Sound Advice

I wrote this story I back in June of 2011, just after wrapping up my first novel. I really liked working with the novel’s protagonist, Father Juan, and was playing around with ways to use him in short stories. Santa Muerte also makes a guest appearance, but she does that a lot in my work.

The protagonist is a new guy, Mario Cumomo, the most successful Director in Hollywood, at least my fictional version of Hollywood. Only Mario has a problem, one that all his money cannot buy. Fortunately he knows someone who can fix it for him. At a price.

This short (6,600 words) is a bit of a tear jerker. At least its intended to be. It answers the question, “what do you give the man that has everything?”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I came to myself holding the handle of a broken coffee mug. The rest of the mug, along with its contents, were splashed or smashed all over the room – along with my water glass, my notes, the two desk monitors, the computer, various dvds and books on the bookshelf, a bad painting on the North wall, and pretty much anything else of value. I must have blacked out again. What was that, the forth time this year? Somehow in my rage I had managed to spare both sets of speakers, the ones on either side of the screen, and the ones on top of the desk. How they had escaped the chair I must have thrown into the ripped screen, I have no idea. Everything else in the windowless sound room was a mess. Everything except the the lowly torchère in the corner providing a dim background light, and the soundman, James.

James sat with his lang pale hands folded, his face holding that same serene look he always wore. Tall, thin, hair greying, in his 40s, he was the calmest man I had ever met, which is why I liked to work with him; nothing fazed him. The contrast of his tranquil face with the tornado like destruction of the room brought an uninvited laugh to my lips.

“Are you through?” he asked when I was done. His face calm, but concern was evident in this voice.

I looked at the mug handle still in my hand. The brown glaze flowed smoothly until it hit the edges where the rest of mug used to be. Past the break the unglazed edges were white and porous, looking like the scale model of a cliff from a bad 60s movie. I could remember standing there holding this handle, but not a damn thing before. Like the other times before, I had no idea what had set had me off, or why. “Bloody hell,” I said.

We were at a boutique sound shop working on a scene; a small backstory element not that important on its own, but crucial to establishing the protagonists motivation in the third act. The problem was, the damn scene just wouldn’t jell. The lighting was all wrong, the dialog was wooden, and the child we used just didn’t have the emotional depth the scene required. Six months ago I had handed it to the second AD, my mind at the time on other things. Unfortunately, he just didn’t have the chops. Even worse, there was nothing I could do about now but try and fix it. You see, I had approved it all. I was the director.

I had worked on the scene all last week at the studio’s main sound room, but we ran out of time; the room being booked too deep to allow for delays. So I had the AD take over the next bit of editing on the big stage, and came out here to attempt some CPR.

Now, after several very long days, I was still dealing with the same problem. No matter what I tried, no matter how many tricks we attempted, that damn scene would not work. Every time that stupid kid opened his mouth, it just made me mad. Mad, but not destructive. I have a reputation in this town for being a bit of a prick, some of it well earned I might add, but I’ve never done anything so unprofessional as to trash a sound room. That is, until this year.

James bent over from his chair, and picked up the phone. He put the hand-piece to her ear then set it down in disgust. Following the cord from the phone, he pulled on it until he found the ripped and twisted end. The connector was not just broken, there were strands of copper wire mixed in as well. I must have jerked it out of the wall. I looked down at my hands wondering where I found the strength to do that.

“Hold on,” he said calmly. “Let me see what I can do.” He got up and walked to the door. He must have found the shop’s owner and the AE cowering in the hallway outside for he stopped just outside the door.

I busied myself looking for my phone, cursing the whole time. I found it in pieces under the overturned couch. I put the couch back to something like level, and tried cramming the battery back in the phone. While I was working I could hear them talking outside. From where I was sitting I could only see part of the hallway thought the door. The bright artificial light spilled into the room, casting everything just outside the door in a harsh glow. The large windows in the offices across the hallway looked out onto the Hollywood hills. At midnight, the city looked peaceful, serene. The many street lights randomly strewn among the houses giving it appearance of a Christmas decoration. All it needed was the snow.

“Are the other rooms booked,” I heard James ask quietly? It was a silly question. This late in the summer every sound room in the town was booked doing last minute touches for the big Christmas releases.

The other two said something, but it was too low for me to hear. James turned around, but was stopped by a question before he made it through the door.

“Is everything okay,” the AE asked? Even from here I could hear the fear in her voice.

“Are you kidding,” James said? When she didn’t respond, he continued, “Look. Just get the techs in here, and have them set everything back up. This room’s done for the night. I know I am, and he’s,” he said indicating myself, “is even worse. If you can get it set up for an early start tomorrow morning – sorry, later this morning,” he said after glancing at his watch – “that would be a help.”

The AE mumbled something I couldn’t hear. The last time I saw her, she had dark rings under her eyes. I remembered she had been here every night just as late as the rest of us, and never once complained. Well, that was the industry for you. There were a lot of jobs that were much less demanding, but they didn’t come with the same paycheck either.

“It’s not that bad,” I heard James say. “I had just saved all the files, and most of the stuff in there can be easily fixed or replaced. Why don’t you call in the techs. I’ll get Mario to his car, and you can go home and get yourself some sleep.”

“Are you sure,” she asked, concern evident in her voice? “What are you going to do with him?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, sounding both confident and unsure. “I have a few ideas. We’ll figure something out.”

“Are you sure, James,” she asked a second time? I could tell from her tone she was more relieved than concerned.

“Sure,” he said. “Like I said, I’ve done this kind of thing before.”

I was curious what he meant by that. What kind of thing had he done before that was like cleaning up after a director throws a fit, and destroys a sound room?

I suppose I should have felt sorry for him, but I didn’t. You see, I am one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, and I’m married to an A list actress. I am the 3000 pound gorilla in the room. In any room. Pissing me off could prove to be a very bad career move in this town. This little sound shop was too small a fish to afford angering the studio, which amounted to pissing off their director; me. They knew it, and I knew it. So while I was wondering what a lowly sound man thought he could pull off with a power hitter like me, at the same time I wasn’t exactly scared. Besides I like James, or Jamie, or whatever his name is.

To be honest, I should also admit I was curious. I have a soft spot when it comes to things about myself. Kate likes to tease me about it. She says I am too narcissistic, too self centered. She may have a point, but at the same time, being this way – being this interested in myself – has gotten me exactly to the place I am today. If acting like a selfish jerk put piles of cash in your lap, what would you do?

See what I mean?

So when James (or is it Jamie) said “Come on,” I knew he was up to something, I just didn’t know what.

“Come on?” I asked. “Where are we going?”

“I have an idea,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Does it involve the Industry,” I asked? At that moment there was nothing about the industry that made me the least bit happy.

“Not at all,” he said with a smile.

“Good,” I said curiosity getting the best of me as I followed him out the door, and down the hall to the elevator. “A drink then,” I asked? “I could use one right now.”

He touched the down button as we waited. “Nope,” he said, “but we can do that too, if you like.”

Now I was even more curious. “Friend of yours?”

He gave me a funny look, the first one I had seen that disturbed his calm face in a week. “Not exactly,” he said as we stepped into the elevator. “Maybe more like a mentor.”

“A mentor? He’s not some swami or a spiritualist or something like that, is he?”

The sound man laughed as the doors closed. “Not he. She. And no. She’s nothing like that,” he said as we dropped down to the parking level.

My phone rang just as we stepped out. Apparently I had got it working again. It was Jane, my personal assistant. Someone from the house had called wondering when I would be home tonight. I looked over at the James as he talked in rapid Spanish with Chewy my driver. “I don’t know,” I told her. “Tell them I’ll be there when I can.”

As I hung up, James pulled up in front in a small white pickup. “Get in,” he said.

“Where not taking the limo,” I asked, “to where ever this mysterious destination is?”

“I’d rather not,” he said leaning down to see me though the passenger window. “It draws the wrong kind of attention, if you know what I mean.”

Ever since Kate and I got married, the press seemed to follow me where ever I went. I’ve made the tabloid press more times this year than I care to think about. Leaving them behind sounded like a good idea right then. I opened the door and got in.

James put the truck into gear, and took us up the ramp. We came out under the building, and the Hollywood sky seemed to just float over our heads. The night air was just slightly cool, not cold. I rolled down the window, and felt the heat of the day being released by the streets.

I looked out the window, and watched the streets of LA roll past. Somehow, without the tinted windows of the limo, I felt more connected to the buildings, the cars, the little shops going past. Like I was a part of the city, not just passing through it.

“You’re name,” I said, suddenly remembering I was in a car with a man I hardly knew, and could not remember his name. “Is is James, or Jamie?”

The sound man looked over at me, and gave a smile. “Neither,” he said. “Its Jaime,” he said, pronouncing it the Spanish way; hi-me. “Jaime Delgado. James or Jamie is the anglicized version.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I saw it written down somewhere, and assumed…”

Jaime gave a short laugh. “It’s okay,” he said with a wry expression. “Considering what I been called for most of my life, a little confusion over my name is nothing.”

With an opening like that, I had to ask. “What did they used to call you?”

He smiled again as the darkened houses of the sleeping city rolled past the window. “Father Juan,” he said.

“Father, as in a priest? Hail Mary and all that?”

“Yes,” he said flatly. “All that.”

His response made it clear it was not a topic he liked to talk about. My curiosity was piqued, but I understood his need. All of us have skeletons in our closets. Having a team of reporters dedicated to unearthing all of mine and my wife’s, gave me some sympathy for his position. Who cared what he did in the past? Jaime was a first class sound man, his suggestions were good, and his demeanor always professional. At that point, nothing else about him mattered.

Jaime drove in silence, taking his time, driving at a moderate pace. He took us in a circuitous route, forgoing boulevards for backstreets whenever possible. If you wanted to elude a media circus, this was a good way to do it. After a while I noticed we were somewhere near downtown, by the USC campus. The small houses and old apartments has the disheveled look of age and neglect. Most were spanish style, their sharp corners covered with plaster or painted adobe. Their long narrow windows often arched over their tops. We pulled down a side street, and then up into an alley. Jaime parked the truck in an empty spot behind a dilapidated store. The curved spanish roof tiles clung onto the façade above the doorway like a crooked teeth.

“We’ll have to be quiet,” he said as we got out. “My friends, the ones who own this shop, they sleep right above it.”

I could see a staircase to one side of the alley that lead up to a second floor. The living quarters on the second level looked recently redone, with fresh paint, and new windows obvious in the moonlight. LA is like that. A striking contrast of new and old, rich and poor, all crammed next to each other.

“Are you sure they don’t mind?” I whispered as he pulled out a key and stuck it in the back door.

He turned back to look at me as his hand twisted the lock. “Are you kidding?” he asked as he pushed open the door. “They’re the ones who gave me the key.”

I followed him into a small shop that was cluttered with dark shapes. In the soft moonlight I could see all kinds of items, statues and such, on little shelves all around the room. A glass counter to one side held candles and bric-a-brac. I could just make out the writing in the moonlight. Most of it in Spanish. In the dim moonlight, the store looked like a bible bookstore that had been crossed with a head shop.

Near the back I saw a life-sized mannequin. It was a woman in a long white dress. The dress showed an overabundance of lace and frill. From my take on Spanish culture, I pegged it to be a wedding dress. All kinds of candles and statures surrounded the mannequin, making it look less like a store display, and more like a very large altar. The head was covered in a long complex veil. Something about it looked wrong, but I couldn’t see what. When we got closer to it, I noticed is wasn’t a woman at all. It was a skeleton.

“What kind of religion would put a skeleton in a wedding dress,” I asked?

“What? Oh that,” Jaime said, noticing what I was looking at. “That’s… She’s for the regular patrons. Don’t worry about it. Where we want to go is in here,” he said pointing to a nondescript door to the side to the bizarre altar.

I stopped him with my hand on his shoulder. “You sure this isn’t some religious thing?” I was starting to regret my trust in him.

“Positive,” he said evenly.

Jaime opened the door slowly, then stopped. He turned to me and said quietly, “Look. I never quite know what to expect, every time I go in here, and I’ve been here a lot. She is… uh, different. Not what you expect.” I tried to mention that knowing the unexpected was part of my job, but he quieted me with a hand. “Just, try not to be too surprised. Okay? And, well, I don’t want to sound insulting, but try to keep an open mind.”

With that he lead me into the room, and closed the door.

Now I have to stop at this point to tell you that there is probably nothing that pisses me off more then when a screenwriter stops to warn the audience that something “different” is coming. Its a stupid convention that attempts to squeeze more mystery out of a piss-poor story; a cheap and tawdry way to cover up the mistakes of a bad plot. In my experience it almost always fails.

And asking me to keep an open mind – me, a director – a man that makes impossible things happen all the time? This was like asking a fish to be more wet, or asking the Pope, to borrow an old saw, to be more Catholic. In short, it was insulting. Insulting and stupid. All Jaime did with his little warning was to let me know I was in for some kind of a performance, and judging by past experience, it was going to be a bad one.

The room we were in was small, maybe eight feet on a side. A tiny opening in the ceiling let in a soft glow of blue moonlight. The walls had the brown color of aged, unpainted adobe. Instead of a floor there was uneven packed dirt. The doorway was framed in old wood, the few strips of paint remaining were pealing. There were no other openings save the skylight and the door we entered. On the ground against the backside was a small wooden pallet, maybe 5 feet long, and half that wide. On one end of the pallet was an neatly folded indian blanket which looked to be old and well used.

Jaime busied himself lighting a few candles while I stood in the middle of the room thinking dark thoughts. The blue of the moonlight puddled at my feet slowly gave way to the rich reds and golds of the candle light. He shook out the wooden match he was using, and I watched its smoke slowly curl up to the skylight.

“Now what?” I asked, still in a foul mood.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,” he said. “We wait.”

“For how long?” I was growing impatient.

He shrugged his shoulders again.

I let out a sigh, and put my hands behind my back, wanting to get this performance over with so I could go back home. I should never have trusted Jaime to come out here, I realized. It was late at night, and I was far from home. I didn’t even know where I was at, but my phone did, and there were people at my house who would pick me up when I called them.

It was this last thought that comforted me. Knowing there was someone, somewhere who would come if I called. I know it sounds silly, but sometimes it the little things that help. In this case it helped me to relax enough to start paying attention. A good thing too as no sooner did I have this thought, then I saw the blanket start to move and shiver.

It was an interesting effect, seeing the blanket unfold on its own. I had seen something like it before at a magic show at the Magic Castle, but that was fairly far away and up on a stage. It was much more impressive to see it right up close.

As I watched, the blanket folded all the way out and suddenly started rising up, twisting and tugging as it went. It was filling up, expanding, like someone was crawling up into it from below. I was just starting to look for the trapdoor under the pallet, when I noticed the blanket had stopped moving. With it stopped I could see it was no longer a blanket, but the dress on the body of an old woman. The transformation was so quick that I didn’t even see it. One minute it was a blanket, the next, a dress.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jaime bow down to the woman, but I was still too transfixed by the excellent stage craft.

“That was incredible,” I said. “What a great trick. Can you do it again? I simply have to know how you did that! I know just the scene for it in too.”

Jaime said something to the woman. I don’t know what. It sounded like a formal greeting in Spanish. Like something you say to a visiting studio head while he’s interrupting your work.

The old woman looked at him, then looked at me. Her eyes locked on mine, and I felt a chill going through me. The hair on the back of my neck started to rise.

The woman was short, maybe 5 foot 2. She had a round face with prominent cheek bones, like you see on the indians out of the less civilized parts of Mexico. Her dark skin was wrinkled and crusted with age. Her hair was long, mostly grey. It hung loose around her head like a crown, not braided or tied. Woven into some of the strands were bits of bones and feathers. Though short, she stood in that room with a comfort, a regal bearing, that made her seem taller. And her eyes… They held you with a confidence that said, “I can kick your ass anytime I want.”

Now I’ve met most of the great actresses of our age, I’m even married to one, so I know what it’s like to see a woman project confidence. Even up close. Hell, I’ve directed it. But this. This old woman. She held that confidence. That, and something more. Something primal. Something animal. It was a grand performance. It was wonderful, it was beautiful. I couldn’t wait to use her for something. She was so great, I knew I had to write a screenplay around her.

Only I couldn’t talk to her.

Still lost in her eyes, I asked Jaime, “Where did you find her? She is wonderful. She is perfect. I’m so glad you brought me out here. Does she speak English? Is she SAG?”

Jaime placed a hand on my shoulder. “Please, Mario,” he said. “Please. It’s not like that. She’s not…”

The old woman interrupted him, saying something rapidly in her language. It may have been a question, but from her it sounded more like a demand. I could feel Jaime tense, but he said nothing. She asked again, this time shorter. Her eyes never leaving mine.

Jaime finally spoke at length. I don’t know what he said, but his tone was that of a school boy caught cheating on a test.

When he finished talking, the old women’s eyes grew hard. It was a very small change, but suddenly the room felt very cold.

“What did you tell her,” I asked feeling myself get angry? Clearly something he had said had made pushed her the wrong way.

“Only what you said,” Jaime replied.

“Tell her I want to use her,” I said. “Tell her I want make a movie with her as the star.”

He looked at me as if I was an idiot. “But you don’t understand,” he said.

“Tell her!”

“Okay,” he replied. “If you say so.”

He spoke at some length to her. She asked a few questions in return, which he answered quickly. When he was done she looked at him with astonishment, then back at me. Then she laughed.

She said something else which she translated. “She thinks you are very funny,” he said. “An excellent joker.”

I was shocked. A joker? Me?

Doesn’t she know who I am,” I asked. “Tell her. Tell here I am Mario Cumomo, the director. Surely she’s heard of me. Whistling Bells? Hallowed Ground III? The Churning? I’m one of the best directors in town.”

Jaime translated my words while I waited. She smiled at first, then the humor seemed to peal from her face leaving a stone hard surface underneath. With cold eyes she looked at me and spoke is short sharp sentences.

“It is not that I do not know you, Señor Director,” Jaime translated rapidly. “It is you who doesn’t know me. I am Santa Muerte, the queen of death. And you are a naive fool to think you can offer me anything.”

She leaned forward, and ran one hand past each side of my face, like she was brushing off a fly from either ear. With each motion she made a noise like “foof, foof.”

“That’s better,” she said. “He can understand me now.”

And it was true. She still spoke Spanish, or whatever language it was, but I could understand every word.

“So why did you bring this fool to me. Miho,” she said looking sharply at Jaime?

“Please Abuela,” he pleaded, calling her by the Spanish word for Grandmother. “He may be ignorant, but he is not a fool. He is simply spoiled, like a boy too used to getting his way.”

“What,” I said interrupting? I couldn’t help myself. “Who is ignorant? What are you talking about?”

“You!” they both said in unison.

“Do yourself a favor, Mario,” Jaime said to me in English. “Shut up and listen.”

I opened my mouth, but something held my tongue. Kate liked to joke that it would take a miracle to get me to stop talking. Perhaps she was right.

“See, Abuela,” Jaime said. “He can learn.”

“Okay,” said the old woman her eyes still fierce. “Perhaps he is not a complete fool,” she said without much conviction, “but why did you bring him to me?”

Jaime held her eye for a moment, and then spoke softly, “Because, Abuela, you took something from him. Something he cannot live without.”

“And,” she said like a challenge.

“And,” Jaime said defiantly. “He needs it back.”

She paused for a moment, both looking at me, and Jaime, her eyes grave. “Does he know what you are asking?”

“No Abulea, he doesn’t?”

“Will he pay the price? You know the rules.”

“Yes, Abuela, I know how you work.” He swallowed for a moment then said, “If he doesn’t pay the price, I will.”

She looked at him, her eyes suddenly large with surprise. “Are you sure, Miho?”

“Si,” he said.

“But you hardly know this man. Would you pay that price?”

“I may hardly know him, Abuela, but I have worked with him long enough to see into his heart. There is a decent man underneath all the bravado. I am sure. I will pay the price if I have to, but I don’t think I will.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You trust him that much do you?”


“Forgive me,” I interrupted because I could not take it any more. “I have no idea what you are talking about, but I gather there is some cost involved. I know you prefer me to stay quiet, but if it involves me, shouldn’t I have some say in this?”

The old woman turned and gave me a look of grudging respect. Jaime said to her, “See, Abuela. He’s not a total idiot.”

Then he turned to me. “I came here to intercede for you. I cannot say what for, or why. That is part of the rules. If I told you in advance, it wouldn’t work.”

“Like some kind of magic, or something,” I asked?

“Something like that,” he said. “Yes.”

“Hum,” I said. “So I can’t know what it is, but I still have to accept. It that what it is?”

“Yes,” he said. “Exactly.”

“What if I say no,” I said.

“Then nothing happens,” he replied. “She might even wipe this memory from you, for all I know.”

The old woman gave a slight nod as if removing a man’s memory was an easy thing. That chilled me more than her words.

“Who are you,” I asked out loud before I could think to stop myself.

“She is Santa Muerte,” Jaime said. “The Saint of Death.”

“The saint of death,” I asked? ”How does that work? I thought all you Catholics…”

Jaime raised up his hand to stop me. “Another time, Mario. We need to decide. You need to decide. I already made my decision.”

I thought for a moment. “You want me to trust you,” I said? “Want me to pay a price for something I don’t know what it is, nor what it is about? Is that about right?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I take it the price is high, is that true?”

“That depends,” said Jaime. “For me, the price would be very high, but for you… Well I cannot say much, but I think you would pay this price. Willingly.”

“You trust me that much?” I asked. I was surprised and touched in a way that was troubling.

“Lets us just say that this retired priest still knows a thing or two about people. If it helps, think of it as a wager I am willing to take.”

“This isn’t some trick to try and get my money is it?”

Jaime laughed at this. “If I had wanted money, Mr. Cumomo, I would have stayed in the drug dealing business like my family. Believe me when I say, dealing with Santa Muerte has cost me more then it could ever give.”

A look of sadness crossed both of their faces. That surprised me. How could sadness connect Jaime to this strange woman? Then again, I reasoned, she was the saint of death. Sadness and death tended to go hand in hand. What surprised me more was the idea that Death could feel sadness too. That was new to me.

Then suddenly, as if the plot had dropped into my lap, I knew exactly how I would chose.

“Lets do it,” I said. “I accept.”

“Are you sure,” she asked? “This is am important decision.”

One of the things about being a good director is knowing when to make a good decision, and sticking with it. Whatever this was about, I was ready. I waived my hand with impatience. “Yes, grandmother,” I said gravely, “I am sure. Lets do this.”

“Okay,” she said. “As you wish.”

I felt a breeze against my skin, a warm one. Suddenly the small room transformed itself into a meadow, the dark midnight giving way to sunny day. We stood in a field of knee high plants, most of them supporting colorful flowers. They surrounded us on every side. Off in the distance I could see rolling hills. The Hollywood hills. Yet these hills were devoid of any trace of man. It was as if all of humanity had been wiped away, all of our sin, all of our anger. In its place was a perfect world. A perfect Spring.

I heard a sound behind me. The soft footstep of a child. Then I heard a little girls voice. A voice I had not heard in a long time. A voice that chilled my heart. “Papa,” she said? “Is that you?”


It was nine months since I last heard that voice. I remember the day well. It was the next to the last day of production. Elsa and I had been planing our “Daddy Week” for a while. Each night, before she went to sleep, we would go over the schedule. On Tuesday we would go to the zoo. On Wednesday, the Science Museum, one of her favorite places. Then on Thursday we would go to Travel Town to see the trains. And so on. Al the places a precocious 5 year old liked to go.

A “Daddy Week” or a “Mommy Week” was a little holidays that Kate and I did with Elsa whenever we completed a movie. It was both a celebration, and a way to connect with her, making up for the lost time caused by our busy schedules. I had kissed her goodbye that morning, giving her a hug for Mommy too (Kate was on a shoot in New York). I remember Elsa had been so anxious, saying she just couldn’t wait for tomorrow.

That afternoon she had been in such a hurry that she decided to cross the street without waiting for her nanny. She never saw the car that hit her.

I dropped to my knees, as she ran up and threw her arms around me. I buried my face in her hair, crying. Weeping like a lost soul. She was my love, she was my everything. She was the reason I went to work, and the reason I came home. We shared a thousand songs together, played a hundred games. I would do any thing for her. She was my joy. She was my heart, and she was taken from me completely one afternoon while I was editing the last minute foley.

It was like my life had been cut with a brick. I could not think, I could not act, I could not work. Only I had to work. A director directs. He needs to make the big decisions no matter what. That comes with the job. That and the paycheck. Only the paycheck, the fame, didn’t seem so great compared to the simple joy of holding my daughter, and crying into her hair.

If that was the price the Saint was talking about, I would gladly pay it. A thousand times over I would pay it. What was the use of wealth, if it could not buy a simple thing as this?

I stopped hugging Elsa long enough to hold her out at arms length. Her smile was still the same, her hair the same tangled bird’s nest when not braided. She was wearing the same clothes she the last morning I saw her. She was my little Elsa. Everything exactly like it was nine months ago.

Unbidden, a line came to me from an old college philosophy class. “You can never step twice into the same river.” Good old Heraclitus. That’s when I knew something was up. I could feel the anger in me. The rage starting to build, but I could not be angry in front of my child. Not my dear sweet Elsa.

“I can’t keep her, can I?” A tear unbidden, dropped down my cheek.

“No, mortal,” The Saint said. “Once I have taken a life, it cannot be returned.”

“Can I trade my life for hers then?” I asked as I brushed the hair of of her face.

“That I cannot do either,” she Saint.

I held Elsa close to me, Hugging her fiercely, so great was my need. Then a tiny voice in my ear said, “Its okay papa. It’s okay. I like it here. They treat me nice. There are lots of great toys, and always fun games to play. You’ll see.”

She wiggled out of my arms and walked over the the Saint of Death. She raised her little arm, and placed her hand into the wrinkled claw-like hand of the Saint. “Thank you, Grandma,” she said with a smile, “I liked seeing Papa. Can we do it again?”

The old woman shook her head, and that’s when I knew the price I had to pay. I was not my great wealth she wanted. Not the fame. It was not even my life. It was to never to see my daughter again. Ever.

I started to cry, wondering if I could pay that price. If I could make that choice. My heart felt crushed, ready to break all over again. I had forgotten how much she was a part of me. How much I needed her. Then I felt her little hand on my shoulder again, and a strand of her wild hair touched my cheek. “Its okay Papa,” she said. “Don’t cry. Mommy has a surprise for you. You’ll see.”

I placed my hand on top of hers, and gave it a squeeze. I looked up into the eyes of the Saint of Death, and nodded my consent. Then still holding my little girls hand on my shoulder, I dropped my head and I cried.

I was still had my hand on my shoulder when I found myself back in the little room at the religious store. The moonlight fell down to the earth, and puddled around me on my knees. My face was wet with my tears. I could still smell a trace of wildflowers in the room.

I lifted my hand from my shoulder. There was something in it. Instead of my daughters hand was a small statue of a skeleton in a wedding dress. The likeness of the little figure was perfect. Real. Except for the flesh on her face, it captured everything about her. I put it into my pocket, and we made our way quietly out of the store.


The following morning while in the shower, an idea came to me about the scene, the one that had been vexing me. Back in the shop we quickly set up a few simple edits, and by 11:30 I knew I had resolved it.

Jaime never mentioned a thing about the previous night, but he didn’t bat an eye when I put the little statue of Santa Muerte on the desk before we started, and he made sure I had it when we left.

Just after lunch I got a call while we were going over the last little edits. It was my assistant, Jane, telling me Kate had called. She was on set again, this time in Chicago. I dialed her cell, and got her just before they went back to shooting.

“You sitting down,” she said? “I’ve got good news.”

“Yes I know,” I said.

“You know,” she asked sounding crestfallen?

“I know that you have good news,” I said. “Just not what the news is.”

“You do?” she said. “How do you know that?”

“Look, are you going to tell me what it is, or do I have to fly out there and beat it out of you,” I said sarcastically?

“Oh, you’re so sexy when you’re angry,” she whispered. It was a joke we used to share back when Elsa was first born, and we were dealing with the frustration of being first time parents. We hadn’t spoken like that in months. It hit her too, I could tell as she paused and forced herself to keep from crying. I wasn’t wearing makeup for a part, so I could cry for the both of us.

“Okay,” she said. “Something funny came up last week, so I made an appointment with the doctor. I went and saw her this morning.”

My heart skipped a beat. Something funny? Oh God, not again, I thought. I forced myself to keep a light voice. “And what did he say?”

“Not he. She. And she said we are most certainly and definitely pregnant. What do you think of that?”

For the next few minutes all I could do was cry. When I finally could speak I said, “What I think is that I am the happiest man in the world.”

And you know, it was true.

You need to read this book.

Really. You need to read this book. I’m not kidding. Just buy a copy and read it, okay?

If you don’t want to buy it from Amazon, you can find it in almost every used bookstore.

A while ago I wrote this review on Goodreads. Since I’ve been re-reading BOB again, all I can say is its still true.

This is one of those books that almost anyone can read and enjoy. The kind of book that usually gets around only by word of mouth. In my case my sister simply handed me a copy, and said, “Here, brat. Read this.” It is a fantasy, a mystery, and something else. It is deeply funny, and at the same time wonderfully touching. It is a quirky novel, often associated with “The Princess Bride.” Barry Hughart happily twists the ordinary into the profound, and the profound into ordinary. In most mysteries, the plot has the main characters slowly, piece by piece, uncovering the truth, in this book they are also uncovering China. Each clue tells the reader more about China; more depth, more interest, and more supernatural, until at the very end the reader suddenly finds themselves knee deep in something that can only be fable, and cheek-to-jowl with the gods. Its like starting with Sam Spade in gritty urban Los Angeles, and somehow ending up in Valhalla. I’ve read it several times, and Hughart always surprises me with his transition from a sleepy Chinese village, to a piece on the great chess board of heaven. 

Some quotes:
“Take a large bowl,” I said. “Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, myhtology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei – which means “dry cup” – and drink to the dregs.”
Procopius stared at me. “And I will be wise?” he asked. 
“Better,” I said. “You will be Chinese.” 

“Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.” 

“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character.”

Seriously, why haven’t you read this yet. Go. Now.

A culture of consumerism, or how we saved ourselves with advertising

A good friend of mine posted a great article on the effects of consumerism on our culture. I found it on FB, but thought it might be better brought over to my blog. You might read the post for yourself before digging into my response below.

I think this is a wonderful article, although I had a few quibbles. The author has the history a bit mixed up, but the end result is the same.

Consumer spending as a force in our economy (over 70% of the GDP, last time I looked) was not designed as much as it was an accident. Call it a feature instead of a bug, if you will. Like many things in our semi-capitalistic economy, it came about both by consumer forces, and a need to see a greater return on investment. Its the superhero of this story that is surprising.

Today the concept of advertising is deeply rooted in our culture, but it wasn’t always so. If you look at media (like newspapers or magazines) prior to WWII and indeed prior to WWI, you see very little of what we call advertising. Oh there are ads back then, but they are amazingly transparent to our modern eyes, and they are not nearly as frequent. Its also important to note that during the war years consumer spending was deeply curtailed. Many of the basic needs were rationed, like petrol and food stuffs.

The big shift came as  a result of the post WWII depression. We had all these factories used to making all this stuff, only it wasn’t being consumed by the war department any more (war being the best consumer ever made). If you were invested in lots of factories (which a large percentage of the wealthy had done back then, after all it was patriotic and profit making) what were you to do? You wanted to get a good return on your investment, but how was that going to happen?

At the same time you had many people who had worked hard and saved during the war (or had worked hard in the war), and were looking for a way to reward themselves for their efforts.

Enter the savior to our economy. Of all things it ended up being Madison Ave. in NY, and by extension all of its ad men. Advertising became the hook to pull consumers into the market. First by radio, and then by glorious TV, we extend the idea of buying our way into a better economy one ad at a time. And as advertising became increasingly profitable more investment was put into the process of designing and creating ads. It was this investment, it was this interest in spurring our economy, that allowed advertising to finally grow, and become more sophisticated. Trying new tricks, new techniques, new mediums (like TV), and new relationships (like advertising and sports), averting grew until it started to become one of the most dominate cultural forces in our country.

As advertising grew in influence it also became more sophisticated.  Ads used to be garish, and overly broad, using pitifully simple themes to get us to buy. But now ads have evolved to become more and more sophisticated as we’ve learned to tune out the simple ones. Today ads on the internet are often deeply targeted. If last week you did a search for a new rototiller, don’t be surprised if this week your favorite blog features ads for new rototillers. Advertisers have mixed the power of search engine queries with the power of flexible web-pages, a process that is intrinsically complex.

But here’s the tricky part. Just like you don’t have to buy anything sold in an ad, you don’t have to buy our ever present advertising culture either (or any other culture for that matter). Alas, the price for this is not fitting in, which is a difficult feeling to overcome. We’re wired to go along with the herd (which is one of the ways advertising works), so standing out goes against our biology. And don’t try pretending that advertising doesn’t work on you. Studies show that the people most likely to be effected by advertising are the ones who claim they are the lest likely.

If you’re looking for ways to shed the effect of adverting culture from your life, I’d recommend you look to the people who have been shunning popular culture for millennia: Artists. Check out your local painters, song-writers, poets, authors, actors, etc. All of these creative types have been thumbing their noses at the world for years. Practicing their own versions of anti-culture. Check them out. Get involved. Create. And learn to ditch the cultural norms which are holding you back.