Friday, December 31, 2004

Happy New Year

This is part of an e-mail exchange between myself and one of my favorite students.

thx for passing that stuff along from your fellow classmates at the University of the Tree Mascot. very interesting dialogue y'alls have running. I am jealous to some extent. I miss those days, even if i didn't live them as actively engaged as you are. my friends in college didn't talk about stuff like that actually, but even without friends/associates talking about stuff like that, being in an environment where stuff like that could ferment was soooo stimulating.

as you know i'm a bleeding heart liberal and bernard left me hopeful that we'll win the good fight. and i think post election i'm realizing that it's OK to think of this in terms of winning losing. and i don;t mean that in a reaction to bush's with us or against rhetoric. i mean that we have to win the culture war.

we need to people to realize that Love, not gender, is the most important ingredient for a family and that Caring and Compassion don't care about chromosomes X and Y.

We need people to realize that courage isn't just holding to your convictions but admitting that one's convictions were wrong and that though one can rule from fear and the barrel of a gun, a legacy of peace and honor will come from a rule of power that comes from widsom, which comes from the mind.

that God may or may not exist and that in a secular democracy (which is what we are by law!) the right for each person to make that decision is more sacred than the right to believe in that possible entity.

We need people to realize that (to borrow the words from an american indian proverb) we do not inherit the world from our parents, we borrow it from our children. (my words now) and if we love our children as much as we profess to in bromidic greeting cards and whitney houston songs, then we'll take care of this fucking planet.

all right, i'll get the fuck off my fucking soap box right the fuck now.

your friend,

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

His name was Richard

On Monday, Aug. 30, during the afternoon I was doing my normal thing, just sitting on the couch and reading. It was kinda warm so I had the front door open to let in the cross breeze through the screen door. About 4:30ish I notice the silhouette of a guy milling around in front of the door down the hall from me. He seems to be knocking on that screen door. After another minute he approaches the door to my apartment.

"excuse me, have you seen the older gentleman who lives in this apartment. he's my grandfather," says the guy who appears to be about my age, maybe a little older.

"no, sorry, haven't seen him in a while." i replied. "Is something wrong?"

"well, no one has seen or heard from my grandfather in days. we've called but no one is answering and right now his door is locked," he says. "and what's the deal with these screen doors? how to they lock, because his is locked."

"well, they lock from the inside."

"wait, from the inside," he interrupts me.

"yeah," i said.

"and there's no way that they can lock from the outside?" he asks, his voice quickening.

"no, uh, sorry," i reply, starting to get a bad feeling.

The guy disappears and returns about 10-15 minutes later with two Los Angeles firefighters. I can overhear them asking him questions about his grandfather's health. the grandson explains that his grandfather is older and on several medications. Meanwhile, one firefighter is taking the screen door off its hinges, while the other is trying to enter the apartment through the window (which faces east and is right next to the walkway, which leans to the main area with the mailboxes in our apartment building). This firefighter makes his way into the apartment and emerges from the apartment, having unlocked the door.

The guy is immediately distraught, not hysterical or anything, but clearly they've discovered his grandfather and he's dead. After a couple minutes the firefighters start explaining the procedure of what's going to happen next -- the cops will come and he'll have some questions to answer. The grandson though is too broken up and he asks for a minute to gather himself and he leaves the apartment area and walks down to the street. I'm assuming at this point that they've unfortunately discovered that his grandfather has had like a heart attack or something.

I get on the phone and call scott (roommate) to let him know the bad news. i also call another friend. having something like this happen was something that provoked that human instinct to share with someone else, ya know? well, after those phone calls i start reading again. the door remains open -- i'll admit mostly out of a desire to know what's going on but also to let the grandson know that if he needs any help or whatever, that he can ask. however, he's not really anywhere to be seen, so i figure that he's making calls or something.

Soon after that -- it's probably around 5:30ish at this point -- i actually fall asleep reading. When I wake up about an hour later the scene has changed. There's yellow police tape stretching from my door to the door in the hallway (the tape forms the hypotenuse of the triangle). Essentially, i am taped in. I notice at least four uniformed police officers and a couple detectives in ties and a few black and whites (cop cars) in the street. It seems excessive, but i figure that they need to treat this as a crime scene initially. if they were to let people in there, like family, and stuff immediately and they moved stuff and then they found out something suspicious about the death, the cops would have a problem. they wouldn't be able to take back that mistake, so i figured that while this seemed more than necessary, i wasn't really questioning anything.

however, after another hour i've noticed that there are even more detectives there and more cars and more uniformed officers, too. at this point, while i haven't overheard anything from any cops that clearly indicated anything suspicious, i'm obviously thinking the worst. i'm wondering why no one has asked me anything, so when i overhear a detective asking someone who removed the screen door, i volunteer that it was the firefighter. the detective thx me, but that's it. i leave my door open and then go back to reading. i also call scott and give him a head's up and let him know that he should probably stay on campus later tonight, b/c it doesn't look like the cops are letting people in and out of the building. maybe an hour later (some time between 7:30 and 8 p.m.) they do let someone out. My upstairs neighbor is allowed to go to his tae kwon doe class, he's instructed to press his body against the wall opposite the doorway so as not to interfere with anything.

by 8:15 p.m. scott shows up and he's told that he's gotta stay outside. i'm still in the apartment. no one has asked me anything, and i haven't actually heard anything. the cops seem really busy so i don't want to interrupt. scott calls again and says he's considering heading up to his girlfriend's monday night. he has groceries in his car and doesn't want them to spoil. however, over the course of the next hour he's talking to our landlord who's out there, too and other onlookers. he calls and says that the word on the street is that the man was shot. the cops are examining the screen outside the window, which faces the street. this is the first i've heard of anything like that. in the meantime, the county coroner has shown up, bringing the number of people on the scene to what must be at least 20. scott confirms my total from his observations made from the street below. (the first floor of apartments is actually the second floor of the building). the people from the coroner's office are taking lots of pix. still no firm idea on what's going on and no sign of the family, either. i'm assuming that they're taking care of their arrangements and are no longer needed on the scene.

by around 9:30 p.m. they start wrapping their investigation and letting the tenants into the building. scott says that our neighbor was shot based on what he's learned. a few minutes after scott came in a detective comes into our apartment and asks us if we've heard or seen anything weird or unusual in the last week that might help explain our neighbor's death. scott and i are both shocked. we, unfortunately, have nothing to offer in terms of a lead. i had been out of town until late tuesday night and been working each day.

suddenly i became the person i had interviewed all those times i had to cover murders and traffic fatalities, who could say only that the person was quiet and that they didn't know him/her very well. our neighbor had only moved in about two months ago, and i had only seen him literally a handful of times. he was an older man whose door was always closed when i got home from work, so i wasn't going to disturb him or anything. the cop takes our phone numbers and asks us to call him if we can think of anything that might help in the investigation. the cops leave and take the screen doors with them.

shortly after that our other neighbors, andy and tatiana, came by. they also didn't know anything, but tatiana at least knew our neighbor's name. he was frank and he was very easy to talk to, she said. suddenly all the questions that i could have asked the detective... that i should have asked the detective.... that i would have asked the detective had i been a reporter covering this in albany flooded me. what was his name? what do think happened? when did this happen? do you think it was planned or random?

after tatiana and andy stopped by they later convened outside with scott and our upstairs neighbors, including the guy returning from tae kwon doe class. scott learns that he saw frank's body as he was leaving the apartment. tatiana had heard from a cop while waiting outside that they think it was random. scott is naturally disturbed by what happened and says he would think about moving. i am trying to figure out how a bullet could come up from the street and kill a man in his apartment if it was random. it would have had to have been such a remote chance of it coming up from what would have been a minimum 50 feet away and then strike the body in a place that would be fatal. at this weird inclined angle. i doesn't make sense.

i'm saddened obviously, but apparently not as troubled as scott. we live in a decent neighborhood with lots of families, an elem school within walking distance and as safe as pretty much any neighborhood i could afford in los angeles. this was just a sad random act that claimed a nice man named, frank.

a day later, i'm still sad, though unsure of what to do. unfortunately, and in this case i hate L.A., it's too big here to learn much. the LA Times doesn't cover stories like this -- they're too common -- at least not in depth. and there is no smaller paper devoted to stuff like this either. so hopefully i'll find out more about frank.

worry not about me though, i'm fine. just take a moment though and try to remember to reach out to strangers.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Why I live in the City of Angels

This is from Bill Simmons's column on

Q: Sports Guy, why are you still living in Los Angeles? Why would a Boston sports fan live in L.A. when he has no reason to? You used similar logic when you suggested that Ben Affleck can't be a real Red Sox fan because he dated a girl from the Bronx. What is the attraction in L.A.?
-- DJ Junior, Haverhill, Mass.

BS: I can't decide on an answer between "Um ... it's 80 degrees every day?" and "Every woman out here dresses like a hooker." So I guess I'll say both. But yes, I do miss Boston. Very much so.

JimmyKimmel: Here's a little secret I probably shouldn't let you in on, but I will: Wherever you're living right now, L.A. is nicer. In nearly every category, we win. No reasonable person who has ever spent any amount of time here would argue this -- and those who do are in denial. Our weather is better, we have more to do, more to see -- our gardeners charge 50 bucks a month -- and, as a group, the women here make yours look like livestock. L.A. is to cities what George Clooney is to men. Better. And those "earthquakes" we have once every 10 years? Spielberg, Lucas and -- starting next year -- DeVito produce them to scare people away who might be thinking of moving here. Please don't tell anyone.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Vanity, thy name is ...

So went back to the doc's today (for the penultimate visit). everything is cool with the cyst on my face. biopsy was negative for cancer or anything dangerous. skin appears to be healing as well as the face. doc is feeling pretty good about everything. then he drops this bombshell on me. (remember, when i told the story the first time one of my fave parts was using this phrase "beverly hills plastic surgeon").

"so mike, have you thought about propecia or hair replacement?"

"no, but believe me, not a day goes by when i don't think about how i used to be a kid with thick hair, and now well, i don't." i answered quickly to mask my shock at this being brought up umprompted. coincidentally though, i did grab a hair replacement pamphlet last time i was in his office, but no one saw me do it.

so after a few minutes the doc comes back with his camera to take photos of my head ("for a baseline"). he then writes a prescription for propecia, but recommends that i get it online from Mexico or to get it from friends in Mexico, if i have any, b/c it's much cheaper. the humor of the situation and the acknowledgement of my own vanity have kept me from actually getting angry or disturbed by the unsolicited offer to fix my male pattern baldness.

still though, pretty effed up stuff, eh?

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Two worlds collide

So for many years (at least six) I've had a small pea-sized growth (at biggest) on my left cheek, down near my jaw. It was essentially invisible and never caused me any pain or grief (most days I didn't even remember I had it), so i just let it go. I'd had a couple cysts as a kid and so i figured that that's all this was. Well, this is the story of all debts coming due.

May 24ish (the Monday before the Memorial Day Holiday weekend) I notice that it seems to be getting bigger. Not much but enough that it's visible to the casual glance (as opposed to the deep stare) and that it's kinda tender when I touch it. Feels like a black and blue. At work on Tuesday I ask my boss for her doctor's number and explain the situation to my co-workers. They're of course concerned but given the holiday coming up, my sister visiting and then me going off on vacation that following Sunday (june 6), I tell them that i'll call the doc when i get back from Buffalo (June 14).

The rest of the week it keeps growing. From one day to the next I cannot tell if it's growing or if I'm being paranoid, but every two days I notice that it's definitely growing compared to two days prior. Co-workers start expressing more concern. And the bump on my face (underneath the skin, not like a pimple) is starting to turn a different color than my skin (a little darker). I figure that I should call the doctor next week (the tuesday after memorial day).

So my roommate and his girlfriend are growing more concerned and so am I, to be honest, but it's now Saturday and there's nothing i can do, short of going to an emergency room until Tuesday. So when I get home from work Saturday I go over my insurance policy and realize that at minimum like $250 plus 30 percent of whatever tests they run, I am not going to the ER for a little swelling on my face. I mean, it still only hurts when I touch it and i haven't noticed anyone staring.

After looking up the info I go pick up my sister Katie at the airport. I tell her about it and not to tell my mother if mom calls. Sunday rolls around and we go see a performance of Thorougly Modern Millie (which was fantastic, but please don't bring young kids to the #%^&*#$ theatre, they don't belong). It's bigger, says Scott (roommate) and his girlfriend, Shelley, and Katie. I am not sure, but then I think, yeah, it's at least bigger than it was Friday. So I spill the beans to mom and tell her that I'll also call my insurance company's 24-hour-nurse-on-call line.

Monday, we hang out in Melrose, Hollywood and Santa Monica. We also go looking for Jennifer Garner's house (one of my students have provided intel about it's location, but we came up empty there). No news really about the bump. I did call the nurse line and they recommended going to the doctor to have it checked out. They did ask if it had been pulsating. Fortunately it wasn't.

Tuesday morning (we're supposed to head to Magic Mountain, which opens at 10 a.m.). Instead of leaving at 8:30 to be there when the gates open, we cannot leave until after I've made an appointment with Dr. Betty Fletcher. So I call the office at like 9:02 a.m. and they can see me Thursday at 9:45 a.m. I'm happy that I finally at least have an appointment and we head to Magic Mountain. The park was great except for worst pizza ever, not enough employees and banging my face against a restraint on a roller coaster (that #^&*#$ hurt).

Wednesday I go to work and Amanda (one of my co-workers, who went to UofA by the way) notices that it's bigger. I tell her that I'll be hitting the doc's on thursday and she's in favor of that. I also tell her that i'm prepared to postpone my upcoming vacay if necessary. She agrees with that, too.

So Thursday comes and I go to the doc's. As she's asking me about it, she asks me if it's warm. I tell her that I cannot tell, b/c any paranoia gets in the way. She touches it and let's me know immediately that it's warm. "it's a hot spot, medically," she tells me. Diagnosis: an abscess, which is some kind of infection, that needs to be taken care of ASAP. She refers me to a ear/nose/throat (so i thought) doctor that can see me the next day (Friday). It's with a Dr. Ruder in Beverly Hills (which is weird, because I've heard of a Dr. Ruder in BH. He performed a nose surgery/job on one of my students). I wonder....

Well, turns out, it's him. I have officially gone to see a "plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills" (with the exception of Jennifer Garner agreed to marry me, those are the words I've most wanted to say since moving to L.A.). The office is really nice, small, but nice. Very clean, the staff is well-dressed and there are brochures for every kind of procedure imagineable. Also, there's an article about him from the 1994 L.A. Times about how he pioneered an ear replacement surgery. It's pretty cool. The operation costs like $19,000 and insurance coverage is spotty so he asks many families to pay what they can afford and he'll take the rest in kind or for cookies and stuff. He seems like a pretty all right cat.

So one might expect from this medical pioneer in Beverly Hills some kind of super high-tech surgical procedure. Maybe he'll sonically reduce it like they do with kidney stones? or something with a laser, right? I mean he's a plastic surgeon in Bevery Hills. Or maybe he'll bust out some Star Trek medicine (just waving a salt shaker type thing over my face and call me cured). Um, nope.

It was pioneer medicine, as in Willa Cather (19th century American author) O Pioneers! medicine. Essentially, he made a small incision on the bump and squeezed and pressed my face until the infected cyst (i was right about that part anyway) emerged or was "expressed" as he referred to it. Now, this took about 10 minutes of him just kneading my face, like he was making pizza dough. I must say, as he was doing this I was forced to wonder... is this the best option in 2004 in Beverl Hills?

Fortunately, it didn't hurt that much, but it did hurt at times. Enough that I winced a couple times. But i knew what he was doing so it was cool. If it had been excruiciating he would've known that, too. At the end he complimented me as stoic telling me that he probably didn't have any other patients who could've withstood that. i thank him for the compliment but mostly for getting rid of this thing. He does tell me that my follow up is the next Monday (or the day after I'm supposed to get on a plane. so hello postponed vacation. but it's just a week so it's all good.).

The first follow-up exam was good. I am still awaiting the biopsy, but no reasons to be worried. THere's an 80 percent chance i'm good to go and a 20 percent chance it might come back. He said he went with those odds, because if they have to cut in surgically I end up with a scar on my face. so who knows? but I have confidence. Things look good now.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Why are students so much smarter about same-sex marriage

So we had the big gay marriage/morality of homosexuality discussion today at L.A. Youth. By and large, we (editors) this it was a great success. Sure, it got heated (more so than two weeks ago, according to one of the other editors), but students we talked to (liberal ones, granted) said that they felt this was very valuable experience.

we had an evangelical pastor, Ben, who's in charge of his congregation's youth ministry, a baptist pastor James (though for only about an hour), a christian lesbian, Cecelia, and the pastor with the Metro Community Church Neil, (founded as a christian church for LGBT), plus we had 27 teens (four visitor types) and the eds.

most of our student staff is pro-gay marriage and even one, whose disgusted by homosexuals, feels like "it's their business, who is the government to legislate against it." several though are against, though one (joe) didn't show up today but for a minute and the other (nikki who also brought friends) didn't talk at all (and neither did the friends), so essentially today it was Julie left to fend for herself.

we all felt badly for Julie, like perhaps she may have felt ganged up on. we prefaced our discussion by talking about what we were trying to accomplish--basically an exchange of viewpoints in an open environment and to help many of our teen staff get a better handle on the Christian notion of love. but nevertheless, we're not sure if she felt this environment was totally open to her obviously minority point of view. she was a little overmatched against Neil from the Metro Comm Church (MCC). she would quote bible verses and he was ready. obviously, he's been through this before many times and is very savvy. however, he was a little harsh with her.

she is not the most diplomatic in talking about this stuff -- posture, tone of voice, rigid righteousness and she even condescends. right off the bat she referred to neil and cecelia as "supposed christians" (imagine that dripping with sarcasm). well, this time the tables were turned on her. i felt bad though b/c her age left her less diplomatically savvy (compared to say the other pastor) and MCC pastor, Neil, i think took that out on her somewhat. now while i abhor her belief system, we all got the sense that she was pretty angst-ridden when she left and may not have felt like we created a truly open environment. as an aside, the la youth signs that i hang up giving directions on how to buzz in, etc, we both on the ground after the meeting. the sign downstairs was actually outside on the ground. i am taking that at face value, somehow it fell (perhaps a poor taping job). but i cannot say that the thought of an angry student knocking it down hasn't crossed my mind. hell, i wouldn't have mentioned it here if i didn't think that at least once.

andrea (leave it to her as one of our best and brightest) asked one of the best questions... how could these christians have a god that loves the sinner but doesn't accept their "sin." they said that it was analagous to loving a person who cheats on his wife, but obvioulsy being aghast at the cheating. they essentially felt that homosexuality was a behavior that could be changed or at least avoided. coming from the other point of view were our gay speakers and most of our staff, that this is who these people are. period. so if you don't accept them, you cannot love them unconditionally. the idea that god, whose been portrayed to them as all-loving, could discriminate was really offensive to them deeply, we suspected.

our lesbian christian, Cecelia (a friend of rachel hamilton's who used to work here), was great. she was very measured, diplomatic and compassionate. she was less combative than neil. she also helped keep us on point. the discussion as you can imagine moved from legal to moral to the history of marriage (as a form of property exchange) to biblical interpretationism to what defines family. it was kinda nutty. as the hosts we weren't entirely sure when to jump in and when to protect the students. but we remembered that pretty much everyone knew what they were getting into so we didn't want to over-protect them. i mean we started LA Youth b/c teens are underestimated. we didn't want to do that, ya know?

rachel l, one of the teens, brought up a sad story about how gays come to her unitarian church b/c they've been hurtfully drummed out of their previous churches. another student broke down as she told about how her parents won't get divorced b/c of religious rules forbidding it in the catholic church. and yet they are a really messed up family. she just think it's horrible to think that god, who she believes in, would ever create rules that caused so much hurt. she says that christians would use that to discriminate or legislate against someone's happiness is really sad. i had to bring her a tissue and a glass of water after she started crying. my heart just broke with this one.

another student, stephanie, brought up how her mom and dad couldn't get married in church b/c her dad is divorced. but they are good christians -- good people that go to church, contribute to the community. but in some ways they are still second class in the eyes of church leaders, who imply that they're kinda second class in the eyes of god. stephanie is also christian and is very troubled by this idea. how can human interpretation of the divine make anyone second class in the eyes of an all-loving god. she also got choked up and then proceeded to break my heart, too.

i was so proud of the staff members. they showed courage, compassion, conviction, and at least enough open-mindedness to listen to someone else. and to try and adopt a new world view for at least a few minutes. it totally cemented in me the certainty that this is what i should be doing right now.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Bad Shins concert, great concert story

What do they always say? Location, location, location. Well, that sure does apply to concerts (and the spot stakes out when watching a concert).

My adventure to check out The Shins in concert all began with a ream, that was in part my own fault. I didn't learn of their Feb. 5-6 shows in Los Angeles until some time in January (more than three weeks after the tickets went on sale), but the Ticketmaster Web site said that tickets were still available for the Los Angeles shows. Well, after like 15 minutes of trying I realize that the show is in fact probably sold out, so I give up and get pissed (of course this is after I had promised a friend -- designer Amy -- that I'd get us tickets). Well, there was good news though, I found out that they were playing in San Diego Sunday, the 8th. And since I don't work Mondays... voila. Designer Amy is in for two tickets, so things are cool. I'll drive and we'll enjoy my favorite Republican stronghold -- San Diego County.

Fast forward to mid January... Amy and I meet up on a Saturday night to exchange tickets for cash. The only thing worth noting right now is that Amy has a bit of a Costanza wallet, overstuffed with stuff, but yet organized in its own system.

Thursday Feb. 5: Amy and I exchange a few emails about the show, in one of which she tells me that she needs to find her tickets to the show. I think nothing of it, b/c i've misplaced pretty much every concert ticket in my life prior to the show.

Saturday Feb. 7 (evening): Amy calls with "weird news." I'm intrigued but not in a totally good way. "Um, I have torn apart my apartment and I cannot find my ticket." OUCH. Oddly though, and this is a totally cool reflection on her, she feels really bad that she let me down b/c we had made plans to drive down there and now I was left stuck on the long drive. She offers to join me on the drive down with her boyfriend and they'd just hang out in San Diego while I'm rocking at the show, and then we'd drive back (like I said, she's good people). I tell her that I appreciate the offer, but it's cool. And being the great friend that I am I express my sympathy and then offer this great pearl of comfort. "I feel really bad because you already laid out for the two tickets. That was like $34.' Trying to catch myself from the unintended bad vibe I say: "At least it wasn't like Radiohead, which costed like $60." I tell her that if she finds the ticket to let me know b/c I ain't leaving until like 2 p.m. earliest the next day.


So I wake up and have an "idea." Maybe we'll just pile in the car anyway and buy tickets down there. After all, he tickets are just $14 at the door. That's one we can spring for again (woooo-hooo four tickets to one show for two people). However, when I call the bar, it's sold out. But I learn that the really good news is that there are going to be two opening acts. Um, this could be a late night... When I call Amy that morning, she gives me the bad news, too, no ticket. No big worries. I'll still meet up with Kerri (friend from Sweet Home class of 93) for dinner and then rock and roll the show.

Eventually though I hit the road and with the exception of consistently choosing the incorrect lane and getting stuck behind the slowest person on the road, things are good. In fact, without Amy in the car it afforded me the opportunity to go American Idol in my car. I listened to three songs from Avenue Q, which Amy dumped onto my iPod, quite a few times and got to sing along. To all who've never heard me sing before... you never will. It's not pretty. Oh btw, of course I listened to The Shins, too. By the time I get to San Diego, I am stoked about the upcoming show. And any bad karma vibes appear to be gone.

I meet Kerri and we head to the Indigo Grill (a huge recommendation). They serve fusiony Mex food in a bistro-ish kinda setting. Very good food, try the squid ink pasta and salmon or the shrimp tamales. Also, apparently the restaurant encourages strangers at different tables to converse, as evidenced by the really loud pair of tables behind us. Oh well, as you know, the opportunity to roll my eyes at strangers is what I live for (as Kerri did, too, at least while we were at dinner). We finish dinner around 8:30 p.m. Doors opened at 8, but with two opening acts I knew that I had time.

OK, running diary time....

9:03 p.m. After getting a teeny bit lost on the way to Cane's I make my way into the bar. It's crowded but not jammed. It's actually kinda well lit inside, more so than a typical bar is for live music. But it's all right, I figure that since it's an opening act they'll dim the lights once The Shins take the stage. I wind my way to the bar and order a Guinness. $5 please. I'm actually happy with that. Drinks at The Troubador on Santa Monica Blvd were like $7.50. I finally start listening to the band -- it's actually just a guitarist and a drummer -- and they SUCK. Like really just not good. It made me recall Kevin Webster and something he told me back in junior high when I dreamed of starting a metal band. "Don't worry about playing guitar, just get an effects pedal. That'll work." Well that's what this dude's vocals sounded like. They just turned up the reverb and echo and distortion and played things really loudly, like loud enough that you feel it in all your bodily crevices.

9:10 p.m. I wend my way toward the back of the bar, which is basic rectangular shape. The band is on a slightly raised stage up against one wall. It's about 70 feet or so to the other wall, but about 50 feet from the stage is a railing and a stair case that leads to an upper level. There are two bars, on the walls perpendicular to the stage. It's definitely almost shoulder-to-shoulder crowded, but still room to maneuver. I'm standing right near the railing in front of a small staircase that leads up to a raised level between the railing and the fall wall, it's the back of the bar. Right now, the music is louder and for the first time in my life I am starting to actively dislike a band playing in front of me. They finish a song, and I actually refuse to clap. I know, really bad form, but these guys really suck. I played music live for christ's sake for many years in high school, so i know the desire for applause, but at least I wasn't pretentious sucky and just loud to distort our lack of talent.

9:15 p.m. A really stinky dude walks by me. Like hardcore B.O. It's coming from one of my fave concert attendees -- the white guy with dreadlocks. Suddenly, I decide to start acting under orders and taking good note of my environment. Since, Amy couldn't come to the show, she wanted a full report. The crowd looks like that kinda typical alt-rock show crowd. Lots of faded jeans, tattered cuff cotton cargo type pants, tight short sleeve vintage button downs over long-sleeve thermals, moppy, oily hair that is intentionally unwashed and looks so, and low-top Chuck Taylors. That's the guys. Girls are wearing the standard garb, too: floor-length skirts of denim or corduoroy, low-top chuck taylors, jeans that are kinda low-cut, but it's an alt-rock crunchyish show, not hip-hop. lots of T-shirts and zip-up sweat-suit jackets (think Royal Tennenbaums). Also, the issue of hygiene arose. In fact at about this time a girl with clean hair walked by and the smell of freshly shampooed hair actually caught my attention. That's not the best environment to be in. Oh well, at least, I figure that by this time we've got only about a half hour left of band two and then the Shins. wooooo-hoooooo!!

9:25 p.m. Acting under orders to explore (and of course natural curiousity) I explore the rest of the bar. The back wall actually has a window bar -- one from which they sell just bottles of beer and slices of pizza and bottled water. One good thing about being back here, the acoustics are much better. The vocals are more easily understood, but now his unclear enunciation makes him hard to understand and they still suck. Thankfully they're done in just a few minutes.

9:40-10:07 p.m. I start feeling the frustration of the window bartender. Despite two signs that state the prices and what she's selling, there are about a half dozen questions in those 27 minutes asking for mixed drinks or draft beers and one for like a burrito. I also see two great shirts. One has the six multi-faced Dungeons and Dragons dice with the words "Choose your poison" underneath the sketches. It's worn by a brown haired pony-tailed dude with glasses -- classic D&D nerd. The other great shirt of the night, a girl wearing a shirt that says "Guten Tag, Berliner." Designer Amy happens to have the same shirt, I figure that this is good karma.

10:10ish p.m. The band takes the stage. However, right away it sounds nothing like The Shins. No cool, stripped down melodies buttressed by unexpected harmonies. No smooth vocals. Instead it's kind of a rocky hook followed up by Thudding bass drum and chords. Uh-oh. My worst fear comes true. That act I walked in on was only the first act. The second act is just taking the stage. When are the SHins going to come on? I still have to drive back to LA tonight!!! After the first song, the singer (who is accompanied by only a drummer, but I couldn't tell at first because of the whole being short thing), says "we're the magical magicians." Even by their name, I know this won't be good. Later he thanks "All night radio" the first band, who was even worse than Magical Magicians. I figure that this is a conspiracy by the Shins to have shitty bands open for them so that they'll sound great.

10:25 p.m. The bartender asks my opinion of the Magical Magicians. I tell her that they suck and bam! instant friendship. Mary goes on to regale me with stories of other bad bands that have appeared at Cane's or bands who didn't have great shows here, including Damien Rice (who i'm gonna see later). the problem there was that Cane's is great for barbusting shows, not intimate stuff and damien rice is the latter. someone actually shooshed her while she was taking a drink order at that show. wow! I notice that not many people are tipping her and point that out. She laments it, but says unfortunately, it's too common when one works back in window bar. I make sure to drop a buck in the bucket when i order my $3 Coors Lights. More people ask for mixed drinks and express surprise when they can't get them. both of us roll our eyes. We end up talking straight through the rest of the Magical Magicians' show. Mary tells me how this is like the best spot to people watch. I agree. I see more weirdos throughout... more white afros and white dreadlocks, like two whole minorities (i've never been in a whiter environment in since moving to SoCal), more chuck taylors, and lots of people who don't seem to be huge Shins fans, but instead feel like they should be at this show b/c of their age and overall aesthetic. Also, i watch one girl clamor for a manager because there's a radio on upstairs and it had better be off during the Shins show or she is going to be pissed.

10:40 p.m. The Magical Magicians finish and I realize that i've been talking to Mary, who btw is kind of not unattractive in a major way -- but she's married. whatever, i realize it's probably OK that Amy couldn't make the show b/c otherwise i don't spend this much time with the tight shirt wearing beautiful blonde bartender, who's married, i know.

11:07 p.m. The Shins finally take the stage!!! The crowd gets psyched, about a gazillion times more than they did for either of the two prior acts. They open rocking out and it's great. The crowd gets a lot quieter, unlike with the other bands who were largely talked over. The band's second song is Kissing the Lipless, the first song off of "Chutes too narrow." the crowd is grooving even doing a little white kids at an alt show moves. But then the show takes a not so great turn. First off, the vocals mics are still set too low, as they've been all night. And with the acoustics or something when they did more stripped down songs (which they have some great ones) they just didn't work that great. The sound didn't seem to carry well enough or something so the whole crowd being spellbound by the great slow song thing didn't happen. In fact, some people started actually talking, including the dudes next to me at the window bar. They were on the other side actually standing in front of the cash register, no matter how many times Mary asked the to move. I leave to go to the bathroom, too many coors lights.

11:15 p.m. I get back from the bathroom, which btw at Cane's are really clean (kinda like all of San Diego), and my spot is gone. I had been standing just off to the side of the window bar, where another dude and his girlfriend were now. I was forced to stand in front of the window bar now. Technically, I was being the drunk talking dudes now, but Mary gave me the OK and even told me that she'd make sure to tell a manager "I was her cool friend" if they came to move me. The show continues... going along the same... faster, more-rocking songs go over great, while slower more moody stuff is just not working in this enviro. maybe if i was right up at the stage it would have been great... but being in back it was like being at a party with background music almost. Mary gets me my first free beer.

REST OF SHOW: Highlights included "So Says I" "Kissing the Lipless" and "Turn a Square." Despite the lack of Coldplay show vibes (which had like 18,000 people singing along), it was a damn fine show, and just for $17. It wasn't a hostile crowd or anything and most of them seemed to appreciate the Shins. Even some of the people who appeared just b/c they thought they should i think got won over.

Last thing to note... After the show was over, around 12:37 a.m., they stuck the last pizza back in the oven to warm it up. Well, i look back and notice that it's on fire!!!! well, a tiny corner is. I alert Mary and her manager, Steve. They're eternally thankful, give me another free beer, a free bottled water for the road and free piece of unburned pizza (which was really good). So I recommend Cane's, too. Steve even gave me his card and told me to look him up if I'm back, as did my new fave bartender, Mary. OK, i might have a slight crush on her. But she's married.

I hate driving audiences

So I finally really got bitten by the LA Traffic bug today. I was headed to a school in Hacienda Heights, about 35 miles from my apartment, and while driving there I am listening to the traffic report on the radio and I hear that there's a Sig Alert on the 60 Eastbound. This is bad -- short definition of Sig Alert, an accident that blocks two or more lanes of traffic for at least two hours. Eventually I have to literally stop on the freeway. I call the teacher whose class I'm scheduled to speak at tell him that I'm stuck. He's cool with it and we plan to reschedule.

I get off at the nearest exit and turn around and decide to head to work.

When i get to our parking ramp behind our building. i notice that someone's out there smoking and that someone else's SUV is blocking my usual parking space. So i have to try and squeeze into the tiny space that is typically partially intruded on by a huge Ford Expedition on one side and bordered by a pole on the other.

Smoking guy notices me dilemma and of course starts watching me. As I try to pull in I realize that I've cut the turn short so I back out and adjust my trajectory. I try again and it's going to be close and then SCRRRRRRRZCZZZCCZHCHHHHHH. My door's paint is being removed. Dammit! SMoking guy smirks. I back out again and readujst and get in the spot.

As I'm examining the damage, a fairly substantial scraping along the passenger side (to complement exisiting scraping damage), smoking guy goes back in the building, but not before smirking again.

Then who should emerge from the building, but double parking guy who blocked me spot. When he leaves, I re-park my car, cosmetically worse for the wear.

and then the best part, i get to start my day at work, which thankfully has been much better thus far.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Three short stories from California

In my capacity as an associate editor at L.A. Youth one of my responsibilities is to go to classrooms as a guest speaker and talk about being a reporter and how students can get involved in L.A. Youth. With any luck the class has lots of questions at the ready (because even I'd get bored listening to myself talk for 45 minutes). In part fueled by being in SoCal one of the frequent questions I hear asked is whether I've met any celebrities.

"No," I tell them. Then I explain that when one works in Albany, NY there aren't many opportunities to meet "famous" people, especially when one writes for the news desk. Some times I tell them that I met Team USA soccer player Alexi Lalas, but that doesn't usually ring any bells for them.

Well, recently I've had an encounter that sorta might allow me to change that answer. One of our new projects at L.A. Youth is to extend our youth journalism program to teens with experience in the foster care system. As with any new venture, one of our challenges has been simply to make people aware of what we're doing. Fortunately one of our board members is with Creative Artists Agency (a firm of agents founded by Michael Ovitz). Through some connections we were able to get Amy Brenneman, best known for her TV series Judging Amy (10 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS), on board. In her show, which was based on and inspired by her own mother, Amy Brenneman plays a family court judge. So given our kind of dovetailing subject matters, she agreed to be the guest of honor at a "coffee" held at our offices.

We got a huge response of like 40+ people crammed into our rather small conference room (honestly, i wondered about the fire code). It was people from advocacy groups, family court, dept of children and family services, non-profits who do advocacy work, some students in the program, parents and many other people with a stake in foster care. While we know that these are people who share in our commitment to this cause, Amy's (b/c we're on a first name basis now, OK, not really), involvement definitely helped.

Well, I won't bore you with the details of the breakfast... I'll get to the stuff about actually meeting a celebrity. She was a little late (10 minutes?), which her assistant, who was in constant contact with us via cell phone while they were headed toward our office, attributed to traffic (not surprising in LA). As my previous celebrity sighting have indicated, the camera truly does add weight. Amy Brenneman comes across to me (apologies to anyone here) as someone with a healthy physique when I've seen her on the big or small screen. She's not like Courtney Cox or Jennifer Aniston thin, right? While reality didn't prove her to be rail thin or anything, she was thinner than I thought she would be. She wore brown wool-looking (i didn't ask and am no fabrics expert) pants, a brown shirt and brown boots. A very casual outfit. She spoke briefly encouraging everyone by praising the work they're doing and thanking everyone for coming.

There was one weird moment -- at least to me it was weird. Everyone in the room agreed that problems in the foster care system are widely under-reported. Seeing an opportunity that they might never have again, several people pitched story ideas to Amy for use on her show. She was incredibly gracious as people suggested storylines. She didn't roll eyes or say anything other than express what came across as genuine interest in perhaps dealing with these topics in the future. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think any of us really expect anything, but her demeanor impressed me, especially because I kept having a Seinfeldian moment. I kept recalling the episode where Jerry goes on the Tonight Show and George accompanies him to the taping. While at the studio George meets George Wendt and Corbin Bernsen and tries to pitch story ideas to them for Cheers and LA Law respectively. Thankfully, that awkwardness vibe didn't intrude on our office.

Eventually the "coffee" wrapped up and we all thanked each other for coming, yadda yadda yadda. I took a picture of Amy with some of our students, and shook her hand and actually talked to her for like 90 seconds. Obviously, I haven't washed that hand since then (which was November, btw). Soon after she left, driving away in her silver Lexus SUV, which she maneuvered expertly out of our narrow parking ramp driveway.


This brief story of a celebrity sighting doesn't have quite as good an ending, at least not for me.

So I was shopping for Christmas cards up in Tarzana (about 25 miles north of my house) because that mall has a Museum Company store. Well, when I get there I find that the store is out of business. Dammit. I start heading back to the freeway when I see a Barnes and Noble. Knowing they have cards I steer over that way. Well, almost immediately after entering I spot Catherine Bell, star of JAG (also on CBS, I think Fridays at 9 p.m.). She breaks all the rules of celebrities -- well really just the one about beautiful TV stars actually being average looking in real life. She is smoking. Like probably best-looking-woman-I-have-ever-seen-in-person kinda good looking. Perfect skin, great hair, attractive physique (not too thin). wow! And also, not like over-make-uped to achieve that look. I was really blown away. OK, now comes the part where I start breaking rules.

It's generally understood that when one lives in Los Angeles you are going to see celebrity types from time to time in the course of your everyday life. It's really not supposed to be that big of deal. And I'll admit for me it's still very fascinating, but it doesn't feel the same as it once did. Ground rules seem to be, no ostentatious gesturing or pointing, no hardcore staring, no following around in a store, no approaching. I mean after all, if they're out getting toilet paper at the grocery store, they should be afforded some freaking privacy, right? I have followed this law to the letter, even when I AC Slater was dining at a table next to me or when I saw Jeri Ryan (who's also not unattractive in real life). This time though..... I wish I could say the same.

First off, there was the following. I actually ended up next to her looking at the Xmas cards, unintentionally. That was when I really noticed how amazing looking she is. Feeling nervous, like high school freshman accidentally standing next to the senior homecoming queen nervous, I sidled away, but not too far, right? Without even realizing it, I was standing in the fiction section, like one aisle away. Still within noticing distance. I didn't realize that I had been shadowing her wandering over to that section. Once I realized that I was on autopilot, I knew I needed to bail. So then there was the staring. I tried being discreet. I went back to the Xmas cards, which were displayed on a table in the center of the store, while she drifted about 30 feet away and went to browse the magazines near the entrance. With the tall shelves and generally crowded store, I figured I would be obscured. For a while I definitely was, but I think that the statute of limitations on being obscured expires after more than 30 seconds. She happened to turn around toward her husband and for about half a second our eyes locked. I assume that I got red, like the red of a box of chocolates given on Val's Day. I managed to somehow disappear to the stationery section, but the damage was done. But now for the best part, I couldn't just leave the store I had to stand in line for 15 minutes with the cards I wanted to buy. I never really saw her in the store after that, which doesn't really surprise me.



So as you know only too well, I have a penchant for making jokes of many kinds -- silly, obscure, ironic, dirty, self-deprecating and of course schadenfreude-ific (joy in the misfortune of others).

The time is last Saturday night Jan. 24. The scene is The Grove/Farmers Market just east of Beverly Hills. It was one of those nights when I felt grateful to the gods for putting me in SoCal right now.

The evening began with some great cajun/creole food and Alaskan Amber beer at the farmers market, which because we were in LA we were able to eat outdoors even though it's January. But since neither designer Amy (our designer at the LA Youth with whom i was exchanging concert tix that night) nor I had anything on our agendas we decide to hit the Grove and check out Barnes and Noble and the Apple store. After some drooling over stuff I can't afford at the Apple store and a shared appreciation for being in an outdoor mall (for those who've been to Vegas think Forum Shops in Caesar's Palace.) in January only needing to wear light jackets (Amy is from Michigan), we decide to head back to the farmers market and see if the world famous Farmers Market Karaoke is going on. Apologies for all the parenthetical asides there, btw. (I never let my students get away with that kind of crappy writing).

We're in luck and find the karaoke in full swing. Now I've watched karaoke at a few bars/restaurants in my day and I'll say it right now this was the best ever. This was like semi-finals of American Idol good, though about a gazillion times more charming.

First off we had to sit about 30 feet from the stage, which was a legit raised stage with two huge speakers projecting from the right and left, because of the crowd. There were about 100 peeps and change gathered round. From senior citizens to yuppified west LA Families to GenY-ers out on a saturday to some truly funky california types it was the most mixed crowd i've seen in cali since moving here.

Usually when I've gone to karaoke, a substantial part of my enjoyment and attendance has been of the "watching a car wreck" variety. I mean I love hearing someone rock out on Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive," but I also always got a kick out of watching someone forget the words to Avril Lavigne's too-wordy of a chorus (even though the words are on screen) for Complicated or listening to someone realize that it's freaking hard to sing Bono doing "With or Without You" or even better yet when they cannot follow along to the words and get ahead of the bouncing ball. I mean, just like watching the early eps of American Idol, it gives you some pleasure in your own discretion and not subjecting yourself to the insults that accompany self-delusions.

But as soon as I saw the singer performing a fantastic rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My way" I was completely disarmed of any irony or post modernistic superiority. I didn't want these people to do badly, I wanted them to succeed. OK, I know that sounds way lame of me (like the woman in Seinfeld who shouts from her apartment window "You're all winners" to people running the NY Marathon), but it was such a cool vibe. I mean I didn't even want to make fun of the other people in the audience, which as you know is how i usually derive all my self worth. If I passed this guy on the street I might have thought he was homeless. He had on too many layers of clothes, his hair was unkempt and his face had grooves and crevices that looked like his the Himalayas and his skin had that dusty quality. But his voice was chairmanesque, and he had stage showmanship to boot. After he finished everyone, including Amy and I applauded and cheered. But for most people it wasn't a surprised cheer of I-can't-believe-how-great-you-were, but instead it was the cheer of we-had-high-expectations-and-you-exceeded-them-as-always. The farmers market, like other karaoke sites, has its regulars, but these regulars know that they better bring their A games, like our Sinatra wanna be or our Elton John soundalike, who was so good, Reg himself might not have been able to tell the difference.

And as great as those guys were things really picked up when someone broke out some James Brown "I feel good." This had the crowd dancing in the sparse space in the aisles and in front of the stage. Older people danced with young strangers, random people danced alone, the emcee and another regular jumped in on backing vocals. And our singer waded through the crowd engaging audience members in mini-duets with all the showmanship of Wayne Newton.