National Novel Writing Month: Thanksgiving Writing Exercise

We’ve all had to suffer through this ritual:  sit around a holiday table and testify about the things we are thankful for, things we cherish in our lives.  Then, like Pavlov’s dogs, we are rewarded for our participation with the opportunity to grub down on a steroid-bird and a quivering lump of dye-infused cranberry jello.

Thanksgiving Contest - What Are You Thankful For?


I am grateful I have a job.

 I am grateful that my family is healthy and alive. 

I am grateful that Johnny came back from the war with all his precious limbs intact.

This is a touching exercise but it always seems so empty to me—a tin can you listlessly kick down the echoing tunnel of your mounting depression…because, you see, here is the paradox of Thanksgiving:  Turkey Day is the gateway to the entire season of dislike and ungratefulness, of dread and claustrophobia, of anxiety and powerlessness.  But we are all required to smile and play joyful in our scratchy snowflake sweaters as if we were lobotomized inmates in a very strict looney bin.


Thanksgiving is one of those times when Americans are MOST likely to self-medicate on booze.  Thanksgiving is THE moment when Americans feel like they’re losing ground to their neighbors and their over-ambitious nativity scene.  It is the red letter day when we are MOST likely to climb into the satin coffin of credit card debt.


Thanksgiving is also that box on the calendar when you gird up our loins to confront those people whom you reluctantly call “relatives.”

It is the time of year when you might see that uncle who molested you and flash back to the smell of Jim Beam on his breath during those late night visits to “tuck you in.”

Or that long-distant cousin–the religious fanatic–who used to kick your ass every day after school and then warn you to keep your filthy rat-trap mouth shut or else, God help you, you will really get it. 

Or the spinster aunt who snuck away with your boyfriend behind the wood shed and returned to the dinner table with leaves in her hair and hay on her back. 

Thanksgiving is the time when we spend weeks researching the jiu jitsu moves to bust out during the dread moment when polite family discussions suddenly veer into the octagon of politics—that time Uncle Rudy spouts off about the place of women or minorities or homosexuals.


Yes, the true reality of Thanksgiving is not the glaze that lies on the surface of the ham but the meat that once belonged to a pig raised in the squalor of confinement—a poor animal living with the fact of death, the stench of suffering, the odor of sitting in your own poop waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse.  So with this in mind, here is the exercise:

Instead of thinking about what your character is grateful for—her accomplishments, her aspirations, her desires–think about what she loathes, what she absolutely detests.  What sends her off the cliff?  What makes her nervous system fill with the adrenaline of dread?  What makes her hand itchy enough to grab grandma’s wedding cutlery and stick it in the ever-loving eye of Uncle Rupert–that first class child molester and blowhard–whose fact of existence is a blight on humanity?


Start off with a list of grievances that are as sweet as frosting and as refreshing as peppermint candy canes.  Build it out into a ginger bread house of anxieties, of resentments, of traumas, of secret-hurts.  Then finish it off with the ideal revenge fantasy—the witch pushed into the oven screaming in agonizing pain as her skin burns to a charred crisp and her eyeballs pop out of the sockets of her head.


Let’s make this point absolutely clear:  This is not a sadomasochistic exercise.  This is not my condoning violence.  And no, you should not maim nor kill nor bludgeon those strangers you call “relatives.”

Rather, this is fundamentally an exercise in negative space—an exercise that defines a picture by what it is not.  In doing so, we are able to understand what is really inside the inside of the picture of your story:  the characters, the situation, the plot.  And as such, it allows us to see things in an entirely different light that challenges the ways we are compelled to see.

Why?  Because we WANT to see things as we WISH to see things.  And we WISH to see things as other people tell us we MUST see things.  We are all Pavlov’s dogs licking at the plate after the dinner bell has rung.

As a result, we often default into a list of empty desires, of echoing tin-can-cookie-cutter platitudes that we kick around.  But answer me honestly:  Who hasn’t wanted to confront an abuser, to flip over the dinner table, to storm out of the room and come back with a semiautomatic blazing cold hot lead into the hearts and souls of the so-called “friends and family” who have wronged them?

Not me.  I’m a veritable angel.  And I am grateful that I am alive and not in jail.  But YOU…I know I’m not as sick and twisted as YOU.  YOU are capable of anything.

Accidental Tourist: Friday the 13th in a Foreign Country

Yesterday was Friday the 13th in the United States but I missed that jinx of a day and—get this—didn’t miss it:  I took an international flight and lost a day.

(By the way:  if you have never taken Asiana Airlines, I highly recommend it:  amazing food and super service in an upscale setting.  I watched three classic films that I swore that I had seen—but didn’t–in that day that I jettisoned:  “From Here to Eternity,” “The Big Country,” “To Catch a Thief”—all the while double fisting as much free liquor as I could handle.  There was a festive mood on the plane as a piece of our life went down the drain:  you see—the plane was at 80% capacity and just about everybody around me got to stretch out like homeless people on a park bench.)


I’m in Seoul, Korea—the birthplace of my wonderful wife, the heartland of Korean culture, a mega-city that is the turbo-charged engine that has turned a war-torn nation into the 13th largest economy in the world.  I count myself lucky:  I am on a 3 week vacation and somehow beat jetlag.

I’m unlucky because I arrived just in time for a funeral:  my wife’s aunt—a woman struggling with cancer—took a turn for the worse, lapsed into a coma, and was dead the day after I arrived.  We got a phone call at the family house within an hour of arrival—just moments after dinner and within a few hours of midnight.

If all you knew of Korea was the TV show MASH, you would be shocked by its modernity!

If all you knew of Korea was the TV show MASH, you would be shocked by its modernity!

My wife counts herself lucky:  she was able to say goodbye at the hospital only a few hours after we arrived, and the next day was the funeral service—the start of a three day mourning ritual that Korean Catholics observe.  She would have dropped everything to attend the funeral—despite the expense and crimp to her work schedule—but that would still mean that she would not get their on time for all the events.  So, she not only saved money and gained convenience, she also got to participate in the family ritual of grieving.

The day that was lost was also the day of the terrorist attack in Paris—the attack that left well over a hundred dead and a city under Marshall law.  If I had stayed in the United States, that day would have been Freaky Friday—a portentous day filled with dread significance—but it was just a run-of-the-mill crazy day, overshadowed by the preparations for a funeral:  the background noise of mayhem on the flat television screen.

Paris Attack

I counted myself lucky:  I packed a black pinstripe suit and a very fancy black overcoat; my socks were black; my wingtips were black; and my belt, yes–black.  So I was ready for a funeral.  Somewhere—perhaps in that book The Accidental Tourist–I once read that you should always pack a dark suit, just in case you might need it.  And throughout that time on the plane (I was wearing my suit), I wondered if I really needed it—if I had overpacked.

My wife was not so lucky:  she had nothing appropriate for a funeral but she had family and she borrowed something dark and, fittingly, somber for the occasion.

A Korean Catholic funeral gave me the opportunity to pretend that I was an anthropologist—a special wrinkle in tourism.  Many moons ago, I actually wrote my dissertation on funerals and death rituals, so I could bring a certain practiced eye to the occasion.  And I could see that the Catholic funeral was a classic act of syncretism—the fusing of Western and Eastern traditions.  You could see the elements of Confucian ancestor worship in the white chrysanthemums; the emphasis on the portrait of the mother, carried by the eldest son at the head of the procession; the kowtow that many of the guests performed in front of the altar.

White Chrysanthemums are the dominant flower in any Asian funeral.

White Chrysanthemums are the dominant flower in any Asian funeral.

Koreans eat and drink during a funeral.  Everybody gets liquored up and the event lasts well into the night—a far cry from the somber quality of the Protestant funerals I grew up with.  I had two beers and was amazed by the ways the church staff turned the tables over with such efficiency.  I could get used to beers at funerals.

I became a bit obsessed with this picture—the picture of an embroidered bird on a banner, flanking Chinese characters:  “Sincere Mourning.”  It looked like it should have been a Phoenix at some point—that bird of rebirth—but the phoenix is a heathen creature of fire.  And my theory is that this image needed to survive in some form and was transformed into a run-of-the-mill peacock with a long tail that ends in those tell-tale eyes.  Can you see the phoenix?

Do you see a phoenix or a peacock?

Do you see a phoenix or a peacock?

We were escorted back from the funeral by my wife’s father, who had been up all night yesterday and would be up all night again; he was going to go home for a power nap; then, he would go back for another all-nighter, followed by another—the cremation, the next day.  He was so tired that we did a Chinese fire drill on the freeway and I ended up driving through the inky night—fording the many bridges and tunnels in this city filled with black rivers.

Korean Rotisserie Chicken

Rotisserie chickens in Korea are super-small, more like Cornish Game Hens that have been hitting the gym.

I decided to take a long walk in the evening—to let the chill of the Fall night air fall on my skin.  It was nice to be in the city–toute seule, as the French would say– and I bought myself an impromptu walking-dinner: rotisserie chicken, some rolls and a bottle of wine.  The nice old man at the convenience store gave me a freebie carton of ice coffee.

“Throw it away,” said my wife.  “Why would anybody give you anything for free?”

The next morning I realized why:  The date on the carton was 11/14.  There were only a few hours left before that carton was about to expire, so he was giving me those hours so they could be useful to me.  I guess he figured they were to be of no use to him at the stroke of midnight.

Carton Coffee

Grand Central Market: A Chase Scene

One of my ambitions in writing this mystery novel is to pay tribute to the city that I grew up in—a city that takes all comers and lets them reinvent themselves.  One day you can be some outcast nothing in a bible belt town and the next, you are ensconced in a rat-infested Hollywood apartment living your life as a bleach blond and working out your true passion in the world of underground bondage films.

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And this is because the city has always been a zone for cast-off humans that are refurbished and polished like vintage chrome.  The city is all about its own reinvention—a place where nothing is true unless their is a press release.  This is a city of New Age mystics with really great head shots and bleached teeth from a Beverly Hills dentist working on his third ex-wife.

One of the venues in which I wanted to memorialize my town is Grand Central market—a bustling indoor market that has been in Los Angeles for what feels like a thousand years.  I imagined a chase scene through the arcades and the neon signs—the bustling crowds of Mexican women shoppers with their mesh shopping bags—the cooks in their stained white smocks—the fruit stands with their too-ripe bananas—the spice vendors with their neat display cases of chilis and their wall of canned goods.


The suspect is always just ahead, entering from Broadway to exit by Hill:  his silhouette backlit like a specter journeying to the other side to meet his maker…or a get-away car driven by a woman in a wig and black sunglasses.

The reasons for this choice are not entirely benevolent:  there are so many opportunities to describe the smells of spices and grease; there are also fantastic opportunities to describe the din, the metal clang, the muffled music of a dozen sound systems slapping up against each other like sweating sumo wrestlers: banda, pop, reggaeton–all that white noise against the sound of the beating of your heart.  This is the stuff of realism, the kind of realism that makes the champagne cork of the detective novel pop.

images chop suey

There is a cinematic quality in Grand Central Market.  I’m not the first to notice it.  Some of the classic movies of Los Angeles have been filmed there–movies like Chinatown, Wolf, Lethal Weapon 4 and The Artist.  The Chop Suey joint with the neon sign and the long bank of bar stools that line its formica countertop—Jack Nickelson ate there.

And this is probably why so many tourists have been drawn like iron files to the magnet.  This wasn’t always the case:  Grand Central market was a run-down place in the middle of what appeared to be an abandoned LA—an LA that at night was like the still of a zombie apocalypse.  There were the artists who emerged from their jury-rigged lofts like postapocaylptic mole people to avail themselves of the cheap produce.  There were also Latinos of all stripes—Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans—who turned the venerable market into a place that looked like something from their homeland where such markets are common.

All that has changed, though.  The market is undergoing a process of rapid change—some might call it gentrification—and almost all of the old businesses, except those in the core of the market, have fallen to newer fancier businesses serving a much more well-heeled clientele.  Organic butchers, Pressed Juices, French confectioners—these are now the order of the day.


One of the biggest of these upstart newbies is Eggslut—one of those joints that serve up egg sandwiches for breakfast-all-day.  Eggslut started as that uber-trendy enterprise, a gourmet food truck—the brain child of classically trained chefs who source only local and organic.  They don’t serve bread; they serve brioche; the line, which is long and snaking, is filled with well-coiffed foodies fiddling on their iphones and they wait; wait they do, for well over an hour.

The sanitation of Grand Central market has leapt upwards like a frog reaching to catch a dragonfly.  Now, there are attendants in blue polos and khakis, armed with spray balls and rags and walkie-talkies.  The nonexistent security staff is now beefed up with beefy you men who man the security desk that was always there but always empty.

The typical Eggslut customer is a far cry from the typical pupuseria customer!

The typical Eggslut customer is a far cry from the typical pupuseria customer!

I’m not here to lament about gentrification.  I’m not going to go after that sitting duck, the hipster, who is easy pickings with enough buck shot.  I’m not here to get nostalgic either, because cities like Los Angeles are engaged in constant acts of reinvention—dying their hair some outlandish color and twerking their way down a red carpet in hooker heels:  even their nostalgia is something entirely fake—tinsel and cubic zirconia.

No, I’m thinking about these things because the changes in Grand Central Market present less a political problem and more a formal problem.  How do you chase after a chase scene when the venue has changed so much that it is no longer recognizable either to you or to anyone else?  How to write about something in a process of rapid transformation but, still, thinks of itself as the gritty grimy place of an authentic LA that never was and never has been?

The Missing Picture–Available Again on Netflix

One of the great advances in this age of the internet is the fact that we have so many more things at our fingertips—movies, books, television shows. I feel like an old fogey pointing this out…but back in my day, if you missed a movie, gosh darn it, you were ass-out.  You missed it.

That feeling of urgency—that feeling of your heart beating in your ear drum—as you run to the theater to make it in the nick of time is a thing of the past, not something that little kids can ever feel today. But sometimes I recapture the thrill of that old-timey feeling when I try to catch foreign flicks, especially obscure ones that play in art houses.

For instance, last year, the movie “The Missing Picture” by the Cambodian-French director Rithy Panh was showing across town at the NuArt Theatre for a limited engagement.  It was the only movie theater in the city showing it.   And to boot:  it was critically acclaimed.  I really wanted to see it in the way that young boys burn with the desire to see Star Wars. All my friends were talking about making an occasion of it. But I got a little lazy.  I didn’t want to drive across town.  I didn’t get the timing right and before I knew it, the movie had vanished into thin air.


Now, the movie is on Netflix and I have a second chance and, yes, I highly recommend it. For those who don’t know: “The Missing Picture” won the highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge—the Communist party lead by its bloody dictator Pol Pot.

So let me quickly get you up to speed on history:  Under the Khmer Rouge, a radical campaign against anything Western was waged. To the revolutionaries that had recently rid the country of French occupation, the West was seen as a defilement, a form of pollution. Anybody with even the slightest traces of decadent Western influence could be put to death.  If you wore glasses, if you carried a pen in their pocket, if you owned a book, you could very likely be killed.

All manner of people were killed for big and small reasons that seem capricious and tyrannical by today’s standards. Writers were killed.  Teachers were killed.  Movie directors were killed–and an entire industry that employed actors, costumers, sound men, was wiped of the emerald landscape of this Southeast Asian country.

Skulls at Sang Prison

Skulls at Sang Prison

If you’ve seen the movie, “The Killing Fields”–a movie that follows the story of a journalist–than you might be familiar with the grisly turn of events, which resulted in mass genocide. “The Missing Picture” stands in counterpoint to such a movie, because it is less concerned about documentation and more obsessed with philosophical questions, like the fallibility of memory and the meaning of loss and the slipperiness of realistic representation.

The title—“The Missing Picture”—is about the absence in all representation. The actual French title points to this obsession more strongly: —“L’image Manquante” means “frustrated” and “lacking,” not just simply missing.

The look of the film is that of Claymation—but crudely done Claymation that makes the characters look like the grotesques of outsider art–artists like Grandma Moses and Henri Rousseau.  These Claymations appear up and against archival Cambodian movie footage (what remains of it) that forms the backdrop in a way that looks like a collage. Over all this, hovers the voice of an actor who stands in for the director—a director who remembers his childhood under the murderous regime.  Tellingly, the director chooses to represent his own speech with a broken accent.


In other words, this is the kind of art that is not about illusions of traditional cinema:  illusions that suck you into a world whose artifice appears real—a world about seamless transitions and a sense of dimension that comes from technically sophisticated clay modeling. No, this is an art that is deliberately flat. In the scenes, there are even props—a car, for instance–that are simply cardboard cut-outs that caricature automobile shapes.  There is something wonderfully mismatched and jarring about these juxtapositions.

The crudeness of the image—an image which is literally lost, missing, broken—is also an image produced with care. The thing we know about Claymation is that it takes forever to produce—much longer than a flickering image that is captured on celluloid. And the genius stroke of “The Missing Image” is that the care that is taken in bringing back that which is lost pays homage to the preciousness of what is gone.


So, I’m glad that I had a reprieve. You should check it out on Netflix, because Neflix often changes its rotation and soon “The Missing Piece” will go…well…missing.

Happy Dia de los Muertos!

Halloween is upon us.  So is Day of the Dead.. And I planned to take some time off from the blog and traipse around the city with a costume on…but then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks—a piece of civic art used to beautify my neighborhood, which is a rapidly gentrifying zone with rising property values.  Yes, Highland Park is getting a make-over and this is only one of several utility boxes that are getting painted.

Utility Box

My neighborhood is one of those areas that really gets into Halloween, not only because it’s a big holiday for kids, but also because it falls almost at the same time as Day of the Dead, that Mexican celebration where people tend graves and commune with their ancestors.  It’s the time when you make an altar, light candles, and decorate sugar skulls.  Can you see the Day of the Dead imagery on the Virgin of Guadalupe? Yeah, I think that was intentional.

Sugar Skulls

Dia de los Muertos takes place over a stretch of time but it’s highpoint is November 1, the day after Halloween–a totally festive moment.  You might recognize the Day of the Dead by the proliferation of advertisements that cater to a growing Latino population:  painted skeletons that owe a deep debt to the art of the iconic printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada.


The music starts pumping in my neighborhood at this time of year.  This makes sense because my neighborhood has a predominantly Mexican demographic.  And so Day of the Dead is a time when two occasions overlap–occasions that are almost-but-not-quite the same—occasions that allow you to position yourself up and against the mainstream without necessarily betraying your roots.

Moments like this are rare opportunities.  But it it also brings its own can of worms.

How do you integrate elements of the larger culture?  How do you maintain connections to the past?  How do you use these traditions without exploiting them—turning them into a Coca Cola ad?  And how do you return to a tradition without betraying it?  It’s trickier than you think.

People sell all sorts of stuff with Day of the Dead!

People sell all sorts of stuff with Day of the Dead!

The utility box that was being painted was a civic beautification project that is happening all over LA—a form of graffiti abatement.  And on this box, the two artists were painting scenes of Aztec coolness they had downloaded from the internet—images of a proud indigenous past.  There was a buff Aztec warrior with a head-dress.  There was one image, even, of the Virgin Mary as a skeleton, surrounded by imagery taken from Aztec codices.

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This is a detail. There’s always a pure virgin that must be sacrificed to the Gods.

A codex is a record of pe-Columbian civilizations.  They were produced by Spanish priests who recorded the traditions before they came to disappear.  So, they are incredibly valuable because these documents are sometimes the only authoritative record of a language, literature, aesthetic–a whole worldview–that was interrupted by conquest.


Many young Chicano artists return to the codices, not by visiting the archive of a museum, but by downloading them through a digital culture that has sampled, distorted, shifted them.  In fact, there is a utility box just a few blocks up York Boulevard–the “hipster strip”– that simply transcribes pages from a codex.

But if you downland images, everybody knows this:  the colors are not the same and neither is the context…because you see, this imagery is not the imagery of the conquered.  It is the imagery of the conqueror—the map of the things that the B-52 bomber that flies overhead will destroy in a blaze of glory.

Even if you were to travel to the museums that now house these codices, you could never entirely return to the image as it is.  Rather, you would return to an image as transcribed by the hand of a priest.  In that act of transcription is a hundred swirling things lost that surround the image like a halo.


The art on the utility boxes were just as much inspired by the Chicano Arts Power Movement murals–murals that have a long history in my area.  From the 1970’s onward, Highland Park became a stronghold of Chicano arts and politics.  And some of the great muralists–many of whom tried to recapture Aztec pride–reached into the well of indigenous Mexico.

So, the young artists who were working on the piece were doing work that was in conversation with this great tradition—this tradition of Chicano Pride that was also in conversation with the fountainhead of a grand indigenous tradition.  But the trickiness comes in the ways the imagery work–the aesthetic, the worldview, the agenda that they promote.  Put crudely:  Is your re-rendering of a lost tradition a weapon of the people?  Or is it a weapon to be used against the people?  Is it a B-52 bomber or a molotov cocktail?

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You could read their painting one way:  that it is about ethnic pride, of heritage. But you could also read it in another more cynical way:  their imagery was attractive to City Hall because it paid lip service to a grand tradition but, also, because it raised property values for the upper class home-buyers that are rapidly changing the barrio and displacing Mexican families from the neighborhood.

I thought about this as I got home to put on my Halloween Costume.  Will Day of the Dead become just another capitalist holiday–a tool of the man?  Will it become used to hock High Fructose Corn Syrup to young children?  Is dressing up as a Day of the Dead skull on Halloween a commercialization of the tradition or is it a meaningful act of remembrance that builds on tradition and renews it?  I don’t know.  It’s food for thought–something to put up on the altar of the mind.

In any case, I do know this:  Happy Day of the Dead!  May you remember your ancestors–your relatives, your loves, your losses!  May someone remember you as you want to be remembered!  May someone someday light a candle and say your name with joy!