Wit and Warmth

Given a choice, I would go back to the days of record stores, the Saturday Evening Post and houses with real shutters.

I’m bored with coffee. I’m bored with everything, especially February, a month devoted to ruts, routine and tax prep.

I don’t have many write-offs or expenses: one house, one car, one son, a Dick Butkus jersey. Does a Dick Butkus jersey qualify as a dependent? On my taxes it does.

My other “dependent” is our pet wolf, with snowflakes for eyelashes and a music box for a heart. White Fang is like a creature Shel Silverstein would design, think “Naaa, that’ll never work” and crumple up the sketch.

On Sunday, White Fang almost drowned Smartacus in Valentine’s slurps – “French slobber,” I call it – the same sound of wooden pallets falling out the back of a truck. So there are behavioral issues on both sides.

And my daughter Rapunzel made penne pasta with vodka sauce for her boyfriend.

Seems a waste of vodka. Why not a martini? Who raised you? Oh, that’s right, your mom, who never had the proper respect for super-chilled Russian hooch.

Anyway, it’s all the usual family drama and insanity around here. Proof again that a suburb is no place for a meaty, difficult man like me. I’m really better suited to mending barbed wire on Wyoming ranch, or rescuing calves stranded in some canyon. I discuss all this with White Fang. By all indications, she completely understands.

Listen, it’s no secret I’m not well in the head. I think we’ve established that over time, and given you plenty of proof – my obsession for the prairie poetry of John Prine, or for Gordon Lightfoot, who’s as Canadian as an icy blast of wind. Or the malarkey of everyday life here in LA. Jeeesh, I love that stuff.

I mean, I’m not exactly a hot mess. More of a cold mess. Like everyone else in this year-long panny, my grip has slipped a little, if I even had one to begin with.

So, I find myself confiding too much in the Arctic wolf? Big deal.

One day she will answer, as if in a New Yorker cartoon: “Will you shut up already?” Ironically, that’s the effect I’ve always had on females. Too much chatter. Too few of the thoughtful gestures that women prefer over mere words.

I am a man of mere words, some more mere than others.

That’s why I’m trying to be sweeter to White Fang. So she won’t leave. As it turns out, I have abandonment issues, in addition to an aversion to major change.

Instead of wit and warmth, movies are now superhero burlesque shows…about as fun as a violent sneeze.

In fact, the other day I confirmed with my favorite checker at the supermarket that change is bad. Very bad indeed.

Not sure how it came up. Maybe:

Her: “So what’s new?”

Me: Nothing. Fortunately.”

Then we commiserated, even laughed a bit, about how change is pretty overrated.

Take all the polls you want, listen to what the pundits say, but the very best way to gauge the national mood is to talk to your supermarket checker.

Anyway, I have discerned that there are two Great American Myths – 1) Los Angeles 2) the notion that change is good.

Two things. Neither true.

That’s not to say there is no Los Angeles, only that the mythical version of it, the mental image outsiders have, doesn’t really exist. LA is the nearly unknowable city, that’s part of its kooky charm. A dark, noirish mecca beneath a full-on sun.

Change is the other Great American Myth — specifically the notion that change is glorious and refreshing, which it is not. If given the chance, I would go back to my mother’s womb.

But seriously.  I would gladly return to the simpler days of public phone booths and pre-cable TV. The world is always in need of many comforts, but it never needed more TV channels, nor more phone calls.

Don’t get me wrong. I like variety. I like new experiences (on my terms, of course). I like sampling new restaurants and making new friends.

The other day, the happiest hiking club in all the land, the Happy Hour Hiking Club, took a lap around the Rose Bowl, and I made some terrific new pals. One of them was this Roswell character.

Roswell is a true raconteur, and I don’t really need another nut job in my life. Already have too many – Irv, Jeff, Bittner, Verge — the loudest guys at a party, the sort of goofs other goofs huddle around.

Now I also have this latest clown Roswell, who tells his funny stories in dialect. I suck at dialect, though if I’ve been drinking the right tea, I can do a pretty decent Sean Connery. Go figure.

Still, despite my enthusiasm for new experiences, I don’t like fundamental change in the way things work, or in the mundane responsibilities of everyday life.

Given a choice, I would go back to the days of record stores, the Saturday Evening Post and houses with real shutters.

And simple four-burner stoves with pilot lights, not the electronic ignitions that tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ….

I would go back to childhoods that didn’t require tutors – to the days when teachers actually taught well enough to satisfy frantic and frightened parents. How novel.

Back then, if a kid was a little wound up, you gave him a glass of milk.

The developments that pass for progress don’t really qualify as progress. They are economic efficiencies mostly, driven by the need to squeeze more money out of every little corner of American life.

Hence, there are forever lines at airport counters. There is no one at the other end of your customer service call.

A great man (Pat Sajak) once said, “Nothing is more exhausting than anger. Nothing is more relaxing than love.”

And I fully agree with that. Except for the love part.

For the record, I find modern love to be exhausting too.

See, sex was sexier 30 years ago. Not so overt. A little sly. If you overstepped, women kneed you in the groin – twice — as they always should.

Thirty years ago, relationships were not so fraught. You couldn’t order up a date on your phone, as you do a pizza.

Funny was funnier back then too. There were actually stand-up comedians, who roamed the nation like cowboys. They also worked the colleges circuits, where free speech reigned. Students could have a beer keg in their room, no one cared. If you overdrank, you flunked out. It was academic Darwinism, far superior to the totalitarianism of today’s campuses.

Of course, music was better – don’t we always prefer the music of our youth? Movies were better too, though.

Hollywood stars were beguiling, mysterious and a little arrogant. They’d been places. They showed up on motorcycles. They didn’t come off conveyor belts from some suburb, straight from the orthodontist, as if their mothers dropped them off.

The other night, Smartacus and I watched  “Juno,” a gem of a movie, not that old (2007), but old enough to feature delicious dialogue, unlike pretty much anything we’ve heard in the past 10 years.

Delicious dialogue, as ancient as a milk truck.

By gawd, I’d hate to be a movie critic these days, and have to pretend that any of this stuff is halfway entertaining.

Instead of wit and warmth, movies are now superhero burlesque shows…about as fun as a violent sneeze. Sometimes you can feel your brains oozing out your ears. The other movies are dim, art-house character studies of human dysfunction.

Hey, if you want human dysfunction, look at me. Lately, I can’t even get Hulu to work. If I manage to Drop Box all my tax forms, it’ll be like Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence.

Ugh. I so love February.

Meanwhile, I noticed during our hike that the trails are stirring. Out of the ground, fingers of crocus and random beds of clover. We’ve hardly had rain, and still they come, marching toward March…relentless little rascals responding to the promise of the sun.

I admire relentless rascals. I admire how White Fang follows me around, even into the bathroom to watch me shower. I love how Mardi Gras comes every year – relentlessly — as it did this week. And how Ash Wednesday follows (today, in fact – a day of atonement in an era of infrequent sin).

You can fix the world all you want, and still these grand traditions show up.

Like the spring flowers. Like my first grandchild in May.

Soft and wonderful, into a world full of thistles.


Thank you to all who participated in Saturday’s Valentine’s hike. Hadn’t realized how much I missed the sound of live laughter. Coming next: the annual convention  of the Gin & Tonic Society of Los Angeles. Stay tuned for details. Meantime, stock up on gin glasses, or a handsome hat, at ChrisErskineLA.com

14 thoughts on “Wit and Warmth

  1. You are spot on about all of it. I am sure my parents said the same about their movies, songs and movie stars. Each generation had the BEST and everything gets worse with time. Except dogs and spring flowers. And grandchildren, of course!

  2. Thanks for another splendid, insightful, hilarious piece, Chris! I will say, though, that I’m less a fan of Gordon Lightfoot, having had to endure seven straight nights of his sleep-inducing song list as an usher at the Universal Amphitheater (before there was a roof). Of course I was a teen, and much more enjoyed watching The Kinks almost cause a riot. Gordon’s inspired set design was a potted fern, so that kind of sums up my impression of his performance. Loved your views on change, too. I have no idea how many channels I have access to.

  3. Life was harder when I was growing up (the 30s, 40s, and 50s) but a whole lot simpler. People were human then, not bound by agendas.

  4. Kinda sad how many people I talk to here in Santa Barbara hate L.A. I for one always look forward to my monthly trips to friends in Mar Vista or Beverlywood. Old school L.A.
    Ahh..record stores back in the 70’s! Cut many a class so we’d be the first to own a new Rock album.
    Finally, a New Movie with fantastic dialogue, no special effects or violence….. Hillbilly Elegy

  5. Chris, I grew up with LIFE, TIME, and The Saturday Evening Post being delivered to the house regularly. I looked forward to them all but I must admit that Norman Rockwell’s covers were my very favorites. To find out that the SEP is still in publication makes me happy–who knew they had been around for 200 years?! Thank you, Chris and Bob Sassone, for that bit of information!

  6. Nostalgia is not just the province of age, but life experience tends to drive you there. Some of the most compelling theater of each generation ( a la The Music Man, etc.) is built on affection for the remembered past, usually cherry-picked, with most of the everyday trauma filtered out. I wonder what of the present day whirlwind will sift out in memory–like gold dust–and become the iconography of this time, the time of Covid ? Because of my age, I think not much, but I’ve been wrong many times before in assessing similar idioms. For the truth is, we learn to love our experiences, no matter how fraught with chaos, and create art from this affection. At least we did before so much of what passes for art became egregiously temporal, and now seems to exist mainly on a cell phone. Even so, a component of love is honesty, and yearning for the past is universal, personal, and unending. How beautifully you have captured this, and for all of us who have.lived through the rich stew of the past sixty years you seem to be making art from its chemistries. It was a beautiful time in human history and also a terrible time, as many of them seem to be. But what about this: disease to vaccine in less than twelve moths ?? If anything, both the wow factor and universal terror (environmental issues, tribalism, nuclear threats of catastrophe,etc.,etc.) have seemed to increase apace with population growth and the advancement of science. We need chroniclers of the normative and human to anchor us in this perilous time, and you’re doing that, Chris. Spring is coming in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and you are here to inhale the scents and exhale the thoughts that inhabit us all.
    How fortunate we are to have L.A.’s Boswell among us.

  7. Just love this. You manage to stir up memories and emotions with your writing. And just like that…I’m back at The Flip Side at Higgins/Barrington Road buying a Ronco record. I’m always amazed at the fierce determination of spring flowers. Every year I holler “Wait wait! Not yet…it’s not safe, save yourself” to the crocus and daffodils but they pop up anyway not caring that third winter (after spring of deception) and mud season are yet to come. So grand. But here it’s like we’re living in a snow globe…no flowers so feel free to include pics.

  8. I think I like reading Mr. Gale’s encyclicals almost as much reading your epistles! I agree with the comparison to Boswell, but also mine about Faulkner, the whole ‘stream of consciousness’ bent. As always, you weave and weave with your loom of words and tuck us in secure and warm memories. My friend and I would walk to the Wallich’s Music City store and listen to albums for hours in the little glass booths. When we finally were kicked out, we would buy one 45 and rush home to listen. Everything seemed so simple then, so guess because as kids, it was simple. My sister and I ,who have lost our husbands and our Dad the last few years do not like change either. Now, I take care of my Mother who we are losing to dementia. But my family has much to rejoice in soon;my youngest son and his wife just announced they are expecting their first baby,due in September. So,change like this is good, life does go on and will out!

  9. Oh, record stores! And real records! Growing up in St Louis, Peaches was big, Webster Records, (in Webster Groves) always reliable. In Oak Park, here in the Chicago suburbs, Val’s Halla, the owner a source of all music knowledge. Listening to Elton John 45s at my friend’s house, bonding with my sibs over loved records. Thanks for sparking memories!

  10. My husband and I used to smoke a joint and go to the record store. We would separate in the store and then meet in the middle, each with our own selections. We would then decide which albums we could afford. At home, we would spend hours listening and reading the liners inside the albums. Great times!

    1. If we did that in Honolulu, where I grew up, we would have never found the record store and if we did we would’ve forgotten why we were there. You really had to plan ahead when toking in Hawaii.

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