Sunday, December 27, 2009

Leiken's Top 10

Here's my top 10 films of 2009. Let the arguing begin.

10. The Hangover
9. Up
8. Taken
7. I Love You, Man
6. Inglourious Basterds
5. Star Trek
4. Watchmen
3. Hurt Locker
2. 500 Days of Summer
1. Up in the Air

Five Films You Might Have Missed but should check out.

1. The Tournament (30 assassins have 24 hours to kill each other to win 10 million! Kelly Hu, Ving Rhames, and the champion of Free Style Running...what's not to love?)

2. Black Dynamite (He doesn't have a catch phrase, but he's 100% black, and he's taking down the man!)

3.) Tyson (True he likes to bite people's ears off, but this is a fascinating documentary.)

4.) Zombieland (I admittedly have a weakness for Zombie films, but this one is pretty damn funny.)

5.) Coraline (Written by Neil Gaiman, this is a children's story but like all good stories is by turns both funny and scary.)

The three worst films (I've seen) of 2009.

1.) Max Payne (Oh the pain, the pain.)
2.) GI Joe (I got this for free online, I lasted 15 minutes.)
3.) Transformers 2 (I got this one for free online, I lasted 10 minutes.)

There are many more bad films, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Whiteout, All About Steve: Skipped them. Benefit of getting old.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Hanukkah!

There is a war on Christmas.

According to Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Fox News, the Christian Coalition and Stephen Colbert, "someone or something" wants to take out both Santa and Jesus. It's subtle, this war on Christmas, but with the proper education and awareness you can report this cultural terrorism to the proper authorities.

Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.

Whenever someone wishes you a "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" - it's a War on Christmas.

When a store will display stars and cresents, menorahs, and holiday wreaths but not nativity scenes - it's a War on Christmas.

When stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Sears don't use the word "Christmas" in their holiday advertising - it's a War on Christmas.

None of which matters because technically I'm Jewish.

I use the word technical because while half my family is Jewish, the other half is Greek Orthodox, so I'm something of a religious mutt. (The polite word for this is Unitarian.) However, as a smart, funny, well educated white guy who can't play sports - I am Jewish.

My Jew card is a little torn, its edges are frayed, the ink is badly faded. It has its uses though, because whenever white men get blamed for all the worlds problems....

Hey, sorry man. I'm Jewish.

I'm on third and La Cienega, just south of the Beverly Center when I spot traffic backed up past San Vicente, which is unusual because its almost eight 'o clock. The police have blocked the intersection for a caravan of SUV's and Hummers, roofs covered in four foot tall seven branched electric menorah's. One in four of the SUV's is hooked up to giant speakers - a Kabbalah melody reverberates down the street.

A driver stuck in traffic sticks his head out his window. "What the hell is going on!" he screams.

A recorded message blares out from the speakers:

"From the Jewish community, in the spirit of religious tolerance and diversity,
here is wishing you and yours a Happy Chanukah!"

An orthodox Jew in black hat and coat takes photographs from the sidewalk while bearded Jewish men run along side the menorah laden caravan, passing out dreidels as they wave their hands at passerby.

"Happy Chanukah!" they cry, bags full of dreidels clinking.

"Buddy, we got to get to work!"
"Could you get the hell out of the way?"
"Jesus Christ!"

The menorah caravan extends north down La Cienega as far as the eye can see. The Jews should be passing out Snickers, because clearly, no one is going anywhere for a while.

The Hanukah holiday music continues, followed by another loud recorded message.

"From the Jewish Community, in the spirit of religious tolerance diversity, here is wishing you and yours a Happy Chanukah!"

One driver starts honking his horn, and then like a virus, it spreads. A dozen cars start honking their horns. Fortunately the Hanukah music is louder.

A Jewish man rushes past me. "Dreidel?"

I hold up a hand. "I'm good."

The caravan continues. I soon lose count of the number of Menorah laden vehicles - fifty, sixty, a hundred? Eventually the horns quiet down. People now just sit in their cars, simmering.

Americans as a rule are tolerant of anything, unless it blocks traffic.

Then it doesn't matter if your Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Pope, or even got to get out of the way.

People got to get to work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Stand Up Biology

Third block biology is a bitch.

The class has improved slightly from the first two weeks, when the freshman capered about like wild spider monkeys as they devoured their sole source of nutrients, small orange bags of red hot chili nachos. At first they dropped the refuse into the two foot deep lab sinks, treating the wash basins like trash pits.

Now they just stuff waste in the cabinets beneath the counters. I found close to sixty empty nacho bags in one of the back cabinets, complete with candy wrappers, plastic gatorade bottles, and miscellaneous junk food trash worthy of Homer Simpson.

I've never had to follow so many students outside of class wearing my Parrot costume, usually it's an effective deterrent. Embarrass one kid, and the rest fall in line out of fear of the same happening to them.

By the seventh or eighth victim the class finally catches on that I would follow each and every one of them to their next class, squawking and chirping while flapping my wings, calling out their name at the top of my lungs in a squeaky parrot voice.

I've never had to follow the same kid twice.

Even then we had to call in the Dean and threaten to expel five of them.

And 90% of them had to fail the first half of the course before it dawned on them that they would have to repeat the class again.

So now its better, if by better they (mostly) remain in their seats and they (mostly) do their work, even if that means copying from a friend.

I'll take it. When I enter the class now there is a smattering of catcalls, mostly "LEIKEN" followed by two minutes of me making the rounds. Every boy, and some of the girls, want me to acknowledge them with the "ghetto" handshake of pounding hands.

"Mr. Leiken, I've got an important question! Who would win? Iron Man or the Hulk!"

"The Hulk." This is part of our tradition. I've got four boys who are obsessed with super hero match ups. So long as they do their work, I placate them.

Plus I really like talking about superheroes. If John, Steven, Vinnie, or even my roommate Christopher were around I'd be way out of my league, but the kids don't read comics. They only know movies, so among them I'm like a trivia genius.

"Okay, who would win, Superman or the Hulk?"

I grimace. This is going to take a while. "I told you before, Superman. He can fly, and they had a special Marvel vs DC crossover where the two fought and Superman won."

"Okay, who would win, Batman or Superman?"

"Batman." Four boys immediately begin protesting. How the hell can Batman beat Superman? I cut them off. "Batman cheats. He would trick Superman, and failing that use a kryptonite Baterang."

"Okay, who would win? Iron Man or Batman?"

I pause. That is a good question. "I'll tell you.... after you finish this worksheet."

The boys let out a collective awwww.

I make the rounds around the room, talking with students in clumps of twos or threes. Sometimes we can discuss biology, sometimes we go off topic. What can I do? I'm lucky to get them to pay attention for even a few minutes.

"Mister Leiken, Mister Leiken!" one of the girl's calls out. "I've been calling your name and you've been like ignoring me for the past five minutes!"

"There is one of me and forty of you. What is it?"

She thrusts the worksheet out in front of her. "I don't understand it!"

I put it down in front of her and have her read the first paragraph. It's about the water cycle. After we read it I ask her the first question. She answers it.

"Did you even read it?" I ask her.


"Why not?"

She actually looks embarrassed.

"Hey, Mr. Leiken! Yo Momma so fat when she gets on a scale, it says to be continued!"

I look at the clock, five minutes until the end of class. I should yell at him, I should give him a stern lecture, I should do a lot of things.

But I can't let that pass. My mother's honor must be satisfied.

"Oh yeah," I snap back, "Yo Momma so ugly that when they put a bag over her head, and she looks in a mirror, it still breaks."

The class cracks up and lets out a giant oooooohhh!

Unlike the kids, I've got fresh material. I think of yo momma jokes on the way home.

Don't ever mess with a writer.

"Yo momma so big," I continue, "they had to put in a double wide garage just to let her in the house!"

The class is laughing hysterically. Another, another, they cry! I give the kid a chance to make a come back. If you don't use original material the kids will call you on it. You can't repeat an old yo momma joke, that earns you no respect.

Time to move in for the kill. "Yo momma is so fat, when she steps on a dollar bill, you get back change, minus fifty cents!"

My heckler is silent. A chorus of boys in the back begins to chant Cu-ler-o! Cu-ler-o! This basically means "girly man," or "pussy".

Who knew that my years of stand up would someday come in useful?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Bully

There are no more bullies, only the emotionally disturbed, or ED.

ED is short hand for any and all kinds of student misbehavior: attention deficit disorder (ADD), social maladjustment, hyperactivity disorder, childishness and immaturity. In the old days when you acted like a jerk you were an asshole.

In 2009 the LAUSD school system has no classification for asshole. Today, any and all misbehavior is called ED.

If you think that ED is just another attempt by our society to rationalize bad behavior as a medical symptom rather then force people to admit fault - you are probably not a latte liberal.

Last week, ED John was transferred into my room. I sit down with ED John and we have a long talk about why he is having trouble in his other classes. He promises not to pick on any of the other kids, and we work out a system where if he is feeling irritated with another student, he should ask to leave the room.

When I announce to my class we are getting a new student, they perk up. When I tell them its ED John, there is a collective groan.

Please, mister? Does ED John have to be in here? He's terrible! Nobody likes him! He's mean to everyone, boys, girls. He even picks on the retarded kids. Trust me, you don't want him in your room mister. He's a bad person.

I quiet them with an ugly glare. "I don't want anyone in herItalice to pick on ED John. Leave him alone, if anyone has a problem with him, bring it to me first."

The students shake their heads. "You'll see, mister. You'll see."

I speak with his other teachers. They can barely stand him.

Oh boy.

The first two days, everything is smooth. ED John doesn't want to do much work, but he cooperates and keeps to himself. He prods the water a little bit, testing me for weakness, but I remain firm and everything appears to be cool.

On Monday I come into school in a foul mood, worried about my sister. After a few minutes, I apologize to the class explaining why I'm being overly strict. They listen with rapt attention, both fascinated and empathetic about my sister's breast cancer.

I glance over and spot ED John, fingers flashing over his PSP.

"John," I ask, "what am I talking about?"

John shrugs.

Emotionally, I'm somewhere between irritated and wanting to pulverize his face. Yet the laws in this country would insist I'd be the one to go to jail!

Instead I ask for his PSP. ED John refuses. I ask a second time. Little hand held electronic devices are a strict no-no at South East. John refuses again. I give him a minute to think about it.

John still refuses. I warn him that now I'm going to have to call the Dean and have the PSP forcibly removed. John looks up from his PSP, startled. "Okay, okay, okay! What about I give it to you and you give it back to me at the end of class."

"We're past that point, kid. Hand it over to me, or the Dean."

"Then I'll wait for the Dean."

The Dean comes and escorts ED John out of class. A few minutes later a crestfallen ED John enters, apologizing and asking if he can remain for the rest of class.

I wave to his seat.

The rest of the period passes without further event, until about a minute before the bell, when ED John looks up.

"Y'know Brian," he smirks, "I'm not sure you did such a good job teaching today."

This kid is good. If he had called me by my first name after class, I could have ignored it or let it go with a warning, but because he did it in class, he's made calling me by my first name an issue.

"Sit down!" I bark. "You can stay two minutes after the bell. I want you to tell me why it's not appropriate to call me by my first name."

ED John apologizes, says he's sorry, promises not to do it again. It rings with the authenticity of a practiced salesman who has made the same pitch to a thousand customers.

I let him go, no need to make a bigger deal out of it. ED John turns as he exits. "See ya, Brian!"

I follow him. ED John walks to his next class. I stare at him, imagining his head exploding into a thousand gory bits. I say nothing, I don't smile, laugh, smirk, growl, grimace. My face is a mask. After a minute ED John starts to get nervous.

"Stop staring at me!" I ignore him. "Stop it! You know that you are just looking stupid." After another minute he looks up. "When are you going to stop!"

"When you apologize for what you did."

Again ED John apologizes, all with the same practiced inauthentic sincerity. I don't care, I've made my point. As I go to leave he calls me by first name again. "See you tomorrow, Brian."

I turn around and stare. This time it goes a whole three minutes before he panics and leaves the room. I follow him, he wanders down the hallway and then roams outside. When he goes into a jog, I keep pace. I say nothing, I give nothing. Just a hard stare.

"Leave me alone, leave me alone!" he screams. "Brian, Brian, Brian!"

"Whenever you call me by my first name, I'll stare at you for one minute."

"Aggggh!" ED John sits down at a table and I look at him. He tries to match my gaze but he can't, looking at the ground, seeking some kind of escape. "Can't you just stop?"

"I sure can."
ED John looks up, hopeful.
"In another three minutes and eleven seconds."

ED John gets up again, I follow him. We're now well into 2nd period, but Duran's kids can wait.
"If you don't leave me alone, I'm going to hit you!" he snarls. "I'm going to knock your head off!"

"You know that's verbal assault." I reply, calm. "I can have you suspended, maybe even arrested for that."

"Okay, okay, okay. I'm sorry. Please, just stop staring."

I escort him back to class. This time as I leave the room, he's quiet.

I ask ED John's other teachers if he has threatened them. They all answer yes.

I decide to report the incident with the school police.

They tell me they can't do anything. Evidently ED John's threat was conditional assault, because he wasn't going to hit me if I left him alone.

I lean back in my chair, looking at the police officer. He stares back.

If a student brings any drugs to school, even an aspirin, they are immediately suspended because of a zero tolerance drug policy.

If a student says they are going to bring a gun to school, they are immediately taken out of school and given a psychological profile or threat assessment. I once had a student joke about bringing a gun to school and they took him out in handcuffs.

If a student says they are going to commit suicide, they are immediately taken to the school psychologist and closely monitored, frequently being sent to a psych ward.

But if a student threatens a teacher....nothing.

If I threatened a student, I'd be fired. Possibly brought up on charges.

The officer looks embarrassed. The law doesn't protect teachers from students, only students from teachers and other students.

I'm not even angry. After 6 years this is par, a typical response from the school system for atypical behavior. We'll get rid of ED John eventually, but first I need to document all of his misbehavior with daily logs, get written statements from his other teachers, and keep him in my class for a few more weeks until we can hold a "change of placement" meeting.

No matter how bad this recession gets, no one wants my job.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Among students, the text is the preferred method of communication. It's informal, quick, and enables one to pass on a message without all the messiness of human interaction. South East High school has a no cell phone policy, but enter any classroom and the majority of the kids have a cell phone: a Razor, an Instinct, a Blackberry, an iPhone.

Ironically, 90% of the school is on government food stamps, I have never personally witnessed a student pay for food. Ever.

Which only makes sense, because while you can live without food, but you can't live without a phone. Take away a kid's phone and you are taking away their baby, its like amputating a limb. Some of them would rather be suspended, or even expelled, before giving up their phone.

Despite this, many students still correspond by using one of the more delicate and sensible forms of communication.

The note.

Its more cumbersome, but using notes is much safer then texting, especially in class where a phone can be snatched away. A note is much more egalitarian, it can be passed from person to person and no phone is required to participate.

I'm making the rounds in 2nd block when a student hands me a slip of paper. "Hey Mister? Could you pass this over to Crystal?"

I stare at the student, then look at the paper, which has been folded over in half. For a second I am momentarily stunned. Did a student actually ask me to pass a note? Isn't the idea of notes to whisper secrets across a room away from the prying eyes of the teacher?

Did this really just happen? Did a student actually hand me a note to pass across the room?

I open it, it's a garble of misspelled words written in a combination of street slang, text abbreviations, and broken English. The grammar police would burn it on site.

I stride up to the board and begin copying the first sentence.

"What are you doing, Mister?"

"Correcting your note."

I write the following on the board:

OMG for reals
is he is into yew
Wassup is he hot

I shake my head, clucking my tongue as I rewrite the first sentence.

"Oh my god, for real?"

"It's real ladies and gentleman. Not reals. The only "reels" I know of are film "reels".

The class starts to laugh.

"Second, "yew" is spelled Y-O-U. It's a vowel blend, a diphthong. "Yew" is a kind of tree, not a pronoun." I point at the misspelled words with a marker. "Finally, there is no such word as wassup. It's "what's up". Understand?"

"But that's how we say it."

"How you say it and how you speak it are two different things."

I look the rest of the note over. There's more garble, but it's too much of a mess to correct. I pass the note over to Crystal, whose face has turned bright red.

"Next time, proof read your notes. Don't make me correct this again."

"Okay, Mister. Sorry, Mister."

"Hey, Mister Leiken," another student asks, holding up a sheet of paper.


"Would you correct my note?"

"Put that away." I snap.

"But it's got lots of mistakes."

Put it up on the board, put it up on the board! C'mon mister, put it up. The last one was funny. Do another, do another!

I make a note to myself to not ever correct a personal note again.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What would Spock do?

The Oncotype Dx test.

That's medical lingo for a test that determines the recurrence risk of breast cancer in women like my younger sister who have been diagnosed with early breast cancer. The Oncotype Dx test is an attempt to forecast the risk of cancer recurring.

We expected the chance of recurrence to be low. Dana's only 35, the tumor was caught early, and the odds of it spreading to the rest of the body are unlikely.

The test is a formality, a final check before giving my sister a clean bill of health. All signs are good: the cancer was caught early, the tumor was small, and my sister is a paragon of fitness. Just a few months earlier she was training for a marathon.

No matter what, she'll still need six weeks of radiation and daily medication for five years to help keep the cancer away.

I pick up my father at St. John's hospital as Dana goes in with Christos to get the final results.

Thirty minutes later they haven't called. Forty five minutes later I'm getting worried; I call Christos but he doesn't answer. After an hour there is still no word.

Oh shit.

I finally get ahold of Christos. "What's going on?" I ask. "Is Dana alright?"

"Let's talk about it during dinner." Christos answers in a terse voice. "Meet us at La Vecchia Cucina. It's an Italian place off Main."

Why is bad news always best delivered in an Italian restaurant?

When we meet up for dinner Dana's face is absent of emotion. She is not so much a person as a moving statue.

The four of us sit down as Christos delivers the bad news. Dana's Oncotype Dx test (the test to predict a recurrence) didn't score as expected in the low range; it scored in the medium high range.

Translation: she has a 19% chance of the cancer coming back. That's with the radiation and medication.

If it comes back, the cancer might not come back in the breast. Much like a roaming teenager, the cancer could grow anywhere: the lungs, the skin, the bones, the liver, the pancreas, the brain. If the cancer returns, there is no way to "cure" it, only treat it.

So, the oncologist is recommending chemotherapy to reduce Dana's chances of recurrence by another 33%.

That's a difference of nineteen percent versus thirteen percent.

I can hear the dice rattling in my head.

We eat dinner in silence. Only the waiter is smiling.

Christos, normally verbose and gregarious - silent. My father, capable of delivering entire monologues throughout dinner - not a single word. My sister, my charming, vibrant, energetic sister - nothing.

This wasn't supposed to happen. The script was supposed to turn out differently. The tumor was caught early, it hadn't spread into the lymph nodes, the cancer was supposed to be cut out and then go away and disappear, like Tim Allen after Home Improvement went off the air.

I wanted a Kodak moment, not a Hallmark moment!

I am at a loss for words, and I'm the guy who thinks a soliloquy is a conversation. I've got nothing to say. What do you do? What is the right decision?

What would Spock do? "Captain, having analyzed the available data, reducing the odds from nineteen to thirteen percent makes chemotherapy the only rational decision. It is the only logical choice."

Too bad Spock ain't human.

The lasagna arrives.
I may be unhappy, but that's not going to stop me from eating.
Lasagna don't care if you got cancer.

Throughout history there is one thing that never changes. People will do anything in their power to survive. Whether it's soldiers hiding under dead bodies on Omaha beach, plane crash survivors in the Andes eating the dead, or Anne Frank hiding in an attic, everyone does whatever they can to try and make it. To live another day, another hour, even another minute.

People don't do this because they want to do it. They do it because they have to.

I relate some of this to my sister, then have to fight the urge to break down in tears. I hate myself for having to relay this.

Chemo - fucking - therapy.

In the end, survival is all that matters. Living one more day. It's what Spock would do.

Nineteen versus thirteen.

After dinner I drive my father to the airport. "If I could, I'd take the cancer for her!" he declares helplessly. "I've lived my life. She doesn't deserve this."

But you can't, Dad, you can't absorb the cancer, you can't wish it away.
All you can do is play the odds.

Chemotherapy. It's what Spock would do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Frankly My Dear, My Students Don't Give a Damn

It all started with a question.

"If you had to ask 100 random people to name a film based off a famous quote from that film, what quote would you use?"

I glance over at Phil. It's late at night on Hollywood Boulevard, we've exited the Roosevelt hotel as we journey back to my car. Most people pay for valet, but you can always find free street parking, provided you are willing to hike three blocks and brave the acme of humanity that washes up on Hollywood Boulevard.

I ponder Phil's question. We are forever asking each other such questions. Would you let the United States military torture you for 24 hours in return for 1 million dollars? Which would you rather have: be super strong but mentally retarded or be able to fly but have no arms or no legs? If you could convince any one person once a year to do what you want, who would you convince and why?

We're writers. We can't help it.

I think about it, eyebrows creased in thought. What movie quote would 100 people know? This is a game we both love to play, asking hypothetical questions.

"What do I get if I win?" I ask, ignoring the homeless kid who is hawking $1 dollar T-shirts to obstensibly pay for his friends funeral.

"Five thousand bucks." Phil pauses to look at the kid. "How can you hope to make a profit on a $1 T-shirt?"

"Beats me." I shrug. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!" Who doesn't know the Wicked Witch of the West?

Phil smirks. "There's no place like home."

Oh, that is a good one.

We pass by 25 degrees, a hot new burger restaurant named for said difference between a burger cooked medium rare and a burger cooked well done. I salivate through the window. The burger's look amazing. Phil tells me people on Yelp constantly debate who has the best burger in LA, and it's an ongoing battle between 25 degrees and Father's Office.

"That certainly looks like one of the best burgers in the city."

Phil shakes his head. "You think every new burger place we try has the best burger in the city. You're a burger whore."

I don't argue. I am a burger whore.

"I've got a quote even more iconic," Phil continues, "May the Force be with you."

Try as I might, I can't think of a more well known movie quote on the planet. Star Wars was not only a mega smash hit that revolutionized the movie industry, it revolutionized movie merchandising. Star Wars toys, Star Wars games, the Star Wars defense system (SDI), the endless Family Guy and Simpson parodies. Even John McCain used Star Wars as a metaphor when he was running against George Bush in the 2000 primaries, comparing himself to Luke Skywalker fighting the evil empire, and McCain is older then dirt.

You don't have to have ever seen Star Wars to know "May the Force be with you."

Phil's got me.

The next day towards the end of class I take an impromptu poll of thirty 11th graders. It's a good class. Time to put Phil's theory to the test.

"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, "I'm going to state several movie quotes. If you don't know the quote, don't raise your hand."

I decide to start with Wizard of Oz. "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!"

The students stare at me with unblinking, brown eyes. A half dozen of them nod knowingly. "Wizard of Oz!" someone calls out.

One of the A students looks completely stupefied. "I've never seen it."

It's my turn to be shocked. "There's no place like home?" I ask. "Surely you've heard that phrase?"

She looks embarrassed. "Should I know it? I'm sorry."

"Does anyone else here not know this movie?" I ask.

Ten hands go up. If any of these kids had been picked, Phil would be out five thousand bucks.

"How about this one? May the Force be with you."

This time most of the class nods. Most. There are still about half a dozen kids, mostly girls, who don't know the quote. "Haven't any of you ever heard of an Ewok?"

"Those are those little teddy bear things," one of the kids shouts out. "They were kind of cute and kind of stupid."

"Yes," I blurt, "they were stupid! That's not the point!"

"So why do we got to know about Ewoks?" a kid in the back answers.

"Because they saved the rebels collective hides from the evil empire!" I cry, pacing back and forth across the room. "That and the yub nub, e cha yub nub!"

My eyes have turned into wide maniacal saucers. Un-freakin-believable! I know these are first and second generation immigrants, but can you not know Star Wars!

Calm down, know your audience. I've got one that they'll all know. "Say hello to my little friends!"

Only about half of them know that's from Scarface.

"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."
"Here's looking at you kid."
"Go ahead. Make my day."
"You talkin' to me?"
"I'm the king of the world!"

I pull quotes out like a magician desperately seeking a trick that will completely floor his audience. No matter what I try, some of the kids know it, but there is always at least a handful that don't. Here I am living in the city built on movies and yet I can't find a film that all the kids know or have seen.

I throw up my hands. "I give up! I'll be back."

The class lights up. Aiiiiee! Mister! We know that one! Hasta La Vista, Baby! I'll be back. That's that robot movie, starts with a T...Terminator.

"Hasta La Vista, baby!" a student cries out. "I say that one all the time!"

How can they all know "I'll be back" but not "May the Force be with you?" Is it because Schwarzengger uses it in all his movies, or is it because he's the governator? Maybe they remember "Hasta La Vista, baby" because it's Spanish?

"I've got one!" a kid volunteers. "E.T. phone home!"

They know this one too. Of course, the quote is in the title. Perhaps main stream culture is not yet completely dead. I try out the poll in other classes, a rowdy group of 9th graders taking biology, a special ed class of 10th graders, an English class of 12th graders. No matter where I go, the only one they all know is "I'll be back".

That and "E.T. phone home."

Leiken, phone home. Film culture is dead. The modern world is in a semi-permanent ADD state, if your film didn't come out in the past five years, to the young it might not as well exist.
If it isn't a place you can buy a snack, isn't a commercial on TV, and doesn't involve a pop star flashing her private parts for the paparazzi, who cares?

Five minutes ago might as well be fifty years ago.

Because frankly my dear, modern culture just doesn't give a damn.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Seven Faces of Dr. Leiken

There is an old Japanese proverb:
Every man has three faces...

One he shows the world.
One he shows his family.
And one only he himself knows.

As a teacher I have many different faces, persona's I adopt to cajole and persuade, educate and sway, discipline or embarrass. Persona's are my instruments, my tools, mechanisms of behavioral engineering. Each persona is tailor made for a specific job, a character invented to create a desired reaction.

Sometimes I am the Joker, the comedian, part stand up humorist, part clown. The joker is used to bring levity, to make light of a bad situation or to deflect potential embarrassment.

"Mr. Leiken," one of the girls flirts, eyes fluttering, "have I told you I love you?"

The class leans in, tongues lapping.

Out pops the Joker.

"I know," I respond cooly, checking my nails. "No need to state the obvious."

The class laughs, the situation is defused. I love the joker.

Other times I'm the Performer. Unlike the joker, he's mostly flash, eager to make an impact and put on a show. I pull out a banana, peeling off strips as I eat it. I explain that in the old days hogs traditionally cleaned the streets, eating all the refuse dropped by people.

I toss bits of banana peel down the central aisle of the classroom.

The class gasps. A second later they start giggling.

I ask rhetorically would would happen if no one picked the bananas up?

"The hogs won't eat them!" someone shouts. "People would slip on them!"

"So how would you solve the problem?" I ask.

The class debates this, finally one brave soul calls out, "Have people throw them in trash cans?"

I nod, picking up a waste basket as I toss in the banana peels. "Correct. The banana was the reason we have laws against littering, and public trash cans."

The class applauds. Ta da! The performer takes a bow.

Other times I am the Fixer, solving the unsolvable with workable solutions. He is a faciliator, a negotiater, resolving conflicts through the art of diplomacy and mediation. The Fixer is calm, cool, and manipulative; the proverbial velvet glove surrounding a fist of steel.

Failing a class? Being bullied? Need to change an elective?

The fixer takes care of it. He doesn't take no, he just finds a new solution.

Occassionally I am the Tyrant. The tyrant can't be bargained with. He can't be reasoned with. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has removed or disciplined his target. The tyrant is a robot dictator, a cold emotionless being with chilly eyes and an icy demeanor.

I don't like him much. The tyrant is a bit of a prick.

At least once a day, I'm the Coach. The coach is part counselor, part motivational speaker, all cheerleader. The coach never gives up, he constantly encourages and pushes his students to succeed. The coach is optimistic, upbeat, and relentlessly positive.

It's not a role I'm used to playing.

"Mister Leiken, I failed English and Math last semester!"
"But you passed Health and P.E! That's a 50% improvement!"
"But I'm not going to graduate on time!"
"That's what summer school is for!"
"But I don't know how to do my multiplication tables."

I pause. I got nothing. I duck the complaint. When you can't massage the truth, you ignore it completely.

"Try harder!" I grin. "You can do it!"

Rarely, I'm the Critic. The critic is the fault finder, the muck racker, the smug narrator that writes the blogs you are reading now. He used to appear often, but he gets in so much trouble that in recent years his cries have been largely silenced. The critic speaks only in truth, and there is nothing more poisonous than truth in the LAUSD school system.

The critic is a mean SOB. He's the one that makes kids cry.
Truth tends to do that.

Finally, I am the Father. He crosses the line between teacher and parent, possesses unshakable integrity, is eternally patient and just. The father promotes all that is good in others, he protects his charges and provides the emotional safety net the students desperately crave.

I have never adopted the personality of the father.
It's a persona that's been projected upon me.

It doesn't matter. Because the Father is the Joker, the Performer, the Fixer, the Tyrant, the Coach and the Critic. The father encompasses them all. Sometimes you choose your faces, but sometimes the faces are chosen for you.

So it goes.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Being robbed is a unique emotional cocktail, two parts fury mixed with one part helplessness and three drops of aggravation.

On Saturday night, someone broke into my first floor apartment.

At first I don't notice. The door is locked, nothing appears to have been ransacked, all of our clutter is still in the same miscellaneous haphazard mess that only single guys can create and would take an art director weeks to perfect. Weeks of mail is still stacked on the table, remote controls scattered about the room, books and papers piled up against book cases.

When I get to my room I habitually check my email before going to bed. I've been out all night drinking, but it doesn't matter. Like a cat that runs to the kitchen the moment it hears a can opener, when I get home, I check my email.

The key board is gone.
The key board is gone.

Not the computer, just the keyboard, along with the iPod Touch. The mouse has been disconnected. Now I'm confused. Who the hell takes just a keyboard? Did my roommate need to borrow it for some reason? I give him a call and leave a message at his work.

No, that doesn't make any sense. Why would he need my keyboard? He has a PC, and like most PC users holds a slight disdain that curls around the edges of his mouth when he looks at my Mac.

I do a quick check of the house. Checks are fine, cards are fine, TV, computers, phones are fine. I stick my hand in my pocket to put away my loose change in my pirate chest.

The chest is gone! They took my pirate booty! Sixty some odd dollars worth of silver and copper specie!

Arrgh, the bastards!

Now I know it was a thief, either a crack head or a kid. I search for points of entry. The screens to my windows are intact, nothing appears to be broken. They even left my X-Box.

I understand taking the Ipod touch, but why did they take my key board?
Then it hits me.
They need the keyboard to charge the Ipod touch. It won't charge out of a regular wall socket.

Now I know it's a kid.

Christopher comes home and quickly discovers that someone has crawled through one of his windows, but nothing has been knocked out of place. His monitor has been moved slightly, but that's it. He notes the alarm clock flashing at 9:02; its blinking, meaning someone inadvertently switched it off when they hit his light switch.

Little did they know that all of his light bulbs had burned out and he was on his way to the store to get a new ones. All they did was switch off the power to his room.

So they moved over to mine.

I move aside the screen covering Christopher's window in an effort to get a look.

"Don't touch that. They might want to dust that for prints."

I stare at him.

"We need to call the cops."
"So we can report it."

I shake my head. Let it go, Leiken. Let it go. I place a call to 911, and am reconnected with local LAPD. A couple hours later a young Latino officer comes in and dutifully takes down our report.

"Sir, what color was the keyboard?" he asks.
"The Ipod touch?"

"Maybe it had a serial number on it, so they can track it down?" Christopher adds hopefully.

I shrug. "I don't remember if it did."
"Didn't they give you a receipt for it? If it gets sold they might be able to trace it and you can get it back."

I bite my tongue. I'm sure the good pawn shop owners of the city will be diligent enough to call the police when a kid suspiciously shows up with a key board.

But he isn't going to show up with the key board. He took the key board so he could play games on the I touch.

The officer asks more questions, I dutifully answer them. This is not the first time I've been robbed. My former Honda Accord was broken into four times, and stolen once in Phoenix. After the fourth time I just gave up on ever having a car stereo system. I've made police reports before.

It's a ritual, you do it not because it's going to help, but because it's the "right" thing to do.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Better off Leiken

"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, voice echoing with authority. "Can anyone give me one of three reasons why the United States is the most powerful country in the world today?" I write three numbers on the board.


I fully expect someone to call out the military, or the economy, but not the #1 reason. Culture.

"Culture, mister!" a girl shouts.

My marker drops. Who told her that? American culture, that all encompassing, hegemonic force that devours other cultures like the blob and replaces it with blue jeans, Disney, and McDonalds! How could she possibly know?

"Where did you learn that?" I ask, stunned.
"You told us that last year!"
"I did?"
"Yes, and then you went on about how people in other places like our movies and our music and how everyone wants to be like us!"

The class nods their heads. I taught them something and they actually remembered? From last year? How is this possible?

Its possible because of my work with Duran, who gives me free reign to teach one of his history classes. He facilitates, while I put on the show. I draw cartoons on the overhead, I sing songs, crack jokes, recite ancedotes, all the while prompting students to think for themselves.

I'm not just teaching history. I'm telling a story.

The difference between a good history teacher and a bad one is the ability to relate it to the students. They would call this "keeping it real," but I call it "making connections."
Pioneers, for example:

1. Pioneers
2. Davy Crockett
3. American Folk Lore
4. Popularization - Disney
5. Which leads to me singing...

"Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the Land of the Free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three!
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!"

The students stare at me with wide saucer eyes as I sing the lyrics off a power point with a picture of Davy Crockett and his trusted Indian side kick, Mingo.

"Hey Mister, wasn't Mingo the name of one of those 18th century slaves that escaped?"

Damn, how are they remembering this? "Yes, that's from the reward poster I showed you. No relation to Davy Crockett's side kick."

"Oh." the student replies, disappointed.

A week later I'll be covering the Civil War. I have several power points that I've created along with it, there is something magical about having a picture projected onto a screen to go along with a lecture. I finish the first part of the lecture a few minutes early.

The students look up, surprised. "What? Is that it Mister?"

"That's it for today, I'll start part two tomorrow."

"But you didn't tell us what happened to that Jackson guy!"
"Yeah, and you didn't even get to that big battle, Getty something."
"And did they ever stop calling Lee "Granny Lee?"

I smile and shake my head. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow."

The class lets out a sigh of disappointment.

There is a movie called "Better off Dead," starring John Cusack. In the film a high school math class loves their math teacher, clapping every time he shows them how to solve a problem on the board. When the bell rings, they let out a giant "AWWWW."

The teacher tells them not to worry, that he'll see them all again tomorrow. The class in the film cheers.

"I'll see you all tomorrow." I smile, expecting applause.

No one claps.

Damn, not quite that good yet.

The bell rings.
"See you tomorrow mister! This was cool!"
"Good lecture Mister Leiken!"
"You'll be here tomorrow, right?"

I nod. Someone pats me on the shoulder. A student approaches me and holds out his hand. I stare at it, and for a moment am unsure of what to do.

I reach out my hand and he shakes it.

"Thanks Mr. Leiken. You tell it like it is."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Biology Blues

Science classes are notoriously difficult to teach. They aren't held in classrooms so much as labratories, black countertop sinks surrounded by high chair stools. There are nozzles for both gas and water, ticking time bombs of temptation that almost no student can resist.

Taught in 9th and 10th grade, science classes are packed with fresh faced freshman and moronic sophmores. Biology is full of unresponsive, immature students conditioned like Pavlovian dogs by years of learned helplessness.

Earth science, a relic of the eighties, has been cut - it no longer fulfills the A-G college core requirements, so our school doesn't offer it.

Who needs to look at rock samples anyway?

Six of my special ed students have been programmed into a biology class full of unruly freshman.

We test the classes reading level: it comes back an average of 3.5. Somewhere between third and fourth grade.

My kids fit right in. I'm scheduled to be in Biology every day.

This is going to suck.

From the start the students can barely remain seated, their heads dart around the room, diverted by the smallest sound. Many stare ahead into space, dead to the world, unwilling to even crack open their books. Other kids hit each other, punching each other in the shoulder or back of the head, throwing pieces of paper as they duck tossed pens and pencils.

Half the class isn't even willing to bring a book.

"I'm sorry, I forgot it."
"I left it in my friend's locker."
"I left it here. It was right here."
"It's heavy, why do I have to carry it?"
"I didn't think we would need it today."

I smile and shake my head. "I'm sorry ladies and gentleman, no excuses."

I make them write letters home and have the letters signed by their parents about why they couldn't bring their books to school. If they forget the book a second time, I call home. Hope no one forged a signature....

Although there are two of us in the room, myself and a seasoned science teacher, we are outnumbered 22 to 1. I must use every trick I've ever used to maintain control and to teach this class. My voice oscillates like a roller coaster, my face becomes a canvas of emotion - I'm a marine in Afghanistan surrounded by a sea of potential terrorists.

The first experiment involves jello:

1. Pour 5 tablespoons of jello, mix into a beaker of water.

2. Pour 2 tea spoons of 8 different concentrates (orange juice, kiwi, lemonade, ect) into 8 differerent vials.

3. Mix 10 ml of jello mix into the 8 different vials.

4. Observe. Hypothesize which substances will mix and dissolve best into the jello mix. Write observations down.

This simple experiment falls apart from the moment the students are handed the jello. "Mister, how much do we put in again? He spashed me with water! How long are we suppossed to mix it? How much do we put in again? What spoon should we use? I'm confused mister, where does the jello go?"

One group doesn't even correctly perform the first step - they pour 10 tablespoons of jello into the beaker. I know this because after a few minutes they haven't made jello mix...

....they've made jello.

"Mister, how come it won't pour into the test tube?"

"Because you've made jello."

"What, but how are we supposed to do this?"

"You can't, you made jello."

"What about if we pour more water in, will that mix it up?"

"Dilute it? No, it's too late." I shake my head. "You've failed the experiment."

"But we just started!"

"You didn't follow instructions. Clean up. It's over."

The students stare at me in sullen silence. One of them pours more water into the beaker in an attempt to dilute the jello.

This turns the jello into wet jello. It's glued to the sides of both the beaker and the test tubes. It's going to be a bitch to clean it out.

One of them looks at the jello longingly. "Can I eat it?" he asks.

"No. Clean it up." I stare at the clock longingly.

Sixty days and fifteen minutes until the end of the semester. In prison this would be considered short time.

But there is no such thing as short time with an unruly class of barely literate students.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The C Word Part II

My sister has cancer.
The C word.

It's breast cancer, one of the more fashionable diseases, like AIDS.

For better or for worse, men's fascination with breasts has probably saved millions of women's lives.

Dana has surgery on Thursday at St. James hospital in Santa Monica. I pick up Mom at the airport, she's better now, less consumed with fear. I'm glad my sister is having the tumor removed so quickly, I'm told having a tumor is like being in the tub with a large black spider and you just want it out as soon as possible.

We pay $12 to valet and go up to the 2nd floor, where Christos nervously keeps watch in the waiting room. The surgery has already taken place, Christos whispers that the surgery appears to have been successful and Dana is in recovery.

"What about the lymph nodes?" I ask. The lymph nodes are where the doctor's determine if there has been any spread of cancer. Typically they take between 6 to 12, a sampling to check for cancer spread.

"They only took one." Christos remarks.
"One?" I ask, dumbfounded. "I thought they had to take at least three?"
Christos nods. "Normally, but they were happy with what they saw, so only one."

An hour later we are admitted into recovery, Christos first, my mother second, myself last. Unlike them, I am not nervous. I know my sister is going to be okay. I grew up with my sister, and it's going to take more than some piddly little thing like breast cancer to kill her.

Like a volcano or a tac nuke.

When I first see her she's pale but smiling, relief emanating in all directions. No more spider in the tub, it's been removed and put into a jar where it is being examined to see if it left any of its brood behind. We get back to Malibu and Dana spends the rest of the day valiantly trying to stay awake so she can sleep through the night.

Christos writes an email thanking everyone for their love and support. He calls my sister, myself, and mother into the room and reads the email aloud.

By the time he is done tears are rolling down his face.

Dana sits in his lap, silent. She frowns, brow creased with concentration as she peers at the monitor. A moment later she leans forward and begins making corrections to the email.

I can't help it, I start laughing.

"I may not be able to control the cancer, or the surgery, but at least I can control this!" Dana snaps.

Volcano? Bah!
Definitely a tac nuke.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The C Word

There are some words that can never be taken back. Forbidden, illicit, verboten. Speak them, and you've crossed a line - you're done.

There aren't many bad words left in English, most so overused they have become little more than verbally redundant adjectives. But there is still one word that is still a pure verbal vomit conversation killer. The C word.


My sister has breast cancer.
She's 35.
It's malignant.

I know something is wrong when I check my messages and hear my mother's panicked voice. "Brian, call Christos."

Christos is my sister's husband. A successful bio-tech recruiter, he has a house in Malibu overlooking the ocean, drives a porsche, and was a former restauranteur and photographer. He sings, plays guitar, scuba dives, speaks three languages, has a wine collection that surpasses most restaurants, a connoisseur of the arts.

I'd date him.

I call, but can't get ahold of him. I try his cell and his home phone, then I try my sisters. Nothing. I breathe out a heavy sigh.

I have no recourse, I'm going to have to call my Mom.

My mother is borderline hysterical with fear. She doesn't want to tell me at first, but finally blurts, "Dana has cancer!" Her terror washes over me, envelopes me over the phone and drags me into a world of doom where the cancer could possibly masticate and transform into the blob, devouring civilization.

The next morning I get a call from Christos. His worry leadens every word, but he has it under control. He explains:

1. The cancer is most likely in stage 1, which is 100% curable. (Stage 2 is 92% curable.)
2. Dana will need a lumpectomy, or excisional biopsy to remove the lump and some of the surrounding tissue to determine if there is any spread of cancerous tissue.
3. She will need radiation, but chemotherapy is unlikely unless the cancer has spread into the lymph nodes.

Christos has used all of his contacts in the bio medical field, his business savvy, and his indomitable will to put together the dream team of breast cancer experts. He has the head of oncology at UCLA and a lumpectomy specialist who is considered the best in the world.

This surgeon is so good he only operates on Tuesday's and Thursday's, and he doesn't bother with insurance. You want his services, cash only, 75% up front. People fly from Japan and China to hire his services. Dana and Christos hope the surgeon will be able to squeeze them in sometime in the next 5 weeks.

Dana and Christos meet with him on Monday.
He agrees to perform the surgery on Thursday.

Say one thing for the Count, he gets it done.
Say one thing for my sister, she knows how to turn on the charm.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Birthday Bazaar

On my birthday I have a tradition of going to fabulous overpriced restaurants, all due in part to my sister who insists I eat something better then a cheeseburger and fries. LA is a fusion of international cuisine, there is practically nothing you cannot find here.

It's just not affordable. If great food was reasonable then that would take away the fun of being a snob and being able to tell your friends to "suck it" as you devour $20 rainbow rolls at Katsuya or the drunken crab doused in chardonnay garlic and scallions at Crustacean.

My sister is a walking Zagat's guide, she and her husband have traveled the world and eaten probably everywhere there is worth eating. So when Dana raves about a restaurant, one should wake up and pay attention.

This year I make an insane demand - I want reservations at Bazaar, currently one of the hottest, trendiest, and most expensive restaurants in all of Los Angeles. It's become a watering hole for Hollywood power players - agents, managers, and talent all hob knob there as women in tight skirts and bursting cleavage vie for attention.

Bazaar is the restaurant people imagine of what it must be like to dine out in a LA.

Going there in itself is not impossible, but I want the reservation on Saturday night.
People book months in advance for a Saturday reservation.

My sister does it with a week's notice.
She knows the chef - Marcel who was the runner up on the reality show Top Chef. Part cook, part chemist, part wild haired mad scientist, Marcel runs Bazaar's kitchen. Marcel's second in command to Jose Andres, who owns and runs the entire restaurant.

I invite Phil who himself is a bit of a foodie, perhaps more so then myself. The restaurant is only about a mile from where I live, but with traffic it takes 20 minutes. Bazaar takes up almost the entire bottom floor of the swank SLS hotel, a line of cars wait patiently for the valet, but Phil spins around a corner and finds street parking.

Fuck valet.

Inside there are three rooms, in the middle is "Bar Centro", a cocktail lounge with mix matched chairs, stools, and thrones. Paintings of royalty adorn the floors and wall, subtly shifting into were-people before turning back into human form. Old films play beneath the counter tops, the entire effect is one of disconcerting bewilderment.

To the right is a shop that looks like a museum: lamp posts carved into the likeness of M-16's, corsets illuminated on display next to $125 vibrators. There is an architecture of destruction collection, where one can buy model likenesses of the Titanic, the Twin Towers, and the City of New Orleans before they were destroyed. There are gold hand gun lighters, three foot long miniature speed boats, carvings of animals and cakes, it is a menagerie of the misfit toys.

To the left is the actual restaurant itself, divided into two sub restaurants: Blanca, decorated in white, and Rojo, decorated in black and red. My sister insists that one must eat in the Rojo, closer to the kitchen, eating in the Blanca is simply an inferior experience.

We sit down and order drinks. I order a rum and coke, and my sister fires me a look that can be charitably described as bemusedly exasperated. She orders me a specialty drink, rum mixed with liquid nitrogen. A woman pushes up a cart and begins to mix the concoction in front of us, steam hisses and pours forth, blanketing the table as she pours and stirs various liquids to create this magical elixir.

I end up with a glass of yellow colored sherbet.

It's bitter and strong, it tastes like rum and knocks me on my ass.

From there we head to the Rojo. Marcel has set up a special table for us, where we can see him working in the kitchen. He has wild, unruffled hair and does not look up, focused on whatever is in front of him.

Christos pulls out a couple of bottles of wine from his personal collection. (It's larger then that of some restaurants.) I smile appreciatively, I admit that wine is lost on me, but Phil whistles. A second later he bends over and texts Varga on his iPhone.

"Who are you texting?" I ask.

"Varga." Phil responds. "I'm telling him I'm eating at Bazaar. That and that he can "suck it."

Upon the chef's orders, the waiters automatically bring us dishes. In the tradition of Spanish cuisine, Bazaar is a tapas restaurant, meaning all the dishes are bite size entree's. One, possibly two bites, and the dish is gone.

Normally I would turn up my nose at such an absurd idea. Fifteen dollars for an entree that you can swallow almost instantly? That's the kind of crap that gives LA an elitist bad name. Give me a good 'ol steak any day.

The waiter brings out a set of watermelon tomato heart skewers. I eat it and it's a gastronomic explosion of deliciousness. Watermelon and tomatoes - mixed together? Are you kidding me? It's amazing.

My skepticism evaporates.

From there it is the jicama wrapped guacamole, which looks like small tiny little gift bags, miniature green purses that can be swallowed in one bite. Except when you bite into them, they don't so much melt as POP, overwhelming the senses with corn chips and cilantro. It's like eating an entire Mexican meal in a single taste.

Dana orders a set of caviar cones, tiny ice cream cones filled with delectable caviar, I almost swoon and we are just getting started.

Then come the olives. The waiter brings out a set of traditional "stuffed" olives, then a series of large white spoons each with its own Bazaar created olive, a soft gel like pod broken down and reconstructed from a regular olive.

"Be careful with these," Dana warns. "They explode in your mouth." A second later she bites into it, and olive juice erupts and dribbles down her chin.

"You didn't over sell it." Phil replies laconically.

I put one olive in my mouth and slowly bite into it. The olive blows apart, creating a wild sensation that encapsulates the flavor and essence of an olive more then an actual olive could ever hope to emulate. Just as fiction can be more revealing then truth, so the artificial olive is more pure in olive taste then any natural olive.

Christos orders a beet salad. Normally I hate beets, but at this point I'm willing to bet just about anything on this menu is amazing. Surprisingly, the beets are merely good, but I guess that making beets taste good is an amazing feat in and of itself.

There is a mini salad that you can eat in one bite, scooped up with a chip that gives the sensation of having eaten a full salad.

Then comes the mini Philly cheese steaks, bite sized morsels twice the size of a pizza roll, but twenty times as good. I devour it, the cheese and steak combines into a culinary party that showers the tongue, teeth and tonsils more completely then a foot long philly sub.

Then comes the foie gras, wrapped in cotton candy. Foie gras is a fancy name for goose liver, a delicacy in France, but like escargot considered disgusting nearly everywhere else.

Not quite knowing what it is, I pick it up and put it in my mouth.
A moment later I am in heaven, the foie gras melts in a chewy carmel orgy of pure unadulterated flavor, buttressed by the cotton candy it turns into an olfactory orgasm. If foods had a rating, the foie gras would be XXX.

It is divine.
(Khazani, for the record, you are crazy not to like this.)

It is the coup de grace of the evening. Nothing can top the foie gras wrapped in cotton candy. Not the delectable lamb in white sauce, not the mouth watering baby corn on the cob mixed with corn nuts and popcorn shoots, not the mussels or crab meat in cherry sauce, or sweet potato chips mixed with yogurt and tamarind. I am not eating one meal, I am eating twenty meals, each dish a perfect culinary delight that dovetails perfectly into the next ideal bite.

It is a culinary waterloo.
I have never in my entire life eaten a better meal.

Dana and Christos pay for everything. As always, I am amazed by their generosity.
I even got an iPod touch as a gift.

I thank them profusely. Christos shakes his head. "Too bad you aren't forty, you would have gotten more."

Dana introduces us to Marcel. He comes out from behind the counter and gives Dana a hug, then shakes our hands. He is quiet and smiles. On Top Chef he had the reputation for being an egotistical maniac, but then you can't really believe anything you see on TV.

"I expect a blog out of this."

"Don't worry, Dana, you'll get one."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Six Years

They say that public school teachers peak at seven years. They've learned the craft of teaching, but are still new enough to care while able to circumvent the worst of the inanity.

After 7 years, teaching is a slow descent into the black miasma of doom.

The first year I was terrified, nervous, filled with dread and anxiety.
The second year I was just nervous and felt like I was still faking it.
The third year I was giddy with excitement.
The fourth year I was self assured and eager.
The fifth year I felt slightly tense, full of anticipation, like an athlete before a game.

The start of this year, my sixth year, one year before my "peak"...I don't feel anything.

I'm not excited, I'm not nervous, I'm not anxious, I'm not energized.
This year I just feel bored.
When did this go from becoming an adventure to being just a job?

Don't get me wrong, it's still not easy. The schedule Sarah and I worked so painstakingly on has been shot to hell, the teachers I thought I would be working with have disappeared, the students remain forever adolescent. I should have lesson plans that last me for 6 months straight without even thinking - I certainly have collected years of material.

But every year I always feel like I'm starting from scratch.

I've picked up the tricks, learned techniques that can never be gathered through training but earned only through battle scarred experience. Like a magician, I can bring a class to attention with a wave of my hand, have them laughing with a sly joke, or freeze them dead with a glare.

The staff nods and waves. They all know who I am, although I can barely remember half their names. There have been so many of them that have come and gone through our school doors that to me the faculty blends right in with the students.

The older teachers, the lifers, treat me differently now. To the one's that like me, I am a comrade in arms, a trusted associate who can be turned to for help. To the more difficult teachers I am a predator, we circle each other like sharks, mouthing empty pleasantries before both moving along our way.

I have even outlasted the principal. He was promoted this year.
I remain.

The first day of school I sail through on cruise control. I march through my classroom like a twenty year sea captain walking the decks, anticipating problems before the students can even have a chance to react. Sarah is gone this year, and the room feels empty, party because I've finally managed to take down all her crap that cluttered the walls.

I miss her terribly.

At the end of the day I do something I have never done in five years of teaching.

I go out and join friends in Hollywood for a drink.

When did this become a job?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Photo Shoot

Photo Shoot.

Once upon a time, photo shoots weren't for mere mortals. Photo shoots were reserved for rock stars, models, and celebrities. Normal people didn't have photo shoots. Photo shoot? You'd have to be some kind of movie star to have a photo shoot.

Six months ago I met a photographer named Carlos. In Los Angeles, photographers make a living off head shots - every actor, wannabe actor, or person who thinks he's an actor needs head shots.

Or so I thought until the advent of online dating and facebook. Suddenly, I needed good photos.

That's when I met Carlos. He's a Peruvian photographer who used to run his own ad agency in Peru. Unfortunately for Carlos, he had the misfortune to spend more revenue then he generated, and his ad agency failed. They seized his assets, froze his accounts, destroyed his credit.

So he did what most people in other countries do when they need to start over. He turned his sights on the United States. Normally, the U.S. consulate would never let someone like Carlos through. A broke immigrant with no family in the U.S. and nothing to come back to? Forget it.

Carlos, however, does not look nor act like an immigrant. He's bilingual, fashionable, and hip. When he interviewed with the consulate, he wore a sports jacket and timberland shoes.

So they let gave him a ten year work visa. The bilingual, fashionable and hip can come to America anytime.

For anyone who wants to see his work, check out The man does know his way around the camera.

Carlos read some of my work, and was so taken by it he offered me a deal. I write a short story about his life, and in return he gives me a complimentary photo shoot.

The first day I had to try on a series of clothes. Fortunately, Carlos has an entire wardrobe of men's wear. Jean jackets and coats, formal and informal shirts, belts, cuff links, ties. He has enough clothes to start his own outlet store. He has converted an entire garage into a small studio, complete with backdrops, massive strobe lights, mirrors, and reflectors.

This isn't just some guy armed with a digital camera.

I interviewed him and we set up a day for the shoot.

"Come back on Thursday at four o'clock. The lighting is good then."

"Can't we do it earlier? I'm leaving town the next morning."

Carlos is adamant. "No, I want to shoot you in natural light. Natural light his the best light to shoot in, and I prefer late afternoon. Be sure to bring one pair of jeans, one pair of black pants. It doesn't matter if they fit, the camera only cares about the top of your body."

A week later I show up with one pair of jeans and one pair of black pants. Carlos has me put on a ruffled white shirt and black coat. He then begins to straighten it, looking to remove any wrinkles, attempting to get it to fall down along my body. He then pulls out a pair of golden light reflectors, they look like sun blockers, the kind that one would put in their car to reflect heat.

He asks me to sit in a chair and tells me to look at the camera. He begins to snap away, telling me to relax. Everything he takes is "great, wonderful, good." "Look sexy, that's it. Oohhh, that is so sexy. I love it. The women are going to love it. Yes, more of that. Look into the camera, own the camera. You are sooo hot right now."

"Should I give you blue steel?" I ask.

"Yes, Zoolander! I love it! Give me blue steel."

I shoot him a look attempting to do my best impression of Ben Stiller trying to look hot. I brush my hands through my hair and throw back my head.

"Yes, yes, yes! Now we are having fun." Carlos stops and gets on the ground, asks me to mimic a half dozen positions. Elbows on the floor, hands behind my back, laying on my side, chin out, chin up, face side to side. It is extremely awkward. Snap! Snap! Snap!

Carlos decides it is time for a change of wardrobe. He gives me a blue jacket and tells me to leave the top unbuttoned. "Oh yes, this is going to be sooo hot!"

We walk across the street to a neighbors house and he has me lean up in the corner of a vermillion wall. "Place your hands behind you and look like you are trapped." Snap! "Yes, this is good. Rich Varga found this spot and invented that look."

The neighbors small dog comes out to stare at us. After a dozen photos it lays down and goes to sleep.

I'm ready to go to sleep. After 90 minutes, I'm exhausted. Looking into a camera and trying to look sexy, relaxed, and confident is not as easy as it sounds.

Modeling is hard.

Seven hundred photos later, Carlos is done. He promises to take the best 30 photos and have them to me by next week.

A few days later he'll call with a problem. "Brian, I need you to come look at these photos. There are so many good ones I can't decide."

Damn, I knew I was hot.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The 32nd Floor


Downtown is the hub, the heart, the epicenter of the modern American city. Filled with skyscrapers, the phallic symbol of American dominance, downtown is the place to be. It's where the cool people come to party at the coolest clubs, its where connoisseurs come to sample the finest cuisine, it's where millions of Americans make the daily pilgrimage to and from work.

But LA, that curious city lying just outside planet Earth, breaks these rules. No one wants to go downtown, no one wants to party downtown, and certainly no one wants to live downtown.

Downtown isn't the heart of LA because LA is a city that doesn't have a heart.

Most Angelino's don't even work downtown, they just sort of pass through it on their way to somewhere else. If LA's downtown isn't the heart, it is at least the center of four major arteries that converge and pump traffic through via the 101, the 10, the 110, and the 5.

So while LA's downtown may lack the culture, finance, and importance of other cities downtowns, it still is a landmark. It is the heart of LA's traffic.

At least, that's how it used to be. About 6 years ago developers began to pump money into LA's decrepit core, creating the Staples Center, lofts for the young and affluent, and trendy bars and eateries for people to come drink and eat. LA's downtown developed from a rotting husk into a classic 3rd world city - fancy bars with tuxedo security selling $20 drinks a block away from homeless shelters and addicts.

Tonight Varga's gotten us invites to a premier at the LA film festival held within the newly redeveloped AT&T center. The film is entitled Reach for Me, directed by LeVar Burton, better known as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It stars Seymour Cassell, a character actor who has starred and worked in over 170 films. Cassell was Bert Fischer's father in Rushmore, Robert Redford's menacing henchman in Indecent Proposal, Richard Dreyfuss' partner in Tin Men.

In addition to the premier of the film, Cassell is being honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Hollywood Reporter.

As soon as Phil and I arrive, I can tell we are underdressed. The men wear sports coats and button down shirts with jeans, the women are in black cocktail dresses and tight skirts. There are photographers and red carpet, but Varga meets us outside and greases us through security.
Underdressed as we are, we act like we belong, and we're waved through.

I get us seats in a mid sized theatre and meet a documentarian who has just finished a film about a man who ran 26 miles for 75 consecutive days to raise cancer awareness. I tell her I'm a writer but don't have anything more to add.

Luke Wilson takes to the podium to start the award ceremony. He's followed by clips of Cassell's work and a tribute video. A bald man with a beard worthy of a native from West Virginia then takes the podium, who then hands it over to a pair of suits before Cassell himself takes to the stage. He's an old man, but his voice carries loud and clear. He thanks everyone and keeps the speech brief, stating how lucky he's been to work so long in the industry.

Then we're subjected to one more clip from Lee Iacocca about the importance of living a full rich life and the importance of ending life with dignity. (I'm guessing he was a major contributor to the funding.)

Then the film begins. Reach for Me takes place in a hospice, a character study about how the old cope with death. It has no action scenes, which is why it's an independent film. It also lacks any kind of adversary, ticking clock, or climax. I'm bored out of my mind.

The documentarian next to me is sobbing.
So is most of the audience.

"Would this old fart hurry up and die already." Phil mutters.

When the movie ends we rise up out of our seats and make a break for the door. There's a party in the penthouse of the AT&T building, and there's limited space. Security only lets ten people up at a time, counting us as we enter the elevator.

We take it to the 30th floor, whereupon we enter a second, smaller elevator that takes us up to the 32nd floor - the very top of the building.

As soon as we arrive, my jaw sags toward the ground. The 32nd floor is one giant room filled with windows that provide a 360 degree view of the city. To the East and South I can see the million Christmas tree lights that sparkle over the city turning it into a mystical wonderland. To the West is the Staples Center, a purple space aged bowl and the softer colors of the less condensed neighborhoods towards the ocean. To the North is downtown, buildings lit in the bright glow of unearthly iridescence.

There are several bars, catering tables with food, and girls wearing mardi gras masks serving trays of drinks. Some hawk martini shots, others pass out bottles of coca cola, while others still offer cans of ice cold mocha coffee.

Everywhere there are beautiful women as trendy music reverberates throughout the penthouse. It is sensory overload, it is what I imagined LA was like when I first moved here in 2000.

Nine years later, I'm finally experiencing it.

I'm really under dressed.

Phil hits it off with a gorgeous young woman in a black dress, she's an actor and both her parents are from Spain. I start to think that Spain looks like a good place to go visit. I decide to help Phil out and mention to her that he writes scripts, and he has one that might be perfect for her. Phil runs with it.

I spot Seymour Cassell walking by us and I shake his hand, telling him I've enjoyed his work over the years. Varga gets a picture with him, and then a blonde comes up and steals Cassell's attention, leading him over to a group of girls.

Varga introduces me to one of the girls wearing a mask. She's half Hawaiian, half Filipino. I flirt, but she's not really all that interested. I tell her to get back to work.

I meet an older woman twenty years too old to be wearing short hot pants. She has a live snake coiled on the top of her head, a Python named Rocko. The snake is wrapped around a pair of chopsticks she has through her hair, otherwise only the snake's head moves. She explains that Rocko thinks her head is the safest place to be, so has no desire to move. I ask her she does when the snake defecates, but she explains he only eats once a week.

It's LA.

I meet a woman whose boyfriend is one of the board members on the festival. He's left her alone to go schmooze, so she's just happy to have someone to talk to. I ask her where the LeVar Burton is, the film's director.

"Didn't you hear?" she gasps. "They said it was too crowded and they wouldn't let him come up."

"What?" I ask, dumbfounded. "But Burton is the director of the film. The party is for him."

"Evidently security didn't recognize him. So he left."

I should be shocked, but after nine years of living here I just nod. If you aren't A list, you aren't guaranteed to get in anywhere, even when it's your film that you directed and it's a party celebrating the premier of said film. Seems in LA it's not who you are that matters, but how many people know who you are.

That's LA.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


"Hurry up. Make a move."

Dan shakes his head, eyes narrowed in concentration. "I'm sorry, but this is an important decision. Do I pick the wealthy skeletons, the flying tritons, or the swamp land elves?"

'What about the pillaging orcs?" Lisa asks.

"There's always the wealthy sorcerers." John adds.

Five minutes later Dan finally settles on the fortified trolls. The four of us stand around a colorful game board covered in an array of iconic pieces that would make all but the most soulless gamer take notice and drool. The game is called Small World, the objective is to score points by taking it over with different races, and when they die out through attrition, to pick a new race.

I launch an invasion of commando amazons, then as they go into decline I decide to invade with a horde of mounted rat-men. The board shifts and changes as waves of invaders charge in from the edge of the board, overpowering the previous races from before. Lisa, Dan, and John battle it out, vying for supremacy as I quietly amass power by holding large swaths of territory.
I am convinced that I am ahead.

When it is time to score points, I'm in last place.
I'm starting to think Small World is a stupid game.

We play a second time. This time I go with pillaging dwarves, switch to mountain walking giants, and finish with sea walking sorcerers. I'm convinced I'm losing.
Turns out, I finish in first.

Now I know Small World is a stupid game.

I am currently in Centerville, VA at the Wintergreen ski resort. It may not be Veil or Aspen, but for Virginia it's about as good as you can find, and the golf courses and trees are beautiful. A dozen of us have rented a house with three floors, a corporate board room table (with white board) and six bed rooms to hold a "gamer's retreat" over a four day weekend.

The objective: play as many games as possible.
The goal: win.

Via the power of Facebook, I've reconnected with people I haven't seen in nearly 20 years, people I knew in college. We belonged to the Guild, a role playing group that mostly preferred playing dungeons and dragons to getting drunk.

Although some people like Robb and Tony liked putting those two things together.

Actually I think Robb and Tony did just like getting drunk.

Meeting people you haven't seen in 20 years is a strange experience, they are neither friend nor stranger - they stand within the crossroads of the heart. Mike, Dan, Tony, Robb and Lisa - most of them are married, and most of them have kids.

But no matter how much they've changed, I've known them from before. I've known them as gamers. When it comes time to play a game, that's when the true personality emerges.

Mike is still thoughtful and even tempered, until someone crosses him in a game and he explodes in a fit of foul anger, then settles and quietly plots his revenge.

Tony is still just like the cartoon character the Tick, smiling brightly as he makes bold moves.

Lisa is content to let others fight it out while she secretly amasses power, playing as much for fun as much for the win.

Dan always plays for the win, maximizing every move for it's utmost potential, analyzing every possibility, trade and combination until he achieves a moment of zen.

Robb still likes to run around and shoot things and pretend to hit people. I'm not surprised he runs a school that trains actors how to to fight with swords and mimic hitting people.

There are other people I meet for the first time: John the Lawyer, Robb the Professor, Garrett the Corporate Defender, and Art the Entrepreneur. I do not know them, but we share a common bond - we're gamers.

Games lie throughout the house. Diplomacy, Settlers of Catan, Knights of Catan, Lost Worlds, Space Merchants of Venice, Puerto Rico, Talisman, Wiz War, and decks of Magic The Gathering. Dungeons and Dragons rule books are scattered everywhere, but these gamers haven't made the switch to 4th edition - they continue to play 3.5

Whatever happened to Monopoly and Risk? We still play them, but we prefer games where no one can get knocked out early and the race to win is close to the end. Modern games are more about strategy, cooperation, and deal making then they are about dice rolling.

Plus new games have all these really cool pieces.

Whether the game is old or new, good games all have one important element. They allow you to cheat and betray your "friends". Winning a game is great, but depriving an adversary of the win: priceless.

In MLB everyone loves to hit a home run, but when professional outfielders are interviewed many admit that they prefer to snatch them away from someone else.

It's human nature to screw others. It feels good.

But the soul of this group are role playing games, games that invoke intuitiveness and imagination, where a dice roll is more then just numbers on piece of plastic but a sword cleaving through a dragon's hide courtesy of the imagination.

The characters a player creates and the decisions that character makes better reflect the personality then a battery of personality tests. D&D isn't just a game, it's where true natures are revealed.

The first game we're asked to make up 14th level characters for a one shot adventure. Fourteenth level is powerful in D&D, akin to Luke Skywalker starting out as a jedi without having to whine for two movies in-between.

With all the rules, feats, extra skills, and magic items added on over the years, asking an experienced player to make up a 14th level character from scratch with no guidelines is like asking Frankenstein not to make a monster.

Robb creates a force missile mage capable of firing bolts of energy that would blow apart walls.
Lisa makes a multi-class ranger cleric with large amounts of versatility.
Mike plays a noble guardian.

Dan makes up a barbarian, but when he is unsatisfied with the final build (damage resistance doesn't stack) goes back to the drawing board and creates a club shattering fighter in order to achieve zen.

I forgo power to play something fun. I play a drunken monk.

Garrett is the dungeon master. We have nine players, which is a huge group for D&D and I quickly realize that this game isn't about the role playing, it's about the beat down. What good is making the character capable of punching a fist through a wall unless their is a wall to punch through?

I'm not having fun.

But unlike board games, role playing games are not so much about the mechanics and the rules as they are about the story teller. The next game is run by Art. He tells us to make up 4th level characters, or red shirts. While they are not nearly as powerful, I have a blast.

This time I create a multi-class fighter pirate named Jack Hawthorne. Teaming up with Tony, who in true Tick fashion makes up a brute fighter named Carlos, the two of us trick, bluff, and fight our way through the better part of an adventure. We push prisoners off of cliffs, trick demons into pits, both lie and fight our way past guards until we are finally overpowered by an evil priestess.

Being a cowardly pirate, I surrender. I'm also pinned in a door and can't move, so my options are limited. Tony fights to the end and dies in true Tick fashion, but not before taking out several thieves.

It's the most fun I've had playing a game in ages. Art is puzzled. "But you lost. You got captured, and Tony is dead."

I shrug and tell him to forget about it.
It's not about the win. It's about the game.