Suspicious Minds

In 1951, when John Cage saw his friend Robert Rauschenberg's series of White Paintings, he called them "airports for the lights, shadows, and particles." The blank expanse of white oils on white canvas allows the pictures to become creatures of environment in that the way they look depends entirely on where they are. Hanging in naturally lit rooms, they're different every second of the day, altered by the sun's path across the sky. And my elbow's shadow breaks up their surface with a shape yours never could.

Legend has it that the White Paintings inspired Cage to conceive their musical equivalent -- his infamous 1952 composition 4'33", in which a performer sits motionless at the piano for four minutes and 33 seconds while the audience is made to ponder silence and its implications. Or rather, the lack of silence -- the hum of electric lights, the rustling of programs, the pissed-off whispers of "What the hell is going on?"

At first, the two ideas sound like the snottiest sort of art jokes possible. But deep down, a White Painting or 4'33" inspires one to actively notice the world; they call for not being bored. They act as metaphors for cultural criticism, because criticism, like art, is about paying attention. The most bottomless void, when scrutinized, can yield rewards. And if contemplating silent music or barren paintings can lead to engaging insights, then why not reconsider Los Angeles?

"I love this grid of mini-malls so blank, so formless, so characterless," writes Sandra Tsing Loh of her hometown. "Its dull, lidless eye is mine. Its emptiness is my emptiness. Yea, it is my Moby Dick."

Many of the essays in Loh's book Depth Takes a Holiday (Riverhead Books) first appeared in her "Valley" column in Buzz magazine. Thus her livelihood depends on stalking the San Fernando white whale: "I cheerfully refuse to be bored by anything. Or I would be out of a job." Loh begins her collection of drive-by accounts of temping, Baywatch, and IKEA furniture with a Buzz reader's letter. Loh's column is so witty and intelligent, the letter-writer claims, that she "must have lived back east" since no one hailing from the "deadlands of Southern California" would possess such "active brain cells."

Sure, we've all had a deadlands moment. I was walking along Venice Beach last year with a book in hand when a man who passed me called out, "Hey, schoolmarm!" as if even a time-honored trash tradition like "beach novel" was just too literary on surfer turf. But Loh's fed up with the rest of the country chiding her city as a symbol of all things dumb; Baywatch, she notes, "would not be a number-one show if only L.A. watched it."

Through essays about Tonya Harding's acting debut, the availability of surprisingly decent takeout in Van Nuys, and "A Survey of Open-Mike Poetry Readings" ("in which an open mike becomes more like an open hole"), it turns out that the most bizarre and enigmatic figure in all of Los Angeles just might be Loh's Chinese father. While she dismisses the whiff of exoticism surrounding her daughter-of-immigrants upbringing -- "Being Chinese-German meant having rice and potatoes with every meal" -- a sense of wonder (exasperation? fear?) engulfs every mention of her dad. A prosperous, retired aerospace engineer, Mr. Loh owns a car but insists nevertheless on hitchhiking around town, thanks to generous drivers such as film star Anjelica Huston.

The thing about white canvases is that different people see them in different ways. Odds are that a goodly number of the fans of Loh's column or her NPR commentaries have stood alone before the vastness of Los Angeles to write their own wry commentaries, if only in their heads. But where Mr. Loh is concerned, we've had only the daughter's guided tour. Until now.

It seems that on his jaunts about town, Mr. Loh has befriended a group of surfers he met on the beach, members of a struggling rock band called Boy Hits Car. The little homemade demo tape they've put together this summer includes a song simply titled "Mr. Loh." If he appears in his daughter's writing as a catalyst for gentle literary eye-rolling ("To him, all cars are potential cabs"), Boy Hits Car's portrait casts him as a wise, mysterious figure, diving into the ocean like some primordial force. In Loh's stories, he calls her up in the wee hours of the morning just to ask about her car insurance premiums. In the band's extremely fawning song, "he doesn't measure people by things we consider important" and "Mr. Loh's not afraid to be naked."

Buck-naked Buddha by day, fiscally responsible elderly person by night, Mr. Loh is a little like Los Angeles, what John Cage might call an airport for meaning, anecdote, and interpretation. And if Sandra Tsing Loh hasn't figured out her father, then the befuddlement has always been reciprocated: "He believed I was destined to shine in the Advanced Tactical Weapons Division at Hughes Aircraft Company," she writes. "He was wrong."

By Sarah Vowell
svowell@aol.com

 
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