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Beatrice

Beatrice

"Do not – I repeat – do not bring another dog into this house," I commanded Karissa. "We barely have room enough for the one we've got."

Seriously. She and I were stuffed into a guest house that was no larger than 900 square feet, each of the four rooms (living room, bedroom, restroom, kitchen) was roughly the size of a walk-in closet. The place was so small that, frankly, I couldn't believe she brought our other dog, Bailey, home in the first place. Bailey was a lovely animal, athletic, sweet, and eager for attention. But she was a tornado of nervous energy and every inch of our modest home was covered in long, fine border collie fur.

"Bailey does not need a sister. Under no circumstances are you to get another dog. But if you do – and I'm not saying you should, because you shouldn't – just make sure she has short hair."

The next day, Karissa walked in with another dog. "You said to make sure her hair is short!" I wasn't surprised, of course, but this turned out to be one of the only times that I am grateful to have been ignored.

Even as I started falling for that cocky little brat with the savage tail and the mischief in her chocolate eyes, I emphatically expressed my disapproval. Consequently, I came home from work the next day to find that Karissa had taken her back. "You did what? No, no, no, you've got to go back there and get her. That poor thing is gonna have a complex.”

And thus began one of my most enduring and cherished friendships. I called her Beatrice because her name couldn't have been anything else, and we appreciated each other instantly. While we shared a passion for people and bread, we also shared a rebellious streak and contempt for authority. In order for this to work out, we couldn't pursue the standard owner/pet dynamic; our relationship would have to be based on mutual respect and consideration. While it was implicitly understood that I would always get the final say, she would nonetheless defiantly stand her ground when she felt strongly about something, a quality I can't help but admire.

Over the next 16 years, she would see me at my very best, my very worst, my most depressed and ecstatic. She knew where all the bodies were buried and in which cabinet the treats were stored. She stood by me during some of my greatest hardships and shared some of the happiest days of my life. Her sense of humor was not just sophisticated for a canine; she was funnier than most of the people I know. She lived her life almost as though she had something to prove, and as a result she has become the standard by which all future pets will be judged. I don't envy those future pets.

She was adored by everyone who came in contact with her. And it was no wonder. She radiated love, enthusiasm and explosive vivacity. She absolutely loved parties, greeting each guest enthusiastically and working the room with the skill and grace of a debutante. But as anyone who has been to one of our parties can tell you, she would also occasionally clear a room with one of her nuclear-powered farts.

Oh, they were not reserved exclusively for parties. With the resolve of Harry Truman, at any time and without warning, she might drop a bomb during dinner, movie night or a road trip. If she had gone to church, she would have farted there, too. Like any worthy punchline, it would happen when you least expected it and invariably produce equal parts shock and laughter. Along with her other, less smelly qualities, it became something of a trademark.

We eventually moved out of the shoebox in Atwater Village and into the house in Burbank where Bea would spend the rest of her life. On the day of the move, Karissa was in Nashville composing songs for her album, so I got to do the honors. I unlocked the door and let Bailey and Beatrice into the house for the first time. I let them sniff around for a bit before introducing them to what I knew was going to be a terrific surprise.

They followed me to the back door, and upon seeing our new, spacious backyard – many times the size of the one in Atwater – they shot out like rockets and sprinted around the perimeter several times. I stood on the patio, thrilled to witness such joy over something so simple. After a few laps, they ran over to me, staring inquisitively, wondering whether they could stay. I nodded, and in unison, they once again bolted out into the yard, circling and wrestling until they finally collapsed on the lawn, panting and exhausted.

Bailey and Beatrice were pretty good friends, but Bea was entirely too stubborn to accept her sister's assumption of the alpha role. This led to many conflicts and an increase in aggressive behavior on Bailey's part. While Beatrice was fast, sturdy and incredibly strong (in her prime, she could jump high enough for her eyes to meet mine), Bailey was also strong and had the additional advantage of being more than a little crazy. Really. One day I came home to find her bloodied and stuck in a window pane, having tried unsuccessfully to jump through it. Bailey's frustration came to a head one day when Karissa, seven months pregnant with Scarlet, had to break up a fight she'd picked with Beatrice.

Bailey's behavior had become so erratic and violent that we didn't feel that we could trust her with our impending newborn. We made the very tough decision of returning her to the Amanda Foundation, a no-kill shelter where (unless someone adopted her) she would live out the rest of her life. This was tougher on Bea than we'd anticipated. Despite the unwarranted attacks and the scars of battle, she missed her sister. But within a couple of months, she'd have a new companion that would treat her far more nicely.

As sweet and loving as Beatrice had always been, we were still nervous about how she would react when we brought Scarlet home from the hospital. The doctor suggested I first take home a blanket so she could get used to the baby's scent, which I did. When I first carried Scarlet through the door, Bea was there to greet her with a mix of curiosity and her usual enthusiasm for meeting new people.

Her love for Scarlet was immediately apparent and from that day forward, she no longer slept all night in our bed, choosing to lie down at the foot of the crib, standing guard. The introduction of a child into our home meant that Beatrice would no longer be a primary focus in our lives. But she accepted this inevitability with admirable dignity, seamlessly redefining her role in the family from pampered darling to vigilant caretaker. Her position in our family remained intact, of course; our visiting friends would be just as attentive to her as the baby, and the grandparents continued to spoil her just as much as they had before Scarlet arrived.

Her love for Piper was just as great, although in her advanced age she was a bit wary of the Cub's spirited playfulness, much as an uninitiated house guest might have reacted to the crazed play-barking and tooth-baring leaps of her youth. Still, Beatrice could be found at the foot of their trundle bed every night until it became too difficult to get herself there.

Despite snapping a tendon in one of her hind legs a few years ago (it eventually healed itself), Beatrice maintained the same level of excitement, playfulness and athleticism for almost all of her life. Her walks would become more leisurely, her hearing would diminish considerably, her jumps would one day clear the ground by only a few inches and her tail wouldn't pose the threat to wine glasses that it once had, but she was still adamantly Beatrice.

This last year, her body became increasingly unable to keep up with her will. Her mind was still sharp and playful, but her legs were failing her. Even in her last moments, she refused to accept that she was no longer in control, her mortality being the final and decisive challenge to her rebellious spirit.

For a few months, I'd been awaiting and dreading a clear sign that it was time to stop her suffering. She made it very difficult. Despite the increased frequency of her troubles, Beatrice remained defiantly independent, standing upright mostly just to show her body who was boss. But she was losing this fight more and more often, and was looking more openly burdened and scared. Last week, I started making a bed for myself on the living room floor, so I could sleep next to her and try to keep her from hurting herself in the middle of the night.

Her appetite withered, and she started to reject even her favorite treats. It became clear that the time had come, so I made the decision that we would take her to the animal hospital Monday afternoon, December 12th. Sunday we explained to the kids what was going to happen so they would have the opportunity to say their goodbyes and spend one last evening with her. They took it about as well as you might imagine. Scarlet wrote in her journal and cried. Piper wrapped her arms around Bea's neck and cried. In fact, we're all still crying.

I carried Bea down the steps into the backyard so she could pee before bedtime. She hobbled to the middle of the lawn, did her business, then stared at the house for several minutes. She turned to have a long look at every part of the yard before making her way back to the steps. I carried her back up, placed her on the hardwood floor and she visited every room of the home she'd lived in for most of her life, taking it all in one last time. I made my bed on the floor again, this time joined by Scarlet on one side, while Beatrice slept restfully on my other side.

I'd planned to take Beatrice to the beach in the morning and spend the day with her there before taking her in. She loved the beach. She would chase the waves back into the ocean, barking at them like a maniac, then run away from them as they rolled back to shore. She hated water in most forms – baths, sprinklers and rainy days – but hopping around in the ocean was her idea of a good time. Naturally, it rained all day Monday, so we spent our last few hours together cooped up in the house.

The time for the appointment snuck up on us. Karissa and I dropped the kids off with our friend Jesse, and headed to the Media City Animal Hospital with Beatrice. The room was prepared by the time we got there, so I carried her from the van and set her on the table. She somehow knew what was coming. She refused to sit or lie down, commanding every ounce of resolve to remain steadfastly on her feet. The doctor injected her with a sedative to calm her and make her sleepy, then left us alone with her for a few minutes.

True to form, Beatrice stood her ground. Even as her eyelids began to close, she remained defiantly upright. Karissa stroked her fur and manned the Kleenex box. I spoke into her ear, repeating a sentiment that I'd shared with her since she first came into my life. "I love my Bea. Yes, I do."

Then she farted.

I finally coaxed her into lying down, just as the doctor came in to administer the final injection. And within minutes she was gone.

Karissa and I stepped back out into the rain and headed back home, where everything reminded us of the friend we had just lost.

Even as I write this, I'm overwhelmed by the silence. By her conspicuous absence. By the countless happy memories that I never would have had if Karissa had never brought her home.

I love my Bea.

Yes, I do.

What Will They Stink of Next?

What Will They Stink of Next?

"See that clock on the wall? In five minutes you are not going to believe what I've told you."
~Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), Blue Velvet
 

Burbank is a peculiar place.

In the thirteen years I've lived here I've grown to suspect that – not unlike Blue Velvet's fictional town of Lumberton – behind the manicured lawns and tree lined streets, inside the 50s-era bungalows, lie all manner of strange goings-on. I've seen a toddler wandering the neighborhood alone at dusk, wearing nothing but a diaper (I stopped my car and helped find her home, natch). Last year, we had our very own streaker running about, wearing even less. Across the street and a few houses down, an elderly woman had lived with the body of her dead brother for nearly a year. Nothing surprises me anymore.

One night last week, on my way out to my backyard studio to check on the status of OccupyLA videos that were rendering on my computer,  I happened to notice a plastic bottle on the lawn. The kids had been painting al fresco earlier that day, so I assumed it was just a paint bottle they forgot to put away. As I approached to pick it up, I realized it was actually an old hydrogen peroxide bottle with the label peeled off, and a thick gooey substance was dripping from a crack near the top. It occurred to me that the bottle must have been tossed over from an adjacent yard, resulting in the crack. Unsure of the contents, I gingerly picked it up by the cap with my thumb and index finger and carried it closer to the studio, where I could inspect it after turning on the porch light.

I grabbed a paper towel from the studio, and dabbed what I could now see was brown, viscous matter. I brought the paper towel to my nose and sniffed the unmistakeable aroma of, well... shit.

Inexplicably unmoved, I threw away the paper towel, continued into the studio to upload my finished video files to YouTube, then went to bed. Staring at my bedroom ceiling, I found myself wondering why the hell someone would fill a bottle with shit and, furthermore, why they would throw it in my yard. When in doubt, consult Google.

One "shit in a plastic bottle" search term later, I had something of an answer. And it will make you sick (if the header image didn't do that already).

The story goes that some bored street urchins in Zambia discovered that by bottling sewage, allowing it to ferment for a couple hours then inhaling the gas, they could produce a cheap, hour-long hallucinogenic high. A new designer drug was concocted in the third world, and it was to be called Jenkem. You may, however, know it by its aliases Leroy Jenkems, Winnie, Fruit from Crack Pipe or, my personal favorite, Butt Hash.

According to Snopes, In 2007, the police in Collier County, FL, based solely on the report of some parents whose child overheard his classmates discussing it, issued a bulletin announcing that Jenkem was "now a popular drug in American schools."

How to Jenkem!
How to Jenkem!

Time Magazine ran a story on this economical new drug craze that was sweeping the nation, but found themselves retracting because "there is actually no hard evidence that jenkem exists anywhere, and many say it is simply an urban myth." The kid in the above photos, which were included in the initial police report, was recognized by community members of the how-to website TOTSE and outed as a hoax. He is reported to have admitted as much online, saying that the solution used in the photos was made with a mixture of flour, water, beer & Nutella. He went on to insist that "I never inhaled any poop gas and got high off it. I just don't want people to ever recognize me as the kid who huffed poop gas." So it appears that Jenkem is the bunk, and apparently my poor idiot neighbor didn't get the memo.

My curiosity mostly satisfied, I went back to bed. But while I now know why someone might fill a bottle with human waste, the question of why it landed in my backyard still lingers. Perhaps I'll never know exactly who threw that bottle on my lawn, but rest assured, I'm keeping my eye out for anyone purchasing large quantities of mouthwash.

The Unlikeliest Film School

The Unlikeliest Film School

When my dad's co-worker Abe suggested that our family move from our home in Anaheim Hills to Rancho Cucamonga – a town whose only claims to fame, at that point, were that Frank Zappa had lived there and Jack Benny had used its name as a frequent punchline on his TV show – he probably had no idea that he had set into motion a course for my life that has simultaneously cost me substantial sleep and rewarded me with countless personal and creative dividends. Abe, if you're out there, you're the best! The lure of Rancho Cucamonga was that my folks – who, having just welcomed into the family their fourth and final offspring, had outgrown their modest home in Anaheim Hills – could pick up a spacious four-bedroom, 3-1/2 bath upgrade for a song. And Larry Lastrapes loves songs! The only drawbacks were his new back-breaking commute and the fact that there was precious little for a ten-year-old to do in the Inland Empire of the late-70s.

Vineyards and orange groves as far as the eye could see. A smattering of strip malls and tract housing developments. One could count the nearby movie theaters on one hand, and getting to each required at least a ten-minute drive. And that was if you could find someone to take you. Perhaps because it was the first Inland Empire theater to welcome me, or because the first film I saw there was Richard Donner's hotly anticipated Superman: The Movie, my favorite theater was Montclair's Mission Drive-In. I won't go into my love of drive-ins and the despair I feel for their ongoing extinction, that's another post. Suffice it to say, that the Mission was where I saw many movies growing up, but it was as close to an art house as one could get in the Inland Empire. Then cable TV came to the rescue.

I don't remember what we had before. On... SelecTV...? Doesn't matter. I spent more time on the scrambled adult film station, waiting patiently for that rare, but not unprecedented, two minute window when the image would unscramble and stabilize into naughty porn goodness. Then one day, the Z Channel came to town and I discovered that some things are perhaps more important than watching strangers have sex in your television: Movies.

These weren't just any movies, but neither were they stuffy and esoteric. Blockbusters. Classics. Foreign. Mainstream & otherwise. The programming was beyond eclectic and, while I couldn't have articulated this at the time, primarily focused on vision and craftsmanship. The first film I watched on the Z Channel was Billy Wilder's Fedora, which was also my first Billy Wilder film. It's all a fog now (the film has never been available on DVD – UPDATE: You can stream it here.), but it nonetheless made a huge impression. It was the first time I'd ever (legitimately) seen tits on my TV. It was the first time I saw a lot of things, period.

I watched Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles after midnight one New Years Eve, then sixteen more times over the next week. I first saw Kubrick's 2001 – still my favorite film – on a 13" black and white television in my parents' bedroom; I was completely mesmerized. I saw every James Bond film in a weeks long marathon. My dad explained to me while watching The Godfather that I had to listen to every word that was spoken, because they were all important to the plot. Every great film and filmmaker – whether popular or obscure – was represented and championed. The Z Channel magazine discussed film in a way that I hadn't experienced before. Which is to say, at all. It was like Tom Hatten on ALZ 112.

The Z Channel has a great deal to do with why I love cinema as much as I do. It appeared at precisely the right time and place in my life. It taught me how to read a film, that watching a film isn't a passive experience, that a director's intent is woven into every frame. Since I strongly believe that the most important parts of filmmaking can be learned by watching great ones, it effectively taught me how to make them. And that making them was something I really needed to do.

There has since been nothing like it on television. Just about every film they exposed me to I consider essential. While channels like Turner Classic Movies, Sundance and IFC are similar in intent, as good as they are, they are still pale imitations. Each limited in scope and fever. None of which I would describe as an experience. The Z Channel was profoundly alive. Still is.

Looking Sharp with Merv!

Looking Sharp with Merv!

1982. I was riding high on my streak of wins at county fair talent shows; the Dramalogue Critic's Award for my performance of the title character in Michael Ricciardi's epic musical adventure, Skylark, was resting safely in a burglar-proof display at the Smithsonian; my weekends were spent with the freakishly talented Too-Short-For-Prime-Time-Players on stage at the Roxy Theater on the Sunset Strip; and if my head weren't already swollen enough, Merv Griffin's talent coordinator had hand-picked me and a few other kids from the show to be featured on the popular talk show. Only one thing stood between me and becoming the world's most insufferable teenager: The Artful God-Damned Dodger. I was committed to the 8th grade choir's stage adaptation of Oliver! and, understudy notwithstanding, the choir director threatened to fail me if I even thought of doing The Merv Griffin Show on opening night. So that was that. While my friends were on stage at the Ivar Theater performing for Miss Miller, I was in the school auditorium sulking with a cockney accent.

While I wished I could have joined them, I was nonetheless excited for my friends when the show aired. They all killed. So well, in fact, that Merv wanted to feature more of the cast on a future episode. I was invited again, and this time I was free. School was out.

Rehearsal was very chill. Merv hung out with the rest of us – me, Martika, Jerry Sharell, Darren Frank and our parents – almost casually leading the rehearsal from the center of the auditorium. He couldn't have been more nice. And more relaxed. I've never seen anyone so relaxed, and it was contagious. Somewhere there are black and white photos my dad took of us hanging with Merv during a break in rehearsal. All of us very... relaxed...

Watching the show from my dressing room, I should have been more nervous as I anticipated my turn to perform solo on national television for the first time. But I think that, scientifically-speaking, it's impossible to be nervous when you're surrounded by so much brown. Even the green room was brown. So was my suit. In fact, the only thing that kept me from completely blending into the set was the fact that my suit wasn't covered in light bulbs.

To this day, my friend Frank Lee Reed calls me "Gregor." You'll get it when you watch the video. I mention it because until the show aired, I had no idea why he'd started calling me that. All I remember is hearing Merv say my name, hitting my mark and hoping my horrible memory didn't rob me of the lyrics to the song while tape was rolling. Everything was fine. I even remembered to raise my arm while holding the last note. Holding a note for a really long time was kinda the thing back then. And if you could raise your arm while doing it, well…

Ben Vereen

After signing off, Merv can be seen leaning over and saying something to me as the band played us out. It even looks like I'm listening to him. Apparently, I wasn't. Unless he whispered them to someone on his deathbed, his words to me will forever remain a mystery.

Backstage. Having changed out of my brown suit and into my (almost certainly) fashionably unfortunate 1980s street clothes, none other than Ben Vereen, my fellow guest, appeared before me and my parents in the hallway outside the dressing room door. A spotlight popped on and trained itself on Mr. Vereen. Or so it seemed. He raised his right arm, his fingers pointing Gregward, and slowly approached me. His fingertips landed on my throat and he fixed me with a direct and sober stare. "God blessed you. Right. Here." He tapped my throat and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Or so it seemed. The next morning, my voice started to change.

I got exactly one piece of fan mail from a viewer of that episode, which the production company was kind enough to forward to me from their office. A very nice girl from somewhere in the midwest asked if I might be able to tell her the name of the song I sang, so she could buy the sheet music. Allow me to save you a stamp:

Everything (from the motion picture, A Star Is Born) – Lyrics by Rupert Holmes & Paul Williams  |  Music by Rupert Holmes

Oh, if you pause the video during the last shot, you'll be able to spot my grandmother, my great-grandmother and my aunt Shirley. I'll leave it to you to figure out which ones they are. GO!

Finding Misplaced

Finding Misplaced

“So the reason I told you that story,” said producer Scott Edinson, having just entertained me with a lengthy anecdote about one savagely misspent night in his life, “is because I thought you’d like to make a short film about it.” The fact is, I’d been juggling, obsessing over and not finishing a couple of feature-length screenplays for longer than I’d care to admit. Not only did I need a break, the itch to be behind the camera again* had been consuming me for some time. Of course, I couldn't shoot without a script, which meant more writing. And before I could write a single scene, I had to figure out what would possess a guy (other than Scott) to stay up all night trying to find his lost wallet.

With my iTunes library churning away and my new Scripped.com file patiently awaiting its christening, I rocked in my creaky vintage office chair anticipating either inspiration or a pizza delivery (whichever came first). As it often happens with my iTunes library, Talking Heads came a-calling, and as I stared absently at the barren, glowing document before me, David Byrne’s vocals jumped frantically out at me.

“You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house... this is not my beautiful wife... My god, what have I done?!”
Laura Maxwell + Greg

And from the wreckage of impossible ideals that could only exist in a culture of merciless capitalism and insatiable consumption, Misplaced and it’s floundering hero, Mickey, were born. A guy who’s spent too much of his adult life asleep at the wheel, who’s forgotten who he is and what defines happiness for him, who hates his life because he spends his time romanticizing the lives of everyone else... now there’s a guy who would flip out over losing a wallet.

By the second draft, Scott and I felt comfortable enough with the strength of the screenplay to start recruiting the small army of collaborators we would need to realize our film. We’d hoped the script would lure them, because our very modest budget wasn’t going to do it. The unorthodox schedule – nine days over four weeks – was hardly catnip, either. But to our surprise, phone calls were returned, internet postings were replied to and one draft later, we were in pre-production.

The brilliant part was that no compromises needed to be made. Last Monday, after nearly two years in the making, Misplaced was finally screened for the cast and crew that made it possible. As I watched the film with them, each scene a testament to their talent, dedication, generosity and beautiful imaginations, I was reminded that I am an incredibly fortunate person. All of the artists that gave their time, on set and in post-production, are not only terrifically gifted, they’re also genuinely good people.

Like Mickey, I know from office culture, so I don’t take for granted being in a circumstance where I actually get to choose the people I work with. I also realize that none of the people who worked on the film were obligated to choose me back. But they did, and I can’t thank them enough. It was a rare pleasure, top to bottom, and an unforgettable experience.

Quite possibly the best compliment I got during production, from a friend who visited our Venice Beach location, was that my set was the most civil and well-mannered she had ever set foot on. And she was right. While not immune to circumstantial turbulence – after all, it’s not a production day until something breaks – the making of Misplaced never suffered as a result of overblown egos or anything approaching unprofessional behavior. Everyone showed up, did their job, never complained and was cool to everyone else on set.

Everyone except Martin Lastrapes II. That guy blows.

*Ironically, I would end up spending much less time behind the camera than I'd expected. But that's another post.