Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Problem: Celebrity encounters

THE GOLDEN STATE, March 30 - Ten years ago, I bought a map to the stars' homes. I and my dad and my wife forced my 14-year old kid sister to take a two-hour trip through residential Hollywood. My sister didn't really seem to understand our delight at finding Madonna's front gate or the bungalow of Eartha Kitt, but the rest of us had a blast. Seeing celebrity houses is fun.

Seeing celebrities, however, is not. It's creepy and weird and cognitively disruptive. Here are some memorable encounters from the decade since.

1) ELLIOTT GOULD

I run into this joker everywhere, and every time it's the same experience. There's an initial, reflexive jolt of adrenaline at spotting a celebrity, followed almost immediately by the realization, oh, it's just that guy. It's like he's challenging me to say something. But what? "Excuse me sir, but I really hated you in 'Mash'" ????

2) JIMMY KIMMEL

I spotted Kimmel three years ago, at the Hollywood Arclight. It was hard not to spot him. He stood at the head of a long line at the concession stand, facing backwards and addressing the crowd as if doing standup. I was reminded of the handful of punk shows I've attended in DC, and all those exquisitely mortifying moments of avoiding eye contact with various Dischord Records luminaries. So intense was this memory that I actually walked past the concession stand spectacle and then watched my movie in a popcornless funk of humiliation.


3) CHARLIE DAY & MARY ELIZABETH ELLIS

Day and Ellis - "Charlie" and "The Waitress" from TV's It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia - were lingering in front of the Edendale, in Silver Lake, two months ago. I passed them as I walked in, executing a horrible one second eye-contact hold with Day that made me feel as intrusive and guilty as if I'd walked up to him and caressed his cheek. Ellis looked annoyed - in character, perhaps - and the two of them fled into the night, arm in arm. It was a sneak peek into an alternate version of their hit TV show, one in which Charlie actually gets the girl. I'm not sure if this was worth the awkwardness.

4) DUSTIN HOFFMAN

I'd just walked into a tony Santa Monica toy store when I turned and saw the Rain Man. I spent the rest of my brief shopping excursion avoiding whatever aisle he was in. Even though I was the only childless male in the store, it really felt like Hoffman was being the creepy one in this scenario.

5) PATRICIA ARQUETTE

Patricia Arquette walked into a Hollywood Halloween store I was in 10 years ago. This was before her star turn in CBS's Medium, so Arquette was then known as the star of David Lynch's "Lost Highway". If it sounds uncomfortable bumping into someone you last saw being forced to strip nude by Robert Loggia, try doing so while your friend John Michaels says, over and over, at full volume, Did you see who that was? Did you??

6) SETH GREEN

SEE: ELLIOTT GOULD. Then delete the 'Mash' part. Seriously dude, stop following me into every other store and restaurant I eat at. It's not funny. Stop.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Blind Trust & Pie Fraud (2000)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, March 28 - This originally appeared in a 2000 issue of Punk Planet. It's not a particularly graceful chunk of writing (I definitely don't use as many parenthetical asides these days). And it seems strange to remember that there was once a time when Halliburton wasn't as globally recognized as the Nazi army.

Smart businesses maintain cash reserves for emergencies. Businesses run by bozos, as is mine, maintain scheme reserves. When times get tight, previously ridiculed fundraising plots get dusted off for fresh inspection. A few years back, for example, a lease on a cheap and charmingly decrepit office space required that I buy one million dollars in liability insurance ($11 a month to cover me in the event of a UPS driver pulling a knuckle joint on my doorknob). One afternoon, reading over the insurance document with my lone employee, we discovered that the insurance covered lawsuits resulting from acts of "defamation, slander, harassment and humiliation". We came up with what is looking more and more like a credible business plan. Namely: on videotape, I order my employee to drop his pants, then smash him in the face with a pie and howl with laughter. He sues, an outraged jury awards the humiliated employee the million from my insurance company and we split the winnings down the middle. Although the scheme would probably result in a rate hike, it could be worth the risk. "Humiliation" is a hard thing to disprove. In essence, my intentions would need to be gauged, and there's no exit port for these intentions but whatever comes out of my mouth.

In August, GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney accepted a choice retirement package, certain points of which are making me misty for that pie fraud scheme all over again. For services rendered to Halliburton - the Texas based oil services company he's served as chairman and chief exec these last five years - Dick walks away with $20 million in stocks and cash, instantly doubling his paper worth. A few editorials cried foul at the general, big-picture unfairness of the payout (thousands of employees were laid off during Cheney's watch), but of course the story is so legal and routine in today's economy that it doesn't go far except maybe as exhibit 884-J in the ongoing, stupifyingly obvious epic of US campaign finance corruption. And yet, wrapped up in Cheney's bonus is a puzzle distantly related to my proposed humiliation lawsuit. How would a hypothetical vice president Cheney handle the conflict of interest? How can the man's true intentions be gauged?

To handicap their immense advantages in contacts and insider information, high level public officials are bound by strict laws when reentering the business world. There are lag times, for example, of one to five years before starting at any company whose interests intersect with their old post. Rules are murkier when someone travels in reverse, from business back into government. The "Chinese Wall" - procedures used by investment firms to avoid illegal use of inside information - grows much more complex in an org as large and ridiculous as the U.S. government (statement of disclosure - I encountered the Chinese Wall in 1988 during a very tense 37 minutes of employment on Wall Street as a "cold caller", a job whose description still eludes me. My new boss took me aside and, in hushed tones, pointed down two hallways; left for soda machines, right for "off-limits, sensitive information that won't be in the Wall Street Journal until tomorrow morning" I nodded reverently, veered left, bought my Pepsi and sprinted in disorientation out of the building). The president and vice president, for example, are required by law to address any conflicts arising from their financial holdings, usually by establishing a "blind trust". Someone else handles their investments and doesn't give them any details. If Clinton knows not that he owns 800,000 shares of Exxon, the theory goes, the less likely he'll be to manipulate national policy to influence the value of those shares (although this first family allegedly waited 6 months before setting up their own blind trust).

Bush says he and his running mate would set up blind trusts if elected, which is nice because they'll have to on account of they're both mega-rich and it's the law. Cheney says he'll sell his stock if he gets elected. But not until then, which already gives us some insight. Even issues raised on the campaign trail can theoretically affect stock prices, which can affect how much money this guy gets. Cheney's candidacy is one of the most conflict-seeped of the last half century. If you don't count Perot (whose company wasn't publicly traded) or Forbes (on the grounds of his being a mutton barely able to propel himself about under his own volition), we have to dig back to Wendell Willkie's entanglements with utility companies in 1940. But Cheney's pretty versed in this stuff. He's already profited hugely off US foreign policy he himself was responsible for. Grateful Saudi and Kuwaiti sheiks "saved" by then-Defense Secretary Cheney's prosecution of the Gulf war welcomed Dick with open arms on recent lobbying trips. Halliburton, a company that was pulling in hundreds of millions before his arrival, was working in the billions by this summer. War gave Cheney "clout", one of the great unquantifiables. How much more clout will his candidacy bring? And Big Oil (of which Halliburton is a component, although not an actual oil company itself) also operates with its own interests. Playing dual sides of the fence, both domestically (Cheney lobbied for and won the $900,000,000 Kosovo cleanup contract from the Clinton administration last year) and abroad (Cheney lobbied on behalf of lifting sanctions to oil rich "despot countries" Iran and Libya, and has, at times, had to align himself with OPEC's price hikes, supporting a massive monopoly that'd be illegal under US antitrust laws) is part of Cheney's background. Bush W.'s main advisor Karl Rove took $150,000 from Philip Morris while dishing up the counsel, and Rove's shrug-off of any apparent conflict of interest sums the mode. Bush and Rove "never discussed it", case closed. That's the beauty of conflicts of interest. In essence, Cheney's intentions need to be gauged, and there's no exit port for these intentions save whatever comes out of Cheney's mouth.

Weird questions of causality arise. Al Gore receives about $20,000 in royalties off a Tennessee zinc mine every year, an amount too small to trigger a blind trust. Would a blind trust be required if he made $40,000? $100,000? If a hypothetical President Gore invaded zinc-rich Namibia and inched US zinc prices that much higher, would we really be able to gauge his full intentions? (Punchline: the Gores own 25 times this amount in Occidental Petroleum stock.) Even Ralph Nader owns over three million dollars in technology stocks, companies whose fortunes could be deftly manipulated in a series of lunchtime phone calls from the office he seeks (statement of disclosure - I was fired from Nader's NY Public Interest Research Group in 1986 after a very tense 3 days of employment, and the episode has left a hardened kernel of rage in my heart for all time). Nader was actually accused of conflicted interests 30 years ago, when he issued a report blasting an IT&T merger, then profited off IT&T stock he sold short two days before the merger was approved. "Mere coincidence" he told a reporter, which is accused corporation shorthand for Prove It.

This will be my mantra during the civil case against my alleged acts of humiliation. And when an enraged attorney thrusts a copy of this very column in my face, I'll huff, "mere coincidence". Nearby, a single tear will silently roll down my humiliated employee's cheek.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Achive: Best writing

FROM THE ARCHIVES, March 25 - There are now well over 100,000 words on this site, much of it archived material from old zines or columns I wrote 5-15 years ago. Some of those old writings are not so hot. But a select few pieces are very hot indeed. Since I haven't done so yet, here's a list of my best writing on the internet. Immediately after this graphic. Which I'm using to represent the quality of the writing below.


First, there's the 645 word Disney's Creepiest Sexy Animated Female Leads Awards, which I wrote for the Village Voice 3 years ago. I was (and remain) very intimidated to write for them, and thus spent a lot of time trying to make this good. It worked! It's a good piece!

Then there's an 845 word review of a 2007 Van Halen show that kicked off this blog. I think I was entertaining the notion that I could sustain this level of quality every day. Hard lesson. For some reason, Blogspot refuses to let me reformat this piece in san-serifs. Another hard lesson.

Punk Planet got three very good columns from me, all of which I reprinted here. There's the 1,047 word About The Postal Exam, the 1,226 word Tweakers Vs. Shredders, and the 2,348 word, two part obituary for Alberti Records which was my first taste of long form essay writing.

Then there's my 7,784 word profile of the man known as 26, The Troublemaker, as published by Vice in early 2009. This thing is like a car that won't run out of gas. I frequently find myself at the mall or in the sauna at the gym having strangers come up to me with tears in their eyes over the goodness of this article. So kudos to me on that one.

Soon: list of worst writings??

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shylock Face (1970's)

SIGNIFICANT DOCUMENTS, March 23 - In this photo, my grandfather Ralph throws himself into the role of Shylock, the timeless victim/villain of The Merchant Of Venice. From the look of sheer indignation on his face, he's probably at the top of Act 3 ("Hath not a Jew eyes"?). The picture was presumably taken sometime in the 1970's, during his time at Cal Poly Pomona.

Not being a musician, my own influences as a performer were largely visual. This picture was a big one. Now that I'm bandless, I have fewer opportunities to make this face in public. But occasionally some wayward barista or postal clerk will cross me and - blammo! - out comes the Shylock. It's a neat secret weapon, one of many things for which I owe my grandfather a debt of gratitude.

Monday, March 21, 2011

MRP FINANCES (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, March 21 - This originally appeared on vermiform.com, 1/21/02. I've long since lost the spreadsheet this piece refers to, and it wasn't that funny to begin with.

This has been a slow week, so I've gone ahead and posted the Men's Recovery Project tour finance totals. Some poor use of credit cards is reflected here, as well as the majestic power of merchandise in the life of an unloved band. This spreadsheet probably wouldn't be nearly so funny if this band hadn't lost so much money. Then again, I wouldn't have posted it if the band had made anything. Only the shame gets shared.

Disclosure: three tours are not reflected in the net total. These are;

1) An early excursion through the south, fall 1995. Neil and I rented some monstrous luxury sedan, and the fact that I can't remember the make or model shows the degree to which I neglected bookkeeping in those days. The rest of the band rode with Richmond, VA's Hose Got Cable. We made it as far as Chapel Hill, NC where the band played to ten people and was accosted by a drunk man. After the show, Neil called home and learned that his cat, N_____, had gotten out of the house and had gone missing. After a quick conference, he and I rode the five hours back to Richmond. I spent the next day and a half sulking. N_____ was eventually found safe and sound under Neil's porch, so we loaded the equipment back into the rental car and drove 17 hours to meet up with the guys in Gulf Breeze, FL. We played three more shows, ate well, then drove back to Virginia. I have no idea what any of this cost. A few months later the drunk man from Chapel Hill called and asked to "weasel pipe" on a few MRP shows. It took me a long while to realize that he was referring to his band, Pipe, and not using some cryptic Carolina indie slang. Just this last year I've had the rare joy of discovering the Pipe CD in the $1 bin at Rhino Records in Claremont, and I make a point of tracking its precise whereabouts in that bin whenever I go record browsing.

2) MRP's 1999 European tour. This tour never actually happened, but costs were incurred. In specific, I logged a good deal of man-hours towards securing a weekend of gigs in Morocco. I wrote Maximumrocknroll for leads. They gave me the email address for Luk Haas, their old international columnist. I reached Haas somewhere in between his journeys to Uganda and Kazakhstan. He gave me the address of a fellow in south France, who passed me along to Majdi in Casablanca. Majdi posted me several letters on beautiful cream colored paper with stamps of the dour king Hasan, writing that he was a "big fan" of Morbid Angel and "many other fucking DEATH/BLACK METAL bands!" Majdi seemed to think that my scheme was a terrible idea and that the band would lose lots of money. MRP continued to insist. I contacted the embassy in NYC and got the visa info, sent Madji $10 for notarization in Casablanca city hall and Madji promptly never wrote me back. A few weeks later we realized we no longer had the cash for plane fare and scotched the whole thing. Four months later King Hasan died.

3) MRP's disastrous 2000 tour, which transcended all rules of finance. My account for the last two years had me losing $1,800 on this trip, of which we played less than a third of our scheduled shows. But my records are shaky. It may have been more. Either way, it would have been in very poor taste to try to document any of it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pictorial: Decomposing Hope

I wonder if this is what people in Yemen think American living rooms look like.

Here's how bad the economy has gotten: the wearer of this button had to have their mom buy it for them.

Again, if you are reading this blog from Yemen, please stop stereotyping us Americans. I've been all over this country, and I've seen maybe ten of these signs.

This pretty much sums up life in mid-March 2011. I thought about driving back to the site of the former There Is Hope Foster Family Agency and taping this to the window;

But the news says the Japanese radiation cloud will have reached Los Angeles by Friday, and this maybe might not be quite so funny by the weekend.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Problem: sadly prophetic essay

THE ZONE OF UNEASE, March 14 - Day three of a major natural / nuclear disaster seems like a good time to mention my article "The Hidden Threat To The Nuclear Renaissance". The piece ran in the American Prospect in February 2010, the same week Obama authorized the first funding for American nuke reactors in 30 years. My article imagined a meltdown in Indonesia or Bulgaria; conjuring multiple meltdowns in the world's third richest country seemed far too ridiculous.

From the article;

The American nuclear industry, repackaged as a model of energy independence, is itself dependent on the fate of every nuclear plant worldwide. As the industry likes to point out, Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island accident produced no casualties. And yet even that level of nuclear crisis was enough to scare millions of Americans and inflame the regulatory surge of the 1980s. Another meltdown like Chernobyl, with all its human misery visible on laptops and iPhones worldwide, could irrevocably taint public opinion against nuclear power.

It seems odd that this idea hasn't yet directly penetrated public discourse. Only this morning, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tip-toed around this very issue; "My thought about it is, we ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan."

And yet this is exactly what's going to happen. The "we" in McConnell's sentence includes anyone with access to TV, radio, or the Internet. The United States has 23 Fukushima-style GE reactors. The two jolly concrete bosoms of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station - an hour from where I live - sit on an active fault line. The conclusion is inescapable. It's like finding out (or, more accurately, remembering) that your home is built on the edge of a cliff.

This is an important point. Nuclear power in America isn't merely a disaster waiting to happen. It's also a financial disaster currently happening. The massive infrastructure of U.S. nuke plants is susceptible to the fates of every other nuke plant worldwide. Obama's current budget gives $36 billion to an industry with no possible political future.

The full text of the article is here.