Dying to Travel

Dropped two old friends off at the airport tonight after their three-month adventure in America. We cracked bad jokes to break the tension, and they described their feelings beautiful: A sense of nostalgia for something that hasn't quite passed, a sadness, but a full kind of sadness, like a thing accomplished. I think it struck us all, in that sad-sweet moment, that they were describing feelings also applicable to that bigger journey we're all on. That gets to the heart of what travel is, somehow. It's a life lived from birth to death, and the return trip that seems to final is anything but, because there are new trips ahead.

Rules For Radicals

"What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be."
- Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
An ominous scene at the high school across the street from our place. 

An ominous scene at the high school across the street from our place. 

The threatened fart-in was to take place at the Rochester Philharmonic. "[The group's] increasingly gaseous music-loving members would tie themselves to the concert hall where they would sit expelling gaseous vapors with such noisy velocity as to compete with the woodwinds," writes biographer Nicholas Von Hoffman in his great doorstopper Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky.

Saul Alinsky was a crass dude, and proud of it. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was raised in Chicago and took a stab at archeology after college. It was the Depression, and archeologists were "in about as much demand as horses and buggies," Alinsky wrote. "All the guys who funded the field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks." He fell into community work almost by accident, and early in his career he helped organize the Back Of The Yards neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Using intelligence, intuition, and chutzpah, he approached community organizing like a guerrilla commander, and he developed novel tactics to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest."

Alinsky left instructions, a kind of operating manual for political dissent. It's giving me a lot of succor these twisted days. I feel so much anxiety just now. We all feel it. My wife feels it more acutely than I do. Like an old Indian tracker in a tumbleweed western, she senses each vibration in her feet and knows evil's rolling down the line. Every day, sure enough, some fresh catastrophe, and she's vindicated and destroyed. Sometimes she cries at work, attacks of empathy. And that's followed by the question, the same one I've had, the same one I've heard a lot of people ask: What can I do?

The marches were beautiful. A perfect outlet at the perfect time. But they also left me with a creeping sense of sluggishness. It was too easy, and one beautiful Saturday does not an effective resistance make. That's no knock on a magical day. But it's over, and the question lingers on: What can I do? Donate to the ACLU? Boycott L.L. Bean? It feels so feckless, limp. Another protest? Some blog art? Molotov cocktails?

If you feel the legacy of great political artists, the anxiety is compounded by the certainty that this is our moment, and the pressure to rise to a generational challenge is excruciating. So no matter how much solidarity I feel in my anxiety, feel with others who are open about their anxiety, I also feel alienated from this moment, awfully uncertain what I can do. I'm caught in crossfire between chattering shoulder angels of pragmatism and passion, opportunity and resignation, and I'm having trouble finding a path forward.

Which is why it's so important to remember that Alinsky left instructions. 

The word "organize" is vague enough to carry lots of romantic impact without suggesting a definition for itself. Our last president, a Chicago rabble-rouser in Alinsky's image, often suggested people should organize to effect change. I would nod at that, envisioning soap box speeches and epic walk-outs, wondering when things would get that bad. But I think I had it all wrong, and I'd like to suggest a much simpler definition and a much less intimidating way in. Organizing is nothing more than getting together with people, brainstorming how to solve a problem, making a plan, and then putting it into action. And along the way you gather as many stakeholders as possible. It could be a nationwide march, sure, but it could also be some artist friends meeting for beers, coming up with a clever project, putting the word out, and pulling it off. I do that sort of thing with professional collaborators all the time, and you probably do, too. For me, thinking of organizing in terms that feel familiar--as an act that starts with a few confidants gathering for an open discussion over drinks--makes it much more accessible.

I read Rules for Radicals in grad school and liked it. It's full of great examples of organizing, and it's clear Alinsky had a lot of fun in his life. But reading now, the book feels urgent.

Here are a few of Alinsky's rules ...

“A good tactic is one your people enjoy. They’ll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They’re doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones."

“A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.”

“Never go outside the expertise of your people.”

“Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.”

And an epigraph that gets me every time, and that evidently scared Ben Carson to his conservative core:

"Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer."

5 steps to courting LA

“Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there's a God in heaven.” 
― John FanteAsk the Dust

Downtown LA looking south

Downtown LA looking south

My brother just moved to Los Angeles. The gang and I have been doing our best to ease him into it. We've been talking about the city a lot, ad lib-ing the usual themes--taco trucks, bars, the ghosts on Sunset.

Talking up Los Angeles is a pastime for Angelenos. Feeling like an "insider" is another one. They're both pretty annoying. But my brother's experience reminds me that newcomers have a hard time finding the beat. Los Angeles doesn't reveal itself willingly. It isn't seductive like San Francisco or Boston, and it doesn't flaunt stacked order or sky-scraping audacity like New York. It seems spat up, and its rules are baffling. Navigation takes instinct more than calculation.

The impression is jarring: Los Angeles doesn't need you. The newly relocated can react badly to the snub. So it's hard trying to explain to those who aren't turned on that this is the most creative city on the planet. The claim doesn't square with the shallow first experiences, and it is rejected aggressively.

So I tell my brother to have faith. LA's magic is a deep well. Here are some of the divining rods that helped me:

Woman heading downtown on a bus

Woman heading downtown on a bus

1. Los Angeles Plays Itself

Thom Andersen’s "encyclopedic, sardonic valentine to his adopted hometown and how it has been represented — for better and worse — by its most famous local industry" (Variety).

This movie is gem, a cult classic, and a pretty stunning visual essay about Los Angeles. When Anderson made it in 2003, it wasn't even released commercially. He screened it to select audiences as a kind of canned lecture. Fortunately, it was released broadly in 2014. Lord only knows what a pain in the ass it must have been to get permissions for this thing. The doc consists of spliced together footage from hundreds of films set to voiceover by the professor himself. It's brilliant, it's informative, and it'll make you reevaluate your relationship to the city (and consider how your impressions were formed in the first place). It's not short, but it's well worth the commitment.

A restaurant in Koreatown

A restaurant in Koreatown

2. Ask The Dust by John Fante

If you're in the arts, and you've moved to Los Angeles with a dream, this is your book. It's heart breaking, gritty, and historically fascinating (who knew Bunker Hill used to be home to the city's flop houses?). This book famously inspired Bukowski, which might be a draw or a turn-off, depending on your feelings about that lecherous old dude. 

Bonus: The Post Office by Charles Bukowski. Which is the more important LA book? Michael Nordine did a nice head-to-head for LA Weekly.

A late-night pizza joint in Pico-Union

A late-night pizza joint in Pico-Union

3. LA Photography

Spend some time with William Eggleston. He used a process called dye transfer, which, as far as I know, is now pretty much extinct. The colors in his photos are pure LA.

Garry Winogrand is another photog who captured the spontaneity and bruised glamor of the city.

Late night beer run

Late night beer run

4. Go get drinks then hit up a gallery. There are tons. I'm digging Alexandra Grant's photographic stuff right now, but she works in lots of mediums and makes you stop and stare in all of them. 

Bonus: Barbara Mendes Gallery. I pass this on my way to my office every day. Worth it just for the exterior, but stop in and say hi. She's really great.

USC game

USC game

5. Listen to "Carmelita" (Warren Zevon & Jackson Browne), "The Vicodin Song" (Terra Naomi), The Chronic (Dr. Dre), The Doors (The Doors), "Angeles" (Elliott Smith), "Sleepless In Silverlake" (Les Savy Fav), "Free Falling" (Tom Petty) (... really anything by Tom Petty).

Main Street Culver City facing Venice

Main Street Culver City facing Venice

Leaving your mark

At bottom, we all want to be heard. So we fly through the universe in hopeful capsules, testing our hunch that others are in range.

Announcing ourselves with a scream,

or a whisper,

or beauty.

Trusting others will be along

to hear us and say, "You are received, and we have connected."

How to perform a radical act

Think there's no way to change the system? Here's what Yvon Chouinard has to say about that.