The Body Snatchers

The Body Snatchers

I see your hair is burnin’

Hills are filled with fire

If they say I never loved you

You know they are a liar

Drivin’ down your freeways

Midnite alleys roam

Cops in cars, the topless bars

Never saw a woman…

So alone, so alone

So alone, so alone….

LA Woman, The Doors

Each summer, I travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on an annual pilgrimage to my hometown of Los Angeles, California.  This region of ten million people and four thousand square miles is an uneven potters wheel that creates beautiful and bizarre works of art – – crazed celebrities, brilliant entrepreneurs, dysfunctional artists and a supporting cast of bronzed metro-sexuals.  It is pure entertainment against a backdrop of swaying palms, ubiquitous sunshine and a million unfulfilled dreams.

The City of Angels was my first lens to the world.  It infused me with a comedian’s sarcasm, an appreciation for Latino culture, an aversion to anyone who spells their name phonetically, and an open mind to the metaphysical.  Alas, much of the Los Angeles of my youth has disappeared.  The Garden of Eden has been corrupted by a generation of interloping transplants who look and act like creatures out of a B movie called Invasion of the Frozen Fish Faces.   It is a spiritual and material wasteland in spite of the fact that there is a church for everyone, even those who choose to worship cruciferous vegetables. Waiting tables is still the primary occupation for aspiring actors. A star is no longer “discovered” like Lana Turner at Schwab’s soda fountain in Hollywood.  They are harvested like bacteria from a massive micro-celebrity Petri dish that feeds the cesspool of reality television.   The studios now make millions pushing faux celebrities and washed up sitcom stars seeking a first or last break.  The result is bizarre theatre of the absurd starring the intellectually challenged, the emotionally crippled and cotton candy products of plastic surgery whose exteriors have seen more shop time than a 1970 Jaguar.

The LA health club scene used to be the domain of the veiny, orange skinned body builder.  This was the birthplace of Venice’s Muscle Beach and Gold’s Gym.  In the 80’s, the grittier the health club, the better.  My most recent visit to an LA fitness club was a deep dive into a well lit, mirrored tank filled with tanned, skeleton fish people replete with silicon lungs, faces frozen in bizarre disbelief and collagen lips that could dupe a giant squid into a marriage proposal.  It seems that all the ugly or fat people were on permanent vacation.  I later learned that the LAPD is now enforcing Beautification Ordinance 2008.  The BO Law precludes ugly or overweight people from appearing in public places or on the beach until after 9 PM.  Anyone caught in broad daylight wearing XXL shirts, black socks with shorts or plus sized clothing is given the choice of spending a day in jail or taking a Greyhound to Nevada.

In the gym, I walked past a girl that was showing her friend her new tongue tattoo.  I was uneasy, certain that some perfect person would grab their cell and rat me out to the BO squad. I approached the juice bar and was bombarded with a formulary of smoothies all promising to clean my colon, raise my IQ and add years to the lives of any three people I choose.  With names like ” Gut Buster” and ” The Regular” and ingredients of wheat grass, whey, apple, creatine and Omega 3 fats, these liquid time bombs were guaranteed to produce more methane than Pacific Gas & Electric.  About two AM that morning, I was seriously considering calling my gastroenterologist for fear that I was the next Hindenburg.

Los Angeles traffic was reassuringly horrible.  The 405 freeway between the valley and LAX remained a narrow clotted artery of hybrids and merging lanes. On this trip, I did not witness a single shooting on the asphalt jungle.  It is surprisingly safe. LA drivers still possess assault weapons and higher caliber handguns than the .22 caliber peashooters that were tucked under every driver’s seat when I roamed the roads.  However, the price of gas has left many with less disposable income to purchase bullets. People brandish weapons in anger but they just do not discharge them unless, they are being shot at car or happen across someone with a Clippers jersey walking down the street.

The Lakers and USC Trojans are now the ” it” teams. The Los Angeles Rams are gone.  The Raiders were here just long enough to organize a fan club out of two time felons and those with social disorders.  The Clippers and Bruins are like poor relations that only get invited to Thanksgiving dinner. My beloved Dodgers are mere echoes of their glory days.  Tommy Lasorda has eaten his last calzone and now Joe Torre is calling signals and endorsing local banks from a surfboard. To add insult to injury, Manny Ramirez is now a Dodger. If this is not a final sign of the pending Apocalypse, I am not sure what is.  LA got its first taste of the real Man Ram a few weeks back when he failed to show for the beginning of the 9th inning due to a protracted appointment in the locker room.  Perhaps he consumed a Super Fiber smoothie before the game?

LA psychics are now more common than plastic surgeons as the true LA man employs shamans to clean up his mind, body and Karma.  In a recent poll, one in four Angelinos believed that in a past life, he/she was a magician living in a nice neighborhood in the lost city of Atlantis. As I sat waiting for take out at PF Changs in Manhattan Beach, I overheard a woman on her cell phone.   “So, after all that, I call my ‘Inuit’ and he figured out the problem ten times faster than my OBGYN.”  Inuit healers? Do they use seal fat poultices? Narwhale horn powder?  Later at a dinner with beautiful people, I tried to participate in the dog’s breakfast of subjects ranging from Scientology to the pros and cons of the one legged king pigeon yoga position.  I was on my third Red Bull and feeling no pain. I turned to the kabuki-faced woman of indistinguishable age to my left.    It was impossible to gauge whether she was experiencing pleasure or intense pain. I leaned in and casually asked, “So do you have your own Inuit?” She looked perplexed and then gave a tiny anorexic guffaw, chortling “Intuit! silly boy.  An Intuit is a holistic healer, not an Eskimo!”  Duh! It was like this everywhere.  Body snatchers had invaded Los Angeles.  I was afraid to go to sleep lest a taproot from a nearby potted plant attached itself to my ankle and the next morning I would wake up looking like Melanie Griffith.

My last night in LA was a dinner with a long time friend who is a producer for a major movie studio. As with all entertainment people, he dresses as if he has been wrestling all night with Joseph Abboud.   He loathes superficiality but cannot resist constantly glancing over my shoulder to see who is coming in to our restaurant.   He has a wickedly sinful sense of humor and regularly denounces LA claiming a move to some midwestern town is imminent.  In the end, he remains in Brentwood claiming that there is no Chin Chin chinese chicken salada in the Midwest. “I’m a demented SOB,” he laughs.  “Where else in America will they pay you just to be your sick self.”?

Hours later, my plane landed in JFK.  A fat, gypsy cab driver tried to grab my bag.  A hundred cars were honking a symphony of gridlocked anger as a cop screamed, ” move it” to an eighty year old woman.  Swear words hung like ornaments in the humid summer air.  There was not a frozen face or tan zombie to be found.

Home, sweet, home.

The Run

The Run

I love a dog. He does nothing for political reasons. Will Rogers

The Run is two acres of patchy, broken grass and hardpan, enclosed by a split rail rectangle of fence.  It buttresses adjacent paddleball courts and the town’s community pool.  It is not much to look at but within it lopes the ultimate harmonious society.  It is a place where dogs run free and their humans loiter and talk, observing a diverse community of animals as they leap, wrestle and chase out of sheer joy of being off leash.   Spencer’s Run is an oasis for dog owners who love their animals and who understand their need for the companionship and enthusiasm of dogs from all different walks of life.  Dog owners know that dogs, like teenagers, need to get out, socialize and occasionally dig a hole.  If not afforded the chance to exercise and yield to their genetic programming, these affectionate canines transform into mischievous billy goats capable of indescribable mischief and destruction.

There are the regulars, the inner circle and social order of mornings and afternoons , dogs, men, women and children who arrive with a certain arc of the sun, tossing tennis balls and conducting traffic as the herders, lap dogs, hunters and pointers collide in great waves of movement and mayhem.  Spencer’s Run dogs are pack animals and while they possess predictable genetic triggers and embedded instincts, dogs have an amazingly human side.  They are our mirror images – – proud and insecure, particular and accepting, high strung and laissez faire, confident and paranoid, deviously intelligent and a tad slow.  Like their handlers, they prefer garbage food to brussels sprouts. They teach us to live in the moment and to shrug off the fact that sometimes life can be boring or uncertain.   The daily roster of The Run’s actors is too lengthy to mention.  There is Seamus, a herculean St Bernard, a micro celebrity in these parts who looms over the green field like a wooly mammoth.  Daily ground traffic is highly regulated by a pair of bellicose Bassets named Hoover and Minerva who patrol the Run looking for signs of sedition and disrespectful behavior.  On any given day the dog park is a blurred Grand Central Station of breeds: Shitzus , pugs, boxers, German Shepherds, Russian Samoyeds, Labs, Airedales, French Pyrenees Mountain Dogs and Afghans – – each day a UN meeting without politics.

My ticket of admission is my seven month Australian Shepherd, Brody.  “Mr Wild Thing” is a high energy herder that chases anything that moves and is incapable of resisting the instinct to buzz his target du jour into a tighter and tighter circle of control.  The focus of his shepherding could be a bird, squirrel, an octogenarian or UPS truck.  Already neutered, Brody still plays the alpha and like the man with a prosthetic leg who still swears he can feel an itch, he means business. To my chagrin, he occasionally expresses his desire for lead dog status through a series of highly inappropriate acts that can only be described as X rated.

Children are for people who can’t have dogs.  — Cicero

Like any loved one, we want to raise Brody to respect others, play nice in the sand box, not talk with his mouth full and avoid stalking four-year-old toddlers.  When we found Spencer’s Run, Brody was a rough pup from the South side of Boston.  He lacked finesse and the social graces required to be accepted into the pack.  He found an unconditionally accepting community that would quickly socialize him to the ways of the canine world.  Despite his Down Under heritage, Brody is distinctly American – – good-natured, naïve and prone to bark loud when meeting a dog of another nationality for the first time.  While as humans, we tend to shake hands upon greeting one another; dogs tend to go right for sniffing various parts of one another’s anatomy.  His penchant for the ” sniff” makes me cringe knowing that I still let him lick my face.  I wonder if it was a dog that started the rumor that a canine’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s.  I wager this observation was written like third grade bathroom graffiti in crayon on the side of some barn in the Midwest and an incredulous farmer figured it had to be true.  His sheep dog was laughing his bottom off that night.

From the dog’s point of view, his master is an elongated and abnormally cunning dog. ~Mabel Louise Robinson

I notice that owners like their dogs choose to either join the pack or sniff around the edges of the Run.  Some humans are clearly experienced pet owners and radiate a sort of god-like wisdom.  These dog-whispering oracles can explain to you the dark mysteries of your basenji – – the ten things canus africanus does not want you to know.   Dogs tend to resemble their owners and the demographic in the Run is similar to that of America with about 30% needing a dry food diet and a mandatory two hours of exercise each day.  Others breeds are sleek, sinewy paragons of discipline — practically eliciting applause from the crowd as they prance from one part of the park to the next – – and that is just the blond owner.  Like his human, Brody seems to go for lighter hair and gravitates to those from the wrong side of the tracks.  Purebred dogs put him off. He prefers big dogs and pound puppies perhaps because he himself is a descendent of convicts.  Brody avoids small dogs as they often suffer from Napoleonic complexes.  He thinks they are carrying handguns.   He tends to pal around with a yellow lab from Pound Ridge and a magnificent collie named Graham.

I sit under a shaded tree and watch as a well-mannered beagle trots by my bench doing the rounds.  He is beaming after seeing a distant relative win Best In Show at Westminster. Everywhere, people and dogs are chatting, mingling and exchanging pleasantries.  In the Spencer’s Run community there are surprisingly few protocols: Stay with the person you came to the dance with, be kind, clean up after yourself and have fun.  Not a bad way to run a dog park or a high school for that matter. Brody and I debrief after each visit.  I barrage him with questions as he lays panting like a child just home from school: ” So, you really caved in to that miniature boxer, didn’t you?” “Did you see that Afghan?  I mean was she exotic or what? ” He trots over covered with a mud mask mixed lovingly from dirt and a thousand licks.  He is filthy, exhausted and content – – the way I looked after my first Rolling Stones concert.  As he leaps into the passenger seat of my car, he barks one last yelp over my shoulder as if to say, “see you tomorrow”.  I back out and watch as another car enters my spot.  An excited Schnauzer jumps out of his handler’s car and strains against his leash.  He is speaking in German, “Achtung, Achtung! Dies wired groß sein (Hurry, hurry. This is going to be great! )”

Super Hero

Super Hero

“We can’t have a backdoor Alfred. We might be tempted to use it.”  Batman

…..The enemy agent moved deftly in the shadows of the rural levee.  The explosive charge would open a gap wide enough to collapse the entire reservoir and erase the town’s main electrical and power plant. Without power, the CDC research lab headed by the benevolent Dr Alan Goodfellow, would be without alarms and critical defenses.  It would now be easier to slip in and steal the experimental drug X9.  This drug could alter the course of the war.  Axis scientists could manipulate it into a biological weapon capable of wiping out entire cities.  The fact that the mile wide tidal wave of water would erase a town of 5000 innocent souls was irrelevant to the saboteur.  War required sacrifice and collateral damage was a byproduct of war…….

Every summer my world was awash with heroes and villains fighting in a grainy world of science-fiction gadgetry and black and white morality.  Marvel Comics was the Microsoft of action heroes.  It’s boxed and bubble narratives featuring mild mannered citizens morphing into champions of justice reassured me that irrespective of the injustice in my own life (chores, school and adolescence) everything would somehow work out for the best.

A typical comic book offered a series of crime, horror or adventure vignettes to millions of youngsters who sat idle, on beaches, by lakefronts, in back yards or on front stoops.  Comic afficionados addictively consumed every detail of their favorite comic so they might vicariously follow the exploits of their beloved protagonist.  The comic book was widely distributed before consumer protection and truth in advertising laws.  The comic’s advertisements would shamelessly promise fluent English in one week, live seahorses, missile firing tanks, XRAY glasses, magic kits and a GI Joe ranger kit replete with black saboteur suit, binoculars, compass, decoder and disappearing ink pen.  There was the classic ad that promised to “turn your arm pits into an explosive defensive mechanism”…this was obviously before roll-on deodorant.  Comic advertisements promised gainful employment if you chose to sell “Grit” magazine.  Grit purportedly was circulated to over 900,000 households and one could keep 5 cents per copy as commission.  I am not sure who read “Grit” or whether it was really an adult magazine for dirt farmers.  I personally took advantage of one advertisement to sell Burpee Seeds to my neighbors. The day the brown package with colorful packets of morning glory, daisy and aster seeds arrived by post was my first taste of raw entrepreneurialism. Marvel Comics made it all possible.

Perhaps the most famous ad had Mac, the 90lb weakling, bullied by a muscular tormentor who kicks sand on him and steals his girl. After taking world famous body builder Charles Atlas’ “ transform your body from shame to fame “ course, our hero returns to the beach with guns bigger than Jose Canseco, punches out his nemesis and gets his babe back.  If this was attempted today, Charles Atlas would get his glutes sued off – – promptly blowing through his product liability insurance policy.  Thankfully, things were simpler then and comics reflected our optimism, sense of fair play and need for personal responsibility.  The superhero knew right from wrong and always fulfilled their destiny to serve and protect.

My favorite comics were Tales of The Unexpected and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.  Like most fear junkies, I liked to scare the dog dirt out of myself at night.  Tales of phantom specters, unexplained phenomena and the paranormal appealed to my need to give form to those things that went bump in the night.  Ripley’s bizarre illustrations of people with three foot fingernails or the world’s fattest twins riding mini bikes added dimension to my universe teaching me that life can be stranger than fiction.  Yet, I always returned to The Shadow, Batman, and the Human Torch.  These cursed crime fighters led relentless lives where they were not accepted in any world – the world of humans or of mutants.  This unspoken sentiment resonated with me as my teenaged glands were in the process of transforming me. As I grew older, I abandoned the comic racks of the news shops but never failed to notice when a new generation of comic heroes arrived on the scene.  Each protagonist represented the embedded contradictions of a present day society both cursed and blessed by its powers.  It reminded one to be careful about wishing for something.  You might get it.

And, don’t you think we are missing a few superheroes who could help bring equilibrium to the far corners of today’s troubled society?  I have submitted the following ideas to DC Comics to consider:

Compliance Man – Hopkins Sarbanes, is a city college graduate working in corporate America.  The son of a steel worker, who went insane upon losing his job in a greed driven corporate merger, Hopkins fronts as a mild mannered middle manager, while all the while using his uncanny ability to root out corporate fraud.  Hopkins always tells the truth.  He blows whistles, exposes greedy CEOs and steers the partner that he has never met, Rex Regulator, to hives of corporate malfeasance.   Compliance Man keeps moving from town to town, job to job and relationship to relationship. His compulsive candor is in fact, a curse as he cannot lie when asked the question, “does this outfit make my bottom look big?”  Sarbanes will never find rest until there is “equity for all and no inside trading.”

Leech – After waterskiing through an industrial spill in Thailand, British oil magnate, Sir Lancelot Boyle, transforms into an inflation fighting slug every time oil hits $ 100 a barrel.  Cursed much like Prometheus, Leech cannot transform back to human form until the black gold dips below the trigger price of $100.  By day, he benefits from the mercurial price of oil and by night, he becomes Leech, breaking up illegal cartels, sucking the blood from Middle Eastern sheiks and finding alternative energies.

Clown Boy – Wrigley Toster is a bookish, underachieving teen who mistakenly experiments with his fathers’s Rogaine and is subsequently electrocuted in his jacuzzi while listening to an iPod.  When he awakens, he is afflicted with red hair that seems to grow by the minute, feet that require size eighteen DDD shoes shoes and a shrunken glutemus maximus that causes his pants to dangle precariously from a jutting tail bone.  Like most teens, his super powers of telepathy and telekinesis appear erratically and often only in the afternoon and after midnight – and always when their is no adult supervision.  Wrigley can suddenly finger drug dealers, pedophiles, obsessed parents, imbalanced coaches and fellow teens at risk. He is a champion for the rights of the marginalized and the socially awkward.  Wrigley is secretly in love with Brittany Bindleglass, head Varsity cheerleader, straight A student and editor of the school paper. Thanks to information shared by the enigmatic carrot topped hero, Brittany routinely busts the lid off of news stories happening right underneath the noses of the faculty and police in their cocooned, overachieving town.  Will Brittany learn Clown Boy’s real identity?  Will he die his hair black and try to ask her to the senior prom ? Will Clown Boy’s arch enemies, Zegfried and Roy, attempt trouble in Anytown, USA ? Clown Boy does have a dark secret: he is rendered useless by any type of manual labor or PBS television programming.

As we evolve as mankind, we will always develop new heroes – – individuals cursed to walk the fringes of society in the name of justice.  Comic books protect an important part of our literary garden – a place where the ordinary and extraordinary collide in simple illustrations and sound bites, a place where the fate of the universe lies in the balance and good and evil are easily distinguished.

If I were a super hero, I’d want to be called “The Squid” – soft body, tentacles that never let go and a penchant to waste tons of ink.