besides driving with her to San Jose from Los Angeles, we did a little sightseeing in LA after the conference, including a visit to this weird Hollywood store filled with old Hollywood props. Last night, I made this appropriately weird little slideshow movie for her to watch on her flight back to Montreal.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
I’m not a fan of the ocean. It is too big, vast, dark, and scary. The tide will come in and swallow you up like a shark. But I am a Pisces. Two fishes swimming in opposite directions. I am drawn to the water. The grubby little pier in Redondo Harbor is so small that it feels like it belongs in some run-down New England seaside resort that has seen better days. Hollywood is far away. The celebrities go to Malibu, the tourists to Santa Monica. I like to watch the lazy fisherman, who spend the day dreaming of nothing, and catching even less, waiting for the sun to set.
If New York is symbolized by the Empire State Building, the iconic image of Los Angeles is… traffic. Sure, the Los Angeles Kings just won the Stanley Cup, the supermodels are at the private beaches of Malibu, and the Hollywood sign beckons from Rodeo Drive, but when it comes down to our daily conversation, it is all about, “Jesus, avoid the 405 today.”
I took some traffic shots today. One of them, taken on the freeway, could have earned me a hefty traffic ticket. Look what I do for you, dear reader. And for ART.
I unfollowed everyone on Twitter, and then slowly re-followed everyone back. I brought the final divorce paperwork to the court, and then got it returned by mail because I was missing one of the forms. I grew a beard, and then sheared it off like the wool of a sheep, feeling the facial hair too hot to wear in the summer. My life is in constant flux.
Yesterday, I stood at the water’s edge and waited for the day to end. I had my iPhone in my hand. For years, I had made fun of the cliched photograph of the sun setting into the Pacific. But I wanted to try to capture it myself, just to see what made it so special.
As the afternoon shifted into evening, the sky above the Pacific was painted by nature’s brush in the bright color of a tangerine. A red-yellow neon shimmer took to the water, dancing with the waves. I started shooting, almost 200 photos in all, never stopping my thumb from clicking on the iPhone screen, except for that one brief moment when a buxom woman in a bikini passed by my view.
As evening turned to night, the sky turned into a rainbow of colors. At “photo 95” the sky darkened, and the atmosphere grew ominous, as if the world was going to end. At “photo 110” the vibrancy picked up, as if God was running his artistic creation through his own Instagram filter.
But I found the exact moment of sunset, the dipping of the life force into the horizon, a disappointment. I preferred the imagery when the sun was at a 45-degree angle and the blue of the sky was sprinkled with hot flames diffused by the clouds.
At the end of the night, when I looked over the photos, most of the shots were “nice,” except for the one or two shots where my finger got in the way of the lens. But none were perfect. Even my favorites of the bunch, “photo 61” and “photo 101” had flaws. When the ocean bristled with energy in one photo, the sky faded into the background. When the sky exploded with color in another photo, the sea darkened in the foreground. It was impossible to capture the momentum of the sunset in one shot. Maybe that is the ultimate challenge of it all. The event was one of movement, of flux, of time, the ebbing and flowing of the water, the shining and dimming of the light. Never static, like life.
Summer at the beach. Tanned bodies, flip-flops, kiddie rides, ice cream cones, pop songs on the radio. Sure, there may be too much skin exposed, and people are reading dumb books rather than Dostoevsky, but there is way more sin going on in a typical night on HBO than at a California beach. C’mon, Jesus, mellow out and relax. Grab a Hawaiian ice and watch the girls.
I was in the parking lot of an LA Starbucks, having just pulled in, but unwilling to leave the car until the song that was playing on the radio had finished, which is a personal ritual of sorts.
It was Kelly Clarkson singing.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over cause you’re gone
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger
Just me, myself and I”
In the side mirror, I saw a businessman leaving the coffee shop and wiping his hand with a crinkled Starbucks paper napkin. When he reached his grey sedan directly behind mine, he tossed the napkin on the pavement, and twisted his foot on top of the innocent paper napkin, grinding it as if it were the remains of a tossed cigarette butt, or the grave of a hated nemesis.
This action struck me as violent. Ultra-violent. Especially since the only expression on his face was coldness. This was not just littering. This was not carelessness. This was a statement. This was a hate crime.
I’m not a hero. I run from trouble. But as Kelly Clarkson sang “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I stepped out of my car, not thinking through the consequences. I walked towards the predator. Kelly continued to sing. I heard the refrain in the background; I left my door ajar, the keys inside, the engine running.
As I write this down, moments after the incident, I am aware that I want your approval. Why else would I tell you this uninteresting tale? I want you to say, “Good job, Neil.” But this was not the case at the moment I approached the businessman’s gray sedan. I was acting illogically, quixotic, as if this napkin, this foot movement, all Kelly’s song were pushing me to the wall and asking, “Let’s see what you do, motherfucker?”
The businessman gave me a “I don’t take shit” look groomed from years in the steely boardroom. He had just turned on his ignition, and the idling of both of cars made the parking lot pavement float up as hot dust. I stopped in my tracks, and we faced each other in silence, like gunmen at the OK Corral.
My arm rose slowly, and my index finger extended into a point leading to the dirty Starbacks napkin lying lifelessly on the black gravel. I had spoken. And he understood.
His stare grew intense. If the eyes are the windows of a person’s soul, this businessman lived within a ring of fire. His soul was an old one, one that had been reincarnating time and time again for his numerous sins. He had seen it all — death, plague, the raping and pillaging of entire towns. I was a mere child in comparison, but one with a simple message, “You left your Starbucks napkin on the floor.”
He hated me, despised me like a thousand flaming suns. But he would never win against simplicity. He opened the door, picked up his Starbucks napkin, and drove off into the California sunset.
It was Sophia’s birthday on Saturday, and we went to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). We had a great day together.
“Are you two getting back together?” a friend texted me.
“No,” I answered. “Just a fun day out for her birthday.”
“You just seem so perfect together.”
“Perfect?! Ha. We are far from it.”
Sophia and I love each other, but the perfect couple we’re not. We never were.
We tried our best, but we both want something more from a partner, a love that boils over and makes us want to shout it out to the world. Something a little bit closer to the perfection of a Perfect Couple.
Does this Perfect Couple exist? Or is it an illusion, the relationship equivalent of the bikini model drinking a Coke?
But then, on Saturday evening, as we left the museum, Sophia and I encountered them. It was the Perfect Couple, right on Wilshire Blvd in Los Angeles.
If God was a chef, this couple would be his signature dish. They would be spiced with respect, love, and passion, and as they marinated in His blessings, happiness and joy would waft through His kitchen, out the window, and throughout the world.
And they were standing right in front of us.
“Take an instagram photo!” said Sophia, as we both stared, confronted with our own inadequacies.
After taking a few photos of the Perfect Couple on Wilshire Blvd., we discovered that we had stumbled into someone else’s photo shoot, and this couple were models.
But the Perfect Couple is a standard that is hard to let go, even if it is a fantasy.