Monday, February 27, 2006

Wilder Los Angeles

One of the reasons I love Los Angeles is that it contains all the modern conveniences (and inconveniences) and yet remains touched by the wild. In my neighborhood in Hollywood, tree roots turn sidewalks into obstacle courses, snakes slither through the dead leaves at the bottom of the Wattles gardens, and raccoons come to my back door for a snack.

That's Rachel baring her teeth at me as I poked my head out from behind my screen door to get a better photo. (Don't ever try to photograph raccoons at night through a screen -- they look like gray furry blobs with red, glowing eyes.) Her buddy, Rocky, was far less intimidated and just kept an eye on me as he used his little black paws to scoop cat food out of the bowl and into his mouth.

See, I feed a couple of feral cats on my back porch nearly every day. My neighbors, though sometimes noisy, are nice enough to also put out kibble and tuna on occasion. The main recipient is the oh-so-creatively named Miss Kitty, the mother of my own cat Lucy. I rescued Lucy and kept her for my own, but Miss Kitty is far too scaredy to tame. I did, however, manage to trap her once and get her spayed, so at the very least there will be no more kittens to find homes for.

Anyway, Miss Kitty knows to come by when she hears my car pull into the garage. She meows quite demandingly as I approach my back door to remind me of my duty. I keep an old blue plastic bowl out back so my neighbors and I can just pour food in it whenever we hear the call.

But Hollywood lies at the foot of the Hollywood hills, and wilder creatures than cats roam these parts. I've seen coyotes on several occasions, trotting with that lean and hungry look right down the center of my street. Deer are too cautious to come down this far, but skunks make free of the hedges and yards, and I've seen them and several opossums help themselves to Miss Kitty's food stash on my back porch.

One thing these photos do not convey is just how LARGE these raccoons are. They are closer to the size of a Beagle than a cat. Their fur is thick, their eyes behind those black masks sharp and clever. The first time I saw Rocky he was sitting up like a person with the blue bowl between his legs, using his right paw to shovel the kibble into his mouth. He looked right at me when I said, rather startled, "Oh, hello." But he never stopped eating.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Column Debut

My first column appears today on a website called Monsters and Critics ( I work in television, so my column will address various topics related to TV. This week, it's the change in the rules for the Emmys, recently brought about by the Academy for Television Arts and Sciences.

I've called it Notes from the Wasteland after the famous quote from Newton Minow's speech in 1961, wherein he said:

"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or
newspapers — nothing is better.

“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set… and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

The editor of the site, James Wray, even gave me the cool little logo you see in the upper left. I love it! It looks just like the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard where I run two or three times a week to stay somewhat in shape, though the sky hasn't been quite that shade of brown since the fires last summer. I hope to write a column every week and also to contribute reviews of shows. I'm particularly looking forward to the final season of "The Sopranos" which debuts in a few weeks and hope to write about that, as well as whatever else catches my fancy. The gig is unpaid, but it nonetheless feels great to see my name in print on something other than this personal website. Gotta keep the ol' writing muscles in shape.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Gypsy Guitar Player

I found this delightful clip of Django Reinhardt playing guitar via You can view it with Quicktime at It takes a few seconds to load.

Before this I mostly knew Django as Sean Penn's nemesis in Woody Allens' last great film "Sweet and Lowdown." In it, Sean Penn plays the 'Second Greatest Guitar Player' in the world, after Django -- a musician of such greatness that Sean's character faints in his presence. You can see Django in the photo here, front and center.

In this clip you can finally witness Django playing and come to understand his greatness. I had no idea before I saw this that Django's left hand was terribly damaged in a fire when he was 18. The heat shrank the tendons in the fourth and fifth fingers of the hand he used on the fretboard of his guitar. Laid up for eighteen months after the fire, from which his wife also escaped, Django retaught himself to play with only two fingers on the frets. Occasionally he'd use the curled up fourth and fifth fingers on the lower strings for chords. The grace with which he plays is astonishing, and the sound that emerges is divine. Apparently Django was one of the first players to introduce the guitar as an instrument of melody along with Charlie Christian, Lonnie Johnson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

In the first part of the film an announcer introduces Django and the other members of his Quintet of the Hot Club of France while Django and the violin player jam. You can clearly see Django's damaged fingers as his other digits dance over the strings. The film then cuts to a full-on performance in which Django gives a lovely solo. The song is "J'Attendrai" or "I Will Wait."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Unopened Tomb Found in the Valley of the Kings!

I'm usually opposed to using exclamation points in a headline, but in this case -- I just couldn't resist! My buddies know what a geek I am when it comes to Ancient Egypt and archaeology, so I know you'll forgive me if I ramble on for a second about how fricking exciting it is that they've found an unopened tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. An expedition from the Unversity of Memphis, Tennessee was working on a nearby tomb when they found indications that ancient workers had worked on the rock nearby. (Isn't archaeology amazing? They can tell where workers camped on bare rock thousands of years ago.) After weeks of digging right next to the tomb of King Tut, they found a sealed door to a shaft leading down to a previously unknown tomb.

Alas, the wheels of archaeology grind slowly. These scientists must be painstaking in recording every step as they essentially deconstruct and destroy what was created by people who lived, in this case, 3,000 years ago. 90 percent of what we learn from a site comes from context, so every tiny detail must be taken down in photos, drawings, written commentary, etc., because once taken apart, the context can nevery be recreated. The archaeologists in this case have not yet even entered the tomb. But we can see five sarcophogi, which probably contain mummies. The head of one woman is clearly visible, painted on her coffin. Another is in splinters due to termites. The style indicates that these were wealthy, influential people of the 18th dynasty court, possibly royal or favored courtiers. Only those at the highest levels would've been buried in the Valley of the Kings. Heiroglyphs on the coffins, once investigated, should reveal the identities of those buried in this tomb. The chamber appears to be only 12 by 15 feet, not a complex tomb like most of the royal ones in the Valley. My semi-educated guess would be that these mummies are not powerful members of the royal family, but rather favored friends of royalty, lesser relations, or high officials.

But you never know. Over the thousands of years of Egyptian history, priests and relatives moved bodies, even royal ones, from tomb to tomb, trying (and usually failing) to avoid robbers. The wealth buried with these bodies was just too tempting for even gods-fearing folk like the ancient Egyptians. Dynasties of robber families formed over the years, sharing secret locations and techniques for avoiding the pit traps and labyrinths of the more elaborate tombs. One member of a famous family of robbers even lead archaeologists in the 1800's to a large tomb filled with royal bodies -- after it had been picked clean of gold, of course. This more secret history of thievery is fascinating in and of itself.

So for now we Egypt geeks must watch and wait to see what has been found here. No spectacular gold piece, such as those in Tut's tomb, have yet come to light. But archaeologists can derive huge amounts of information from these mummies and the many jars they have been buried with. Who knows what else lurks beneath those piles of rotting wrappings and broken ceramic? This is the joy of archaeology -- the element of surprise. You never know what treasure you might find. Folks at the University of Memphis found a doozy this time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


I can get pretty curmudgeonly about Valentine's Day. It's the commercialization of romantic love which obligates those with a sweetie to spend money and those without one to feel inadequate, blah blah blah. I'm all for romance, but to have it dictated to me by Hallmark and See's Candies riles my rhubarb.

Then my boss gave me orange roses. And then another co-worker brought in heart-shaped brownies, and yet another offered up frosted pink cookies. Now this is aV-Day I can get behind -- one full of love and goodies for everyone, not just for romantic partners.

Tonight my friends are throwing a Young, Single, and Angry Party. Although most of us are no longer that young, fewer and fewer are single, and, for me at least, the anger is flagging, it's good to keep the Anti-Valentine's furor going in protest. Apparently, we YSAs are not alone, because Yahoo News featured an article describing a bit of Valentine's backlash, where consumers are demanding more ironic and sarcastic V-Day cards and gifts. It's good to know that for once I am in sync with the zeitgeist.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Creatures in His Head

Disturbing stuff. Andrew Bell is an artist from England, now living in New York, who draws strange creatures, one almost every day. You can view monsters, rate them, and generate random critters at his very cool site: He also does paintings like those above and sells tshirts and other parphrenalia on

Monday, February 06, 2006

In Memorium - Natalie Downing

Natalie's been on my mind a lot lately because this is approximately the anniversary of her death last year at the age of 40. I don't know the exact date because she died alone on the street of alcohol poisoning, but it was about this time last year that I got the call that she had passed away. Now that some time has passed I can look at these photos of Nat and smile and remember how she was before she began to drink.

Both photos show her with her beloved Chow Chow, Frances, the world's best dog. On top you can see her grinning with delight at the puppy Frannie, who so resembled a baby bear that she attracted crowds of admirers when we took her out to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I shot the second photo of Nat and Fran at Buzz Coffee in Sunset Five complex on Sunset and Crescent Heights. We used to hang out there for hours on a Sunday afternoon, exchanging deep confidences and laughing till we cried. This is the photo Natalie's sister put in a little memorial of Nat in the spot where she died. She laid out flowers, a candle, and this shot. It's difficult to look into Nat's smiling face here and reconcile it with how she died. Yet both Natalies existed.

There was no more loyal friend than Natalie, and no one you'd want more at your side in time of difficulty, or even in time of physical danger. Once we were sitting in my little Toyota Tercel, parked on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, talking, when we noticed a bright red BMW behind us pulled up at the curb. Its license plate read: BH BRAT. Natalie had a bright red hatred for those who used their lives of privilege to move ahead of the pack, and this Beemer was the perfect embodiment of that. Next to the car a man in expensive casual clothes was arguing with two women, their voices rising with each successive sentiment, body postures ready to fight. Natalie and I stopped our own talk to watch.

The man got into his car and started up the engine, then got out of the car, leaving the door open. He walked up to one of the women and punched her in the face. She stumbled into the other woman's arms with a scream. The man ran back into his car and began to pull away.

I sat there dumbfounded, unable to believe I'd seen such an act of both malice and cowardice. But Natalie was out of my car in a heartbeat, a blond whirlwind of righteous fury. "Come back here and try that with me, you son of a bitch!" She shouted. "Come back here!"

"Suck my dick!" yelled the man as he gunned his motor and began to pull away.

"YOU suck MY dick!!" Natalie yelled after him, in tones that cut right through the sound of his engine and the sobbing of the women on the curb. I saw his head turn back to her in astonishment, then he raced off.

We had his license plate, and I suggested we tell the cops, but the women involved begged us not to, so we got back into my Tercel and headed toward the Promenade. After a few minutes deconstructing the event, Natalie never mentioned it again. But it always stuck in my mind that here was someone who not only felt deeply the injustices of this world, but who was willing to risk herself to do something about it.

She was damn funny, too. All those things you think about later and wish you'd said? Natalie said those things right off the bat, with perfect timing and insight. She loved nature and animals and had the greenest thumb. Her apartment might've been small, but it was lovingly and beautifully decorated. She painted and created useful works of art. She was never happier than when putting together a bookcase or tracking down the perfect flear market find. As her friend, I could tell her anything about myself, from the smallest personal detail to the largest, dumbest thing I ever did -- and I knew she would empathize, make me laugh, and make me see the situation in a way that celebrated who I am. Warm, insightful, feminist, funky, passionate, frank, angry, creative, a woman with a GED smarter than a few PhD's I've known -- that was Natalie. I miss her.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Dad's Latest and Greatest

My father's latest book has been published -- yet you won't be able to buy it anywhere! It's All Men Are Brothers: The Life and Times of Francis William Damon by Hawaii's resident genius, Paul "Doc" Berry. Only a few hundred were commissioned so that they might happily populate Hawaii's libraries and museums. Because I edited it (I'm mentioned twice! On the back flap and in the Acknowledgements.) I managed to snag a few copies for myself. It's a fascinating biography lavishly illustrated with authentic old photos, and based on newspaper accounts and papers provided by the Damon family itself. Did you know that Honolulu's Chinatown was deliberately burned down in 1900? You can see the horrible progress of the fire in this book, block by block, thanks to fascinating contemporary photographs.

Anyone raised in Hawaii knows the Damon name, but the rest of the world probably doesn't know that the Damon's were (and to some extent still are) an extremely wealthy and influential haole (that's Hawaiian for caucasion) family. Francis William was one of the poorest of the group, and he spent his life quietly working for the good of others, particularly the Chinese immigrants who were worked hard and exploited by the sugar cane industry. Early on Frank (as he preferred to be called) saw that part of Hawaii's strength would lie in her multi-culturalism, so he founded the Mills Institute on the grounds of his estate to educate immigrant children. The Mills Insistute later was expanded to become the Mid-Pacific Institute, still one of Hawaii's outstanding secondary schools.

Dad dedicated the book to "Hawaii's teachers, past and present, our keys to a better society." That just about says it all.