Monthly Archives: January 2010

okay, time for trust falls

1/13/10

Generally, I can’t write about anything career-wise on the blog – not since we made the move into television/film and could risk losing an awesome gig because I cracked wise about some entertainment executive with clever Google skills. But this Leno/Conan/NBC brouhaha imbroglio is a pretty fascinating reminder that no matter how big the players are, life is essentially still a lot like middle school.

People tend to vilify NBC for their decisions, but that’s a cruel synecdoche; NBC is just like any other company, in that it’s filled with some wonderful people who keep showing up to work every day in order to fight the good fight. A few of my favorite folks in Hollywood work in development there. Also, making successful TV shows is becoming more and a random game that CBS is currently winning – but these things always change.

I don’t have an opinion on who is being unjustly pilloried, who is owed what, or any of it, really. I made a decision in 1992 or so that if I were watching late-night talk show television, I was avoiding something. So I absolutely never watch any of those shows on any channel, except of course The Daily Show, or if a friend happens to be on.

But this current debacle reminds me of the botched transition of the UNC basketball coaching staff when Coach Guthridge decided to step down in 2000. What should have been an easy transition instead led to Roy Williams publically fretting about the job before going back to Kansas in front of a packed stadium and telling them “I’m stayin'”. It was a slice of jackassery that makes UNC fans involuntarily wince, but it was also jackassery UNC could have been avoided a week earlier with a few well-placed phone calls.

Put simply, I don’t understand why these big decisions get played out in press releases volleyed back and forth, allowing every yokel to opine one way or t’other. In 2000, Dean/Gut/UNC should have brought Roy in, told him the deal, given him a few days, and then moved on to plan B. No muss, no fuss.

Similarly, at NBC, it seems like friendly grown men could have agreed to meet in a conference room with all the players, aired all desires, grievances and contingencies, and taken two weeks to come to a consensus. Anything else is theater, bullyism, gossip and cockfighting.

All of these people, at UNC and NBC and everywhere else, play golf. Golf was created so that the 430 people who run the world can do so without seeming untoward. It boggles me why they would throw their spaghetti around an entire town to see what sticks, rather than teeing off and sipping a bourbon while their cooler heads prevail. What can us kids count on if the pentumvirate start arguing?

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Ben Hogan, 1-iron, 1950 – photographed by Hy Peskin

c’mon get haphazardly dispirited

1/12/10

This week’s Journal of the American Medical Association has a study sure to rumble the foundation of everyone taking and prescribing antidepressants, at least until we all agree to forget about the study and continue on as usual: drugs were found to have minimal effect on those patients who were slightly depressed. Except the study only focused on one random drug (Paxil) and the weed-out process guaranteed the result before the study even began.

If you’re into this SSRI porn like me – or take any antidepressant – Peter D. Kramer (he of “Listening to Prozac”) has a great article on doubleX right now about this study, and a much better one done by Northwestern that clarifies what these drugs are actually doing. In essence, they aren’t curing depression, they are changing your personality’s way of dealing with adversity.

But Kramer buries his lede by waiting until page 3 (an eternity on the web) for the much more important study from the University of Michigan: in layman’s terms, we are a excruciatingly sad country walking around with no help. Check it out:

• The average person diagnosed with depression had severe depression. Average equals severe? That is, as they say, BAD.

• 34% of depressed people received medication, and only 11% of those got adequate medication.

• Only 9% of severely-depressed people got adequate medication combined with the right psychotherapy.

My mom once described a woman she truly loathed as being “over-therapied”, a kick-ass rebuke that says it all: someone who tries to solve all of their (and your) problems with half-baked drugs and daddy issues, and worst of all, rationalized their worst behavior at light speeds using psychological syndromes they barely understood. I have no doubt I can be one of those people when I set my mind to it.

But the real American tragedy is the opposite. In some ways, it’s oddly comforting to know how miserable everyone else is – it makes you feel less crazy knowing half the people you see each day are cloaked in mystifying sadness. But it’s not doing any of us any good, that’s for motherfucking sure. Hundreds of you reading this, right now, are sedated by melancholy, saddled with chronic, free-floating anxiety, and you’re not doing anything about it.

I’ve always thought the mere act of getting help for being depressed was true bravery – not for the usual canards (only sissies talk about their feelings and only addicts use drugs), but because one’s misery becomes the last thing we can count on. It becomes a spell that keeps us from moving too quickly. Seeking help, getting out of the house, disrupts the reverie and allows true pain to pour through. It’s temporary, sure, but searingly real.

If there is anything I can say, it’s this: you will earn no medals or gain valuable personal experience by being depressed. Not at this stage, anyway. By now, all it’s doing is eroding everything your parents, your friends and you have ever built for yourself. This is not a dress rehearsal; this is it. Turn off the computer, there are no answers here. I say this as lovingly as I can.

And if you want a terse, mean-spirited quote, here is one of my favorites:

“Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love. It is reached when a man refuses all help from anyone else in order to taste the rotten luxury of knowing himself to be lost.”

-Thomas Merton

matt 5:44

1/10/10

Every two years or so, I write something on here that invokes the wrath of many Christians, leading to tons of comments and emails – and subsequently I write an apologia and then try not to talk about it for two more years. I’d like to take a different tack this time, and (very briefly) explain why this cycle keeps happening.

I think there is a very under-reported and badly-needed story taking place in this country, a phenomenon I’ll call The Quiet Rage of Agnostics and Atheists in America. Put simply, there is a group of people who have (for one reason or another) opted out of organized religion, but still feel bombarded by it on all sides.

When a political figure mentions his religious faith guiding his decisions, we shudder, not just because we think he means it (which is horrifying enough), but because he has to mention it at all. When religion gets involved in our school system, many of us feel like it’s time to move to Finland.

Put yourself in our shoes, just for a minute. Millions of people believe in a sentient Creator who communicates with humans, and that he sent his son down to be a person to be killed for our sins, and then was resurrected. People who lived many, many years after the fact wrote a book about it with hundreds of rules – many paradoxical to each other – and now that book is supreme law.

I’m sorry. Many of you are used to it. Many of you follow it and find light, love and happiness. But we find it downright scary. We love many of YOU, to be sure, and would defend your honor because we call you our friends, but your religion absolutely flummoxes us. And we’re not allowed to say anything about it, even though your rules make laws that govern our bodies and what we can do.

Say what you want about Michael Moore, but his thesis in “Bowling for Columbine” is right-on: a government that kills its own people sends a tacit message to its people: killing each other is an acceptable solution to a problem. I would say the same thing about a government or a President that stresses their Christianity. Claiming Christian values sends a tacit message to its people: it’s okay to believe anything, regardless of facts.

I was called a “bigot” a few days ago on here, and I don’t think that’s fair. I should be allowed to put up resistance when a public figure uses mass media to further a Christian agenda. What people do in their own churches and in their own homes is none of my goddamn business, but when it explodes out – as it does more times a day that many of you are aware – ill-mannered agnostics like me should be here to say enough’s enough.

And if I use strong words to do it, well, then, grow some thicker skin. Christianity has a lot of nerve carving any moral high ground given the imperialism, oppression, subjugation of women, gay-baiting and general misery done in its name for over two thousand years. It’s also got a lot of nerve claiming any persecution, when at this point, everyone’s already Christian. Congrats, you’ve won. You get the Presidency, 97% of Congress, most of the Supreme Court, millions and million of Americans… and I got this blog.

Your belief system must be capable of withstanding the occasional assault. I know mine is, all the time.

Look, I love you. Many of you are my friends, many of you are my family. You can think I’m a know-it-all asshole who is in dire need of an epiphany, and I can think you’re slightly insane – it doesn’t mean we can’t laugh and give toasts over dinner. It also doesn’t mean we can’t commiserate over thousands of other subjects. But when I occasionally get exasperated and rude about your God, I hope you get why.

clean up on aisle 73

My Problem With Specific Retail Stores, Volume I

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1. Target – Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s leave out how all these stores killed Mom ‘n’ Pop establishments downtown, and just look at them for what they are. Target is fuckin’ awesome, but sometimes I don’t know if it’s awesome in comparison to what it used to be, or awesome empirically. I do know this: buying cheap crap in a clean new store with good décor is better than buying cheap crap in a dirty store that has flu strains on every cart. It’s like Virgin America – I’d rather be cramped with ambient purple lighting than cramped on US Air.

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2. American Apparel – I know the kiddie porn ads are offensive, and everyone seems to be stuck in a heroin re-imagining of 1981, but you can’t beat the thin, comfy cotton, and it’s all made here in the USA. But I just don’t understand why they have to make all their T-shirts so long. T-shirts that go down to your thigh will only work on anorexic drug addicts – every time I buy a shirt there, I have to stitch it up six inches, and I’m six feet tall. Could they stop being such jerks about it?

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3. The UPS Store, Mailboxes Etc. – There is a prerequisite for working at a box-n-ship place, which is “MUST BE A SHORT-TEMPERED, ILL-SOCIALIZED ASSHOLE WHO HATES HIS FELLOW MAN”. Because of our frequent travels, I wind up in these places all the time, and 95% of them are manned by some of the meanest people imaginable. Does packing tape make a person crazy? Fuck it – if I wanted to be ignored and humiliated, I’d go to Home Depot.

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4. Home Depot – Getting help at a Home Depot is like wandering around Kyrgyzstan with a blind dog. It’s like they put every single building tool under a roof the size of the Matterhorn, and then abandoned it, leaving only two cashiers and one guy aimlessly driving around in a forklift.

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5. The Gap – Oh, The Gap. What happened to you? It used to be the place you could always get solid basics, but now I just can’t find anything I’d actually wear. Why does it feel so… cheesy? Did you change, or did I?

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6. Orange Julius – Actually, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Orange Julius.

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7. Brookstone – I see one of these places and I salivate with the kind of operant conditioning that comes from a lifetime of gadgeteering. But once you’re actually in the store, I’m consistently amazed at how few things are actually appealing. And that’s saying something, because most of you old friends know how hard it is for me to say no to a USB deep-fat GPS dongle. Plus, not to get all Howard Hughes or anything, but like fuck if I’m gonna sit in one of those massaging chairs after 700 people already did.

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8. Barnes & Noble – B&N is beginning to be a place we’ll tell our kids about, a holdover from a dead era, a little like the Illuminated Texts display at the Getty. If they really wanted to port themselves into the future, they’d have a little button in front of each book that would allow you to wirelessly download it to your Kindle, iPod, etc… sure, I’ll still get Sector 7 in hardback for Lucy, but unless you gots big pretty pictures, why can’t I just read it without felling trees?

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9. Foot Locker, Athletic Attic, etc. – I don’t get it – all you guys do is shoes, but if I want real shoes, I have to go to Modell’s or Dick’s Sporting Goods? I buy basketball shoes because I play basketball in them, god dammit – and all you’ve got are flimsy green Nike throwback low-tops? I’m not going to a barbecue, boys – I’M GOING TO THE MOTHERFUCKING RACK! Stop giving me fashion choices and GIMME SOMETHING THAT FEELS GOOD AFTER I THROW DOWN A THUNDEROUS MONSTER JAM!!!

that’ll be three hail marys and seven our fathers

1/6/10

Brit Hume, you are a sad, pathetic slab of granite worthy of our pity. I have to give thanks to you, actually, because you gave me my first whiff of cultural criticism: at a time when I considered all journalists beyond reproach (in my early teens), I remember you at ABC covering the White House, and I suddenely realized there were actually professional broadcasters who were utterly full of shit.

I know that sounds like faint praise – that’s because it is. But it’s important for all kids to have that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the puppeteer is revealed to be a mediocre sham; it inspires us to greatness. We think “if this schmo can do it, why can’t I?”

Brit Hume’s son killed himself in 1998, and that made the newly-minted Fox anchor turn even more whole-heartedly to Jesus – which is none of our business, since losing a child is the hardest thing anybody has to endure. It’s just too bad that his headlong dive into evangelical Christianity gave him such a woeful grasp on any other religion.

But that’s how Evangelicals are: they focus all of their wants, desires, unspoken daddy issues, self-loathing and lust for certitude into their Christian fantasy – while all other faiths, facts and philosophy immediately atrophy into nothingness. They become so theologically brittle that they cease understanding how they sound to other people.

When Brit Hume offers Tiger Woods the Christian faith as a way towards forgiveness and redemption, it’s obvious he’s being sincere… but it’s also obvious that Hume can’t begin to understand what a fucking moron he sounds like. He gave up that self-awareness in his religious conversion, and speaks with the kind of righteous moral certitude that makes the rest of us want to vomit.

Buddhists don’t offer forgiveness and redemption because, by and large, they don’t allow you into such self-hate in the first place. They don’t even speak that language. Most Buddhism is about inner well-being, accepting the ever-shifting nature of the world, and recognizing “you’re only very small and life flows on within you and without you.” If anything, it’s the most humane, humility-based belief system in the world.

I’m redoubling my efforts to get back to meditation and the tenets of Buddhism this year, but since I haven’t yet, I’d like to say this: I am so fucking sick of Christians talking about Christianity outside of church. It’s all so boring. PUT A SOCK IN IT. What I wouldn’t GIVE to hear a pundit singing the gracious praises of agnosticism.

“Come to agnosticism, Tiger! We offer forgiveness and redemption because WE DON’T GIVE A SHIT!”

between the woods and frozen lake

1/4/10

My mom once told me about an event I’ll call Her First Major Freakout, an afternoon in 1939 or so when she came home from 4th grade expecting the usual bustle of her mother and sisters, and instead found nobody. It threw her into an indescribable pit of depression, of unanswered anxiety, gave her the horrifying realization that she was capable of such misery.

It’s a special thing, this capacity for depression, and it sets you apart from the others who may feel blue, but lack an all-encompassing dread so thick you can’t imagine it ending. I know it set her apart from her sisters, who all found solace in the capable hands of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and it’s something she imbued in her five kids to varying degrees.

I always remembered my mom’s story about coming back to an empty house and appreciated it as metaphor, while escaping the farther reaches of unfathomable depression myself. Of course, that paper wall was ripped down in 2001, and my solipsistic journey in those minefields has been eye-rollingly well-documented on these pages.

I have not been doing so hot for the last couple of years, for various reasons: geography, chemistry, tummy issues, and a few other things I can’t share. I’ve been concerned that my medication has occasionally not been up to the job, and if it weren’t for the unbridled joy of Lucy and Tessa, I’d begin to feel the familiar clutches of what Andrew Solomon called the noonday demon. Already I know I’ve lost a lot of the effortless… “charm”, I guess you could call it… that I possessed in my thirties when I wasn’t so wrapped up in my own bullshit. Charisma is not like riding a bicycle; it’s a skill that can be lost.

Yesterday I dropped Tessa and Lucy off at the train station in Hudson, NY and set back on the journey home – it was blowing snow with 40 mph gusts, already a foot deep on the ground, wind chill well under zero. I tried putting on music to soothe the violence outside, but I felt myself falling deeper into some kind of awful trance.

The sun set, all of the country turned pitch-black and forbidding, and it took all I had to wheel our car up the icy, steep driveway to the farmhouse. A day earlier, the farm had slept 18 people, six concurrent conversations at all times, air hockey, pool, scotch, woodstove fires. Now there was nobody, a quiet old house nestled in the small mountains, and I was alone. Just like my mom.

I tried to tackle the list of things to do, then tried to rehaul the script expected by the network in a few short days, but I felt trapped by a hundred discordant voices of sadness. In the kitchen, Lucy had left a half-eaten avocado sandwich, and I nearly cried when I saw the perfect half-circle of her bite. Yes, this is what it’d come to.

So I got on the computer and booked a flight home as soon as humanly possible. Just that simple act, and the fog lifted. I finished the script, I packed up all our clothes.

I wanted so much to stay in New York a few more days, to play basketball with the guys on Thursday, to hang with Sean, Jordi, Barno, my mom and the other folks in the city, but I need to get my act together. Sometimes the woods are neither lovely, dark, nor deep, and you just want to bask in the long, sunny glow of blue eyes and nothing notable to worry about.