My God

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 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 a study published in 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, David Owen and Jonathan Davidson, studied the presidents and prime ministers in the U.S. and Britain from 1908-2008, 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 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.

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

I feel like a god.

Life in Venice

“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.