May 2004 Archives

DAD

Something told me to go back. I'd just finished an emotional visit to my dad's room in the hospice, knowing that it would be most likely the last time I'd see him, and he was not the man I remembered- the vibrant, athletic, talkative father with whom I'd grown up was now a weak, emaciated, very ill man, ravaged by a disease worse than death itself, unable to walk very far or eat very much or breathe very well. We cried, we talked basketball, he slept a lot, and then it was time for me to go back to California and we parted tearfully and I walked down the hall and lost it. The floodgates opened, and a nurse came over to comfort me. And while she patted my shoulder and told me how I should just go ahead and let it out, I stopped. Something told me to go back to the room and look in on him just one last time, and I did.

The last time I saw my father, he was sitting in a chair with a portable radio in his lap, tuning in a talk station, smiling. I'd like to think that was some kind of sign.

I want to tell you about my father, how he spent his career as a school principal helping inner city kids escape the futility of poverty and lack of education, how he used to coach youth basketball and I'd go to the games with him and run like the 5 year old maniac I was along the baseline, how he managed to spend his Army hitch during the Korean War playing baseball in Europe. I want to tell you about his passion for tennis, how he played every single day until a few months before the insidious illness took him away, how proud he was that in his very last match, with less than one functioning lung, he won. I want to tell you about how I spoke to him every single day, even after we moved very far apart. I want to tell you how much I loved talking basketball and baseball with him, how as a child I went with him to countless Phillies and Mets and Yankees games, how proud I was that as an adult I could take him to Marlins and Dodgers and Heat and Lakers games, how on the last day I saw him he told a nurse about the game I'd taken him to a couple of years ago in which the Lakers stormed back from 40 points down to beat Dallas. There's so much I want to tell you about him, but it wouldn't matter. You didn't know him.

I wish you did.

My Dad, Harold Simon, died this morning. He was 73, and when I say that he died young, you could only understand that if you knew him. What I am, what I became, what I will be, I owe to him. Thanks, Dad.


BACK OFF, JACK

Look, I'm fully aware that in my present emotional state, I'm always a split second away from snapping and going Vic Mackey on some poor schmuck telemarketer or store clerk. But I have been experiencing something on a repeated basis that is driving me even crazier than that. Please, let me vent- you don't want a beatdown, so let me talk.

Why is it that nobody will let you back out of a parking space anymore?

It happened again today at Costco. I was three-quarters of the way out of the space when a pinhead in a Volvo wagon decided that she'd rather not stop and let me finish the back-up, even though there was no longer enough room for her to get by. So she almost hit me. And then, stopping short because she realized I wasn't going to dematerialize to let her get through, she and her husband started to shake their heads, laugh, and make "can you believe this?" gestures at me. See, they're VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE who just have to BLOW PAST PEONS LIKE ME because they're TOO IMPORTANT TO SIT FOR 10 SECONDS IN THE COSTCO LOT TO LET SOMEONE WHO'S ALREADY BACKED OUT OF HIS SPACE TURN AND DRIVE AWAY IN FRONT OF THEM.

Yes, I flipped them the bird and drove especially slowly to the exit. No, I'm not proud of that. But, yes, they deserved it.

This is happening fairly often these days. It happened to me in the Boca Raton Town Center lot the other day, in the Publix lot ("Where Shopping is a Pleasure, and Getting Out of Your Parking Space is a Challenge") the same day, and in countless lots in cities on either side of the country for months now. I can remember the old days- 2003, actually- when people exercised common courtesy and let you back out unimpeded. Those days appear to be gone- now, everybody's Michael Schumacher, intent on racing past you even if the gap between your bumper and the cars on the opposite side is really too small for them to do that. They can't wait, not when they can veer and dash right past your bumper with millimeters to spare. It's not the Ralphs parking lot, it's Le Mans.

Here's some advice for all o' yez- stop. Let that guy back his car out. Don't try to zip around him because you need to get to the stop sign 15 seconds faster. Let him go. You don't know what that guy might do. He might be me.

You don't want that. Trust me. Not now.

BIGGER, LONGER, HARDER

Sold-out flight again, and I was addled from an emotional trip and lack of sleep (perhaps the late night pizza wasn't as good an idea as it seemed at the time), so the five hours and change between Fort Lauderdale and Long Beach seemed longer. That's where flying JetBlue makes a difference- having TV access at every seat is a nice distraction from the fact that the guy next to you is burying his elbow into your gut in an attempt to exercise his domain over the shared arm rest. But I would have liked to sleep, and my attempts at doing so were mostly unsuccessful.

So I watched the endless loop of SportsCenter, and a little of the Mike and Mike radio show on ESPNews (the antithesis of "visually interesting"), and I was trying not to pay attention to the guy next to me, a kid, really, maybe 19 or 20, wearing a fashion-victim outfit from some of the hip-hop designers, splayed out to take up maximum room. And he was intently watching an infomercial, the one on which Ron Jeremy- Ron Jeremy!- "hosts" a panel discussion called "Sex Talk." I thought, OK, young guy, porn stars, of course he'd watch.

But then, in the middle of the part where they start selling the "male enhancement" pills ("ExtenZe"), it happened. The kid whipped out his cell phone and turned it on, called up his address book, and carefully entered the phone number, saved it, and turned the phone off.

Aha. THAT'S who buys that stuff.

I have always wanted to know what kind of person responds to pitches like that, who gets those misspelled faux-Viagra spam e-mails and thinks "yeah, I gotta get me some of that." I wanted to know who would think that you could take a pill- "all natural!"- and before long, your penis would be thicker, longer. I wanted to know who on Earth would believe that you could take a pill and you'd suddenly be packing a Ron Jeremy garden hose.

And now I know.

AGAIN WITH THE EXCUSES

Late night again (ignore the time stamp, I'm on EDT) and it's been a brutal day, emotionally draining and ultimately not conducive to clear, rational thought. My mind's beyond repair tonight. At some point, I'll explain, and those few of you who know with what I've been dealing will back me up when I say that I have good reason to ask for your indulgence yet again. I'll be back in L.A. tomorrow, and presumably better able to communicate. Until then, how 'bout that Fantasia?

SADNESS (PART I)

I don't think there can be a more psychologically difficult job than to work at a hospice.

Hospices are unique places. They deal exclusively with the terminally ill, and all they do is try to ease the pain. They can't cure anything, and, sometimes, they can't do anything, yet they're there day after day to provide a service that's unimaginably tough. I spent most of the day today visiting at a hospice, and, man, I don't know how they do it. I know I can't.

Anyway, now you know what I'm up to these days, although I'd rather hold the details for another more appropriate time. But while I'm thinking about it, I thought it would be a good idea to mention some people who just don't get the recognition their work deserves. The rest of the nation watched "American Idol" and the Lakers-Wolves tonight. I watched a bunch of nurses and volunteers try to help people spend their last days in dignity and as little pain as possible. Idols, indeed.

TIME-WASTIN' TIME

I'm sitting in Long Beach Airport waiting for my flight to board. It was still daylight when I walked in a few minutes ago, but I just looked up and it had gotten suddenly dark- there wasn't so much a sunset as it was like someone had flicked a switch and it was night. It's another red eye, and if it's like the red eyes I've been taking lately, it'll be packed solid and sleep won't be an option, even with the zippy little lopsided travel pillow I carry that lets you lean your head on one side. If there's someone in the middle seat, that won't work, not for the aisle seat. Serves me right for flying this week with the holiday looming, but it wasn't by choice.

So I'm here, taking advantage of the free wireless Net service, waiting for another flight across the country. I could use a break from the travel, but that isn't happening, and there's no use whining about it, so I'll just keep testing my endurance limits. Besides, there's something kinda interesting about getting on a plane in California, landing in Florida at 4:30 in the morning, getting in a rental car and hitting 95 North as the sun slowly rises. Time to do it again.

P.S.: Apropos of nothing, you know that issue of Reason magazine that has an aerial surveillance photo of each subscriber's home on the cover? How every subscriber is supposed to be shocked that the cover shows his or her home circled on the photo? For some reason, I get two copies of Reason- one subscription, but they send me one at the P.O. box and one at the house. Each one has a picture with a red circle supposedly pinpointing my location. Neither one is close. In fact, the neighborhoods pictured appear to not even be in California. I guess I'm NOT worried about my privacy.

BONUS PICTURES!

I'll be traveling again Monday night, because, well, life deals you stuff you gotta deal with whether or not you have the time or energy or emotional stability for it. The last piece on my dwindling East Coastness was part of a somewhat different and even longer (!) piece that included some observations on the new Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia. And as part of that, I'd included photos of the place and tied the whole thing into a philsophical discussion that, naturally, got eaten by the browser when I tried to upload it. But far be it from me to deprive you of the pictures. Here's the stadium:

... and the view from the press box:

And, worst of all, this is how much the Phillies value the old-time ballpark organ, sticking Paul Richardson deep in left field, in a cubbyhole behind a cheesesteak stand, where fans can walk right up and distract him. It's kind of embarrassing, actually:

The game? Oh, Phillies won.

DISPLACED

It was on the 9:03 Amtrak from Philadelphia to Newark that it finally kicked in. I looked out the window at a place that was once my home, and I felt, for the first time, that it wasn't home anymore.

It's been nine years since we moved to California, and in that time I've never entertained the idea of moving back east, but in all that time I felt that I was still "from" New Jersey and Philadelphia and the New York area, the places I lived for my entire childhood and several years of adulthood. I tend to make it back to the area about once or twice a year, and before now it always felt like it was still, in some ways, home. It was where I grew up, went to school, fell in love, married, learned to drive, got my first job, got my second job, got my third job. It was where my memories were- walking on the boardwalk with the woman who would become my wife, learning to ride a Schwinn Sting-Ray, downing Roacheburgers and 25 cent Schmidt's drafts at the bar near school, cursing from the 700 level in left-center while the dreaded Dodgers beat the Phils again in the '78 playoffs, circling under faux-pop-flies thrown high in the air by my dad in the backyard while he yelled "MAJOR LEAGUE POP-UP!" I learned where the best cheesesteaks were, determined the best walks on early Spring days, became expert on gauging where the best running routes were to avoid the piles of goose poop in Washington Crossing park. And, over the years, riding the rails, I became expert on what was where, able to look out the train window, see a particular landmark, and instantly know exactly where I was. I drove those roads, knew those places, could picture them in my mind as vividly as if I was there.

And on Thursday night, I looked out at Bucks County and Princeton Junction and New Brunswick and for the first time, I couldn't tell Torresdale from Neshaminy, West Windsor from, er, whatever town that was across the river from New Brunswick. Metropark didn't look anything like I remembered- when did those massive parking garages materialize? And New York felt colder and more alien than it used to. I felt like a tourist, even though a lot less of a tourist than the people always delaying my entry into the subway by failing to grasp the concept of the Metrocard swipe. Jersey was a "Sopranos" set, Philly was suddenly a mass of people- male and female- in mullets and mustaches and orange t-shirts flooding towards the Flyer game. Don't get me wrong, I still love it there. It's just not, you know, home. The connection's weaker.

My friend Joe thinks it's because I "drank the Kool-Aid" of California and have thereby lost my East Coast credentials. Maybe. It could also be the emotional pain I've been experiencing from a particularly difficult circumstance with which I will refrain from burdening you right now. And as part of that, maybe it's been the heavy travel I've been undertaking lately (I'm back in California today, but I'll be gone tomorrow again, and I don't mind telling you I'm exhausted physically and psychically in a way more profound than I've ever previously experienced). Maybe it's just the way time works. Say you have a close friend, even a lover, and then you don't see that person for a while. When you reunite, it's usually not the same, and, eventually, it's not anything. I've been away.

Of course, it might just take one Eagles game to bring it all back. No amount of California Kool-Aid can wipe out decades of suffering like that. But for now, my East Coast experience left me more Californian than ever.

I KNOW, I KNOW

Yeah, I said I'd get to a rewrite of the lost column. Sorry- events have transpired to prevent that. I'm waiting for my return flight now. If I have any time and/or energy left when I get to L.A., I'll write something substantive, or at least something more substantive than this.

Then I have to go right back out Monday and fly across the country again. I don't know how I'm gonna do it, but no matter- I just gotta. Life hands you that sometimes.

LATER

I hate working on the road.

I wrote a long column. I went to post it. The hotel Internet access chose to make me log in again instead. Guess what I lost.

I'll have to recreate it. Later. Damn.

TAXI RESEARCH

On the way into Manhattan, the cabbie had Air America Radio on, Randi Rhodes accusing the Bush women of being ugly while the Kennedy women are beautiful. While this highly intelligent and relevant diatribe went on and on, I asked the cabbie, a gentleman of Caribbean descent, what led him to listen to Air America.

"Oh, I used to listen to WLIB," he said, referring to the station that picked up Air America in New York, "but it changed. And I love Randi Rhodes." Why? "She tells it like it is. She tells the TRUTH." How about the other hosts on the station? "Eh." What's wrong with them? "They're not, you know, radio hosts. This woman"- he pointed at the radio- "she does a good show."

And there it is, from a listener, exactly what I said before. You get a pro- even a pro who's turned into a parody of herself, running off on long esoteric screeds about obscure military-industrial complex figures- and people sense that she's good. You put amateurs on, they know that, too.

They like the pros. Imagine that.

GOTTA GO (again)

Off to New York for a few days, and I've had just about enough of traveling. I've gone from eager anticipation to "well, at least it'll be a change of scenery" to "I don' wanna gooooooo." But I'll get some work done, see some friendly faces and some old familiar haunts, and it shouldn't be too bad.

But I still don' wanna gooooooo.

And as I leave, so much is going on- sarin, the endless prison abuse scandal, the Unit's perfect game, the playoffs, the death of Tony Randall...

Well, OK, one note on Tony before I go. There's the obvious stuff- Felix, "Assume...", the kids at an advanced age, the metrosexuality... all interesting, all comment-worthy, but all I can think of is how he used to go on Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin's shows and say the following (with much fervor):

"Lips that touch tobacco won't. touch. MINE."

30 or more years later, I can't get that sound and image out of my head. Good night, Felix.

EXPLODING HEAD ALERT

It's Day 4 of the cold/sinus headache that won't go away. Actually, the cold part's over- a slight residual cough, nothing much- but now I have a sinus headache that seems resistant to all the Benadryl I can throw at it.

I have to fly east on Wednesday. This better not be a sinus infection, because if it is, you'll be able to track my flight by the sound of my screams.


"BUSH WIDE, PEOPLE SIGHED"?

It's a little after 8 pm PDT (forget the time stamp- it's on Standard Time) and the CNN home page has no mention of... wait a minute... I seem to remember something happening earlier this... uh... oh, yeah, the sarin. It's as if it didn't happen. The news broke this morning and Fox and MSNBC were all over it but CNN kept cutting away for a Kerry stump speech and discussions of the Abu Ghraib scandal, so it's not surprising that they'd abandon the story as soon as they could. Sure, it's early and some other WMD sightings didn't pan out, but that kind of warning never stopped them before. It's like the Cone of Silence has descended on Max and the Chief, except this time, it's working.

I don't know if it's the WMD find that Bush said we'd make, or what it is, other than that Coalition soldiers were exposed, however briefly, to a lethal chemical leaking from a bomb left by insurgents, and that alone- forget about who benefits from the news, it's terrifying enough by itself- should keep it a lead story. But by nightfall, some of my anti-war friends were all over articles about conservatives having second thoughts about the war and academics faulting the study of terrorism over the last year (and the U.S. has been attacked how many times since 9/11?) and the human rights report and Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib, Abu Ghraib. Sarin? What sarin?

Come on, guys, you can do better than that. What was that chant you loved so much? "Bush fried, people glide"... no... "Bush pied, people tied"... what WAS that thing again?


OFF THE WAGON

We had pasta tonight.

I hadn't had pasta in maybe a year. I didn't do Atkins, but I cut waaaaaaay back on carbs. Lost weight, too, about 40 pounds, then put maybe 10 back and stayed there. Not bad, but...

Mmmmmmm. Pasta.

That's the problem with Atkins. You can't deny yourself things like pasta and bread and sugar forever, and when you fall, man, you're gonna plummet. I tried to keep away from that- I've been more gradual in reintroducing some of the "bad" food- but you can't eat just meat and flavor-free fake sweets. Can't do it. Sure, you take off the weight faster, but you'll put it back and after a year, as this article indicates, you're where non-Atkins dieters are. So it's a lot of work for the result. Here's a better idea- eat less, eat balanced, exercise. How's that?

Works for me. But tonight was a treat- I've been under the weather, and, well, what the hell, basic pasta and red sauce. No extra bread, no soda. Just pasta and sauce.

Heaven, if only for one evening.

LETDOWN

There's plenty to discuss- the Gonzalez memo, the New Yorker article, the predictable Nets letdown after the 3OT win, my upcoming Escape to New York- but I have an epic headache, so once again I'll take the whiny way out for the evening.

But before I do, if you e-mailed me in the last week or two, please be aware that I'm having an annoying amount of e-mail server issues with my ISP- outbound mail is sometimes taking anywhere from a few hours to two or more DAYS to get to its destination, and some isn't getting out at all. I may indeed have answered your mail, but I have no idea if it got to you or not. and you have no idea whether I got YOUR mail. When I call the ISP, they're sympathetic but clueless- I think they installed spam filters that are holding up non-spam mail, but I don't know for sure. Neither do they.

I pay $40. a month for that quality of service.

(sigh)

(cough)

Anyway, I'm gonna go back to the Benadryl now. I promise not to whine again until at least Tuesday, when the "I have to pack and I have no time" complaint should make its appearance.

The horse is out of the barn. That train's loooong gone. You're a day late and a dollar short. Missed it by that much. Sorry, but you do get some lovely party gifts and the home version of our game. You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

They held a rally to protest the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the desegregation case. They were fifty years late.

    About two dozen of the counterprotesters had moved into the area designated for the supremacists, and for several minutes the two sides shouted insults and taunts at each other.

    Billy Roper, chairman of the White Revolution group of Russellville, Arkansas, said the protesters' approach wasn't the reason his side left the site 45 minutes earlier than planned.

    "We did what we came to do. Our work is over," Roper said.

Yes, Billy, it is over, in every sense of the word.

I don't know what's more amazing, that this guy found 24 other people to show up with him, or that the media treated it as if it was a real, significant event. There were probably more cameras than white supremacists; there were at least 4 times as many counterprotestors, who needn't have wasted their time and energy. It's like counterprotesting against the Flat Earth Society, or the people demanding that the WB not cancel "Angel." You can't indulge these people. It only encourages them.

The guy in the AP picture attached to the story is holding a sign that says "Brown is a racial attack by Jews on Whites using Blacks." And he's not afraid to tell you his name or to show up in public holding that sign. You think you can reach someone that stupid? I wouldn't bother.

But then again, they were smart enough to get the news media to show up. All it took was an e-mail. From another story before the rally:

    Billy Roper, chairman of White Revolution, said in an e-mail to news media that the event was "intended to peacefully express the viewpoint that the forced racial integration of American public schools has had a devastating impact on the nation's educational system, and beyond.".

Did they even bother to check this guy out? Did they use any editorial judgement at all? If I were on the assignment desk that day, I'd have thought that someone was pulling a Captain Janks on the news media, that you'd get there and there'd be nothing but a handful of people in Baba Booey masks. And if that's what had been there, it'd been at least as legitimate a news story as what really happened.

But it was a slow news day, and they needed to fill the time with SOMEthing. And the lesson to be learned from this is simple: wanna be on TV? Send editors an e-mail on a Saturday, tell them you'll be protesting something, doesn't matter what. Tell 'em you're protesting lettuce prices. Get some friends to show up as pro-lettuce counterprotestors. Then say cheese, 'cause you WILL make the 6:00 news and every local paper.

Unless you really DO have a legitimate news story, in which case they'll probably pass.

GIMME GIMME GIMME

I still don't understand why NBA players have so much trouble hitting free throws. They should be automatic. They never are.

Tonight, a few seconds ago, Jason Kidd missed one of two, then after a spectacular block by Richard Jefferson and a foul that put Kerry Kittles on the line, Kittles missed the first and hit the second with 2.9 seconds left, allowing Chauncey Billups to race upcourt and throw up an uncontested long-range three-pointer to tie the game. Had either Kidd or Kittles hit both, the Nets would be in the locker room celebrating right now.

There's no excuse.

THE RISE OF THE CHICKEN DOVE

    The Los Angeles Lakers withdrew from the NBA Playoffs last night with 2:12 left in their game against the San Antonio Spurs. Citing fans' dissatifaction with their trailing the Spurs 71-68, the cost of continual travel and the possibility of further losses, coach Phil Jackson unilaterally withdrew his team from the court and the rest of the playoffs.

    "The mistake was not to enlist the support of other teams in our quest for the championship," Jackson told reporters in a press briefing at San Antonio's SBC Center. "The score was against us, and our previous road losses were atrocities. We decided that we just didn't have the stomach for this."

Once upon a time, America fought to win. Now, if there's not instant victory, the disillusionment spreads. Our enemies think we don't have the intestinal fortitude to fight for very long; unfortunately, they may be right, and it's not just the moonbat left, either. War is ugly, and we don't like ugly.

It's legitimate to ask questions- what will they do with $50 billion, for one thing, and what's the plan for taking care of the insurrection in the south- but people appear to think that if you can't win a war within a few months with no casualties, it's a loss. The prevailing attitude is that the only war from which to take lessons is Vietnam, as if that war is incontrovertible proof that we should never fight, we can never win. But there are lessons to be learned from another war a few decades earlier. There were isolationists back then who were against the war, and there were times when the Allies were quite decisively losing, backpedaling, chased across the Channel, evacuating at Dunkirk, humiliated. And if today's defeatism was as prevalent then, you don't want to imagine what would have become of us.

Some people play to win. Some people give up. The other side hopes we're the latter. It would be more than a shame if they turned out to be right.


LET'S EAT... SOMEWHERE ELSE

I was actually about to write something about this Atlanta restaurant that closed after 6 months of an "adventurous" trendoid menu that sounded inedible, but time and my illness got in the way. Then Larry Wachs of ex-Regular Guys fame beat me to it and said it way better than I would have. So go read it. (It's the 5/12 entry, not the one about using "toilet wipes" in a most unfortunate way. Read the label, Larry, read the label)

REPORT FROM SICK BAY

Day 3: chest-rattling cough, runny nose. Buffalo has left sinuses, but several smaller animals- sheep and goats, I believe- have taken up residence there.

Operative word: urgh.

DUST, BITTEN

The last "Frasier" aired tonight. I suppose I could call this a spoiler for the West Coast (it hasn't aired yet here), but the episode's... fair. They tried to throw virtually every stock comedy situation into the last hour, wacky farce, comedy of errors, emergency childbirth, a wedding, lots of farewells, and appearances by most of the supporting characters and several guest stars (nice to see Richard E. Grant and Robbie Coltrane, even if they were wasted in a "this is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl" role). A heart-tugging false ending, a surprise twist at the very end, and that's it.

And I still think they should have wrapped things up at least four years ago. Besides, the Lakers-Spurs game was way more dramatic, even if the ending was painful.

0.4 SECONDS

How... HOW... can the Spurs not contest the inbounds? How can they let ANYONE catch the inbounds cleanly and fall off him defensively to let him get a clear shot with 0.4 seconds? 0.4 seconds?!?

Unbefreakinlievable.

I thought I was feeling sick and down before. At least I'm not a Spurs fan.

SICK DAY

Today's a sick day in every sense of the term.

Sick over the beheading. Sick over the pictures. Sick over the "circle of violence" argument that some are using to blame for the beheading. Sick that the Lakers are back in it.

And sick from being sick. Feels like a buffalo has taken residence in my sinuses, and my throat is sore and scratchy. Did I mention phlegm? Phlegm.

I'm gonna go lay down now.


AND NOW YOU KNOW

Now you know the definition of "atrocity." Now you know the difference between one side and the other. Now you can differentiate between deplorable, disgusting, unacceptable behavior and "evil."

It's here, if you can stand to watch it. Imagine whatever dire warnings about disturbing content you can conjure, and double them.

It doesn't excuse what happened at Abu Ghraib. But it does explain a lot.

And it's a good example of why you can't, whether you're a pundit or a reporter or a political consultant or an average Joe, make any assumptions about public sentiment. This morning, Abu Ghraib and the Taguba testimony led the news. Then Taguba didn't blame Bush or Rumsfeld, and it started to fade. And then the video showed up. Something else could happen tomorrow.

I don't know that I can take much more.


YOU PERVERT YOU

You asked for it.

No, really, this is what you wanted. I know it is. You know how when you're watching "24" and Jack Bauer cuts off the head of some bad guy or on "The Shield" when Vic Mackey holds some guy's face on a hot stove coil and you're thinking well, that's wrong, but the bad guys deserve it because you gotta do what you gotta do? Yeah, that's what you think.

So the American guards pulled a Jack Bauer on the Iraqi captives. They did a bad thing, several bad things. And there's no excuse, except for this: it's what everyone fantasizes about doing to the bad guys. And it was what everyone was calling for after 9/11. Oh, to be sure, nobody was calling for rape, but scaring the bejesus out of them with a snarling dog? Putting hoods on 'em and doing the step-down-and-you're-dead routine? Torture? Yep- remember liberal Newsweek pundit Jonathan Alter a couple of months after 9/11?:

    In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to ... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren�t talking at all.

    Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.)

And here he is today:

    In fact, at that time [after 9/11], too many people (including me) were complacent about the use of psychological interrogation techniques that end up loosening the bonds of civilized behavior and making Americans look like hypocrites.

Because we ARE hypocrites. We want someone to do "whatever it takes" to "take care" of the matter, want to put the screws to suspects to make them talk. We want that, but we don't want to see how that's done, unless it's fiction. Now, it's fact, it's right there in pictures, and we're appalled. But that, unfortunately, is often how it's done. This time, someone took a picture.

That's not to say that using torture is right. In fact, you have to be someone like Vic Mackey to do stuff like that- part of you wants to do the right thing, but part of you has to be beyond evil to do what you decide you have to do. If it's me, and someone orders me to threaten a suspect with a dog, or clip electrodes to him, or force him to have sex with another captive, I say no, I walk out, I let them court-martial me. That's why I didn't enlist.

But spare this shock and horror. What happened at that prison is what you love to see when it's a Hollywood production. If only, you think, if only real life agents could be like Jack Bauer, doing whatever it takes to save the world, damn the laws and the ethics and the Geneva Convention. Well, I guess they ARE like that. It's just not as pretty when it's not Kiefer Sutherland doing it.


FOR YOUR OWN "GOOD"

Here's all you need to know about the entertainment industry's understanding of its audience's needs. From a story about the copy-protection schemes for DVDs and the industry's attempts to nip this in the bud:

    "It's against consumers' interests to permit devices that make backup copies because there is no way that a device can distinguish between a backup copy for personal use and making a copy for friends, family acquaintances or even selling on the street corner." -Fritz Attaway, executive vice president of the MPAA.

And why would this be against the consumers' interests? Let's see- you couldn't let someone back up a DVD that they PAID for because you couldn't tell that copy from a copy made for other purposes. This would be bad for the consumer... how? Where does the consumer lose in this equation?

Right, the consumer doesn't lose. The INDUSTRY stands to lose. If Ol' Fritz was to be honest rather than doing his spin job, he'd say this: "Look, you know and I know that people have been copying and trading movies on tape for ages, and DVDs are really no different. And we all know that copying didn't hurt video sales and rentals and won't hurt DVD sales or rentals. But if there's a chance at all that we can make people pay and pay and pay again for the same thing, especially if we can make them pay for something they can currently do for free, we're going to go for it."

But they're not being honest. The truth is that they're pushing things like copy protection and the "broadcast flag" not because they're fighting the moral fight against illegal activity but because they want to use the new technology to revoke some of the rights their consumers currently have in order to make those consumers pay more. The broadcast flag has a dollar sign on it.

The MPAA insists that this is all for your own good:

    ...(T)he MPAA argues that it's in consumers' best interest that the digital locks not be bypassed.

    "These products like 321 allow people to be free riders," Attaway said. "It's the concept of buy-one-get-one-free, only it's not just get-one-free but it's get-as-many-as-you-want-to-make-free � it raises the prices for legitimate copies and it also reduces the availability of the copies."

But a) you can already make copies of movies from videotapes or off the TV, b) that's not illegal, and c) it didn't raise the price of legitimate VHS copies. In fact, as time went on and copying became commonplace, VHS tape prices went DOWN and sales went UP. The same thing is happening with DVDs. It's a phony argument, and there's a bill being offered on Capitol Hill to amend the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to allow copying of DVDs for personal use. The MPAA and RIAA are dead set against this amendment.

You tell ME whether this bill has a snowball's chance in hell to pass.

If the industry could demonstrate actual harm from illegal copying, I might be more inclined to see their point. But they can't- DVD sales are fine. The studios just want to find more ways to bleed the audience. They might want to ask their brethren at the major record labels what happens when you put all of your resources into fighting against consumer rights instead of into making a better product.

FROM LONG RANGE

And I suppose YOU'd be blogging up a storm if YOU, as did I, were in the midst of a 6,000 mile day trip.

Back in L.A. tomorrow. Can't guarantee anything regarding being awake.

REINVENTING THE WHEEL

A few years back, I was asked to join the staff of an ambitious but doomed radio project. It had started out as a Net-only venture, then tried for broadcast affiliates when it became painfully obvious that there was no money in streaming, not enough to pay a large staff, anyway. I was on board for a specific purpose, which was to whip one particular show into shape as a viable radio property, and I did that. And on the day the show was cancelled, the explanation given to us was that we'd been TOO successful, that the show was a good, solid radio show but that they didn't WANT a good, solid radio show. No, they wanted to "push the envelope" with "cutting-edge" programming that would out-raunch Howard Stern, so they decided to go with newer, "fresher," radio-inexperienced talent, which made sense given that several of the people calling the shots similarly had no prior radio experience.

A month after I left, the network folded. The staff hadn't been paid in weeks.

I've been thinking about that experience when reporting on the travails of Air America Radio, AKA "the liberal talk network." Another of the network's executives, a radio sales veteran, bolted today, following four others out the door, and reports indicate that they missed Wednesday's payroll, although there are conflicting reports that they paid up on Thursday. These are obviously bad signs, but you gotta wonder how they got here.

I can tell you that. They're afflicted with the same disease that other network had- the desire to show everyone how it's done by trying to do it from scratch. Talk radio veterans? Don't need 'em. We know better. Regular talk radio is too white and male, so we're gonna go out and have lots of women and African-Americans- and we're gonna load 'em all onto the same shows! One host per show- how passe. And experience won't get people to listen, but star power will, and doesn't everyone just LOVE Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken?

Ah, no.

You know all about that. Perhaps you've sampled the network's odd mix of NPR elitism and somnambulism with stridency and strained "humor." I have the network on right now, and they've gone through about 4 or 5 minutes of an interview with unnamed actresses about an unnamed movie at the Tribeca Flim Festival- oops, they finally identified the guests as the daughters of Sidney Poitier. Exactly who would want to listen to this is unclear. (They just aired a song with the lyric "when I suck you I really suck you "- they then bleeped the word "fuck," as if that's necessary after the first line) The question isn't whether the programming mostly, ah, sucks, but how it got this way. It's that impulse to reinvent the wheel, to create talk radio without finding out what works in existing talk radio. In fact, it sounds like they aggressively hired people who have never been involved with successful talk radio, who have never even HEARD successful talk radio (or, if they have, don't understand WHY it's successful). There's not a single show that sounds right, with the occasional exception of Randi Rhodes, who was better on WJNO. And it's not like there weren't experienced, solid, local liberal hosts to hire- Mike Webb, Johnny Wendell, Bernie Ward, Lynn Samuels, etc., etc. The network just wasn't interested. They also didn't need to do a 24/7 network- developing individual shows for syndication, as another group did with Ed Schultz, makes a lot more sense and would have given them a fighting chance at getting on decent stations in more markets, but they listened to someone who fed them a line about being unable to put liberal hosts on otherwise conservative stations. And, so, we're here, with a handful of weak affiliates and taking on water.

It's not about the ideology, it's about doing good radio. And while I think the ideological element got in the way, the bottom line is this- they could have been a contender. They aren't. And it's because history repeated itself- the same attitudes that sank that network I worked at are sinking this venture. It's Business 101- if you want to develop a car company, you have to hire people who know how to build, and market, and sell a car. You don't hire people who make cereal and tell them to build a sedan and a minivan, stat.

And you don't hire people who apparently despise talk radio and tell them to DO talk radio.


PARTY IN ENEMY TERRITORY

The caller was insistent. The problem, he told Joel Meyers on the daily Lakers talk show on Xtra Sports 690 and 1150, is all the criticism. "You"- he meant the media- have to stop complaining about Kobe's play, he reasoned, because Kobe reacts to the negativity and goes into a funk and that's how he stinks up the joint like he did in the first half last night.

I love this.

I do live in Laker territory, that's true, but, like so many of my neighbors, I retain loyalty to the teams of my relative youth, in my case, a team that shall remain nameless other than the fact that their nickname is based on a year and they have a star who'll score 30 a game on 30% shooting, meaning he takes an incredible number of shots and misses most of them. And he's The Answer. Oy.

But that also means I retain an innate dislike of the Lakers, indeed of any team from L.A. This goes way back to the 60's, to the annoyingly good Lakers- Baylor, West, and, disappointingly, the Gone-Hollywood Wilt- and the dull Dodgers, who'd broken my Dad's heart by moving here in '58 and were at the time a single-bunt-move to third on a flyout-sac fly kind of team and the glitzy Rams. (The Kings were around, but nobody cared) But they were ALL Hollywood- the Dodgers even appeared in sitcoms. Remember Mr. Ed sliding into home to the astonished gasps of Leo Durocher, or Beaver and his pals calling Don Drysdale in the clubhouse? All too much. You didn't see any Phillies or Sixers or even Mets or Knicks on sitcoms. And that time the Sixers were about to close out the Celtics and go on to play the Lakers in the finals and the Boston Garden faithful chanted "BEAT L.A."... well, there it was, the unifying element among all sports fans.

So hating L.A. teams runs deep. But the general apathy of L.A. fans makes that a little shallow here- how much fun is it to hate someone who doesn't care much one way or the other? Laker fans are different. Laker fans are arrogant, secure in the knowledge that their team's the best whether or not they actually win, ready to blindly support Kobe whether or not he's guilty (and blissfully ignoring his own teammates' opinion of the guy), calling sports radio shows to propose trades only a Laker fan would think is fair ("Hi, Hacksaw, I have a trade I think the Lakers should make. How about, um, Luke Walton and Bryon Russell for Tracy McGrady?"), a trait shared by Knicks fans ("Hi, Mike and Chris, love your show. I think the Knicks should trade Mutombo and Anderson for Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin.") And then there's Jack and Dyan at courtside, smug and devoted.

Oh, yeah, you can really build a hatred of this team.

So right now, with the Spurs up 2-0, it's a good time to be a Laker hater in Laker country. Can't beat the whining, and if they don't win both at Staples, it can only get more entertaining, from the clownish radio commentator Vic "The Brick" Jacobs, a middle-aged guy trying desperately to sound "street" and whose nose is permanently planted in Shaq's behind ("Big Man!!! Smellin' the love!!! The flava that you crave-a!!!"), to the kids at the Y in Kobe gear insisting that they'll come back because San Antonio's "due for a loss." This ought to be a lot of fun.

Unless they come back. In that case, I'm not going to be very fun to be around for a while.


CALL ME MXYZPTLK

My run of luck continues. No sooner did the sewer guys finish up then I went for a snack of peanut butter in the kitchen and, while eating, noticed that the stuff had turned from smooth to chunky. A quick examination of the foreign object- white, shiny, hard- led me to think that it might be a piece of tooth, but, no, it was such a LARGE piece, and I didn't FEEL anything, so it CAN'T be a...

...no, wait...

damn.

Half of a tooth was gone. It wasn't even one of the many teeth the dentists have been working on so far this year- no, it was another tooth deciding to give it all up. And that's why I spent most of the morning back at the dentist.

At least the toilets are working again.

I'LL BE SOMEWHERE ELSE FOR YOU

Now, THAT was a final episode.

Were you just a little bit surprised when Ross and Chandler finally kissed? I mean, there were hints all along, but, really, it was still a shock when it happened. I could have done without the whole Rachel Chlamydia story line- so extraneous- but I thought the topic of Joey's retardation was handled with sensitivity, and when Phoebe overdosed, I swear, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. When they served Marcel as an appetizer at her funeral, you know, that was truly creative, working the monkey into the story that way. And after that, the suicide pact was a logical extension. Truly, this was the right way to go.

Or maybe I dreamed the whole thing. It was such a nice dream, though.

SUCKER. PUNCH.

Ah, whatever.

I had a whole column ready to go on Ted Rall's cartoon and the death threats he says he's gotten, but after I pretty much finished it I read it back and decided that a) I can say it in a few sentences, and b) I don't really care that much. So here ya go:

When you call someone who just died an "idiot" and "sap," you can expect a negative response. When you attack the President as stupid and treasonous and whatever like the Democrats have been doing for months, and he runs negative ads in response, you can't be surprised and offended. The left has been acting like the kid on the playground who sucker-punches everyone and then runs crying to the teacher when someone hits back. You are free to say what you want, but you're not free to do so without accepting the consequences. And Ted knows that, and when you read the shocked press coverage of the way people are vilifying Mr. Rall, remember- he knew he was saying something that would be unpopular. He wanted to shock people. I don't think even he would say the reaction was unexpected or even to some extent unwanted. But the idea that people being upset by his name-calling is somehow wrong (besides the death threats- I've gotten those, and they're never OK, but you know that) is the kind of attitude that you get when you're that sucker-punching cry baby bully.

Of course, Ted would probably say the U.S. is a sucker-punching cry baby bully. That first punch gets forgotten fast.

There, that's everything. Next!

A LARGE VICTORY

Sewer's "temporarily" working. They found the pipe, cleared it, patched it. We have indoor plumbing again!

Needless to say, I'm thrilled.

QUATRO DE MAYO

The local Mexican restaurant- yes, I'm aware that there are roughly two Mexican restaurants per block in Southern California- is celebrating Cinco de Mayo this week the way every Mexican restaurant celebrates Cinco de Mayo, with strolling mariachis and drink specials. We were serenaded throughout dinner, and it was entertaining inasmuch as they were slightly off-key, not in the standard just-sounds-like-it's-off-key mariachi sense but in the P.U.-that-was-a-rotten-note sense. And they were loud, too. They did all the classics- "La Bamba," and that one that goes, you know, you've heard it... there were a lot of those familiar tunes the name of which you don't know. And then there was one that strikes an immediate, warm, familiar chord with anyone of a certain age group. If you're in your 40s, you know it. Sing along with the band:

    Ay, ay, ay, ay....
    I am the Frito Bandito!
    I love Fritos corn chips, I love them, I do
    I want Fritos corn chips, I'll get them from you!

There are real Spanish lyrics to the song- yes, I know it's "Cielito Lindo"- but if you're an American who remembers the late 1960s, you don't know them, you know the Frito Bandito. F.B. had a short, happy life as the TV commercial spokesstereotype for the corn chip, and was then unceremoniously erased from the airwaves when someone decided that the character was offensive. You can see why they'd think that here. Or, better (or worse), see choppy RealVideo of an actual 1969 spot with Mel Blanc doing his stereotypical Mexican accent for the Bandito and a moon landing theme here (by way of the fabulous TVParty.com).

But we didn't know from any of that as kids. Kids are smarter than adults want to believe- we knew it was a stereotype, we knew it wasn't representative of all Mexican people... we knew it was a CARTOON CHARACTER, for chrissakes. And so did most everyone else. But the ads came down anyway, the character got back-burnered, and that was that.

And here we are 35 years later, the band strikes up "Cielito Lindo," and Fran and I look at each other and mouth the lyrics to the Frito Bandito song. Does advertising get any more effective than that?

FULL MOON, EMPTY HEAD

It turns out that there IS a full moon, which may explain why something strange happened today. I cranked out the usual weekly newsletter that All Access sends out to promote the news-talk-sports section, and it was pretty much the same thing I do EVERY week- a chatty, stupid letter about what's going on, followed by a couple of paragraphs plugging the site, a lame closing joke, the end. It was about the same length, too- in fact, when I sent it off to be composed, it looked a little short.

Result: several angry e-mails from people I've never heard from before, complaining about the length, the "babbling," "GET TO THE POINT!" I haven't been subjected to this kind of anger since I was at KLSX when we dropped classic rock, went to talk, and got fried by everyone.

Could it have been my lousy writing?

Nah.

Had to be the moon.

Geez.


HOME IMPROVEMENT

So, what do you get for your $3,200. these days?

You get a front lawn that looks like this:

And still no sewer service. They say we'll be back and draining by midday tomorrow, but this fearsome pit is missing one thing so far: any sign of the drain pipe.

I'm getting REALLY tired of this.

WEEKEND UPDATE

1. Sewer still inoperable. Thank you to the 76 station on the corner, the Starbucks next door, the Marie Callender's at the top of the hill, and, especially, the Y in Torrance for the use of your facilities. Plus, I went into the pool for a quick early rinse. Air temperature: upper 80s. Water temperature: what's the lowest is can be before it goes solid?

2. Sopranos update: I really think Meadow's boyfriend should have gone to the Yankee game with Vito. Really.

3. We didn't go to the Coachella festival this weekend. Considering that it had to be something like 300 degrees in Indio, I don't think I missed a thing. Somehow, seeing Death Cab for Cutie or Radiohead or the Stills (gee, think they did "Still in Love Song"? Do they have any other songs?) while standing in a convection oven/dust field and paying for the privilege just never came up on the list of options today. If it was too hot to watch the Dodgers and Expos from the shade of the press box, Coachella was absolutely not a possibility.

Coming Monday: the plumbers return. Oy.

ROUGHING IT

Once again, events conspire to emasculate me. The sewer problem we had earlier in the week has returned, meaning that our toilets are unflushable, the showers and sinks and washers will back up into the alley alongside our home, and I can't do a damn thing about it. Can't unblock the stoppage, either- it's somewhere between the house and the street, it's probably root damage, it's not covered by insurance, and it's going to require thousands of dollars I can't afford and lots of digging and ripping and stuff that will be both extensive and time-consuming. And they can't get to it until Monday, when they can send a camera down there and see where the trouble is.

And again, as someone who prides himself on being able to fix stuff himself, this is agony. I can't just pop something open and tinker around until it works like I do with computers, or replace a few parts and get things operational again, like when I fixed the DVD player with a few replacement capacitors and a soldering iron (one of my greatest electronic triumphs). I don't have one of those 30 foot electrical snake things. I don't happen to have root cutters in the garage, ready to take on the clogs. I could probably dig up the lawn and replace the old clay pipes with PVC and a new cleanout, but it would take weeks, be exhausting, and end up looking like the surface of the moon. And I don't know where exactly the pipes run, so I could be digging up a lot of territory. Worse, the damage might be beneath the driveway or concrete, so I'm way out of my league if I have to go rent a jackhammer.

No, this is a job for professionals, which means I get to look like a typical suburban homeowner, befuddled and able only to nod and agree to everything the plumber says. And while I'm waiting to look stupid, I get to have no plumbing for a couple of days. We can use public bathrooms when we need to, or use ours and not flush (EEEEEEEEWWWWWWWWWWW), and we can drive 20 minutes to the Y to take showers (or jump into the pool, which today is probably at a balmy 40 degrees fahrenheit- no matter HOW hot it is around here, the water's ALWAYS Polar Bear Swim chilly). But we're going to be inconvenienced, we're going to be at the mercy of the plumbers, and we're going to be sucked dry of whatever money we may have left.

Any freelance work out there? I'm gonna need it.

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