12/31/2004

Blog Titles

It's very important to be able to come up with appropriate titles for this blog, and I want you all to know how much effort goes into it. After all, phrases like "Never Mind the Blog," "My Kingdom for a Blog," and "I'm Bloggin' It" don't just appear on your computer screen like magic. A lot of blood, sweat, tears, and more blood went into their creation. And now, you fortunate lot, I'm going to pull back the curtain a few inches and let you see how it's done.

Many people think the life of a blogger is all champange and supermodels, but it turns out that's not really the case. Despite what you may have heard, I have no six-figure book offers, no NPR interview requests, no salon.com weekly column. Tedious as it may seem, I perform my groundbreaking work out of the public eye, with little impact (as yet) on the contemporary American way of life. Oh, my day will come soon enough, but until then, I toil unseen in the dark.

And yet! However tempted I may be to use this cloak of obscurity as an excuse to slacken my efforts toward mass enlightenment, I cannot. What would it mean if I were to cut corners, to sweep typos under the rug, to play "fast and loose" with the facts like a modern-day Savanarola? To do so would mean the death of all the morals and values I hold dear. Such a thought causes shudders to dance across my spine. There will be no such short-cut-taking on this blog, dammit.

So, accuracy. I've taken extra steps in the past to be sure that I wasn't spreading any information that I knew to be wrong, or that I could easily verify. For example, I double-checked which year the fire in Central Library took place for a side note in the post about books, and I looked up the price of a four-day Park Hopper(tm) pass for Disney's Orlando theme parks in order to more properly skewer that company's phony compassion in a previous post. I'm sure you would all have been heartbroken if you were to find out that I had posted something untrue.

Blog titles, then. I've run into a problem with ensuring their accuracy. Um, what? How is "Blogzilla vs. King Blog" accurate or inaccurate? Well, duh, it's a play on "Godzilla vs. King Kong," the horrid 1962 movie that I just discovered is actually called "King Kong vs. Godzilla," thus making my blog title inaccurate and this whole post seem kinda stupid. Hmm. Well, at least I sort of corrected it eventually. (I suppose it would be most accurate to say that the movie is called "Kingukongu tai Gojira," but I don't see the potential for a pun involving the word "blog" buried in there, do you?)

Now, there have been other potential blog titles that I've had to abandon because subsequent research showed them to be untenable. For example, a great phrase that would have lent itself to blog-pun concept is "A pox on both your houses," one of the last lines Mercutio says in "Romeo and Juliet" (you may have heard of it), right after Tybalt stabs him and right before he dies. He actually says it several times. Anyway, what could be better than calling my little slice of the blogosphere "A Blog on Both Your Houses"? Except the problem is that's not really what he says. Or, maybe it is. We're not really clear.

Shakespeare is, unfortunately, bereft with textual errors, addenda, approximations, and other such effluvium as make it nearly impossible to determine how much of the text we currently consider to be correct actually is correct. Few of his scripts were retained when they were originally performed, and the later quartos were often put together by a handful of actors who had gotten together and were trying to remember their lines. "Romeo and Juliet" is one of the more accurate plays out there, because the various source materials are largely in line with each other -- that is, the second quarto and the folio version, which were published at separate times, by different people.

Of course, there are discrepancies. The first quarto of "Romeo" was published in 1597 and is generally considered a "bad" version based on the recollection of a group of actors. The second quarto, from two years later, is probably based on Shakespeare's rough draft of the script, and it contains some inconsistent speech patterns and bad lines that the master probably would have excised for later drafts. This quarto was used to make a third, and then the 1609 quarto and 1623 folio were based on that one as well.

This is all well and good, but where does it leave my blog? Confused, actually. Turns out the folio version of "Romeo" doesn't have that line as I remember hearing it. Instead:

Mer. Help me into some house, Benvolio,
Or I shall faint: a plague a both your houses.
They have made wormsmeat of me,
I have it, and soundly to your Houses. [ Exit.]

I suppose I could still do the title I had intended. Blog works OK as a substitute for "plague." But what the heck is "a both houses"? Apparently you could just write "a" in place of "on" or "to" or "at" in those days, as in "I wile away my life a the Internet." Funny. So where did I hear the version with "pox"? Not from the 1996 DiCaprio movie; it retains the "plague" version of the line. The "bad" quarto has the phrase thus: "Benvolio, lend me thy hand: a poxe of your
houses." [Exit.] Huh? Where's the wormsmeat? And, more importantly, that's not how I first thought the line went, either. Who put these nonexistent lines in my head?

The pox phrase (as I first thought it went) pops up 2,230 times when I put it into Google. Of course, "a plague on both your houses," which is also not the accurate line from the folio, comes up 6,810 times. But that doesn't really mean anything. Many of those mentions on Google are in blogs (still more reason to dump blogs from Google), and many of them misattribute the phrase, saying that the Prince said it, or claiming it was said after both Romeo and Juliet are dead, which is not the case.

Trying to track down the correct line, and somehow have it line up with the line I had imagined in my head -- which all evidence indicates is not the correct line -- reminded me of a time back in college when I tried to track down the original famous New York Daily News headline from 1975, when the city of New York was facing municipal bankruptcy and had appealed to the federal government for a bailout. President Ford turned the city down, prompting the massive, front-page tabloid hed: Ford to New York: Drop Dead. I think at the time, I wanted an image of that headline to print up and put on my cubicle wall or something. Because, you know, it's funny, and New York sucks. However, typing the phrase into Google only causes more headaches. The first search result is some jackass's blog. Not only that, it's some jackass who's complaining that blogs don't get any respect in the media. Whatever. Secondly, you get a dozen different versions of the story. Apparently it was published on Oct. 29, 1974. Or 1975. Or on Oct. 30. Or maybe it was in the New York Post, not the Daily News. And the headline might possibly have been different. Hey, who says you can't trust the Internet?

Apparently, this little lesson was lost on some folks at the Los Angeles Times, since a search of their archives finds several different versions of the same headline as well. For the record, according to two former Daily News editors, and several self-aggrandizing articles in that paper, the headline was "Ford to City: Drop Dead," and it ran on Oct. 30, 1975. They can't agree who actually wrote the headline, but those are just details. Besides, I'm not interested in the thing any more. "City" could be any city, which is probably why, in my imagination, and in those of many other people, it somehow became "Ford to New York." I guess pervasive anti-New York bias may have also had something to do with it.

Anyway, alls well that ends well, I suppose. There will be no "blog on both houses" title for this particular blog, and no "drop dead" headlines plastered across my wall. Truth may be stranger than fiction sometimes, but let's not forget that it's often more boring as well. As long as we can all agree that Godzilla would, in reality, kick King Kong's simian ass all the way to Tokyo, then everything is OK by me.

12/28/2004

On Sarcasm

Yet, knowing that a part of my soul remained mercilessly silent when I involved myself in such behavior caused me unbearable torment.

-- "My Name is Red," Orhan Pamuk

I hate sarcasm. I hate it. It’s a virus in my bloodstream, an ice pick through my tongue, a rusty fishhook embedded in my brain. And, as much as I hate to admit it, as much as I wish it weren’t true, it's probably too late to find a way to live without it.

This probably sounds odd. I am, after all, very sarcastic. This is what people have been telling me for my entire life, be it my angry third- and fourth-grade teachers, who couldn’t deal with my attitude problem, or the hordes of fellow high schoolers who wrote in my yearbook that they loved my sarcastic sense of humor. (Some of them, who had been studying their SAT vocabulary, used the word "sardonic.") I know it’s true, not because that’s what everyone has always told me, but because I like to think I know just a little bit about myself.

I used to feel confused when people in high school told me I was really sarcastic. I had always figured that everyone else was just as sarcastic as I was. My hypothesis went like this: The teacher says something stupid, and everyone thinks to themselves, "Yeah, right." Everyone except for me; I would actually say, out loud, "Yeah, right." Then all the other kids would laugh, and say to themselves, "He's so sarcastic."

It made sense at the time. Because why wouldn’t it? People would say "You’re so sarcastic" as if being sarcastic was a rare bone disorder, or a nirvana-like state of being that can only be attained after years of meditation. Please. Being a smartass is the easiest thing in the world. Repeat after me: "Yeah, right. Yeah, right. Yeah, right." See? Anyone can do it.

However, it turned out that not everyone did it. Some people were taken aback when I would say, "Yeah, right," or some variant thereon. They laughed. They thought to themselves, "What a jerk." They called me sardonic in the yearbook. And, of course, I totally dug that. So I kept it up. Pretty soon I had a reputation as the smartass. Or the cynic, who doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with sarcasm, but often hangs out in the same neighborhood.

What's the big deal? Everyone is sarcastic at some point. It's the knock-knock joke of adulthood. Or young adulthood, anyway. Or of young adulthood for our generation. The big deal is that I am apparently far more sarcastic than most people. I remember making some smartassed comment at a July 4 get-together a few years ago, which some guy I didn't know very well overheard, and said, "Wow, that was really sarcastic. M must have said it." The man had only met me an hour or two prior, but he'd already nailed me down. Or, rather, my loopy need to keep up this sarcastic front had nailed me down.

In retrospect, it’s obvious where I got it from. Not from my painfully square parents, who drove Volvos and burst into song at the dinner table like we were living in a 1950s-era Broadway musical. (You can't even mention the state of Oklahoma around my mother without being bombarded by Rodgers and Hammerstein's immortal theme song.) No, I got it from television. Have you ever really watched a sitcom? Sarcasm is essentially the only form of humor employed on TV during my formative years. Physical slapstick pretty much went out in the 1970s, and the requirement that each program should have at least one moron (Homer Simpson, Joey Tribbiani, Woody from "Cheers," et al.) hadn’t become part of the dogma yet. Sarcasm lends itself to the one-liner in a way that few other jokes do, and that's exactly the kind of joke that plays perfectly on a sitcom, where there's no time to develop anything longer or more complicated. (Seinfeld disproves that, which is why it was a great show.)

Additionally, a sarcastic put-down has the bonus of being the winning stroke in a very brief battle of wits. Character A says something, Character B shoots him down with a sarcastic quip, cue the laugh track. Even as a kid I always wanted to be the smartest person I knew, and since we didn’t play Trivial Pursuit every day, mastering the zinger was the next-best way to display one’s intellectual superiority.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that, at heart, sarcasm is nothing. It’s not even window dressing. Think about having a conversation with someone. They say something, and now it’s your turn to respond. What’s the weakest possible thing you could say, and still have it qualify as a response? You could agree, you could disagree, you could agree partially and offer a refinement. I think the lowest possible form of response would be to say, "Yeah, right." (I disqualify "Fuck you" as a responsive answer. That’s basically not responding.)

We already know that "Yeah, right" is the smartass's bread and butter. That phrase informs everything we define as sarcastic. So, the person who responds with "Yeah, right" or some other sarcastic expression (e.g., "Like that will ever happen"; "I’m sure"; etc.) is, in effect, putting the least possible amount of themselves into the conversation with that response. They submit no opinion; they share no part of their thoughts; they exist only to negate what others have suggested. They do not expose anything. They are, in effect, saying nothing.

Some of you may think I should be talking about irony rather than sarcasm per se. It's true that irony is the polymer that holds together this strain of sarcastic plastic. That is where the saying-the-opposite thing comes from. But irony is more than that; it's things that are ironic, like someone tripping on their cane, or dramatic irony, etc. For the smartass, irony has also been bastardized into a form of expression that I call double-irony. That’s where you say what you really believe, but in an exaggerated manner, to deflect attention from the fact that -- gasp -- you’re actually revealing something about yourself. For example, I say that I support affirmative action, but I don’t want to sound like a squishy, guilty liberal, so I attach the following to my statement: "In fact, to ensure fairness, I think all white people should be kicked out of college." So you exaggerate what you really think to get a laugh -- cover the fact that you were, momentarily, exposed.

Let’s elaborate on this theme a little bit. The ironic and sarcastic person offers no part of themselves. They hide their own beliefs, feelings, and emotions behind a mask of "Yeah, right." No one is ironic at all times, of course, but the more they do it, the more it builds. They erect a shell around themselves, a wall behind which they keep whatever it is that they truly feel and believe. Depending on how sarcastic they are, they might not even know what those things they truly believe really are. They are hollow, empty. Sure, they make their friends laugh, but that one-liner just slaps another layer of mortar onto that wall.

Now, pretend you are the guy that everyone always says is really sarcastic. Imagine that’s your reputation. It’s fun, in a way, always making people laugh. You get a kick out of that. But what people don’t notice is that when you’re cracking your sarcastic jokes, you’re not smiling. That’s because somewhere behind that wall of irony, what you really feel and believe is withering in the dark.

There’s a very good book out there called "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." The author's name is Dave Eggers. You can immediately tell from the title that it’s rather ironic. In fact, that title is the kind of exaggerated double-irony I was talking about before. It’s a very good book, but not great. Eggers is clearly a very talented writer, and there’s a touching story here about the sudden death of both his parents and his subsequent experience raising his young brother. But that story is buried beneath a million layers of self-deprecating, ironic, sarcastic garbage that do nothing but obscure any attempts to get at the real emotions, the real feelings, the raw humanity of what happened to this family.

When I started to read that book, I found the technique annoying, and then frustrating. By the time I finished, I was furious. I hated that book. Here was a massive talent, an unspeakable loss, and a truly uplifting story, and it was all destroyed by smirky jokes and ironic detachment. Worse, though, was how much it reminded me of myself. Not in the subject matter; my parents still live, and the only contribution I made to my brother’s upbringing was introducing him to Honey Nut Cheerios. What reminded me of myself in the book was Eggers' stunning ability to build a wall around his feelings through a blitzkrieg of staged irony, sarcastic rants, deliberately exaggerated falsehoods and other bogus attempts at levity.

Of course, several good friends who also read that book have since been able to twist the knife in my gut. On a few occasions, without any suspicion of how I would react, they told me that the book reminded them of me. When that happened, I felt like simultaneously punching my fist through a wall and curling into a fetal position on the floor of my bedroom. That’s when I first began to figure all this out, when I began to realize the kind of damage the whole "sarcastic guy" reputation was doing to me. We think we know ourselves pretty well, so it’s always a shock to the system when we learn something new about ourselves. That sounds like a cliché, but try to think about the last time you actually learned something new about yourself, something that you didn’t already know. It’s rare. It may have never happened. It’s an unsettling experience, particularly if what you learn is not pleasant.

I read that book several years ago. Have things changed since then? Well, I have a blog now -- but no, things have not changed. I have a friend who I absolutely adore, and who I know is destined for amazing things in this world. Spending time with her is like summer vacation, a 100-meter sprint, a Joan Didion essay and a shot of tequila all rolled into a single experience. She has been greatly inspirational in my writing life, and encouraged my various endeavors from the beginning. However, through no real fault of her own, this wonderful person managed to unwittingly stomp all over my insides a couple of months ago when she told me what she thought of my work. Quoting now:

> you said you hated ‘heartbreaking work’ so much
> because it was so similar to what you would write.
> basically you’re saying you hate your own writing
> voice. and that explains why (the novel) is so
> completely different from your voice - none of the
> sarcasm, not eggersish at all. and I think that this distance is
> terrible.

This is a seemly innocuous and totally fair criticism. I also felt that I was having a hard time with the voice as I was writing. But, as I’m sure you can guess, what made me want to shove my head into a bucket of ice water was seeing that one word in there. She couldn’t have known about the moment of clarity I experienced a couple years ago when I read that Book. She couldn't have known that linking me with sarcasm is, to me, like casually mentioning the fact that I have no friends, or that I will die alone and forgotten within two days. Such ideas are painful.

But what really wounds to the quick is the previous sentence from that particular e-mail. No, I don’t hate my own writing voice; I simply hate myself. At least, the sarcastic, ironic, smart-ass, self-deprecating part of myself. And since that seems to be how everyone defines me, well, you do the math.

Anyway, it’s pretty much too late to change now. Like I said, I enjoy entertaining people with my caustic observations. I like the fact that friends occasionally wonder what I would say about something, and then smile to themselves when they decide it would be something trenchant and, yes, sarcastic. And who can resist taking shots at Professor, I mean, President Bush? Sure, that's all quite fun. But I just wish I could pinpoint the exact moment when, as a child, I stepped onto the path of the smirky smartass -- and then travel back in time, grab my younger self, and tell him to head in some other direction, for the sake of his future soul. Sometimes I just want to climb to the top of a mountain and scream until my voice is nothing but a dry cough, because that’s what I feel has happened to whatever it is that makes me who I am. My soul, my true beliefs, whatever. It's screaming, but it’s buried under an avalanche of sarcasm. You can’t hear it, but I can. You want to know what it says? It says, Don’t you know all that irony is just a front, just a facade? Can’t you see that’s not really me?

12/23/2004

Music to suck nog to

In the spirit of the Christian-imposed holiday season, I present to you my very own list of the best and worst holiday songs of all time. I have not ranked them, other than dividing them into four categories. Also, this list is by no means exhaustive; as I discovered during my research, there are plenty of holiday songs that I've never heard (some of which are apparently quite popular) and can therefore not judge.

I have not included any particular versions of songs, opting instead to just stick with the generic version and judge based on how the composer/songwriter wanted it to be heard, or thereabouts. For example, I hear Barbra Streisand has a horrid version of "Jingle Bells" out there, but that won't knock the song into the gutter for me. (Of course, I haven't heard Babs sing it.)

The number in parentheses is that particular song's rank in the Association of Songwriters, Composers, Authors and Publishers' (ASCAP) annual list of the 25 most-played holiday songs. "The Christmas Song" was number one this year, a.k.a. the "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ..." song. Yes, I am as befuddled as you are by this turn of events. Best to just shrug my shoulders and crank up "Oi to the World."

Anyway, feel free to add your own, or dispute my choices, or ignore what I've written entirely. I encourage you to seek out the ones in my top quartile that you've never heard. You might not agree with my selections, but so what? It's just fun singing "The 12
Days of Christmas," even if musically it's not a real super tune. Meanwhile, someone slipped a little too much brandy into film critic Richard Roeper's nog; how else to explain his description of the 1984 charity nightmare "Do They Know It's Christmas" as "one of the best holiday songs of any kind, ever"? And whoever thought that repeating the phrase "fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la" in every other line (a.k.a. the mental midget behind "Deck the Halls") was clearly not a highly skilled songsmith. Anyway.

The Best
---
Let it Snow (6)
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (8) -- You might not believe it, but I used to play a decent jazz version of this song back in high school.
Sleigh Ride (12)
Carol of the Bells (23)
Santa Baby (24) -- Originally sung by Eartha Kitt, better known as Catwoman from the Batman TV series.
Oi to the World -- No Doubt, from back when they were a decent OC punk-ska band with a vamp vocalist.
Jamaican Noel -- Kirby Shaw; most likely you have never heard this song.
The Wassail Song -- Gotta love those druids.
The 12 Days of Christmas
The Chanukah Song -- Adam Sandler. Not real crazy about all the sequels.
Angels we Have Heard on High
O Come All Ye Faithful
I Saw Three Ships
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch
The entire Nutcracker suite -- Yes, even the unfortunately named "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."
Christmas in Hollis -- Run-DMC, bitch.

The Mediocre
---
The Christmas Song (1)
Winter Wonderland (3)
Jingle Bell Rock (10)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (4)
White Christmas (5) -- Among Irving Berlin's worst songs, yet also his most enduring. More than 500 recordings in dozens of languages continue to blandify the holiday season each year.
Silver Bells (11)
Feliz Navidad (13)
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree (16)
Joy to the World
Jingle Bells
Toyland
Away in a Manger
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Silent Night
Greensleeves

The Bad
---
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (2)
I'll be Home for Christmas (7)
Little Drummer Boy (9)
Frosty the Snowman (17)
It's Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas (20)
Here Comes Santa Claus (21)
Mele Kalikimaka
There's No Place like Home for the Holidays
Up on the Housetop
We Three Kings
Here Comes Santa Claus
O Tannenbaum
The First Noel
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Deck the Halls
O Holy Night

The Execrable
---
Holly Jolly Christmas (18) -- Wow, holly and jolly rhyme. That's about all that recommends this particular piece of trash.
All I Want for Christmas (is my two front teeth) -- Do you think babies are the cutest things ever? Do you dress your pomeranian in lavender sweaters? Then this song is for you.
Do You Hear What I Hear -- Yes, I hear an awful song and the worst use of the echo chamber effect ever recorded.
Do They Know It's Christmas -- Boy George's heartfelt "ohhh" in the 2nd verse really sealed the deal on this one. I hear the new version sucks too.
The Dreidel Song -- It's just a bad song. Jews everywhere are wronged by the fact that gentiles perceive this as the standard Chanukah song.
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year -- This song was obviously written for a Macy's commercial. And what a subtle title for a song! Whatever could this tune be about?
Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer -- Funny, if you think fart jokes are really highbrow.
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (19) -- Terrible.

12/20/2004

Gin and Tonic

This isn't really directed at anyone in particular, but why do people see the need to interrogate me about my drink of choice at a bar? I don't like beer. I'm having a gin and tonic instead. Is that a problem? Are you okay with my taste being different from yours? Last I checked, it was still legal to order something besides beer at a bar, regardless of whether the walls are wood-paneled or if they've got Guinness on tap. There are a dozen other people in the bar who are not drinking beer, and there's a good chance that they order the same thing every time, just like me. Go harass them.

It's not like it's a really grand drink that I get all the time because it makes me feel like a king on a throne. The gin and tonic is basically just Sprite with a kick, and I like Sprite. And it's a good drink to order at a bar, because it tastes better coming out of the fountain than it does if you make it at home with quinine-infused Schweppes out of a bottle or (shudder) a can. Maybe the regularity with which I order the same thing is a bit peculiar, but I don't think that means I should be called to account for myself at every opportunity. Besides, I do have other drinks on occasion. (Like the time Tim bought me a Midori Sour. Very funny.)

I hardly find it worth comment that I often order something I like to drink. And yet, the common refrain: "How come you always order that?" "So, what's so great about a gin and tonic?" I'll tell you what: nothing! Why do you always get a beer? Because you like to drink it? Well, what a freakin' concept.

This sort of thing goes on all the time with me. I can't figure it out. Maybe people have a hard time thinking of things to say to me, so the conversation has to include something that, when you think about it, isn't all that noteworthy at all. To wit: I wear a tie to work. Wow. Stop the presses. I suppose there aren't a lot of other newspaper reporters who wear neckties, probably because it's not a real high-paying profession. But here's a news flash: Millions of other men wear ties as well. Do they face daily questioning about why they wear a tie? Are they asked, by the society page editor who sits across from them, "How many ties do you own, anyway?" Did the photo editor at the unnamed news agency write in their good-luck-going-away card, "Great job. Now lose the tie"? I'll tell you the answer. They do not. I do, of course.

For me, this phenomenon dates back to middle school, when I was one of those kids who wore a baseball cap every day. It started a couple of weeks into seventh grade, when I discovered to my delight that at this new school I was attending, the teachers would allow you to wear a hat indoors. Hallelujah! The Detroit Tigers hat went on my head in the morning and didn't come off until dinner. Not because I'm a fan. Detroit, who cares? It's just a good-looking hat, and it was free with my Pony baseball registration.

Now, keep in mind that I was not alone in this situation. At a school of a few hundred students, there were dozens of guys like me, who couldn't be bothered with combing our hair, so a cap was the obvious answer. Seems convenient, yes? But there's a hidden price to wearing a hat every day. People decide to make an issue out of the fact that you've got a hat on. "Why do you wear a hat every day?" "You're going to go bald, you know." "I bet you've got really bad dandruff." Wow, thanks for sharing. That guy over there is wearing a hat too; why don't you waste his time? Sadly, I was not as quick of wit in those days as I could have been, and at the time lacked any truly sophisticated comebacks. I think I typically responded with something along the lines of "Fuck you," "Shut the fuck up," or "Shut up, you fuck." Raw, but it got the job done.

These days, I'm less likely to employ such delicate language when someone touches a nerve with one of these questions. I typically just smirk and say something like, "It's a good drink" before changing the subject. Then I get home, take off my necktie and baseball cap, and pound out 600 words on my blog. It's the mature thing to do.

12/18/2004

An Open Letter

Dear Southwest Airlines flight attendants,

Do you really think you're funny?

Sincerely,
M

12/09/2004

More journalistic failures

It's important to be able to learn from our failures. Or, at the very least, to acknowledge them with the intent of learning from them. This latter seems to be the best that most people can do with their various failures, and it's beginning to seem that I'm among that crowd. After all, I've been able to learn of my mistakes. I've learned to identify exactly what led up to them, and what I should have done differently, and how I went about ignoring the usual warning signs, same as I always have. But I haven't yet been able to convert that into actually learning from those mistakes, to the point where I don't make them any more. Sure, I can remember to bring a spare pen after the one time my pen runs out of ink in the middle of an interview. That's simple. Correcting broader problems that go more toward my whole approach are a little tougher.

What am I talking about? I'll try to explain, but keep in mind that preserving my overly cherished (and probably rather flimsy) anonymity and keeping the writing free of stupid euphemisms (e.g., the unnamed news agency) may prove impossible. At the very least, it will be entertaining to see how many pseudonyms I have to use.

I wrote a feature article a few weeks back on a local resident. We'll call him Karl Rove. (Not his real name.) Now, Karl has a very large holiday decoration that he puts up above his house every year. I won't say what it is, but it's big, it lights up, and he lives in the hills, so you can see it from far away. It's been an annual tradition of sorts for decades. People have always seen this doohickey glowing up in the hills at Karl Rove's house. Sure, probably some folks don't like it, but no one has ever made him take it down for lack of a permit or anything like that. So it's well liked.

Last year, many of you will recall, there were some wildfires in Southern California. Just a few. They burned, oh, I don't know, a million acres. (Keep in mind that, in the suburbs at least, the lot your parents' house is on is about 1/5 to 1/4 of an acre. So a million acres is about five million times the size of your property.) It was kind of a big deal. A few thousand houses were destroyed. Hundreds of families left homeless. You know. Anyway, Karl's house up there in the hills wasn't really protected from the fire. His backyard basically backed up against the wilderness, and when the flames came racing down on him, he packed his family into the car and wisely drove off.

But not before he turned on his giant outdoor light-up display one last time. This was in October last year, so the thingy would not have otherwise been lit. But he turned it on, right before escaping, and thousands of people saw it up there, in the evening, as the flames approached. Many people took this as a sign of defiance, of hope. It said that while the fires might be coming, this man -- and by extension, all of us -- would not stand down. And then, the fire destroyed it and the house.

As you might guess, many people were disappointed by this. They'd grown used to seeing the big light-up whatsit every year during the holiday season. The thought that it wouldn't be there was upsetting. So what happened? Why, the people pulled together like it was It's A Wonderful Life, gathering donations and giving them to Karl, telling him he has to rebuild the thing, so we can all celebrate the holidays once again. In the end, more than $10,000 rolls in for Karl, some of it even coming from a couple of airlines whose pilots used to point out the lit-up decoration to their passengers as they flew in to land at the airport. (I told you, it's big.)

At this point it's appropriate to step back and consider Karl. When he bought the house in the hills about 20-some years ago, the big light-up thingamajig was already there. So he kind of inherited it. But when he moved in, it was not so big and used a lot of incandescent bulbs, which require a lot of electricity. So he took that old thing down and built a new one. Better. Stronger. Faster. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.) With fluorescent bulbs, that use less power, but can still be seen from far away. It's quite something to look at.

Keep in mind that Karl did not have to do this. There was no clause in the deed to the house requiring him to spend hundreds of dollars on electricity every year, and build a whole new structure, just because everyone in the community liked the thing. He just did it. I'm guessing he got some satisfaction of his own out of it, but at least partly, he did it for the community, just because he's a swell guy.

Back to last year. Karl is overwhelmed by the community support. People are just giving him money. So now he's got to rebuild the big decoration. And he does. He puts a lot of effort into it, but it's just a temporary situation. Because his house, you see, was destroyed. Nothing there but a blackened concrete slab where his foundation was set into the ground. He had to rent scaffolding to hold up the display. Flash-forward to this year. Karl has rebuilt the thing again. It's huge. It's exciting. He purchased a crane to hold it up. He bolted steel wires to the foundation to hold it in place. That's where I come in.

I was assigned to write a story on Karl and the display. I'm new in the area, so I've never seen it before. It was kind of annoying having to drive up into the hills to get there, past all these rich people's houses, where there are no street lights and a lot of neighborhood watch signs. Anyway, the light was on a timer that night, and when I got to where I could see the thing, I said to myself, Shit. It's really big. And then it turned on, and I could see why so many people made such a big deal out of it.

Eventually, I get up to where Karl's house was, and I meet him and his family for the interview. They don't live there any more, but they were nice enough to drive out so we could take pictures of them with the light. I'm talking to him, asking him what happened, taking down notes. He tells me how amazed he is that so many people gave him money to rebuild the thing, that everyone he sees tells him how much they like it. Even at the supermarket, his wife says, people ask when it's going to be lit up. I ask him about the time he turned it on last year as the fires were approaching. Turns out that was for his daughter's birthday. They couldn't have a party for her, obviously, since they had to throw some stuff in the car and flee for their lives. The girl was three years old at the time, I think. And she was pretty disappointed by this. So, to cheer her up, they lit the light. Because she likes it.

After he and his wife tell me this story, Karl gives me a half-guilty smile. "People thought it was this defiant thing, turning it on. But we just wanted to give our daughter a birthday present."

I was a little taken aback by this. Probably most people gave Karl money to rebuild the thing because they liked it, and it was a holiday tradition that they didn't want to see disappear. But there was a good contingent that thought he was a stand-up guy for lighting it that day last year, like he was telling the fires, you might destroy our homes, but you won't destroy our spirit. A lot of people were inspired by that act. (At least, this is what my editors told me when handing me the assignment.) And now, he's telling me that's not really the case.

I didn't make a big deal out of it. The interview was taking place on a cold, windy November evening, in the hills, on a precarious concrete plane with Karl, his British-accented wife, her father, and their daughter (now four, I guess) who didn't want to be there. Then a photographer showed up, and we spent far too long trying to get a photo that would work, since the sun had long since set and the light-up device made the whole endeavor rather tricky. Plus, I had other questions to ask, and since my tape recorder broke in July, I've been taking notes the old-fashioned way, which requires more concentration. Suffice it to say that I was a little taken aback by Karl's revelation, but it slipped my mind almost immediately.

Anyway, I didn't sit down to write the story until the next day. (One of two stories I wrote on Thanksgiving. If my grandmother dies before I see her on Christmas, I'll be very pissed about working that day.) It's always best to go over your notes as soon as possible after an interview, because it's still fresh in your mind and you can fill in any blanks. (In the narrative, not in what someone said. If I didn't manage to write down the whole sentence, I can't just guess and fill it in. Despite the incredible temptation, I'll admit.) But I didn't feel like doing that the night before, so I just went home. That Thursday, as I crafted a paragraph explaining how Karl's decision to light the light last year was perceived as a defiant move by many who saw it, I remembered what he'd told me the night before. Should I include what he revealed to me? I had a lot to do that day, and after that thought occurred to me, I basically said to myself, "I'll think about that later" and moved on.

Of course, this is what I've failed to learn lo these many years. So many of my mistakes are made when something occurs to me, and instead of acting on it right away, or making a note to myself to do so, I move on, thinking that I will get back to it but, in reality, forgetting. Long story short, Karl's act of defiance was again enshrined in the newspaper, lending legitimacy to a notion that is well on its way to becoming an urban legend in this area.

Did I do wrong? Should I have told the truth about what happened that night last year, while flames drew down the hillside toward Karl and other rich folks' houses? I'm more disappointed in myself for doing the same thing I've always done when rushing through work. That's how other mistakes get made. But I suppose it's not a big deal. It's not like I incorrectly reported that Karl is a convicted pederast or something like that. The reason for lighting his decoration is, in the grand scheme of things, pretty irrelevant.

Besides, even if I had reported what really happened, he narrative has already been established, and that's often far more powerful than the facts of the case. You probably recall the incident in 1980, when, during a presidential debate, Ronald Reagan snarled "I paid for this microphone!" during a dispute and received a burst of applause. The narrative of that event is it showed that Reagan was a no-nonsense guy who cut through the bullshit and stood up for himself -- and, by extension, America. This narrative has become so powerful that most people don't even know the facts of that incident. Reagan himself said the comment was in response to an effort by a newspaper editor to shut off the mike during a dispute over which candidates could participate in the debate. Others have said (even in respected publications) that Reagan was trying to keep those candidates out, while he said he wanted them in. I also doubt that what Reagan said was even true: there's no way he spent a single penny on its use, personally or through the campaign. But the narrative trumps the facts, in that case, and in this one as well.

12/04/2004

Housemate vignettes, or, The Homeowner Variations

At my newspaper, they like to do "vignettes" for big stories. Like on Election Day, we were supposed to round up some random events or interviews and then write a few paragraph on each for a collection of vignettes. One reporter found a woman standing in line at a polling place who hadn't decided who to vote for. We called her the last undecided voter. I interviewed a man, an immigrant, who brought his sons to the polling place to show them what voting is all about, and tell them how people in other countries don't have that opportunity. My vignette was not published, probably because there was no room or some bullshit like that.

Anyway, I haven't written anything about my housemate here, largely because I don't have a single unifying impression of her, or of me living with her, that I can write a whole post about. (There's no news peg, so to speak.) But if I can't write a blog post with an overarching theme, I can give you some vignettes.

-- The woman I live with is 32. Until I moved in, she lived alone in a four-bedroom house that her parents bought, or helped buy. She commutes from way the hell out here to El Segundo, every morning. That's at least 60 miles, and we're not talking 60 miles of open road. It's 60 miles of SoCal morning traffic. So she's gone early in the morning and doesn't get back until 8 or 9p. I don't see her much.

-- She has digital cable, a huge television, stereo surround sound that includes a massive subwoofer, and, as far as I can tell, doesn't watch anything on TV other than "CSI," "The Bachelor," and a handful of other crappy shows. Of course, you can watch TV a couple hours a night, every night, and still only watch "CSI" and "The Bachelor," and this is what she does. She's one of these people who gets home, turns on the TV, and vegs out. (Veges out? There is no proper spelling on this.) I don't watch TV, because I think it turns your brain into a baked potato, among other side effects. But I won't begrudge anyone their right to come home after a long day at work, and a horrid commute, and begin the long, if somewhat enjoyable, process of stupefaction. My complaint is that she's got all this great and expensive equipment and she wastes it on a program like "The Bachelor," which you could watch with rabbit ears. Why pay for cable if you aren't going to watch any of those other channels? And why buy all those extra speakers and if it's just to hear the crime scene investigators say, "I think we've got some DNA"?

-- Seen on the refrigerator:

Shopping list

eggs
cheese
chicken
scented oil

Wow. That sounds like one tasty breakfast burrito.

-- Her house is designed like my parents' house, but about 25 percent smaller. The room upstairs that I'm renting (at $4.55 a square foot, which would be highway robbery were it not for my kitchen privileges) is in the same location as my room was in my parents' house, and there's a room right next to it where my brother's room would have been. Also, by coincidence (I swear), I have largely set up my bed, desk, book shelves, and chest of drawers in the same places they occupied in my old room. So it's like living at home with my parents again! I even jump the same way I used to when I hear the garage door opening, because that means Mom is home, and will catch me wasting time on the Internet when I should be doing my homework. (I managed to wing Internet access at the house, finally. It involves a long-distance phone card, an 800 number, and an ex-girlfriend's ucla.edu e-mail account. I guess it's not 100 percent free, if I have to buy these cards, but it beats writing checks to Microsoft every month.)

-- I don't really know what to call her. My landlady? My housemate? I feel like referring to her as my homeowner, but that kind of sounds like I'm some sort of robber baron, who lords it over those beneath me. "I love all my little homeowners." Perhaps I should call her the homeowner, like they refer to "the client" at so many workplaces. "I have to give my rent check to the homeowner today." Sounds professional and grown up, and it doesn't give you an inkling of what our relationship is really like -- she watches TV while I sit around eating Ben & Jerry's on her couch every night.

-- She wants to rent out the other bedroom, but it isn't really going so well. First of all, there's not a lot of demand for renting a room in a house out here. There's no college nearby, and no other situation exists that would lead to her phone ringing off the hook to rent out the room. (I don't know what kind of situation would lead to that. Maybe Fontana should work to establish a large foreign-exchange program.) There have been a few people expressing interest, but the homeowner turned them down. The first was a guy who had a dog and wanted to bring it with him. She said no. The next was a woman who said she was a lesbian, and I guess that made the homeowner nervous. Maybe I should have told her that four years ago, I sublet my apartment to a pair of women who happened to be partners, and they didn't damage my furniture or sacrifice any chickens or otherwise lower my property value. Instead, I said nothing, munching on my frozen pizza in silence. The third was a guy who contacted her about the room but never called her back when she said she was going to check his credit record. I'm beginning to think that subconsciously, she doesn't want to rent out the other room. Which is fine with me. More room, less noise, no one to share the bathroom with. But I wonder what, exactly, convinced her to rent the place to me. I guess I don't look very threatening. When I showed up to look at the room, I was still wearing a tie because I came straight from work, so that must have made me look like a fine, upstanding individual. Heh.

-- As near as I can tell, my girlfriend doesn't really care that I'm living with another woman. I suppose it helps that the homeowner is five and a half years older than me and is taking 26 percent of my income, which doesn't really endear her to me. Plus she's not really my type anyway. There was an article on The Onion a couple years back that wasn't exceedingly amusing but was spot-on with its satire of mundane everyday life. (This is The Onion's real strength, moreso than making up fake headlines about Dick Cheney.) I don't remember the exact headline, but it was something to the effect of, "Woman regrets one-night stand after seeing man's mediocre DVD collection" and it was about a girl who bails from the guy's apartment the morning after when she sees his movies are an odd assemblage. That's the homeowner. Not a bunch of godawful movies, but nothing much good either. "Simply Irresistible," "Batman & Robin," "The Pelican Brief." The CDs she's got piled up aren't that great either. Train, Creed, (sigh) Uncle Kracker. So, poor taste in movies and music = not really my type. Anyway, she's OK with my girlfriend spending the night, which is surprising, seeing as how she's rather culturally conservative for a blue-stater who works in L.A. Maybe she's convinced herself that the g.f. is bringing a sleeping bag and camping out on the floor.

12/02/2004

The New York Times endorses my bloated ramblings

This is from Frank Rich's column today, taken wildly out of context:

The dense text in the best blogs often requires as much of a reader's time and concentration as high-end print journalism, itself facing declining circulation.

That's right. Now go read my area codes manifesto again.