Back to work

November 4th, 2010

Now that the election is settled, it’s time to put America back to work.

I propose we start with me. And since the Republican wave that swept Democrats from power in the House of Representatives Tuesday and greatly reduced their numbers in the Senate is directly attributable to young people staying away from the polls in droves, I further propose that I get one of their jobs.

I’ve got my eye on one right now at the Los Angeles Times where I worked for 19 years. I’m pretty sure it’s a job I am well-suited for, since it’s the job I used to have. Apparently the fresh-faced, newly-minted graduate they hired as an intern only days after my departure is now on staff and well-regarded. But judging by my positive work reviews, regular promotions and steady raises, that is by no means a qualification for continued employment.

The main qualification is being in the right place at the right time.

Nineteen years ago, I was there. Right there. In the sleepy northern suburban edition enclave of The Times known as The Valley.  I had just come over from the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, shuttered by the Hearst Corporation for its alleged inability to compete with The Times.

I was a new homeowner. My wife was 5-months pregnant. I had no employment prospects when the Her-Ex closed. The outlook was bleak … for about a couple of hours. Word quickly spread that our cross-town rival was in an expansive mood and was offering jobs with big raises to virtually all the copy and news editors, of which I was one.

Within months of my arrival, the newspaper created an edition for nearby Ventura County and tapped me as its inaugural news editor.  I worked a 10-hour shift, five days a week. Designing 20 columns of space was considered a normal news editor shift at the paper; I averaged around 40. My record was 100 columns for a Sunday paper, with four open color pages. There was no time for meals and no time for breaks. Not infrequently, I would reach the end of the shift wondering, “Wasn’t I dying to go to the bathroom about three hours ago?”

We lived and died by our dicey fax/phone/computer connection to the mothership downtown, 40 miles away. We were inventing our product, a hyperlocalized version of the LAT, as we went along. The pressure was relentless.

In short, it was the BEST … JOB … EVER.

Newspapers are a deadline business, and we took ours with a deadly seriousness. One evening, as we careened toward our 11 p.m. drop-dead cutoff, one barely noticed that there were workmen all around us laying new carpet atop the stripped concrete floors. In order to do so, they first put down a coating of glue which needed to set before final adhesion. What we didn’t notice at all, until too late, was that they had laid down an expanse of glue between the newsroom and the fax machines we used to send our layout dummies downtown to be processed.

There was no time for hesitation. Little time for fear. And less time for common sense. I grabbed my final dummies and headed out, carefully, though decisively, navigating the slippery sea of goo. I made it halfway before my feet slipped out from beneath me, jettisoning my lower torso and legs 90 degrees north and leaving me hovering parallel to the ground, four feet up, before the final plummet to Earth.

I stood up unharmed, covered head to toe in glue, yet determined to march on. But first, I attempted to wipe the glue from my hands and instinctively reached for the closest material nearby: a stack of newspapers. That was wrong. And I learned a valuable lesson. It’s very difficult to type when your hands are covered with newspapers and glue.

But that evening ended the way almost all of our evenings ended. We would sit quietly awaiting the computer message from our production liaison near the presses downtown. Had we sneaked in under the deadline? The margin for error was usually a few minutes, sometimes seconds. We rarely missed. And we always celebrated our success, though some nights were more amenable to high-fives than others.

Those were glory days at the Los Angeles Times. The Chandler family still ran the paper it had founded and like most newspapers it printed money along with the news. But there had always been conflict within the family over control of the empire and as patriarch Otis Chandler distanced himself from its daily operation, high double-digit profit margins and circulation began to slip.

Still, the ’90s were a time of expansion at Times Mirror Co. and in 1995 when Mark Willes was hired to run the parent company, his goal of increasing the newspaper’s circulation 50 percent was met with hopeful enthusiasm, though tempered by a measure of skepticism. What followed was the modern method of corporate profit-generation forged in the flames of the Reagan Revolution. The former General Mills boss, known fondly to his new employees as the Cereal Killer, shed assets, reduced the quality of the product and started laying off people.

He quickly fired more than 2,000 employees and closed the New York City edition of Newsday as well as the evening edition of the Baltimore Sun. He killed the national edition of The Times. Within a year, he cut costs by $232 million.

Expenses plummeted, profits soared and the stock price tripled. Briefly. Over the next five years, the fortunes of the still highly-profitable Times Mirror Co. waned and in 2000 amid a scandal involving undue advertiser influence over editorial content, the Chandler family cashed out.

Tribune Co. made them an offer they couldn’t refuse that amounted to twice the market value of the company. Within hours the stock price doubled and the idiot photographer I worked with, days from retirement, who had defied every sensible financial adviser for years and put all his 401k investment in company stock, became a genius, and a millionaire, overnight.

The Chandlers walked away with billions.

By then, I had been promoted to executive news editor of the Valley and Ventura County editions. Our resources were reduced, but our retooled versions of the downtown edition were responsible for over 20 percent of The Times circulation. We were no longer the golden child, but not yet regarded as a leaden anchor.

The corporate savior best known for its grasp of synergy and utilization of new technology to create innovative cross-platform economies of scale  never before seen  was going to end the rolling layoffs of the past five years and restore stability and sanity.

But almost immediately, everyone at the Los Angeles Times gained new insight into the maxim, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.”

From day one, Tribune executives in Chicago battled with their new Times Mirror squires, especially those in Los Angeles. The Times was one of a handful of top-tier newspapers in the nation and the Chicago Tribune, though a fine newspaper, clearly was not. The financial fortunes of Tribune began to ebb and squabbling over dwindling resources escalated.

Two years later Tribune closed the Valley office and sold its presses. The editions were allowed to linger as faux zoned editions with few if any editorial changes. Eventually, they were scrapped entirely along with the larger Orange County edition that serviced the community south of Los Angeles. Layoffs continued apace. Seemingly every three or four months there would be a blood-letting.

In April 2007 billionaire Sam Zell bought Tribune. Another savvy savior had arrived. How smart is Sam Zell? He had entered the radio biz just after its deregulation and accumulated a string of stations that eventually became the behemoth Clear Channel; he cashed out of that and bought real estate which he eventually sold for $34 billion (that’s a “B”).

Like all smart guys he knows how to take big risks with other people’s money. He bought the $7.6 billion Tribune with $300 million of his own money. The rest of the inflated purchase was financed with new debt. Banksters, bond salesmen, hedge fund investors, lawyers, Tribune executives and witch doctors conjured up an innovative structure centered around an Employee Stock Ownership Plan that allowed everyone involved to make huge sums of money up front while the company pretended to be owned by its employees and avoided most taxes.

The result: a crushing debt load of $13 billion. That’s $13 billion that ended up in someone else’s pocket.

A year later, the company was in bankruptcy. It’s been there for two years and has just experienced a major escalation of legal hostilities. It’s not the longest bankruptcy in history (that may be the maker of Hostess Twinkies, which was ensnarled for five years), but with four separate restructuring plans before the court, it may be the most convoluted.

And through it all, the Los Angeles Times remains a quality newspaper. And profitable. But we’ll never know how good it could have been if its owners hadn’t cut the staff in half, abandoned its suburban and inner-city subscribers, outsourced its circulation department to a foreign country, failed to establish a functional sales force, prostituted its news pages to advertisers and hired hacks to run the place.

Newspapers are always dying, and someone is always killing them. Radio was supposed to bury them. So was television. So was their aging readership. So was USA Today. So was the Internet.

David Plotz, Slate Magazine

So were their liberal reporters, elitist editors and insular management.

Turns out, though, it was pirates that done the deed. They boarded the ship in the middle of the night. Raped, robbed and pillaged. Then snuck away with their ill-gotten gain. OK. That’s not fair. It’s technically not ill-gotten.

No one has been formally accused of a crime, although one of two complaints filed in bankruptcy court against Zell, et al has a damning admission of guilt from one of the buyout engineers: “This is like carrying a fat person up Everest, hopefully it doesn’t kill us.”

Each successive wave of new owners and management that engulfed my newspaper swept to power behind a mandate for change. They would listen to the people and give them what they wanted. And what they wanted was a quality product that reflected their interests and values, took advantage of technological innovation and provided more value for their dollar.

What they got were pirates.

Tuesday, for the first time in a long time, I watched the midterm elections from home, not the newsroom. I saw a grassroots revolt, seized with the fervor of reform; people trying to retake government from forces who they felt did not truly represent them. While I don’t share many of their values, I too would like a government that wasn’t owned by special interests, protected us from forces of evil, reflected our core values and didn’t blow our money.

What we got, I fear, are pirates.

Crazy morons

October 20th, 2010

There is no shortage of crazy morons in the world.

In fact, it looks like we have a surplus, though a cursory survey can be misleading.

I was born in the Eisenhower ’50s, matured in the ’60s, stagnated in the ’70s and ’80s, and regressed in the ’90s in anticipation of a millennium surge forward. Throughout these formative years, there was always craziness and moronic behavior on the periphery of our culture and expressed through our politics, but it was contained just beyond the fringes of good taste; the John Birch Society often standing as a symbol of the former and The Three Stooges the latter.

And thus it has ever been.

Two hundred years ago, we had a political party called the Know-Nothings. Founded on the oldest of American ideals, hatred for anything not “American,” the party (officially known as The American Party) rallied around a platform of anti-immigrant (i.e. anti-Irish Catholic) hatred and moronic posturing. The party had grown out of a plethora of secret societies and when challenged by non-believers early-on they were often heard to exclaim Sgt. Schultz-style, “I know nothing.”

Eventually they extended their franchise to include opposing freedom for slaves, which didn’t go over well with their base in the pre-Civil War North and prompted this reprimand from Abraham Lincoln in a letter to a friend five years before being elected president.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

The party suffered its final ignominy when it selected former President Millard Fillmore as its standard bearer in 1856. Back then, there was still a line of taste and impropriety that could not be crossed.

Before Americans knew nothing, they apparently knew too much.

For instance, in 1783, seven years after the Declaration of Independence lulled Americans into thinking they had formed a new nation, the United States was secretly still a British colony and remains so to this day.  Nowadays we don’t argue about it much, but in the 18th century  it was a hot topic of conversation, along with mysterious plots by Masons and Illuminati to pervert our nation and cast us into the wilderness that lasted well into the 19th century and resonates to this day.

[It was] a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”

Richard Hofstadter, Harper’s 1964

They were met head on by  “[an anti-Masonic] folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly. … It attracted the support of several reputable [supporters] who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it.”

Hofstadter thinks it’s all about paranoia and peppers the historical record with tales of plots by Jesuits, international bankers and munitions makers before hurtling into the 20th century where the contemporary right-wing holds court. But when he arrives he finds one serious distinction: these folks, unlike their heirs who were defending their way of life, are fighting to reclaim an America that is by and large gone.

And now they want their country back.

I take it as an article of faith that we are talking about crazy morons. Wrong-thinking folks driven to distraction by the unsettling vicissitudes of life. And I don’t mean that disparagingly. I believe in the big tent. The melting pot.  And the God-given right to make a horse’s ass of yourself in public. I also believe that you can find crazy morons on the political left and right, but since there is no left left in this country, there are markedly fewer of a pinkoish hue.

So what’s new and different?

Well, we’ve got the Internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. A heavy-duty economic downturn that is eviscerating the middle-class. A wave of immigration.  More money awash in politics than ever before. A calcified legislature. Lousier schools. An aging national infrastructure. A corrupted financial system. A wavering sense of confidence.

Though not inconsequential, does any or all of that explain how a single macaca moment could derail a popular senator’s slam dunk re-election bid just four years ago yet far more antagonistic, nee, crazy and moronic behavior, barely survives a single news cycle?

In 2006, when conservative Sen. George Allen, R-VA, referred to a volunteer for his Democratic opponent who is of Indian descent as macaca, it became the dominant subject for the next three months of the campaign. A double-digit lead became a loss.

Though the word has multiple meanings and the candidate denied it, many thought he was using macaca as a monkey reference. In some European cultures, macaca is considered a racial slur against African immigrants. Maybe here, too.

You’ve got to be crazy to think you can toss around a racial slur in public, deny you meant it as a slur and think you can carry on as if nothing happened. Or a moron.

But in this campaign, mainstream candidates:

  • cop to witchcraft, but not masturbation;
  • denounce the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act;
  • tell pissed-off Hispanic audiences they look kinda Asian;
  • muse that Obama may be a Muslim;
  • mount the third rail of politics by calling for privatization of Social Security;
  • suggest the President isn’t a U.S. citizen;
  • email bestiality porn to friends;
  • admit to having children outside their marriage;
  • smirk at the suggestion that separation of church and state is derived from the First Amendment;
  • claim that “America is now a socialist economy”;
  • oppose the minimum wage law and then apologize for the stand;
  • compare their opponents to Nazis;
  • admit they have prayed to Aqua Buddha;
  • belie their femininity by kicking a guy in the junk on TV;
  • defend BP during the Gulf oil spill;
  • tell their opponent “to put his man pants on”;
  • ask for votes because, unlike the female opponent, “I do not wear high heels”;
  • denounce “Tea Party dumbasses,” despite heavy Tea Party support;
  • claim, then retract, that beheaded bodies had been found in the Arizona desert;
  • call for privatizing the Veterans Administration;
  • compare homosexuals to alcoholics … or pedophiles;
  • and aver that “American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.”

Boy, that was too easy. Easy for me, and easy for the candidates. Because most of them are gonna be winners on election day.

Crazy moron behavior is all anyone talks about on the airwaves, in newspapers, on the web and at the dinner table (when they aren’t talking about who is winning or losing the horse race). It’s part of the common culture. It’s what we all know about. It’s a hoot and a half.

Slack-jawed commentators and incredulous pundits plow through the day’s news, barely taking a breath between cackles to wonder aloud and in print, “How could these people say that? Do they seriously expect us to believe it. That is truly beyond the pale. It’s not worth a minute of our time.” And then we give it all of our time.

But it’s entertainment and, therefore, inconsequential. It has pushed aside all discussion of real issues, but hasn’t substituted any alternative basis for decision-making. Our national political currency has been reduced to Third World status.

So many macaca moments have devalued the macaca.

So what’s a voter to do when he’s got no facts and too much fun?

Apparently you go with the gut. Michael Schudson, after studying our long history of political ignorance, concludes that, “People may be able to vote intelligently with very little information.”  They grab the party affiliation and a general sense of who the candidates are and punch the chads.

That approach apparently served us well for the first 100 years of our nation’s history. “The Founding Fathers were certainly more concerned about instilling moral virtues than disseminating information about candidates and issues,” according to Schudson.

For years, nearly twice as many people voted at election time than now.

There is no doubt that parades, free whiskey, free-floating money, patronage jobs, and the pleasures of fraternity all played a big part in the political enthusiasm of ordinary Americans.

Michael Schudson

But then petulant Progressives and ill-tempered Mugwumps, “who recoiled from the spectacle of powerful political parties using government as a job bank for their friends and a cornucopia of contracts for their relatives,” spoiled the party.

The reformers “enshrined the informed citizen as the foundation of democracy.” Ballots were redesigned to include all the candidates; voting was made secret; pamphleteers replaced parades; public education spread; newspapers stopped being house organs for political parties.

And voting dropped off precipitously.

So now we are faced with a horrible dilemma. Though we have managed to bring back the spectacle of political corruption, propel extravagant pageants and parades across the media landscape, and restore the crazy moron to his rightful place in America, we seem to lack the party spirit that once brought us all together at the voting booth.

Former Sen. George Allen has apparently detected the change and from all reports will be bringing his special sensitivity, insight and leadership to the political field when he runs for Senate again in 2012. He probably still thinks he has a shot at becoming president.

But we all know what a crazy moron he is.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

My God

September 4th, 2010

I am a weather god. And a parking god. Many people claim to be one or the other. But I am both.

I can’t pinpoint when I made the separate ascensions. Certainly, when I was in college the brutal Michigan winters precluded any claim to weather godliness. But even then my campus parking prowess was noted by dorm roommates, especially after late-night drunken bacchanals left us frantically searching for the last elusive vehicle space at 3 a.m. To this day, I never fail to find that  parking place, either on the street or in the lot. I knew I had ascended when I found a legal spot on the street midday in San Francisco’s North Beach, one block from my City Lights bookstore destination.

Living in Southern California, I am surrounded by many false weather gods;  people claiming credit for the perfect weather day in and day out that is simply their good fortune to have stumbled into.

The true test is on the road, when that Hawaiian vacation during rainy season hangs in the balance. When that Big Sur sojourn finds the “ever-present” October fog lifting just in time for two days of glorious hiking with abundant views of migrating whales.  When the November Michigan sleet and snow stop the day you arrive, and begin anew just as you pull up at the airport to turn in your rental car on the way out of town. When you defy the omniscient weather.com and its warning of miserable heat, humidity and precipitation and still pay a Fall visit to the folks in Boca Raton.

On that potentially ill-fated trip to Florida with my then-wife and tater-tot of a daughter, my parents treated us to a day at Disney World in Orlando. The forecast was rain. Heavy rain. All-day rain. So we took along bright orange plastic ponchos and some among us prepared for the worst.   The weather was sufficiently intimidating that the usual Disney hordes were nowhere to be found, and the classic long lines were totally absent. And so was the rain. It literally stopped as we arrived and began again as we departed. Best Disney visit ever.

I always prevail. Always. Even when I am in the company of someone like my girlfriend, who has a never-ending litany of weather-driven holiday disaster tales to tell, I prevail.

I used to be shy about flaunting my weather prowess, for fear that I might offend the true weather god — who seemed forever to smile upon me — and be forsaken. I would mention it to people after the fact, but try not to tempt the fates beforehand. However, after years of unambiguous success and an ever-escalating  bravado, I came to the conclusion that I need not fear that god, for He was I.

The danger here, obviously, is hubris, which “often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one’s own competence or capabilities.” It got Achilles and Oedipus in deep doo back when the Greeks were inventing the concept and now has apparently ensnarled President Obama.  (Googling “Obama hubris” turns up 489,000 hits.)

In between, most everyone who thought they got it right and the other side got it wrong, has been accused of having it.

According to HBO, Caesar, when he wasn’t inventing salads and lending his name to resort hotels, said, “It’s only hubris if I fail.” Ultimately, he did fail, but he accomplished so much before the fall that it is difficult to determine how much of his life was hubris and how much was not.

Hitler, of course, had hubris in spades and it is one of the main reasons conservatives liken Obama to him. Genghis Khan, Bismark, Napoleon, Louis XIV and more than a few popes were similarly impaired. You can look it up.

Eliot Spitzer dallied with it.  Peter Beinart has written how hubris caused three 20th Century U.S. presidents to drag this country into unjust wars. And, of course, the original weather god, Al Gore, probably contracted it shortly after he  invented the internet.

Sometimes, as with Rudolph Giuliani or multi-national states, hubris seems to be only one ingredient (or two) in a simmering cauldron of  competing pathologies. Other times, as in the case of John Edwards, it looks like a small part of a larger narcissistic pathology that includes “grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance, hubris and exploitative actions.”

That sounds kinda sick. And according to Brain: A Journal of Neurology, it probably is.  The study disagrees with HBO’s Caesar about hubris being a loser’s affliction (it  “develops irrespective of whether the individual’s leadership is judged a success or failure”) but did come up with 14 symptoms to aid in the diagnosis of your boss at work. None of them are complimentary and you only need three of the 14 to qualify as a douche.

The researchers at Brain studied the presidents and prime ministers in the U.S. and Britain over the past 100 years, but were quick to point out you can also find hubris among artists, religious gurus and bankers. Most of us already had suspicions about the last group. But the key is: no power, no hubris. Which probably accounts for why my first 8 hours of random Googling of hubris failed to turn up a single reference to hubris among women.

The Brainiacs zeroed in on hubris by eliminating all the politicians with serious mental illness. As an aside, they noted that between 1776 and 1974, 49% of American presidents “met criteria suggesting psychiatric disorder: depression (24%), anxiety (8%), bipolar disorder (8%) and alcohol abuse/dependence (8%) were the most common.”

So once you toss out the deranged presidents, you’re left with … who? Well, Nixon was a drunk. No hubris there. Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were bipolar. Cross them off the list.  Woodrow Wilson’s brain exploded, so he gets a pass. And Kennedy was a speed freak. They all exhibited hubristic traits but none of them were categorized as having hubris syndrome.

The rest of the presidents between between 1908-2008 were judged reasonably sane and untarnished by hubris syndrome.

Except for one: George W. Bush. They pointed out that he had once been a drunk, but now was simply a victim of hubris. They desperately wanted to give him a pass because of the pressures from 9/11, but had trouble getting past this:

His appearance in flying gear on the aircraft carrier, Abraham Lincoln, cruising off the coast of California, on 1 May 2003, and then speaking on television with the slogan ‘Mission Accomplished’ emblazoned on the ship control tower behind him, marked the highest point in his scale of hubris. This episode is particularly interesting when one considers that the so-called success in Baghdad was only 10 days later described in a memo to Prime Minister Blair by the then British Ambassador to Iraq, John Sawers, as involving a complete absence of any serious planning for the aftermath of the taking of Baghdad: ‘No leadership, no strategy, no coordination, no structure and inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis’.

Not everyone is as restrictive in their definition of hubris as the Brain researchers.

David Mayatt, in his groundbreaking essays regarding “white hordes of homo hubris“, maintains that there is apparently an entire subspecies of humans with the affliction: “the White, or Caucasian, peoples of Europe and the so-called New World.”

Homo Hubris is distinguished by their generally uncouth, vulgar, behaviour; their lack of manners; their arrogance and insolence; their pride, and their innate, often unconscious belief (or rather, delusion), that they and their kind are ‘superior’ and have a sort of ‘destiny’ or duty to interfere in the lives of other peoples, often now by imposing some abstraction on them, by force and killing, but most often, in the past, by occupation, conquest, and imperialism.

In addition, Homo Hubris is in thrall to causal abstractions, and is easy swayed and manipulated by others, lacking as they do any real personal noble character and deficient as they are in both empathy and honour.

In brief, the people of Homo Hubris often act and behave like spoilt children and/or bullies.

Hubris, perhaps better known in some circles as chutzpah, is not a difficult concept to grasp. Even a child can understand it. But what fun is it to have a vice that can’t be construed as a virtue?

Hubris has been suggested as one of the three virtues of successful programmers, according to computer whiz Larry Wall. It is  ‘the quality that makes you write (and maintain) programs that other people won’t want to say bad things about.’   The other two virtues are laziness and impatience.

Spiritus-Temporis.com

Lazy, impatient and filled to the brim with hubris. That sounds like me.

I feel like a god.

Life in Venice

July 29th, 2010

“It is so miserable here, I don’t really want to do anything. It’s like seriously, actually, genuinely depressing.”

Caitlin Pence, Manhattan Beach, Calif.

These are, indeed, dark days in California. Unemployment is 12.4% (third worst in the nation), the state faces a $19 billion budget shortfall, the housing industry has hit the wall, the social safety net is being eviscerated and the gridlocked legislature is powerless to act.

Despite the superhuman efforts of Gov. Schwarzenegger and early warnings from former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about the danger of becoming like “old Europe,” that spectre of gloom continues to envelop us.

“You see what is happening in Greece, you see what is happening in Ireland, you see what is happening in Spain now,” Schwarzenegger said the other day. “We are left with nothing but tough choices.”

However, Caitlin Pence of Manhattan Beach wasn’t talking about any of that.

She was talking about the weather. More precisely, she was talking to the New York Times about the weather along the beach in Southern California.

“Climatic Bragging Rights Are Waning for Angelenos,” the headline read in Sunday’s paper. The party is over. June temperatures were 2.4 degrees cooler than usual, and there were traces of rain four days in July. This disaster was likened to a September frost in Miami.

The Paper of Record was concerned that it might be December before Los Angeles “finds its rightful smug spot in the weather world again.” At least it’s nice to see the NYT retains its snarky, East Coast self-absorption year-round.

I suppose it’s all justifiably just a matter of perspective. Back East, where they’ve been frying eggs on their foreheads — or in the windblown, water-deluged Midwest — or down South, where the tarball season is in full swing — any talk of SoCal inclement weather seems obnoxious. But the fact is, there is arguably enough crap going on somewhere in the world every day to reduce the most anguished wail, by comparison, to the wimpiest of whines. And the folks in Haiti probably don’t have much sympathy for Louisiana fishermen.

My first summer at the beach was in 1977.  I had just moved west from Bloomington, Indiana, with my future wife and was looking for an apartment and my first newspaper reporting job. We ended up gazing at the water through picture windows on the Venice boardwalk for $406 a month.

Venice has a storied history. Shortly after the turn of the century, Abbot Kinney built canals and developed it as a resort town just to the west of Los Angeles. Eventually, he turned the city into an entertainment tourist mecca with arcades and roller coasters.  After he died, the city went to seed, its infrastructure deteriorated and it was annexed by L.A.  Many of the canals were paved over and derricks went up everywhere after oil was discovered in 1929. The depression drove a final stake through its heart and Venice wasn’t much to speak of til a young counterculture of artists, poets and writers evolved in its mostly low-rent, European emigre community heavy with Holocaust survivors. The Beats of the ’50s gave way to the hippies in the ’60s and creeping affluence in the ’70s.

By the time I arrived, Venice was still a sleepy, underdeveloped community of artists, artisans and artist and artisan wannabes, but was literally moments away from becoming home to a whirring blur of crazed roller skaters, outrageous street performers and the world’s foremost supply of storefront T-shirt shops.

Robin Williams traded quips with local talent like  Swami X just feet from my door. Actress Stockard Channing used to visit the guy living upstairs. I recognized all the film locations from Cisco Pike.  And the music never stopped.  Ed Brown (the Singing Piano Mover),  Slavin’ DavidJingles, the Canaligators, Don (the Mad Cosmic Violinist) and, of course, this guy. Away from the boardwalk, where the sand meets the sea, the faint sound of drumming mixed with the steady rhythm of the waves in the earliest incarnation of the fabled Venice Drum Circle.

Wet drenched the zeitgeist.

Although Venice was home of the homeless before they moved to the suburbs, you wouldn’t really have known it walking around the beach. Maybe that was because they lacked contrast with the heavy influx of tourists yet to arrive. Or maybe they knew better than to get in the way of the Hare Krishnas, who paraded down the boardwalk every summer with elephants and dancers in tow.

All of this was chronicled in the Venice Beachhead, a free community newspaper that foreshadowed the kind of hyper-local online publication championed these days by AOL.

A year later, I was still unemployed but the newly rediscovered enclave was already transformed.

July 4th was a lost scene from Apocalypse Now, with drug-crazed celebrants gathered in circles in the sand firing rockets back across the boardwalk and onto our own rooftops. The atmosphere was so thick with smoke, and our brains so addled by the festivities, that you could barely make out Robert Duvall roaring in the distance about the smell of napalm in the dawn’s early light. OK. The movie was still a year away, but Coppola must have been somewhere nearby.

My girlfriend quickly got a job, but it was 15 months before I found something. Fifteen months of occasional temp work in the city and regular tan work at the beach. When I wasn’t walking my dog or sending out resumes and calling newspapers (you could cold call a prospective employer back then and they remembered who you were) I was learning to skate, jogging up and down the boardwalk, or reading in the wooden pagoda by my apartment, listening to nearly-blind Uncle Bill play his guitar and sing the blues.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a job. It didn’t matter that the idealism and hopefulness of the ’60s was giving way to economic uncertainty and that the rank commercialism of the approaching Reagan Revolution was transforming the boardwalk before my eyes. It didn’t matter that Uncle Bill tried to seduce my girlfriend. All right. That mattered a little.

As I approach my fifteenth month of unemployment, I am buoyed by the thought that I’ve been here before.

Perhaps it was being young and in love and on my own for the first time. Perhaps it was the sheer exuberance of finally having a vocation to pursue after years of doubt and pain. Perhaps the passage of time has dimmed my memory of the early struggle to establish a career.  But I don’t recall ever feeling troubled by the prospect of an uncertain future in troubled times.

I think it was the perfect weather.

Happy anniversary

June 5th, 2010

“Several things I’ve learned: You can’t apply for jobs well under what your previous job was; you won’t be taken seriously and will be considered over-qualifed. You must fall completely to the bottom and get the occasional minimum wage, temporary job. No one will commit to any training for a new position. If you’ve done exactly the job advertised before, you’ll be considered. But you’ll be considered incapable of learning anything new. General experience will not be considered. Stuff learned on your own will be denigrated or discounted. University degree qualification doesn’t matter. Age discrimination is alive and well.”

a commenter on Andrew Sullivan’s blog

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my separation from the Los Angeles Times. I was laid off four months shy of 20 years and joined hundreds of former colleagues at the newspaper in the burgeoning jobless market.

Although my friends who remain there say they miss my news editing contribution, institutional knowledge and technical expertise (not to mention my jovial camaraderie)  as they struggle with a new computer system and an oppressive work environment, others in parent company Tribune’s ivory tower appear to be getting along just fine without me.

I can’t say that I have enjoyed being unemployed these past 12 months, but it hasn’t exactly been time wasted. I’ve  retooled my website; learned a new computer management system (CMS); wrote an e-book I can’t link to until I’ve copyrighted it; started a couple of blogs, including this one; played around with new software (Dreamweaver, Flash and RubyOnRails); explored new hiking trails and paths through my heart after moving from the westside of L.A. to Pasadena near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains; rediscovered the joys of participating in home ownership after years of renting; been adopted by five cats; expanded my daily trek through the blogosphere to over 50 sites (admittedly, I have over 1,000 bookmarked); and sharpened my writing skills, churning out 65 cover letters to prospective employers.

By necessity, I apply for a wide range of jobs: university publication writer, museum editorial manager, think tank researcher, editor at a political blog, JPL media relations specialist, film website editorial writer. I’ve even applied for my old job at the L.A. Times, where interns and other former employees now toil in my place for significantly less money and few, if any, benefits.

All the positions interest me and would utilize skills I have developed throughout a varied career as reporter, columnist, editor, staff manager, newsroom tech troubleshooter and designer for web and print .

Nearly each new job application has brought about a flurry of activity to reacquaint myself with the  area of expertise in which I profess to be conversant. Years ago, I wrote a newspaper column on the “new” baseball statistics and ran a baseball fantasy league utilizing a computer program I wrote. Now, I am applying for jobs at Fox Sports and though still a fan am scrambling to absorb stats on the 600 or so baseball players who have joined the league since my heyday. And I’m boning up on soccer.

In my youth, a trip to the central library near downtown Detroit, with its early-Renaissance architecture, marble floors and walls, cavernous ceilings  and room after room containing row upon row of books, confirmed that this quiet sanctuary of knowledge is where the spirit of man is truly at home.

When I graduated from college, it was my fervent wish that I spend the rest of my life emulating the life of a student. Journalism gave me that gift. We used to have a cartoon on the wall at work showing a reporter preparing to throw a dart at a board divided into spaces with labels such as Economics, Urban Development, Transportation, Crime and Pollution. The chart’s title was Today I Am An Expert In …

Now, I include in many of my cover letters a phrase that gives me a large measure of comfort to write:

It has been my great fortune to be associated throughout my career with an institution vital to the community, dedicated to fostering a greater understanding of issues crucial to a functioning democracy …

Hopefully, Andrew Sullivan’s blogster overstates his case and the fate he foretells isn’t mine. But all things considered, it is hard for me to complain.

Perfect pitch

June 4th, 2010

The time for mere words has passed.

When a crisis is upon us, lamentations about mistakes made, commiseration for all the human suffering and cries for justice are not enough.

The President must act. He needs to weigh in on the disaster and put the full force of his administration and the public will behind righting this wrong. He needs to own it. He needs to go before the American people and compel the forces of evil to do the right thing.

Or else the baseball umpire’s call that robbed Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game will forever be a blemish on his administration’s record.

Major league baseball has long claimed that adequate safety measures are already in place and there is no need for the prying eyes of instant replay cameras. The men in black who call ’em as they see ’em, they aver, are highly skilled professionals with proven track records and unimpeachable integrity.  Another bureaucratic layer of decision-making will certainly slow the game, dull the senses and imperil the institution.

Yes, over the years, the occasional corked bat, sign stealing and steroid use have tarnished baseball. But, the game’s defenders argue that our great national past-time still represents the very essence of America. It encapsulates the inventiveness, the toughness, the can-do spirit upon which our country was built. And few can argue otherwise.

When Americans streamed off the farms and into our cities a hundred years ago, we turned to baseball to power the engine of our imagination. When corruption and the chaos of competition threatened to hobble the game, the nation responded by protecting it with an anti-trust exemption. And when the most unruly of our masses attempted to weaken the institution, we came together as a people to protect the purity of our mission. At least until 1947.

But times change. And little by little some have begun to wonder if perhaps there is a better way to represent the American ethos than the enrichment of a small cadre of greedy individualists.  Especially when there are much larger cadres of greedy individualists clamoring to participate. Occasionally the cry goes up that Bobblehead Night is insufficient compensation for overpriced inclusion in the game.  Man does not live by Cheese Whiz nachos alone.

This is not to say that some day we may be compelled to ween ourselves off the need for ball and bat diversion. There are arguably cheaper and more efficient alternative recreational sources, like soccer, being championed by a distinct minority. But they are out of the mainstream of American life and, while some day we may have no choice but to explore those alternative paths, for now baseball is a critical part of what makes America the great international leader it is.

Questions are asked about how far we want to go subsidizing large private enterprises with public money and polluting our landscapes. Privatizing our gains and socializing our losses. And though these questions are, from time to time, asked by powerful public representatives in Congress, the representatives of baseball are not always forthcoming:

July 8, 1958, Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee Hearing

Senator Estes Kefauver: Mr. Stengel, are you prepared to answer particularly why baseball wants this bill passed?

Manager Casey Stengel: Well, I would have to say at the present time, I think that baseball has advanced in this respect for the player help. That is an amazing statement for me to make, because you can retire with an annuity at fifty and what organization in America allows you to retire at fifty and receive money?

I want to further state that I am not a ballplayer, that is, put into that pension fund committee. At my age, and I have been in baseball, well, I say I am possibly the oldest man who is working in baseball. I would say that when they start an annuity for the ballplayers to better their conditions, it should have been done, and I think it has been done. I think it should be the way they have done it, which is a very good thing.

Now the second thing about baseball that I think is very interesting to the public or to all of us that it is the owner’s fault if he does not improve his club, along with the officials in the ball club and the players.

Now what causes that? If I am going to go on the road and we are a travelling ball club and you know the cost of transportation now — we travel sometimes with three pullman coaches, the New York Yankees and remember I am just a salaried man and do not own stock in the New York Yankees, I found out that in travelling with the New York Yankees on the road and all, that it is the best, and we have broken records in Washington this year, we have broken them in every city but New York and we have lost two clubs that have gone out of the city of New York.

Of course, we have had some bad weather, I would say that they are mad at us in Chicago, we fill the parks. They have come out to see good material. I will say they are mad at us in Kansas City, but we broke their attendance record.

Now on the road we only get possibly 27¢. I am not positive of these figures, as I am not an official. If you go back fifteen years or if I owned stock in the club I would give them to you.

Senator Kefauver: Mr. Stengel, I am not sure that I made my question clear. (Laughter).

Mr. Stengel: Yes, sir. Well that is all right. I am not sure I am going to answer yours perfectly either.

For now, Major League Baseball stands firm. Rules are rules. What kind of a world would we have if honor trumped order. If justice trumped profit. If men were made to answer for their actions and stand judged by their peers.

“While the human element has always been an integral part of baseball, it is vital that mistakes on the field be addressed. Given last night’s call and other recent events, I will examine our umpiring system, the expanded use of instant replay and all other related features.”

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig

The tone may be perfect, but Selig’s pitch is wide of the mark. It’s time for action.  It’s time to think outside the batter’s box and reverse this call. Or we shall forever be tarred by these scandalous proceedings.

Game on

March 19th, 2010

Like many sporting enthusiasts, including President Obama, I filled out my bracket early last week.

It’s been a long season, and in the end my pick to win it all was the same team I had picked in the preseason. But because I had seen them enter the year as a heavy favorite, stumble out of the gate, recover their balance, then hit a long losing streak before getting hot just before the regular schedule ended, I entered the final days hopeful, yet wary.

I’ve seen the Democrats screw up tasks far less challenging than health care.

Wait a second. That was too easy. A sports metaphor applied to a political battle with the intention of entertaining the reader through use of misdirection.

Let me try that again.

I was hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains a couple days ago in unseasonably warm weather. It was nice to break out the shorts and t-shirt and wend my way up the Santa Ynez trail to Trippet Ranch in Topanga State Park.

It wasn’t so nice to wake up the next morning with a bloody thigh where a deer tick, picked up along the trail, had bored his way under my skin, no doubt carrying infectious Lyme disease to my vulnerable nervous system.

All the early symptoms of impending disaster were there. Soreness around the wound where the blood-sucking parasite was munching away, a radiating spiral of red surrounding the spot, headache, joint and muscle pain, drowsiness and, yes, I think my lymph nodes were already starting to swell.

A quick trip to the Internet confirmed my diagnosis and affirmed my notion that I had precious little time to get myself to the doctor for treatment.

Fortunately, I have health insurance and could see a doctor for immediate  confirmation of my worst fears. Unfortunately, I have been unemployed for nine months and my federal Cobra coverage will probably run out just before neuro borrelia sends me to the hospital where I can savor a  “slowly developing destruction of the nervous system, numbing, partial hearing impairment and the development of dementia.”

Too bad the health care legislation the Democrats are pushing through Congress mostly doesn’t kick in til 2014.

That’s better. I like stories that begin with a personal anecdote. I also like stories with a happy ending, but I suspect even if one is written for this saga not many people will read it. They’ve barely followed the plot to this point.

The health care “debate” seems to have been everything but a debate. It’s been a morality tale of good versus evil, with Che, Mao and Stalin lurking in the shadows. It’s been a soap opera of ever changing fortunes in a sad and scary world. It’s been a sporting contest with a never ending supply of subtexts; like a baseball season dominated by talk of steroids, ballplayer bling, egomaniacal owners and financially troubled  franchises.

What people generally don’t know and haven’t been discussing among themselves is whether they want this:

Legislation that covers 32 million people. A world in which 95 percent of all non-elderly, legal residents have health-care coverage. An end to insurers rescinding coverage for the sick, or discriminating based on preexisting conditions, or spending 30 cents of each premium dollar on things that aren’t medical care. Exchanges where insurers who want to jack up premiums will have to publicly explain their reason, where regulators will be able to toss them out based on bad behavior, and where consumers will be able to publicly rate them. Hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford health-care insurance. The final closure of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit’s “doughnut hole.”

The single most ambitious effort the government has ever made to control costs in the health-care sector. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill cuts deficits by $130 billion in the first 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The excise tax is now indexed to inflation, rather than inflation plus one percentage point, and the subsidies grow more slowly over time. So one of the strongest cost controls just got stronger, and the automatic spending growth slowed. And then there are all the other cost controls in the bill: The Medicare Commission, which makes entitlement reform much more possible. The programs to begin paying doctors and hospitals for care rather than volume. The competitive insurance market.

Ezra Klein

Thousands of hours and millions of words devoted to the subject, yet poll after poll reveals that while people seem to have a visceral feel for the underlying culture war being waged, they haven’t the faintest idea what all the health care noise is about.

Only 15 percent of Americans, for instance, know that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the legislation will decrease the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years. And 55 percent believe the CBO has said the legislation will increase the deficit over that period.

Kaiser poll

But just because you don’t know how to play seven-card Texas hold ’em  doesn’t mean you can’t go to Las Vegas and place your bet. As long as you can pull the lever on the slot machine, or punch the chad on your ballot, you can play the game.

So now is your last chance to step up to the table and put your money where your mouth is.  The vote is two days away and the betting line at Intrade, the Prediction Market says health care passage is a slam dunk.

Frances Fragos Townsend

February 13th, 2010

This is, like, my fourth blog posting and I must admit I don’t know a lot about the game of getting noticed. No one has noticed me so far.  My blog doesn’t show up in Google searches, and really, why should it. There is nothing remarkable to be read here. And not very much of the unremarkable to capture the attention of Google’s roaming spiders and bots.

The blogosphere overflows with compelling writing,  diverse subject matter and inventive communication techniques.  There are over 100 million blogs, according to Technorati, and surveys show your average blogger is pretty educated. Oh, yeah, I don’t show up in Technorati searches either, though my virus protection program indicated someone thought enough of my presence to  slip me a Trojan horse while I was exploring the site.

There are not only a lot of blogs, there are a lot of prolific bloggers. “The sad truth is the more content you produce the more page views you get,” according to blogging evangelist Duncan Riley. He also once said that no one will visit pages that have ads on them. Riley was wrong about that, but right about the sadder truth.

I don’t really care about any of this. I’m not trying to build an audience, make a statement or earn a buck.

My master plan is to blog infrequently for an audience of one.

And I established forever in the  ’80s my total lack of the entrepreneurial gene when I wrote one of the first computer programs for running a fantasy  baseball league and limited its free use to a small group of friends.  Even when I took it to the web a few years later it was limited, free and unknown, by design.

That’s probably a good thing, because as Riley points out:

“If you want to get rich quick, don’t even bother. There is no such thing as get rich quick. I know everyone goes out there and sells ‘make money from blogging.’ It’s rubbish.”

No money. No fame. Probably not much intellectual satisfaction. I get that by belittling Glenn Beck from my living room couch. So what’s in it for me? Well, now I have some writing clips to show when trying to convince potential employers to end my extended  sabbatical from the workplace. I’m talking to you, Firedoglake.

And I have an activity to help me battle my growing addiction to Malcolm in the Middle reruns.

But it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.

In this age of lists, I want to be on one. And this list doesn’t appear to offer advice that I can, or am willing to, make use of.

So, I’m gonna try this.

Frances Fragos Townsend.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve mentioned the name of a former homeland security adviser to former president George W. Bush. When I searched Google blogs for a monthly mention of her name only 17 links appeared. I want to be Number 18.

I don’t need to be Number 1. It’s not just about me, you know. I’ll be waiting for the chant to go up. “We’re Number 18. We’re Number 18.”

Instant recognition in the marketplace of ideas.

Update: Two weeks later, this blog entry turned up as the ninth entry listed out of 240 on a Google search for mentions of Frances Fragos Townsend during the past month. She seems to have become more popular. I would like to think I helped.

I don’t know anything

January 31st, 2010

I spent a not insignificant part of my formative years in Michigan cowering in a school basement, or under a desk, curled up in a fetal position and waiting patiently for disaster to be visited all about me. But not upon me.

We were being trained how best to survive a nuclear disaster. Or a tornado. Duck and cover. It was drilled into us on a regular basis. Signs on walls and ads on television made sure I knew what to do when the end of the world was near. We all knew what to do.

When I moved to California, I brought my knowledge of how the world worked with me to earthquake country. My wife and I taught it to our  daughter, and  put it to good use when the 1994 Northridge earthquake jolted us from our beds and sent us scurrying to the doorjamb in the kitchen. We cowered beneath it as the walls shook and the floor rocked, secure in the knowledge that we were taking all the proper precautions under difficult  circumstances.

But just the other day, I received an e-mail from a friend who forwarded me an article from “rescue  expert” Doug Copp, who had crawled through 875 collapsed buildings, worked at a high level for the UN and was a member of the world’s most experienced rescue team. He categorically refuted everything I ever knew about surviving the Big One.

He called his method The Triangle of Life.

Falling buildings crush big things and everything under them. Don’t get under things. Lie next to them. Don’t go to the center of a building. Cuddle up to a wall. Don’t curl up under a doorjamb. It will skewer you to death. The only safe place was in the space next to objects, beneath the triangle of wreckage. About all the two approaches agreed on was that when disaster struck, it was OK to assume the fetal position and regress back to the womb.

Copp shot a video of a staged disaster that validated all his natural experience.

Once again, the conventional wisdom had proven to be the wishful thinking of people who felt the desperate need for safe, concrete solutions in a world of deadly uncertainty. Like the efficacy of vaccines, the insights of Keynesian economics and the lasting value of a good smoke, yet another unshakable truth was replaced in short order by its diametric opposite.

If only they knew this in Haiti, how many lives might have been saved, I wondered.

But I didn’t wonder for long. Another friend e-mailed that their father, an aerospace engineer, was skeptical of this most unconventional wisdom.  He detailed a number of specific objections to Mr. Copp’s article and linked to a U.S. Geological Survey website that linked to, uh, this.

And just like that, I had yet another new contradictory set of facts.

In a world of diminishing returns and growing uncertainty,  it’s good to know that the unceasing flow of information, streamed at us our entire waking lives, will continue to provide an unending supply of simple truths.

They’re cheap. Help yourself.

Talk the talk

January 29th, 2010

After watching President Obama go head-to-head with Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore, and dominating every aspect of the conversation, I am once again intrigued by the possibility of real dialogue about issues on a national stage.

Anyone who has seen the British prime minister debate his rivals on the floor of Parliament knows that there is much to be gained from a legitimate exchange of information and ideas. Unfortunately, in this country, the closest we come to that are staged debates, so formal in their structure, that any meaningful exchange is smothered at the outset.

And the substitute dialogue, hammered out hourly by surrogate talking heads on the cable news networks, only serves to emphasize our paucity of legitimate  public forums.

So its no surprise to find that only a third of Americans know what the health care public option is, 39% believe in evolution, nearly half  think the President can suspend the Constitution and a majority still think there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when we invaded the second time. Let’s hope that the 50% of Americans who believe we are protected by Guardian Angels are right. Someone has to take care of us.

I would like to see President Obama issue a challenge to the loyal opposition to debate him, one on one, every week for an hour on C-SPAN. Two people sitting across a table having a spirited discussion of whatever issues come to mind. Participants would venture into the seamy world of wedge issues and demagoguery at their own peril. It would be a fine replacement for the weekly presidential radio address and maybe make it up to the TV network for jobbing them on Obama’s pledge to televise the final stages of health care negotiations.

Update: How delightful. Not only did Obama arrange to have televised the final stages of health care negotiations, he sat down one-on-one with the loyal opposition and debated a range of issues.