Posts tagged: Life

Family Loss

By , February 11, 2016

This past weekend I delivered the eulogy at my Aunt Mary’s burial mass. Unsurprisingly, I spent much of the 48 hours prior thinking about what I would say. As I began composing what would become the eulogy I found myself lamenting not just the death of my beloved aunt, but the disappearance of an entire way of life that she represented.

The house in which I grew up was next door to that of my aunt and uncle, and most of my earliest childhood memories include them as often as they do my own parents. My two older brothers blur together with my three cousins next door. Numerous other relatives lived within either walking, or short driving, distance, and my entire childhood in Hawthorne is an unending melange of family members coming and going. Most notably, Sundays were full of family, as my grandparents had always come to Aunt Mary’s house every week after mass, which meant that all the other relatives usually came, too. The cast varied, but every Sunday, week after week for 25 or 30 years, members of the Gioia, Dragotto, Galatioto, Cicinelli, Leone, and Gallante families, to name but a few, came together to eat, drink, talk, play pinochle, share family stories, or watch television. I have but the dimmest recollection, if even any at all, of my Sicilian grandparents, but the Sunday tradition continued even after their deaths. My oldest brother has the clearest memories of these weekly gatherings, and he says it wasn’t unusual for him to be one of 15 or 20 children present, along with countless adult aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, spouses, and others in attendance every Sunday.

For me, being surrounded by family in some capacity was a constant, until one day, it wasn’t. Crime in Los Angeles, especially the area in which we lived, had grown so bad that we had no choice but to move. My father owned a shoe store, and after yet another robbery at gunpoint my parents decided to sell the house and the store and move six hours north to Sonoma County. While the move was undoubtedly for the best in terms of safety, and clean air, it meant we suddenly had no family anywhere nearby. We weren’t the only ones, either. Family by family, we all left Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lawndale, moving to cities that were safer and serener, but also sterile and solitary. Where once we saw family every day, and gathered en masse after mass every Sunday, we now see each other perhaps every 10 to 15 years, at either a wedding or a funeral. Case in point: this weekend I met adults who were infants the last time I saw them.

I know ours wasn’t the only large family of Italians that once gathered at least once a week, and I’m equally certain that most who did, no longer do. The breakup of our clan mirrors that of most immigrant families in America. Before the 1970s, it was unusual if first and second generation immigrant families did not live, if not on the same block as multiple family members, then within a mile or two of nearly all their relatives. A family bought a house, and everyone moved in. As the family grew, or could afford to buy another home, they bought the house next door, or across the street. This began with immigrants congregating in specific parts of town, as when my grandfather came to the U.S. and moved into a tenement on Elizabeth Street, in New York’s Little Italy, because that block was populated not just by Sicilians, but primarily by Sicilians specifically from his hometown of Castellammare del Golfo. The next block was also Sicilian, but Sicilians from a different city. It was no surprise that when he met his wife, who lived on the same block as him, she was another Castellammarese.

Even as the family moved West, first to Detroit, then later to Los Angeles, the tradition of families living in close proximity continued, as did the tradition of immigrants from the same region moving to the same part of a city, and we were but one of many large Italians families living in Hawthorne. Living amongst others from the same Old Country made sense when it came time to marry off the younger, American-born, generation. In fact, when the Depression hit, my grandparents sent their eldest son to Los Angeles to scout for opportunity. He met with another Sicilian family and sent word for the rest of the family to move. The Gioias trekked across the country and stayed for a few nights with that family, the Dragottos, until they found a home of their own. Later, that eldest Gioia son would marry a Dragotto daughter, and the youngest Gioia, my recently departed and dearly missed Aunt Mary, would marry a younger Dragotto son, my Uncle Jack. (It was something of a minor crisis in my family when my father didn’t marry the Sicilian girl who’d been hand-picked for him by his family, and instead married a Mexican girl, but she was quickly adopted into the family and in short time became as Italian as anyone else.)

The automobile, then the interstate highway system, then the airplane, and now the internet have all served to give people greater mobility, and have also served to break up the close familial unit. As a society, we’ve tried to replace family with friends, often united by some shared interest. Whether it’s fans of the same sports team gathering regularly to watch their team’s games, either at a stadium or someone’s home, science fiction buffs attending weekly role-playing game sessions, or friends who bonded over an appreciation for some sub-genre of music meeting regularly at live shows or discotheques to listen, and dance, to their favorite bands together, there is usually some unifying force around which these friends rally, but whatever that force, it never seems as strong as the bond that family provides.

Friends move, interests change, former best friends marry and begin to raise children, and disputes or breakups polarize friendships. Perhaps most notably, age separates friends. Few, if any, groups of friends run the age gamut from infant to septuagenarian, as common interests, not to mention societal mores, don’t typically promote such interactions. The bond of family offers something else, a sort of true connection and shared history, the weight of which can’t be matched within a circle of friends. Your grandchildren will never care how your friend’s friend met his wife, but they will relish the tale of how your grandparents met.

What does this all mean? Hell if I know. About the only thing that I do know is that my generation had something important, something that dated back 200,000 years to the emergence of man and lasted until about the mid-1970s, taken from it during our childhood, and that subsequent generations will never even have that something to begin with. I think not having a large family in close proximity at all times has created a massive and unfillable void in our collective lives, and try as we might to replace that need with the ephemeral substitute of friends, we’ll never find a true replacement for what a family offers.

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Scoring My Life

By , December 31, 2010

In November, while I was packing my life away, I found an old journal in which I had begun to keep a sort of score for each year of my life. I had a running tally going, with each year earning either a 1 or a 0. If the year in question had been better than the previous year, it earned a point. If it had been worse, it did not.

What with today being the final day of 2010 and all, it seems like the perfect time to share my scores with you. The journal was from many years ago, so I have filled in scores for the subsequent years. I suppose without some sort of commentary, it will be a meaningless set of numbers, so I will try to annotate it in places.

1995 1
1996 0
1997 1
1998 1
1999 1
2000 1 (I fell in love for the first time)
2001 1
2002 1
2003 1 (2001-3 is a big, long blur of contentment)
2004 0 (Mom got sick)
2005 -1 (worst year ever)
2006 1 (how could it have been worse than ’05? also, pretty good in general– traveled for first time)
2007 0 (transitional crappy year of blah and bad judgement)
2008 1/-1 (started super happy but it all fell apart by the end)
2009 1 (moved from LA to Oakland, made new friends, had best summer of life)
2010 0 (everything fizzled out, ended up homeless in Africa)

My score in life thus far is 9 out of a possible 16. That would have been a failing grade in school, but I have a hunch life is graded on a curve, so I don’t feel so bad. Plus, I hope I have at least a few more years left in me to run up the score a bit.

As you can see, I had a long run of good years, followed by some uneven times, and while my recent life has been somewhat lacking in the happiness department, I have a sense that better things are to come. For the first time in six years I feel little sparks of my old self flickering inside of me.

My life has been peppered with so many dreadful events since 2004, and I feel as though I numbly staggered through them without being affected in any meaningful way. It’s as if I stopped caring that bad things were happening to me, and felt no desire to seek good things. I let life wash over me. I bet there is a clearer way to state this, but I find myself unable to do so at the moment. The best way to put it is to say that for nearly six years I have felt extremely detached from the world around me: I could see my life falling apart around me, but had no drive or desire to prevent it from happening.

Now I care again. Of course, my life is an absolute wreck, but at least I want to fix it. I don’t know if I can do so, and I may be doomed, but that is not as important to me right now as the fact that I don’t want to be doomed. Before, ironically, when I still had the means to prevent it, I didn’t care that my life was disintegrating, and even if I now fail at rebuilding it, knowing that I once again want a happy life makes all the difference.

Do I have a New Year’s Resolution? To take active steps to make sure in a year’s time my score for 2011 is +1.

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Remembering Ian Curtis

By , May 18, 2010

I attended public school until the end of junior high, but once I hit the 9th grade, my parents enrolled me into the nearest Catholic high school. I found myself thrust into a brand new school, populated mainly by children from wealthy families, nearly all of whom had grown up together and gone through the same private school system since preschool. I was a 13-year old kid, already feeling the uncertainty and disorientation that comes with that age and the leap to high school, and I was completely out of my element. I was surrounded by kids from an utterly different background, all of whom were ensconced in long-formed cliques. I had little in common with anyone at the school, and as the school was an hour’s bus ride from my home, I didn’t even have any friends in the area to whom I could turn. I could not have been any more lost or alone.

Had my life been a Hollywood teen film, I would have accidentally befriended a popular and wealthy student who would have been enamored of my lower-class upbringing. After some humorous early false-starts, our friendship would have cemented over some exciting incident, and by the final reel, he would have introduced me into high society and I would have spent my remaining high school years enjoying friendship and popularity. I’d like to think I would have dated a cheerleader. However, as I actually dwell in the real world, I made no such friend. Instead, I drifted from one awkward false start to the next, and didn’t form close bonds with anyone; I was too athletic and tough to be a geek, but too poor and punk rock to be popular. I ended up a loner.

I cut class one day early in the school year, and ended up at a nearby record shop. At the shop, I purchased Unknown Pleasures, Joy Division’s first album. I was mesmerized by its iconic Peter Saville pulsar cover; that somber image summed up my mood so precisely that I bought the record without even being fully aware of who the band were. I carted the record around town with me for the remainder of the day, not quite sure what I had, but hoping it would live up to its promise. How could it not? Those stark, white lines radiating from the all-black background promised something foreboding and otherworldly; that night at home, I was at last able to play the record. From the opening line, I was entranced.

I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand.

I played the record over and over that night; as soon as side B finished I would flip it back over and play it from the beginning. In the voice of Ian Curtis, I had found poetry that spoke directly to my sense of isolation, and thus began a long-lasting fascination with not only the band’s music, but the singer and his life. When I learned shortly thereafter that Ian Curtis had committed suicide, the bond only grew tighter. Perhaps paradoxically, even though his lyrics were so often grim, and spoke of fear, disillusionment, and helplessness, I found something life-affirming in them. This man, who had felt so deeply the sorrows about which had sung that he had killed himself, somehow came to represent hopefulness to me. My fascination with Curtis and his music lasted well past my awkward adolescent years; just look at the title I chose for my blog.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ death. In the three decades since his departure, his influence and legend have only grown. Joy Division, a band virtually unknown when I was in high school, today enjoys huge popularity. Movies have been made about the band, and about Curtis’ life, and it would not be a stretch to say that the band today enjoys more popularity than ever before. Yet to me, Ian Curtis and Joy Division remain a very personal facet of my life. When I had nothing of substance, Ian Curtis gave me something of depth in which to immerse myself, and offered a beacon of hopeful light at the end of what had once been Stygian emptiness.

Oh, I’ve walked on water, run through fire
Can’t seem to feel it anymore
It was me, waiting for me
Hoping for something more
Me, seeing me this time, hoping for something else.

Ian Curtis
Ian Curtis (15 July 1956 – 18 May 1980)
Love Will Tear Us Apart

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Games of Nonchalance

By , May 13, 2010

The pay phone is ringing as you reach it, so you quickly answer. The voice on the other end is instantly recognizable as that of Commander 14. He instructs you to begin dancing, and so you dance. From nowhere a breakdancer appears, boom box in hand, and dances with you. Things get really weird when Bigfoot turns the corner and joins the dance. After a few moments, Bigfoot hands you your next clue and he, and the breakdancer, quickly saunter away.

What just happened? How did you end up here? Who is Eva, and where has she gone? Is Octavio Coleman, esq. behind her disappearance? And just where *does* one acquire hobo coinage??? Your quest begins on the 16th floor of 580 California Street in San Francisco.

I want to say so much more, but I cannot. I’ll simply tell you that some time ago a mysterious cult invited me to a free orientation session. Once inducted, I began to notice the divine occurring all around me in a thousand miniscule ways. Soon thereafter, via encoded transmissions from another realm, the Elsewhere Public Works Agency enlisted my help in their ongoing battle against the Jejune Institute, perpetrators of “False Nonchalance.”

If this sounds amazing to you (and believe me, it is amazing), and you are in the Bay Area, visit the Jejune Institute and begin your journey down the rabbit hole.

Whatever you do, and no matter how difficult it may be to resist, do not search for details about any of this. This is probably the funnest way a person can spend an afternoon (or three) San Francisco, for free by the way, and knowing what is coming ahead of time will ruin the entire experience. Googling it before doing it is akin to working a crossword puzzle with the solution in front of you– boring and pointless. Trust me on this. Now go have some fun.

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My Fake Plastic Girl

By , February 27, 2010

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love

For the most part, I’ve not read any of my old blogs since I wrote them, but as I move each one from the old url to this new one, I am more or less forced to do so while fixing links, updating the format, categorizing, tagging, summarizing and so forth. It is not easy. Sometimes I’m more than a little chagrined by the less than gripping writing or the trite choices of topics, but the hardest ones to reread are those like the Dreaming post. Reading that again evoked a complicated mixture of emotions within me, from the bittersweet to the embarrassing, and for more reasons than I can list, I want to travel back into time and smack myself over the head.

I was so unabashedly open about how in love I was. Which is fine, except that I can’t help but feel foolish in retrospect that I was going on and on about how wonderful our love was, and how amazing she was, when it was all a big joke at my expense. It isn’t as if she became a different person the day she up and disappeared; she was always that person and I was too blinded by love to see it. I realize that now, and so I look back at what I wrote I can’t help but feel awfully stupid.

The saddest thing I ever did see
Was a woodpecker peckin’ at a plastic tree.
He looks at me, and “Friend,” says he,

“Things ain’t as sweet as they used to be.”

I think the crux of what I feel when revisiting the old entries stems from the fact that I know what is to come. Just as each time I reread The Great Gatsby, I futilely hope for a happy ending, yet know all along that Gatsby is going to die, no amount of hindsight can change what I know came next in my life. If I could rewrite history by rewriting those old journal entries– if only it were that easy– I would do just that. Gone would be gushy blogs about true and perfect loves with best friends. No more would be the maudlin posts about future weddings, nor would there be any extolling the virtues of dream girls, and there most definitely would be none of these. In their place, I would write of my fake plastic girl: emotionless, selfish, dishonest, and uncaring.

If it seems like I still care, I don’t. If it seems like I am still hung up on her, I’m not. I’m past it all, and I’m again ensconced in a happy, productive life in which I am the master of my own heart and destiny. I wrote this in part because the old blogs have dredged up memories which seemed worth exploring, but mostly because amidst all the previous blogs devoted to my love for her, and later those of heartbreak for losing her, there needed to be at least one entry here that named her for what she really was– my fake plastic love.

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Stardust

By , February 7, 2010

Astronomer Geoffrey Burbidge died recently. I must confess that I’d never heard of him until I read his obituary in today’s paper. His renown came from a 1957 paper in which he put forth the notion that all life can be traced to stardust.

Currently Playing: Artie Shaw – Stardust

I really, really like this idea. I can’t pretend to understand a word of it, but it has something to do with ancient stars burning hydrogen, helium, and lithium, producing heavier elements like oxygen and carbon, then exploding these newly minted atoms into space where they mixed with cosmic dust, and formed new stars. Those new stars became old stars, exploded, seeded the universe further, and eventually the universe became enriched with heavier elements that ended up on planets and inside people like you and me.

Burbidges longtime friend, Allan Sandage of Carnegie Observatories, explained it in a far more poetic fashion: “Every one of our chemical elements was once inside a star. The same star. You and I are brothers. We came from the same supernova.”

I feel better about myself already. I’m made of stardust? Wow! Today will definitely be a good day. Dare I say it will be… stellar? How can’t it be? I woke up thinking I was a combination of gin, coffee, and Cesar’s tapas; we are what we eat, after all. Now I’m about to take a shower and face the world armed with the knowledge that I’m powered by the remnants of a supernova.

Hell yeah. Bring it on, world…

.

Even Galactus is only made of planets.

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The Little Moments That Count

By , October 29, 2009

Sometimes I wish I could freeze a certain moment and save it to relive it again in the future. I do my best to relish the good stuff while it’s happening, but you can only savor something so much, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. In an attempt to preserve such a moment for future savoring, I will now relate a tale from my life.

On Tuesday night I went out with four friends, Chris, Teddie, Barrett. We were in Berkeley, moving from bar to bar, drinking, talking, dancing, and generally making merry. We eventually made our way to Manny’s Tap Room in Berkeley, which is an unusual destination for us, but we were on a shuffleboard kick and they have a table. While playing, we heard the bartender ring a bell, and turned to see a guy standing on the bar chugging a glass of beer. Except he couldn’t do it. He stopped a few times, before finally finishing. Twice more, the bell went off, and other guys tried, and failed, to pound a pint.

Later, while out front, we were laughing at the fact that the guys couldn’t even chug one glass of beer, and I said something to the effect of, “I ought to get up on the bar and show them how to do it.” Teddie scoffed, insinuating that I couldn’t do it, so I told him I could drink a glass of beer faster than him. He hesitated for a moment, then backed down from my challenge, and instead said “I know you can’t drink faster than Chris.”

Now, Chris drinks a lot. I mean, a LOT. And he’s from Michigan, so… I wasn’t sure if I could drink faster than him, but I said I thought that I probably could. Now that it wasn’t me vs. Teddie, Teddie was of course all about getting us up there, so we approached the bartender. He informed us that if it is someone’s birthday they have to stand on the bar and chug, but when we explained there had been a challenge, he agreed to let us try. Up onto the bar we went.

Everyone stared as the two of us climbed onto the bar and picked up our pints of Guinness. The bell rang, we chugged. I finished, turned to see Chris still getting the last sip down, and raised my glass into the air in victory. The entire bar was cheering, and I leapt down from the bar, landing directly in front of this Miss Unnamed, whom I did not even know was at the bar, and on whom I currently have a big crush. She was smiling at having seen my glorious victory, and silly though it sounds, for that moment I have to say I felt pretty damn awesome. Sure, I was chugging a beer on a bar, not saving the whales or curing cancer, but whatever. Ferris Bueller’s got nothing on me.

I’m telling you, it’s those little moments in life that mean so much.

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Goodbye John

By , August 12, 2009

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

I don’t know if I have ever blogged merely to link to another blog, but that’s sort of where today’s post is going. I’ve been trying for six days now to think of what to write about John Hughes’ death, but haven’t been able to craft anything worth sharing. Then today I read this blog and I realized why John Hughes mattered to me. It wasn’t merely that he created so many great films; he was a genuinely great guy.

I tend to ignore celebrity-related news and issues, and certainly don’t blog about them. I can’t bring myself to care. Michael Jackson’s recent death felt like such a non-issue to me, and the resultant hysteria was mystifying and disappointing to me. But last week John Hughes died, and, like I suppose most Americans my age, I took notice. Here’s an artist who actually contributed something lasting to our culture.

There is little I can offer that likely hasn’t been said before. The Breakfast Club certainly presaged the era of reality television, and the first film I’m aware of that dealt with teen issues in such a starkly real way. It is also a rarity in that it cast actual teens as teens. Weird Science is on some level a starkly realistic insight into the psyche of the teen male, as well as a too-real depiction of life for two uncool guys.

Hughes’ true masterpiece, however, as far as I’m concerned, is Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. I’ll spare you a long-winded exposition on why Generation X made the world a better place, despite the efforts of the Baby Boomers that came before them, and the OMG’ers that came after. Instead I’ll offer Ferris as the Gen-X everyman. From his day off you can glean most everything you need to know about the topic. Consider– he spent his day off attending a Cubs game, visiting the Chicago Institute of Art, watching a parade, and eating a nice lunch. Think about that for awhile, then get back to me.

As the trip to the museum is one of my favorite of all moments cinematic, I am including it in today’s post.

Finally, as a teen, and even still as an adult, I wondered– did the popular kids, portrayed in such unflattering light in his films, also like John Hughes? How could they? How dare they? Those movies were made for me… and Alison.

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Not a Narcissist

By , March 29, 2009

I just took Dr. Drew’s Narcissistic Personality Inventory, but only scored an 8. The average person scores 15.3. While on one hand this is something of a silly, throw-away quiz, I must admit that it is fairly indicative of my personality. I do think I lack a certain sort of self-confidence. Which is not to say I hate myself. It’s more that I seldom make a fuss about myself, or stand up for myself. Conversely, I’ve always been very good at standing up for other people, even strangers; just not myself.

I wonder if fixing this is as simple as doing the opposite of what I said I’d do in the quiz?

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In Which I Meet Bob Newhart

By , January 13, 2009

Yesterday I was walking about Westwood in search of a place to sit and read. As I walked past a dry cleaner’s shop, out walked Bob Newhart, clean shirts in hand. I did a double-take, and stared for a moment. He had a “yeah, it’s me,” look on his face.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “you’re Bob Newhart.”

“Yes, I am,” was his reply. At which point he offered his hand. And I shook it.

I shook Bob Newhart’s hand!

After that, I wasn’t sure where else things could go, so I quickly informed him that I’ve only recently moved to Los Angeles, and he is the first celebrity I’ve truly met, and walked away. I had a huge smile on my face for at least five minutes.

I didn’t mention my encounter with Tim Roth, during which I pretended to mistake him for a store clerk, or the time I randomly sat next to Alia Shawkat (Maebe Funke on Arrested Development) and Ellen Page (Juno in Juno) (who knew they were friends?) at a midnight showing of Harold and Maude, because I didn’t really meet those folks.

Naturally, I texted all my friends immediately afterwards. The few replies I received were either “who is Bob Newhart?” or “isn’t he dead?” So sad. True, he’s before my time, and I only know him because he was one of my mother’s favorite comedians, but come on. He’s an icon! Recently, he played the daddy Elf in Elf, but in the ’60s he was huge. His album of comedy won the 1961 Grammy for album of the year. That’s some Michael Jackson / U2 type action there.

Which makes me realize– no matter how famous you get, you can eventually be forgotten. I bet if I asked random passerby who Rutherford B. Hayes or Zack Taylor were, many of them wouldn’t even know, and they are former leaders of the free world.

That’s it. I’m starting up the Franklin Pierce Fan Club for reals.

Also, Bob Newhart is magical. I have some sort of infection in my right ear, and for a week now it has been swollen shut, but a moment after shaking Bob’s hand, the ear popped open and stayed open for about an hour. It closed back up, but clearly the handshake did more for me than the drops my doctor gave me. I’m going to have to stake out that dry cleaner and hope Bob’s a messy eater.

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