An Ikea State of Mind

From teenage runaway...
Our first apartment in LA, when she was a runaway…
Valley housewife
…and as a Valley housewife

The first thing we did when we moved to LA was go to Ikea. We bought plates and bowls, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, but it was notable for being the first time we had spent over $300 on domestic arrangements. An astronomical sum for us, and a stealth commitment to marriage.

Our kitchen may be larger now, but I see commonalities with the past:  Ongoing clutter. An obsession with condiments and spices. Animals underfoot.

It was easy to go to Ikea then. We had little money to spend, so there was little to argue over.  Our spending was aspirational, and therefore abundant:  when we have X, in the mid-future, we will be able to purchase Y. Or we can get Z.  I love Z!  Z would do nicely in the house, when we are able to buy one. Meanwhile we’ll avail ourselves of some $5 candlesticks.

Ikea was a benevolent doting grandmother steering young couples toward the altar.  Then it became a shrewish spinster aunt lurking in the attic, scheming to deny happiness to others.

Buying a house simplified matters. It made us too poor to shop to Ikea, or anywhere else. For the first decade, anyway. Now that we can return to Ikea and almost –almost- entertain the possibilities of the catalogue, we march alongside each other in silence, and leave cheerlessly with a bathmat, some glass jars and a stool.  She annoyed with my annoyance we still, at this late date, dine off mismatched countertops. I annoyed she can’t see how much better the food would taste if the backsplash tiles complemented the room.  Behold the peevish first world troubles of Mr. UpintheValley!

So….yesterday we toured the Brewery Art Walk, its labyrinth of studios and zoo-like glimpses into the domestic arrangements of the artists, who welcomed the curious hordes into their lofts with the cheery announcement that “everything was for sale”.


Like a vulture, I found myself drawn to the kitchens, more than the work itself.  Simplicity reigned, but Ikea lurked in miniature: dish racks, silverware holders, cutting boards.


This one looked like a set for a stage play. A period piece of long suppressed family secrets. The artist dined at her own table as though hundreds of strangers weren’t mere feet away, auditing her life and its works, which was in itself as much a work of performance art as anything on the walls.


Small sinks, formica countertops, vintage stoves, linoleum tiles. Cool, yet impermanent.

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“You gotta see this,” said Andrew, leading me into a portrait studio of Swedish landscapes.  I was surrounded by iterations of a Don Draper-like man lounging in Ikea showrooms, meticulously recreated from photographs.


The man was by turns contemplative, and possibly fearful of leaving the world in which he found himself.  To leave Ikea, said the artist, Rikki Niehaus, one enters a fallen world. A dystopia of ruin.

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I was looking at a version of myself on the wall, one with his loves not rightly ordered.  He stared back at me over my wife’s shoulder, implacable, imprisoned by caution.

Here I am, she said. There, you are not.

Swedish for Argument

In the labyrinth of decisions
In the labyrinth of decisions


When first you arrive at the new Ikea, the escalator deposits you into the food court. Like a marooned astronaut on a foreign planet, you take your tray and step directly into a line for swedish meatballs.

Being herded in this way is oddly comforting. Though neither of you want to admit it, you know what’s coming.  Might as well do it on a contented stomach.


Ikea knows what’s coming, too. Decades of careful study of consumer behavior has shown a well gravy-ed belly is a prophylactic against impulsive argumentation. To that end, they stack chocolate bars for you by the register.  Only 99 cents! Do you feel line having chocolate right now?  Not particularly.  Reason not the need.  At these prices, it would be unsportsmanlike to say no.   There is Mirkwood to cross and the Misty Mountains beyond. You’re fortfifying yourselves. So, lets get another, while we’re at it.  And a third one for the road.


Into the living dioramas of the showrooms we went…to an Other Life, prettier, more well-ordered than one’s own.


You stagger through them in wonder. Wonder begets desire. Desire begets recrimination.   You stand upon shores of beckoning kingdoms, a rebuke to the squalor of your own circumstances.

Here, you are not.  This, you have not. You are wanting.

Purchasing the tableau entire is never possible. So the question becomes what half Ikea, quarter Ikea, one tenth of an Ikea tableau could you go home with and not disagree with yourself?

Buying it all is easy. Picking the right three items to agree on is where the trouble starts.


Kitchens were a particular hazard.

You know of one marriage that nearly came to an end with a screaming match at the Emeryville Ikea, with the wife announcing she was going back to China and taking the kids, while the Kitchen Dept. assistant averted her gaze, doodled nervously on her notepad, as though that sort of thing didn’t happen once a week.  The following day you were deputized to return to the scene of the crime and pick up their order for them as they were too ashamed to show their faces.


As is her nature, Mrs. U  touched everything, opening drawers and sniffing candles as though trying on pairs of shoes.

“Our kitchen is too small,” you announce, breaking the spell.

“These kitchens don’t have walls, making them seem larger than they are. There’s nothing wrong with the size of our kitchen. It’s more than adequate.”

Adequate was the worse possible descriptor she could have chosen in that moment.

She did it on purpose, you decide. The afternoon takes a turn, and you both know it.


She begins marching ahead of you.   With purpose.


A Thin Line Between Jackass and Hero

What could go wrong?
What could go wrong?
Well, this...
Well, this…

The UpintheValley Theoretical School of Home Renovation operates on the following principle:  a) get a book; b) read that book; c) do what the book says.  Voila! New copper plumbing. Honey, look at all the money we saved.

In practice, there is a learning curve: a) first time wrong, b) second time better, c) third time proficient.  ABC.  Always Be Climbing the curve.

This works, more or less, with tile setting, hanging windows, sweat-fitting pipes underneath the house. Piecework…things of that nature…offer margins for error.

Felling a tree is a different animal.

If the tree is 38 inches in diameter, and your saw is 2o inches in length, your margin of error is two inches.  If the tree is 12 feet from the house, but 18 feet in height, your margin is…let’s just say in a contest between two tons of hardwood,  dropping on a hinge, and stucco… stucco doesn’t win.

The Battle Plan
The Battle Plan

So I spray painted some cut lines in the bark, measured out a fall. I made the notch cut.  I stopped several times to check the face of the notch to see it was smiling directly toward the narrow window of space between my tangerine and grapefruit trees.  As a first time tree faller, I was confident hopeful I could drop it without damage to them. If you look carefully at the upper photo, you will see a scratch work of saw lines.  In homicide investigations, these are known as hesitation wounds.

So having done my “homework”, in this case not a library book, but a cursory web search, with illustrations, how did my rented chainsaw end up stuck in a tree that was 90 percent cut through? Why was it not leaning in the direction I wanted it to go? How was it I managed to overlook the use of shims?  If I stopped right there, and called 311, how much would the City charge me to remove this public safety hazard I created with my Van Nuys Can-Do spirit?  How would I explain to my neighbor why she couldn’t park in her driveway ever again, or at least until I got things sorted?

No longer fully in control of matters, I did what jackasses have always done. I improvised.  I grabbed a crowbar, the only plausible shim I could think of, jammed it in the cut, and told Mrs. U to pull very hard on the polyurethane rope I had attached, in my now alarmingly glib pre-planning, to the upper branches.   In the event of a stiff gust of wind in the wrong direction, about as useful as dental floss. Fortune favors the brave they say, and between her pulling on the rope and me pushing on the bar we were able to rock the trunk just enough to yank the saw out.  At that point, the tree felt a little wobbly in my hands. It was definitely going down now, but about 30 degrees off line.  Away from the house, praise Jesus.


I pushed, she pulled, and over it went, straight through the trellis over the front of the walkway, which imploded like a house of toothpicks. Not a pretty landing, but never have I been so grateful for a fix-it project.

In my head I could hear the voice of Howard Cosell exulting: Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

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It’s a thin line between jackass and hero. If it goes your way, your wife looks at you like this. Glad I’m not living with the alternative.

Take Me to the Nail Salon, for 79 cents

The future of ride share?
The future of ride share?

Mrs. UpintheValley decided she wanted to get a manicure over the weekend. ‘Twas raining, so she called an Uber.  She claims her app was set to UberPool by mistake, but a car was at the door in three minutes, having already picked up another passenger in the neighborhood.  Off they went, and she was deposited, quickly and dryly, two miles away at the salon.

Her bill: 79 cents.

You can’t even buy the weekly edition of the LA Times for that.  You can’t get a candy bar at the corner store.  The Metro bus is $1.75, one way.   Normal UberX is 90 cents per mile, with a five dollar minimum, and a four dollar cancellation fee.  But if you can slipstream in as the second passenger on a short Pool ride, you can turn another working American’s Prius into the Tap-Tap bus of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Uber drivers, needless to say, hate UberPool.   First world service at Third World prices, with first world overhead eating your balance sheet.

“But I tipped him!” Mrs. U says in her defense.  Not having any singles handy, she handed him four quarters.  I type this to shame her.

To be fair, UberPool rides are rarely this cheap, but they are now an inescapable part of driving.  The arc of economic justice may be long, but in the end, ubiquity bends all prices toward zero.  In theory, a driver can turn down Pool rides. In practice, once his acceptance rate drops below 80% (and it will if he says no to Pool) he loses driver incentive$. Without incentive$, his take home drops below what one could justify for wear and tear on a good vehicle.  Pool was created in answer to rider dissatisfaction with surge pricing. Uber created incentives to mollify drivers dissatisfied with Pool pricing, but the catch is you have to drive a whole lot more than you normally would in order to attain them.

It’s a splendid thing working class people can avail themselves of an affordable ride hailing service.  It’s a blessing for the formerly unemployed and people in need of extra night work to have a side gig. The unknown element in the equation is the means of production: the car itself. We are very early in the life cycle of ride-share apps.  In my experience, the Uber payout justifies new tires and brake pads. New transmission, not so much.

When the heavy repair bills roll in this coming year or two, what then?  How many drivers will leave the app?  How many will buy the new transmission? More telling, how many will stay on the app but ride the old transmission until it spits metal shavings and drops like a hansom cab draft horse in the August heat, right in the middle of the 405 commute?

Most of them, I suspect.

Jack Baruth, who writes beautifully at The Truth About Cars, has some thoughts on that topic.

Aren't they pretty?
Aren’t they pretty?

My wife tipped her manicurist three bucks for a job well done.  She can afford to be generous with my money.

I wonder what my brother Uber driver did with the quarters.


IMG_0130Mrs. UpintheValley and I went to the Channel Islands this week for hiking and sea kayaking.  The landing dock at Scorpion Cove had been taken out by a winter storm,  so at the end of the day we had to queue up for lifts back to the boat on Zodiac pontoon rafts with outboard motors.   The wind picked up to 40mph and we huddled along the cliff face, sand stinging our faces, politely waiting our turn, clutching tickets.  We went in groups of six. They issued us life jackets and we climbed into therafts and waited for a surge of water to lift us off the sand.


It was all very civilized.  But as the air chilled,  and the water got choppier and people began to shiver in their shorts, I began to wonder: what if it 500 people wandered out of the mountains, without tickets, demanding to be boarded? For how long would civilized norms prevail?

What if they took the rafts by force of numbers and approached the boat in a flotilla? If you’re the boat captain, do you weigh anchor and leave the island, knowing you would be abandoning ticket-holders on shore? If you let the first raft of refugees on, because there’s still a little room, how do you say no to the second, third and fifteenth rafts?  If you say yes to the women, but no to the men, how do you enforce that?  Are you willing to shoot someone in the head with a flare gun, to set an example?  Would that deter the others?  How many flares do you have in that gun, anyway?


How soon before the boat turns into this?

What do I do? Sunburned, tired, a little sea sick already from bobbing like a cork in the sea caves,  am I going to resort to physical force to prize our places on a raft?   Secretly, would Mrs. UpintheValley want me to?  I didn’t marry a broad-shouldered man for no reason, darling. Save us!  Who would I be willing to step over to grapple aboard?

When we reach the boat and find it already to listing to the side, overloaded with human cargo, are we willing to be that last pair of hands that causes it to capsize? Do we do the bravest thing and swim back to shore and try our luck on kayaks, three days of paddling back to Ventura in open water?

My armchair bravery is such that I of course would do just that. I would row Mrs. U to safety like Frederic ferrying Catherine to Switzerland in a A Farewell to Arms. It would be my finest hour.

Right up to the moment in the swirling darkness of that first night….as the refugees of the capsized boat, dog paddling in pure fear, catch sight of the kayak in the moonlight and begin to approach.  Then all I have is my oar, my pocketknife and a will to live.


Was Eden Vegan?

Was it?
Was it? Mrs. UpintheValley thinks so.

The garden of Eden with the fall of man, by Jan Brueghel de Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

Despite dominion over every creeping thing that creepeth over the earth Adam and Eve didn’t quite get around to carving a rib-eye from a slow moving herbivore.  How long was that gonna last?  We’ll never know.   The apple preempted things.

Dont eat apples.
Don’t eat apples.

The Thing With The Phones


A couple months ago, I went to Harvard and Stone in Hollywood with young Derek to buy him a round and wish him well on his first American tour.  About 1:40 AM, we left the smokers patio and walked back to the bar to find a dozen young women dancing together while a DJ spun James Brown on vinyl.  There were perhaps half that number of men scattered around the room.  And by men, I mean people in their twenties.

Not one of them got up and danced.

No one made an approach.

Eventually the women gave up.  They retreated to couches, curled up like cats, took out their phones and started swiping.

Admittedly, it had been more than a decade since I had closed down a bar in Hollywood, or anywhere, but the sheer absence of testosterone, properly channeled,  was eye-opening.  Then it was perplexing. James Brown, closing time, two chicks for every guy, grinding their booties in a hopeful manner, and the beta-males wouldn’t rouse themselves from their phones.

Something has changed.

The Kid schools Mrs. UpintheValley on proper selfie technique
Schooling Mrs. UpintheValley on proper selfie technique

As a coda, the Niece came out this week from Massachusetts for a visit and a sneak preview of her near future as an art student in Los Angeles.  Her versatility at maintaining cross-country text conversations while simultaneously eating and talking to us was remarkable.   An accomplished selfie-taker, she had a palette of poses she could comfortably try on and discard, like hats.    She posed any way I wanted her whenever I pointed a lens in her direction.  She spent much time on her laptop.

A diagnosis of teenaged narcissism would be misplaced. To my novice eyes,  I saw not self-absorption but Gatsby-esque platonic self-conception on the female side of the phone.  Personas being crafted and honed in the privacy of one’s room,  where one can sort out the tension between how you see yourself and how you wish to be seen, bypassing the gatekeepers of family and frenemies before public presentation.

The male gaze is coming, and for centuries it has been on male terms.  In the Americanized form, you got your prom photo, sitting on the swing against the same backdrop as every other girl in your class. That was pretty much it, unless you chose an acting career,  in which case you got a portfolio created by men for the perusal of other men. The phone flips the power dynamic into female hands. Every girl can now be Cindy Sherman, in theory.


Mrs. UpintheValley, who I normally have to chastise into posing, was fascinated by that thing she does with her mouth. “How does she do it?  It’s effortless.”

Except that it isn’t.  She worked at it. It’s performance art.  

To what end? In loco parentis, I can’t help but fast forward five years when she’s no longer a teenager, and she walks into Harvard and Stone with her art school friends. To what state of primordial adolescence will men be reduced by then? Will they be lined up at the bar wearing virtual reality goggles, texting interactive fart jokes to each other?    Where is all this headed?


I think I understand what the women are trying to do.  The men I don’t understand at all.

The Lesser Work of P.F. and Jane


Riyadh and Los Angeles switched places overnight Monday, two months ahead of schedule. As is our wont during heat waves of this scale, Mrs. U and I fled the Valley, finding sanctuary in the air-conditioned pleasure palace of the ArcLight.  Love and Friendship, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan, awaited us.   I hadn’t heard of it either.  Who cares? It was 120 degrees by the dashboard gauge, and we had gift cards. There are fringe benefits to teaching in private school, and one of them is gift cards from parents at the end of the year.

We entered the Cinerama Dome to discover a gleaming lobby and no one behind any of the eight registers.   No ArcLight employees in sight.


Finally a woman with a head set appeared and ordered us to “go to the kiosks”. Unfortunately, the kiosks didn’t take gift cards, nor cash, so we were shunted off to a nuisance line at the coffee bar. “He’s the only one who can help you.”  Oh, nice.

The ArcLight charges $16 a ticket, and we the public pay this $3-4 premium in exchange for full staffing: lots of registers open at the snack bar and the box office, short lines, plush seats, no soda and gum on the floor. I’ve even seen expediters standing behind the cashiers, doing nothing but filling popcorn tubs and soda orders.   In short, we pay Clipper class rates for a theater that won’t be run like the Regency or the AMC.  We pay for good service, at a price point that’ll keep the riff-raff out.

Yeah, I know we had gift cards.  But still… was my day off, it was friggin hot, and I was feeling a certain consumer entitlement coming on, like a flu.

We get upstairs to find one very harried guy running the snack bar.  One. Half the audience for Jane Austen is waiting in line.   The line is not moving.  It’s not moving because a woman has decided her coffee was too cold.  The Snack Bar Guy offered to brew her a fresh pot. This of course would take a couple minutes, and boy oh boy was that going to be a problem for her.  “My movie is starting in a few minutes,” she proclaimed, as though the rest of us weren’t going to the same movie. “Unacceptable.”  Flopsweating, he put out a distress call for the manager.   She then parked herself at the register in a manner which suggested no one else should be served until she received satisfaction.

Here was a moment which called for an Austen-tatious riposte from someone in line, but no one said anything.  Our world froze in suspended animation as the Kiosk Lady climbed the stairs, huffing, the weight of the world upon her underpaid shoulders, to issue a refund to the Coffee Bitch.  Did I mention this was the hottest day of the year?

There I was, an over-educated working-class guy, looking to redeem a freebie bestowed upon my middle-class wife by upper-class Westside families as a tip for guiding their precious Lacey one rung closer to the Ivy League, and here was this bizarre collision of personal selfishness and corporate stinginess impeding my escape from the furnace of the Valley, and yet I did not act.  Nor did I have a clever thing to say. Yesterday would prove to be one of my lesser works.

Love and Friendship would prove a lesser work as well. Made me feel sad for Whit Stillman, auteur of Barcelona and Last Days of Disco, the closest thing we have to Austen in contemporary film, a man whose creative output apparently peaked twenty years ago, and is now hanging by his fingernails at the cineplex, trading on Jane’s good name.  We stepped out into the merciless sun, unsatisfied. It was only 5 PM. Hotter than ever.  We took refuge at P.F. Chang’s.

“Food”, in a manner of speaking

I hadn’t been in years.  I know it’s corporate and overpriced,  but my sense-memory placed it at the upper end of the middlebrow taste scale. Comfort food, well-slathered, packing some heat.  Perhaps a frou-frou drink to sip with a steady breeze of air-conditioning tickling the sweat hairs on the back of my neck. I’ve been living under self-imposed austerity measures for a long time.  We buy ingredients at the store, we prepare them at home, and we declare ourselves well-fed. Now I had a $50 credit to burn, and I was going to take my full share of consequence-free eating, like everybody else.   It felt like the American thing to do.

Then the Orange Peel Beef arrived.

Imagine a flank steak fell off the back of a truck. Then someone found it on a road, still in the cellophane wrapper, and brought it to a rendering facility, where it was re-processed as meat byproduct. Then it was sold to PFC, where it was dropped into a giant vat of breading and corn syrup and chili flavoring, and a button was pushed and the mixing blades churned and what emerged was plated, drizzled with yet more goo and sold for $17.95.

I know there was “beef” in there, somewhere, because the menu told me so.  It was just a wee bit…ellusive.  I kept shoveling it in my mouth, like cotton candy at the county fair, waiting in vain for the carnivore tickle spot that lives behind my pancreas to vibrate with joy.

It occurred to me the initials P. and F. could stand for anything, including Profit and Fool, and when you put them together and blow, you’re farting with your mouth.

Outside, it was still over a hundred degrees.   Hurry, sundown.