Monthly Archives: September 2006

freakophilosophy

9/28/06

I’ve been tossing around the idea of Ten Smart People in a Room Theory. It works like this: say there’s some burning question that needs to be answered. It can be anything as flouncy as “did Barry Bonds use steroids?” to world-imperiling as “is Iran actually trying to make a nuclear weapon?” Ten people would be gathered in a room, and they would have the following characteristics:

– very high intelligence

– very broad, well-versed knowledge on the subject at hand

– completely agenda-free.

Now, the last of these would be hard, since almost everyone has an agenda, but it could be worked out. If one of your Ten has a book coming out about the subject and takes a side, then his book sales are dependent on his opinion, so he’d be eliminated.

Likewise, if the question was political, no partisan politicians would be allowed to be in the room either. It would simply be a room with Ten People, smart as hell, and nothing to prove. The roster would change for each question.

I think about this room a lot, because of two reasons: one, we live in an age of spin and lies, which puts even the most obvious conclusions into doubt; and two, I tend to miss the big picture and want to know what actual smart people think.

I asked some friends the other night about Barry Bonds, and the consensus was: yes, Barry Bonds took steroids and every smart person knows it. I was relieved to find out that there was a consensus, and I wanted more:

So, does Iran really want to make nuclear weapons?

Is the “bird flu” scare totally overblown?

Is Michael Jackson actually a child molester?

How will history rate George W. Bush as president?

Did Shakespeare write all of his own plays?

I want the ten smartest people to get in the room and answer those questions. Professional, smart people free of all partisan hackery or academic squibbling. Get a consensus and publish it, so at least we have a touchstone for arguments. I want things spelled out for me by serious individuals so I can make better choices with my philosophy, my writing, my voting lever, my charity and my mindset.

What would be your question?

if you no longer like piña colada

9/27/06

We were in the car today, going over the Sepulveda Pass, gossiping about a friend of ours who is about to lose his girlfriend, even though he doesn’t know it yet. He still has time to make a play, do something drastic, but there seems to be one answer: she has to break up with him so that he can “bottom out” and then actually get his life together.

The whole “bottoming” phrase is common in AA, meaning the time at which drunks realized they could go no further and had to seek help. For me it had nothing to do with alcohol, it meant the times when things got so obviously bad that a revolution within my own heart was going to be the only salvation.

But I had a question: do we really need to actually “bottom out” in order to save ourselves? Can’t we see the bottom coming, or even sense its vague possibility, and decide right then and there we are going to start over? Or are human beings so drunk by their own circumstances to actually create change without any immediate threat?

Our friend could walk into his girlfriend’s room tomorrow and say: “I’ve got a new plan, I’m spending eight hours a day on this, three nights on that, and here’s how things are going to change around here” and in a month’s time, their relationship will likely be saved. But he probably won’t do it. He needs to hit bottom, like my sister Michelle says during each teen movie: “skid row…” and only then will he have the wherewithal to make a comeback.

How much time would we save if we decided that “today will be our bottom” and just started anew? How much suffering, how many four-hour phone conversations can we avoid? How many months would we get back, the ones that were ticking away while we wait to get married, or have a kid, or decide what our Life was going to be?

So today’s CODE WORD is simply: when did you hit bottom? Did you actually need to hit bottom? Or, if you want to answer anonymously, are you on your way?

thirteeners

9/26/06

And so it comes around again, another person labeled “The Spokesman of His Generation” and a chorus of people lining up to pee on his coronation robes. The current smackdown occurred courtesy of Josh Levin in Slate who asks, “If Zach Braff is the voice of my generation, can’t someone please crush his larynx?” Zach’s offense? A hit TV show, one good movie, one so-so movie, and then Entertainment Weekly anointing him as Generational Spokesperson.

I speak from some experience, as I spent about three months in 1993 or so being Spokesperson For My Generation. Being poor, I did not dissuade anyone of this idea, and turned it into a couple of non-fiction books, some fun articles for big magazines, an afternoon on Oprah, a bizarre side career in P.R. and advertising, and the occasional satisfaction of my low-level sexual addiction. I thought I was a pretty damned good writer, but I also knew how lucky I was, thanks to Kyle York Spencer’s New York Times article and impeccable timing. The door opened for me, and I bloody well stepped inside.

However, one characteristic of both my generation and this current generation – whatever you want to call Zach Braff’s demographic – is the preponderance of people of your age group who want you not only to fail, but flame out in a blaze of embarrassing glory. People hate being spoken for, even if you’re doing it well. And thus I spent a lot of the mid-90s getting actual letters (and later, email) telling me that I was making a career out of crass generalizations, and I was a big fucking whiner to boot.

I never disagreed with those assessments, but if there’s one thing your peers hate more than your early success, it’s you admitting that they’re probably right.

A lot of us kids today – and I’m including everyone born from 1961 to 2000 – have an instinctual “he’s getting too big for his britches” button that is unfathomably sensitive. The second anyone our own age appears to be garnering too much kudos, the backlash will begin, and it will begin FAST and HARSH.

Hell, small examples abound on this blog. Back in 2004, I wrote about seeing a play with Marisa Tomei, and apparently I was talking too much about myself, and the comments were too positive, which led some guy to write “This guy is a giant, quivering, pink, pearly pussy. Sure, I don’t HAVE to come here, but there’s so much unwarranted ass kissing in these comments I thought a little voice from the non-dipshit world might be refreshing.” Which remains, of course, one of my favorite comments ever.

Just a few days ago, when the comments section was filled with wonderful exhortations, it got too much for “Hans,” who wrote (dripping with disdainful sarcasm): “You are wonderful. You are attractive. You are incredible. You are popular. Please, please don’t stop the blog.” I mention these not because they bum me out (they don’t), but because they are a fascinating study on our peculiar psychology. Even though we come from an era that lauds the easy dollar and finding shortcuts to success, we absolutely loathe people who seem to be “getting away with it.”

And so the article on Zach Braff. Josh Levin is filled with disgust at someone who wrote and directed a movie that made sure Natalie Portman fell in love with him. Also, he punched up the dialogue in his next movie and got to bed Rachel Bilson. And he doesn’t think Braff has anything interesting to say. I mean, I get it.

But what is lost here, and why I think OUR GENERATION (if I may be so bold) has come up woefully short in the Great Artists department, is because there is such a tightrope of acceptance any of us are allowed to walk. Aim too low, and we’re hacks. Aim too high, and we’re pretentious. Make no money, and we’re losers. Make too much, and we “don’t get it anymore.” Try to simplify, and we’re boring. Try for something courageous, and, as Morrissey said, there’s always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows, who trips you up and laughs when you fall.

Let me tell you something about writing and directing your own movie: it’s really, really hard. It is much harder, say, than writing a 2,000-word article about how it doesn’t speak for you. Anyone who dares, in this day and age, to do something artistic AT ALL not only deserves your respect, but your support.

I have never done two things in my life (well, three if you count heroin): I have never called anyone ugly, and I have never trashed a piece of art that was made with good intentions just because it didn’t speak to me personally. I have sat through the most boring, soporific, navel-gazing theater in Manhattan, and while I have been frustrated, I have never said it was bad.

On behalf of my dad the symphony conductor, my mom the composer, my brother and Jordana and their plays, for the commenters like Annie and Block and CL and Oliver who dare to string notes and words together for a living, I would like to extend a middle finger to those people who exist to tear us down if we start doing too well. There is no parade too small for you to rain on, and I hope you drown in it.

i want to be in that number

9/25/06

Tonight my beloved New Orleans Saints took on the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football, and it was one of those historic games that will be mentioned for the kind of impact a crowd has on the outcome of a sport. This was the first game to actually be played in New Orleans since Katrina hit, 23 games ago. The Saints won 23-3, and thunderous ecstasy was heard from the same seats where entire families lived for weeks surrounded by filth and excrement. Tonight wasn’t just a win, it was a rebirth.

The emotion of the players reminded me of another game we all saw in 1990, when Loyola Marymount met Michigan in the NCAA tournament. LM’s best player, a kid named Hank Gathers, had just died mid-game in their own tournament, and the rest of the team bounced back with a performance that was so unbelievable, so unconscious, so thirty-foot-swishes, that you believed them to be temporarily touched by the God of their choice. They upset Michigan, the defending champions, 149-115.

Tonight, the Saints played with the kind of fury reserved for a team whose town almost died. While the offense performed admirably, it was New Orleans’ defense that seemed to be an extension of the 50,000 faithful who packed the Superdome; every wide receiver was covered like white on rice, with Michael Vick becoming a human piñata.

If you saw the Superdome a year ago, it looked like it needed to be imploded into the ground and the land sold for parking. Thank god nobody listened to the naysayers and the place was built up again, better than new. Monday night’s telecast even featured past moments from the Dome’s history, including (you guessed it) Michael Jordan’s “The Shot,” and Dean Smith cutting down the nets.

After 9/11, New York turned to its sports teams for a measure of succor: they had the Mets, Yankees, Jets, Giants, Knicks, Nets and Rangers. New Orleans has only the Saints. Now that half the population lives elsewhere, they needed this victory, and the rest of the season (we’re now 3-0) as a signal that New Orleans isn’t going anywhere. No offense to Atlanta fans, but in a game that usually disintegrates into money, thuggery and gracelessness, this was a victory won by a team who deserved it more: a town with a horrible wound, trying desperately to cobble together its soul.

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a pregnant Tessa and me, New Orleans Superdome, October 2004

cellophane flowers of yellow and green

9/22/06

On the Odd Journey of Names:

In 1966, Julian Lennon, John’s son, brought home a watercolor drawing of stars surrounding a girl he sat next to at school. John asked what it was, and Julian replied, “it’s Lucy in the sky!” Thus the inspiration for “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which was constantly misread as a code name for LSD. The song went on to define psychedelic pop for the period and became one of the most famous songs in the canon.

In 1974, Donald Johanson discovered the skeleton of an early hominid woman while they were digging in Ethiopia. It was one of the biggest discoveries in anthropological history, and while they were celebrating, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” came on the radio, and thus they named their skeleton “Lucy.”

I first got interested in the Lucy bones when I went to Africa in 1981, where I got to meet Richard Leakey, who signed his book “Origins” for me, and basically went out of his way to make a shy 13-year-old feel worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Lucy came to mean the entire race of Australopithecus afarensis, who lived 3.2 million years ago. Last week, scientists revealed the bones of a child found near the original Lucy, calling it the oldest child fossil in existence. Slate ran the headline Little Lucy’s Debut.

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as an adult, only 3.5 feet tall

This means the transition animal between ape and human, the very creatures that eventually make you and me, are named after a girl who sat next to Julien Lennon in pre-school: Lucy O’Donnell, born in 1963 and now 43 years old, living in Surbiton in Surry, England, running a nanny agency.

My little Lucy gets her name from Nonnie (Lucille Tessman), and from my great-great-grandmother Lucy Rigby. I also loved the Peanuts cartoons as a kid, which gave us Lucy van Pelt. But also deep in there is the memory of a man in Africa whose peers dug up Lucy from millions of years ago, and was one of the first adults who treated me like I had something to say. I’ll always be so grateful for the way he talked to me that day, and I won’t forget to tell my daughter all about it.

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detail of the Yahoo! Most Emailed Stories page where I got the picture – bizarre cultural statement, eh?

a sleep trance, a dream dance

9/21/06

Almost three years ago I told a brushstroke story about how two of my favorite screenplay ideas had been scooped: first “Sliding Doors” in the late ’90s (which I actually liked) and then “The Butterfly Effect” in 2003, a movie so embarrassing that it might be Required Renting for macabre purposes. The ending is so insane that, well, describing it here wouldn’t do it justice.

My original screenplay, one that I finished in 1998 and tinkered with for years, was basically a time travel mystery with a unique twist. The basic idea still remains intact and unassailable, but “Butterfly Effect” did temporarily ruin my chances at being taken seriously, especially when their protagonist’s mode of time travel was vaguely close to mine.

I haven’t mentioned what happens at the end of my script to anybody, because it turned out I was scooped by nature itself. In my screenplay, Hurricane Helen, a category 4 storm, blazes into New Orleans and drowns the Ninth Ward, uptown, and the garden district. Seven years after I wrote it, Hurricane Katrina did just that, only sparing the Garden District (and the house the script is based on).

Not to be outdone, I got scooped by the NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, as Hurricane Helene churned through the Atlantic this week, a name that didn’t even exist for hurricanes in 1998. It won’t threaten New Orleans, but it still seems bizarre.

Oh, and the hero of the screenplay? A little girl named Lucy. Written two years before Tessa and I began dating.

I’ve discussed my definition of “cognitive resonance” on here before, but briefly, it states that the second you have an idea, someone else in the universe has the same idea, and from that moment on, it’s a race to the finish line. In scientific circles, it’s referred to as the Hundredth Monkey effect, which tries to explain why monkeys on isolated islands suddenly learn things taught to other monkeys hundreds of miles away.

Sitting here on our computers, dreaming of worlds that don’t exist, we are those monkeys. Maybe that crossword is easier for you in the afternoon because so many of your fellow monkeys did it in the morning, even though they were thousands of miles away. I do indeed dig on the spiritus mundi of it all, but it can be real hell on your scriptwriting.

on the highest mount in Wales

9/20/06

The effervescent and wonderful Kaz of the comments section lives near us in LA and turned me onto the Cappucino Review blog run by her friend Amy Ferraris. In particular, this was a good entry, about a guy who is opening a new coffee place on Pico called The Schubert Coffee House, and why he is doing so.

First off, anything named after a composer is fine by me, as Tessa had a dog named Chopin, two dogs named Rachmaninoff (Rocky) and I had a hamster named Haydn, a cat named Elgar, a ferret named Sergei (for Prokofiev) and a dog named Kije (for Prokofiev’s beautiful “Lieutenant Kije Suite”). Lucy is lucky we didn’t name her “Albrechtsberger”.

Secondly, I have to admit to having something of a coffee fetish, in that there’s something about the subject that always gets me going. The flavor, the texture, the variety and of course, the caffeine all combine to, well, do something to me that is ineffably good. Shit, Bach himself wrote a cantata to coffee, and half of the Aubrey/Maturin novels involves Stephen and Jack waiting for a pot.

I know Kent thinks Starbucks tastes like “monkey ass,” but they rarely fail me, they always have soy milk, and the company is fairly un-reprehensible as companies go. I consider it the Target of coffee places, especially since the new Target stores are particularly satisfying.

The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has some excellent blended drinks, but let’s face it: those are milkshakes, and besides, there’s some kosher rule that doesn’t allow them to use syrups. If you know me, you know that’s a dealbreaker.

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Yes, that is my collection of syrups at home. I don’t usually have that many, but this one online store was having a “Buy 12” sale for almost no money, and I splurged. My current crush flavors are “Chocolate Biscotti” and “English Toffee,” although they are all pretty much tastier than hell. Have me make you a 3-shot coconut latté one of these days and you’ll understand.

As I’ve oft said, it sucks that coffee places weren’t around when I was at Carolina because I would have GLADLY stopped driving pies for Gumby’s and bussing tables at La Rez. I like the calming habit of making espresso shots, certainly enough to stand around at Caribou Coffee and make $6 an hour in 1990. In college towns, baristas and pizza guys make the same amount of money, but women will only have sex with one of them, and it isn’t the guy who smells like cheese.

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I’ve gone through a few home espresso makers over the last four years, but I’ve settled on a favorite for form and function: the Francis Francis! X1, usually $1.3 million dollars, but you can get them refurbished on eBay for a song. The one we have in Venice is a rare pink, because, well, I’m a gay, gay man and also because our whole kitchen ended up being 1940s pink.

I know true aficionados only use freshly-ground beans grown on a south slope in Chile that have been kept in a humidor at 61 degrees, but I couldn’t stand the mess. I opted for the espresso pod, which looks like a cross between a tea bag and an unused condom, and it works wonderfully.

The crema (the brown oily foam that collects on the top of a shot) is wonderful, the bitterness is just right, and there is absolutely no mess. The Francis X1 could have a slightly more powerful steaming wand, but then you’re talking about thousands of dollars.

Until I figure out my chemistry, regain the energy I had in my teens, calibrate my seratonin from the Celexa and lead my team in rebounds, the effect of coffee on my brain is as close to vague euphoria I’m gonna get this side of a tequila bender. In the hour after a good latté, I am convinced anything is possible, anything can get done, and occasionally I do it. That such a spirit is legal and homebrewed is something to celebrate, so I ask… what kind would you like?

sawasdee kha!

9/19/06

I’d like to use the blog today as a public service for our wonderful commenter Lyle, better known to you as the Bangkok Expat Mama. She’s an old friend of the UVA crew that lurks on these pages, and her adopted country of Thailand just had a bloodless coup while Prime Minister Thaksin was away at the United Nations.

They have shut down most web services, and Lyle’s few information outlets include this blog and Fox News, which pretty much defines “irony”. So I’m offering this entry as a way for people to talk to Lyle and to give her the news, as we have millions of sites at her disposal, and she has but a few.

These are the basics:

– Coup leader (Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin) says action was necessary to end “intense conflict.” He said on TV last night he’ll turn the government back to the people as soon as possible.

– Sonthi, the first Muslim army commander in Buddhist-dominated Thailand, was appointed to the army’s top post last year with a mission to deal with an Islamic insurgency in the country’s south.

– Thai TV says that coup leaders have told the king they’re taking over the country, and I’m not sure what he said, but apparently the king didn’t like Thaksin.

– Police reportedly clearing streets, but no violence reported.

– Thai military says nation under martial law; constitution suspended.

– Gatherings of more than five people are banned.

– Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin is going to be hanging in London.

– Oddly enough, market watchers think this is all eventually good news.

This was just in from the AP wire:

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — The United States has urged Americans to reconsider any travel to Thailand while Britain told its citizens living there to stay in their homes, after the Thai military toppled the country’s prime minister in a coup… those already in the capital [should] stay at home, and monitor the media. The U.S. Embassy, in an e-mail to its citizens living in Thailand, said that while there had been no reports of violence in the overnight coup, Americans should “monitor the situation closely, avoid any large gatherings and exercise discretion when moving about the city.”

“At this point, we are not advising Americans to leave Thailand; however, Americans planning to travel to Thailand may wish to carefully consider their options before traveling until the situation becomes clearer.”

***

Anyway, Lyle, we’re with you over there and we hope you and your kids stay safe! Anyone who has more reports or questions or observations, you know where to click below…

old sour

9/18/06

People who have been reading this blog know how much basketball means to me, as a vague historian, as a religious spectator, and as an occasionally-quite-angry player. I’ve actually played on blacktops in pickup games all across the country, especially when I was back on the book tours, and learned to deal with every kind of random ballplayer. I’m probably at my best behavior when I don’t know any of my teammates, which means the Thursday night crew at Mulberry Street Garden has had to endure my psychotic rantings for most of this decade.

Here in LA, though, I try to get through with two basic skill sets: I’m pretty accurate from long range, and my interior passing is formidable. As I have aged, and no longer feel like taking the rock to the rack as often, it is nice to know I have a few things left in the arsenal before I have to give up the game in the year 2067.

It doesn’t mean I’m not a little scared of getting older. I will be reaching a pretty huge milestone age in about eight months (along with the rest of you, Salem, Bud, Jon, Chip, etc.) and now when I play really well, I have the added joy of knowing I did so as a quasi-“old guy.”

My dear friend, the excellent writer Mark Rizzo, plays hoops with me when his ankle is doing well, and we decided to do some drills at the YMCA last night. A couple of kids were at the next basket, so after a half-hour of boring warm-ups, we went ahead and challenged them to 2-on-2.

These kids were good, they could dribble like crazy and were fast. Mark and I were joking around, so we lost the first game 11-4. We laughed it off, then tentatively asked for another. They weren’t going to do it, because they thought we were no competition, but Mark and I silently agreed we’d actually try this time. Five minutes later, we’d destroyed them, 11-2. Now they were a little upset.

You always have to play a rubber match, and this is where the world was supposed to right itself, and we’d lose. But the thing is, Mark and I are pretty good. Still. We came at them hard, pulled a few tricks out of the back pocket (Thursday ballers, you can guess which ones) and nailed them 11-8.

Three things came to mind:

1) Kids today have a LOT OF WASTED MOTION. You dribble and dribble, but you aren’t going anywhere. I’ll give you space so that you don’t drive, which leaves you open for a nine-foot jumper, but YOU CAN’T HIT IT! I’m giving you the key to the game, and you won’t use it. Learn the short jumper and you will probably beat us.

2) I was guarding a player who was twenty-three years younger than me. Think about that for a second.

3) GODDAMN that felt good.

i’ll cross the stream

9/17/06

A few pictures from last week:

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Tessa delivers a wonderful eulogy for Nonnie (then we sang ABBA’s “I Have a Dream,” believe it or not)

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pallbearing to the graveside

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quesadillas at Houston International

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back home, Lucy reads with Lee Lee