The Retraction From Life

Weaker, yet still alive, still able to speak, Louise M. Hurvitz was in her wheelchair, in the sunshine near the glistening Marina boats, when she told me she wanted to eat a steak.

That was on Monday, August 18th. She ate a hamburger that night, and a slice of pizza on Tuesday night. She was 8 months into her Stage 4 lung and bone cancer.

Nurse Linda said she was looking great.

Then on Wednesday she began to call for her sister “Millie”. She was up all night, and then asleep all day by morphine and Lorazepam. In periods of wakefulness, her glazed eyes no longer looked at me, but out into nothing.

She was no longer able to speak. I went every other day to see her, knowing she was entering death.

A blue booklet left by hospice, Gone From My Sight, explained how the bedridden dying walked out of life. We noted her symptoms mirrored in the book.

The late afternoon sun was bright in her bedroom on Friday, August 22nd. She screamed that her head hurt, her back hurt, everything hurt. She wanted me to shut all the drapes. I abided and put the room in darkness. Foreshadowing.

She was in her last days. Nurse Bertha said if she ate she would stay alive. And then on Friday, August 29th, Labor Day weekend, hospice came and said, “no more food or water”. She was given 72 hours.

All weekend were the pleasures of Los Angeles, the beach and the beer, the walks along Abbot Kinney, the barbecues, I partook of some haunted by an upcoming phone call.

And then on Sunday, August 31st at 11:30 PM we were called and told she was breathing irregularly. We got in the car and rushed down to the apartment. My brother and sister-in-law were at her bedside. A nurse helplessly held the nasal end of the oxygen tube against her open mouth.

She was gray faced.

She was gasping for breath.

I replaced the nasal oxygen with a whole nose/mouth mask. Nurse Linda arrived. The hospice nurse came. It was about 2am and we did not know how long she would live. Exhausted we left. And an hour later I was in bed when my brother called.

“I hate to tell you this but Mom has passed.”

All the fighting for her life, all the medications, the food, the physical therapy, the chemotherapy, the consultations with UCLA medical doctors, the cat scans and the other radiology, the organic smoothies packed with nutrients; all the equipment, the oxygen, the ointments; everything done to keep her alive and going. Done.

Her body was pronounced dead by a doctor. The cremation company came to the apartment to wrap up and remove her.


We held a home service for her, almost a week later, on Saturday, September 5th.

Andreas Samson, my friend who writes Up in the Valley, attended and wrote a touching description of the bittersweet “party”.

There was food and drink, old photos on the flat screen television, a Spotify soundtrack of her beloved music (Frank Sinatra, the Fifth Dimension, Herb Alpert). Relatives who had never seen her sick, showed up to pay their respects.

And her life was presented selectively, with an emphasis on the young, beautiful, vivacious, pranking, intelligent, subversive sorority girl and network executive.

She, who died at 80, mothered a retarded boy, took care of an epileptic and ill husband, worried and fretted over children, finances, nightly meals, laundry and cleaning, her daily travails were wiped away or spoken of in one sentence salutes at our remembrance.

For 52 years, I had grown up and grown old with her. I knew her love and her craziness, her exasperating circular questions, her sparkling memory for names, faces, and events.

She, who drank vodka and grapefruit juice, and later switched to red wine, was probably an alcoholic. She was full of shame over events she had no power over, castigating and punishing herself.

But she fought hard to protect and to nurture, and daring to venture out of Lincolnwood, IL, moving to suburban NJ where she set up a new life with her family at 47, exploring Manhattan, New England and the East Coast with the curiosity and passion of a young woman starting out life.


She sold airplanes with a male friend, a pilot and airplane broker who lead a life outside of norms, a man who was later convicted of stealing money from his customers. He flew Louise and our family, often, to Albany, Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, Manahawkin Airport, Miami, East Hampton, Nantucket, Block Island, all around the Eastern Seaboard. American life was seen from 8,000 feet, little houses and little lives across the vast expanse.

She went into the city to see plays with my father, to walk neighborhoods, to buy groceries at Fairway, see exhibitions at the Metropolitan, attend concerts and events at Lincoln Center.

She read the NY Times and Bergen Record voraciously, keeping herself informed on culture and politics. The papers piled up in wet and musty mountains stacked in the garage.


She loved her new home in the woods, a place where the windows were always open and the rooms smelled of rain and leaves and florid humidity. In the spring, summer and early fall, the back deck, suspended on the second story of the house, was her outdoor space, a place of reading, eating, entertaining and midnight conversations by candlelight.


She lost my father after his long and agonizing brain disease, an illness that took 4 years to progress, rendering him an invalid.

But after he died, in her apartment in the Marina, she became a devoted grandmother and somehow earned the respect and awe of children who had once only seen sadness and burden in her exhausted eyes.

She was valiant onto the end; never giving into death, never acknowledging that life was less than the entirety. An iron dome of denial was her shield.

She was more than she ever admitted to being. She was magnificent in her life force, in her refusal to die, in her love for life.





An Exploration.



An Exploration

Sometime over the past few months I found myself looking at a blog, “Mad Thirsty”, an honest and striking creation, in photography and small cap text, of Jesse Somera, a Los Angeles based model and photographer, who documents some of his world online.

Some titles of posts:

photos of two jobs, party&bullshit and the most maddening man i’ve ever met

basically me just fanning out on remi, getting weird at a random party and having fun

 all the behind the scene shots from the mentos commercial i did

There were models, long-haired and long legged girls, skateboarders and stylists, lofts full of junk food, late nights in the clubs, and a trip to Nigeria with a bed full of cash and people with automatic weapons.

Drawn in I was by lost youth, aimless and gorgeous, sullen and bored, making out and barfing up.

Sometime over the past few months, a time when I was otherwise watching my mother progress into death, I had another distraction online, the exact opposite of her illness, a ride into the night with models on their way to Malibu or dancing in the club.


On Wednesday, I made a plan to meet up with Jesse in Little Tokyo.  I didn’t know what to expect.

The day was hot. I parked in a concrete lot under ground, and walked to an alley of sushi bars and cafes. I sat down in one café, by the window, and sent a message to him.

I had brought my camera but then wondered if this might provoke anger. He makes his living getting photographed. So was this a violation?

I imagined him skateboarding up to the café as he did in his Mentos commercial. Would he sit across from me and stare into his phone as we talked? Would he look at other people passing by while we conversed? Would he explode in anger if I asked him how he liked: modeling, Los Angeles, his family, his ex-girlfriend, his career?

When he showed up, he had walked 20 minutes in the heat, but his face was dry and he was cool, dressed in a gray Rag and Bone sweatshirt, and gray sweat pants. He lightly embraced me and we sat down. He drank an unsweetened ice green tea I had bought for him.

Across from me, now, was a green-eyed young man, handsome, with a touch of Asiatic to him: a flat nose, small ears, wide set eyes, and a long, lean body remarkably broad on top, as if he had rowed on the surfboard for many hours a day in the Pacific near his hometown of Ventura, CA. But the rest of him was lean, and his hands were large, and when we talked, he had his full attention on me, and he never wavered. He was intense and polite. He rested his chin atop one of his large hands, expressive hands, hands that could also be the hands of a hand model.

We talked about movies, Terrence Malick and Michelangelo Antonioni; he told me about his favorite photographer Alasdair McLellan; we compared Pentax, Fuji, digital and film; we went around about his relationships, his loft, his ex-girlfirend, his dreams.

He asked me, naturally, that assassinating question for which I have no present answer: What do you do for a living?

He had gravitas, bearing and self-assurance. And his aura, boyish, contained sad, subtle, quiet, masculine rage that sometimes erupts, under the surface, in people with great gifts, be they artistic, physical or intellectual.

He had described himself, in his blog, of not being very good at certain things that I judged him to be very good at. And in his self-doubt I saw my own.

My self-torture silently screams: Bad at math, not a real man, no career, aimless, petty, childish, vindictive, self-pitying, suicidal.

His self-description, in the blog, of not always measuring up, this is the way I have seen my whole life, of imagining that I was destined to become someone admired, or read or watched or loved. He too was on that kick, a drug of perfectionism that knows no cure.

His writing, his photographs and his beauty brought me to meet him, but I think I was in search of something lost in myself, that aching desire to return to youth and dive into a paid profession rewarding, creative and thrilling.

It is obvious to me, now, that I will never have a mentor. There will be no father figure to sponsor me. There will be no boss to bring me along. And maybe that is good.

And I went down to meet Jesse Somera, strangely imagining that we were contemporaries in some alien way, the 25-year-old and the 52-year-old, two artists trying to work and get recognition.

Maybe I will end up like my mother, on my deathbed, enraged that I hadn’t yet begun to realize my life.

Or maybe I have been living the dream all along, as lucky as Jesse Somera, the beautiful and talented boy I met the other day in Little Tokyo.

The trick is to realize it before it’s too late.




Prayers and Pharmaceuticals.

What day was it on the calendar?

I did not know.

I only know I was speaking with my mother, pushing her along in the wheelchair along the Marina path. The sky was bright, the boats were anchored along the dock, she said she was hungry and wanted a steak.

It was last Monday, August 18th and Linda brought her a burger from In N’ Out. My mother said it was delicious.

The next night she asked for pizza.

The steroids that she had gone back on seemed to be making her hungrier, putting food for life back into the body of a woman in Stage 4 cancer.

Linda came and said mother is looking better. Vital signs were good. Blood pressure 102/59, pulse 62, temperature 98.6.



I was back on Thursday, August 21st.

Caregiver Bertha, a Guatemalan woman who is a fireball of energy and love, cooking up soups, cleaning windows, massaging oil into my mother, rolling her out of bed into the wheelchair, said my mother had been up all night screaming, “Help! Help! Help!”

I blamed the steroids. They were keeping her up.

My mother told me she was dying. She said this was it.

Bertha laughed and said “Miss Lou you are not dying. Your face has color. This is not death!”

My mother said that Anisha was in the other room. I said Anisha is gone. She said she saw her. She said it over and over again. We were conversing, but the conversation was repetition. I was speaking to her, as I had for the last half century, but the words were going into a mind going into death.

My mother said I was sick. I told her I was not. “Why are you sick?” she asked. She said something about a concussion.



On Friday, my sister-in-law Pri visited and spoke with my mother. Later I came over and found my mother asleep. When she awoke, her eyes were watery, and she asked for her sister Millie. “Millie, Millie, Millie, Millie, Millie…” And I dialed the phone, 90-year-old Millie in Chicago answered, and on speaker she spoke to my mother, “Lou I love you. You are my favorite sister.”

The nurse from Skirball came, cheery, on her last call of the day, before she went off work for the weekend. As she had, all along, the hospice nurse offered empathy and most of all, pharmaceuticals. She had no explanation for my mother’s descent into half-life. She wanted to make sure my mother was “comfortable” in her “transition”, the words as soft and false and phony and amorphous as the hospice treatment, a kind of strange medicine offering prayers from amateur rabbis, talk therapy from retired therapists, and weekly visits from drug dispensing nurses pouring morphine and Lorazepam into the mouths of the dying.

My mother asked me to close the drapes in the room. She said the light was blinding her. She said her head hurt. She said she ached all over. I pulled the drapes shut, and we sat in the dark, which felt ominous, a portent of death, shutting out light.


On Saturday, August 23rd, I went down to the apartment to welcome a new caregiver, Marta, who would be there in the last days of my mother’s life. Bertha stayed, until 3 O’Clock, training the new woman.

A blonde, middle-aged female rabbi came to the apartment, ludicrously dressed, to my eyes, in a doily lace yarmulke, offering exuberant compliments about the 8th floor view. She sat down next to my mother and asked if she was ready to go. She said it was Ok to go. My mother was now dead to spirit, but alive, incoherent, the silly, improvised, bedside portable Judaism lite blew over her like the breeze.

The rabbi left, her utterances to the all-mighty were no match for the wonders and miracles of morphine. True peace and acceptance were swallowed every four hours.

“I give your mother La Morfina. She sleep well,” Bertha said.

 La Morfina.

The patron saint of cancer.

And I returned on Sunday, August 24, 2014 to her apartment. The front door was open and a wind blew through the living room, rustling the newspapers and sucking the drapes into the open sliding doors.

Danny and I sat next to her, one on each side of her bed.

“Do you know who I am?” Danny asked.

“Danny,” she said.

“Good!” he said.

She said my name and then fell back into her world. And whatever she said next had no meaning. They were only words, coming out, weakly.

“Clicker, clicker, clicker…” referring to the TV remote.









Juvenile Gang Style, Van Nuys, 1951.

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Members of a juvenile gang (“Jack’s Gang”) wait outside of the Valley Municipal Building, August 14, 1951. They were charged with possession of numerous weapons.

Gang members in the early 1950s were quite different from our modern gangsters.

Thin, lanky, well-groomed, they wore argyle socks, dress trousers with cuffs, or, like one young man, dark jeans with graphic t-shirt (“Hollywood and Vine”). Another sports a Hawaiian shirt and rolled up denim jeans.

Their parents seem perversely proud and non-plussed by their boys, as if the young men were just going through another male rite of passage.

Photos: USC Digital Archives


“She was screaming at night about her arm, her chest, her leg,” Anisha, a caregiver, said.

“She hardly slept.”

Anisha was speaking about my mother,now in Stage 4 cancer, confined to a bed for the last eight months.

Later on, when I went into her room, my mother said she had slept well the night before. “There is nothing wrong with me,” she said.

She was breathing on oxygen, then she told us to take it off. She has refused most pain medication, reluctantly asking only for sleeping pills.


I took her out on Sunday, in her wheelchair, and we ventured along the Marina. By chance, we happened to come to a dock where a water taxi was taking passengers. I wheeled her down and we rode around the harbor for a dollar.

A hospice nurse visited on Sunday night and found nothing “wrong”, only anxiety.

On Monday, another nurse came and told me later my mother’s feet were showing signs of “mottling” an impending indicator of death.


On Tuesday, I was back down at her apartment. A social worker was talking to my mother. Anisha told me that my mother had not slept the night before, and had talked of her future fear and past regret. “You should give her some hope for the afterlife,” Anisha said to me, an atheist.

When the social worker left, I went back into the bedroom. My mother was combative, annoyed. “You and your brother are driving me crazy with this system! How would you like to be under a microscope?”

I asked her if she had slept well. She said of course. She slept fine.

Again we went out to roam around the Marina. It got windy and she asked to go back inside. “I want a steak,” she said. She had not eaten more than liquids for at least a week. I corrected her and said she meant hamburger.

And then after I left the apartment, after I had two glasses of wine at a bar, I walked around Venice, shooting pictures along the canals, and then wandered back to my car.

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The phone rang as I drove east on Washington. It was Anisha. She wanted to assure me that my mother had slept well last night. When she had called out, it was only in a dream.

“I told him,” Anisha said to my mother before she hung up the phone.

Art in the San Fernando Valley: 1970-1990

10560575_10152556019069463_8203707631608093871_o CSUN will run, from August 25-October 11, 2014 an art show devoted to the San Fernando Valley as it existed in the years 1970-1990. One of the artists, whose work will exhibit here, is Mike Mandel. I found some of his photographs on Flickr. 10040107395_bf46ac63d9_o


All Photos: Mike Mandel


Van Nuys Boulevard: Between Sherman Way and Saticoy (Part II)



Here are some additional photos from my exploration (along with “Up in the Valley” pal Andreas Samson) as we walked in the commercial neighborhood along Van Nuys Boulevard from Sherman Way to Saticoy.

John's Barber Shop

John’s Barber Shop (14435 Sherman Way Suite 105 Van Nuys, CA 91406) has only been open a year, but has garnered a devoted local following. I found them, again, on Yelp and went there today for a $15 haircut. Third generation barber Jerry said that owner John also comes from a long line of barbers. The styles adhere closely to the current “fade” trend evocative of the 1950s with greaser hair and short razor thin back and sides.


Near John’s in another expansive mall, south of Sherman Way, one finds a variety of ethnic restaurants including Tacos Mexico (7140 Van Nuys Blvd Van Nuys, CA 91405) housed under a red and white taco shaped roof. Many reviewers give it high marks while some express the usual hatred for Van Nuys itself.


“The best Al Pastor tacos EVER!!! The marinated meat is heavenly and the seasoning is just perfect.”


“I know there are thousands of divey taco stands all over Southern California and I have tried quite a few, but I feel completely lucky to have found this little gem located in a shitty part of Van Nuys.”


“On this dank and dark corner of Van Nuys (with pawn shops, ATT Mobile units, and laundromats).”

7128 Van Nuys Blvd, San Fernando Valley, CA 91405(818) 780-8022

Oddly placed Korean BBQ: Duk Su Jang (7126 Van Nuys Bl.) which has been around for a long time but is not getting any good reviews from Yelp: “Extremely Poor customer service, not so fresh vegetables, ok meat, high prices, dirty and old building.”

DSCF1034 DSCF1031 Van Nuys/Sherman Way

Architecturally, logistically, aesthetically, the landscape of Van Nuys Boulevard at Sherman Way reflects the lowbrow tastes of the 1980s and 90s when small shops were cleared out and vast blacktops of asphalt and ungainly malls proliferated. On a hot day, this is one of the hottest places to walk, un-shaded by trees, drowning in exhaust fumes, and a nightmare for pedestrians to navigate with lumbering buses and speeding cars.

Van Nuys reaches the acme of ugliness at this point: cheap, crass, tacky, devoted to car and fast food, obesity and environmental degradation.

But within this suburban hell, there are many small businesses that are making money, employing people, and greasing the economic engine of the San Fernando Valley. A largely Latino population runs and patronizes the stores, shops, services and eating establishments, often paying cash for everything from transmissions to groceries.


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