Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why ISIS Doesn’t Matter

If caring is a matter of degree, then ISIS doesn’t matter.  Yes, they are loads of nasty people doing terribly nasty things, but that’s not rare on the ground these days.

Poor Barack Obama.  He looks sallow and thinner than ever; his hair is gray.  He’s aged 20 years in less than 7.  They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, but perhaps it’s equally soul killing to have power fairly won, then castrated by people who don’t like you because of your skin color.  He might have been a successful president if the opposition hadn’t sworn, at the very beginning, to oppose him at every turn no matter what.  Maybe when things like that happen, you have no choice but to start acting just like the blinkered idiot who got us into all this trouble in the first place.  George W. Bush

To someone who has been around awhile, it seems like only yesterday that Nine-Eleven happened.  Back in those days, the inhabitants of the Whitehouse were aching for an excuse to invade Iraq.  Dick Cheney was up to his vacant psychopathic eyes in Halliburton, and George W. Bush, so convinced by his boneheaded averageness and arrogance that he knew what he was doing, imagined he was in charge and leapt onto the bandwagon before the first blasts of the sousaphone even sounded. 

But there was no reason to go to war with Iraq.  Osama bin Laden was not there, nor were any of his friends.  The Iraqis did not have yellow cake uranium.  They were not building a bomb.  And while Iraq and Syria have never been particularly stable nation states, they’re absolute chaos now: wrecked infrastructures, destroyed economies, sad and hopeless populations of the dispossessed and the desperate.  The strategy the Bush administration used to get us into that war was exactly the same one to use if your dog’s got ahold of a dead bird, a cat turd or something.  Distraction.  Throw a biscuit to the other side of the yard and go fetch.  WMD’s, Al Quada, retribution for 911.  They were all just excuses to keep the American people from noticing that the bastards at the top and all their prick friends were busily destroying our domestic economy and plunging us into an economic abyss we may never get out of.

We bashed Iraq, alright.  Never reported, never even counted the dead except for our own, imagining it was possible to force reality into being what we wanted it to be.  Saddam Hussein, holed up in his pathetic spider hole, hairy and feral and filthy.  Hot damn.  The press loved that image and so did plenty of Americans, never actually considering the ruined, shattered lives getting it left behind.
So now, what must it be like to be a young Iraqi male?  The world they’ve left you is not a nice one in which to wake up.  You feel powerless, weak, impotent.  And when you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.  Why not join a terrorist organization and blow people up?  If the best you can hope for is making others more miserable than you are, then that’s what you go for.  It’s called nihilism, philosophical-eze for not giving a flying fuck.  It’s close kin to hatred, towards everyone and everything.

So in Iraq and Syria we’ve got ISIS.  It’s touted as a global terrorist threat and yeah, it might sneak into another country, blow up a train station or a public gathering and kill hundreds of innocent people.  This is a terrible thing but given that it springs from a mess US Government policy created, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. 

The fact that Barack Obama is currently set on a course that looks alarming like the mess caused by his predecessor, is profoundly disturbing.  So he gets ISIS.  Another terrorist group will take its place.  Then another and another.  Violence begets only violence.  This has been true for as long as human beings have walked upright.  It will always be true.
And yeah, chopping peoples head off is barbaric, medieval, un-thinkable.

But not any more unthinkable that the things going on right here, every day.

You can ride your bike around downtown Los Angeles.  There are hundreds of homeless people.  Most of them simply wander the streets during the day returning to hidey holes or tent villages at night.  Well, tent is kind of an exaggeration.  You rarely see an intact tent.  Mostly they are patched together flops with odd bits of plastic tarps, string, plastic bags and whatever else they can find to keep the weather out.  Under an overpass, somewhere around Pico and Washington, both sides of the street are filled with one of these homeless villages, or they were today; the police will probably clear them out by tomorrow.  It looked like a slum in an old time Hooverville.   There is drug addiction there, alcoholism, despair, resignation.  I saw a guy reading a paperback book, and a woman in a dirty dress sweeping the sidewalks in an effort to maintain the appearance of a plausible human community.  This was oddly sweet, especially considering that she was breathing enough car exhaust and filthy road dust to kill the average lab rat in about ten minutes.  Human beings, no matter how poor or of what ethnicity, should not be made to live like this.

There are bodies of passed out workers waiting outside Home Depot for jobs.  Maybe they are illegals.  So what?  They deserve dignity, some minimal standard of living signifying even slightly, that they matter.  Yet we, one of the richest countries in the world, will not give them that.
We are destroying our environment, or maybe we’ve already destroyed it.  A scientists on NPR opined that at this point there is so much carbon dioxide not just in the atmosphere, but the oceans where it is trapped, that nothing can be done.  The oceans are heating up, accelerating global warming.

Public education systems are breaking down.  Once upon a time the general perception was that people who home schooled their kids were all fanatics and nuts.  Not so much anymore.  Columbine, Virginia Tech, Littleton Colorado, Newtown Connecticut.  At this point the frequency of public shootings is so great I’m not sure they even make the news anymore.  Sending kids off to school, something that used to be life affirming, has now become a source of anxiety.

The infrastructure of the US is crumbling.  Bridges, highways, waterways, public utilities.  No one is fixing them.  No one does anything until disaster strikes, and then it’s forgotten before the next news cycle.

The other day, thousands of people without health or dental insurance stood in line all day long in the heat at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Center to get wristbands for free health care appointments.  Many did not get in.  They interviewed a guy who got shut out last year.  He said he almost made it up to the gate before it closed and the police turned him away.  He needed dental work.  They told him, “come back next year.”  This year he got in.  What must the last year has been like for him every time he had to chew.  Contrary to public belief, most people do not seek dental care because they want to look pretty.  They go because they’re in intense pain and need help.

Ferguson, Missouri.  Race hatred.  According to Bureau of Justice statistics, at over 2.5 million, the United States has more people in prison than any other country, the vast majority of them African-American males.  Across the nation police departments are militarizing. 
The job market sucks.  Kids can’t leave home because they can’t support themselves.  If they’ve gone to college chances are their debt load is colossal.  It is not rare these days for a college graduate to emerge into the “real world” saddled with fifty or a hundred thousand dollars in debt.  This was unimaginable 20 years ago.

In short, this country has got real problems and would do well to take a lesson from airline flight attendants.  When you lose cabin pressure, put on your own mask before worrying about others.
Thinking this way is called being a patriot.

But of course patriotism is a naïve stance.  Reality forever underlies it like the bones of an ancient graveyard.  The question of whether to go to war again in the Middle East is not only absurd, but a complete non-starter.  Of course we shouldn’t.  We’ve done enough damage.  If you accept the premise that what the citizens of the United States need is employment, education, health care, safety and at least a crack at living contented, peaceful even thriving existences, then prosecuting nonsensical wars is exactly the wrong thing to do. 

But of course that’s not what the war mongering is about.  It’s about oil, and the huge profits accrued and hoarded by comparatively few individuals incapable of caring or even seeing the suffering of people around them.

So yeah, all things considered, ISIS doesn’t matter.  It’s a ghastly organization, agreed.   But its existence is not any more ghastly that murdered children, a ruined environment, countless hopeless and suffering dispossessed, and all the other horrors that have come to exist in this country due to a wrong-headed government hijacked by the powerful interests of big gas and oil companies, hijacked, in the end, by greed.   

Catherine O’Sullivan, September 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Being a Mother

My son’s getting on a plane back to Scandinavia where he goes to school.  He’s raring to go, his mind scrabbling for details.  Has he got everything? Passport, tickets, phone charger?  Jesus Christ, a 9 hour layover in fucking New Jersey, then an 11 hour flight to Stockholm.  L.A., Tucson, back to the wicked cold, and the bleak icy landscapes of Finland, a land so foreign most people forget it exists.

But he likes it there: his friends, his school.  At twenty-two he is not my baby anymore.  He is not anyone’s baby.  He is a young man, busting through his own skin daily and finding a brand new person.  His function in the world is becoming.

Mine is remembering.

I remember his birth, every moment of it.  I remember the light in the hospital room, the dyed hair of the crabby nurse reading the Book of Mormon, who became terrified when I asked her, just a conversational gambit, if she’d didn’t get a little worried about STD’s what with all the blood she had to deal with every day.  Maybe they do now but back in the early nineties, they didn’t routinely test expectant mothers for STD’s.  Not unless you asked.  I thought that was interesting and an interesting conversation was what I needed.  When you’re wracked with contractions, talking about the weather is not going to feed the bulldog.

I remember my husband on my left, always on my left, doing his best to help although really, what can a man do?  We’d been through this once before and he knew the woman on the bed wasn’t really me, or was me only spiritually, hormonally loaded for bear and anything else I could take down while trying to push a nearly nine pound baby boy through a hole that up to that point, had pretty much been used just for pleasure.

It was a long night.  There were ice chips, purgatorial tortures, rending of garments and oaths berating the gods then apologizing frantically for what I’d just said.  There was no doctor in the morning and the admonition, repeated over and over by various nurses, once I’d finally reached full dilation, not to push.  “You can’t,” they said.  “There’s no one here to catch the baby!”  I visualized a guy running in wearing full protective gear and a catcher’s mitt.  I tried, but not pushing after all that work was like asking a wave not to break on the shore.  Would my newborn emerge and crash headfirst onto the floor? Was it clean, was it soft?  Could someone at least put a pillow on the floor?

In the nick of time a frizzy haired MD—at least I think she was an MD; she could have been the janitor for all I knew-- swooped into the room, into latex gloves and the sleeves of her gown.  My child came into the world.

There was never any doubt that he would.  Throughout my entire young life I said I never wanted kids.  The world was covered in asphalt, Reagan wanted to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and bank tellers had become automated machines.  But one day about age 27 all that changed.  I was at a restaurant and found myself entranced by a beautiful infant on an adjacent table.  All swaddled in powder blue, snuggled into his carrier, a little trickle of drool running out one side of his mouth, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  His parents finally moved him to another table.

And I knew.  I could no more not have kids than a salmon could not swim upstream to spawn.  My lifelong maternal instincts and twenty-something fecundity made a mockery of my philosophical objections.  Rene Descartes would have thrown me into a fire; my cogito ergoed nil.  I was a human animal and could no longer fool anyone anymore.

I had two boys nearly 4 years apart.

Someone once said we’re compelled by infants because of the innocence in their eyes.  It’s very short lived and once it’s gone you never see it again.  Experience assaults it.  In small ways at first, barely perceptibly.  A favorite toy dropped on the floor through the slats of a crib, the disappointment and rage at being unable to retrieve it.  The sharp, sleep deprived swear-word from a parent none-too-thrilled at having to change a diaper at 3 AM.  Then bigger sorrows add up, sibling rivalry, school, physical and emotional pain change the wide-eyed clear gaze into something else.  It has to.

Because along with innocence comes vulnerability and this is dangerous.  While we long to cherish it, children themselves are desperate to get rid of it.  My four year old, terrified of the garbage truck, used to run in hollering every time it appeared: this great fearsome thing churning up the dust in the alley, making a terrible racket as it flung the bins around like some kind of monster from outer space.  He’d be frantic and hide behind my legs.  This is a fond memory for me.  Not the being scared part, but his rock-hard conviction of extreme danger and my ability to protect him gave me such a feeling of purpose.   But for him it was a moment of exposure, fear, and while he would also come to understand the protective function of “mother,” as he grew into a young man the idea that he needed his mother’s protection would become anathema.

And so it goes.  The times when I felt so needed and useful, sitting up nights with illnesses, emergency room visits, first cars that crashed, first cigarettes taken away.  Or maybe things got heavy.  Drugs, heartbreak, tantrums and forgiveness, mistakes, parental humanity--perhaps the scariest thing of all-- crashing through.  As a mother all your hero moments are the moments in which your children were the most vulnerable.  They don’t want to remember that. They want what we all want: self-confidence, self-assurance, independence.

Sons, anyway.  Sons are like bear cubs, grown up and gone.  They go out into the world and mark their own territory.  They are loathe to remember a time you had to pull them out of the refuse bin they fell into on the side of the road, hell-bent on retrieving that chicken bone.  

Kids grow older, putting their pasts further and further behind them, and as the childish writing on the Mother’s Day cards changes color and the ceramic bowls and keepsakes they made in kindergarten crack and crumble.  As the color in the photographs fades and my confusion and loudly proclaimed objections to the intractability of time are heeded not at all, I wonder what the fuck happened.  Where did it go? What was it all for?  It did not make me money, bring me fame or reputation.  I am now much as I was before.  Just older, grayer, creakier.

The traffic is terrible at LAX.  It has been all the way down the 105.  At eleven at night there is no reason for it, but then this is L.A.  There never is.  My son’s duffle bag has all his worldly possessions and is wedged into the back seat along with a backpack containing a disassembled computer.  These equal all his worldly possessions.  The duffle always gets searched and it makes him mad; he’s got everything organized just so in there and they fuck it all up.  I try to tell him he might have better luck if his luggage wasn’t army green, but what do I know?

My son would like it better, I think, it would have saved a lot of trouble if he’d just hopped out of the passenger seat with a peck on the cheek, but I’m not having it.  I want a full standing up body hug.  I want to take his smell, his height, the feel of his whiskers, his slouch, his preternaturally focused bearing.  It’s a lot like his father’s, but friendlier, easier.  I want to take enough in to hold me until I see him again, an impossible task.

He rambles through the airport doors.  He’s thinking about Stockholm, Amsterdam.  All the places he’ll go and the people he’ll meet.

His world is becoming.  Mine is remembering.  Tears roll down my face all the way home.  The 105 West is clear.  The August air smells of car exhaust and heat.

Catherine O’Sullivan, August 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why PETA is Being Dumb about Sea World

When I was younger I had a housemate who had a dog.  Barney was a gangly retriever mix: a rambunctious, untrained pain in the neck.  Since my housemate lacked both the time and willingness to train him she resolved to get rid of him. 

This was back when hippies were real hippies, not the ersatz kind we have now.  Accordingly, they were mostly dumb and drug-addled.  Some of them were arrogant as hell.  They believed, for example, that just because the Vietnam War was finally over, they must have had something to do with it.  Nixon had been forced to quit and they took credit for that too.  Most significantly they figured out if you took the baloney off a sandwich and put avocado on it, not only did you appear more virtuous (see: Love Animals Don’t Eat Them), but had invented a new kind of tasty lunch.

So my housemate, her fierce belief in “natural” things reinforced no doubt by both avocado and alfalfa sprouts, decided to turn Barney loose in the wild.  The problem was that we lived in Los Angeles and the only “wild” she knew was Topanga Canyon, a brambled rolling land of sagebrush covered hills punctuated  by ramshackle houses occupied mostly by more hippies and possums.  Hopefully, someone found Barney and rescued him.  But it is more likely he was run over or starved to death.  He could no more have caught a possum than flown to Mercury.

This is the problem I have with PETA and its insistence that Sea World release its captive orcas.  I’m not on Sea World’s side.  I worked at a marine park with two captive orca whales in the late 1970’s and from the first day I saw them in that tiny 500,000 gallon tank, which sounds like a lot of water, but isn’t when you consider the fact that the bigger whale was actually slightly longer than the depth of the tank so his tail flukes were curved at the ends, you get the picture. 

Everybody knew that situation was wrong.  I asked an old keeper one day whether he thought those animals would every get out of that tiny tank and he said, “only in pieces, Catherine.” (fortunately, that did not come to pass.)  When the female had babies, they starved to death.  She couldn’t nurse them.  There were several theories as to why.  One was that being on her own, no one had ever taught her how.  Orca whales, which live in matriarchal pods, are highly social animals and they learn just about everything from other whales.  Another idea was that since the pool was round and she couldn’t really straighten out, her calves couldn’t get into a nursing position.  The problem has been solved at Sea World and it has successfully raised many orca calves, which is good because at this point the animal loving public would raise holy hell if it began snatching baby whales from the wild again.

PETA’s answer to the Sea World problem however, is naïve at best and moronic at worst.  Let’s take a look at the only example we have of humans trying to rehabilitate and release a lifelong captive orca:  Keiko.
In the early nineteen-nineties production began for a movie called “Free Willy.”  It was about a kid who makes friends with a captive orca and resolves to get him back into the wild.  Most of the whales in “Free Willy” were animatronic, but inevitably the studio needed a real whale for a few shots.  Like all movie productions “Free Willy” had a limited budget and needed to get the cheapest whale they could find. They found him in a rundown dump of a seaquarium in Mexico.  He was two-thousand pounds underweight, had a nasty skin condition—the result of living in warm Mexican waters instead of the cooler waters of his native seas—and was overall in extremely poor health. 

The movie was a minor hit with the kids and somewhere along the line questions arose that would lead to one of the greatest let’s-put-our-money-where-our-mouths-are experiments of all time.  There was no choice.  Keiko had to be removed from that situation, but because of his skin condition he could not simply be purchased by another Sea Park.  No one knew whether it was contagious or not, and nobody wanted to risk putting him in with other valuable captive orcas.

The “Free Willy/Keiko Foundation” was formed.  Keiko underwent 2 years of rehabilitation in Oregon.  He had been captured in Iceland as a baby in 1979, and when he was healthy again he was transported by cargo plane back to his home waters.  He was trained to eat live food—having been fed dead fish from buckets for most of his life the change was something he had to get used to—taken on numerous open ocean swims, (accompanied by his caretakers in a boat)—and after being tagged with a tracking device, released into his native seas. 

Some wrongs simply cannot be righted and as humane as its motives no doubt were, The Free Willy/Keiko Foundation did not succeed.  Keiko did not, as was hoped, re-integrate with his family pod.  He did not speak their language, having never had the chance to learn it. Three weeks after his release he was found in a Norwegian fjord seeking human companionship and letting little kids ride on his back.  On December 12, 2003 he was found dead in Taknes Bay, Norway.  The cause of death was pneumonia, common in starving marine mammals.  Without a thick blubber layer they get as cold as we would if dumped in icy Icelandic seas.  They are warm blooded animals.

The cost of freeing Willy/Keiko, a project that took nearly ten years, was over twenty-million dollars and it was a failure.  He could not readapt to the wild any more that Barney the dog could have.  He did not know how to be a Killer Whale.  The sea is a wondrous but harsh place.  Thriving there takes a lifetime of learning and practice.

Sea World currently owns 29 captive orca whales, which have lived their entire lives in captivity.  Many have been born there.  The question becomes, if some grand hand were to come down and demand it release its animals, who would pay for it and more importantly, is there a chance in hell it would even work?  If it didn’t, could the suffering imposed upon real animals by uninformed ideologues be greater than the suffering they already endure?  These are valid questions.  These animals are not just used to captivity.  They are functionally dependent on it. 

Dramatic solutions often look great and make us feel virtuous, but in the case of captive orcas at Sea World, or at any other marine parks and believe me, there are a lot of them worse than Sea World, isn’t it better to put pressure on such organizations to phase out their captive breeding programs thereby eventually stopping the practice of keeping such large and majestic animals in captivity in the first place?

Sometimes, as it goes in life, mistakes are simply compounded.  The first captive orca was Namu, caught in 1965, made to live in a small sea pen in the Pacific Northwest.  He lasted one year in captivity before he died.  That’s not to say they didn’t try.  When he seemed lonely they even caught him a mate and called her Shamu, the performing name of every orca whale Sea World owns.

Maybe it’s time we admitted our mistake and simply turned around.  But like anything that takes years in the making, the solution will not happen overnight.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Wit, Depression and Robin Williams

Robin Williams killed himself yesterday.  This probably didn’t come as a surprise to people who knew him well.  He’d been in and out of rehab several times and endured a life long struggle with substance abuse and depression.

I have thought about wit many times.  Mostly because so few people have it.  Many quote jokes, smile, laugh as a form of social engagement and enjoyment and have occasional witty moments, but chronic wit is rare and those afflicted live troubled and conflicted lives.  Groucho Marx destroyed most of the people close to him.  He couldn’t turn off his scathing humor regardless of any love he might have felt for the people at whom it was directed.  The joke, barb, the surgically precise observations continually burst through, shredding anyone in its path.  He made several wives miserable and died a lonely and exploited old man.  

Richard Pryor, a first class wit by any measure was miserable, angry and violent.  There would have been no “Blazing Saddles” without Pryor—Mel Brooks, as funny as he was, was bolstered and advised throughout by Mr. Pryor.  Those of us who witnessed his stand-up in its heyday remember being shocked into speechless insensibility as he talked about his past in whorehouses and on the streets, turning the fact that he grew up under miserable circumstances into a brand new kind of comedy.  Richard Pryor rarely pulled a punch and he made us laugh like hell.  He also eventually set himself on fire then proceeded to die miserably over a period of twenty years.

The ability to see the world, to remain intimate with the horror and cruelty of it devoid of sugar-coating, then spin it into something that makes us laugh, comes at great cost.  Most of us filter realities' harshest barbs with conclusions, belief, mindsets and philosophies thereby remaining at least partially buffered.  Dawn Powell said, “wits are never happy people.  The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit—for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction direct with no integumentary obstacles.”

True wit is a razor’s edge.  Rosanne Barr was funniest when she’d just got out of the trailer park, the same goes for Whoopi Goldberg when she was on welfare.  Both situations were exceedingly painful: children, no money, desperation saddled with roaring intellectual acuity that never stops collecting information, sharpening it, and presenting it back in particular brands of stark relief.  But this stark relief provides both insight and pain.  The act of turning the pain on its head is the very thing that makes it funny. 

One of the most quoted lines of Groucho Marx, that he’d never want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member, isn’t what people think.  Back in the 1930’s the best and most exclusive social clubs disallowed Jews.  That’s what Groucho was talking about. As a Jew, no matter how famous or rich he was he could not get into the best social clubs.  Anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, these are all the rich veins from which comedy comes.  

They’re also extremely painful.

Dave Chappelle walked away.  Everybody thought he was nuts.  In truth, he was probably the sanest comedian ever to come down the pike.

I don’t know what Robin Williams’ personal demons were.  I’m sad that he’s dead.  He made me laugh more times than I can count.  But maybe what killed him was a function of who he was, the way he saw the world and spun it into humor as told to us.  And maybe for all he said, it’s the things he didn’t say that killed him, the leftovers, the things we were spared.

How very tragic that he could not spare himself. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Evolution of Sideboob
                 Noisy USC students celebrating something.  Who knows what?  The twenty-something blond with the broad back flashes serious sideboob.   That in itself is not worthy of celebration.  It is a side dish.  We are in a Tapas bar.
Sideboob is a twenty-first century invention.  Thousands of generations of women all over the world have launched endless assaults with cleavage, but sideboob is only just emerging.
                “Don’t be so obvious!”  My dining companion’s head pivots 180 degrees like Jerry Manhoney’s and when it comes back around his mouth is hanging open.  “Pretend like you’re looking at the wine list.”  The wine list is chalked up on the board behind the revelers.  They have Verdugo and Andalusio, and Toro and Spaino and loads of other vintages all from the sun soaked plains of that land overseas that just missed inventing tortillas.  It could have become a great civilization but for that. 
                He gives it another go.  The Catalonia Picado is a very spicy vintage, no doubt, and man holy shit, you can almost see nipple.  Blond locks flowing, hiding the knot at the neck of the flimsy black halter dress with a back so low it’s possible there’s no dress at all.
                Something happens.  The students roar.  Their conversation is mostly roars.  “The scallops are really good,” hollers my companion.  I cup both ears like a radio dish trying to receive faint signals from outer space.  Roar, roar and more roar.  The scallops, grilled in a number of things I’ve never heard of before, include carrot goo.   I order them.
                Sideboob cuddles her boyfriend, flesh barely teasing his upper arm.  She whoops about something and I don’t blame her.  Young, well-fed and cared for as if raised on a farm for beautiful girls, she should be whooping about everything.  The world that unfolds for her is not the same one the rest of us muck around in.  It welcomes and embraces her gently and lovingly.  Everybody in it is “nice.”  It puts its coat over puddles in the road lest she dirty her Italian slave sandals.
                Historically, women have been looking for ways to both show and not show their breasts for millennia.  The dilemma first presented itself back in caveman times when someone with big, well-formed breasts got the best guy in the place.  He really liked those breasts but he liked them so much he didn’t want any of the other guys to get a look at them, even though most of them already had.  The “best” guy in the place wasn’t necessarily the smartest.  He was just the best at hunting, running, all that.
                “Now that you’re going to live in my cave,” said the Best Caveman, “you’ve gotta cover those things up.”
                The Best Caveman’s woman was not thrilled by this pronouncement.  She had a baby who ate ten times a day and putting a yak pelt on and off all day long seemed like a big pain to her.   Those suckers are heavy.
                People say a lot of bad things about cavemen, that they’re domineering, short-tempered, inclined to club women in the head and drag them around by the hair, which is mostly true, but this one was pretty reasonable.
                “What if,” said the Cavewoman thinking on her feet, “I cut a ‘V’ in the top of the yak pelt.  That way when the baby needs to eat, I can just reach down and whip out a breast and when I’m finished, put it back.”
                This idea caused the Best Caveman some consternation.  It made sense, but there was still so much wrong with it.  A full time crew-neck yak shirt was a heavy burden to bear, which wasn’t really fair to the Cavewoman, the ‘V’ would allow for easy access, but damn!  It would still allow all the other cavemen to see the creamy smoothness of the tops of her breasts.  But wait, were those parts even a big deal?  When both he and the baby were having at those magical orbs, they went straight for the nipples.  It occurred to the Best Caveman that maybe, just maybe, those were the only parts that really mattered.
                “Okay, fair enough,” said the Best Caveman.  “But if you whip those things out when the second best caveman is around I’ll club you insensible.
                “Fair enough,” said the Best Caveman’s woman.
                Over the centuries, women have found hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways to exploit this initial, and for reasons unknown, definitive masculine decree.  The Roman’s, generally ignorant of Stone age humanity and anybody’ else’s but their own, allowed massive cleavage on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, none on Tuesday and Thursday, and on the weekends changed the rules without telling anybody. This occurred only after the invention of the Julian calendar.  During the dark ages most people were starving and women actually had concave breasts, so nobody cared.  But by the time the European Renaissance rolled around there was bustiered, corseted, wired, strapped, and default cleavage on display and in abundance.
 The Victorians got goosey about breasts, but that high-necked, bowed and lacey nonsense made everybody miserable and by the time the 20th century rolled around women were beginning to rediscover the fact that cleavage was an enormously powerful tool in making men act the way you wanted them to.  Cleavage displayed correctly could poleaxe most anything with 1 “X” chromosome, makes them buy you drinks and eventually say “yes,” when you wanted new furniture for the living room.
                But then something happened that no one had anticipated.  Breast implants.  Breast implants made cleavage so common it got boring.  Tits and fannies began to look alike.   Everybody had massive cleavage: children, fat boys, young girls, old girls.  There were fifty and sixty year old women walking around with the tits of 25 year olds. Rich people got their dogs breast implants.  Someone simply had to come up with a better idea.  That’s when the the genius of this latest generation comes in. 
While breast implants look great from the top, all round and symmetrical, from the side those suckers look lousy!  From the side they look like, well, blobs of manufactured plastic.  Fact is, you can’t fake awesome side boob.
                The table of USC students roars again.  Roar roar roar roar.  Someone’s ordered a round of drinks, something extremely nasty and pink colored.  It’s either watered down Nyquil or something Spanish nobody’s ever heard of.   My dinner arrives.  The scallops are decoratively arranged on a bed of carrot goo and grilled to perfection.

They are delicious.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Isla Vista, Mental Illness, and Guns
 In the wake of the Isla Vista shootings there is a lot of talk about mental illness.  Every time something like this happens the initial reaction is, “he must be nuts.” (It’s almost always a “he.” According to the US Department of Justice 90% of murders are committed by men.)

 I have a problem with the “he must be nuts” conclusion, because it is dead wrong.
First off, there’s too much separation and resignation in it.  It says, “We who are sane cannot comprehend the actions of people who commit these crimes, so we are stuck with it.”  This is patently untrue.  We can all comprehend exactly what happened.  Take that little part of you that felt hurt when dissed at the supermarket by a rude checker.  Take that little part still wounded because the girl of your dreams turned you down for a date.  Take the feeling you had when the asshole on the freeway flipped you the bird even though he was the one who cut you off.  Now magnify those feeling thousands of times until they eclipse every gentle impulse you have.  That’s who Elliot Rodgers was.  We all have parts of him in our nature.  He was one expression of human nature.
In a novel called, “We Need to talk about Kevin,” Lionel Shriver makes a pretty good argument for murderous behavior as inborn.  People are born with all kinds of deficiencies and peculiarities.  Low I.Q’s, high mechanical aptitude, artistic flairs, excessive kindness, sensitivity, no arms, tails, flat heads, the ability to play Chopin by the time they are two.  There is no dearth of inherent qualities recognizable in children at birth.  There is not one reason in the world that viciousness should not be one of them other than our moral, visceral objection to the idea.  We like to think of ourselves as fine fellows and enjoy platitudes like, “people are basically good.”  While it is true that most people lack the drive to go and shoot up a school or shopping mall, the ones who possess it do an inordinate amount of harm.  So it seems to me imprudent to blanketely accept the notion that “people” are basically anything.  We accept that saints and holy men show virtue from a very early age, why shouldn’t the opposite be true as well?
One of my sons had a school mate who, at the age of about 7, delighted in telling me how funny it was that he could repeatedly push his toddler brother down the steps and his mother assumed the child was just clumsy, thereby accounting for his constantly bruised head.  The same kid, I was informed by my son, went back into the classroom during recess and sliced the leg off the class frog.  It was never proved but every kid in the class knew who did it.
 If excessive kindness or musical prowess is accepted as just a normal variation of human nature, why should excessive meanness be relegated to the category “nuts.”  The answer is that it shouldn’t.   I would argue that Elliot Roger’s behavior was within the normal human spectrum.
We simply find it soothing to imagine this person and his atrocious actions are outside the definition of humanity.  He/they clearly are not.  Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, Kenneth Bianchi, Angelo Bueno, Charles Albright, Joe Ball, Terry Blair, Richard Ramirez, Robert Yates, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, Jared Lee Loughner and the thousands of other murderers and megalomaniacs humanity produces, are ample evidence that homicidal behavior is an aspect of human nature.
So the question becomes, what do we do about it?  The only answer that makes any sense is to diminish the lethal capacity of the population in general and the only way to do that is to limit the access of the general public to firearms, especially automatic weapons.  They are too efficient at killing.

Other arguments can be made but the solutions they propose are draconian.  Since the Isla Vista killing I’ve heard a lot of pundits, mostly propped up by the gun industry I imagine, blaming the mentally ill.  They say, “if someone had screened him, identified his pathology before it became so violently apparent this never would have happened.”  This is ridiculous on multiple fronts.  One, since Elliot Rodgers had never been arrested for a violent or any other act, constraining him would have been an abrogation of his individual rights.  Even if some mental health practitioner somewhere along the line had predicted that he was liable, at some future point, to commit violence, you can’t arrest someone for something he might do.  This is explicated clearly in the film, “Minority Report” so I won’t do it here.
Secondly, the assumption that the mental health sector of the health care industry is anything close to functioning is just wrong.  Until recently, few insurance companies even covered mental health care and they still balk like crazy about it, no pun intended.  When they do offer coverage, practitioners are tremendously over-subscribed with waiting lists of months.  And of course getting in does not insure adequate or even plausible care.  At your average HMO if it can’t be treated with Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors and anti-anxiety medication, it ain’t going to get treated.  Mental health is a much harder fix that a sore throat and few but the very rich are in a position to demand the precision required in treating its subtleties.
Again, I would argue that Elliot Rogers was not mentally ill.  He was undoubtedly a psychopath, but psychopathology is not a mental illness.  It is a “personality disorder,” and as any shrink who has ever run screaming from a treatment room will tell you, it is not treatable.
I read the news today, oh boy, and it seems a bunch of gun rights guys are going to go shopping at a Home Depot with their guns.  They say in doing this they are exercising their right as codified in the United States Constitution, to bear arms.  Like a lot of other people I don’t think this is what the founding fathers were talking about.  They acknowledged the need for a “well-regulated militia.” The US had no standing army in those days and if you’re going to have a militia it’s got to have guns.  Having soldiers bring their own meant the government didn’t have to buy them.  I don’t think they were talking about bringing arms to Home Depot.

In any case, I don’t know what the other people in that particular Home Depot are going to be feeling, but if I was in a large warehouse with a bunch of guys carrying guns I would exit as discreetly and quickly as possible and never go back there again.   Hell, aren’t a bunch of guys who feel like they need to carry arms to go buy hoses and lawnmowers by definition, nuts?

After his son was killed in the Isla Vista shooting, Richard Martinez, father of Chris, made a heartfelt statement.  He said his family was broken and lost.  “You don’t think it will happen to your child until it does.”

“They talk about gun rights, what about Chris’s right to live?”

What indeed, about Chris’s right to live?   

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Entrepreneurial Journalism

Entrepreneurial Journalism

First off, I’m prejudiced.  I’ll say it right here.  “Entrepreneur” is a fucking hard word to spell and no matter how many times I have been forced to do it—and there have been plenty lately-- I still get it wrong on the first, second and sometimes third try before I give up and spell check it.

Secondly, I hate the word in general.  It sounds fancy, French and all, but everybody, and I mean everybody from mobsters to prostitutes to drug dealers and bootleggers, have used this word to describe the fact that what they’re doing, primarily, is whoring or stealing.  These days however, “entrepreneur” has taken an interesting turn due wholly to the rise of the Internet.  “Net neutrality,” which means that if you have a product or service, you can make a website, put it on the Internet, and make big dough, has ushered in a new age of egalitarian capitalism.  Everybody’s equal on the Internet.  “Google,” is no more important than “Crotchless Panties Inc.” Except for the fact that “Crotchless Panties Inc. is more fun and probably can’t tell you whether Millard Fillmore or Rutherford B. Hays was president first.

The new egalitarian entrepreneurial model has eclipsed all the old fashioned employment models where you actually go to work and get paid.  On the one hand, this is fine because there aren’t many jobs these days.  Manufacturing has mostly been carted offshore and lots of things are automated that didn’t used to be including banks, supermarket checkers, call centers, autoworkers and airplane pilots.  Oh don’t get me wrong.  There are still some jobs, mostly at a McDonalds near you; and of course there’s always sign spinning.  But not everybody’s got the knack for that.  To be a good sign spinner you have to be young, with access to a lot of meth and even sign spinners are having a tough time these days, outflanked by those mannequins chained to car batteries.

So a lot of people stay home, write computer code and make websites.

Dog trainers make websites, people who think they might like to become dog trainers make websites, house cleaners make websites, artists, chimney cleaners, child care providers, perverts who want you to think they’re child care providers, Nigerian princes, house painters, freelance documentarians, vegetarians, Unitarians and veterinarians all make websites.

 “If you build it, they will come.”  That’s the operational principle.  And if you’re going to have a new egalitarian capitalist model, you have to have an operational principle.  Marx said that, I think.
At the dog park near my house there are loads of flyers on the fence for “dog-walking services,” mostly flying around, weather-beaten and frayed.   A lot of people love dogs but since they have to go to work they don’t have the time or energy to walk them.  So they need professionals to do it.  A few years ago some plucky individuals recognized this, started offering to do it for pay, and it worked.  These people multiplied over time and after awhile, the people who owned the dogs they didn’t have time to walk figured out how much dough these dog walkers were making and, since they hated their jobs anyway thought to themselves, “hey, I think I’ll become a dog walker too!”  Then the people whose dogs they walked came to the same conclusion, quit their jobs to become dog walkers, then a bunch more people did it, and more and more and more until there were no more dogs to walk.  The entire dog walking economy collapsed.  It was catastrophic, like with the Dutch tulips.

Another entrepreneurial thing I’ve noticed these days is “web site designers.”  If you go on Google and type in “website design” you will get, like, billions of hits in the time it takes to pull your crotchless panties out of your ass-crack.  Loads of these people will be fifty-something men, the kind who always fancied themselves good with technology and upon getting downsized from their regular jobs because a twenty-five year old agreed to do it for half the salary, taught themselves website design.  The problem is, this shit really is a young peoples’ game.  If you were born before 1963 you’ve got all sorts of debris hobbling your neurons—things like transistors, phone answering machines, V-8 engines, surfboards, leftover drugs, braless hippies, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, bleak Ingmar Bergman movies with stark black and white landscapes occupied by rail thin men in big floppy hats.  Also, Captain Crunch.  Physiologically, this debris has calcified all that formerly wobbly grey matter so that thinking is no longer so much fluid, as it is an act of willfully pushing neuronal impulses through something the consistency of bathtub caulk.  Trust me on this.  No matter how smart you think you are you can’t keep up. 

Kids these days have been pushing buttons since they were in kindergarten and have response times so jacked up on Pavlovian bright color payoffs, booms, bangs, tits, thrills and violent erotic imagery soaked in massive doses of Ritalin administered from the first time they wiggled in their strollers, that they can design and create a fucking website in their sleep.

But back to the reason I’ve been forced to spell “entrepreneur” a lot lately.   I took a journalism course at school.  I used to be a journalist, well, kind of, sort of.  It snuck up on me.  I lived in Arizona for a long time and being a chronically pissed-off liberal in that reddest of red states, I was forever writing irate letters to the local alternative weekly, which morphed into a “guest column” and then one day the editor called and said, “guess what?  You got the job.”  I didn’t know what he was talking about since I hadn’t applied for any job but I said, “Sure, I’ll take it.  You’ve made the right choice; you won’t be sorry sir,” etc, etc.
It was great.  I got to go off about anything I wanted to for nearly four years.  But bye and bye the bottom fell out of both the newspaper business and the economy, and I moved on.  Graduate school seemed a natural segueway at this point. 

I spent the next year learning about the “new” journalism and I learned plenty.  New journalism is a lot different from the old, the kind where you investigated and wrote stories like Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane.  All that’s gone.  The new journalism is, you guessed it “entrepreneurial.”

There are two kinds of entrepreneurial journalism.   The first is “backpack journalism.”  There’s a substantial up-front cost with this.  You’ve got to buy a video camera, mics, wires, I-phone, editing software and a laptop with high processing power to run it.  Then, and this was the hard part for me, you have to learn how to use the fucking editing program.  This involves a computer screen display of sound and video translated into lines that look like seismograph readings, snatching bits of one line with a clown hand and dragging it to another line.  In the end, it’s all supposed to run seamlessly, as in you can’t tell where the edits are.  My initial and only attempt came out looking like I’d interviewed a bad stutterer.  The whole idea is that as an entrepreneurial journalist, you find, create, edit and produce your own story, all in the back seat of your car then zing it to the news outlets before anybody else does.  If you’re lucky someone buys it.  The guy who taught us this gave us an example of excellent “opportunity seizing behavior,” his own.  He got the scoop on a nasty car accident by pulling off the freeway, walking back up the off ramp and crossing the police lines like he owned the place.  Nobody said “boo” to him.  “Seizing the day is everything, people.”  That’s what I learned about the new journalism.  It’s fast fast fast.  Report, produce and sell.  It also involves a lot of networking, branding, Tweeting, being Linked In, and being at spiritual oneness with your IPhone.

After selling enough stories this way you’ve got loads of stuff on your CV and then, ah, something happens.  I’m not sure what, exactly.  I’m thinking of that old “Far Side” comic where the professor is standing in front of a chalkboard loaded with calculations but right in the middle is a cloudy bit that says, “then a miracle happens.”  I’m also thinking that the kind of entrepreneurial journalists this works out for either have trust funds or have to live in their parents basements for very long times.  I mean, think about it.  If you’re practicing backpack journalism you can’t get a regular job at Starbucks, for example.  Suppose some terrorists blow up the dam or someone had a wardrobe malfunction, you want to go cover it, but your stupid boss won’t let you go?  “Are you kidding?  Who’s going to make these double caramel lattes?  Get back to work, you dolt.”

Of course the other thing you can do if you’re backpack journalist is create your own website.  This involves learning to write computer code and takes a very long time.  If you don’t like fiddling with a bunch of impossibly arcane crap that would drive a Rhesus monkey out of its mind in about two minutes, you probably won’t enjoy this.  Once you’ve got your website up and running you can put your stories there and theoretically, if you’re the right kind of mover and shaker, get as much traffic as the Huffington Post.  Of course you’re competing with a lot of Internet traffic including somebody’s cousin.   Butchie’s 5th birthday party Facebook page, but you never know where the break’s going to come from and that’s the excitement of the new journalism.  No more working for “the man.”  You’re free to create, invent your own “brand,” become a news gathering universe unto itself and if the dough’s a little slow in rolling in, well, be nice to your parents.  They try to be as nice as they can but you really can’t blame them for imagining you’d be out of the house before you reached your 38th birthday.

The second kind of entrepreneurial journalism, the kind I’m doing right now is called “blogging.”  “Blogging” comes from “web logging,” which didn’t used to be a thing but now it is.  Virtually anyone can become a blogger: human rights activists, computer salesmen, swimming instructors, religionists.  My white supremacist Nazi prick bastard neighbor before he got evicted.  Some blogs get read, most of them don’t because, let’s face it, who’s got the time to read everybody’s opinion?  Reliable surveys indicate most blog readers are woodworkers, fetishists, fans of Sarah Palin, gun enthusiasts, people recovering from surgeries whose TV’s broke, and convicted felons.

Of course just having a blog does not guarantee you’ll get readers from the aforementioned group and it doesn’t imply that you will make any money with your blog.  Arianna Huffington makes a bunch with her blog, but I have a feeling that has to do with another modern journalistic practice called “link-baiting.”  I believe link-baiting might be ethically problematical, but nobody worries about those things anymore.  Link-baiting is when the headline on the web page says, “Lose 50 pounds in two days with special miracle food!” but the story is about farming subsidies in a Republican controlled district in Nebraska.  Publications that do a lot of link-baiting get paid according to how often stories get clicked on, not on whether people actually read them or not.  My guess is that people looking to lose massive amounts of weight quickly aren’t particularly interested in farming subsidies in the Midwest, but then there is a lot about the new journalism I find hard to grasp.

Well, that’s about it for now.  I hope all of you interested in the new journalism profession have found this interesting and informative.  I will be back next week with the first in my ongoing series, “An Historical Perspective on the Dog Walking Industry: could we have learned something from the Dutch Tulip catastrophe, or are some things simply the workings of fate?”