1/28/2005

Too much M

I am convinced that there are far too many other people wandering around whose names begin with M. I reached this conclusion long ago, when programming my cell phone and discovering that the M's outnumbered all others. To be fair, that does include Mom, but her name begins with M anyway -- and it also does not include Dad, whose name also begins with M. So at present, Marc, Marcelle, Mari, Michael, Michi, Mike, and Mom are clogging my cell phone. And that doesn't include the M's who aren't in my phone -- Maciek, Michelle, two other Mikes -- and even the people who I've (gasp) never met.

The reality of this situation never really bothered me until the last year or so, when a few people made fun of the fact that I always signed my emails with an initial. I tried telling Marcelle to call me Big M while she could be Little M, but that didn't fly too well. Then I got a blog, and started referring to myself as "M" more frequently, and my sensitivity to the overabundance of M's skyrocketed. Eventually I stopped signing my e-mail with the initial, because someone else gave me shit about it, and I don't need any more shit in my life, especially from him. But the M stayed on the blog, because I value my anonymity. The last straw came the other day when I wanted to call my office and leave myself a voice mail, and I had to scroll through all those other M's on my cell phone before I got to myself. You bastards.

Before I go any further, I should probably explain why this is a problem. After all, we all share names with someone, so who cares if there are other people with the same first initial? The reality is that I share my name with nearly no one, and this has skewed my outlook on the world. For comparison's sake, imagine my first name is something like Holloway. I think we can all agree that this would be almost unique. It's a last name, maybe, but not really a first name. So I would go through life thinking I'm pretty much the only person with my name, and since I never meet anyone else called Holloway, I'm secure in this illusion. Sure, I am aware that it's possible there are other Holloways out there, but I've never crossed paths with them.

You can see how such a situation would lead you to live in a reality slightly different from everyone else's. In an early "Life in Hell" comic strip, Matt Groening drew a sad-looking Bongo next to a hugely long list -- the Childhood Trauma Checklist. (The key to understanding why this is a comic strip is that it's sometimes funny and touching to relive painful moments from our youth, especially if we had tried desperately to forget them.) This checklist included alternately amusing and despairing things -- "Parent on a diet"; "Being put to bed when not sleepy"; "First confrontation with a clown"; "First realization that death is inevitable" -- and one that, I must admit, did not resonate for me at all: "Meeting another kid with your name." That never happened to me.

Naturally, since I bitch about everything, this isolation from other Holloways only meant that a certain childhood trauma was postponed until adulthood, like the way I successfully held off the chicken pox until I was 16, at which point I got it worse than I ever would have before. The only real run-in I've had with someone who's got my name was a guy who worked at the comic book store I used to frequent back in L.A. I would always cringe when I heard people call out his name from across the store, and I almost had to stop going there on Wednesday nights. For those of you who are not nerds, new comics come out on Wednesday, just like new movies mostly come out on Fridays. For hard-core comic shops, Wednesday night is a scene, and it's not unusual for petulant customers to yell at the clerks. "Holloway, where's the X-Factor Vs. Ultimates #12 with the second variant cover?"

That guy doesn't work at that comic shop any more, and I don't really shop there any more, either, so this is no longer an issue for me. But for a while, every third or fourth Wednesday, I would have to think about it. I would wonder if he and I would cross paths and share a moment of strange incredulity. We would immediately have something to talk about (besides comic books). Perhaps it would be like that scene from "The Simpsons" where Milhouse meets the other kid named Milhouse. I should end the anticipatory tension right here and tell you that the other Holloway and I never shared such a moment. He rang me up a few times, and even swiped my debit card, but he never looked and saw that we had the same name. And for my part, I never told him. I imagine that, like me, he had gotten used to being the only one, and that for me to shatter the illusion would have been at least a little uncomfortable.

Additionally, that would have meant that every time I went there in the future, he would say hi, or give me that 'sup nod that guys do, and I don't want that, because I hate people.

Anyway, I hadn't had any more same-name run-ins since the comic shop -- until yesterday. As I wasted time at work, browsing blogs, I stumbled upon one with my name on it. In big type. Really big. Like, it screams "Holloway's Page" in huge, huge type that takes up the top half of the screen. Obviously, it only took me about 20 to 30 seconds to realize that it was not, in fact, my blog. (I'm a quick one, at that.) However, I was still shaken. Here was some idiot using my name all over the Internet! What if someone saw it? And still more disturbing is the fact that this guy is a right-wing loony. His latest post included a picture of Ann Coulter, with that quote about how the United States should go into Afghanistan, massacre the leaders, and convert everyone to Christianity -- and his comment was something like, "I love this woman." Great. I must have more bad karma than Shiva. Is it not enough that this waste of carbon is using my name -- now he has to drag it through the gutter, too?

Before long, I was able to get over that particular insult by channeling my rage into an effort to find out how I can hijack that guy's blog and neutralize its odious effect on the blogosphere. (If you have suggestions, my comment box is open.) But there's not much I can do about all those other M's. I suppose I could just deal with it. I might not be the only M, or even the only Holloway, but I am the only Holloway I know, so that's something. I used to think my parents were nuts for giving me a name no one else had. Did they want me to be a freak, isolated from society, alone in my weirdness? I was never angry or upset, but it bothered me like a burr under my saddle. Now, however, I'm glad they did what they did. It was one thing to have teachers and Mr. Rogers and everyone else telling me that I was unique, but it's quite another to know that in a specific, verifiable way, this is true.

A coda to this story -- and you will laugh, especially if you know me personally -- is that I sort of already have a name picked out for a future child. It's just an unusual name that I heard once and thought sounded nice, so don't go thinking I'm a girl who spent many a slumber-party evening thinking up names for my kids. It'd be for a daughter, if I were to have one. (Any future sons are on their own.) And it starts with M.

1/26/2005

Everyone's favorite 13.5-inch golden dude

OK, so I have a love-hate relationship with the Oscars. There's not much love there, but I can't hate the awards as much as I should. I figure this is as good a time as any to vent about it, since the nominations came out the other day and that piece of crap "The Aviator" got 11 nominations. If you haven't seen it, I'll save you the trouble: Imagine "Citizen Kane," but instead of stellar acting, you have an emotionless, blank-faced 30-year-old; and instead of character development, you have obsessive-compulsive hand-washing.

Anyway, that crap aside, I can't really say what I think about the Oscars. On the one hand, being a rather jaded individual (see URL), I think they are a load of bullshit in which rich and famous people get together to celebrate themselves, even when they have not done anything really worth celebrating. (e.g., Marisa Tomei, Kim Basinger, "Forrest Gump.") They also spend wads of money on marginally attractive women's clothes and generally give middle America a bogus glimpse of how we live out here on the West Coast -- you know, wandering around in tuxedos all day, carrying golden statues, wearing sunglasses at indoor awards ceremonies, cracking jokes written by overweight gay men. Yes, life in Hollywood is grand. Never mind that when I lived there, thick gray stuff occasionally bubbled up out of my shower drain, and I once watched a 64-year-old man and his 12-year-old grandson vandalize my building. That was just an aberration. On the aggregate, my days were spent brunching with Martin Scorsese, and at night, I went swing dancing with Charlize Theron.

On the other hand. I have derived a small amount of enjoyment from the Academy, as well as some free food and a sense of increased status the two times I covered the ceremony for one of those unnamed news agencies I used to work for. Yes, it was grand: I was in the same room as Catherine Zeta-Jones, and even pregnant she was really, really hot. (I think I can get away with saying that. My girlfriend doesn't read my blog.) Besides, this year Chris Rock is hosting the thing, so I really have no choice but to watch it. The Oscars: Bigger and Blacker.

Working the ceremony was fun in a way. More fun than the Grammys, which was held at Staples Center the year that I went, and which had the inimitable twang of a hootenanny about it (this was the year that the "O Brother" soundtrack won all the awards). First off, all press at the Oscars have to wear tuxedos and ball gowns. I believe the intent is to ensure the illusion of a high-class gathering remains even if a stray cameraman accidentally gets a half-second glimpse of some non-celebrities wandering away from their cages. Never mind that I was not even assigned to work the red carpet -- I would be locked in the poorly ventilated press room for the duration -- I still had to wear a tux.

So this was fun, because everyone likes playing dress-up. I got to head down to the world's cheapest bridal clothing store in downtown L.A.'s wedding district (yes, it exists) and rent a tux from several women who did not speak English but measured my arms with a long piece of plastic just fine. Then, because security was amped-up in 2002 and 2003, due to post-9/11 paranoia and pre-Iraq war paranoia, I had to park several blocks away from the actual Oscar site and wander around Hollywood in a tuxedo the day of the event with a fat ID hanging around my neck. This made me feel quite important, especially when the European tourists peeking over the barricade with the foolish notion that they would spot Michael Jackson or Britney Spears whispered as I walked past. I suspect they might have been saying, "Look, it's Harry Potter" or "Look, it's Steve Albini" -- two people I have been accused of looking like, though few Europeans know who Steve Albini is.

Anyway, not only is this all fun, but then you get inside, and everyone else is dressed up, too! It's like going to a wedding, except rather than seeing your overly made-up high school friends smear their mascara with excessive tears, you are surrounded by nimrod entertainment reporters yakking on and on, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are cementing the well-known fact that they are all idiots. I would like to digress here a moment to discuss entertainment reporters. My father was a journalist when he was my age, and I distinctly recall a point, when I was a sarcastic teenager ridiculing the sports writing in the local newspaper, that he said to me: "M, it's time you learned sports writers aren't real reporters." Well, let me tell you that if sports writers aren't real reporters, that means entertainment reporters aren't even the equivalent of a trail of snail slime. These people are often about as useful as a potato that has been sitting in your pantry for seven and a half weeks. In fact, if I were going to throw a party, I would invite a potato way before I would invite an entertainment journalist, particularly one who covers the Oscars.

OK, that's not completely true. I know a couple of people who worked the Academy Awards who are not stupid. However, on the whole, my gross generalization stands. Let's consider an example, shall we? What you don't see on TV is that after someone wins their statuette, they are led backstage to two separate press rooms: one for photogs, and one for the writers and TV cameras. The photogs are all paparazzi, and you can hear them screaming in the next room when Julia Roberts or whoever is back there smiling and waving around their shiny new paperweight. In the press room, the winners stand at a podium and answer usually stupid questions, but while this is going on, many of the reporters are wearing headphones that allow us to hear the actual ceremony, which is still going on at the same time. The two years I worked the Oscars, the person who was given the lifetime achievement award was backstage answering questions at the same exact time that, on stage, the award for Best Actor was announced. Now, what do you think happened at that moment? Do you think that when ancient Peter O'Toole was backstage answering a question, the entertainment press respectfully listened, or at least kept the noise to a minimum when they heard who had won Best Actor? Do you think that Robert Redford was able to continue what he was saying without being rudely interrupted by a bunch of overpaid, clueless quote-unquote journalists?

If you thought that, you would be wrong. Most of the entertainment reporters at the Oscars have not only abandoned any notion of ethics, openly rooting for certain actors without any regard for what sort of stead that will stand them in during future interviews or questions about their integrity, they also have no idea what it means to be a professional. When Robert Redford was backstage discussing what many would consider a great honor, dozens of reporters interrupted him by squealing like masturbating monkeys when Denzel Washington was named Best Actor, as though Robert Redford was just some guy who happened to be standing around in the same room as them, and not someone who ostensibly should be treated with a little respect. The same thing happened with Peter O'Toole, since it's obvious that less than 10 percent of the reporters backstage were listening to anything he was saying, and they in fact decided to scream such things as "Oh my God!" when Adrien Brody was named Best Actor.

Now, I understand that it's exciting to see who wins an Oscar. Oh, wait, it's not actually that exciting, now that I think about it. But I can understand how, if you've dedicated your career to hyperventilating about a pointless charade like the Oscars, and you suffer from undiagnosed ADHD, and you have the intelligence of a toaster, and you have a proclivity for referring to all female celebrities by their first name, you would be excited to see who wins this utterly meaningless prize. I mean, who wouldn't. But I would think that you would be able to exercise some sort of restraint when the winner is announced, rather than jumping out of your goddamn chair as if you had been unexpectedly named the new host of "The Tonight Show" without even applying. I can see how you would drop all pretense of being a relatively calm human being and instead turn into a flaming drama queen when Adrien Brody decides to plant a kiss on an unexpecting Halle Berry. So what if Peter O'Toole stands dazed and confused at the podium, suddenly realizing that no one in the room is listening to him, or even affording him the barest glimmer of respect? Imagine you are at a wedding, and in the middle of the vows, someone wearing a walkman jumps up and shouts, "Yes! Dallas just scored a touchdown! They're gonna win this thing!" This is the entertainment journalist at the Oscars. They are selfish, harebrained, overly coiffed, and thoroughly unaware that while they consider what they do to be more important than anything else on the planet, it is all show and has the substance of a dead moth.

Another short example. The last time I covered the Oscars, I sat at the same table with some bitch who works for Newsweek. She looked upset the whole time. I soon figured out why. Another reporter asked her if she was returning to New York tomorrow. Her reply: "You mean civilization?" Yes, here in Los Angeles, we are all silicone-filled dunderheads; our notion of high art is the painting of Santa Claus on the side of the Coca-Cola bottle. We never read books, we produce such shit as Martin Lawrence in "Black Knight," and, as mentioned in a previous post, we don't know what real weather is like. Hey: fuck you. You write about movies for a living. How about doing something that might have some tangible impact on someone's lives, aside from the rich and beautiful? Did you put a lot of research into that deep profile of fashionista Vera Wang? Do you think my amanuensis-style article on Michael Moore will be worse than yours because of the accident of our birthplaces? Besides, last I checked, New York is largely responsible for stupid books like "The Devil Wears Prada" and other such garbage, so you can go to hell.

Anyway, not only does it suck a little bit to be crammed in the press room with about 100 other so-called journalists, most of whom are morons, but there is another problem that relates to the Oscars' new venue, the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. When the ceremony was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downtown, there were a lot more seats. However, seating at the Kodak is limited, which means a lot of people who used to get tickets into the ceremony now cannot. At the bottom of the pecking order of people who get in to the Oscars are celebrity publicists. They still want to go to the ceremony, but there's no room. What to do? Why, stick them in the press room, naturally. The first time I worked the Oscars, there was a woman sitting at my table who did nothing but watch the entire ceremony on the TVs mounted around the room. She did not take notes. She did not pound away at a laptop. She was a publicist. I suppose it could have been much worse; at least she was quiet. But still. I have work to do. I am crowded at this table with its too-few phone lines and nowhere to put all the press kits they keep shoving at me, let alone my complimentary 7-UP. I would appreciate having enough room at the table for all my stuff, and enough space in the room to walk around without tripping over Heidi Klum's overpaid spokeswoman.

Anyway, I can see that this post has now devolved into a random assortment of Oscar anecdotes rather than any sort of cohesive unit. Oh well, here is a story about Roger Ebert. Unlike most TV film critics, Ebert is actually a journalist and a film scholar, and not only does he write reviews and articles for the Chicago Sun-Times, but he actually writes them himself, as opposed to having his staff write them and then putting his own name on it, like so many others in his field. Thus, Ebert may be a superstar among film critics, but he's still a working shlub like the rest of us, so when it comes to the Oscars, he's in the press room banging away on a laptop just like me. Which gives me a measure of respect for the man.

Of course, in 2003, Ebert decides to make an ass of himself backstage when the art decorator and set decorator for "Chicago" were speaking about their win. Someone had asked them about making the movie, and these two guys are standing there with their Oscars, looking like a couple of dorks, and few people are really listening because we only want to write about celebrities. They were talking, and one of them mentioned that the crew they had found in Toronto was great, this being germane because A) that movie was filmed in Toronto and B) there is much hand-wringing in Hollywood about "runaway production," which is where film and TV projects are shot in Canada or even Australia because the labor there is cheaper. At this point, Roger Ebert decides to shout across the room, "We have good crews in Chicago, too! They work hard!"

It goes without saying that this is a strange happenstance. First of all, Ebert is sitting in the middle of the room, which is a large banquet facility in a hotel adjoining the Kodak Theatre, meaning he is some 20 yards away from the podium where these guys are talking. Secondly, he just shouts out of nowhere, without looking up from his computer. Third, he is not using a microphone, which everyone else has to use, even the people asking questions, so it's clear that he is speaking out of turn. And I might add that since Ebert is a celebrity of sorts, people in the press room, even those who know him and talk to him like he's a regular guy, treat him differently, maybe with a little reverence. And then he goes and does this.

I guess I can understand why he's pissed. After all, Chicago gets no respect in the movies, and many people there (that is, most people who care about silly things) are still upset that they are no longer the nation's second-largest city, having lost the title to Los Angeles in the 1980s. So having a movie called "Chicago" that is filmed in Toronto is a bit of a snub. It seems that what Ebert suffers from is simply a wounded sense of civic pride, which I can forgive. And, come to think of it, since I consider the Academy Awards to be a pointless charade, and devoid of any real-world merit, I should applaud him for interrupting the backstage pageantry to raise a concern about respecting one's hometown, and keeping working-class jobs in America, and standing up for what you think is right. In fact, I join you now, Ebert, even though I will likely never come within five miles of an Oscar ceremony again. Shout on, Roger. Shout on.

1/20/2005

Who is more interesting: A Digression

I have come to the conclusion that while I may, in fact, write a little better than some people, it turns out that most everyone else is far more interesting than I am. As a result, I will be dedicating a few upcoming posts to stories, anecdotes and analyses of people I know whose lives contain more noteworthy events and whatnot. Please do not attempt to lobby me to gain inclusion for yourself, because such efforts would undoubtedly be viewed with mistrust, and I would have no choice but to subject you to public scorn and humiliation on my blog, though I would probably not use your real name.

Anyway, allow me to tell you a little about something that happened to me this weekend with regard to my friend, Wat Asston. Wat works for a certain company that shall remain nameless, which produces many devices that are used in the nation's aerospace and defense industries: jets, helicopters, etc. Because of the nature of his job, Wat has to get official government security clearance in order to be able to work on certain projects at his firm. And as part of that clearance process, a background check is expected to be performed on him, which I imagine includes actually looking at someone's criminal history, interviewing friends and acquaintances, checking into their finances and stuff like that.

And so it was, back in 2003, that Wat told me to expect a call from an investigator who would be doing his background check. We joked a bit about how I shouldn't tell him about all that cocaine that Wat used to sell back in high school -- ha ha, we are so amusing, especially since Wat is a square and would not know what to do with cocaine if it landed in his lap, already cut into neat little lines -- and then I forgot all about it.

Well, six months or so go by, and I get a letter from an investigating firm asking me to rate the person who interviewed me about Wat. That is, was he or she professional in appearance, did he show up for the appointment at the time he said he would, etc. Now, I know that other friends of Wat's and mine have been interviewed about him, but of course, at that time I had not. So I checked the box on the reply letter indicating as such, and mailed it off.

Another six months or so goes by, and I am beginning to wonder if the government does not think I am as important to Wat and to national security as I think that I am. This is distressing because I am such a guy as thinks that my existence is at least worth two dimes here and there, and because Wat himself told me during his initial interview that they seemed interested in talking to me, due to my status as a member of the news media. (Although at the time of this non-interviewing, I was only marginally employed as such.) At any rate, I learn in late 2004 that Wat has finally been approved for his security clearance, after 14 months of investigators doing who-knows-what to look into his background. Jokes are exchanged about the quality of this nation's background investigating capabilities, and then we leave it at that.

Anyhow, a couple more months go by, and then the nation is stunned and appalled to learn that the president's nominee for the head of homeland security, a guy who goes by the name of Bernard Kerik, may not in fact be a real swell character. It turns out he hired an illegal immigrant to be a nanny to his children, and then never paid taxes on her employment, as is often required by law. Apparently there was also at one time an arrest warrant out on him for not paying bills related to a condo he owned in Jersey. He also made millions of bucks serving on the board of directors for a company that makes tasers (a.k.a. stun guns) and which sold them to the NYPD, of which he used to be in charge, prompting suggestions of conflict of interest. He was also accused in a lawsuit of trying to force prison corrections officers to work for the GOP during their off hours, and fined by New York for using city police officers to help research his personal memoirs. He reportedly has ties to a construction company that investigators believe is run by the mob. He took thousands of dollars in improper gifts and never reported them. Also, he was married but carrying on affairs with two other women, and had those affairs at an apartment that had been donated to the NYPD for the use of emergency workers who were tired and needed somewhere to rest during 9/11 rescue and cleanup efforts. This last bit is not only in bad taste, but also could create a national security issue, since someone who is having a lot of affairs is liable to blackmail.

So you can see from all this that it does not appear Mr. Kerik is such a stand-up guy after all. (I might also add that I do not agree with his politics, but that has little to do with the issue at hand.) Eventually it becomes clear to Mr. Kerik that the media is getting wind of his dirty laundry, at which point he decides to withdraw from consideration to be appointed the head of security for the entire nation that all 295 million of us live in, and it is generally agreed that this is a good idea because, as we have seen, Mr. Kerik is not such a swell character.

At this point it is hard for the public to get very angry at the Bush administration for picking such a loser to be in charge of making sure we are not all killed, because there is already so much to be angry at the administration about that we are all pretty much too tired to get worked up about anything any more. However, we are able to get worked up about the fact that whoever was in charge of looking into Mr. Kerik's background and determining whether he is a stand-up guy or not was obviously falling down a bit on the job. In fact, you might say they dropped the whole enchilada on this one, without much left to recommend the work they did.

Now, is it any wonder that just a few weeks after the entire background-checking capabilities of the nation come under question that I am receiving a phone call from an investigator who wants to talk with me about my good friend Wat? I don't imagine this to be a coincidence.

Anyway, this fellow and I commence to talking about Wat, and I tell him a thing or two about him, even though I know that Wat has already been granted security clearance and is even now as we speak working on matters of the utmost national security (although he has told me in the past that he often spends his work hours reading Harry Potter books). The conversation goes pretty easily, since most of the questions are straightforward, and in fact make me wonder whether they are intended to find anything out at all. For example, I am asked, "Is he involved in any organization that is plotting to overthrow the government?" I mean, come on. Wat gave the investigators my name. I imagine if he was involved in any such organization -- which he is not, in case you investigators are reading my blog in addition to my e-mail, which I already know you are -- then he would not give the investigators the names of any "personal references" who would reveal that fact to them. I might also add that the polite gentleman I spoke with did not ask me if Wat had ever hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny, or if he had any ties to the mob, or if he ever had an affair with his book publisher in an apartment intended for 9/11 rescuers to recuperate in.

Now, like any normal person, as soon as I am off the phone with this guy I ring up Wat, and tell him that I am glad to see the government now thinks it's important to know what I think about him. He is quite surprised to find out that they are only now asking about him, and we make some jokes about spying for North Korea and other such nonsense, and then we say our good-byes. Of course, I only realize a couple hours later that something the investigator had said on the phone should have bothered me. He asked how often I saw my friend Wat, who now lives in another state, and added, "I know you saw him over the New Year, correct?" At the time, I said that yes, I did see him then, and went on to say I currently see him a few times a year. But now that I think about it, how did that guy know I'd seen Wat during New Year's, since, by all available evidence, he has not been talking to Wat or any of our friends lately? Obviously, it just goes to show that our nation's information-gathering services are still quite robust, and that those folks can find out anything they want, at any time. The only problem is when they are lazy, as in the 14 months before Wat was cleared, or when they are being led by a moron who doesn't know how to pronounce the word "nuclear." But that's a topic for another blog.

1/18/2005

Summer in January beats Christmas in July any day

The mercury hit 82 degrees Fahrenheit in my new home town today. Was it warm where you are? Not really, huh? Well, that's too bad. I feel for you. Honestly, I do.

Of course, I shouldn't be gloating. The heat is causing problems, and not just because the air conditioning in my office is broken (it's true) and because I work in a dairy community, meaning the air smells like shit. (Also true.) This isn't the first unseasonably hot January we've had in SoCal. In fact, 80-degree-plus temperatures haven't been all that unusual in the last few years. Some people want to blame global warming, and others suggest that things have been out of whack since the big El Nino cycle we had in 1998.

I don't know what's causing the heat. I could find out if I wanted to, by reading the National Weather Service's detailed forecast (yes, I have done this before), but there doesn't seem to be much point to that. I'm just happy to be warm, and I'd rather not look this gift climate in the mouth just yet.

I've known people who grew up in other parts of the country, or the world, who enjoyed sneering at Southern Californians because, they claimed, we didn't have "real" weather. For us, the difference between summer and fall was minimal, and winter only meant about eight inches of rain spread over three months. For these stuck-up New Yorkers and uppity Midwesterners (if there could ever be such a thing), we were all weather novices, autistic in our understanding of climate and seasonal change. Somehow, because we never had to scrape ice off our windshields in January, or sip mint juleps on the porch to cool off in August, or wade through knee-deep humidity on the way to work in May, or abandon our cars in flooded intersections in September, we were bereft of understanding what it really means to live on a planet whose weather is in constant flux.

I used to respond by saying that we here in SoCal are more attuned to subtle distinctions in the weather, like the crisp bite of a Santa Ana wind, or the numerous sensations associated with a fair, 72-degree day at the beach. But I no longer waste my time with such replies. Because when you get down to it, that doesn't really matter. What those natives of other regions are saying to me is not that I'm missing out because I've never seen the leaves turn red in October (which I have) or because a delicate layer of snowflakes has never dusted my windowsill. What they're saying is that they're jealous because they had to suffer through rain, sleet, snow, cold, and insufferable heat while idiots like me were growing up spoiled by the promised land's gentle, constant sun.

I have to say that I face this particular gauntlet-throwing with little interest in the challenge. The implicit argument is that because I, and others like me, grew up in a calm and even generous climate, we are A) soft and B) ignorant of life's harshness. To which I can only respond with a shrug. It's like the rich kid who was raised with personal servants and maids, and the knowledge that a $100 million trust fund awaited him at the age of 18. I would rightfully say to such a person that he does not know what it is like to live in the real world. And he would rightfully say to me, "So what?"

Besides, I might add that such nice weather at this time of year is a burden of sorts, because for me the changing of spring into summer has always prompted feelings of nostalgia and wistful longing -- saudade, if you'll indulge me in using a foreign word that doesn't really translate into English. Obviously, spring is not transmuting into summer at this point, but that's the feeling in the air when you've had 10 inches of rain in five days followed by uninterrupted sunshine for five more. And I think it's fair to say I've felt like the weather has been taunting me for a little while now.

Not just because it's really nice out, and I'm stuck at work with a tie around my neck instead of having a barbecue at a friend's place. I'd always rather be playing hooky. It's because the memories that come bubbling up most quickly are those from the last couple of years, when my summer was a time of minimal employment and maximal goofing off. I would blow hours at a time at Griffith Park, reading or writing or wandering the trails; I would hop on the subway downtown, or up to Universal City to people-watch and eat surprisingly good Cuban food; I would hit the comic book store on Wednesday nights and wander around Melrose Avenue for a bit. In those days I dreamed up snarky freelance articles and ate barbecued elk in a Santa Monica backyard with a bunch of leftists. I even went to six Dodger games -- five of which they lost.

You are probably detecting a little Los Angeles homesickness here, and you are correct to do so. I get a similar sense of nostalgia every year, but this is the first time it's been linked to a place where I no longer live. (Any nostalgia I may have felt about happenings in OC was never connected strongly to geography.) I was just there this weekend -- happy birthday, Mike -- and every time I go back, I don't want to leave. There are places to go, things to do, vices to indulge. And I feel like a big shot since it's the second-largest city in the country.

It's a little embarrassing to admit all this, because I've always had a personal philosophy of toughing things out, even when they suck. That's why I stayed in a crummy relationship for so long. It's also why sometimes, in my mind, I disparage people who high-tail it back to graduate school after a year (or less) out of college, or who quit work to jaunt off to Europe for three months, or who would rather stay in an area they like than grow up and get a job that might mean moving away. I have always felt that the real world is going to get you anyway, so you should just suck it up and jump in, without running back to the comfy college environment, or hiding from the inevitable career track by stringing along a series of crap jobs just to stay wherever it is you're at.

With this hard-nosed attitude, how do I deal with my own desire to quit work and be a bum again? Or maybe I also want to go back to school, and spend my time in the library with summer free for surfing. Or, most of all, I need to get back to L.A. even though no job awaits me there. Perhaps I should throw caution to the wind, tell my Puritanical streak to shut up, and hop the next Metrolink back to Silver Lake. Starbucks can always use more baristas, and I could play my little saxophone in a band or two to cover my ramen bills. I might not be able to buy much for myself, but I've got a girlfriend, a library card, and an iPod; what more do I need?

So, to bring this thing full circle: the heat is causing problems. Maybe this little rant will make you think twice before ever talking to me about the weather.

1/13/2005

Incarceration

Not too much to say here. I've been busy. A corrections officer was killed by an inmate at a prison out here, and I've been covering that. Pretty messy. The prison had hundreds of stab-proof vests (yes, there is such a thing, like a bullet-proof vest) sitting around in a warehouse, waiting to be distributed when this officer was stabbed by an inmate. He wasn't wearing a vest.

I toured Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles last summer, along with about a hundred other reporters and camera operators, when Sheriff Baca threw a media tour in an attempt to placate critics of the way the jails were being handled. There had been a spate of homicides in Men's Central over the last few weeks, and Sheriff Moonbeam wanted to show everyone just how complex the jail situation is so we'd understand that the reason inmates keep getting away with murder is not because the deputies running the place are a bunch of buffoons, but because it's a hugely complicated entity, and sometimes shit happens.

I won't get too much into the details of those deaths; maybe in a later post. I do have a lot of visceral reactions to being in the jail that I remember. I think I can admit that I was scared. Possibly because before we went in, the sheriff and his minions told us a bunch of horror stories about how easy it is to kill someone there, and how all the prisoners are deviants, and so on. Whatever the reason, when that huge automatic reinforced steel door clanged shut behind me, all I could think of was that riot at the end of "Natural Born Killers."

Obviously, nothing happened to any members of the media while we were there, which was by design. In fact, our presence disrupted the regular jail operations quite a bit, since they had to lock everyone down and take a bunch of deputies onto overtime just to guide us around. When I say nothing happened to us, I'm speculating, because something could have happened. For example, I was told -- after the fact -- that I shouldn't have put my hand on the handrail while riding the escalator, because I could pick up hepatitis that way. Furthermore, the whole place smelled weird. It wasn't body odor, it wasn't disinfectant, it wasn't urine. I can't place it. But it didn't smell healthy, that much I can assure you.

The event was basically a media circus, with the inmates all yelling and screaming to get attention once they realized there were TV cameras present. "Yo! Right here! Right here! I was totally framed!" Gang signs were flashed out of every cell -- cells designed for two people that were actually holding four to six, with some inmates sleeping on the ground next to the toilet. Many had small cartons of juice in their cells. Apparently they are allowed to take those back with them from the cafeteria. Of course, those cartons are used in fermenting stolen fruit into homemade alcohol called pruno. One of the inmates killed was jumped by two others who were drunk on it.

One unsettling part of the tour was in a classroom. Jails naturally have a lot of programs going on, to keep the inmates occupied and release stress and tension. In this classroom, one of the projects they had done was to pretend to be journalists and write articles about real-life events. I forget the name they gave to the imaginary newspaper they were producing, but it was something like Correctional Times or something. Anyway, these "articles" were pinned up on the wall in this room, like in third grade. Myself and some other reporters glanced at them while we were kept in the room (in order to let the other tour groups go past). Several of the articles were about a police officer who had been killed. In fact, I had written an article about that myself.

Setting aside the discomfort you might feel about a hard-core inmate writing an article about a cop being killed -- not everyone at this jail is a felon or a killer, but many are -- there was another layer of weirdness that I couldn't put my finger on at the time. But now I get it. Seeing those articles was kind of like looking through some distorted mirror. Because I had done the same thing as those inmates. I had sat down at a computer and banged out a few hundred words about that dead officer. And yet that exercise had meant completely different things for each of us. Still not sure what, exactly. But there's something unsettling about that. It's like meeting another version of yourself, except that version didn't do so well in school, got in trouble for jacking cars as a teenager and ended up a lot worse off than you are now.

Anyway, the moral of my trip to jail was, don't go to jail. As an LA Times columnist put it, don't even steal a donut. The place was a hellhole, and I'm sorry for the people who work there, and for the people incarcerated there. Of course, what I'm learning now about the prison sounds a whole lot worse. About home-made weapons, and broken cell windows that facilitate escape but have never been repaired. I was planning on visiting this prison for an article, and while I still plan to, the whole enterprise seems a little sketchier now. I'll let you know if I chicken out.

1/07/2005

hed goes here

Journalism lingo! All right! Now you can talk like an ink-stained wretch. Who wouldn't want to?

I did a little Google research for this blog post, and I have to say the few listings of journalism slang that I was able to find were sorely wanting. Most of them just listed jargon that is not very entertaining. (Who cares about the difference between a cut line and a tag line? Someone with a high-level job at a newspaper and no real responsibility, that's who.) So you're just going to have to rely on me. Hey, I worked the Oscars. Twice.

Some of this is outdated or region-specific. Also, some of it is stolen from other professions, because journalists spend more time with some folks (politicians, say) than others (um, mechanics, I guess. Or farmers.). For any of my fellow reporters reading this, feel free to include anything I forgot or may not have heard of. I'm not including journalism jargon, meaning phrases that often appear in articles or broadcasts (e.g., "details are sketchy" or "according to sources within the administration") unless I feel they need explication.


activist - pretty much anyone who does something and is not an official. Some activists are also officials, but few officials are activists. It's a catch-all term for people who appear in the paper and have to be descibed somehow.

boffo - this word was invented by Variety, an entertainment industry trade publication in Los Angeles. It means great, awesome, sensational. Variety his a reputation for making up words that only appear in Variety headlines and stories. A friend who once worked there told me they refer to these neologisms collectively as "slanguage," and that they include such tidbits as prexy (short for president, like the head of a film studio), B.O. (box office gross), and helm (a verb meaning to direct a movie). I am on a personal crusade to get the word boffo into circulation in regular newspapers. This crusade is, so far, a complete failure.

bed - used with the phrase "put to bed," meaning the paper or a section of the paper is entirely edited and has been sent to the printer. You can't go back and change all your typos after the section has gone to bed.

brite - an upbeat story that brightens up your day. I try to make these painful experiences as short as possible.

the Brown Act - the state law (in California) requiring local government agencies to hold public meetings, with some exemptions. I have the 29-page text on my desk. Most journalists do not.

budget - a list of the stories expected for the next day. Or for the next week, on the weekly budget. Also used as a verb, as in, "Please budget your story, you worthless sack of shit. Oh wait, did I say that out loud? I take it back. Just budget your story."

bureau - a satellite office of the paper, where one or more reporters works in order to more easily cover faraway places. Depending on where you work, it may be spelled "buro" or even "buo" (the editors there were always in a hurry).

byline - the line in the article that has the name of the reporter on it. Makes sense.

chief time - when I covered the LAPD, the successive police chiefs all operated on chief time, rather than Pacific Standard Time. Chief time means you show up whenever you damn well feel like it.

circ - short for circulation, meaning how many copies of the publication are printed and sold/delivered every day (or week, for a weekly). Usually discussed in thousands. As in, "My paper's circ is about 40."

clips - copies of articles you've written. Also refers collectively to all the articles you've written, whether or not they've been Xeroxed and whatnot. As in, "She's got some great clips."

copy - a collective term for a newspaper's written content. As in, "We need more salacious Michael Jackson copy."

crazy people - people who call reporters and talk to them without being asked to. There is a fine line between crazy people and real people -- and, in fact, there is a lot of overlap.

crispy crisp - the body of a person who was burned to death. This slang was picked up from cops and firefighters. When I worked nights in the LAPD press room, I would get memos that told me what stories I needed to follow up on, and it was not unusual to see something like "call coroner for ID on crispy crisp in Altadena house fire."

dateline - this is the line of text in the story that has the city where it took place. Like this: ARMPIT, Ariz. -- Three men died in a drunken brawl Wednesday after an argument broke out over which blog service is better, Blogger or Livejournal. ... It theoretically indicates both where the news occurred and where the journalist reported the story from. Note that the dateline does not refer to the date. Yes, journalism is stupid.

enterprise - stories that you think up yourself and do a little research into, instead of just writing down what happens at a meeting or football game. A story chronicling high school athletes' drug use, or the systematic falsehoods propagated by the White House press office, would be an enterprise story.

evergreen - a story that is not timely, and can be printed at any time. Like a profile of someone who isn't going to die any time soon; you could sit on that for a few weeks before publishing it, if necessary. Many brites are also evergreens. Stories are often designated "evergreen" by editors who hate me and don't want to run my stories.

the First Amendment - the most important 45 words ever written. It gives me the right to act like an ass and declare that this was the founders' intent.

follow - when you have to write a story about something because a competing publication already wrote about it, and you didn't know, so now you have to follow them. The opposite of scoop.

flack - a spokesperson. Occasionally referred to as "flak." I once got in trouble with a flack because she overheard me say, in a phone conversation with my editor, "I'm having a run-in with the flacks." Not necessarily the same as publicist.

fluff - a collective term for stupid stories. Brites are often fluff. Anything falling under this definition can also be called a puff piece.

Freedom of Information Act - a piece of federal legislation that is occasionally referred to in conversation and seldom invoked in real life. The abbreviation is FOIA, pronounced "foy-uh," and you can use it as a verb. "The city attorney won't give me the documents, so I'm going to FOIA his ass."

good radio - a mocking term for news that is mostly visual and therefore cannot be portrayed well by a radio news reporter. For example, a solar eclipse would be "good radio."

graf - paragraph. As in, "Can you write 18 grafs about this prostitution sting?"

the Grey Lady - the New York Times.

"____ has faced criticism" - a phrase commonly used in certain newspapers. (The name of an official goes in the blank.) Translation: "This newspaper has editorialized against ____."

hed - headline.

hit piece - an article written for the sole purpose of smearing someone. I have never actually seen one of these in a reputable publication.

inches - stories are measured in column inches. Typically there are about seven lines, 30 words or one graf to an inch. This leads to people shouting across the newsroom such giggle-inducing double-entendres as, "Can you give me eight inches on Bush?"

ink-stained wretch - an old-timey phrase meaning journalist. I think of this and smile every time I manage to smear ink on my hands. Even the invention of the ballpoint pen can't change who I am.

investigative reporter - another mythical creation. All reporters do investigative work, in our own way. The number of reporters who truly fit the description you probably have in mind is less than 10. Like photojournalist, it's a term used mostly by people who don't know what's up.

jump - the part of the story that is printed on a second page, as in "See Sex Crimes, page 7." In that instance, page 7 would be the jump page, and you would say the story jumps to page 7. Also, the jump is typically the part of your story that will not be read, because most readers won't turn the page to get to the rest of the copy.

junket - a media event thrown by movie studios that brings dozens or more reporters from all over the country to L.A. to screen a new movie and interview the stars or director. This is why all the sit-down interviews on ET, Extra and your local TV news show look like they took place in the same room -- because they did. Also, junkets are often an attempt by studios to win good reviews by paying for reporters from crummy towns (Denver, Atlanta, Little Rock) to fly to L.A., stay in a nice hotel, and get ten minutes of face time with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

leak - when someone gives you documents that you're not supposed to have. Rarely happens with anything good. Except in Washington, where it happens all the time. There, leaks are doled out strategically by government officials to keep reporters in line, or to reward/punish them for their performance.

lede - the first graf of the story. Should be punchy and get your attention, and contain the most important information, most of the time. Also occasionally referred to as "lead." Note that "lede" does not appear in most real-world dictionaries, or in the AP style guide.

liberal media - a myth, let's just leave it at that.

man-on-the-street reporting - going out and walking up to random people to ask what they think about something (war in Iraq, the president's Social Security plan, etc.). This is the lowest form of reporting, though it is often the only time many reporters ever talk to real people.

media whore - someone who is always seeking publicity. Gloria Allred is a good example. (She's the attorney for Amber Frey, who last I checked wasn't charged with a crime and therefore doesn't need an attorney. She also consistently holds press conferences denouncing Michael Jackson, despite not representing anyone related to any Michael Jackson trial or lawsuit.)

morgue - the physical location of the newspaper's archives. Usually as dank and dark as one would expect an old-fashioned morgue to be.

news hole - the amount of space in the paper available for editorial content -- copy and photos -- as opposed to the space for advertisements. It's good to have a big news hole.

newsprint - refers both to the cheap paper that newspapers are printed on, and the ink that often rubs off on your fingers. I believe I am allergic to both.

no comment - many reporters think that when someone says, "no comment," that means they have nothing to say. These reporters are lazy. I would estimate that 80 percent of the time I've gotten a "no comment" from someone, I've eventually been able -- with a little persistence -- to get a comment from them anyway.

notebook - despite what you may think, a notebook is not just a notebook. A reporter's notebook is typically 80 sheets of white lined paper about 8 inches tall, 4 inches wide, and spiral-bound at the top. Some reporters actually prefer stenographer's notebooks, which are twice as wide, but those are difficult to hold in one hand while writing with the other. Reporter's notebooks are designed to be slipped into a back pants pocket, or a jacket pocket, and to be held in the same hand as a miniature tape recorder without causing arthritis. A noble goal, but one often abrogated by the actual onset of arthritis.

off the record - oh shit, I wish this phrase had never been put into public circulation. People like to use it when talking to reporters. It makes them feel covert, like the rumors they're telling me about the Thomasville Water Quality Board vice president are really earth-shattering. You didn't hear this from me. Anyway, off the record typically means someone will tell you something but you can't publish it or tell anyone where you heard it, or even that you heard it at all. Sometimes it means you can publish it, but without saying who said it. The definition is hazy.

the overnight - an overnight shift. Most reporters I've met do not refer to it as the graveyard shift. Thankfully, I have only worked the overnight a handful of times in my short career.

paparazzi - a collective term for celebrity photographers, typically the hard-core ones who chase celebrities down the street and yell things like "Britney, over here, Britney, over here, look over here you fucking cunt" at red-carpet events. American paparazzi have nothing on the Brits. Many regular newspaper photographers will attempt to hit you if you refer to them with this term, even jokingly. This is because most photogs are frustrated artists who take themselves too seriously and think that everyone else is a Philistine who doesn't understand their art. The singular is paparazzo, and the term comes from a character in the movie "La Dolce Vita."

phoner - a telephone interview.

photog - shorthand for photographer. The only people who use the word "photojournalist" are high schoolers who don't know how things really work.

play - what kind of placement and hype your story got. For example, I wrote a few stories for the unnamed news agency that were published on the front pages of dozens of newspapers, thus getting good play.

publicist - in the entertainment world, a person whose job is to be an official spokesperson for whichever celebrity has hired them. Additionally, they handle media for that person, be it arranging interviews, confirming or denying rumors, ghost-writing contrite statements when a former co-star dies, or, most frequently, denying interview requests. Many publicists are bitches in stiletto heels, and a few are sad old men who are just as useless for getting in touch with their clients as you are.

real people - anyone who is not a celebrity, a politician, an official, a flack, a company representative or an activist. Hard to find, harder to talk to.

refer - pronounced "reefer," this is a noun: a box on the front page that refers to a story inside, like "Is Kobe Bryant gay? Page 13." And yes, any story involving marijuana always has a refer.

rim - refers collectively to copy editors and copy editing, from the old days when copy editors sat on the rim of a U-shaped desk, with the head editor inside the slot. Leads to many great jokes about rimming and rim jobs.

satan - the editor. Also referred to as the devil, asshole, mr big-shot, that jerk.

scoop - when you get the story before the competition. When they beat you, then you've been scooped. Another really overused word. The scoop is also overvalued.

slot - the head copy editor's desk; as a verb, it means to give the story or section its final read-through. If you're creative, you can make lewd jokes with this term as well.

"some say ..." - a phrase commonly used in newspaper articles, translated as "I think." For example: "Some say the president ignored the evidence that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction."

stand-up - a press conference, usually one staged for television media, in which an official stands at a podium and talks about something. "I gotta go, the mayor's having a stand-up in five minutes."

storify - a verb meaning to turn something like a press release or a government report into a newspaper story.

style - unfortunately, this has nothing to do with clothing or hair. "Style" is the collective term for the rules of spelling, grammar, punctuation and abbreviation observed in journalism. There are generic styles -- Associated Press style, for example, which many newspapers use, or New York Times style. In AP style, you refer to people by their last name after the first time, whereas NYT style is to use Mr. Powell, Mr. Rumsfeld, etc. Most publications use a hybrid of AP style and their own style.

style guide - a dictionary of sorts outlining style, be it AP style, NYT style, or an individual publication's style.

thumbsucker - a long story, occasionally an enterprise story, that is supposed to evoke the feeling that the reporter and reader are sitting back and thinking about the news, rather than just witnessing whatever that news is. Also referred to as a think piece or a takeout.

"the media" - the most over-used phrase in the business. There is really no such thing, but people love to act like "the media" (or occasionally "the press") is a shadowy, monolithic entity that picks and chooses what true or false information the public will read, and which people it will crush.

toe-touch - going to a city simply for the sake of validating your dateline -- i.e., for the story above, I would have to actually go to Armpit, Arizona, in order to put my name on the story with that dateline. A toe-touch typically involves going to that location for the shortest amount of time possible -- maybe just a few minutes -- before turning around and heading back to the office.

wires - companies such as AP, UPI, Bay City News, Knight-Ridder News Service, etc. that send their articles to other publications that pay to receive the service. In the old days, you had to specifically have the wire (like a telegraph cable) from each service leading directly into your newsroom to get their copy. Now they're all Internet-based.

So there it is. Next time you run into a real-life journalist, just try to remember these definitions, and soon you'll be spouting inane comments like "I did a phoner with the flack instead of going to the stand-up" and "Some say the wires don't have much enterprise copy" with the best of them. ¬°Soy periodista!