11/29/2004

More office space

So today I moved into the new office, aka the bureau. Quite a lot of space here. Easily 1,000 square feet. You could fit four of my old studio apartment here and still have room for a parking space. It was just me today, but the other reporter will be back tomorrow, and an ad clerk is supposed to join us as well. We will have plenty of room to spread out, and there's windows too, so we get natural light.

But all is not hummingbirds and lavender-scented candles just yet. Right now, the place is a mess, and since no one was calling me back today, I got to clean up. This bureau is basically the old bureau moved into a new office. Apparently, it's cheaper over here by the sushi restaurant and Score! academic learning center than it was across the way, where Avis car rental is now located. Anyway, they basically boxed up all the crap from the old bureau and dumped it over here. Let's see what I found during my cleanup activity:

-- One (1) 16 oz. plastic Starbucks Coffee mug, circa 1997.
-- Two (2) 19 oz. cans of Progresso Classics Soup, Minestrone, Authentic Recipe. Expiration date not clear, although copyright date on label is 1998.
-- At least one thousand (1,000) sheets of letterhead with the name of the newspaper, the old address of the old bureau, and the name of the former bureau editor who is now the flack (that's spokesperson for you lay people) for the school district.
-- At least three thousand (3,000) envelopes, same.
-- One (1) box, Crayola white chalk. Non-toxic.
-- One (1) box, Crayola colored chalk. Non-toxic.
-- Zero (0) chalkboards.
-- One (1) handbook of Psalms and Proverbs, from the New Testament.
-- One (1) empty refrigerator.
-- One (1) Mr. Coffee iced tea pot.
-- One (1) flyswatter.
-- Two (2) Associated Press stylebooks, circa 1996.
-- Sixteen (16) used reporter's notebooks, all pages filled.
-- One (1) pair Howard Leight MAX Lite Low Pressure Foam Ear Plugs, unused.
-- Seventy-three (73) Sanford Major Accent highlighters: 37 orange, 24 pink, 10 blue, three green. Zero (0) yellow.
-- Forty-six (46) Extra Strength Tylenol acetaminophen caplets, 500 mg each.
-- One TIME World Almanac 1999: The Ultimate Worldwide Fact and Information Source.
-- Twelve (12) red ballpoint pens.
-- Ten (10) blue rolling ball pens.
-- Five (5) red rolling ball pens.
-- One (1) blue ballpoint pen.
-- Zero (0) black ballpoint pens, preferred by all.
-- One (1) tube Victoria's Secret Garden Luxurious Hand And Body Cream, Secret Crush scent, 7.25 oz. Empty.
-- One (1) bottle, Lemongrass Sage Moisture-Rich Body Lotion, 0.75 oz. (approx.), unused.
-- One (1) jingle bell, tarnished but festive.
-- Approx. two thousand (2,000) fax cover sheets with old bureau's address and phone number.
-- One (1) white board, 18" x 24", permanently marked with old employees' phone numbers.

And, two (2) walk-in customers asking the not-quite-helpful-enough reporter for assistance with placing a classified advertisement. Perhaps tomorrow someone will be here to help them. Not me, though. I hate customers.

11/24/2004

Earth vs. K-Earth

Nothing could possibly encapsulate the disconnect between reality and oldies radio than what I heard on K-Earth last night. OK, so let me explain. I was driving home at 5:50p, which means all the crummy commercial radio stations were playing advertisements. Why do radio stations feel like they need to follow TV's schedule? Don't start your programs on the hour. I'm in the car before the hour, because I have to get somewhere right on the hour. That dumb schedule guarantees I hear nothing but commercials on the way to work, and on the way elsewhere.

Anyway, there was also nothing on the Claremont college station, so I'm flipping through my pre-sets, getting way down to the end. Finally I land on K-Earth 101 and get Aretha Franklin. Fine. Great. She's awesome. The next song was all right, so I didn't leap to change the station. Then their station announcer tells me it's time for the '60s at six, and they start playing "Rock and Roll Music." (The song, not the genre.) Here's the problem.

First of all, that song was originally recorded in 1957, by Chuck Berry. I know because I checked. It's right there on my Chuck Berry CD. So this is a questionable choice for the '60s hour. Secondly, they weren't playing the Chuck Berry version; they were playing the Beatles' cover. Now, this was likely the version from "Beatles For Sale," which was released in 1964 and therefore qualifies as '60s, I suppose. But does anyone think of this song when they think '60s, or when they think Beatles? I'm thinking White Album, Magical Mystery Tour, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper. But I don't remember the last time I heard "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "I am the Walrus" or even the relatively tame "Yellow Submarine" on K-Earth.

Of course, what's underlying this is what lies under all of American pop music history: white people making money from black music. Call it whatever you want, but that's what it comes down to. Somehow, Rock 'n' Roll, now known mostly as rock, became the property of white people, despite its obvious origins in blues, jazz, and other forms developed by slaves and their descendants. We all know this, and it's something that has been around for so long that it's rare to get upset about it. Even for me. Yet hearing that Chuck Berry cover by four white guys from Liverpool on the radio, on the purported oldies station -- a station that has never, to my knowledge, played a Chuck Berry original -- really chaps my hide.

Of course, the response is that K-Earth is not racist. Heavens, no. They play black music all the time. That is, they play Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Ray Charles, etc. You would call it R&B, which stands for Rhythm and Blues, also known as Soul. But it all basically means black. The reason black artists can be played on the oldies station is that white people never really put much effort into trying to do that kind of music. Not a lot of white people (until, say, Kelly Clarkson) would try to cover "Respect." So black people could continue to make music that was largely spun off of blues and gospel, like Ray Charles' ouvre, and that was OK. But if they made rock 'n' roll music -- like Chuck Berry, or the Isley Brothers, whose original version of "Twist and Shout" is pretty much forgotten -- that is verboten, and will not be aired on K-Earth. People who listen to oldies radio are interested in remembering the good old days, when black people made black music, white people invented Rock and Roll, and never the twain should meet.

(There are, of course, exceptions. "The Twist" sounds a lot like a sanitized white person's rock song, for example. But exceptions just serve to prove the rule.)

It is naturally quite interesting to consider the influences of the Beatles, who covered a lot of songs by Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley and other black rock 'n' roll musicians. If the Beatles are the greatest rock band in history, we would do well to understand the roots of their abilities. But that's not what was happening yesterday when I was listening to the radio. Of course, it's not like the stations that play the music of nowadays are a big improvement. I've heard Eminem, the Beastie Boys, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and a host of other white rappers on KROQ, but how many black artists who originated the form got that airplay? They're playing Jay-Z right now, but only because that one song has a liberal sample from that one Linkin Park song.

Do we live in a segregated society? Think of that scene in the opening of "Office Space" when the white guy who listens to gangsta rap turns his radio down and locks his doors when a black guy walks by the outside of car. White people are supposed to listen to white music, and the same goes for black people. (Other minorities are pretty much left in the lurch.) And thanks partly to the good folks at Infinity Broadcasting, who owns both stations referred to above, things will stay that way.

11/17/2004

You shook me all morning long

There was an earthquake Sunday morning! And I felt it! Such a nostalgic experience. It's been at least a decade since I actually felt an earthquake. And Northridge 1994 wasn't one of them, since it was at 4:31 a.m. and I was about 60 miles away. But this one woke me up at 7:30 a.m., even if it was only a 3.0.

The familiar rumbling and shaking brought back a whole host of memories. I think my entire life between ages 10 and 15 can be measured on the once-popular Richter scale. Collapsed overpasses were frequent front-page material in the LA Times. Quakes were discussed in science class. Duck-and-cover drills consumed valuable education hours throughout elementary school -- only to be abandoned like a one-night stand in junior high. The opening scene in the seminal 1992 Pauly Shore flick "Encino Man" features an earthquake, and the entire plot (and Brendan Fraser's entire future career) stems from that shaker. Even the 1989 World Series was interrupted by some particularly harsh seismic activity, as though Gaia herself were outraged to see the hated Giants in the series yet again. (Thankfully, the Athletics prevailed.)

Of course, the most piquant memory is of those early-morning temblors, when I'd hear Mom yelling from down the hall, "Get in the doorway!" and my brother and I would groggily drag ourselves out of bed and take shelter beneath a couple of unreinforced two-by-fours, which are apparently granted life-saving capabilities when you nail them together in the shape of a croquet wicket. We'd ride out the shaking and be glad, moments later when it stopped, that nothing fell off the walls.

Those memories are strange. Earthquakes, for Southern Californians, are kind of like killer bees. Somehow, cataclysm was always just around the corner, but it never really arrived. Sure, we had Northridge, which killed 51 people, leveled thousands of homes and remains the nation's costliest disaster. That quake was particularly powerful, due to its blind-thrust faulting, which included both vertical and horizontal motion and lifted many structures off of their foundations. But it wasn't on the notorious San Andreas fault, where doomsayers told Paul Moyers and other TV news nitwits that we would soon experience a magnitude 8 or greater quake, the effects ranging from apocalypse to end of time. None of those predictions came true, which just goes to show you how well TV news is able to influence public opinion and discussion -- at least when it comes to scaring us about threats that are rather insignificant (cf, West Nile).

Eventually, earthquake fever faded, just like all the other media frenzies. That "Happy Cows" commercial, where the cattle ride out an earthquake like it was a foot massage, would have resonated a lot better about 10 years ago. And besides, you can't really enjoy an earthquake while it's happening. Most of the time, you're dead asleep, or surprised and scared, or it's over too quickly. That was the case for me on Sunday, when the rumbling was over in about a second. I thought to myself, "Wasn't that an earthquake?" and went back to sleep. The U.S. Geological Survey confirmed my suspicions about three hours later, but there was no one at the office mobilizing a special earthquake edition, which makes sense, since there was no damage. Even the quakes themselves have kicked back in recent years. Seems like we've got a lot less to worry about these days. Of course, unless TV and movies have lied to me, that's always when they strike.

11/12/2004

Pump Up the Silence

I've decided apartment living is for dirty, evil, city-dwelling scumbags who vote for abortionists and sodomy, and I want nothing to do with them. Leave me and the real Americans in our houses, with our burglar alarms and our homeowners' associations stridently defending our housing tracts against the incursion of poor people.

Oh, wow, look at that. I've adopted the language of the homeowner after just three weeks of living in a suburban house. My six years in apartments in Los Angeles just washed away, apparently, in the face of overwhelming conformity and boredom. Because there's no other way to describe how I feel, renting a room in a peach-colored house that looks just like every fourth house on the street: bored out of my freaking mind.

Just to be fair, there are a lot of advantages to renting a room in a suburban housing tract. Free parking. Quiet neighborhood. Free laundry. A larger kitchen. Clean streets. Did I mention free parking? Not to mention the extras that come with the generosity of my homeowner/landlady: digital cable, big-screen TV, stereo surround sound, free utilities, lower rent. So in many ways, it's a good deal.

But I still miss my old hood. The streets were dirty, the neighborhood was crowded, the guy upstairs was noisy, three to four languages floated through the air at any given time, and there was nowhere to park. Armenian teenagers tried to act tough, 40-somethings in Adidas warm-ups sold drugs down the street, and traffic sucked. Police helicopters hovered overhead. Graffiti was scrawled on most flat surfaces, such as stop signs and the sidewalk. Sure, all that stuff sucked. But at least life kept you on edge, which is another way of saying you knew you were alive.

Out here, you don't know you're alive. In fact, you don't know if anyone's alive. It's quiet. There's no trash in the street. There's no one walking around the neighborhood, which isn't very crowded. Sometimes I feel like checking my pulse. Again, plenty of benefits. I fall asleep a lot more easily at night than I used to. Not so difficult to drive across town. But I'm BORED.

We all need peace and quiet sometimes. I typically need it around 3p when I'm trying to finish my article and everyone around me is on the phone or screaming across the newsroom at someone else. Or if I want to take a day or two to recharge my batteries and go hiking in the forest or camping in the desert or something. But every day? I come home and sit in silence. Sometimes I put some music on, or (gasp) turn on the TV, but that's no substitute for the actual sounds of a vibrant community. The other day I was sitting on the couch downstairs, reading, when my housemate got home and started cooking her dinner. I had a CD on with two more songs left, and after a few minutes, it stopped. I think it was about 90 seconds before she stood up, said, "I can't take this any more! Too quiet," and turned the TV on. Which doesn't really resolve the issue of "too quiet." It just masks it.

A lot of people can't deal with silence. I think this is connected to fear of being alone. These are the people who whip out their cell phones the instant they walk out of class, or the instant they get out of work. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but I think it's healthy to be able to live with a little silence or solitude sometimes. People who can't deal with that, I worry about. They're too dependent. They absolutely depend on other people. We all need other people, but in the end, we are alone in this world, and we should be able to take care of ourselves. If you can't deal with silence and solitude, what can you deal with?

I have no problem with silence or solitude. I have lived alone for the last three years, and I can go a whole day without talking to anyone very easily. But there's a limit, and this suburb is suffocating me. No wonder I've got trips to Los Angeles penciled in for every weekend through the end of the year. I don't mind the peace of sitting around and reading a book for an afternoon, but it's entirely different to come home to a deserted street lined with houses where frightened homeowners lock their doors, close their blinds, turn on their burglar alarms, and curl up in front of their television sets, basking in the radiation of CSI's bogus edginess -- rather than doing something, anything -- as their lives drip inexorably away.

That's not me. Fuck this shit. I feel like setting this house on fire. I've told a few people that the neighborhood reminds me of Irvine (Westpark in particular, for you expats), but I think a close analogue would be the neighborhood where Christian Slater's character lives in "Pump Up the Volume." That took place in Arizona, which is similar to the IE in ways that Southern Californians won't admit. It's one thing to grow up in this kind of soulless conformity and quietude, and then experience a sort of rebellious, angsty cluelessness when you become a teenager and realize there's more to life than test scores and property values. A lot of us raised in places like that felt liberated to move out and into cities. Unfortunately, I am sad to tell you, it's worse when you move back. Because you know what's out there. As teenagers, we knew Irvine sucked, but couldn't really put our fingers on what would be better. Now, however, I've seen the world, and I'm beginning to wonder if I shouldn't have given it up for the sake of a shorter commute.

11/09/2004

How I stayed sane, or realized that I am insane

There's this girl I've been missing. Her name is Jessica, she's 21, and she lives in an artist's loft in downtown Los Angeles with her sort-of boyfriend. I haven't thought about her much lately because I've been busy with commuting, packing, moving, unpacking, and getting used to a bunch of little changes that add up after a while: working again, living with a housemate, not having Internet access at home. (You'd be amazed how much that last item has affected me.) So, I've neglected Jessica a bit. Last I checked, she was dealing with some weird shit that involved yachts, musical instruments, radio waves, cell phones, an abortion, a Greyhound bus, and other similarly unrelated things. The last couple of days, I've started to wonder again what she's up to.

Here's the thing. Some of you know this, and some of you don't. I write a lot on this here blog about being unemployed. Believe it or not, I didn't spend my months of free time watching soaps or reading back issues of Pravda. I was productive. I wrote a novel. I had started it before quitting the job, but after that it soon became my central pastime. I sunk a lot more energy into research, and wrote for stretches of several hours at a time, sometimes approximating a full-time job. Long story short, I finished that book last December, and promptly started another one. Jessica is my protagonist.

(A quick side note to some friends who didn't already know about this. I told some folks but not others. Sorry if you feel like I kept something from you. I don't really have much of an explanation. It took nearly all my courage to tell even a small number of people at first, and spreading it further seemed difficult. Now that I'm better at self-aggrandizement -- i.e., now that I have a blog -- it's a little easier.)

Strange to say that I miss a fictional character, but I do. According to my computer, I haven't spent any time with her since late September. I realize that's not as long as some people had to survive without Ryan and Summer from "The OC," so maybe it's not a big deal. Except this relationship goes far beyond watching brooding 25-year-olds preen themselves in the Hermosa Beach sun. At least, I like to think so.

It's certainly a unique relationship. Consider the following. I only interact with Jessica and the other characters through the computer. I know their thoughts, and I tell them what to say. I never see them, or hold conversations with them, or join them for drinks at Westwood Brewing Co. In fact, they don't know I exist. Most important, though, is the fact that I only spend time with them by writing. Inventing these people and guiding them through a part of their lives kept me writing, which is a big part of how I get through my own life. And it was a total coincidence that I discovered this about myself.

For whatever reason, the Word (and this is not a religious meaning) has been my calling for pretty much my whole life. As a little kid, I penned stories about talking dolphins and murderous butlers, graduating in high school to the occasional self-loathing poem. I started taking my time with papers in the last years of college, stretching the task over a couple of days, actually enjoying it a bit. Even my brief dabbling with music was an extension of this, since I wanted to be a composer, before landing in journalism almost by default. When I got out of school and went to work, they made me write stuff in a regimented manner that is often stifling, but at least I get paid once in a while.

I don't think I realized what it would mean for me to break from writing when I quit that job last year. And I didn't really have to find out, since I immediately threw all my spare energy into the world of Tom, Joni, Steve, Marena, Cloud, and Mike. (These are characters from the first book.) They're the reason I bought this laptop a year and a half ago, and dumped the old desktop I'd been using since college. They also kept my fingers nimble on the keyboard and my wordsmithing abilities honed like a scalpel. If you've read very many blogs, then you know there are a lot of people out there who've got ego and attitude to spare, but who couldn't string together a coherent paragraph to save their forgettable lives. Forgive the following arrogant statement, but I'm not among their number. I think that had I spent my down time eating Ruffles and playing GTA, I wouldn't be on the ball quite as much as I am now at my new job. Learning to be a good reporter again would have taken a little longer. More importantly, though, I would have gone mad. Because writing is really who I am.

I guess that means I owe Jessica and the others a debt of gratitude. Without them, I wouldn't have been writing nonstop over the last 15 months, and whatever it is inside of me that demands I write would have surely reacted undiplomatically, swelling like an infected spleen before repturing in a burst of unfulfilled need. In short, not writing would have wreaked havoc on my soul in a way that only true self-abnegation can accomplish. I don't mind living like an ascetic when it comes to material things, but I also can't deny myself the few things that make me a complete human being. So thank you, Jessica. Without you, I would be less of a man. Now maybe I can figure out a way to get you off that bus to Alaska.

11/06/2004

Here's what happened, and what you can do

OK. There was an election. We lost. That's the way it goes sometimes. A lot of us are having a hard time understanding this, myself included. I mean, I get it, but it doesn't make sense to me. How does opposition to gay marriage -- the most non of nonissues* -- galvanize enough churchgoers to vote for an administration as horrendous as the one we currently cower in fear of? Why do people continue to vote on the basis of quote-unquote moral values (i.e., hatred of those different from you) when it goes demonstrably against their own self-interest? As a friend so eloquently put it, "Who are these people?"

You will see articles in magazines and newspapers, and stories on CNN and 60 Minutes, in the coming weeks and months that attempt to underscore the notion that we are a nation divided. Pseudo-experts like David Brooks will be propped up on talk shows to propagate their specious notions that liberals drink Merlot and read Harper's while conservatives (and moderates) drive trucks and watch the Super Bowl. That liberals are out-of-touch elitists and conservatives are down with the people. And, that each side hates the other.

This is a myth, and while it's tempting to expend a lot of energy debunking it, I am not inclined to do so. I have tried to keep election-related material off of this blog, mostly because I was maintaining a silent hope about the outcome. I didn't even talk about it very much with people. It's not because I avoid political arguments -- anyone here knows the opposite is true. I think I was just afraid to give voice to my hope that maybe, maybe this time, right would prevail. It was as if speaking it aloud would disrupt the oh-so-delicate balance of the house of cards that was Kerry's chance of election.

That time is obviously past, but that does not mean I will be venting. Here is a chance for action. I urge you to visit www.whatisamoralissue.org. It is a website advocating a simple action for progressive and liberal voters who are unwilling to concede the notion that "moral values" equates to hating gay people and opposing the right to abortion, among whatever other reasons the misled rabble give for re-electing the boy-king.

There is a divide in this country, and it is not between truck owners and subway riders. It is between those of us who believe that progressive policies are truly moral, and those who have been fooled into believing the party of billionaires is looking out for the little guy. The Democrats have not framed their arguments and issues in terms of "moral values." I fear that this means the party's central committee will tell candidates to be seen in church more frequently. How about being honest about what the party stands for? The GOP has been defining the issues for decades, which is why welfare translates to handouts for lazy (and often colored) people, environmentalism is for smelly Oregon college students, and homelessness is the homeless' fault. If the leftists are honest about what they stand for, the opposition's arguments will fall apart. Tell me that raising the minimum wage for our poorest workers is not moral. Convince me that insisting everyone has health care is not moral. Make me believe that keeping our troops from fighting endless, unnecessary, self-aggrandizing wars is not moral.

Visit that website. Forward its address to your friends, post it on your blogs. Four more years is enough time to turn things around.

*By "nonissue," I do not mean that gay marriage and gay rights are not important. What I mean is that it is so basic that it's still hard to believe that this is even an issue at all. If two gay people want to get married, what difference does that make to an angry conservative? They are consenting adults. They are already having sex and living together and raising children; you can't stop that. If they get married, you and your wife will still be married as well, and absolutely nothing will change.

11/02/2004

It pays better than blogging

Not only have I not been doing the blog thing this week, I pretty much have not been doing *anything* aside from work and moving into my new place. It's been busy. The thing about unemployment isn't so much all the free time, and then having to adjust after going back to work/school/jail. It's more about the free mental space. I had way more time than I ever needed, of course, which I filled by writing and reading, and spray-painting anti-James Hahn slogans on various Red Line trains. But keeping my brain as busy as usual would have been a far different task, and I dropped the ball on that one.

It's not so much that I sat around not thinking, or that I stopped pondering the ineffable and instead paid more attention to the age-old question of how long I can balance a beer bottle on my forehead. Rest assured, I continued to follow whatever pseudo-intellectual pursuits that I always have. But the difference came in the categories of how fast I had to think, and act on things; and how often; and on how many at once. When I was lounging around the apartment in September, the various options that submitted their pockmarked faces for my consideration were nothing to get too worked up about. Which comic book should I read today, and when? Because if I read "Demo" right now, I won't have anything to do later this afternoon. Should I have the last hot dog for lunch? If so, what's for dinner? And so on.

You can imagine the stress this put on my ability to function. That is to say, none at all. For some reason, I still felt the need to multitask at times -- I would do my grocery shopping while waiting for my clothes to be done at the laundromat -- although the only thing that really supplied me with was extra time to read up on area codes or to apply for jobs I wouldn't be getting. Naturally, such limited mental stimuli allowed my brain and its stress-handling capabilities to atrophy like a starting pitcher's fastball in the seventh inning. So, when they started throwing extra assignments on my desk at 2 p.m. several days in a row, things started to get messy.

Make no mistake: I handled everything professionally, getting the job done and then some. The mental agility, experience, and everything else I've got (collectively referred to as "skillz") worked like they always have, which is flawlessly. The difference this time is that I'm fucking beat. When they give me a story to write in the morning (or afternoon) and it's due at the end of the day, I can do it just fine, but that leaves me no time or energy to do anything else -- plan for the future, perhaps, or work on longer-scale stories. Which is part of what I wanted to be doing at this job (#4), and which is part of the reason I quit job #2 last year.

But enough whining. I hate when people whine to me about their jobs, or problems with some bullshit they should just be able to suck up and handle on their own. Do I need to hear your tales of ineptitude? I know people often feel better if they unload their complaints on someone, over the phone or otherwise, but come on. Do you want to listen to me bitch about how I have to work a whopping eight hours a day, for five straight days? Every week!

Besides, the only thing to really complain about is the backlog of blog posts I've been meaning to write. Don't you want to know what I think about sarcasm, or the SoCal radio landscape, or the shopping malls in my new hometown? I feel weird about writing these things at work, and without Internet at my new place, that's really the only option. Once I get sent out to the bureau, with no editors stomping back and forth between our gray flannel cubicles, then I'll be able to rant to everyone's heart's content. Until then, I recommend jabbing a ballpoint pen into your triceps. It has to be at least as enjoyable.