Monday, May 26, 2014

Why Don't You Try on a Brain?! Concrete Imprints in your 'Hood

When my wife Robin was growing up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, she and all the 

other kids on the block would shout a taunt at each other: “Why don’t you try on a brain?”  Now Lily, 

our daughter, who is turning nine soon, has also been heard shouting the same taunt while playing 

outside. Did Robin teach it to her? 

Maybe, but more likely she’s reading the imprints in the cement on the sidewalk, just like Robin did a 

generation ago. Throughout Los Angeles, you can find imprints left by the different construction 

companies that poured the cement for the walkways when the city was first built. In Studio City, it was 

the Tryon and Brain Construction Company that built the sidewalks. When you search the Internet, 

however, not much comes up about them, except this one article from the Los Angeles Herald in 1906:

A vast amount of street improvements have been made in Los Angeles In the past few years. Dozens of suburban tracts have been subdivided, graded and curbed, and high-grade work of this sort is in demand. ' Of the prominent contracting firms In the city doing street grading and cement work one of the most successful is Tryon & Brain, whose high grade work has added much to the city's splendid appearance.

Here’s a photo of one on my street:

There’s also website for everything now, including old construction company 

concrete imprints throughout Los Angeles:

Go there and you can see all the different imprints for the different companies, their years of operation, 

and the different areas where they laid down sidewalk. Then you can go out looking and see if they 

match up. Burbank’s sidewalks, for instance, was poured by Gibbons & Reed Co., in 1927.

In San Francisco there are plenty of old concrete companies that imprinted their names everywhere, 

and there’s a website for them as well:

My favorites, though, are the imprints where the concrete companies misspelled the actual street names 

that they imbedded in street corners. Everywhere in San Francisco there are misspellings, captured in 

yet another Internet site:

For a time my family lived in the Sunset District, and on many corners Twelfth Avenue was misspelled 

as Twelvth Avenue, and as a kid I misspelled the world “twelfth” for several years because I would see 

it printed incorrectly on so many of my neighborhood street corners that I just assumed it was the 

correct spelling. 

I wonder how that happened? The Sunset was the last neighborhood built, and it stretches from Twelfth 

Avenue all the way down to the ocean for thirty-six more blocks. Were people so exhausted laying so 

much concrete that they just got tired and lazy? Or did the construction company just hire people who 

couldn’t spell?

Earthquakes, potholes, gentrification, spreading tree roots, and entropy end up destroying sidewalks, 

and as the new ones come in, the old logos disappear. 

Take a look around your neighborhood and see if you can spot an old concrete imprint before they all 

go away. 

Burbank recently redid all its sidewalks, and they paid $650 million out of their general fund and 

replaced all their sidewalks over seven years -- a job well done. In Los Angeles, you may have more 

time to spot imprints, however. Although Mayor Garcetti swears to make it a priority, but it may take 

higher taxes to reach the 1.5 billion dollars some say is needed (how is that possible?) to repair and 

replace all the bad sidewalks in the City of Angeles. It will also take...fifteen years. But at least you can 

enjoy the imprints! It’s a little bit of hidden history, right at your feet, so look around.

Also, this is the 50th blog post for CaliforniaBull -- which means I’ve been writing this blog for a year! 

I did take a few weeks off for holidays and busy shows, so it’s been a little more than a year. Thank 

you for reading, and I plan to write a post a week far into the future, well after the last original Los 

Angeles concrete imprint has been replaced. 

I will also have a new platform and website for the blog soon, through Squarespace and, as well as through Google’s Blog Spot. If you’re interested you can 

subscribe and get it in delivered to your email box once a week via Mail Chimp. I’ll keep you posted 

about it, and I hope you’ll keep reading!

Friday, May 16, 2014

I Like John Denver.

     I have a confession to make. I like John Denver’s music.
     In fact, I like him so much, I want to resurrect his music in popular culture today. There should be a tribute album to him, featuring the most popular alternative and country musicians, each picking a John Denver song and making it their own.
     Last week was my birthday, and my wife Robin bought me The Very Best of John Denver, mostly so that I’d listen to it in my car, in exchange for not singing his songs in the house. Yet I’m still scared to publicly reveal my secret admiration for John Denver’s songs, for fear that I will be exposed as sappy and sentimental. In the U.K. they’d call it treacle-y, after that super sweet thick molasses goop they pour on their desserts. It’s a sweet black glue that if you get it on your fingers, clothes, or table tops, you can’t get it off, no matter how much rubbing and sponging you do. When I hum one of his tunes in the check-out line people roll their eyes and step back from me, afraid that the sweet melody will create a sticky spot in their brain and stay there all day.
  He is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th Century, but he has fallen out of favor. Now is the time to revive his reputation and look upon him with fresh eyes.
     His songs have stood the test of time and are still being sung today. Granted, they are not being recorded; instead, they’re being sung at summer camps, and in church social halls and temple sing-a-longs. But that’s the whole point. Someone asked Pete Seeger what makes a good folk song, and he said, “when it’s a song that folks can sing.”  Folks can sing John Denver songs, and they can play them easily on the guitar. It’s damn hard to write a good simple song that’s easy to sing and easy to play. When a gaggle of kids are sitting around the song leader, they all can sing “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” or “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” and you can see on their faces how excited they are that they know both the tune and the words (I know this one!). And even when half the kids are out of key the song still works, and when you look towards the back of the room a few of the parents are mouthing the words too.

  Our family listened to him when I was growing up and I have fond memories of him playing on the radio and on cassette during long family trips. Many of his songs are about leaving home, being on the road, and then returning, so they’re well suited for traveling. We all feel that pang to get away followed by the desire to get back. My mother has a melancholy fondness for “Sunshine on My Shoulders” because it’s a song about one transitory moment that you wish you could bottle and then open again later -- but that is a wonderful idea that can never be. For her, that was a sun-filled moment when my grandparents and our family were walking on a beach together, and she knew that the three generations would probably never all be together again...and we weren’t.  That was it, that was the moment. 
     My father loved “Annie’s Song,” which is waltz, and while my parents were driving down an empty winter road in the flats of Idaho, that song came on and my father stopped the car and my parents danced in a frozen wheat field with the doors open and the stereo blaring. Now he’s gone too, but that’s the story my mother still tells when that song comes on.
     Unfortunately, John Denver has not only fallen out of favor, he’s gotten a bad rap.  When he peaked in the mid-70s, he was one of the last singer/songwriters without irony. He was earnest and guileless. I remember him being a regular on The Muppets, and in retrospect he was a perfect fit on that show.  With his dorky goofy grin he was like a Muppet himself, a Polly-Anndy trying so gosh darn hard to put on a good show. Then David Letterman arrived and brought a wave of wry ironic humor, and earnestness was ripe for parody. Garry Trudeau began skewering John Denver in his Doonesbury comic strips, with fellow Aspen resident Uncle Duke shooting guns at his pop music neighbor. The drug-addled Duke was a thinly veiled Hunter S. Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail captured a truth about America deeper than any hokey song. I remember being young and reading Thompson’s books and the Doonesbury strips and then tossing my affection for Denver aside in my efforts to be an adult. The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and early angry Elvis Costello were my music. 
Artists sometimes tried to go back to that earlier era, with limited success. I remember Patti Smith singing “You Light Up My Life” in the punk era. She meant it, but no one believed her. In the 90s there was a tribute album to the music of The Carpenters, called If I Were A Carpenter. Both efforts seemed genuine, but anomalies.

But does his music speak to this current era? Or does it belong with Michael Row Your Boat Ashore?  I think his music remains worthwhile when you consider the actual man, and not his public persona. 
If you know his life, you can find a message for today. It’s buried in the orchestra strings, voice over-dubbing and rising harmonies that was at the end of every hit song in the 70s. In truth, he seems to have been a restless man, ceaselessly searching, and always haunted.
He had an unhappy childhood. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., and his father was distant and difficult. John was an Army brat who grew up in a half dozen different regions of the country, never fitting in anywhere. He wrote “Annie’s Song,” for his wife when they reconciled after their first separation, but they later divorced. When they finally split up he almost choked her, and then took a chain saw to their marriage bed. He had a very bitter split from his best friend and manager Jerry Weintraub. His second marriage failed, and he battled against alcohol addiction and depression. He was an experienced pilot, but died when he crashed a new experimental plane he’d been testing. 
As a child he resented that his family was always moving and that he was a perpetual outsider, yet he ended up in a similar life where he was constantly on the road. His songs are full of the regret about leaving home, yet he feels a compulsion to leave, nontheless. His songs are full of ecstatic moments (I found it! I found myself! I’m happy!) but the moments seem brief and transitory. He also writes songs about coming home again, and how wonderful that is, but the imagery is just perfect enough that it feels like he wrote them while he was still traveling, wishing he had such a home to which he could return. These “returning” songs are full of nostalgia for a time and place that maybe wasn’t really ever there, yet the ache for them is.

Here are some of the lyrics I now can hear, which passed me by in youth:

Why do we always fight when I have to go
Have to go and see some friends of mine, some that I don't know
Some who aren't familiar with my name,
It's something that's inside of me not hard to understand
It's anyone who listens to me sing

When he first came to the mountains, his life was far away on the road and hanging by a song.
But the strings already broken and he doesn't really care,
it keeps changing fast, and it don't last for long.

Lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few.
Looking for something that I can believe in,
looking for something that I'd like to do with my life.

If I had a day that I could give you, I'd give to you the day just like today.
If I had a song that I could sing for you, I'd sing a song to make you feel this way.
(Sappy as this song sounds, it’s actually about a man who is alone, singing to someone who isn’t there anymore. Either he’s left that person, or she has left him, and that person has passed away, and he wishes that he could have them back for just one more day...but that’s impossible.)

For many years I was like him. There was a part of me that was always restless, always wanting change, yet regretting and resenting that need to move on. I wanted to find a place where I could fit in and feel like I belonged there, yet when I found such places, I never trusted them. Most of us have felt this way, at some time or another. I feel our whole country is on a restless search for itself right now.
Thus, it is time. Get rid of the 70‘s orchestration. Get Rick Rubin. Find the alt and emo and country stars who can take a guitar and a mandolin and make his songs their own. They’ll find the pain in between the joy, and he’ll have his second chapter.

My editor, Candace Escobar, writes this addendum:

This post makes me think about Norman Rockwell. 
In junior college I had a philosophy teacher who once told me about how much he loved Norman Rockwell. "I love that shit," he said. I was surprised and a little stumped at his revelation. "REALLY??" I said. "Thats so sappy for you I'd think….kinda generic and earnest." 

But he said it was exactly the opposite. He began to tell me that he loved Rockwell's work so much because of the effect it had on almost everyone who looked at it. The notion, the romantic idea of a time or memory or place-----and it was always something that every person in this country could relate too in some way. That common thread was so thick and tightly woven into our consciousness ----- that he could have been painting our memories and most people probably felt like he was --- which is why The Saturday Evening Post was so important and now iconic.

 "But his stuff is so perfect." I said. "Even the subject matter itself is always a perfectly captured perfect moment." 

He smiled. “But the flip side of that is-----how often do you think those perfect moments actually happen-----exactly that way----to any of us? Rockwell didn't paint life as it was, as it happened. I believe he painted life as he wanted it to be, the way he would choose to remember it. And that resonated with our country. And I think thats what makes his work just as important or modern or stunning as any Picasso or Van Gogh.” 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Crazy Stuff My Mother Says

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and to honor my mother, Carol Bull, I want to share some of her 

personal sayings, and provide some etymology. Some of her sayings are worthy of 

resurrection in the popular culture -- and some are so terrible I cringe when I hear them. 

Here’s to you, Mom! We love you!

What is wrong with me! I have a mind like a sieve! 

This is what she says when she can’t remember what to do next, or why she came into the 


If my brain had a twin, it would be lonely!

She uses this phrase just as much, and she says it when she’s made a mistake and is angry 

with herself. My grandmother Mary Raynard said this often as well.

I look like Who Shot Liz.

This is one of my favorites, and I can’t find the root etymology. When you look terrible, or 

someone looks ravished, you say, “I look like Who Shot Liz,” or “She looks like Who Shot 

Liz.” In England, they use the phrase “Who Shot Lizzy” to express the same sentiment, and 

there was even a U.K. rock band named Who Shot Lizzy. Yet I have searched and cannot 

find the source of the phrase. Who was Lizzy? And the phrase doesn’t make sense. “I look 

like Lizzy when she got shot,” makes more sense, Or “I look as if Lizzy shot me.”

It’s had the biscuit.

This refers to an item that is beyond repair and must be tossed away. For instance, you might 

say, “I’ve repaired that car twenty times in the past year, and it’s still having trouble. I think it’s 

had the biscuit.” Or she may say, “these are my favorite shoes but I’ve worn them so much 

they’ve had the biscuit.” This is an English expression from World War I trench warfare. 

When a solider was dying, they rushed to give him the Eucharist and the last rites, which 

meant taking a wafer from the priest. Thus, upon dying, you had the biscuit. What once 

referred to brutal warfare, my now mom uses to describe an old sweater she must throw 

away. Then again, as kids we play “ring-around-the-rosy,” which is a nursery rhyme that 

refers to the Plague of the Middle Ages.

A lick and a promise

This is another English phrase, which means to do a barely sufficient amount of work on a 

task that requires much more effort than you are providing, but with a promise to return and 

do a more complete job later. For instance, “this kitchen floor needs a good mop and shine, 

but for now just get a broom and give it a lick and a promise.” I like this phrase, and it hinges 

on the word “lick” as a unit of work. You sometimes hear someone say, “he’s not worth a 

lick,” or “he didn’t do a lick of work today.” It may have started in England, but it’s used often 

in the American South.

It’s better to be lucky than good.

This is a phrase you chant out loud when you get lucky at something, like finding a parking 

spot when you least expect it. You also use it to remind yourself that despite your best efforts 

to plan and be prepared, luck plays a big part in any success. “Yesterday, I left for the store 

an hour early to find a parking spot, and circled forever before I found one. Today I went 

there on a whim and found one right away, which proves again that it’s better to be lucky 

than good.”  The phrase has been attributed to Lefty Gomez, Arnold Palmer, and airplane tail 

gunners World War II. The sentiment is in many old fairy tales (pre-Disney) in which the 

heroine or hero doesn’t seem very deserving, yet just gets lucky.

I have to piddle.

This one has to go. She doesn’t say pee. She says piddle. She also says it out loud to her 

adult children and her grandchildren. For instance, in a restaurant, as you come back to your 

seat, she will say, “did you wash your hands after you piddled?” I don’t like this phrase, but I 

may haul it out when I’m in my 70s and I want to be passive-aggressive with younger 

members of my family.

Oh Carol!

She often talks to herself when she is frustrated, which is slightly reassuring. It proves 

she is equally judgmental of everyone’s performance, including her own. She reprimands 

others often, but she reprimands herself just as often.

My mother was born in Canada, but her father was born in Yorkshire England, and her 

mother was born on the Isle of Lewis in the New Hebrides of Scotland. Most of these 

phrases were probably said in her own home growing up. 

In honor of Mother’s Day, my daughter Lily wrote this letter to her grandmother (with 

some help from us):
Dear Tutu,

Happy Mother’s Day! I am sorry if this letter arrives late. I didn’t look at the calendar, and 

I forgot which week is was. I’m not surprised, I have a mind like sieve! I think if my brain had 

a twin it’d be lonely.

I got out of bed this morning and when I looked in the mirror my hair was such a mess I 

swear I looked like Who Shot Liz. Then I went to put on my shoes, and the laces broke. it 

was then that I realized that my favorite shoes had the biscuit, so I tossed them.

All this made me late so my dad had to drive me to school, but he got a parking spot 

right in front. That proves again that it’s better to be lucky that good.

This letter would be longer, but I have to piddle.

Oh Carol!

Love Lily.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Jig is Up: Lily Learns that Santa is a Con Job

My daughter Lily turns nine in June, and she’s been suspicious about Santa for more than six months. I was also in third grade when I was confronted with the truth about Saint Nicholas.
I remember being in the back of Mrs. Schultz’s class, hanging out with the other kids by the sink. It was a rainy day, so recess was inside, and Christmas vacation was coming up in just a few weeks. Clayton Cooke, the fastest runner in class, and Gary Nakamura, who was the fastest at the multiplication and division flash cards, were the coolest boys in class by default. They were leaning against the sink arms crossed, side by side, holding court.
Gary spoke first, while Clayton just nodded. 
Santa isn’t real, you know. Santa is your parents.
They were smug in their knowledge, like boys would be a decade or less later when they were talking about sex. I think I remember Clayton with a cigarette half-hanging out of his mouth, but that’s a confabulation.
I was shocked and ashamed. Shocked at seeing the man behind the curtain, and ashamed that I hadn’t seen such an obvious truth earlier. Of course, I didn’t tell my parents that I knew, because I still wanted presents. It wasn’t until the following fall, when I was in 4th grade that my mother broached the subject. We had left Sears and we were crossing Valencia Street back to her car, and she dropped the bomb in the form of a question:
So when did you stop believing in Santa?
I shrugged and said I didn’t know. I didn’t like how she said it. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but it bugged me how there had been so much ritual and power and magic invested in this character over the years, and how we had all derived happiness from it, and then, at a certain age, it just got flipped off, like a switch. 
The other feeling I couldn’t articulate was how learning all this was feeding my skepticism about everything I was being taught. If I was writing a script for a movie where the same scene played out, it might go something like this:
So when did you stop believing in Santa?
Pretty much around the same time I stopped believing that Jesus rose from the dead and that God and Jesus and a Ghost exists in some kind of three-for-one deal.
But I was not capable of saying that as an eight year old, and my mother would never have tolerated it.
When Lily entered our lives, Robin and I didn’t debate whether we’d fake her out with the cultural inventions about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Of course we would. That’s half the fun of being parents. We must foist our bizarre traditions and histories on our kids. Robin is Jewish, I am agnostic but consider myself “Jewish-by-proxy” due to marriage, and Lily is being raised Jewish, although we’re a bit behind on that process. We also have a Christmas tree and we go to church when we visit my mother. All I know is that if there is a higher power, we’ve got our bases covered.
We could have told her the truth from the beginning, and some parents do, but I never wanted to do that. You risk ostracizing your kid that way by making them “weird” to others before they can handle it. When I was growing up, the kid who knew Santa wasn’t real was also the kid who called his parents by their first names. Weird.
Of course, the truth will always win out, and this past year Robin and I had moments of anxiety. Not Lily. Us. 
We knew she was hearing rumors on the school yard, just like I heard from Gary Nakamura and Clayton Cooke, or how I heard from my older cousins, Lene and Kathy, how babies were made. From the hints she was dropping I could tell Lily was going through the same deductive process I’d gone through. 
She knows the story doesn’t make sense -- but if she stops believing in the story, she may not receive. And half the fun for all of us on Christmas morning is the fun of opening presents and the great feeling it gives you, even if Santa is fake. My sister-in-law has an elegant phrase she uses to this day, and her kids are all grown: As long as you believe, you shall receive. 
I think Lily stopped believing this past Christmas, but didn’t want to tell us. I think she may have been guiding us towards the truth as well. She didn’t want to visit Santa at Macy’s, and when we watched “White Christmas” on Christmas Eve, she said she wanted that to be her new Christmas tradition. It felt more grown up.
We got through Christmas and dodged the truth, but this past week Lily lost a tooth. As with every past tooth, Lily leaves it on the dining room table. Robin has a small fabric bag, very light and see through, small enough for a fairy to lift and open. Lily always writes a note, and places the tooth in the fabric bag, on the dining room table. No “under the pillow” in our house -- Lily is too light a sleeper. That means Robin stays up late, and when she’s confident that Lily is asleep she writes an inspirational note to her in writing so small it could fit on a grain of rice, so small you need a magnifying glass to read it. She writes a long letter too. 
This week Lily got her dollar from the tooth fairy. She showed me the tooth fairy wrote back to her, but I told her I couldn’t read it because the writing was so small, so she brought out a magnifying glass so we could examine the note more closely.  Like Sherlock Holmes in braids, she made an observation:

Lily: Hey, this is written in the same ink as my letter to her. 
Robin: So?
Lily: And the writing sure looks like YOUR writing.
Robin: You have to brush your teeth, hurry up.
Lily: Are you the tooth fairy?
Robin: We’ll talk about it later.

The next day was fraught with anxiety. At Christmas, Robin had searched websites about how to handle the Santa quesiton, but we’d escaped -- probably because Lily wanted to spare us. By the false outrage in her voice, I could tell she was ready to confront us about the truth. Plus the false gods of spring -- the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy -- are easier to tear down then the grand St. Nicholas. Still, Robin spent all her spare time over the next 48 hours prepping for the moment when Lily would ask again. It happened at dinner this past weekend, and when Lily asked, Robin said she needed a script, and she read her this:

The truth is that Daddy and I believe in fantasy and magic.  And your imagination is so beautiful and full of love and excitement. And you’ve reached an age when you really want to know.  And the truth is that the tooth fairy has been a wonderful legend for a very long time.
And parents who really love their children and believe in magic are a tribe of 
magic keepers.  And now that you know the truth, you have crossed over and you 
are now a magic keeper for younger children, and for your own children when you 
grow up. That’s why we’ve gotten you these gifts – three little fairies and a magical moonstone pendant to remind you of your new role.
And Santa?  Saint Nicholas was a real person from long ago. He left presents for the children in his village, and he cared for the poor and unfortunate. The legend grew over time, and became the story we all know.  Santa exists in the hearts and souls of all people who are kind and generous. 
Santa’s spirit is a wonderful legend that brings all of us happiness. You can keep Santa alive in your heart for as long as you want.
We can all be like Santa by doing nice things for people, and expecting nothing in return.

Robin was wiping her tears away as she read this. There would be no more Christmas arts and crafts, and no more baking cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve with her daughter. An era was ending. Lily took it in stride, with a few questions:

Lily: So when I went to visit Santa, I was just sitting on some random fat guys lap?
Robin: Yes.
Lily: That’s so gross!
Robin: Sorry. We like those pictures, they make good Christmas cards.
Lily: And who ate the carrots that we left outside for the reindeer?
The father speaks up finally: I did.
Lily: That’s so gross! You ate ten carrots that we left in the driveway?
Me: I chewed them up and spit most of it out on the ground. 
Lily: Did you wash them before you did that?
Me: Of course I washed them!
Lily: I hope so, they were in the driveway.
Robin: You can’t tell Sasha or Devin or Naomi or Zoey.
Lily: Of course not! Why would I do that?

And so the magic ends. Lily would rather live in Truth. However, she was relieved to know that she’ll still get gifts from Santa. If she pretends to believe, she will receive, like with so many other human belief systems.
She was upset, however, by two sets of magical creatures perhaps not being real. Fairies and mermaids. 
I’ve enjoyed her belief in these two species. Neither care much about humans. Neither wants to really communicate with us. They’re not observing our behavior and rewarding or punishing us for what we do. If anything, they fear us for what we may do if we actually catch one. But she asked for the truth, so I had to had to tell her -- they don’t exist, and I’d be lying to you if I said they did.
She still feels a connection to the earth and nature when she is outside, and anthropomorphizing that force is a way to understand the indescribable, and ourselves. That’s the good part of myth and legend -- learning about the myth of Psyche can help us understand our psyches. And there may be intelligent “fairies” out there, on a distant planet, or in a form or a dimension that we simply can’t perceive, riding Higgs Boson particles through the mysterious Dark Matter of the universe. Lily now accepts and understands that the only way to find them is through scientific reasoning and logic, yet she still wishes there could be fairies hiding in the garden and mermaids swimming in the ocean.
When my friend Chris’s daughter was young and learned the truth about Santa, he saw her sitting on the sofa, staring wistfully out the window. When he asked her if something was wrong, she said, “I just wanted to believe a little bit longer.”