2/25/2005

Perhaps I flatter myself

Is it self-flattery to think that anyone really cares how frequently I post on my blog? The notion that my loyal readers are faithfully adding me to their "Favorites" page, that they chew their nails to the bone in anticipation of my next meth-fueled blog binge, is probably rather delusional. I know my hit counts. I know they rarely exceed single digits in one day. Which is fine. I didn't get into anonymous blogging to become famous.

Nonetheless, I am loyal to you as well, and I want to let you down easy with the following bad news. I'm busy at work and at home this week and for the next couple of weeks, so I anticipate fewer posts on this blog. Now, now, dry your tears, call off your kaishaku. It is only temporary. I will be back, to bewail the multifarious shams, negligences, and all-around buffooneries that make up the world I see. I just can't get to it right now.

2/19/2005

On Getting Ripped Off, Part I

There are two discrete lessons that I learned from my work as a freelance writer. By that I mean specific things that can be listed or ticked off on your fingers, like, "Never forget to wear deodorant" or "Ramen can sustain life for up to six months." (Compliments to Terce for that last bit.) I learned plenty during this period, but most of it was fuzzy-math stuff that can't be quantified, like how I could try to come off as a more personable individual during interviews (answer: I can't), or when it's best to use the first-person pronoun in a newspaper article.

The first of the two things I learned is that you will never get paid without first asking three times to be paid. In fact, there are two newspapers in Los Angeles that currently owe me money for work performed in June 2003 and July 2004, respectively. It's not just newspapers that act this way, of course; on the DVD commentary for "The Front," an episode of the Simpsons, the writers joke about a scene where the producer of a cartoon show calls up the writer and tells him his paycheck is ready -- since that would obviously never happen.

The other lesson is that when you have an idea for a story, or an essay, or anything like that, you should pounce on it immediately, because someone else will likely have that same idea and publish it before you do. I've lost count of the number of times I've thought of a good freelance idea, only to see the same article that I would have written appear in another publication within a few weeks of my inspiration. (At least I can take comfort in the fact that I've done the same to a few other reporters -- at least two I can think of.) Good ideas, clearly, are scarce, and when you've got one, you shouldn't sit on it.

Or, apparently, write about it on your publicly accessible blog. You may recall my post from last September, in which I complained about various things, most of it stemming from my concern over seeing an advertisement for a stupid, USA Today-sponsored poll on which advertising mascot is the country's favorite. This ad upset me for three reasons: first, it appeared on the same page as a news story on genocide in Sudan, which seemed inappropriate; secondly, I hate advertising; and third, I hate USA Today. So I ranted a bit about that, which led me to this:

>What we need is a Corporate Logo Smackdown game for
>PlayStation or Xbox. Voting for your favorite animated
>spokesperson is one thing, but wouldn't you rather pit
>Grimace against the Jolly Green Giant in a battle to
>the death? Or resurrect Joe Camel so he can duke it out
>with Tony the Tiger? The Budweiser chameleons could
>deliver ringside commentary. Questions that have
>haunted humanity through the ages could finally be
>answered, like whether Idaho's lame potato spokesman
>Spuddy Buddy is tougher than a California Raisin. (I
>think we all know the answer to that.)

Which I found to be amusing, naturally. Then, earlier this week, a friend shows me this image, which ran in MAD Magazine. (If you click on it, you'll get the full-sized version.)



Now. Who thinks I have a case? Based on a previous post, we all know that I've had good luck with lawyers. Sort of. Is this actionable? "Stealing my idea" isn't really something that people get sued for. I mean, they do, if it's something that is distinctly patentable, like the Thighmaster, or copyrighted, like "Coming to America." But it doesn't seem likely that my "idea" that they should do a game like this, followed by MAD Magazine having the exact same idea, is necessarily proof that I've been the victim of intellectual theft. If you could even call it intellectual.

Apparently there is such a thing as "site statistics," where you can check who has read your blog based on the logged IP address or something like that. I don't have that kind of backup for my theory, because, despite appearances, Blogger has no technological capabilities beyond the most rudimentary, and is in fact run by illiterate backwoods children with no fingers. But the MAD Magazine bit looks a lot like mine. I mean, a lot.

I will admit that their version is better than what I had briefly sketched on my blog. You can see that they've expanded on my idea, and beefed it up a bit by pairing up fighters based on theme: Snap, Krackle and Pop take on the Pep Boys (three on three), while the Scrubbing Bubbles open up a can of really clean whupass on Mr. Clean. (Although note they have unfairly allowed the Jolly Green Giant to face off with the Energizer Bunny.) So their final product is better than what I think I could have come up with on my own. And isn't it kind of silly for me to think my idea was ripped off? People can have the same idea at the same time. I'm starting to feel like Ali G, who on one episode told a patent lawyer that PlayStation 2 was his idea -- "You know, I was playing PlayStation, and I told me Julie that they should make a better one, and then next thing you know, they went and did it." So maybe I should think twice about getting a lawyer.

Although none of this changes my opinion that we should have had a Bud Bowl game for Nintendo back in 1991.

2/15/2005

Dear Crummy, Self-Indulgent Band:

This is an open letter to you guys in the band. Yes, you who played second (out of four bands) at Los Angeles indie hot spot The Echo on Monday night. You watched as the first act -- a guy with a guitar -- played. He was soulful and unobtrusive, and he finished before too long. At this point, you did not have to immediately begin setting up on stage, but perhaps it would have been appropriate for you to think about it. Because when you finally did get your lazy, untalented asses on the stage, you proceeded to spend approximately 20 minutes sitting around with guitars on your laps and dumb expressions on your faces before finally starting to play. OK, maybe you got up from your chair once in a while to wander back toward the sound guy's booth and complain to him about something, but basically you were just wasting the time of all the folks who came to the club that night, of whom I would wager less than 10 percent came to see you. This is why you are the second act. Nonetheless, you thought nothing of sitting on stage like a bunch of slowly roasting pork chops, occasionally frowning at the sound guy as he tweaked the monitors to your satisfaction. I have news for you: you are not smarter than the sound guy. He does this five nights a week. Despite what you may believe, your band's sound is not unique. It consists of two guitars, a bass guitar, and a drummer. I believe I have seen that particular instrumentation at some other time in the past. Once or twice. So there is no reason to act as if the complexities of your distinct sound require super fine tuning. Just strum your guitar and say, "Can you turn up my monitor, thanks" into the mic. Believe me, I have personally set up a 19-piece jazz orchestra with more microphones than you, and it doesn't take that long.

AND THEN once you started playing, you weren't even that good. I would rate you as mediocre. First of all, here's a tip. If you are going to basically do a Beatles-meets-Tom Petty sound, I suppose that is allowable, but you shouldn't be so obvious about it, unless maybe you are a cover band and that is your theme. But since your band is not called Sgt. Petty's Lonely Heartbreakers or anything like that, I'm going to assume you are not a cover band, and therefore you deserve the comments you most likely get, namely: "That sounds like Tom Petty, or the Beatles. Wow, the resemblance only reminds me how good those bands are, a standard to which this band cannot possibly compare." And your first song -- was that Em7-A7-D7 that I saw your fingers following? Awesome. Very original. How many pop songs have that chord progression? Oh, yeah: 95 percent of them. Yes, you are unique, even down to your stupid drummer, who holds the bongos on his lap, rather than on a stand or between his legs as they are intended to be held, meaning he had to stop in the middle of the beat three times in every song and grab them before they fell to the floor. Real professional. Thank God that Mia Doi Todd, the following act whom we had all come to see, was a) good, b) professional, and c) punctual. However, despite her best efforts, we did not get out of the place until well after midnight, which I suppose is all right for you perpetually unemployed and unemployable types (read: actors, musicians, and other assorted hipsters), but some of us are respectable members of society who work for a living and have to get up in the morning. Midnight is not outrageous, but I would have much rather not stayed out that late simply to see three acts at The Echo. I could have had that half-hour back if you were not so sluggish. I also would have gladly ceded those 30 minutes if you were a decent band. However, neither of those criteria were met when I was there.

2/09/2005

How To Win A Lawsuit Without Really Trying

Imagine you used to own a car -- we'll call it a 1996 Toyota Camry -- that you traded in to purchase a new car. All this goes down in April, 2003. A month later, you get a letter from the California Highway Patrol asking you to pick up your car, which is being held in their tow yard. Hmm, you think, that's odd. Because your car is not in their tow yard; it's out back behind your apartment building, where Armenian teenagers fling cigarette butts onto its hood before downing breath mints in an attempt to disguise the scent from their mamas.

Before long you realize that the letter refers to your old car, which was somehow still registered in your name. You call the CHP the next day to sort things out, and they tell you not to worry about anything, it's entirely up to the new owners to get the car. What happened to it, anyway? Well, it seems there was an accident, in another county, that totaled the car to the point where it had to be towed away.

So, you go on your merry way for another year or so, until one day a scrawny-looking process server shows up at your door and hands you a notice that you're being sued for Personal Injury (Motor Vehicle). This is also odd, since you know that even though you've been in two car accidents in the last year, they were handled by the insurance company, and besides, this thing lists people whose names you don't recognize. Then it dawns on you that this is related to that car accident mentioned above, and that somehow your name has been dragged into this whole mess because some incompetent hijo de puta at the car dealership where you traded in the Toyota for a new Honda never filed the paperwork with DMV to record a change of ownership.

Anyway, you get over your anger and decide to take the only logical step at this point. Get an attorney? No, that would be costly, and besides, you're unemployed right now. So, being a self-sufficient sort of person, you run to the Internet and print up some do-it-yourself legal forms so you can respond to this yourself. Turns out most of the DIY legal stuff you find is for things like restraining orders and divorces, but the "general denial" is there as well, so you print it up, fill it out, taking pains to explain that the car in the accident did not belong to you at the time, and you can provide evidence to that effect (notice of release of liability, lease agreement showing trade-in, etc.). Then you hop in your car (first checking the registration to be sure that it does, in fact, belong to you, because apparently such things are not as easily determined as you once thought they were) and drive 40 miles to the courthouse in the county south of where you live, and attempt to file the general denial in person.

Except you have to serve it first on the party that is suing you, and you can't serve it yourself, so you have to find a process server and pay them $35 to serve it. You also ask the process server to please file with the court for you after they do that, because you don't feel like driving back down again. Of course, this complicates things, because it actually costs $294 just to file your general denial, and the process server doesn't want to front you that kind of money, and therefore you write them a check, drop it in the mail (express mail, because the 30-day period to file your general denial may soon expire) and hope for the best.

Eventually you get a receipt from the process server and it looks like everything is swell. Of course, two months later you get a summons for a court date and realize that the attorneys for the people suing you are pinches desgraciados and have decided to continue with their litigation despite your easily verifiable assertion that you have nothing to do with the accident in question. This is when you decide to bite the bullet, call your father, and ask him to hook you up with his lawyer.

You soon learn what having a lawyer can do for you. Within days, your lawyer writes a very brief letter to the lawyer of the other party, in which he tells this pendejo that you had nothing to do with the car or the accident, and here is a Xerox of the lease, the pink slip, and a bunch of other documents; and furthermore, if he does not drop you from the lawsuit, he will face his own summons or whatever for malicious prosecution.

Anyway, long story short, the suit is dismissed with prejudice three weeks after that letter is sent. You ponder your options as to getting back the money you spent on a process server and the court's filing fee. You also wonder why the suit was also dismissed against the other two defendants (the ones who were actually in the car at the time that it collided with the other guy, injuring him a bit), and whether this would make for a good entry on your self-indulgent blog. In the midst of these questions, however, one thing is certain: you rule.

2/03/2005

Reasons why Jeno's(R) Crisp 'n Tasty(R) Frozen Pizza is better than heroin

-- keeps jobs in America, unlike heroin, which is imported
-- doesn't make you all itchy
-- no unsightly track marks
-- Marcellus Wallace's wife unlikely to OD on Jeno's(R) Crisp 'n Tasty(R) Frozen Pizza
-- you can't put hot sauce on heroin
-- allowable under the homeowner's "no drugs" policy; heroin not
-- heroin: $9,000 per ounce. Jeno's(R) Crisp 'n Tasty(R) Frozen Pizza: four for $5 at Food4Less
-- after eaten, you can put stuff in the box, such as crayons, or heroin
-- still legal in 47 states
-- withdrawal symptoms do not include dead baby crawling across ceiling
-- no methadone replacement therapy; unless, you know, you're into that
-- can be baked in an oven or microwaved
-- Jeno's(R) Crisp 'n Tasty(R) Frozen Pizza eaten by two-time Academy Award-winning heartthrob Denzel Washington; heroin used by burned-out loner Macaulay Culkin. You decide.
-- drug-sniffing dogs go right past it
-- stacks easily in trunk of car
-- long-term side effects do not include writing novels like "Naked Lunch"
-- tastes really fucking good

2/02/2005

Bring your grandfather's dentures -- sharpened

I just had to put this on here. I doubt it's the most amusing thing you can find at meetup.com, but still. And no, this is not quite what I was looking for.

Pomona-Claremont Teen Vampire Meetup Group
Teen Vampire Meetup Group No. 202
Pomona, CA (~5.0 miles)
7 members, No rating yet
Next Monthly Meetup: Saturday, February 26
Meet other Vamps. There are no posers or role players allowed. THIS IS FOR REAL TEEN VAMPIRES.

2/01/2005

More homage

This one is about my good friend Marc, whose real name I use, though not the family name, mostly because he already has enough hits on Google when you search his name and also because you would all mispronounce it. I first met him in September 2001, a few days after the most historic day of this century, for the United States anyway, and his opening crack was, "Hey, I've been out of the country for two weeks; what'd I miss?" which seemed rather tasteless at the time, but turned out to be appropriate for his personality.

Being able to not take things too seriously is an art that is not easily mastered. It's not the case that you can just simply decide not to care, or to make jokes about everything, even the most serious of events. Being able to not take things too seriously is a delicate balancing act that calls to mind nothing so much as that picture from the cover of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," which is a bowler hat balanced on top of someone's fingers. Setting aside the various political and possibly phallic implications of that image and the hat in the excellent novel, this art to which I refer is kind of like that -- a balance of various factors that something as minor as a falling leaf or the flap of a butterfly's wings could disrupt. It's an art that I will likely never master, but my good friend Marc has it down cold.

Here is a man who, when we worked in adjoining offices in Los Angeles City Hall, would wander into my office and borrow (read: steal) reporter's notebooks about once every two months; who had a nickname for everyone, from the county Board of Stupefiers to the various chiefs of police (though I can't tell you those nicknames for fear of my own personal safety); and who seemed to get away with anything and everything. At the time, he worked for an alternative weekly publication that shall remain nameless, and I doubt anyone else at that paper relished the opportunity for vibrant reporting and colorful adjectives as much as he did. Some of his columns, I can say, were forgettable, as I have forgotten them. Many, however, were brilliant, and made me wish I could zing someone as effectively as he did. For example, in 2002, when the entire civic establishment (read: some billionaires and the mayor) were pushing to land a football team back in L.A., my pal not only dug up some conveniently overlooked details to make us question the everything-will-be-grand line forced down our throats by people who didn't know anything about it, but he was able to succinctly ridicule the process as well. "So why can't L.A. get its own big-league team again, the promoters ask, and go back to being a really important city like, say, Jacksonville?" After all, he noted, when the Raiders departed in 1995, they promptly turned Oakland into "an urban paradise." (If you've been to Oakland in the last 10 years, you get the joke.)

Another that stands out in my mind is a column that essentially shredded former Chief Bernard Parks for his desperate, last-ditch effort to be appointed to a second term in office. Marc destroyed him. "In the LAPD culture's tradition, elected-civilian oversight was plain 'political interference' ... . Thus Parks rose to chiefdom believing that, once he held that job, no mortal on Earth could tell him what to do." And later: "Parks acts like this because he has little but contempt for elected officials and, one guesses, for the rest of us besides -- including his rank-and-file employees."

And then, a few days after he is officially no longer the chief, Parks announces he is going to run for city council, and we all realize that he is a shoo-in. Suddenly some of us in the City Hall press corps are a little concerned, since some of us wrote articles that made Parks look bad, and now we will have to work with him again in the future. Not Marc. As he jocularly put it to me one day, "Man, I can't wait for Bernie to come in here and take over. He'll make us line up for inspection every morning. I can see it now: 'Hoffel! [mispronouncing his own last name.] Stand up straight! Tuck in that shirt!'"

Despite what you may think from the lighthearted tone of this here blog, I am often guilty of taking things too seriously. I am able to laugh at things, of course, but it's hard sometimes to separate things I feel passionately about from the absurdities of life. For Marc, it seems, this is not so very hard. Maybe it's an immanent part of his personality, or maybe it's some other accident of fate. Here's a 62-year-old man who looks about 45, has never been married (I think), has no children, lives in a house in Santa Monica with a woman who works for the largest union in Los Angeles, and he writes for a living. As near as I can tell, this is a blessed existence. If I lived that life, I would undoubtedly be just as angry and bitter as I am now, because I always manage to find something to be angry and bitter about: politics, area codes, Google. But not Marc. We have similar political views, we supported a lot of the same politicians, and we saw some of the same things we believed in being rejected by voters, White House minions, and other machinations. Yet while these things caused me despair, it always seemed that Marc remained upbeat.

It's important to take some things seriously, though. Marc quit his previous job after a dispute over journalism ethics -- a minor dispute, I thought, but something he felt strongly about. Quitting that job was probably not a great decision financially, nor emotionally, since it was basically a dream job. Write one column a week, about L.A. city politics, and you get carte blanche to be a total smartass? I don't think I have to tell you that many a reporter, myself included, coveted that job. But Marc felt he couldn't work under the rules they were imposing on him, so he quit, just like that. He wandered into my office right after he gave notice to his editor. He looked shaken, admittedly, but not beaten. Within days, he'd expanded his freelance work for a local radio station, found work at another (albeit smaller) alternative paper, and maintained his dignity and sense of humor all along.

Then he got cancer, and not to be flippant, but he beat that back pretty quickly as well. In fact, I wasn't all that worried when I first heard about it. The man is overweight, there's no disputing that, and while he probably doesn't qualify as an oenophile, he's no stranger to good wine or steak, I'm certain. Anyway, for a brief moment after he told me he was going in for surgery, we both stood wordlessly in the office of the smaller alt-weekly (where he had also lined up freelance work for me) until he said that we would have to go for beers after his doctor gave him the OK to drink again. From anyone else it would have sounded like gallows humor, or just another lame alcohol-related joke, but from Marc it was a genuine expression of his ability not to let life get him down. Got cancer? So what? We can still hang out at the pub, right?

This particular blog post has not come out how I wanted it to. I wanted a fitting tribute to the man who hired me to write about striking grocery workers, and kept me around for a handful of other stories (and a few hundred bucks during my unemployment); who taught me the expression, "anyone who would have sex with her is too lazy to masturbate"; and at whose home I joined a handful of labor activists and leftist reporters to sing "La Marseillaise" on Bastille Day 2003 (a.k.a. Marc's 61st birthday). I also wanted to write something about him because, cancer remission aside, he's still old and, I expect, not incredibly healthy, and if he died, I would be despondent for months.

Perhaps I should take heart. If this is not a fitting tribute to my friend, maybe that is a sign that it's not yet time to start thinking about his obituary. If there is any justice in this world, Marc will have another 30-odd years before it's that time. Of course, we already know that if there is one thing this world sorely, sorely lacks, it is justice. But I'm still hoping. And I'll raise a glass tonight.